September 1961 saw the birth of a movement that sought to subordinate itself to neither the Eastern Bloc nor the West. The Non-Aligned Movement, whose driving force was socialist Yugoslavia, sought to rethink economics and coexistence and, above all, to give the Global South weight on the stage of international politics. In his contribution to the text series “Black Box East,” sociologist and activist Paul Stubbs, who has lived in Zagreb since the 1990s, takes stock and asks what social movements can learn from the Non-Aligned Movement.
Sixty years ago, in September 1961, the first summit of what became the Non-Aligned Movement was held in Belgrade, the capital of Yugoslavia. The event occurred sixteen years after the victory of the Yugoslav Partisans against fascism and thirteen years after socialist Yugoslavia broke with the Soviet Union and developed its own very specific type of self-managing socialism. Yugoslavia, of course, no longer exists, torn apart by a series of wars in the 1990s, and the Non-Aligned Movement, although still active, no longer has the global influence it once had. Nevertheless, lessons from the leading role of socialist Yugoslavia in the Movement, particularly throughout the 1960s and 1970s, hold a strong relevance for progressive internationalism today. What is required is an active work of historical research and remembering and an outright rejection of the structured amnesia that has sought to erase all traces both of socialist Yugoslavia and of non-alignment. Crucially, the Non-Aligned Movement, both institutionally and symbolically, linked parts of the so-called Second and Third Worlds in resisting the cruel Cold War logic of a world divided into two mutually exclusive blocs: ‚the West‘ led by the United States, and ‚the East‘ led by the Soviet Union, both intent on global hegemony and willing to risk mutually assured destruction through the nuclear arms race. It is no less relevant for today’s world oscillating between multi-polarity, the continued hegemony of the West, and a New Cold War.
The Non-Aligned Movement can be regarded as one of a number of critical “antisystemic worldmaking projects” (Getachev, 2019: 3) after the Second World War, a form of transnational solidarity with a vision of a counter-hegemonic modernising globalisation whose dominant actors, with the exception of socialist Yugoslavia, were situated outside the European space. For contemporary activisms, it is not so much the Non-Aligned Movement’s administrative and institutional practices that are important but, rather, its contribution to a broader imaginary of internationalism involving the newly independent nations of the Global South as active international subjects in their own right on the global stage. The Belgrade summit of 1961, together with the Bandung Afro-Asian conference of April 1955, and the Havana Tricontinental conference of January 1966, can be taken as formative events and movements combining the spirit of diverse national liberation struggles with practical proposals for a very different planetary order. In this laboratory of a possible postimperial world, the contribution of socialist Yugoslavia, albeit active primarily within the Non-Aligned Movement and the G-77, should not be overlooked. The ‘afterlives’ of the Non-Aligned Movement, at least in its first two decades, in the 1960s and 1970s, are relevant today in, at least, four broad arenas.
Crucially, the Non-Aligned Movement was both made possible by struggles against colonialism and itself provided much needed impetus to anti-colonial struggles. A central concept was that of the right of ‘self-determination’ of peoples, of the importance of not only being free of colonial rule but being able to choose their own development paths, independent of pressures from the two superpowers and of a neo-imperial global order. Yugoslav President Tito had prioritised contacts with newly independent states in Africa and Asia throughout the 1950s and offered real support to the FLN in Algeria fighting French rule and to liberation movements in Angola, Guinea-Bisseau and Mozambique struggling for independence from Portugal. The “national, economic, political and cultural emancipation of former colonies” was seen by Tito as an “historical necessity” in his speech at the XV General Assembly of the United Nations in September 1960 (Tito, 1963: 327). The full weight of the Non-Aligned Movement also mobilized against apartheid in South Africa and, along with the Tricontinental, Pan-Africanism, Black Atlanticism and Negritude movements, developed a forceful critique of the interlinkage between colonialism and racism, of continued relevance today.
The United Nations, described by Amilcar Cabral as “a giant with its hands tied” (Cabral, 1964), was perceived as an extension of the colonial international order more than a site of critique, given the veto powers of the Security Council and the failure to ensure that its Committees and specialised agencies had equitable geopolitical representation. At the same time, struggles to extend human rights to include economic, social and cultural rights, as well as gender equality, remain relevant today, and the Non-Aligned Movement’s championing of networked forms of governance, although falling short of models of direct democracy, also merit consideration. Ironically, perhaps, the more the Non-Aligned Movement achieved in terms of UN reform, the more the real power of global governance shifted to the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the World Trade Organization, the targets of radical critique and opposition from alter-globalization movements over the last two decades, of course. In holding the United Nations to the principles of its Charter, including peaceful resolution of conflicts, and a commitment to a nuclear free world, the Non-Aligned Movement outlined principles of worldmaking that continue to be relevant today.
One of the least discussed, but arguably most important, elements of the Non-Aligned Movement, was its advocacy – along with the G-77, UNCTAD and others – of a New International Economic Order (NIEO), making it clear that political self-determination would mean little or nothing if newly independent states remained trapped in an exploitative, extractivist, neo-colonial global economic system. The Non-Aligned Movement developed a powerful critique of an unjust global economic order based on unfair terms of trade and dependency on financial mechanisms controlled by the richest countries, in which multi-national corporations operated free from national regulatory structures. Socialist Yugoslavia sought to promote economic co-operation not only within the Non-Aligned Movement but to develop fairer global trading relations and systems of meaningful support, not humanitarianism or overseas aid, for the least developed countries. The NIEO attempted to combine global economic governance with a model of rapid industrialization, modernization of agriculture and national and regional planning, alongside access to new technologies which, of course, only offers one possible developmentalist path amongst many. The interest of other Non-Aligned Member States in socialist Yugoslavia’s experiment in worker’s control through its system of self-management of enterprises could, once again, be an inspiration for new forms of economic co-operation, including at the local scale.
Although many aspects of the way the Non-Aligned Movement operated resembled that of a classic, top-down inter-state, initiative, there was also a degree of flexibility and internal democracy that is relevant to today’s social movements. Perhaps even more importantly, it was a catalyst for transnational autonomous spaces, ‘spaces from below’ as it were, enabling horizontal, decolonial, exchanges in the fields of science and technology, art and culture, architecture, education, and more. The fact that socialist Yugoslavia hosted students, architects, artists, and engineers from the Global South has been all but forgotten in the post-1989 ‘rush to Europe’, although elements of grassroots solidarity were visible, at least initially, in responses to refugees trying to reach Western Europe via the so-called ‘Balkan route’ in 2015, a kind of ‘everyday geopolitics’ that crossed generations (Henig and Razsa, forthcoming). The sense of solidarity engendered across the Non-Aligned World, therefore, is still of symbolic and practical importance for today’s struggles.
In conclusion, it is extremely important not to romanticise either the Non-Aligned Movement nor, indeed, socialist Yugoslavia’s role within it, often as much motivated by instrumentalist self-interest as global solidarity and commitment to the anti-colonial struggle. At times, Yugoslavia’s role in the movement reflected its own self-image as more developed than other member states, nested, implicitly and at times explicitly, in racialized hierarchies of modernity (Baker, 2018). Often, socialist Yugoslavia resisted attempts to take the movement in a more radical direction, a product, perhaps, of the way the Yugoslav revolution had itself lost momentum and become mired in bureaucracy. Ultimately, the movement was scarred by an, at best, ambivalent anti-capitalism combined with a relative failure to address, as deep material structures, racialised and gendered oppressions as well as to focus on the risk of ecological disaster. Many of the most important strategic and tactical questions of the last fifty years: top-down versus bottom-up; reform versus revolution; horizontal control versus hierarchy; non-violence versus ‘by any means necessary’; flexibility versus structure; the role of non-state actors; and so many more, can be reinvigorated and re-assessed through a careful reading of the Non-Aligned Movement in the 1960s and 1970s. At the very least, the practice of remembering could inspire a politics of emancipation, bringing back into focus anticolonial struggles that, as Gal Kirn (2019) has phrased it , “have been swept away in the age that allegedly ended history”.
Note from the editors: This article is a contribution to the Berliner Gazette’s “Black Box East” text series. The German version is available here. You can find more texts, artworks, and video talks on the English-language “Black Box East” website. Have a look here: https://blackboxeast.berlinergazette.de