We Spoke to Croatia’s First Anti-Capitalist MP in Three Decades
Last weekend’s Croatian election saw a fresh step forward for the Green-Left coalition, with the Workers’ Front electing Katarina Peović as its first MP. She told Jacobin how activists in the former Yugoslav republic are building the fight for democratic socialism.
- Interview by
- George Souvlis
The results of the Croatian parliamentary elections on July 5 were mostly grim news, with the rise of Miroslav Škoro’s hard-right Homeland Movement and an overall victory for the conservative Croatian Democratic Union. But amid setbacks for president Zoran Milanović’s Social Democrats, one ray of light was the breakthrough for the Green-Left coalition, standing in a general election for the first time.
A coalition of local campaigns and small left parties, the Green-Left coalition elected seven MPs to the 151-member Croatian parliament, including four for “We Can” and one for the democratic-socialist Workers’ Front. Three decades after socialist Yugoslavia collapsed in nationalist bloodshed, the Workers’ Front MP Katarina Peović is the first anti-capitalist member of the Croatian parliament since 1992.
Following her election, Peović hopes that democratic socialists in Croatia can build ties with other forces like Slovenia’s Levica in building a new coalition of the Left across the Balkans. She spoke to Jacobin’s George Souvlis about the need to reassert class politics, the growth of the Workers’ Front, and the sharpening of anti-communist attacks against the broad left.
Could you introduce yourself, describing the experiences that most influenced you?
I teach at the Faculty of Philosophy in the cultural studies department. It was my students who motivated me to enter the political arena, mostly because their future is burdened with their parents’ debts and poor material conditions. They cannot expect to have their own flat — in fact, 60 percent of young people between twenty-five and thirty years old live with their parents.
Young people are mostly faced with two options. They can either emigrate to richer countries or stay here and be exploited working on precarious contracts. Croatia is at the top of the European list for precarious employment — 6.9 percent of workers are on three-month contracts, whereas the EU average is 2.3 percent. 14 percent of the working-age population has emigrated; most of them are young highly educated people.
Theoretically, I am strongly influenced by Michael Lebowitz’s work, which shows how to improve the democratic aspect of socialism. The enlightened minority cannot, in the long run, be the sole bearer of change. I was also heavily influenced by Karl Marx, because he stresses the uselessness of an only moral critique of capitalism. He demonstrated how capitalists act rationally within a given framework — and focused on how the whole framework of the mode of production is irrational. Today, with climate change, we could not have any better proof of that.
Last Sunday you were elected an MP as part of the Green-Left coalition, which formed back in 2017. Could you explain how it took form, and how you got elected to parliament?
I am the member of the Workers’ Front, a democratic-socialist party which emerged from various activist movements. The crucial one was the student movement 2009, which was devoted to the defense of free public higher education (a “student blockade” during which several public faculties were occupied).
The Workers’ Front which formed in 2014 was very active in strikes, protests, and I myself joined it in 2017. But the wider Green-Left coalition took form in the build-up to the 2017 municipal elections in Zagreb, with several other left-wing parties. Immediately elected to the city assembly, we loudly criticized the corrupt politics of the longtime mayor and his clique.
Ahead of the December 2019 elections, the Workers’ Front decided to nominate me as our presidential candidate. This campaign was important in political terms because it strongly advanced a vision of democratic socialism for the twenty-first century. We asserted the need to combine social ownership with worker-organized production and production that meets social needs. This last point — directing production toward social need — was particularly important in the context of the coronavirus crisis, especially after we suffered the lack of medical supplies.
In the campaign, we criticized the condition of the public health system, public education, and the lack of social housing. We managed to start a debate on the dangers of right-wing politics for social rights, women rights, minority rights, and to propose an uncompromising stance on anti-fascism. While our government subsidized only sports-betting chains, not working people, we stressed that the rich — the wealthiest 1 percent — must share the burden of the crisis.
Last Sunday, as a result of our campaign, we got elected to the Croatian parliament — our coalition now has seven MPs out of 151 (one from the ranks of the Workers’ Front). Our analysis shows that the people who voted for our coalition tended to be the higher educated. But our goal is to relate to highly atomized workers of all social backgrounds.
You are the first anti-capitalist MP in Croatia since 1992. How do you think that the historical memory of the past — especially that regarding the partisans and the experience of Yugoslavia — has been used by the dominant political forces in order to resist the election of any left-wing coalition until now?
The partisans were mostly communists. The anti-fascist heritage cannot be demonized to the extent that those in power would like it to be — anti-fascism is, after all part of our constitution. But the communist heritage is constantly under attack. It is easy to see why — the communists who led the anti-fascist struggle brought peace but also introduced workers’ self-management, social housing, and high social standards while industrializing mostly rural states.
To suppress ideas of a better society and solidarity, the ruling class needs to discredit real existing socialism and the communist ideas present in that historical social and economic experiment. Real existing socialisms do, indeed, need to be reevaluated and studied. But this should be done not — like they do — to dismiss any idea of a better society. Rather, it is useful precisely in order to propose a more democratic form of society, based on solidarity, equality, and justice.
How have examples abroad like Podemos and Syriza influenced the development of your coalition?
Examples such as Podemos and Syriza show two important aspects of the political fight. First, they show how it is important to democratize the decision-making process, to avoid the trap of political representation where a few party leaders make all the important decisions.
Second, these examples show the difficulties and obstacles in the process of replacing capitalist elements of production with new ones. This process cannot be done overnight — simply “winning power” within existing state institutions is not enough. And they show how such a transition must be the result of wide public consensus. The process of the electoral fight must not be the end goal in itself.
It is, for certain, difficult to transcend the framework of the market, as the ultimate purpose of all things in capitalist society. But the difficulties that will eventually be faced must be communicated to the population even while a left-wing party is on the rise — and not just afterwards, at the actual moment of taking office. Many leftist movements today deny the reality of class conflict while presenting economic changes as if they were just a matter of common sense. In reality, it is impossible to make them happen unless we are clear about the structural causes of social inequalities and injustice.
As Nancy Fraser once said, emancipatory politics must have a populist dimension. But a progressive left-populism must be the opposite of reactionary right-wing populism. Its task is to communicate in clear and simple language, all the while “translating” a complicated dialectic of class inequalities, structural corruption, and systemic injustice.
Does your party favor the European Union and its further integration?
The European Union is not a union of equality, solidarity, and justice. The EU may, indeed, be coming toward an end, because it encourages and creates structural inequality between the rich countries of EU center and its underdeveloped periphery. To overcome such differences, the EU would need to be, at least, a fiscal union with a shared budgetary policy — and there is no sign that such a change could occur.
The example of corona bonds is exemplary, in this regard — the political and economic establishment of the richer countries has strongly resisted any possibility of debt sharing or helping out the poorer periphery. We must not question whether we, as Croatians, should be part of Europe, but rather what “Europe” represents for all countries today. The “migrant question” is only another side of this same problem — it cannot be solved within the existing capitalist framework.
How do you think you can use your election to the Croatian parliament to build an anti-austerity movement embracing other Balkan countries — and on what terrain do you expect a confrontation to be possible?
Democratic-socialist movements must form a coalition across the Balkan region, since only the cooperation of possible future socialist movements and forces can provide the economic background for anti-capitalist reforms.
Something of a Balkan left is already taking form — we have very meaningful cooperation with the Slovenian left-wing party Levica. We should remember that the Slovenian left is constantly increasing its number of MPs in the Slovenian parliament. They managed to force the last government to raise the minimum wage and social benefits. Our connections with the Left in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia are also strong.
What do you think about the two dominant parties in the Croatian parliament? Do they make up party of what Tariq Ali has named as “extreme center”?
We can certainly use Tariq Ali’s term “extreme center” to describe the politics of two dominant parties — the Croatian Democratic Union and Social Democratic Party. For their nominal “right” or “left” orientations have a common denominator: the extreme slashing of workers’ rights, lowering taxes for the richest, privatization of public infrastructure and resources, and so on. While left-wing ideas are often discredited as “radical,” the politics of the center are extremist and present a real danger for working majority.
For our part, we do not just ask for support for our coalition, but demand the democratization of the political process. This means including the wider community in decision-making on what, how, and for whom we produce as a society. Most people are left out of decision-making, while parliamentary democracy limits what can be a subject of democratic questioning. We believe that politics is for the many, not for the few.