Lapped by the velvety waters of the Croatian Adriatic, the walled town of Korčula is best-known for its yacht-filled marinas, bijou boutiques, and eye-watering prices. It’s hard to believe that this quaint Mediterranean holiday trap once attracted a very different kind of tourist: some of the most high-powered international Marxists that Europe has ever seen.
From 1963 to 1974, the Korčula Summer School hosted ten-day gatherings of philosophers, sociologists, and students, that mapped out the development of the European left during one of the most turbulent periods in its history. Despite being considered dangerously heretical by Yugoslavia’s communist leaders, the summer school was a unique intellectual salon attended by influential thinkers from both East and West. Blending beachside holiday with an energising sense of intellectual freedom, the summer school provided its participants with an utopian setting in which sun and socialist comradeship were guaranteed — until the authorities finally tired of its heresies and pulled the plug.
By offering a left-wing critique of an existing socialist state, Praxis found common cause with the radical left of Western Europe
One of the reasons why Yugoslav hard-liners took so long to close the school down was because of its glittering international reputation. Attendees over the years included the godfathers of the new left, including Herbert Marcuse and Jürgen Habermas, and figures who provided intellectual inspiration for the Parisian student revolts of May 1968, like French sociology professor Henri Lefebvre. It also attracted outstanding leaders in other fields, such as psychoanalyst Erich Fromm and British positivist A. J. Ayer.
The school was organised by the publishers of Praxis, a theoretical Marxist journal launched by intellectuals from Zagreb, then capital of the Yugoslav federal republic of Croatia. Attracting thinkers from other Yugoslav universities, notably in Belgrade, Praxis pushed the boundaries of what the regime was prepared to tolerate right from the start. Although it broadly welcomed Yugoslavia’s independent road to socialism, a path exemplified by the policy of worker self-management, Praxis was critical of the emerging “communist bourgeoisie” of party bureaucrats. It also distrusted the socially-divisive market reforms that gathered pace in Yugoslavia in the 1960s, when consumer goods were prioritised, market competition encouraged, and a new technocratic managerial class appeared. By offering a left-wing critique of an existing socialist state, Praxis also found common cause with the radical left of Western Europe, who combined opposition to Western capitalism with suspicion of the state socialism practiced in the communist East.
The idea of a summer school grew from the increasing importance of the Adriatic coast in Yugoslavia’s leisure scene, and the inescapable fact that everyone wanted to get away to the seaside over the summer. Zagreb university professors and Praxis founders Milan Kangrga and Rudi Supek both had summer houses near Korčula, and decided it was the ideal place in which to combine theoretical debate with more sybaritic pursuits. The first few years of the school were largely restricted to university teaching staff, but Korčula quickly became the place to be for left-wing academics and students eager to sunbathe, drink wine, and discuss the meaning of life.
Lino Veljak, now a philosophy professor at Zagreb University’s humanities faculty, attended the school five times from 1970 until its final edition in 1974. “I was there for the first time immediately after finishing my first year as a student of philosophy and sociology, when I set off with a group of friends from Split by boat,” he remembers. “We slept in some tent in the local campsite. Which is what we did most of the time in subsequent years. Sometimes we slept in the open air in the woods, sometimes in some boat or other. It was only in the final year that ten of us, maybe more, slept in a rented room. The social life there was particularly intensive: one did not sleep much, and after the lectures and discussions we went to the beach, sat on restaurant terraces (our professors frequently bought us the odd glass of wine, and gave us a bit of money so that we could get something to eat). We were able to socialise informally not only with our own professors but with highly significant names of world philosophy, from [German Marxist philosopher] Ernst Bloch to [sociologist and godfather of critical theory] Jürgen Habermas.”
Film director Rajko Grlić was at the summer school almost every year as a teenager and young adult because his father, Zagreb philosopher Danko Grlić, was one of the founders. Grlić‘s offbeat cinematic memoir One More for the Road will be published by Berghahn in October 2021. “It was an extraordinarily fun time,” he says. “There were a lot of young painters, philosophers, writers of my generation, as well as older academics. And for all of them, the summer school represented a celebration of life. They had three-hour sessions in the morning and some discussions in the late afternoon. But oh, what happened inbetween! Those lunches! Those soccer games! Whoever came to Korčula, even the serious international figures, relaxed into summer-school life within a few hours of arrival. And they tried to make a connection between the life they were living on the island and the theories they were discussing. Mixing life and theory was the main reason why they were here.”
Not for nothing did French Marxist Henri Lefebvre tell Grlić’s mother Eva (after one particularly wine-lubricated excursion) that the summer school represented “dionysaic socialism” in action — a perfect synthesis of progressive theory and the good life it was supposed to lead to.
Summing up Korčula in a memoir published in 2007, sociologist Ivo Kuvačić described the summer school as “a hive buzzing with young people from all corners of the world… Sessions took place both indoors and in the open air, and discussions carried on in surrounding cafes and restaurants, or on the beach until late at night… It was the continuation of what had happened in the university campuses of Berkeley, Paris and Berlin, just on a smaller scale.”
The fact that Praxis had the aura of forbidden fruit — a phenomenon tolerated by a regime that disapproved of much of the detail — helped Yugoslav students feel that, just like their Western counterparts, they were engaged in some kind of revolution. Several nonconformist intellectuals from the Eastern bloc also came to the summer school in its early years (including Czech philosopher Karel Kosik, Hungary’s Àgnes Heller and Poland’s Leszek Kołakowski), although Praxis’s elastic view of Marxism was viewed with profound suspicion by Eastern bloc governments. Moscow in particular hated Praxis’s attacks on Soviet dogma, and suggested to Yugoslav leader Josip Broz Tito that it might help (the frequently turbulent) relations between the two countries if he closed Praxis down.
“Those lunches! Those soccer games! Whoever came to Korčula, even the serious international figures, relaxed into summer-school life”
Something of a turning point came in May 1968, when unrest in France had an electrifying effect on the global left. As left-wing students took over the streets of Paris, and striking workers downed tools in factories, it momentarily looked as if the anti-capitalist revolution was at hand (although conservative president Charles de Gaulle soon regained control). A student strike in Belgrade later that June revealed widespread dissatisfaction with Yugoslav communism’s lurch towards market economics. Many of the Belgrade academics associated with Praxis joined the protests. The subject of that year’s summer school, titled “Marx and Revolution”, looked set to capitalise on what promised to be a long-awaited epoch of change.
Such optimism suffered a serious blow when news arrived on August 21 that the Warsaw Pact had intervened in Czechoslovakia, where Czechoslovak communist party leader Aleksandar Dubček had unleashed a programme of liberal reforms in the so-called Prague Spring. The changes, however, displeased Moscow, and a military force was swiftly dispatched. The invasion served as proof that in the Eastern bloc at least, any attempt to democratise socialism was likely to be punished by Soviet tanks. It came as a particular shock to Rajko Grlić, who was back home in Croatia after spending time studying at Prague’s famous FAMU film school. “I remember the moment very well. I was woken at about five or six in the morning by my father, who said ‘the Russians are in Prague!’ Within a few hours the leaders of the summer school had put together an open letter of protest, and I remember there was a long line of people waiting to sign it. And there I was standing right between Bloch and Lefebvre! I always joked that this was my closest connection to the history of philosophy. Later that same day, I hurried back to Zagreb to see if I could get a flight back to Prague.”
Participants from Eastern bloc countries found it increasingly difficult to attend the summer school in the wake of 1968. For the western left however, Korčula grew in importance as the place where the post-1968 generation networked and discussed ideas. The people of Korčula continued to welcome the summer school because it took place at the end of August, when the regular tourist season was coming to an end. An influx of amiable wine-guzzling leftists was more than welcome.
“The reaction of local people, as far as I can remember, was very positive,” says retired economics professor (and Korčula native) Ante Lešaja, who has dedicated his retirement to archiving the Praxis movement. (That archive has since been digitised thanks to younger-generation Zagreb thinker Tomislav Medak). “I knew university students from Korčula who would come home for the holidays and follow the summer school sessions with great enthusiasm. Even when higher authorities suggested that the summer school should be cancelled, the town’s mayor always rejected any attempts of the kind. The Yugoslav security services almost certainly sent their observers to Korčula, but the local police behaved with great discretion and never showed any particular interest in monitoring the work of the school.”
Lino Veljak attributes Korčula’s attitude to its history to its status as “Partisan territory”: supporting and hosting the communist-led resistance movement that countered Italian then German occupiers in the Second World War. “On the one hand the local population looked upon us with sympathy, but on the other hand many, especially the local functionaries, could not understand how someone could be further left than the ruling communist regime itself,” he says. “There was a certain amount of distrust, but more in the sense of trying to understand us as their children gone astray, and not as enemies of the values in which the community believed.”
Long-term thorns in the regime’s side, both the summer school and the journal were formally extinguished in 1975. It was a time when dissent of all kinds was being quietly smothered: a Croatian autonomist movement had been snuffed out in late 1971; the liberal leadership of the Serbian communist party was dismissed a year later. A new (mind-bogglingly complicated) constitution, introduced in 1974, was supposed to represent the end of all arguments regarding the future of Yugoslav socialism, and critical comment from any quarter would no longer be tolerated. While Zagreb members of Praxis held on to their jobs, several of their Belgrade colleagues were thrown out of the university, leading to international protest and fears of further crackdowns. Attempts to rekindle the Korčula summer school were made on the island of Vis and in Dubrovnik, but with the Praxis journal no longer being published, its impact was no longer the same.
But modern Croatian historiography has arguably failed to accord Praxis the importance it deserves. As a leftist, anti-nationalist moment in the country’s intellectual history, it does not fit easily into contemporary patriotic narratives. Interest in Praxis, however, has been rekindled in a Europe bruised by financial crisis and political uncertainty. Among the young, says Veljak, “the interest for this [anti-capitalist] heritage has been noticeably rising, and it is absolutely certain that many of them are drawing significant lessons from what had been thought of as a marginalised tradition.” For many people — and not just on the left — there is a renewed hunger for creative political and economic thinking. Even if Praxis offers few answers to present predicaments, its memory — just like the summer school it once hosted — still serves as a good way of starting a conversation, and, ultimately, bringing people together.