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An Interview with Boris Buden – Antifascism as Platitude


By: Milena Ostojić (this text originally appeared in

Boris Buden is a cultural theorist, translator, and publicist, currently guest lecturer at the Bauhaus-Weimar Universität. He is widely known for essays originally published in Arkzin, and later in the Barikade collection (two editions). In our conversation with Buden, we interrogated the question of antifascism as a concept and a practice related to the long term local and wider European experience, with an appeal for an alternative to the contemporary revisionist conjecture.

Last year, at a panel about NOB (Narodnooslobodilačka borba – People’s Liberation War), you emphasized its foundational modernist dimension: the demand for elementary universality and equality; from Suvinov’s “today movement, we are finally recognized as people” to the socialist revolution and workers’ self-management. To what extent does 1990, as “year zero,” with its insistence on a Country, instead of a Republic, represent the end of this more progressive tradition of local (socialist) modernism. Or do you see it as the final provincialization/colonization of Croatia?

It might be best to first talk about continuities: I find them more interesting. This is not just about the fact that the Croatian state already existed in the 1990 but there was also a completely developed institutional infrastructure of a national citizen culture supported by civic intelligentsia, which was completely nationally conscious, mostly thanks to national education, whose basic elements were the Croatian language and Croatian history “from the seventh century onwards.” Nationalism in its historical civic form was not the blood enemy of the communist system and the system did not undemocratically, meaning through totalitarianism, persecute it – it was its structural element and its legitimizing horizon. You can still hear this in the well-known thesis that without the partisans, meaning Croatian communists, there would be no independent Croatian state. This statement necessarily reduces communism and antifascism as world-historical phenomena to a national, meaning nationalist, teleology. Everything that exists finds its justification only in how much it serves the nation. If it is of no service, then it is of no good. Therefore, antifascism is fine, but only because it served the purpose of creating the Croatian state. If it had not done so, it would be redundant; Croatians would have no reason to fight against fascism. This is what I mean when I say that nationalism is still the ultimate legitimizing horizon of politics and ideology in Croatia. But, there is also continuity here. Communists also used nationalism to legitimize their power – far from the current myth of them working to destroy the nation and eradicate everything that is Croatian. On the contrary, the entire project of historical communism in Croatia and former Yugoslavia lay in the idea that the nation, as a historically inherited realpolitik category, should be infused with some sort of a social content. So Croatians become literate, so they are washed and dressed, so they get a roof over their heads and light bulbs in their homes, so they are employed, building up themselves and society, so that every day, in every aspect, they progress culturally and economically, and so that they finally learn to walk in step with the modern world, without exploiting each other, without skinning each other – this was the project of modernizing the Croatian nation which arrived form the forest where partisans resided.

Can we really just say “from the forest”? Wouldn’t we be disregarding the continuity with the interwar workers’ and communist movements? At the same time, the mythical figure of the forest resonates with a kind of disqualification of the partisan movement.

“The forest” is a racist, provincial metaphor for the partisans’ cultural inferiority, something akin to the “Serbs” or “Hercegovci” of yesterday, and the “migrants” of today, or, even better, of tomorrow. The phrase is a product of a phantasy about a healthy, normal, neither left nor right, self-sufficient core of a civic culture which is a victim of the outside primitives, illiterate, partisan hooligans, who use oak floors for fuel, raise pigs in bath tubs. As such, it is not just a naked lie, because that can be easily historically invalidated, but it is also authentically undemocratic. It is precisely that story about the peasants from the forest that expresses the most primitive, already historically decadent, racist elitism of the former middle class and its pathological a-sociality. Precisely this class was unable to see beyond its own egoistical, petit bourgeoisie interests – in other words, unable to start a general social and cultural modernization. And the communist movement was already divided at that time. On the one hand, it was able to mobilize a massive emancipatory energy, which managed to accomplish revolutionary civilizational progress in a short time. On the other hand, it also opportunistically took over the institutional apparatus of the national state and civic culture and believed that it could instill in it a new social, emancipatory content. The result was the historical compromise that haunted the communists until its historical crash in the 1990s.

How does this compromise, or this ambivalence of the communist movement, affect today’s reality? Or, how did this contradiction of the communist modernist project resolve itself in what we (also) know as post-socialism?

Well, it is precisely in that that we find what I call continuity: the fact that our communist movement not only just pre-supposed national citizenship, but it also realistically, meaning socio-economically, enabled its modern expression by creating that which today is definitely disappearing—a relatively wide, Croatian, civic middle class which was authentically produced by Yugoslavian self-management socialism and the social substrata of national civic culture. Of course, there was no national bourgeoisie – its role was played by the socialist technocracy, also completely aware of the market, which, in the historical moment of post-communist accumulation of capital, or colloquially criminal privatization, did not manage to constitute itself as a national bourgeoisie capable of starting post-communist development. Instead of it, we got some kind of local lumpen-bourgeoisie, which is corruptly networked with the comprador political elites. Both are just nominally national, while in reality they are under the institutional command and control of supranational political, financial, or military power. It is ridiculous to say that today’s Croatia is a sovereign state. The Croatian people was sovereign in former Yugoslavia, jointly with the other peoples. Yugoslavian communists did not just promise sovereignty in the anti-fascist struggle; they were also able to realize it in realpolitik, unlike the ustaša, četniks, and the rest of the fascists collaborators. But this entire historical project of socialization and modernization of the nation has definitely failed.

Why did it fail?

Well, maybe it’s better to say that it has been defeated, politically and ideologically, during that same historical episode that also saw the epochal disintegration of the entire industrial modernity, including its most important social institution, the welfare state, in its Western democratic, metropolitan form, or its real-socialist, peripheral version. When I say that the socialist project has been defeated, I mean that it has been defeated in a class struggle – it did not manage to confront the offensive of the class enemy which attacked not only some socialist society but also society itself, which demolished the social foundation of any kind of emancipatory socialist politics. It has also been defeated ideologically. When it entered into a crisis in the 1970s, the neoliberal ideology was waiting, ready to offer its alternative, to offer itself as a necessity without an alternative, as a logic of reality itself, human nature itself. Neoliberalism is acting today precisely when it publically bemoans unnecessary ideological divisions, the eternal fights between ustaša and partisans, when it calls for turning to the future, for reform, for some post- and supra- ideological idyll of national togetherness. At the same time, we forget that neoliberalism does not even need democracy. Or, as Hayek said when he was visiting Pinochet, neoliberalism prefers liberal dictatorship to a democracy which ignores liberalism. In the end, our liberals don’t have any ideological problems with HDZ’s (Croatian Democratic Union’s) post-fascism, as long as it promises so-called reforms.

In this region, the restoration of capitalism coincided with war; in what way can we then speak about necessity and contingency?

Tuđman’s rise to power, and the so-called Homeland War (Domovinski rat), which not only could but also should have been avoided, is our domestic embodiment of what Naomi Klein called the shock doctrine – using a crisis, or in our case the nationalist warmongering mass mobilization and ultimately the war itself, as a cover for the implementation of unpopular policies, specifically, a mass expropriation of an entire class of owners of means of production. This is captured in the stories of workers going to the fronts, only to come back and find their factories and hotels in the hand of new private owners. Shortly, the criminal privatization as a mechanism of post-communist accumulation of capital. But, I have to emphasize once more, this also often includes continuities. Not only did the Yugoslavian self-management system have many elements of neoliberalism, but Tuđman himself is more an element of continuity than disruption. He himself is an authentic product of the communist system. As we all know, Tuđman was a part of the highest ranks of the Yugoslavian ruling elite from the beginning. Looking back now, we could say that a country in which guys like Franjo Tuđma held those positions was doomed. This also relates to Tuđman as a victim of a totalitarian system. I am convinced that 90 percent of Croatians would agree to serve Tuđman’s imprisonment if that would guarantee them a general’s pension in a villa in northern Zagreb, playing tennis and leisurely doodling… But those times are past. Croatia today is a nation without a society and without sovereignty – patriotism and nothing more.

You once said that “identity is like a bone to chew which is thrown to you just before you are skinned;” another time that “you have to start a war with Cyrillic in order to hide the fact that the working week expanded to 60 hours and that employers will have the right to fire pregnant women.” Identity politics also ate up the concept of antifascism – does that leave behind an antifascism that takes into consideration social and class differences as the only truly politically emancipatory option? Or, in other words, the antifascism we usually talk about as a (authentic, but erased) historical experience of NOB?

What was called Narodnooslobodilačka borba (People’s Liberation War) was, let me use Freud’s expression here, undetermined. It was a conjecture of many meanings from which it is impossible to separate even a single thread. The elements of a social revolution were mixed with the elements of a national-patriotic defense of one’s homeland, for example, in the fight against the Italian occupation of Dalmatia, or simply the fight to preserve one’s bare life like it was the case with Serbians in the NDH (Independent State of Croatia), who were existentially threatened under the Ustaša terror. The rest is politics, or ideology, which is decisive in the articulation and organization of a struggle. But it was not simply communist. It’s incredible that today, when public debates are saturated with historical topics and when professional historians are the main celebrities of those debates, exactly that elementary historical knowledge is completely irrelevant. In the Croatian public today, it is not surprising to hear how such belated Blairite forms of historical social democracy, I mean Croatian, Milonović’ SDP, is referred to as communism, or even bolshevism. Not even the KPJ (Communist Party of Yugoslavia) in 1941 claimed to be a Bolshevik party. If it was, it would be leading a class, and not a people’s liberation, war. The category of a nation as a political subject was introduced into the communist movement, instead of the working class, by Dimitrov, at the 7th Congress of the Comintern. He defined it as an anti-fascist category: a nation is made up from all those who support the fight against fascism, regardless of class belongings. That was called the politics of the national front and it was basically a reaction of the communist movement to the defeats it experienced in Italy and Germany, where the working class for the most part was mobilized by fascists. The word “Bolshevik,” which is used as an ordinary curse-word today, or more precisely, as a fascist curse word, does not really have a real referent, but it is a symptom of a radically right, post-fascist hegemony in Croatia.

And this brings us to the issue of the (in)capacity to truly politicize that what we determine as antifascism, or – to articulate the existing social antagonism in a politically efficient way.

Unfortunately, even the term antifascism, as it’s publically used today, was forged under the conditions of that same hegemony. It is the result of a retroactive operation on a historical reality which removed from it the malign foreign tissue of communism. So communism is stuck with all the evil, all the crimes, and anti-fascism prances around like a category of historical innocence. But that antifascism is not innocent either. Is it that hard to remember all the violence that was activated in the fight against fascism on the part of the western allies? But today we only speak about the communist terror, but not about the democratically legitimized antifascist terror. It was not the communist who burned with fire bombs more than half a million of German civilians or used the atomic bombs against women and children in Japan. Innocence is an ideological, not a real political or historical, category. “Only a rock is innocent, not even a child,” wrote Hegel, thus defining innocence as pure not doing, absolute inaction. Maybe this is the problem today when antifascism is publically used most often as an excuse for political opportunism, for its opposite, for not standing up to fascism.

How does the current Croatian minster of culture Hasanbegović’s statement that he is an antifascist fit in this constellation?

He can claim this precisely because antifascism today is not any kind of a political factor, because it has lost its mobilizing charge, because it is a stand without a real political effect. Precisely because it is so benign, harmless, because it neither barks nor bites, anyone can be an antifascist, including one convinced post-fascist. In this way, Hasanbegović is completely right in his claim that antifascism is an empty phrase. If it wasn’t, ustaša salutes would not roar through the stadiums and the streets, ustaša symbols would not decorate Croatian cities, the President would not spend time with guys who take photos wearing Nazi uniforms, and Hasanbegović himself would not be a minister, and I am sure that even our local social democracy would stand in salute in front of black shirts and congratulate them on the victory day against antifascism, like the poor guy, the social-democratic mayor of Split, happened to do. He actually experienced another Freudian slip, which made visible his entire unclean consciousness, the truth of not only his own collaborationist opportunism, but also the fact that the Croatian reality today looks as if the ustaše, and not the partisans, won in 1945. I would even dare to say that antifascism made it to the Constitution because it was already then an empty phrase. It was installed by Tuđman’s ideology of reconciliation, our local provincial version of the end of history, in which all contradiction, all conflicts of interest, let alone class conflicts within a nation, become a thing of the past. So antifascism was also buried in the depths of historical reality, like the very foundation of Croatian statehood, but only to support the contemporary ustaša roof over our heads. The issue here is a radical asymmetry between the partisans and the ustaša. While the former are tucked away in a criminal, totalitarian past, the latter are enjoying being the heroes of the current moment. The same asymmetry is valid for the empty phrase of “two totalitarianisms.” If the stadium was roaring with “death to fascism – freedom to the people,” the match would have surely been stopped.

You used the example of “Nazi Europe was also a united Europe” more than once – how much is the new wave of revisionism an addendum to the final cementing of Croatia into the new European international, traditionally positioned as its military frontier?

The problem is that in Croatia, the phantasy called Europe did not descend into reality, whether historical or contemporary, since 1991. She thus remained some sort of a vulgar utopian destination, towards which Croatia is travelling, but never arriving. This is because Europe is still a normative ideal in Croatia, an imaginary place in which everything is right. The ambivalence of such a concept of Europe is best visible in the strand of Croatian liberals which helplessly bemoan the Croatian valley of tears in which the incapable and corrupt state, and its jobless, bureaucratic do-nothings, the so-called uhljebi, live on the backs of honest and hard-working entrepreneurs and block so called reforms or the final privatization of everything that exists. In doing so, they keep mentioning some normal, ordered state, somewhere over there in Europe, in the West, where everything is in its place and I guess no one is exploiting anyone. The Panama Papers recently made visible the fact that the global elites, including those from the most developed countries of the West, today sit on untaxed wealth of about 20 and 30 trillion dollars. Corruption is a structural element of global capitalism, not a measurement of local backwardness. And when it comes to the demand for the privatization of state firms, then we could use the German federal railway as an example – it is a firm owned entirely by the German state which transports almost a third of the planet’s population in one year – it has two billion passengers, or it transports two Croatia’s in one day. No one would even think to call those workers in Germany uhljebi or do-nothings. Just as they can’t refer to those 60% of citizens of Vienna who live in social, meaning publicly allocated, apartments as social parasites. On the contrary, Vienna is proclaimed to be the most comfortable city to live in precisely because of its bolshevism, as our provincial privatizers of everything that exists would say. But it is important to understand that reality, here as well as in Europe, cannot be easily ideologically simplified.

Let’s return to the issue of European Fascism, or Europe which nominally lies on the foundations of antifascism.

Europe has not only already been historically united under Nazi-fascism, but its current allegedly antifascist foundations are also a historical, meaning contingent, changeable category. Today it is not difficult to imagine a Europe under the rule of the extremely right, racist, post-fascist political elites, like we already partly see in Central Europe, Hungary, Poland, and Croatia. It is not difficult to imagine Marie Le Pen’s Europe, a Europe of the British euro-sceptics, German Pegida and AFD, Dutch Geert Wilders, and their extra-European political fans, from Erdogan to Putin and Trump. In this sense, Karamarkov’s HDZ, or a phenomena like Hasanbegović do not have to be a measurement of Croatian backwardness in relation to Europe, but, on the contrary, they can be seen as the pioneers of a new European order, visionaries of a new Europe, which will release Brevik from prison as a fighter for European freedom, and in Auschwtiz hold commemorations for the victims of communist terrors and celebrate Adolf Hitler as the first uniter of a racially clean, Arian Europe, who was driven to a tragic suicide but the Asiatic, communist totalitarians. Will we then be able to run to Europe to tell on Karamarko, Hasanbegović, and their post-fascist assistants? There will, of course, be those who think I am exaggerating with these dark visions, but I can only repeat Gramsci’s slogan about the pessimism of reason, which, of course, makes sense only if it’s accompanied by the optimism of will. And there is enough reason for this optimism of the will in Croatia, or enough of those who already now refuse to accept this reality. These are people who don’t need any kind of Europe as a normative role model or as an instance of complaints to which one’s own democratic will can be delegated. They are not behind Europe in anything, and least so in their capacity to constitute a sovereign subject of a democratic will. This is a sovereignty which still makes realistic sense when the only thing left from the so called dream of sovereign Croatia has left behind only this very real post-fascist nightmare. This is a sovereignty which does not take Europe as its role model never to be reached in this damned provincial bigotry, and even less as an instance of complaints which is expected to ensure justice and freedom instead of doing so on our own, but it is a historically open and democratic option, a potential horizon of a better future. The thing is that in relation to Europe, we see ourselves from a radically different perspective, not as those who need Europe, but, on the contrary, as those whom Europe needs to even stand a chance to offer us, as well as anyone else, some better future.

You have written about the “children of post-communism,” the repressively infantilized generation of Eastern Europeans, who had to return to classrooms to learn the Western alphabet of democracy anew. But where can we locate the continuities between the socialist citoyen and the civil society in today’s Croatia since the beginning of 1990s? Maybe, and especially, in the Antiwar Campaign (ARK) and Arkzin, in which you participated?

The ideology of post-communist transition seeks to erase any consciousness of continuities with the previous system. It fantasizes the post-communist person as a cultural and political figure, who just left her natural state and has no clue about democracy, about her civil and social rights, and who, precisely because she is like that, cannot take responsibility for herself. That’s why this ideology infantilizes post-communist societies and imposes tutors of different sorts, from transnational institutions of political and military power, NATO and the European Union, to banks and big corporations, snapping at its root any sovereign praxis. The thesis about the historical immaturity of the post-communist masses is used here to completely ideologically and politically rule them. This is reality here today. Although a quarter century has passed since the establishment of parliamentary democracy, the Croatian people, or the Croatian political elites, are still ruled by the care-takers without whose approval they cannot make even the simplest decision. But this was also the case with the so called civil society that was established as some sort of newborn in diapers which would not survive a day without the care and control of the caretakers. The issue is the interest of domination and the devaluing of any historical experience, which is precisely the reason why this repressive infantilization of post-communist societies creates a fertile ground for their re-fascisization. But ARK and Arkzin knew how to fight this and uncover not only the continuity with the past, but also with the future. Here’s an anecdote. The other day, the French philosopher Alain Finkielkraut visited Place de la Republique to speak to those protesting against the implementation of neoliberal policies in France. But he was booed: they chased him away by calling him racist. Finkielkraut came here in the 1990s as well, as, like it was popular to say then, “a great friend of Croatia.” He was greeted by our national liberal elite, which was disgusted by those hercegovački primitives from HDZ, even though it did not mind Croatian nationalism. We were among the only ones who then booed Finkielkraut, precisely because of his nationalist rhetoric. A few days ago, Varoufakis visited the same square and was enthusiastically greeted. This is the difference, or the positive discontinuity. Today, there is an alternative, something that we did not have twenty years ago. People who are protesting this re-fascistization in Croatia have this historical advantage over us from the 1990s. They are not only aware of the alternative, but they are the alternative. This is why we can optimistically say that the 1990s have not returned, and we have to do everything to make them never return.

This text was written as a part of the project “The relationship of the Croatian state to antifascism and antifascist heritage,” which was supported by the Croatian Ministry of Culture through the Program for Contracting Journalistic Pieces in Non-Profit Media.

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