Tomb of Josip Broz Tito. Photograph by Cvetanović Igor via Wikimedia Commons (cc).

From New Left Review:

After Tito’s death in 1980 the system entered its final decade, characterized by internal political crisis and external economic pressure. In the mid-1970s, Suvin writes, epitaphs to Yugoslavia’s earlier hopes could still mourn mere mediocrity: for Bogdan Denitch, the contrast between the ‘mundane possibilities’ of a small, relatively underdeveloped country and the ‘heroic aspirations to solve the complex problems of multi-nationality, industrial democracy, egalitarianism and social mobility in a way that has not yet been attempted anywhere in the world.’ For Dennison Rusinow, ‘Yugoslavia would become another slovenly, moderately oppressive, semi-efficient, semi-authoritarian state . . . like most states.’ How much sadder was any epitaph written after the 1990s, with their ‘fratricidal wars, material and moral dispossessions’ and the ‘misery of the counter-revolutionary break-up’. In a wonderful passage, Suvin portrays the figure of Yugoslavia as the Heroine of the people’s liberation, grappling with a hydra-headed Balkan legacy: patriarchal authoritarianism, kulak usury, kitsch petty-bourgeois escapism; the negligence inherited from Ottoman decadence, subaltern Croatian envy, Slovene narcissism. ‘As long as the Heroine, the original Enlightenment Yugoslavia, was vigorous and clear-headed, heads were being lopped off and the defeated monsters returned to their lairs.’ But when she floundered and finally lost heart, they re-emerged—‘with the decisive help of the ruling oligarchy’s obtuseness.’

But Suvin wants to insist upon the latent possibilities of socialist Yugoslavia, as well as the splendours and miseries evoked by his Balzacian title. His historical account of the rise and fall of SFRY is complemented by a set of re-forged conceptual tools with which to assess its meaning for any broader project of human liberation. In one striking chapter, which derives its theses through a process of ‘tearing out and reassembling’ the contrasts developed in Marx’s essay, ‘On the Jewish Question’, Suvin proposes the term ‘Communism I’ to describe the original Marxian project of complete human social emancipation, and ‘Communism 2’ to denote the official state communism of the twentieth century, in its various forms. The two were distinct, certainly, but in the Yugoslav experience not totally disassociated, for the Party, during the War and in its first decades in government, ‘was not only a factor of alienation, but concurrently also the initiator and lever of a real liberation—up to a certain important limit.’ Suvin underlines: ‘the liberation is important and the limit is important.’ For this period at least, ‘the party/state government was a two-headed Janus’. That ‘potential dialectic’ was suffocated by ‘a “bureaucratic” tradition (in Marx’s sense) of monolithism and non-transparency, here of Stalinist origin.’ Insofar as it provided an emancipatory backbone, the Party was a possible feedback instrument for plebeian class interests from below. But since there was no democracy inside it, ‘such pressures were inchoate, leading in practice to an eager or unwilling execution of decisions from the leadership.’

Nevertheless, Suvin argues, ‘parties degenerating as they become successful’ is not an ‘iron law’, even if it does seem to be a permanent tendency after revolutions in class society. It depends on ‘what countervailing forces are mobilized in concrete situations’. Therefore ‘Communism 1’—as ‘full feed-back democracy’ related to the satisfaction of human needs—was not an abstract, unreachable horizon, but a concrete utopia towards which the ‘impure but real’ advances towards self-government under ‘Communism 2’ were aiming. The relation can then be conceived as that of ‘real plebeian, directly democratic communism that liberates and empowers people’ versus a Janus-faced ‘official state and party communism’ that was ‘partly very real, but emancipatory only to a degree and beset by temptations to repression’.

A Utopian in the Balkans, Catherine Samary, New Left Review