Ljubica Spaskovska on 20th century socialist and non-aligned internationalism

Ljubica Spaskovska (Exeter) is one of our two CSMCH-IASH Visiting Fellows this year. During her time at Edinburgh, she has been working on a new project on socialist and non-aligned internationalism. She shared some of her preliminary findings at the CSMCH seminar last week. Rory Scothorne was there to hear her speak and he sends this report. You can also find out more about Ljubica’s work by listening to her in conversation with Centre director, Emile Chabal, on the CSMCH podcast or by following the Audiomack link below.

The popular association of the Balkans with provincial fractiousness is so entrenched that the region has become the go-to verb for territorial disintegration. Ljubica Spaskovska’s talk on the Yugoslav roots of non-aligned socialist internationalism provided a stimulating contribution to recent efforts to de-provincialise Balkan history, in this case emphasising the global role of Yugoslav radicals who made the leap from student comrades, to partisan guerillas, and finally to influential diplomats within the Non-Aligned Movement and the United Nations.

Exploring Yugoslavia’s place within wider narratives of twentieth-century internationalism also allowed Ljubica to reassess the ‘metageographies’ of the Cold War, escaping the traditional binary of socialist and liberal internationalism and – through Yugoslavia’s role in the NAM – drawing the Global South back into questions of European internationality. In this account, Yugoslavia featured as a model for forms of transnational integration and cooperation that did not impinge on territorial autonomy but sought to reinforce it.

The Non-Aligned Movement emerged over the 1950s and was formally established in 1961, as postcolonial states – usually vaguely socialist – sought to assert themselves in the international sphere on their own terms, struggling against dependency on either the Western or Eastern blocs of the Cold War. Ljubica located the origins of this alternative internationalist imaginary in the radical student internationalism of the 1930s, organised through World Youth Conferences in Geneva and New York.

At this point, Yugoslavia already stood out within European student radicalism; while many of interwar Europe’s young intellectuals were drawn towards right-wing nationalism or fascism, Eric Hobsbawm noted that Yugoslav Communists were the ‘great exception’. In different ways, student comrades like Ivo Ribar Lola – the ‘Yugoslav Che Guevara’ – and Koca Popovic went on to play crucial roles in the Yugoslav vision of non-alignment, with Lola becoming a mythical figure after his death in a 1943 bombing raid and Popovic becoming minister of foreign affairs under Tito.

Ljubica seemed to downplay World War 2 itself, focusing instead on prewar roots and postwar trajectories, but the partisan battles of the war were nevertheless crucial in embedding the internationalism of the World Youth Conferences back into their local contexts. From the cosmopolitan space of the conference floor in Geneva or New York to national struggles against fascism, the politics of internationalism and nation-building were placed into close dialogue with one another.

National experiences fed back into internationalism. Ljubica suggested that the large Yugoslav contingent in the UN’s peacekeeping mission in Egypt during the Suez crisis was a legacy of their sizeable partisan forces, with peacekeeping offering a new means of fusing military engagement with progressive political intent. Yugoslavia’s engagement with the Non-Aligned Movement’s ‘medical internationalism’ can also be viewed as a consequence of domestic experiences: support for red cross centres and prefab hospitals for refugees in Tunisia and Morocco during the Algerian struggle against French colonialism was in part a legacy of the heroic myth of rescuing ‘the wounded’ that emerged from the Yugoslav partisan movement.

Yugoslavia also participated in international cultures of expertise – a ‘technocratic internationalism’ – facilitated by the NAM. In the aftermath of the Skopje earthquake in 1963, the UN Special Fund project established to assist with reconstruction provided inspiration for town planners as far afield as Plymouth, interpreted by Ljubica as an attempt to build a ‘modernist utopia’ through wide-ranging popular consultation. This ‘developmental modernism’ fed into the United Nations Development Programme, reflecting the broader emphasis of the NAM on progressive development priorities. Other key elements of the NAM fed into UN projects that endure today, such as the 1977 protocols to the Geneva Convention – reflecting the experience of the Algerian war – but some were more fragile and contested.

The NAM’s demand for a New International Economic Order, which conquered the UN General Assembly in the 1970s, developed alongside a weakening of the Assembly’s influence on international relations as the major powers ignored its agenda. The UN Centre on Transnational Corporations was established to study the role of TNCs after their involvement in the coup against Chile’s Salvador Allende, but its efforts to devise a code of conduct were stymied by the reassertion of American and corporate power in the 1980s.

The massive expansion of sovereign indebtedness between 1974 and 1981 (from 3 to 32 countries in external arrears) was part of a profound shift in the global balance of power, from the tense ambiguity of the 1970s to the consolidation of US hegemony as the Cold War entered its endgame. The emergence of the ‘Washington Consensus’ on development framed the UNCTC’s code of conduct as a ‘relic of another era’, and while many hoped the UN might challenge the growing complicity of the IMF and World Bank in the debt-based subordination of the Global South, the UN and NAM were relatively powerless in the face of a rejuvenated neoliberal order. Yet Ljubica’s reflections on more recent developments emphasised the enduring influence of the NAM: the UN’s sustainable development agenda has its roots in the New International Economic Order ideals of the 1970s, and in 2014 the Human Rights Commission began negotiations to create a new binding code of conduct for TNCs.

Ljubica’s conclusion emphasised these present-day legacies of the NAM, though, as Vladimir Unkovski-Korica (Glasgow) pointed out in his comment, it would have been interesting to hear more about where the peoples of the former Yugoslavia fit in. The post-79 transformation of global capitalism reshaped the options available to states – both in terms of their international associations and their domestic agendas – and this surely played a role in the fate of Yugoslavia and its successors.

In the question and answer session following Ljubica’s talk, one audience member asked about the role of an internationalism that rejected the national unit altogether. Ljubica’s response emphasised an entanglement of nationalism and internationalism that characterised the twentieth century experience of both. Her distinction between internationalism and a more ‘utopian’ cosmopolitanism is valuable, but can also be problematised. Nationalism is, after all, often driven by intellectuals whose own national identities are forged in part through those cosmopolitan spaces discussed above. At ‘world’ conferences, metropolitan universities and global institutions, the lingua francas and universalist political agendas of a transnational ‘imagined community’ must be translated out of, and back into, particular territorial situations and discourses.

What stands out about the NAM’s origins and agendas, as articulated by Ljubica, was its vision of a distinctive relationship between the national and international, whereby internationalism could only work if it could ensure the autonomy and consent of participating nations. Forged in resistance to the increasingly coercive, imperial internationalisms of East and West, this model of ‘embedded’ internationalism may still offer one way out of our current impasse between ‘globalists’ and the nativist far right.

Rory Scothorne is a PhD student in History. His research interests lie broadly in the history of social movements, the development and contestation of the public sphere in the twentieth century, and the political thought of the radical left. His thesis focuses on the relationship between the radical left and Scottish nationalism from 1968 to 1992.