The Life and Death of Yugoslav Socialism

The following originally appeared at Jacobin.

During the Cold War, the Socialist Federative Republic of Yugoslavia represented to many a viable alternative to the Soviet model. Grounded by workplace self-management, the Yugoslav system seemingly gave workers the right to exercise democratic control on the shop floor.

The distinct Yugoslav path to socialism found admirers around the world. In Eastern Europe, the combination of market socialism and self-management offered a model for anti-Stalinist reformers. In the capitalist West, democratic socialists hopefully viewed the experiment as a more “human” socialism. And across much of the Third World, Yugoslavia — a leading member of the Non-Aligned Movement — demonstrated the viability of a “third way” between the capitalist United States and the communist Soviet Union.In the final decade of the Cold War, however, the country descended into crisis. The self-management system collapsed, leaving a crippling $20 billion foreign debt in its wake. Amid economic crisis, republican politicians in Serbia and Croatia broke party ranks and launched nationalist campaigns in hopes of salvaging what they could from their crumbling fiefdoms. A series of brutal 1990s civil wars tore through Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Kosovo.Yugoslavia transformed from a beacon of progressive hope to a symbol of “Balkan backwardness” and “ancient ethnic hatreds.”But Yugoslavia’s problems did not begin at the end of the Cold War — the country’s leaders inadvertently created the conditions for them when they organized this alternative socialism. Yugoslav self-management was not the viable system many had hoped.

The Soviet Obstacle

Yugoslav communists set out on their independent path after breaking with the Soviet Union in 1948. This split was a risky proposition; though the leadership enjoyed wide domestic support, severing ties with the Soviets meant losing vital military aid and foreign trade.

Separated from the Soviet-aligned bloc, Josip Broz Tito and his party needed to radically rethink their revolution’s goals and find new ways of securing the country’s defense and development. Over the course of 1949–1950, leading party theorists, including Edvard Kardelj, Milovan Đilas, and Boris Kidrič, laid the ideological foundations for Yugoslav socialism.

First, they developed a Marxist critique of the Soviet Union. Yugoslavs had little trouble identifying the Soviet system’s defects; indeed, dissident leftist voices in and outside Russia had been warning of problems since the 1920s.

Under Stalin, the Soviet Union had become a despotic bureaucracy. The workers’ councils, which Lenin once identified as the embryo of communist governance, had been integrated into a highly centralized state staffed by an army of party operatives. Rapid industrialization, forced agricultural collectivization, and the purges of 1936–38 killed millions.

Then, in negotiations with other Allied powers during World War II, the Soviets behaved like an imperial power, carving out their sphere of influence and imposing their hegemony across Eastern Europe.

The Yugoslav communists noticed these warning signs, but, in the turbulent conditions of war and reconstruction, they turned a blind eye. Coming to power at the end of the war with a large and multinational base, the communists imagined a socialist revolution that would modernize the country and secure its independence. This project required large amounts of Soviet aid.

But tensions between the Yugoslavs and their Soviet sponsors quickly emerged. Along with the partisans in Albania, Tito’s government was the only communist movement in Eastern Europe to come to power on a wave of popular struggle, rather than on the backs of Red Army tanks. Although loyal to the Soviets, the Yugoslavs were determined to remain autonomous from Moscow.

This was most clear in the realm of foreign policy, where the new Yugoslav government pursued a more radical line than the Soviets. Over the years 1946–47, as Stalin sought to allay Western fears and promote the Soviet Union as a constructive partner in postwar reconstruction, Tito openly challenged the Atlantic powers’ interference in Europe. Against Stalin’s orders the Yugoslavs supplied aid to Greek communist rebels and threatened war with Italy over the disputed Trieste territory.

These conflicts quickly drew Stalin’s ire and in June 1948 the Communist Information Bureau expelled the Yugoslavs.

The 1948 split — and the subsequent threats against Yugoslavia from the Moscow-aligned bloc — confirmed many people’s fears about the Soviet Union. In the years that followed, party theorists revised their view of socialism’s motherland. For Đilas, the Soviet Union was not a socialist state but a “state capitalist” system, in which a “bureaucratic caste” ruthlessly exploited the working and peasant classes.

This system, he argued, bore striking similarities to the Keynesian-inspired monopoly capitalism then developing in the West. Furthermore, as Yugoslavia could testify, the Soviets imposed their hegemony on their neighboring states as ruthlessly as their ideological opponents.

The Soviet Union, Đilas concluded, had become one of the chief obstacles on the road to an international socialist revolution.

An Independent Path

Criticizing the Soviet Union’s bureaucratic, state-capitalist system not only gave the Yugoslavs a Marxist justification for splitting with the Russians, but it also provided a point of departure for their alternative. To avoid bureaucratizing their revolution, Yugoslav theorists developed a socialism that called for the “withering away of the state” and the creation of society as a “free association of producers.”

The first step was decentralization. In May 1949, the party-state ceded greater autonomy to local communal governments, whose power had been eroded since 1945. Slovene leader Edvard Kardelj explained that these reforms promoted “the sense of [the masses’] greater inclusion in the work of the state machinery from the lowest organs to the highest.”

Greater worker participation in the economic sphere soon accompanied this political decentralization. In June 1950, the National Assembly passed legislation introducing the self-management system. All enterprises would now have workers’ councils consisting of 15 to 120 democratically elected representatives, restricted to two one-year terms.

The new law aimed at democratizing the workplace, giving workers a direct voice in key management decisions. At this early stage, the workers had limited power, and authority at the enterprise level still belonged to state-appointed directors. But the councils’ powers were set to expand in the years to come.

Two years later, at the Sixth Party Congress, the Yugoslav communists severed the party from the state, opening up the government. Now, party cadre would have to compete for ideological influence across the different organs of self-management.

These reforms were designed to prevent the rise of the centralized, state bureaucracy that many believed had perverted the Soviet revolution. Decentralization through local self-government, grassroots participation, workers’ councils, and a more open party culture would serve as the basis for Yugoslavia’s independent path to socialism.

For the rest of the article head on over to Jacobin

By James Robertson

James Robertson is originally from Tamworth, Australia. He is currently a PhD candidate in the Department of History at New York University where he is researching the intellectual history of Yugoslav socialism.