Mythologizing Kosovo: A Reply to Peter Hudis




[The following three articles – “Mythologizing Kosovo,” “Selective Indignation: Achilles Heel of the Left,” and “Viewing the Balkans from a Distance” – were written in 2000 and 2001 as part of an exchange with Marxist-Humanist author Peter Hudis. The exchange was supposed to appear in a collection of left debates on Kosovo edited by my friend Danny Postel, but the book project never reached publication. As far as I can determine, Hudis has not published his half of the exchange. In 2009, the tenth anniversary of the US and NATO bombing of Kosovo and Serbia, I decided to post all three of my articles from the exchange with Hudis at the Institute for Social Ecology website. Some context may help explain their origins: In the 1980s I was involved in solidarity work with various oppositional groups in Eastern Europe, including Yugoslavia, as part of the anti-Stalinist left, and I gave public talks in various places in the US attempting to get western radicals to learn about the struggles of their Eastern European counterparts, at a time when many leftists fell for the old enemy-of-my-enemy line in its Cold War version. After 1989 and the fall of the Stalinist regimes, those involved in these alternative political currents went in many different directions. When the civil war in Yugoslavia broke out in the early 1990s, western leftists and radical internationalists, whether anarchists or socialists or otherwise, once again found ourselves on opposing sides. The 1999 war over Kosovo brought these debates into sharp relief, particularly for US radicals. In September 2000 Danny Postel sent me a long article entitled “Kosovo: Achilles Heel of the Left” by Peter Hudis, from the group News and Letters, excoriating western leftists for failing to support the Kosovo Liberation Army. Danny and I had originally met at one of my 1980s talks about the Eastern European dissident left, and we had argued for years over Bosnia and Kosovo. The article by Hudis seemed to me to represent a more simplistic version of many of the positions that Danny himself promoted, and I wrote a thorough analysis and critique of Hudis’ argument and sent it to Danny as part of our ongoing critical discussion. Danny then asked to include it as part of the book he was compiling of left debates about the Kosovo war. With some hesitation, I agreed, and thus the exchange between Hudis and me developed from there, with Danny as editor. I no longer hold several of the positions I argue for in these debates, but I have decided to post the original essays substantially unmodified as examples of the potentials and pitfalls of international solidarity in a US context.   – Peter Staudenmaier]

The infant Achilles, as myth would have it, was dipped in the river Styx to make him invulnerable to attack, leaving only his heel unprotected. According to Peter Hudis, this sole vulnerable spot corresponds to the western left’s failure to embrace and support one of the many competing ethnic nationalist paramilitary organizations in the ongoing Balkan wars, the Kosovo Liberation Army. But this myth, like all others, cannot withstand the scrutiny of reason. There is nothing unique about either the conflict in Kosovo or the international left’s ambivalent response to it, and those who have declined to adopt the cause of any of the belligerent parties have in fact chosen a position more principled and politically responsible than Hudis’ own. Indeed it is Hudis who reveals a chronic vulnerability, namely selective indignation, which ultimately proves his downfall. In the end, this would-be Achilles of the left shoots himself in the foot.

Hudis has a fine sense of outrage at those western leftists who were foolish enough to fall for the oldest trick in the book: the enemy of my enemy is my friend. He also does a better job than other enthusiasts of the KLA at examining the roots of the U.S./NATO bombardment, and I’m glad to see that he unequivocally condemns it.

But it’s a bit late for that, and his unwillingness to take any responsibility for contributing to the ideological groundwork that made the U.S./NATO assault possible in the first place gives his fine words a hollow ring. Even when Hudis focuses on the analyses put forward by other leftists, his outrage is frequently misplaced, and the moral underpinnings of his argument are vitiated by his own embrace of nationalist mythology. Moreover, his positions on such crucial topics as genocide fall to pieces at the level of basic logical consistency. Most disheartening of all, in my view, is his refusal to engage in any comparative analysis, historical or contemporary, of the sole ethnic conflict which seems to have caught his attention.

In this respect, Hudis’ argument resembles that of best-selling author Daniel Goldhagen, and his article stands a good chance of playing the same role that Hitler’s Willing Executioners did: to make people indignant for exactly the wrong reasons while feeding them a version of events that severely misunderstands the historical and political reality.1 In other respects, Hudis’ article bears a resemblance to the current fad of “liberation nationalism” within the European New Right. These similarities are unsettling to those of us who have argued for ten years for an understanding of the Balkan context which promotes the same philosophical goals to which Hudis pledges allegiance. Hudis’ analysis unfortunately stands in contradiction to his own stated goals.

Hudis opens by invoking the specter of a partitioned Kosovo. It isn’t clear what Hudis and other would-be Balkan partisans have against partition as such, though Hudis seems to give away his hand with the remark about northern Kosovo as a haven for Serb war criminals. Yes, it is that, but only because it is a haven—the only haven—for any and all Serbs in Kosovo, most of whom are not war criminals. That is, after all, the logic of partition. If Hudis is harboring illusions about a binational state in Kosovo, he ought to come out and say so. If not, what exactly would he prefer instead of partition? Simply expelling all Serbs from Kosovo? And perhaps all the Roma, Montenegrins, Macedonians, Jews, Turks, and other non-Albanians as well? It is hard to see how this would fit his image of “human liberation.” I’d also quibble with Hudis’ contention that the KLA “has been disarmed and dismantled under U.S. dictate and replaced by a Kosova Protection Corps”; the backbone of that Corps is, of course, KLA cadres. Tim Judah’s book Kosovo: War and Revenge says forthrightly: “To all intents and purposes, the KPC is the KLA in mothballs.”2

Hudis thinks the KLA is simply “a national liberation army” representing “an oppressed people.” If the world were this simple, we could all spare ourselves twenty-page articles and just cheer for the good guys and boo the bad guys. His real complaint against the rest of us confused and complacent leftists is that we failed “to support the KLA during the war,” which he takes to be synonymous with “support of the people of Kosova.” Part of the reason some of us refused to support the KLA before, during, and after the war is that the KLA do not represent an emancipatory alternative and do not deserve left support. They are a largely right-wing nationalist movement with reactionary aims, the product of a downward spiral of competing chauvinist nationalisms. The conditions through which Albanian nationalism re-emerged in the late 20th century reinforced its regressive aspects. The political roots of the KLA specifically—it was hardly the only nationalist outfit on offer in Kosovo—lie in two primary sources: a National-Bolshevik faction which has been agitating for a Greater Albania since the 1970’s, and former Communist Party apparatchiks who administered the province’s misery until they were replaced by otherwise identical Serb counterparts. To return to power and administer the same misery, but with a purified populace, is the goal of these KLA cadres. The group’s leadership is committed to ethnocentric supremacy, and their popular support rests on accumulated ethnic resentment. Their stated goal was not to defend Kosovar civilians against Serb attacks, but rather to “liberate” the ethnic Albanians of Kosovo, Serbia, Montenegro, and Macedonia (presumably their brethren in Albania proper are already liberated, a fact which might come as a surprise to many Albanian citizens).

This is a revanchist project which leftists should reject. The KLA’s unpleasant tactics, well beyond the standard killings of “collaborators” etc., aren’t really the point. Even if the group scrupulously heeded the rules of war, the fact remains that of all the organizations which emerged over the past decade to lay claim to Albanian Kosovars’ allegiance, the KLA is the one most at odds with leftist goals. Their program, their structure, and their practice should not be promoted or defended by radicals. While Hudis trots out Adem Demaci in support of his case, he neglects to note some salient facts. I share Hudis’ admiration for Demaci’s vision of a Balkan confederation (though not much of his admiration for Demaci as a political figure), but it would help readers to know that after trading charges of treason with Thaci’s faction, Demaci quit his post in the KLA when the Rambouillet treaty was signed and went into exile under threat of death from the KLA.3 He denounced the U.S./NATO bombardment as an assault on both Serbs and Albanians and called on the population of Kosovo to resist the allied attack. Thus even if Hudis’ argument might have made some dim sense before Rambouillet, it can’t possibly be applied to western leftists “during the war.”

But the problem with his position goes deeper than that: Hudis seems to relegate the recent outburst of Albanian Kosovar xenophobia to the status of a troubling and puzzling fluke, rather than the logical unfolding of the very same nationalist premises he implicitly endorses. He makes it sound as if Kosovar violence against Roma populations and other non-Albanians is the result of a recent power shift within the KLA’s orbit. That’s like pretending that Jim Crow laws were instituted just because the wrong party won an election. Already in August 1999, Human Rights Watch reported that “the most serious incidents of violence … have been carried out by members of the KLA.”4 Tim Judah notes that this pattern has persisted even after the formal demilitarization of the KLA. Neither Human Rights Watch nor Judah can be considered friends of the Serbs. The KLA’s victims include not only the numerous non-Albanian ethnic groups in Kosovo (including Muslim Slavs), but also Albanian Kosovars whose nationalist fervor is judged to be insufficiently ardent. This extends even to outspoken Albanian Kosovar nationalists like Veton Surroi, who has dared to condemn the anti-Gypsy and anti-Serb pogroms and has faced KLA death threats for his efforts.

The ongoing violence by Kosovar Albanians against sundry ethnic Others is the obvious and foreseeable outgrowth of a “national liberation” politics in the Balkans. This has been the case throughout the past decade in every region of former Yugoslavia, and is the reason why in this context national liberation movements cannot represent “human struggles for liberation.” I don’t see how it is possible to take seriously Hudis’ story about the “struggle for a multiethnic society in Bosnia.” This myth was already counterfactual when pro-interventionist western leftists dreamed it in the early 1990s, as the briefest familiarity with Alija Izetbegovic’s actual politics will attest.

There was an active struggle for a multiethnic society in Bosnia was in the early 1940s. But Bosnia’s secessionist wars in the early 1990s were the historical opposite, indeed the very negation, of that earlier movement. The obvious fact that Milosevic’s opportunistic embrace of Greater Serbian revanchism started the avalanche of chauvinism does not magically transform Izetbegovic and his nationalist cohorts into harbingers of universal tolerance, nor does it make Bosnian Serb nationalism somehow fundamentally different from all the other competing nationalisms in the area. The kernel of truth in Hudis’ revisionist mythology of the Bosnian civil wars is that the Bosnian Muslim nationalist forces were considerably less criminal in their methods than their Croat or Serb adversaries/allies. But those are hardly sufficient grounds for enlisting the active support of revolutionary internationalists. Our political forebears didn’t go to Spain in order to support the lesser of three evils, they went to defend and take part in a revolutionary transformation of society.

Hudis goes on to argue that “the notion that has long defined the response of many Westerners to events in the Balkans” is “that the problem is one of ‘ancient tribal rivalries’ between equally reactionary forms of nationalism.” But this isn’t one notion, it’s two distinct notions, and by no means do the two always appear in tandem. The first claim (ancient tribal rivalries) is a mere prejudice, and Hudis is right to condemn it. The second claim, however, is unfortunately true: each of the nationalist movements that have sprung up in the former Yugoslavia since 1990 have been equally reactionary and equally inimical to the goals Hudis espouses. Hudis doesn’t offer an explanation of why Bosnian or Kosovar nationalist strivings are supposed to be benign, much less emancipatory. He can’t content himself with pointing out that these two nationalisms were the underdogs within the existing array of forces at the time; if being on the losing end of interethnic border disputes were sufficient to command the active support of leftists worldwide, we’d all have to start choosing sides in Kashmir, Ossetia, and not a few other places as well. Hudis doesn’t notice the gaping hole this leaves in his argument. Where are his angry articles denouncing the passivity and indifference of western leftists to the struggles for human liberation in Nagorno-Karabakh? And which side was the “right” one in that case, anyway? It also won’t do to point toward the unique brutality of Serb chauvinism as grounds for taking up the KLA’s colors. If that is Hudis’ motivation, I’m sorry to say he’s picked the wrong conflict; Serbian butchery can’t hold a candle to Russia’s annihilation of the Chechens or to the organized barbarism in Angola or the fratricidal catastrophe in the Sudan.

The only possible remaining reason, as far as I can see, for urging leftists to hoist the flag of the KLA on our rickety pole is the straightforward plea that this outfit was the only one capable of offering the Kosovars any effective resistance to the onslaught of their former neighbors, the Serbs. After a certain point, coinciding with the loss of influence of Rugova and his allies in the Democratic League of Kosovo, this was indeed the case, and Hudis seems to suggest that this alone was sufficient reason to back the KLA. But if that were true, it would entail a crucial corollary: we would also have been bound, under Hudis’ logic, to actively support the Serbian paramilitaries in the Croatian Krajina, as well as the Ustashe units in parts of Bosnia, at earlier stages of the war.5 Those, I imagine, are consequences that Hudis would reject. But how can he? Either people under threat of expulsion and destruction have a right to defend themselves with whatever means they choose (and, according to Hudis, a concomitant claim on the solidarity of internationalists everywhere), or they don’t. Hudis can’t pick and choose where he wants to apply his principle, otherwise it stops being a principle. This intractable contradiction is on full display when Hudis bemoans “the failure of those on the Left who opposed U.S. actions to come to the support of the people of Kosova.” Which people of Kosovo? Hudis only wants us to support one of the several peoples of Kosovo, but he never bothers to tell us why we should make such an ethically perilous choice.

Or does he? Hudis believes that the Albanian Kosovars were facing genocide, as the Bosnians had before them, in his version of events. It is unpleasant and unseemly to have to dissect that curiously foreshortened analysis, but it is necessary to do so, since Hudis indicates that the threat of genocide is enough to overcome leftists’ longstanding and well-founded reluctance to step into the mire of competing nationalisms. Hudis complains that “Independent radicals such as Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky, and David McReynolds focused all their wrath on U.S. actions, to the point of denying that genocide was even at issue.” This is yet another conflation of distinct positions. If, say, Chomsky had believed that genocide was about to occur in Kosovo, he would still have focused his wrath on U.S. actions. This is a position he has held for decades, and whatever one thinks of it, it is unrelated to his stance on the question of genocide. I must also note that the phrase “all their wrath” is inaccurate; all three of the named figures publicly condemned Milosevic’s policies.

But let’s get right to the heart of what Hudis calls the “real point”: What counts as genocide, and has it been going on in the Balkans? Hudis adopts the definition codified in the 1948 UN convention on genocide, which in his words refers to “a systematic effort to cause serious bodily or mental harm to a national, ethnic, racial or religious group simply because of the nature of that group.” Various perceptive critiques of that formulation have been put forth over the years, but what is most striking in this instance is Hudis’ refusal to stick to his own definition. He constantly slides back and forth between this extremely broad formulation and the much narrower common sense understanding of genocide as the wholesale physical destruction of a people. Consider, for example, Hudis’ assertion that the Serbs intended to “slaughter” the Kosovars, or his invocation of “the massacre of hundreds of thousands [of Bosnians] through a carefully orchestrated campaign”—a figure which is, by the way, significantly inflated. The emotional import of Hudis’ claims depends entirely on the much more stringent standard of genocide, which is, moreover, the far more widespread interpretation of the term. It’s also worth reminding ourselves that popular media accounts of the Balkan conflicts consistently placed the Serb treatment of both Bosnian Muslims and Albanian Kosovars into the common-sense paradigm of genocide, explicitly and repeatedly aligning the Kosovars and Bosnians with the Jews, the Serbs with the Nazis, and Milosevic with Hitler.

But even if we grant Hudis his preferred broad definition, he still contradicts himself by ridiculing the notion that “the killing of a few dozen Serbs by Kosovars” might constitute genocide, forgetting that by his own definition this notion is self-evidently true. And he completely cancels whatever merit his position might have had by flatly asserting, immediately after offering the definition quoted above, that “By this or any definition, Serbia’s war against Bosnia from 1992-95 was clearly genocidal.” By any definition? The American Heritage College Dictionary defines genocide as “the systematic and planned extermination of an entire national, racial, political, or ethnic group”. Webster’s College Dictionary defines it as “the deliberate and systematic extermination of a national, racial, political, or cultural group”. The American Heritage Dictionary defines it as “the systematic, planned annihilation of a racial, political, or cultural group”. Those definitions represent the predominant conception of genocide. And by this definition, the activities of Serb paramilitary units during the Bosnian civil war were clearly not genocidal. But don’t take it from me, take it from Hudis himself, who describes “the tactic, perfected by Serb paramilitaries in Bosnia, of surrounding a village in U-shape formation, killing and raping those caught in it while forcing the rest of the remaining civilians to flee.” What sort of extermination campaign depends on mass expulsion as its chief tactic? Or does Hudis perhaps think that when SS Einsatzgruppen descended on Jewish communities in Russia they gave the residents 24 hours to leave?

Genocidal operations attempt to kill all of their victims. That’s what makes them genocidal. The infliction of widespread misery, forced exile, property destruction and targeted or even random killing is of a fundamentally different character from deliberate and total physical annihilation. The two forms of radical evil are different in principle (which is not to say that the one does not sometimes become a prelude to the other). Brutal mass expulsions and violent population transfers—what is now captured under the term “ethnic cleansing”—are commonplaces of the early stages of state building. There is, regrettably, nothing unusual about them. They have been repeated dozens of times in the last century alone, on a scale much more massive than anything that happened in Bosnia or Kosovo. Silesia, Prussia, the Sudetenland, Palestine, Pakistan, India, the Bosporus—were these, too, instances of genocide? What sense would it make to charge the Czechs with genocide against the Sudeten Germans (as quite a few rightwing Germans do)? And what would we then call the partition of the Indian subcontinent, or the exchange of populations between Greece and Turkey—mutual genocide? If displacement and dispossession were the same thing as genocide, the word would lose most of its meaning and all of its moral force.

But Hudis’ argument isn’t merely historically naïve. It is incoherent in the context of the Balkans. He observes, accurately enough, that “the systematic nature of Serbia’s effort to ‘ethnically cleanse’ Kosova of over a million of its inhabitants would seem to meet the UN’s definition of genocide.” The problem is that the actions of every nationalist movement in the former Yugoslavia meet this definition. Both the KLA and the Bosnian Muslim nationalist leadership are guilty of genocide according to Hudis’ definition. That makes Hudis, by his own logic, an accomplice in genocide. This inability to think his own position through leads Hudis into self-parody. He decries “the sight of ‘independent’ radicals allying themselves, wittingly or not, with some of the most reactionary forces imaginable,” oblivious to the fact that this description fits himself considerably better than it does Chomsky, Zinn, McReynolds, or his other targets. Of this cast of characters, the only one who has explicitly endorsed any of the reactionary and violent nationalist forces involved is… Peter Hudis.

It might appear as if I’ve caricatured his position. But how else are we to make sense of it? Hudis thinks he is denouncing the KLA’s enemies, oblivious to the fact that his very formulations condemn the KLA as well. For example, Hudis’ own phrase “nationalist terror and widespread human rights violations” describe the KLA’s activities quite accurately. Or does Hudis think they’ve just been holding bake sales? Then there’s his phrase “a vulgar form of bandit capitalism, run by ex-apparatchiks from a Stalinist regime” – another deadly accurate depiction of the KLA’s background and current practices. Or how about this one: “The power of U.S. militarism has become so total and unrelenting that even anti-statist radicals are being drawn into apologizing for any force, no matter how reactionary, so long as it can be considered a bulwark against U.S. dominance.” Let’s read that sentence again, changing just one word: replace “U.S.” with “Serb”. Do we not then have a perfect characterization of Hudis’ own position? Or consider this sentence: “The radical critic, overcome with anger and frustration at the seeming absence of any subjective force capable of slowing down, let alone stopping, the U.S.’s drive for single world mastery, surrenders his ability to conceptualize a truly liberatory alternative and instead latches onto some existing political entity.” Substitute “Serbian drive for single mastery of the region” for “U.S.’s drive for single world mastery,” and once again you’ve got Hudis in a nutshell. Overwhelmed with fury at Milosevic’s murderous rampaging, Hudis has abandoned his critical faculties and thrown in his lot with a band of petty nationalist thugs, for no other reason than that they are fighting a stronger and meaner band of petty nationalist thugs. This is a shabby capitulation to the logic of nationalism, dressed up in revolutionary rhetoric. Hudis has moreover managed to project his own capitulation onto those who have, in fact, resisted it.

But it gets worse. Hudis’ fury blinds him to the elementary historical facts of the breakup of Yugoslavia. He fulminates against the “cantonization of Bosnia” while gloating approvingly over the prior cantonization of Yugoslavia. By what sort of logic can this position be sustained? His reference to “Bosnian soil” lays bare the aporia he has trapped himself in. Why exactly did some particular chunks of soil cease to be Yugoslav, and become Bosnian, upon the secession of Bosnia from the Yugoslav federation, and why did they not then become Serbian upon the secession of the Serb Republic from Bosnia? What possible principle could legitimate the first secession but not the second?

Hudis ratchets up his historical oblivion yet another notch with the genuinely bizarre claim that the U.S. “gave Milosevic carte blanche” from 1992 onward, indeed that Milosevic was “a virtual ally of the U.S. from 1995 to 1998.” Perhaps he has forgotten the U.S. bombing raids on Serb positions during the late phases of the Bosnian war, or the “cleansing” of the Krajina Serbs that was carried out with the direct involvement of the U.S. military, but I don’t think the belligerent parties have forgotten these incidents. Certainly the Croat high command would get a good chuckle at the thought of their buddies in the Pentagon backing Milosevic. This little fantasy seems to tie in neatly with Hudis’ portrait of Milosevic as the sole mastermind of Serb nationalist perfidy, pulling the strings from Belgrade. How does Hudis explain the ongoing bitter public acrimony between Belgrade and the leadership of the Krajina Serbs, the Bosnian Serbs, the Kosovo Serbs? What does he make of the economic embargo imposed by Milosevic on the Bosnian Serb Republic? The details of the war and its attendant diplomatic wrangling are inexplicable if one adopts the simplistic stance that Milosevic equals Serb nationalism as a whole.

Since Milosevic is in fact the major sponsor of Serbian irredentism, this sort of synecdoche is understandable, and I sometimes fall into it myself. But it is especially questionable in the context of Hudis’ broader rhetorical strategy; at this point simplification threatens to turn into falsification. In addition, Hudis’ one-dimensional account leaves both Slovenia and Tudjman’s Croatia (which was throughout the post-Yugoslav period more internally authoritarian and closer to traditional fascist political culture than Milosevic’s Serbia) completely off the hook. Any analysis of the breakup of Yugoslavia which does not put the timing, manner, and motivation of the Slovenian and Croatian secessions squarely at the center of the problem is doomed to tendentious mythologizing.

I share Hudis’ passionate insistence that “the real alternative to existing society” consists in “human struggles for liberation.” We part ways, however, on the question of just how those struggles manifest themselves in the Balkans today. Hudis sees them embodied in two particular national liberation movements (the Bosnian Muslims and the Kosovar Albanians), and perceives their utter negation in other particular national liberation movements in the same territory. This represents a failure of dialectical understanding as well as a failure of ethical judgement. Both failures can be encapsulated in the following question: What justifies the identification of human liberation with national liberation in this case? Why does Hudis ignore the massive and bloody evidence that, in the Balkans more than almost anywhere else today, a politics of national liberation is irreconcilable with human liberation? Indeed, that the attempt to pursue national liberation in this context led to the human catastrophe in the first place, and has brought liberation to no-one? The most confounding thing about Hudis’ line is that the necessarily barbaric consequences of a national liberation politics in post-Yugoslavia were entirely foreseeable from their very emergence, and have gotten steadily more inhumane and anti-liberatory at each stage in the unfolding crisis.

Hudis is enraged that, despite the overwhelming desire for independence on the part of the Albanian Kosovars, “many on the Left not only failed to extend even minimal solidarity with them, but even adduced arguments challenging the very concept of self-determination.” Perhaps Hudis has never before encountered left critiques of national self-determination. Or perhaps he has examined them and found them wanting.6 Even if the latter is the case, he has some explaining to do here. If leftists have a general duty to come to the support of threatened movements for self-determination, then Hudis himself failed the test on at least two occasions during the Balkan wars: the Serbs of Bosnia and the Serbs of the Croatian Krajina. Let’s take a brief look at the latter of those two cases, which is especially pertinent here because of its several direct tie-ins to the Kosovo conflict.

The Krajina Serbs voted in a referendum in May 1991 to secede from Croatia, just as the Kosovars did a few months later. In June 1991 (i.e. after the referendum on self determination) Croatia seceded from Yugoslavia. As far as I can tell from Hudis’ version of Yugoslav history, he endorses the later secession but not the prior one. Why? The Krajina Serbs’ voting patterns in local and regional elections indicate that they did not turn to Serbian nationalist politics until after Tudjman’s anti-Serb campaign within the Croatian lands was well underway. These facts are well documented and not in dispute. What does Hudis have to say about them? Why does he not berate himself for failing to stand up for self-determination? And this particular failure – in contrast to Kosovo, where the supposed failure was more than made up for by the hard work of the U.S. air force – had real and dire consequences. Some 200,000 Serbs left Croatia after the 1991 secession. They were unwillingly followed four years later by the entire Serb community of the Krajina, more than 150,000 people, which was “cleansed” by Croat and Bosnian forces (with the active participation of U.S. military personnel) in a little blitzkrieg officially dubbed “Operation Storm.” This brutal action was publicly endorsed by President Clinton, ostensible ally of Serb nationalist ambitions at the time. Misha Glenny calls the 1995 purge of the Krajina Serbs “the largest single exodus in Europe since the expulsion of the Sudeten Germans.”7

Glenny was right at the time, but now even the Krajina has been outdone by Kosovo: according to the Red Cross, just under 250,000 Serbs (along with many Roma) left Kosovo for Serbia between June and November 1999, thanks to NATO and the KLA. By the way, the Bosnian army took part in Operation Storm, in violation of international law, and committed war crimes, such as the shelling of a refugee caravan. At the time two Kosovar Albanians, Tom Berisha and Agim Ceku, were generals in the Croatian army. Ceku was one of the commanders of Operation Storm. He later became chief of staff of the KLA. And what do you suppose became of all those Krajina Serbs expelled from the territory they had lived in for centuries? The Belgrade authorities began resettling them in Kosovo. Thus did the downward spiral continue its fateful course.

Why does Hudis seem entirely uninterested in arresting that spiral? Why does he, rather, seem eager to continue it? Why didn’t News & Letters compare Operation Storm to the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto?8 Why are some self determination struggles more equal than others? What can possibly account for Hudis’ selective indignation? Turning back to his essay for answers to these vexing questions, we find Hudis ridiculing an eminently reasonable quote from Omar Dahbour about the contradictions inherent in state-building nationalisms. Dahbour’s logic is thoroughly compelling, but instead of responding to it Hudis poses what he takes to be a rhetorical question: “One wonders what would be the reaction if such reasoning were applied to the Palestinians or East Timorese.” “If”? Someone should let Hudis in on the fact that many anarchists and anti-nationalists—including a significant number of those active in Palestinian and Timorese solidarity work—apply this reasoning in all cases, rather than picking and choosing as he does. Someone might also point out to him that this principled rejection of statist nationalism hardly constitutes a challenge to “the very concept of self-determination,” but only to one of its most manifestly unsuccessful variants. Finally, someone might ask Hudis if he would have “failed to extend even minimal solidarity” to the Southern Confederacy had he been alive in 1860. Or whether he finds himself in solidarity with the Confederacy’s would-be revivalists today.

I can’t resist a quick aside about Hudis’ downplaying of the KLA’s involvement in drug running. As far as I’m concerned, making one’s living selling illicit substances is no more dishonorable than making one’s living selling licit ones, so the charge has never struck me as very important. But Hudis can’t get around the issue just by citing Green Left Weekly (which is as helpful, in this context, as citing Socialist Worker). The common understanding in Switzerland and Germany in the latter half of the 1990s was that Kosovar Albanians pretty much had a lock on Central Europe’s heroin trade. That doesn’t, of course, tell us anything about the KLA as such or about its sources of income. But the hypothesis isn’t farfetched, and it can’t count as an “incredible lie” unless Hudis can produce some sort of evidence that the KLA’s fundraisers have steadfastly avoided this lucrative option. Absent such counter-evidence, the hypothesis has motive, opportunity, and significant circumstantial evidence on its side. It might turn out to be false, but neither “incredible” nor a “lie.” (Readers may consult Judah’s book Kosovo, p. 70, for more on the Kosovar heroin dealing issue.)

Halfway through his article, Hudis at last mentions what would seem to be the obvious historical parallel to Kosovo: Ireland. But even this one he gets wrong in every important way. Instead of noting the unmistakable problems which Irish Republicanism raises for a straightforwardly national liberation politics applied to an ethnically mixed area (or does Hudis believe that the Ulster Protestants should simply be shipped back to Scotland en masse?), he directs our attention to the context of inter-imperialist rivalry in World War I. This analogy might have made sense if the Austrian or German air force had spent WWI sending air raids over the whole of the UK, thereby massacring civilians and destroying the country’s infrastructure. Hudis seems to have forgotten the crucial differences that separate a war between competing imperialist powers of roughly similar military and geopolitical strength from an all-out assault by the combined forces of the world’s major imperialist powers against one minor local imperialist state. The fact that England came out of WWI victorious ought to be enough to make the differences plain. Perhaps Hudis is unable to see the continuities between Desert Storm and Operation Storm, or between Iraq and Kosovo, but those who design and implement U.S. imperial strategy are acutely aware of them.

And at the end of the same paragraph, as if pulled by an inexorable force, Hudis falls yet again into special pleading: “radical critics of the air war failed to show sensitivity to or understanding toward the victims of ethnic cleansing.” Which victims of ethnic cleansing does he have in mind? The Krajina Serbs resettled in Kosovo? The Roma? The teenagers gunned down in a pool hall by the KLA in 1998? Why is it that Hudis can only keep one group of victims in his head at any one time? Does he believe that the other ethnic communities in Kosovo were all objective accomplices in the attempt to cleanse the Albanians? But hardly have we had time to ponder this mystery before Hudis confronts us with another one. Using Ian Williams as a stand-in, he intones, “There was a time when the Left supported liberation struggles by oppressed peoples.” Ah, for the good old days, when the oppressed were oppressed and the Left supported them. Just what “time” do Hudis/Williams have in mind here? The Boer war perhaps? What was the correct line of “the Left” then? Arms to the British? To the Boers? To the Zulus? Revolutionary defeatism? Or perhaps they’re thinking of more recent years—say, the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia. Now, there, of course, we all supported… well, gosh, who did we support? The humanitarian intervention of the Vietnamese military? Or the only effective resistance to their imperialist encroachment, the Khmer Rouge? For all I know Hudis actually has an answer to that question, and can quote me the appropriate passages from Dunayevskaya’s pen in 1979.9

The point is that “the Left” has never affected a unified posture of abstract “support” in any challenging or complex international situation. Who ever “called for unconditional support for the IRA, for the ANC, for SWAPO” anyway? Can either Hudis or Williams come up with a single left organization that actually proclaimed its unconditional support for all three of those entities (much less for “hundreds of other acronyms”)? Even if they could, why should such a patently foolish stance have any claim on the rest of us? And what about all the left groupuscles in North America that, far from supporting the IRA or the ANC, denounced those organizations as bourgeois nationalists and instead extended their support to their rivals, such as the INLA and the PAC? These are not minor details. The history of western leftists’ relationships with national liberation struggles elsewhere in the world is filled with conflict, competition and complexity. Why does Hudis try to wish this all away in favor of a mythical left that unproblematically supported any and all would-be national liberators who happened to come along? That myth is not only wildly inaccurate, it’s downright frightening. If the left really had behaved in such an unconscionably naive fashion, it would be our duty today to overcome this simplistic and uncritical notion of “support.” But Hudis wants us to proudly reclaim it!

Would Hudis have been out in the streets in 1987 demanding arms for the Miskito Indians to defend themselves against the Sandinistas? Why not? Would he have volunteered on the side of the Argentine dictatorship in the Falklands war? Why not? Both faced vastly superior forces. Both had stronger claims to the particular chunks of soil under dispute than their adversaries. Has Hudis, heaven forbid, satisfied himself with a “less than total view” of these conflicts? But the truly deafening silence here is on Chechnya, a war which is structurally nearly identical to that in Kosovo and whose level of wanton bloodshed is immensely greater. Readers of Hudis’ article will not find a single reference to it. How can a “total view” of the wars in ex-Yugoslavia fail to take any notice of the concurrent wars being fought over precisely the same issues a couple hours flight to the east? This sort of elementary comparative analysis would make Hudis’ special pleading impossible. Or is it only wars which get lots of footage on the nightly news that are worthy of his dialectical contemplation? And once Hudis gets done with his withering analysis of the western left’s complacency and indifference on Chechnya, he’ll have to get started on the article about the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. And then there’s Sierra Leone… The guy’s got his work cut out for him.

Hudis wrote an essay about Kosovo, of course, not about all these other places. Why not just take it on its own terms? It would probably be preferable to do that, but Hudis makes it difficult by constantly berating other leftists for having supposedly missed the special nature of this one conflict. How can it be special if he doesn’t bother to place it in any comparative framework? To choose his own example, Hudis doesn’t even try to grapple with Chomsky’s wider argument in The New Military Humanism, which depends centrally on comparative examples like Colombia and the Kurds. Those situations would also seem to be ideal test cases for Hudis’ criterion of “support” for national liberation struggles, but he leaves them, and Chomsky’s treatment of them, unaddressed. How then can he lodge the charge of inconsistency against Chomsky? Given its overarching argument, with U.S. power and its attendant mystification at the center, Chomsky’s abstention regarding the KLA is no more inconsistent than his relative reticence to speak out on, say, Tibet. Yet the KLA is the only theme Hudis hammers away on—aside from his other favorite, Bosnia. Surely the KLA leadership’s direct involvement in ethnic cleansing in the Krajina is just as relevant in this context, but Hudis doesn’t have a word to say on the matter. Indeed one might think Hudis would feel a special obligation to include comparative examples in support of his case, since the political principle underlying that case is hardly uncontroversial from a radical point of view.

Hudis is particularly exercised about the thought experiment Chomsky offers about guerrilla attacks, supported by a foreign power, on the U.S. mainland seeking independence for Puerto Rico. Chomsky’s point—perfectly clear in the context of p. 31 of The New Military Humanism—is about the normal behavior of states in response to acts of aggression within their territory. It is neither an endorsement nor a criticism of that behavior, merely a device to expose the double standard which characterizes U.S. discourse on official enemies. Hudis mistakes it for an invitation to imagine what the response of U.S. anti-imperialists would be to such hypothetical attacks. Not surprisingly, the analogy can’t hold that weight, though now that Hudis has brought it up, it deserves examination, which I’ll get to in a moment. But first take a look at what Hudis does with this example. He claims that Chomsky, having supposedly misunderstood the import of his own analogy, uses it to “attack the supporters of Kosova independence.” No such attack is to be found on this or any other page of Chomsky’s book; he simply has nothing whatsoever to say on the topic of Kosovo independence or its supporters. In fact, in the quoted passage Chomsky takes no stance one way or the other even on the question of Puerto Rican independence, since it is immaterial to his thought experiment. Hudis not only misses that rather unsubtle point, but manages to radically misconstrue Chomsky’s larger claim about Serbia as an official enemy within mainstream U.S. discourse. He takes Chomsky’s description of Serbia as “one of those disorderly miscreants that impedes the institution of the U.S.-dominated global system” to be evidence that Chomsky has become “a virtual apologist for Milosevic.” This interpretation would be plausible if Chomsky did not in the same pages judge Milosevic in the harshest possible terms, or if he did not explicitly defend the logically consistent position that regimes which serve as impediments to U.S. domination are not themselves necessarily worthy of support (a position the budding state-builder Hudis might do well to study). But Chomsky does both of those things, thus Hudis’ interpretation collapses.

How about Hudis’ comparison between the Puerto Rican independence movement and the KLA? I suppose I should give him credit for at least introducing a comparative dimension to his analysis, even if backhandedly. But alas, this particular example doesn’t help his argument at all. The differences between the two movements are profound, and they embody the two basic options for a national liberation politics in today’s world. The KLA’s politics are, in the words of one of its experienced cadres, referring to a predecessor organization, “purely nationalist,”10 with no developed social program of any kind, much less an emancipatory one. Puerto Rican independentistas, in contrast, aren’t fighting for a separate country for its own sake, but rather as a necessary prerequisite of fundamental social change. An even more striking contrast is the attitude toward the colonial power: the KLA has no interest whatsoever in the conditions of life in Serbia proper, not even those of the large ethnic Albanian communities in Belgrade; indeed the KLA typically looks askance at these latter communities because of their suspicious cosmopolitanism. (It’s also worth noting that the continued and unmolested existence of these Albanian neighborhoods in Belgrade throughout the NATO bombardment, as well as afterwards, is further evidence that the Serbs’ intentions toward the Kosovars are not genocidal). Puerto Rican revolutionaries, on the other hand, have been actively involved in other left movements on the U.S. mainland for decades, and indeed two of the major independentista strongholds are not on the island but in Chicago and New York. What counterpart do these endeavors have within the KLA’s program or practice?

A further instructive contrast is offered by the Zapatistas (whose full name, of course, is the Zapatista Army of National Liberation—once again pointing to the widely divergent trajectories which national liberation movements can take). Far from pursuing a “purely nationalist” politics, the EZLN has from the very beginning insisted that the liberation of the peoples of Chiapas is inseparable from the fate of all other peoples in Mexico, indeed in the rest of the hemisphere. The Zapatista struggle points beyond merely national or ethnic self-interest; it points in both universal and emancipatory directions. The KLA does just the reverse, urging its base to look no further for its salvation than national unity and a homogenous population. This vision leaves little room for the hidden dynamic of “human liberation” which Hudis claims to discern within the KLA’s political logic.

Even his fall-back claim about the KLA’s crucial defensive role doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Hudis characterizes his favorite nationalist paramilitaries as “fighters against genocide in Bosnia and Kosova.” That formulation conveniently forgets about the active role played by KLA leaders in ethnic cleansing both in Croatia in 1995 and in Kosovo in 1999, just a year ago now. This ought to make Hudis more circumspect about equating support for the KLA with “a stand against ethnic terror.” If that is the stand Hudis really wants to take, then he’ll have to re-write his whole essay, since support for the KLA is flatly incompatible with a rejection of ethnic terror. Even Hudis concedes that Demaci’s vision of a multinational “Balkania” never found a receptive audience within the KLA. Indeed at other points in the article he obliquely admits the role of (some) KLA leaders in fomenting the anti-Serb and anti-Gypsy violence, but tries to avoid the obvious conclusion by pointing to the broad political composition of the group and its “left” elements. This is culpably naive. What does Hudis think Milosevic’s own bloc is made up of, for goodness sake? Or virtually any nationalist coalition, for that matter? The chief ideologist of the National Democratic Party, the major far-right organizational forum in Germany today, is a former instructor in the principles of Marxism-Leninism who was a member of the ex-Communist party until two years ago. This sort of crossover is a commonplace among reactionary nationalists.

Hudis’ ideological maneuvering on this score begs several fundamental questions. Why exactly did he choose to bet on the KLA’s horse, and not one of the other Albanian Kosovar nationalist movements that emerged in the 1990s, such as the Armed Forces of the Republic of Kosovo, for example? Merely because the KLA prevailed in the internal power struggle? The question becomes even more acute in the case of Bosnia, Hudis’ self-chosen test case. Izetbegovic’s SDA (Party of Democratic Action) had to marginalize the Muslim Bosnian Organization before it could consolidate its rule within the territory it held. Why was one up-and-coming national elite more worthy of Hudis’ support than the other? And what did Hudis have to say about the Republic of Western Bosnia, a breakaway anti-Izetbegovic Bosnian Muslim statelet in the Bihac region under the leadership of Fikret Abdic that was eventually crushed by the Bosnian army in tandem with the cleansing of the Krajina Serbs? (Abdic’s Muslim forces had depended on the military support of the Krajina Serbs; when the latter were routed by the combined Bosnian regulars and the Croats, it was all over for the short-lived Republic of Western Bosnia. Hudis and his companions prefer to forget these seemingly unusual but quite frequent alliances, precisely because of their significance to understanding the Yugoslav wars. To make the point bluntly: if the Serbs really were trying to implement a genocidal campaign against Bosnian Muslims, they were spectacularly inconsistent about it.)

Why didn’t Abdic’s enclave count as an instance of national self-determination by an oppressed people? And those are the easy examples, from Hudis’ perspective. Let’s try this one on him: the struggle of Bosnia’s Serbs for national self-determination. Serbs constituted a third of the population of Bosnia, living on a considerably larger proportion of the land mass of the province (to simplify somewhat: for reasons having to do with the urban/rural divide and the Ottoman legacy, Serbs populated much of the countryside of Bosnia while ethnic Muslims predominated in the cities and towns). The Serbs were the largest of the “national” groups in Bosnia who favored remaining in the Yugoslav federation after the secession of Slovenia and Croatia. When the Bosnian government declared its own independence from Yugoslavia, the Bosnian Serbs in turn declared an independent Serb Republic as their own preferred form of self-determination, with the eventual goal of re-uniting with a Greater Serbia. What, in Hudis’ eyes, would be the substantial differences between this movement for national self determination and that of the Albanian Kosovars? The revanchist attempt to claim as much territory as possible hardly distinguishes the Bosnian Serbs from the Kosovars, any more than the long-term goal of unifying with the larger ethnic state next door. So just what is it that prevented Hudis from coming to the support of the Bosnian Serb struggle for national self-determination? The fact that it employed savage methods wouldn’t be a meaningful answer, since Hudis does not outline any criteria for judging the actual behavior of national liberation movements but rather urges abstract “support” for them. Why was it absent in this case?

The problems with Hudis’ warped interpretive lens worsen the closer we look at the realities of the contemporary Balkans. What is his position on the self-determination of the Albanian communities in Macedonia (over a third of the population)? What about the Muslim Slavs of southern Kosovo? The Hungarian settlements scattered throughout southeastern Europe? How can we hope to make sense of these situations, much less come up with humane responses to them, by forcing them into the binary logic of national liberation? Even for liberals, even for reformists, for social democrats, for the blandest human rights centrists, it makes absolutely no sense to preach a national liberation politics in the former Yugoslavia, any more than it does in, say, Indonesia, or Fiji. For radicals to do so borders on delusional. There is no straightforward, unidirectional history of colonization here, but rather a complicated and multilayered legacy of empire and conquest which left behind fluid borders and dispersed ethnic communities. Closing our eyes to this situation won’t make it go away. But Hudis keeps his eyes firmly shut to these realities, all the while complaining about what other radicals aren’t seeing. Of Karel Kosik he huffs, “How could he forsake the effort to view reality from the vantage point of the mass subjectivity of the oppressed Albanians of Kosova?” For someone as steeped in Hegel as Hudis is, he appears to have entirely forgotten the crucial role of the dialectic of particular and universal. He might as well ask, how could we forsake to view reality from the vantage point of the mass subjectivity of the oppressed Lapps of Finland? Or the oppressed Quebecois? Or the oppressed Lombard Leagues of northern Italy? Or the oppressed Freemen of Montana? Or the oppressed Aryan Nations of Idaho, under attack by the FBI? Reducing our view of reality to a single vantage point is a rather undialectical notion.

Kosovo is not simply a case of one oppressed people facing off against its foes. Kosovo is a case of rival nationalisms, each with a measure of legitimate claim to at least some of the territory under dispute. But it’s more than that; it’s also a case of rival imperialisms—that of the U.S. and its NATO partners/surrogates on one side and that of Serbia on the other. And these two dynamics, which are already much too complex to be captured under a simplistic rubric of national liberation, are moreover superimposed on a historical and economic context which exacerbates both rivalries, a context which gave rise to the polarizing nationalist strivings in the first place. Why have the heirs of Trotsky forgotten the theory of combined and uneven development, which might have helped understand the background to the conflicts in Bosnia? Why have Marxists discarded their chief contribution to social analysis, the critique of political economy? It’s not as if the complexity of the Balkan situation is beyond human comprehension. But it will take more than paeans to the mass subjectivity of brave national warriors to formulate an emancipatory and just alternative to the violence and inhumanity that have engulfed the former Yugoslavia. The alternative explanation to the “ancient hatreds” line which Hudis rightly rejects is to diagnose the social factors that gave rise to the seemingly inescapable tide of nationalism among nearly all the constituent peoples of the old Yugoslav federation in the first place.11

But even those who do not subscribe to this particular etiology of the Balkan crisis should be able to see the hypocrisy built in to Hudis’ stance. His plea on behalf of the KLA is another version of the same enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend logic which he properly denounces when other leftists engage in it. Instead of trying to honestly confront the problem of nationalism, he celebrates it. Personally I don’t think that’s appropriate even in cases of clear-cut anti-colonial and anti-imperialist struggles, but we’ll leave that question aside. In any event it is plainly inappropriate in ex-Yugoslavia, where there is no straightforward correspondence of geography and demographics, much less an obvious solution to the problem of equitable distribution of formerly common resources. To apply a traditional politics of national liberation in this context of thoroughgoing national imbrication is to court disaster.

Hudis himself seems peripherally aware of this contradiction, as when he condemns the vile turn Mihailo Markovic took in the late 1980s toward “collaboration with ethnic chauvinism.” If Hudis weren’t guilty of the very same sort of collaboration, we might be able to take his anger at Markovic at face value. Hudis refers disparagingly to the infamous 1986 memorandum co-authored by Markovic, which, in Hudis’ words, “claimed that Serbs in Kosova were being subjected to ‘genocide’ by the Albanian minority and called on the central authorities to take strong action on behalf of Serb nationalist interests.” Aside from the puzzling reference to “the Albanian minority” (Kosovo’s population was more than 80 per cent Albanian at the time), Hudis fails to note that it was this memorandum that started the inflationary abuse of the term “genocide” in the Yugoslav context, a fact which puts him in the same lineage of nationalist demagogues as Markovic. And as despicable as the 1986 memorandum was, at least it raised the concerns of the Turkish and Montenegrin minorities in Kosovo, whom Hudis deems unworthy of any notice whatsoever. Last, we might note that Milosevic’s initial response to the memorandum was harshly negative; he called it “the darkest nationalism.” Milosevic’s rejection of nationalist propaganda is about as consistent as Hudis’.

Hudis wants to adopt the KLA’s purely nationalist project into the pantheon of “freedom struggles” over the last half century in Eastern Europe. When I gave public talks on the East European left back in the 1980s, I always made a point of distinguishing those dissident groups—in Yugoslavia as elsewhere—which displayed an emancipatory tendency from those which were merely restorative, pro-capitalist or nationalist in orientation. I argued that the western left should support the former and not the latter, except possibly on tactical grounds and on an ad-hoc basis. Hudis seems to grasp this distinction, since he uses it to rebut the free market myth-making of Bronislaw Geremek et al, and he draws our attention to the explicitly socialist trajectory of the Hungarian, Czech, and Polish uprisings. Why doesn’t this prompt him to inquire just what sort of socialist trajectory animates the KLA? Phrases like “rank and file Kosovars” suggest that Hudis has promoted the Kosovars from the status of a nation to that of a class, and invested them with all the historical hopes Leninists traditionally associate with such status. It is difficult to see what “liberatory dimension” the KLA opens up, or how it represents “new human relations freed from domination.” Hudis has chosen the wrong historical subject to carry his revolutionary aspirations.

The farcical thing about this tragic derailment of radical thought is that Hudis’ direct political forebears held a position diametrically opposed to the one he espouses now. The Johnson-Forest tendency (the name given to the far left current within the U.S. Trotskyist movement associated with C.L.R. James and Raya Dunayevskaya) refused to take sides in World War II. Perhaps Hudis considers this a colossal failing, and in hindsight the rest of us might agree with him. But within the context of the U.S. left in the 1940’s this principled opposition to all imperialisms, all militarisms, all expansive nationalisms stands out for its honesty and courage. It was an honorable stance, and consistent with the tendency’s political goals. Johnson-Forest also remained neutral in the Korean war; indeed they didn’t even support Tito in his split with Stalin—they insisted that neither side, neither ruling elite, should be supported by revolutionaries. And Tito was genuinely committed to a multinational politics in Yugoslavia. If that was all it took to enlist faraway militants onto your side, Dunayevskaya and James would have been Tito’s most forceful backers. Perhaps the clearest parallel to the choices facing leftists in the Balkans today, however, came in the course of a 1942 discussion within the Workers Party, to which the Johnson-Forest tendency belonged at the time. The discussion focused on Chinese resistance against the Japanese occupation, an onslaught considerably more savage than anything seen in Kosovo. In light of the nationalist and Stalinist leadership of the Chinese resistance, the Workers Party declined to support them because “with China taking part in the war on the ‘Allied’ side, the Chinese people’s struggle for national liberation had been completely subordinated to the imperialist aims of the ‘Allies’, and was, therefore, not supportable.”12 If Hudis is really as shocked as he affects to be that leftists could possibly hesitate before supporting a bona fide national liberation movement – especially one that has, whether he likes it or not, been subordinated to the imperialist aims of the U.S. – he might do well to re-acquaint himself with his own group’s history.

After we strip away the selective outrage and the question-begging rhetoric, there’s not a whole lot left to Hudis’ position. Disavowing even the superior wisdom of his mentor Dunayevskaya, he is reduced to one of those “romantic sympathisers with the sovereign independence of selected peoples” that Eric Hobsbawm discusses in Nations and Nationalism Since 1780.13 In that book, Hobsbawm contrasts earlier national struggles which were “typically unificatory as well as emancipatory” with more recent variants: “The current [1990’s] phase of essentially separatist and divisive ‘ethnic’ group assertion has no such positive programme or prospect. This is demonstrated by the mere fact that, for want of any genuine historical project, it attempts to recreate the original Mazzinian model of the ethnically and linguistically homogenous territorial nation-state.”14 This view, and its applicability to the Balkans, is echoed by Miroslav Hroch, who argues that nationalism in Eastern Europe today is “a substitute for factors of integration in a disintegrating society. When society fails, the nation appears as the ultimate guarantee.”15

The task of leftists is not to promote superficial illusions such as these. Perhaps Hudis genuinely believes that triumphalist chauvinism in the guise of “national liberation” will bring justice, prosperity, and peace to Kosovo. Or perhaps he does not, but is trapped within a peculiar myopia inherited from the western left’s decades-long romance with faraway national struggles, and can’t bring himself to think outside of those restrictive and reductionist categories. This rethinking is long overdue. As Brian Walker notes, “Nationalism in the nineteenth century frequently went hand in hand with movements for democratization and the extension of rights and the creation of democratic constitutions. But few modern nationalisms have this progressive thrust and their projects of aligning political boundaries with the boundaries of particular ethnic communities seem—in a world where there are many more peoples than can practicably have states—inherently destructive and destabilizing.”16

In his analysis of the Balkans, Hudis has somehow missed the inherently destructive and destabilizing tendency of the national liberation approach he champions so vigorously. In contrast, skeptics like Bhikhu Parekh hold that “the very language of nationality, nationhood, and even national identity is deeply suspect. It cannot avoid offering a homogenized, reified, and ideologically biased abridgement of a rich, complex, and fluid way of life, and setting up false contrasts and impregnable walls between political communities. […] even well-intentioned liberals and socialists cannot theorize political life in that language without succumbing to its corrupting and pernicious logic.”17 Hudis seems to have succumbed.

But even for those leftists who do not share such skepticism toward the politics of national liberation, Hudis has little to offer. In its refusal to engage the historical specificity of the region and its many peoples, his analysis of Kosovo is a serious step backward from the insights of Frantz Fanon, Paulo Freire, and many others into the dynamics of neocolonial oppression. It represents the self-refutation of the Leninist approach to self-determination—an approach which was already in an advanced stage of ideological decomposition—as well as of the underlying Marxian paradigm of oppressor nationalisms and oppressed nationalisms. Hudis’ enthusiasm for the KLA amounts to a purely defensive re-affirmation of national unity in the face of actual dispossession and denigration. To adopt such a stance today, in Kosovo more than anywhere else, is to abandon hope for human liberation, or even for fundamental social change.


1. Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996). Also see Norman G. Finkelstein and Ruth Bettina Birn, eds., A Nation on Trial: The Goldhagen Thesis and Historical Truth (New York: Metropolitan Books, 1998); Robert R. Shandley, ed., Unwilling Germans?: The Goldhagen Debate (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998); Geoff Eley, ed., The Goldhagen Effect: History, Memory, Nazism—Facing the German Past (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000).

2. Kosovo: War and Revenge (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000), p. 300. Judah is the former Balkan correspondent for the Times of London and The Economist, and author of the 1997 book The Serbs: History, Myth, and the Destruction of Yugoslavia (Yale).

3. In the original version of this essay, I claimed that Demaci went into exile in Ljubljana in March 1999. This claim was inaccurate, as Hudis pointed out in his rejoinder.

4. Quoted in Judah, Kosovo, p. 290.

5. Ustashe refers to the fascist movement in power in Croatia during World War II, as well as to Croatian nationalist paramilitary units during the Balkan wars of the 1990s.

6. For a brief, incisive overview of historical left debates on this question, see Michael Löwy, Fatherland or Mother Earth? Pluto Press 1999. Löwy reaches conclusions opposite my own; I belong to the anti-nationalist tradition of Landauer and Luxemburg.

7. Misha Glenny, The Fall of Yugoslavia: The Third Balkan War (New York: Penguin, 1996, 3rd ed.), p. 284.

8. News & Letters is a Chicago-based paper for which Hudis writes. It is published by the News and Letters Committees, an organization that describes itself as Marxist-Humanist. During an earlier phase of the Balkan wars, the group compared the siege of Sarajevo to the Warsaw ghetto uprising. [The News and Letters group split in 2008, with Hudis, in my view, on the saner side of the split; his faction currently calls itself the Marxist-Humanist Tendency.]

9. Raya Dunayevskaya was the founder of the News and Letters Committees and the architect of its Marxist-Humanist philosophy.

10. Quoted in Judah, Kosovo, p. 106.

11. On this subject I recommend Susan Woodward, Balkan Tragedy: Chaos and Dissolution after the Cold War (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 1995) as an antidote to Hudis’ partial and partisan account. While Woodward would likely disagree with several of the arguments I’ve made here, her book is among the best recent scholarly treatments of the topic available in English.

12. Christopher Z. Hobson and Ronald D. Tabor, Trotskyism and the Dilemma of Socialism (New York: Greenwood Press, 1988), p. 277.

13. E.J. Hobsbawm, Nations and Nationalism since 1780: Programme, Myth, Reality (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992, 2nd ed.), p. 170.

14. Ibid.

15. Quoted in Hobsbawm, p. 173. See also Ernest Gellner, “Nationalism and Politics in Eastern Europe” New Left Review 189 (1991), 127-34.

16. Walker in Ronald Beiner, ed., Theorizing Nationalism (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999) p. 160.

17. Parekh in Beiner, Theorizing Nationalism, p. 324.