A Workers World response to Dave McReynolds on Kosovo

This is my response to Dave McReynolds' writing on the "condemning both sides" issue.

In my view, there are three basic issues:

(a) What has really happened in Kosovo since the start of the NATO bombing in March? This is largely a question of fact. Answers should flow from analysis of the evidence.

(b) For those of us whose groups genuinely oppose the U.S./NATO war, what public stand should we take on the things which have happened in Kosovo? The answer to this question depends in part on the factual answers to question (a) that we come up with, but is also a matter of political judgment.

(c) Given that there are groups which genuinely oppose the war who disagree on points (a) and (b), and who are not going to win each other over before the time of the next demonstration, what should be the points of unity of anti-war coalitions? The answer to this question is mostly or entirely a matter of political judgment.

That means that question (c) should be the easiest to answer, so I'll start with it.

In his post, Dave questions whether Workers World is in favor of having 'broad coalitions':

Dave McR: "I found the same problem here that I did during the Gulf War, where the refusal of Workers World to let the broader coalition agree on any kind of critique of Saddam's invasion of Kuwait led to the split. My feeling was (and remains) that Workers World doesn't really seek a broad coalition in which its position would not call the shots."

McReynolds is quite right when he says that we have the same issue now as we had at the time of the Gulf War, but I think that now and then he has and had an incorrect idea of what a 'broad coalition' is supposed to be.

It seems to me self-evident that if you have a bunch of groups in a room ready to form an anti-war coalition, all of whom, let's say, genuinely oppose U.S./imperialist bombings / troop shipments / etc., and which are not incapable of doing practical work together, but whose positions differ along the following lines:

(Exercise for the reader: recast the following example as a 'Gulf War' coalition by substituting various statements about Saddam Hussein and/or the annexation of Kuwait for the statements about Milosevic)

Group 1: We oppose the war and we like Milosevic. Group 2: We oppose the war and we don't have a position on Milosevic. Group 3. We oppose the war and we think Milosevic is an evil right-wing ethnic cleanser. Group 4. We oppose the war and we think Milosevic is an evil Communist. Group 5. We oppose the war and we think Milosevic is an evil capitalist.

Then in this situation a reasonable thing is to form a coalition whose slogan is, 'WE OPPOSE THE WAR' and to have demonstrations which are predominantly ANTI-WAR demonstrations. The various groups are perfectly able to get out their own positions on Milosevic independently. In my view, the 'points of unity' of a coalition are supposed to represent the things that the different groups are ACTUALLY in unity about.

But here is the bad way it sometimes works out in practice. Someone in group 3, 4, or 5 makes a motion that 'this coalition condemns Milosevic.' The motion passes by three votes to two. Actually this is an unprincipled bloc among the three groups, since their "unity" in condemning Milosevic is completely fictitious, and they oppose him from different directions. But in their zeal to score points off the other two they neglect this fact. When the minority objects, they are told, "Aren't you in favor of a broad coalition? Don't you believe in democracy?" and such things. At this point, groups 1 and 2 have an unpleasant choice. They can either stay with the coalition, which is now an 'Anti-war and anti-Milosevic' coalition, forced to hand out leaflets they don't agree with, or they can leave the coalition and organize independently.

A "broad coalition" is not, in my view, a coalition which has chosen a political line equal to the mathematical average of the groups in the coalition, or, for that matter, of the constituency it is trying to appeal to, requiring the individual members to adapt to this line in the manner of a Procrustean bed. A "broad coalition" is a coalition which tries to bring together numerous and diverse forces for a common end.

Leaving aside the question of whether the IAC is a coalition, I think it's clear that the June 5 demonstrations were coalition demonstrations. The speakers at the DC demonstration included a lot of people who made it clear in their talks that their line is not the same as Workers World's - who condemned Milosevic, "ethnic cleansing", and/or were pacifists, and so on. Why would it have been a better demonstration if it had adopted a "condemn Milosevic" line?

As another example, there is a coalition here in Chicago, which is NOT controlled by Workers' World or IAC or our minions or affiliates, for the purpose of doing demonstrations on June 12 and 18. It meets in, and has largely been organized from, the Illinois Peace Action office; it includes left parties such as the ISO and the SWP(US), radical pacifists such as Voices in the Wilderness and the 8th Day Center, some independents, some students, and some church people. In fact the president of the Serbian Unity Congress in Illinois attended the last meeting and will speak on June 12. And it has been taking a "least common denominator" line from the beginning: "Stop the Bombing of Yugoslavia - U.S./NATO Troops out of the Balkans - End the Sanctions on Iraq." The position from the beginning has been that its demands should represent the broadest possible group consensus. This has been a good thing, not a bad thing. I honestly don't know why people elsewhere should want any other kind of coalition. This kind of coalition is not unusual in Chicago. Maybe it's because it's such a bourgeois town that the left here feels the need of as much unity as possible. I've been told that it's not unusual for the Chicago affiliates of group A and group B to get along pretty well, while the New York affiliates utterly hate each other.

Now let me skip back to (a). what has really happened in Kosovo?

Frankly, I don't know what happened in Kosovo. I am sitting here in Chicago trying to get info off the internet. I am reading the same articles Dave McReynolds is reading. I have to accept the fact that we are organizing against the war with imperfect knowledge of what is going on there. I may NEVER know exactly what happened in Kosovo. However, I have, just as an individual, some working hypotheses about what has been going on - some things I believe happened, and some things I do not believe. Interestingly, Dave and I are not TERRIBLY far apart on the facts - although he puts them together in a way I do not.

First off, this is what I think about sources.

I find the NATO spokespeople to be monstrous liars and hoaxers.

Corporate media reports written from Albania and Macedonia are quite unreliable, because (a) they are overwhelmed with false information from the NATO liars, and (b) even when they try to interview refugees, they generally have to rely on translators who are loyal to the KLA, (This was reported in some articles from the SWP-US's _Militant_.) and are vulnerable to hoaxes because they aren't familiar with Kosovo.

Reports by organizations which are 'professionals' in the human rights field, such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, should be viewed very cautiously (Diana Johnstone is particularly critical of Human Rights Watch) but, in general, are quite a bit more restrained than the wild stories you get from NATO.

Third-hand reports and testimonials by public figures, U.N. committees, etc., are trash.

Factual reports by reporters and observers who have actually been in Kosovo are our best source of information. We don't have many of them. I consider Paul Watson's stuff (LA Times) invaluable. Steve Erlanger (New York Times), Carlotta Gall (Washington Post), and some of the BBC people have also produced some useful stuff. Regis Debray's letter to Le Monde is also useful.

Based on all this, what do I personally think?

There is no evidence of genocide.

If 'ethnic cleansing' is taken as the attempt by Belgrade to expel all Albanians from Kosovo, which is what NATO charges the government of Yugoslavia with, there is no evidence of ethnic cleansing.

I think we should take seriously what Watson says in his CBC interview about a period of "anarchy" being touched off by the onset of the bombing. I have the distinct impression that the KLA organized a Kosovo-wide offensive which broke out simultaneously with the bombing. There was fierce fighting in many places. The situation was seen, and correctly seen, as a life-and-death struggle for Yugoslavia against overwhelming odds - war on the ground and in the air. In this situation, harsh measures were taken. Some of these measures may have been approved by Milosevic, others by lower commanders, and others by units acting on their own initiative. It should not be forgotten that Milosevic is not a totalitarian dictator; that there are several nationalist parties, whose total strength is probably equal to that of Milosevic's own Socialist Party of Serbia, which have always accused Milosevic of being a sell-out; that there are several different chains of command, including paramilitary and volunteer forces. Therefore, proof that someone in a uniform did something in Kosovo is not proof that Milosevic ordered it done. The verse "not a sparrow falls but he knows it" is about God, not Milosevic.

In a UPI interview, whose text I do not have (can someone locate it?), Milosevic said that some reservists had committed crimes at the onset of the bombing, and received jail sentences. Regis Debray was told the same thing.

On the issue of "massacres", our judgment should be tempered by the knowledge that there was a series of "massacre" reports in the year before the bombing which were distorted, dubious, or outright faked. There was the "Drenica massacre" of March 1998, which turned out to be a battle with civilian casualties (the KLA were using "human shields", dare I say.) There was the Orohovac "mass grave" in July or August, which turned out to be a hoax. And there was the "Racak massacre" in January, on which doubt was cast by European journalists.

There is no evidence for any mass killings of Albanian civilians beyond the six incidents which were reported by Human Rights Watch as of April. These are the same incidents that are cited in NATO's indictment of Milosevic before the War Crimes Tribunal, with a death toll of 340. I am not certain that these incidents took place, but I think it's fair to say that they represent an upper bound on the massacre issue, contrary to NATO's repeated pronouncements that "when we get in there, we'll find a lot more." They have had two months since April to find more, and they haven't turned any up. Interestingly enough, the Human Rights Watch website pointed out that four of these six incidents happened in villages along a single stretch of road from Prizren to Dakovica, which is parallel to the border with Albania. They even suggested that a "single particularly brutal unit" might have been responsible for all four.

Even in the massacre reports that are provided by Human Rights Watch, there is evidence that the people who were killed were not randomly selected civilians, but were killed because they were believed to be KLA members (men from outside the village) or KLA sympathizers. That is, we are dealing with extreme actions by soldiers in a civil war, rather than with men killing ethnic Albanians simply for being Albanian, or for worshipping in a mosque, as Clinton would have it. (I have heard very little evidence from any source of religion playing any part at all in this war on either side within Kosovo.) Note that Jane's Defense News confirms that KLA members were mixing themselves with refugees.

It seems clear to me that more than a few Albanians were expelled from their homes by "Serbian forces". However, I don't know whether this number is one thousand, ten thousand, or fifty thousand. I am reasonably certain it is NOT 800,000 , as NATO would have it. The total number of refugees is made up of people who left Albania for many reasons. Some unknown number were told by "Serbian forces" to leave the country; some were told to leave their homes, and decided to leave the country rather than to stay in Kosovo; some fled the bombing; some left out of fear of "ethnic cleansing," which of course was spread by the western/Albanian media and the KLA, although they weren't attacked themselves; some left to escape the war between the KLA and the Yugoslav forces, and some women and children left Kosovo so that their menfolk would have a free hand to go into the hils and join the KLA. (This according to a 'refugee expert' interviewed on NPR in early April; this was an interesting slip, since they were reporting in the same broadcast that the men were 'missing' and presumed massacred.) Some later refugees left because life in Kosovo without water or food transport became unlivable. I do not know the respective proportions of these refugee subgroups.

Furthermore, whatever the number of expulsions that took place, I do not know the reasons for them, or, to be precise, I do not know how many were expelled for the following reasons: because "some forces" wanted to expel Albanians in general from the country; because they were thought, rightly or wrongly, to be KLA sympathizers, and someone wanted to expel them from the country; because it was thought necessary to evacuate certain villages or areas for military reasons (border zones, KLA strongholds, battle areas). (We should bear in mind that, after the start of the bombing, the KLA functioned as NATO auxiliaries and target spotters. To be a KLA supporter after March 23 was to be a collaborator with the imperialist bombers.) And even if I knew these numbers, I would not know whether it was Milosevic's idea or someone else's.

Similarly, it seems clear that more than a few homes were burned, but I don't know who did it, or why. Some buildings might have been burned to deprive the KLA of shelter in border areas. Some homes of known or suspected KLA members may have been burned. And (as Tolstoi points out in "War and Peace", with reference to Moscow) abandoned buildings are notoriously prone to accidental fire and individual acts of arson.

In summary, it seems quite clear that some Albanians were unfairly killed, expelled from their homes, expelled from the country, and subjected to other sorts of harm which they did not individually deserve. But I do not find any evidence that this part of a plan of "ethnic cleansing", or that it was by Milosevic's orders. There is evidence that killings and abuses took place in a climate of anarchy caused by the bombing. There is information that the Yugoslav government has punished people who committed some of these extreme acts. Furthermore, many of the expulsions may well have been militarily justifiable in the context, which, we must recall, was a bitter fight for survival against overwhelming imperialist forces attacking in the air, assisted by espionage and a military offensive on the ground.

But it does seem to be quite clear that, whatever was going on in the first weeks of the bombing, by the end of April there was a concerted effort to normalize the situation in Kosovo, induce Albanians to return to their homes and reopen their shops, help to repair the power lines, and pick up guns to defend Yugoslavia. Watson's reportage is invaluable on this point. This is probably closely related to the fact that the KLA had been heavily defeated in its uprising in Kosovo.

Therefore, there is no "ongoing ethnic cleansing" in Kosovo, however you define the term.

Furthermore, it's not the least bit obvious to me that the government of Yugoslavia is preventing refugees from returning to their homes even from outside Albania. Of course the border with Albania is an active battle zone right now. Naturally the border is closed. But the border with Macedonia, surprisingly, seems to be rather open. There was a story a week ago to the effect that some ethnic Albanians found things so bad in the camps in Macedonia that they went back to Kosovo. Doesn't this mean something? Of course most of the refugees would prefer to wait until the war is over and/or the Serbs are driven out, but this is different from "Milosevic preventing the refugees from returning home".

Now let me compare this with what McReynolds says.

At least when I argue with Dave about this I don't feel as if I'm arguing with Jamie Shea! I think he might agree with me, or at least admit that I might be right, about a lot of what I've written here. Our main disagreements are, it seems to me:

(1) He buys into the idea that everyone with a uniform was doing the will of Milosevic, i.e., represents the "hand of Belgrade."

(2) He seems to be saying that everyone who did not leave because of the bombing was expelled. I think there were a great many people who left because of an atmosphere of panic that was created by the bombing, in part by some expulsions, and largely by KLA/NATO propaganda about "ethnic cleansing".

(3) He ignores the possibility of military justification for expulsions, and treats it as 'making civilians the target'. I submit that if you are in a war, and if you are being attacked from the air by imperialist powers, and if you believe that that village over there is functioning as a hostile military and terrorist base and NATO espionage post, and that all the people in that village who didn't go along with that program have long since been driven out or killed, then it is not a case of 'making civilians the target' if you take action to deal with that village. In such a case you may have to choose between the civilians of the village, who are helping NATO and the KLA, and the civilians whom NATO and the KLA and the civilians of the village are trying to kill.

(4) In discussing the "monstrous fact they were uprooted from their homes and farms and shops and gardens, driven from villages where they had lived for generations, from graveyards where their parents and grandparents rested, from the places where they had worshipped" he seems to be uncritically accepting the NATO line that Yugoslavia is determined that they shall never return to these homes, shops, graveyards, etc. In fact, the stated position has been that when the bombing stops they CAN return.

All right, this is more or less what I think is going on in Kosovo. I hasten to add that it is my personal judgment, and other reasonable people, including other members of my party, can weigh the facts differently and come up with a different picture. That brings us to

(b) What public stand should we take on what has happened in Kosovo? (And in particular, should we condemn "Ethnic cleansing"?)

Let me talk about this in general for a minute. Here is a country of 11 million people, ruined by civil war and sanctions, being attacked by a coalition of all the world's richest imperialist powers, 600 million people. They are fighting for their lives. They are being demonized by imperialist propaganda in all the corporate media. For a million words that they utter, we can utter one. They have television networks; we have leaflets. Under what circumstances, then, are we, in the home of the B-52 and the Warthog, well advised to take some of our time, some of our energy, some of our words, some of our effort, away from the daunting (to put it mildly) task of undermining the alliance of the world's ruling class, and devote it to condemning some action on the part of the country under attack? Bearing in mind that it is our own wealth, our own labor, which is being used to conduct this massacre? Under what circumstances should we devote any less than one hundred per cent of our effort to getting our pilots and our planes out of their sky, and any more than zero per cent of our effort to criticizes the mistakes or crimes of the Yugoslav government??

This is what it seems like: You are in Los Angeles and you see some police beating Rodney King. You run out there and yell: "Stop beating that man, and you, stop driving under the influence of controlled substances!" Why shouldn't you yell that? After all, it is dangerous and inconsiderate to drive under the influence of controlled substances. Many people die because inconsiderate people drive under the influence of controlled substances. I think we should make this one of the main demands of the police brutality coalition! After all, it would go along with all our other great slogan pairs of the past:

"Free Palestine, and stop hijacking airplanes!" "U.S. out of Viet Nam, and respect the rights of the Montagnards!" "Free the Attica brothers, and no ill-treatment of guard hostages!" "U.S. out of Panama, and stop drug trafficking!"

BAH!!!! I say.

Have there been atrocities on the Serbian side? I'm sure there have. There have been on all the other sides, so why not that one? Does it make any sense for us to elevate "condemnation" of such atrocities to a principle of our anti-war work in the U.S.? I'm sure it does not.

("Atrocities" by the side under attack by imperialism are, in my opinion, the more likely the more uneven the conflict is. When one side in a war is confident of its strength, confident of its ability to win, it can allow itself to be patient and merciful. I'm thinking of the People's Liberation Army of China, for example, which was known for releasing prisoners and so forth. When the sides in the war are very unequal, when imperialism is in a position to massacre a people and proceeds to do so, when the weaker side becomes desperate and disorganized, when it has no allies, under such circumstances its leaders, or some among its people, are inevitably going to be drawn toward extreme measures. It's like the rebel leader in "The Battle of Algiers" says: "If you give us your planes, we will stop putting bombs in baskets in marketplaces.")

I think that at the very least, public criticism of the government of a country which is in the process of being destroyed by our imperialist government should only be undertaken under very unusual circumstances, which would have to include at least some of the following:

(a) We are very certain that the government has done what we are condemning, and could reasonably have chosen to do something else.

(But in the Kosovo case, our information is scant, we don't know what was done by the federal government of Yugoslavia and what by other people, and we don't know much of the immediate circumstances, except that they were harsh, chaotic, and extraordinarily difficult. Reasonable people disagree on exactly what happened, exactly what who did what, exactly what was defensible and what was not, and, thus, on what actions by whom were indefensible.)

(b) Our criticism will have a material effect on the situation.

(But in the Kosovo case, the government is demonstrably trying to normalize the situation now. There is no evidence for an ongoing policy of expulsions for whatever reason.)

(c) Our criticism is important because the same issue arises among the constituencies among which we organize - for example, if the government in question were to use a racist strategy.

(This is not true in the Kosovo case.)

(d) Our criticism cannot be confused with imperialist war propaganda and will not imply that we believe that we believe or endorse their war propaganda.

(But in the Kosovo case exactly the reverse is the case. The term 'ethnic cleansing' is irretrievably bound up with the NATO lies about genocide, death camps, and so on. )

(e) There is some sort of concrete demand or proposal that we can make regarding the situation.

(But in the Kosovo case this isn't true, except for the people who want to make 'Try Milosevic for war crimes' a demand. To his credit, McReynolds rejects this. )

In this connection, we come to the following point by McReynolds. He wants "your voice and mine ... to be raised in support of the democratic opposition in Belgrade" to Milosevic's acts. The problem is that if he is talking about the forces I think he is (the Social-Democrats) I don't much like or trust them. They are in trouble now in Yugoslavia and deservedly so. It is not just that the people of Yugoslavia are "rallying around Milosevic". It's that they believed in the values and sincerity of Western Social-Democrats, and held them up to Yugoslavia as an example to be followed, and now that the Western Social Democracy is exposed as being an implement of naked imperialist terror, their Yugoslav co-thinkers are exposed as dupes or worse. But that's their problem, not mine!

When McReynolds says "I remain very unclear why Workers World is unable to realize there may not be a good side, that Belgrade and NATO may both be terribly wrong," I think this probably represents a basic difference between McReynolds and me over what we think we are supposed to be doing, how we use words like "right" and "wrong", and so on. Dave, there aren't all that many governments which I think of as "right" these days, in the sense of being what I, as a Marxist revolutionary, really want to see. Most of the world's governments these days are, from the perspective of revolutionary Marxism, "wrong" and commit atrocities against the workers and oppressed every day. But that doesn't mean we are indifferent if a small or weak country is subjected to imperialist oppression and conquest, nor does it mean that we have to throw in a ritual condemnation. NATO is "wrong" in that it is a colossal alliance of imperialist power, and not just in a general or moral sense. They have brutally killed civilians, but suppose their bombs were all as "smart" as they claim and they only killed Yugoslav soldiers? Or painlessly disabled them? That wouldn't affect the class-based reasons for my opposition to them. To say that "Belgrade and NATO are both terribly wrong" to me seems almost like a pun, a play on words. The government of Yugoslavia might be "wrong" in many ways, but it is not an imperialist colossus bestraddling the globe!! And it is "right" to resist imperialist takeover, economic or military. And if we are ever going to get a world in which no children have their throats cut by shrapnel or get sent to refugee camps, it will be (in my opinion) because we have learned how to fight and undermine the imperialist colossus, and not because we have learned how to criticize its victims.

There are many ways that I'm sure we can and will work together, not least on Yugoslavia - as long as it is not made a precondition for such work that we sign on to slogans of "condemnation" which don't express real agreement among us and don't, in our opinion, advance the work that really has to be done.


Lou Paulsen

member, Workers World Party, Chicago