Yugoslavia again. International Law

Lorenzo Penya Laurentius at PINAR1.csic.es
Fri Oct 20 12:38:25 MDT 1995

Yugoslavia again. Reflections on Bryan's comments. # 1

      Due to some glitch or to some mistake -- I do not know what is the
reason -- I had missed digests 2#56, 2#57 & 2#58. Thus it is only now that I
read Chris Burford's comments. (Let me say I would be against any secession
from the `US-dominated' list. Our current culture becomes more and more
global each day.) Chris, I promise you I am going to carefully ponder on your
critical remarks.

      Bryan Alexander raises very important issues, which must be addressed
and clarified. In this posting I discuss one of those points, namely that of
Legal vs moral view-point.

      The breaking-up of the Yugoslav Federal Republic and the series of
secessions which have triggered the current civil war can be envisaged from
several perspectives. One is legal. Another one is moral. Perhaps Bryan would
want to say that his own perspective is neither, that it is a `Marxist'
perspective stemming from considerations which are neither juridical nor
ethical but rooted in class-struggle -- let's say a `revolutionary' or a
`proletarian' view-point. For the time being, let me assume the only relevant
view-points are the moral one and the juridical one (I must confess that I do
not understand -- pending an explanation -- what a `revolutionary' view-point
would be which would consist neither in legal nor in moral considerations.)

      I believe I have shown sufficiently clearly that there was no legal or
moral basis for a Croatian or a Bosnian secession. From a juridical view-
point, no integral part of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia had any right
to secede within the framework of international law.

      From a moral view-point, Marxists have long disagreed on the issue of
national self-determination. What I suggested was that:

(1) there are good reasons for us to refrain from fully and unconditionally
accepting Lyenyin's principle of national self-determination (Lyenyin himself
did not espouse it as whole-heartedly as it is often assumed, since he always
subordinated any `democratic' demand to the far-reaching interests of
proletarian revolution); that in fact such a principle is fraught with
enormous dangers which have been all too painfully realized in recent
history; and that many followers of Lyenyin's revolutionary ideas have
(wisely, to my mind) refrained from fully implementing such a principle;

(2) anyway Lyenyin's principle of national self-determination does not apply
to the Croats and the Islamo-Bosnians, who constitute cultural communities,
not different nations, since they speak the same language as Serbs. Rather,
if the principle of national self-determination is to be applied here, it
points to a right of the Serbo-Croat nation as a whole to its independence
and unity, in the same way as was the case with the other European nations
which achieved a national state in the 19th century (Germany, Italy, Romania,
Greece and so on). The unity of an independent Serbo-Croat or Yugoslav state
is in fact the achievement of a long struggle against foreign oppressors who
had conquered and submitted different parts of Yugoslavia and had used
religious divisions in order to hamper the unity of the Yugoslav nation.

      Now, Bryan challenges the relevance of juridical considerations, since
international law is a tool of the imperialists. However I contend that no
political change is possible, let alone desirable, which brings about a total
break with the current juridical state of affairs. No revolution has ever
been carried out which has not tried to secure some form or other of
juridical backing and legitimization even in the institutions of the former
regime, or at least in some of them; some link with the past. The Bolshevik
revolution adopted the slogan of the Soviet power, while the Soviets had
already been recognized by the Provisional Government as a legitimate
institution to be integrated into the Russian juridical system. What is more,
Lyenyin initially convened the constituent assembly, although he immediately
proceeded to its dissolution owing to the assembly's counter-revolutionary
majority. Mao Tse-tung also tried to secure some sort of juridically
justifiable basis for the Chinese CP's take-over. And such has been always
the case. (Which by the way shows that revolutions are less revolutionary
than some revolutionaries fancy to dream).
      As regards international law, a still more pronounced conservatism is
clearly at work in the dealings of all revolutions. Remember for instance the
anti-war slogan of the proletarian revolutionaries during WWI: a peace
without compensations or annexations. Although the meaning of such a phrase
could be taken in divergent directions, its most plain sense is a return to
the status quo ante. In fact, when the Brest-Litovsk treaty-project was
discussed in Russia, what almost everybody took for granted was that a peace
without annexations meant coming back to the 1914 boundaries; that's why the
new borders imposed by German imperialism meant a peace with annexations,
which Russia could accept only temporarily, waiting for a favourable

      What is more, Lyenyin's ideas about peaceful coexistence between Soviet
Russia and the rest of the world, then under capitalist rule, meant that the
triumphant proletarian revolution in one country must abide by international
law, even if such a law has been devised by the imperialist brigands. What a
revolutionary power must do is to advocate a progressive revision of such a
juridical system, using what is good and valuable in it to convince public
opinion of the need for a number of changes. Such a practice was what secured
after WWII one of the two hugest political changes of the last millennium or
so after -- the other one being the abolition of slavery --, namely the
independence of the peoples submitted to the colonial yoke, which could at
last escape their situation of half-enslavement (forced labour was
extensively imposed by the European colonialists in Africa until the

      By the way, some people in this list have recently claimed that the so-
called irreversible advances of the Russian revolution have been reversed.
Not so. The welfare state in the industrialized capitalist countries was
started as a response by the ruling class to the Russian revolution and still
more to the prestige of the CP's after 1945. More importantly, the
emancipation of the third world was made possible only by the very existence
of the communist block. And mind you, the official abandonment of racial
discrimination in the US was also a result of such trends in the world's
political arena and public opinion.

      There is a powerful reason for anticapitalist revolutionaries to
critically adhere to international law, namely that the revolution cannot be
triumphant straight away in all countries (that is an understatement); thus
either international law is complied with or else the revolutionary states
will be unmercifully crushed in a Hobbesian state of nature, the war of all
against all. And of course there is a more straightforward reason indeed: a
proletarian revolution would be meaningless should it waive the most
cherished aspirations of the human heart, the drive to fraternity and
happiness or well-being, which entails peace. Pending a new juridical order
-- which can be established only through a gradual evolution --, the existing
international law is, despite its many flaws, an instrument for the suffering
poor masses in the world to at least enjoy a minimum of peace.

      Give up the principle of respect for international law and you will
lose any leverage to oppose imperialist aggressions and atrocities. (One of
them is precisely the current intervention in Yugoslavia with the bombings
carried out by NATO against a people which defends its independence and
national unity against the religious-based secession stirred and kindled by
the imperialist powers and supported by the reactionary, cruelly oppressive,
Islamic states.)

      By the way, I am not claiming that all transgressions of international
law are to be condemned. Still less that they all must be condemned totally
and unconditionally. In fact international law is fuzzy, and many situations
are only to a small extent in conflict with it, while they can be justified
from a higher moral view-point. Take for instance Russia's repudiation of the
Brest-Litovsk treaty upon Germany's surrender on November 11, 1917. Juridical
matters are always tricky, but even if it were true that such a repudiation
was in break of international law, it would remained morally justified. In
such situations, a higher `natural-law' set of principles can be invoked
which undermine the juridical legitimacy of existing treaties. That is not to
say that we can adopt Bismarck's cynic claim that any treaty contained an
implicit clause of `rebus stantibus' (i.e. `while things remain as they stand
at this stage' ...). That would ruin any civilized coexistence. But precisely
under such circumstances as a glaring, outrageous injustice has been
committed (as had been the case at Brest-Litovsk), the wronged party had a
right to redress the situation as soon is it was able to do so. (There are
many other examples but I don't want to elaborate.)

      I hope all people interested in Marxism, whether Marxists or not (I do
not consider myself a Marxist), agree that all forms of nationalism must be
in the long run superseded, that we are heading for an Earthian Republic
wherein every human adult is free to travel and settle anywhere, being
enclosed or confined by no boundary. But what is the way to attain that goal?
Not -- I contend -- through the military imposition of the self-declared
world police forces (UNO and NATO), which are instruments of intimidation,
oppression and domination of the majority of the planet's population by the
great imperialist-capitalist powers, but by encouraging and supporting
resistance to NATO aggression and intervention.

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