Class Reductionism Ethical Socialism vs Marxism

Ethnic breakup of Communist Yugoslavia shows the folly of class reductionism

May 7, 2021

Class reductionism is the belief in certain quarters on the left that collective action will magically end all racism. In other words, working together towards common goals in a labor union, tenants union, worker-owned cooperative, or some other struggle in solidarity will be all that is needed to end racism for good.

Let’s be really clear–this is not a straw man. My most recent firsthand experience was my chapter’s book club reading of Dog Whistle Politics. A Trotskyist said that if everyone joined a labor union, racism would quickly become a thing of the past. I’m sure you have experience with this point of view in your chapter.

A major part of the Ethical Socialist Caucus platform is that we reject class reductionism. That part of our platform reads:

Capitalism creates an environment that stokes the flames of prejudice, but capitalism did not create these prejudices, nor will they automatically disappear with capitalism. Prejudice cannot be defeated through worker control of the means of production alone, and ethical socialism is a call to end all forms of inequality, regardless of their nature, by building a world where we all see each other as friends and equals.

Collective action may be necessary–but not sufficient–to end racism. It’s not hard to find examples of the class reductionist idea not working, but probably none as dramatic as the breakup of Communist Yugoslavia.

The Communist Party vs Nazi Occupation

Yugoslavia’s history of collective action led by leftists really got started in World War II. The Yugoslavian resistance — known as the Yugoslav Partisans — was far and away the most effective resistance force of the entire conflict. Winston Churchill had this to say about the Partisans:

It was a lamentable fact that virtually no supplies had been conveyed by sea to the 222,000 followers of Tito. … These stalwarts were holding as many Germans in Yugoslavia as the combined Anglo-American forces were holding in Italy south of Rome. … Considering that the Partisans had given us such a generous measure of assistance at almost no cost to ourselves, it was of high importance to ensure that their resistance was maintained and not allowed to flag.

Yugoslavia was the only country in the entire globe-spanning conflict to liberate itself. The Partisans faced down the German war machine, badly outgunned; they literally assaulted tanks on foot. In spite of all odds, the Partisans won.

Some history is necessary: around the world, from Japan to Europe to the United States, fascism was extremely powerful and influential. Yugoslavia was no different. The two most important Yugoslavian fascist groups were the Croatian fascists, known as the Ustase, and the Serbian fascists, known as the Chetniks. All of the ethnic groups of Yugoslavia had their own fascist group; the one thing these fascists held in common was a desire to kill everyone in Yugoslavia of an ethnicity different from them, as well as all Yugoslavians on the left.

In the countries the Axis powers (Germany, Italy, and Japan) conquered, they installed puppet governments. Because Germany and Serbia had been enemies in World War I, the Nazis chose to install Croatians as their puppet regime. Unfortunately for the Nazis, the Croatian army was not loyal to them, and at times openly cooperated with the Partisans.

Fortunately for the Nazis, they didn’t need the Croatian military; Yugoslavian fascists of all ethnicities were eager to collaborate.

The Croatian fascists — the Ustase — were the Nazis’ favorite Yugoslavian fascists, and they helped the Ustase to set up concentration camps. The Jasenovac concentration camp was one of the largest extermination camps of the entire war. At those camps, the Ustase set about killing as many people as they could: mostly Serbs,* but many Partisans (including Croatian Partisans) and those of other ethnicities.

The consensus among historians is that had the Nazis allowed them to, the Serbian fascists — the Chetniks — would have opened their own concentration camps and killed as many Yugoslavians of other ethnicities and Serbian leftists as possible. Given the opportunity, the Chetniks would have done exactly as the Ustase did. Like the Nazis and Ustase, the Chetniks were fascists and openly supported ethnic cleansing and genocide. Furthermore, the Allies stopped sending military aid to the Chetniks after it became clear that they were simply collaborating with the Nazis. One might think that the millions of Serbian concentration camp victims would have moved the Serbian fascists to fight the Nazis, but it didn’t; the Serbian fascists had more in common with the other fascists of the war than they did with ordinary Serbs. While they weren’t able to kill at the scale of the Ustase, the Chetniks nevertheless killed as many Croatians and Muslims as they could get away with; they also fought sholder-to-shoulder with Nazi occupying forces against the Partisans.

Meanwhile, the only people in Yugoslavia fighting the Nazis were the Partisans. The Partisans were officially the military wing of the Yugoslavian Communist Party, and the Communists had always refused to recognize the legitimacy of ethnic differences. To join, you had to agree that those of other ethnicities and religions were your equals, and to fight alongside them (these ideals weren’t always met, but usually they were). While the fascists were busy killing anyone they could who was of a different ethnicity (or a Partisan of their own ethnicity), Partisans of all ethnicities of Yugoslavia fought together, side by side. Adherents of all the religions of Yugoslavia fought as Partisans: Orthodox Christian, Catholic, Muslim, and Jewish.

Due to their bravery and their willingness to set aside ethnic and religious differences, the Yugoslavian Partisans were far and away the most effective resistance force of the entire war. Yugoslavia was the only country in the entire conflict to liberate itself.

A collectivist economy

In a previous post, I wrote at length about Communist Yugoslavia’s economy after the war, and don’t need to repeat this information here. In brief, the Yugoslavian economy was collective action: the only legal form of company was a worker-owned cooperative. Anyone who worked was thus engaged in collective action through a worker-owned cooperative.

Back to the slaughter

When Yugoslavian Communism collapsed, Yugoslavia violently fractured into several ethnostates during a decade of on-and-off wars. These wars were so gruesome that the UN established a criminal tribunal whose only task was to investigate war crimes committed during the 1990s in Yugoslavia. These atrocities included ethinic cleansing and massacres like the infamous one at Srebrenica.

According to the class reductionist argument, collective action is enough to overcome all forms of discrimination. But Yugoslavia had half a century of intense collective action — first, fighting side-by-side with those of other ethnicities and religions in an especially brutal theater of WWII, then in worker-owned cooperatives. Yet all this collective action was not enough to overcome latent ethnic hatred.

Additionally, the right had been spectacularly discredited. The Serbian right had been openly collaborating with the Nazis, and the Croatian right had been operating one of the largest concentration camps of WWII. Yet people who were literally Nazi collaborators a few decades prior were now in charge. It wasn’t merely that people had half a century of collective action under their belts; the alternative was the far right who had been responsible for many of the horrors of WWII.

The justification for breaking up Yugoslavia — and the wars of the 1990s — was the idea that Yugoslavians of different religions and ethnicities are incapable of getting along; ethnic cleansing is the only option. It’s perplexing that the Yugoslavian right was able to convince so many this was true when, just decades prior, the Yugoslav Partisans were a highly effective force, integrated by ethnicity and religion. And for centuries, Yugoslavians of different ethnicities and relgions coexisted happily; how else could the many ethnically and religiously varied cities and regions have come to exist in the first place?

The Yugoslav Partisans are an inspiring story. Their courage is nearly without parallel in world history; their refusal to recognize divisions of ethnicity or religion brings us hope for our own future; their elevation of women as equals to men is moving. But it didn’t last; Yugoslavia violently split along ethnic lines, returning to the horrors of WWII (albeit on a much smaller scale). Yugoslavia offers us lessons we need to learn about the promise — and limitations — of collective action to overcome hate and discrimination.

Image: Insignia of the Chetniks

*Because Serbs were the primary victims of these concentration camps, Serbs disproportionately joined the Partisans.