From markets to massacres

Issue: 107

Dragan Plavsic

A review of Michael Barratt Brown, From Tito to Milosevic: Yugoslavia, a lost country (Merlin Press, 2005), £;14.95

During the Cold War, Tito’s Yugoslavia held a special place in the hearts of many on the left who regarded it as a potentially viable ‘socialist’ alternative to both Eastern Bloc totalitarianism and Western capitalism. Today this may well seem outlandish, but there were reasons why many once thought like this. After all, did not Tito’s partisans liberate Yugoslavia from Nazi occupation without direct Soviet help, build a multinational federation, break with Stalin, introduce ‘workers’ self-management’ and help lead the Non-Aligned Movement? By the 1990s, however, as war engulfed Yugoslavia, an insistent question had to be faced: where did it all go wrong?

Michael Barratt Brown is a socialist for whom Tito ‘s Yugoslavia was special for both personal and political reasons, and so it is fitting that this book1 attempts to answer that insistent question by interweaving personal testimony with economic and political analysis of Yugoslavia’s slide into catastrophe. The author’s long acquaintance with the country began during the Second World War when, serving in Egypt, he met Yugoslav partisans fresh from the anti-Nazi struggle. So impressed was he by them that he abandoned his pacifist
Quaker beliefs for the British Communist Party, to which he was recruited by James Klugmann, a notorious Stalinist propagandist. From 1944 until 1947 he worked in Yugoslavia for the United Nations War Relief Mission, and remains justly proud of its achievements. Failing, much to his regret, to break with the party in 1948 over the Tito-Stalin split,
Barratt Brown finally broke with it over Hungary in 1956, subsequently helping to found New Left Review and authoring several books.2 He continued to visit Yugoslavia and has maintained an interest in its fortunes ever since.

Barratt Brown’s central argument is that we cannot understand Yugoslavia’s collapse without understanding the long term impact on the country of an increasingly market-based economic policy introduced after the split with Stalin in 1948. This policy loosened the chains of a state centralist economy in favour of a more decentralised market one that gave companies and republics the ‘freedom’ to keep profits and invest them. The result was a steadily widening wealth gap between the stronger economies of the north—Slovenia and Croatia—and the weaker economies of the south—Bosnia, Serbia (especially Kosovo) and Macedonia—cementing what might be called a two-tier Yugoslavia. This gap widened with the opening up of the country to foreign trade as Yugoslav firms sought cheaper manufacturing products and raw materials abroad rather than at home. As imports grew, Yugoslavia turned to IMF loans, paying a heavy price when the IMF demanded, as elsewhere, more market reforms that further raised unemployment and cut living standards. By the 1980s, Yugoslavia was in a severe economic crisis that laid the basis for much of what later followed.

Barratt Brown’s purpose here is to show that the seeds of future discord were sown early by a policy commitment to the market internally and to Yugoslavia’s integration into a global market economy externally. In its essentials this argument is a strong one and draws on now classic works such as Susan Woodward’s Balkan Tragedy. But it is at this point that Barratt Brown’s belief in the socialist credentials of Tito’s Yugoslavia obliges us to confront a profound irony at the heart of his position. What he celebrates as the country’s experiment in ‘economic democracy’—the ‘workers’ self-management’ in factories and workplaces the Titoists claimed as their unique hallmark–was, in practice, the regime’s cover for the introduction of the very market mechanisms Barratt Brown rightly deplores.

This point will be clearer if we draw a parallel with the market reforms of the NHS so favoured by Tony Blair. Here too the idea is to replace a centralised state-run system with a more decentralised market-based one that gives so-called foundation hospitals the ‘freedom’ to keep surpluses and attract private sector finance. And here too the reform proposals come ready-wrapped in the seductive language of self-management. They will, Blair says, put ‘power in the hand of the patient’ and ‘power into the hands of [healthcare] professionals’.3 But such rhetoric is only cover for the introduction of market mechanisms that are set to create a two-tier NHS as potentially divisive as a two-tier Yugoslavia. It is also cover for the fact that real power is vested not in patients and staff as claimed, but in that contemporary hate figure, the NHS manager; just as in Yugoslavia, as Barratt Brown himself acknowledges, ‘self-management gave great power to those who became managers’, with the Communist Party often ridiculed by his Yugoslav friends as a ‘managers’ club’. When viewed in the cold light of day, this is really self-management for market managers, not workers.4

Barratt Brown does not of course rest his argument solely upon the impact of the market on Yugoslavia’s collapse. He describes the fact that Tito’s regime was a one-party state as ‘a fatal flaw’. He argues that what lay behind US interventions in Bosnia in 1995 and Kosovo in 1999 was NATO’s drive eastwards towards Russia and the oil reserves of the Caucasus. And he deplores ‘the appeal of nationalist leaders offering some protection on a communal nationalist basis’. Much of this will be familiar to readers who have followed the left’s critique of events in the Balkans. At the same time, Barratt Brown seeks to defend Milosevic from some of the charges made against him, seeing him as a ‘victim’ of imperialism. What is lost with this approach is an objective appreciation of how Milosevic was the author of his own misfortune. For all his anti-imperialist rhetoric, Milosevic’s nationalist politics helped to entrench imperialism in the Balkans by driving Serbia’s opponents into the supportive arms of the imperialist powers. By contrast, for all their fatal flaws, Tito’s partisans, essentially revolutionary nationalists of an all-Yugoslav kind, momentarily grasped something on this all-Yugoslav level Milosevic never could: that only unity based on equality between peoples can protect against imperialism.

I: Unfortunately this book is sloppily edited. Yugoslav names are frequently and sometimes bizarrely misspelt and some footnotes are out of sync with the text.
2: Among which is a useful pamphlet entitled The Yugoslav Tragedy: Lessons for Socialists
(Spokesman, 19966) rehearsing similar arguments to those used here.
3: Blair’s speech at the Labour Party Conference, 1 October 2002.
4: This is borne out by the best empirical studies, some of which appeared in the Yugoslav journal Gledista in the mid-1960s. One such study concluded that workers were a ‘voting mechanism’ used to approve decisions already made by managers.