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History Boris Kidric, visionary architect of Yugoslavia's socialist alternative

Tito's famous split with the USSR to walk the path of a mixed economy and the 'self-management' of production was the work of a former partisan hero whose transformative economic project's success still has much to teach us today, argues JOHN CALLOW

SOME monuments endure. Tucked away behind the parliament building in Ljubljana, an oversized and strangely hectoring statue memorialises Boris Kidric, one-time prime minister of Slovenia and architect of self-management in Yugoslavia.

He is hardly a household name in the West. A tragically early death from cancer; being written-out of Milovan Djilas’s self-serving memoirs; eclipse on account of his friend and comrade Edvard Kardelj’s longevity at the heart of government and overshadowing by the personality cult surrounding Marshal Tito, are more than enough reasons to explain his omission from the socialist pantheon or from considerations of alternative economic strategies.

Yet, we ignore him and, by extension, engagement with transformative socialist economics, at our peril.

Born in Vienna, the son of a university professor, he joined the revolutionary movement at the age of 15. Before he was 20, he had served a year’s imprisonment on account of his writings and his organisational and agitational work among Slovene factory workers. So much, then, for the draconian monarchical regime beloved of today’s revisionists and liberal commentators.

Further spells of imprisonment and exile followed. By 1932, he was in charge of the Communist Youth League of Slovenia and, following Tito’s rise to power at the head of the Yugoslav party in 1939, he was part of the influx of new, young and militant members to the central committee, who were hand-picked on account of their experience of active revolutionary struggle.

During the war, he led the partisan struggle in Slovenia, engaging the Italian and German occupiers, as well as home-grown fascists, in hit-and-run battles launched from the forests and mountain strongholds. As the liberated areas grew, so too did the spontaneous experiments in revolution and mass participation that came to redefine society, the basis of economic power and a multi-ethnic culture for Yugoslav socialists.

Everything was to be questioned and to be rebuilt from scratch from the grassroots upwards. National Liberation Committees were elected in each locality leading to the creation of an embryonic, democratic state which conferred political legitimacy upon the partisan movement and facilitated the transformation of military into civil power in the wake of the victories of 1944-45.

However, post-war Yugoslavia inherited not just a legacy of underdevelopment and dependence upon foreign capital, but also the financial and human cost of a bitterly fought conflict in which two million of its 15 million citizens had perished.

Writing at the time, EP Thompson evoked the vision of a ravaged landscape wherein the retreating Nazis “had pillaged and slaughtered the peasants’ livestock, burnt down villages, dynamited bridges and even gouged up the railways behind them … I was told of one town that changed hands no less than 40 times in the fighting.”

It fell to Kidric, as the chief economic thinker within the new socialist government, to go far beyond the reconstruction of pre-war industry in order to create an entirely different form of society, whereby capital was subordinated to labour, exploitation would be ended and productive capacity would rise hand-in-hand with the living standards of the working class. Socialism stood or fell — then as now — upon its ability to deliver tangible economic gains to the true creators of wealth whom it represented and whose interests it sought to advance.    

The only practical, existing blueprint for a socialist economy at that time was to be found in the USSR. Consequently, Kidric spent the summer of 1946 studying Soviet industry and planning for himself with his conclusions forming the mainspring of the First Five Year Plan, launched by the Yugoslav Communist Party in 1947.

However, the plan did not represent an uncritical acceptance of the Soviet model and safeguarded the small holdings of the peasantry who had provided much of the backbone for the national liberation movement. There was to be no forced collectivisation of the land but rather a system of co-operative farms and estates.

Furthermore, Kidric’s warnings about the need to implement a “struggle against bureaucracy” as he introduced the plan went beyond the usual formulaic statements of party leaders and hinted at a more thoroughgoing critique of state capitalism even before the split with the Soviet Union a year later.

Fundamental disagreements were already emerging over not just the collectivisation of agriculture but, far more seriously, over Soviet plans to develop Yugoslavia’s mineral, oil and natural resources to its own advantage and the imposition of long-term trade agreements that would see raw materials — and mineral ores, in particular — purchased by the USSR at prices that were set far below their market values, through the creation of joint Soviet-Yugoslav stock companies.

Kidric offered a respectfully nuanced critique of these practices at the 5th Congress of the Yugoslav Communist Party, held in Belgrade in July 1948. Suggesting that not all “those forms which proved abundantly successful and positive with us … can be applied in all situations and in all the People’s Democracies,” he refused to be criticised on the grounds of “adventurism” by other Cominform representatives on the grounds that Yugoslav economic initiatives had already resulted in rapid economic growth.

Of course, the argument that “one size could not hope to fit all” could be — and certainly was — read the other way around: in as much as there was little sense in blindly following Soviet precedents in each and every circumstance and within markedly different economies at very different stages of industrial and political development.

Yet, as was amply demonstrated in the course of that congress, the mistake of the Yugoslav Communists was to believe that it was possible to hold a creative and equal dialogue with Stalin. The independence of their revolutionary path had become anathema to the Kremlin and their expulsion from the Cominform was followed by an economic blockade that aimed to bankrupt the nation, attempts at internal destabilisation and threats of invasion from former close allies.

With the basis of the nation’s foreign trade collapsing, Kidric was tasked with formulating an alternative economic strategy that would become known as “self-management.”

In the light of Tony Blair’s Third Way, Will Hutton’s “stakeholder economy” and the collapse of a form of “market socialism” in Yugoslavia itself, self-management and increased worker participation might seem to be a dead letter or at best an attempt to water down thoroughgoing demands for redistribution and progressive social change.

Yet Kidric — as the architect of Yugoslav self-management — intended the new strategy to mark a return to Marx and the broadening of the partisan ethos into a new mass social movement founded upon the rights of the people to work with socially owned means of production and to decide directly upon the conditions and results of their labour.

When the plans were put before Tito, he immediately understood their radicalism declaring that: “’Factories to the workers — land to the peasants’ is not an empty slogan but a watchword with real meaning and substance regarding social ownership and the rights and duties of workers … It must be put into practice if we really mean to build socialism.”  

The break with Stalin had necessitated a complete re-examination of the nature of the socialist state and its role in the transition to a communist society. Kidric — along with Kardelj — took the idea of the “self-management of the producers” from Marx’s writings on the Paris Commune of 1871 and began to think seriously about both the ending of alienation and the transitional process whereby the state would begin to wither away.

However, Kidric did not renounce his belief in the dictatorship of the proletariat and drove forward a programme that was, as he announced, “socialist in content and form, both in the field of administration and economy.”

In practice this meant the formation of some 215 workers’ councils in the larger state enterprises, in November 1949, with instructions on drawing up enterprise plans; for raising output, productivity and the quality of goods; and proposals for lowering costs and for raising the levels of training and education in the workplace.

This was followed, on June 27 1950, by the passing of the first law on self-management by the Yugoslav Federal Assembly. Framed by Kidric, it attempted to create a direct, participatory form of economic democracy whereby the working classes were united with the fruits of their labour.

The individual was intended to take increasing control and management of their own work, together with the distribution of surplus product and its circulation. Rather than a monolithic programme, it was seen as an ongoing means of problem solving, in which government and management were no longer the preserve of professional politicians, a bureaucracy or vested sectional and private interests.

Instead, it was a mechanism by which workers might empower themselves and their fellows — and give themselves rights rather than just asking for them. Society would develop to the point by which government would cease to manage the people and, instead, would manage the allocation of resources.

From 1950-60, some 700,000 people — roughly 10 per cent of the adult population of Yugoslavia — served on a workers’ council, chosen by secret ballot and with all workers in an enterprise employing less than 30 people taken to form the collective. This was backed — during Kidric’s tenure — by an enforceable system of economic planning, the conception that the enterprise was the basis for wealth creation for the whole of society and that the largest part of the accumulated profits would be withdrawn by the state for planned distribution.

The results over this first decade of an experiment in a self-governing economy — helped, it has to be admitted, by good weather that produced bumper harvests — were impressive.

The aim to transform an under-developed and war-ravaged economy into one possessing advanced agriculture and industry was largely achieved, with annual growth rates of 13 per cent from the mid-to-late 1950s and a rise in industrial output greater than any other nation, with the possible exception of Japan, across the whole decade. The supply-side shortages and lack of consumer goods that bedevilled many other socialist economies in the East were avoided and living standards steadily rose across all of Yugoslavia’s constituent republics.

Judged in these terms, the establishment of self-management under Kidric’s direction was both an imaginative and practical success. How he might have sought to expand the parameters of the model into other areas of society; check the unevenness of regional development; sustain and grow a mass movement; and balance decentralisation alongside the democratic association of working collectives, are questions rendered unknowable by his death in April 1953.

Yet, like the light we view from a dying star, his vision provided key elements of the political legitimacy and the economic prosperity that sustained Yugoslavia as a multi-ethnic, socialist state for much of the next 30 years.

Kidric knew full well that one system cannot be uncritically imposed in an age, or a society that is separated by time, development and culture from another. So, it would not be in keeping with either his legacy or with any kind of Marxist approach to suggest that a form of self-management is the key by which the contemporary left, in Britain and elsewhere, might seek to restore its fortunes and rebalance the relationship between labour and capital.

However, it is as well to be aware of what was once achieved and not to resign ourselves to the sense of powerlessness and pragmatism that has dominated the labour movement since the late 1980s, closing off all discussion of economic as opposed to purely political democracy.

There has to be more to trade union work and political campaigning than the bargaining for the “least worst option.” Boris Kidric’s life demonstrated that far from being no alternative to neoliberalism and a greedy, misanthropic form of venture capitalism, there was power, wealth and dignity inherent in every working life. That vision remains his true and lasting monument.

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