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23 November 2015updated 09 Sep 2021 2:21pm

The lost Marxists: what happened to the academics made jobless by communism’s collapse?

Croatian journalist Damir Pilić meets the thinkers left adrift by the demise of the Soviet Union, and finds out what is now driving Marx back up the political agenda.

By Damir Pilić

“The gap that has been left by the departure of this mighty spirit will soon enough make itself felt.”

Friedrich Engels at Marx’s funeral, Highgate Cemetery, London, 17 March, 1883

Zvonko Šundov, a doctor of philosophy, got his last pay cheque 24 years ago. Still, the 63-year-old insists on paying for both our coffees. The years he spent as probably the most educated homeless person in Croatia have not broken him.

“Reality is a trap for every thinker,” he says.

In 1991, Šundov was fired from the Zagreb School of Electrical Engineering. He won court cases against his dismissal in both Zagreb and Strasbourg but he has never returned to the classroom – because his job no longer exists. He taught Marxism.

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In socialist Yugoslavia, Marxism was a compulsory subject in all secondary schools and colleges. Then came the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the collapse of communism, when, in his famous essay ”The End of History?”, American political scientist Francis Fukuyama proclaimed the eternal victory of liberal democracy and capitalism.

Hundreds of Marxism teachers and professors were left without jobs. During the great changeover, they were despised as couriers of totalitarianism who had no place in a democratic society.

But now Europe’s political landscape is changing: leftist movements inspired by Marx’s ideas are gaining strength due to the international economic crisis. At the beginning of 2015, Europe got its first government of radical leftists since ”The End of History?”, with the victory of Greece’s Syriza, a political movement that grew out of the Communist Party. In Spain, Podemos, a movement close to Syriza, has come from nowhere to establish itself as a third force in national politics. Germany’s Die Linke party last year took power in the state of Thuringia on a democratic socialist platform, with a lead candidate who campaigned with a big red bust of Karl Marx. In Britain, the new Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn has said Marx is a “fascinating figure… from whom we can learn a great deal”.

It seems Marxist critiques of capitalism, which once seemed so obsolete that Šundov and others lost their jobs, are returning to the European stage. Even Fukuyama about the problems of inequality and the dominance of finance in the capitalist system.

Against this backdrop, I wanted to explore what happened to those professors of Marxism who lost their jobs – and how they, and today’s European Marxists, view the apparent revival of socialism. Is Syriza a continuation of their interrupted dreams? Is Greek Prime Minister and Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras their democratic Lenin for the 21st century? What might now be plucked from Marx’s beard to build Europe’s future?

“Marxism’s time is yet to come,” claims Šundov, as we sip coffee in a Zagreb cafe in May this year. He then quotes another socialist icon:

“Rosa Luxemburg said ‘socialism or barbarism’, and today we have barbarism. Syriza and Podemos are a human act of rebellion. Besides Marxism, capitalism doesn’t have a serious enemy. Capitalists know: if anyone can destroy them, it’s the Marxists. This is why Syriza is facing so many problems in negotiations [with the European Union].”

Zvonko Sundov with court papers related to his dismissal from the Zagreb School of Electrical Engineering

After he was fired, Šundov admits, he struggled to find his feet. His students greeted him in the street, but the teachers from the staffroom, now former friends, avoided him. The professor also got divorced. His ex-wife threw him out of their apartment in his shorts and slippers.

“I slept on a bench at the railway station and, in the winter, in abandoned train carriages alongside tramps. I had lived a normal life and now I was suddenly out in the street. And the books were back at the apartment. And I was left without any friends.”

But Šundov was not without philosophical companions. He cites Heraclitus’s phrase that one man is worth ten thousand if he is great.

“And I had two,” he explains. “Hegel and Marx.”

Finally, in 1996, the gods of good fate smiled on the exhausted Marxist. He met his future wife at a lawyer’s office. He was suing his old employer and she had probate proceedings. The crucial factor: the lawyer was late.

“She invited me to a café for some tea – and I didn’t have a penny in my pocket. She also had some sandwiches and she offered me one. I hadn’t eaten anything for three, four days, but I was embarrassed to take it since I couldn’t even pay for the tea. She talked me into taking the sandwich anyway. And we’ve been living together for 20 years now. She saved me.”

Šundov will soon publish a book about Hegel. It will be the fourth book he has written since he started living with the woman who invited him for tea.


A Marxist “hotbed”

Mira Ljubić Lorger, who has a doctorate in sociology, is another Marxist academic for whom the collapse of communism had dramatic personal consequences. Until 1990 she worked at the Social Sciences Research Centre in Split, a university institute which was, in the eyes of Croatia’s new anti-communist government, a hotbed of Marxism.

The centre was accused of religious persecution and swiftly shut down – even though it worked together with priests, Lorger says.

“Ironically, my project was entitled ‘A Dialogue between Christians and the Left’. It was stopped halfway through because they left me without funds. So much for a dialogue between Christians and the Left,” she says.

To survive, she had to turn to an old hobby: astrology. The Zagreb weekly Nacional asked her to write horoscopes for them.

“And my son tells me: ‘I’d like to have some meat for once.’ Because at that time we only ate dough and pasta.”

She asked Nacional to let her write under a pseudonym, but they wanted a doctor of sociology so their horoscopes would have credibility.

“So I called all my friends and begged them not to buy Nacional. I was embarrassed,” she tells me in her Split apartment. “It was either that or death by starvation as a respectable dissident. And I couldn’t opt for the latter because of my two children.”

Now retired, she closely follows developments in Greece. She believes the victory of Syriza is the most important social and political event in Europe of the past 20 years.

“Syriza will probably collapse, but the fact that leftist governments have started winning in Europe is a sign of a new era. I see this as my own, private victory, as if I had a third child.”

In 1990 philosopher Duško Čizmić Marović was working at Split’s Marxist Centre, a communist party-backed political and scientific institute that existed in larger cities of socialist Yugoslavia. After the centre was dissolved, as a former journalist and editor of student newspapers, he wanted to live off his writing.

But, he recalls, war broke out between Croatia and Serbia and he found his writing was “far too gentle” for the political climate.

“So I became a fisherman,” he says.

Marović borrowed money, took out a mortgage on his wife’s apartment and bought a trawler. But the capitalist adventure failed and in 1996 he lost the apartment because he couldn’t pay back the debt. He also lost his wife to cancer.

“I lost the apartment, the trawler and my job. I was left with two children, I had to rent a place. I would throw away any bills. I connected the power myself without paying for it. I lived off non-existent money,” recalls Marović, who returned to journalism after a left-liberal coalition replaced nationalists in government in 2000. He is now the editor of the university monthly Universitas.

A doctor of philosophy as a homeless person, a doctor of sociology as a horoscope writer, a journalist as a fisherman: these are the fates of Croatian Marxists after the “End of History”


Communist “fraud”

In contrast to their colleagues in schools and research institutes, university professors of Marxism in Croatia fared somewhat better. These were philosophers and sociologists who could also teach other subjects.

Lino Veljak taught Marxism and ontology at Zagreb University until 1990, then only ontology. He remembers when some colleagues “changed their flag” and adopted a new nationalist agenda.

“The most hard-core Marxists became anti-communists,” he says. “And moderate Marxists continued being moderate Marxists.”

The best-known Croatian convert from Marxism to nationalism is 78-year-old Zdravko Tomac (below), now an intellectual icon of the Croatian right, whose books are bursting with anti-communism.

But Tomac once worked with Edvard Kardelj, the creator of the Yugoslav model of “socialist self-management” – under which workers ran state enterprises – and the closest associate of long-time Yugoslav leader Josip Broz Tito.

Tomac confesses to me that Marx was a “discovery” for him in his youth – especially the idea that one should not just interpret the world but also try to change it.

“This is why I decided to write books about self-management,” he says. “I had an opportunity to work with Kardelj, to listen to visions of a new world.”

Tomac now believes the biggest misconception of Marxism is that a violent overthrow of capitalism could lead to a better society.

“There’s also another incorrect assumption – that the collective is more important than the individual, that the Party determines what is good and what is bad,” he claims. “This abolishes not just freedom of expression but also freedom of thought.”

Tomac adds that he has seen “the power of the communist idea” and understands why, in his words, many decent people accepted “this fraud”.

“Because communism encompasses some humane ideas, ideas that every democratic person can relate to. The thesis that, instead of financial capital, those who generate income should also be the ones in charge of management is seductive. I know many people who believed this idea was worth sacrificing their life for.”


Stalin’s ghost

In every interview, the ghost of Stalin hovered over the audio recorder. All my Marxist interviewees felt the need to distance themselves from him. They see Syriza as the first step towards democratic socialism in Europe, one that would be clearly different from the 20th century totalitarian version.

“Alongside Latin America, Southern Europe could be the ‘second wing’ in the international process that would challenge the domination of the free market and capitalism,” Veljak declares.

My interviewees concluded that the revival of Marx came about because European social democracy turned right, leaving a space on the left. When the international economic crisis broke out, a new Marxist generation occupied this space.

A part of this generation assembled in Zagreb in May: Syriza political secretariat member Yiannis Bournous, prominent Podemos member Antonio Sanchez and the head of Slovenia’s United Left parliamentary group Luka Mesec. All three took part in a panel debate entitled “The New International”. Mesec and Sanchez, both 27, were babies in 1989. Only 35-year-old Bournous remembers The End of History.

“I remember clearly the demolition of the Berlin Wall, the taking down of the USSR flag over the Kremlin and the big break-up of the Greek Communist Party (KKE),” he tells me after the debate, adding that his parents were KKE members.

These young men did not study Marxism in school and yet all openly acknowledge the strong influence of Marxism on their thinking.

“Yes, we are using the Marxist apparatus to analyse capitalism and to devise alternatives,” Mesec confirms.

“Syriza connects Marxist movements with the centre,” adds Bournous.

“Marxism is Podemos’s companion, in combination with the experiences of the Latin American left,” says Sanchez.

One prominent supporter of Podemos is Teresa Forcades, a 49-year-old nun who holds doctorates in public health and theology and lives in the Sant Benet de Montserrat monastery near Barcelona.

When talking about the left, she uses the pronoun “we”. She inherited her leftist orientation from her parents, fierce opponents of Franco’s Fascist dictatorship.

“I have always been a left-winger, and the new thing in my life was religion, which I discovered at the age of 15,” Forcades says during a visit to Croatia in May.

Even though she insists that she isn’t a Marxist, because “Marxism promotes atheism”, Forcades appreciates Marx.

“When you read The Communist Manifesto, you see faith in the progress of humanity,” she stresses. “Capitalism was not brought by God but by people. And God cannot be responsible for history, but people: I agree with Marx on this,” Forcades says. We did not create the world, she adds, but the world is ours to complete.


“The Future Is Unwritten”

Syriza shares at least some of her vision. In Athens, at the party headquarters in Eleftherias Square, youth prevails. Except for a cheerful café on the first floor, the offices are modest, almost ascetic.

“Yes, I’m a Marxist,” 40-year-old Syriza political secretariat member Andreas Karitzis tells me in a sparse room devoid of computers. There is only a motorcycle helmet on an empty shelf.

“As a left-wing party, we firmly believe that the logic of profit and capitalism is destroying the planet and creating widespread poverty,” says Karitzis. “But we don’t believe that we can switch to socialism directly from capitalism, as the Communist Party believes. Yes, we want a society different from the capitalist one, but we believe that it needs to be built from the bottom up and not by a political decision from the top.”

An attempt at such a society already exists in Athens. The Exarchia district (below) is sometimes called the heart of European resistance to capitalism. This is the home of anarchists, the hard-core wing of the Greek Left. Police rarely go there as they are greeted with Molotov cocktails. There are no capitalist brands here and the walls are covered in anti-capitalist graffiti. “The Future Is Unwritten” reads one slogan.

“You can’t pay with cards here, we only accept cash,” 26-year-old chef Alexander Papadopoulos tells me in his restaurant. “It’s the same in the whole district. This is our form of resistance to capitalism.”

The concrete park in the centre of the Exarchia District is decorated with banners against capitalism. Young people discuss society and politics, while dogs hang around at their feet. Many men have beards. A modern, urban version of Plato’s Academy: more aggressive than the archetype, but without slaves. Immigrants are welcome here.

“Exarchia is organised in a way that we’re all equal: me, you, Tsipras,” says Papadopoulos. “Maybe it’s impossible for the whole society to be organised in this way, but it’s possible in Exarchia.”

I spend two June evenings at protests in Syntagma Square in central Athens: on Wednesday, demonstrators are in favour of Syriza, on Thursday they are against. There are more young people on Wednesday. They do not know that Syriza will capitulate to the European Union on austerity a few weeks later.

On Friday, in London, I see the same slogan I saw two days earlier in Syntagma Square – “End Austerity Now”. This time, on a poster for a protest, the next day at noon, outside the Bank of England in the City.

The following day, tens of thousands of people throng the financial district. “We’ve come to save the welfare state,” Angie, a teacher, tells me. “Public education and health are going to hell. If we don’t rebel, there’ll be nothing left.”

Surrounded by many anti-capitalist banners, I am not sure whether I am in Syntagma Square, in the Exarchia concrete park or in the epicentre of global capitalism: there are embittered people and, in the background, the spirit of Karl Marx.

But then London is Marx’s city: “the father of scientific socialism” spent the last 34 years of his life here. This is where The Communist Manifesto was printed in 1848, in the offices of a communist organisation at 46 Liverpool Street. This is where Das Kapital was written. The spiritual centre of original Marxism was not Moscow but London.

Lenin on a laptop

In the evening, as we stroll through hedonistic Soho, Croatian sociologist Toni Prug tells me that living in London made him a Marxist.

“I grew up in Yugoslavia under communism but politics never interested me,” says Prug, who is 43. “Then I came to London [in 1996] and worked at the reception of the Alexandra Hotel in Paddington for a year, 10 hours a day for three pounds per hour. There were two Bulgarian women working with me there 14 hours a day for two pounds per hour: they cried and sent the money back home. That was rock bottom. That’s when I bought a laptop and started reading Marx and Lenin. If you don’t become a Marxist after such an experience, there’s something wrong with you.”

Prug then worked as a computer programmer for 10 years, paying his way through sociology studies. He got his PhD from Queen Mary, University of London with a thesis entitled Egalitarian Production and Distribution of Goods and Wealth. The purpose of egalitarian production is not profit, he explains, but fair distribution.

He says this is Marx’s most important contribution and cites the example of socially-owned apartments in the former Yugoslavia.

“If you have another child, you get another room. And free public health and education, of course. And yet the westerners think the state is evil. Capitalism doesn’t have any scientific theories on socially owned apartments because there is no profit involved.”

According to Prug, “the heart of Marx’s work” has never been so relevant, but there was too much improvisation and misinterpretation of Marx in the past.

“However, Marxism is gradually entering European parliaments. It’s already in, through Syriza,” he notes. “This proves that it’s possible to address people in a Marxist way even in the 21st century.”

Whether Syriza can turn Marxist ideas into reality remains to be seen. After a brief first term dominated by a failed attempt to face down the EU on austerity, it won re-election in September.

We wrap up the story of Karl Marx’s resurrection at Highgate Cemetery in north London. Marx is the most popular “resident” here: his picture is on the cemetery’s official poster. Many visitors stop by his monument, often to take selfies.

Inscribed atop a grey granite plinth supporting a large bust of Marx is the final cry from The Communist Manifesto: “Workers Of All Lands – Unite”. At the bottom of the plinth, I read: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways – the point, however, is to change it.”

This is a sentence that all Yugoslavs had to know to pass Marxism class in school. A thought that enchanted millions in their youth, even Marxist-turned-nationalist Zdravko Tomac, and inspires others to this day. Including a boy at the grave wearing a Che Guevara T-shirt, with his left arm in a red plaster cast decorated with a hammer and sickle.

Ben Goodman-Church at Marx’s grave in Highgate Cemetery

“My son talked me into coming here, he has become a Marxist,” laughs the boy’s mother, Julie Goodman-Church. “They were learning about the Cold War in school and had to research what came before. And then one day he came to me and said: ‘Mum, Karl Marx is a great guy.’”

The boy’s name is Ben. He is 14. One of the youngest European Marxists. Has he read any of Marx’s books?

The Communist Manifesto,” he says proudly.

Ben was born in the 21st century; Marx died in the 19th. It seems that Friedrich Engels was not wrong when he ended his funeral speech for his best friend with the words: “His name will endure through the ages, and so also will his work!”

At the end of this tour of “Marxist Europe”, as I bid farewell at Highgate Cemetery to the man whose thoughts I had to learn by heart in school, I remember what Macedonia-based philosopher Ferid Muhić told me at the beginning of my research. Muhić is a proud Marxist but he said:

“People are not beings of great ideals, and Marxists cannot understand that. Epicurus said: ‘A few friends in a garden, a jug of wine and a bit of goat cheese – that is the meaning of life.’ I think Epicurus was more right than Marx. That’s the tragedy of Marxist minds.”

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Damir Pilić is a reporter and columnist at Slobodna Dalmacija newspaper in Split. This article was produced as part of the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence, supported by the ERSTE Foundation and Open Society Foundations, in cooperation with the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network. All photos, unless otherwise stated, by the author.