Commentary Magazine

The Truth About Titoism

When Mikhail Gorbachev told his Party Congress this year that “the international Communist movement” was a powerful entity, comprising one-third of the world’s population and that, though its component parties did not always agree on everything, they were all pursuing “the same common objective,” he was manifestly including Yugoslavia. In what he declared to be “the acute and dynamic confrontation between progress and reaction,” the Yugoslav Communists plainly belonged on the Soviet side.

Four months later the intimacy was brought home when the Soviet delegation to the Yugoslav Party Congress in June was headed by Geider Aliyev, a full member of the Politburo and Deputy Prime Minister, who was able to applaud successive Yugoslav activists rededicating themselves to the common cause.

Over the years the Yugoslav Communist regime, like the Soviet Union’s other partners, has trampled on domestic critics, particularly those who favor political pluralism; and, in this still very Christian country, it has systematically excluded religious believers from political life. Yet in its postwar transformation from peasant to industrial society, the country has received a great deal more help from the West than from the East. The leadership’s participation in what Gorbachev presents as the inexorable advance of the collectivized, Communist world has never prevented Western governments from doing their utmost to outbid Moscow for Yugoslavia’s favor.

This discrepancy is due, in the first place, to the exceptional acumen and great personal charm of the late Josip Broz Tito, whose picture is still ubiquitous all over Yugoslavia six years after his death. A large part of Yugoslav education, film-making, writing, and broadcasting celebrates his exploits, and to speak ill of him is a criminal offense—erratically, but sometimes ferociously, punished.

Tito, son of a kulak (in Soviet denomination), started his career as an agent of the Moscow-controlled Communist International (Comintern), served his political apprenticeship in Moscow during the Stalin purges of the 1930’s, and wielded undisputed power over his country for thirty-five years, ending in 1980 with a funeral attended by over a hundred heads of government. This in itself testified to the reverence which Tito commanded in the Western world for what were seen as his three monumental achievements: initiator of wartime resistance to the Nazi invaders of Yugoslavia; first Communist leader to defy Moscow; and inspirer of a “Third Way,” which, to this day, has kept Yugoslavia unaligned between East and West. Yet all three suppositions are contradicted by the record of what really happened inside Yugoslavia during and after Tito’s lifetime.

Immediately after the Germans invaded Yugoslavia on April 6, 1941, Colonel Draza Mihailovic and his Chetnik followers took to the mountains to organize guerrilla resistance. Tito, selected by Moscow to head the Yugoslav Communist party, was still operating within the framework of the Stalin-Hitler pact. Accordingly, he told his own followers to denounce Mihailovic’s, whom he later called “our principal enemies,” to the German occupying authorities.

Tito won Anglo-American backing, which included the public repudiation of Mihailovic, on the basis of two promises: first, that he would not use Allied weapons to kill Chetniks; and second, that he would lead a coalition government of all anti-Axis groups until the occupiers were driven out and Yugoslavs were left free to decide their own future. Yet Tito, breaking both promises, slaughtered the pro-Western Chetniks as ruthlessly as he did the pro-Axis Quislings, while managing in the process to persuade the world that there was no difference between these two groups who had fought on opposite sides in the war.



In the postwar years, Tito’s liquidation of anti-Communists in his own country, alongside his expansionist policy in the Balkans, made him appear to the outside world as the most zealous of Stalin’s followers. And in fact, Tito did identify with the hardest of hardliners in the Stalinist ranks, associating himself with the faction led by General Zhdanov in the power struggle inside the USSR. This group, however, fell from grace in 1948 when Stalin decided that its adventurism risked bringing the Soviet Union into collision with Truman’s America and when Zhdanov himself was becoming suspiciously prominent. Zhdanov died, probably murdered; Tito, with firsthand experience of Stalin’s methods, knew that if he obeyed Stalin’s summons and placed himself within reach, he too would be doomed. To survive, he turned to the men who had fought and conspired with him during the war and who now formed a reliable political and military base.

In thus breaking with Stalin, the last thing on Tito’s mind was liberty in the Western sense. Indeed, his first inclination was to be more Stalinist than Stalin. Repression was increased, nationalizations were accelerated, and the Yugoslav Communists set about collectivizing the land. The peasants, most of them owners of their own farms, reacted by minimizing production and starving the cities. Rather than risk disaster, Tito called off the campaign and changed tack. Judiciously exploiting his image of David versus the Soviet Goliath, he demanded and immediately received emergency aid from the West. Since then, he and his successors have exploited their anti-Stalinist and, by implication, anti-Soviet posture to obtain all manner of Western help. This, in spite of the fact that they have presided over a country with a collectivist economy, a compulsorily indoctrinated anti-Western creed, and a secret police ready to silence any democratically inclined opposition.

Nor was Western support diminished by the additional fact that the 1948 split with Moscow, on which good Western relations with the Titoists were based, was followed in 1955 by a reconciliation with Khrushchev. According to his memoirs, Khrushchev satisfied himself after visiting Belgrade that Tito was a sound Communist whose exclusion from the ranks had been a typical Stalinist folly.



From 1955 onward the Yugoslav and Soviet Communist parties agreed they would follow their “separate paths” to the same destination. As it turned out, Tito’s path went by way of nonalignment: a Third World group dedicated to promoting movements of “national liberation” based on Tito’s own dubious model, and on the exploitation of anti-American sentiment.

It was the Yugoslav-supported nonaligned movement which came to constitute the automatic anti-Western majority at the UN and its agencies and which also provided a platform for the Yugoslav backed New International Economic Order: a prescription for donations from productive to unproductive countries without any interference in their “internal affairs” (though it was often the internal affairs which were the reasons for the unproductivity).

It was also through its non-aligned connections that Yugoslavia sided with the “rejectionist” Arab leaders who favored the destruction of Israel and offered asylum and later training to international terrorists. After the U.S. punitive action against Colonel Qaddafi in April 1986, the Yugoslav foreign minister flew to Tripoli to extend condolences for the U.S. “unprovoked aggression” and in an exclusive interview on Yugoslav state-controlled TV, Qaddafi likened President Reagan to Hitler.

The Titoist concept of a “Third Way” between East and West, which found expression abroad in the term nonalignment, was matched at home by a system named “self-management,” similarly presenting itself as somewhere in between the Soviet and Western models.



In reality, however, Yugoslavia remained a Communist country with the means of production socially owned (though private enterprise functioned, it was only on sufferance, and property had no place in the Yugoslav constitution). True, all the enterprises, offices, and factories were supposed to be managed not, as in the USSR, by the state but by their own workforce. Yet as the sociologist Neca Jova-nov has shown, behind the façade of self-management the people who really made executive decisions in the factories and offices were a small group which included the party’s own man, the manager, the trade-union official, and other key people under party control. The workers had no control over take-home pay, and the real power brokers in the land were “a small number of party, state, police, and army functionaries.”

For the Yugoslav leaders it was a convenient coincidence that self-management was introduced at a time when Yugoslavia, with copious Western assistance, was in the course of its industrial take-off period, recording hectic economic growth. The fact that this had nothing to do with self-management is demonstrated by evidence that the growth figures were comparable to those in the USSR and Rumania at similar periods of development.

The boom was recklessly prolonged by Tito, who refused to permit his ministers to reduce expenditures. After 1973, credits were plentiful, as petrodollars had accumulated in the banks and, because of the Western recession, needed other outlets. Ljubomir Madzar, of the economics faculty of Belgrade, has described economic policy during Tito’s last four years as “national suicide.” When the bills came in after Tito’s death, the dinar collapsed; living standards are now back where they were in 1967.

When Tito was forced to abandon central planning, he delegated authority not to the theoretically self-managing workforce but to the party bosses in the eight federal units. In return for their loyalty these units were given comprehensive control over the local economy, including decisions on investment and patronage. The result was predictable: before his death Tito himself deplored “the eight little autarkies,” each demanding its own heavy industry, petrochemicals, and banks, and ruining the country with internal rivalries. The irrational development of the economy made Yugoslav industry desperately dependent on imports: it has been calculated that 80 percent of raw materials and machinery now has to be imported.

It was Tito’s successors who had to settle the accounts. In May 1986 the latest appointed federal Prime Minister, Bosnian chief Branko Mikuli?, delivered a “don’t blame me” speech in which he announced that within the last four years (the term of office of his predecessor) the real value of exports fell by 2 percent, industrial production was static, prices multiplied by three, and in the modernizing process Yugoslavia had fallen further behind neighboring countries of comparable levels of development. He estimated that efficiency, measured by the use of resources in relation to production, was 28 percent lower than it had been in 1970.

Mikuli? might have added that even though every Yugoslav adult has the constitutional right to a job, the country currently has the highest rate of unemployment in Europe. When it became apparent, in the mid-1960’s, that the system was incapable of creating enough employment, the Titoists were forced to allow their people to seek employment in the West. Today, one-fifth of the Yugoslav population lives on money earned (or wangled) abroad, and the country contains an explosive mixture of Western consumer expectations and a collectivized economy.



No one has tried harder or longer to disabuse the West about Tito-ism than the Slovene-born economist, Ljubo Sirc, who was present at its Bolshevik foundation. When the war started, Sirc was a left-wing student in Ljubljana who fell out with his Communist colleagues over the Stalin-Hitler pact and after the invasion joined others in trying to organize a resistance independent of the Communist-led partisans. Later he escaped to Switzerland in the hope of alerting Western allies; when Britain announced there would be an all-party coalition of anti-Axis groups, he volunteered to return and fight. After the war he made contact with non-Communists in Croatia and Serbia for the purpose of setting up a political opposition. He also told the British Consul in Ljubljana of the Stalinist repression which the Titoists were carrying out behind an almost impenetrable iron curtain. For this he was arrested and, after a show trial, condemned to death as a British spy. Reprieved, on account of his age, he was held for seven-and-a-half years in jail and subsequently escaped to the West where he carved out a distinguished academic career for himself.

The local police chief responsible for the Stalinist interrogation was Mitja Ribici?, later to rise to the top of the Communist hierarchy. When in 1969 Ribici? became Tito’s Prime Minister, Sirc offered background material on him to a number of newspapers but was fobbed off as a prejudiced émigré. In 1979 Macmillan published Sire’s book, The Yugoslav Economy Under Self-Management, in which he based all his evidence on Yugoslav sources and correctly predicted the coming crisis. When he asked a well-known Swiss editor to get it reviewed, he was told that the concept of self-management was such a fine dream that it seemed a pity to have it discredited.

Last year Sirc made another vain protest against the presence of two leading German politicians, Walter Scheel and Willy Brandt, at ceremonies to mark the publication of Tito’s collected works, at which none other than Mitja Ribici? (who had just declared in an interview on Budapest TV that the Yugoslav dissidents were part of President Reagan’s offensive against Communism) was to be the official eulogist.

A lesser man would have lost heart. Instead Sirc took an early retirement from Glasgow University’s department of political economy to become the director of a new center of research into Communist economics. The center has already published two challenging books from the new Yugoslav generation: Marxist Utopia? by Neven Sesardic (from Zagreb) and The Enemies of the People by Kosta Gavoski (from Belgrade). Both are too young to remember the war, and neither conceals his rejection of Marxist-Leninist dogma, which they see as an impediment to their country’s reform and renewal.

But while a new generation of Yugoslavs has been challenging received opinions, Western dignitaries cling to the myths of a Third Force. In 1981 when I offered the Atlantic Institute a study of present-day Yugoslavia, its director, former U.S. Ambassador Martin Hillenbrand, rejected the text on the grounds that it unfairly described the country as Communist. He recalled having himself been in Washington when Tito had sent a visiting delegation to explain that the Yugoslav system was neither Communist nor capitalist (otherwise, said Hillenbrand, they would never have received U.S. help).

Or again, in 1982 the International Labor Organization (ILO) published a booklet on Yugoslav self-management based not on what was really happening but on what the textbooks said should happen.

Similarly, delegations from the European Economic Community have repeatedly praised Yugoslavia’s “unique form of socialism”—instead of pointing out that a country which locks up unorthodox historians and poets cannot qualify as part of civilized Europe. And though the Yugoslavs have repeatedly defaulted on the conditions laid down by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for their loans, officials go on hoping that, with a little encouragement and a few extra hundred millions of dollars, a collectivist regime will become capable of operating a competitive market economy.

By the summer of 1986, however, it had become increasingly difficult even in the West to fudge the failure of what used to be called “the Yugoslav experiment.” On March 21 of this year the Times of London published a feature on Yugoslavia under the headline “Belgrade’s Cart Deep in the Mire with Nowhere to Go,” and on April 13, the New York Times Sunday Magazine published a much longer piece entitled “Yugoslavia Since Tito” and bearing the subtitle, “Today a nation of competing nationalisms, resurgent religion, economic disorder, and bureaucratic paralysis.”



But even if Yugoslavia has no “Third Way” to offer, there are still those in the West defending a policy of protecting Titoism on the grounds that the Communists are the only ones who can prevent the rival ethnic, national, and religious groups from tearing each other apart. Yugoslavia, which was created in 1918 out of several different remnants of the old Austro-Hungarian empire and two formerly independent kingdoms, has indeed remained a single political entity, but the word “distintegration” has increasingly crept into official parlance. Many observers agree that, with the exception of the war years, interethnic tensions are now higher than ever before. We have already seen how Tito gave ethnic rivalries an economic foundation by delegating authority to local party chiefs. And though during his national-liberation struggle the slogan was “brotherhood and unity,” both he and his successors have so effectively observed the time-honored principle of “divide and rule” that today the main ethnic groups tend to blame one another rather than their rulers for their present miseries.

Tito’s cruelest misuse of power was in Kosovo. Here there had been fierce fighting at the end of the war, when the Albanian majority resisted being reincorporated into Yugoslavia. Tito subsequently assigned the subjection of the Kosovo Albanians to his tough police chief, the Serb, Alexander Rankovic. But then, confronted with disturbances in 1966, Tito turned his policy upside down, and police and patronage were handed over to a trusted Albanian, Mahmut Bakali. The Albanians took their revenge; from then on, teachers and propagandists were brought in from Albania, and it was the Serbs who were discriminated against and physically harassed. The hardliners among the Albanians evidently hoped the Serbs could be driven out, leaving behind an ethnically “clean” Kosovo. Now the Serbs are in revolt; though Bakali has been expelled from the party, the Albanians still control the police and the Serbian exodus continues.

Before the war anti-Yugoslav feeling was strongest in Croatia. Today Serbia, which has historic bonds with Kosovo, is the principal focus of discontent, and many believe that Yugoslavia itself could not survive if it were repudiated by the Serbs, its most numerous national group. This possibility is taken seriously enough in the Balkans today to incite both Papandreou’s Greece and Zhivk’s Bulgaria to revive their challenge to Yugoslav Macedonia. Most though not all of this disputed region is now part of the Yugoslav federation, the Communists having given it its own literary language and its own church, neither of which is recognized by its neighbors.



If indeed Tito’s successors are incapable even of holding Yugoslavia together, why should the West support them?

By far the most important argument put forward is that Western support for the Yugoslav Communists since 1948 has paid off in preventing the Soviets from reaching the Adriatic. The evidence suggests, however, that it was not fear of local resistance that held back Stalin and his successors, but the knowledge that a Soviet drive into an area of Europe which the Russians never occupied nor claimed, would provoke a head-on collision with the West.

In our own times, the poorly equipped and internally divided Yugoslav army would be as helpless against the Red Army as its predecessors were against the Nazis. But unless Gorbachev’s Politburo anticipates global war, it is inconceivable that the Soviets would risk trying to occupy Yugoslavia. Nor do they need to: Stalin’s successors have learned that in time of crisis, such as the Middle East wars of 1968 and 1973 and the Ethiopian airlift of 1977, Yugoslavia is ready to provide the air, sea, and land facilities which they need.

This in itself refutes the other common justification for Western backing of the Yugoslav Communists: that the enemies of our enemies are our friends. Not only are the Yugoslav rulers no longer the enemies of the Soviet Union; they are still effective advocates of the Third World fantasy that sooner or later the Communists will inherit the earth.

Whether it will be possible for Yugoslavia to break out of the Marxist-Leninist straitjacket, and if so when, is something which the Yugoslav peoples will have to decide for themselves. In the meantime, it would help no one for the Western democracies to turn their back on a crisis for which they are in part responsible. While it would be highly sensible to be more selective in providing fresh capital, it would be unjustifiable to inflict damage on the Yugoslav people by rupturing relations with the state, suspending trade, or refusing to reschedule debts which the country cannot now repay.

Even without direct intervention, however, our diplomats, scholars, and travelers could usefully make it clear that they share the views of most educated Yugoslavs (some prominent in high places) who now recognize that recovery is impossible as long as un-elected and irremovable politicians continue to exercise a monopoly over public life and over the appointment of their own successors. At best our influence can only be peripheral, but surely the least we can do is “. . . not to strive, officially to keep alive” a tottering regime living off the fading Titoist mythology, to which the West has contributed so harmfully, for so long.



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