Communism Can Only Be Radical Plebeian Democracy: Remarks on the Experience of S. F. R. Yugoslavia and on Civil Society (2011-14) (12,900 words)


The essay is divided into approach and two parts plus a short Communism; plebeian summation. The approach poses the theme of nexus between democracy; S. F. R. communism and democracy as the only hope to oppose the Yugoslavia; disalienation; present neo-fascist turn of capitalism. Part 1 discusses central Gramsci political choices after the Yugoslav 1941–45 revolution, focusing on its popular revolutionary horizon as well as on disalienation of labour in workers’ self-management, and sketching the history of their achievements and then reflux after the 1960s. The three available politico-economic horizons were a Soviet-style police state, “market socialism,” and a fully associational plebeian democracy. Choosing the second solution meant, in the absence of central planning, a slide towards a market without democratic control and swayed by international centres of financial capital plus the six or seven regional centres of power in the “federal republics,” inevitably turning to nationalism. This led to economic and state disaster. Part 2 discusses plebeian democracy in a participatory mode, foregrounding the need for open politics in post-revolutionary societies and what might a real “civil society” be (Gramsci). The conclusion is not only that Marx’s horizon of communism can only be radical plebeian democracy, but also that only communism can be radical plebeian democracy.

Here I need to pour out my heart: you need to hear the truth. (Robespierre 1989, 333)

The counter-revolution is in the management of the finances. (Robespierre 1989, 358)

We shall perish because we did not want to seize the moment marked in the history of humans to found liberty. (Robespierre 1989, 361; fragments from the last speech before the Convent, Eighth Thermidor Year II of July 26, 1794)

Hence arises a possible conflict between what is and what ought to be. . . . (Hegel 1820, 4)

1. Approach

Both democracy and communism, the two great attempts at collective power, have led to violent catastrophes, as Jacques Rancière noted in a recent interview (Rancière 2010). I believe this is because democracy and communism were sundered instead of fused. Thus we need to discuss the lessons of the past for the future. I shall therefore turn to what the S. F. R. Yugoslav object-lesson can illuminate about why and how the fusion should and could have come about.

Socialist or communist revolutions against capital have in their first historical round, identifiable with Hobsbawm’s “short twentieth century” of 1917–89, failed to reach their own horizons, which also means they have pragmatically failed. There were heaven-storming hopes, even great and memorable successes, but the revolutions finally did not overcome the formidable internal and external obstacles which we can in one word call capital—outside and inside the countries of revolution. How can we begin summarizing the lessons of that failure? In three ways, I believe: reconsidering the economics of the “transition period” between the revolution and its goal of a fully just communist society, by taking for its red thread the cruces of accumulation and planning;1

reconsidering our epistemology, which also means methodology—that is, how to understand a fast changing history; and reconsidering the indispensable nexus between communism and democracy. I shall in this essay deal only with this third reconsideration, though it meshes strongly with the other two. The methodology will be implicitly present, while political economy is considered in another essay (Suvin 2015), from which I have borrowed considerations for my part 2.


It should be clear that modern technology, as it has been shaped by the needs of capitalism and warfare, cannot exist without extensive planning; all the mass media heavy drum-fire against planning for the last century is merely a smokescreen for leaving planning to the large corporations and their divisions of the market as well as to governments controlled by them spending taxpayers’ money (see Best and Connolly 1982, 32–40, 207: US government spending rose from 8.2% of GNP in 1913 to 38.1% in 1977, while in World War II it peaked at nearly 50%). In other words, a socialist/communist political programme would at some not too distant point have to plan also the problem of reshaping technology for its own needs, to make it as far as possible disalienating inside each single plant and eco-sustainable outside of it; I deal here only with planning within early socialism. In fact, Lenin took his cue for improvising largely from the central planning introduced in all major capitalist states during World War I, especially the German one whose efficiency he much admired, and “the war economy remained the basic model of the Soviet planned economy” (Hobsbawm 2011, 9). However, this super-productivist economism determining politics had the downside of being totally unfit for industrial democracy.

What happened in Yugoslavia under “market socialism” was a dismantling and jettisoning of planning. Yet intelligent planning was the key to solving the major societal contradictions and aporias of what happens during industrialization after a revolution that dispossessed the (largely foreign) capitalist class, including planning’s hidden twin and political analogue, the place and extent of plebeian democracy from below as its indispensable partner. By 1965, planning by basic proportions was replaced by even vaguer “indicative planning,” and federal plans became largely political pious wishes.

This meant surrender to the capitalist market. However, “[s]tandard economic reasoning tells us that, in a typical underdeveloped country, the market mechanism can produce inferior investment decisions” (Milenkovitch 1971, 294). The major argument against market reliance, developed in both titles by Polanyi, was handily summarized by Joseph E. Stiglitz in his 2001 “Foreword” to The Great Transformation:

[Polanyi clarifies] how free market ideology was the handmaiden for [bourgeois] industrial interests, and how those interests used that ideology selectively, calling upon government intervention when needed to pursue their own interests. . . . Today, there is no respectable intellectual support for the proposition that markets, by themselves, lead to efficient, let alone equitable outcomes. (Stiglitz 2006, vii–viii)

Further, the illuminating discussion of Elson richly argues that if one starts from the production and reproduction of labour power, which is wider than the needful attention to workers in paid labour, then a “politics of use values” could use a dialectical approach to the market. With Marx, the useful aspects of market coordination ought to be recognised, negatively as against the personal subalternity in feudalism and positively as helping the mutual satisfaction of needs, as well as the alienating aspect of enforcement of atomised profit mentality it necessarily carries. Not only do people in the cash nexus not at all matter, but their interests are a priori defined and strictly enforced as isolated, and information is valuable and used only insofar as it contributes to antagonistic competitive advantage (Elson 1988, 15). Probably even more important is the fact that “no economy can adjust solely through a market-led adjustment process because there are key resources which cannot be fully commodified. The most important are labour and the environment.” In families and households, “labour power . . . is not produced as a commodity” but as a mainly “altruistic collective behaviour . . . [in] a resource allocation pattern that is not wholly determined by [market prices]” (17; italics added).

A similar horizon is in Horvat’s position on “market as instrument of planning”: “there is today no so-called free market; it can be proven that planning is absolutely needed for its functioning well.” However, “the market could be one of the possible planning types, and one among the instruments for . . . the allocation of resources needed for consumption”—especially for short-range plans and consumption goods. This can be brought about by planning control of market forces and prices. However, drawing up the plans should be the prerogative of the people, that is, all economic subjects, with full feedback flow of information (Horvat 1967, 108–12; emphasis original). The system of self-government appears here as the ideal possibility of reconciling central planning with both democracy from below and efficient economic development (Kidrič envisaged this already in 1950).

For Kalecki, self-management in industry would be inseparable from central planning not only for emergencies such as initial industrialization (in which case capitalism also abundantly uses it, as in the World Wars and in general in military investments) but also when a higher level of economic growth is reached. The rejection of central planning implies

Putting my cards on the table, I consider integral self-government from below in all human affairs our only hope to oppose the barbarous neo-fascist turn of capitalism in which we are presently living. I have approached this thoroughly radical democracy or democratic communism in essays about utopianism and political epistemology (collected in Suvin 2010, 2011a, 2012a), to which I refer in lieu of further theory here. Further, I believe verbal indicatives are indispensable but insufficient unless faced with at least suggestions of inherent alternative possibilities as optative conjunctives of desire. There is no critical stance to societal history without the foil of utopia as eutopia, the good place, and at that, what Ernst Bloch in 1959 calls “concrete” utopia, in constant feedback with reality, and not a myth of imaginary achievement. Success has meaning only as opposed to failure and degradation as opposed to advancement.

2. Central political choices after the Yugoslav revolution

The experience of S. F. R. Yugoslavia is best divided into three phases (I have argued this at length in my essays [Suvin 2012b, 2013b]): ca. 1952 to 1965, the ascending phase; 1965 to 1972, a failed reform and transition to degeneration; and 1972 to the end, stasis and repression. Internationally, before ca. 1973, political pressures allowed economic growth outside the capitalist metropolitan areas, violating exclusive profit logic. This was followed by a period of erosion, crisis, and breakdown of the “antifascist” phase and eventually the return to “pure” profit capitalism, to all of which Yugoslavia became a prime example. After this date, S. F. R. Yugoslavia as a community still did some good things for hundreds of thousands of people, but it was a devolving caricature of the original idea (see Horvat 1972, 54; Comisso 1979, 124–35).

I propose to discuss first a central political knot after the Yugoslav revolution, and then the politics of a possible disalienating communist democracy.

2.1. Disalienation of labour as self-determination

I ground myself in the Archimedean starting point of Marx’s anthropology of labour, alienation and disalienation in societal life. He did not work out a theory of political disalienation of labour beyond some precious and central theses about revolution and proletarian power (see Feenberg 2002, especially 51–60). Still, in his doctrine it would have to be

“either abandoning rapid economic development, or dependence on permanent foreign assistance” (Kalecki 1992, 62): as we have seen, Yugoslavia after the 1960s managed to combine both these negativities.

The Yugoslav government ad hoc countermeasures that took the place of planning ensured neither market nor planning would work properly. A retrospective survey of problems and opinions on the Yugoslav use of the market and then of the plan is in Korošić (1988, 250–59, 271–79).

based on what might be called the organisation of use-value politics within people’s selfgovernment:

In fact, however, when the limited bourgeois form is stripped away, what is wealth other than the universality of individual needs, capacities, pleasures, productive forces, etc., created through universal exchange? . . . The absolute working-out of [man’s] creative potentialities, with no presupposition other than the previous historic development, which makes this totality of development, i.e., the development of all human powers as such the end in itself, not as measured on a predetermined yardstick? Where he does not reproduce himself in one specificity, but produces his totality? Strives not to remain something he has become, but is in the absolute movement of becoming? (Marx 1973, 488)

Thus, Marx’s key category of “productive forces” ought to be looked at, as against economism, as “the term designating the sum-total of the resources for liberation available to a given society” (Marcuse 1988, 213)—and the most important “machine [or] instrument of production [is] the working class itself” (Gramsci 1955, 134; reprinted in Horvat, Marković and Supek 1975, 232). Or, in late Althusser’s language, following Lenin, Mao, and Gramsci: the relations of production, focused by and on class struggles, have precedence over productive forces (Althusser 2011, 56, 240–45). In that vein, Burawoy rightly notes that “the creative transformation of nature (labor) and the collective self-regulation of society (politics)” are firmly linked, so that the disjuncture of production and politics is counterproductive (Burawoy 1981, 83; see Wood 1995, 19 and passim). Their separation is a quintessentially capitalist move, a new thing under the sun of history stemming from the desire to evade any and all societal regulation in order to ensure their sectarian quest for profits. This is taken over by socialist economism and productivism which reduces socialism to the labour process and relations within it, isolated from the democratic control of society from below.

After his early writings, Marx focused on the analysis of labour and capital as the strategic way of understanding emancipation, and refused politics as a ploy of exploiters. Yet in so doing he assumed that associational democracy would be consubstantial with an emancipated labour process. We have learned that politico-ideological emancipation is just as necessary within and for the process of overcoming class society, and must proceed as a mass self-education process at the same time if the reorganisation of production is to come fully about. Unfortunately, the practice of the endangered and then ossified USSR belied the strongly emancipative aspect of Lenin’s theory and abandoned politics exclusively to the domain of Party/State rule. Inside the European left this stance was countered only by the “council communism” of Pannekoek and Korsch, best developed by Gramsci’s uniting it with post-Lenin political struggle. Even Lukács’s reappropriation of Marx for the analysis of production as reification (in Geschichte) shared the messianic illusion, as he later phrased it, that the revolution in power will automatically abolish societal alienation. “Western Marxism” then stressed the reification, having learned from experience that messianic confidence in the revolution, the Party or even the industrial proletariat is by itself insufficient and can turn pernicious, as Bloch (1959) once phrased it, behind the citoyen came the bourgeois: God help us, who is coming behind the comrade?

Thus we cannot be exempted from discussing how “relationships of production” present within production complexly interact with the aspects outside production: both of these aspects participate, in different ways, in what we categorize as economics and politics, and to call either only economic or only political leads to grievous error. This is true even for capitalism, but it holds in spades for “socialist” societies where “[a] defining feature . . . is the fusion of the apparatuses of the workplace with those of the State” (Burawoy 1981, 113; italics original).

Within such a fusion, self-management poses central questions for a radical democracy. First of all, can the relation between economic enterprises and the state be rethought around disalienating self-government? For, self-determination (Marcuse 1964, 251–52) is broader than the somewhat bureaucratic term of self-management which does not clearly connote the radical liberatory aims and horizon of collective emancipation of one and all. My persuasion is that it centrally needs an integral plebeian civic democracy, both economic and political, intertwining with self-management in the workplace in the manner of a double helix, and encompassing both the traditional negative and positive freedoms, much in the manner of Roosevelt’s “four freedoms” (see Passerin d’Entrèves 1962, 282–305, especially 292–93). The negative freedoms at best protect individuals, the positive ones constitute popular sovereignty. This fusion constituting a radical plebeian democracy is the institutional form of what I mean here by communism.

In this paper I use as a shorthand for people whose interests and practice are opposed to the exploiters and power-holders the term “plebeian,” as Brecht did (also Babeuf and Bakhtin). I could also have used (just as metaphorically) Marx’s term “proletarian,” but it seemed to me that the first designation was not only less abused in history and less tied to the industrial workers of the nineteenth century type, but that it also stressed the element of civic opposition to the state power of a ruling class rather than the equally important position within the production process. In a wider sense, I would mean by either of these terms a congeries of social classes—in propitious cases a historical block—defined as working for their subsistence and not having had political power: the working people (radni narod). The plebeians are the only societal segment whose interests demand a thoroughgoing and radical democracy.

2.2. A plebeian revolutionary horizon and achievements

In a Leninist post-revolutionary system all means of production (except a few remnants, and in the case of Yugoslavia also most agriculture) have been taken over by the state run by a single party which also had a political and organisational monopoly: the Party-State. Power is here wielded—unless counteracted by strong democratic pressures from below— by a relatively small oligarchy, in this case a politocracy. It drew its legitimacy first from the revolutionary achievements of plebeian upward mobility, which changed the life of millions for the better, and the attendant defence of independence, but then increasingly from the population’s standard of living. The system therefore had, unless it were to rely largely on police repression, to achieve a noticeable and ongoing economic surplus, and had to have it distributed in a way that appeared justified to the majority of the population, especially the industrial working class and other city dwellers. Therefore, on the one hand, disposal of the surplus value arising from labour-power—which had to be balanced between industrialisation, defence, and standard—became a crux; in Yugoslavia, as in the USSR, “the source of rapid capital accumulation [was left unresolved]” (Woodward 1995, 75 and passim).[1] At the start, the Yugoslav communists hoped for “fraternal aid” by the socialist countries of the Soviet bloc; instead, they got exploitation and attempts at takeover rammed down their throats. Ironically, Tito then found in the Yugoslav Army and its unique strategic value a source of both military and civilian US and West European aid. This was considerable, and—together with the surrender of their surplus labour, at first enthusiastically post-revolutionary and then customary, by most Yugoslav city dwellers—tended to solve for a good while, say for 20 years, the pressing problem of accumulation source (Lampe 2000, 276; Heuser 1989, 219; Mates 1976, 202–4; Gnjatović 1985, 129 and passim).

However, on the other hand it is central to grasp that, in order to continue at all, capitalism needs an ongoing, permanent “primitive accumulation,” devastating further regions of nature and social life, up to the women, virtual space, genome, and intellect (Harvey 2010, 304–5; and see the pioneering Luxemburg 1968). Thus capital accumulation in Yugoslavia was unable to proceed for two reasons: negatively, because of cultural—including technological—backwardness; but then positively, because it meant the all-round disempowerment and alienation of people. However, the Yugoslav revolution had originally been expressly designed—like all such great plebeian uprisings from the French through the Russian to the Chinese and some following revolutions—to strongly limit these blights by means of “elements of solidarity, social responsibility, [and] control over the market mechanisms, worked into its institutional frame” (Močnik 2011, 149), and even to begin abolishing them. While S. F. R. Yugoslavia eventually embarked upon the road of capitalisation, it did so much too slowly and imperfectly by capitalist standards: in order to bring about full capitalism without a human face, which we are seeing in these last decades, it had to be destroyed.

Was there an alternative to the degeneration and eventual crash? My hypothesis is that there was, and that the only one was a further development of the tradition of the partisan popular revolution expressed in the great slogans, “Death to fascism, liberty to the people” (smrt fašizmu—sloboda narodu!) and “Brotherhood and unity” (bratstvojedinstvo), that is, of an orientation toward a plebeian alliance from below. This had made the Party shy away from Stalinist parasitary and stagnant monopolism with its unbearable cost in terror and people’s blood. The Yugoslav rulers and theoreticians attempted after 1949, with notable but less than full success, to get rid of the officially execrated Stalinism, deeply rooted both in the old Party cadres and the widespread peasant-cum-patriarchal petty-bourgeois mentality, and to go back to the radical Lenin of The State and Revolution (1918), whose libertarianism also struck a deep chord in the traditions of popular self-government and of partisan self-reliance (see Buden 2013; Denitch 1976, 153; Woodward 1995, 52; and for Yugoslav mentalities, Suvin 2013b). The 1945–52 years I have called the double Yugoslav plebeian singularity of partisan

Table 1. Growth of some key indicators, 1953–1961.

Real social product per capita (analogous to GNP, in 1960 dinars) Literacy %, age 10 and above Population % in cities above 20,000 Motor power, KW/ employed person
947 74% 13.8 1.7 (1951)
1,636 82% 22.4 2.12

Source: Wachtel (1973, 3; adapted), with “motor power” added from Bićanić and Hanžeković (1973, 88).

victory—with political centralisation and speedy economic reconstruction of the country following—and then of successful break with Stalinism. This resulted in the major breakthrough of the workers’ self-management idea: Kidrič envisaged a system which would soon combine central planning with a “council” system elected from below and through all levels, up to the federal government (see Suvin 2011b; Borgese 1975), as a potentially democratic way of running independent entities producing commodities— perhaps approaching “a planned economy using a regulated market mechanism” (Brus 1975, 74). In 1953, the Yugoslav economy took off after years of scarcity, and at least one factor of the boom was the enthusiasm created by the Workers’ Councils—which in the seven years after 1950 had 1,129,000 members in a country of under 20 million, of which 75% were supposed to be manual workers from the shop floor (Čolaković 1963, 535). At the same time, the Party changed from a cadre to a mass one, and changed its name at the Sixth Congress of 1952 to League of Communists, signalling a return from Stalin to Marx. Due to pressure from below, the self-management organs in industries gradually gained greater influence over some key decisions, including those about workers’ income (after subtraction of state taxes). Further, the area of operation of self-management was in 1953 extended from industry to state agriculture, trade, construction, transport, and communications, and then also to education, culture, health services, banking, and insurance (it was not applied to the army and security services, public administration, and the administration of justice, where the Party cells were supposed to provide the necessary balances). Soon self-management was timidly introduced to the “parliamentary” or electoral system at the levels of commune, district, republic,[2] and federation; I mention this in 2.2.

The 1957–61 Five-Year Plan had a resounding success. Some results of those years can be seen in tables compiled from official statistics.

In Comisso’s (1979, 56) fair judgment, “data . . . do indeed show a high rate of growth, industrial expansion, an increase in the standard of living, and a shift of employment from the primary into the secondary and tertiary spheres of the economy.” Further, “labor productivity rose an average of about 4% . . . a surprising achievement when employment was also rising” (Dirlam and Plummer 1973, 158). Yet Yugoslavia was still “a relatively underdeveloped, and extremely unevenly developed, economy, with an inadequate infrastructure . . .” (Prout 1985, 5), with a per capita social product about half that of Italy. Furthermore, while improving, productivity was still low. And trouble was brewing because of some central structural contradictions.

A strong harbinger of possible changes was, despite its many compromises, the Party program promulgated in 1958 at the Seventh Congress, which was also notable for the all-time high of 32% worker members. The program had a strongly resonating concluding chord: “Nothing that has been created must be so sacred for us that it cannot be surpassed and cede its place to what is still more progressive, more free, more human” (Pribichevich 1958, 263).

Table 2. Socio-economic indicators, 1950–1970.

  1950 1960 1970
GDP per capita (in 1966 prices) 216 333 520
Infant mortality (per 1000 live births) 119 88 55
Illiteracy (% of population 10 and above) 25 20 15
Population per doctor 3,360 1,474 1,010
Radio receivers (per 1,000 persons) 21 78 166
Autombiles (per 1,000 persons) 0.4 2.9 35
Urban population (%) 21 28 39

Source: Lampe (2000, 295).

2.3. The reflux of the plebeian tide

However, in the 1950s, two momentous changes had become unquestioned and deeply embedded. First, “however intimately the economy, the State and the Party might remain interconnected and controlled by the last, . . . these three basic ‘sub-systems’ had been definitely disaggregated and given separate formal structures with inherent capacities for autonomous growth” (Rusinow 1977, 80). Second, the process of decentralising party control from the top but not transferring power to the lowest levels created a middle layer of state and party officials, who were very anxious to preserve their positions and therefore became pillars of dogmatism and the establishment (Bićanić and Hanžeković 1973, 69); furthermore, these local rulers came to exercise great discretion in economic matters and invariably used their power to pursue the interests of their own region, which . . . amounted to obtaining investments for the construction of industry and then protecting that industry at any cost (Paul Shoup, quoted in Rusinow 1977, 49). The “commune” oligarchy level, for which power was synonymous with opening jobs and extensive economic development, was well integrated with the republican level. Since it was paid out of taxes on production, as time went on it became one of the main drags on self-management and democratisation (see Bakarić 1983, vol. 2, 398)—eventually second only to the republican administrations. These oligarchies below the federal level grew into the root cause for “a non-existent and increasingly evasive ideological and political consensus” (Rusinow 1977, 112; see Horvat 1969, 75), which held up a rational rethinking within the ruling oligarchy. The dilemma was, as always, whether to carry out the further democratisation from below, which would inevitably begin spilling over from economics to politics, or to return to central rule from above. The compromise solution was to do neither but to give more power to the republican administrations—“that is, the creation of a federation which cannot rule over the bureaucratic elements in the republics” (Bakarić 1983, vol. 1, 627). The republican governments, which tended from the very beginning to centralise all in their hands, were eventually left to grow by default into separate “State capitalisms.” The economy stalled and eventually plummeted.

In such a bind, the Western type of market appeared after 1965 to most people in the oligarchy, and of course in the rising “middle class,” as the new saviour; industries which could compete in it had to be favoured. Besides, economic objectives of the “reform” in and after 1965, its key political plank was that the share of enterprises in the net social product should rise to 70% (Bakarić 1983, vol. 2, 173): this failed. Instead, the three main consequences of the 1965 reform were, first, conspicuous economic instability. Most worrisome for societal solidarity were rising unemployment at a time when the better schooled post-war generation was looking for work, and inflation, caused both by high import costs and by domestic factors—such as the low productivity, both in industry and in agriculture, which henceforth became a fixture and led to marked inefficiency of Yugoslav investments as compared to other countries of European periphery (Bajt 1988, 13). The inflation came to average 22% by the early 1970s and began affecting the real wage (see Woodward 1995; Bićanić and Hanžeković 1973; Tyson 1981). I shall develop this in 2.4.

Second, the balance between the federal centre and the republics was drastically and permanently altered in favour of the latter. The transfer of responsibility for social services from the federal centre to the communes, and then increasingly to the republics, both entailed a transfer of loyalties by those served and reduced funds. This was one more factor of the third consequence, increasing societal polarisation reversing the post-war trend. Income growth rates of the upper 10% grew in the late 1960s to more than double of the bottom 40% (Comisso 1979, 96). On the one pole, there was an exodus of workers to Western Europe with a peak at around 1 million people by 1973; on the other, a lightning concentration of capital in the reformed banks which could now be founded not only by local communities but primarily or exclusively by business enterprises. The banks soon accounted for a whopping 45–50% of all fixed-asset investments and, in cahoots with republican authorities, disposed of foreign currency earnings. The government could only resort to ad hoc zigzagging by means of “administrative” monetary policy, a few remaining federal subsidies and investments, as well as temporary extraordinary fiscal measures. While this meant that its remnant redistributive role “helped to keep differences in the social standard of living from growing intolerable” (up to the 1980s), it also meant that federal intervention was done without long-range planning, and “not surprisingly created more problems than it solved” (Comisso 1979, 91, 80). Finally, after initial successes industrial production fell in the 1970s to the fourth source of currency revenues by value, after remittances from workers abroad, tourism, and agriculture. This was a resounding defeat of the industrialisation political plank.

The federal state was economically indeed withering away, and so was rapid economic progress in production and standard of living. The economic consequences came to a head much later, but the political instability and polarisation were immediate—the student revolt in 1968 and the Croatian slide toward nationalism interrupted in 1971—and ominous, especially as their root causes were not addressed. Just as ominous was the turn to International Monetary Fund (IMF) loans, given in 1965 to Yugoslavia as the first “socialist” country.

2.4. Three politico-economic horizons

In sum, I argue in this first part that the oligarchy’s counter-offensive against the trend toward plebeian associational democracy based on self-management develops after 1968 into political disorientation, fruitlessly papered over by a feverish proliferation of measures and laws, and brings about elements of vigorously developing capitalist relationships. Such judgements hinge on what were the alternatives. For if there were none, one could assume the politocracy was doing the best of a bad job: since that had to end as it did, in the downfall and destruction of both socialism and the small state of Yugoslavia, it would follow that this state and societal experiment was doomed from the word go. Having lived through the glorious years of the Yugoslav socialist wager, and then reflected upon its eventual decay from afar, I refuse to believe this. To my mind there existed three possible, theoretically exclusive horizons.

The year 1948 was marked by the rejection of the first one, a Soviet-style police state with totally centralized detail planning, as both intrinsically abhorrent and achievable only by full submission to Stalin.

The second horizon was rendered ever more urgent by what was in my judgement a necessary opening to the capitalist market and therefore to a confrontation with its evolving ideologies, and it might just as well be called by that dubious name, market socialism. It was the minimum common denominator of an intra-oligarchy compromise, and “[its] use as the basic coordinator of Yugoslav economic life was . . . more a decision by default than an act of positive policy” (Comisso 1979, 75; Samary 1988, 155). The market was mystified as “a socialist invisible hand” (Milenkovitch 1971, 285), and vehemently opposed to federal planning—to what Brus identifies as “the model of a planned economy using a regulated market mechanism” for better economic accountability (Brus 1975, 74; see also Horvat 1967). If not corrected by and subordinated to strong planning and fencing-in measures, the market had potential elements of reintroduction of capitalism. And in fact “the Yugoslav market did not follow the path foretold by neoliberal capitalist ideology, from a market regulated by the Party/State to a free market, but to a regulated market broken away from any democratic control and ruled by international centres of financial capital” (Buden 2012).

I cannot discuss here the many improvisations tending toward a kind of co-operative plus state capitalism—in the Yugoslav case, a confederation of major republican state capitalisms—but they were inexorably strengthening the probability of what historically happened: a potential division into comprador bourgeoisies and mafias, actualized as soon as the Cold War confrontation was definitely dissolved.

However, this alternative could be urged as the only one to avoid the police state only insofar as it was wilfully denied and occulted that there existed an already partially mobilized, popular, and quite well functioning germ of a third, properly plebeian socialist horizon. This third possibility was a fully associational plebeian democracy, consciously assuming the conflict between the old (capitalism and patriarchal power) and the new (democratic communism) as its orientation. This would have meant both accepting the consumer market as a reckoning device, that is, in a rather prudent and hedged about way, and denying the capitalist law of value in key sectors affecting the people’s wellbeing in favour of a supple planning. As of 1958, that halcyon time when the Party Program (Pribichevich 1958) called for “the transformation of all State organs into organs of self-government,” this vision was a widespread horizon, a Blochian “concrete”—that is, possible—utopia. It is then that in the republican and federal Assemblies, beside two chambers composed of professional politicians, three chambers were added (for economic policies, for social services and health, and for education and culture) composed from delegates of basic organisations in the field, and having no financial privileges (see Marković 1986, 165–67). There were expectations and pressures at the time for developing self-management across the board: I shall adduce here only two arguments by Branko Horvat and Veljko Cvjetičanin.

Cvjetičanin wittily posed that self-management ought to have developed into a fully self-governing system across the board, expanding from within industry and social services into three dimensions, the horizontal, vertical, and depth one. By horizontal, he meant the very neglected dimension of broadening self-government into the territorial communities, from the basic “communes” to the republics and then the federation as a whole. This would have been important for de-alienating the rapidly growing “lonely crowd” of the urban centres—where the interesting organisational form of residential or housing community (stambena zajednica) was never given sufficient funds nor attention to develop—as well as for de-provincializing the rural communities. “The [second or] vertical dimension of self-management is most sharply opposed to the state apparatus and is therefore the least developed one.” It could have developed in two ways: either as an integration filling the gap between the enterprise plans and the local community as well as central planning; or by economic branches, including “social services” such as health or education, in the form of several permanent central councils, each “a self-management congress or working people’s parliament, relying on scientific analyses and planning. In this case the State organs would truly become [as envisaged by Lenin and Kidrič, note added] auxiliary organs of this workers’ parliament.” The depth dimension meant a direct associational democracy, which is a key to socialism. It would mean creating presuppositions in all societal units for overcoming the division into leaders and the led (Cvjetičanin 1971, 252–54; see Supek 1970, 1979).

Horvat agreed that “self-government has to be carried over to the total community.” Furthermore, he pointed out this democratisation would have to prominently include the ruling Party, voiding the dominant hierarchic, semi-military relationships obtaining in it:

This means that the [Party] must transform itself from an organisation with a centralised initiative into an organisation with decentralised initiative, from an organisation where the leadership exclusively controls the membership into an organisation in which the members also have the possibility of controlling the agencies of leadership and where, in the decision process, communications and directives circulate both up and down. (Horvat 1969, 209; see Milosavlevski 1971, 248–49 and passim)

The development into a fully self-governing system of communist democracy did not come about, in my hypothesis, because both the federal or centralising and the republican or decentralising factions of the ruling oligarchy had one overriding class interest: to avoid endangering their power and class status. They had to ward off introduction of full economic democracy, which would be necessarily accompanied by political democracy (a budding civil society within and for the revolution, as theorized by Gramsci, to whom I shall return) and by the management of open conflicts within the most interesting 1963 Constitution, though not by a multi-party system. The oligarchy’s myopic optimism probably did not allow them to envisage the baneful results of a national economy incapable of making “a strong, concentrated effort [in any field]” (Marković 1974, 104), but at any rate this took second place to keeping power. The weak centre was thus as of the 1960s outflanked by republican ruling classes increasingly at odds with each other, a decisive number of which eventually grew into the role of secessionist compradors. The refusal to collocate self-management in production within a process of disalienation through full self-government—that is, within a plebeian democracy—resulted finally in the downfall of both self-management and Yugoslavia

Table 3. Decline of the social sector, 1960–1985 (change in %).

  Average per annum 1960–70 Average per annum 1970–79 Average per annum 1979–85 Total


Social product (1972 prices) 6 4.5 –0.5 –3.1
Consumption per person (1972 prices) 5.7 4.5 –1.3 –7.7
Real product (per employee in social sector) 4.3 1.8 –3.5 –19.5
Real net personal income (per employee in productive social sector) 6.8 2.1 –4.7 –27.9

Source: Lampe (2000, 323).

2.5. Signs of disaster

The resulting stasis continued for a quarter century (see table 3).

Such an abolition of a unifying centre was (with uncanny unconscious precision) called “depoliticisation”; while possibly a good thing when countering the economically untenable arbitrary centralism of the Stalinist type as well as arbitrary communal parochialism, as a general principle this cut also—and primarily—against legitimate political interests from within the self-management system. It showed a deplorable lack of awareness that every economy is politically framed. An eminent student of self-management concluded bitterly in 1966:

For self-management is essentially a problem of democratic planning. . . . Even in Yugoslavia, the problem is so far being solved that it is not impossible we may yet regard that country as an object-lesson in pitfalls, rather than the brave pilot which it looked like being in the beginning. (Coates 1975, 108)

The most glaring result of the imaginative and political failure after 1965 was the rocket-like rise of unemployment. Woodward shows that even before 1965 the steady growth of ca. 4% in the “social sector” employment failed to compensate for the huge outflow from the peasantry. The numbers of registered job seekers oscillated primarily in function of worker migration abroad, which subsided abruptly with the economic downturn in the West from 1973 on; but this statistic did not count unregistered workers with low skills and low wages shifting seasonally around the country. By 1970, almost a half of all unemployed people were under 25, and the percentage kept rising (Jerovšek, Rus, and Županov 1986, 210).

According to the World Bank report by Schrenk, Ardalan and Tatawy (1979), those not employed inside the country reached 14.7% in 1973, though I would assume the unregistered workers, camouflaged here mainly as peasants, amounted to several hundreds of thousands more (see table 4 and Suvin 2012b).

It appears that the outflow of migrant workers abroad had two components, especially after the mid-1960s: the most highly skilled, and the unskilled or semi-skilled. Drulović (1978, 187–88) counts the “highly skilled” in 1971 as 3% of the migrants, evenly divided between intellectual and manual workers; they were joined by a mass of unskilled workers (over 76%, of which 60% fresh from the farm), and a middle-sized group of lower skilled workers. Rus (in Jerovšek, Rus, and Županov 1986, 210) cites a study by which the share of the job-seekers from two upper skill levels rose from below 20% in 1957 to over 50% in 1982. Research agrees that in the first wave ca. 2/3 of workers left because of too low earnings, especially to afford an apartment, and a bit above 1/3 because of unemployment. Most of such Gastarbeiter (guest workers) lived abroad as a rule in horrendous circumstances, but their average monthly wage was in the mid1960s 750 West German marks (236,000 old dinars), as compared to the ca. 210 marks at home. At that time, about 40% of workers had monthly incomes below 190 marks (Bilandžić 1973, 260); a survey in 1967 found out the workers would have stayed in Yugoslavia had their income been 350 marks, which is almost double (Bilandžić 1973, 252).

Table 4. Employment status of labour force (in 000s, adapted).

  1969 1973 1975
In social sector 3,622 4,222 4,667
In private agriculture and artisanate 4,385 3,479 3,256
Temporarily abroad 572 1,100 900
Registered unemployed 198 229 324
Total labour force 8,777 9,030 9,147

Source: Schrenk, Ardalan and Tatawy (1979, 85).

Thus, I interpret Woodward to indicate that the ghettoized system of self-management necessarily turned inwards, and by protecting those already “in” at the expense of hiring new workers contributed to unemployment. As she notes, normal “frictional” unemployment in developed capitalism was 4–5%, in Yugoslavia as of the first statistic in 1952, it was above 7% (Woodward 1995, 4); counting both those abroad and registered job-seekers, in the 1960s, it hovered near 10%. It was de facto 13.5% in 1969, and 20% in 1975 (though in Slovenia it was practically non-existent and in Kosovo or Macedonia much larger). If we subtract from those securely employed the non-manual (white collar) workers and add to the non-officially employed the invisible seasonal workers, not to forget the rural and urban housewives who would in better times be seeking employment in the social sector, I would speculate the proportion was close to 3:1—three parts of the working class protected by the system (at least until the wild inflation and economic breakdown of the 1980s), one part not protected. Yet, as Woodward rightly stresses, Yugoslavia was officially designed around community through labour, so that unemployment meant moral and material marginalisation. Not counting peasants, to a quarter (or more) of working people solidarity, the central plank of all workers’ movements, socialist or communist, was not extended.

The ultimate political conclusion of Marx’s Capital is that a society relentlessly organized around value-creating labour not controlled by the associated workers necessarily lurches into a polarisation between the rich appropriators of surplus labour and a permanent mass of under- and un-employed: “[N]ot the least terrible [union of opposites discovered by Marx] is that indispensable function of capital to create what is blandly known as the reserve army of the proletariat” (Jameson 2009, 576). Thus the simultaneous appearance of what was in Yugoslavia officially called “the capital relation” and mass unemployment signalled that this terrible union of opposites had again been activated.

Exploitative class society was raising its head.

2.6. Conclusion on political choices after the Yugoslav revolution

What was needed in S. F. R. Yugoslavia, not least for a true socialisation of the means of production, was a full build-up of self-management into an associational substitute for the existing bourgeois parliamentarism combined with backstage Party rule: Brus pithily puts it as “not ‘depoliticisation of the economy’ but ‘democratisation of politics’” (1975, 91–92, and see his whole conclusion 85–103). Due to the deadlock in the Party, this was attempted in a half-hearted and inefficient way, and therefore failed. The political backers of self-management—a minor part of the ruling oligarchy, most of the humanist intelligentsia, and a majority of the atomised and silent industrial workers —lacked an embattled pressure from the plebeian depths which would have been allowed to organise within the bounds of the socialist constitution against the major part of the oligarchy.

3. Plebeian democracy and disalienation

I proceed with the political horizons of a disalienating communist democracy of interest today.

3.1. On the need for politics in post-revolutionary societies

In his magisterial essays on Gramsci, Eric Hobsbawm singled out as a key outline of his political theory the famous letter of 1931:

This study [of the intellectuals] also leads me to certain determinations of the State. Usually this is understood as political society (i.e. the dictatorship of coercive apparatus to bring the mass of the people into conformity with the type of production and economy dominant at any given moment) and not as an equilibrium between political society and civil society (i.e. the hegemony of a social group over the entire national society exercised through the so-called private organisations such as the Church, the trade unions, the schools, etc.). . . . (Hobsbawm 2011, 323; italics added)

I discuss elsewhere some aspects of terminology here, and focus here on the underlined relationship between state power with its coercion and what is here rightly called “civil society.” Quite at odds with the post-1990 fashion, but in the vein of Gramsci, I mean by this non-state socio-political agents that participate in a not only (nor even primarily) coercive but a persuasive hegemony. As in Gramsci, I see here the primary role of the revolutionary party, his “modern ruler,” after the armed shock of the revolution that mingles coercion and persuasion. My thesis is that despite some partially successful attempts (the mass organisations, the People’s Committees, and most of all the self-management system), the Yugoslav Party increasingly failed to understand and develop the necessity of persuasion in hegemony—in other words of setting up a full system of communist democracy—and as of the late 1960s therefore lost its vanguard role and credibility among key social classes, such as the manual workers and the left intellectuals (as it had lost it much earlier in the case of peasants). At stake is here, as Hobsbawm precisely notes, that “in the absence of hegemonic force, even revolutions can run into sand. . . . The struggle for hegemony before, during and after transition (whatever its nature and speed) remains crucial” (Hobsbawm 2011, 328; italics original).

This sense of the “party” has to do with Marx’s final conception of it as a kind of collector and articulator of all societal energies, proposals, and interests of the working class (or the plebeians, as I would say, which certainly includes Gramsci’s wider sense of intellectuals). The Bolshevik tradition, and especially the post-Lenin Comintern tradition, knew only mass reformist social-democratic parties or small revolutionary cadre parties, and therefore “could not yet think in terms of permanent and rooted, but at the same time revolutionary, mass working-class movements” (Hobsbawm 2011, 328). But only such a new understanding and mass practice could make of a revolution “not simply the expropriation of the expropriators, but also . . . the creation of a people, the realisation of a nation . . . as part of a process by which . . . a people changes and makes itself under the leadership of the new hegemonic class and its movement” (330)— Gramsci had in mind Italy, but this also applies to all countries East and South of it, with due adjustment for multiethnic complexities. For, “how can we expect to transform human life, to create a socialist society (as distinct from a socially owned and managed economy), when the mass of the people are excluded from the political process, and may be even allowed to drift into depoliticisation [not casually, as I noted above, a favourite Yugoslav slogan after 1965, note added] and apathy about public matters?” (332).

In brief, “socialism [is no] ‘easy’ system which solves all conflicts by the act of ‘expropriating the expropriators.’ Such utopian simplifications include . . . the view of the extraordinary ease of democratic government of a socialist State” (Brus 1975, 187). For a major example, it should be frankly recognized that the Yugoslav working classes in town and country were at the beginning, as Marx says of the peasants in 1840s France, countrywide “incapable of asserting their class interest in their own name,” and were therefore “being represented” (Marx 1937, chapter VII) by the Party in power. They were poorly communicating among themselves, just emerging out of and in good part still subject to poverty, and further isolated by the Party/State’s neglect of peasantry, its fragmenting stress on the individual competitive enterprises—and later, on republican economic areas—and its jealous mistrust of intellectuals outside the oligarchy.

To clarify what might be a radically democratic (communist) politics, I have to further disambiguate “civil society.”

3.2. Civil society: what is it, what for?

My main interest in this clearing of the ground is twofold: first, to draw a lesson from the yesterday of what passed for “socialism” (and especially S. F. R. Yugoslavia); second, to think about political possibilities compatible with a socialist horizon, though not necessarily fully identified with it, in and beyond the cannibalic capitalism today and tomorrow. In both cases, the potential role of civil society might be a key.[3]

The concept though not necessarily the term of civil society was revived in the societal protest movements that culminated in the 1968 metropolitan antiwar and youth revolts and its outliers, while a later variant in the 1990s, with the term foregrounded, was used as an ideological weapon in the struggles against a stifling “State socialism.” I have sympathies for some root democratic impulses in both of these processes and strong misgivings about many of their factual and ideological blunders—blunders associated in the first case with anarchism without intermediate goals, and in the second and graver case with uncritical support of a supposedly free market economy. Thus, it is by now quite clear that “[in E]astern Europe, civil-society discourse also had the function of keeping out any serious discussion about political economy and the restoration of capitalism—until the latter was a fait accompli” (Therborn 2007, 91); this also held, with some variants, for Latin America. It still holds for many non-government organizations (NGOs) quite corrupted by financial capitalism, especially those from metropolitan countries operating on the periphery. Both the above stances boil down to individualist and capitalist negative freedom, they are both co-optable, and neither is sufficient by itself.

However, my hypothesis is that this was and remains an ideologized abuse of perspectives which are richer and deeper. The term has since grown into a designation for many different movements and strivings for civic self-government; I trust that its potential usefulness surpasses the needed misgivings, and wish to inquire into such uses. As indicated in part 2, I believe they have to be grounded in Marx’s anthropology of social individuals and their self-emancipation which has primacy over the state, while dispensing with his idea that a post-revolutionary state would have no power struggles, and therefore no politics.

The democratic impulses perverted in the 1960s and 1990s remain useful on condition that the key parameter now be creative labour and full control of the labourer-creators (the proletarians) over the fruits of their labour, personal and associated with others. On that basis, we need and can construct a model with full respect both for a right to individual self-determination against any collective and for the right of an open society to survive and cherish supra-individual values; no primacy obtains here, simply, as the Communist Manifesto has it, “an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all” (Marx and Engels 1972, 353)—and vice versa. Such a plebeian and associational concept of civil society seems to me utterly indispensable for two reasons. One is to establish what was missing—beside radical self-management in the economy—in “really existing,” and eventually suicidal, “socialism.” The second is what is missing, beside radical self-management in the economy, in “really existing” and currently suicidal capitalism. In other words, Acton was right for all societies: power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Since power (but not violence!) is quite indispensable, it therefore always must be tamed from below, by checks and balances through open debate: politics.

This horizon of a fully participative democracy tends to use but also subsume all local and central elected bodies: as in Aristotle’s model (1995), the citizens must both rule and be ruled—the only good leaders are good citizens, and to be good, citizens must lead. Other models have also to be consulted: the village community, when not patriarchal; the medieval communes; and especially “the new forms of democracy generated within . . . the workers’ movement (council communism, revolutionary syndicalism)” (Cohen and Arato 1995, 7)—as well as within the feminist and kindred movements. To the violent commands of the state (in last resort by force) and of capitalist employment (in last resort by hunger) all of them oppose the great plebeian principle of solidarity.

Some key pointers towards a radically democratic civil society can be found in the Marxian concepts of self-determination (that includes self-management in the economic sphere and the commune in the political one), in polyarchic checks and balances from the bourgeois revolutionary tradition, and finally in Gramsci.

What then is civil society? I know of no satisfactory definition, but a delimitation can be attempted, using extant discussions: Civil society is that part of the societal whole or sociocultural life-world, of people living together, that is active in politics but does not directly flow out of the economic apparatus (enterprises, later corporations) or out of the state power apparatus. Like economic and state power, civil society is concerned with societal power and relationships based on appropriation of surplus labour from plebeians. Its specific domain involves rules about exercising power as a supplement of and/or in conflict with the state apparatus or the economic apparatus, that is, the adjudication of competing interests of societal interest groups. As of the seventeenth to eighteenth century absolutist monarchies, the concept of civil society developed in differentiation from and sometimes in opposition to the state apparatus in an age of ascending bourgeoisie and capitalism, while the term came from such an identification by the Scottish Enlightenment, and it was at the time identified with bourgeois liberalism. This was taken up and in many ways changed by Hegel in Elements of the Philosophy of Right (1991), and then again by Marx in and after his critique of Hegel’s stance; I plan to expand upon this history in another place. Yet my definition implies that the term and concept is useful today only if analytically extricated from the organization of economics (production, circulation, consumption, and finance)—which does not at all mean that civil society can or should avoid intimately interacting with economics. The predicate “active in politics” differentiates civil society from the nuclear family, though the central features of the family (its authoritarian vs. democratic organization, thence its amiable or repressive nature) have indirectly and subliminally much to do with central features of the civil society, and have to be included in any thorough investigation.

In the last 100 years or so—longer in the United Kingdom and the United States—it has become necessary to differentiate civil society also from what is being very loosely called “political society,” that is, political parties and legislative organizations such as parliaments. The reason for differentiation is the failure of those parties and organizations to stand by themselves against state power or capitalist power. Against the hopes of the earlier liberals, this failure includes classical liberal parties; against the hopes of Marx, Luxemburg or Lenin, it includes the early socialist parties of the Second International and then the communist parties of the Third International, especially when they came to share or monopolize state power. Civil society works through various means to clarify the public political and economic interest as well as the constitutive need of personal freedoms, entitlements, and legal constraints on authority; it opens a space for politics from below seeking to clear up burning problems of human relationships and societal power through open debate, and thence to influence their solutions by the real powers of economies and the state. In the German tradition, this is often called “the public sphere,” unfortunately, its most prominent spokesperson, Habermas (1989, 234 and passim), sees it as liberal modernization devoid of class conflicts.

Civil society may be quiescent or almost non-existent in countries with low productive forces, grave penury, and weak civic traditions; or it may be subservient to the “free market” ideology, in opposition to stasis and repressive state domination; or it may be a critical force influencing for the better economic and/or state power, and in some cases acutely opposing either or both. Where it comes about, civil society tends to evolve into a third societal sphere of more or less lasting associations (professional and/or voluntary) and forms of public communication and interaction, eventually also of social movements. It has a democratic root in the self-constitution from below according to personal and group interests, though these interests as well as the goad of efficiency may override and abuse the democratic vector. Especially since the decline of revolutionary parties and states, civil society ideologically exists mostly between the polar opposites of rightsoriented liberalism, which is in a large majority and at best seeks to mitigate the excesses of capitalist and/or state power without questioning its domination, and communitarianism, a small minority usually compatible with radicalism and socialism, which seeks to change some important facet of capitalist and/or state power.

As a rule, economic and state power is indifferent to or indeed irritated at pressures to limit any of its prerogatives, so that it strikes to repress plebeian democracy, bypassing eventual laws and regulations by non-implementation, evasion, bribery, and if necessary outright repression up to martial law. Equally, political parties are as a rule implicated in state power or—today—wedded to some capitalist fraction; lobbies and think-tanks funded by branches of capitalism or its ideological offshoots (co-opted churches, etc.) are rich and numerous. Civil society needs therefore its own lobbies and indeed thinktanks, where unfettered intelligence and devotion can take the place of wealth. They can only function well when backed by vigorous associations, access to the mass media (usually dominated by capitalists or by the state and therefore unsympathetic), a somewhat self-limiting state bound by division of powers (Rechtsstaat) rather than a discretionary and weakly fettered apparatus (Massnahmenstaat), and eventually wider social movements.

3.3. Gramsci’s civil society: hegemony and consent today

For Marx’s followers in the Second and Third International, his later concentration on the “anatomy” of capitalist production had, paradoxically, a two-pronged result. In immediate practice, the economic horizon of needful capitalist collapse was taken for granted and requiring no further theoretical investigation, so that the revolutionary parties could concentrate on the ongoing “physiological”—that is, political—reality, the rise of the working class. And in the furthest post-revolutionary horizons (which drew near with Lenin and found a first articulation in him), economics not only displaced but totally negated politics as open power struggles. It was then easy for ruling communist parties, in a situation inescapably requiring the “commanding heights” of state power, to fixate on economy as the be-all and end-all. This shelved Marx’s radical break with all state apologetics—from Caesaropapism or theocracy to Hobbesian monocracy as a lesser evil—where the state represented the rule of violence and class interest against the common good and rule of reason.

Much more might be said about the tension in Lenin between the utopian participatory democracy of The State and Revolution and the harsh centralization a civil war and economic collapse forced him to adopt (I approached it in Suvin [2013a]). His stance assumes the relationship of an avant-garde, practically non-alienated, party to alienated and primitive civil society. Within this tension, the theory that state and law shall die out could at moments of harassed impatience become an alibi for indisputable political subordination to the party-state (Zolo 1974, 42–43, 263–64, 277–78)—in other words, for officially monolithic unity which disallows subdivisions, mediations, and conflicts, and represses a mature conflictual unity; in the hands of his successors in the USSR, it became wholly such. Late in his life, Lukács (1991, 113 and passim) therefore concluded that the theory of politics was a kind of black hole in Marxism, so that the Bolsheviks could easily substitute the tactics of ruling for it. To the contrary, he realised politics must even in socialism—and I would add as far into the future as thought can reach— remain a protocol for societal decision-making and adjudication of disputes, that is, for allocating resources and power; but by then he was already treading in Gramscian footsteps.

Two anti-democratic problems in Bolshevism were representation (of the working class by the party) and civil rights. I shall limit myself to their most important rectification: that of Antonio Gramsci.

Expanding on deviations from determinism pioneered by The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (Marx 1937) and the later Lenin, Gramsci became the most prominent Marxist thinker before the 1960s to grow uneasy about the base-superstructure dichotomy in vulgar “economist” and determinist Marxism, from works such as The Communist Manifesto (Marx and Engels 1972) and the “Preface to the Critique of Political Economy” (Marx 1973). After Hegel’s transmogrification of the Scottish philosophers and Marx’s transmogrification of Hegel, Gramsci effected a third redefinition in which “civil society” (società civile, not borghese!) remains the active locus of history-making but comprises “not ‘all material relationships’ but all ideological-cultural relations” (Bobbio 1987, 148; the inside quote is from Marx). His civil society comprises not only the educational system and the communications media but also those social norms that embed production relations (his model is the Catholic Church in feudalism). When discussing the communist party, he notes it is crucial that this updated figure of Machiavelli’s Prince undertake a thorough ideologico-cultural reform which focuses on but subsumes economics: “The programme of [a radical, note added] economic reform is precisely the concrete form in which every intellectual and moral reform presents itself” (Gramsci 1975b, 133; 1975a, 1561).[4] Civil society “correspond[s] to the function of ‘hegemony’” by the dominant group, while “the State and ‘juridical’ government [corresponds] to ‘direct domination’ or command . . .” (Gramsci 1975b, 12; 1975a, 1518–19).

Hegemonic consent is in Gramsci superior to and more efficient than direct domination through state force or coercion. This stress destroys historical fatalism, that bane of vulgar Marxism, and turns to Marx’s and Lenin’s active collective subject of history who understands and pursues an end. Most important for civil society, this stress of Gramsci’s founds it in a certain autonomy and importance of political relations among people, “in a historically very wide range of societies—for instance, as he liked to recall, the difference between the leaders and the led” (Hobsbawm 2011, 330; see Gramsci 1975b, 144ff.; 1975a, 1752ff.). He recognized that “in [the special political dimension] of society more is involved than power” (Hobsbawm 2011, 331), and called it the formation of consent—which also means a dialogue with dissent. Power remains necessary but not sufficient.

For the present purposes, Gramsci’s most important suggestion might be his dialectics between state and civil society. Building on Russeau and Marx, he concluded that in the post-revolutionary state, there should be “the will to construct within the husk of political society a complex and well-articulated civil society, in which the individual can govern himself without his self-government thereby entering into conflict with political society— but rather becoming its . . . organic complement.” This is “the creation of a ‘civil society’ which it was not historically possible to create [earlier],” the aim being to “make state life become ‘spontaneous’” (Gramsci 1975b, 268–69; 1975a, 1020): civil society was the site for developing alternative consents and eventually hegemonies. This would, to my mind, apply a fortiori to capitalist societies which lack developed civil societies. For all these reasons, Hobsbawm was spot on when he called Gramsci “the most original thinker produced in the West since 1917” and “[the pioneer of] a Marxist theory of politics” (Hobsbawm 2011, 316, 319):

Gramsci is a political theorist inasmuch as he regards politics as “an autonomous activity” . . ., and because he specifically sets about investigating “the place that political science occupies or should occupy in a systematic (coherent and logical) conception of the world in Marxism” (Prison Notebooks) . . . Politics is for him the core not only of the strategy of winning socialism, but of socialism itself . . . (Hobsbawm 2011, 321)

Gramsci’s supple but finally class-based approach may also neatly cut the knot how to understand “civil society” (and Marx’s bürgerliche Gesellschaft [civil or bourgeois society]) (see Suvin 2015). Within class society, this is a battleground for class interests, possibly by way of complex mediations, of varying factions within and sometimes against capitalism. When the bourgeoisie is fully hegemonic, it becomes an integrated part of bourgeois or capitalist society. To the contrary, when radical opposition movements, especially with a participation of the working class, are strong, it may be anti-capitalist. Indeed, I find it difficult to believe that a really effective and permanent civil society could exist below a certain strength of such enabling radical movements. All depends on the active subjects of history and how well they both recognize and pursue their class interests toward disalienation.

3.4. Brief conclusion on plebeian democracy and civil society

My conclusion about plebeian democracy and civil society as its indispensable wing is twofold, according to my two main interests: to learn from yesterday, to think about today and tomorrow.

First, about yesterday, there is no reason to suppose that when the utterly alienating politics of class domination, coupled with a repressive state, are abolished by a revolution, this must or could mean the end of politics. Though Marx often implied this would be the case, Gramsci did well to return to politics—that is, decisions of how to allocate labour—as a central long-duration human need. With the exception of Gramsci and some cognate writings, absent from the official Marxist mainstream, one must ruefully concur with the eminent Italian theoretician of Law Ferrajoli:

What was lacking in the Marxist political reflexion was not a critique of the bourgeois State and not even, finally, a theory of the socialist State, however skeletal . . . [but] a reflexion on power and the techniques of its installation and practicing from the point of view not of those who wield the power but of those who undergo it: ex parte populi [as seen by the people] and not only ex parte principis [as seen by the rulers]. (Ferrajoli and Zolo 1978, 19; see Zolo 1974)

We have learned aboveboard politics is needed to prevent a resurgent state apparatus, prominently including the police and the military, from becoming as strongly, if differently, alienating. The need for associated people to have a voice from below was diametrically opposed to the “socialist” hegemony of the state political sphere over concerted human decisions.

Second, about today, the need for politics is diametrically opposed to the capitalist hegemony of the oligarchic market sphere—driven by profit considerations that override the obviously ensuing collateral or future horrors—over the human interests for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Further, the need for a strongly oppositional civil society is rendered crystal-clear by unbridled financial capitalism that ushers in ecological and societal collapse.

Thus, the only way to prevent corruption by absolute power, by politocracies or by capitalists, is to have open political confrontation and discussion. The horizon of these politics —that is, of civil society—would include what Barber calls “strong democracy,” with the key addition of norms for economic life too. His definition, which I here minimally simplify, runs:

Strong democracy can be defined as politics in the participatory mode where conflict is resolved [on the basis of a few founding shared principles] through a public process of ongoing self-government and the creation of a political community capable of transforming dependent, private individuals into free citizens and partial interests into public goods. (Barber 1984, 132; italics added)

While this could probably be rendered more precise, here my only deviation from Barber is in adding “on the basis of a few founding shared principles,” since I don’t see how the conflict with, say, Nazis or the Ustashi could be resolved only by discussion. But I fully agree with his conclusion: “In strong democracy, politics is something done by, and not to, citizens. Activity is its chief virtue, and involvement, commitment, obligation, and service—common deliberation, common decision, and common work—are its hallmarks” (Barber 1984, 133).

The ideal horizon of the interaction of civil society with the state and capitalist powers is to strongly influence and largely tame them both. Should this plebeian impulse fail, what would remain is the alternative between radical revolution and despotic barbarism.

4. In sum

“Marx’s act of intellectual insurrection” led to an often dreamed of, but before him not that clearly established, horizon: “communism as the never-ending self-critical return of the democratic revolution” (Kouvelakis 2003, 352), and vice versa.

This sketches a two-way street: my title “communism can only be radical plebeian democracy,” therefore also means “only communism can be radical plebeian democracy.”


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[1] This is the best work on S. F. R. Yugoslavia political economics extant; the terms for the competing horizons are taken from Löwenthal (1970) who was generalizing from two communist revolutions: the semi-peasant one in the USSR and the peasant one in China, both possessing important parallels and as important differences with Yugoslavia.

To avoid cumbersome repetitions of the CPY and/or LCY (the Communist Party of Yugoslavia), I shall use for them, in spite of my reluctance at god-words, Party with capital P. I prefer “etatist” to “statist” for a belief in or devotion to the State, which I always capitalize. Unattributed translations are mine, also tacit corrections from extant translations into English where I had the original in Yugoslav languages.

I acknowledge an important stimulation for my categorisation from Ivana Momčilović and Slobodan Karamanić about singularities, and from Kržan’s “Nacrt” lecture (2012).

[2] The term “republican” is in this essay used, in conformity with Yugoslav practice, to mean the six federal republics.

[3] There is a vast body of literature on various denotations and connotations of civil society in political philosophy generally, say from Tocqueville through Arendt and Ricoeur to the present, and in the specific debates, say on Hegel or on the 1990s’ wave. I neglect it here in order to isolate and highlight those useful for our needs today, as opposed to the useless or pernicious. As an example, this essay does not deal in direct polemics with a large group (best known in works by John Keane) that couples civil society with the so-called free market. From extensive debates which often lack conceptual clarity, my bibliography below lists only the works cited.

[4] Quotes from Gramsci have been checked with the Quaderni edition (1975a) and in places slightly modified. His prison notes were in the circumstances understandably beset by varying and confusing terminology, even by incomplete and partly conflicting views, so that interpretation has to be stronger than usual. It is dubious that one could find in him a fully unified and worked out conception of civil society or indeed of the state. This does not detract from the fertility of his outline.

Since he did not repudiate a base-superstructure model, Gramsci logically had to place civil society (as well as the state) into the superstructure. Lucien Goldmann, Raymond Williams, and all the neo-Marxists after the 1950s will later reject this civil-engineering model in favour of the cybernetic model of feedback, where this argument is, without Gramsci’s unnecessary stacking into watertight boxes, much more elegant. Having been a small part of this remodelling, I can testify that Gramsci was of great encouragement to it.

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