One-on-one | Yugoslavia

Paul Stubbs: We need to reconnect with progressive internationalism

By - 29.11.2022

British academic talks the contradictions of the Yugoslav-led Non-Alignment.

In 1993, U.K. sociologist Paul Stubbs came to Croatia to work in a refugee camp. He’s been in the Balkans ever since. Now the Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Economics in Zagreb where he heads the Department for Labor Markets and Social Policy, Stubbs is well-known in the academic world of social policy.

His work has focused on international actors and the political economy of social welfare and social movements and he’s taken a particular interest in “approaching issues of globalization from a post-Yugoslav positionality,” as he put it.

Over the last few years, his focus has turned to the role of socialist Yugoslavia in the Non-Aligned Movement, which was formally established in 1961 as an alternative to the two polarized power blocks. “I’m really interested in the contradictions, the unfolding of all of the multiple contradictions, which makes it impossible to develop a single narrative,” he said about his work on Non-Alignment.

He is the editor of the book “Socialist Yugoslavia and the Non-Aligned Movement: Social, Cultural, Political, and Economic Imaginaries,” which will be released in January 2023 by McGill-Queen’s University Press. The book looks at a range of themes related to the movement, from women’s involvement, anti-fascism and anti-imperialism, to cultural and educational exchange. 

At the end of October, Stubbs was in Prishtina for a public lecture titled, “Socialist Yugoslavia Within and Without Coloniality: self-management, self-determination, and non-alignment,” at the National Library of Kosovo.  

After his lecture, K2.0 sat down with Stubbs to talk about the Non-Aligned Movement and its legacy, leftist politics and activism in the region, and the need for universal social services.  

K2.0: You worked in the late 1990s on global social policy and, later, on international actors in South East Europe, while the latest book you have edited looks at the role of socialist Yugoslavia in the Non-Aligned Movement. How did this shift happen? 

Paul Stubbs: I wish I knew the answer to that. I suspect it’s just a series of strange choices, accidents and ideas. I came to Croatia in 1993, partly disillusioned with my work in a U.K. university. So I worked in a refugee camp for a while, but later I combined practical work, activist work and research. 

My journey led me to look at what was going on in the post-Yugoslav space as it was then and the role of international actors. I was very much approaching issues of globalization from a post-Yugoslav positionality. Over time, I continued to work on social policy.

One of the things I wrote about was the ’80s movements in Slovenia, punk rock, the broader social movements and how those were both a resistance to a kind of deterministic socialism, but were also overwhelmed later by nationalists. One of the things that I realized was that the Slovenian social movements were the ones that cared about Kosovo and what was happening to the Albanian population. Some of the people involved in this kind of peace activism in the ’80s in Slovenia visited Kosovo and were shocked by what they saw, which was basically a police state.

So that was in my mind, but also, this idea of an alternative developmental project. I thought, one day I’ll study the Non-Aligned Movement. What I originally thought I was going to study was the role of the Non-Aligned Movement in terms of promoting UN social rights. So quite a boring, formal topic. But the moment I went into the archives, I realized that there were some far more important things going on: the tension between internal and external developments, top down non-alignment versus non-alignment from below, and above all, how to be positioned in Europe but with an affinity to the Global South. All of these themes seemed to me to be deeply contradictory, but incredibly interesting and important in terms of the history but, also, for contemporary debates and political activism. 

In the lecture, you mentioned three related terms: Yugonostalgia, Yugoamnesia and Yugosplaining. While Yugonostalgia is a part of popular public discourse, this is not the case for the other terms.

These are complicated and problematic terms. Yugoamnesia is the structured forgetting of Yugoslavia. Now, I tend to mean socialist Yugoslavia, but it could also cover the first Yugoslavia. A deeply structured forgetting in public and political discourses. But, of course, the question around how Belgrade or the Serbian political leadership can instrumentalize the Non-Aligned Movement every 10 years for its own benefit is problematic, so they mix amnesia with occasional nostalgia for their own purposes.

Yugonostalgia, for me, it’s actually more of a cultural term. You know, you go to Ljubljana and you find Yugonostalgic bars. It’s really about young people who grew up with music that was Yugoslav New Wave, for example. And it doesn’t matter that “Leb i Sol” is from Macedonia, although it does in some sense. It doesn’t matter that “Idoli” was from Belgrade. This was the music of their teenage and early adult years. Yet, there is a new generation rediscovering this music. 

But it’s now also present in a kind of political project, which says that we can look to socialist Yugoslavia for a model of how socialism can be done. For a long time, in many ways, Yugoslavia was an important experiment. But you really can’t see it as a model, for lots of different reasons, but partly because there was no single, homogenous, Yugoslav socialism. But there were some really interesting things that should not be forgotten. 

We need to think about the deep structural violence that happened to Albanians in socialist Yugoslavia.

Yugosplaining is a much more recent thing involving a group of scholars, all of whom are from the region but live abroad, who were trying to counter what they saw as Eurosplaining, in an extension of a critique of mansplaining — the way that dominant genders, dominant sexual orientations, dominant cultures, or hegemonic forces impose their views of the world. It was an ironic term to ask, why don’t we talk more about Yugoslavia? Why don’t we bring Yugoslavia back into the discipline of international relations, into the study of political projects?

Those same people very quickly understood through critiques from Albanians from Kosovo and Macedonia that we also need to be careful about Yugoslpaining because we need to think about the internal colonialism and the deep structural violence that happened to Albanians in socialist Yugoslavia, because if colonialism is about anything it is surely about violence.

So trying not to do any of those things: not be Yugoamnesiac, not be Yugonostalgic, but also not Yugosplain or be too Yugocentric, that’s how I want to proceed.

There is a body of scholarship that looks at post-socialist spaces through a post-colonial lens. What do you think of it? 

Some of the people doing this work are my friends, so I need to be a bit careful. I was drawn to it at first, because it became the trendy topic. But it also got complicated. Was the Soviet Union an empire? Did it dominate the Baltic states in the same way that the United Kingdom dominated India? No, but you can use it as a metaphor. 

But that’s when the problems start. Once you start doing the metaphors “between the posts” [post-colonial and post-socialist], you end up in a tangle, because the postcolonial becomes so stretched it loses its analytical capacity. And we do need to remember that much of what is called postcolonial theory is based on literary studies. 

One of the things I really wanted to do was to say, let’s go beyond postcolonial theory and let’s look at what was actually going on, the histories and empirics. Let’s look at what I call decolonial affinities and the contradictory nature of those. Post-socialist, of course, is also such a dreadful term because it defines something by what it’s not. And actually, we need to talk about capitalism and different kinds of capitalism as well. We need to talk about the complexities and problems of transition. What kind of transition was it and what elements of the past still remain as imaginaries, in practice, in institutions, in the memories of people?

You discuss socialist Yugoslavia in the context of coloniality. What does it mean to look at socialist Yugoslavia “within and without coloniality,” as you put it in your lecture? 

I think it was Samir Amin, in his work on South Africa, who talked about internal colonialism. So you have a big nation state, an apartheid nation state, but you also have what are colonial relations, because you have political subjects and you have political objects. You have a group of people racialized and classified as such, who are excluded from political, economic and social power. 

This can be extended, it seems to me, to socialist Yugoslavia. You can see how a kind of internal colonialism could develop. And yet, you also have socialist Yugoslavia playing an important role in a decolonial movement, through acts of solidarity with liberation movements, but also through its participation in Non-Alignment.

Large numbers of students came from the Global South to Yugoslavia, but Yugoslav students didn't study in the Global South.

So this is one of the main contradictions of the Non-Aligned Movement.

I’m actually really interested in the contradictions, the unfolding of all of these multiple contradictions, which makes it impossible to develop a single narrative about all this stuff. This was not a popular research topic at all 10 years ago, but now there’s a lot of people, including young researchers, who have done PhDs on the topic and now are developing their academic careers. 

Activists are also quite interested in it. So it seems to me that it has now grown in importance, with people studying architecture, art, music and popular knowledge. There was a Non-Aligned news agency pool. So what was going on in journalism? What was going on in everyday life? What happened during student exchanges? Large numbers of students came from the Global South to Yugoslavia, but Yugoslav students didn’t go and study in the Global South. Pity. So the directionality really matters.

One of the central concepts of the Non-Aligned Movement was self-determination. In Kosovo, the party Lëvizja Vetëvendosje (“Self-determination Movement”) is currently in power. Have you been following how the concept of self-determination is articulated by Vetëvendosje in Kosovo? 

To my shame, I had not visited Kosovo since 2007. Back then, there did not seem to me to be any hope of a new kind of left democratic force emerging. It probably was there, but I didn’t see it. It’s not something that I hugely follow — and I do feel guilty about that. If you ask me about Serbian, Macedonian or Montenegrin politics it would be the same, partly because I’m really frustrated by the dominance in the discourse of the liberal think tank kind of people who only focus on the region in terms of the European Union integration process. I find this not only deeply problematic, but boring.

When it finally hit me that Vetëvendosje was the Albanian word for self-determination and self-determination was a key concept, some would argue the key concept, in the Non-Aligned Movement, then it felt to me like this was the kind of question that I wanted to ask. I can’t believe that the choice of the name of the party was completely innocent of or amnesiac about the Non-Aligned Movement as a way of nation-state building in a transnational context. 

This was both one of the most central but problematic concepts in socialist Yugoslavia because even if there was a concession by Serbian hegemony, that this might theoretically apply to the Republics, they would say that it didn’t apply for you from the autonomous provinces and in any case Kosovo’s autonomy was abolished. So let’s be clear in terms of the violence that that was.

Pan-Albanianism, is that so different from Pan-Africanism as a body of thought, a politico-ideological orientation?

But I think this is where it would be great to do more work about the resonance of Non-Alignment for different generations of activists here. Ibrahim Rugova was an internationalist I think. He was extraordinarily interested in movements outside this region and movements outside of Europe, although he was also very interested in French structuralism.

Pan-Albanianism, is that so different from Pan-Africanism as a body of thought, a politico-ideological orientation? Why is everyone so worried about Pan-Albanianism, as if it’s the most awful thing on the planet? I think there is a really complicated set of emotional responses going on here, which are about the myth of Western Europe as the haven of liberal democracy and progress.

In the lecture you said that there is this tendency of overusing the term decolonial. Can you elaborate more on what you mean by that?  

My position on this keeps shifting. I don’t want to reject the term. But I don’t want it to become a catch-all for everything. I don’t want it to become an empty signifier, because I think even neoliberalism has become an empty signifier. 

So, let’s think of decoloniality as a set of practices. If we’re talking about the Non-Aligned Movement, there was affinity with the anti-fascist liberation struggle in the Second World War, which, I know, was different in Kosovo, but it was still there. If we think of the resonance of that to the moment (and I use the word moment advisedly, because it was more than a moment, but it was less than an era in terms of coming to sovereignty, the coming to power of postcolonial states that have escaped from colonialism), you can pose different kinds of questions.

It was a moment and an affinity that was deeply productive, albeit in contradiction. There were real connections. There was the connection between Tito and Senegalese President Senghor, the women’s rights activist Vida Tomšič and Sirimavo Bandaranaike from Sri Lanka, feminist movements, artists, cultural workers, architects, students. We can’t erase these from history. But we cannot assume that they were automatically anti-racist. They were deeply contradictory and complex.

The legacies of socialisms in the Balkans are complex and because of that, for quite some time, it has been difficult to do leftist politics in the aftermath. 

I’m writing something now about the Croatian left after independence and realizing that in the 1990s, if you were left wing, you either were silent, or you were silenced, or marginalized, or you sublimated your left politics into culture and into NGOs focused on human rights, minority rights and LGBT rights. But you couldn’t really say you were left. Later that changed. There were people rereading Marx and holding discussions and seminars on Marxism.

Legacy is important, but is also a double-edged sword because Yugoslav sociology didn’t really deal with class properly. They really didn’t deal with economics. They read early Marx and they wanted early Marx, the humanist Marx — the Marx of the theory of alienation and not the Marx of commodity fetishism and exploitation. Nobody then was doing a neo-marxist critique of Yugoslav economics. 

In the 1990s, if you were left wing in Croatia, you either were silent, or you were silenced.

So you have this real problem then for a re-emergent left. And where does it look for its inspiration? I think I’m going to argue that what they began to look at were the kind of stars of intellectual leftism: David Harvey, Hardt and Negri, and Slavoj Žižek. Not the most promising starting points, in my opinion.

And actually what is important about this region is to try to understand how market socialism became more market than socialism, and the League of Communists of Yugoslavia became deeply bureaucratized, technicist and managerialist. And yet, there were still spaces for some grassroots organizing but those were closed down often and quickly. Of course, the ’80s was just repressive in Kosovo, chaotic everywhere, with the introduction of austerity and neoliberalism. And then we know what happened afterwards.

The war in Ukraine has had an immense economic impact in Europe and all over the globe. What do the global intersecting crises have to teach us about social policies?

Nancy Fraser [American academic philosopher] wrote about intersecting crises. So you have global warming, an ecological crisis, a crisis of care, particularly in our region, but in wider Europe as well. An aging population, living longer, but not living healthier lives. Then you have the pandemic, and now the war in Ukraine. All of them constitute a cumulative set of crises, which actually has reinforced global inequality and inequality within countries.

They also introduced a new geopolitics. Although the United States and the European Union are kind of hegemonic, they’re not fully hegemonic. The Russian Federation is playing out a kind of loss of hegemony, and therefore, is engaged in a fruitless attempt to recreate an empire, a fiefdom, who knows? You’ve got China playing an important role, both diplomatically but also in terms of investments and the Belt and Road Initiative, and so on.

So you’ve got a really complicated set of conditions, which require a new kind of transnational social policy. So if you and I move from one country to another, why can’t we take our social rights with us? Why can’t we have portable social rights? Why do social rights have to be based on citizenship? Can we think not only of universal basic income, but also services?

One of the tragedies for me in Kosovo is that although some elements of social policy have developed really well, services have not developed. If there are services, they are only for those who can afford them. For more universal services you either have to queue, or you have to use connections. Or the standards are incredibly low because services just for the poor tend to be poor services.

What the pandemic has taught us is that we need to look at necropolitics — the idea that if health is a scarce resource, powerful people decide who lives and who dies and then there are always intersectional hierarchies. They’re also about age, and they’re also about disability. For example, it’s good that children with severe disabilities, who live at home with their families in Kosovo, receive an allowance. But if that money can’t buy decent services, it’s nothing more than, “we’re very sorry that you have a severely disabled child, here is this compensation.” That’s not a service. So I would want to see a network of universal quality social services.

Have you followed the recent social policies implemented in Kosovo that specifically target women and children? What do you think of these measures? 

The first time I engaged with Kosovo was about social policy. The U.K. Government was working with the World Bank on strengthening Centers for Social Work, trying to think about what social benefits should look like. So I did follow it very carefully then. And, of course, I was appalled by the fact that the pension scheme was designed by a couple of Americans, and was really about offshore pension funds designed in such a way that elected politicians could not change it for several years. 

I followed a little bit of what was going on later and I think that there are incredibly progressive measures. I was lobbying with UNICEF for Child Benefit schemes in Kosovo and Albania. Now Kosovo has some kind of child benefit so many years later, so these changes are really important.

There was a racist child care program in socialist Yugoslavia. In Macedonia and I think in Kosovo. You could only get child allowances for the first two or three children. And we know what that was about, it was about a perception that Albanians had a high natality rate. The irony is that people like Vida Tomšič and some others were campaigning in the United Nations against a Malthusian understanding — that the problem of underdevelopment is having too many children. But were they intervening in this debate within Yugoslavia?

Do you think that there was a Malthusian discourse present in socialist Yugoslavia? 

Yes, I do. And they didn’t notice it. And it didn’t even have to be explicit.

This seems connected to the racialization of Albanian ethnicity in Yugoslavia.

Yes, because race is not an essence. Racialization is a process of building hierarchies based on ascribed beings and it’s not that Albanians look darker skinned. It’s the fact that there is this categorization, which is essentially racialized. This is Piro Rexhepi’s set of arguments. Therefore, there is internal colonialism. There was apartheid in Yugoslavia, though maybe that’s going too far. It is really important that although the clash between two versions of Slavism, the Croatian and the Serbian ones, was never resolved in Yugoslavia, the issue of non-Slavic peoples, Albanians and also Roma, was also never resolved. 

Therefore, the punishment of an underclass, the creation of an underclass, the systematic kicking out of people from jobs in public services, was really problematic. This is why I think it was certainly racialized.

But we need to look at uneven development. The statistics I presented show that Kosovo was relatively worse off by 1989 than it had been in 1949 in relation to other parts of Yugoslavia. It’s a testament to the failure of the building of a Yugoslav modernizing developmentalist project.

What do you think is the Non-Aligned Movement’s legacy and relevance for activism and progressive internationalism today?

As an institutional body, the Non-Aligned Movement has no relevance. But as a symbol of transnational decolonial affinity, as a progressive internationalism that is not Eurocentric, it does. I do think that the idea of a moral order, a set of values that are not going to be sacrificed on the altar of realpolitik is quite important. If there was no veto in the UN Security Council, if we had complete nuclear disarmament, if we had really enshrined the rights to self-determination of states and peoples, we might not be in the mess that we’re in now. 

But of course, that’s utopian. Politics is always realpolitik. But for me, what’s interesting, even in that moment of socialist Yugoslavia, protecting its own interests, finding new markets, you do find genuine solidarity, a willingness to understand what’s going on in Africa, beyond racialized and racist stereotypes. It was a moment, it didn’t last long enough, it wasn’t deep enough, it didn’t extend to people’s everyday lives, or if it did, it was very quickly erased.

I wrote this text for the Progressive International, which argues that the legacy cannot be found in the institutional structure, but in some of the demands, discourses and claims, which are about self-determination and peaceful resolution of conflicts. They’re about why we should get rid of nuclear weapons, not only because we don’t want to be destroyed, but because if we get rid of them, we’ll have money to spend on social programs. I think those things are pretty important for progressive internationalism today. We need to go beyond a bi-polar world and we need solidarities that go beyond Europe.

We need to reconnect with that progressive internationalism, to really take colonialism and neo-colonialism seriously, as well as to think about lessons that might be relevant from parts of the world other than Europe.

This article has been edited for length and clarity. The conversation was conducted in English.

Feature image: McGill-Queen’s University Press.

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