LM Archives
  5:11 AM BST
LM Commentary Review Search
Comment Current LM Web review Mailing
lists Discuss Chat Events Search Archives Subject index Links Merchandise Overview FAQ Feedback Toolbar

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.'
'Time for the stick', editorial, New Statesman and Society, 23 April 1993
'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....

'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.'
Rosalind Coward, 'Loud and clear', Guardian, 30 April 1993
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.

'She's right'

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.

New consensus

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 face value.

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.

White feathers

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 their behalf.

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 opinion.

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 perpetuity.

Colonial legacy

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.

Not Nazis

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

Subscribe to LM




Mail: webmaster@mail.informinc.co.uk