Yugoslavia: Model of workers self-management?

Note: The following article is reprinted from the German magazine Direkte Aktion, organ of the Free Workers Union (FA U) – German section of the International Workers Association.

Translation by Chris Ecks.

Direkte Aktion introduction: For us as revolutionary unionists (anarcho-syndicalists), there are significant differences between the Yugoslavian model of “self-management” and one with which we would truly feel comfortable. Our slogan is “Co-management [in Yugoslavia, co-management between workers and the bureaucracy —- eds.] ain’t a lot; workers’ self-management is what’s hot! “

Yugoslavia decisively broke from the influence of the Soviet Union in 1948. At the time, the Yugoslavian Communist Party drafted a “System of socialist self-management, ” which purported to be an alternative to centralized state economic management. Declarations appeared to the effect that, with this “socialist “self-management,” the state should die off at a pace equal to the growth of socialism. The factories and other business enterprises were removed from direct control by the state and put under the control of the workers in the their particular workplaces. In taking this responsibility, the workers would then be able to realize the old demand of the revolutionary workers’ movement: “The factories to the workers!”

One of the original authors of the Yugoslavian model was Edward Kardelj. For him, the then-existing system tended inevitably toward Statism, toward continual growth of centralized state power. This growth would be accompanied by the blossom-ing of a bureaucracy into a completely independent ruling managerial caste. Under such conditions, deep conflicts would be unavoidable between the CP rulers and the working class living in the shadow of the CP, secret police and undemocratic planning apparatus.

How could it be otherwise, when, rather than clearing away workers’ wage slavery, they instead made them wage laborers for the state? Eventually, the sprawling, over-shadowing bureaucratic regime stagnates, and the workers’ strength matures and they battle for their place.

Such a view, as put forward by Kardelj in 1948, was not entirely new. Long before World War ll, anarchist theorists developed similar formulations, though with the difference that they didn’t hold to Kardelj ’s illusion of a state and bureaucracy which freely gives up its own power, or, even less likely, freely sows the seeds of workers ‘self-management.

Factory councils are rooted in the Yugoslavian Constitution. A system of social self-management which encompasses all areas of political, economic and cultural life is sought after. We are presented with a conception of direct democracy, somehow connected with the dominant CP. How this Yugoslavian model looks in practice is the subject of the following article, which we have taken from the magazine Socialist Labor Union Politics #2.

The Yugoslavian system of self-T management has been modified a number of times and is continually being rearrangcd. As of now, the fundamental premises are, in theory, the following:

The collective, whose organizational base is the industrial enterprise, store, hospital or, for that matter, the library. The basic organization may distribute its business income as it sees fit; create production- or work-plans for its own activities; develop and control work-place operations; assure the appropriate number of workers, machinery, tools, raw materials.

The organs of self-management within these enterprises are:

  • general assemblies of the entire collective to carry out the rights of self -management directly;
  • workers‘ councils, whose members are elected by the whole collective. It‘s most important tasks are regulation of norms for production or performance; directives concerning the distribution of enterprise income; health and safety standards, etc.;
  • the executive body of the workers’ councils;
  • workers‘ control.

The statutes for the particular enterprise arc dccidcd by the entire collective through secret voting. The elected members of the council arc duty bound to inform their collective members about all measures taken. Deci-sions of the council committee are only valid when at least 33% of the members are present. The council members do their duties outside the regular (8-hour) working day. They cannot be rc-elected (to this position!). The hope is that thereby there will bc rotation of council delegates. The management bodies, especially the director, are elected by the council following public advertisement for the positions. Thc national political organizations have the right to make (only!) recommendations and proposals.*

* However, the means of production are legally owned by the local government authority where the enterprise is situated. The means of production are not the collective private property of the workers. This is reflected in the fact that the workers’ choice of enterprise director must be approved by the local government that “owns” the facility. Since the CP controls the local governments, this restricts the independence of the workers collectives. -T.W.

These national organizations are, namely: the Communist Alliance of Yugoslavia (the sole legal workers’ party); the Socialist Alliance (a mass organization formerly called the People’s Front); and the Trade Union Council.

The director represents the enterprise, and presents its proposals and decisions to other workplaces and to the national organizations. Due to the decentralized nature of the system, such responsibilities are quite important. The motion to recall council delegates requires the vote of 10°/0 of g the collective members for it to be put on the agenda of an assembly. Successful recall occurs if an absolute majority of the collective favor it.

Plan and Market

The basic premise of [Yugoslav] workers’ self-management is the decentralization of decision-making onto workplace and regional levels. As of 1974, self-management was extended to the level of the various state republics which make up Yugoslavia. The national Congress is the highest body. The congress is composed of five houses: the House of the Peoples; the Economic House; the House of Culture and Education; the House of Health and Welfare; and the Socio- political House. Within, for example, the House of the Peoples, each separate state republic (Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Montenegro, Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegowina, plus two in-dependent regions) send 20 representa- tives. The other Houses have 120 mem-bers each. A first level of delegates are chosen by the workers and citizens in their workplace and community. These delegates then choose a second level of delegates for the National Congress from amongst themselves.*

* This is similar to the system of in-direct election used for the election of the Supreme Soviet in the USSR. This was historically one of the mechanisms that enabled the party to insulate its rule from popular control. — T. W.

The delegates of the second level then send deputies to sit on municipal assemblies.

From amongst the delegates of the first level, the people who will sit in the Congresses of the state republics and provinces are elected.

Theoretically, every seventh Yugoslav is an elected delegate. As one critic justifiably said: “The Yugoslavian electoral system earns at least one superlative: it’s the most complicated one in the world!”*

* Direkte Aktion note: Since delegates of one level select the delegates of another — in fact, four other —— levels, it’s not unlikely that, on various levels, a privileged clique could remain continuously in power, fully independent from the rank-and-file electorate.

The interrelation of the collective enterprises take place within the frame-work of a general economic plan. Since 1950, Yugoslavia has tried to avoid the dismal model of rigid Soviet-style planning. Step by step, competitive market relations have been re-introduced. The result has been that the individual enterprise will control its own workplace planning within the general plan through contractual relations (e.g. ‘co-operative agreements). The State retains control of money, taxes, trade policy, as well as international trade relations. The enterprises are largely independent [of each other] in the marketplace and thus compete with each other. The greatest systematic short-comings develop here. Certainly, the influence of the State upon the individual enterprise isn’t very impressive; unfortunately, neither does the individual worker exercise much direct influence upon the basic economic deci-sions of his or her workplace. Why is this?


How is it that, in a society calling it-self “socialist,” there exists mass un-employment which drives hundreds of thousands of people out of their country?

According to the Yugoslavian Statistical Yearbook, there were over 800,000 unemployed at the end of 1978. The problem has since become worse, in that thousands who had jobs as “guest workers” in Germany or Switzerland have had to retum to Yugoslavia due to the recessions in those and other countries. As in Germany, the youth of Yugoslavia are a disproportionately large part of the un-employed.

In a successfully-run planned economy, there is no place — no need! — for unemployed workers. If the amount of work available is not sufficient for each to work the current average day if they choose, then the work-day itself would be shortened for everybody.*

* Direkte Aktion note: Of course,upon hearing the phrase “planned economy,” people usually think of the Soviet-style economies with their disciplined “planned economy” wherein there is of course no official unemployment. That kind of planned economy is not a goal worth fighting for, as the author of this article agrees. The question remains how a democratically-planned economy would look — who does the planning and who gets “planned.”

In Yugoslavia, the “socialist” enter-prises may, in fact, lay-off workers due to business problems. Fortunately, those hit by lay-off are guaranteed re-training for another job or skill.

Unemployment brings us to another unresolved economic problem of agri-culture: private ownership of farms and land is allowed, though limited to no more than 25 acres, employing no more than 5 employees. For a living as a capitalist farmer, it’s not enough. The farmers migrate to the cities or to other countries, while still retaining ownership of the land. Very often, their biggest ambition is to perhaps work in Germany or Switzerland in order to then afford a tractor. This [situation] only makes solutions to the general agricultural problems more difficult, and fails as well to solve the problems of labor and unemployment.

Does Yugoslav ‘Self-Management‘ work?

The Yugoslavian workers, both male and female, have undoubtedly more [economic] rights than their European or American brothers and sisters (even those who enjoy the right of “co-determination”). Still, can one speak of genuine self-management? Hardly. Even Yugoslav investigations point this out. For example, the percentage of workers in the workers councils and other self-management organs has been declining for a number of years.

Managers and paper-pushers are over-represented in the self-management bodies. Further, they speak more,their suggestions are more often accepted, and they tend to be able to “supervise” their own activities by themselves—without direct worker control. Since positions in most self management bodies permit only one time election, previously elected delegates have made a common practice among themselves of getting elected into other organizational functions. In summary, a large bureaucratic caste has developed. Not by accident, one of the most common causes of strikes in Yugoslavia is arbitrary bureaucratic But before you set fire to those greenbacks, why not send us a few‘? As long as we still live under capitalism,

Wages and Prices

Prices are established through contract in an extremely complicated manner. The workers council of an enterprise sets wages and the internal division of enterprise income. The basis for wage levels is the success of the enterprise in market competition. Accord-ing to the official picture, profit or loss should spur on the thinking and creativity of the workers and undermine the potential for bureaucratic invasion.

In reality, the requirements of this competitive situation leads to greater inequality in the workplace and inside the country. Management and leading party cadre (as we have seen, over-rcp-resented in the workers councils) are very quick to introduce the most modern techniques, hoping to increase production, since their income is tied to the sale of increasing amounts of commodities produced at lower costs. What this means, as in the West, is speed-up or lay-off. Workers are put in conflict with themselves: every price increase in a branch of production improves their general economic position as producers and can therefore improve their in-come. But, in turn, each price increase worsens their position as consumers and users. The market system has led to increasing costs of production and price increases. The high inflation rate, in which the immense foreign trade deficit plays a large part, creates an in-tense competition between wages and prices. The mass of workers are the losers. The system has generated a substantial inequality of income levels. Wages are almost always one of the causes of strike action in Yugoslavia (although strikes aren’t really legal, they arc tolerated).

“Successful” enterprises can pay relatively higher wages, if they can survive the national and international competitive struggle. Due to this, a significant inequality has come to exist between the enterprises of a single state republic, as well as between the state republics themselves.

The inequality naturally embitters the workers of “unsuccessful” collectives. Honestly, what are they supposed to do if their particular enterprise or locality has lousier means of transportation, or is a greater distance from raw materials, or has a “less marketable” product?

No less bitter are the complaints and campaigns pressed again and again against the “Millionaires.” These are people who are active in the “private” sector and who don’t need to declare their income from such sources and thus pay not tax on it. Some people are able to rent out privately owned apartments and houses. The leasing out of beer joints, caberets (sic), etc. has created a layer of small, out-right capitalist business people. Such people often earn as much as 25 times as much as highly skilled workers. At least according to numerous interviews we’ve conducted, it seems that such people earned the initial capital for these undertakings by working in other countries.

How ‘democratic’ is Yugoslav society?

In official Yugoslav opinion, they regard their system as the “most democratic in the world.” In truth, there are a number of democratic accomplishments: the unions aren’t merely a long arm of the Party. All union delegates vote in secret and are bound to repre-sent the decisions of the people who elected them. The appointed union functionaries, however, are almost all members of the CP, and in practice rarely take a position independent of the CP. Also, the rule that requires functionaries to return to their pre-vious jobs after their term runs out is really not enforced. More often than not, they simply transfer into other positions in the union or State bureau-cracy. Unqucstionably, most workers have a rather pessimistic view of the role of their unions. A number of Yugoslav investigations show agree-ment on this point. ‘

The power of the CPY, however, is what really undermines any talk of Yugoslavia being “democratic.” Not only is it the only party allowed, there are also constant “purification” rituals. A well-documented case is that of Milovan Djilas. He was at one timea close comrade of, and soldier with, Tito. Djilas worked together with the previously mentioned Kardelj to create the theoretical premises for workers’ self-management. Yet, by 1954, he de-sired a wide-ranging dissolution of the Party bureaucracy, which he spoke of as a “New Class.” He was quickly rc-moved from all Party positions and was put in jail.

For Djilas, a genuine workers’ self-management depended on the dissolu-tion of the bureaucratic apparatus of full-time paid functionaries; the aboli-tion of the monolithic structure and power of the CPY; the liberation of the enterprise-level workers’ councils from political controllers and the separation of the Party and the State.

After the expulsion of Djilas, ritualistic campaigns were repeated, such as against the so-called “nonconformists’ (old-line Communists), against the Praxis group*, as well as against “liberals” and Croation nationalism.

* A group of philosophy professors at the University of Belgrade who produced an internationally-recognized journal under the name Praxis. When the university faculty refused to fire the philosophers, they were fired on orders of the state government of Serbia, in violation of the university’s self-management — supposedly guar-anteed by the Yugoslav constitution. — T. W.

The philosophers of the Praxis group were opposed to Djilas’ proposal for the formation of another, opposition socialist party. They thought this would only increase the number of pol-iticians and put off the realization of generalized, democratic self-manage-ment. They saw the division of the in-dividual as private person and public citizen vis—a-vis the State as a form of alienation. To them it seemed that only through the destruction of politics, through the dying off of State and Party systems could this alienation be over-come. In this the philosophers of the Praxis group have ideas which are part of the world-view of revolutionary unionism (anarcho-syndicalism). Their magazine Praxis, in which the ideas of Djilas and others were published, first appeared in 1964. lt was eventually banned in 1975. Some publishers ended up in the clink.

In spite of meaningful successes in social legislation and in the economy, and though the CPY has succeeded so far in keeping powerful centrifugal forces in the country under control, the Yugoslav system is marked by strong contradictions:

  • workers’ self-management has not been completely realized; the influence of the workers is in fact declining rather than increasing; ‘
  • the combination of planning and free market has led to the dominance of the market forces with all the common results: forced unemployment, inflation, reinforcement of competitive thinking;
  • the defining influence of the de facto Party of State makes genuine workers democracy among competing workers organizations nearly impossible. The situation inevitably leads to attempts at bureaucratic solutions to the difficulties. Now that Tito is dead, the once-living symbol of Yugoslav unity, hard times are coming.

— Elias Wolf

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