Paths through utopias: From socialism to anarchism via capitalism.

IssueMarch 2008
Feature by Isa Fremeaux, John Jordan

The rain freezes as it hits the windscreen, creating a 1970s dappled frosted glass effect not very useful when you're driving in ice rink conditions on thick snow. It's pitch dark and it would really help to see where we are going. The camper van is encased in a layer of ice that gets thicker with each lashing of freezing rain and added to that the heating doesn't work inside. Not a very Utopian setting. Welcome to Serbia.

We are on our way to the northern industrial town of Zrenjanin. We came because we heard about Jugoremedija, a pharmaceutical factory that, following a four-year struggle, the eviction of its corrupt new private (and Interpol-wanted) owner, a strike and occupation, is now one of the few worker managed factories in Europe.

The day before we arrived, we were told that there is no longer just one occupied factory in town: inspired by the success of Jugoremedija, two factories about to be closed down have followed suit - Serbia's largest train factory Sinvoz and a meat processing factory, Bek.

The “Philosopher”

Ivan, a ragged young chainsmoking intellectual activist, called “the philosopher” by the workers, has been organising the resistance together with Zdravko, the charismatic rebel worker from Jugoremedija, known as Zrejanin's “Che”.

They met in Ivan's Belgrade government funded office, the Anti- Corruption Council. When Ivan started working there, he was an anti-nationalist and anti-war activist.

He was not critical of privatisation as he saw it as a way of breaking the strong hold of workers who tended to support nationalist policies. But wading through the boxes of files and hundreds of workers' accounts of how privatisation was bankrupting their workplaces, Ivan soon realised that the process of privatisation was as corrupt and violent as any war. Mita, a worker at Shinvoz, described it perfectly whilst showing us around the cavernous ghostly buildings: “We have another name for the transition to democracy and it's called robbery.”

None of the workers are nostalgic about the socialist era.

But they can't just watch capitalist tycoons buy shares in their factories, only to push them into bankruptcy through dodgy deals, simply to get full control and make a quick buck.

And the point is that in Serbia the factories really do partly belong to the workers: under Tito's rhetorical self-management they became and now remain shareholders of their own factories. “During the struggle for Jugoremedja, this was one of the most frustrating things,” confesses Ivan, “the media could not get their heads round the fact that the strikers were not just workers, but actual co-owners of the factory.” The workers who refused to be bullied into selling to the market found that if they organised together they had a powerful lever against the new ruthless owners.

From taking direct actions to getting complex factories back up and running, the workers here have shown that they can manage their future.

Their greatest strength is not letting their opponent divide and rule them. Following the hardship of striking, when Jugoremedija workers got their factory back they even gave strike-breakers new jobs.

On our last evening, we witnessed ex-locksmith turned president of the Board, Zdravko, organising a solidarity action for the newly occupied factories, involving blocking the highway with the pharmaceutical company's big branded trucks.

A chink of Utopia amidst the cold dystopia of a country blighted by nationalist and now neoliberal war.

The workers are calling for international support, see:

Topics: Utopias