Early this year the New Reasoner was invited by the Jugoslav Press Attache in London to send a member of the Editorial Board to visit Jugoslavia this summer as a guest of the Government. Michael Barratt Brown, who was selected to go, spent nearly three years in the country with the Jugoslav mission of UNRRA from 1944–1947. He spent just over three weeks in Jugoslavia, travelled 2,500 miles by road, rail and sea through four of the six republics and visited a wide range of mines, factories, power stations, farms, co-operatives, housing communities and committees at every level from the Federal Government to the smallest parish. The article that follows is the first of two; the second will deal in greater detail with the functioning of Workers’ Councils within the planned economy.
The Jugoslavs are what they are because of their whole past history, not merely because of the history of the last ten years. Indeed, they suffer like other unhappy lands that lie on the marches of great Empires from having too much history. To have broken the ‘chain of blood’(footnote1), to have united the South Slav peoples and thus freed themselves from the trammels of their past—this is the first supreme achievement of the Jugoslav communists.
Once again the Jugoslavs stand uneasily between East and West. No one who knew them well should really have expected them to fit in compliantly with Stalin’s plans for Soviet-Jugoslav joint stock companies for developing Jugoslavia’s economy or to accept slavishly the Soviet model for every aspect of their political life or to come to heel when the Cominform condemned them. Nor should we have expected that in seeking aid from the West they would have made any important concessions.
It is one of the advantages of sitting between East and West that the Jugoslavs have drawn upon the knowledge and experience of all countries in their development. They have most sensibly used a considerable part of their foreign currency earnings to send their own experts to study and attend conferences abroad. From the Russians they learnt the essentials of planning and applied this in their first Five Year Plan to develop their basic heavy industries—steel, coal and power—to get them over the hump of the industrial revolution. From the west they have since learnt to leave the market for consumer goods sufficiently free and competitive to give real consumer choice. From the Russians they learnt to make sensible, sturdy machines to last; from the West they have learnt the value of style and line.
The result is that the cars which they manufacture under licence from Fiat, the tractors and farm implements which they build under licence from Massey Harris are solid, serviceable products that have a good line. It is the same with their buildings, furniture and clothing. Their architects are well acquainted with the most advanced work in the West and have developed really imaginative use of shapes, colours and patterns of light and shade in glass and concrete, while their engineers have adapted the best Russian building techniques. Furniture is solid, but beautifully designed having the clean lines and craftsman’s feel for materials of the best Finnish and Swedish work. Their clothes are well cut—Italian designers have been employed by many clothing factories—but they are also made to wear well. The traditional feel of the peasant for good material and fine colours has not been lost, as it so often is, in the industrial revolution. The one tragedy is that the haunting peasant songs so beautifully sung in the mountains and on the coast are being insidiously eroded by the tin-pan rhythm of Elvis Presley and his like on the radio and in the cinemas. In the memorials to the Partisans which have been raised in nearly every town and village and which have given glorious opportunities to young sculptors and architects there is often an astonishing mixture of modern abstract forms and a socialist realism in the figures that never quite descends to the vulgar heroics of the Russians. The magazine Jugoslavia, which is by far the most beautifully printed and produced of the sumptuous Socialist Glossies, combines a respect for the best in Jugoslavia’s past with an interest in contemporary experiment that is truly refreshing. At the same time it must be said that there remains from the Soviet period a certain rigidity in the cultural apparatus—payment of writers according to quantity of output, etc.
One of the fascinating aspects of Jugoslavia’s east-west position is the press reporting of world news. One may read in columns side by side the report of Tass or Pravda and of the Associated Press or New York Times on the same event. This is sometimes highly amusing: I had much pleasure from reading the varying accounts of Mr. Nixon’s meetings sith Mr. Kruschov while I was in Jugoslavia. This dual approach certainly clarifies the mind wonderfully and leaves the reader convinced of the inanity of both the blocs.
The Jugoslavs should not, I believe, be thought of as a bridge or as mediators between East and West. They are neither by history nor temperament suited for such a role. Their attitude to West and East is “a plague on both your houses!” and the object of their foreign policy the breaking up rather than the bridging of the rigid blocs on either side. It is an obvious deduction from their own history!