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Irving Howe

World Politics

The Yugoslav Episode

(12 July 1948)

From Labor Action, Vol. 12 No. 28, 12 July 1948, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The most important fact about the Tito episode is not the immediate consequences it may have. The most important fact, in our estimation, is simply this: that it happened.

The modern totalitarian state, with its unprecedented control of public and private life and its seeming rock-like invincibility, wishes above all else to nurture the notion that it tolerates no dissensions in its ranks and permits no opposition among those it rules. Not merely that it tolerates no dissension and permits no opposition – even more, that such dissension and opposition are literally impossible.

And on the surface there seems to be plausible enough grounds for believing this notion to be true. When Hitler proclaimed that his state would last a thousand years, there were not a few political writers and analysts who more or less took him at his word. In this country the erratic James Burnham, who in little more than a decade rushed through various political centers while violently slamming doors behind him, played with the notion that the Nazi totalitarian state was invincible and a portent of an “inevitable” trend to come. In France certain socialist politicians were so impressed by the durability of Nazism that they even evolved a theory that it was necessary to give up outright opposition, as being in any case a mere futile gesture, and to enter into the Nazi movement, there to try to influence – no doubt, “humanize” – it.

The Myth of Invincibility

But it is a remarkable fact that just at the point where the great totalitarian states have seemed at their strongest, the point where they seemed to rule without challenge or hindrance, some dramatic event has taken place which showed the weakness of their foundations and the possibilities for destroying them. When Hitler, it seemed, had conquered all of Europe and destroyed a generation of socialists, there arose the national movements in the occupied countries. When Mussolini seemed finally to have saddled himself firmly onto the back of the Italian people, the Ethiopian war showed how flimsy and decayed his regime was. And now, when Stalinism has conquered Eastern Europe and extended its power throughout the world, there comes the Tito blowup.

Even if tomorrow the Yugoslavs completely surrender to Moscow’s will; or even if tomorrow the quarrel is ended by some sort of compromise; or even if tomorrow the Russians succeed, in one way or another, in driving Tito out and replacing him by a more servile representative in Belgrade – even then, from Moscow’s point of view, the damage has been done. At least one corner of the Iron Curtain has been shown to be pretty rusty. The myth of Moscow invincibility, which at the moment is so much more alluring than Hitler’s invincibility (both for the neo-Stalinists preparing to serve as quislings and for the Stalinophobes preparing to drop, or rather having dropped, atom bombs) is shattered. Where there is social coercion, social despotism and inequality – where there is a partnership between the big thief and the little one – there disputes and dissensions MUST break out.

If we understand this much, then it is possible more soberly to estimate the significance of the Tito affair. The likelihood is that, in one way or another, the breach between Moscow and Belgrade will be narrowed. For the requirements of the current European situation, which drive both Russia and Yugoslavia, make it impossible for Yugoslavia long to remain outside the Russian orbit while simultaneously making it virtually incredible that Tito should line up with the West. As for the Russians, they are limited in what they can do against Tito. To march in with troops would be such a disastrous political move that its disadvantages would far outweigh the likelihood of thus driving out Tito. Besides that, it must not be forgotten that Tito has a considerable army at his disposal. It seems incredible that the dispute will lead to armed struggle. Most likely, the Russians will try gradually to build up an anti-Tito bloc in the Yugoslav ruling party and edge the present leadership out.

Both the Russians and the Yugoslavs are limited in the extent to which they can move against each other, for they must always remember that if they do not stand together they may hang separately. Some sort of rapprochement is therefore the most likely outcome of the quarrel – a rapprochement which may then be hailed as proof of the “democracy” in the Stalinist movement ...

It is possible to overestimate the immediate consequences of the split between Stalin and Tito. But it would be difficult to overestimate the ultimate or symptomatic significance of the split.

For there must be very deep-rooted reasons indeed for the Kremlin’s denunciation of the Yugoslavs. Otherwise, why should the long statement have been issued precisely at the time when a death struggle with the Western powers was taking place in Berlin? Why issue the statement now, unless from the Kremlin’s point of view the situation had become so “bad” that it can no longer be delayed?

Fissures of Disintegration

What then were the issues in dispute? Here there are a host of speculations, none of them mutually exclusive. Tito was getting “too big for his breeches.” Perhaps. The Yugoslavs need machinery and other industrial aid which Russia cannot provide them, and were therefore turning with hungry eyes to the possibilities of Marshall Plan aid. Perhaps. The Yugoslav regime was not collectivizing its agriculture at the pace desired by Moscow. Most unlikely – who can believe that Stalin is worried about some independent peasants in Yugoslavia so long as a regime subservient to him remains firmly in power?

What all these speculations add up to, however, is a fundamental development. So soon as the Stalinist agents and quislings become firmly entrenched in power, so soon as they begin to satisfy some of their own appetites as well as helping their Imperialist masters, they begin to yearn for a more favorable division of spoils, a greater degree of independence.

And so the little Bonapartist strutter, Tito, now that he has an army of nearly a half million men, begins to develop imperialist ambitions of his own. Perhaps a little raid into Austria? Perhaps insistence on clinging to Trieste even when the Russians may consider it advisable to yield Trieste to Italy in order to win an election there? Perhaps a raid into Bulgaria? Or, better yet, perhaps a federation of all the little Balkan dependencies in which he, Tito, and his gang are certain to be the big frogs? A Balkan federation which would formally continue to pay obeisance to the “beloved leader” in Moscow while simultaneously edging out from under his rough fist – that might be nice, eh?

In any case, whatever the specific occasion for the break, whatever the immediate means of taping it together – it has taken place. Stalinism remains as a blight on the earth. But the fissures or its own disintegration have begun to appear, and though it grow more powerful those fissures will remain and deepen. For our part, let us drive deep and fatal wedges.

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