Grey Room

Praxis and Action: Toward Building as a Collective Practice in Postwar Yugoslavia

Andjelka Badnjar Gojnić

Construction on the Danube embankment by volunteers, New Belgrade, ca. 1948. © Historical Archives of Belgrade, Nemanja Budisavljević personal fonds.


In 1967, Yugoslavian philosopher Gajo Petrović published Marx in the Mid-twentieth Century. In what would become an internationally recognized book, Petrović surveyed debates between “creative” and “dogmatic” Marxism. Opposing accretions of Marxian historiography he labeled “dogmatic,” Petrović called for a creative approach to Marxist thought that could contribute to global production challenges. In doing so, Petrović foregrounded the category of “praxis.” This privileging of praxis was hardly unique among leftist philosophers of the mid-1960s engaged with the politics of the Eastern bloc. Relations between praxis and everyday life figured in contemporaneous works of Henri Lefebvre, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Jean-Paul Sartre, Ernst Bloch, Cornelius Castoriadis, and Jürgen Habermas. More locally, Petrović’s book grew out of the “praxis circle” of philosophy in Yugoslavia, whose gathering point was the appropriately named Praxis, a journal published by the Croatian Philosophical Society and the Yugoslavian Society for Philosophy from 1964 until 1974, which was also aligned with a summer school of philosophy, held on the picturesque Adriatic island of Korčula, that served as an East-West forum for philosophers and students. An impressive list of names headed the school’s curriculum, starting with Zygmunt Bauman, Umberto Cerroni, Erich Fromm, Agnes Heller, and Henri Lefebvre; Lucien Goldmann, György Lukács, Howard L. Parsons, and Kostas Axelos also attended. From Germany, philosophers such as Habermas, Bloch, Herbert Marcuse, Hans-Georg Gadamer, and Eugen Fink took part in discussions. Many of these figures were regular participants and worked on Praxis’s editorial board, addressing the major themes proposed by the summer school.

The gathering of domestic and international leftist thinkers in Yugoslavia would operationalize Marx to increase participation by members of society. Yet, as the present article claims, the philosophical reconstruction of Marxism in Yugoslavia cannot be isolated from practices and techniques of physical construction then shaping Yugoslavia itself. Praxis thought needs to be apprehended alongside an array of experimental building practices—from volunteer youth work to the introduction of participative prefabrication by self-organized enterprises—in which several of the circle’s leading philosophers were involved directly. This article explores the links between experiments in collective building based on youth volunteer work and Marxian interpretations of praxis as socially active labor.