Let's talk praxis and communication via Supek's theoretical metamorphoses

U septembru 2018. godine bio sam pozvan održati referat na panelu Communication, Society, and Praxis: Theoretical (Dis-) Continuities and Institutional Developments u sklopu konferencije Communication, Capitalism and Social Change: Policy, Practice, Praxis koju je na Filozofskom fakultetu Sveučilišta u Zagrebu organizirala istraživačka mreža za sociologiju komunikacija i istraživanje medija European Sociological Association, u suradnji s Institutom za razvoj i međunarodne odnose i Odsjekom za sociologiju FFZG-a. U nastavku slijedi tekst tog referata, neznatno stilski i gramatički dorađen uodnosu na tekst koji sam pročitao.

The question that brought us here today, or at least the one that brought me to this panel, was why praxis did not theorize communication. As there was no document stating "we will not theorize communication for this or that reason," if we are to explore that line of questioning, we will undoubtedly end up in the area of speculation, which I would very much like to avoid.

At the beginning of the 1950s, the journal Pogledi - the one published from 1952 to 1955, which is considered the inception of the Yugoslav philosophy of praxis - was founded with the explicit understanding that in "revolutionary times," scientific research finds its natural ally in progressive social thought. (Redakcija »Pogledi 52«, 1952) Following that notion, Pogledi was constituted so that nowadays, it would not meet the criteria to be considered a scientific journal. Same, with a bit different motivation, applies to Praxis journal. Namely, it is about the self-understanding of those journals not as media for communicating scientific discovery but as platforms for discussing the ideas pertinent to the development of the Yugoslav socialist project.

If we take a look at what Gajo Petrović, presumably the most prominent of praxis philosophers, pointed out as tasks of communist philosophers at the 8th Congress of the League of Communists of Yugoslavia: 1. To develop the basic orientation of Yugoslav Marxist philosophy. 2. To apply that orientation to discussions in central areas of philosophy and on main philosophical problems of the time, but mainly on the burning issues of Yugoslav socialism. 3. To struggle for recognition of Marxist philosophy among the broadest public all over the country. 4. To struggle for recognition of Yugoslav Marxist philosophy in the international context. (Petrović, 1965, p. 250)

The basic orientation of Yugoslav philosophy Petrović is talking about corresponds to the ideological shift of Yugoslav socialism away from the Soviet Union, which he experienced as an exchange student and had its influence on Rudi Supek's return to Yugoslavia from France. From that breakaway, both Yugoslav politics and philosophy were on the way to affirming anti-Stalinist socialist projects. In terms of politics, it was done through the introduction of a self-management system and in philosophy through the "philosophy of practice," i.e., the "humanist Marxism" or "Marxist humanism." (Cf. Sher, 1977, Chapter 1)

As different historians agree, the breakaway of the Yugoslav philosophy from the Soviet-type Marxism developed through several phases. The usual periodization, offered by Golubović (1987]) and sanctioned by his thesis supervisors Petrović and Vranicki, both praxis philosophers, consists of three phases: 1. The critique of Stalinism (1948-1952). 2. Intensive reception of young Marx and contemporary philosophy - both Marxist and non-Marxist (1952- 1956/7). 3. Proactive autonomous articulations of philosophical positions in the horizon of the "genuine Marx's philosophical insights." (after 1956/7)

The latter culminated in 1960 at the Bled Conference of Yugoslav philosophers and sociologists, where the "theory of reflection" was radically criticized. That critique opened up space in which Praxis journal and Korčula Summer School would later posit themselves.

While the primary intention of praxis was to advance the socialist project and contribute to building Yugoslav, but also worldwide, socialism, its main method was the ruthless criticism of everything existent, a concept borrowed from Marx's letter to Arnold Ruge. It drew from Rudi Supek's 1954 article "Why do we lack in the struggle of opinions?" for publishing of which Pogledi came under investigation of the State Security. The scrutiny was documented in a funny document composed by the unknown case officer. He objected that Pogledi had criticized some of the leading figures of the cultural establishment of the new Yugoslavia, such as Miroslav Krleža, but not "real threats to the self-management system, such as freemasons." The main topic of the praxis critique of the Yugoslav socialist project processes went against bureaucracy and bureaucratic tendencies - seen as the principal vehicle for Stalinist counter-revolution. In that sense praxis group - which I am inclined to take in the narrowest sense: as members of the first editorial board of Praxis journal, excluding Danilo Pejović, who broke off in 1966 and was never really a Marxist in the broadest sense of the word - demanded more socialist democracy, unlike other, let us say dissidents, such as Milovan Đilas or Belgrade based Praxis journal contributors, who had argued in favor of more pluralism in terms of the liberal notion of democracy. Alternatively, as Mikulić put it, Zagreb-based philosophers connected to the Praxis journal had undertaken their critique mainly by philosophical means. Meanwhile, Belgrade Praxis journal associates had a focus shift, especially in the years 1968 to 1974, of their critical philosophy, employing a more goal-oriented outlook and engaging in more day-to-day political activities. Consequently, the Belgrade group was the one suffering practical consequences, such as displacement from the Belgrade Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences. It is worth noting here that this group divided in itself as time passed. Namely, some of its members, such as Mihailo Marković and Ljuba Tadić, ranked with Slobodan Milošević - Mihailo Marković even being a high ranking official of Milošević's truncated Yugoslavia in the early nineties. On the other hand, others, such as Zagorka Golubović and Nebojša Popov, maintained their oppositional standpoints, and Nebojša Popov remained devoted to building the left political organizations up until his death.

After the Praxis journal ceased being published and after the last Korčula Summer School, praxis philosophers went different ways. The case with the Zagreb-based praxis group was that they continued their research in areas of their expertise related to courses taught at this Faculty. Gajo Petrović continued his engagement in Ontology, Danko Grlić in Aesthetics, Milan Kangrga in Ethics, and Predrag Vranicki in History of Philosophy, with an emphasis on History of Marxism and Philosophy of History. Of the two sociologists in the group, Ivo Kuvačić continued his work on contemporary critical sociology. He ended his work by writing an introduction to sociology. Rudi Supek explored various topics, summing up his work in a study on fundamental anthropology of modernism, which he finished just a few days before he passed.

So, the rest of my time I would use to sketch the line and main points of Supek's research from his return to Yugoslavia in 1950 to his death in 1993 and to give an outline of the nationalist liquidation of praxis legacy, as a topically specific form of historical revisionism.

As stated earlier, in its initial phase that spanned through the fifties, praxis was concerned with demarcation. However, for methodical purposes, I'm afraid I can't agree with Veselin Golubović, and other praxis historians that the demarcation undertook was directed solely towards Stalinism. However, that work is significant and dominant. It is also understandable due to close ties between Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union in the first few post-war years to digress a bit. For example, Gajo Petrović and Ivo Kuvačić were at the time of the Cominform crisis exchange students in the USSR, specifically first in Leningrad and then in Moscow. However, besides the work undertaken to, so to say, "de-sovietize" Yugoslav philosophy, which was unequivocal, there was also an attempt to demarcate the bourgeois philosophy. This relationship is much more ambivalent. On one side, there is Supek, who, following his return from France, harshly attacks existentialism from Nietzsche to Sartre. On the other side, institutionally, contemporary Western Philosophy is given its university courses, readers published, and Ph.D. theses are written. Finally, Gajo Petrović works a lot on integrating Martin Heidegger's ideas into his philosophy of revolution. In a way, separate from Petrović, so does also Vanja Sutlić, a marginal praxis associate, considered one of the most important Croatian philosophers; who did not fall into disgrace during the nineties, unlike most of the praxis group.

Before I go into details, just a brief sketch: Supek firstly undertakes criticism of the bourgeois form of philosophy and art (Egzistencijalizam i dekadencija, Kritika modernističke lirike, Psihologija i umjetnost); parallel with that, he criticizes the lack of democracy in the sphere of cultural production; then, he continues his work by theorizing the link between sociology and socialism, i.e., defending sociology from the common argument that it is a bourgeois discipline and doing a lot of field research in ethnology and psycho-sociology of work; after that, he was concerned with ecology, which he introduced in Yugoslav social science and, later, with questions of urban planning. The underpinning topic of the latter two endeavors is the question of social reproduction.

Supek argued that existentialism comes from the crisis of the bourgeoisie in the post-war era when it came to understanding that the defeat of fascism might be a step towards the historical defeat of capitalism. In that position, by his understanding, the bourgeoisie had three goals: 1. To stop the ideological and social development of progressive social forces. 2. To counteract any social formation that could end the hegemony of the bourgeoisie. 3. To win over the masses in favor of imperialist agenda.

To achieve those goals, by artistic means, it advocated for: i) indeterminism as opposed to the idea of progress; ii) extreme individualism, as opposed to the organized collectivity; iii) moral relativism and political adventurism. Thus, the philosophy of existence in the 20th century becomes the ideology of the bourgeoisie, which cannot be divorced from its everyday practices, or as Supek had put it:

It flatters them by saying that their concerns are concerns of humanity in general; that their flaws are imperfections of human nature; that their anguish is the penance of the humankind. It enters the intimate life of the bourgeoisie, presenting them as men par excellence, as 'men as such.' (Supek, 1950, p. 60)

As a philosophy, so is, for Supek's understanding, bourgeois art is just a training range for exercising the bourgeois decadence and subsequent alienation of an individual from the society. In the bottom line, "it transforms a man into the muck, on top of which the fascism grows." At the same time, while existentialism rampages through the Western culture, Supek saw the concentration of power as the main problem of Yugoslav culture. He argues that while workers in culture are dependent on one another, there can be no, aforementioned "struggle of opinions." The opposed opinions are opinions of opposed social groups. In that sense, the lack of that kind of struggle he sees results from building forced consensus enforced through material blackmail. In opposition to that, he argued in favor of the "freedom of association and disassociation" as an organizational principle of the cultural work, i.e., for abolishing the practice of material punishment for peer criticism. In the bottom line, what Supek argues for when it comes to cultural work, is the same that he argues for in other fields of his interest, democratization through participation. In his last piece of writing, he articulated that the meaning of modern democracy is in the interaction between the individual and the socio-political structure.

If the promoted goal of the emancipation of both humankind and individual men and women is to be achieved, Supek held that it has to be achieved simultaneously on different levels, including the highest level of social structure and everyday life activities. His starting point in envisioning what is to be done came from empirical research and theoretical discussions - which differentiates him and Ivo Kuvačić from the rest of the praxis group.

For example, he takes socio-psychological research on the effects of the production line work on the cognitive and affective faculties of the worker to stress the contradiction of the productivist tendencies in socialist self-management. Namely, as the specialization of the production process forces an individual worker to focus only on a segment of the whole of the process, it diminishes his faculty of imagination and abstract thinking. It thus tarnishes his judgment when it comes to workplace democracy. Thus Supek advocates for the increase of the role of the machines, i.e., technological advancement and consequent automatization of the simple tasks, parallel to the allocation of human labor-power to more complex tasks and decrease in the number of working hours. Those measures taken should result in higher employment and more free time that can be allocated to reproduction activities.

When he moves to ecology questions, he draws upon the results of the Limits to Growth study and argues for stopping and reversing the growth process, which is, to his understanding, connected to the abolition of capitalism. (1973, p. 210 passim) Also, he ties it to the abolition of productivist and developmentalist ideologies in socialism. The operationalization comes almost a decade and a half later when he discusses urban planning questions while arguing for the transition towards "the economy of the resources." (Supek, 1987)

As the time is running out, I would leave ecological and urbanist topics for the discussion and conclude with "the second volume" of praxis' troubles with the state. These troubles followed the break-up of socialist Yugoslavia. But the root of the problem was not in the nineties but in the seventies, when the journal Prilozi za istraživanje Hrvatske filozofske baštine, which roughly translates as Contributions to the research of Croatian philosophical heritage, was started on the late-nineteenth-century research program of Franjo Marković, the first institutional philosophy historian in Croatia. This program, revived through the work of the Zagreb-based Institute for Philosophy, had built up a notion of a national philosophy continuum since the 12th century.

That notion was severely exploited in the early nineties in constructing the difference between Croats on one side and other Yugoslav ethnicities and the overarching Yugoslav culture and identity on the other side. As Dejan Jović explains in his latest book, to be able to consume the right to self-determination, it was necessary "to define who we are and from whom do we want to separate," i.e., "who we are and who is The Other."

The anti-communist generation of philosophers that emerged during the eighties contrasted the praxis project with Filozofska istraživanja (Philosophical Research) - a journal that filled the institutional void left by the cease in the publishing of Praxis journal. To do so, they argued that while the Praxis journal was opened exclusively to Marxists - which is not even a misconception but a straightforward lie - Filozofska had been open to all philosophical orientations and thus nurtured pluralism in contrast to ideologically rigid and censorship prone Praxis. As a side note, in his memoirs, Milan Kangrga saw Filozofska istraživanja as a continuation of Praxis in specific ways, which is also not an easily acceptable appraisal.

Finally, the emphasis on the national aspect of philosophy, combined with anti-communism sentiment formative of the Croatian state-building, reduced praxis to one among many orientations and projects in Croatian history and moved it to the sidelines. The opportunity to re-discuss it in a rather productive manner came with the emergence of the new left in Croatian universities, along with the general rehabilitation of Marxism and socialist theories in the past decade, since the last crisis of global capitalism.