Belgrade-Paris: Left-wing experiences

Introduced in Yugoslavia in 1949, the principle of self-management in companies fascinated large sections of the French left until the end of the 1970s. This enthusiasm, fuelled by exchanges and travel, did not resist French statism and centralism.

The relationship to the Soviet model, for the French left, is a subject as well known as it is documented, as it has accompanied a large part of them throughout the XXe century. Other experiences (Castro, Maoist) were able to fascinate sectors – moreover limited – of these political forces, and intermittently. Today forgotten (the country has even disappeared), another model has questioned, or even attracted the French left: Yugoslav self-management.

From the end of the 1940s until François Mitterrand came to power, Tito’s experiment provoked a wide range of reactions, from enthusiasm to vehement rejection. This is the issue that Frank Georgi, a historian specializing in contemporary social movements, tackles in a book based on a HDR supported in 2017.

The other “glow in the East”

The undertaking is triply difficult, as the author points out in the introduction. First of all, academic research has paid very little attention to the influence of Yugoslav self-management. Then, the question of transferring a model, particularly from a linguistic area (Serbo-Croatian) that is difficult for the French to access, is a challenge. Finally, the question of archival and documentary materials constitutes a crucial methodological issue. Reading the book, we see that the author has succeeded in overcoming these difficulties.

How, first of all, did self-management come into the contemporary political debate? Carrying out patient bibliographical and semantic work, Frank Georgi shows its multiple sources: the ” self-government ” of Anglo-Saxon political thought, the experience of the Paris Commune, communal democracy or workers’ cooperation. This complex genealogy leads to the law of May 28, 1949 in Yugoslavia, which establishes the principle of self-management in companies.

The interest of anarchists, Trotskyists and socialists

Why was this model desired by Tito able to challenge certain sections of the French left? In a context of rupture with the Eastern Bloc from 1947-1948 and demonization of “Titoism” by the international communist movement, the Yugoslav experience first of all interests what can be called “margins”, in all senses of the term: intellectuals (Claude Bourdet, Jean Cassou), heterodox communists, Trotskyists, anti-totalitarian extreme left, etc.

But, for a country that wants to “attract in order to survive” (p. 58) in the face of the Soviet threat, an influence limited to the margins is not satisfactory. Yugoslavia wants to influence all progressive opinion in France. It encourages the arrival of intellectuals and volunteers, both to help the development of the country, to foster links with the West and to spread a positive image of the Titoist experiment. Still, as Frank Georgi shows, this first “pro-Yugoslav nebula” (p. 90) has little impact on larger organizations, while arousing the fierce rejection of the PCF and some CGT.

However, from the beginning of the 1950s, particularly around the magazine Esprit, the question of the interest of the Titoist experience for France was raised: what could a liberal democracy draw from it, carried out in an authoritarian context? Very quickly, Trotskyists and anarchists answered in the negative, denouncing the maintenance of a dictatorial regime in practice.

Frank Georgi shows that in the 1950s it was the SFIO who seems to go the furthest in his interest in Yugoslav self-management. Leaders as anti-communist as Guy Mollet and Jules Moch show a real fascination for it. The latter, in a delightful passage reported by the author, goes so far as to use his experience as Minister of the Interior to put his colleague from Belgrade’s record in terms of repression into perspective (p. 153).

However, this interest cannot be understood without a double limit: the strategy of “partisan diplomacy” of the SFIOmixing ideology and Realpolitik, and the reservations of certain socialists (including André Philip, but also Jules Moch). On the side of the PCFmistrust persists after the rapprochement between Tito and Khrushchev, the centralizing and Jacobin culture of the Party weighing heavily in its judgment on the self-management experience. Accident of history, it is due to the same bad relations with the CGT that the Yugoslav trade unionists approached the CFTCThen CFDT.

Rise and fall of self-management passion

The 1960s saw a contrasting evolution. After the first half of the decade when Titoism seemed “overtaken” by Third Worldism, Ben Bella’s Algerian experience or Castroism, the second part of it showed a strong return of the Yugoslav model in the French debate. In 1966, the birth of the journal Self management catalyzes this return of interest. Politically, it is the PSU who is the privileged bearer of this new flame, all the more alive as the other experiences (in Cuba, in Algeria) prove disappointing. Union-wise, the CFDT plays a decisive role, combining sincere interest, union diplomacy and questions about the concrete transposition in a French context.

May 68 and the years that followed were a turning point, as the author points out. It is an understatement to say that left-wing students were attracted by other types of models than Titoism, from the movement on American campuses to the “cultural revolution” and the Italian “creeping May”. However, self-management encountered underlying trends in French society, expressed during the wage and university mobilization. Within the CFDTthis goes as far as a real “self-managed enthusiasm” (p. 352), nourished by exchanges, travel stories and events organized in Yugoslavia.

This was to prepare the last part of the work, that of a paradoxical “age of self-management”, to use the title of Pierre Rosanvallon’s work in 1976. The seminar of the International Labour Organization (ILO) in Belgrade in December 1969 on the participation of workers gave the starting signal for this final push of the self-management reference, which seemed to be progressing in large sections of the French political and trade union left. Yugoslavia once again played the influence card, through the Congress of Self-Managers in Sarajevo on 5-8 May 1971.

If the PSU and the CFDT still remain privileged actors, the heir to the SFIO from 1969, the PSseems influenced by the idea of ​​”changing life” through self-management, François Mitterrand nevertheless showing himself to be reserved. Even the PCF began to integrate – cautiously – certain aspects of it. However, from the end of the 1970s, the dual self-management and Yugoslav reference quickly crumbled.

Symbolically, the review Self management ceased publication in 1980, while the programs of the major left-wing parties focused on the economic crisis and the CFDT “refocuses”. The supporters of a liberal renewal, around Henri Lepage and Jacques Garello, point out not without irony that Tito’s self-management has reintroduced certain market mechanisms, a sign of their superiority. 1981 marks the victory of a left without self-management, a year after Tito’s death.

What a foreign model reveals

Frank Georgi’s rich work can call for three reflections, ranging from the transnational to the specificities of the French left. First of all, it raises the question of the modalities of “transfers” and “circulations” in political, intellectual and trade union history. From Belgrade to Paris, from French volunteers in Yugoslavia to the action of Titoist diplomacy in France, the author underlines how the channels can be multiple. A fascinating reflection is proposed on the role of certain sociologists in the diffusion of Yugoslav self-management, showing the role that the human sciences could have had in this strategy of influence.

The book raises a stinging question about the French left in XXe century. While they themselves have acted as a compass for international lefts since the French Revolution, they have regularly looked abroad for models supposedly more effective than what they could offer. From the Moscow “glow in the East” to the “Swedish model” of the social democrats, via the fascination of the New Labour on a part of the centre-left or the commitment to Maoism, such passion can be surprising, especially when it flares up for dictatorial regimes. Frank Georgi underlines how the discomfort with the reality of human rights under Tito accompanies from 1948 the interest in the experimentation that his regime is conducting.

Finally, does not the final decline of self-management reveal at bottom the deeply statist and centralizing culture of a part of the French left, as shown by the collective work led by Marc Lazar during the 2010s? This appeared clearly in the distrust of the PCF and some CGT vis-à-vis the Yugoslav model; it existed in the background in French socialism. Some actors like Force Ouvrière were just as resistant to it. To use the expression of one of its defenders in the 1970s, Pierre Rosanvallon, could self-management triumph in the long term in a country where the State saw itself as the “guardian of the social”?