This article focuses on the role of class analysis in envisioning a better world, in both the past and the present. It critically reflects on class research conducted in the second half of the 20th century in Yugoslavia, and contemporary class research from selected countries of former Yugoslavia, in order to explore the place that class analysis as systemic critique occupied and occupies in a socialist and capitalist context. This approach is informed by Wright’s (2015) evaluation of different forms of class analysis through the game metaphor. According to Wright, whereas Marxist class analysis questions “what game to play,” Weberian class analysis engages with “the rules of the game” and Durkheimian class analysis examines “moves in the game.” Our historical case study of Yugoslav scholarship on class during state socialism illustrates that, despite its role in sanctifying the status quo, class analysis also drew on both Marxism and Weberian inspired life-chances research as tools for systemic critique. On the other hand, our review of post-Yugoslav class research suggests that, currently, class analysis as an instrument for the critique of capitalism is not prominent. Indeed, in contrast to the late Yugoslav period in which sociology engaged class analysis in order to question what game should be played, the post-socialist 1990s and 2000s brought a silencing of Marxist left critique, while sociologists transformed their research into what Wright (2015) would describe as struggles over the rule of the game: problematizing the variety of capitalism that emerged in post-socialism rather than capitalism itself.

In Sociology, Capitalism, Critique, Dorre, Lessenich, and Rosa (2015) advocate a socially engaged, critical sociology as they propose different critiques of capitalism. Their message is that sociology should be more concerned with and engaged in systemic critique. The question of socially engaged and critical sociology has become ever more important during recent social turmoil and movements such as Black Lives Matter and the #MeToo movement, which have inspired sociologists to contemplate what sociology has to offer in terms of the systemic transformation of society. This is the key aim of critical sociology, as a sociological subdiscipline.

In this article, we analyze the potential of sociology to provide systemic critique by focusing on different traditions of social class analysis. This is an area in which a critical approach has most notably been pursued by Erik Olin Wright, whose research on social class inequalities has contributed to a neo-Marxist critique of capitalism. According to Wright’s (2015) typology of social class theory, which he elaborates through the game metaphor, Durkheimian class analysis examines “moves in the game,” Weberian class analysis engages with “the rules of the game,” but only Marxist class analysis questions “what game to play.” This means that, according to Wright, only the Marxist paradigm does not take the capitalist societal and economic framework as given, but scrutinizes its very assumptions and offers an alternative political economic imaginary. Drawing inspiration from Wright, who explores the potential of class analysis as a tool for the critique of capitalism, we explore its somewhat paradoxical mirror image in the state socialist regime of Yugoslavia, famously described by Rusinow (1978) as an “experiment,”1 as well as the particular trajectories of class analysis in the post-Yugoslav capitalist context of the 1990s and 2000s.

The article is structured as follows. First, we outline Wright’s (2015) categorization of social class theory vis-à-vis political struggles in capitalist societies and we use it as the starting point for our analysis of systemic critique in Yugoslav class research. The historical evolution of class analysis in state socialist Yugoslavia is presented in three phases, which we defined as the sequential dominance of three different conceptualizations of social class: strata approach, Praxis school, and life-chances research. In order to carry out such a study, we have reviewed an exhaustive list of books and articles published on social class from the 1950s to the 1980s in Yugoslavia. Following this, we discuss how the main findings of our historical analysis structure the evolution of class research after 1990 in Croatia and Serbia, again based on our literature review. This is followed by concluding remarks.

Wright (2015) has proposed a classification of theoretical approaches to social class analysis based on their approach to struggles over power. This classification borrows from Alford and Friedland’s (1985) work on political struggles in capitalist societies. For these authors, political struggles in capitalist societies can be understood as struggles over systemic, institutional, and situational power. They use the metaphor of a game to illustrate how these struggles differ: struggles involving systemic power are over what game should be played (e.g., capitalism versus socialism); struggles involving institutional power are over the rules of the given game (varieties of capitalism); and struggles involving situational power concern moves within a fixed set of rules (e.g., conflicts over spending priorities) (Wright, 2015, pp. 119–120). Acknowledging the reductionism of this typology (“multiple ‘games’ are being played simultaneously” [p. 121]), Wright nevertheless advocates for its value as a tool for highlighting distinctions between different forms of class analysis.

For Wright (2015), Marxist class analysis engages with the idea of an emancipatory systemic alternative to capitalism—that is, it asks “what game to play”—whereas Weberian class analysis is situated at the level of “the rules of the game.” According to Wright (2015), “For Weberians, capitalism is the only viable game in town, but its institutional rules can vary a lot” (p. 122). Lastly, Wright characterizes Durkheimian class analysis as taking both capitalism and its institutional rules as given and examining “moves in the game.” Commenting on these differences, he emphasizes that although each of the theoretical traditions of class analysis predominantly addresses different levels of the game, the distinction is not always clear-cut: “the rationale for Marxist class analysis is understanding the conditions for challenging and transcending capitalism, but Marxists are also deeply engaged in understanding struggles within capitalism that don’t call the game into question” (Wright, 2015, p. 123).

We find Wright’s typology of theoretical approaches to class analysis to be of great importance. Such meta-sociological analyses occupy, or should occupy, an important place in sociological thinking as they raise awareness of the type of analytical tools which we (as sociologists and class scholars) have at our disposal. At the same time, Wright’s emphasis on the agency of specific theoretical approaches to propose systemic critique and bring about societal change takes capitalism as the dominant context. However, what happens with class analysis as systemic critique in a socialist context? Whereas in a capitalist context Marxist class analysis has served as a critique of capitalism with socialism as an emancipatory systemic alternative, we have found that in a socialist context it has served to critique state socialism contrasting it to communism. We have also found that systemic critique in late socialist Yugoslavia was a prerogative not only of Marxist class analysis, but also of liberal currents for which capitalism was understood as a viable systemic alternative. In the next sections, we develop this observation in the historic case of class research in the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

Class inequalities represented an intriguing and potentially perilous field of research for Yugoslav sociologists during state socialism. A political order based on the doctrines of Marxism-Leninism, the Yugoslav socialist system of self-management (Kardelj, 1976) drew its legitimation from an ideology of egalitarianism and the abatement of class struggle. At the same time, the discrepancy between the proclaimed goals of a classless society and Yugoslav social reality rendered the problem of social inequalities difficult to avoid (e.g., Berković, 1986; Cvjetičanin, 1989). Identifying dominant approaches, we gleaned three main phases in the country’s research on social inequality. First is the period of the early and mid-1960s when sociology was established as a separate area of teaching and research at Yugoslav universities. Class research set off from there, although initially the politically loaded term “class” was avoided and the more neutral “strata” (sloj) was used instead to describe social inequalities in Yugoslavia. Second, in the period of social turmoil marked by the social movements of 1968 and 1971, scholars belonging to the Praxis school used class terminology to address current political events and criticize communist authorities. Finally, in the mid-1980s, the most exhaustive empirical research on class was conducted with a focus on class determinants of life chances. Whereas previously the benchmark for critique was primarily the communist ideal of a classless society, in the 1980s sociologists in Yugoslavia undertook a Copernican reversal whereby advanced capitalism of the West became the ideal that informed their class analysis. This overview reflects broader conditions in which the research was undertaken, rather than just trends within sociology: the shift from the ideological orthodoxy of the intermediate period of state socialism (after sociology became established as an academic discipline), radical critique inspired by social movements of the late 1960s and early 1970s, and the liberalizing tendencies in the period of late socialism in the 1980s.

Before we present the three phases of Yugoslav class research, three caveats are needed. First, even though the phases are presented chronologically, it was impossible to avoid some overlaps between the different phases. Take, for example, the class discourse that blamed bureaucracy for betraying the ideals of socialist revolution: although this approach is described in the overview of the second phase, from the late 1960s to the first half of the 1970s, the anti-bureaucracy narrative was present for a longer period of Yugoslav history. Second, our analysis focuses on how sociologists framed class inequalities. This is why the first phase begins with class-strata scholars who were research active in the 1960s. It certainly cannot be denied that the notion of class was present in Yugoslav intellectual debates prior to that, primarily through the writings of communist politicians and ideologues, but the aim of our article is to reconstruct the sociological field of class analysis. Third, we acknowledge that social inequalities were being addressed in research areas such as the field of industrial sociology, which generated a wealth of empirical work on social relations within firms. Although we do not capture this research, Dević (2022) in this issue does so with much detail.2

Class-Strata Approach

Although sociology became a part of academic curricula at Yugoslav universities in the 1930s (mostly at law departments), the first departments of sociology were founded in the early 1960s. According to Supek (1966), this was because across the USSR and the Eastern Bloc, sociology was considered a bourgeois science and as such was forbidden. Similarly, Mirković (1976) describes how sociology as a bourgeois science was deemed unnecessary; instead, dialectical materialism as Marxist philosophy and historical materialism as its application to society were together considered sufficient. Korać (1968) describes initial sociological research in Yugoslavia as follows: “Instead of a critical research attitude towards facts, what prevailed was dogmatic apriority: given that in principle everything was explained by general laws of social development, there existed no specific individual case that one could not subsume under the general laws” (p. 345). Supek (1966), one of the founders of Yugoslav sociology, advocated an empirical sociology and the use of “bourgeois” empirical methods, arguing against those for whom such methods were unacceptable to Marxist analysis.

Social inequalities became an important area of research from early on, although the tacit consensus was to conceptualize existing inequalities in terms of strata rather than in class terms (in Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian language, this pertains to the distinction between sloj and klasa). The congress of the Yugoslav Sociological Association held in Split, in 1964, outlined this approach. According to congress participants, there were no classes in Yugoslav society, but inequalities existed because people belonged to different strata. This so-called class-strata approach, which became the dominant research paradigm in 1960s Yugoslav sociology (Bernik, 1987, p. 548), was consistent with official Marxist doctrine, which defined class in terms of ownership over the means of production. Owing to the process of nationalizing production, and limits to private ownership, sociologists could argue that there were no classes in Yugoslav society (Mirković, 1976). On the other hand, the acknowledgment that Yugoslav society remained divided along vertical lines allowed sociologists to recognize that goods and resources in state socialism were unequally allocated. This conclusion was consistent with the idea of state socialism as a transitional phase to a communist ideal. Even if there were relics of previous hierarchies (in the form of strata, if not classes), it was supposedly only a matter of time before these would be eliminated on the path to Yugoslavia becoming a fully classless society.

In a 1969 article, Cvjetičanin neatly summarized Yugoslav sociologists’ attempts to deal with the topic of social inequalities within a state socialist regime. According to him, Marxist sociology should be able to capture social stratification in socialist regimes. For this, three elements were needed: the Marxist theory of class struggle, the functionalist theory of social stratification, and elite theory. Since Marx’s theory was developed to capture the dynamics of capitalism, in the Yugoslav context it required adaptation in two respects: functionalist theory provided certain key terms for analysis though it was unacceptable as a theoretical basis, while elite theories were useful because of their focus on functional social groups. According to Mirković (1976), functionalism served a pro-regime narrative, used on the one hand to reject the existence of classes in Yugoslav society and, at the same time, to justify growing inequalities. As Horowitz (1963) has argued, though functionalism significantly derives from the 19th-century liberal tradition in politics, its tenets can in principle be applied to justify any system of inequality.

In this phase, conceptualizing social inequalities remained within the domain of what was politically acceptable: it was couched within the Marxist definition of class, and underpinned by the idea of state socialism as a transitional phase. In terms of the role of class analysis as systemic critique, we find that in this phase it was not prominent. In Wright’s terms, early Yugoslav research on social class accepted the “game” of state socialism and its institutions; it simply examined “moves” within this “game.” By contrast, class analysis began to take up the role of systemic critique in the next phase of research, which followed the period of social turmoil of the late 1960s and early 1970s. As Uskoković (1973) noted, in the late 1960s inequalities were no longer being discussed coyly and abstractly but, instead, openly and concretely.

Praxis School

The second phase of class research in Yugoslavia was associated with the Praxis school of Marxism. Named after the flagship journal Praxis, the school built its research agenda around the study of Marx’s early writings (so-called humanist Marxism) and gained international recognition (Vodovnik, 2012). It lost prominence after the journal was suppressed in 1974 due to its overtly critical stance toward Yugoslav communist authorities, which had been sparked by political turmoil in the period from 1968 to 1971. The first wave of social movements took place in 1968 when, inspired by examples from France, Germany, and other European countries, students criticized the Yugoslav regime for betraying communist ideals of equality and justice (Fichter, 2016). Members of the Praxis school supported protesters by developing the Trotskyist motif of the “revolution betrayed,” and related this directly to the expansion of the middle class. According to them, the middle class had become the main political force in the country by abducting the socialist revolution and infiltrating the Communist Party (Kangrga, 1971).

Unlike depictions of Yugoslav society through the concept of strata, as in the previous phase, this body of research unambiguously described Yugoslavia as a class society (Nasakanda, 1989), whereby class antagonism was seen as inherent to Yugoslav socialist society (Žitko, 2019). The oligarchy/bureaucracy, with indirect ownership over the means of production, was placed at the top of the class pyramid and included political elites and executives of state enterprises who were seen as responsible for the appropriation of surplus value and therefore as exploiting the working class (Nikolić, 1971, p. 585). Members of the middle class (technicians, engineers, administration, scientists, doctors) had no control over surplus value, but were said to have a higher standard of living than the working class, and represented a recruitment pool for the oligarchy. According to this approach, the working class and small peasants as immediate producers were at the bottom of the class structure. Furthermore, Kuvačić (1972a) described the Yugoslav middle class as closer to the “new” middle class, comprising administrative employees, rather than the “old” middle class, epitomized by the liberal professions and small entrepreneurs. Unfortunately, his descriptions were not backed by any qualitative or quantitative data. Kangrga (1971) and Kuvačić (1972b) referred to the works of representatives of the Frankfurt School, and drew inspiration from the classical writings of Marx and Freud, yet these studies were also mostly speculative rather than based on empirical research.

In comparison to the first phase of social class research in Yugoslavia, sociologists affiliated with the Praxis school of Marxism formulated a more explicit political critique. The strict model of a classless society (no private ownership, hence no exploitation) was modified so as to replace capitalists (as de jure owners of the means of production) with the bureaucracy (as de facto owners of the means of production) (Davidović, 1985). This refined dichotomous model of class structure with the bureaucracy and workers as the main agents of antagonistic class relations was akin to the New Class theory of Milovan Djilas (1957), a leading Yugoslav communist who became a dissident. Djilas was vice president of Yugoslavia’s postwar government who soon grew into a vociferous critic of the new regime. From 1954 onward he spent the better part of the decade in prison as a dissident, which is probably why his works are not referenced in Yugoslav sociology until much later, though his book received international reception and influenced various authors including Ralf Dahrendorf (Mirković, 1976). Much later, in a special issue of the journal Sociologija from 1990, the contributors, many of whom had been close to the Praxis school, called Djilas’s work “brave and historically important” and a “turning point in understanding the class structure of state-socialist societies” (Jakšić et al., 1990, p. 243).

Reflecting on the embeddedness of social class research within its broader political and economic context, according to Bernik (1987), class scholarship in early Yugoslav sociology encapsulated two views on the historical role of state socialism. The first view, emblematic of the class-strata approach, included the perspective of state socialist societies as transitional (1987, p. 549). This approach offered an acceptable compromise to sociologists who wanted to point out inequalities, but also wanted to avoid attributing problems to distortions in socialist regimes. Tomić-Koludrović (1996) characterizes this approach as “permitted criticism”: the regime allowed for interpretative pluralism as long as it was legitimated as Marxist. The second approach, on the other hand, applied a fully-fledged Marxist critique, arguing either that state socialist regimes represented nothing but a version of capitalism, or that it was a system sui generis (Bernik, 1987, p. 550). For these authors, an emancipatory systemic alternative was based on Marxist humanism. In Wright’s terms, Yugoslav sociologists of class during this period questioned the very “nature of the game” by relying on an expanded theoretical palette, which allowed them to critique “actually existing” socialism from a Marxist perspective.

We date the end of this phase of class research to 1974, when Praxis ceased to be published. This was followed by almost a decade during which no class research was published in Yugoslav sociological periodicals. Reviewing Yugoslav sociology in the 1970s, Deutsch (1977, p. 141) observed “an apparent paradox,” since on the one hand one could find evidence of academic repression and limitations on free expression, but at the same time there was strong growth of investment in social science and the growth of social science at universities. In part, what is going on is also a generational change, with older colleagues maintaining an orthodox Marxist approach, whereas younger sociologists entering the field are interested in empirical research (Denitch, 1971). Following the death of Tito in 1980, the Yugoslav state and society began to undergo a transformation that encouraged the third phase of class research in Yugoslav sociology.

Life-Chances Research

We roughly date the third phase of class scholarship in Yugoslavia to the mid-1980s. The decade leading up to the dissolution of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia was marked by liberalization in various domains of public life—student media, culture and performing arts, pop and rock music, youth subcultures (Zubak, 2013). At the same time, this era was marked by a growing dissatisfaction with the system, encapsulated in the atmosphere of ambivalence and cynicism, whereby different actors used (and contributed to) the legitimacy crisis of the socialist regime to speak openly about social and political issues. Even though social scientists in this period played a less prominent public role than during the 1968 and 1971 protests, research on social inequalities clearly demonstrated the discrepancy between egalitarian ideals and class reality.

Unlike previous periods when class analysis was, according to critics, insufficiently empirical (and therefore partial) (Popović et al., 1987, p. 23), in the 1980s class research in Yugoslavia witnessed an intensification of empirical studies. Despite the political aim to create a classless society, studies demonstrated that the upper classes had higher income (Bogdanović, 1986), with income level and occupation highly correlated with level of education (Popović et al., 1987). Income dispersion had increased especially from 1974 to 1986 due to the economic crisis (Popović et al., 1987, p. 362). Furthermore, it was shown that the upper classes enjoyed a higher standard of living, measured by the quality of nutrition, health, work conditions, cultural consumption, and leisure activities (Čolić, 1986; Popović et al., 1987; Lay, 1991).

Inequalities were particularly salient in terms of housing: social apartments were most often allocated to executives and experts, who on average had larger and better-equipped apartments when compared to those of members of the working class (Popović et al., 1987; Mlinar, 1983). According to Popović and his associates (Popović et al., 1987), members of the working class were forced to rent their apartments while the upper classes enjoyed the benefit of free housing and used their earnings to build weekend houses. The upper classes also had greater political influence, with a distinction between physical and intellectual labor as the crucial aspect of social differentiation (Mrkšić, 1986). According to Popović et al. (1987), political power was concentrated in the hands of a small fraction of people with high positions in the administrative apparatus and state firms, whereas workers, clerks, and peasants had little say in political matters. Studies also showed that social differentiation in Yugoslavia was founded on the unequal distribution of resources and power, which then led to unequal chances for different strata to articulate their interests (Bernik, 1982).

Social mobility was the most explored area of class research in this period. Studies pointed out Communist Party membership and education attainment as key channels of upward mobility (Lazić 1986a). According to Sekulić (1984), social mobility was highest for the age cohort that entered the labor market around 1960, but began to decrease for later generations (Sekulić, 1987). The decreasing openness of the Yugoslav class structure was therefore related to reduced rates of upward and downward mobility (Sekulić, 1984); limited rates of upward and downward mobility among three main classes (agricultural workers, manual workers, and experts) (Flere & Đurđev, 1984); and unequal chances of acquiring educational attainment, since education strategies were also dependent on economic status (Popović et al., 1987).

The majority of studies in this period based class indicators on employment relations and conceptualized classes as social groups with unequal life chances in a Weberian fashion, avoiding the implications of antagonistic relations between classes (Čolić, 1986; Popović, 1984; Popović et al., 1987). This last phase of class research also opened up more space for theoretical pluralism than in the previous periods. Some sociologists tried to renew the Marxist approach by resorting to newer trends in analytical Marxism as opposed to structural Marxism (Lazić, 1986b; Bernik, 1987). On the other hand, Sekulić (1983) criticized the ideological baggage of Marxism, the Marxist focus on ownership, but also the transitional class-strata approach (classes evolving to strata, and strata evolving to a classless society) and advocated multiple stratification dimensions.

Our attempt to classify the growing number of empirical studies on social class reveals striking parallels to how the sociological field in 1970s Hungary was described by Konrád and Szelényi (1979). According to these authors, critical intellectuals could be divided into two camps: “humanists,” who were motivated by improving socialism, critiquing it from the Left and cultivating links with Western Marxism, and “revisionist-empiricists,” who wanted to “modernize” the system and aimed to show the ruling elite that the “facts on the ground” contradicted the Marxist theory of statecraft and economy. The second group also cultivated international links, but mostly with academic centers focused on empirical sciences. Their focus was on social stratification and mobility, especially class reproduction through education. Most importantly, “revisionist-empiricists” referred to the Western ideal of modernization that assumed capitalism and democracy, against which state socialism was deemed aberrant. Given the relevance of modernization theory for these analyses, it is important to emphasize that modernization theory was the child of the Cold War political climate, and that in its original Parsonian formulation the US was explicitly postulated as the normatively superior model of development, against which other societies are measured and found deficient (Harrison, 1988). In addition to that, it is worth remembering here that in developing his structuralist-functionalist approach, Parsons himself defined his research program as opposed to Marxist social analysis (Jacobs, 1969). While from a Marxist perspective research is motivated by searching for ways in which man can overcome structures of domination, Parsons came “to associate the realization of human needs with the triumph of American capitalism” and hence felt no need for critical social theory (Jacobs, 1969, p. 67).

According to classical modernization theory, development was understood unequivocally as becoming “more like” Western Europe and the US, while other societies can either join in on this trend or remain cut-off backwaters (Jacobs, 1969). This thesis according to which state socialist modernization is “deviant” and incomplete was very influential in Yugoslavia in the 1980s (Dolenec, 2015). One of its main protagonists was the Croatian sociologist Josip Županov (1983, 1985), who used class analysis to explain the genesis and persistence of deviant modernization in Yugoslavia. According to him, a class compromise, which he described as a “coalition of the unequal,” between the political elite and manual labor—whereby workers accepted the state legitimacy and in return received economic security—cemented the status quo and prevented the possibility of development. He contrasted this patron–client relationship to the United States, where the coalition between science and capital ostensibly secures system legitimacy (Županov, 1983).

The third phase of class analysis in Yugoslavia therefore broadly corresponds to how Konrád and Szelényi (1979) described the sociological field in Hungary, as divided between humanists and revisionist-empiricists. The Praxis school, as well as the work of, for instance, Branko Horvat (1969, 1984), which had wide international reception, would fall into the Left-humanist camp, while sociologists analyzing social stratification could be placed within the camp of liberal modernizers, who aimed to point out flaws of the state socialist system vis-à-vis advanced capitalism in the West. By the mid-1980s, papers at sociological conventions in Yugoslavia were openly proposing multiparty democracy, market reforms and other types of economic and political liberalization (Dolenec, Doolan & Žitko, 2015). Over time, research in the empiricist camp increasingly drifted into elite theory, focusing on the features of political bureaucracy and lamenting the fact that experts did not have a say in the nation’s development (Dolenec, Doolan & Žitko, 2015). Linking this back to Wright’s argumentation about Marxist class analysis as a tool for a critique of capitalism, our analysis suggests that during the late 1980s in state socialist Yugoslavia both Marxist and liberal theory was employed by sociologists (as well as liberal economists such as Milovanović [1990]) who used class analysis to question the nature of “the game” and advance a systemic critique of the regime.

Our central task in this article has been to elucidate the historical context from the second half of the 20th century in Yugoslavia, which gave rise to competing sociological perspectives that employed class analysis as a tool for systemic critique. By the 1980s Yugoslavia had many characteristics of a mixed economy, with an advancing market orientation that aimed to coexist with a socialist rhetoric (Bockman, 2011). This created the conditions for the regime to be critiqued both from the Marxist left, as betraying its own stated goals, and from the liberal perspective, which increasingly found grounds for comparing Yugoslavia to Western capitalist economies and pronouncing it lacking.

Given the development of these competing critical approaches, what happened after the state socialist project was officially pronounced dead and buried? In brief, Marxist critique evaporated, while a Weberian life-chances approach became the main pillar of sociological research into stratification, social mobility, and related topics. After the country’s dissolution in the 1990s, the volume of class research decreased substantially,3 with class being “the key concept of the toppled nemesis” as Ost (2015, p. 546) has insightfully observed. The concept of class was associated with Marxist teaching and socialist values, and rapidly fell from grace in the academic and broader social setting (Dolenec, Doolan & Žitko, 2015; Kasapović, Dolenec & Nikić Čakar, 2014). The irony of the fact that the very same Marxist class analysis that was delegitimized in the anti-communist atmosphere of the 1990s was the source of systemic critique of the Yugoslav state socialist regime and contributed to its legitimation crisis, was lost to many commentators.

Sociologists in the revisionist-empiricist tradition were now working in dramatically changed circumstances, chronicling the transition to capitalism and democracy (Dolenec, Doolan & Žitko, 2015). They continued to focus on analyzing social stratification and social mobility: Sekulić and Šporer (2000a, 2000b) in Croatia and Lazić (2000) in Serbia positioned their research within the debate over elite reproduction, analyzing the extent to which managerial elites previously belonged to the communist nomenklatura. Elites were also studied via the intersection between class, ethnicity, and political attitudes (Katunarić, 1996), and the scholarship on post-socialist entrepreneurs (Čengić, 2009), although the latter avoided using class terminology. Furthermore, Lazić and Cvejić (2007) have explored people’s orientations toward liberalism, collectivism, and redistributive statism in the context of the burgeoning topics of post-socialist literature: democratization and marketization. The debate on the middle-class role in spreading values of liberalism, individualism, and meritocracy as central to the capitalist social order was specifically addressed, leading authors such as Lazić and Cvejić (2011) to conclude that the Serbian middle class supported liberal-democratic values, but failed to embrace economic liberalization.

The heritage of state socialism remained central to this research, as continuities and discontinuities with the socialist past in the new context of a market economy and liberal democracy provided not only key points of reference but also the main explanatory factor for most deficiencies that were identified (Dolenec, 2016). In the 1990s and 2000s, the original thesis about deviant modernization under state socialism was modified to help explain obvious problems with the “transition” to capitalism and democracy. While during the early 1990s the term capitalism was rarely used in sociological studies, by the late 1990s and 2000s it made more frequent appearances, usually prefixed as “crony,” “political,” or “wild” (Dolenec, 2016). The deviant character of socialist modernization was in this period redeployed to explain lasting sociocultural values in the population, such as radical egalitarianism, as reasons behind the conclusion that in the post-Yugoslav context capitalism is not what it should be (Županov, 2002). Referring back to Wright’s typology, in contrast to the late Yugoslav period in which sociology engaged class analysis in order to question what game should be played, the post-socialist 1990s and 2000s brought a silencing of Marxist left critique, while sociologists transformed their research into what Wright (2015) would describe as struggles over the rule of the game, problematizing the variety of capitalism that emerged in post-socialism rather than capitalism itself.

It is worth making two points here. First, the disappearance of class analysis in the post-Yugoslav space of the 1990s corresponded to the end of class debate (Pakulski & Waters, 1996). In a postmodern vein, Pakulski and Waters (1996, p. 24) were dismissive of class sociologists, accusing them of imposing characteristics of 19th-century societies on 20th-century ones. According to the authors, “In the contemporary period of history, the class paradigm is intellectually and morally bankrupt” (Pakulski & Waters, 1996, p. 26). Second, although Marxist class analysis remains integral to general reviews of theoretical traditions in class research, sociological research has marginalized this approach. According to Atkinson (2015, p. 38), “virtually no one uses Wright’s class scheme in sociological research,” although for him “Erik Olin Wright’s remains the best-known sociological effort to rethink and refine…Marx’s ideas.” And Wright (2015, p. 9) himself recognizes that most sociologists ignore domination and exploitation when talking about class. Indeed, in the Serbian and Croatian context there has been a noteworthy interest in Bourdieusian class theory (e.g., Cvetičanin & Popescu, 2011; Tomić-Koludrović & Petrić, 2014; and Doolan & Tonković, 2021). In conclusion, in the context of Yugoslavia a bitter paradox remains: during the nondemocratic regime that many describe as despotic, anti-systemic critique emerged both from the Left and from liberal perspectives, while in the supposedly free capitalist democracies that emerged in the 1990s anti-systemic sociological critique has been silent.

Our central task in this article has been to provide a historical overview of the political role of sociological perspectives on class in socialist Yugoslavia and two of its successor states, Croatia and Serbia, while engaging with Wright’s (2015) typology of social class theory. This typology was developed with a capitalist system in mind: a Marxist approach radically critiques capitalism, whereas Weberian and Durkheimian approaches take capitalism as given. Even though Wright’s (2015) valuable work on the critical potential of different traditions of class analysis initiates an important meta-sociological debate, we have reached a striking, crucial conclusion: in the sociopolitical context of socialism, not only Marxist but also Weberian-inspired perspectives encouraged sociologists to conduct systemic critiques, to question the nature of “the game” in Wright’s terms. This was especially true in the 1970s and 1980s, when both domestic and international political transformations fostered a plurality of conceptual approaches to social class rooted in a deeply critical sensibility. Clearly, the Marxist approach associated with the Praxis school could be seen as radical critique in Yugoslav sociology. However, as it was shown in the reconstruction of the historical field of class research, the life-chances approaches to class analysis drawn on by “revisionist-empiricists” could also be understood as radical critique.

This critique was possible precisely because the political field was marked by the dominant ideology of Marxism which aspired to an egalitarian communist society and which based its intervention on that ideal benchmark. In response to the unachieved egalitarianism, liberals advocated Western-style modernization, to change “the game,” as it were. On the other hand, sociological research on social class in the post-Yugoslav states of Croatia and Serbia has been remarkably apolitical: at best, it examines “moves” within the capitalist “game.” Capitalism in this context is deeply uncongenial to systemic critique. Yet sociology, and sociological research on class in particular, as evidenced by our insights in this article, are potentially powerful tools of systemic critique, of challenging the “game” of capitalism and offering an alternative political imaginary.

The authors would like to thank the two anonymous reviewers for their insightful comments, Mislav Žitko for engaging with them in conversations about class analysis as well as Jeremy F. Walton for his valuable insights on an earlier version of this article.

This work has been supported in part by the Croatian Science Foundation under the project number 3134.

1.

Allcock (2004) provides an informative history of Yugoslavia.

2.

Please also refer to Archer, Duda, and Stubbs (2016) for a collection of historical case studies on inequalities in Yugoslavia.

3.

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