Sunday, 4 November 2012

Lessons of the Balkans - Part 1

Over the last few days, we have seen further evidence of the way historical events do not play out in terms of the rules of syllogistic logic. The world and its history is extremely complex, and interrelated. In fact, it is today more complex and interrelated than it has perhaps ever been in its history, because modern communication has effectively shrunk its size, a global economy means events in one part of the world today, affect the situation on the other side of the globe within minutes, whereas a century ago, it would have taken days just to have learned that something had happened. It has never been possible to see events as being self-contained, but today more than ever that is the case.

Marx and Engels were in a small
minority for most of their lives
but they continued to advocate the
right thing, even if it was not popular
or immediately capable of being put
into practice.
For similar reasons that makes the world today a very dangerous place. The law of unintended consequences, of course, means that any action that we as Marxists engage in, or support, or oppose has the potential to lead to effects that we did not intend. Given the size and influence of Marxists today in the Labour Movement that may not be crucial, but the same rule applies to what the Labour Movement in general does. That cannot be an argument for doing nothing, but it is an argument for attempting to do, or advocate the right thing, rather than what at the time appears to be the expedient, or practical thing. In fact, given that Marxists have so little influence on the Labour Movement or events in general today, it is all the more reason to advocate the right thing rather than the expedient or practical thing, because in reality we have no means by which to bring about either! Better then to be on the side of the angels, and attempt to grow by it, than simply advocate doing the wrong thing because it is practical, or popular within certain milieu, and satisfies some petit-bourgeois morality that “something must be done”.

Yesterday, saw the media release footage of rebel forces in Syria murdering a dozen or so Syrian soldiers in cold blood. The UN has said that if verified – and the footage has been put out by people generally sympathetic to the rebels so its likely to be – it will constitute a war crime. The reason this footage has come out now, is probably not an accident. It coincides with a change in US foreign policy. Hilary Clinton has come out to essentially withdraw support for the Syrian National Council, and argue that a new opposition body needs to be established that is broader than the SNC. 

In fact, it has been known for a long time that the Syrian uprising against Assad had been hijacked by Islamists. From the beginning there had been the odd bit of reporting showing that the rebels were falsifying video evidence to try to bring about imperialist intervention to fight their battles for them, as happened in Libya, and as previously happened in Iraq, and Kosovo, and as Saakashvilli attempted in his genocidal adventure against South Ossetia. In Syria, the Islamists (often foreign fighters) have even committed atrocities against the civilian population when they would not support them, and then dressed it up as though it were atrocities committed by the regime. Of course, they are assisted in that by the fact that the regime itself is indeed guilty of having carried out such atrocities, and probably on a larger scale.

At the same time, the chaos in Libya continues, with real power residing in the streets with the same kinds of Islamist militias, and similarly complicated by the existence of other heavily armed militias, fighting for various sectional interests, be they tribal, economic, regional or simply of a local nature. As Marxists knew the fact of bourgeois democratic elections in Libya, given the reality of the situation, would essentially be meaningless. As I said many months ago, the bourgeois politicians in Libya essentially represent nothing. The power resides with the organised social forces, and given the fact that in Libya no real bourgeoisie, or working class existed, the society was in a state of atomisation, with the most significant class being the petit-bourgeoisie, a class, which throughout history has been unable to rule in its own name, because of the divisions, and lack of homogeneity within it. That is why such societies have always been ruled by some form of Bonapartist regime. The Islamists represent such a force. The only means by which the bourgeois politicians in Libya will be able to rule, is if they are backed up by a heavily armed state, which can only be provided at present by Imperialism.

In Tunisia and Egypt, where economic development had created a sizeable bourgeoisie, and middle class, as well as a sizeable working-class, the overthrow of the previous Bonapartist figureheads occurred without such intervention. But, in these countries too, the petit-bourgeoisie remain a sizeable force, and its largely upon them, and the more backward sections of the urban poor, that the Islamists have been able to win political office, though I refrain from calling it power, given the still dominant role played by the military in these countries. In many ways, the role of religion here could be compared with its role in the English Civil War, where the bourgeoisie was still too weak to rule effectively in its own name, and where a range of social forces came together under a religious flag. But, that ended badly too.

Lenin and the Comintern, in the
 Theses On The National and Colonial
Questions, spcifically warned about
Moreover, today is not the 17th Century – even if the religious fundamentalists behave as though it were. Capitalism was able to develop during the 17th. 18th and 19th. and even some of the 20th Centuries despite some of the absurdities of religious obscurantism. But, all the time it was being forced backwards, having to concede more and more ground to science and reason. That is why Christianity in the developed capitalist economies is today a charade. Belief in God is reduced essentially to the level of belief in Santa Claus, a quaint series of rituals, and social events that carry on out of inertia and convention. Only in the backward, largely essentially, peasant areas of the US, is religious fundamentalism carried on in the same way that it exists in the Middle East. Consequently, Islamism has deeper social and ideological roots in the Middle East than many Liberals, and people on the left have accounted for. It is perhaps, why Lenin and the Comintern felt it a sufficient threat to talk about opposing it specifically in a way they did not do with the vestiges of Christianity in Europe.

The other source of the power of Islamism in the Middle East and North Africa, is of course, the power of the Gulf Feudal Monarchies, that fund the establishment of Islamist organisations across the globe, and their training and indoctrination through the Madrassas. It is these regimes that have provided large amounts of money and advanced weapons, as well as their own Special Forces for intervention in Libya, and Syria. The fact that they are opposed in these activities by their religious and politico-strategic competitors based in Iran and Iraq, does not contradict, but only supplements and complicates that. It acts to turn every such conflict in the region into a proxy civil war between these competing forces, and increasingly between the more powerful global powers standing behind them.

At the same time, as seen in Libya, economic and political forces are also driving towards further division. The demands in Benghazi, the region where most of Libya's oil resides, are growing for at least greater autonomy, if nor independence. Such demands and struggles only reflect the same kind of centrifugal forces that are being seen in Europe and elsewhere, for example with the demands for oil rich Scotland to leave the UK, and economically powerful Catalonia to separate from Spain, for instance. Similarly, the Kurds in Iraq, seek to separate or at least exert sufficient independence to have control over their own oil wealth.

But, Marxists do not have to try to make sense of all these developments as though they were completely new phenomena. We have seen all this before. Although, it would be stupid to simply see previous historical events as merely being replicated, and we should deal with the specificities of each case as necessary, in orienting ourselves to current events, we should learn the lessons of the past, in order to try to not repeat the mistakes. As I have set out in previous posts over the last few weeks there are many similarities with the situation in the Middle East and North Africa today, with the situation in the Balkans in 1912-13, as described by Trotsky in his War Correspondence of the time. Given that the Balkan Wars were the backdrop that led in 1914 to WWI, we should try to learn those lessons.

In 1912, large parts of the Balkans remained part of the Turkish (Ottoman) Empire. Turks owned land and businesses also in these countries. A comparison with the situation in the Middle East and North Africa today would be the way in which the State Capitalist regimes have provided economic benefits for their own community. In Iraq, Saddam's regime provided jobs, and other economic benefits for the minority Sunni population, as well as to his own family. Similarly, the Alawites, and Assad's family benefit in Syria. The Balkans were populated by a mix of Muslim and Christian populations. The Christians were mostly Slavic apart from the Greeks, and associated with the Orthodox Church. They looked to Russia as the defender of Slavdom to provide them with protection.

Trotsky argues that the Slavs in the Balkans
embarked on a reckless struggle for "liberation"
from Turkey, because they believed that Tsarist
Russia would intervene to support them.  They were
 encouraged in that beleif by the words and actions
of Russian Liberal politicians.
Countries like Bulgaria and Serbia, where these Slavic populations were largely based, sought to “liberate” their fellow Slavs in the rest of the Balkans, from continued Turkish rule. They expected Russia to support them, and, as Trotsky says, its unlikely they would have been so reckless in their decision to go to war, unless they believed that expectation to be well grounded.

Trotsky argues that, of course, overthrowing Turkish rule would be historically progressive, but the point is, by what means? He argues that what was really required was a Balkan Federation, which only the workers of the region could create. That was something that was unlikely if they were set at each others throats by war. Intervention from above, or from outside, would undermine the idea that it was up to the people of the region, and essentially, therefore, the workers, to resolve their own problems, and determine their own fate.

Similar to the situation seen in many recent conflicts, the aim had been to present a one-sided view of the situation. Turkey and Turks were presented in much the same way as Serbia and Serbs were presented prior to the NATO intervention. The same has been true in relation to the Iraq War, or Libya and now in Syria. At the same time, the “liberation” forces were and are presented as almost spotless by comparison. Trotsky writes of those “liberation” forces, and the censorship hiding their atrocities,

Your censorship has not pursued military aims, it has not been concerned to safeguard military secrets, but rather to conceal 'secrets' of quite a different order: all the black spots, all the cruelties and crimes, all the infamies that accompany every war, and your war in particular. That is what you have striven above all to hide from Europe! You have indulged in the senseless dream of hypnotising European public opinion and making it believe not what was true, not what you yourselves know to be true, but what you wanted to gt accepted as true. You wanted to make Europe believe that the armed Turkish peasants, workers and hamals (porters) whom the ruling caste of Turkey transforms into an instrument for enslaving the non-Turkish nationalities, and the Turkish working masses, constitute 100 percent embodiments of cruelty, barbarism, and bestiality. And you wanted to make Europe believe that the Bulgarian army – from the lowest-ranking soldier working in the cookhouse up to commander in chief Savov, from whose brow you have not managed to wipe the stamp of that indictment for embezzlement, that the whole of this army constitutes a living embodiment of the highest ideals of right and justice.” (p 282-2)

You defined your war as a crusade for civilisation against barbarism. You strove, with your pencils and scissors, to adjust all our telegrams and correspondence to those two categories. But now Europe will learn that the path of the crusading army was marked by crimes that must evoke shudders and nausea in every cultured person, in everyone capable of feeling and thinking.” (p 282-3)

Of course, these words could have been written equally well of the liberating forces of the US and UK in Iraq and Afghanistan, or in Libya, and possibly in Syria to come. They could certainly be written of the forces of the Gulf Feudal Monarchies, and their Islamist mercenaries in many of these regional conflicts. All of course in the name of liberal intervention to prevent barbarism and atrocities – by someone else. The main difference today would be that the journalists fulfilling the role Trotsky and others were doing in the Balkans, would be done by journalists who were “embedded” with the “liberation” forces, so making the job of censorship that much easier, that much more effective!

Trotsky goes on to describe the actions of these “liberation” forces in destroying villages, killing civilians, and other atrocities such as murdering prisoners, in the same way we have seen in the footage from Syria.   But, of course, his description of these actions could just as easily have been describing similar actions like those of the US “Liberation” forces in Vietnam, such as at My Lai, or of Abu Ghraib in Iraq, or US forces, urinating on killed Afghans, or of the use of Agent Orange in Vietnam, Laos and elsewhere, or the use of depleted uranium in Iraq, in Libya and elsewhere. At the same time, other than for the work of the odd journalist like John Pilger, in Vietnam, before the pressure to leave becomes too great, these “Liberation” forces are presented as almost spotless by comparison to those they are fighting.

Forward To Part 2

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