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Review: Richard Seymour’s ‘The Liberal Defence of Murder’

This is a guest post by Marko Attila Hoare

The blogger Richard ‘Lenin’ Seymour of ‘Lenin’s Tomb‘, a member of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), published his first book last year, entitled The Liberal Defence of Murder (Verso, London, 2008). Rather than review the whole of the book and make points that other reviewers are likely to make, I am going to focus on the section (pp. 190-212) dealing with my own area of special interest: the former Yugoslavia, to see how Seymour’s thesis holds up. I should declare a special interest, in that I am myself quoted critically in passing in this book, and my own parents, Branka Magas and Quintin Hoare, come in for particular criticism in it. Despite this, and despite the fact that I am not exactly a fan of Seymour, his politics or his party, this will be a review in measured tones, as I would like the facts to speak for themselves.

Seymour explains the title in his opening sentence: ‘This book seeks to explain a current of irrational thought that supports military occupation and murder in the name of virtue and decency.’ Broadly speaking, this book is a critique of liberal and left-wing supporters of humanitarian military intervention, as in the cases of Bosnia, Kosova, Iraq and Afghanistan. Nevertheless, in the section of the book dealing with the wars in Croatia and Bosnia (pp. 190-205), Seymour is unable to provide any evidence that any of his liberal targets did, indeed, support ‘murder’ - unless simply being in favour of Western military intervention automatically makes one a supporter of ‘murder’. Even so, there are no quotations in this section dealing with just how, or in what way, the liberals in question did indeed support military intervention. Seymour tells us, in his own words, that Ken Livingstone ‘called for force to be used against the Serbs’; that Michael Foot ‘pleaded for a British humanitarian intervention’; and so on. There are no examples provided of any bloodcurdling war-cries, or calls for the Serbs to be bombed back to the Stone Age, or the like. Seymour does a bit better in the section on Kosova (pp. 206-211), where he does provide a couple of quotes, one of which actually comes across as quite bloodthirsty – by Thomas Friedman of the New York Times, who is quoted here as supporting attacks on the Serbian civilian infrastructure. But that really is just about it: Seymour has no case whatsoever that liberal interventionists supported ‘murder’ in Croatia or Bosnia, and only one quote by one individual that arguably supports his case with regard to Kosova. So we are left with a tautology: support for military intervention is defined as support for murder, therefore any liberal who supported military intervention is evidence of a ’liberal defence of murder’.

Why, you may ask, did it then take Seymour a whole twenty-one pages to make this point ? How does he fill up those pages ? Well, Seymour’s main argument is not that liberals supported military intervention that might have or did kill Serb civilians. Rather, he attempts to argue that military intervention was wrong because 1) Serb atrocities, and Milosevic’s regime, were not as bad as liberal interventionists made them out to be; and 2) that the Croatians and Bosnians were not worthy of being defended by Western military intervention, because their governments were just as bad as Milosevic’s – possibly worse – and were guilty of the same atrocities. So far from writing a polemic on the evils of Western military intervention, or on the bloodthirsty character of its supporters, Seymour has written a polemic playing down the evils of Milosevic and Serb nationalism, playing up the evils of Franjo Tudjman and Alija Izetbegovic and Croat and Muslim nationalism, then condemning those liberals who - as he sees it – got the balance wrong. The only quotations he actually produces for his prosecutor’s case against the ‘liberals’ in the entire section on Bosnia and Croatia are quotes expressing condemnation of Serb atrocities, or of Western complicity in them. So we have Alain Finkielkraut quoted using the term ‘Guernica’; Bernard-Henri Levi quoted calling for the lifting of the arms embargo against the Bosnians; Christopher Hitchens quoted as claiming that Serbia and Croatia were led by ‘fascist parties’; Michael Ignatieff quoted describing what was happening as ‘genocide’, and so forth. But as Seymour makes clear, he does not believe that Milosevic and his Serb forces were fascist, or that genocide occurred, or that the Serb forces ran concentration camps, etc.

This, then, is the case for the prosecution: not that liberals actually supported murder, or even that they supported military intervention, but that they made Milosevic and Serb ethnic-cleansing out to be worse than they were, when really, they weren’t bad enough to justify military intervention. Before we turn to Seymour’s actual methodology, it is worth pausing to examine what the premise of this argument is. Seymour is saying that if you used terms like ‘fascism’, ‘genocide’, ‘concentration camps’, etc., to describe Milosevic and his forces and what they were doing, you are a liberal supporter of murder. The correct response, in Seymour’s view, to news and images of Serb ethnic-cleansing and atrocities (which Seymour does not deny took place) is not to demand action in defence of the victims, but to ensure that the perpetrators of this ethnic cleansing and these atrocities get a fair coverage and are not condemned in too strong terms. So it really doesn’t take much to be a liberal defender of murder: if you react to images of Serb persecution of Muslim civilian prisoners in camps by using the term ‘concentration camp’, or if you describe a Serb ethnic cleanser as a ‘fascist’, you’re one of the bad guys. Whereas if you try to moderate liberal condemnation of the concentration camps and the ethnic cleansers, as Seymour does, you’re one of the good guys.

Consequently, what Seymour has written is a defence of the Milosevic regime and Serb ethnic-cleansing from their liberal critics. Complaining about the Western media’s treatment of the conflict, Seymour writes that ‘while Izetbegovic was deified, Milosevic received no credit for taking risks with his support by urging the Serbs in Krajina and the Republika Srpska to accept various deals to end the conflict.’ (p. 205) Thus, Seymour condemns Western journalists for failing to portray Milosevic as the peacenik that, in Seymour’s eyes, he really was (as for actual evidence that the Western media ‘deified’ Izetbegovic – Seymour doesn’t provide any).

Seymour’s critique centres not on actual liberal support for military intervention, let alone murder, but on what he sees as a mistaken liberal analysis of what was going on in the former Yugoslavia, and on inappropriate terminology. He condemns the liberals not for having the wrong principles, but for applying them incorrectly. Since there is no real clash of ideals between Seymour and his various liberal targets expressed here, his case rests on how effective his piecemeal demolition job of their case turns out to be.

Rather than bore the reader by going once more into the rights and wrongs of the former Yugoslav conflict, I am going to analyse Seymour’s case entirely in its own terms, by looking in turn at his principal charges against his liberal targets.

1) ‘Backing secession’.

Seymour begins with a critique of my parents, Branka Magas and Quintin Hoare. He quotes a source as saying that ‘when Branka went to visit Zagreb, she flipped over to Croatian nationalism. I mean, she simply backed secession.’ (p. 192) Seymour doesn’t draw any conclusion from this assertion; he simply allows it to speak for itself.

Who is the source in question ? None other than Peter Gowan, a former friend of my mother’s and father’s who parted company with them over the former Yugoslavia. Gowan isn’t by anybody’s standards an expert on the former Yugoslavia; he’s merely a left-wing writer who broadly shares Seymour’s ‘anti-imperialist’ political views and has similar views on the former Yugoslavia. The source is given as ‘author interview with Peter Gowan’.

What Seymour is saying is that he had a chat with his mate Peter, and Peter used to know Branka, and Peter said that Branka supported Croatian nationalism and Croatian secession. We’re talking ‘man in the pub’ scholarship here. But leaving aside the fact that Gowan has zero credibility as an objective judge of Branka’s political evolution, the accusation that Branka ‘backed secession’ is a rather unfortunate one for Seymour to make.

On 31 March 1990, Seymour’s party paper, the Socialist Worker, itself ‘backed secession’ when it wrote: ‘The Lithuanian masses overwhelmingly rejected Russian rule given a chance to vote for the first time recently. They want independence. That is their right. Every socialist should support them.’

On 13 July 1991, the Socialist Worker ‘backed secession’ in Yugoslavia as well: ‘First, the mass of people cannot gain by forcing an ethnic group to stay in a state where it doesn’t want to. That means recognising the right of any national minority to separate from the state if it so wishes, and opposing the murderous activities of the Yugoslav army.’

In other words, Branka is condemned as a liberal defender for murder because she supported exactly the same thing for Croatia – the right to national self-determination – that Seymour’s party supported for Lithuania, and which it initially supported for the Croats as well.

2) ‘Unfair accusations of fascism’.

Seymour accuses his liberal targets that they ‘consistently demonised Slobodan Milosevic as a “fascist” or its equivalent, which was a false and unnecessary embellishment when he was merely a bureaucratic thug’ (p. 194). This complaint comes from someone who routinely describes the British far-right party, the ‘British National Party’, not merely as fascist, but as ‘Nazi’; I don’t particularly object to this, but it is clearly a ‘false and unncessary embellishment’ of the kind that apparently makes one a liberal defender of murder. The only explanation for this double standard is that Seymour supports action against the BNP but retrospectively opposes any action against Milosevic.

But there is no need to trawl through Seymour’s blog to find evidence of his double standards: he devotes nearly a full page (pp. 196-197) to describing the fascist affinities of Croat nationalism. In the space of this one page, he uses the terms ‘fascist’, ‘Nazi’ and ‘Ustashe’ (Croatian fascists) six times in relation to Croatia. It’s true he does not actually describe the Tudjman regime as ‘fascist’ outright. But nor does he mention any equivalent fascist phenomena in relation to Serb nationalism. He does not mention the fact that Serbian paramilitaries called the ‘Chetniks’ – after the Nazi-collaborationist, anti-Semitic, Serb extreme-nationalist movement of World War II – formed part of the Serbian forces, under Belgrade’s control, that assaulted Bosnia in 1992. Or that Milosevic’s sometime collaborator, Vojislav Seselj, was a friend and ally of France’s Jean Marie Le Pen, and had received a decoration from a Chetnik warlord who had fought alongside the Nazis and Ustashe in World War II. Or that the Bosnian Serb nationalists armed and funded by Milosevic’s regime openly embraced the Chetnik heritage. Seymour thus simultaneously defends Serb nationalists from the charge of fascism while accusing Croat nationalists of embracing fascism. He condemns liberals as defenders of murder when they accuse Serb nationalists of the same thing of which he accuses the Croat nationalists.

3) ‘Abuse of the term “genocide”‘

Seymour denies that Serb forces were guilty of genocide, even suggesting that the International Court of Justice may have been guided by political motives when it defined Srebrenica as an act of genocide (p. 204). But while condemning his liberal targets for using the term ‘genocide’ in relation to Milosevic’s Serb forces, he has no qualms at all about tarring Tudjman with the brush of genocide: ‘His [Tudjman's] position on the question of genocide had been made very clear: “Genocide is a natural phenomenon… Genocide is not only permitted, it is recommended, even commanded by the word of the Almighty.”‘ Seymour is quoting Tudjman to show that he supports genocide (p. 196).

Where did Seymour get this quote by Tudjman from ? Why, from none other than the book To Kill a Nation: The Attack on Yugoslavia, written by Michael Parenti, head of the US section of the International Committee to Defend Slobodan Milosevic (ICDSM). Parenti’s book, like Seymour’s, was published by Verso. Its Serbian-language edition had a foreword written by Slobodan Milosevic himself ! Needless to say, Parenti, like Seymour, hasn’t read anything Tudjman has written; he doesn’t even provide a reference for the quotation.

I, on the other hand, have read what Tudjman wrote in the Croatian original (Franjo Tudjman, Bespuca povijesne zbiljnosti: Rasprava o povijesti i filozofiji zlosilja, Zagreb, 1989, p. 172):

As we were able to conclude from the preceeding study, in the very (Judaic) origins of all our later, Western, civilisation, in that ancient age when the apex of historical-philosophical human thought was expressed by the word of the biblical god Yahweh, genocidal violence is a natural phenomenon, consistent with human-social and mythological-divine nature. It is not only permitted, but even recommended, moreover even found in the words of the all-powerful Yahweh, always when it is necessary for the survival or the restoration of the kingdom of the chosen people, or for the maintenance and spread of their one true religion.

Tudjman, writing as a (third-rate) historian and scholar of genocide, is claiming that the Old Testament god Yahweh endorsed genocide. There is nothing in this passage to suggest that he himself supported genocide. Seymour, however, misquotes Tudjman to suggest that he upheld genocide as an ideal. He does this on the basis of a quotation he got from a book written by an American supporter of Milosevic who has never read anything by Tudjman.

Finally, later in the book Seymour claims that the US’s ‘atrocities in Indochina were certainly closer to genocide than anything that happened in the former Yugoslavia’ (p. 219).  Since he provides no evidence or argument whatsoever in support of this tendentious claim, it would appear his expressed concern at the supposed casual misuse of the term ‘genocide’ by liberal interventionists is not quite sincere.

4) Dodgy source materials and ‘imperialist propaganda’

Since Seymour’s case against liberal interventionists really just boils down to the accusation that their analysis of the Yugoslav conflict and use of terminology were flawed, it is worth examining Seymour’s own scholarly apparatus. Owen Hatherley, the SWP supporter who reviewed Seymour’s book for the New Statesman, claimed: ‘The Liberal Defence of Murder is probably more valuable as history than as polemic.’ But would a genuine scholar have made a judgement about Tudjman’s views on genocide on the basis of a third- or fourth-hand misquotation from a Milosevic lobbyist ?

Indeed, Parenti’s grubby little propaganda book is entirely characteristic of the source material that Seymour relies upon. Seymour cites the opinion of ’George Kenney, a former State Department Yugoslavia desk officer’, that the Western diplomacy that preceded the Kosovo war was ‘equivalent to the Gulf of Tonkin incident, which had been used to justify escalation in Vietnam’ (p. 208). Seymour fails to inform his readers that Kenney was a Milosevic sympathiser, who wrote to Milosevic in prison to tell him ‘I believed then and still believe that you are innocent of all the charges in the Tribunal’s indictments’.

Seymour cites the views of Edward Herman and David Peterson in support of his argument (p. 203); he does not tell his readers that the two are organisers of the ‘Srebrenica Research Group’, a lobbying group set up to deny the Srebrenica massacre. One of Seymour’s principal ’sources’ for his claim that ‘the SDA [Muslim nationalist party] was one of the nationalist parties seeking to use secession and military conflict to amplify its own power’ is Kate Hudson’s book Breaking the South Slav Dream: The Rise and Fall of Yugoslavia. Hudson is the leader of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and a member of the Communist Party of Britain, whose newspaper The Morning Star backed the Serb side during the Bosnian war and still publishes Srebrenica-denying articles. Hudson’s book, a propaganda tract that casts doubt on the fact of the Srebrenica massacre, is entirely typical of Seymour’s source material: his endnotes are filled with references to articles by Diana Johnstone, Alexander Cockburn, John Pilger and other authors who have no genuine expertise on the former Yugoslavia but who share his political views, and whose unsubstantiated claims are treated as ‘evidence’ for his case.

Thus, for example, Seymour claims: ‘Izetbegovic later confessed to having confected Serb death camps in order to precipitate bombing raids.’ (p. 200) The ’source’ for this claim is an article in the American far-left magazine Counterpunch by the Srebrenica-denying Paris-based writer, Diana Johnstone, in which she claims that the Srebrenica massacre was merely a case of Serb soldiers killing Muslim soldiers in battle, and that it was anyway engineered by the Muslims. Johnstone’s source for Izetbegovic’s alleged ‘confession’ was the memoirs of the French politician Bernard Kouchner, but Seymour doesn’t bother to consult the French original; he merely takes Johnstone’s article as a sound source on which to base his argument, as he did with Parenti.

Even if one assumes Johnstone has cited Kouchner accurately, one wonders how Seymour can criticise liberal interventionists for poor methodology, when he takes every single accusation made by Western politicians made against Izetbegovic and the Muslims at face value. Never mind that Kouchner’s French government was aiding and abetting Milosevic’s destruction of Bosnia, and maintaining an arms embargo against the Bosnians; we are supposed simply to believe his accusations against Izetbegovic.

Likewise, Seymour cites ‘Philip Corwin, the UN’s chief political officer in Sarajevo during the summer of 1995′ as a witness to the fact that ‘following the Dayton settlement, thousands of Serbs were vindictively “cleansed” from areas of Bosnia by state police forces.’ Seymour continues approvingly: ‘Corwin was relentlessly critical of the media depiction of events…’ (p. 201). What Seymour doesn’t tell his readers is that Corwin was one of the ‘advisors and contributors to the work of the Srebrenica Research Group’, Edward Herman’s Srebrenica-denying outfit, and therefore had political views that might lead a genuine scholar to question the objectivity of his account.

Indeed, one of the unintended achievements of this book is that it marshals enough evidence to demolish convincingly the view that Seymour himself appears to hold: that Izetbegovic’s Bosnian regime was the party favoured by ‘Western imperialism’ while Milosevic and the Serb ethnic-cleansers were the victims of imperialism. Seymour writes (p. 204):

Other stories barely examined [by the Western media] include what might be described as ‘false flag’ operations, such as the massacre of Bosnian Muslims at the Markale market in 1994, which helped precipitate the Nato bombing of Serb positions. Many UN officials believed that the shelling had come from the Bosnian army, and Unprofor accused Bosnian government forces of ‘firing to provoke the Serbs, and of using hospitals and public buildings as cover for such fire.’

So the representatives of Western imperialism in Bosnia accused the Bosnians of massacring their own people in order to blame it on the Serbs, and of ‘provoking’ Serb attacks on hospitals and public buildings. Seymour’s endorsement of these claims means that his argument cannot by any stretch of the imagination be described as ‘anti-imperialist’ – on the contrary, he upholds the claims made by Western imperialist officials against the victims of Western intervention; that they were to blame for their own suffering. This is, it seems, the only way he can construct his critique of the defenders of Bosnia.

5) ‘Inflated casualty figures’

Seymour devotes some space to trying to show that liberal interventionist estimates of Bosnian or Muslim casualty figures in the war have ‘not stood the test of time’ (p. 203). This is taken as evidence of the weakness of the liberal-interventionist case. Consequently, Seymour cites the evidence of the Sarajevo-based Research and Documentation Centre, that calculated the total number of people directly killed in the Bosnian war on all sides, both civilian and military, to be in the region of 100,000, or considerably less than the ‘up to 330,000′ deaths claimed, according to Seymour, by the liberal interventionists.

This being such a key element in his argument, how does Seymour himself deal with the casualty figures for Serb victims ? With regard to the Srebrenica massacre, Seymour writes: ‘In the run-up to that atrocity, a wave of terror, including rape, by Bosnian Muslim forces in surrounding areas had killed thousands of Serbs.’ (p. 204). Yet according to the figures of the Research and Documentation Centre itself, which Seymour himself cites, the total number of Serb civilians killed in the entire wider region of Podrinje,  where Srebrenica was located, during the whole of the war was 849. In other words, the figures that Seymour himself cites – and which were not available to liberal defenders of Bosnia during the war – disprove his own claim that a Bosnian Army ‘wave of terror’ killed ‘thousands of Serbs’ near Srebrenica. In fact, the Research and Documentation Centre has specifically refuted the claim that ‘thousands’ of Serb civilians were killed in the atrocities Seymour cites; it calculates the total number of Serb civilians killed in the locality in question during the war to be 119.

Likewise, Seymour claims that Croatia was guilty of the ‘ethnic cleansing of up to 300,000 Serbs during Operation Storm’ (p. 203). This figure of ‘up to 300,000′ is apparently taken from Hudson, who also writes of a ‘massive population flight of up to 300,000 Serbs’ resulting from Operation Storm (Hudson, p. 119). But what was the real figure ? According to Amnesty International, ‘In May and August 1995, the Croatian Army and police forces recaptured Western Slavonia and the Krajina region. During and after these military offensives, some 200,000 Croatian Serbs, including the entire Croatian Serb Army, fled to the neighbouring Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and areas of Bosnia and Herzegovina under Bosnian Serb control.’ According to the ICTY’s indictment of the Croatian general Ante Gotovina: ‘The “Oluja” offensive resulted in the displacement of an estimated 150,000 – 200,000 Krajina Serbs, who fled or were forced to flee, during, and in the aftermath, of the said offensive.’ The top figure of this range – 200,000 – includes the Krajina Serb army, which numbered about 40,000. The number of displaced Serb civilians was therefore closer to 150,000.

If exaggerating casualty figures is a crime that makes one a ‘liberal defender of murder’, then what does it make Seymour ?

In conclusion, it is really very difficult to work out what Seymour intends to achieve with this poorly researched, poorly sourced, repeatedly self-contradictory and entirely unsuccessful excercise in nit-picking, which amounts, as we have seen, simply to a series of spectacular own goals. But even if we were to concede Seymour’s main points (which we don’t, of course), and to accept that the Milosevic regime was not fascist, did not commit genocide and was not qualitatively worse than the Tudjman or Izetbegovic regimes, would he have a case ? Are people who reacted to the horrors of Omarska, Srebrenica and the siege of Sarajevo by calling for Western military intervention to halt them really defenders of murder ?

This is perhaps what is most shocking about Seymour’s whole, sorry ideological exercise: the perverse obsession with trying to prove that the people who wanted to stop the racist mass-murder and close the concentration camps were the bad guys.