Viewing the Balkans from a Distance

Since I have already taken up too much space in this exchange, I will keep my concluding remarks brief. I have tried at great length to make my position clear to Peter Hudis, and have conspicuously failed in this effort. I have also tried everything I could think of to get Hudis to examine the glaring contradictions in his own position, again to no avail. While I am confident that other readers will have less trouble making sense of my argument, it may help to rescue this exchange from the obscurity of mutual incomprehension if I add a few reflections on the issues Hudis has raised.

The most germane of these issues, to my mind, is the question of viewing other people’s struggles “from a distance,” as Hudis aptly puts it. I consider this distance to be a basic condition of our debate and one of its defining characteristics. Neither Hudis nor I lives in the Balkans (or in Indonesia, for that matter), nor is either of us an active participant in the social struggles being waged there. Our ‘involvement’ in these struggles is necessarily mediated by our distanced position, and our views of events in that faraway region are refracted through our sharply contrasting conceptions of internationalism. It is a serious error to try to collapse this distance or downplay its significance.

There is, of course, no reason to assume that geographical distance must entail political distance; international solidarity means, among other things, attempting to bridge the distance between different struggles in different contexts. It does not mean, and cannot mean, wishing away that distance or pretending that those contexts are immediately comparable. I fear that Hudis has forgotten this; his ruminations on Bosnia and Kosovo suggest that he believes he can move, through force of will alone, from a faraway land to never-never land. He imagines himself there in the thick of things in Trepca, in Sarajevo, in Pristina, and cannot comprehend how the rest of us can continue to look on “from a distance.” Where he sees revolutionary commitment, I see naïve romanticism; where I see responsible solidarity, he sees craven abstentionism. 1

Hudis takes pride in his revolutionary version of internationalism and chides me for adopting an insufficiently revolutionary stance. Within the limited context of western leftists’ responses to the Balkan civil wars, I confess that this is more or less accurate: I see little potential, at the current historic juncture, for a revolutionary solution to the post-Yugoslav crisis, and I am more than willing to settle for a humane non-revolutionary alternative that spares the region further senseless bloodshed and interrupts the downward spiral of competing nationalisms. I invite Hudis to reconsider the wisdom of an ostensibly revolutionary option that takes only one set of national aspirations into account. (While we’re at it, I also admit that my mind is not “glued on the idea of freedom,” and I hope that Hudis’ mind will become unglued soon, so that he can turn his attention to the real conditions of this noble idea.)

But our differences go beyond incompatible approaches to the necessary distance of transcontinental comradeship. We also have fundamentally contrary views on which sorts of conflicts demand which sorts of responses from the left. Hudis sees terrible things happening in a few select places around the globe and wants to jump in to stop the forces he thinks are perpetrating them. There are two reasons why this selective indignation is always politically misguided: it ignores all the other terrible things happening elsewhere (not least because it refuses to distinguish between localized conflicts and globally threatening conflicts), and it ignores the complexity of those few conflicts that it does focus on. Indeed, I do not think it is a caricature of Hudis’ position to say that he divides the world into good guys and bad guys who are conveniently identifiable by ethnic criteria. Thus when I lodge political criticisms against a group he has decided are the good guys, he thinks I am slandering an entire national community; and when I suggest a more nuanced view of the actions of the bad guys, he thinks I am an apologist for ethnic terror.

While a simple scheme of good guys versus bad guys certainly makes the moral dilemmas of revolutionary internationalism easier to solve, it is a form of acute self-delusion to think that such a scheme could be applied to the Balkan civil wars. The tale that Hudis tells of neatly separated victims and victimizers, oppressors and oppressed, is a tempting fiction unrelated to the realities of Bosnia and Kosovo. Leftists and internationalists need to resist this temptation if we want to engage in meaningful solidarity and if we want to help bring an end to victimization and oppression. 2

Aside from these basic political disagreements, there is much else that divides Hudis and me; we seem to inhabit “two worlds,” as he puts it, which have little in common. I think our approach to sources is the most telling of these differences. When I first agreed to respond to Hudis’ initial article, I decided to restrict myself to relatively uncontroversial sources. As far as factual claims go, I tried to rely on authors that I thought Hudis would not find politically objectionable; in this way I hoped, perhaps naively, to avoid the endless wrangling over reportage that marks so many left debates on the Balkans. But Hudis’ inexplicable remark that I “favorably” cited a book by Sabrina Ramet, whose political conclusions are obviously quite opposed to my own, has made me realize that my strategy was flawed from the start. (My characterization of Ramet’s book as “tendentious” seems to have escaped his notice.) Having failed to convey my implicit assumptions about secondary sources, let me make them explicit: I think it is a bad idea to draw information primarily or exclusively from figures with whom we find ourselves in agreement, and I consider it an important intellectual discipline to check empirical claims against a wide range of contrasting viewpoints. Unencumbered by any such epistemological compunctions, Hudis blithely declares that Misha Glenny is an unreliable source while Ivo Banac, of all people, is an objective observer, and that Anthony Borden’s calculations are trustworthy while George Kenney, of all people, is secretly on my side of the fence. I think those choices indicate a disregard for critical inquiry and a misjudgement of the issues at stake in our debate. 3

In light of this cavalier attitude toward a subject which continues to inspire more impassioned rhetoric than dispassionate analysis, Hudis’ final installment offers few surprises. Here we learn that he still believes “the people of Kosovo” includes only one ethnic group, that this group faced imminent physical destruction in 1998 and 1999, and that Serb peasants who have lived in Kosovo for centuries constitute a “colonizing power.” Hudis also promotes the historically remarkable view that Bosnian Muslim nationalism only emerged as a significant force in late 1993, and that even Izetbegovic was reluctantly forced into the nationalist camp after this time. All of this is foolishness, of course; Izetbegovic spent years in Tito’s prisons for his nationalist agitation, and his Islamic Declaration dates from 1970. The SDA hardliners, moreover, had gained the upper hand in Bosnia by the very beginning of the 1990’s. Similarly, Hudis invents a new, improved version of Demaci’s chronically inconsistent political line. I encourage anyone who shares Hudis’ mistaken impression that Demaci long ago abandoned ethno-patriotism to consult the full interview in Elsie’s book, as well as those with Qosja (the “father of the Albanian nation”) and Demaci’s other comrades. That the Kosovar Albanian national movement underwent a decade of political development between the decline of Enverism and the emergence of the KLA is obvious; that this development included a repudiation of militant nationalism is a figment of Hudis’ imagination.

Finally, carrying forward his regrettable campaign to debase his own political heritage, Hudis further mystifies the Johnson-Forest tendency’s history of opposition to national movements that align themselves with great power imperialism. We now learn that in Hudis’ eyes, anti-colonial revolutions, anti-fascist resistance struggles, and right-wing restorationist movements are all simply undifferentiated forms of “national liberation.” This latter category, in Hudis’ usage, appears to expand or contract to fit the occasion.

But all of this is to be expected of someone who believes that there are “only two sides to . . . the national struggle.” Beyond his simplistic black-and-white portrait of rather obviously multi-sided Balkan realities, Hudis makes a number of points that beg for explanation. Let us examine some of these revealing formulations. Here we find Hudis reduced to pleading that the KLA contained “some leftist tendencies,” hardly a ringing endorsement of his favored candidate for worldwide left support. Even if this claim were true, how would it contradict my argument that the KLA’s aims were utterly reactionary? The National Socialist German Workers’ Party also contained some leftist tendencies; I trust that Hudis will agree that the Nazi movement nevertheless had utterly reactionary aims. Next, he reminds us that “the figure of 200,000 war casualties [in Bosnia] has been cited by an innumerable number of commentators, journalists, and researchers inside and outside the Balkans.” Indeed it has. To Hudis, this means the figure must be accurate. After all, they wouldn’t print it if it wasn’t true. Has there ever been a more credulous revolutionary? Last, he thinks I wrote that Serb atrocities in Bosnia were “no worse” than Bosnian Muslim atrocities, and that I denied that the Serbs committed atrocities at Srebrenica. In fact I said neither of these things; instead I pointed out the one-sided nature of Hudis’ polemical approach.

On this topic, his analogy to holocaust revisionism is instructive. Hudis suggests that skepticism toward overblown claims of indiscriminate mass murder plays into the hands of those who deny that any crimes took place. I think he has it exactly backwards. To my mind, trumpeting sensationalistic figures makes it easier for the deniers and apologists to sow doubt and confusion when said figures are shown to have been hasty and disproportionate. Such uncareful handling of controversial claims certainly does no service to public understanding of the issues; it is a hindrance, not a boon, to responsible historical reconstruction of the events.

Consider the fact that in Anglo-American mainstream discourse, Bergen-Belsen and Dachau are readily identifiable while Belzec and Chelmno typically draw a blank – even though the first two camps played a marginal role in the holocaust while the latter two were integral parts of it. Hudis’ ill-conceived stance on war crimes in Bosnia is analogous to the role of those well-intentioned folks who repeat as fact the claim that the Nazis made soap out of their victims or that gas chambers operated at Dachau. These claims, although widespread, are not only untrue, they reveal a misunderstanding of the basic facts about the holocaust. When the goal is historical accuracy rather than moral posturing, then it is unexamined yet plausible claims that play into the hands of the deniers. I ask Hudis to read through our exchange again and see which one of us is denying atrocities.

The remaining points in Hudis’ final reply can be dealt with in short order. He asks, “Why have demands for a ‘Greater Albania’ actually receded in the recent period?” Because, naturally, they are increasingly ineffective in winning friends among the western ruling classes. He also asks what relevance my arguments regarding Kosovo might have to black freedom struggles in the U.S. The answer, of course, is none; that’s why the “faraway” aspect of our debate is crucial. And in a remarkable conclusion that once again invokes the distance factor, Hudis observes: “Viewed from afar, the U.S. is the most ‘multiethnic’ country on earth; yet it is also racist to its core.” Of course it is, and that’s just the point: ‘multiethnicity’ is, by itself, of little value as a normative criterion, whether in North America or in Southeastern Europe. 4

In the end, Hudis’ curious amalgam of Marxist-Leninism and identity politics yields peculiar results indeed. He misses the point of my arguments and misconstrues the consequences of his own. When leftists in the faraway west contemplate the killing fields of former Yugoslavia, we face a difficult set of choices. But we emphatically do not face the false choice that Hudis posits between two myopic perspectives: his own version, in which only one side bears any responsibility at all, and the equally simplistic notion that “all sides are equally to blame” (which is, needless to say, not at all my position). The choice is not between selective outrage and indiscriminate outrage, but between an approach that capitulates to the logic of competitive nationalism and one that steadfastly resists it. I hope that internationalists near and far will choose the latter.

Peter Staudenmaier

July 2001


1. My own distance from the conflicts in former Yugoslavia is one reason I initially turned down the invitation to contribute to this volume. Like Hudis, I live in the Midwest of the U.S. and I speak no Balkan language; I am thus dependent on others for my information about the area. This mediated position prompted my original reluctance to engage in a public debate on Kosovo; who wants to read a couple of western leftists arguing about events in which they have played no role? In retrospect I recognize that distance, in itself, is not a good reason for American leftists to be shy about expressing their opinions on a conflict which has, for better or worse, occupied public attention in this country for a decade now. How Hudis comes to terms with his own distanced position remains a mystery to me; aside from his frequent assertion that those who disagree with him are either ignorant or pro-Serb (whatever that might mean), he has yet to explain why he privileges his own conclusions on people and movements that are indisputably far away.

2. This is one of many points in our exchange where more historical perspective might have improved Hudis’ argument. He seems entirely unaware of the role of atrocity propaganda in World War I, for example, not to mention the longstanding traditions of liberal imperialism and ostensibly humanitarian intervention. Similar stumbling blocks have arisen in discussions with Christopher Hitchens, Branka Maga_, and others with whom I have tried to debate these issues. Since there is little sense in charging figures like Hitchens or Maga_ with historical ignorance, it seems to me that an unexamined form of special pleading is once again at work here. It is also important to note that a number of anarchists have argued for a range of comparable positions in the wake of the Balkan wars; David Watson of the Fifth Estate journal is one of the more sophisticated spokespeople for this stance, casting anti-interventionists as Serb apologists. In my view, such arguments are no more persuasive today than they were in 1992.

3. In several instances the basic function of secondary sources seems to have eluded Hudis altogether. He is much exercised about my “method of falsification,” and his very first example of my ostensible duplicity is a fascinating microcosm of our entire exchange. Although I have explained it to him twice, he still thinks that in my first essay I quoted Tim Judah calling the KLA a purely nationalist organization. I relied on Judah’s book not for its political interpretations but because it offers a rich source of testimony from various Kosovar insurgents. The phrase “purely nationalist” is not Judah’s own; the quote is from Albanian Kosovar militant Xhafer Shatri, cited in Judah’s book. Hudis mistakenly attributes the quote to Judah himself, and furthermore accuses me of falsely applying these words to the KLA as an organization. But my original reference made perfectly clear that Shatri was speaking of an earlier group, not of the KLA; the connection to the KLA’s politics was obviously drawn by me, not by Shatri or Judah. Hudis may not like my logic, but there was nothing misleading about it. It is a common and perfectly sensible practice to rely on secondary sources for data, quotes, etc. and then draw different political conclusions from this material. I hope that readers of our exchange will have an opportunity to review the corresponding passages in Judah’s book and determine whether this episode reveals my penchant for falsification or Hudis’ peculiar approach to reading.

4. Some of Hudis’ latest contentions border on the absurd. If I read him right, he seems to be saying that a community which fails to produce Green parties or a sufficiently lively press forfeits the right to self-determination; and that Morillon, Annan, and the United Nations have joined the pro-Serb conspiracy. He continues to think in icons, not in concepts; witness his palpable excitement at the prospect of a street named after Trotsky. For good measure, Hudis tosses in the assertion that ethnic exclusivism is the consequence, not the cause, of partition. And he remains befuddled by the idea that other leftists might actually have the audacity to inquire into the history and objectives of a “mass movement” that has gained his seal of approval. Forgetting the distance that separates him from this mass movement, he confuses dismissal of his own unconvincing arguments with dismissal of the “people of Kosovo.”

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