Ralph Miliband


Ralph Miliband

The Yugoslav Programme

(Summer 1959)

From The New Reasoner, No.9, Summer 1959, pp.133-137.
Downloaded with thanks as a PDF from the Barry Amiel & Norman Melburn Trust.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The Programme of the League of Yugoslav Communists
translated and published by the International Society for Socialist Studies
22 Nevern Road, London SW5. Price 10s. 6d.

As the French general said during the campaign of 1940, when falling bombs shook his field headquarters and sent his maps flying: ‘How do you expect to conduct a war with this kind of thing going on?’ So many bombs have burst around the Yugoslav Party Programme that it takes a special effort to read it for what it actually says and not for what new friends and old enemies say it says, or means. Praise has been lavished on it as a splendid blow to Soviet Marxism; to read some comments, the Programme would almost sound like a Yugoslav Marxist version of Mill’s On Liberty. It has also been fiercely condemned in the Communist bloc as another example of Yugoslav dissociation from the Communist Commonwealth and as the neo-revisionist manifesto of Trojan horsemen. As for the Yugoslavs themselves, they claim that ‘it attempts to give an analysis of contemporary social movements and developments in the world, and defines the views and attitudes of the Yugoslav Communists in regard to the general problems of social economic and political world relations’; also, that it ‘sets out fundamental viewpoints on certain essential problems of the present-day international workers’ movement and of the development of socialism throughout the world.’

It is as such that I propose to consider some themes of the Programme, and not whether it feeds on the pure milk of Marxism, as the Yugoslavs maintain, or whether it is ‘revisionist’, and if so of what kind. It is of course impossible not to take into account Yugoslavia’s special position in the world, if only because so much of the Programme clearly reflects Yugoslavia’s uneasy poise between the two world blocs. Even so, rather than engage in talmudic disputations, it may be more useful to try and see how far the Programme does advance the discussion of socialist theory.

It is certainly one of the main merits of the Programme that it shows so keen an awareness of the infinite complexities of what its authors call ‘the uneven development of socialism’ in the world. ‘Today,’ they note, ‘the human race is moving towards socialism through revolutionary conflict and peaceful processes, through stagnation and social crisis, through a series of transformations which arise from a clash of contradictions; the old forms are disappearing and new forms are taking their place.’ Nor do they seek to measure that movement in terms of the spread of justice, morality or any such virtue that may be read into the meaning of socialism. Rather do they observe that a substantial part of the world’s population now lives in societies which fulfil the first, though not the only condition for the flowering of socialist virtues, i.e., the elimination of the private ownership and control of the means to life; there is also the fact, they suggest, not only that the old colonial system is breaking up, but that large areas of the world, having emerged or being in the process of emerging from colonial and semi-colonial rule, are tending towards various forms of collectivism; and that capitalist societies, under different impulses, are deeply involved in the same movement.

It is in its analysis of the nature of the changes which have occurred in capitalist societies in the course of this century that the Programme is least convincing. It rightly lays much emphasis on the ‘consolidation of state capitalist tendencies’ in these societies, meaning the ever greater degree of state intervention in a multitude of economic and social domains. But having noted these tendencies, the Programme seems unable to decide on their general significance. On the one hand, it describes ‘State capitalism’ as an attempt to ‘mitigate internal social contradictions and to prolong the life of the capitalist system’, as an ‘endeavour to retain the essential elements of capitalist social relations and the privileges of the bourgeoisie’. But this, on the other hand, makes rather odd the contention that ‘State capitalism ... is not a specific phase of capitalism’. On the basis of the Programme’s own assertions, that is precisely what it is.

Furthermore, the Programme suggests that ‘By taking over important economic functions, the State and its machinery create their own independent economic basis upon which the new social role of the State apparatus grows in importance’; also, ‘the expanded role of the state also enhances the economic and political role of the bureaucracy which, as it gathers strength, tends to establish itself as a relatively independent social and economic power’. I don’t know what is meant by the ‘relatively independent social and economic power’ of the bureaucracy and I am not sure, on the evidence, that the authors of the Programme do either. There is a limited sense in which all State bureaucracies have always been ‘independent’, but there is surely no sense in which State bureaucracies, whether in ‘classical’ capitalist or in State capitalist societies can in fact play the kind of role suggested in the Programme. Actually, its authors do seem to hold two opposite views of the matter, as illustrated in the following passage: ‘The greater the balance attained in the political struggle between the bourgeoisie and the working class for influence and positions in the system of state capitalism, the more will the functions of the bureaucracy become independent, and the more will it try to preserve state capitalist monopolies and the social privileges of the bourgeoisie.’ I find this, and similar passages devoted to the same subject, strictly incomprehensible. There is obviously a crying need for a detailed analysis of the nature of ‘State capitalism’ and of the place of bureaucracy in it, but the Programme is more impressive for its awareness of the need than for its success in meeting it.

One of the characteristic themes of the Programme is its condemnation of dogmatism. ‘To proclaim the path and form of socialist development in any single country as being the only correct path and form’, it states at one point, ‘is nothing but a dogma obstructing the process of the socialist transformation of the world.’ It is natural that the Programme’s repeated strictures against dogmatism should be read as directed at leaders and ideologues of the Communist bloc. So they are. But not exclusively. It seems worth stressing, since the point is easily overlooked, that the condemnation is a more general one and also applies to what the Programme calls the ‘specific type of reformist dogmatism’ of the leaders and ideologues of social-democracy, as manifested, for instance, in their approach to the development of world socialism and in their obsessional view of politics as exclusively parliamentary. The authors of the Programme may perhaps be thought to err on the side of optimism in their belief that ‘the dogmas of social-democracy, too, are beginning to break up with increasing momentum’. But they are surely on fairly safe ground in their prediction that ‘the dynamics of contemporary social processes will inevitably also affect the subsequent development of social democratic parties’. It is at least unlikely that a programme as inept as The Future Labour Offers You can long continue to paralyse the Labour movement.

There is a truly refreshing quality in the Programme’s condemnation of all forms of dogmatism, and in the author’s willingness to look afresh at some of the fundamental concepts of socialist theory. But anti-dogmatism, though excellent and necessary, is not a sufficient condition for greater clarity of thought. This is unfortunately illustrated by the Programme’s discussion of the notion of the dictatorship of the proletariat, than which there is surely no more question-begging formula in the whole of Marxist-Leninist thought. By dictatorship of the proletariat, says the Programme, is meant ‘government by the alliance of the working-class, as the leading force of society, with the other sections of the working people’. In Soviet Marxism, this would be normally qualified by a formula such as ‘and under the leadership of the Communist Party’, which would give it an altogether different connotation. For the authors of the Programme, however, the dictatorship of the proletariat is said not to mean ‘any particular external form of state, not a specific method of organisational machinery governing the political system during the transition period from capitalism to socialism or further to communism, but rather its social, i.e., class political substance’. Indeed, the dictatorship of the proletariat, they suggest, could range ‘from revolutionary dictatorship to parliamentary government in which the working-class and its social and economic interests wield decisive influence’.

Here again, I must admit to some doubt as to what is precisely meant, the more so as the Programme appears greatly to qualify these formulations when it discusses the ‘withering away of the State’ which it considers to be ‘the fundamental and decisive question of the socialist system of society’. Thus, the Programme also states that ‘the Communists do not renounce their leading role in society’, but that ‘their relations with the working masses must increasingly assume the character of a relationship between equal partners’; furthermore, ‘the Communists will continue their struggle to preserve the key positions of state power, on which the future development of socialist society and the defence of that society from attacks by the most diverse (internal and external) anti-socialist forces depends, and keep these positions firmly in revolutionary hands’. On the basis of these qualifications, it is difficult to see, save perhaps in terms of emphasis, in what manner these formulations fundamentally differ from more orthodox views on the concept of dictatorship of the proletariat. On the other hand, it might be argued that there is a great deal in the matter of emphasis and that the Yugoslavs’ insistence on the dangers of ‘bureaucratic-étatist tendencies’, of ‘unilateral centralism’, and of similar ‘contradictions’, cannot, on the basis of accumulated experience, ever be too loud.

It is in fact clear that the League of Yugoslav Communists is deeply concerned to draw the appropriate lessons from Soviet experience. But here too, they find themselves delicately balanced between virtue and necessity. The Programme mainly ascribes the failings of Soviet experience to ‘objective’ factors, such as backwardness, under-industrialisation, devastation by war, the isolated position of the Soviet Union, and so forth. Given these circumstances, says the Programme, ‘the Soviet Union had no alternative but to put all its efforts into the material basis required by the new society ... In this situation, the needs of social development demanded that the leading forces in society, the Communist party and the Soviet State, should play a pre-eminent organisational role, first in the economic sphere and then throughout the whole of social life’. It is, it says, in these circumstances that ‘bureaucratic-étatist tendencies’, ‘errors and distortions in the development of the political system of the State’, the ‘cult of personality’, the ‘merging of Party and State machinery’, etc., arose. And Stalin, ‘for both objective and subjective reasons, did not fight the bureaucratic-étatist tendencies caused by the great concentration of power in the machinery of State and by the merging of the Party and State machinery and unilateral centralism. In fact, he became their political and ideological exponent’.

It is notable that the Programme does not exclude the possibility that ‘developed to the full bureaucracy would mean a specific type of restoration of state-capitalist relationship’. This would seem to underwrite, at least in theory, the possible validity of the notion of ‘the new class’. It is a pity that the Programme does not deal with the point in greater detail. In regard to Soviet experience at least, it expresses the view that none of ‘negative phenomena and errors’ that occurred succeeded in ‘inflicting serious and lasting damage on the development of Socialism in the Soviet Union, because the socialist forms in that first country of Socialism had grown and become so strong that they were able to break through the barriers of bureaucracy and the ‘cult of personality’. Implicit in this view is of course the acceptance of a good deal of “Stalinism” as an inevitable and transient feature of Soviet society at one stage of its development.

Beyond all theoretical considerations, it is of course Yugoslavia’s international position which has made it the subject of so much controversy, praise and abuse. On this issue, Yugoslavia’s actual relations with the Communist bloc have imposed some obvious strains on the authors of the Programme, since they neither wish to appear neutral as between the two blocs nor to commit Yugoslavia to either. In their view, ‘the antagonism between the Capitalist and Socialist system remains the chief conflict in international life today’ and ‘the most reactionary and imperialist circles have not yet abandoned their plans for an aggressive campaign against communism and the socialist countries’. Furthermore, the League of Yugoslav Communists ‘considers that the Warsaw Pact and similar measures taken by the Socialist countries are a natural defensive reaction to the establishment, at an earlier date, of the North Atlantic Pact and particularly to the rearmament of Germany and the setting up of military bloc organisations in Western Europe’.

Yet, though ‘the social-economic and political substance and functions of the existing blocs are different’, it is outside the blocs that the Programme believes Yugoslavia’s place to be. The ‘non-aligned’ states, it says, by their independent policies, are making an important contribution towards spreading the area of international co-operation and furthering the cause of peace in the world. What is above all important is to foster peaceful co-existence between peoples and states with different social systems. But this co-existence, the Programme suggests, ‘must not remain passive, bogged down on the level of power bloc politics; it should be active and directed towards the goal of expanding mutual co-operation between peoples’. It is thus by serving the cause of peace, the Yugoslavs believe, that can best be served the cause of socialism. The policy of active co-existence, says the Programme, ‘does not perpetuate the existing social formations but, on the contrary, tends to accelerate the process of change’.

A careful reading of the Programme suggests that much of it is exceedingly woolly and ambiguous. It begs too many questions and slides too easily over others. Its interest lies much less in the answers it provides to present confusions than in the multitude of questions it poses. There is too much truth in the Yugoslav view that ‘Marxist thought in the past few decades has failed to keep in step with the advance of contemporary society’ for a document such as this, inadequate though it is in so many respects, to be submerged in the vulgar rhetoric of praise or abuse. What is required is sober discussion and debate of the fundamental issues it raises.

Last updated on 10 July 2010