Among the numerous guests at the recent “Subversive festival”, was Vladimir Unkovski-Korica (foto), a historian and researcher who is currently a Fellow at the London School of Economics*. His upcoming book entitled “The Economic Struggle for Power in Tito’s Yugoslavia: From World War II to Non-Alignment” will be released soon. We discussed some themes from the book connected with the beginnings of self-management in Yugoslavia and the new views at which the author has arrived. He made use of the Archives of Yugoslavia, as well as the work and documentation owned by Belgrade sociologist Olivera Milosavljević.
In the book you came across new findings relevant to the beginning of self-management and the development of socialism in Yugoslavia. What exactly did you find?
In my research I took 1944 and the liberation of Belgrade as the beginning point of the establishment of the partisan, or the communist, government in the country. I ended with March 1962 with the three-day session of the Executive Committee of the Central Committee of the League of Communists of Yugoslavia, at which the Party, for the first time, clearly came into conflict regarding national issues. My main hypothesis was that from the very beginning of the process of self-management there was an ambivalence towards it. Namely, the idea tried to combine two things: workers’ management – that is, one emancipatory idea – and the application of market mechanisms within Yugoslavia, but also on an international plane. The tension between these two ideas strengthened as inter-republic differences within Yugoslavia strengthened, particularly once we fully opened to the world market. It is in this way, among others, that the national question returned to the agenda. In my work I was most interested in the disintegration effect of the world market on Yugoslavia and the working class.
Reasons for Introducing Self-management
Why did the leadership of the Party decide to introduce self-management?
The first goal of the Yugoslav communists was to pull the country out of poverty, but not in the way of developed countries: growth at the expense of other, poorer countries, which would typically be followed by closing doors to the underdeveloped. Thus it was necessary to find an alternative way to solve the problem. The Soviet Union did this with a state administrative plan. Yugoslav communists in the beginning also had this type of plan – moreover, they were the first to have it in Eastern Europe. The plan, from its inception, foresaw a type of development different than the Soviet plan, but it did not predict a combination of workers’ management and market mechanisms. In the midst of the fight against Stalin, that is, after 1948, the idea of self-management appeared. In order to gain legitimacy for something new, Yugoslav communists firstly presented the Yugoslav revolution as an authentic revolution with the support of the masses. The problem occurred when they realized that, because of outside pressure, military intervention and blockade, which lead to problems with imports, Yugoslavia was not going to succeed with its five-year plan. Even though they employed mobilization mechanisms, like collectivisation and the organization of worker’s brigades with the goal of raising morale, it was out of reach. Furthermore, that sort of high-level mobilization substantially affected everyday labor, as well as the management of companies. At the beginning of 1949 it was clear that the plan would not succeed. An additional problem was that parallel to that, workers, especially udarniks (“strike workers”) gained more and more power over certain labor processes, as well as financial power, since managers had to reward them for good labor. The Party decided then to turn to these workers-udarniks, who in different forums and conferences anyway always advocated for the execution of the plan under the terms of the Party and criticized the government bureacracy, to begin with the realisation of the first elements of self-management. In the middle of 1949, the idea appeared to introduce worker councils to the sphere of industry. However, the Party used the introduction of self-management to divide up the working class into the best udarniks, the ones who will stay in factories, and the others who will lose their jobs. Additionally, the Party realised that it could not continue at the earlier fast-paced tempo of industrialisation and work mobilisation (work brigades, collectivisation and work actions), it had to tone it down, as to not lose the trust of the people.
What were some other consequences of self-management?
The idea to increase the participation of workers was genuine. However, the role of directors was never legally brought into question. Surely, one of the ideas was to – in the long run – abolish hired labor which still existed in, for example, the Soviet Union. There the state was still the main employer, while here the idea was to abolish that relationship of dependence. The idea was also to connect workers councils through local political communities, which were intially called communes and through this sort of horizontal connection build a form of market. The goal was to one day have our self-managed companies, as well as whole branches, enter the world market. This idea was clearly stated by Boris Kidrič in the Economic Council of the FNRJ government in 1950, where he was president.
Irrevocable American Aid
Let’s return to your thesis of the market as a factor of disintegration, for Yugoslavia and for the working class. Can you explain this further?
It was obvious that the centralized system did not function as the Party had wanted. Second, our communists demonstrated openness from the beginning, from the end of the war. On one hand they were proud that they successfully realised the revolution, to free the country of fascism, the result of which would spread communism and so forth. However, as we described, by 1947 and 1948 Yugoslavia had very big problems: the Soviet Union did not give it as much money as it had expected, and with the start of the blockade resources needed as accumulation sources dried up. Our Party did not want to strike the peasantry as Stalin had in the 1930’s, because they knew that they needed the support of the people against Stalin, so the West ended up being the response. The West decided to offer aid immediately after the Tito-Stalin split, if Tito wanted it, with no political strings attached. However, it was clear that this opening would lead to some compromises. A part of the thought process was that we would promote the idea of self-management as anti-statist to the west as a way to differentiate ourselves. Edvard Kardelj spoke in this respect in December 1949 at the Central Committee, which was the first occasion self-management was mentioned in a formal meeting of Party leadership. In that context American help was accepted. The first talk of aid, about which Darko Bekić wrote in his book “Yugoslavia in the Cold War”, happened in March 1949, when Fitzroy McLean, our great friend from the war, appeared as an intermediary. In 1951 large sums began arriving and perspective opened. Somewhere until, I believe 1957, the aid was irrevocable. That was the largest amount of American aid per capita for any country, with the exception of Israel. It was our Marshall Plan. After 1957, aid came in the form of credit, with the idea that the credit expenditures would be compensated with exports.
During the implementation of the new model was excess pressure put on labour and the working class?
The research of our sociologists in the 1960’s clearly showed that the real systematic pressure on labor, which then, among other things, created a divide among those who were more entrepreneurial and those who worked in factories, therefore it was a divide between the working class and the managers. That divide became very severe after 1965, when the most radical market reforms up to that point were introduced. The Party cadre which advocated the most for market reform in 1965 finally got the opportunity to try the market model, which led to the rapid increase of wage gap between workers and the technological-managerial structure. From then onwards it was more important to sell rather than to produce.
According to what you have presented, it seems that the reasons for introducing self-management were pragmatic?
Why did it not all succeed? I believe the communists were honest when they said they wanted to give power to the workers. In this sense, it is no wonder Kardelj continued persistently, even when according to some indicators the system clearly bore more red tape than it should have, to search for a way for a self-managing system to independently fight bureacracy. What I consider most important for socialism is the self-liberation of the working class. I also believe that an idea like self-management is an important part of this. I wanted to explain in my book to our public why it did not succeed and I am pleased that I have been able to show that the problem was not the lack of market but in fact the exact opposite, too much market. I wanted to defend leftist ideas from those sorts of attacks.
Kolubara’s untapped potential
At one point you wrote: “During the European revolution of 1848, Marx noticed that the employers and the middle-class would enter an alliance with the working class and the oppressed in order to destroy the feudal absolutist dictatorship, like the tsarist regime in Russia. If the movement of the oppressed begins to revoke the social privileges of the employers and the professionals, they are ready to hit the brakes and change sides. Something similar happened during the 5 October revolution in Serbia. What happened in Serbia?
There I was writing about one idea which Trotsky took from Marx, related to the revolution of 1848 against autocracy and feudalism. At that time, the bourgeoisie, afraid of the masses which it had turned against the old world, crossed over to the other side. They betrayed the revolution. Marx wrote that every movement can begin as a democratic movement, but ends as a class movement. Trotsky described that idea in an example in 1905 Russia. Then the bourgeious, the liberals, began as a part of the revolutionary movement. However, as soon as the tsar offered them benefits, they stopped and betrayed the ideas of the movement. The tsar, however, then betrayed them too, so they became utterly powerless and remained at the margins of the social process until the end. After that, the main struggle in Russia was between the autocratic government and the people led by the working class.
We can see similar instances in democratic movements which involve both the left and the right, often the bourgeoisie as well as the working class. I believe that type of movement existed in Serbia in 2000, when the opposition was united against Slobodan Milošević. The key moment of the 5 October Revolution was when the Kolubara miners went on strike. That was an interesting moment, as if everything stopped in Serbia, as if everyone was just waiting for what the miners would do. Milošević sent his general Nebojša Pavković to talk to the workers, and the opposition sent their general Momčilo Perišić with the same task. Just when the workers decided what they would do, it became clear who would win. Also, one of the interesting things which Zoran Đinđic did was to call the workers to throw Milošević’s people out of the management of the company. The workers even for some time ran that company, as they had kicked out the old managers, they had their own sort of administration. That way for a few months the old law of self-management from Tito’s era returned. All of that showed what potential Kolubara and the working class can have; to the point that there was the potential to open the question of socialism. Why was the question not opened after all? Among other things because, politically speaking, the idea of communism had already been long associated with Milošević and JUL. Although the workers took real power at certain levels of society, they never formed an independent political option which could carry that revolution further than what the liberal bourgeoisie wanted.
Interview by Rade Dragojević
Translated by Nora Levy-Forsythe and Nikola Zdravković
* In the original text Vladimir Unkovski-Korica was misidentified as a sociologist and a doctoral student.