The post-war experiences of the young E.P. Thompson working on a railway in Tito’s Yugoslavia cannot be taken at face value, finds Dragan Plavšić

E.P. Thompson (ed.), The Railway: An Adventure in Construction (Rab-Rab Press 2020), 175pp.

I would probably not have read let alone reviewed The Railway had it not been edited and partly written by E.P. Thompson, the author of the Marxist masterpiece, The Making of the English Working Class. Even so, I approached it with foreboding.

I did so because this is a 2020 reissue of a book first published in 1948, when Thompson was still a committed member of the Communist Party of Great Britain. He resigned in 1956, in protest at the CPGB’s support for Russia’s crushing of the Hungarian revolution. From then on, he was an eloquent, incisive and passionate critic of Stalinism.

But in 1947, it was very much as a Party loyalist that the 23-year-old Thompson led a British youth brigade, largely composed of fellow CPGB members, to what was then Yugoslavia, there to join local youth brigades building a railway to Sarajevo, one of the flagship reconstruction projects of Tito’s ruling Communist Party. With the Tito-Stalin split a year away, Yugoslavia remained strongly allied to and inspired by Stalin’s Russia.

Apart from a contribution by their Yugoslav interpreter, the book consists of fourteen reports by Thompson and his fellow brigaders about their experiences. Almost all are written by CPGB members (most of whom resigned with Thompson in 1956); two are by Labour Party members. The single longest piece is by Thompson, the brigade ‘commandant’, and it is likely, given his editorship, that the preface and the conclusion are his too.

Given all this, I found myself wondering about the motivation for reissuing the book in 2020. And although it occurred to me that there might be some mileage in it as an historical document, if suitably introduced, there was also the possibility that it was reissued for less palatable reasons.

Tito’s Yugoslavia visited

The young Thompson was drawn to the Balkans for personal as well as political reasons. During the Second World War, his older brother, Frank, a semi-lapsed CPGB member, had been sent to Bulgaria by British special operations to help organise partisan resistance but was captured and shot. The memoir to Frank he co-authored with their mother was published in the year Thompson went to Bulgaria’s neighbour, Yugoslavia.i

In Yugoslavia, the Communist Party had led the largest and most successful anti-Nazi resistance movement of all. Mobilising the peasantry by appealing to an all-Yugoslav nationalism against the savage divide and rule strategy of the Nazi occupier, the CPY also vowed to overcome rural poverty by developing the economy on the statist model of Stalin’s Russia.

In this way, the CPY-led resistance movement not only liberated the country for the most part without the assistance of Russian troops, but went on to overturn the pre-war ruling order, installing itself in power with Tito at its head.

It was therefore into a Yugoslavia basking in the double glory of self-liberation from Nazi occupation and revolution at home that Thompson and the British volunteers stepped in 1947 to join what this book’s sub-title calls their ‘adventure in construction’. Given the added weight in this heady atmosphere of their ideological predispositions, especially those of the CPGB members, it comes as no surprise to find that the reports they filed for this book were enthusiastic, with little or no critical examination of what they witnessed.

As a result, there is much in The Railway about Yugoslav youth who in ‘the evening, in the hot afternoon sun, or in the early morning … would march, singing, back from a seven or eight-hour shift, not to sleep, but to take part in a comprehensive educational and cultural programme’ (p.6); who provided ‘a wonderful, glorious and noble sight … thousands of young students and workers from all Yugoslavia voluntarily slogging away with pick and shovel and barrow during their vacations!’ (p.63); and who left the British brigaders ‘confident’ that the ‘youth of Yugoslavia will surmount the gravest obstacles before them, and come through with resilient gaiety and good-humour’ (pp.7-8). You get the picture.

Although the formulaic idiom of Stalinism is evident enough in these lines, the message the contributors sought to send, convincing or not, is clear: the youth of Yugoslavia were part of a ‘spontaneous movement’ (p.13) directing the country’s rebuilding.

In this vein, the young Thompson assured readers that reconstruction had been ‘taken up, not by a Government order, but by the people themselves,’ who were determined ‘to make the future with their bare hands’ if necessary (p.15). Just as ‘shock-workers formed themselves among the workers in every factory’, so the ‘youth movement appointed itself to be the shock-group of the whole nation in meeting the problems’ of reconstruction (p.16). Another contributor, Dorothy Sale (a CPGB member soon to be Thompson’s wife, later the pre-eminent historian of Chartism) wrote, ‘We had the feeling of a generation which had seized control of its own destiny’ (p.90).

Tito’s Yugoslavia examined

This core theme of the youth brigades as the spontaneous self-determination of the people is also the focus of a new introduction by Slobodan Karamanić who takes this book so much at face value and defends it so uncompromisingly that his approach can without exaggeration be described as more Titoist than Tito. Indeed, he assures us that to bring into question the self-determined character of the youth brigades leads to ‘a complete denial of the capacity of the masses in transforming the world’ (p.xx).

But where such questioning in fact leads depends on who is doing it and why. In particular, Karamanić does not allow for questioning motivated by a belief in the transformative capacity of the masses to change the world, not its denial. How so?

Because the root problem here goes like this. If, as was plainly the case in Yugoslavia, there were no democratic institutions that ‘the people’ could properly call their own, by means of which ‘the people themselves’ could freely debate and determine what they wanted before implementing the decisions they reached, then it follows that talk of ‘the people’ being in any meaningful sense the self-determining mover of the manner, pace and direction of reconstruction must be empty.

The CPY was the key mover here, making all the key decisions, even if it is as absent from this book as the proverbial elephant. The CPY organised shock-workers in the factories on the Stalinist Stakhanovite model, not the workers themselves. And the CPY’s youth organisations organised the country’s youth into work brigades on the Russian model, not the young themselves.

Karamanić appears to acknowledge this when he writes: ‘To be sure, the Communist Party of Yugoslavia and the State played an important role in the organising and planning of large-scale reconstruction projects’ (p.x). However, he later comments that the ‘trivialities of power’ (p.xx) should not distract us from treating the youth brigades as the self-determining masses in action.

Of course, in order to push through its top-down statist model for undertaking it, the CPY drew on the popular desire for reconstruction which was as widely felt in Yugoslavia as in all post-war states. Yet, to confuse popular desire with popular self-determination is a mistake. British workers desired change in 1945 and elected a Labour government, but they did not then determine the ensuing changes themselves by means of democratic institutions they could properly call their own.

Double-edged character

This is important, because it is the combined effect of the popular desire for reconstruction with the lack of its popular self-determination that gave the Yugoslav youth brigades their distinctly double-edged character.

On the one side, this was expressed in a selfless commitment to reconstruction, especially among the young who were most inspired by the partisan struggle and who worked on high-prestige projects, such as the Sarajevo one, where state-hyped national kudos combined with relentless moral exhortation to give of oneself were important motivating factors.

But on the other side, as one Yugoslav told Dorothy Sale: ‘All Yugoslavia is not like that’ (p.91). The lack of popular self-determination in the context of the breakneck speed of development imposed by the CPY, in accord with Stalin’s model, meant that the state often resorted to compulsion. This was especially to fulfil less prestigious projects where peasant desire for reconstruction quickly dissipated at the prospect of toiling to an alien pace and an alien command.

This double-edged character also surfaced at a ruling-class level. In 1946-7, shortly before Thompson’s arrival, a revealing exchange set two CPY youth leaders at loggerheads. The first bragged of how he had ‘arrested’ young people when he fell short of the ‘volunteer’ quotas he had to fulfil (on another high-prestige railway project), while the second attacked him for doing so, arguing it was better not to fulfil quotas than to compel.ii

The truth is that compulsion was not at all uncommon, which is scarcely surprising. After all, this was a CPY that denied workers the right to their own trade unions and political parties; undertook forced collectivisation of peasant lands in 1949; banned Muslim women from wearing the veil on pain of imprisonment in 1950; and penalised homosexuality in 1951. Self-determination this was not.

In a book so enthusiastically dedicated to the endorsement of the youth brigades, this state-enforced flipside gets a look-in only intermittently, usually in order to be dismissed. Nevertheless, it does emerge somewhat poignantly, if obliquely, in a comment by Richard O’Brien, the deputy commandant of the British brigade, who was probably not as invested in seeing what CPGB members wanted to see because he was a Labour Party member.

Notwithstanding his overall endorsement, and the relegation of his comment to the end of the book, O’Brien discerned ‘a whole world of difference’ between ‘the easy singing of the peasant around the fire’ witnessed one evening and ‘the disciplined, dull choruses of the marching brigades’ the following morning. He concluded: ‘Th[e latter] was emotion manufactured for a particular purpose, and for this reason many of us could not bring ourselves to accept it’ (p.127).

The meaning of self-determination

The ideological predispositions that led Thompson and company to confuse popular desire with popular self-determination were ultimately rooted in a deeper confusion between national and social self-determination, in other words between nationalism and socialism.

National self-determination is the self-rule of a nation against external forces, which in Yugoslavia was famously won by the partisans in the anti-Nazi struggle. Social self-determination, by contrast, is the self-rule of the internal forces of a society, which is inconceivable without the democratic self-governing institutions of the workers and peasants themselves, but which Tito’s CPY never in fact sought, except rhetorically.iii

It is one of the characteristics of the Stalinist tradition that it treated national self-liberation with state control of the economy as if it were social self-determination. The Yugoslav revolution shared this confusion with like revolutions in China, Cuba and Vietnam among others.

True to this tradition, the CPY therefore confused ‘socialism’ with a form of statist economic development whose goal was to secure a place for Yugoslavia in a competitive world system, the pitiless logic of which the CPY fully absorbed.iv In this way, the struggle against the Nazis for national self-determination merged as if seamlessly into the struggle for a nationally competitive spot in the sun, turning the youth brigades into ‘the natural inheritors of the spirit of the partisans’ (p.13, my emphasis) with all the ‘semi-military’ (p.22) trappings this entailed.

This was really nationalism. A Labour Party brigader who did not contribute to The Railway, Alan Fox, later a prominent sociologist, remembered in his autobiography that he encountered: ‘Everywhere … an intense nationalist fervour which gripped much of the country …’.v The CPY’s revolutionary nationalism during the war turned after it into a competitive nationalism for economic and political standing which was in its essentials little different from other nationalisms.

Like many youth brigaders, Thompson also saw things in these confused terms, mistaking national for social self-determination. Nevertheless, despite the confusion, and in stark contrast to the state and party officials who paid formulaic lip-service to it, it is also clear that Thompson took the core idea of self-determination

In other words, he meant it, as time told. In 1956, faced with the crushing of the double self-determination of the Hungarians – social in the form of workers’ councils and national for freedom from Russia – Thompson resigned from the CPGB, arguing for a Marxist humanism that stressed human agency against the stone axioms of Stalinism. His historical work, notably The Making of the English Working Class, highlighted that making was also self-making, while Dorothy’s own work brought this indispensable theme to the Chartist movement.

Conclusion: a Thompsonian antidote

The disjuncture between what Thompson and party and state officials meant by self-determination and thus socialism was not of course a merely individual one. It reflected the experience of many CPGB members who gave themselves heart and soul to the cause of furthering ‘socialism’ only in the end to discover that they were furthering something else altogether.

History is incredibly cruel when we do not determine it. Sometimes what you think you are doing turns into its opposite when seen in the greater context of what more powerful people are doing on the much broader canvas of what Thompson himself once called ‘the larger facts of our time’.

There is only one antidote for this cruelty. It is a Thompsonian one, taken to its logical conclusion: the belief in human agency, in the capacity of the masses to emancipate themselves and transform society by giving social self-determination the institutional form necessary for socialism to become what it means.



i The book was E.P. Thompson and T.J. Thompson, There Is A Spirit in Europe: A Memoir of Frank Thompson (Victor Gollancz 1947). Thompson’s 1981 lectures about his brother were published posthumously as Beyond The Frontier: The Politics of a Failed Mission (Merlin Press 1997).

ii Carol S. Lilly, Power and Persuasion: Ideology and Rhetoric in Communist Yugoslavia 1944-1953 (Westview Press 2001) p.64.

iii Some will object here, pointing to the workers’ councils set up by the Tito regime in 1950. However, these were bureaucratic workers’ councils manufactured from above by the CPY after five years in power to facilitate market mechanisms; see Vladimir Unkovski-Korica, The Economic Struggle for Power in Tito’s Yugoslavia: From World War II to Non-alignment (I.B.Tauris 2016). To assess councils objectively, the question of who set them up and why cannot be ignored. Yet Karamanić ignores it in his introduction when he claims CPY councils ‘resemble[d]’ the ‘organisational frameworks’ (p.xiii) workers set up in the Paris Commune. Others ignore it when comparing them to workers’ councils set up by workers during the Russian revolutions of 1905 and 1917. It is worth remembering that there is nothing on earth or in heaven that ruling classes will not pervert for their purposes.

iv This is why Tito’s Yugoslavia is best characterised, like other such states, as a form of state capitalism.

v Quoted in John McIlroy, ‘Another Look at E.P. Thompson and British Communism 1937-1955’ Labor History (2017) 58 (4), pp.506-539; p.516.

vi By ‘core’, I mean more or less what Cal Winslow has written of Edward and Dorothy Thompson, that they would ‘later reject the “Communism” that took them to the Balkans, but not the spirit they found there, which would inform their commitments right through their lives’ in his introduction to E.P. Thompson and the Making of the New Left: Essays & Polemics, ed. Cal Winslow (Monthly Review Press 2014) p.14.

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Dragan Plavšić

Dragan Plavšić is a member of Counterfire in London and of Marks21 in Serbia. He jointly edited The Balkan Socialist Tradition and the Balkan Federation 1871-1915 (2003).