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#special issue: Transitional Justice

Dušan Grlja, Prelom kolektiv /// Why Do Partisans Still Matter to Politics?

What could be the political sense of referencing to Yugoslav partisans today? The outlines of contemporary post-Yugoslav political configuration can provide one simple answer. From the perspective of peripheral neo-liberalism, the advent of capitalism in former Yugoslavia (through the destruction of the socialist federal state and through both civil and “humanitarian” wars), seems precisely like the transition from the heteronomy imposed by the socialist system – being completely dependent on the decisions and whims of State and Party – to the autonomy enjoyed by “finally” aligning to the “free world”. This kind of autonomy is perceived in this region as the final achievement of a “thousand year dream” of national – in fact, ethno-nationalist – self-determination of the newly-formed states, thus retroactively making former common state a “prison-house of nations”. Therefore, it serves the purpose of rendering socialist Yugoslavia, the communist movement and Marxism into something that has been definitively surpassed, belonging to the past’s long gone times of repression, reaffirming thus the dominant anti-communist “consensus” as the main ideological support of contemporary neo-liberalism. It is precisely this zealous anti-communism that unifies the apparently opposed political options of “democratic” pro-Europeanism and “patriotic” nationalism, religious chauvinism and the struggle for human rights, a re-traditionalized culture of “our fore-fathers” and a democratic culture of civil society, the identity politics of nation-state building and multi- or inter-culturalism. The figure of partisans, then, represents the stand that discloses and radically opposes this anti-communist consensus.

What could be the political sense of referencing to Yugoslav partisans today? The outlines of contemporary post-Yugoslav political configuration can provide one simple answer. From the perspective of peripheral neo-liberalism, the advent of capitalism in former Yugoslavia (through the destruction of the socialist federal state and through both civil and “humanitarian” wars), seems precisely like the transition from the heteronomy imposed by the socialist system – being completely dependent on the decisions and whims of State and Party – to the autonomy enjoyed by “finally” aligning to the “free world”. This kind of autonomy is perceived in this region as the final achievement of a “thousand year dream” of national – in fact, ethno-nationalist – self-determination of the newly-formed states, thus retroactively making former common state a “prison-house of nations”. Therefore, it serves the purpose of rendering socialist Yugoslavia, the communist movement and Marxism into something that has been definitively surpassed, belonging to the past’s long gone times of repression, reaffirming thus the dominant anti-communist “consensus” as the main ideological support of contemporary neo-liberalism. It is precisely this zealous anti-communism that unifies the apparently opposed political options of “democratic” pro-Europeanism and “patriotic” nationalism, religious chauvinism and the struggle for human rights, a re-traditionalized culture of “our fore-fathers” and a democratic culture of civil society, the identity politics of nation-state building and multi- or inter-culturalism. The figure of partisans, then, represents the stand that discloses and radically opposes this anti-communist consensus.

The other, more significant, answer is that the reference to Yugoslav partisans, to Tito and People’s Liberation Struggle – simultaneous with socialist revolution – in political and theoretical sense gives an anchoring point that can provide an articulated counter-position towards the concrete situation of ethno-nationalist wars and the subsequent (re)introduction of peripheral capitalism. In political terms, this situation bore significant similarities with the WW2 period – foreign “protectorates”, puppet regimes, crisscrossed sovereignties, disintegrated political space, ravages of the local national and ethnic “specificities”, etc. In short, it was – to use a well-known term from classical political theory which has been re-elaborated in the sense of post-colonial theory by Maria Todorova – balkanization. This was followed by the growth of the tycoon strata of war profiteers backed up by chauvinist political elites and their paramilitary henchmen, and a rapid and chaotic privatization that left the previously called social property at the mercy of the same noveaux riche. Therefore, the reference to partisans, Communism and socialist Yugoslavia, as well as the originality of their solutions, represents a “non-existing impossibility” [1] that can provide a radical alternative to what was and still is happening in the region now termed in the dominant geopolitical agenda as the Western Balkans.

It is precisely this reference that appears within the dominant post-socialist rationality as a non-existing impossibility that allows us to break the existing imposed constraints on thought and action by (re)considering the revolutionary gesture of the Yugoslav partisan movement. [2] The construction of the “people” through the struggle against both foreign occupation and the domestic collaborationist and repressive monarchical system enabled the articulation of the revolutionary demand for a radical change vis-à-vis the existing state of affairs, i.e. the imperialist phase of capitalist development. It is only through the inventive practical organizational forms of the struggle for liberation – forms of a direct democracy like the worker’s councils of the Paris Commune or soviets of the October revolution – that the unity of Yugoslav peoples was forged. This means that this construction of “people” was totally different from foundationalist and essentialist 19th Century nation-state building projects. It stemmed from nothing but a political bond created in and through the struggle, in which the nationality, ethnicity or “cultural identity”, as well as gender, was not suppressed and forcefully unified in some indistinct “Yugoslavness”, but preserved and, in some cases, finally acknowledged, constituting thus an integral part of collective political subject. Now, this historical example bears important ramifications for the present-day constellation and for the political destiny of what contemporary radical political theory terms as “multitudes”. It shows that politics, especially transformative and emancipatory one, must be an invention, a thought-in-action of that “non-existing impossibility”, a concrete experimentation that must strive for a collective material practice of revolutionary change.

 

Dušan Grlja editor of Prelom, journal for images and politics, and a member of Prelom kolektiv. Main interests: leftist political and cultural theory.

 

Footnotes:
1. Louis Althusser, “Is It Simple to be a Marxist in Philosophy?” in Essays in Self-Criticism, NLB, 1976, and Machiavelli and Us, Verso: London and New York, 1999, especially on the theoretical dispositive, etc.
2. For a more elaborated account of the following line of argument, see: Ozren Pupovac, “Project Yugoslavia: The Dialectics of the Revolution”, Prelom 8, 2006

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