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Colin Barker

Criticism from Yugoslavia

(March 1974)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.67, March 1974, p.32.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The task for revolutionary socialists in the West is difficult, in the Stalinist bloc the task is enormous. Svetozar Stojanovic and his comrades are at present under heavy attack from the Yugoslav authorities. Stofanovic’s book Between Ideals and Reality: A Critique of Socialism and its future (translated by Gerson Sher, Oxford, £3.60 hardback, £1.40 paperback) has recently been published in this country.

SO FAR only a small trickle of revolutionary Marxist literature written in Eastern Europe has filtered through into English. That makes the appearance of this translation of a book by the Yugoslav philosopher Stojanovic particularly welcome.

The author is a member of the faculty of philosophy at Belgrade University, which has been producing a journal of Marxist philosophy, Praxis, since the mid-1960s. The journal, which has an international edition in English, French and German, has attempted to develop a critique of Stalinism, of Marxist theory and of the development of Yugoslav society. It is well worth looking out for in the few libraries in this country which take it.

The philosophy of the Marxists around Praxis has always had practical implications. The philosophy faculty was one of the storm centres of the student movement in Belgrade in 1968, and according to press reports, the jobs of the philosophy teachers are currently being threatened by the regime. Stojanovic and his colleagues have clearly been a thorn in the flesh of the party and the state for a decade, continually criticising the fundamentals of the regime, continually seeking to elaborate the revolutionary meaning of Marxist ideas, continually arguing for socialist change in Yugoslavia.

The chief concern of both Praxis and this book has been with political philosophy. When it comes to economic analysis, however, Stojanovic and his colleagues have little to say. The result is that their arguments often have an abstract character which deprives them of much of their force. There is little in the way of systematic discussion of the economic and social development of Yugoslavia, which means that the criticisms made by the Yugoslav philosophers are much less pointed than those made, for example, by Kuron and Modzelewski in Poland. Where Kuron and Modzelewski’s pamphlet, An Open Letter to the Party (available in English as A Revolutionary Socialist Manifesto) would be dynamite in the hands of the Polish working class, the highly abstract philosophical character of the Yugoslav professors’ output makes it much less explosive.

That is by no means to belittle their achievement. Over a period of ten years they have sustained, often under difficult political circumstances, a consistently high level of critical discussion of Marxism, in theory and practice, which is likely, by the nature of things, to have found its echo in the factories of Yugoslavia – and probably elsewhere in Eastern Europe.

STOJANOVIC BEGINS with a critique of Stalinism and its perversion of the Marxist tradition:

‘The transformation of Marxism from revolutionary critique to the conservative-apologetic ideology of the new ruling class proceeded parallel with the oligarchic-statist degeneration of the communist party and the revolution.’ (p.8)

Stalinism, Stojanovic argues, converted Marx’s thought into ‘the ideology of a new stage of pre-history’. However much the Stalinists sought to ‘protect’ Marxism from bourgeois deformations, they themselves represented a negation of Marxism.

Stalinism sees the essential changes resulting from the socialist revolution as being in the spheres of ‘material and cultural construction’ rather than in social relationships themselves. There are no structural or other contradictions in the new society for them. If there are ‘problems’, these derive from ‘hangovers’ from the pre-revolutionary period. ‘The humanness of productive and other relations among people was the criterion of social progress for Marx,’ but for the Stalinists the basic measure of socialism becomes the development of the forces of production, understood statistically, in terms of increased rates and quantities of output of goods.

The concept of ‘alienation’ provides Stojanovic and his colleagues with a key entry point for their critique of Stalinism. It is important for the drawing of the ‘theoretical boundary’ that separates the socialist and the Stalinist state. For alienation, which in Marx is linked to the institution of private property, is a characteristic of societies like Stalinist Russia where, in formal legal terms, private property has been largely abolished:

‘It has turned out that the place of private property can be taken not only by social property, but also by a new form of class property – statist property, and along with it a new mode of economic-political alienation no longer in socialism, but rather in statism.’

The job of Marxists is to extend Marx’s critique of alienation in ‘the society of private property and commodity production’ to an examination of alienation in ‘statist society.’

The main problem, therefore, is that of determining the character of the Stalinist regimes and their relationship to socialism. On this question, Stojanovic is unambiguous:

‘The most prominent ... ideological-political myth of our age ... is the statist myth of socialism ... With the degeneration of the October Revolution a new exploitative class system was created, a system which stubbornly tries to pass itself off as socialism.’ (p.37)

Stojanovic’s account of the victory of what he terms ‘the statist tendency’ in the communist movement, the identification of socialism with state property, is cast in rather idealistic terms. To be fair to Stojanovic, his discussion of the causes of the victory of Stalinism in Russia after the revolution is exceptionally brief: in half a page, he lists as casual factors the small size of the industrial proletariat, its decimation in the Civil War, the political legacy of Tsarist absolutism, the threat of counter-revolution and foreign intervention, and the absence of effective support from abroad for the October Revolution. All those factors, he suggests, strengthened – as they did – tendencies to ‘statism’.

But the factor to which he attributes the greatest weight is that of ideas: the post-revolutionary government faced a clear choice, between reliance on the state-party apparatus, and development of the ‘social self-government of the Soviets.’ The latter choice, ‘social self-government’, was only vaguely sketched, by Marx in his writings on the Paris Commune and by Lenin in The State and Revolution. Vagueness on the part of the Russian Marxists as to what a socialist economy should be like, Stojanovic suggests, played a part in the victory of the statist tendency.

The trouble with this argument is that social self-government, workers’ control of production and so forth, rest fundamentally on the existence of workers and of production. The tragedy of the post-revolutionary situation in Russia was precisely that due to the incredible pressure of external, material pressures, far from the state beginning to wither away, it was the working class itself that withered. Cities and factories, the geographical and productive basis for the very existence of the working class, were depopulated in the period 1918-1920. Whatever ideas the Bolsheviks had had about the proper meaning of socialism, that fact was inescapable. The victory of Stalinism in Russia cannot be explained chiefly in terms of the ideas held by the revolutionaries, either the party leaders or the insurgent masses.

Masters of society

ON THE OUTCOME of October, Stojanovic is very clear. Stalinism is not to be identified with any transitional form of society, which might be termed ‘state socialism’, where the state and nationalised property represent an initial and indirect form of social ownership, where state property is held through the representatives and in the interests of the working class and the labouring masses as a whole. The Stalinist system is a system where a bureaucratic state is master of society, disposing of ownership in its own interests. Stalinist state ownership is collective ownership on the part of the bureaucratic state apparatus. It is a new form of class society, for which Stojanovic proposes the term ‘statism’.

Stojanovic provides some very fine descriptive material on the politics that characterise the Stalinist regimes: the careerism of the members of the apparatus, the separation of decision-making from the working class, the fawning to leaders, the dogmatism of ‘Marxist’ pronouncements, and so forth.

The state apparatus in statist society, he says, employs and exploits the labour force. The position of the members of the state/party hierarchy determines their share in surplus value, and determines the extent of their participation in decisions concerning production and the distribution of surplus value. The ruling class in statist society controls production and disposes of surplus value ‘primarily in its own interest’.

Every element of Stojanovic’s description of Stalinist society is, of course, quite accurate. His rejection of the notion that the state apparatus represents a ‘caste’ (as Trotsky suggested) or a ‘stratum’ is well argued. He criticises Isaac Deutscher’s apologetic account of Stalinism as historically ‘necessary’ in some sense. Only by comparison with Tsarism, he insists, can one call Stalinism ‘progressive’, but that is not a justification of Stalinism’s crimes, for Stalinism did not represent the highest degree of progress possible in Russia. All of this is very fine, and we can recognise in Stojanovic a revolutionary socialist critic of Stalinism. His attitude to the future political prospect is exemplary:

‘With respect to the statist class, as well, we must speak in the Marxist manner of the prospects for expropriating the expropriators and for socialising the means of production.’ (p.46)

At the same time, however, as a total explanation of the phenomenon of Stalinism, and of the form of society existing in Russia and Eastern Europe, Stojanovic’s account is unsatisfactory. For it leaves certain crucial questions unanswered. What are the ‘interests’ of the statist class, which Stojanovic suggests they pursue? What determines how the ruling class disposes of the ‘surplus value’? Why is it that investment resources in Stalinist societies have been directed, disproportionately, towards the building up of heavy industry at the expense of the standard of living of the masses? What, in short, are the ‘relations of production’ in statist society?

Stojanovic’s emphases on the role of ideas, on the political process, and the absence of discussion in his book of the actual pattern of distribution of surplus value in Stalinist society, leaves his account suspended in a void. He does not, therefore, discuss the ways in which the pressures of international competition, in the epoch of imperialism, force the ‘statist’ ruling classes to seek to deepen exploitation, to hold back the consumption of the masses, etc. No material constraints appear to exist on Stojanovic’s ‘ruling class’. To that extent, his account is flawed, and unequal in theoretical scope, or explanatory power, to the theory of bureaucratic state capitalism developed in this journal and elsewhere – a theory, incidentally, of which he appears not to be aware, since he does not discuss it, though he devotes some attention to other alternative theories.

Stojanovic does not only concern himself with the question of the nature of Stalinism, but also discusses the reformism of the international communist movement, and several of the perversions of Marxist revolutionary socialism that have appeared in the wake of the capitulation of the world communist movement to reformism and ‘peaceful coexistence’. He stresses, in his discussion of the 1968 French events, the crucial creative role of the ‘classical revolutionary subject, the working class’. His comments on what revolutionaries in the West should do in the current situation are not especially helpful – rather than create independent revolutionary organisations, he argues for entrism into the ‘leftist parties’ with a view to attempting to revolutionise them – but we need not demand of a revolutionary in Yugoslavia an accurate appreciation of tactical problems in Western Europe, and any criticism on this score must be minor.

Yugoslav experience

WHILE STOJANOVIC IS exceptionally clear in his account of the reality of Stalinist society in general, and of the form of politics appropriate for revolutionary Marxists in it, he is very cautious in his statements about Yugoslav society. He presents his account of Yugoslavia in terms of the struggle between ‘principles’, whose social basis he hardly discusses.

There is a tendency towards ‘statism’ which he opposes. There is a second current, which identifies the existing workers’ councils in Yugoslav factories as the practical realisation of Marxism, which he also opposes, identifying it as ‘anarcho-liberalism’. Stojanovic, and the Praxis group, are very explicit that self-management is the primary political means through which the working class can become the predominant social class – in short, the means through which the dictatorship of the proletariat can be realised. The principle of workers’ self-management has to be extended to every sphere of politics and of the economy, for the alternative – workers’ control in each separate factory, but a separate state planning the economy as a whole and deciding large political issues – can only be defended in terms remarkably akin to those employed in defence of liberal capitalism. Anarcho-liberalism in practice, despite its formal ‘anti-state’ position, demands a strong state. The ‘anarcho-liberal’ trend in Yugoslavia, far from being the enemy of the ‘statist’ trend, actually lends it strength. It is no part of the road to socialism.

Despite the abstract character of the treatment, Stojanovic’s account of the principles behind the Yugoslav system of workers’ councils is exceptionally penetrating. It is this aspect of his and his colleagues’ ideas that most threatens the Yugoslav regime – for it is this aspect on which the student movement in 1968, for example, seized in their demands. (See the account by D. Plamenic in New Left Review, No.54, March-April 1969). Here Stojanovic comes closest to a specific materialist, class critique of the Yugoslav system:

‘Mired in the framework of self-governing groups, the working class cannot make its way on to the political stage to pose questions concerning the total distribution of surplus value. So long as this is the case, the burden of economic reform will fall most heavily by far on the shoulders of the working class.’ (p.119)

This review has stressed some of the points of difficulty and disagreement with this book. It should be emphasised, however, that Stojanovic’s book is exceptionally important. Whatever our specific points of disagreement, it is the work of a socialist revolutionary struggling under conditions very much more difficult than our own to come to grips with the key questions of our epoch. Marxists in the West should protest vigorously to the Yugoslav authorities at their current attempts to isolate and sack Stojanovic and his comrades, and hope that the conditions may be created for open theoretical exchanges between Belgrade Marxism and the revolutionary socialist movement in the rest of the world. In the meantime, the very existence of this book is a further sign of the developing struggle for the principles of international socialism and for working-class theory in Eastern Europe. As such, it must be strongly welcomed.

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