Transcription of a video by O. Ressler,
recorded in Belgrade, Serbia, 23 min., 2003
Yugoslavian self-management was a modern system in its
time. It was a hybrid of various forms of economic organization.
It was not planned socialism like in the Soviet Union,
but also not a pure market economy. It was something
in between. Yugoslavian socialism was an economy with
social property, but also many other forms of property.
This system was very popular in its era, not only among
the left, but also among the other political powers.
There were quite diverse organizational elements. In
Yugoslavia there was a relatively strict cadre administration,
a party cadre administration, on the one hand, but on
the other, direct democracy, especially in factories:
on the one hand, party control - on the other, work
control. Naturally, they were not always opposed to
one another, as the ruling party and the worker shared
the same ideology; that was the communist, the left
ideology. But there were several conflicts between these
powers. The real, direct democracy took place only at
the lower levels. This is where there was actually a
democracy, where everyone participated in decision making.
But like all other communist countries, there wasn't
much democracy at the upper levels. It was a hard cadre
party that controlled this direct democracy down below.
That was one way it was a mixture. The other was the
mixture between planned and market economies. Especially
after 1965, there was a relatively liberalized market
economy in Yugoslavia. That was an answer to the Soviet
Union. The entire ideology of Yugoslavia's self-management
was a kind of third way, which the Yugoslavian socialist
functionaries constantly emphasized. It was not planned
socialism but also not capitalism. We are between these
opposites; we are not an extreme; we are a true self-governed
democracy. And this ideology of the third way also enabled
a very flexible foreign policy, which was of concrete
benefit in the East and also the West.
The decisions in the production plants were made independently;
the work councils were sovereign. But on the other hand,
they were under the auspices of the ruling party. One
should differentiate several issues, those where the
work councils were sovereign, and the others, where
they were dependent on the decrees from above. In the
distribution of income in the firms, the work councils
- in which all workers were present, not only the skilled
ones - were sovereign in their decisions. How much income
should be distributed, how much should be put aside
for other purposes, etc.? But in the production plants
there were also several expert questions, where the
work controls were not sovereign. These were the purely
technical questions, engineering issues, technology,
etc. There, the experts were sovereign. It is possible
to say that there were three areas: one concerning the
questions for experts, a second area for the distribution
issues within the plant, and the third area was the
cadre question. There, the party committee always decided,
and there were no sovereign decisions from the work
councils. You could say that it was a multi-layered
and mixed direct democracy. But compared with the state
of present Yugoslavia, for example, where a type of
wild capitalism reigns, it was a relatively well-functioning
democracy. The working class and the poor people had
a type of sovereign right, which they do not have today.
One cannot reject Yugoslavian self-management as a whole
as totalitarianism. But one must also not romanticize
this issue of socialism. The truth lies somewhere in
between, like in all other areas. The truth lies between
two extremes: it was a one-party system, but we also
had direct democracy at the lower levels. At the worker
level, for example, workers couldn't loose their jobs
without the work council being activated. The director
couldn't make the decision alone. The work council,
in which the common workers were present, decided whether
or not a worker was good. Today, only decrees are valid.
Also in other social issues, such as apartments, vacations,
and distribution of income, the work councils were sovereign.
Naturally there were many problems. Here I want to
speak only about a few structural problems. The Yugoslavian
system of self-management arose in a relatively underdeveloped
Balkan state. That was mainly relevant for the work
force. There was a very underdeveloped rural populace
in the 1950s when self-management began. First it was
necessary to create a modern working class, which was
not so simple because many workers were tied to their
villages. The farmers had to work in industry. This
was a key problem, but it was not only related to an
industrial culture, but also an immature political culture.
The Balkan area was burdened by war and dictators, and
we did not have a long tradition of political culture.
That was also very important for self-management. It
is logical that self-management can function only in
a cultural environment. Without culture, without education,
without schools, without qualifications, there is no
self-management. The second problem that I mentioned
was the contrast between direct democracy and the control
by the cadre: this inner cleft between party control
and the workers' striving to create their own space
of democracy. And the third, important, structural problem
was the contrast in Yugoslavia between the rich and
the poor areas, the rich and the poor republics, which
later became the rich and poor nations. Since the beginning
of the 1960s, a latent struggle between the rich and
the poor has taken place. Tito had to constantly arbitrate
between rich and poor. It was about a battle for the
distribution of the federal income. This structural
contradiction impeded the functioning of Yugoslavian
In my opinion, Yugoslavian self-management was most
developed in Slovenia, our most developed Republic.
In Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, where ancient tribal
structures ruled, there could never be true self-management
and democracy. It is necessary to know that previously,
Yugoslavia was a federal state with very diverse areas.
There were differences in the cultural, confessional,
and also in the industrial level of development. It
was very difficult to coordinate all of that. But it
was possible; it worked for almost forty years. Also
Tito was very important for that in his role as leader
of such a contradictory, explosive state.
Yugoslavian self-management was a social as well as
a national laboratory. In a social sense, it was an
experiment in which many groups of ideas were influential:
the legacy of the Paris Commune, the legacy of Serbian
social democracy at the end of the nineteenth century,
the legacy of anarchy, which was later very important
for the critique of Stalinism. These anarchistic and
some Trotskian elements were components of the ideology
of Tito's party, because they were useful in critiquing
Stalinism. On the other hand, as I said, the system
of Yugoslavian self-management was also a national,
and even a transnational laboratory. That was a regime
where very different nations had lived in peace, where
a transnational economy functioned, where a transnational
leader was very popular - from Macedonia to Slovenia.
Tito's charisma, although he was authoritarian, also
had a clearly cosmopolitan function. I once compared
it with the Alexander the Great's charisma. He was an
authoritative leader, but he united many diverse peoples.
That also holds true for Tito. I also want to say that
it is important to consider this history of Yugoslavian
self-management from an extreme perspective. It is necessary
for us to keep our eyes open to the past and then judge
just how authoritarian this system was. It was an enlightened,
authoritarian, direct democracy - although these terms
might sound very contradictory at first glance. But
my opinion is that everything was very contradictory.
It is impossible to grasp this state in unambiguous
terms and categories.
That building opposite was the central committee of
the Yugoslavian Communist Federation. The sessions took
place there. This very beautiful modern building was
built in the 1970s and bombed in 1999. It was quite
ruined then. Later, a private businessman bought the
building; he repaired the former Central Committee building
and now wants to use it for private purposes. Here you
can see a historical turning point. This square, on
which the critique of capitalism was very strong, has
developed into a commercial, capitalist square.
I think that self-management is an evergreen. It isn't
about mere romanticism, also not a type of totalitarian
democracy like today's liberals claim. In my opinion,
it is a full democracy, which unfortunately, is impossible
in today's globalization. Similar to every other idea,
self-management needs its era in which social contrasts
are mature enough to create this type of democracy.
This situation existed in Yugoslavia in the 1950s and
1960s, when the contrast between Stalinism and liberal
capitalism was very strong. I don't believe that the
time is ripe today for a possible self-management in
a globalized capitalism, where everything that is private
My vision of a desirable society is also multifold.
Every historical epoch creates its own desirable vision.
In my opinion, that can never be wild capitalism. One
must always have a mixture of various forms of property,
and mainly, the peaceful coexistence of nationally and
socially diverse societies. Without social peace, without
national peace, which is something that we know very
well on the Balkans, there are no visions, no utopias,
and no mature critiques of what exists. Therefore, my
vision is outside of today's normalized capitalism.
Translated by Lisa Rosenblatt