Yugoslavia: a State or a Revolutionary Community?

In an attempt to review the project of socialist Yugoslavia from an anarchist perspective, it would perhaps be enough to say that it was a state and in such a very simple way reduce the whole analysis to one short sentence. Of course, this would be an oversimplified understanding of the project that lasted more than 45 years and created a series of myths nurtured both by the left and the right which still today represents a part of the basis for their actions. We often hear that it is necessary to turn our backs to the past and concentrate on the future, but it is exactly the relation towards the past that determines what will the present and future be like. In the post-Yugoslav context, myths have a strong echo and influence on current happenings, whether they refer to real or imagined events.

The starting point and the motivation for this issue of Antipolitika wasn’t a search for the causes of the breakup of Yugoslavia or any kind of justification for that or any other regime. Yugoslavia was, as I said in the beginning, simply a state. It kept the continuity of statehood and institutions, whether we speak of Austro-Hungary, Kingdom of Serbia, Ottoman Empire, Kingdom of Montenegro, Kingdom of Yugoslavia, and in the end, socialist Yugoslavia – the topic of this issue. When we take a look at the chronology of institutions of statehood in this region, we can see that everything continued, despite the wars, regime breakups, and occupations; the continuity of the State was ensured in every moment, and, of key importance for our antiauthoritarian position, not once was it put in question on a mass level. Everything that exists today has its starting point – legislative, institutional and even in terms of the cadre – in all previous regimes. In some way, we always speak of the continuation of the project of the State (and of Capital, without which it cannot survive); what exact name it has, and which ideological pattern it adopts, are more questions of the current strategy of the reproduction of existing relations of power, rather than of a more essential difference.

Socialist Yugoslavia, speaking in very general terms, for one group represents an age of darkness, and for others an unquestionable age of welfare. At the same time, these two positions see themselves as the only possible ones. You are either in one or the other camp. It is not possible to think outside of the context of the State. «It is not realistic.» Despite that, in the early nineties, anarchists from Croatia and Serbia as a part of the project Preko zidova nacionalizma i rata (Over the walls of nationalism and war, a newspaper published in the February of 1994) have clearly stated their view of every State, and also recognized the continuity of the State:

The Yugoslav state had to fall apart; as any other system of «real socialism,» it too represented a dictatorial, bureaucratic, authoritarian regime of abolished freedoms. Virtual freedom, characteristic to «our» country relative to other Eastern-European countries, was nothing but a mere farce; the baton was ready for anyone who would rebel against it. The much-praised self-management system was nothing but an illusion; were the working people able to freely associate, produce, exchange goods for their own benefit? Of course not.

On the other hand, we must not have illusions about the Western capitalist deceit, which is no better: the «free» market is a lie manufactured by the interests of the powerful and the rulers, based on a rabid competition, exploitation of the individual against individual, and of nature. It brings wealth and privileges to the minority, and coercion, poverty, and hunger to the majority.

With the dissolution of Yugoslavia, many bureaucrats were left without those who fed them, and those who strive for power figured out how to realize their dirty goals: new nationalist states were formed out of the desire for power of old and new rulers, and their growing appetites produced the war. They are those who produced the image of the enemy aggressor (Albanian, Serbian, Slovenian, Croatian, Muslim…) with the help of the media. As it was socialism before, now nationalism is the ideological screen behind which they hide their lust for power. (Preko zidova nacionalizma i rata, issue 1, February, 1994.)

Texts in this issue speak clearly that these assertions had a firm basis, nationalism was not a new thing on the (post)Yugoslav territory, self-management was but a borrowed idea that never came to life, nor was that possible inside a State and market economy, and the rebellions against the regime were frequent, and, which is of interest to us here, they were authentic worker and peasant struggles, a class conflict, that continued despite a formal change of the character of the regime.

Of course, we cannot reduce this analysis to a reinforcement of post-fascists who see every critique of the previous regime as a justification for their villainous ideas. On the contrary, we need to say here that the struggle against fascism, partizan resistance, and in general the resistance to deplorable ideas, is something that we should view with all due respect. Many of our comrades, grandmothers and grandfathers, have participated in that struggle in an attempt to defend their lives and create a better world. Many went quiet after that struggle, continued to live as they could (just like they did before the war), and some of them continued that struggle and their conflict with the State and Capital, like Zorkine, Kristl and Ćopić, whose texts we publish in this issue. These are only some of the voices that tell us that the struggle for a better world is never over, as long the State and capitalism exist. The fact that the socialist government saw a revolutionary and communist critique as a threat says a lot of the character and structure of the “revolution”. Here the events of June of ‘68 are of special interest, when the state apparatus, its spokespersons, and prosecutors “opened fire” in the media on the students and those who supported the demonstrations. Today we can recognize the same pattern: political enemies are demonized, and they are attacked using all means, and in the end eliminated, if circumstances allow it. This is the practice of “democratic” and “undemocratic” systems alike, despite it sometimes appearing that the state apparatuses function differently.

The resistance to the State politics was reflected also in the critique of the social position of women, whose organization «Antifascist Front of Women» dissolved «itself» (in 1953) because it became «too political». This organization, founded during the People’s Liberation Struggle, became redundant because women were supposed to find a «place where they belonged», and this was surely not in political activism. The regime has changed, but some of the basic social divisions haven’t. Gender roles have continued to determine social position, just as class division has. Later, this relation of the society towards women provoked a strong reaction through the founding of the feminist movement, which continues and adds to this struggle to present day.

When speaking of social and class aspects of Yugoslav politics, often in the focus of everyday conversations, as well as in serious discussions, we find the question of social care, housing policy, health care, and related questions as some kind of Yugoslav specificity. This is a common misconception, because this was not a specificity but a policy that was simultaneously developed in the Western versions of capitalism, and not only in the socialist ones. State and capital found themselves, after WW2, to be in a position in which they needed to find a solution for the accumulated social problems, that is, a way to circumvent the revolution. For example, the United Kingdom had a very similar system of social housing as Yugoslavia did (and it remains to this day, unlike in the post-Yugoslav territory), health care was nationalised and everyone got the right to access free public health care, railways were nationalised, and, just before WW2, so were the mines. In short, nationalisation of public services, as well as of private business, was a practice in both East and West, whenever this was of strategic importance, because this preserved social peace. We can say that Yugoslavia in that era followed the trends of European social policy, and sometimes was behind in social policy.

It is interesting to observe that the most of social policies and practices in the post-Yugoslav territory disappeared without «a shot being fired». While the West still needed to buy social peace with a policy of social care for the population, newly founded states had a new tool in their hands: nationalism. In the new situation everything could be justified with a national interest, including the cutting of social rights, because they had a «communist legacy». What is additionally interesting in this situation is that the leading nationalist party in Croatia, HDZ (Hrvatska demokratska zajednica – Croatian Democratic Community), was composed of 70.000 former members of the Communist League of Croatia and was the main advocate of such policy. In respect to the cadre, the continuity of statehood was preserved, which speaks of the adaptable character of those who make the regime and enforce state policy, whatever the current ideology may be.

Nationalism is not a new weapon in the hands of states. We shouldn’t kid ourselves and presume that Yugoslavia was a multi-ethnic community in which inter-national, or inter-ethnic differences and conflicts had disappeared. In the very foundations of the new Yugoslavia, «the solution of the national question» was built in, the Yugoslav government saw its own inner structure as a solution for the «national question», with the creation of nation-states (republics) which made the federation (in addition of autonomous provinces) and with this the idea of a nation based on ethnic belonging never ceased to be present.

This idea of «soil and blood» or «one people, one nation, one country», survived despite the declarative «brotherhood and unity», which was surely present for a large number of people, but not necessarily for the governments of the republics. One of the interesting examples of this direction is the language policy which was a point of conflict for the almost entire time of the existence of Yugoslavia. Despite the fact that Yugoslavia didn’t have an official language, Croatian/Serbian had an advantage in relation to other languages (Macedonian, Slovenian, Albanian, Hungarian and many other less present languages). The position, name, and the standard of Croatian and Serbian, although they are different versions of the same language, was a matter of constant discussion and later of conflict which at a couple of instances culminated and caused nationalist tensions in the country. Although these disputes were often of an academic character, their importance shouldn’t be understated – it was exactly a segment of academics who played an important role in the preservation and buildup of nationalist ideology. Along with that, we shouldn’t forget that the standardization of language is one of the key tools in the formulation of «national identity». In such a way, also in the respect to the question of language, republican authorities decided in which language will they publish their official documents.

In the end, it was the governments of the republics who represented the foundation for nation-states which would declare their independence in the 1990’s and continue to base their politics primarily on nationalism.

We shouldn’t forget to mention socially widespread “internal racism», if it can be called like that, primarily directed towards the Albanian and Roma populations. Both questions have a very complex history and causes which are deeply rooted in society, but, it is also a matter of racism supported by state policy that continued through several regimes. In a relatively short period, a «historical conflict» and a racist relation were produced, that seemed to be present «since always».

Despite that, we cannot speak of a completely closed society, which speaks of interesting contradictions in which we used to live. Yugoslavia was one of the founders of the Non-Aligned Movement, it had a strong cooperation and exchange with «third-world» countries, so for example student exchange was encouraged by official politics, which made the university cities places in which it was common to meet people from other parts of the world, without, at least not open, racism.

This also meant as a cultural exchange, and it was exactly the terrain of culture which was the terrain of contradictions. In the first years of the establishment of the socialist government, strict limits of cultural politics were established, a Soviet model was followed, but this era of strict socialism didn’t last for long. After the resolution of the Informbureau in 1948 and the breakup with the Soviet Union, the situation started to change. This change was accelerated and confirmed but the speech of Miroslav Krleža at the Third Congress of the Union of Writers of Yugoslavia in 1952, in which he advocated for the freedom of art and critically spoke of “Party art” and the Stalinist concept of “engineers of the soul”. Although changes in the art itself were already happening, this opened the way for “l’art pour art”. This enabled free and (for the most part) unchallenged development of modern art. Art became an area of critique, although still a controlled area, but the possibility of a critique was far larger than in other areas of social life. In exactly this rift there came to be a series of films, books, art, actions etc. which can be called a culture of resistance. It is uncertain if it was considered not dangerous by the regime, or if the reach of it was seen as far shorter than the echo of a potential ban, which could be concluded if we consider the reaction to the appearance of punk and new wave.

“Western” music, like jazz, shortly after the break with USSSR became accessible, and soon rock n’ roll became an integral part of the cultural production. We can freely say that in Yugoslavia Western trends were followed, so the musical scene had all genres and sub-genres of music, including the appearance of punk, which ruffled a few feathers and made a political case of one subculture. The first reaction of the authorities was repression, because the new rebellious subculture was different from everything up to that point. But, after the first shock and a repressive reaction, it became clear that it would be dangerous to ban punk, so the youth cultural centres, and the Alliance of the Socialist Youth which ran them, opened their doors and gave spaces for rehearsals, concerts. State record companies (therefore, the mainstream) started to publish records. The rebellion was put under the control. Of course, not completely, because bands found a way to send their message through overstating the slogan of the League of Communists, the State, and their ideology, and even by glorifying the police. So, for example, the verse “there is no better than our police” survived the regime change and generations of punks. The irony of slogans that a few people believed in became a punk message. Of course, the story of punk in Yugoslavia is deeper and demands a wider approach – not only a short reflection, especially if we speak of the part of the scene which went beyond the mainstream and had the characteristics of a counter-culture.

In the end, this analysis of Yugoslavia from an anarchist point of view only partially encompasses the whole series of questions, and each of them could fill a book. That being said, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that, as it was stated in beginning of the text: Yugoslavia was a state, and every state is based on violence which protects power and capital, and as such should disappear.