Feminists, socialists, peace activists and other assorted radicals have
all marched in step with the likes of Margaret Thatcher in demanding Western
military intervention in the former Yugoslavia. Mike Freeman thinks their
arguments are absurd
Left, right, left, right
'Either the international community stands aside, allowing the weak to go
unprotected and aggression and ethnic cleansing to be rewarded, or it makes
a clear commitment to take whatever steps are necessary to stop the killing.
To do nothing is to be complicit in genocide.'
'In effect the statement [in a full-page advertisement by 200 feminists
calling for further United Nations action] endorses military intervention,
going against the grain of women's traditional alliance with pacifism....
- 'Time for the stick', editorial, New Statesman and Society, 23
'Most of the women who have signed this statement feel that inaction is
collusion in genocide....
'A UN force empowered to protect the victims of war and to disable Serbian
aggressors is preferable to a UN force weeping over incinerated children
and its own impotence.'
For many years the left and the women's movement were closely linked with
campaigns against imperialism and war. Not any more. One of the most remarkable
features of the conflict in the former Yugoslavia is that some of the loudest
calls for Western intervention are coming from individuals and journals
long associated with socialism and feminism. Ken Livingstone and John Pilger,
Tribune and the New Statesman, prominent figures from the Campaign
for Nuclear Disarmament, veterans of the Greenham Common women's peace camp
and members of the editorial board of the New Left Review have all
demanded tougher measures from the Western powers.
- Rosalind Coward, 'Loud and clear', Guardian, 30 April 1993
Margaret Thatcher's strident criticism in April of the British government's
embargo against supplying arms to the Bosnian Muslims provoked a chorus
of approval from her erstwhile radical critics. Thatcher was immediately
congratulated by Labour left winger Tony Banks for 'at least articulating
the deep anger and frustration that many people in this country feel' (Guardian,
15 April). 'Margaret Thatcher is right', opened an editorial in Tribune.
'Baroness Thatcher was right', declared the more respectful former editor
of the now-defunct Marxism Today (Sunday Times, 18 April).
A group of left-wing Labour MPs wrote to the Guardian supporting
military action, emphasising that 'the left has a particular duty to stand
up against the kind of pure, racially motivated fascism which the Serb aggressors
embody' (17 April).
A group of international radical celebrities (including Palestinian intellectual
Edward Said, veteran anti-imperialist campaigner Noam Chomsky, former CND
activist and Labour leader Michael Foot and May 68er Daniel Cohn-Bendit)
rallied around the New York-based Committee to Save Bosnia-Herzegovina,
calling for the arming of the Bosnian Muslims. In London, radicals and feminists,
including veterans of the European Nuclear Disarmament movement, launched
the Coalition for Peace in Bosnia, demanding more military action by the
Western powers under the auspices of the United Nations.
Whatever their differences of emphasis, all of these people seem to agree
that the solution in Bosnia lies with action to be taken by the Western
states or their front organisations, the EC, the UN or Nato.
The New Statesman invokes the 'international community' as the agency
that should act over Bosnia. But where is the evidence of any community
of interest among the international forces active in the former Yugoslavia?
While British radicals dream of big nations acting in harmony, the role
of the Western powers in the break-up of the former Yugoslavia provides
a graphic illustration of the intense rivalries that characterise the post-Cold
War New World Order. The current conflict is a direct result of Germany's
unilateral recognition of Croatia and Slovenia, which in turn provoked the
USA's unilateral recognition of Bosnia, leading to the eruption of longstanding
internal tensions into civil war. The 'international community' is a fantasy
of wish-fulfilment projected by British radicals to disguise their affinity
for the Western governmental organisations whose interference has catalysed
the disintegration of Yugoslavia.
The new consensus behind intervention by governments reflects the demise
of the left as a force in Western affairs. It is true that for many years
the left looked to the state as the key agency of progressive reform at
home and abroad. Yet, until recently, the left could mobilise mass movements
against particular state policies - most notably in the sphere of foreign
affairs (South Africa) or militarism (nuclear disarmament). At the very
least these movements helped to sustain a climate of opinion that was critical
of the government line, and which refused to take official propaganda at
Indeed, there was a time when the left itself actively intervened in international
conflicts. In the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s volunteers went from every
Western country to fight against the fascists. In a bizarre echo of this
movement, one of the signatories to the feminist petition for Western intervention
in Bosnia later made the suggestion of 'a volunteer international brigade
of thousands of European women' to go to Bosnia (Guardian, 3 May).
The suggestion was fanciful, but at least it contained a glimmer of the
notion that some initiative should be taken by people themselves, rather
than by governments supposedly acting on their behalf. Yet it rapidly became
clear that, so complete is the left's loss of confidence in its own capacities,
even this fantasy project was conceived of as something to be organised
by the UN.
The collapse of the old labour movement and the left as a focus of opposition
within Western societies is the key to the paradox of the peace movements
of the past turning into movements for war in the former Yugoslavia. The
ending of the Cold War has discredited the left and given new authority
to the Western powers to dictate what happens in Eastern Europe and the
third world. Having lost confidence in their own capacity to change the world,
former radicals now look to the governments they once opposed to act on
Following the collapse of the labour movement at the outbreak of the First
World War, some of the previously pacifist Suffragettes gave out white feathers
signifying cowardice to men who refused to join the call to fight for Britain
in the trenches of Flanders. In a similar spirit today, veterans of the
women's peace movement of the 1980s are trying to mobilise popular support
for British military action in Bosnia.
The collapse of the old opposition to military interventions abroad means
that debate over Bosnia in the West is narrowed to quibbling over the most
effective coercive measures. It also means that the absurdities of official
propaganda go largely unchallenged and rapidly become entrenched in public
It is, for example, absurd for radicals and peace activists to expect the
West to solve the problems of Bosnia when, as explained elsewhere in this
issue of Living Marxism, the West is largely responsible for the
conflict currently raging in the former Yugoslavia. The argument that the
West has a particular duty to sort out the mess in Bosnia precisely because
it is largely responsible for it is one of the more curious justifications
for increased Western intervention (see J Pilger, 'The West is guilty in
Bosnia', New Statesman, 7 May 1993). The same logic would surely
dictate that Norman Lamont should remain Chancellor of the Exchequer in
Many on the left appear to have accepted the pacifistic posture of the Western
governments at face value. This is absurd when account is taken of the record
of the major states threatening to bring peace and harmony to Bosnia. In
the USA, Bill Clinton presides over urban areas riven by ethnic strife which
brings an annual death toll comparable with that of the war in the former
Yugoslavia. Yet Clinton is threatening military action over 'ethnic cleansing'
in Bosnia. The American state which slaughtered up to four million people
in Vietnam and perhaps a quarter of a million only two years ago in Iraq
now pretends to be appalled by 'genocide' in Yugoslavia.
Britain too poses as a valiant fighter for civilised values and humanity
in Bosnia. Yet these values seem in short supply in Northern Ireland, Britain's
most immediate experience in supposedly benign colonial administration.
Nor indeed does Britain's record of abject failure in Northern Ireland augur
well for its chances in Bosnia, confirming that the state which is the source
of the problem is never going to come up with a solution. The recent bomb
outrages in India and Sri Lanka also indicate the lasting legacy of British
colonial rule: Britain fomented the sort of ethnic, national and religious
conflicts that have been unleashed in Bosnia in virtually every colony it
ruled, from Guyana to Hong Kong.
The spectacle of British soldiers, who have raped and murdered in every
corner of the globe, in tears at the sight of dead bodies in Bosnia is yet
another absurdity. Does a butcher need counselling when he sees blood? Yet,
now that the old left has created the image of the British state as the
concerned vicar, the way is clear for Colonel Bob Stewart to step forward
as the New Man in uniform.
The fact that veterans of the peace movement are now earnestly pleading
with the British government to go to war confirms the collapse of anti-imperialist
politics. Whether or not the British government takes up the call, its moral
authority to interfere in the former Yugoslavia - or anywhere else - is greatly
enhanced. The convergence between the remnants of the old left and the Thatcherite
right of British politics around the call for military intervention overseas
indicates how far the 'moral rearmament' of imperialism has proceeded.
Another dangerous consequence of the radical endorsement of Western interference
in Bosnia is that it has encouraged the rewriting of history. The key feature
here is the representation of Serbia as a fascist regime; the left has been
to the fore in drawing direct parallels between Serbia and Nazi Germany.
This has the effect, not only of demonising the Serbs, but also of mystifying
the truth about Nazi Germany - and its appeasement by the other Western powers
in the 1930s.
In fact any parallel between Nazi Germany and today's Serbia is quite absurd.
In the late 1930s Germany was one of the world's major capitalist powers.
Today's Serbia is the impoverished rump of a backward Stalinist regime,
from which the only relatively prosperous regions - Slovenia and Croatia - have
broken away. Other Western powers retained close economic and political
links with Nazi Germany right up to the outbreak of the Second World War - and
in the case of sections of the British establishment, even afterwards. By
contrast, feeble Serbia has been ostracised and ravaged by sanctions which
have brought it to the verge of ruin, with hyperinflation, devaluation, rationing
and mass unemployment.
Parallels between the Nazi extermination of several million Jews and events
in Bosnia are based on gross exaggeration of the scale of atrocities in
the former Yugoslavia. Such parallels trivialise the Nazi Holocaust. As
well as trying to justify militarism today, they retrospectively exonerate
the vacillation of the Allies in the face of the Nazi slaughter of the Jews.
There has been a relentless media focus, echoed by the liberal and radical
press, on 'Serbian aggression' and 'Serbian expansionism' in Bosnia. When
the conflict between Croats and Muslims has come to the fore, it has been
depicted on all sides as merely another example of the strength of historical
hatreds and bloodlust in the Balkans. The reality that there was no war
before the West interfered has been conveniently forgotten.
Off their backs
'To do nothing is to be complicit in genocide' is the common conviction
of the post-socialists and the post-feminists alike. This is simply hypocritical:
all the former radical peace campaigners now calling for full-scale war
in Bosnia are not in fact planning to do anything in the martial line themselves.
The something they have in mind is to be done by somebody else on their
behalf, by the British government, the US government, the UN, anybody but
themselves. To call upon states that have a record of responsibility for
military barbarism on a scale that has often approached genocide to take
action to crush puny Serbia is to invite them to repeat the colonial slaughter
of the past in the heart of Europe.
To do nothing would be a great advance on the something recommended by the
New Statesman, Tribune and the Guardian women's page. However,
a great deal needs to be done. It is up to the people of the former Yugoslavia
to decide their own future. The only contribution that we can make in the
West - and it is an important one - is towards getting David Owen and Douglas
Hurd and Colonel Bob Stewart and everything that these men represent off
their backs, so that they can get on with their lives.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 56, June 1993