Rory Archer (2018) “‘It was better when it was worse’: blue-collar narratives of
the recent past in Belgrade”, Social History, 43:1, 30-55
ABSTRACT: Based on oral history research conducted among networks of blue-collar workers in Belgrade, Serbia, this article develops three interrelated arguments regarding workers’ appraisals of the recent past (1980–2014). Firstly, although the tumultuous years of late socialism and post-socialism in Serbia have been represented by scholars as a series of ruptures, I suggest that for blue-collar workers the boundaries between socialism and post-socialism and pre-conflict and wartime eras are blurry. Secondly, despite the conditions of war and economic collapse, blue-collar accounts of the 1990s in Serbia are not universally negative. Some individuals experienced upward social mobility, strongly influenced by class and gender positioning in late socialism. Female workers who had experienced hardship during the 1980s were often better equipped to navigate 1990s ‘economies of makeshift’. Thirdly, social dislocation associated with neoliberal economic reforms since 2000 disproportionally affects blue-collar workers, reshaping narratives of late socialism and the 1990s (sometimes inducing workers to overlook or downplay coercive aspects of the Milošević regime). The accounts of this diverse group of (former) workers highlight that social class, gender and generational cohort condition the rather divergent ways in which the last three decades were experienced, are remembered and continue to be reevaluated in Serbia.
Atlantic to Adriatic: Contact points and historical parallels between Ireland and Southeast Europe
University of Rijeka, 26-27 April 2018
In the lead up to the 2020 European Capital of Culture which shall be held by Rijeka, Croatia and Galway, Ireland, a workshop is being convened to explore contact points, historical parallels and comparisons between Ireland and Southeast Europe. This two day workshop envisages contributions from history, cultural studies, area studies and other (inter)disciplinary approaches that focus on links between Ireland and Southeast Europe. It takes its cue from the Rijeka 2020 bid “Port of Diversity” and the themes of water, work and migrations and seeks to offer a forum for the development of future scholarly Irish/ SEE collaborations and interventions.
Possible contributions include labour, migration and diaspora communities (e.g. the recent migration of Croatian citizens to Ireland), comparisons and linkages with regard to religion (Catholicism, pilgrimage sites like Medjugorje, clerical figures like Stepinac), ethno-nationalism, church and state, revolutionary movements (e.g. International brigades in the Spanish Civil War), gender, memory studies, or sport.
Contributions might also empirically treat concrete historical instances of interactions – for example Hubert Butler’s Balkan Essays, the Ustasha interior minister Andrija Artuković who resided in Dublin after WWII or, Irish mercenaries in the Balkans during the 1990s.
Linkages could also be approached through critical area studies, the exploration of symbolic geographies (Ireland/the Balkans as floating signifiers, peripheries), through travel writing, literature, visual representations or nation branding strategies and economic paradigms (‘the Irish model’).
In addition to scholarly contributions we also welcome proposals for artistic interventions that engage with Irish/SEE parallels and foster links between the two European Capitals of Culture 2020.
2nd Call for papers (deadline extended to 01.02.2018)
CfP: Workers beyond Socialist Glorification and Post-Socialist Disavowal: New Perspectives on Eastern European Labour History
University of Vienna, 24-27 May 2018
**NB – Please send abstracts to firstname.lastname@example.org and/or email@example.com – An earlier version of the call contained an email typo – any unanswered mail should be resent**
Studies of labour under state socialism increasingly question the historiographical clichés of East European workers. Scholars problematize the notion of workers as inherently combative and homogeneous historical actors, as victims of totalitarian states or alternatively, as accomplices in the preservation of the communist rule. Recent research challenges these often contradictory, but equally simplified representations of labour inherited from socialist and early post-socialist years by using the theoretical and methodological insights of the cultural turn and Alltagsgeschichte, but also building and expanding upon the best traditions of social and labour history. The focus on the relationship between the party-state and labour helped alter the traditional visions of state socialism as a static system ruled over by monolithic parties as well as highlighting the ambivalent and delicate nature of socialist class formation from below.
Following the pioneering works of Padraic Kenney, Malgorzata Fidelis and the late Mark Pittaway on the creation of a (gendered) socialist proletariat in early post-war Poland and Hungary respectively, new research has begun to explore industrial and other forms of labour in existence during different phases of socialist modernization in Central, Eastern and South-Eastern Europe. This conference seeks to gather a range of contemporary research initiatives which deal with labour in Eastern Europe, encourage increased exchange and provide a forum to contrast and compare findings. Aiming to creatively contribute to a common body of knowledge about varieties of labour practices and working class subjectivities (during socialism and beyond), the conference pursues two goals:
Firstly, it seeks to map out the state of the art with regard to the study of labour in different countries of Eastern Europe and provide a platform for the presentation of recent and on-going research in an expanding field of study. It encourages comparative and transnational approaches, whether they compare different socialist countries, introduce labour into the studies on connections between the Second World and the Global South, or embed socialist workplaces into broader global trends and exchanges by challenging the binary divisions between the “East” and “West”.
Secondly, the conference seeks to bring the study of labour in state socialism into dialogue with the theoretical postulates of global labour history by looking for common themes and trends, but also rethinking the contribution of labour history written under state socialism. One example is the broadening or rethinking of the concept of wage work, the most obvious model of employment in state socialist societies, from the point of view of both the party-state and the global history of commodification of labour. The conference welcomes research dealing with factory, artisanal, coerced, unpaid, affective, informal, reproductive, domestic, agricultural, and subsistence labour.
The focus of the conference is on the socialist period but we also invite research on – sometimes extended – periods of transformation (including the pre socialist and post socialist periods). In terms of geographical scope the focus is East, Central and South-Eastern Europe. However we also welcome contributions pertaining to socialist labour outside these spaces. In addition to historical approaches to the study of labour, social anthropological, sociological and interdisciplinary approaches are encouraged.
Potential topics may include:
working class formations in socialism (including the contradictions between officially upheld presentations of workers as the new ruling class and actual labour relations on the ground)
Peasants, proletarians and those in between (including connections between the countryside and industry, daily commuting, absences and fluctuations of the workforce)
The socialist work place, working class communities and everyday life
Informality, improvisation and grass root entrepreneurialism (moonlighting, smuggling of scarce goods, using the state workplace for individual profit)
Gendered labour (paid and unpaid labour, gendered roles and representations in socialist workplaces, un/equal pay, gendered labour regulation, etc.)
Class and nation (the interplay of class, nation and religion within the socialist labouring classes)
Strikes, resistance, ‘Eigensinn’, daily negotiations, labour’s formal and informal bargaining (for instance endeavours to advance workers’ position through official labour institutions and informal channels of communication with management, trade unions, local authorities and the party-state)
Labour, work, and internationalism (ILO, international trade unions, transnational interaction within and beyond Eastern Europe)
The Conference is convened by Rory Archer (UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies/CSEES University of Graz) and Goran Musić (Central European University/CSEES University of Graz) in the framework of a 2014-2018 research project supported by the Austrian Science Fund (FWF) Between Class and Nation: Working Class Communities in 1980s Serbia and Montenegro (project no: P27008).
We invite scholars to send abstracts (250-500 words) and a short biographical statement to firstname.lastname@example.org and/or email@example.com by 1 February 2018. Selected presenters will be informed by 20 February 2018. The working language of the conference is English. Please note that the organizers are unable to fund travel and accommodation costs other than a limited number of stipends for junior scholars.
This is the last academic year of the “Between class and nation” project and as we wrap up our research, Goran and I are starting to compare the working class communities we have been studying in Serbia and Montenegro with other locations in Yugoslavia. This asymmetric comparison is a means to determine the extent to which issues of concern to workers in the 1980s were unique to Serbia (and Montenegro) or had a broader, Yugoslav resonance.
As well as consulting sources from cities and towns like Maribor, Rijeka, Pula, Banja Luka and Skopje we also wish to include perspectives from Kosovo. As well as being home to around a tenth of Yugoslavia’s population, the autonomous province was formally part of the socialist republic of Serbia and site of a number of tumultuous events in the 1980s.
While Kosovo as a trope is a perennial trope of Serbian (and Montenegrin) historiography and political histories of the period recount Milosevic’s rise to power via Kosovo ad nauseum, very little Yugoslav social and cultural history deals with Kosovo empirically. For example in three jam-packed and diverse “Socialism on the bench” conferences in Pula (see here and here) that showcase cutting edge research on Yugoslav socialism just a single contribution on Kosovo has featured (by Pieter Troch in 2017 -“Ideology in the periphery: the Communist vanguard in (Kosovska) Mitrovica and the ideological reform programme of the Yugoslav League of Communists during the 1960s”).
In volumes examining cultural and social history of Yugoslavia, the socialist province is largely absent (though for a noteworthy exception see Isabel Ströhle’s “Of social inequalities in a socialist society: the creation of a rural underclass in Yugoslav Kosovo” in Social Inequalities and Discontent in Yugoslav Socialism)
The conference, organised by Elife Krasniqi and her colleagues at Alter Habitus was a stimulating introduction to the history of social movements in Kosovo. The three day programme featured numerous activists of the 1980s and 1990s (in addition to presentations of scholars from Kosovo and beyond who switched between English and Albanian). Vetëvendosje’s Albin Kurti popped in from the election campaign trail to speak about the 20th anniversary of the 1997 student demonstrations with Mihane Salihu Bala and Bujar Dugolli (see here). Keynote speeches were delivered by feminist activists Shukrije Gashi and Igballe Rogova and was followed by a promotion of the Albanian language translation of Mary Motes’s Kosova Kosova: predlude to war 1966-1999 (which, as Konrad Clewing pointed out, is one of the rare accounts of every life and history from below in socialist Kosovo).
For the panel on working class and social movements we presented ongoing research which diachronically explores the ways in which workers and managers articulated problems related to Kosovo in the Belgrade working class suburb of Rakovica during the 1980s. This is an attempt to uncover (or recover) more nuanced, multi-layered perspectives of Yugoslav brotherhood and (dis)unity along the Belgrade-Pristina axis.
The thrust of the argument is that for many workers in Rakovica in the early 1980s (following the immediate fall-out of the 1981 demonstrations in Kosovo) the antidote to Albanian nationalism was not considered to be the greater unity of the Serbian nation, but in the insistence on the more integral (Titoist) Yugoslavism and the strengthening of class-consciousness to combat delinquencies in the system. In this way Rakovica’s workers diverged from Serbia’s nationalist intelligentsia until well into the second half of the 1980s when a reinterpretation of the hitherto dominant notion of dichotomy between the ‘exploiter and the exploited’ would be expressed in nationalist terms and any semblance of solidarity with the Albanian working class had evaporated in Rakovica.
The (yet unfinished) goal of the research is to better situate Kosovo in the historical narrative of Yugoslav labour history – beyond its symbolic value – through empirical research. But can working class communities and labour movements in Kosovo be approached in a similar way to Serbia and Montenegro in terms of the methods and sources we have been utilising?
One obvious barrier is that documents and media from the 1970s and 1980s are often in Albanian. While most Serbo-Croatian speakers can get the gist of a text in Macedonian and Slovene, this is not the case with Albanian. Beyond surmountable linguistic barriers however, is a more pressing issue – the (un)availability of sources and the particular context they were produced in.
While locating and accessing factory sources in Serbia and Montenegro is not always easy, the coercive conditions in Kosovo after 1981 (and more significantly after 1989), complicate this even further. Regular and comprehensive factory periodicals are the “bread and butter” of Yugoslav labour history between 1976 and 1989. In conditions of socialist pluralism they represented sites of quite diverse viewpoints relating to the workplace and the broader social context (e.g. on housing, leisure, politics, family life). While these were certainly constrained to varying degrees in Serbia and Montenegro examples of blatant censorship are far and few between (see: Archer and Musić 2006, pp. 55-56).
In Kosovo however, the repression following the protests of Spring 1981 resulted in some workplace periodicals simply vanishing for months at a time. For example, the large rubber plant and tire producer “Ballkan/Balkan” in Suva Reka, Kosovo, regularly published its bilingual periodical but stopped abruptly for a number of months after March 1981. Its first issue after the 1981 demonstrations featured a reprint of a text admonishing the events of Spring 1981 republished from Belgrade tabloid Politika Ekspres.
While the archives of factories in Serbia and Montenegro are not always accessible, Kosovo archives are complicated further by multiple and mutually hostile administrations (in addition holdings at Kosovo state and municipal archives some holdings were moved to Serbia in 1999, see: here). Some factory archives are reportedly in the possession of the Kosovo Agency for Privatisation.
One “creative” way to access documents may be to seek out Kosovo related material in other Yugoslav archives. For example archives in Slovenia or Serbia hold communication with and reports from the authorities in Kosovo. For a bottom-up perspective however (i.e. detailed materials at the level of the community, workplace or municipality) such documents are less insightful.
Oral history is perhaps best poised to gain insights into the world of work in late socialist Kosovo and fill in the historical record, particularly in the absence of other sources. The Kosovo Oral History Initiative is an excellent resource and platform (though the diversity of oral histories showcased does not yet extend to workers and labour movements).
We are pleased to announce publication of an open access article by Rory Archer in History and Anthroplogy, “The moral economy of home construction in late socialist Yugoslavia”.
Housing shortages in Yugoslav cities were a perennial concern for authorities and citizens alike. They disproportionately affected Yugoslav workers who as a consequence were the demographic most likely to independently construct a family home. The article explores how informal builders justified home construction in moral terms, legitimizing it on the basis of physical labour that was invested in home construction. This was couched in both the language register of Yugoslav socialism and patriarchal custom (according to which a male-headed household should enjoy the right to a family home). Construction was also conditioned by the opportunities and constraints of late socialist temporalities.
Here are a few of accompanying pictures that did not make it into the published text.
The first image is an interview in folk music magazine Sabor with Tomislav “Mali mrav” Čolović with the headline “Brick by brick – three houses”. The lead text is underscored by notions of morality in home building. Čolović declares “The singer of newly composed folk music, our host Čolović, known also as “Mali mrav” [Little ant]: Look at these houses in the neighbourhood, for half of them I laid half the bricks myself. And I’m not ashamed. I worked honourably and honestly – I didn’t steal. Now that I have it, I want to enjoy it!'”
Protagonist Staniša Simić’s rogue construction was destroyed by authorities in Belgrade. In a 1983 interview with tabloid weekly Novosti 8 the cook implores: “If they had to destroy it, did they have to do it so evilly? Nobody has their house levelled like that; they always usually let the person take out the materials, not to totally destroy him. Nobody builds a house out of anger!”
In a recent talk, Excavating Yugoslav: Socialism Archives, Social History and Research Methodology, delivered at the University of Graz, Vladan Vukliš drew from his dual roles as historian and archivist (at Arhiv Republike Srpske, Banja Luka) in outlining some key issues for undertaking historical research in Bosnia Herzegovina and the wider post-Yugoslav space. As part of his presentation, Vladan displayed a graph which maps out the chances of document preservation against scales of hierarchy and function. A broken green line divides the fonds. The material Goran Musić and I have been working with for the “Between class and nation” project tends to lie stubbornly north of the division in the “low chance of preservation” space. For the last two years, archival research more often than not has meant attempts to access living archives (i.e. still located inside factory premises) or to negotiate a few hours to consult unprocessed and haphazardly organised holdings under the watchful eye of reluctant local archivists.
Reflections about the value of conducting research in smaller archives and the unpredictable, time limited nature of access has been doing the rounds in recent weeks (in my facebook echo-chamber at least). An excellent piece by Max Bergholz recalls his time-limited access to archives in Bosnian Krajina while researching Violence as a Generative Force: Identity, Nationalism, and Memory in a Balkan Community:
But it was in the field—in the basements and storage depots of dusty Bosnian archives—where I learned something that universities don’t really teach. This is the importance of capitalizing on small windows of opportunity to literally grab hold of the past, which sometimes unexpectedly open up, and must be seized immediately, or perhaps lost forever.
Despite the contemporaneous nature of our research on late socialism, these small window of opportunity revealed themselves repeatedly. On at least three occasions access to documents was time limited and I suspect cannot be repeated. The postsocialist afterlife of socially owned firms and the tumultuous local events will lead to the documents’ disappearance or destruction rather than preservation. Ongoing bankruptcies, (usually failed) privatisations, flawed “social programmes” as well as elections and political battles from the level of state president and premier right down to the municipal level negatively impact upon archive preservation.
The small windows of opportunity that emerged for us did so because of a factor that Bergholz does not elaborate on – as a consequence of managing of social relations. Attempting to gain access to obscure local archives and living archives still inside factories is an intensely social process. It is dependent on finding connections and entry points, negotiating with gatekeepers, presenting oneself in a way that engenders trust and many, many hours of chatting, waiting, and drinking unwanted coffees with whoever may staff the factory offices. One should be affable in terms that are socially recognisable. This form of emotional labour appears to be largely unacknowledged in social history. Oral history methodology can offer some pointers – certainly in terms of ethical guidelines and on ways of establishing a cooperative working relationship with interlocutors. It is social anthropology however, that probably most capable of providing the vocabulary and concepts for interrogating the processes taking place.
Even though in his talk Vladan advocated formal institutional cooperation and the professionalisation of archival and research practices in the discussion that followed having “connections” [veze] was cited by some of the audience members as an essential component when undertaking research in local libraries and archives in former Yugoslav states. While this is certainly true I am of the view that social historians underestimate the emotional labour that fieldwork entails and at times confuse this labour with the cultivation of veze. The social historian does not always need friends in high places to access materials (though it undoubtedly helps). They do however have to be willing to painstakingly attend to social relations in the field. In non-institutional conditions where access to archives is personalised and depends on informal, negotiable rules, not only does the historian have to manage their own feelings towards interlocutors while conducting research but must also attend to the expectations, assumptions, grievances, suspicions and hopes of the various gatekeepers and interlocutors through whom access to archives rests. The researcher’s affective display should be appropriate for the particular context. To simply request access to documents in a transactional manner is likely to yield limited results.
In Serbia and Montenegro during 2015 and 2016 the locations where we were seeking access to archives were deindustrialised and economically depressed. Those workers who were still in formal employment often had not been paid for months, even years. Pension and healthcare contributions were in arrears. In at least two of the plants which were still functioning heavy handed private security had quashed stirrings of labour movements. The initial meetings, coffees and discussions at our fieldwork sites were understandably dominated by these concerns which were ravaging these communities. As our research topic was labour and everyday life in late socialism interlocutors would invariably compare contemporary working conditions with those of the socialist era. In fact, it would be impossible to begin our research without engaging in such conversations.
In FAP Priboj, a truck and heavily vehicle manufacturer in Sandžak, a pattern emerged whereby on average each hour spent in the archives would need to be matched by an hour drinking coffee and chatting to a rotating cast of employees (mostly white collar employees in offices – blue-collar workers would occasionally enter to have documentation stamped or signed but were not usually encouraged to converse with us by the interlocutors). Though never explicitly stated, we were expected to “sing for our supper”, by listening sympathetically and respectfully. Each working day would begin with an extended coffee. This was frustrating at times – time was limited, it was clear that access would be a one-off event and the quantity of materials we were attempting to scour in five days was formidable.
18 months after this stint of archival research in Priboj was undertaken the main FAP building containing the archives is under lock and key. The entire plant is now shut and the last workers have been made redundant. At times when tensions rise in the municipality – usually because of broken promises related to redundancy packages – private security patrol the parking lot and prevent anybody from approaching the entrance. I did not dare to park by it on my visit last summer but I did meet some of the interlocutors for coffee.
Abstract: The socialist factory, as the ‘incubator’ of the new socialist (wo)man, is a productive entry point for the study of socialist modernization and its contradictions. By outlining some theoretical and methodological insights gathered through field-research in factories in former Yugoslavia, we seek to connect the state of labour history in the Balkans to recent breakthroughs made by labour historians of other socialist countries. The first part of this article sketches some of the specificities of the Yugoslav self-managed factory and its heterogeneous workforce. It presents the ambiguous relationship between workers and the factory and demonstrates the variety of life trajectories for workers in Yugoslav state-socialism (from model communists to alienated workers). The second part engages with the available sources for conducting research inside and outside the factory advocating an approach which combines factory and local archives, print media and oral history.
Keywords: Yugoslavia, Yugoslav working class, socialism, workers’ self-management, factory sources,