How Yugoslavia’s Partisans Built a New Socialist Society

Gal Kirn

Yugoslavia’s partisan movement singlehandedly defeated Nazi occupation and paved the way for a radical transformation of society. Yet socialist Yugoslavia was ultimately broken by its own internal contradictions — and its unwillingness to push that transformation further.

Josip Tito and German Chancellor Willy Brandt in Bonn in 1970. Bundesarchiv / Wikimedia Commons

Interview by
Loren Balhorn

The rise and ultimate defeat of the Yugoslav Communist movement is one of the twentieth century’s most compelling and heartbreaking political sagas.

Founded in Belgrade in 1919, the fledgling Communist Party of Yugoslavia (CPY) remained a small, isolated force hampered by harsh state repression well into the 1930s. Yet when Nazi Germany, together with its Italian, Hungarian and Bulgarian allies, invaded the Balkan country in April 1941, it was the CPY who rose to the occasion. Under the leadership of Marshal Josip Broz Tito, it built an armed force of hundreds of thousands — liberating Yugoslavia almost without outside intervention.

The mass enthusiasm following this victory would mark the country’s first free elections after 1945, which also saw the introduction of women’s suffrage. Ninety percent voted for the anti-fascist liberation front and the creation of a federal Yugoslavia without its former king. The CPY, as the leading force, then established the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY), a multinational entity encompassing six republics and two autonomous regions that occupied a unique position between both sides in the Cold War.

For decades, Yugoslavia was noted for its unique experiments in workers’ self-management, market socialism, and its key role in founding the Non-Aligned Movement. It was widely admired as a possible alternative to capitalism in the West and Stalinism in the East.

Yet four decades after Tito’s death, the legacy of Yugoslav socialism today appears lost. With the collapse of the SFRY in the early 1990s, the Balkans were plunged into nationalist bloodshed, casting a harsh light on the weaknesses of the effort to create a multinational state. Only now, as a new generation born after socialism begins to reevaluate the past, has the SFRY’s lost potential again come into view.

Gal Kirn is the author of Partisan Ruptures, a new history of socialist Yugoslavia. Jacobin’s Loren Balhorn spoke to him about the Yugoslav partisan movement’s successes, the difficulties of building socialism after 1945, and lessons for socialists today.

Loren Balhorn

Your recent book chronicles the rise of socialist Yugoslavia from the partisan resistance in the 1940s to the heyday of the Non-Aligned Movement and the SFRY’s ultimate collapse. The book identifies three distinct “ruptures” useful for describing this trajectory. What do you mean by this term?

Gal Kirn

My book focuses on what I see as three “partisan ruptures” that initiated a relatively autonomous path to building socialism in Yugoslavia.

The term “rupture” is largely indebted to the work of French Marxist Louis Althusser, who came out of French structuralism. It stands opposed to crude Hegelian and teleological-linear understandings of history that see progress as central to historical evolution through stages.

Contrary to the claim that the future is already decided (also known as There Is No Alternative, or “the end of history”), rupture’s main features are precisely its contingency and unpredictability. As we know from Marx, we act under given circumstances, but social forces and processes are shaped and recreated by the masses.

As far as the partisan part is concerned, I criticize an influential reading of the figure of “the partisan” developed by the fascist thinker Carl Schmitt. His formalist approach is dominated by a “telluric” [“rooted in the soil”] understanding of partisan struggle, which not incidentally links up nicely with Nazi “blood-and-soil” ideology.

My take on the liberation struggle was to point out how the national aspect was inscribed from the outset into Yugoslavia’s horizon of international antifascist solidarity, multinational and federative organization, and social transformation. There was a dialectical relationship between national and social liberation. This went far beyond the preceding bourgeois conception of “national liberation” in the early twentieth century, when Balkan political elites had sought to cleanse their lands of the decaying Ottoman Empire.

Loren Balhorn

What, specifically, constituted these ruptures?

Gal Kirn

The first and most important rupture took place during the people’s liberation struggle from 1941 to 1945. It not only waged a successful and relatively autonomous antifascist struggle — similar to the Albanian and Greek resistance, Yugoslav partisans liberated themselves from fascist occupation on their own — but also conducted a veritable social transformation that resulted in federative and socialist Yugoslavia. This represents, in Althusser’s words, “a rupture with strong consequences;” it draws a clear distinction between “resistance” and then a revolutionary transformation with a horizon of liberation and anticolonial struggle.

The next rupture came in 1948 with the split between Tito and Stalin. Though isolated from both West and East — and, through this split, losing Soviet loans for industrial reconstruction — Yugoslav Communists were able to draw on their partisan experiences and mass popular support to address the new situation. After a series of discussions among the party leadership, Yugoslavia initiated a new form of social governance: workers’ self-management.

I argue this was a sort of continuation of partisan politics by other means that constituted the second, internal rupture away from the command economy and excessive reliance on bureaucracy. This genuine innovation of Yugoslav socialism pushed “nationalization” of the means of production one step further. This meant shifting the political concentration of power towards working people, and socializing the means of production — social ownership, or what today some call the “commons.”

At the same time, international isolation forced Yugoslav Communists to reorient themselves in the global context. The active participation and conception of the Non-Aligned Movement constitutes the third rupture, breaking with the bipolar constellation of the Cold War. Support for anticolonial struggles, nuclear disarmament and the creation of solidarity economies that could be self-sufficient became pillars of Yugoslavia’s foreign policy in the 1960s.

This triple “partisan rupture” of partisan struggle, self-management, and non-alignment stretching from 1941 to 1965 constitutes the core of the Yugoslav experiment and a legacy we can draw on today. It went against the grain both in terms of theory as well as politics at the time. It became a model for a specific, more “democratic” form of socialism in many parts of the globe.

Loren Balhorn

You argue that the partisans’ councils and mass organizations were genuinely popular-democratic institutions, not mere extensions of the Communist Party. Yet surely the party had a powerful influence over them? To what extent did the movement function independently of the Communist leadership, and was “democracy” even possible under wartime conditions?

Gal Kirn

You’d be surprised what’s “possible” during war and occupation. When we think about armed struggle, we usually think of weapons, sabotage, and guerilla warfare. Democratic participation or the cultural empowerment of those involved appear fairly secondary.

However, many twentieth-century antifascist and anticolonial movements were deeply engaged in the social, political, and cultural transformations of their respective environments, in which the dispossessed masses had often been robbed of political representation and excluded from the cultural sphere. The same is true in the case of the Yugoslav partisans, who cultivated an impressive array of cultural forms and production.

There is no doubt that the Communist Party was the most important political subject of the liberation struggle. It had been banned in the old Kingdom of Yugoslavia in 1921 after receiving massive support in the first elections after World War I. Party members were arrested and had to work under illegal conditions, with many cadres either exiled, killed or imprisoned.

During this period, the party’s approach was largely Stalinist and conspiratorial, with the leadership exercising control over policy. Only through rising strike actions in the mid-1930s did public organizing resume, while at the same time around 1,700 Yugoslav volunteers joined the International Brigades to fight in the Spanish Civil War.

World War II presented the Communists with a historic opportunity for revolutionary transformation. They knew that to win, they would need to mobilize the people. To this end they invented the idea of a “new Yugoslavia.” This idea itself was regarded as heretical, since for many people the old Yugoslavia stood for national oppression and exploitation, while at the same time, the new, revolutionary entity strongly contradicted Stalin’s official policy — shared by the Western Allies — that sought to actively avoid popular uprisings or regime changes in Europe.

From the beginning, the partisans not only fought foreign occupation and local collaboration, but also liberated territories, such as the Republic of Užice in Western Serbia, which lasted from September to November 1941. Communist Party cadres undoubtedly occupied pivotal roles, but they were also extremely attentive to the local population.

Aware that mass participation in the struggle was crucial for victory, the new political institutions created under partisan control were open both to men and women. At the same time, Communists waged ideological struggles against forces like the church, local landlords, and nationalists.

Building popular institutions was one of the partisans’ highest priorities, because it was seen as a way to build mass support in a context where 70 or even 80 percent of the peasant population was still illiterate. The committees and councils at all levels of the liberation struggle became the backbone of what was called the National Liberation Front.

The Front’s annual meetings culminated in the November 1943 meeting of the Antifascist Council for the National Liberation of Yugoslavia (AVNOJ) in Jajce, Bosnia and Herzegovina, where the creation of a federal Yugoslavia was officially declared and Tito was appointed Marshall, the supreme leader of the antifascist resistance. This was a leap into the unknown, given that all of the Allied powers were staunchly opposed to the move.

The Yugoslav partisans practiced a form of revolutionary democracy that combined democratic activities from below and a stricter party organization from above, albeit a party whose line fluctuated considerably. Interactions between the party leadership and the broader resistance — most notably the Communist youth organization and the Women’s Antifascist Front, numbering 2 million members by the end of the war — helped to drive new ideas and build new institutions of popular power.

Loren Balhorn

The book characterizes the partisan war as part of a thirteen-year “revolutionary sequence” encompassing Spain, Yugoslavia, and Greece, in which the “negative politics” of fighting fascism were transformed into a social revolution and forward-looking political project. But there also seem to be obvious parallels to China, where a rebel army concentrated among the peasantry gradually fought off a foreign occupier and captured state power. Was there much interaction between Yugoslav and Chinese Communists?

Gal Kirn

You are right to point out this parallel. But to reiterate: in the mid-1930s, the Kingdom of Yugoslavia was a semi-fascist dictatorship on the European periphery. So the armed struggle and vision of a different future emanating from the Spanish experience was a crucial inspiration. The Yugoslav movement was also intimately connected to the Greek resistance, which ended in the tragic defeat of Communist forces in 1949. That year also marked the end of the Chinese civil war, with the victory of the Red Army led by Mao.

Still, there were many parallels between the Chinese and Yugoslav armed struggles. Like the Chinese, the Yugoslav partisans also left the cities — taking on board the lessons of the International Brigades and the tragic defeat of the Spanish Republic — and operated in the rural areas, deep forests, and mountains.

Secondly, the struggle was open to men and women, and most notably to the peasant population. Theirs was not only a military struggle but also a struggle for social, political and economic transformation.

Thirdly, the struggle was waged against a well-equipped enemy, domestic collaborators and foreign occupation all at once.

Many Yugoslav Communists were inspired by Chinese revolutionaries. Yugoslav Comintern delegates reported back about the Chinese revolution, and in 1940 they published a translation of Edgar Snow’s Red Star Over China. Some partisan groups distributed pamphlets on the Chinese revolution that were read widely.

One of Tito’s closest comrades, Vladimir Dedijer, titled one of the chapters in his war diary “Our Long March,” a direct reference to the Long March of the Chinese Communists. The same chapter also quotes Jewish partisan leader and Communist Moša Pijade as saying: “‘The people are the water, and the partisan the fish. There can be no fish without water.’ This is the guiding principle of the Chinese partisans and is valid for us.”

Loren Balhorn

You describe how Yugoslavia’s expulsion from the Cominform in 1948 and Stalin’s subsequent “anti-Titoism” campaign forced the party leadership to reevaluate many of its own certainties and ultimately introduce a modicum of de-Stalinization. How far did this go? After all, this “de-Stalinization” included sending professed Stalinists to prison camps, and Tito himself had a personality cult surrounding him for decades.

Gal Kirn

The Communist Party underwent its own form of “de-Stalinization” during the war, growing from a minor party of three thousand members to more than 150,000, mostly politically empowered peasants. It should be noted that collectivization was met with a lot of resistance — even some revolts — and largely halted. The party’s communicational and political outlook changed even more after the war, as now it was not a small conspiratorial clique, but held large public meetings and was exposed to the media. In that sense, certain changes were already happening before the split with Stalin.

The split was a highly contradictory process: on the one hand, the leadership began hounding anyone who continued to praise Stalin — which had been the party line for decades — and deployed repressive methods reminiscent of Stalin himself. Nevertheless, there was no gulag system with tens of thousands of prisoners and deaths.

Most political prisoners, many of them hardcore Communists, partisans, and Stalinists, along with political opponents and nationalists, were sent to islands in the Mediterranean, where they were not integrated into constructive work but forced to perform useless labor and undergo reeducation.

There were roughly 15,000 prisoners between 1948 and 1956, of whom about four hundred died. There is little commemoration of these prisoners today, because the victims were devoted Communists who fail to conform to the dominant victimhood narrative centered on nationalist dissident.

Despite sometimes brutal methods, Yugoslavia’s de-Stalinization was productive, in the sense that it drove the party to rethink how society was organized. It led to the introduction of workers’ self-management, social ownership, and workers’ councils as the fundamental units of production and workers’ democracy. Of course, very different kinds of self-management emerged in practice.

Loren Balhorn

Tito features fairly marginally in your book, despite the fact that he was a larger-than-life figure throughout socialist Yugoslavia’s existence. How crucial do you think Tito was to Yugoslavia’s success? Can the partisan movement and ensuing state it built be separated from his towering influence?

Gal Kirn

You can’t speak about Yugoslavia without speaking about Tito, from the early prison years to the decisive moment when he rose to prominence, working in Paris in 1937 and acting as CPY general secretary — without Stalin’s blessing! — to organize the transit of International Brigaders from around Europe to Spain. His and the party’s role during the partisan uprising and struggle should be recognized and appreciated. Without their iron will and belief in another world, many fierce battles and sieges would have been lost.

During the war, Tito’s name stood as a sort of master signifier, not only for Communism but for popular resistance as a whole. Tito was both a partisan and the partisan as such, a name signifying collective struggle and the only commander-in-chief wounded on the battlefield in World War II.

For this reason, we cannot separate Tito from the partisan struggle, the victory over fascism, the construction of the socialist state, or the founding of the Non-Aligned Movement. That said, none of his accomplishments would have been possible without the political capacities of countless Communists and genuine mass popular support after the war.

In light of the specific kind of uncritical Tito nostalgia common in former Yugoslavia today, I would add, as Alain Badiou once said about Mao, that there is a difference between Tito the partisan leader and Tito the statesman. This is especially true of the later Tito who got involved in international show business, vacationing with Hollywood stars like Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, who played Tito in the 1973 film Battle of Sutjeska.

I argue that the market reform and its discontents in the late 1960s revealed not only internal contradictions, but also the corrupting influence of political power and a gradual exhaustion of Communist leadership in Yugoslavia. Rather than continuing the partisan rupture, the party became those who maintained state power. I also try to show that reforms and their impacts on the course of history are not defined and guided by one person alone, but by objective processes and the political work of people and organizations.

This institutional deadlock became painfully clear in 1968, when major student revolts and strikes broke out calling for more communism within what was then officially termed “market socialism.” Instead of refocusing and opening their ranks to the young revolutionaries, the party conducted an extensive purge, especially of left- but also of right-“deviationists.”

This laid the foundations for an alliance between party bureaucrats and factory managers. It should also be said that by referring to “right-deviationists,” the party wrongly conflated 1968 with what was actually an openly anti-Communist and nationalist mass movement in Croatia in the early 1970s. This latter sought to destroy socialist Yugoslavia and openly envisaged restoration of capitalism within the framework of “one nation in one state.”

Loren Balhorn

Probably the most important part of your book are the chapters on the “central antagonism and paradox” of workers’ self-management and market socialism — measures introduced by the leadership to counter bureaucratization and boost the economy.

You argue that they in fact ended up strengthening local managers and weakening inter-republican solidarity, undermining the federation as a whole. But would further centralization and command economy have been a workable alternative?

Gal Kirn

The early 1950s to 1970 is the most productive and contradictory phase of workers’ self-management. It yielded impressive economic results in the form of new companies and investments in public infrastructure like hospitals, schools, kindergartens, and roads, most of which remain in use today.

The decision to decentralize the monopoly of political power was not only understood as a socialization of economic and political power, strengthening workers in production and expanding democratic participation in general social reproduction, but also as a path towards a new concentration of economic power.

The latter was dominated by an amalgam of new directors, managers, local bureaucrats, and emerging commercial banks after they were legally introduced in 1966. Market reform was essentially about making the “socialist economy” more efficient. This exerted pressure both within companies, where the exploitation of workers intensified, and between companies, as the competition for market share and access to loans became fiercer.

As the Slovenian sociologist Rastko Močnik put it, workers at the time faced a double blockage. On the one hand, Tito’s entourage and republican bureaucracies blocked the democratization of the self-managementist  political apparatus. In the early 1970s the entry of opportunistic cadres into the party was favored — tellingly, Vladimir Bakarić exclaimed in 1971 that “we, communists, are in minority within the League of Communists.”

On the other, the market reforms created a blockage in economic self-management at the firm level. Instead of workers taking the upper hand in the workers’ councils, their executive powers were often delegated to managers and factory directors. Thus, decentralization, as promulgated by market reform, meant that any central agency and power — anything bearing even a whiff of Stalinism — was to be resisted by any means necessary.

In the long run, this dynamic strengthened informal power networks and the increasingly visible power of the market. The inter-republican mechanisms of solidarity epitomized by the Federal Agency for Development that distributed and relocated funds to poorer regions were weakened and substituted by the banks and the market.

The association of producers and self-management might have worked better in the realm of social reproduction, like culture and the health service. But on the level of Yugoslavia’s fundamental political and economic units, it generally failed to expand socialism from 1970s onwards.

These negative processes accelerated after the oil crisis in 1974. Over time, a blind critique of all centralized power as “Stalinist” was quite easily appropriated by liberal ideologues and centrifugal forces that, as you say, were pushing towards economic and social disintegration. In this respect, the Communist leadership failed to think seriously about how to continue workers’ self-management, naively believing in the promise of modernization and endless growth.

Loren Balhorn

You make a strong argument that Yugoslavia’s socialist project was a special chapter in the history of twentieth-century socialism, enjoying widespread support and building its own, unique system beyond Moscow’s grasp. Given the extent to which right-wing politics dominates the Balkans today, do you think so-called “Yugonostalgia” can be used in a positive way to salvage the socialist idea?

Gal Kirn

Yugoslav socialism was a unique case: namely, that of an organized party undergoing major changes during the war and launching a socialist modernization project with mass popular support. Despite its shortcomings and contradictions, the book argues that at least up until 1965 the project was successful in establishing a much more democratic economic system, well-functioning public infrastructure, and a new form of ownership with steadily rising wages and improved living standards for the working class. It was arguably one of the most stable examples of democratic socialism.

As far as Yugonostalgia is concerned, if we merely affirm it uncritically, we risk losing ourselves in daydreams and a one-sided idealization of the past. Another problem is that for many, Yugonostalgia is more of a subcultural activity — namely, a commodification of memory — that contributes to further depoliticization more than anything else.

However, there is also a more positive side to it that seeks to overcome the horizon of ethnic identity and conflict. The many groups of both young and old people that meet to commemorate partisan struggles, across generations and borders, also aim to preserve partisan monuments and memory. In practice, that also means opposing neo-fascism and other reactionary forces.

In this sense, Yugonostalgia often has a progressive core. But I believe it needs to, if you will, repeat the partisan gesture of yesteryear by taking sides in the present. This doesn’t mean we can blindly repeat what is clearly not there anymore. We cannot simply walk through the forests and imagine that we are the partisans of some heroic past.

On the contrary: affirming the Yugoslav revolution would mean continuing in the spirit of Yugoslav socialism’s legacy by striving to unite emancipatory thought with political practice under new conditions.