A utopian in the Balkans


“The Peninsula’s most extensive definition, bordered by water on three sides and connected with a line on the fourth” IMAGE/DEFINITION/Wikipedia

How is it, asks Darko Suvin, with Brechtian directness, that socialist Yugoslavia started out so well, yet ended up so very badly? In answering that question he has produced an extraordinary work on the philosophy of emancipation, the lived possibilities of workers’ self-management and the horizon—in Ernst Bloch’s sense of the willed and worked-for future—of democratic communism. [1] Studded with aperçus from Aristotle, Dante, Montesquieu, Hegel, Lenin, Gramsci and many more, Suvin’s Splendour, Misery and Possibilities is also, as Fredric Jameson notes in his illuminating Foreword to the book, a critical-utopian intervention in present-day discussions, not least of the relations between economic and political democracy. Suvin himself is exceptionally qualified to undertake such a task. A direct witness of the early decades of the Yugoslav revolution, deeply committed to its emancipatory aims, he is also a theorist of science fiction and utopia, a heterodox thinker within what Bloch called Marxism’s warm stream of future-oriented liberation, complementing its cool stream of analysis.

Born in Zagreb to a Croatian Jewish family, Suvin was ten years old when Hitler’s tanks rolled into the city. He recalls here ‘the war years of immediate fascist threat to my psychic and physical survival, as a small but conscious boy’, and then ‘the wondrous years after 1945’ as a young Titoist militant. Members of his family—the Šlesingers: they changed their name to Suvin as skies darkened in 1939—were among the hundreds of thousands butchered by the Croatian Ustaše, whose savagery against Jewish and Serb Croatians shocked even the Gestapo. In 1945 he joined the Communist Youth Organization (skoj), which had played a major role in the Resistance. As he writes in the introduction, ‘Pro Domo Sua’, to Splendour, Misery and Possibilities: ‘I hope the horror, desire, wrath, loyalty and auroral astonishment of the young communist have been carried over into this reconsideration.’

Suvin was a product of—and participant in—the extraordinary ferment of post-war Yugoslavia, launched on its unprecedented experiment of workers’ self-management and egalitarian planning, and open to the wider currents of the international left. This was the context for the cross-fertilization of genres, concepts and cultures that has been the hallmark of Suvin’s work: from critical theory to drug-store novels, Soviet science fiction, Japanese theatre and radical political philosophy. Armed also with a chemical-engineering degree, he studied, then taught—modern drama, literary theory, science fiction—at the University of Zagreb. As he remarked in a Science Fiction Studies interview, the formative events of his youth—Yugoslav monarchy, fascist occupation, partisan struggle, revolutionary reconstruction—made it easy to conceive of alternative time-streams, possible worlds. ‘A Nazi bomb hit 50 meters from me: in a very slightly alternative world, I’d have died then, before my teens.’ Practice came first, and only later the discovery of ‘other worlds’ in print: Thomas More, Jules Verne, H. G. Wells.

In the mid-1960s Suvin won a grant to pursue his studies in the us, visiting and lecturing at theatre departments from coast to coast (and going on strike with his students in Massachusetts). While he was away—local jealousies, perhaps—he was bumped out of his post at Zagreb. Thereafter he taught in the literature department at McGill University in Montréal. A founding theorist of contemporary science-fiction studies, he famously characterized the genre in formalist or Brechtian terms as a ‘literature of cognitive estrangement’. Its defining move was the fictional representation of a novum, a community in which institutions, norms and relationships are ordered according to alternative principles to those that structure the author’s world. The term is Bloch’s, from The Principle of Hope: here, reality might be said to include not only what is, but also what might be, for the material world is unfinished and its future direction is not predetermined. Alternative real possibilities lie on the horizon ahead which may be anticipated, represented, fought for as ‘concrete utopias’—in contrast to the merely fantastical ‘abstract utopias’ of compensatory wishful thinking. For Bloch, the novum is that part of reality just coming into being on the horizon of the future; it is ‘not yet’. For Suvin, this will be a key concept for the reconsideration of Yugoslav history in Splendour, Misery and Possibilities.

Settling in Italy after his retirement from McGill in 1999, Suvin at first refused to set foot in the ex-Yugoslav lands, after their collapse into the murderous secessions and civil wars of the 1990s, in which ‘a congeries of feuding dwarfish classes’ led ‘brainwashed mini-nationalisms into war’. From 2002, however, he was contacted by the new-generation left in Zagreb and Belgrade, who translated the political-epistemological essays he had begun writing in the late 1990s on turbo-charged capitalism. Deeming it important to reconstitute a ‘Yugoslav space’, at least at the level of ideas, they urged Suvin to set down his memories. These were published in instalments under the title Memoari jednog skojevca [Memoirs of a Young Communist] from 2009. The present book Suvin describes as ‘collateral damage’ from that revisiting of the war and post-war decades:

The aura of those days was in some ways harshly black-and-white but bracingly and overwhelmingly hopeful and bright. The dire discrepancy between that epoch and the same locus two generations later, with the ignominious and bloody demise of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in between, prompted rankling and cutting reflections: how was this devolution from rosy to black horizons possible?! Behind this, an even more disquieting reflection went on: was there any sense in the revolutionary horizons and therefore my youthful activism? I had no clue and said to myself (copying Brecht’s Galileo): Ich muss es wissen—I have to understand it!

This is Suvin’s most synthetic—and moving—presentation of what he calls the ‘what, why and how’ of Splendour, Misery and Possibilities, which was written under several pressures. Politically, Suvin felt himself to be working in and against ‘a dominant, leaden and smothering counter-revolutionary pall’ whose effect was an ideological demeaning of the whole history of Titoist Yugoslavia, not only extrapolating backward from its end, but writing it off as ‘a misconceived or indeed pernicious enterprise’ from the very start. Methodologically Suvin presents, as Jameson notes, a type of ‘reflexive history’, a consideration of events that reexamines the categories in which these have been—and ought to be—thought, in the course of unfolding them. For Suvin, this involves above all judging developments against a critical utopian horizon. He cites Rousseau’s dictum: we should know what there ought to be in order to judge well what is. The third pressure is both a moral and an epistemological one: Suvin sees his book as a step towards undoing ‘the odious obliteration of memory’ in the Yugoslav lands, exemplified by Tudjman’s dynamiting of hundreds of Partisan memorials in Croatia; a desecration Suvin compares to the Taliban blowing up the monumental Buddhas of Bamiyan, though incurring nothing like the same Western disapproval. The project, then, must encompass Yugoslavia’s ‘polar discrepancies’—‘the auroral beginning and the pitch-dark ending have both to be explained.’

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