‘No war but the class war’. Not a very useful slogan

We often share posts from the blog of Simon Pirani, this is a guest post by Bob Myers and asks some important questions on revolutionaries and the working class.


In a discussion I took part in last week, a comrade ended a piece he wrote about Ukraine with the following:

The left slips into the two opposing camps quickly (pro-Putin/ pro-independence), and the tiny voices that call for working class unity and system change are hardly heard. What kind of actions – of self-defence, support etc – facilitate that this voice is heard and what kind of actions drown it out or contradict it?

The devil is in the detail. As he says, what kind of actions? But your actions will flow from your understanding of the situation. I want to go back over our experience in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, to show that many of the people who started  with “no war but the class war” ended up either totally irrelevant to the working class or even worse, on the side of reaction, because of their  inability to understand the working class kernel wrapped up in a “national flag” shell.

An anti-war demonstrator being detained in Moscow

The problem is that all inter-imperialist wars always contain within them the war between classes.  In each situation, militants have to try to understand how these two different wars are overlaid – and this can be very difficult in situations where the working class has no clear voice of its own.

And trying to unravel these two wars is necessary, not just to write nice “analysis”,  but to know what to do as a working class militant. 

I read  many pieces at present which ask the question, what should workers in Ukraine do, and then proceed to give them advice. I’m not saying thinking about this is forbidden, but it seems back to front.  The Ukrainian worker has made his or her decision, maybe to get out, maybe to stay and fight. Our question, first and foremost, is, what are we going to do in response to their decisions?  But the answer to this is inevitably dependent on the first question – where is the class war within the inter-imperialist war? 

No war but the class war, without real investigation, is meaningless.

I want to stress that the situation in Bosnia in the 1990s was different from Ukraine, and you can not simply transfer our experience of the one on the other.

A lot of what I am going to write is in “shorthand”, because I hope that we all have enough in common not to need to dot every I and cross every T.

Yugoslavia, like the rest of the “communist” countries, was sinking into deep financial trouble in the early 1980s. The death of Tito exacerbated the problems. The country was made up of six Republics and two Autonomous regions, all with their own parliaments, their own local bureaucrats and elites. All of these elites had their own nationalist agendas but Tito, with his war time prestige and dictatorial powers was able to keep the lid on the pressure cooker, playing off one national group against another. His death, coupled with the growing economic breakdown and shortly the collapse of the USSR, saw each of the elites increasingly waving the nationalist flags and rhetoric and external forces gather like vultures. And the more powerful and economically advanced the territory in the Yugoslav Federation, the stronger the rhetoric.

But standing in the way of these schemes of the elites was the Yugoslav masses. 

One example. In the early 1980s the Federal authorities asked British Steel to draw up a modernisation plan for the Yugoslav steel industry. The report recommended closing 75% of the production facilities. This report landed on the desks of the bureaucrats just at the time of mass demonstrations by steel workers over unpaid wages. Workers came from steel plants across the whole region to demonstrate outside the parliament in Belgrade. They even pushed their way in. No parliamentarians were willing to meet them. 

But remember, this is a working class that has lived for 40 years under anti-working class dictatorship. It is only just beginning to organise itself, and on top of that is the ideological problem, that the dictatorship had the red star on its cap.

How could 75% of steel capacity be shut down and not provoke an uprising? Ten years later the closures had been carried through, not by law but by war and destruction.

With the collapse of the USSR, the bureaucrats in all the “communist” countries, helped and advised by western banks etc, rushed to try and convert state property into their own.

Yugoslavia was different from the rest of the Soviet bloc where everything was state property. In Yugoslavia, the popular movement behind the partisan resistance to the Nazis left its mark in the fact that all industries were owned not by the state but by the workers in that enterprise – social property. (In reality, of course, the Communist Party controlled everything.)

But as the elites tried to convert this social property into private property, there was resistance everywhere from workers – yes, mostly uncoordinated, incoherent, without a plan for another vision, for the reasons I set out above in terms of the weakness of the class. But everywhere it tried its best to resist.

In the west, the break up of Yugoslavia was presented as the eruption of old ethnic hatreds, when the reality was that this was a totally modern war in which the driving force was the efforts of various gangster / elites / external money etc to steal the social property from the workers. It proved impossible to do this peacefully, and so war erupted to crush this opposition. (And of course as with all Balkan wars it was also the battle ground of the “empires”.)

When the various elites were clearly going down the road of nationalism and separatism, the Serbian leadership tried to assert its control over the whole country – not, as most of the European left thought, to defend “Yugoslavia”, but to convert it into a Greater Serbia.

Its first military attack was when its tanks rolled into Kosova and suppressed its parliament. The miners there went on underground hunger strike and the Albanian working class took to the street in mass demonstrations demanding the defence of  the Yugoslav constitution – the last workers  in Yugoslavia to try to do this. The  other republics turned a blind eye hoping that this annexation would satisfy Serbia and leave them alone.

But Slobodan Milosevic had now hitched his wagon to the horse of rabid nationalism and allied himself with people like Arkan, a gangster who soon led his own army of psychopaths for whom ethnic cleansing and looting went hand in hand.

Yugoslavia was now dead, turned into the Greater Serbia project. And workers in other parts of the federation knew this.  Now, as with every episode in the break up and wars, if “we” had been there, we would have argued for working class perspectives different from those which the workers themselves had. But we weren’t there, and even if we had been, our ability to influence would have been limited by the actual state of the working class. Nevertheless in some places the working class were not just subsumed into the plans of the bourgeoisie but kept their own interests alive.

Feminist Antiwar Resistance in Russia called on people to lay flowers at war memorials for the victims of Putin’s war in Ukraine, on 8 March (international women’s day). This was one of the dozens of photos they circulated afterwards

The potential break up of Yugoslavia was met with different responses by the west. Britain, France and to a lesser extent the USA all threw their weight behind Serbia’s Milosevic. They saw in him the man most able to control the whole region. Germany, with much greater investments in the region, was close to the Slovenian and Croatian elites, and had to back them when they pulled out of the Yugoslav Federation, and were militarily attacked by Serbia.

This (totally inadequate description of) the background to the war is needed just to bring out a little how the inter-elite squabbles and external interests were all totally focussed on suppressing the working class. Quite simply: how could the social property become private property when this was constantly being challenged by the masses.

You have to unravel all the factors and forces, all the interests, and see how more and more the privatisers were forced down the road of pushing national and ethnic division in order to overcome this barrier.  But this was the heart of the war.

Much of the left just shouted about German plans, etc, and the role of the deutschmark, as if this settled everything. I remember a meeting in Germany where a “leftie” got up and gave a lecture on how Croatia was now a German colony.  A Serb in the audience stood up, pulled out his wallet and waved a deutschmark, saying, “and what currency do you think we use in Serbia?”

Of course most of the “left” were simply Yugostalgic [i.e. nostalgic for Yugoslavia], even the Trotskyists. And Milosevic’s red star and his “defend Yugoslavia” were enough to convince them that everything about the breakaway republics was reactionary through and through, just puppets of the west. But where was the working class in this picture? Had everyone been consumed by nationalism?

When Croatia broke away, Serbia invaded and in its advance destroyed the steel making town of Vukovar. The Croatian army simply withdrew. This workers’ town was defiantly anti-nationalist, and it suited the elites of both countries to see such a working class bastion destroyed.

The European left said and did nothing.

The Serbian invasion of Slovenia failed. Mass popular resistance forced its troops out in three weeks. The invasion of Croatia also stalled, and the Yugoslav army – now in reality a totally Serb commanded force – pulled most of its forces back into Bosnia.

In Bosnia  nationalist politicians from the SDA – a Muslim party – had won elections and seeing the death of Yugoslavia the people voted for independence. But within this framework, there was huge opposition to nationalism.

A mass demonstration was organised in Sarajevo, led by the miners and working class from Tuzla. This demonstration shouted “down with all nationalism”. But the people were shot at by Chetnik snipers in the tower blocks. (The word Chetnik was used by all progressive Bosnians to describe Serb nationalists. For them these were never “Serbs”, because there were Serbs fighting on both sides) The masses scattered. The war in Bosnia had begun.

Commentators, politicians etc in the west always liked to describe this as a civil war. It fed into the narrative of the different ethnicities in Bosnia wanting to kill each other. This was an invasion planned both in Belgrade and Zagreb. Franjo Tudjman, the Croatian leader, and Milosevic had drawn up a map to divide Bosnia which had a population roughly one third Serb, one third Croat and one third Muslim (that is, “Muslim” by heritage: there was little religious observance).

The Tuzla miners who had led the Sarajevo demonstration were not stupid. There were still many people alive in the city who had taken part in the partisan movement during world war two. It was the centre of the biggest liberated territory inside the Nazi empire. And this city had a militant working class history. An armed miners’ uprising in 1922 was the birth of both trade unionism and the communist party in the region.  And this working class ethos played a part in making Tuzla the most intermarried town in Yugoslavia. In the regular census Tuzla always returned the highest figures for people simply describing themselves as Yugoslavs, and not as Serbs or Croats or Muslims.  And this united working class could not tolerate the ethnic division plans of the Serb and Croat  nationalists. This historical consciousness played a key role in how the war developed.  

The SDA (Party for Democratic Action) leaders in Sarajevo negotiated with Milosevic for the withdrawal of all JNA (Yugoslav People’s Army – but now Milosevic’s army) forces from Bosnia back into Serbia.

In Mostar, the working class tried to block the exit of the local JNA garrison but Alija Izetbegovic, the SDA Bosnian leader, went to Mostar and pleaded with the crowds to let the troops leave. This garrison – and all the others across the country – pulled out of the cities and immediately took up positions in the surrounding mountains and began to shell the cities.

But the Tuzla working knew what was going to happen. The SDA had nearly no influence in the city; the Communist Party, now reborn as social democrats, held sway. The road out of the Tuzla garrison was mined. The JNA garrison was told its soldiers were free to leave but without weapons or machinery.

The garrison tried to break out with all its weaponry but was attacked from all sides. The Tuzla citizens seized the huge arsenal of weaponry, and this action ensured that, by the time the ethnic cleansers returned with weaponry, defences had been set up many kilometres outside the city creating a huge “free” territory : “free” because all ethnic groups and nationalities were welcome there, and refugees from surrounding areas poured in.

So now the Tuzla working class were at the heart of the defence of this territory and were the people who maintained its front lines but they were fighting within the idea of the defence of multi-ethnic Bosnia – the same slogan as the nationalist leadership in Sarajevo. The interests of the two classes  seemed to merge but, I insist, the working class content never vanished within the bourgeois shell. 

The Russian embassy in Lisbon, Portugal, with the Ukrainian flag projected on to it from nearby buildings

The siege of this “free territory” began, attacked by Chetniks on three sides and Croatian nationalists on the fourth. Virtually all industry ground to a halt. Only the mines kept working, providing energy to keep the town alive.  Most workers spent two weeks on the front line and two weeks at home. But hunger and misery became terrible as the siege  went on month after month.

This is when we began our convoys – proposed by a Serbian socialist. His knowledge of the war led us to see in the defence of Tuzla, the working class heart beating within the apparent war of Bosnian independence. Defend this city, he said, get the European working class to break this siege aimed at crushing the biggest obstacle to the gangsters and privateers.

You can hear an account of our campaign on Labournet.tv, at Taking Sides: The Story Of The Workers Aid Convoys, so I don’t want to go over it again here.

But let me quote from a miner in Tuzla – a man who had helped organise solidarity with the Vietnamese people fighting the US. He talks at length about the horror of starvation and the year long desperate efforts to find food for his wife and daughter.  He writes about the effect of the shelling and  deaths on all the children. He feels the world has abandoned the people. Then he writes:

And then, like the sun on the horizon, the most beautiful news for Tuzla and its suffering people, A CONVOY IS ARRIVING! A CONVOY FOR TUZLA MINERS! Food, clothes, shoes, school materials and medicines. In the town people talk of 200 trucks coming. Some say it is for the town, others say it is only for the miners. Some say it is coming from England, Belgium, Holland, Germany. Everyone waits, hoping that it will get through the blockade, either through the Chetniks in the north or the HVO in the south. We just keep hoping. In the evening we miners make plans by candlelight how to distribute the aid. We need everything, we have nothing except for a part of our soul that is still smouldering and resisting. But for how much longer? So we wait to welcome the good people of Europe. You finally remembered us. It is nearly to late for us. But you are coming, just one step before the end.

To me all words about uniting the Yugoslav working class in this situation were meaningless, unless they aimed at strengthening that “smouldering and resisting” soul.

Outside of Bosnia, our initiative had the same response. This was a Bosnian woman refugee who turned up and spoke at our first public meeting in Manchester.

I come from Tuzla, and not long ago it was easy to go to that town or to get out. Now, when Tuzla is the aim of this workers’ project, it seems to be so far and unreachable. I have been in Britain for ten months and have been happy that my children are safe. But all this time I have been thinking that I could be doing something to help my people.

My husband stayed in Tuzla, because he felt the town needed him.  When I heard about the Workers Aid convoy it uplifted me. Now that I am aware that there are people who have a strong will as to organise this movement I have regained my strength.

Tuzla is an industrial town made up mainly of miners, workers and students. Because of this no national factions have been established. Even now, despite the butchery, Tuzla remains a unified oasis within a lost nation.

Isn’t there something in Marx that says a single movement of the class is worth a thousand programmes?  I’m not claiming we made a movement of the class, just a tiny flicker of a flame. We didn’t arrive with 200 lorries, only 35. But in making this practical co-operation we gave encouragement to the little ember of working class resistance in Tuzla, and equally we allowed this long working class memory of struggle in Tuzla come out of its siege and inform parts of the workers’ movement in Europe.

The working class in Tuzla were not defeated. Despite the Dayton agreement effectively rewarding the ethnic cleansers, Tuzla remained unified and the working class content of its resistance was felt in the aftermath of war.  Within weeks of the ‘peace’ the Bosnian teachers unions asked us to help them remake contact with all their former Yugoslav comrades and we held a meeting in Budapest with teachers from all over Yugoslavia.  The miners asked us to help them organise  an international conference to discuss experiences of privatisation. Miners from 17 countries came and I remember well one contribution from a Bosnian miner.

I have come straight from my shift. I had to come to this meeting. We know what is coming: capitalism and a capitalism that is going to eat us alive.

In the rest of former Yugoslavia the  working class was demoralised and adrift, having been unable to raise its voice in opposition to nationalism.  This Tuzla worker’s spirit was seen in the next few years, with occupations in factory after factory, asset stripped by foreign buyers. And as anger at privatisation, unemployment and political corruption grew, Tuzla erupted in anti-government riots in 2014. Riots that spread across the region. Some people tried to set up  a peoples’ assembly to take control.

It failed, but all of this is early steps in the working class finding its own voice. But without the defence of Tuzla, without the survival of that simple working class vision of the right of all workers to live together, it would be a much harder journey. I think we played a tiny tiny part in keeping that collective memory alive and allowing it to inform a new movement.

All  the way through our efforts we were attacked  by nearly all the so-called left wing organisations. The worst were the ones who, like many in Stop the War today, simply started with their hatred of the US and NATO, and therefore in one way or another supported Serbia’s fascistic attacks because they seemed to be opposed by NATO. This ignored the fact that the UN and NATO’s plan for the division of Bosnia mirrored the ethnic cleansers.

The “next worst” of the left were the “no war but the class war” people, who thought they were performing their working class duties by publishing endless articles demanding that the Yugoslav workers reject nationalism and fight for unity. How? where? All of them ignored the unity that did exist in the free Tuzla territory, because all these lefts could see was the Bosnian flag that flew over the town. They didn’t feel the need to get close to the Bosnian working class because they saw it only as an adjunct of Bosnian nationalism and therefore something only to be lectured at.

Most of them demanded that the Bosnian workers unite with Serbian workers. The problem is that its difficult to unite with someone who has a gun at your head.  But we constantly tried, not just to support the multi-ethnic community but also to keep contacts with workers across the region alive. In the midst of war we organised for people from Serbia  and Croatia to come to Tuzla where they were welcomed  with open arms.

But still the left wing “preachers” and sermon writers attacked our efforts as supporting bourgeois nationalism.

A young member of the Militant group broke ranks and joined one of our convoys. He wrote a letter to his group’s paper on his return, which said:

I must take issue with Militant’s position on Bosnia as expressed in recent articles. […] they do say you are opposed to UN intervention and supports workers’ self defence. Well in central Bosnia there is a mass movement for workers defence of multi-ethnic communities.

Yet Militant has repeatedly failed to declare its support because (god forbid) it would mean taking sides in the war.

Undoubtedly the Muslim leaders of the SDA have quite different aims from the mass movement, but this is no more reason for neutrality than it would have been in the Spanish civil war.

For as long as this mass movement – in defence of multi-ethnic Bosnia – exists, then the SDA’s nationalist ambitions wont get far.

Just because the workers’ brigades in Tuzla don’t call themselves “Marxists” doesn’t mean we shouldn’t support them.

In their own terms they are fighting for workers unity against nationalism. Isn’t that what we want?

After the war we produced a book, a record of our efforts and we called it “Taking Sides against ethnic cleansing”.  We took sides, while all around us in the UK and Europe people who were guided by “No war but the Class war” did nothing but issue sermons about not taking sides and the unity of the working class – empty, meaningless nonsense.

In Manchester yesterday I saw a poster advertising a public meeting : “Ukraine.  Is the Marxist theory of imperialism still relevant?”

So some people have gone to the trouble of booking a room, printing posters and pasting them up with this question.

I’m sorry, but if you think that this is militant activity in the present atmosphere of a massive sense of popular solidarity with the people of Ukraine, then you and I have different ideas of militant activity and no arguments will bridge the gap.

As I said, this experience in Yugoslavia in the 1990s can not be translated straight into the present war, but I think methods behind it can.

We have to investigate and answer questions like – what is the Ukraine working class doing and why? Does it still fight for its own interests in any sense? Are the present circumstances more advantageous for working class actions in Ukraine than if Russia takes control? 

But the problem is, you probably won’t be able to fully answer these questions looking down your long distance telescope. You’ll only find out by getting your hands dirty and raising your own banner of support, but many of those who say “no war but class war” will not be able to do more than a tokenistic picket by a handful of elderly politicos because, from the distance, in Ukraine, there seems to be only the flags of the bourgeoisie – no workers fighting for their own interests. So these commentators will write long laments which, luckily, no-one in Ukraine will ever read.

Question. Are the so called revolutionaries relevant to the working class? Mostly, no.

□ 14 March 2022. Bob Myers was among the organisers of the Workers Aid to Bosnia convoys in the 1990s. There is an interview with him and John Davies about it here

Source > People and Nature blog

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