Volume 6, No. 2, February 2024
Editor: Rashed Rahman
Marxists need to come to grips with the persistence of the National Question under socialism. The ‘fraternal’ wars between socialist states (even if ideologically at loggerheads) in Indochina from 1975 to 1991 began with the Khmer Rouge that had come to power in Cambodia (Kampuchea) in 1975 attacking the newly liberated border areas of neighbouring Vietnam. These skirmishes owed a great deal to the ideological spilt in the international communist movement, with the Khmer Rouge totally inclined towards China, and Vietnam, which had tried to stay neutral between Moscow and Beijing in the interests of its own titanic struggle against US imperialism, being castigated by the ultra-left Khmer Rouge as ‘revisionists’. Vietnam at first conducted defensive operations against the attacking Khmer Rouge forces, but in the face of unremitting attacks and provocations, finally came to the conclusion that it had no other choice but to overthrow the Cambodian Pol Pot regime.
The Vietnam-Cambodia conflict began on May 1, 1975 when the Kampuchean Revolutionary Army invaded the Vietnamese island of Phu Quoc. Vietnamese forces quickly counter-attacked, regaining Phu Quoc and invading the Kampuchean island of Koh Wai. In August 1975, Vietnam returned Koh Wai to Kampuchea and both governments started talking peace, but behind the scenes tensions were mounting. On April 30, 1977, Kampuchea attacked Vietnamese villages. In September 1977, six Khmer Rouge divisions penetrated across the border and up to 10 kilometres into Tay Ninh province. The Vietnamese People’s Army assembled eight divisions to launch a retaliatory strike. In December 1977, with a view to compelling the Khmer Rouge to negotiate, the Vietnamese forces invaded and easily overran the Khmer resistance. On January 6, 1978, Vietnamese forces were a mere 38 kilometres from Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital. However, the Khmer Rouge not only remained defiant, they continued their guerrilla resistance against the Vietnamese invading forces. The Vietnamese leadership came to the conclusion that they would not achieve their political reconciliation objective and decided to withdraw their troops.
Even this did not deter further Khmer Rouge attacks across the border. The Vietnamese launched another limited counter-attack in June 1978, forcing the Khmer Rouge to retreat. Again the Vietnamese withdrew but the recalcitrant Khmer Rouge resumed their attacks. By now, having shown restraint and conducted only defensive actions against continuing Khmer Rouge attacks and provocations, the Vietnamese finally lost patience and in December 1978, launched a full-scale invasion. Phnom Penh was seized in January 1979, the Khmer Rouge were overthrown, and a pro-Vietnamese government composed of sympathetic Khmer Rouge elements with a history of training and fighting alongside the Vietnamese against the US, was installed.
In 1984, Vietnam announced a plan for disengaging from Kampuchea. In 1988, the Vietnamese forces began withdrawing, a process finally completed in September 1989. On October 23, 1991, with the Khmer Rouge thoroughly discredited as a brutal, ultra-left movement during its tenure in power, the Cambodian-Vietnamese war was officially declared at an end as a result of negotiations and the signing of the 1991 Paris Peace Agreements.
However, before this denouement, and after the Vietnamese had captured Phnom Penh in January 1979, the Khmer Rouge’s main backer, China, by now under Deng Xiao Peng’s leadership, attacked Vietnam in a punitive expedition in February 1979. The Chinese forces advanced about 40 kilometres into Vietnam, occupying the city of Lang Son on March 6, 1979. They then claimed the way to Hanoi was open, declared their punitive mission achieved, and withdrew.
What needs examination is why the inextricably bound Vietnamese and Kampuchean revolutions during the long struggle against the Japanese occupiers during WWII, the returning French colonialists 1945-54, and the US imperialists 1954-75, ended up in hostilities that eventually forced the Vietnamese to overthrow the Khmer Rouge by invading Kampuchea. The fundamental cause was the Sino-Soviet split that fractured the international communist movement into two irreconcilable camps. The Khmer Rouge were not merely Maoists; they reinvented their revolution in a manner that appears irrational with hindsight. They declared Year Zero after capturing power, implying all history had been wiped out in favour of a totally new ab initio beginning. They had a brutal attitude to all classes except the peasantry, and even towards those from this background considered not sufficiently revolutionary. They failed to realise that socialism has to be built incrementally on the foundations of the society inherited from the past, not in one fell ‘purist’ sweep. Their ultra-leftism and putschism alienated large sections of the Kampuchean population and left them without popular support when the going got tough, especially after their overthrow by the Vietnamese. Had they, despite their hatred of the Vietnamese communists for not following Beijing’s line, kept their own revolution’s interests in mind, they may have avoided their eventual fate: to be held up before the world as the worst, genocidally brutal example of a socialist revolution gone wrong.
As to China-Vietnam differences that led to China’s punitive expedition in 1979, if nationalism’s role in the Chinese revolution has continued into the post-revolutionary era, Vietnam’s revolution was steeped in nationalism too. Given the history between the two, traditionally Vietnamese identity coalesced considerably around resisting China’s hegemony. The close relations between the Vietnamese and Chinese communists during their respective revolutionary struggles could not survive the acrimony engendered by the Sino-Soviet split. The Vietnamese did not want to get entrapped in the grinder of this ideological battle (with military conflict added) in the interests of their own life-and-death struggle against the mightiest military and economic power in the world, the US. This earned them not only the ire of the Chinese, whose aid to the Vietnamese struggle is seen by some as by no means unequivocal and unstinted, it also enmeshed them in a totally unnecessary and in the end destructive struggle with their erstwhile comrades, the Khmer Rouge. Vietnamese restraint after 1975 in the face of unremitting Khmer Rouge attacks and provocations failed to budge the hardline latter, ending in wars between Vietnamese, Kampuchean and Chinese erstwhile comrades, to the detriment of the international socialist struggle.
Another conundrum of the relationship between nationalism and socialism is presented by the case of Yugoslavia. Coming to power after a heroic guerrilla war against the occupying Nazis during WWII, Josip Broz Tito consistently advocated uniting all the nationalities within Yugoslavia during the struggle and after victory. He resisted subordination to the Soviet Union (in marked contrast to the other Eastern European socialist regimes), a position that reaped positive results from nationalism externally (despite being excommunicated by the international communist movement), but arguably engendered disruption internally. The first Yugoslav Constitution of 1953 described the new state as federal in structure, although its basic mechanisms were undoubtedly centralist (the abiding contradiction between the perceived need for a strong centralised state to develop socialism and the ground reality of a multi-national polity). Tito continued to the end of his life to vest hope in an integrated Yugoslav culture that would overcome internal national divisions. But when the international student revolt of 1968 arrived in Yugoslavia, it could not escape taking the form of nationalist demonstrations and manifestations.
Yugoslavia was afflicted by economic inequalities between the regions comprising the federation. There was a deep divide between the industrialised republics of the northwest, i.e. Croatia and Slovenia, and the largely agricultural republics of the southeast, i.e. Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro and Macedonia. Serbia had developed areas such as Vojvodina, but also impoverished regions such as Kosovo (ethnically Albanian). In spite of consistent policies to narrow regional differentials, the gap between the richest and poorest areas actually widened. This in spite of post-WWII Yugoslav governments focusing their economic strategy on building up centres of heavy industry in all six republics to overcome uneven development. The root cause appears to be the ‘market socialism’ adopted by Yugoslavia, which counterposed workers’ self-management in enterprises with capitalist competition between enterprises. Richer areas resented this ‘reverse discrimination’ in favour of the less developed areas. The 1971 economic reform generally promoted decentralisation, with the outcome being six national republics’ economies with their own embryonic national bourgeoisie. The logic of the market was firmly installed. Economic decentralisation on the other hand was not accompanied by a devolution of political power to the base. The Serbs were politically dominant (cf. Punjabis in post-independence Pakistan). The absence of involvement in political decision-making at the national level had the effect of encouraging particularism and the cultivation of regional advantages. Immediately after liberation, the communists had hoped balanced economic development would resolve the problems of internal nationalist rivalries in a relatively short time. But the model of market socialism adopted moved things in the opposite direction. The inescapable conclusion must be that the phenomenon of nationalism could not be ‘cured’ or overcome by simply declaring the legal equality of nations and affirming the brotherhood and unity of all the peoples of Yugoslavia.
Bureaucratisation and its concomitant corruption of the socialist construct too proved detrimental, not only in Yugoslavia, but in all socialist countries, beginning with the Soviet Union. This phenomenon alienated the ruling communist parties from the masses and their thinking. Uneven development was traditionally seen by Marxists as leading to nationalist movements in the deprived or oppressed nationalities. But in Yugoslavia’s case, the relatively privileged areas such as Croatia and Slovenia descended into nationalist stances in defence of their economic advantages and against the reverse discrimination intended to level out regional inequalities.
After Tito’s death in 1980, the declared equality of Yugoslavia’s nationalities was sought to be bolstered by instituting a ‘revolving’ presidency of the constituent republics, intended to allay reservations about reverse discrimination and Serb dominance. However, the turn towards disaster, bloody civil wars and the disintegration of Yugoslavia can be traced to the 1987 struggle within the communist party (League of Communists of Yugoslavia) between adherents of a Serb nationalist ideology, personified by Slobodan Milosevic who conceived the dominant Serb nationality as the embodiment of Yugoslavia, and the other strand with the original vision of a multi-national state based on the at least formal equality of all nationalities. In this struggle, as soon as Milosevic gained the upper hand, he ruthlessly purged his rivals and launched a massive campaign to stir up Serb nationalism. These internal party convulsions ended up with the dissolution of the League of Communists of Yugoslavia in January 1990 along federal lines, yielding separate socialist parties in the constituent republics.
In 1990, the socialists (former communists) lost power to nationalist separatist parties in the first multi-party elections in the country, except in Serbia and Montenegro, where Milosevic and his allies won. This political cleavage presaged the bloody internecine conflict that followed. In June 1991-April 1992, four constituent republics declared independence. Only Serbia and Montenegro remained federated. The status of Serbs outside Serbia and Montenegro and Croats outside Croatia remained unresolved. Following a string of inter-ethnic incidents, fuelled by increasingly heated nationalist rhetoric on all sides, the Yugoslav wars broke out, first in Croatia and then, most severely, in multi-ethnic Bosnia-Herzegovina (with the added religious layer of Bosnians being largely Muslims). After much blood letting on all sides (with the siege of Sarajevo by the Serbs providing the most poignant and tragic outcome), these internecine wars ended in 1995 with the US-sponsored Dayton Agreement. The last convulsion was the Kosovo war that started in 1996 and ended with the 1999 massive NATO bombing of Yugoslavia. Slobodan Milosevic was overthrown in 2000. Thus ended ignominiously Tito’s Yugoslavia.
(To be continued)