International Committee of the Fourth International
Fourth International Vol. 20 (1994): Capital, Labor and the Nation-State

The Yugoslav Tragedy and the Crisis of Working Class Leadership

As the US and its nominal “allies” in Europe thrash about for a modus operandi to escalate imperialist intervention in the Balkans, the events in Bosnia must be taken as a warning for the entire working class.

The names of Bosnian towns such as Srebrenica and Mostar, which have been gutted by mortars and whose inhabitants have been rounded up, tortured, deported, or killed, will resonate in the political lexicon of future generations as symbols of wanton violence and barbarism.

All sides in this communal war have bloodstained hands. The nationalist regime of Slobodan Milosevic in Belgrade and the Bosnian Serb nationalists under Radovan Karadzic are responsible for widespread atrocities against Bosnian Moslems.

But Bosnian Moslem leader Alija Izetbegovic has also worked to fan the flames of communal hatred. His forces have sabotaged numerous cease-fires and carried out atrocities against the Bosnian Serbs, in line with their strategy of drawing in the Americans so as to gain more territory.

Meanwhile the Croat nationalist forces under Franjo Tudjman, the supposed allies of the Bosnian Moslems, have carried out their own campaign of “ethnic cleansing” against the Moslem population of Mostar.

Imperialism itself has played a central role in fostering communal warfare in the former Yugoslavia. For decades the Americans and their NATO partners in Europe encouraged the growth of nationalist and separatist forces among the various ethnic groups that made up Yugoslavia. They pursued this policy as part of their Cold War struggle against the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.

The collapse of the Soviet Union gave them the opportunity to realize their strategy of breaking up Yugoslavia into its component republics. They encouraged this process in order to carry through the complete dismantling of nationalized industry and the carve-up of the country and its resources by the multinational corporations and banks.

In longtime Stalinist apparatchiks like Milosevic in Serbia, Tudjman in Croatia, and Milan Kucan in Slovenia they found ready allies. All of these Stalinist rulers shelved their pseudo-Marxist rhetoric and turned to the politics of communal chauvinism in order to secure their own privileges, while they collaborated with the West in the dismantling of the remnants of central planning and state industry and the destruction of the social gains of the working class.

When Germany, ultimately with the backing of France, Britain, and the US, supported the dismemberment of Yugoslavia and the establishment of Slovenia, Croatia, and then Bosnia as independent states, it shattered the delicate structure of interethnic relations that had been established under the Yugoslav state formed by Marshal Tito in 1945. The state which arose from the partisan victory over the Nazis and their internal collaborators assured each ethnic group a measure of security and, for a time, achieved a considerable degree of unity among the various nationalities.

In promoting the breakup of Yugoslavia, the imperialists knew they were unleashing long-dormant communal antagonisms, but imperialism has a long and bloody history of promoting religious, linguistic, racial, and tribal divisions on every continent—from Northern Ireland to the Indian subcontinent to Africa. It is a strategy summed up in the familiar formula—divide and rule.

For all the talk of “democracy,” “freedom” and “self-determination,” it is self-evident that nothing progressive can come from this communal warfare. The present carnage threatens the very extinction of the Moslems. On the basis of the policies of imperialism and the contending nationalist groups, the civil war can at best produce a new alignment of impotent and hostile ministates. Any “peace” imposed on the basis of ethnic exclusiveness and enforced by imperialist arms can only set the stage for a new round of bloodletting.

Bosnia is a political symbol of the utter bankruptcy of nationalism and a warning of the deadly consequences of the subordination of the working class to nationalist groupings and leaderships.

This is a universal question. The eruption of communal politics based on race, religion, or language is by no means limited to the Balkans, Eastern Europe, or the former Soviet Union. In Asia one sees bloody fighting between Hindu, Moslem, and Sikh chauvinists; in Africa tribal antagonisms are being whipped up across the face of the continent; in Europe fascist assaults against immigrants are commonplace in Germany and anti-immigrant demagogy has become the centerpiece of bourgeois politics in France; in North America separatism is being encouraged among French-speaking and English-speaking Canadians.

The same type of reactionary perspective is being promoted in the United States. Capitalist politics is increasingly dominated by appeals to race or ethnicity. On one side are the overt or thinly disguised appeals to racism by capitalist politicians from Pat Buchanan to David Duke. On the other side is the reactionary politics of separatism, spearheaded by representatives of the upper-middle class and privileged layers of blacks and other minorities and encouraged by both parties of big business, the Republicans, and the Democrats. One need only cite the recent redistricting of Congressional districts in New York City along explicitly racial lines. The revised map of CD’s in New York bears an eerie resemblance to the map of ethnically-based autonomous regions under the proposed Vance-Owen plan for Bosnia.

There are two basic and interrelated factors underlying the growth of chauvinist and communalist politics. They are the deepening crisis of capitalism which is continually eroding the living standards of the working class and the masses of peasants internationally, and the profound crisis of working class leadership.

All of the old leaderships of the working class, from Stalinism to social democracy to the reformist trade union bureaucracies, either opposed from their origins or long ago abandoned the internationalist and class standpoint of Marxism. Their essentially nationalist perspective has led them today to openly abandon any semblance of working class unity and instead turn to the most virulent forms of chauvinism.

The transformation of ex-Stalinist thugs such as Milosevic and Tudjman into raving chauvinists and fascists is only the sharpest expression of the general path of political degeneration exhibited by all of the moribund labor bureaucracies.

In the absence of a vigorous working class movement which makes its appeal to the class interests of all those exploited by capitalism—transcending differences of race, religion, and language—the mounting anger and frustration of the oppressed, especially the peasant masses in economically backward countries, are channeled into the reactionary swamp of communalism and chauvinism. There is no sign that these policies have mass support among the workers of Belgrade or Zagreb, but the betrayal and collapse of the old working class leaderships and the resulting confusion and disorientation have left them with no political alternative.

It is impossible to envision a progressive solution to the social crisis produced by capitalism along the retrograde road of nationalism. Indeed, the politics of race are the politics of demoralization and despair.

There is, however, a genuine and viable alternative. It is the program of socialist internationalism, based on the united struggle of the working class of all races and nationalities.

This is illustrated, to a limited extent, by the history of Yugoslavia itself. Contrary to the claims of capitalist politicians and the media that ethnic hatreds have always dominated the Balkans, there have been many efforts to unite the oppressed of the entire region and overcome the divisive intrigues of native bourgeois elements and foreign imperialism. There have been periods when the appeal for workers and the oppressed of all ethnic groups to unite in a common struggle against their exploiters has won huge support.

Millions of workers and peasants—Serb, Moslem, Croat, Albanian, and Hungarian—rallied to the Communist Party-led partisans during World War II. The Communist Party, despite its Stalinist leadership, was the sole political force in the country that was not based on ethnic identity, but on an appeal to working class solidarity.

Inspired by the goal of overthrowing the capitalists and establishing a socialist society free of exploitation, the working class rallied to the partisans, who were able to defeat not only the German occupiers, but also the Croatian fascist Ustasha and the Serbian nationalist Chetniks.

Marshal Tito, the leader of the partisans, betrayed this struggle. Tito’s perspective was never that of genuine proletarian internationalism. He sought to substitute for communalism a form of Yugoslav nationalism, based on the reactionary Stalinist utopia of a national road to socialism.

In the 1960s and 70s the Yugoslav Stalinists went further than any other Eastern European regime in integrating the national economy into the structure of world capitalism. This process over many years strengthened right-wing forces which based themselves on national and communal politics.

As the post-World War II capitalist boom collapsed, the pressures of the world market and global economy on the isolated and relatively backward Yugoslav economy produced the same process of crisis and disintegration that occurred throughout Eastern Europe and in the Soviet Union.

The failure of Titoism and its grim legacy underscore the fact that the only viable alternative to growing impoverishment, communal violence, and war is the program of socialist internationalism. The workers movement must be reconstructed on a world scale as an international movement that unites workers and the oppressed across all national, racial, ethnic, and religious divides. This is the program fought for by the Workers League and the Fourth International, led by the International Committee.