Learning From The Successes and Failures of Yugoslav Socialism
In last week’s issue, we looked at the anarchist reorganization of social and economic life in Catalonia during the Spanish Civil War. Like the Paris Commune, it was a unique and brief period within a broader conflict — this week we’ll look at a much longer project.
The former Yugoslavia comprised present-day Balkan states of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Slovenia, Serbia, the disputed state of Kosovo and the autonomous province of Vojvodina. It’s now often thought of simply through the lens of the ethnic conflicts and wars that raged in the 1990s after its breakup, but there’s much more to discuss.
During the Second World War, communist Yugoslav partisans became the most important group fighting the Nazis. In Partisan Ruptures: Self-Management, Market Reforms and the Spectre of Socialist Yugoslavia, Gal Kirn notes the partisans were inspired by the Spanish Civil War and their movement was “the only political force open to all nations and nationalities, men and women” with the goal of radically transforming the country and the world.
In 1944, partisan leader Josip Broz Tito and the prime minister of the royalist government-in-exile, Ivan Šubašić, formed a coalition government on the urging of the British. When elections were held in November 1945, the communist People’s Front won a huge majority.
Having been liberated largely through popular struggle, Yugoslavia was not part of the Soviet Union, but the partisans initially saw their future as being aligned with Moscow. They accepted Soviet aid and planners, and set out to follow the Soviet economic model, beginning their first five-year plan in 1947.
However, the partisans quickly found that Soviet plans created unfavourable conditions for Yugoslav companies, and that their economy was being integrated to serve Soviet needs. Kirn explains that in June 1948, after an exchange of angry letters and Tito’s refusal to accept Moscow’s dominance, Yugoslavia was expelled from the Cominform, the Soviet-controlled communist alliance.
No longer welcome in the Eastern bloc, nor prepared to embrace capitalism and the West, Yugoslavia had to chart its own path politically and economically. These conditions produced two important developments: the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) and socialist self-management.
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Yugoslavia was one of the leaders in getting the NAM off the ground. It not only opposed the bipolar world order, but also imperialism, colonialism and the politics of dividing the world into blocs. It also helped its members form economic relationships not dependent on the West or the Soviet Union.
The partisans also challenged the Soviet Union’s top-down planned economy model by introducing “self-management,” which Kirn writes is “conceived as the rejection of bureaucratic administration, the Bolshevik model, and social democracy.” Kirn explains that the partisans saw the self-management model as a return to something akin to the workers’ councils of the early Soviet Union under Vladimir Lenin and as “the true method for ‘withering away the state.’”
Self-management rolled out in the early 1950s. Writer James Robertson explains it involved “workers’ councils consisting of 15 to 120 democratically elected representatives, restricted to two one-year terms” and, according to Kirn, “The workers simultaneously work as well as perform the functions that are carried out by capitalists in capitalist societies and by the state in statist societies.”
Self-management also extended to public services and the cultural sector, where workers, users/consumers and political representatives alike would collectively make decisions about services and institutions. These sectors were funded through employee contributions, which Kirn writes “would be specified at the people’s referendums held in individual municipalities.” There was also redistribution from wealthier to poorer regions.
According to Kirn, self-management was “a genuine social experiment” that can be divided into several periods: the successful period of 1952 to 65, the less successful “market socialism” period of 1965 to 73 and contractual socialism from 1974 to 85.
In the first period, worker control was implemented, political decision-making was decentralized and economic growth averaged 12 per cent annually (exceeding the averages of Western and Eastern Europe). Kirn writes, “Egalitarianism and a balanced development of all republics were the decisive principles of the self-management ideology.”
However, it also gave rise to a more liberal ideology, especially among the experts and more developed northern part of the country, which demanded the market reforms of the mid-60s to create a more export-oriented economy. After the reforms, growth slowed considerably, and as Yugoslavia became increasingly dependent on market dynamics, the contradictions of its model expanded.
The reforms involved the devaluation of the currency, fewer customs protections and a reduction in taxes and grants. As a result, technocratic management gained more power over workers within firms. The divide between the richer north and the poorer south also grew, with the former having better services and much lower unemployment.
The contradictions of the market reforms led to increasing dissatisfaction with the Yugoslav model. In the 70s, there was a wave of repression against strikes and student activism, and by the 80s, the Yugoslav economy went into crisis. It took IMF loans, but that came with harsh austerity, further marketization and a recentralization of power. It also increased social and geographic inequalities.
The early 90s would bring the breakup of Yugoslavia, beginning with elections in Slovenia and Croatia followed by declarations of independence. The country would be plunged into a decade of ethnic conflict, but Kirn implores us to recognize that the flaws that led to it are not unique to socialist Yugoslavia.
He argues the inequities that led to the reemergence of nationalism within Yugoslavia can also be seen in the larger European project, where western and northern states have benefited at the expense of the south and east, increasing divisions and leading to renewed nationalism, most notable with the Brexit vote.
The ultimate failure of socialist Yugoslavia doesn’t mean there’s no lessons to be learned. Kirn argues that self-management failed because it wasn’t communist enough. Once capitalism got in, it kept requiring more reforms until the country had to embrace the neoliberal model.
Kirn writes that Yugoslavia shows us “that an alternative world is possible even in times when there is allegedly no alternative and no history, be it revolutionary or counter-revolutionary. […] it is only the patient and increasingly determined work of the working classes, their intellectual and political capacities, insurgent revolts and radical labour and party organisations that will bring about a new socialist strategy for a different future.”
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