The World and Yugoslavia: 1968 and 1918

One of the key functions of any political system in capitalist society is the containment of autonomous working class action.

There are many forms this takes, an important one being when the guardians of history downplay, obscure or even eliminate the role played by the working class in history. The purpose is clear. By erasing autonomous working class action from knowledge of the past the servants of the ruling classes seek to wipe out of consciousness the understanding that workers can be agents, and not just the subjects, of history.

Received history is itself a type of class war.

The year 2018, by now well advanced, serves as an especially striking example of this. The marking of two years, 1968 and 1918, have dominated 2018 unlike any other. The former has attracted more attention than the latter, reasonable given its proximity and its impact upon the current culture, yet there’s an underappreciated link between the two for autonomous working class action played significant if not decisive roles in both. Although 2018 has seen many a commentary, much analysis, and considered interpretation of these two years the role played by workers councils and militant working class action has almost completely been erased from the mainstream.

The events of 1968 are familiar enough. The Paris student-worker uprisings, the Tet Offensive, the Prague Spring, massacre of students in Mexico, Kent State and the upswell of opposition to the Vietnam War and social crises in the United States, the student uprisings in Belgrade, the intensification of the Cultural Revolution in China, and much else besides. To an important, although not total, degree, many of the events of 1968 were influenced by the rise of what is called “the new left.” The basic idea is that the new left consisted of social movements opposed to prevailing social hierarchies, such as the student movement, but which were not anchored in the working class as with “the old left.” So it is that the working class is left out of 1968.

Some of the events above, at first blush, appear wholly unrelated to each other. But there’s a sense in which they are. For example, the Cultural Revolution was begun by Mao at the top to consolidate his power in the party hierarchy, but it threatened to get out of control as a wholesale anti-authoritarian movement turning back on its creators. That threat is what led to its calling off not so much the horrors that accompanied it. The Tet Offensive in South Vietnam, organised unbeknownst to US intelligence even though it had thoroughly penetrated South Vietnamese society, although conducted with the support and participation of North Vietnam was mostly an uprising of the National Liberation Front in South Vietnam which was not as beholden to Hanoi as commonly perceived, so therefore more autonomous than contemporary Western historiography would allow.

Outside of Asia, as the French council communist Richard Gombin pointed out in his The Origins of Modern Leftism, an oldie but a little gem of a book, integral to the development of left wing ideas in the 1960s, separate to those prevailing in the established communist and socialist parties of West and East, was the revival of old ideas as it were, of workers councils, workers self management, and autonomous working class action. Gombin shows how this was the case in much of the West, especially France, but it also applied in important degrees to the “socialism with a human face” that underpinned the Prague Spring and the uprising in Yugoslavia both of 1968.

The “new left” is therefore misnamed, for the new left was the revival of an older more genuine left forgotten following the increasing Bolshevisation of socialist currents subsequent to the Russian Revolution.

Take the latter of these. Hrvoje Klasic, a Croat left wing historian, has just published a book, Yugoslavia and the World 1968, that has attracted attention across the region. I have yet to read Klasic’s account, but what I know of it is that Klasic seeks to put the events of 1968 in Yugoslavia into a global context. This is correct, in my view, and it belongs, or at least should belong, within the ambit of Gombin’s overall thesis. The events of 1968 in Yugoslavia were centred upon Belgrade, they did not readily spread to the other republics, and the centre piece to the drama consisted of an occupation of the University of Belgrade, and accompanying protest actions, both of which had a robustly socialist character. The students renamed the university “Red University Karl Marx,” an indication of the uprising’s leftist nature, denounced what they referred to as “the red bourgeoisie,” and declared their programme to be the programme of the League of Communists of Yugoslavia that had workers self management at the ideological core only which, the protestors charged, the red bourgeoisie refused to implement. The student led uprising threatened to spill over more broadly to include worker participation given that at the time Yugoslavia was pursuing market led reforms, including placing investment in the hands of a corporate banking sector responding to market incentives, which aggravated social inequalities, lowered growth, and encouraged an acquisitive materialist consumer culture. Furthermore, the student uprising was influenced by the humanist Marxism of the Praxis school of philosophers which emphasised the younger, more emancipatory and enlightenment oriented, Marx. The repression and manipulation of the 1968 movement by Tito and his acolytes ended whatever prospect existed for socialism in Yugoslav society.

There are four ways that autonomous working class action was critical to 1968. Firstly, through the participation of workers themselves in the events, as in France, secondly because the period saw an upsurge in strikes and worker militancy, sometimes but not always related to wider protest movements but nonetheless possessing a definite political character opposing social hierarchy and control, thirdly through the threat that should matters be allowed to proceed the workers would become even more involved perhaps acting as a decisive factor in the overall situation, and fourthly in the reaction by the ruling classes to the events set in train by 1968. This all was certainly the case in Australia. The effective breaking of the penal powers by a general strike led by a rank and file network of activists within the trade union movement opened the scene for an upsurge in labour militancy, and even in the United States the late 1960s witnessed an increase in strikes.

Labour militancy is a threat to the ruling classes because it encourages the maturing of working class consciousness where workers come more readily to share ideas, develop a distinctively working class culture beyond beer and sport, come to appreciate how capitalism and its expression through the political system are a major barrier to progress, but above all in the manner by which workers come to see themselves as agents of history the further progress of which is understood to be intimately tied to their own emancipation as it in fact is. Indeed, one even sees the beginnings of the rejection of a purely materialist conception of life among workers contrary to the supposition, promoted by the agents of the ruling class no less, which has the proletariat interested in little else. When the two latter stages are reached, we begin to see the mushrooming of workers councils as the predominant organisational form of working class action. Moreover, workers councils increasingly become directed toward the emancipation of the working class, the organisation of working class life and culture, and the fashioning of fundamentally new social relations shorn of the hierarchies arising from the private ownership of the means of production. This is a point that was emphasised before, and especially after, World War One by the council communists, left libertarian Marxists possessing a close affinity to anarchism, who saw that as a historical, not a theoretical, observation. This can be taken as an implicit recognition that one can be a council communist without being a Marxist.

The thread of autonomous working class action and workers self management is what connects 1968 to 1918. November 11 2018 marked the armistice that led to the formal end of World War One, an event just commemorated in Paris. The commemoration saw the President of France, Emmanuel Macron, condemn nationalism, appropriately, but not, interestingly, imperialism. Furthermore, the widespread commentary and analysis of 1918 universally neglected the critical role that the Russian Revolution, where workers councils played a decisive role and which subsequently were crushed by Lenin and the Bolsheviks so ending any meaningful prospect for socialism in Russia, the highly significant German Revolution of 1918 where workers councils were also dominant, the worker occupations of factories in the industrial heartland of Italy, and the advent of the shop stewards movement and guild socialism in the United Kingdom, all of which stoked the spectre haunting Europe since 1848. The threat of revolution, led by autonomous working class action, was critical to the capitalists and imperial courts of Europe calling off the slaughter in the trenches in November 1918. Yet all of this is out of official history.

The year 1918 also saw the creation of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes what was to become Yugoslavia. The entire 2014-to-2018 period has seen the reaffirmation of the imperial Habsburg interpretation of history. This has taken curious forms, one of which has been the widespread repeating of the Habsburg canard that the assassin of the Archduke Ferdinand, Gavrilo Princip, a Bosnian Serb, was a Serbian nationalist seeking to create, in association with the Serbian state, a greater Serbia incorporating Bosnia and Herzegovina. Princip was a leftist, influenced to a degree by anarchist ideas as was Mlada Bosna (Young Bosnia) the organisation of which he was a member, and he was furthermore motivated by a desire to emancipate the south Slavs from imperial Habsburg rule. This was all chronicled by Vladimir Dedijer in his classic, The Road to Sarajevo, now widely ignored but once widely read as to be expected given the prevaling dominance of the imperial version of history. Without question Princip expressed a desire for the freedom of his own Serb peoples, Bosnia the majority population of which was Serb up until the mid-1960s was annexed and occupied by the Empire, an expression no more remarkable than a Palestinian expressing a desire to see the freedom of his own Palestinian peoples from occupation. I emphasise this only because those of us such as myself born right along the Serbian side of the river Drina that separates Serbia from Bosnia, where the first shots of the war were fired, know full well who was attacking to further aggrandize an empire and who was defending for the merest survival in 1914 as we know who was responsible for the systematic massacres of men, women and children along the entire western side of the river and the wider Macva region something which history does not recognise as genocide.

The view of Princip as someone motivated by the emancipation of the south Slavs was recently emphasised by the Bosnian Muslim intellectual Muamer Bazdulj, who resides in Belgrade, but what contemporary Serbian historiography ignores, being dominated by nationalism, is that the Yugoslavia that was created in 1918 contradicted the ideas of Princip. In much of Serbian commentary I have not seen awareness of this contradiction. The contradiction obtains because the Yugoslav state created in 1918 effectively was the extension of the Serbian crown over other nationalities by means of a type of Anschluss leading to a unitary and centralised state which was evidently contrary to the idea of south Slav emancipation. For Princip and other leftists, such as Svetozar Markovic, the emancipation of the south Slavs was to be achieved through the federative principle a concept derived from Proudhon and Bakunin. The Yugoslav idea was more closely linked to anarchism than it ever was to Marxism. The anarchist current in the thinking of Mlada Bosna can only be consistent with a Yugoslavia functioning as a voluntary federal association of free peoples. Prior to the Bolshevisation of the left in the territories of what was Yugoslavia left thinking was characterised by a left libertarian character, and what credible leftist currents exist today once again take on a more libertarian and a less Marxist hue.

The above is admittedly parochial and little related to the main thrust of this essay but given it’s my blog I am permitted to indulge.

There’s one very important way in which 1918 and 1968 are related. Here the relation goes to the reaction engendered to both. The reaction to 1918 took the form of fascism and the reaction to 1968 took the form of neoliberalism, and both reactions reflected the reactionary impulses of the political and economic elites who feared the upsurge of autonomous working class action and what it can lead to. In both cases an especially critical aspect to the reaction has been a deliberate assault on working class consciousness and working class organisation including through the coercive means of the state.

One of the other noteworthy aspects of the remembrance from 2014 to today has been the way that other class in society, the intelligentsia, obscured its own role in the events of 1914-1918. Intellectuals of the calibre and fibre of Bertrand Russell and Albert Einstein were few and far between. Most of the intellectuals of Europe enthusiastically supported the war, signed various romantically absurdist manifestoes to that effect, while only a handful continent wide could be found to support an appeal to Europeans for peace and cooperation the most prominent signers of which were Russell and Einstein. The intellectuals, who have done the writing and the interpreting over the past four years, have done very well to obscure their own status as a class in society servile to power and to those who own the means of production.

Why have the intellectuals in November 2018 hid their own role in facilitating and sustaining “the great war” and obscured that of the working class in ending it?

I refer the reader to the opening sentence. But I add to it one more. That’s because despite the bow ties, the received pronunciation, and the tweed deep down the intellectuals know the workers are a class above them.

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