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Don’t Mourn, Balkanize

by PAUL BUHLE

Don’t Mourn, Balkanize!  Essays After Yugoslavia.
By Andrej Grubacic, Introduction by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz. Oakland: PM Books, 269pp, $20.

This is a splendid time for the North American reader to meet the extraordinary Andrej Grubacic. After something of a letdown following the Seattle 1999 events– including what many of us perceived as an ideology-driven sectarian turn–anarchists are back in the news with the Occupations. No, not the anarchism of Bakunin or even Bookchin, but anarchism in a new key as well as a new generation, more practical and more open.

Grubacic, the natural citizen of an exterminated  republic (Yugoslavia) happens to be the grandson of one of Tito’s key aides and a founder of the Non-Aligned Movement that sought unsuccessfully to break the lock of the Russians and Americans over world affairs. Faced first with the break-up of Yugoslavia, then the radiation-spewing population-bombings of NATO setting the model for future “humanitarian intervention,” he found his intellectual footing in what I would call anarcho-syndicalism. He also found himself out of a job, and made his way to SUNY Binghamton, aided by Noam Chomsky and then Immanuel Wallerstein. Since then, he has emerged as a theorist and activist in several quarters, all of them vital.  If he was not in the front line with Occupation, he was in the second line of innovative thinkers; with Staughton Lynd, meanwhile, he posed (in the book Wobblies and Zapatistas) ways for the return of an IWW-style politics of labor and community that could logically be called Syndicalism (although Wobblies almost never did).

Don’t Mourn, Balkanize!  reflects one or two of his predilections less well-known than his espousal of anarchist organizational notions (mostly in Z-Net) and his running commentaries in various places on the emergence and significance of Occupations. It would be a mistake to see one subject as distant from another. He is looking for a wholesale reconstruction of politics along voluntary, collectivist lines, across all the usual borders; and behind a tough analysis, he is looking for what we now Old New Leftists used to call the beloved community, ways of linking human beings in urgent need of solidarity, making possible the solution of problems faced on the planet.

There is a backstory that does not quite emerge in these pages but deserves a mention. Slovenians and their partners (or rivals), Croats, were once vital forces in the American working class Left, and  their cooperative movements, through ethnic halls and fraternal associations, outlasted most of the rest of the blue collar Left across a scattering of states. Until recent times, tamburitza bands played to good-sized audiences (driving in from the suburbs, most likely) in Croatian Halls that had back rooms with libraries and portraits of Karl Marx. Slovenian votes, it was said, provided the margin of victory for Richard Trumka in the United Mine Workers, and projected his rise at the moment when the AFL’s corrupt, thuggish leaders had lost their sway. Scarcely aware of this ethnic history of labor struggle and cooperative efforts, Grubacic is a descendent in many ways.

First of all, for any post-Yugoslavian radical, there is the need for refurbished collaboration among Croats, Slovenians, Serbs and others who once lived in a state together, not without resentments but without fratricide. In  Grubacic’s critique, the CIA and State Department played upon centuries of distrust, adding hundreds of millions of dollars of fuel to the flames, then sweeping down relentlessly, pitting one nationality against another.

Yugoslavia, he emphasizes, was always a dream of the Balkans, never quite a reality despite the victory over Fascism and the Tito decades to follow. The fragility of the model, a kind of market state-socialism with a bureaucratic class ruling over others, was bound to come apart, although without the global market stress and CIA operations, it would have lasted longer and perhaps evolved into something better.  The dark side of the Balkans, a kind of escape valve for the Western European imagination with rugged landscapes, pirates or the Robin Hood type (or the opposite, today’s drug-dealers and sex-traders), was the veritable opposite of Victorian England or pre-Hitler Germany. The darkness was as much cause or hope as despair, and like victims of the other kinds of colonialism, a lifting of the pre-modern shackles seemed the key task of socialists, then communists. No leftwingers in Europe, at least, faced bigger problems of ethnic rivalries and old grudges.

Grubacic offers hope for a voluntary, cooperative future for something we might (or might not) call Yugoslavia, and this is a hope for all the rest of humankind. He does so with a precision of detail that no review can capture, but with a kindliness, an openness to possibility and a resistance of dogma, that anarcho-syndicalism or anarchism of a new kind looks as promising on the page as in the Occupation. Quite an accomplishment.

Paul Buhle is a retired senior lecturer of history and American civilization at Brown University, a Distinguished Lecturer at the Organization of American Historians and American Studies Association, the founder of Radical America magazine, and the founder and former director of New York University’s Oral History of the American Left archive. He is also the recipient of the 2010 Will Eisner Award for The Art of Harvey Kurtzman. He lives in Madison, Wisconsin.

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Paul Buhle is a retired historian, and co-founder, with Scott Molloy, of an oral history project on blue collar Rhode Islanders.

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