How some Trotskyists deny national rights for Kosovar Albanians:

The right to self-determination and

opposing Milosevic and NATO

by Mark, Detroit
(from Communist Voice #21, August 15, 1999)


Spartacists line up behind Milosevic
SL tries to turn Lenin into a supporter of Milosevic
Leninism or "defend Serbia"
The "right to self-determination" and advocating "independence"
Do the grounds on which Lenin opposed the slogan of "independence" for Poland during World War I apply to the Kosovar Albanian struggle?
Why Lenin opposed orienting the struggle in Poland toward independence before WWI
General theorizing against the right to self-determination
The Spark's reluctance to support the right of Kosovo to self-determination
Is national self-determination an imperialist plot?
The Spark frets over the alteration of Yugoslavia's former borders
What about the "nationalist cliques" in the oppressed nations?
Was unity in the old Yugoslavia achieved by "ignoring ethnicity"?
The Cliffites theorize against the right to self-determination
Once again on Polish independence and WWI
Once again on the right of oppressed nations to form their own states
The Cliffites try to prove Milosevic is not fascist
Proletarian internationalism and the conflict over Kosovo


. The war between Serbia and NATO is over, but the controversies among the left on what stand to take on it remain. There was no justice in the war waged by Serbia. Milosevic's goal was to keep Kosovo inside Serbia at all costs no matter what the population there wanted. NATO didn't care about the democratic rights of the Albanian Kosovars either. They strong-armed the KLA leadership into accepting a solution that denies them the right to secede and effectively converts Kosovo into a U.S./NATO protectorate, with Russia getting a small piece of the new power structure. The conduct of the war was in line with the reactionary aims of each side. Milosevic's forces avoided military clashes with NATO, reserving their weapons for massacring the Albanian population. NATO confined itself to safely bombing everything in site, causing a heavy toll on Serb civilians, while allowing the Serbian armed forces and paramilitary gangs to wreck havoc despite the bombing. The only just struggle was that waged by the Albanian Kosovars for their independence. However, the war has ended without Albanian rights being recognized and with the KLA being disarmed. The recognition of the democratic rights of the Kosovar Albanians remains essential. Had Milosevic granted such rights, NATO would have had no pretext for its war. The failure to grant such rights by NATO is not only an affront to the Albanian population but will ensure that grounds for further ethnic hatreds and future wars will continue.

. Our organization, the CVO has stood against both NATO and Milosevic. But among a large section of the opportunist left, opposition to NATO involvement and imperialism meant lining up behind Milosevic. But Milosevic was not waging a war against imperialism. His main goal was crushing Kosovo. Thus, it is no surprise that support for Milosevic and abandoning the democratic right of self-determination for Kosovar Albanians went hand in hand for the opportunists.

. Some groups in the opportunist left basically just repeated whatever the Milosevic regime said.This includes such organizations as the Trotskyist WWP (Workers World Party) and Gus Hall's CPUSA (Communist Party, USA), a trend historically connected to Soviet revisionism. They tried their best to hide Milosevic's "ethnic cleansing." Meanwhile, they reprinted the daily official lies of the Serbian rulers, fawning on Milosevic's supposed heroic stand against the big powers and parroting the regime's foul racist slanders against the Albanian Kosovars.

. Others who wound up supporting the Serbian rulers took pains to disguise their support. This includes a section of the groups who base themselves on Trotskyist theory. These trends uttered some harsh words against Milosevic and talked about the right of nations to self-determination. But when it came down to dealing with the concrete issues in the recent war, they tossed aside the Marxist theory on self-determination of nations and wound up taking up much of the arsenal of the more naked defenders of Milosevic.

. The following article will focus on the stand of three organizations of the later group whose ideological roots are steeped in Trotskyism. These groups are the Spartacist League (SL), the Spark, and the International Socialist (IS) trend founded by Tony Cliff. The IS trend's flagship party is the SWP (Socialist Workers Party) of Britain, and the ISO (International Socialist Organization) is its U.S. affiliate. To put a good face on this nasty business, these organizations drag in the good name of Lenin and attempt to prove that they were merely being loyal to Marxist-Leninist theory on the national question. But in fact the attempts to find theoretical grounds for supporting Milosevic in writings of Lenin actually shows the vast gulf between Trotskyist theory and Leninism. Far from supporting the likes of ethnic cleansers like Milosevic, Lenin taught that recognition of the right of nations to self-determinations was vital to develop a revolutionary proletarian trend. He emphasized that unless the proletariat of an oppressing nation supported the right of self-determination for those nations its "own" bourgeoisie oppressed, proletarian unity would remain nothing but a pious wish. And Lenin scorned those who downplayed the importance of recognizing the right to self-determination of nations as an immediate practical necessity under the pretense that only under socialism can national antagonisms fully and finally be conquered.

. The propensity of such Trotskyist trends to side with Milosevic is also connected to their traditional support for the state-capitalist regimes which have masqueraded as socialist. No matter how many particular crimes of the regimes they may express disagreement with, most Trotskyist groups have portrayed the state-capitalist oppression in countries like the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, China and Cuba as some kind of socialism or workers' state. Some, like the Spartacist League, considered Yugoslavia a workers' state even under Milosevic until the time various nationalities split off to form their own states. Given how they conceived of the old Yugoslav system it is not surprising they still seem to find some merit in its last tattered remnants dominated by the Serbian bourgeoisie. After all, the Milosevic regime still pretends to be "socialist" and is for reuniting (by force) the states that broke away.

. The International Socialist trend's position on the war is similar to the Spartacists. But unlike most Trotskyists, they correctly call the former Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, etc., "state-capitalist" countries. At first glance it would seem there would be no reason for the IS to have any sentimental attachment to the remnants of the old Yugoslavia. But their description of the economic system in these countries is very much like that of the other Trotskyist trends. For instance, most Trotskyists consider the economic base of the state-capitalist systems in countries like the former Soviet Union to essentially still be socialist, despite having a bad political bureaucracy running them. The IS trend, despite correctly seeing that a new class of exploiters runs these societies, ignores how the state economies actually ran in these countries and instead attributes socialist traits to them, such as the overcoming of anarchic production. This wrong economic analysis is at odds with the correct "state-capitalist" label for countries like Yugoslavia, and makes it hard to take a consistent stand on the state-capitalist regimes that called themselves socialist. Therefore, it is not as surprising as it might seem that in this case, the IS too has become nostalgic about the Yugoslav regime and takes positions on the war that are not so different than the Trotskyists who portrayed the state-capitalist regimes as workers' states. For example, despite labeling Yugoslavia as "state-capitalist" the Cliffites cannot resist painting the NATO war as the only way the West could gain economic influence in Eastern Europe, conveniently forgetting years of Western connivance with Milosevic precisely because of his market measures and opening of state industry to foreign capital.

. Now let's examine some of the Trotskyist stands in more detail and see how they depart from Marxism-Leninism.

Spartacists line up behind Milosevic

. The Spartacist League (SL) tried to appear to uphold the right to self-determination for the Kosovar Albanians. They acknowledged the national oppression carried out by Milosevic against them and that Kosovo had a right to secede. But they added the following condition to their support for the right to self-determination: "However, should the imperialists stage a military intervention over Kosovo, the issue of self-determination would be subordinated to our military defense of Serbia against U.S./NATO forces." (Workers Vanguard, July 3, 1998) When NATO bombs began to fall, the SL remained true to these words, took Milosevic's side against NATO, and abandoned any pretense of support for the struggle of the Albanian Kosovars.

. To try to distance themselves from the naked supporters of Milosevic like the WWP, the Spartacists used the typical Trotskyist excuse that while they stand for defense of Serbia militarily, they had "no political support to the bloody regime of nationalist Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic." (Workers Vanguard, May 28, 1999, p.10) In practice, this slogan can only mean support for the Serbian military, a military under the political leadership of Milosevic. Not only is it atrocious to back the Serbian war of annihilation against the Albanians, but this support no doubt serves the political interests of the Serbian rulers.

. By talking about supporting Serbia militarily while opposing Milosevic politically, the SL tries to make it sound like they are merely trying to express the idea of defending the Serbian masses, as opposed to Milosevic. But if one is talking about building a revolutionary class trend among the masses, there would be no reason for withholding "political support". Indeed, really defending the Serbian masses would mean not only opposing NATO's bombing of them, but giving them the fullest "political support" to use the crisis brought on by the war to build up a powerful class movement against the "Serbian strongman." Clearly the military "defense" the SL is talking about is support for the military conflict waged by the Serbian armed forces and paramilitary militias. Or does the SL expect us to believe that there is another military struggle that deserves support being waged from the Serbian side which doesn't involve the Serbian armed forces and paramilitary thugs?!

. When all is said and done, it appears that there is no more to the idea of "military defense of Serbia" than rallying behind Milosevic's war drive. Beneath all the word juggling of "military but not political support" for Serbia there is only one real meaning: Serbia is waging a just war against imperialism. This, of course, is just what the WWP claims, too. Only the WWP doesn't waste much effort pretending they can separate Milosevic's war from the politics that led Milosevic to war, namely, a decade-plus of rabid anti-Albanian racism and oppression. The Serbian side in the war was fighting not for liberating itself from imperialism or even to preserve its national independence. Insofar as it came into military conflict with the U.S. and NATO, it was for the purpose of defending its extreme barbarity against the oppressed Kosovar Albanians.

. In judging the character of a war, every real Marxist believes in the famous saying that "war is the continuation of politics by other means." The SL does not apply this method, however. The SL itself knows full well that "Milosevic himself rode to power in 1987 on a Serbian-nationalist drive against the Kosovo Albanians." (Workers Vanguard, Oct. 23, 1998, p.9) Indeed they are well aware that the life-blood of his regime has been rabid Serb chauvinism against the "lesser" nationalities to divert the Serbian workers from the class struggle. Yet they evidently believe that his resistance to NATO was unconnected to his desire to crush the Albanians of Kosovo. By the same token, what antagonized the Western powers was not that Serbia ruled over Kosovo, but that the extreme terror of Milosevic was threatening to undermine the status quo in the region (including Serb domination of Kosovo) by leaving the Albanians the option of independence or a combination of mass exile and annihilation. U.S. imperialism feared Kosovo's independence would lead to many unhappy consequences for some regimes they liked and exacerbate divisions among their allies in the region (e.g. Greece and Turkey). This was the politics that led to the Serbian-NATO war.

. Of course, it is theoretically possible for the character of a war to change. Let us say, for instance, that the war crisis gave rise to a revolution that deposed Milosevic and granted Kosovo the right to self-determination. Yet, NATO continued to wage war. Then one really could talk about justice being on the side of Serbia. But in fact there was no basic change in the character of the war waged by Milosevic after the NATO bombing. Let's take the testimony of pro-Milosevic forces as evidence. It was common for defenders of Milosevic to point out how the bombing led Milosevic to step up the pace of slaughter of the Albanian population. Very well. But this only shows the absurdity of implying, as the SL does, that once the NATO bombing began, suddenly there was something just about the Serbian war effort. In essence, there was no difference between the SL's "military but no political support" to the Serbian war drive and those open apologists of Milosevic who tried to portray the Serbian rulers' war as a heroic fight against imperialism.

SL tries to turn Lenin into a supporter of Milosevic

. But if the Spartacists can find no solace in the political facts behind the war, can they find some in Lenin? The SL attempts to do this by drawing an analogy between the Serb-NATO war and the situation in Poland during the First World War. Here's how they put it:

. "Our position toward Kosovo today is analogous to that of Lenin's Bolsheviks toward self-determination for Poland during the First World War. The right of Poland and other oppressed nations to secede from the Russian tsarist empire had been a central element of the Bolshevik program. However, with the outbreak of the war in 1914, the Polish left petty-bourgeois nationalist Josef Pilsudski organized military units which fought with the Austrian army against Russia under the banner of restoring 'Polish independence.' In the context of interimperialist war, Lenin rightly argued that calls for independence only served as a 'democratic cover for German imperialism.'" (Workers Vanguard, May 28, 1999, p.11)

. So according to this analogy, the SL argues or implies:

1) Since Lenin considered incorrect the slogan for independence of Poland during WWI, it was correct to defend Milosevic in the NATO-Serbian war.

2) While the right of self-determination of Poland and other nations oppressed by Czarist Russia had been correct before the war, Lenin stood against this view during WWI.

3) The concrete conditions in which it was correct to oppose a call for independence of Poland during WWI are analogous to those that exist in the recent conflict.

. As we shall soon see, the SL is wrong on all these points. They confuse the right of an oppressed nation to self-determination with the question of whether, under all circumstances, to call for a struggle for an independence struggle. Lenin never held that the inadvisability of advocating independence means one should support the regime of the oppressing country. They wrongly imply Lenin no longer recognized the right to self-determination of Poland when WWI broke out and that Lenin's position against advocating the independence slogan for Poland reversed his pre-war stand. As well, the Spartacists err when they ignore the different conditions between when Lenin was writing about Poland and the recent conflict in Kosovo. Lenin's position on Poland around the time of WWI was conditioned by expectations of an imminent proletarian revolution in the major European countries and a revolution in Russia. In the Balkans today, however, the proletarian movement is weak and disorganized, and there is no genuine mass socialist trend.

Leninism or "defend Serbia"

. Let's begin with the idea that the Polish analogy justifies the SL stand of "defend Serbia" and "military, but not political support" for Milosevic. It is true that Lenin was not in favor of advancing slogans for the independence of Poland in the midst of WWI. We shall go into the reasons behind this stand later in this article. But whether or not one feels that a call for independence under a particular set of conditions is appropriate, this does not mean one can toss aside the right of the oppressed nation to independence, that is, to secede from the state oppressing it. That would be tantamount to supporting the right of the oppressor state to forcibly hold on to its possession. This is the basic Marxist approach to the question. Now let's look at how Lenin applied this stand during WWI.

. Did Lenin's opposition to the independence slogan at that time mean activists today should support the Serbian government in its recent war to crush the independence aspirations of the Albanian Kosovars? In fact, the lesson from Lenin's stand during WWI is just the opposite. Lenin did not support either German imperialism or Russian czarism, both of which claimed Poland as their own. Rather, he fought vigorously that not only before the war, but during the war, it was the duty of the Russian and German workers to uphold the right of Poland to self-determination. Lenin was hoping that a united revolutionary struggle of the Polish, German and Russian workers would topple the powers oppressing Poland. He considered upholding the right of Poland to self-determination to be crucial to developing this proletarian unity.

. Applying Lenin's stand to the recent war means opposing those who deny the Albanian Kosovars their right to secession and in particular, opposing the use of force to keep the Kosovars under their thumb. It would mean opposing the Serbian rulers, not "defending Serbia." And just as Lenin's opposition to Russia's enslavement of nations did not mean he had any sympathy for German designs on Poland, so opposition to the Serbian regime in the recent war does not mean one has to support the U.S./NATO alliance. A truly internationalist and Leninist stand would require opposition to both the NATO and Serbian sides in the war.

. Far from supporting one or the other oppressor of Poland, here's how Lenin dealt with the question in July 1916, in the middle of WWI:

. "The Polish Social-Democrats cannot, at the moment, raise the slogan of Poland's independence, for the Poles, as proletarian internationalists, can do nothing about it without stooping, like the 'Fracy' [the organization led by Pilsudski -- Mark.] to humble servitude to one of the imperialist monarchies. But it is not indifferent to the Russian and German workers whether Poland is independent, or they take part in annexing her (and that would mean educating the Russian and German workers and peasants in the basest turpitude and their consent to play the part of executioner of other peoples).
. "The situation is, indeed, bewildering, but there is a way out in which all participants would remain internationalists: the Russian and German Social-Democrats by demanding for Poland unconditional 'freedom to secede'; the Polish Social-Democrats by working for the unity of the proletarian struggle in both small and big countries without putting forward the slogan of Polish independence for the given epoch or the given period." (Lenin, Collected Works,vol.22, p.351, boldface emphasis added)

. In their newspaper, Workers Vanguard the SL emphasizes only that Lenin was against pushing the slogan of independence of Poland at the time. They omit that also during the imperialist war Lenin stood for recognition of the right of Poland to secede from its Russian and German overlords. And the SL omits such information with good reason. If they were to stress this it would immediately be clear that their slogan of "defend Serbia" in the present war would be akin to "defend Germany" or "defend Russia," or "military but not political support" to the Kaiser or the Czar in WWI. It would be obvious that what they are raising is not merely whether under certain conditions a particular struggle for secession is advisable, but are supporting the oppressing states themselves. Indeed, while at one time the SL talked about the right of Kosovo to secede from Serbia, during the war they hinted strongly that Serbia had a right to Kosovo.Thus, they attacked another organization for allegedly only feigning support for Serbia in the war because "They formally claim to oppose NATO and defend Serbia -- 'though not in Kosova which they have no right to occupy'. . . But their support to the separatist Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK),which is simply a pawn of NATO, is nothing but support to the imperialists' war aims in the Balkans." (Workers Vanguard, May 28, 1999, p.11)

. Here the SL links the idea that the KLA (or UCK in Albanian) is nothing but a pawn of NATO with the idea that Serbia has a right to occupy Kosovo. But while the KLA formed a military alliance with NATO, this does not change the fact that the independence struggle was not a creation of NATO, which opposed it, and that the struggle launched by the KLA reflected the sentiments and enjoyed the active support of the Albanian masses. Moreover, no matter what one thinks of the KLA leadership, that can in no way provide a justification for the Serbian occupation. Let's make believe, for the sake of argument, that the KLA leaders were basically CIA agents, as a considerable amount of pseudo-leftists claim. This would not change the fact that the mass of the population has risen up to demand independence. It would not necessarily mean the aspirations and struggles undertaken by the people are suspect. Nor could it possibly justify Serbia's slaughter in Kosovo. After all, does the existence of a sell-out trade union leadership in the U.S. negate the legitimacy of the workers' struggles that break out? Certainly not. Far less would the existence of such labor traitors justify the capitalists' attacks on the workers. But in the case of Kosovo, that is how the SL reasons. They don't reject the policy of the KLA leadership to support the masses, but to justify the Serbian oppressors.

. The SL logic is that since NATO has no noble motives in this war, then whoever NATO attacks must be fighting a just war. But even if we imagine that despite Serbia's oppression of Kosovo there was no insurgency there, and it was just a question of who would control Kosovo, Serbia or the NATO alliance, there would be no justice on either side. But the SL thinks that one should "defend Serbia" in its military efforts and ignores that even if the only other side in the conflict was a rival power which also wants control over Kosovo, this cannot justify Serbian oppression there. In short, even if we accept the SL appraisal of the KLA, their position winds up boosting the Serb chauvinist rulers. The twisted logic of the SL ends up implying that Milosevic's bloodthirsty rampage through Kosovo has become a liberation struggle against imperialism. Hail the Serbian occupation of Kosovo! This is what lies behind the theoretical fog created by the SL.

. Perhaps someone will object that revolutionaries in the U.S. need merely oppose "their own" imperialists and whether or not they support Milosevic is irrelevant. But it was not considered irrelevant by Lenin. His Bolshevik party certainly did its internationalist duty against "its own" bourgeoisie. But Lenin also supported the struggle of the workers of Russia's rivals, not the rival ruling elite as SL does in the present case. Can anyone imagine Lenin, as a representative of the Russian proletariat, trying to build working class unity between the German, Polish and Russian workers through backing the Kaiser? Likewise, support for Milosevic's carnage in Kosovo under slogans like "defend Serbia" undermines efforts to encourage opposition to U.S. and NATO imperialism. It also undermines the proletarian internationalist duty of class conscious workers here to encourage an independent proletarian trend in Serbia. The SL makes sure to accompany its "defend Serbia" position with talk about the great day when the workers rise up and establish socialism. But advocacy of "defend Serbia" does not encourage the development of a revolutionary trend in the U.S. or Serbia, but makes abandonment of the class struggle against the Serb rulers a requirement of the SL version of opposition to imperialism.

The "right to self-determination" and advocating independence

. Another problem with the SL's attempt to use an analogy with Lenin's stand on Poland during WWI to justify support for the Serbian regime today is that it confuses the "right to self-determination" with whether or not one supports particular calls for independence.

. It would not violate general Marxist theory to, in specific cases, be against pushing for a secessionist struggle, while steadfastly recognizing the right of the oppressed nationality to secede. For example, there may be cases where the oppressed nationality strives to rid itself of national oppression not by seceding, but through a united struggle with the workers of the oppressor nation to overthrow the oppressor nation. There may be cases where though there is national oppression, the growth of the class struggle in the oppressed nation puts the question of national independence on the back burner. There are times when a particular independence struggle would create such difficulties for the development of the class struggle on a regional or world scale, that it is the proletariat's duty to oppose calls for independence under such circumstances. Whereas bourgeois nationalists promote national independence (at least for their nation) as the highest goal and pretend that all social ills and class contradictions can be resolved through it, the revolutionary proletariat's highest priority is the development of the class struggle, and it is from this angle that it must determine the advisability of supporting particular calls for independence. But all this does not mean giving up unreserved recognition of the right of the oppressed nations to secede. In the midst of a polemic by Lenin aimed largely at the independence call of the Polish Socialist Party (the 'Fracy' of Pilsudski referred to above) we find the following passage:

. "In our draft program we have advanced the demand for a republic with a democratic constitution that would guarantee, among other things, 'recognition of the right to self-determination for all nations forming part of the [Russian -- Mark.] state'. . . . The Social-Democrats will always combat every attempt to influence national self-determination from without by violence or by any injustice. However, our unreserved recognition of the struggle for freedom of self-determination does not in any way commit us to supporting every demand for national self-determination." (Collected Works, vol.6, p.452)

. The SL talks about how before WWI Lenin considered recognition of the right to self-determination of Poland important. But in dealing with Lenin's stand during the war, the SL only talks about Lenin's opposition to advocating an independence struggle for Poland. By avoiding what Lenin's stand on the right of Poland to secede was during the war they create the impression that in opposing the independence slogan for Poland, Lenin was negating the importance of upholding the right of Poland to secede during the war. As we have seen this is not true. Lest there be any doubt on this score, here is another example of Lenin's stand written during the war:

. "'Recognition' of the independence of nations can be regarded as sincere only where the representative of the oppressor nation has demanded, both before and during the war,freedom of secession for the nation which is oppressed by his own 'fatherland'." (Collected Works, vol.22, p.164, boldface emphasis added)

. If the SL had merely discussed whether the struggle against national oppression in Kosovo should assume the form of an independence struggle, this in itself would not have violated a Marxist approach. Instead they used Lenin's view that a particular struggle for independence was not advisable in order to negate the principle of the right of nations to self-determination during the NATO-Serbian conflict and justify Serbian oppression. Lenin defended the principle of subordinating all democratic demands, including national independence, to the overall interests of the class struggle. The SL has subordinated independence to the guns of the Serbian army.

Do the grounds on which Lenin opposed the slogan of independence for Poland during WWI apply to the Kosovar Albanian struggle?

. This brings us to the question of what attitude to take toward the demand for the independence of Kosovo. Since the SL insists on the analogy with Lenin's stand on Poland, it would be worthwhile to review the conditions which led Lenin to his stand on Polish independence and see if the conditions in which the Albanian Kosovar struggle took place merit similar conclusions. In my opinion there are a number of important differences in these two situations which point to the fact that it makes sense to support the independence struggle in Kosovo.

. In Lenin's writings one can find a number of references to the fact that he opposed the slogan for independence of Poland if the cost of achieving this independence was an all-European bloodbath like WWI. For instance he stated "to be in favor of an all-European war merely for the sake of restoring Poland is to be a nationalist of the worst sort, and to place the interests of a small number of Poles above those of the hundreds of millions of people who suffer from war." (Collected Works, vol.22, p.350) The Polish Socialist Party, also referred to as the "Fracy", were adherents of this nationalist policy, which Lenin opposed. The idea of winning Polish independence by allying with one capitalist power against another was a long-standing policy of the Fracy. It's leader, Pilsudski, sought to gain assistance from Japan when the Russo-Japanese war broke out in 1904. Later Pilsudski began cultivating ties with Austria-Hungary, a Russian rival for control of Poland. This was the prelude to Pilsudski's policy during WWI of having his Polish units fight on the side of the alliance of Austria-Hungary and Germany. Pilsudski had also considered an alliance with France, Britain and the U.S. against Germany, but these powers were not interested in alienating their ally, Czarist Russia, which was not about to recognize an independent Poland. Lenin was wholeheartedly against the Fracy policy of inciting inter-imperialist war under an independence banner. Although it was not some independence uprising in Poland that initiated WWI, this general principle guided Lenin. He felt that even if Poland for one reason or another managed to become independent during WWI that this could not be a justification for perpetuating the general inter-imperialist slaughter.

. When we look at the Kosovo independence struggle, we see that if the issue was solely preventing the greatest suffering for the masses, it was Milosevic's rampage against the Albanian people in Kosovo that was the source of by far the most extensive slaughter. Indeed Milosevic's efforts to try and physically exterminate or remove the Albanians from Kosovo left the Albanian population little choice but to rally to the independence struggle and flood the ranks of the KLA.The military involvement of NATO caused a number of casualties among the Serbian populace and greatly disrupted the economy. But the main source of bloodletting remained Milosevic's efforts to forcibly prevent the Albanian Kosovars from exercising their democratic rights.

. Thus, while in the case of Poland, Lenin opposed the sacrifice of tens of millions of the working people for the sake of its independence, in the case of the independence movement against Milosevic's regime, the wholesale slaughter left the Kosovar Albanians no choice but to resist it. True, Milosevic was defeated only when NATO intervened. But the NATO intervention, reactionary though it was, was certainly not a more serious blow to the overall interests of the international class struggle than the Serbian regime destroying an entire people.

. There are also arguments that class conscious workers should not be recommending an independence struggle because if independence was won this would lead to wider war. Such a possibility exists, but the denial of national rights in the region by Serbia, NATO and others has not only already led to one bloodbath after another, it has kept the cauldron of national antagonisms at the boiling point. NATO military involvement is an example of how the conflict has already spread, not because Kosovo is independent, but because the Milosevic insisted on continually ratcheting up the level of oppression in Kosovo. After all, the SL admits that Milosevic and NATO were in agreement on keeping Kosovo from gaining independence and maintaining it as part of Serbia. The U.S. and NATO were mainly trying to convince Milosevic that the best way for him to hold on to Kosovo would be to step back from the ethnic cleansing being used against the Albanian Kosovars. Had this been done, there would have been no pretext, nor any reason from the imperialists' own standpoint, to hurl bombs at Serbia.

. It is true that had an independent Kosovo been won, the oppressed Albanian population in Macedonia would likely be clamoring for their national rights. This was what the imperialist powers were hoping to avoid. They feared the spread of conflict into Macedonia, which might bring Albania into the fray on one side and Greece on the other. This would raise the threat of Turkey entering to oppose Greece and set these two NATO members at each other. But whether or not the Kosovar Albanians won independence, the oppressed nationalities in the region are still going to demand their rights. Meanwhile, the longer the Kosovar Albanians are denied their democratic rights, the deeper the national conflicts will become.

. It also should be noted that there is a glaring contradiction between the SL's claims that it is worried about the Serbia-Kosovo war leading to a regional and maybe even a world war, and it's stand of defending Serbia. If they were serious about avoiding a wider war and believed an independence struggle in Kosovo would touch off such a war, they would have been urging both the Kosovar population and the Serbian regime to back down, not celebrating the Serbian war effort.

. At one point the SL themselves recognized the legitimacy of the independence struggle in Kosovo "so long as the separatist struggle is not subordinated to direct military intervention by the imperialists." (Workers Vanguard, Oct.23, 1998, p.9) In fact when NATO bombing began, the SL justified the Serb war against the Albanians of Kosovo. So evidently since Serbia is not a big imperialist power, only a regional capitalist bully, they fully support subordinating the independence struggle to Serbian military intervention. But no matter the sordid reasoning of the SL, this raises the issue of what attitude to take toward a separatist struggle that links up with NATO. To the extent that the leadership of the independence movement subordinates itself to the NATO's aims, the movement suffers. But this does not necessarily mean that a struggle itself is no longer valid, but that the leadership has not been able to keep its own independent stand.There are many cases where the bourgeois or petty-bourgeois leaders of various independence struggles undermine the struggle and make bad concessions to imperialism, but by itself this does not mean there is something suspect about the demand for independence in these instances.

Why Lenin opposed orienting the struggle in Poland toward independence before WWI

. Actually, contrary to the SL presentation, Lenin did not suddenly change his mind on whether the Polish workers should advocate independence when WWI broke out, but had formed an opinion against pushing for a secessionist movement long before the war. If we are to draw a serious comparison between Lenin's stand and the Kosovar struggle, we must take account of the reasons behind Lenin's stand on the Polish struggle before the war, too.

. Lenin's opposition to orienting the Polish struggle toward independence was not based on callousness toward the national oppression of the Poles by "his own" Russian imperialists.Rather, it was his evaluation that there would be a united revolutionary struggle of Polish and Russian workers whose aim was not merely splitting Poland off from the Czarist empire, but overthrowing Czarism itself along with its Polish bourgeois allies, and the establishment of a new revolutionary-democratic power. The struggle would raise the banner of complete democratic rights for the Polish population, including the right to secede.

. Among the particular factors involved in this judgment was the growing revolutionary trend in Russia. The Russian workers had established their own revolutionary class party, and this party considered it a principle to recognize the right of self-determination for all the oppressed nations within the Russian Empire, which amounted to the majority of the population under Czarist rule.It was also Lenin's opinion that it was unlikely that the Polish bourgeoisie itself would take up the independence movement. Rather it was developing its alliance with the German and Russian ruling classes. This, along with the growth of the proletarian movement, meant that a class struggle between the united working classes and the alliance of the bourgeois rulers was in the works. Lenin pointed out that when Marx and Engels correctly backed the Polish independence struggle of the 1860s, these conditions did not exist. For instance, at that time, Poland was a hotbed of the bourgeois-democratic revolution while the struggle of the Russian masses was in a relative stupor. In Lenin's opinion, the conditions that would merit advocating a secessionist struggle had ended around the end of the 19th century. At least as far back as 1903, Lenin polemicized against the approach of the "Fracy" ,which amounted to making the main issue Poland's separation from Czarist Russia, while whether Czarism itself fell was a matter only for the Russian workers.

. In the case of the Kosovar Albanian struggle, there is not a class conscious revolutionary trend either in Serbia or Kosovo. The bourgeois opposition trends to Milosevic in Serbia themselves spread chauvinism and do not recognize the right to self-determination. Meanwhile, a proletarian trend has not yet developed to combat the chauvinism of the bourgeois trends. As well, the oppression of the Albanian Kosovars has become so extreme that they can hardly survive as long as they are under Serbian rule. Along with the lack among the masses of a revolutionary class trend distinct from the elite, there is great interest in independence among the Albanian bourgeois elements. Under the autonomy system set up by Tito in the late 1960s, a section of the Albanian elite was co-opted by the Yugoslav authorities. But the dismantling of this system has pushed the Albanian bourgeois elements toward independence, too. Many of them backed the KLA. In these conditions, there was little chance that the struggle against national oppression would assume anything but the form of a secessionist struggle. If there was a likelihood of a united proletarian struggle, then it would be reasonable for the class conscious workers in Serbia and Kosovo to campaign for it as opposed to secession. But to reject the independence struggle when no other type of resistance could have taken place and when the struggle was forced upon the Albanian population, is back-handed support for the Serbian aggression.

. The unity of the proletariat of Serbia and Kosovo remains of paramount importance. But in this case separation would help facilitate this unity by allowing the Albanian workers to approach the Serb workers as equals and helping free the Yugoslav workers from the burden of being used to put down their class brothers and sisters in Kosovo.

General theorizing against the right to self-determination

. The SL, for all its phrases about the right to self-determination, actually theorizes against it. Not only in Kosovo do they deny this right. For instance, the SL denies this right to the nations that made up the former Soviet Union. They promoted a leaflet for circulation in Russia which talks about "the right of every nation with an anti-counterrevolutionary leadership to whatever self-determination it considers necessary." (1) With their own little addendum, "with an anti-counterrevolutionary leadership", the SL assaults the stand of Marxism which considers as a general principle the right of oppressed nations to self-determination. Rather they preach denial of such rights to any oppressed people whose leadership they do not like. In practice, this has meant supporting the counterrevolutionary leadership of the bourgeoisie of the oppressing nations. Thus, for instance, they cheered on the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and wanted to see the Soviet Union militarily crush any nation that chose to split off from the old Soviet Union (even though they themselves supposedly considered the leadership of the Soviet Union counterrevolutionary!). This also shows that when the SL talks about not supporting an independence movement that is subordinated to the military intervention of imperialism in Kosovo they are lumping together the question of what attitude to take toward the various stands of the leadership and the actual struggle of the population against national oppression.

. Contrary to the way the SL presents things, Lenin supported many independence struggles despite his misgivings about their leaderships. Far less did he deny the oppressed nation's freedom to secede on these grounds. Rather, he emphasized the need to recognize the different class trends in these struggles so as to insure they achieved the most thorough victory. He sought the development of proletarian parties in the oppressed nations and recognized the tendency of the bourgeois elements to betray the movement. Lenin wrote:

. "All national oppression calls for the resistance of the broad masses of the people; and the resistance of a nationally oppressed population always tends to national revolt. Not infrequently (notably in Austria and Russia) we find the bourgeoisie of the oppressed nations talking of national revolt, while in practice it enters into reactionary compacts with the bourgeoisie of the oppressor nation behind the backs of, and against, its own people. In such cases the criticism of revolutionary Marxists should be directed not against the national movement, but against its degradation, vulgarization, and the tendency to reduce it to a petty squabble." (Collected Works,vol.23, p.61)

. The SL further theorizes on national self-determination in the following way:

. "The formation of the classic nation-states in West Europe of the 17th centuries was also a bloody, protracted process. But it was linked to the extension of trade, the development of the national market and the rise of the bourgeoisie. However, under imperialism, in relatively backward capitalist countries the development of the national economy and the emergence of a vigorous bourgeoisie are stifled by imperialist exploitation and domination.Thus national consolidation under capitalism has been reduced to its stark component of communal savagery to drive out or eliminate minority nationalities." (Workers Vanguard,Oct. 23, 1998, p.9)

. In other words, according to the Spartacists, the formation of nation-states was OK for the major countries of West Europe, despite the horrors involved. But today, those oppressed nations which seek to form independent states are simply engaging in pointless carnage because they can't eliminate all forms of domination of the imperialist powers. Such reasoning makes a mockery of the SL claims to recognize the right of nations to self-determination. Nor does the reasoning make sense. First of all, the right to self-determination of nations means nothing more than the right to a separate state. It is a democratic political demand which redresses one of the forms of national oppression that exists under capitalism. To deny it has any importance on the grounds that it won't stop the economic domination of the most powerful capitalist countries is like denying any importance to blacks or women getting the right to vote, or women having abortion rights, because these things do not eliminate economic exploitation. Secondly, if demanding political independence is just meaningless bloodletting if a country is economically dependent, this means granting that privilege only to the most powerful economic countries, which would exclude all but a handful of nations. Taking this seriously means mocking at all the independence struggles which destroyed the old colonial system in most of the world, among which were some of the most profound revolutionary movements of the century.

. But what of the argument that state independence no longer has anything to do with consolidating the rise of the bourgeoisie and consolidating the national capitalist market because imperialism prevents this? The history of this century disproves this. The destruction of colonialism had everything to do with the consolidation of the home market by the national bourgeoisie of the oppressed nations. This didn't mean that the economic domination of the world by a few of the biggest powers disappeared. But it is also true that the downfall of the old colonial relations was accompanied by an explosion of capitalist development in the former colonies and semi-colonies and the growing strength of the national bourgeoisie. (2)

. The history of the 20th century bore out the opinion that Lenin gave in the early years of this century. In combating the "imperialist economism" of those who argued like the SL today that the independent national state is a myth or reactionary quest in the colonies, Lenin stated:

. "We cannot say whether Asia will have time to develop into a system of independent national states, like Europe, before the collapse of capitalism, but it remains an undisputed fact that capitalism, having awakened Asia, has called forth national movements everywhere in that continent too; that the tendency of these movements is toward the creation of national states in Asia; that it is such states that ensure the best conditions for the development of capitalism." (Collected Works, vol.20, pp.399-400)

. The SL position is that national independence has nothing to do with the economic development of native capitalism. Lenin's position is that the national movements striving for their own states creates the best conditions for the development of capitalism. Capitalism and the domestic bourgeoisie were very little developed in most of Asia in Lenin's time. But the development of national states there has everything to do with the rapid development of capitalism there out of which any number of quite vigorous national bourgeoisies have developed, the so-called "Asian tigers" for example.

. While denying the right of self-determination, the SL writes that:

. "A democratic and equitable resolution of the conflicting national claims in the Balkans can only be achieved through socialist revolution which brings the multinational proletariat to power." (Workers Vanguard, Oct. 23, 1998, p.9)

. There is no doubt that it takes the abolition of capitalism and its class oppression to completely do away with all forms of national oppression. But how are the toilers from the oppressor state and those of the oppressed nation to be unified in the future socialist state? It's fine to talk about the future proletarian power uniting all the nationalities. But if that unity is not a free, voluntary unity, then national antagonisms will fester and the so-called "socialism" discredited. Simply talking about socialism solving national conflicts while belittling the right of the oppressed nations to form their own separate states means tolerating a form of national oppression. It means unifying the different nations without regard to the will of the people who are to be incorporated in the new state power. Such an outlook befits an organization which "defends Serbia" in the recent conflict. But it has nothing in common with Lenin's outlook. In reply to those in his day who saw the right of self-determination as being in conflict with uniting various nations within larger proletarian states, Lenin stated:

. "The aim of socialism is not only to end the division of mankind into tiny states and the isolation of nations in any form, it is not only to bring the nations closer together but to integrate them. And it is precisely in order to achieve this aim that we must . . . demand the liberation of oppressed nations in a clearly and precisely formulated political program that takes special account of the hypocrisy and cowardice of socialists in the oppressor nations, and not by way of 'relegating' the question until socialism has been achieved." (Collected Works, vol.22, pp.146-47)

. The SL too avoids a clear formulation as to the relation of the right to self-determination to overcoming various nation antagonisms in the Balkans. It too "relegates" the issue away behind socialist phrases.

The Spark's reluctance to support the right of Kosovo to self-determination

. In contrast to the SL, the Spark group does not give slogans like "defend Serbia." In their agitation intended for wide distribution, they have a few words condemning Milosevic, but their appeal is confined to condemning NATO's bombing campaign while avoiding the question of the right to secession for the Albanian Kosovars. So while they don't openly support Milosevic, they don't challenge the Serb regime's right to control Kosovo either.

. In their magazine, Class Struggle, which contains their more authoritative articles, they carry an article entitled "Kosovo-Serbia: Against the barbarism of ethnic war, against the barbarism of the bombing, for the right of self-determination of all people". (May/June 1999) From the title one might imagine that at least in their theoretical journal, the Spark will take a clear cut stand for the right of national self-determination for the Albanian Kosovars. But if you look at the article closely, it's hard to see how it defends this right at all. Indeed, the only place in this article where it clearly spells out this right of "the Kosovar people to decide for themselves whether to be independent or to attach themselves to Albania" is where it points out that this right is denied by the Rambouillet agreement. True enough, Rambouillet keeps Kosovo as part of Serbia and under a NATO protectorate. So even where the issue is raised, the issue of the Serbian bourgeoisie's denial of this right is used mainly to show that we must oppose NATO. Thus, the issue of denial of the right of self-determination by Serbia independently of anything that NATO wants is downplayed.

. For the same reason, the same Spark article emphasizes that the issue in this war is the "right of self-determination of all people". But which people were fighting for self-determination in this particular conflict? The Albanian Kosovars certainly were. What about the Serbian side of the conflict? Were they waging a battle for the self-determination of Serbia? Was the fight against NATO a liberation war? Most certainly not. But the Spark's hazy formulation about this being a conflict involving self-determination for "all people" leaves open that possibility. And in their leaflet of May 17, 1999 distributed in Detroit, the Spark describes NATO's war with Serbia as a "war against all the peoples of Yugoslavia" while maintaining silence on the question of Serbia's denial of the right of self-determination for the Kosovar Albanians. So, according to the Spark, the Serbian government's denial of the national rights of the Kosovars is not at stake in the war, only the contradiction between "all the peoples of Yugoslavia" and NATO. Thus, while they speak of the "evil" of Milosevic, the war is basically portrayed as if it were a liberation war in which the Serbian side is fighting on the same front against foreign imperialism as the Albanian and other nationalities. Certainly unity between the Albanian and Serbian masses is desirable.But this has nothing to do with the content of the actual war against NATO because the conflict was between Serbia's right to oppress versus NATO's right to oppress. (3)

. But even if we grant that somewhere the Spark sort of recognizes the right of the Albanian Kosovars to national self-determination, we must also note that these instances are overwhelmed by a host of other Spark arguments against the right to national self-determination in general.

Is national self-determination an imperialist plot?

. One of their arguments is that the demand for nation-states by peoples in the developing world is simply an imperialist plot. They state:

. "Since the days of the rise of nation-states in Europe two centuries ago, the capitalist class has always supported the idea of dividing the world into such political entities. Within their own borders, this has provided the native capitalists a home market which they can use as a base from which they can compete with rival capitalists from other countries. In the underdeveloped and colonized regions of the world, on the other hand, the existence of rival nation-states has enabled the capitalists based in the rich countries to control and exploit local populations. To this end, the capitalists have always supported -- and played against each other -- local nationalist leaders." (The Spark, Oct.12-26, 1998, p.5)

. So while the Spark finds it reasonable that the big powers formed nation states, the same desire by other nationalities they consider suspect. After all, they reason, haven't the big states "always" supported the idea of the colonial peoples forming their own states? In order to "prove" that the formation of any new states is bad, the Spark merely has to deny the whole history of the more powerful states efforts to forcibly deny freedom to their subject peoples to form independent states. They merely have to forget the entire system of colonialism and semi-colonialism when the big European, American, and Japanese states massacred their subjects who demanded independence. It's true that one imperialist power may give some assistance to the liberation movement of a nation oppressed by its rivals. But this does not negate the basic content of the struggles against the old-style colonialism. It merely shows that at best the bourgeoisie only supports self-determination in an inconsistent and hypocritical fashion.

. The end of the old colonialism meant that the imperialists were forced to recognize independent states, but the big imperialist powers continued to exercise economic and political domination over them in other forms. As well, the imperialists do continue to play one state against another both among the developing countries and among themselves. But how does that discredit the abolition of the old colonialism, one of the most odious forms of national oppression? One may as well argue that ending Jim Crow segregation was pointless because the American capitalists still oppress black people in various other ways. Just like the SL, the Spark ignores that the drive for political independence has its source in the desire of the masses to free themselves from the worst type of oppression. They also ignore that the bourgeoisies (or aspiring bourgeoisies) in the oppressed nations which seek independence, do so for the same reason that the bourgeoisie in the established powers long ago sought their own national states, namely, to consolidate the development of native capitalism.

. Perhaps it might be thought that the struggle for national liberation from the big imperialists is good. But today the bourgeoisies of some of the former colonies and other countries themselves face independence movements from peoples they oppress. Are these struggles just an imperialist plot to divide and weaken these countries? Actually, the big imperialist powers are often quite happy to tolerate the national oppression in the less powerful capitalist countries. The U.S. and its NATO allies involved themselves in the Kosovo-Serbia conflict to deny the Albanian population the right to self-determination, as the Spark itself acknowledges. There are many other instances where the imperialists are more than happy to sacrifice the national ambitions of oppressed peoples to preserve the state boundaries of some other country. In the case of the Kurds, for example, U.S. imperialism not only has supported its ally Turkey rather than the Kurds, but also has betrayed the Kurds of Iraq who suffer at the hands of Saddam Hussein regime, a government on the State Department hit list. Historically, U.S. imperialism had hardly been in the forefront of liberating the East Timorese people from the oppression of Suharto's Indonesia, thereby missing another opportunity to divide up a country. This does not mean that imperialist powers always oppose a nation seceding. But even in these cases, it hardly proves the independence struggle was a creation of imperialism. Whether one day some imperialist country recognizes an independent Kosovo, or whether in the near future the imperialists broker a deal with the Indonesian government that results in independence for East Timor, this does not change the fact that these struggles arose on their own basis, and that these peoples are entitled to their own national state if that is their desire.

. If we apply this bogus Spark theory to the case at hand, we can only conclude that the independence demands of the Kosovar Albanians are something invented by NATO. But now the Spark runs into the problem that they themselves point out that NATO does not want Kosovo to be independent. To extricate themselves from this dilemma the Spark concocts the incredible theory that the idea of national self-determination is responsible for NATO's denial of national rights in Kosovo!

. The Spark explains that:

". . . the same powers who wrote and sponsored the 1995 Dayton Accord, partitioning Bosnia along ethnic lines, now have all of a sudden become champions of Yugoslavia's 'national sovereignty.'
. "Is this a contradiction? Not at all, if one understands the motives of these great powers.
. "Since the days of the rise of nation-states in Europe two centuries ago, the capitalist class has always supported the idea of dividing the world into such political entities." (The Spark, Oct.12-26 1998, p.5)

. So according to this theory, both the rotten partitioning of Bosnia on ethnic lines, and the opposition of NATO to Kosovo independence, can be blamed on the big European powers inventing the concept of nation-states. But what do the Dayton Accords and the NATO support for Serbia's desire to forcibly enslave Kosovo have to do with the right of self-determination?Not a thing. They are merely expressions of NATO's cynicism about the right to self-determination.But in the Spark's desire to create a bogey man out of national self-determination, any nonsense will do.

The Spark frets over the alteration of Yugoslavia's former borders

. While the Spark acknowledges Serb domination in the former Yugoslavia and the horrific crimes of Milosevic against the other nationalities, it's highest principle is the retention of the old Yugoslavian state. Thus, the will of the people of the non-Serb nationalities within this state is dismissed as a minor matter. With this attitude, the Spark sees nothing in the break-up of the old Yugoslavia but tragedy. They raise that the separatist movements were led by nationalist cliques backed by imperialism which committed their own atrocities. Thus,

while "the transformation of administrative boundaries into true borders between different states which came out of the former Yugoslav federation" . . . "seemed to be a harmless, innocent change" . . . "it's consequences were to become catastrophic." (Class Struggle,May/June 1999, p.3)

. But what caused the catastrophe? Did the Albanian Kosovars' desire to escape the brutal national oppression by splitting from Milosevic's Serbia cause the tragedy? Milosevic and his supporters think so. Actually it was the failure of the Serbian state to recognize the democratic rights of the other nationalities which has set the whole region on fire. The former state unity of Yugoslavia that the Spark weeps for could only be maintained at gunpoint. Clearly, it is impossible to uphold the right of oppressed nations to secede, while fretting about the alteration of state borders that necessarily accompany independence.

What about the "nationalist cliques" in the oppressed nations?

. But what of the bad things done by the non-Serb nationalist cliques? Any crimes of the rival nationalist cliques should be opposed. But that cannot be an excuse for, in effect, supporting the borders demanded by the dominant Serbian nationalist clique at the expense of the oppressed populations. There are two ways to counter the atrocities of the non-Serb nationalist cliques. One is to long for bringing back the "good old days" of Serb domination. The other is to work for building the unity of the proletariat of Serb and non-Serb workers, which requires support for the right to secession of the oppressed nationalities.

. Lenin knew full well the propensity of the bourgeoisie in the oppressed nations to themselves mistreat other nationalities. But he ridiculed the idea of using this to oppose the right to self-determination. Thus, in arguing against those who complained about what the bourgeoisie in the oppressed nation might do if that nation waged a liberation struggle, he stated:

. "It looks as if the Polish comrades are against this type of revolt on the grounds that there is also a bourgeoisie in these annexed countries which also oppresses foreign peoples or, more exactly, could oppress them, since the question is one of the 'right to oppress.'Consequently, the given war or revolt is not assessed on the strength of its realsocial content (the struggle of an oppressed nation for its liberation from the oppressor nation) but the possible exercise of the 'right to oppress' by a bourgeoisie which is at present itself oppressed." (Collected Works,vol.22, p.332)

. Applied to the Kosovar Albanian struggle, this means that while revolutionary activists should oppose any persecution of Serbs in Kosovo on the basis of their nationality, by no means should such a possibility be used to deny the basic liberation content of the Kosovar Albanian struggle to split off from Serbian-dominated Yugoslavia.

Was unity in the old Yugoslavia achieved by "ignoring ethnicity"?

. The Spark likes to talk about the unity of the old Yugoslavia, but ignores that such unity must be on a voluntary basis. It would have been good if all the nationalities could be united within the borders of the old Yugoslavia on this basis. But state unity cannot be the highest principle. If nationalities feel compelled to leave, complaining that it's a tragedy means respecting state borders more than the wishes of the peoples. The Spark's sentimentality for maintaining the old Yugoslavian borders continually betrays a lack of understanding of how to foster unity among the nationalities. Take for example the following claim:

". . . Tito's Yugoslavia provided a framework which went beyond that of the former micro-states; it allowed the different peoples finally to ignore ethnicity and, instead, simply declare themselves Yugoslavs." (Class Struggle, May/June 1999, p.3)

. Tito had a milder policy toward the non-Serb nationalities than did Milosevic, and this no doubt helped keep Yugoslavia together. But this was not due to "ignoring ethnicity" but, to a certain extent, recognizing national rights. For example, as regards the Albanian Kosovars, in the late 1960s the Tito regime extended their autonomous rights, though they were still second-class citizens. The granting of partial rights however, did not mean that now national issues would henceforth be of minor importance, but tended to make the remaining national indignities all the more intolerable and the demands for complete democratic rights for the nationalities all the more urgent. The Titoite framework had prevented the nationalities in Yugoslavia from splitting up, but also led to further national demands. Milosevic, on the other hand, undid what national rights existed for the Albanian Kosovars and thereby guaranteed the desire for independence would grow.

. The Tito example shows that it was not because all the different nationalities could call themselves Yugoslavs and ignore their particular national conditions that accounts for more feelings of unity among the different national groups. Rather, the various nationalities were willing to call themselves Yugoslavs due to at least a partial recognition that there was a need to extend certain national rights. For the Spark, the way to maintain state unity of the old Yugoslavia is to pretend that there are no national issues to deal with, and hence, no need to deal with matters like whether or not a particular nationality wants to secede, and no need to grant rights to do such. (4)

The Cliffites theorize against the right to self-determination

. The same general theoretical approach to the right of nations to self-determination of the SL and the Spark is taken up by the International Socialists (IS), the followers of Tony Cliff's theories. The Cliffites too, claim that NATO military intervention means that the right of self-determination for the Kosovar Albanians can be shelved, at least temporarily. For instance, in a joint declaration of the IS affiliates, it claims that while they support the right to self-determination for Kosovo,

. "Nevertheless, we don't believe that the Kosovar Albanians' right to self-determination can at the present time be counterposed to NATO's war against Serbia. For it is quite likely that, if the war continues, the Western powers will reverse their opposition to the establishment of a Kosovan state." . . . (Socialist Worker, New Zealand, April 26, 1999, p.6)

. What does the IS declaration mean when it says the right of self-determination can no longer be "counterposed to NATO's war"? In an adjacent companion article by Alex Callinicos they argue that "the KLA is becoming an instrument of NATO" and therefore "this is NATO's war".According to the IS, since this is NATO's war, and since the West might recognize an independent Kosovo, we can no longer hold that in this war NATO is a force counter to the "right to self-determination." So, the IS argument goes, if NATO wants independence, then the Kosovar Albanians should have no right to be independent. Presumably the IS is now breathing a sigh of relief as it has become clear that Kosovo won't become independent as long as the Western powers have any say in the matter.

. Judging whether an oppressed nation has the right to political independence on whether or not this or that imperialist supports it, even hypocritically, can only lead to vacillating on the question of national self-determination. Rather than repeat the arguments previously made, let's look at another independence struggle to see the absurdity of this position. East Timor won its liberation from Portuguese colonialism in 1975, but the fruits of victory were snatched away by Indonesia, which quickly annexed East Timor through a genocidal war. A mass independence movement has since been continuing on against Indonesia. The big Western powers generally supported the Suharto regime, despite whatever formal declarations against the annexation of East Timor they may have issued. Yet in recent years there has been a push by the UN and the former colonial occupier of East Timor, Portugal, along with the main independence groups in East Timor, to negotiate an end to Indonesian colonial rule. Meanwhile, some independence groups have been tempting the wealthier capitalist states with lucrative economic concessions on East Timor territory in return for their support for independence. The final result of this process is still unknown. But regardless of whether the foreign capitalist countries wind up supporting political independence for East Timor or not, this does not undermine the legitimacy of the right to self-determination for East Timor. Likewise, the fact that NATO may support independence, doesn't change whether the Kosovar Albanians deserve the right to national self-determination.

. Of course it could be argued that in East Timor there has been no military intervention by foreign capitalist countries. But what if the upcoming UN-organized vote in East Timor on independence was accompanied by the stationing of "peacekeeping" troops from foreign capitalist countries? No doubt the left is obligated to point out the dangers and false promises that will arise from such foreign capitalist intervention. But on no account could this be used to justify Indonesian rule. Just because some capitalist countries may agree to it doesn't mean that there is no right to self-determination for East Timor. As it turns out, the UN deal will, shamefully, allow the Indonesian government a big role in the security arrangements for the elections. This will be a great assistance to the anti-independence paramilitary gangs who are trying to intimidate pro-independence voters. Nevertheless a contingent of UN military and civilian forces are heading to East Timor to oversee the elections. If it turns out that a fairly free vote takes place and the vote is decided in favor of independence, a UN protectorate will be created by international capitalism which is supposed to eventually allow for independence. Will the UN authority wind up really accepting East Timor's independence? In any case, this would not affect the legitimacy of its right to secede from Indonesia.

. The same IS joint statement, anticipating the possibility that NATO would back a ground war where the KLA did most of the fighting, adds that,

. "In a protracted war, Kosovan fighters may come to seem attractive proxies for the Western ground troops Clinton and his allies are so desperate to avoid committing. Their role would be, like the mujahedin in Afghanistan and the contras in Nicaragua, to fight and die on Washington's behalf."

. When this joint statement criticizes NATO for not supporting the right to self-determination, they note that "the U.S. State Department described the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) as 'terrorists', giving Milosevic the green light to go on the offensive against them." But what is the IS doing when it tries to equate the KLA with the Afghani mujahedin and the Nicaraguan contras?

. In attempting to equate the contras with the KLA, the IS trend manages to overlook that the contras were not fighting for the independence of Nicaragua, but to overturn a revolution against the U.S.-backed Somoza dictatorship. The KLA is wrong to promote illusions in Western capitalism and the NATO war effort. But if they are the same as the Nicaraguan contras, then their attempt to fight the Serbian occupiers was also wrong regardless of NATO military intervention. After all, the contra cause was counterrevolutionary whether or not the U.S. backed them. Indeed, the attempt to equate the Albanian Kosovar cause with that of the contras has been the stock-in-trade of the naked Milosevic supporters like the WWP. Equating the contras and the KLA amounts to discrediting the very notion of a struggle by the Albanian Kosovars against Milosevic.

. What then of the comparison between the Afghani mujahedin and the KLA? The forces that came to dominate the resistance to the Soviet Union's imperialist invasion of Afghanistan were divided among different feudal chieftains, some of whom wanted to restore the monarchy and some who wanted an extreme medieval Islamic theocracy. Massive U.S. funding helped assure that these backward trends were the most powerful forces in the fight against the Soviet occupation. After the Soviets left, various factions fought for control of Afghanistan, with the most fanatical theocrats now imposing their own tyranny over the masses. This experience showed that both during the fight against the Soviet invasion and afterwards, the Afghani masses had to find their own independent path, not that fighting the Soviet invasion was unjust. (5)

. While it's true that both the mujahedin and the KLA accepted Western capitalist aid, the implication that the KLA stands for building a monarchy or a strict theocratic regime is not based on serious evidence. In fact it is not even true that the mujahedin were simply fighting on Washington's behalf. Indeed part of the U.S. fears over arming the KLA were that there would be a repeat of their experience in Afghanistan where, despite their aid, they wound up with little influence after the Soviets left. Nevertheless, if the IS merely criticized the KLA support for NATO while continuing to show enthusiasm for the Albanian Kosovar fight for independence, that would be useful. Instead, when NATO bombs began to fall, they dropped their slogans in favor of the Albanian Kosovar cause and replaced serious criticism of the KLA with hysterical accusations. Rather than seriously dealing with the actual problems of the KLA leadership, they have taken up any slander in the manner of the open defenders of Milosevic. This type of "criticism" is not assisting the Albanian Kosovars, but Milosevic's propaganda campaign against them.

Once again on Polish independence and WWI

. The Cliffites also try to justify withdrawal of support for the right to self-determination in the midst of the NATO-Serbia war by referring back to Lenin's stand on Poland during WWI. Since their arguments are very similar to those of the Spartacists earlier described, we will not repeat them in detail all over again. But to confirm the general similarity, let's briefly glance at the article by Chris Harman of the SWP of Britain entitled "Divide and conquer: Chris Harman on self-determination and national liberation." (6)

. This article starts off emphasizing the general principle of support for the right of nations to self-determination, quoting Marx's statement that "A nation which oppresses another cannot itself be free." But then we learn that when the Polish nationalists aligned themselves with the Kaiser, Lenin opposed the slogan of Polish independence. Thereafter the article is simply silent about whether the opposition to pushing a slogan for independence at that moment meant Lenin opposed recognizing the right of Poland to secede at that moment. As we demonstrated earlier, Lenin castigated those who denied this right during the war.

. Harman obscures this point. He writes that "the whole international socialist movement had traditionally identified with the demand of the Poles for national rights" but implies they gave this up after the Polish nationalists aligned with the German imperialists. Lenin's stand was that it was vital to recognize Polish national rights, including the right to secede, even during the war. But he was not for advocating the Polish independence slogan during WWI because: 1) he had been against it before the war, expecting the struggle against national oppression in Poland to be solved by a united revolutionary struggle against Czarism itself, rather than an independence struggle; and 2) during the war he emphasized, as the Harman article itself mentions, that if support for WWI was required for Polish independence, support for Polish independence would sacrifice the general interests of the world's masses for the sake of a relatively small population of Poles. Not only do the Cliffites echo the Spartacists' distortions of the underlying principles of Lenin's stand on Poland. The IS, like the Spartacists, ignore that the particular conditions in which Lenin took his stand recommending the struggle in Poland not be fought as an independence movement do not prevail in the present conflict. There is no general proletarian interest, like opposition to WWI or the expectations of imminent socialist revolutions, that is being sacrificed because the Albanian Kosovars choose not to be completely decimated by Milosevic's stormtroopers.

Once again on the right of oppressed nations to form their own states

. Like the other trends we have examined, Chris Harman also sees the right of self-determination of nations as nothing but a Pandora's box, ready to inflict horrors on the innocent. He does not refer to a single good thing happening from the liberation of oppressed nations. Rather, referring to the national movements in the Balkans, Harman states, "In each case, the other side of the establishment of the national state was the oppression of national minorities within it." So for Harman, presumably the establishment of an independent Kosovo should be opposed not merely because NATO started bombing Serbia (the former excuse), but because national self-determination is itself suspect. Applied to the present situation, this would mean that under no conditions could independence for Kosovo be raised. Yet, the IS trend itself feels uneasy at consistently applying this theory because they themselves gave the slogan "Independence for Kosovo!" even as they were issuing slogans against the NATO war, though later the pro-independence slogans were withdrawn. (7)

. Of course, it is possible to show that not only in the Balkans, but around the world, discrimination against national minorities still exists in countries that won independence from the old colonial system. But that does not show that the abolition of the old colonial system was bad, but that to abolish all forms of national inequality requires abolishing capitalism. The struggle against the old colonialism greatly assisted this process in that, by clearing away that form of national oppression, it cleared the ground for the class struggle against the national bourgeoisie, which often discriminates against other nationalities. Indeed, the IS trend calls for independence for East Timor from Indonesia. That's fine. But do we have to take this back until we come up with a new ruling bourgeoisie there that isn't possibly going to discriminate against other nationalities? By the same token, if it turns out that the native bourgeoisie of East Timor is fairly tolerant, doesn't that prove how ridiculous it is to frighten people with the bogeyman of national self-determination?

. But what of the Balkans? Is this a place where national self-determination must be discarded?Harman refers to the Balkan national struggles of Lenin's time as being mere vehicles for national oppression and says that the existence of weak states there meant there was nothing to do but "form close alliances with the major imperialist powers." Since Harman wants to claim Lenin would have supported his views, let see what Lenin said. Lenin opposed Rosa Luxemburg's views opposing the right of self-determination in general and her views on how this applied to the Balkans in particular. Luxemburg, Lenin wrote, held that

". . . the 'right to self-determination' of small nations is made illusory by the development of the great capitalist powers and by imperialism. 'Can one seriously speak,' Rosa Luxemburg exclaims,'about the "self-determination" of the formally independent Montenegrins, Bulgarians, Rumanians, Serbs, Greeks, partly even the Swiss, whose independence is itself a result of the political struggle and the diplomatic game of the "concert of Europe"?!' The state that best suits these conditions is 'not a national state, as Kautsky believes, but a predatory one.'" (Collected Works, vol.20, p.398)

. Lenin argued that in this matter, Luxemburg was wrong and Kautsky correct:

. "The example of the Balkan states likewise contradicts her, for anyone can now see that the best conditions for the development of capitalism in the Balkans are created precisely in proportion to the creation of independent national states in that peninsula.
. "Therefore, Rosa Luxemburg notwithstanding, the example of the whole of progressive and civilized mankind, the example of the Balkans and that of Asia prove that Kautsky's proposition is absolutely correct; the multinational state represents backwardness, or is an exception. From the standpoint of national relations, the best conditions for the development of capitalism are undoubtedly provided by the national state. This does not mean, of course, that such a state, which is based on bourgeois relations, can eliminate the exploitation and oppression of nations. It only means that Marxists cannot lose sight of the powerful economic factors that give rise to the urge to create national states." (Collected Works, vol.20, p.400)

. So it turns out that Lenin did not think that national self-determination was simply a fiction or a dead end in the Balkans. Lenin was well aware of the problems connected to the Balkan liberation struggles due to the fact that they were led by the native exploiters rather than the worker and peasant masses. But that did not cause him to shrink from recognizing the progressive content of the struggles for national freedom that broke out, regardless of their shortcomings. Rather, Lenin strove to strengthen the imprint of the toilers in the liberation struggle so as to ensure the most thorough type of democratic revolution. For example, Lenin analyzed the 1912 liberation of Macedonia from Turkish rule with the aid of Serbia and Bulgaria.Lenin expressed hope that this might help contribute to the

"undermining of feudal rule in Macedonia, the formation of a more or less free class of peasant landowners, and a guarantee for the entire social development of the Balkan countries, which has been checked by absolutism and feudal relations." (Collected Works,vol.18, 397-398)

. At the same time, Lenin saw that because the liberation had been accomplished not by a thorough-going social revolution of the masses, but a more limited struggle dominated by the exploiting classes, the cost in lives among the toilers of all nationalities was unnecessarily high.Thus, for example, he emphasized the need to fight not only the Turkish landlords who dominated Macedonia, but unity with the Turkish toilers against the landlords of all nationalities in the area. This is what he meant when he wrote in the same article on the liberation of Macedonia that

. "If the liberation of Macedonia had been accomplished through a revolution, that is, through the Serbian and Bulgarian and also the Turkish peasants fighting against the landlords of all nationalities (and against the landlord governments in the Balkans), liberation would probably have cost the Balkan peoples a hundred times less in human lives than the present war. Liberation would have been achieved at an infinitely lower price and would have been infinitely more complete." (Collected Works, vol.18, p.398)

. Lenin does not refer specifically to the plight of the Albanian population in Kosovo at that time. But this was an example of the unfortunate bloodshed Lenin refers to. In 1912, in the course of Serbia's fight against Turkish oppression, the Serbian monarchy took the occasion to brutally annex Kosovo amid savage massacres of the Albanians, thus betraying the Albanian Kosovars who had waged a partially-successful revolt against Turkish oppression several months earlier.

. Lenin did not deny the problems that existed in the liberation struggles in the Balkans. But his answer to these shortcomings was not to deny the importance of the actual struggles for national self-determination, but to strengthen these struggles by emphasizing the need for the toilers to put their class stamp on them.

The Cliffites try to prove Milosevic is not fascist

. The spurious theorizing of the Cliffites on national self-determination seems to have played a role in undermining whatever reasonable stands they had on the Kosovo independence issue. One moment they were hailing the independence struggle. Then that was dumped on the grounds that liberation struggles are always pointless, at least in the Balkans. One moment they write articles explaining how the ruthless tyranny of Milosevic was developed. The next moment they deny the very points on which they had criticized Milosevic in order to prove that his regime is not fascist.

. In an article entitled "The Nazis, the Serbs and the truth" the IS author basically argues that anyone who isn't exactly like Hitler in every detail can't be considered "fascist." Thus, Milosevic isn't fascist. Why does the article want to avoid the fascist label for the Milosevic regime? It says that some people say you have to support NATO if Milosevic is fascist. The tragedy is the article accepts this false premise because it is devoted to finding any miserable excuse to separate Milosevic from fascism. It never dawns on the author that one can be opposed both to the regional tyrant Milosevic and the imperialist bullies of NATO. To be consistent, if consistently wrong, the author goes on to extricate the likes of the Argentine military dictator, Galtieri, and Saddam Hussein from the fascist label as well. Of course, the issue isn't to argue over which is the better term, "fascist", "bloodthirsty butcher", or whatever, but that the article feels it necessary to prettify Milosevic in order to prove its anti-NATO credentials.

. The most incredible arguments are used, such as that Milosevic can't be fascist because Hitler used "modern industrial methods" such as gassing people in concentration camps to carry out his Holocaust whereas "ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia has been carried out by men in uniform using small arms in the main"!! No doubt the victims of ethnic cleansing are grateful to be killed by non-fascist primitive methods, not to mention the comparatively primitive, and presumably more humane, methods of raping and pillaging!

. The amazing thing is the article is contradicted virtually point for point by another article that appeared in the SWP of Britain's Socialist Review of May 1999 entitled "The resistible rise of Slobodan Milosevic." The instances are too numerous to mention them all here. But the following example is typical. The article which tries to distance Milosevic from fascism boasts "there is a broad range of organizations, from trade unions and human rights groups to opposition radio stations and newspapers, still in existence." Wow, what a democrat Milosevic must be! The article exposing Milosevic paints a slightly different picture. It says:

". . . this corrupt and unstable regime could only survive through a system of constant purges of suspect institutions and terror against its opponents. The paramilitary police was reinforced to act as Milosevic's personal guard against the army and to discourage dissent, and the media pumped out disinformation. . . .
". . . in October 1998 an information law was passed allowing Milosevic to crush the independent media."

. Thus, the overall stand of the Cliffites winds up not only theorizing against the right to self-determination in general, but abandons the Albanian Kosovar cause in practice and even stoops to promoting that opposition to NATO requires giving Milosevic a semi-democratic face-lift.

Proletarian internationalism and the conflict over Kosovo

. Many left trends talk about the need for class unity between the nationalities and the wonderful future when the socialist republic comes to the Balkans. But such fine goals become empty phrases if the groups uttering them do not take a proletarian internationalist stand today. Such a stand in regard to the conflict over Kosovo requires not only opposing NATO's war, but not using opposition to NATO to "defend Serbia," curtail calls against the Milosevic regime in one's mass agitation, or finding one argument after another to discredit in general the right of nations to self-determination. If we really want to see class unity between the Albanian and Serbian workers, we must support the right to secession for Kosovo and oppose every attempt to forcibly prevent the Kosovar Albanians from carrying this out. Only such a stand can help combat the terrible weight of chauvinism on the Serbian workers which is encouraged by not only Milosevic, but the main bourgeois opposition trends in order to divert them from the class struggle at home. Recognition of Albanian national rights also undercuts the narrow nationalist sentiments that are bound to exist among the Albanian exploited classes. Breaking this narrow nationalism is essential for the Albanian workers to have an independent class stand from their own exploiters and to see the Serbian workers as their allies.

. Assisting the proletariat of Serbia and Kosovo today also means helping them overcome the massive confusion that exists on the difference between state-capitalist systems, like the old Yugoslavia, and genuine socialism. The old state-capitalist Yugoslavia, which billed itself as socialist, was understandably widely discredited among the workers of all the nationalities within it. Developing a desire among the workers for Marxist socialism therefore means clarifying the difference between it and the revisionist, state-capitalist counterfeit of socialism. Trotskyism, by promoting the state-capitalist systems to one degree or another, undermines the growth of real socialist consciousness.

. The confusion of state-capitalist Yugoslavia for socialism not only undermines the socialist goal, but has negative practical consequences today. As we have seen, for a number of left-wing activists, sentimentality over the old Yugoslavia is connected to softness toward the Milosevic regime in the present war. As well, among the masses who were unhappy with the old system in Yugoslavia, confusion about the old revisionist pseudo-socialism plays into the hands of Western market-capitalism, which presents itself as the alternative to the old system. Thus, the anti-revisionist critique of Yugoslav state-capitalism helps combat the influence that the Western imperialists have gained among the masses of all nationalities, and particularly among the Kosovar Albanians.

. Without defending the right to self-determination and exposing the state-capitalist nature of the old Yugoslavia, the revival of revolutionary proletarian politics in that region will remain an empty phrase.


(1) Workers Vanguard, Nov. 30. 1990, emphasis added. This quote and related material can be found in Communist Voice, vol.2, #5, Oct. 1, 1996, p.40. (Return to text)

(2) The SL is wrong when it contends that national liberation struggles don't assist the development of capitalism and the bourgeoisie in the oppressed nations. But, it might be asked, if capitalism and the bourgeoisie are strengthened, why are the national liberation and democratic revolutions in the interest of the working class?

Any democratic revolution, no matter how radical, cannot do away with class exploitation but rather will lead to the development of capitalism in one form or another. Only socialism can uproot economic exploitation. But doing away with a particularly severe form of national oppression takes a major burden off the shoulders of the working masses. In so doing, it helps the workers and poor peasants see that the source of their oppression is not simply foreign domination, but capitalism itself. By abolishing a particular form of national enslavement, the national liberation struggle clears the way for a more direct class struggle.

The growth of class consciousness is a reflection of the growth of capitalist economic relations. The democratic and independence revolutions have generally meant more room for the development of the bourgeoisie of the oppressed nation. This is not just a matter of a relatively few larger local capitalists getting stronger. The democratic revolutions can offer better conditions for the growth of peasant production, which gives rise to further capitalist relations in the countryside. Competition among the peasant producers leads to class differentiation among them, with a relatively small group of peasant bourgeois exploiters at one pole, and a mass of landless wage workers at the other. In short, the democratic revolutions, by paving the way for a fuller capitalistic development, have helped create the huge growth of the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, and prepared conditions for the class struggle which eventually will end capitalist exploitation itself. (Text)

(3) The Spark's assertion that the war was between NATO and all the peoples of Yugoslavia also ignores that Montenegro is still a part of Yugoslavia, and that Montenegro did not support the Serbian war effort. (Text)

(4) In contrast to the Spark's attitude, Lenin said the following:

"It is our duty to teach the workers to be 'indifferent' to national distinctions. There is no doubt about that. But it must not be the indifference of the annexationists. A member of an oppressor nation must be 'indifferent' to whether small nations belong to his state or to a neighboring state, or to themselves, according to where their sympathies lie . . . ." (Collected Works, vol.22, pp.346-347.) (Text)

(5) It's interesting that the Cliffites currently fret about a struggle against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Most Trotskyists groups felt that since the Soviet Union was some kind of workers' state or socialist, the Soviet Union's war on the Afghani people was progressive. The Cliffites, however, say that the Soviet Union is "state-capitalist," but also can't seem to understand that this huge state-capitalist power was conducting an imperialist war. (Text)

(6) This article was found on the SWP of Britain web site ( It is carried in hard copy form in this party's Socialist Review, #230, May 1999. (Text)

(7) See, for example, the Socialist Worker, New Zealand, April 12, 1999, p.1. (Text)

Back to main page, write us!

Last changed on October 16, 2001.