This is the third part in our series, you can find the initial outline of the series and the articles on Turkey and India here:
If you want to share your experiences, let us know!
In this article I don’t try to give a full picture of the work undertaken by the campaign. I hope you will watch an interview I gave to Labournet TV before reading this piece. (link below) The issues I raise here only really make sense if you get a picture of the scope of the campaign and the large numbers of people who became involved across Europe.
In 1992 and 93 the wars in Yugoslavia were watched with growing horror by many people in the UK and elsewhere. Like them I found the daily images of ethnic cleansing terrible to watch, but felt completely paralysed by such barbarism. I knew very little about Yugoslavia but if the workers there were caught up in this vicious ethnic hatred what could anyone do?
Then a series of letters arrived from a Serbian socialist drawing a very different picture of events. Filled with hatred of both the old Stalinist regime and the Serbian nationalism that it engendered, he wrote that after the death of Tito (Yugoslavia’s Stalinist leader) and the break-up of the USSR, Yugoslav workers from all ethnic backgrounds had tried to defend their jobs, wages etc. as the economy collapsed. Against this working class struggle the local political elites, foreign capital and gangsters had all sought to gain control over Yugoslavia’s socialised property – industries were nominally owned by their work force. The wars were not the eruption of ancient ethnic hatreds as the media and global politicians would have us believe but the result of this clash between an incoherent working class defence of their rights and the privatising ‘vultures’ who had to find ways to divide and rule. This was a totally modern war fought on the vestiges of all the empires that have sought to rule the Balkans – Ottomans, Austro-Hungarian, Russia and now the EU and USA.
Yugoslavia was a federation of 6 republics and 2 autonomous regions all with their own parliaments, all with their own separate religious and ethnic histories. The most violent ethnic cleansing took place in Bosnia precisely because this was the meeting point of these different ethnicities and a reflection of the different empires that had ruled the region and left their religious mark. Its population was roughly a third Croat (people who had Roman Catholic backgrounds) a third Serb (Eastern Orthodox ) and a third Bosnian (Muslims). Our Serbian correspondent not only outlined the driving force behind the war but also proposed a working class initiative to try and intervene in the situation. He wrote about the city of Tuzla in northern Bosnia and the surrounding region with its coal mines and heavy industry. This was very much the birthplace of the organised working class in Yugoslavia, the centre of resistance to the Nazi occupation and now the centre of resistance to ethnic division. Its working class history, particularly after the partisan takeover in WW2, saw it become the most ethnically intermarried part of the country, the place where, on the government census, most people simply identified as ‘Yugoslav’ and not by their historic ethnicities.
At the outbreak of the present wars the miners of Tuzla with the rest of the working class there had seized the JNA (Yugoslav People’s Army) barracks, controlled by its largely Serb nationalist officers, and created a large ‘free’ territory where people of all ethnic backgrounds continued to live, work and fight side by side. By the time our Serbian comrade made his proposal this ‘free’ territory had been surrounded and besieged for a year by Serb nationalist forces. Both these troops, controlled from Belgrade, and the Croatian nationalists, controlled from Zagreb, were intent on dividing Bosnia between their two countries, incorporating ‘their’ people and obliterating the ‘Muslims’. (‘Muslims’ with inverted commas because overwhelmingly these were people with little or no religious beliefs ). The besieging forces had been unable to overrun the armed defenders of Tuzla and were using the ancient weapon of starvation to achieve their ends.
During the 1984-85 British miners’ strike, the Tuzla miners had donated a day’s pay every month to the strike fund. Couldn’t the British working class now return this act of solidarity? Couldn’t British workers get food to Tuzla? Out of this proposal from our Serbian comrade grew a campaign called ‘Workers Aid for Bosnia’. The letter had asked if British trade unions could undertake this action, but given the state of these unions a group of activists, trade unionists and socialist decided that if anything was to happen it had to be kick started by ourselves, to try to encourage a wider working class response.
None of us had any experience of such an action but we started a public campaign – ‘Stop ethnic cleansing. Get food to the Tuzla miners.’ This would certainly have remained a bit of an empty slogan if it hadn’t immediately found a resonance amongst wide sections of the public in the UK and then across many other European countries. Money, food and volunteers began to turn up. We bought our first lorry, filled it with food collected outside supermarkets and got volunteer drivers. The support grew and after a while we had a fleet of lorries and ‘Workers Aid’ groups sprung up across the country.
Many people joined our campaign, for all kinds of reasons. We had huge support from the Bosnian refugee community in the UK. Across Europe Bosnian refugee communities and resident Bosnians in Germany, did organise themselves but everywhere this came under the control of Bosnian patriotic forces, i.e. the bourgeoisie. We were he only imitative that had a specific working class content.
We did slowly get trade union branches in the UK to finance us and trade union members to go on the convoys. However, by and large, at the centre of organising and driving our convoys were young people, mostly unemployed. So here was a source of a constant tension. Our original initiative had nothing in common with the work of N Go’s – a term I had not even heard of before this work – it was not about feeding hungry people. It was about trying to build working class solidarity, about taking sides in the war, not the side of this or that ethnic group or nation but the side of the Tuzla workers who were simply trying to defend the right of people to live together – a faint glimmer of a working class movement in the midst of nationalism and division. Yet the bulk of our most active support was coming from people who had never thought in these terms. Our aim was not to go to Tuzla to ‘propagandise’ about working class unity. It was to try to find ways that the embers of working class resistance in Tuzla could be a source of inspiration to people outside of Bosnia and in turn by creating a movement of working class solidarity strengthen that element inside Bosnia.
We not only took convoys of food and people into the war we also helped many delegations from Tuzla get out and do speaking tours around Europe. Teachers, miners, students – from all ethnic backgrounds – came and informed people here that the widespread idea of ‘ancient ethnic hatreds’ was a lie.
For those of us coming from a Trotskyist background the Trade Union movement was the heart of the working class. We were all trade union activists and had no illusions about the nature of the union leaders but did see our work as primarily trying to change that leadership. So while most of our active supporters had no trade union background we kept trying to push the campaign into the unions.
Through our contacts we were able to get many union branches to donate money or invite speakers along to their meetings but this relationship rarely went beyond committees and into actual workforces. One exception was postmen in Merseyside who organised their own 40 tonner, filled it with food and supplied three drivers to take it to Tuzla. Like many working class people we spoke to they were not just appalled by the violence of the war but were particularly horrified by the ‘ethnic cleansing’. On the way these three postmen argued against our slogan of ‘Break the UN’s arms embargo – Let the Bosnians defend themselves’. They said more guns just meant more deaths. We replied that, just like during the Spanish civil war, the arms embargo only applied to one side as the other side had unlimited weapons. The poorly armed Bosnians were facing the JNA – the fourth largest army in Europe. When the convoy reached Tuzla the postmen went to stay with local postmen. They then held a TV press conference in which they said that they would go back to Merseyside and explain why Tuzla needed weapons. Their stay with the postmen had changed their minds in way we couldn’t.
However on their return the local union bureaucrats, including members of Militant, spread the story that we were part of a child smuggling ring and squashed the support we had been developing. They organised another lorry but it went with a charity. Over and over again we would have the union door shut in our face by the TUC international department that told branches to support War on Want as it was a registered charity and Workers Aid was not.
When we organised a delegation from the Tuzla miners’ union to come to the UK Arthur Scargill refused to meet them. Like much of the union ‘left’ he supported the Serbian regime. The left in the unions and the Labour Party were ‘Yugo-stalgic’ , seeing in the old dictatorship of Tito the same wonderful leadership that they saw in the USSR. They claimed that Bosnia and the other republics had been persuaded by Germany to break away from this ‘socialist paradise’ . Individual miners branches did donate money and send people over to Tuzla but again it was only at the level of committee men and most mines had been shut by this time. The Bosnian miners were horrified when they were taken round an old mining area in Barnsley by the local NUM committee. They couldn’t believe such poverty existed in the west.
So our efforts to win trade union support never really succeeded getting into the grass roots, even though as individuals many working class people readily gave us support, as we knew from holding food and money collections on the streets and outside supermarkets or collecting round the pubs.
We had a similar problem in Tuzla. All our food was donated to the unions there. All the delegations we organised came from the unions and yet these were often relics from the old Stalinist regime and since nearly all factory work had come to a halt were empty shells with little involvement of the members. The exception was the teachers union that maintained education throughout the war.
On the streets of Tuzla unemployed miners said to us ‘why do you work with the union, it’s corrupt?’ A very difficult problem. Who to co-operate with? A dictatorial society had collapsed into war. There was no ‘civic’ society. Indeed we had great problems trying to explain to people that we were not part of the British government because for them no other kind of organisation was possible. Remember also this was the pre-internet era. We not only had the language problem to deal with which meant that usual we could only speak to certain people but developing links with wider sections of society was difficult. Mostly it was done by convoy members who would stay in private houses with workers organised by the refugees in the UK who worked with us. So we had a good idea of peoples opinions but they themselves were all atomised individuals. The initial self organisation that had happened at the onset of war had been eroded by the local bureaucracies organising themselves to take control, (It was not until big riots against poverty and corruption, 20 years later, that Tuzla people really took the first steps towards grass roots organisation)
The Serb who first proposed the initiative and the people he was writing to were mostly members of an organisation called The Workers International. In the UK we were people who had been members of the Trotskyist Workers Revolutionary Party (WRP). This had exploded in 1985 when the lifelong leader, Gerry Healy, had been expelled for the sexual abuse of young women comrades. The WRP and the global movement founded by Trotsky in 1938 (now split into scores of little sects worldwide) had at its heart the perspective that ‘the crisis of humanity could be reduced to the crisis of working class leadership’, ie that the struggle to end capitalism could only we won by replacing the existing reformist and Stalinist leaders with revolutionaries – us. After the break up of the WRP and the collapse of the USSR, which saw the victory of capital without the Soviet working class being able to intervene, some of us began to see things differently. We still thought that we had to build the vanguard revolutionary party but now understood that this couldn’t be done without rebuilding the working class movement itself. In pursuing this perspective we had made contact with remnants of various Trotskyist movements around the world including a small group of Eastern Europeans including the Serbian comrade. So it was in this ideological framework that the convoys to Tuzla were conceived. Rebuilding the working class movement included the idea of rebuilding international workers solidarity, not in words (to which most internationalism had been reduced) but in practical terms. It was this small network of people that organised the initial meetings, quickly drawing in other people. Ironically the convoys put an end, as far as I and a few others were concerned, to the very concept of the vanguard party and the perspectives of the Fourth |International itself. At the beginning, however, the ex-WRP members still had the idea that our work was two fold – rebuilding internationalism but at the same time recruiting the ‘best’ volunteers into the ‘party’.
Very soon there was a clash between two Trotskyist groups. Our initial proposal had also been supported by the United Secretariat (Usec) and their groups in several countries got involved. At first we worked together. Divisions began to emerge when the first lorries got to Zagreb. The blockade around Tuzla meant there was no way to reach the city. For weeks our team were stuck in Slovenia, then Zagreb. Then we met up with people from Tuzla in Zagreb who were trying to get food in. They explained that the UN, whose military mission was supposed to keep humanitarian aid routes open was failing to challenge the Serb nationalist control of aid routes – in effect supporting the ethnic cleansers. This was hardly surprising since the UN’s ‘peace’ plan was to divide Bosnia – exactly the same as the ethnic cleansing nationalists. Neither of them wanted the resistance of Tuzla to turn the tide of war.
We used our lorries to block the UN military headquarters in Zagreb for a day and then, when the UN refused to issue travel permissions, set off for the Croatia-Bosnia border at Orasje. An initial offer by the Croat HVO to allow us passage through the narrow Croat controlled area was rescinded when the UN intervened to oppose it. If we had passed through the HVO strip, we would then have faced the central challenge of navigating the 12Km strip held by Serb nationalists. It was their only supply route from the ethnically cleaned areas of eastern Bosnia to their occupied territories in north-west Bosnia and Croatia – but it also contained the only decent road into Tuzla. Not only did the UN refuse to help us make the four hour drive down the highway to Tuzla, a designated aid route, they actively prevented it.
This led to a split in the Workers Aid campaign. At the time it was presented as a fundamental difference over the role of the UN. The USec comrades argued that it played a contradictory role and that we should co-operate with it to try to get aid in by their proposed route through the mountains in southern Bosnia. We argued that we needed to expose the role of the UN as supporting the nationalists, have nothing to do with them and open a campaign to demand that they escort us down the main highway. As the Tuzla representatives wanted us to do.
A large meeting in Manchester town hall saw our proposal carried by a comfortable majority, but the Usec people then left and carried on with their own campaign called International Workers Aid. At the time I thought that this split was over a fundamental question and was necessary. I still think those differences about the UN were essential but that the split at that point was not really about that, but actually about control of the campaign. It was the old story of the ‘vanguard’ party (in this case two vanguards!) needing to have total control over a movement to avoid people being lured into the ‘enemy’ party. I think at that time we could and should have lived with the different perspectives in one campaign. Later it might well have led to a division. The International Workers Aid, mostly funded by Scandinavian trade unions did end up more like an NGO, working under the auspices of the UN but the division at that stage was unnecessary.
The campaign caused further political splits, but this time in my own organisation, The Workers International. Most of the members were not involved in the Workers’ Aid convoys – and when we had party meetings people would say, ‘Look, you’re doing all this convoy stuff but how many people are you recruiting to the party?’ At first I shared this outlook but as time went on, I more and more thought why would any of the people involved in the convoys want to come and sit in a room with a load of boring old farts who want to ‘educate’ them?’ The campaign was trying to raise international support for the resistance in Tuzla. Full stop. It was not to create a fishing ground for party recruiting, the kind of thing which will be familiar to anyone today involved in actions. Whether it is the BLM or student fees or any other protests where groups like the SWP come along with their paper sellers and recruitment forms, always trying to take control of the campaign. They are present not for the campaigns sake, but for their own party advantage. To me, and some others, the people in the campaign working round the clock to collect food, load it on lorries, drive them across Europe and into a war zone, negotiate their way through hostile front lines and so on were looking much more like a useful working class organisation than my own ‘revolutionary’ party. If there was a ‘vanguard’, ie the most militant section of the class, it was the people in the lorries, not the people who decided they were the ‘vanguard’ because they had read Marx and Trotsky.
Through this experience and through other revolutionaries’ experiences inside large class movements, in Iran in particular, some of us finally parted company with the Fourth International. A majority of us voted to wind up our UK organisation. We had no unified idea of where to go and everyone went off on their own journeys but for me this was the end of the ‘vanguard’ outlook and the reduction of the problems of working class emancipation to the ‘crisis of leadership’. For sure there is a crisis of leadership but I was done with the idea that a group of self appointed revolutionaries was going to resolve that problem by leading the class to victory. Yet here, in my split from the ‘vanguard party’ was a conundrum. Without the Serbian comrades long historic battle against Titoism and Serb nationalism plus his intimate knowledge of the Yugoslav working class, his proposal would never have been formulated. Without our original network of communists, steeped in internationalism with long experience in trade union and working class organisation, would his proposal would never have got off the ground. I can only see it in this way – all of our knowledge and experience had to begin to burst free from the constraints of our old outlooks and in doing this it helped clear decades of dogma from the road.
There were many other problems in developing the campaign, particularly how we developed discussion and education in our own ranks, how to develop organising skills in new militants, how to keep militants together over time etc. etc. but I’ve tried to deal with them in the interview on Labournet, so again please watch that for a deeper picture.
Finally I want to say that I became involved in revolutionary politics in the late 1960s. Looking back on all these years I think the one really worthwhile thing I’ve been involved in was this act of practical international solidarity.
After the convoys to Bosnia finished we began a campaign of solidarity with miners and teachers in Kosova. We also produced a book written by many of the people involved in the campaign both in the UK and in Bosnia. Copies of this book ‘Taking Sides – the Story of the Workers Aid convoys to Bosnia’. It can be obtained from: firstname.lastname@example.org