Some of the first oppositionists to Communism came from the left, such as the Socialist Revolutionaries in the Soviet Union after the Bolsheviks seized power in 1917. Later, in Eastern Europe, the first stirrings of dissent from below also came from the left – workers in East Germany, dissident Communists in Hungary, reform socialists in Poland and later Czechoslovakia.
Even into 1989, many dissidents continued to espouse socialist philosophies, though by this time the opposition movements were quite diverse and included everyone from royalists to nationalists to anarchists. Only after the Big Bang of 1989 did the opposition movements break into different factions, and groups migrated to their respective places along the political spectrum.
Joanne Landy and Tom Harrison are veterans of the Left in the United States. Active in the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley in the 1960s, they became involved in Eastern Europe around the time of the famous manifesto of Jacek Kuron and Karol Modzelewski, two reform socialists who favored a worker’s democracy in Poland. Later, after the emergence of Solidarity, Landy and Harrison created an organization that would eventually be called Campaign for Peace and Democracy (CPD). It formed ties with peace movements in Western Europe and democracy campaigners in Eastern Europe. CPD believed that peace should not be an issue simply of the Left and support for East European dissidents should not be an issue simply of the Right.
“Prior to all this tremendous upheaval in Poland” in 1980-81, Tom Harrison told me over dinner at a Turkish restaurant in New York last September, “it was a period in Eastern Europe of fairly isolated examples of dissidents and opposition. Because of our political tradition, we were very attuned to those things. And because we were part of a socialist tradition that did not consider Communist societies in any way progressive, we were very alert to any signs of democratic opposition and their potential. I think that made us particularly sensitive to the beginnings of these movements.”
By 1989, many of the people that CPD worked with in the region were leaping the gap between opposition and power: Adam Michnik and Jacek Kuron in Poland, Vaclav Havel and Jan Kavan in Czechoslovakia, Janos Kis in Hungary, and so on. But the countries did not embrace a version of reform socialism. Indeed, even the renamed Communist Parties quickly adopted some form of austerity of capitalism.
Joanne Landy was disappointed but not exactly surprised by this development. “Over the course of the next decade or two, we saw a generally more conservative trend among the dissidents,” she said. “The disappointments that happened after 1989 were actually developing before 1989, for reasons that are not wholly due to the political mistakes of dissidents, but more broadly due to the declining power of the Left in the West and the inability of most of the Left to solidly support the burgeoning opposition movements in Eastern Europe. Those two things combined made it much more likely for many of the former dissidents to be complicit in the kind of shock therapy and abrasive unfettered capitalism that happened.”
What happened in 1989 in Eastern Europe was largely but not exclusively the result of courageous individuals within those counties challenging the status quo. They also received help and support from the outside. And just as the political ideologies of the dissidents were varied, so were the sympathies of those in the West who were supporting them. CPD represents one of those strands, and Joanne Landy and Tom Harrison are an important link both historically and geographically to the transformations that both did and did not take place in East-Central Europe in the second half of the 20th century.
How and why did you first get involved in Eastern Europe?
Tom Harrison: Joanne and I were both part of this group in Berkeley, the Independent Socialist Club, in the 1960s. Joanne’s involvement precedes mine. But when I came on the scene in 1966, we were very soon heavily involved in defending left-wing oppositionists Jacek Kuron and Karol Modzelewski in Poland. There was a great deal of interest about what was going on in Eastern Europe, so it was a natural thing to get involved.
Joanne Landy: Both of us were “third camp socialists,” which meant we were for neither Washington nor Moscow, neither capitalist imperialism nor the oppressive Communist systems in Eastern Europe. And because I’m older than Tom, I also started doing this many years before Tom did—in the late 1950s actually. Then, in 1980, two things simultaneously burst upon the scene: the mass Western peace movement against the missiles in Western Europe and Solidarnosc in Poland.
We were excited about both of those things. We participated, of course, in the big peace march in Central Park in 1982. And as soon as we heard about Solidarnosc, we got together a bunch of people to build support for Solidarnosc among progressives in the United States, and I went over there to Poland. It was quite a trip. I couldn’t fly there directly from New York, because it was the time of the PATCO strike. And so I had to take a train to Montreal and then fly to Poland. I had my “support the PATCO strikers” button on when I went into the Solidarnosc offices and into the airlines office of the Polish airlines, and got lots of V signs and cheers from people who saw the button. People were very solidaristic not only about having an American come to Poland, but an American pro-labor person.
What year was that?
Joanne Landy: The summer of 1981. I went to the Solidarnosc headquarters, and it reminded me instantly of our days in Berkeley and the Free Speech Movement. There was a kind of delicious chaos of people having meetings on every floor of this building that they had taken over. On one floor there were intellectuals, in another place would be steelworkers. It was just a beehive of activity of people who were disenfranchised but asserting their power through their self-organization. They were printing leaflets, having debates, and being very alive in a way that would be really alarming to the people in power. Although we didn’t live in a Communist system, and we had certain democratic liberties that they didn’t have, the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley struck the same kind of fear in the hearts of people who ran things in California. So that was my first impression of Poland.
A group of us here in New York founded something that initially was called Solidarity with Solidarity. And then Gail Daneker, who did not come from a socialist tradition, but from some kind of non-socialist Green tradition. She really taught me a lot about how to form an organization: how to get tax-exempt contributions, how to put together a board, how to go to foundations. She’d had many years of experience in Washington and elsewhere doing this, whereas I’d always been in small socialist groups that were pretty effective, like the Independent Socialist Club with Hal Draper in Berkeley, but which didn’t organize in the non-profit world. Pretty soon we set up the Campaign for Peace and Democracy/ East and West. And when the Cold War ended, we just dropped the “East and West.” But we kept up the idea of the Campaign for Peace and Democracy, which remains (unfortunately) pertinent today.
Tom Harrison: Prior to all this tremendous upheaval in Poland, it was a period in Eastern Europe of fairly isolated examples of dissidents and opposition. Because of our political tradition, we were very attuned to those things. And because we were part of a socialist tradition that did not consider Communist societies in any way progressive, we were very alert to any signs of democratic opposition and their potential. I think that made us particularly sensitive to the beginnings of these movements.
Joanne Landy: The magazine we were and continue to be associated with, New Politics, was the very first place where the Kuron and Modzelewski manifesto was published. That was an indication of our interest. And, of course, in its initial stages, the opposition movement in Eastern Europe was quite left-wing, and we had high hopes for the idea of an opposition in Eastern Europe being simultaneously opposed to the regime and supporting working-class interests and deep democracy: not dismantling nationalized property but making it democratic and accountable.
Over the course of the next decade or two, we saw a generally more conservative trend among the dissidents. The disappointments that happened after 1989 were actually developing before 1989, for reasons that are not wholly due to the political mistakes of dissidents, but more broadly due to the declining power of the Left in the West and the inability of most of the Left to solidly support the burgeoning opposition movements in Eastern Europe. Those two things combined made it much more likely for many of the former dissidents to be complicit in the kind of shock therapy and abrasive unfettered capitalism that happened. First, we have a very powerful world capitalist system, and second, the Left was largely absent from solidarity actions with the people. Those two things made it very difficult for dissidents in Eastern Europe to deliver on the promise that I think millions of people in Eastern Europe, in a not completely ideologically articulated way, hoped for. My disappointment isn’t simply anger at the dissidents for not doing what I wanted them to do—although it’s partly that. But it’s also a deep sympathy or understanding of all the things that conspired together to make it very difficult for that revolution to deliver what people in those countries had hoped for.
Let’s go back to 1989 for a minute. You’d been personally working on these issues since the 1960s and organizationally since the early 1980s…
Joanne Landy: The organization didn’t form until things already were changing. Our original group Solidarity with Solidarity didn’t happen until Solidarity happened.
And then there was Martial Law and it looked like the return of the Cold War.
Joanne Landy: It didn’t feel that way. It was a vibrant movement. Martial Law was horrible, the way that the Solidarity leaders were put in prison and so on. But they were out there, still very much engaged.
Tom Harrison: It seemed clear that they wouldn’t be killed.
Joanne Landy: It didn’t occur to me, frankly, that they would possibly be killed. They had an underground newspaper. They had contacts with people going in an out of the country. I’m not saying I knew how it was going to end, and frankly I don’t think I quite anticipated that they would win so relatively quickly. But the idea that Solidarity would disappear or be crushed, and there would be another 30 years of totalitarian repression did not seem likely.
Tom Harrison: That’s an interesting paradox. While we were very excited and felt on one level very optimistic about their future, at the same time we had a hard time envisioning the fall of Communism. It came as much of a surprise to us as it did to most people.
Joanne Landy: Even though we would have liked to say, “Ha ha ha! You bourgeois idiots, you didn’t know the potential of the mass movement!” Actually this came up in a Left Forum panel that we had with Jan Kavan in 2012, where I also spoke and Tom chaired, in which Jan said that there had been people in the Czech dissident movement who did anticipate the collapse of the system. They didn’t tell us that, or if they did, it didn’t register with me. On the other hand if they did say that I wouldn’t have replied, “Oh, this system is destined to last forever!”
Tom Harrison: No! We didn’t think it would last forever. But we didn’t think it would quickly collapse.
Joanne Landy: There was a great lesson in that, about not only totalitarian systems but oppressive systems everywhere. These seemingly impregnable ruling circles aren’t necessarily so.
Tom Harrison: I think most people had the same feeling about Mubarak in Egypt too.
Joanne Landy: Or South Africa. So on the one hand I’ve come out of all of this with a deeper appreciation for how violent and brutal ruling circles can be, but also how they can be upended. And not just Communist ones, but Egyptians or the Greek system…
Tom Harrison: And down the road even China. I don’t think they’ll last forever either.
Joanne Landy: Many of these systems are really run in the interests of very small groups of people. They persist partly because of their force but partly because people accept them ideologically or at least think that they’re omnipotent. But all kinds of chemical changes can happen in a society when suddenly everything is up for grabs. Even though I am disappointed in what happened in Eastern Europe, it doesn’t make me disappointed in the possibilities of opposition.
There were also anti-Communists working on the Right side of the political spectrum.
Joanne Landy: We were completely bitterly opposed to them.
Tom Harrison: We had nothing to do with them. Our major problem on the Left was dealing with people who had illusions on one level or another about the system over there. We were able, despite some of those problems that they had, to get many of them to sign on to statements of solidarity, to make commitments in support of the people in Eastern Europe. But even people like Edward Thompson—who was a hero of the movement in support of Eastern European dissidents and of the anti-nuclear movement—was uncomfortable with our adamant position on those societies.
Joanne Landy: He loved us and was nervous about us at the same time.
Tom Harrison: Because of his own Communist Party background.
Joanne Landy: As far as these right wing anti-Communists are concerned, to the extent that they noticed us, they hated us. Because here we were uncompromisingly opposed to the system over there, and at the same time very much engaged in opposing U.S. imperial foreign policy in countries like Chile, or Nicaragua, or in terms of the arms race.
Tom Harrison: And nuclear weapons in Europe were a big issue.
Joanne Landy: The right-wingers wanted to monopolize and claim moral legitimacy because they were all over Eastern Europe — the CIA and…
Tom Harrison: Freedom House.
Joanne Landy: And Freedom House. There were also parts of the labor movement that were deeply implicated by their acceptance and use of U.S. government money through the National Endowment for Democracy. We wanted the peace movement to be as present as possible, and Edward Thompson and European Nuclear Disarmament (END) did a lot of that, to their lasting credit. In the United States, we really made an effort to bring people to Eastern Europe. You were one of the people that went over there, and that was very important. I don’t think we were successful enough, for reasons beyond our control, but it was still really important.
When it comes to solidarity, small things go a long way. I showed up when Adam Michnik was on trial during Martial Law in Poland, and he asked for Western peace activists to come and protest with him. I did that and it made a huge difference, even though he disagreed with us about foreign policy. And if 50 times as many people had gone, it could’ve helped in 1989 and the post-1989 period. This has come up in terms of the work we’re doing about Greece now. Right now the statement we’re doing about Greece in solidarity with their struggle against austerity has been translated into Greek. It is going to appear, I believe, in the Syriza (the leftwing Greek party) newspaper and be handed around in all kinds of circles in Greece. “What difference does it make if you have a few hundred signatures of people?” one might ask. But for people who are embattled, it makes a lot of difference.
Did you see a shift in the Left’s position after the fall of the Berlin Wall?
Tom Harrison: It was easy for leftists who disparaged our efforts in the first place to say, “Aha! This proves that these people were basically capitalist pigs to begin with, and they represent nothing progressive.” Because, in fact, what happened in Eastern Europe was this ghastly wave of governments instituting shock therapy, an embrace of U.S. foreign policy, and it was tremendously discouraging for us. It’s not that it was a complete surprise. But we felt somehow that the democratic momentum of 1989 contained within it more progressive tendencies than what were made manifest in the immediate aftermath.
Joanne Landy: Although I have to say, on the other hand, that by 1989, and certainly in 1990, there were a lot of people in the peace movement who said, “Well, you were right. These systems were run by a minority of people who were suppressing democratic rights, and thank God that you guys were out there reminding us of the importance of being there.” So I think both things were happening at the same time.
What would it have taken for Poland to go on a different route?
Joanne Landy: If the Western left had been solidly behind the dissidents and their struggle and had pressed for a different economic response at the time of the upheavals and overturns, I think it could’ve changed the chemistry. If substantial sections of the left had said, “We think that it’s one thing to say that democracy is a requirement for a new society, which is true, but another thing to say you have to go into all this vicious sink-or-swim shock therapy,” things might have been different. But all these Eastern Europeans knew was a monolithic West that was imposing these draconian “free market” solutions. The Left was for the most part out of the picture, struck dumb by what happened. It was either hostile or abject because it hadn’t really been involved or knowledgeable about the legitimacy of the struggle. If it had been, it could have said with some moral standing, “Don’t go there! You don’t want what we have. Take a look at the terrible logic of our society, with its recurrent harsh economic cycles, its disregard for the vulnerable, its constant impetus for war.”
It’s not just what happened in 1989. It’s what happened, or didn’t happen, over the preceding 10 years. But look, it’s not all over. Out of bitter experience now, people in Europe are getting a picture that things are not so great with this Western-imposed system. Out of that we see various alternatives: of a very right-wing quasi-fascist kind of reaction on the one hand and a left-wing type that you see in Syriza in Greece. We hope that this left-wing alternative to the cruelties of the capitalist system emerges everywhere.
But we’re operating with a great handicap. For decades being leftwing was being associated with supporting these viciously authoritarian systems. To rebuild the idea that a leftwing alternative means something more democratic—not less—and that can accommodate peoples’ needs—well, that’s a tall order. I’m not betting the family farm on it – an old expression since I don’t actually have a family farm—but I think that there are possibilities.
It wasn’t just the handicap of the Left’s ideological complicity with Stalinism. The Right also had all the resources. The Left had ideas and the Right had money.
Tom Harrison: Yes, but it’s not just that. The 1980s were a profoundly conservative decade, globally, and that had an effect on the thinking of the dissidents of Eastern Europe. Many of them had been new leftists in the 1960s, and maybe even in the 1970s. But the 1980s was the golden age of Thatcherism and Reaganism, when pro-capitalist thinking was hegemonic worldwide and profoundly effective. Even if the Left had been better, it perhaps wouldn’t have been able to counter this trend.
Joanne Landy: Okay, but part of the reason why the Right was so hegemonic was because the Left had been discredited in many ways, because so much of it had been associated with these Communist societies. And, of course, we still have an incredibly powerful world capitalist system, which may some day send us all into extinction.
Tom Harrison: But fortunately that capitalist ideology is not as credible as it was in the 1980s.
Joanne Landy: That’s right. It’s not as credible, but we’re really trying to work our way out of this problem of people thinking that the only alternative to capitalism is an authoritarian, statist, undemocratic system. It’s a miracle that there’s the Occupy Movement and the rebellions across Europe now against austerity. It’s wonderful. But at the same time they don’t yet have an alternative to propose.
I want to go back to something you said earlier about how some of the disappointments you had with how things turned out were not necessarily a big surprise. In other words, some of the problems were right there at the beginning in 1989.
Joanne Landy: I really never anticipated the overthrow of the system: not in 1985 or 1988 or even part of 1989. So I couldn’t have anticipated the problems of a post-Communist communist regime. But certainly by the middle of 1989, in both Poland and Hungary where I’d visited, I got a glimpse of the possibility that this was not going to work out the way we had hoped. The system was going to implode, but that many of the intellectuals—who were at that time the visible part of the movement—had become very pro-capitalist. And that’s what sent me into depression. I wasn’t hospitalized; I was never on drugs. I was basically a pretty up person, but I was not so up when I realized that this was what was happening.
And so I started to write about how the West should respond to the East European revolutions and how disastrous shock therapy was. And I only began to write about that because I talked to my friend John Tirman who was at that time head of one the liberal foundations. I said to him, “You know this is awful!” He said, “Well, why don’t you apply to the MacArthur Foundation for an award.And so I did, which made me feel better. At least I was exerting myself against the conservative drift of the East bloc opposition. But it all sort of came together. First of all, that the system wasn’t going to be permanent, and second of all, that the outcome might not be so great because of everything we were talking about.
Did you have the same sense in 1989?
Tom Harrison: I wouldn’t say I became seriously depressed, but I certainly was disappointed. I felt very let down.
We knew about shock therapy before the fall of the Berlin Wall. And the fall of the Berlin Wall was this moment of exaltation around the world. So when you saw the fall of the Berlin Wall, was it bittersweet in a sense?
Joanne Landy: No, it was great! It was sweet.
Tom Harrison: Oh no, it was fantastic! We couldn’t believe it. I remember calling each other, “Did you hear about Romania?” One domino after the other. It was extraordinary and very exciting.
Joanne Landy: You’re simultaneously exhilarated by what’s happening thinking, “Well, the radical democratic possibilities that we’ve always thought could be part of this. Are they going happen?”
Tom Harrison: We were hoping against hope. But also, fairly soon after 1989, the wars in Yugoslavia broke out, and we got very absorbed in that issue too. For me, anyway, Bosnia and what happened in the 1990s preoccupied me for a number of years.
Joanne Landy: What was also disappointing to me was what many of my liberal friends concluded from the fall of Communism, as one person wrote to me, that “the United States is the only superpower left, so it is left to the United States to solve the multiple crises that are going on around the world.” I said, “Wait a minute! That’s not the right cure for that disease.” What we hoped was that with the fall of one side of this Cold War, conflict the other side would be exposed for what it was. Over the last two or three decades, that’s what actually has begun to happen. But the immediate response of much of the liberal community in the United States was to embrace U.S. military power much more than they had before. And that was disappointing.
Tom Harrison: It was also kind of shocking, because we thought after the fall of communism there would really be a political opportunity to exploit the end of the Cold War in favor of ideas like the peace dividend and dissolving NATO. And that just went nowhere. There was just so little interest in that, which was amazing.
Joanne Landy: It showed me how deep was American liberalism’s embrace of the U.S. war state. There were a lot of people in the peace movement who you would have thought would have responded better to this new opportunity that Tom just described, but who didn’t.
From your travels to the region during that period, between 1989 and the outbreak of hostilities in Yugoslavia, are there any meetings or discussions that leap out at you as, “Ah! This was the emblematic moment where I realized that my beliefs were not shared by the people I had been working with so closely.”
Tom Harrison: One thing I remember is when Joanne and I went to former East Germany—after the fall of the Wall—and we spoke to people who had previously been dissidents and who we hoped would be the new face of some kind of new left in Germany. They were very heroic people, but it was clear that they had no understanding of or interest in connecting to working class struggles. For them, democracy versus authoritarianism was the be-all and end-all of the political discussion. And we thought at the time, “Gee, there isn’t much of a future for this.” And, in fact, there wasn’t.
Joanne Landy: For me it was in 1989, but before the collapse, when I saw that many, but not all, of the dissidents of Hungary were really advocating a “free market” solution. Some of them were for a more socially responsible free market. Others were more unencumbered by any kind of social orientation. But across the board, with a few exceptions, they were not really oriented toward resisting a capitalist outlook.
When I was in Poland in June 1989, Jan Josef Lipsky—who was a leftist and one of the heroes of the KOR movement—pleaded with me to stand with some striking miners. The strike was, I think, in Katowice. But I couldn’t do it because I couldn’t change my plane reservation. In retrospect I realize why he was urgently asking me to go. He could see that while the Polish opposition movement had people who were actually committed to the labor movement that had sparked Solidarnosc, there were others, largely from the intelligentsia who had moved from being leftist to being more conservative. Lipski himself was a wonderful example of a person from the intelligentsia who stood with the working class, and he wanted the prestige of Western supporters to be with the working people in their struggles.
When I got home to the United States, I was lamenting to myself the fact that I just hadn’t spent an extra $500 and stayed to go to the miner’s strike. If I had realized then what it had meant—that it wasn’t just a personal thing—I would have done it. I only realized it because, a couple months later, it was becoming clear that the system was going to implode and that much of the Solidarity movement was going to make a compromise with the old Communist leaders. And that compromise was not only problematic in terms of accountability for all the crimes that the Communist government had committed, but it was also an agreement that was based on a kind of shock therapy that allowed the nomenklatura to reclaim privileged positions in the new order and left working people without governmental power. All of this really represented a betrayal of the workers, who in the shipyards and the steel mills and throughout Poland had been key to the democratic struggle.
Do you see things today that give you hope, in terms of any flicker of those earlier impulses of an alternative to shock therapy and a different type of future for Eastern Europe?
Joanne Landy: From talking to my friend Jan Kavan, with whom I have differences but whom I still consider my comrade, there are people in Eastern Europe who are opposed to the neoliberal shock therapy and who are beginning to organize against it. In the Czech Republic, the first signs were actually not from the working class, but from people who Jan was associated with who were opposed to the U.S. missile defense system. But I have to admit that I don’t know too much about it. I hope to hear from you when you go there, but I think that there are people who are reacting against the neoliberal “reforms” and that that’s where hope lies.
Tom Harrison: In most cases, they’re not embers of what existed before but new people. The movement in the Czech Republic that Joanne referred to were young people who were out in the streets very creatively opposing the radar installation that NATO was trying to install there. Since the 1980s partly what’s happened is that U.S. imperialism has proved itself to be so brutal and egregious that many people everywhere, including Eastern Europe’s young people, have been affected and have gone into opposition.
Joanne Landy: It’s just too bad that the generation of seasoned activists from the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s are mostly not part of this. Tom and I are really glad to be with the new wave of Occupiers and oppositionists in the United States. And, of course, I’ve learned a lot from them, and I think they benefit from my experience of decades of struggle. I wish that more of those people who had been in prison in Martial Law and part of Charter 77 were with the today’s protestors over there. Some are, but not as many as there should be.
Tom Harrison: Some are, but far fewer than, for example, in the United States
In terms of Yugoslavia, what do you think it would have taken to avoid the wars that took place?
Tom Harrison: I’m not sure if anything could have avoided them, given Milosevic and his agenda. I think they were probably inevitable. The wars could have been probably cut short had certain actions been taken, like lifting the arms embargo on Bosnia. Not doing that certainly extended the wars, extended the slaughter. That’s the best that could have happened, but it didn’t happen, and thousands died.
Before the war broke out in Bosnia, was there anything outside actors or inside actors could have done to prevent the terrible conflict between Serbia and Croatia?
Tom Harrison: A lot of people on the Left claim that the breakup of Yugoslavia was a Western conspiracy, in particular a German conspiracy, which I think is nonsense. Had Western governments actually recognized the independence of Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia sooner, that might have made a difference. In many ways Milosevic was really coddled by the West, up to a certain point. The West eventually turned against him, but for a long time he was able to get away with what he did get away with because there wasn’t the will in the West to oppose what he was doing.
When the Serbian movement actually got rid of Milosevic, was that for you a kind of recapitulation of the earlier revolutions?
Tom Harrison: Yes, in a way. It was compromised—in the same way that the Eastern European changes were compromised—by the fact that the people that got rid of Milosevic were also very nationalist and didn’t really repudiate what Serbia had done to Kosovo, to Bosnia.
And, of course, Serbia still has tensions with Kosovo today, though not at the same level of violence. Except for six EU countries, all of Europe has recognized Kosovo. The United States has recognized Kosovo. Where do you see that heading?
Tom Harrison: I actually am not sure where it’s going to end. It looks like a very bad situation right now and I don’t know what the solution is. I’m not very optimistic. Probably, eventually, Kosovo will become truly independent, or join Albania if that’s their wish. I think that should be permitted, supported.
There was a reluctance to engage with Yugoslavia on the part of the Bush Sr. administration. What do you think the full strategic interests were?
Joanne Landy: There was a very conservative impulse to rely on Milosevic as a force for stability, and that lasted for a long time. And then when they finally saw that that was not really viable, they then jumped over to the other side, which was to not only defend Croatia’s right to be independent, which I think they should have, but to turn a blind eye to the massacre of Serbs that was happening in Croatia. It was all very instrumental. It had nothing to do with a simultaneous recognition that Yugoslavia had been an artificial, top-down creation and that people should be free to leave it. At the same time, you needed to defend the rights of minorities in all of the former Yugoslavia. So, they defended Milosevic and relied on him without quite admitting it for too long, and then really shamefully ignored the massacre of Serbs in Croatia.
Tom Harrison: In both phases, there was no real concern for the victims of these assaults. It was just about power politics, and what I think most people don’t realize is that for a long time the U.S. position was not really disengagement, it was de facto—more than de facto—support for maintaining the unity of Yugoslavia no matter how the people there felt. They really clung to that position as long as they could.
Joanne Landy: Which overlapped with what a lot of the Left thought, for instance its analogy to the American Civil War and how you can’t support separatism. But these authoritarian systems, whether in the Soviet Union or Yugoslavia, depended on a forced unity from the top that was very undemocratic and unpopular among the people who were being forced into a single nation. In the end, of course, it would be good to have a Balkan federation of people who freely associated—not just from the former Yugoslavia but from neighboring countries—but that has to bevoluntary, not something that can be imposed from the top down. And part of the process of getting there was inevitably going to be the breakup of the old Yugoslavia, followed hopefully by the reformation of something new.
Tom Harrison: But the breakup was bloodier and more bitter than it needed to be, because of the policies of the governments and because of the attitude of the Left, like its nostalgia for Titoism.
Joanne Landy: You could the same thing about China and Tibet. The U.S. government and much of the Left recognize the “territorial integrity” of China, i.e. the forced maintenance of Tibet as part of China. You’re never going to win real friends in Tibet or affiliate in an honest and positive way with democratic oppositions within China if you have that attitude. I don’t think there’s any simple answer. These questions about national minorities — and about the Chinese who moved into Tibet or the Russians who moved into Estonia – are very fraught questions to which there’s no easy solution. But if you start out with having stability from the top as your guiding principle, whether you’re the U.S. government or the Left, you’re never going to address these problems in a democratic and flexible way.
One of the arguments around Bosnia was that if the United States had intervened, if NATO had pushed back against the Serbs, then the war would have ended sooner. Did you feel a conflict between a real commitment to ending genocide and aggression in the region and a real skepticism about U.S. motivations?
Tom Harrison: “Skepticism” would be a mild word for what I feel about U.S. motivations. I’m really never in favor of U.S. intervention, because I think the United States is a profoundly overweening imperialist power, always with its own agenda. I never believe it is intervening for progressive reasons. In the Bosnia case, I think lifting the arms embargo was the right approach, because in fact the Bosnian army—which did manage to get weapons with great difficulty—actually began to turn the tide militarily against the Serb armies. And then the United States intervened with the Dayton Accords and basically divided up Bosnia. It imposed that on the Bosnians, destroying the dream of a multiethnic united Bosnia. That was actually beneficial to right-wing Serbs like Radovan Karadzic. So I think that U.S. intervention has been basically bad for the region.
Ultimately, however, U.S. military intervention on the side of the Croatian army that did push back the Serbs and changed the strategic balance on the ground.
Tom Harrison: That’s right. But the question is, do you want to do that in a progressive way or a reactionary way? And it was done in a very reactionary way.
Joanne Landy: And that included how the Serbs were treated within Croatia. That’s part of the U.S. way of doing things.
Do you see any signs of progressive alternatives emerging in former Yugoslavia?
Joanne Landy: Eastern Europe, broadly speaking, is a traumatized region. And former Yugoslavia in particular is a traumatized region. It’s going to be hard to construct something out of that, and a lot depends on things outside of Europe: for instance, if there’s an alternative economic option for Europe and the Arab Spring countries.
It’s not that economic issues erase national questions. The national questions have an integrity of their own that has to be addressed. But now you have this sweeping global economic catastrophe that’s huge and also completely unnecessary. There’s more productive capacity in the world today than we’ve ever seen before. So, why is it that people are starving, why are so many people unemployed? It’s all because of the irrationality of the capitalist system.
The last questions are quantitative. On a scale from 1 to 10, with 1 being most disappointed and 10 being least disappointed, how would you say you feel about the changes that took place in Eastern Europe since 1989?
Joanne Landy: I’ll say 3.
Tom Harrison: I’ll say 2.
On a scale from 1 to 10, with 1 being least satisfied and 10 being most satisfied—so 1 is least satisfied, 10 is most satisfied—how do you feel about where you are in your life today?
Joanne Landy: Nine.
Tom Harrison: I sort of pass on this one. I don’t know how to answer that.
And then finally, looking forward, how optimistic are you about the future of Eastern Europe, with 1 being least optimistic and 10 being most optimistic?
Joanne Landy: Five.
Tom Harrison: I’d also say 5.
New York City, September 12, 2012