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Intellectual Dissidence and the Serb National Question

Y.S. Rassool

IN 1950 THE President of the Teachers’ League of South Africa (TLSA), W.P. Van Schoor, in a seminal essay entitled "The Origins and Development of Segregation", made these remarks in his introduction: "A people striving to emancipate themselves must first need to understand the process of their own enslavement." He was addressing the intelligentsia of the TLSA as part of the Non European Unity Movement. His remarks became the ideological corner stone of the struggle, and aimed to prevent that struggle from going down the ad hoc road of opportunism and expediency that the ANC was following at the time. He emphasised the need to base the struggle on an approach that took into account the historical background of the non-white oppressed in South Africa. There had to be an understanding of where we came from, where we were and where we intended to go, and on the need for a principled programme of struggle.

It was when I recently came across the essay by Aleksander Pavkovic of Macquarrie University Australia, entitled "Intellectual Dissidence and the Serb National Question" (in A. Pavkovic, H. Koscharsky and A. Czamota, eds, Nationalism and Postcommunism: A Collection of Essays, Dartmouth, 1995), that I realised that we could never grasp the nature of the developments in the Balkans and, particularly, Serbia without a study of its historical background. To launch into polemics without that basic understanding would be to generate more heat than light. I trust that an account of the historical underpinning of the Serbian dissidents may answer two important questions, namely, why is the movement so fractured, and second where is the voice of the working class, supposedly the bearers of the torch of social change?

Pavkovic quotes the view (undated) of the historian Timothy Garton Ash, author of The Polish Revolution: Solidarity 1980-82 (Cape, 1983), that the East European revolutions of 1989 were revolutions of intellectuals. Not only were they led by intellectuals but also they brought intellectuals into power. In 1987 Serbia endured an internal communist coup which brought Slobodan Milosevic, a party apparatchik (and a bank director), into power. In May 1985 the Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences had drafted a programme. A draft of this programme was leaked to the regime and was vehemently attacked as being anti-communist.

According to the draft, the problems engulfing Yugoslav society could be traced to irresponsible and nationally biased policies of the communist party dominated by a Slovene, Edvard Kardelj, and a Croat, Tito. It was the continuation of the pre-war Stalinist Comintern policy aimed at breaking up Serb hegemony over other Yugoslav nations. By assigning sovereign status to Kosovo and Vojvodina the Serb constitutional jurisdiction was reduced to what it was in the early 19th century. The draft asserted that it was mostly Serbian writers who were banned, and that Serbs were exposed to unpunished assault, rape and pillage by Kosovans. It was claimed that as a result of this 200,000 Serbs were forced to leave the province in the post-war period. Ethnic cleansing, it seems, had a long history. This was a communist-supported policy of genocide declared the draft. It made the communist party’s rule over the Serbs illegitimate but, ironically, the programme did not explicitly call for a new communist leadership.

However, when Milosevic came to power in 1987, he endorsed the draft’s diagnosis of the problems. He recruited a few of the former dissidents of the Academy’s drafting committee. It revived the debate on Serb national goals and interests. Should the Serb state be a multi-party liberal democracy or a reformed socialist state? In the next two years Milosevic’s national revival programme gained him huge popularity largely among "non-intellectuals", which I assume must refer to the working classes, plus some intellectual dissidents.

The advent of Milosevic brought into the open political and ideological differences among Serbian intellectuals, which were not apparent during the period of their common opposition to the communist regime. Paradoxically only the liberals rejected Milosevic’s nationalist programme (because nationalism used to be part of liberal ideology with its mass mobilisation, mass rallies, full paraphernalia of Serb National symbolism, indoctrination via media and school curricula). The rest went along with this programme because it was based on what they themselves had produced in 1985. Thus they inadvertently supplied Milosevic with a programme of transformation from the extant Stalinoid socialism to a more eclectic market-oriented bourgeois society.

The question what kind of state organisation best serves the interests of all Serbs living in Yugoslavia could never be asked previously within the Yugoslav communist semi-confederal framework. No national groups were supposed to have interests that transcended the borders of the republics where they lived. Their rights were allegedly protected by the communist elites, which also included Serbs. The writer avers that to admit that Serbs living in four of the six republics (Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Croatia) had interests in common which separate them from other nations living in the republic, would be to concede that their respective republican communist elites could not protect Serb common interests. The question was therefore politically taboo. Hence in a one-party regime only dissidents could raise taboo questions. Pavkovic gives a cogent account of these dissident groupings.

The Beograd dissidents
The aim of dissident politics was to destabilise the communist regime. They aimed to show that the regime did not abide by certain moral principles – for example, respect for human rights or political freedom – and that it failed to fulfill its historical mission i.e. the unification of the nation. Dissidence rejects the accepted rules of the old political game and attempts to introduce a superior set of principles, an activity for which intellectuals were particularly well suited. Intellectuals by definition, says Pavkovic, are the creators and interpreters of cultural, moral and, at times, political values. In performing this task, Pavkovic says, they found the values of self-perpetuating bureaucratic communist regimes unsatisfactory.

Their reasons were manifold, but according to Pavkovic there were three main types. First, there were those who retained loyalty to their youthful ideals when they joined the communist party. They offered quite elaborate justifications for their own leftist stance, but found that the communist hierarchy no longer shared their outdated enthusiasm. Second, classical European liberalism has exerted a steady hold on Serb intellectuals and politicos since the middle of the 19th century. Despite the communist takeover in 1945 it was never completely extinguished. From their point of view the communist rule was simply usurpation by force. And, lastly, the younger liberals and older nationalists found common ground in their rejection of the Bolshevik rule.

Serbian nationalism finds a rich source in its epic folk poetry, celebrating the martyrs who fell in Battle of Kosovo in 1389. Most 19th century Serb literature reflected this. Some of the leading poets, novelists and historians are attracted to this world of values. Thus the communists are traitors of the Serb nation and their politics of national compromise and their corrupt rule are shameful and immoral.

In an essay by Philip Spencer and Howard Wollman entitled "Blood and Sacrifice?" (in Kevin Bryony and Naz Rassool, eds, Nationalisms Old and New, Macmillan, 1999) we are told that "in the declining years of Yugoslavia, the Serbian leadership set out deliberately to invoke ’memories’ from both the distant and recent past with the aim of securing and consolidating an ethno-nationalist base. The defeat of a Serbian army in June 1389 in Kosovo at the hands of the Ottomans was turned into a mass mobilisation six hundred years later by Milosevic as he sought to ... create a Greater Serbia under his political control".

An interesting comment by Veronica Horwell in the Guardian of 1 September 1999 questions the basis of the mythology of the 1389 battle of Kosovo at the heart of Serbian nationalism. She heard it argued that the Kosovo battle that obsesses the nation never happened. Where were the arrowheads and bones, "the evidence of a mighty battle between the Serbs and the Ottoman Turks"?

Pavkovic provides a crude classification of the dissidents: the neo-Marxist academics; the second group, the liberals who had no firm organisational base, apart from membership of the journal Theoria; and the third group, the patriots, who found their organisational base in the Association of Serbian writers and the Serbian Academy of Arts and Science. Although harassed by the state, none of them spent time in prison and few were brought to trial. In a way they were the Establishment dissidents, the "untouchables" of the regime. This was testimony to the social prestige of the intellectuals. The Serbian Communist Party, it seems, was unwilling to be seen as anti-intellectual.

By the late 1960s the regime no longer felt the need for legitimisation by intellectuals. Its political mechanism of self-perpetuation, coupled with freedom of individual material consumption, plus Yugoslavia’s open borders, made the regime feel secure. In fact some of the dissident intellectuals were previously official apologists, serving in various party committees.

In the middle ’60s one of their members, Mihailo Markovic, actually dared to criticise the regime’s market-oriented reforms as a betrayal of Marxist humanist ideals. In 1968 Beograd university students, following their colleagues in Paris and Berlin, staged massive demos and sit-ins. The neo-Marxist academics took over the strike committees, and in their demands they insisted that the party relinquish control over politics and culture and allow unfettered self-management in all areas of social and political life. But there was no demand for a multi-party parliamentary system. They believed that self-managing committees in all areas of human activity should bring about a humane and non-exploitative society without having class or national conflict.

Tito’s fatherly call to the students ended the strike, but retribution against the neo-Marxists was quick and sharp. Their party cell at the Philosophy faculty was dissolved and a campaign was launched to oust them from their academic posts. In 1975 a law was passed suspending them from their posts, but prolonged protests from left-wing organisations abroad forced the regime to find posts for them in a research institute in 1984. Under Milosevic they were ceremonially rehabilitated, and in 1990 returned to their original posts.

For some there was a return also to their party careers. Mihailo Markovic became vice-president of Milosevic’s ruling Socialist Party. In 1992 the neo-Marxist Svetozar Stojanovic became personal adviser to the new President of Yugoslavia, a former dissident, Dobrica Cosic. Now Markovic and Stojanovic switched to protecting Serbian national rights and territory against the Kosovo Albanian and later Croatian and Muslim pretensions.

Not all neo-Marxists, however, joined Milosevic’s bandwagon. Dragoljub Micnovic, previously a Stalinist, was elected as the first president of the Democratic Party in 1990. He advocated the multi-party parliament and rejected the populist regime of Milosevic. Nebosja Popov, the youngest neo-Marxist, founded a left-wing pan-Yugoslav party, the UDJI, the United Yugoslav Democratic Alternative, warning about the dangers of nationalist policies and of uncontrolled capitalism. The party received no electoral support anywhere.

The rallying cry of the liberals was strictly anti-communist. Ironically their canon included not only John Stuart Mill and Benjamin Constant, but also the neo-liberal theorists Karl Popper and Frederick Hayek. On the one hand their liberalism was based on a moral stance – respect for individual rights and liberties as the only acceptable morality. Their faith in their moral rectitude prevented them from a systematic examination of how a multi-party parliamentary system could be established in a relatively backward country with its high percentage of functionally illiterate people and a large Albanian population hostile to any Serbian government. On the other hand, this emphasis on morality sits somewhat uneasily alongside the neo-liberal emphasis on the neutrality and supremacy of the market.

In 1990, the Milosevic regime allowed the formation of parties other than the CP. The Democratic Party with its president, Micunovic, underwent two major splits. Kosta Cavoski and Nicloa Milosevic, original founders, went to form the Serbian Liberal Party. In 1992 its vice-president Vojislav Kostunica founded the Democratic Party of Serbia, accusing his former colleagues of co-operating with the Milosevic regime. It is obvious that their inchoate opposition could not compete with the various nationalist and socialist/nationalist parties.

Another source of opposition came from the poets and literary critics. It was their loathing for the hypocrisy and systematic deception on which the communists based their rule that led them to doubt both its legitimacy and the benefits that it ostensibly brought to the Serbs. In their view the Serbs are a nation victimised by its history of constant armed struggles for freedom. Pavkovic makes the bold statement: "As victims of their own history and of communist rule, the Serbs are not and cannot be oppressors of other nations." This appears to be almost literally a recapitulation of the words of Milosevic summarised in his speech quoted by Laura Silber and Allan Little (The Death of Yugoslavia, Penguin/BBC, 1995) and also by Spencer and Wollman: "Serbs in their history have never conquered or exploited others." How mistaken this hypothesis is was shown by the rape of Bosnia and Kosovo that followed.

Spencer and Wollman also argue that: "If nationalism is, or has been, in some model moment spontaneous and popular, then we can assume precisely what needs to be explained – how myths are seen to be true, how memories are remembered, how territories are assumed to be historic, how a culture became mass, public and common, why people love their country to the point of self-sacrifice."

Pavkovic next turns to the defections from the central committee when leading communists joined the ranks of patriot dissidents. They were protesting against the emigration of Serbs from Kosovo and Metohija under the pressure of Albanians. A second wave of intellectuals emerged in the late ’80s among whom were Vuk Draskovic and Vojislav Seselj. The former wrote popular novels about Muslim Ustashe tortures and massacres of Serbs in Bosnia and Herzegovina during the Second World War. They were instant best-sellers. Vojislav Seselj, on the other hand, was expelled from the CP when he exposed corruption. He published a programme to divide Yugoslavia into its three – allegedly – constituent nations: Serbs, Croats and Slovenes. It denied separate nationhood to Muslims and Macedonians. Torture failed to break his will. He was received as a martyr in Beograd when he was released.

These two dissidents transformed themselves into political leaders, and in 1990 formed the Serbian Radical Party. They soon won the greatest number of opposition seats in the Serb parliament. They demanded the return to Serb rule of all territories in which Serbs were in the majority before the war. This would involve substantial parts of Bosnia Herzegovina and the border regions of Croatia. But when war with Croatia broke out Draskovic developed a pacifist stand while Seselj formed a band of irregulars to fight in the civil war. Milosevic’s supporters adopted patriotic tenets. As a result there was no public criticism of Milosevic even at the height of the war in Croatia.

International recognition of Bosnia and Herzegovina caused the final split in the ranks of the "patriots". Cosic accepted the presidency of New Yugoslavia – Serbia and Montenegro – from Milosevic’s parliament. This confusing story of the fragmentation of party does not reveal the patriots’ major contribution to Serbian politics. According to Pavkovic they provided Milosevic with the central plank of his programme, namely, the unification of all Serbs.

Yugoslavism vs. Serbism
There were four post-1990 approaches to the Serb national goals and ideals: (i) Federalist Yugoslavism; (ii) Integral Yugoslavism; (iii) Broad Serbism; (iv) narrow Serbism (or Serbia first).

The federalist Yugoslavism is still supported by intellectuals such as Dobrica Cosic, Mihailo Markovic and Svetosar Stojanovic. It offered, according to Cosic, "revolutionary and ... salvation in the genocidal regions of Yugoslavia". Only a multi-national state, Cosic averred, could guarantee democracy. It would provide a basis for future unity with Croats and Muslims. But whether this would be in the interests of other South Slav nation was never considered.

By contrast, the integralist Yugoslav concept, in which the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes (including Macedonians and Muslims) should form one nation, does not allow for the diversity of national interests within the state. It was based on the rationalist ideas of the 18th century according to which language forms the basis of national identity. Hence Serbs are all those who speak Serbian. It provided the basis for King Aleksandar Karadjordjevic’s integral Yugoslavism of 1930.

Opposing this was the religious conception of a nation. According to this there are three South Slav nations: Croats, Slovenes and Serbs (Slovenes by virtue of a different language are a separate nation). Before 1918 the Catholic Church supported this and after 1918 the Communist International did so too, thereby abandoning the rationalist strand of European socialist thought. According to the historian Ekmecic, Yugoslavism was a progressive cause, but not realisable in a world dominated by religious and Bolshevik-dominated national ideologies. He argues that rationalist ideologies still have a chance of prevailing especially as the tide of nationalism is receding in Western Europe. The future lay with the rationalist ideology and not with the narrow clerically based nationalisms. Whether his views will be taken up by ideologues in the future is a moot point.

In my view, a study of the complex history of the Balkans is crucial to any serious understanding of the situation and merits doing some methodical research into the social and political background in an attempt to make a valid assessment of the events taking place over the recent years. I present this essay an attempt to make a positive contribution to a most contentious issue and trust that it might encourage others to engage in some much needed research into one of the great problematicals of our time. How effective this will be is, of course, another question. Simon Hoggart in the Observer (5 September 1999) quotes Lenin’s remarks apropos of the Irish question when he came to London to discover there were people whom he called "useful idiots", who would support one side or the other whatever the evidence. I may ask are we still just "useful idiots"?

From What Next? No.15 1999