Copying the Soviet Imperial Narratives: Tito’s “third path” – a Neo-Avant-Garde of Marxism

After Versailles, the territories between the former Habsburg and Ottoman Empire were called, “intermediate Europe” (Zwischeneuropa). After World War I, new national states emerged here. It is here that after Word War II, the Soviet and the American zone of influence confronted one another. On the Balkans, and only for a short post-war moment, an uncertain equilibrium of both empires produced a vacuum of power at their outer frontiers. The Yugoslav Partisan leader Josip Broz Tito seized the opportunity to build up new federations, not only the Federative Communist Republic of Yugoslavia. In the first place, he planned a larger federation to include the Balkan and the Danube countries. The new empire of the ‘middle’ was to incorporate not only the Yugoslav republics as a summa partium, but also Bulgaria, Albania, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary, Romania and – after the expected victory of the Communists lead by general Marcos – also Greece. Up to 1947, Stalin and the Soviet system supported Tito entirely._1

On December 23 1947, the Yugoslav newspaper Republic dedicated a headline to contracts of friendship that had recently been signed in Pest and Bucharest, with Hungary and Romania respectively. The article prizes the Yugoslav federation of six republics “in the heart of the Danube and the Balkans as the first community of a new type.” This community had already proven to be organized in an efficient way. Yugoslavia, according to Republic, serves “as a model and centre of gatherings.” It evokes confidence and is predestined to lead the initiative of founding a larger community._2 The project of a future union is legitimized by a portrait of Stalin beside the article, accompanied by the text of Yugoslav congratulations to his 68th birthday. However, there is no photograph of Tito. Even without it, the cover page of Republic reiterates Stalin’s propaganda presenting the dictator over and over again in good company with Lenin. In 1947, Tito’s Lenin was Stalin.

In a Soviet encyclopaedia The Balkan counties published in 1946, there are only positive remarks about “the heroic Yugoslav peoples” to be found._3 Common enemies of the Balkan peoples, the Turks and the Nazis, had brought them together in “solidarity and brotherhood” and had inspired the “idea of a common Balkan federation.”_4 At the same time, the Soviet encyclopaedia claims that the Balkan emancipation had always been supported by the Russians, starting with the Russian-Turkish War 1877–78 and ending with their liberation after the Second World War. The authors declare that “a new era, characterised by a sincere friendship with the Soviet Union” had began on the Balkans. The imagined Balkan federation was supposed to be “the dawn of a new, bright epoch of the Balkan peoples.”_5

The dreamed-of larger Communist Balkan failed because of the ruthless Soviet politics of dominating the whole of Eastern Europe. Having survived the break with the Soviets, Tito, in 1954–55, invented, together with Nehru and Nasser, the non-alignment-movement whose participants in 1961 were labelled “the third world.” The Yugoslav leaders later pretended that the Soviets first used the term “the third path” in order to describe the Yugoslav deviation from the “right line.” During the 1950’s, however, Tito and his ideologists incorporated the term into their vocabulary and turned it into a positive slogan.

June 28 1948 was a symbolic date: everyone in Yugoslavia remembered the defeat, on the 28th of June in 1389, of the Serbs on the Kosovo Field against the Ottoman Empire. It was that day the Kominform chose to exclude Yugoslavia from the “harmonious family.” In their papers, both Soviet and Yugoslav politicians brought up old national myths and cultural stereotypes. In the public rhetoric, the current political situation was transposed into the past – back into the heroic times of the golden empires. The Soviets characterised the Yugoslav government as “a totally terrorist Turk system” (čisto tureckij, terorističeskij režim). The Yugoslavs, on the other hand, compared the Soviet Union with Tatars who plunder and enslave whole peoples._6 At the VIth Congress of the Yugoslav Communists, Tito compared Stalin’s methods with those of Jenghis Khan._7 His speech was translated into German and published as a booklet: “These are Asiatic methods that would make fade away Jenghis Khan’s glory.” But as China as well had become a new, independent empire, Tito decided to correct his first version. A sheet of paper advising to correct the sentence was put as an inlay into the booklet. The adjective “Asiatic” was erased. Underlined that way, the sentence had even a stronger effect than if it hadn’t been corrected.


Seite 25. Absatz von oben:

Der letzte Satz muß lauten:
„Dies sind Methoden, vor denen sogar Dschingis-Chans Ruhm verblaßt.“

Both opponents wanted to present each other as primitive, cruel and backward. The Yugoslavs claimed that in the Soviet Union, the resistance to reactionary powers, particularly to a merely peasant and despotic (Asiatic and tsarist) mentality, had contributed to the domination of the “state bureaucracy” (etatistischer Staatsbürokratismus). Thereby, Marxist theory could hardly have been realized. Yugoslavia, it was argued, could succeed earlier than the Soviets in taking the decisive steps on the way into Communism. Yugoslavia had already reached a more advanced stadium of Communism then the Soviet Union. In the Soviet Union, Molotov declared that the period of transition on the way towards Communism, predicted by Lenin, had already been ended, thereby inaugurating something like a post-historical situation. At the same time, the Yugoslavs analyzed the Soviet situation in terms of Russian history, explaining why, according to dialectic Marxism, Communism could not be fully realized in Russia._8 They presented themselves as post-Stalinists, who had already reached all the “étapes” towards Communism as described by Lenin. Tito masterfully used an enlightened rhetoric of critique in order to conceal his own dictatorship. At the same time, he de-Stalinized Yugoslavia by imprisoning Communists supposed to be philo-Russion in camps where most of them died. However, the de-Stalinization of the population between 1948 and at least 1953 was accompanied by an inner Re-Stalinisation of the apparatus. After having “murdered” father Stalin, Tito turned himself into a second Stalin. Nevertheless, the identification with the Soviet Union was never outspoken. Even so, Tito’s new Stalinism was fashioned after the big brothers’ model – a Neo-Avant-garde of Marxism.

In Difference and Repetition Gilles Deleuze distinguishes two methods to eliminate the power of a rule. The first, a humoristic one, declares the rule to be borrowed, derived and exhausted – an empty repetition._9 The second, an ironic one, deconstructs the rule by following it literal word by word, by quoting it – like the Dandy over-fulfils the codes of manners fashion. As ironical humorists, Josip Broz Tito and his ideologists used both methods when they degraded the Soviet Union, the pioneer of building up Communism. On the one hand, Tito copied the totalitarian methods and propaganda strategies of Stalin. On the other hand, however, he declared Stalin’s way to be a bad, degenerated copy of his greater predecessors – especially of the founding fathers Marx and Engels. Tito presented his politics as following the Soviet heritage and, at the same time, as a better copy of the Communist model, closer to its origins. New features introduced into the one-party system such as the so-called self-management of the workers were presented as healing the wounds of Soviet Union Communism. Small differences in copying – minor metonymic displacements of signifiers in the copy – allowed Tito to present himself simultaneously as a follower in a succession, starting with Marx, and as the founding father of a small empire in the midlands – in an “intermediate” zone, in ideological and geographical terms.

On March 20 1948, the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Yugoslavia received a letter from the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, signed by Vjacheslav Molotov. The letter inaugurated a correspondence between Tito and Stalin which resulted, at the end of June, in the exclusion of Yugoslavia from the Kominform. It was only in 1949 that the secret correspondence of the Soviet and Yugoslav central committees was translated into German and published by anonymous editors in a booklet Tito contra Stalin. Dispute of dictators in their correspondence. It was accompanied by an introduction signed by the Yugoslav central committee. In these letters, the Soviets accused the Yugoslav party leader in an ever harsher tone to have deviated from Marxism-Leninism and to have adopted an anti-Soviet attitude, competing with the Soviet Union rather than following its leadership._10 Tito and his circle pretended to have invented “original” methods which were, in fact, copied. The strategies of partisan struggle that were so highly prized were by no means J. B. Tito’s invention. According to Russian propaganda, General Kutusoff already had recurred to such tactics in the war against the Napoleonic invasion before the Red Army again adopted it in the civil war against the Whites. Unlike Yugoslavia, the Soviets never pretended to have “invented” such strategies of partisan war. The Yugoslav central comity even wrote a letter reproaching their Russian fellow revolutionaries for not discussing these events on equal terms with them.

The anonymous cover illustration of the booklet picked up the central element of a famous poster the constructivist artist El Lissitzky had drawn in order to illustrate the civil war in 1919, Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge. Here, we are again confronted with a strategy of borrowing and at the same time claiming originality. In Lissitzky’s poster, sharp and round forms stand for a political-ideological opposition between the Whites and the Reds. A red triangle is piercing a white circle. On the booklet published in 1949, a red wedge has broken away from the five-pointed star when it was about to pierce the map of Yugoslavia. By adopting the symbolic geometry (and, by the way, also the typographic style) of early Soviet propaganda, the Yugoslav illustration deconstructs the Soviet emblem. The pseudo-constructivist style of the cover illustration is by no means typical of previous or later Yugoslav media.

It is certainly a neo-avant-garde strategy that distinguishes the Yugoslavian cover from the Russian original. The imitation deconstructs the prototype by using methods of paraphrase/satirical pastiche. Later, the artistic neo-avant-garde movements in the Eastern Europe countries also returned to the strategies of the formerly suppressed Russian avant-garde – but only at a time when they themselves were attacked by the same Stalinist system that had undermined artistic freedom. It was only then that what had been accepted without comment before was doubled by contemporary traumatic experiences. According to Hal Foster, the process is marked by a symbolisation ex post – a traumatic deferred action. In 1948, for a short, “intermediate” time Titoists claimed to be the avant-garde of communism. They behaved like a neo-avant-garde coming back to the trauma of Early Stalinism in a late Stalinist context. Indeed, avant-garde forms appeared only for short time at the beginning of Tito’s promotion of his “third way.” Only when Tito wanted to go back to the origins of Communism, the design of propaganda posters was inspired by Russian constructivism. Shortly afterwards, Yugoslavia adhered to a new canon of “folk-realism,” a form of socialistic realism loosely inspired by the Soviet canon, without, however, crediting its historical model. It was only then that avant-garde forms disappeared from the Yugoslav propaganda. In a strange movement doubling both constructivism and its Stalinist suppression, the avant-garde was first absorbed and then erased.

In their papers, Yugoslav ideologists like Edvard Kardelj und Milovan Djilas often used the metaphor of a “mould” (Schablone). They had borrowed it form the technology of media and used it as a substitute for the Soviet metaphor of the “right line” of orthodox communism. Two different understandings of reproduction clashed with each other. The Yugoslavs claimed they had freed themselves from moulds, arguing at the same time that they had realised the Marxist doctrine in a more accurate way. They rejected Stalin’s revision of the writings of the founding fathers of Marxism and edited new versions that were closer to the original texts. They accused the Soviet Union of using “prefabricated formulas” (fertige Rezepte) and “frozen shapes” (erstarrte Formen) stemming, ultimately, from the backwardness of the Soviet empire. The term “mould” appears as a meta-text and leitmotiv of Yugoslav political writings. In his 1947 manifesto How we are doing it. Report about the path Yugoslavia goes, Tito announces an independent Yugoslav way as a path towards a liberation from the mould.

The inner development of our country has, as of every country, works in its own way, and it would mean to work according to a mould if you would apply the development in our country offhand on other countries and vice versa._11

In the booklet Foreign affairs of Yugoslavia (1948), Tito’s ideologist Kardelj blames the Soviet Union to have frozen political-ideological forms into a dogma.

The form has overcome the content, the universal recipe – [has overcome] the creative application of Marxism-Leninism, and the dogma – [has overcome] the living revolutionary idea. […] Only soulless dogmatists can believe that this process can be pursued in a uniform manner and without difficulties only according to one mould._12

In 1950, in his paper Factories in Yugoslavia are being managed by the workers, Josip Broz Tito explains that Yugoslavia had freed herself from the mould.

But today we construct socialism in our country by ourselves; we no longer use moulds, but we follow the lead of the Marxist doctrine, and go our own ways considering the special conditions in Yugoslavia. The moulds have brought us many difficulties, up to now, and we still feel the serious effects, because the mould has engrained our people’s practical experience profoundly, and now it struggles to liberate itself, even if it is determined to do so._13

The same year, Kardelj published a book About the people’s democracy in Yugoslavia. Published in German, he explains to the international community the politics of Tito’s “third path.” He describes the “new path” that Yugoslavia goes paradoxically as a rather traditional strategy that had changed only the forms but not the contents of Communism.

We always claim that we do not follow completely new paths but only adopt different forms on the way to the universal development of socialism, forms that can differ markedly from those known in the Soviet Union, but which ought to be equal in their final content and in the direction of universal development._14

In 1953, Kardelj published a brochure Socialist democracy in Yugoslav practice, in which he rejected the expectations of Western democracies that under the Soviet pressure, Yugoslavia would be compelled to take the way towards parliamentary democracy._15 The country would rather attempt at “up-dating Socialist practice.” Coming back to the foundation of Yugoslav Communism in 1948, the leading ideologist wrote the text Five years later. He announced “a new phase in the development of socialism” supposed to correct the Soviet “faults” and “to open new Socialist perspectives to the working class.”_16 Yugoslavia tried to present herself to the international public neither as a Soviet satellite nor as a separatist fraction, but as a new autonomous formation and an alternative between East and West.

Both, Soviets and Yugoslavs, are copyists. Where is the difference between them? The Soviet understanding of copying is based on the old technology of mould (as in icon painting). It applies the mould without considerations of historical and geographic parameters. Contrarily, the Yugoslavs followed a Western understanding of copying that originated in Antiquity and was renewed in the Renaissance. They claimed to indeed use the same basic forms, but to combine them in a free way and according to contingent situations. Like the renaissance artist who re-discovered antiquity, the Yugoslav ideologists returned to their Communist origins, to Marx and Engels. In all cultural fields they were searching for an autonomous Yugoslav style that should differ from the Russian as well as from the Western countries. By using a paradoxical rhetoric of freeing themselves from the mould the Yugoslav politicians presented the country not only as an alternative, but also as a better leader.

When Stalinism ended in the Soviet Union Tito’s pseudo-Stalinism was slowly tamed, as well. The West, previously blinded by its interest to keep Yugoslavia out of the Warshau treaty, also began to consider Tito a hidden Stalinist. When Russia and Yugoslavia, in 1954, exchanged ambassadors again, the West no longer accepted that Tito’s politics had indeed opened a “third way.” In 1957, the historian Hans Koch saw Tito’s politics as a per- sonal form of dictatorship hidden behind the dictatorship of the workers’ party.

A further sign of Tito’s elective affinity with Stalin is his feeling for power, grandiose like during the Renaissance, organized in a larger geographical area in the form of a nation state. In the same way as the Caucasian from Tiflis had dreamt to assemble two hundred nations of the newer Russia and one hundred tribes from the intermediate Europe into a Eurasian empire of Russian nationality reaching from the shore of the pacific to the Atlantic coast, the Croat from the old Austria was driven in a tireless and consequent move toward a Southern Slavonic empire of Serbian Nation that extended from the Danube to the Aegean Sea, from the Black See to the Adriatic._17

As Stalinism was historically discredited, Tito had to adopt new forms of totalitarism that could appear to be new. Tito’s imperialism, however, lead Koch to see Yugoslavia as a dictatorship on its way towards Stalinism.


L. Ja. Gibanskij: Sovetskij Sojuz i Novaja Jugoslavija. 1941–1947gg. Moskva 1987, p. 133.

Republika No. 112, 23. 12. 1947, p. 1.

Balkanskie strany. Ed. Fedor N. Petrov. Moskva 1946, p. 15.

Ibid., p. 6.

Republika No. 109, 2. 12. 1947, p. 1.

See: Edvard Kardelj: Über die prinzipiellen Grundlagen der Außenpolitik Jugoslawiens. Frankfurt a. M. 1950, p. 3; Josip Broz-Tito: Der sechste Kongress der Kommunistischen Partei Jugoslawiens. Presse- und Informationsbüro der Jugoslawischen Botschaft, Bonn 1952, p. 6.

Ibid., p. 25.

Milovan Djilas: Auf neuen Wegen des Sozialismus. Rede vor Belgrader Studenten am 18. März 1950. Belgrad 1950.

Gilles Deleuze: Differenz und Wiederholung. Fink Verlag, München 1997, p. 20. (Fr. Différence et répétition, Paris 1968.)

Tito contra Stalin. Streit der Diktatoren in ihrem Briefwechsel. Hamburg 1949, p. 63.

Marschall Tito: Wie wir es machen. Bericht über den Weg, den Jugoslawien geht. Berlin 1949, p. 11. “Die innere Entwicklung in unserem Lande hat, wie in jedem Lande, ihre Eigenart, und es hieße nach der Schablone arbeiten, wollte man die Entwicklung in unserem Lande ohne weiteres auf andere Länder übertragen oder umgekehrt.”

Edvard Kardelj: Die Außenpolitik Jugoslawiens. Exposé anlässlich der Budgetdebatte der Nationalversammlung der FVRJ am 29. XII. 1948. Belgrad 1949, pp. 46, 48. “Hier bewältigte die Form den Inhalt, das allgemeine Rezept – die schöpferische Anwendung des Marxismus-Leninismus, und das Dogma – der lebendige revolutionäre Gedanke [sic]. […] Nur seelenlose Dogmatiker können glauben, dass dieser Prozess einheitlich, nach einer Schablone und ohne Schwierigkeiten vonstatten gehen kann.”

Josip Broz Tito: Die Fabriken in Jugoslawien werden von Arbeitern verwaltet. Belgrad 1950, p. 11. “Aber heute bauen wir selbst den Sozialismus in unserem Lande auf, wir benutzen keine Schablonen mehr, sondern wir lassen uns von der marxistischen Lehre leiten und gehen unseren Weg unter Berücksichtigung der besonderen Verhältnisse, die in Jugoslawien bestehen. Die Schablonen haben uns bis heute viele Schwierigkeiten gebracht, und noch immer spüren wir die schweren Folgen, denn die Schablone ist tief in die Praxis unserer Menschen eingedrungen, und jetzt machen sie sich nur schwer davon frei, auch wenn sie es selbst wollen.”

Edvard Kardelj: Über die Volksdemokratie in Jugoslawien. Belgrad 1950, p. 24. “Wir behaupteten immer, dass es sich nicht um prinzipiell neue Wege, sondern um verschiede Formen auf dem Wege der allgemeinen sozialistischen Entwicklung handelt, um Formen, die sich von den bisher in der UdSSR bekannten stark unterscheiden können, deren Inhalt und allgemeine Entwicklungsrichtung aber die gleichen sein müssen.”

Edvard Kardelj: Die sozialistische Demokratie in der jugoslawischen Praxis. S.l. 1953, p. 1.

Edvard Kardelj: Fünf Jahre danach. Die sowjetische “Friedensoffensive” im Lichte der jugoslawischen Erfahrungen. Bonn 1953, p. 3, 7s, 14.

Hans Koch: A-Stalinismus und Neo-Stalinismus in den europäischen Volksdemokratien. Osteuropa 12, 1957, n. 7, p. 866. “Ein weiteres Indiz für die Wahlverwandtschaft Titos mit Stalin ist sein geradezu renaissanceartiges Gefühl für die Macht in einem national organisierten Großraum. Wie der Kaukasier aus Tiflis die zweihundert Nationalitäten Neurusslands und hundert Stämme Zwischeneuropas zu einem eurasischen Reich russischer Nation vom Pazifik bis zum Atlantik zu bündeln träumte, so strebte beharrlich und konsequent der Kroate Altösterreichs zu einem südslawischen Reich serbischer Nation von der Donau bis zur Ägäis, vom Schwarzen Meer bis zur Adria.”