From International Socialist Review, Vol.22 No.4, Fall 1961, pp.125-129.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
In 1945 the Proletarian Brigades expelled the Nazis by means of revolution. What is it like, sixteen years later, to be a citizen under the “Titoist experiment”?
Theo Schultz is an Austrian, who for the past two years, has been an exchange student at the University of Belgrade
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THE rugged country of Yugoslavia, whose name alone invokes immediate images of fierce, bearded partisans and of a fiery spirit of independence, arouses something more than curiosity. Certainly, from a socialist standpoint, one should feel inspired by the determination with which the Yugoslavs carried out their revolution against foreign and domestic fascism and against the treachery of Stalin to overcome their anarchic, Balkan backwardness. Out of a geographic expression of small, quarrelsome and corrupt states, the Yugoslav revolution has fashioned a modern, federated workers state. But for socialists, Yugoslavia is most interesting for the questions its existence poses: how was the war of liberation from German fascism turned into a social revolution? How was the worker-peasant leadership of this revolution able to sustain itself in the face of counter-revolutionary pressure from both East and West? What is Yugoslavia’s relation to the breaking-up of the Soviet bloc, which process began with its expulsion from the Cominform? How will further changes in the bloc affect Yugoslavia?
Some of these questions have already been answered by revolutionary socialists; some answers are still to be formulated. It is not my purpose to offer any new answers, but rather to present a picture of today’s Yugoslavia as I have known it in order to provide further clues for our evaluation of the contribution of Yugoslavia’s experience to the world working-class movement. In this picture I will indicate what life is like in relation to the basic economic and political situation and how the leadership envisages the future: that is, what Yugoslav ideology is at present.
The framework of this picture of everyday life is its economic system. Such a discussion, in order to be clear, must be approached historically. For Yugoslavia’s present economic system, the “Titoist experiment,” was the result of the 1949 split with the Cominform.
After the Yugoslav Communists were thrown out of the Cominform, they were left to fend for themselves in a hostile capitalist world. Weak and threatened, they were not sure of support from the masses, particularly after four years of ruthless Stalinist-type rule; they had no army large enough to engage the Soviet troops that were being massed on their borders. Yet this was a working-class party, determined to carry out a working-class program of socialist industrialization, as well as maintain its own power. Contrary to the hope of both. Stalin and Western capitalism, Yugoslavia did not become a petty bourgeois state, a pawn of Western imperialism. The class nature of the leadership forbade this, in spite of the fact that it did delve into some foreign policy exploits to the benefit of the West. But these remained incidental and what happened was that the Yugoslav Communists went to the masses themselves to gain support in their struggle with Stalin and in their struggle to remain upright in a capitalist world. They did so by making sharp concessions to the disgruntled working class and peasantry. These concessions were the reforms that made up the “Law on Self-Management of Enterprises Through Workers Councils” passed in 1950, and are the basis of the Yugoslav system today.
The theory behind these reforms, formulated subsequently to justify what seemed at the time a desperate adventure, was that bureaucracy had to be eliminated. Bureaucracy, the party theoreticians concluded, is the result of a highly centralized state and economy, and leads to the divorce of the state apparatus from society. This had happened in the Soviet Union, because it had been a backward country attempting to build socialism, and the process had many disasterous consequences, culminating in the personal rule of Stalin, whose dogmatism caused the split between the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. They believed economic and administrative power should be decentralized, delegated to representative organs closer to the people: the workers councils elected in firms and factories, the communal and district People’s Assemblies and other “self-management” units. As a concession to the working class, this was the most important reform the Yugoslav government made. The other important reform was a concession to the peasantry, ending forced collectivization. After this, the peasants flowed back on to 27-acre private holdings, where they still are, for the most part, today. (Only 8.8% of arable land is socially owned in Yugoslavia, but it is this sector which is most responsible for the steady increase in agricultural productivity.) With the idea that more decentralization would mean less bureaucracy, hence, more socialism, the workers councils, managing enterprises that compete with one another, have taken over almost all phases of production and distribution.
THERE were two immediate effects of the new course. First, there was the abandonment of any policy for a rapid, heavy industrialization along the irrational lines of the other Peoples Democracies of the time. There was increasingly more emphasis on consumer goods and light industry, since the councils, representing broader and broader sections of the working class, were now determining production. The second immediate effect was that decentralization transformed the role of state planning as it had hitherto existed under other planned economies. Yugoslavia has no “plan” of the sort to be found in the other workers states. The annual or five-year plan is a prediction based on previous productive capacity, an outline of general economic aims, and a statement of methods by which the state can influence the market in order to attain these aims. These methods differ from those used by the state in capitalist countries mainly in the degree and frequency with which they are used. The plan may determine the rate at which interest is paid to the community on the fixed capital of an enterprise, rates of turnover tax on specific commodities, maximum and minimum prices for certain goods, and so on. No industry is given a plan to fulfill; and an enterprise or, for that matter, even an administrative agency, proves itself necessary to the economy by being efficient and successful in competition. The laws of the market are for the most part the main determination of the Yugoslav economy.
The overall effect has been adjustment, by means of concessions, to a capitalist environment. This has had two aspects:
- Because the Yugoslav state was no longer able to attempt accumulating capital primitively, that is, out of the backs of the workers, the dearth of capital was all the more conspicuous. The Yugoslav Communists began taking first military and then economic aid from the West. This economic aid has been continuous and at present adds up to over two billion dollars, mostly coming from the United States.
- In addition, because of the autonomy of the worker-controlled enterprises, there has been an increasing financial involvement on the part of individual Yugoslav concerns with Western capitalism. Recently, the regime has undertaken various measures to facilitate this process and trade with the West in general. The most important of these measures has been the conversion of the dinar to put it on a par with Western currency, and the granting of more financial jurisdiction to the Workers’ Councils. The Councils will now have fewer financial obligations to the State and more access to foreign currency. These most recent reforms are designed, according to the government, to stimulate productivity by helping to adjust Yugoslav firms to competition on the world market.
The system thus far has prospered. For a long time after it went into effect, the average Yugoslav enjoyed a higher standard of living than his counterpart in the Soviet bloc. He was also not working under any draconic discipline to make up for bad planning and waste, as was the case in the other “People’s Democracies;” nor was he subject to any undue police terror. At the same time, the country advanced steadily. In 1959, a United Nations report found Yugoslavia to have, next to China, the highest rate of industrial expansion in the world. There is reason to believe that this has been rather uneven within the country itself, the more industrialized north having a substantially higher rate than the backward south, but the country as a whole has maintained an annual increase of 11% in economic growth.
To fill out this picture we have to translate the proportions of this apparently successful construction into what life is like for the average Yugoslav. A steady contact with this life makes the observer aware of two conditions:
- The system has meant a continuous rise in the standard of living, but this rise has not been equal for everyone.
- There are signs that the rise is no longer as steady for the worker as it once was. His life is no longer that much better than that of all workers in East Europe; it is even worse than some. Constantly climbing prices with incomes lagging behind imply that the rate at which his standard of living has been rising, may be declining.
Aside from these aspects, there are a number of others which puzzle and disturb the observer. The most one can do is shake one’s head at the discrepancy between known statistics and the way people manage to live. Life in Yugoslavia, as in any East European state, is more than hard when compared to Western well-being; it may be bleak. The average wage for unskilled labor is from ten thousand to twelve thousand dinars a month; for skilled labor, depending on the level of skill, from twelve to twenty thousand. The professional gets from twenty to thirty thousand. A man earning twenty thousand, however, supporting a family of four, can scarcely break even at the end of the month once the average food bill is paid. His rent, which was raised in 1960 along with electricity and water rates, but for which he obtained a compensating 6.5% raise in pay, now takes up about 20% of his income, whereas it once took up only 8%. A suit of clothes means a month’s salary, a good pair of shoes at least one fifth of it. He has no medical expenses, and financial coverage in sickness and retirement is as adequate, in relation to the cost of living, as his wages are. He even has a reduced train-ticket to take him to the coast on his annual vacation, but most workers in Belgrade, if they go anywhere at all, visit relatives on the farm, for any other kind of vacation would be too expensive.
IF THIS man was one of the lucky few skilled workers from before the war, or from a family of the same, he might think his lot is not that much better today. If he is an unskilled newcomer to trade and city, he will probably consider himself better off, but will worry, along with others, about one ominous fact: the steady increase in prices of food, clothing, services and utilities. He will be quite aware that the plethora of goods in shopwindows, some of them imported, are there to look at and nothing more. He may, perhaps, unwisely splurge, as some Yugoslavs are wont to do, but bad budgeting alone is not the reason that families of my acquaintance have taken out large bank loans in order to buy furniture and clothing. It is also not reason enough that they find it difficult to buy books. One way of overcoming such difficulty, beside going into debt, is renting the “spare” room. The room, however, is never really “spare;” if the family of four is lucky enough to have a three-room apartment, the family simply moves into two rooms in order to rent the third.
If this unskilled newcomer is a rank and file member of the nine hundred thousand strong League of Yugoslav Communists, he might think back to the time immediately after the war when there was very little in the stores but everyone was equally poor. Or, he might just brush aside this incongruous thought, be thankful that he is not living in what he thinks is the desolate world of the Soviet Union and be convinced that the more profits his firm makes, the more he will have in his pocket someday. Until then, of course, he will supplement the family food provisions through periodic trips back home to the farm, where most of his relatives live. Perhaps he will go back just to see his wife and children whom he has had to leave while finding a job and a home in the city.
This man is much more typical of Yugoslavia than the skilled worker or professional, yet his habits of life are not dominant in this picture of city life. In the big city, there is more of a sheen of well-being, glimmers of extravagance, and the dazzling, puzzling sight of people spending money.
WHO and how? Who are these people who can afford the goods in the shop windows? Who fill, any night of the week, the lively but expensive Belgrade cafes? Who are the owners of Belgrade’s thousands of private cars, the builders of one-family houses? And who are these corpulent types who can offer at a moment’s notice hundreds of thousands of dinars for black market dollars, with which they take annual trips to Italy and Germany to buy high-level, West European consumer goods?
Bureaucrats? Perhaps, but state functionaries have learned to be more graciously discreet through their many contacts with the West. There are some minor functionaries some general directors, who are indeed members of the Party. But they may also be highly trained professionals married to other highly trained professionals, husband and wife both working for top salaries. Because of the dearth of cadre people, their services are much in demand and the usual procedure is to work minimally at one’s regular job and a lot of extra hours for another enterprise at a higher salary rate. Among those who sustain this atmosphere of high life in Belgrade are former bourgeois as well, those who have property they are renting favorably, particularly to foreigners. Near the top of the high-living list are those in comfortably strategic positions such as sales representatives of firms dealing with foreign companies, from which personally profitable deals can be made. Other highlivers may be the privatnici, some six thousand private entrepreneurs in Belgrade, such as hairdressers, carpenters, jewelers, furriers, and so on. And among those more favored may even be a highly skilled worker from some efficiently run combine in the north. Of course, those sitting in the cafes very often are of average means, Serbs, spending on an evening’s spree as much as they would in three days or more. But for the most part the best customers are these other varied groups – minority groups – which make up the level of the privileged. Some of them are operators, others perfectly sincere people who believe their task in life to be earning their own “good piece of bread” – with plenty of sausage on it, to be eaten in one’s own well-furnished home or in one’s own car. Although some of these types will complain about the atheistic, property-stealing Communists, others will be with the regime in so far as it does not encroach on their prosperity. From all appearances, the Yugoslav government does not do that; on the contrary, it seems to justify this mode of existence on the principles inherent in a market system, where nothing succeeds like success.
This ideal of self-enrichment is widespread among workers as well as professionals and employees. It is this low level of consciousness that is the most disturbing aspect of political life. Before we speak of this however, a review of the political structure in which this morality exists is necessary.
To take the historical approach again, the concessions made by the Yugoslav Communist Party leadership were ostensibly designed to combat bureaucracy – but actually only in so far as it left the Yugoslav Party bureaucracy itself in power. That is why these concessions remained purely economic. Economic power was distributed among the Workers’ Councils, but the question of political power was never touched. Working-class leaders though they had been, and working-class program to the contrary, these former partisans, through the safety valve of the reforms, maintained their own hegemony, becoming a privileged caste in the process.
All the earmarks of a political bureaucracy are evident. The old guard lives extravagantly, the new generation of Party activists and functionaries numbers among it many careerists and opportunists. The Party is adamant about its power position, and there is a police apparatus to back it up. There are political prisoners, although the most famous, Milovan Djilas, who criticized the existence of a privileged caste from a right-wing standpoint, has been released.
Criticism, corresponding to the low level of consciousness, is vague and confused. From members of the ancien regime, of course, one cannot expect more than laments for today and odes to yesterday. The workers, however, small in number and with power limited and dispersed among the Workers’ Councils throughout the country, sense only their growing discontent with the rising cost of living and lagging wages, and the fact that some Yugoslavs are not having as hard a time of it. Most that I have met exhibit varied illusions about Western capitalism, considering it some unlucky blow that Yugoslavia is not as rich as the United States, and rarely link the backwardness of old Yugoslavia with Western imperialism. Some of the more aware are resigned and disillusioned.
But the pressure of rising costs is increasing. Since the most recent financial reforms went into effect, almost all prices have once again soared: food, building materials, postal rates, train fares, newspapers, some textiles, and so on. There is even talk that rents will go up again. Even before this recent wave of price-hikes, there were rumors of disturbances in two factory towns. In one of these, in Serbia, workers had drawn up a list of grievances revolving around their poor living standards. The protest was suppressed, the leaders arrested, but the sentences were light, in the hope of preventing further outbreaks. If the promised “adjustment” in the economic situation does not come soon, such “rumors” are likely to become more frequent.
STUDENTS are more prone to enter into an analysis of what should constitute socialism and what does not in Yugoslavia. Serious, politically aware students, and there are all too few of these, will voice criticism of the elite, of favoritism for members of the Party, and of the practice of “VIP,” the connections game that permeates every aspect of life here, and can be translated to mean something between nepotism and string-pulling. The students tend to be generally apathetic, most concerned with getting lucrative jobs. The more aware are disillusioned, having witnessed the progress of bureaucratic careers, or hearing their politically active colleagues affably parroting slogans.
An interesting and hopeful exception to the student “apathy” was a recent performance in Belgrade of a satirical play put on by the “Zagreb Student Cabaret Theatre.” Entitled Circus, the play dealt with a Yugoslav “Self-Managed” enterprise, in which the characters were all animals: the General Dozer was a lion, and his main function was sleeping; his subordinate managers were a parrot, a snake, a peacock, a jackass, etc. They all represented the various politicking personalities that have the main say in a business enterprise and who worry about how to become top man on the totem. The parrot is a centrist, the snake a factionalist, the jackass an interventionist. They meet and try to debate various “economic problems” but are mainly absorbed in flattering the General Dozer. His entrance and exits are always accompanied by the rolling out of a red carpet, and the throwing of flowers before his feet, which is the usual welcome accorded Tito when he appears on visits anywhere in the country.
A little rabbit appears at the meeting and asks for a job – he’s unemployed. “Unemployed?” the council’s members ask with astonishment. “But there is no more unemployment here!” The rabbit nods quickly and then explains how hard up he is, and that he is willing to take any work at all, even for low wages. “Low wages? But there are no low wages here!”
When a cute little rain-worm shows up for a job, one of the members takes a shine to her, and hires her as a knife-thrower, although she admits she has no qualifications for the job. They then begin searching for someone to fill the job of target. Finally a moronical sheep comes in and demands to be given a job because his uncle “has smelled a rat” in the Circus. Without anyone knowing exactly what the rat is, he is hired immediately. The play ended with the song: “While you sleep, VIP keeps right on working.”
The critic in Borba called the play amateur, but an amusing satire on the conditions in some business enterprises, conveniently ignoring the fact that the satire went far beyond the structure in an enterprise. The Zagreb students were supposed to participate a few days later in a festival of small dramatic presentations, but they never did go.
Since the Party leadership had to make certain concessions to intellectuals as well, in its quest to maintain power at the time of the split, there are groups of intellectuals who enjoy much more freedom than those in the other workers states. These are particularly artists, painters and sculptors. They do not have to subordinate themselves to any doctrine, certainly not to that of “socialist realism,” which has disappeared. Constant contact with the West, having become so much a part of Yugoslav policy, has aided in fostering experimentation. Magazines, newspapers, exhibitions, the relative ease with which Yugoslavs may travel, all has helped in broadening the styles of Yugoslav artists. In literature and films, however, freedom is more restricted, and in these fields there is much less creativity and originality. Films are often annoyingly bad, sometimes fair, but always deal with the war and the liberation struggle. The dominant themes in these films are personal heroism, pathos, and sentimentality; rarely social conflict. There have been one or two novels dealing with present-day Yugoslavia and its problems; but one famous writer, a former partisan, was thrown out of the Party because of his criticism of modern Yugoslavia in some of his works and remarks.
Through the trade and cultural doors open to the West, other cultural phenomena have swept in that are perhaps not so beneficial: American westerns, fads like hula hoops, the latest Italian fashions. It is probably for this reason that the Yugoslav bureaucracy sometimes seems more extravagant than those of the other “People’s Democracies.”
ONE wonders whether it is not just such advantages that give this bureaucracy the perspective of coexistence with Western capitalism. It wants to continue and extend its adjustment to capitalist encirclement; and this desire has found strong ideological expression, most notably in the Program adopted by the Seventh Congress of the League of Yugoslav Communists in 1958.
In this respect the central doctrine of the Program is that, despite the continued fundamental antagonism between capitalism and “socialism,” war is in no sense the inevitable outcome of this rivalry. This view is advanced on the basis of the following arguments:
- The growth and strength of the “socialist camp.”
- The spread of the colonial revolution and the emergence of new, independent, neutral states.
- The strength of the working class and other “progressive” social groups in the western countries.
- The gradual emergence of “state capitalism” in the West, leading the workers toward a struggle for control over the state apparatus and nationalized industries rather than toward violent revolution.
- The menace of total annihilation inherent in modern military technology.
This line is generally consistent with the Khrushchev thesis on “peaceful coexistence.” The main difference is that the Yugoslavs speak of “active coexistence,” implying an independent and critical attitude toward both the USA and the USSR and opposition to “the policy of blocs” on both sides.
Moreover the Program is critical of such “negative aspects of socialism” as centralization, bureaucratism, and “hegemonic tendencies in foreign policy.” The Yugoslavs offer their own system of economic decentralization and “active coexistence” as an alternative to these “negative aspects.”
Nevertheless these criticisms are rather abstract and indirect: in actuality, the League of Yugoslav Communists and the CPSU have more in common politically than at any previous time. The attacks on Yugoslav “revisionism” from the Soviet Union and most other countries of its bloc have been rather perfunctory. The really violent attacks have come from the Chinese and the Albanians.
BOTH the Yugoslavs and the Russians are aware that Belgrade is bearing the brunt of an attack actually aimed at the Kremlin. Unlike the Russians the Yugoslavs are free to answer these attacks, and have done so quite forthrightly, in the form of Vice-President Edward Kardelj’s Socialism and War.
In this polemical book Kardelj develops the thesis, outlined above, of the Program on peaceful coexistence and attempts to show that the Khrushchev-Tito line is “really” orthodox Leninism. He also introduces a caricature of the Trotskyist position on coexistence which he equates with the views of Mao Tse-tung in a highly dishonest way.
The basic contradiction in the position of Kardelj and the other Yugoslav proponents of coexistence is manifested when they link the Chinese view of the inevitability of war – capitalism’s aggressive nature – with the concept of world revolution. On the one hand, imperialism
is assumed to be so weak that it can no longer wage war against the “socialist camp;” on the other, it is regarded as so strong that world socialist revolution is not a realistic perspective. This contradiction points up the extent to which the coexistence line is based on a deliberately false analysis of the relationship of forces in the world today, giving a misleadingly optimistic picture of the capitalist system and its imperialist policy. The Titoist ideology thus emerges as very close to the ideology of the Soviet bureaucracy.
IF WE were to contrast this picture of Yugoslavia today with the one from the times of the fierce and fighting partisans, we would see that the dominant theme is one of a quest for well-being, but not of militancy. The broader themes are apathy and uneasiness in some circles, unjustified self-satisfaction in others. Yet there is probably no one in Yugoslavia today who does not identify himself with the policy of coexistence. Having lost every tenth Yugoslav during the war, they are fervent supporters of this aspect of Titoist ideology. But there is a link between this and the other aspects of “Titoism,” or modern Yugoslavia, which do not incur such support. It is very significant that people are confused by the many trips the President of the Republic takes to each new odd-sounding statelet in Africa or Asia. It is even more significant that they get annoyed at the luxurious proportions of these voyages, which run into incredible expense, and the like of which no Western statesman would undertake. Large-scale convoys contrast starkly with reality at home: the incredibly crowded trains and buses, the poor housing, subsisting peasants, the almost Asiatic poverty of the south. These sources of discontent, inequality and a soaring cost of living, are sources of danger for the Yugoslav leadership. Depending on how they try to eradicate them, the vague, dispersed, and mumbled criticism of today can become clear and articulate tomorrow. In such a case, the Yugoslav workers would be following the inspiring tradition of the Proletarian Brigades, set long ago by many of the leaders of present-day Yugoslavia.
Last updated on 7 May 2009