In August 1984, six Yugoslav intellectuals—Pavle Imširović, Gordan Jovanović, Vladimir Mijanović, Miodrag Milić, Milan Nikolić and Dragomir Olujić—were charged jointly with forming a ‘counter-revolutionary organization aimed at the overthrow of the constitutional order’. In reality, all the six had in common was that they had taken part in a number of ‘Free University’ discussions: informal meetings initiated as far back as 1975 by members of the editorial board of Praxis when that journal was banned, and hitherto tolerated by the authorities. After one such meeting in April 1984, some thirty people were arrested. They were subsequently released, but some had been beaten up while in custody. Following the death of one of these, a young worker named Radomir Radović, in highly suspicious circumstances, a petition signed by hundreds of intellectuals demanded a public inquiry.footnote1 The authorities reacted with new arrests, including on this occasion five of the ‘Belgrade Six’. Three of them—Imširović, Mijanović and Nikolić—went on hunger strike until they were released five weeks later, following widespread protests both within the country and from an impressive constellation of forces abroad, spanning West European trade unions, the Italian Communist Party, the German Greens, French, German, Austrian and Scandinavian Social-Democrats and the British Labour Party, as well as numerous artists and writers from the West European and North American left.

Mindful of the country’s complicated national pattern, the Western left has often neglected the Yugoslav authorities’ tough treatment of ‘nationalists’ (most recently following the repression of a revolt against poverty and backwardness in the Province of Kosovofootnote2), which has given the country a place near the top of the European league table so far as the number of its political prisoners is concerned.footnote3 This time, however, things were different, not just because the repression was directed against socialists—the three hunger strikers had been leaders of the student movement in 1968, for which honour they had paid with two-year prison sentences in the early seventies—but also because the trial of the Belgrade Six, and the arrests which preceded it, signalled the danger that, twenty years after the fall of Ranković, a much more authoritarian regime might once again be established.

The trial began on 5 November 1984 and closed four months later. In the week preceding the sentences, Imširović was freed unconditionally, while the case against Jovanović and Mijanović was suspended to a later date. Despite the fact that only the prosecution had been allowed to call witnesses, the accusation of ‘counter-revolutionary organization’ had collapsed. The remaining three defendants were now charged with ‘hostile propaganda’, on the basis of papers confiscated from their flats. The case against Nikolić rested on two texts: a seminar paper he had written for Ralph Miliband while on a postgraduate course at Brandeis University in 1982, and a copy of the article by Michele Lee on Kosovo which NLR published in the same year. On 4 February 1985 Milić was sentenced to two years, Nikolić to one year and a half and Olujić to one year in prison—all pending appeal. The NLR text was dismissed from the charge against Nikolić. He was found guilty not of ‘hostile propaganda’ but of ‘incorrectly’ portraying social and political conditions in Yugoslavia: of not being sufficiently patriotic before a foreign audience. His wife’s serious illness, the judge said in his summing up, alone had spoken in favour of a lighter sentence.

The no-man’s land which Yugoslavia has inhabited since 1948 has proved increasingly perilous for its leaders, now no longer able to rely on Tito’s authority or to supply the same kind of élan and inventiveness which helped the country to weather economic crises in the fifties and sixties. The great reservoir of goodwill and trust which the party enjoyed in the period running from 1941–5 up to 1974 appears now to have been largely squandered, through a deepening bureaucratization of the country’s political and economic structures. When, in the early fifties, the Yugoslav Communists responded to Stalin’s challenge by instituting self-management, and when a decade later they launched the non-aligned movement, they won wide respect from socialist and democratic forces throughout the world. Today, however, a deep malaise is evident in the country’s body politic. The trial of the Belgrade Six is but one example of this. Hope for the future can lie only in the combined forces of the working class, those currents in the League of the Communists still committed to the socialist self-managing project and the socialist intelligentsia: an alliance which alone could tap afresh the spirit that back in 1945 made Yugoslavia the home of the first successful European socialist revolution after October.

Milan Nikolić’s speech on the last day of his trial, which we publish below, is at once a testimony to Yugoslavia’s achievements and a harsh indictment of its leadership’s failures. Addressing himself to socialism’s great and abiding need for democracy, Nikolić is equally clear that only socialism can secure democracy’s full flowering. His message, and the programme he charts for socialism, transcends Yugoslavia’s frontiers and speaks directly to Western and Eastern Marxists alike. His insistence on the responsibility of the intelligentsia for seeing through the historic project of socialism recalls the promise of 1968, when—under the impact of the Cuban and Vietnamese revolutions—the left in both East and West appeared to wake up to its political tasks. In 1968 the Yugoslav authorities chose to ignore the voice of the country’s youth. In 1972 they sent its leaders to prison. A decade later they have condemned them to prison once more. But the message will not go away: either a democratic, self-managing socialism or a return to some variant of Stalinist or capitalist barbarism.