Yugoslavia: background considerations (part 3)

Lorenzo Penya Laurentius at pinar1.csic.es
Fri Oct 6 18:24:03 MDT 1995

Yugoslavia: Background consideration (Part 3: the right to secede)
The current war in Yugoslavia is a civil war. It is not a war between
nations. The Yugoslav people (namely the set of inhabitants of the Balkanic-
Slavonic land who speak the Serbo-Croatian tongue as their only language)
constitutes a single nation.
      It is customary to define a nation as a set of people who inhabit a
common territory, speak the same language, are united by economic and
cultural links, share a common tradition and history. Of course such a list
of features gives neither necessary nor sufficient conditions in a clear-cut
way. For one thing, each of those features comes in degrees, infinitely many
degrees in fact. For another, the list can hardly be regarded as exhaustive
-- but on the other hand no unique answer is available to the question of
what list would be complete: different additional features can be added part
grounded in how things are, in what motivates people's lives, and enduring
attitudes. Most of all, the relative weight of each feature is subject to a
number of factors and may change over time.
      We now think that the 18th century Italians constituted a nation, even
if they lived under different states. Garibaldi's struggle, the Risorgimento,
is now generally looked upon as a justified movement aimed at reshaping the
political structures in accordance with national reality. But, needless to
say, Italians did not then share a common political history, or a common
political tradition -- except in a loose sense. Nor were they united by
strong economic links (many Italian provinces were more closely related to
foreign countries than to other Italian provinces -- that may still be the
case, and one of the grounds of Northern lighismo).
      What makes a struggle for national independence and unity just? For
Marxists, it is the fact that a national state is the best framework for
economic development and class struggle. I do not know whether they are right
or not. One of the reasons of my skepticism in this connection is that I do
not believe we can do without a caeteris paribus clause, which makes such
comparative assertions practically meaningless or at least unverifiable. Be
it as it may, I submit that Marxists ought to put their point in a quite
different way. They are entitled to think that the ultimate determinant cause
is economic, but, since economic causes bring about their effects through a
multiplicity of intricate causal chains, directly invoking an economic
usefulness can hardly count as a relevant motivation for deciding whether or
not a political course of action is to be justified.
      Rather, you ought to say that doing what is just is, in the long run,
advantageous for the furtherance of economic and social progress -- perhaps
because it makes more difficult for the ruling class to stir dissensions
within the oppressed class. But then it would be circular to define `justice'
as that which furthers economic development or makes more difficult for the
ruling class to stir dissensions within the oppressed class, or anything like
      From a utilitarian view-point, than is just which enhances people's
happiness (or, less bombastically, well-being). From a natural-right
perspective, justice is to give everybody what is `naturally' theirs, in
accordance with their merits (in a broad sense).
      Whatever notion of justice we embrace, and regardless of whether or not
we think that we must do what is just because by doing so we promote further
economic and social progress, I think we can debate the issue of whether
national self-determination is in general a just principle, whether nations
have a right to self-determination. Marxists have not always been of a mind
on that issue. Lyenyin's views in support of self-determination were spurned
by Rosa Luxemburg and by a great lot of other distinguished Marxists. Lyenyin
himself always subordinated national self-determination to other principles.
He looked upon national self-determination as a bourgeois-democratic
principle along with freedom of the press and the like, which as a rule ought
to be complied with in the new proletarian state but only in so much as they
do not seriously hamper the further consolidation of that state and the
social and economic progress it alone can achieve. Thus, occasional
infringements of political liberties, including national self-determination,
were to be envisaged and in some cases even [morally] mandatory.
      A different tradition, perhaps much more individualistic than
Lyenyin's, regards national self-determination as a bogus, something quite
unlike individual freedoms and rights. One of the thinkers who have voiced
such a rejection is Sir Karl Popper. The rejection obtained currency and
prestige owing to Hitler's proclaimed national ends, which led to WWII. At
the beginning Hitler was apparently following in the steps of 19th century
nationalism by demanding that all territories contiguous with the German
state and inhabited by German-speaking people were given the right to join
the German common state.
      Popper's qualms about national self-determination are rooted in a long
tradition of unenlightened conservative political thought. But, enlightened
or not, progressive or not, shortsighted and narrow-minded or not, the
misgiving has a point. Very often any political turmoil caused by the very
idea of national self-determination is much worse than anything caused by the
previous status quo. Whenever and wherever promoting the idea of national
self-determination is likely to bring about wars and suffering, it may be
better to accept prevailing political conditions.
      Moreover, even if I am confident the communitarian view is closer to
the truth than liberal or libertarian individualism, even if no person can be
taken in isolation from a community to which she belongs (in fact a set of
such communities, which partly intermingle or overlap, partly are separate or
even sometimes clash), no particular community can have as much right to
existence, enjoyment, or prosperity as the individuals who constitute it, for
the very simple reason that each individual belongs to different communities,
is constituted by those different belongings, which are sometimes in mutual
conflict. Of course the community of the species is a different matter
altogether -- although even there, there may be morally relevant conflicts,
due to the fact that we belong to larger kinds than the human species, and
have obligations towards other animals.
      Outside Europe -- with the exception of the Arabic national movement,
which can be compared with the 19th century national movements in Europe -,
the principle of national self-determination has often been either given a
new sense (as a self-assertion of a colony against its overseas masters), a
sense which was very different from that of European 19th century
nationalism, or else altogether rejected. The Chinese, for instance, have
almost always rejected the idea that states could be broken up in accordance
with ethnic (national) lines and/or those different ethnic populations'
wishes. They have (almost) always regarded state boundaries as sacrosanct and
unshakable. Their legalistic stance was that China was an independent country
which had legally the right to be treated as such. Of course, anti-
imperialism could not in general be grounded on such a legalistic approach,
since India, Vietnam, Indonesia, Algeria, and so on were `legally' (?)
      The new independent states in America, at the beginning of the 19th
century, and in Africa, in the 1960's, chose to take pre-independence
boundaries as defining their `nations'. Within such a context, the very word
`nation' gets a new sense. If modern Mali is a nation different from modern
Senegal, etc, if modern Ecuador is a nation different (and separate) from
modern Peru and Colombia, while there is no common language shared by all the
nationals nor any linguistic frontier between that `nation' and neighbouring
`nations', we seem to lack the most vital and decisive feature among those
which jointly constitute the fuzzy cluster of conditions relevant for
nationhood. Yet, even so, perhaps in a loose sense we can still speak of
nations. (In fact the boundaries among languages are fuzzy, too: what counts
as a different language or as a mere dialectal variation depends on cultural
and psychological factors to a very large extent.)
      From a legal point of view, the principle of national self-
determination has no basis at all. No right to secede is recognized by
international law to territories belonging to a state even if their
inhabitants want to secede. The only exception (which belongs more to
universal conscience and moral culture than to law proper) is the right of
peoples under colonial rule to achieve independence, on account of the fact
that those territories are (were) not regarded by the states vested with
sovereignty over them as parts of their own national land (a ground which no
longer held in the case of some late colonialisms such as De Gaulle's 5th
Republic or Salazar's assimilationist regime).
      In fact secessionist movements have almost always been condemned by the
UNO and the `international community'. Only in a few cases have they been
allowed to succeed (e.g. in the Eritrea case, which cannot be taken as a
national self-determination, but which is based on facts of colonial history
-- although the real reason for the great powers to encourage Eritrean
secession are quite different). Somaliland's secession from Somalia (also
based only on facts of recent colonial history) is tolerated but not
recognized. Officially northern-Cypriot Turkophone secession is condemned
(but in fact secretly, although unlawfully, encouraged). Biafra's secession
was bloodily crushed, at the price of (reportedly) hundreds of thousands of
human deaths.
      Thus, from a legal point of view, in accordance with international law,
neither Croatia nor Bosnia (nor even Macedonia or Slovenia) had a right to
secede from Yugoslavia.
      From the point of view of justice, it seems to me entirely problematic
that they had such a right. For one thing, they are not separate nations.
They constitute an integral part of the Yugoslav nation, the serbo-croat
ethnia. No ethnic division there. Only in a wishy-washy sense can it be said
that they constitute different nations, because of different religious
traditions and some other minor factors (such as where the state boundaries
were laid at this or that period in recent history and so on).
      But even if -- let us grant it for the sake of the argument -- there
are three `nations' there, one Serbian, another one Croatian, a third one
Bosnian (or rather `Muslim'!), even if they -- let us assume -- spoke
different and unrelated languages, had different ethnic features (with a
cleavage like that between hutus and tutsis, for instance), even so it would
have remained extremely dubious that, under the conditions, they had a right
to secede. For they were living together peacefully, harmoniously, mixing
among themselves. Nor was Milosevic's flamboyant nationalism a threat for the
lives of members of the Serbo-Croatian nation (unlike perhaps what may be the
case as regards other ethnic populations like the  Albanese in Kosovo). There
were within the  Yugoslav constitution means of combatting such outbursts --
outbursts which would have probably issued in no real tragedy were it not for
the  secessionist movement. Secession is to be condemned, and prevented,
whenever and wherever: (1) the secession is likely to bring about greater
evils than those for which it is meant to be a cure; and (2) all other means
for redressing those real or alleged evils have not been exhausted. Now, what
is to be prevented is, to such an extent, not right or just. What is unjust
is such that people are not rightly entitled to do it. Consequently, neither
the Croats nor the Bosnians had a right to secede.
      But suppose they had such a right. Suppose they constitute different
nations from the Yugoslav nation, and assume that each nation has a right to
secede, come what may. Then, for the very same reason, the Serbs (i.e. the
people belonging to the Orthodox religious tradition and culture) in Bosnia
and in Croatia had a right to secede. The same right? A stronger claim? A
lesser right?
      I think a stronger right. For one thing, they had something to fear (a
repetition of what happened in WWII in Croatia and the rising of Islamic
fundamentalism in Bosnia). Even if such a fear was groundless (which can
hardly be maintained on the basis of recent experience), the fear was real
and understandable. For another, since in fact such ethnic lines did not
exist at all, the only ground for secession was religious and cultural; but
then they, after living together with their brethren in Serbia proper for
many decades, had a legitimate claim not to be separated from them and not to
be subjected to states whose only reason was a religious-cultural demarcation
line, and which accordingly would reasonably be expected to enforce cultural
policies contrary to their wishes.
      But most of all, by seceding from the unjust secession, the Serbs tried
to keep what little could be savet of a united common Yugoslavia: some form
of common state or federation uniting as most of the Balkanic land inhabited
by the Serbo-Croatian nation as possible.
      Suppose that one day the secessionist lighismo in Northern Italy
manages to wrench a large part of the Italian Settentrione from the
motherland, but that then many people choose to secede from the secession.
(Or remember West-Virginians seceding from secessionist Virginia at the
beginning of the American civil war.) Perhaps no one is [totally] right in
such issues, but those who have provoked, declared or favoured the secession
in the first place are also those who are most to blame.
      The secessionist movement in Croatia and Bosnia was the result of
imperialistic intrigue aimed at weakening the peoples which do not belong to
the Western tradition. Germany, Austria and the Vatican were partly
instrumental in first surreptitiously stirring secessionism, in obtaining a
hasty, quick international recognition at the beginning of the secession, and
last in giving succour to the fledgling Croatian and Bosnian armies.
      (To what extent Germany was instrumental in stirring secessionism I do
not know. I have no access to German secre service papers. It seems to me
clear that the rapid and prompt journalistic orchestration immediately upon
the outbreak of the  unfortunate events is some sort of proof my guess -- or
at least a [fallible, of course] evidence in support of it --, namely that
the  whole affair was long premeditated, concocted and carefully prepared by
Western secret services, specially Germany's.)
       Moreover, the Western powers have thus (killing two birds with one
stone) profited from the Islamist movement and managed to strengthen the
under-cover links between such a movement and the Western powers (links which
were established in the Afghan war against the moderately progressive
government lukewarmly supported by the Russians; links which have been
amplified by the role performed by the pro-Western petro-Monarchies in
financing the Islamists almost everywhere; links evidence for which is
increasing -- e.g. in the granting of refugee status to a number of
fundamentalist Algerian leaders in Western Europe, whereas thousands upon
thousands of Arabic and black immigrants are cruelly deported, even in cases
wherein their condition as political refugees is obvious and their compulsory
return carries a serious risk for their lives, which happens with people from
Morocco, Zaire etc).
      In such conditions, seceding from the secession was a legitimate right
for the Serbs. Even so, it gave them no right to resort to blind violence or
of inflicting a cruel treatment upon innocent civilians (nor upon militia men
either, since soldiers are also humans). Hitherto there is no available
reliable account showing what side in the conflict has committed more
widespread or more serious atrocities. Western propaganda from the beginning
has unilaterally emphasized Serbian crimes. Pending a neutral, impartial,
objective assessment, what seems clear is that all parts in the conflict have
resorted to blind, merciless and even unnecessary violence.
      Even in juster wars such a blind violence was not unknown (the French
revolution, the Russian revolution, the Spanish resistance against the
fascists in 1936-39). Such violence has to be resolutely and downright
condemned. On no account rape or torture is to be condoned (not even if all
human life could be saved by forcing, through torture, a terrorist to confess
his malicious device). It is also possible that out of two sides, the one
whose cause is juster or less unjust may become the more evil-doer and so in
the end deserve a greater blame or condemnation, on account of resorting to
evil means more than his adversary does. That is possible. The pro-Western
propaganda contends that the Serbs are those who are to blame the most in
this conflict because they have perpetrated more crimes. But of course
Western media cannot be trusted. They hardly count as serious researchers (in
this field or in any other field). They are just propaganda means.
      Nor is it reasonable to claim -- as those supporting the Bosnian
secession do -- that a `multi-ethnic' Bosnia would be the best choice. For
one thing, that is impossible unless a strong immigration of people from
other nations takes place, since there is no national cleavage between
Mohammedans and Christians (as there was none between huguenots and Catholic
in 16th century France). For another, if after what has happened that
prospect of `multi-ethnic' unity remains a real possibility in Bosnia, why
not in Yugoslavia, embracing all the Serbo-croatian nation?
      Unless and until real objective, impartially assessed evidence emerges
concerning a much much greater cruelty on the part of the Serbs -- which
would compensate their initial greater right, or smaller unright, in the
conflict -- we seem lead to the conclusion that, once more, the imperialists
have embraced and supported the worse cause, and have powerfully contributed
-- at the cost of thousands of human lives and much suffering -- to impose a
solution which may be convenient for their interests, but which runs against
justice and in particular against the historically justified right of the
Serbo-Croatian nation to enjoy a unified political framework. In other words
to the national liberation they secured in 1918 with the creation of the
united Yugoslavia under the Karageorgevitch dynasty.

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