Your support keeps us publishing. Follow this link to subscribe to our print magazine.

Yugoslavia’s Socialist Experiment

Forged in the Partisan struggle against fascism, post-war Yugoslavia sought to build an alternative to capitalism outside the Cold War bind – and, for some decades, it succeeded.

However interesting and tragic their histories were, it’s surely fair to consider the ‘real socialist’ states of Eastern Europe as a historical cul-de-sac. Yet when it comes to Yugoslavia, from the Partisan movement of the early forties to the appalling collapse fifty years later, this easy dismissal misses a lot.

The Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia responded to some problems that couldn’t be more relevant to ours. Coming to power through an anti-fascist national uprising, it faced questions of federalism and decentralisation in a country with a very affluent north and equally impoverished south; it had an economic system that alternated between worker-managed industry, laissez-faire market socialism, and the rule of a ‘socialist’ bureaucratic class, with a charismatic leader in Josip Broz Tito at its top; it alternately made tactical international alliances with the USA and USSR, while building up the Non-Aligned Movement as a global alternative to both. No other European socialist state was so creative, and none fell so disastrously, into the horrific nationalist wars of the 1990s.

But its history is forbidding to the beginner—you could easily end up with a book full of what the historian Maria Todorova called ‘Balkanism’, those stereotypical depictions of ‘age-old’ nationalist hatreds. Two recent histories from the Left provide a good, though not uncomplicated place to start. The philosopher and cultural critic Darko Suvin, who was a young Communist as a teenager in 1940s Zagreb, finally writes about his home country in the epic, dense, and eccentric Splendour, Misery and Possibilities, which analyses the fall into capitalism ruled by ‘dwarfish’ nationalists through zeroing in on the period between 1948, when Tito broke with Stalin, and the early 1970s, when his leadership moved both against its right flank (Croatian and Serbian nationalists) and its left (the post-’68 student movement and the Praxis Group of Marxist philosophers), leading inexorably to a ‘disgraceful’ last decade.

Suvin roots this disaster in the ruling League of Communists’ refusal to expand its self-management experiment in the workplace into a wider ‘plebeian democracy’. Similar arguments are made more accessibly in the Slovenian writer Gal Kirn’s lively Partisan Ruptures. The ‘ruptures’ are the Partisan movement in the war, self-management, and Non-Alignment, but Kirn ends with an intriguing account of how a nascent ‘socialist civil society’ in the 1980s—centred on the punk movement—fatefully shifted towards liberalism and nationalism.

One of the disappointments of Suvin’s otherwise fascinating book is its avoidance of culture—especially given that his most famous work is on science fiction. Much of the interest in Yugoslavia in recent years has been cultural, whether in its abstract war memorials, its diverse modern architecture, its critical ‘Black Wave’ cinema, its abstract and conceptual art, and its punk and electronic music of the 1980s.

Three recent books discuss some of these in depth. Ana Ofak’s Agents of Abstraction concentrates on how abstract art and modernist architecture represented socialist Yugoslavia in a series of exhibitions at the turn of the fifties. Temporary structures mixed photos and texts in beautiful, delicate lightweight constructions, their openness and optimism aimed against Stalinist heaviness and conservatism. It’s the most richly illustrated of these three, but its texts firmly root this experimental architecture in the Partisan experience—several of the designers had been resistance fighters.

More controversial are the subjects of the anthology Consumer Culture Landscapes in Socialist Yugoslavia and art historian Marko Ilić’s A Slow Burning Fire. From the mid-sixties until the collapse, Yugoslavia practiced a form of ‘market socialism’ that worked well for a time in Slovenia, Croatia, and Serbia, but succeeded in further underdeveloping Bosnia–Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro, and especially Kosovo, as resources, workers, and foreign capital flooded into the affluent north. Suvin argues that the market system created a culture of ‘kitsch’ consumerism, softening up the population for capitalism. Consumer Landscapes argues otherwise.

It focuses on three megastructures in Split, Sarajevo, and Pristina, designed by Bosnian architect Živorad Janković; these combined malls, sports centres, and cultural functions in sprawling, multi-level complexes, and each has faced a sharp decline under the ‘real capitalism’ of the post-1990 period. Their architects, at least, took seriously the idea of combining consumer abundance and socialist egalitarianism.

Marko Ilić’s study of the conceptual artists of the sixties, seventies, and eighties is intended as a corrective to the notion that these figures, which include some now-famous names like Marina Abramović, Laibach, and Slavoj Žižek, were ‘dissidents’ against the system. Ilić essentially argues that they were exemplary self-management socialists, people working in collectives against both the market and the state.

It’s a risky argument in places, and some of the art now appears as somewhat crass, but this is a refreshing book, concentrating on how this art was produced from within state institutions such as the network of student cultural centres. It is most moving on the multicultural and self-ironising Sarajevo art scene of the 1980s, which organised its own ‘Documenta’ on the eve of the wars that would see the city undergoing one of the longest sieges in history.

The region today has in places a strong and popular Left, at least in Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo. Their efforts to find a useable past, devoid of uncritical ‘Yugonostalgia’ and kitsch are well served in these books; but there is much that can be learned here by socialists everywhere, from this heroic but eventually failed attempt to opt out of the Cold War and the world system.

Darko Suvin’s Splendour, Misery and Possibilities: An X-Ray of Socialist Yugoslavia is published by Historical Materialism.

Gal Kirn’s Partisan Ruptures: Self-Management, Market Reform and the Spectre of Socialist Yugoslavia is published by Pluto.

Nataša Bodrožić, Lidija Butković Mićin, and Saša Šimpraga’s Consumer Culture Landscapes in Socialist Yugoslavia is published by Onomatopee.

Ana Ofak’s Agents of Abstraction is published by Sternberg Press.

Marko Ilić’s A Slow Burning Fire: The Rise of the New Art Practice in Yugoslavia is published by MIT.

About the Author

Owen Hatherley is the culture editor of Tribune and is the author of Artificial Islands.