Hidden jewels from the Balkans

Issue: 104

Mike Haynes

A review of Andreja Zivkovic and Dragan Plavsic (eds), The Balkan Socialist Tradition: Balkan Socialism and the Balkan Federation, 1871-1915 (Revolutionary History, vol 8, no 3, 2003), £12.95

How many failed interventions can the world tolerate? Since the end of the Cold War we have seen a succession of attempts, led by the US and its supporters, to use military power ostensibly to solve local problems. But whatever the immediate effect of the intervention, the long term result has been to leave the underlying problems unresolved and even more difficult to resolve. Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo-Serbia, Afghanistan and now Iraq—the list grows. But as one intervention has succeeded another, interest seems to fade in the consequences of earlier actions. But these consequences remain to be dealt with by the local populations and they can contain the seeds of future conflicts. It is important therefore for socialists not only to expose the immediate hypocrisies behind the interventions but also to look beyond them to the nature of the wider imperial system. This requires an analysis of the present, but also a more adequate understanding of the past.

The Balkan Socialist Tradition: Balkan Socialism and the Balkan Federation, edited by Andreja Zivkovic and Dragan Plavsic, is a major documentary collection of articles from the pre-1914 international and Balkan socialist movement that have never appeared in English before.1 It will enormously advance our understanding both of development in the Balkans and the way in which the Balkan left responded. Published as a book length issue of the journal Revolutionary History, it is edited to the highest standards with a strong commentary, detailed footnotes, a glossary and clear maps, all of which explain the context of the writings and provide a wealth of historical information. My only regret is that an index has not been added to help those who wish to track the way issues of detail were used as the debates of the time developed.

To get most benefit from the debates translated here it is necessary to have a general understanding of Balkan developments but readers who followed the arguments at the time of the last NATO attack should have what is necessary and there are now a number of short background accounts that can also be recommended to those who want more.2 But all those who wrote in English on this topic would have benefited from having this collection to hand, for even the most cursory skimming of the text reveals how partial and impoverished our understanding of the Balkan past and the role of the left within it has often been.

Before 1914 Balkan socialists struggled with issues that are still with us today. Capitalism came late to this region as it did to most of the world. But it showed little capacity to deliver harmonious development. Instead it encouraged the development of a region of suspicious statelets with competing claims to the loyalty of the local population. (Today, of course, with the fragmentation of the former Yugoslavia the division is even greater.) Moreover it did this in an area which had become the focus of great power rivalries and in which local conflicts inevitably became mixed up with outside interests.

The Balkans could not remain as it was. Small states with narrow local markets and competing interests were no basis for stability. One solution might have been unity through the expansion of a single state—the way that Prussia unified Germany or Piedmont effectively unified Italy. But no single Balkan state had the means to do this, nor were the Great Powers interested in allowing it to happen. Another solution was some kind of federation or alliance from above. This briefly and partially came about in 1912 as Bulgaria, Greece, Montenegro and Serbia ganged up on their fellow Balkan state Turkey. But this partial alliance immediately fell apart in the Second Balkan War in 1913 where Greece and Serbia, now joined by Romania, went to war with Bulgaria over the spoils of the first war.

The alternative that emerged on the radical left was to fight for a Balkan federation from below by challenging both the local states and the imperial interests that helped to guide them. This idea of federation from below was not simply a slogan to be painted on a banner. It emerged from the fight against the nationalist policies of the individual states and a growing understanding of the nature of the new age of imperialism.

Crucial here was a changed appreciation of the role of Russia. In the mid-19th century Marx and Engels had seen a backward but politically and militarily strong Russia as the major obstacle to the advance of capitalism, democracy and eventually socialism. In 1914 some socialists still saw things this way and Russophobia was an important tradition in both Germany and Austro-Hungarian socialism. But in the late 19th century not only did the power of Russia visibly weaken but after 1900 it now became part of a wider imperialist system in which the dominant powers would sometimes co-operate and sometimes compete with one another to redivide the world and manage their interests. As this happened the issue became more and more one of opposition to the imperialist system as a whole. This is the context for the detailed discussions in the contemporary documents discussed in this book. And they will reveal to the interested reader jewels hitherto hidden as well as a tradition of socialist activism in the most difficult circumstances that still stands out today. Let’s take some examples.

The crisis that led to the First World War began with the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo by Gavrilo Princip, a Serbian nationalist. Austria took this as a pretext to crush Serbia and the Great Powers lined up on two sides to fight. Faced with the threat of European war most socialists in Europe, organised in the Second International, threw aside their internationalism to support their own countries’ war efforts. Lenin and the Bolsheviks in Russia did not. But how many people know that neither did many Balkan socialists? And how many know that in Serbia, as the Austrian armies advanced and socialists came under the most enormous pressure imaginable, some still held up the banner of internationalism? Here we have, for example, the speech of Dragisa Lapcevic, who with enormous courage opposed the war in the Serbian parliament even as the Serbian armies were being hammered by the first blows of the Austrian military. Here we have the bitter lament of Dusan Popovic as he records the problems of editing an anti-war paper in Serbia while he tries to come to terms with the war-death of one of the great Balkan socialists of the day, Dmitrije Tucovic. The stand of people like this and others in neighbouring states was only possible because of the clarity with which leading members of the left in the Balkans saw the decisive issue as one of an imperialist war which relegated local issues to the background. The memory of their stand reinforces all the opprobrium that history has subsequently heaped on western socialists who in far less difficult conditions took weaker positions.

The arguments of these Balkan socialists developed under the umbrella of the Second International. But the book also makes clear how our understanding of these debates often underplays their sophistication and complexity. This is partly a product of the failure of 1914 and the inevitable tendency to concentrate on the bad elements that led to it. But this is to neglect the good, which also existed, and the way in which socialist theorists tried to confront the ways the world was changing. Part of the reason figures like Lenin and Luxemburg were so shocked by the betrayals of August 1914 was their recognition of the positive contributions that had been made before. Kautsky suffered particularly here and if he is seen only in terms of his positions after 1914 and 1917 and through his widely translated popular tracts it is difficult to understand why he was so important. But a reading of his sharp analysis of the problems of the Ottoman Empire translated here should persuade even the most sceptical that, whatever his failings, here was also a man of great insight.

But our misunderstandings are also a consequence of the prism created by Stalinism and anti-Stalinism. The former we can now discount, but in doing so there has been a tendency to rely on Trotsky and his friend and fellow left oppositionist Christian Rakovsky for guidance on the issues at stake in the Balkans. Trotsky’s writings as war correspondent in the Balkans in 1912 to 1913 are an invaluable source and a classic of their kind, but his appreciation of the debates of the time was sometimes wanting.3 The collection does not translate, for example, a robust rebuttal of Trotsky by Dimutur Blagoev, a great Bulgarian Marxist practically unheard of outside the Balkans. It does, however translate Blagoev’s blunt dismissal of Christian Rakovsky who at this point was both trying to help paper over critical differences and also too naively viewing the potential of development from above for resolving the problems in the Balkans. This is not to say the positions adopted at the time were and are unquestionable. In one section, for example, Dragan Plavsic raises uncomfortable questions about the response of Balkan socialists to the First Balkan War. Rather the issue is that there was both a serious debate and no sense of the need to defer to authority in a way that represents the best tradition of socialist discussion. Here were people who were self-confident in their arguments and who had a political credibility to match it, but who subsequently became lost to history until this book helped to resurrect them for a new century.

But the collection also helps us understand the deficiencies in some other positions. Perhaps the most important here are the problems that the Austro-Marxists had in dealing with the national and imperial questions of the time. Those on the left today who are inclined to be sympathetic to the abstract attractions of their arguments about solving the national problem through fighting for cultural autonomy within big states will learn much here from the way in which this position crumbled towards a de facto support of big powers when confronted with real issues like Bosnia before 1914.

As the collection proceeds the editors note striking parallels between issues raised before 1914 and recent events. But they also recognise that the problem is not one of using the past as a stick with which to beat people in the present. Rather through a better understanding of the past we can gain a better understanding of the present and therefore also have a better chance of going beyond it. Those of us who opposed Western intervention in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s were hostilely received by many on the liberal left—including those who had previously stood with us. But our sense that a dangerous pattern was being created has been vindicated by events and the tradition we helped to precipitate has become part of a wider movement of opposition that can be seen in the protests against the war on Iraq. This book (and with it Misha Glenny’s The Balkans 1804-1999: Nationalism, War and the Great Powers, London, 2000) has given birth to a serious attempt to lay the basis for a deeper understanding of the Balkans that puts at our service the best traditions of historical research and co-operative translation. As the problems of Western intervention extend we will need to combine more a general education in the history of imperialism and resistance to it with detailed and genuinely ‘scientific’ accounts in the best sense. It is good to have this kind of book therefore not only for what it tells us about its subject but as a model for others to emulate for other places at other times.


1: A Zivkovic and D Plavsic (eds), The Balkan Socialist Tradition: Balkan Socialism and the Balkan Federation, 1871-1915 (Revolutionary History, vol 8 no3, 2003).

2: For a general context see M Haynes, ‘Theses on the Balkan War’, International Socialism 83 (Summer 1999). L German (ed), The Balkans Nationalism and Imperialism (London, 1999) gives more detail. M Mazower, The Balkans (London, 2000) is an excellent short attack on the idea that people are born into the Balkans with some special quality that makes them want to kill one another. Two longer accounts that can be recommended are

M Glenny, The Balkans 1804-1999: Nationalism, War and the Great Powers (London, 2000) and a reprinted classic by L Stavrianos, The Balkans Since 1453 (London, 2000).

3: L Trotsky, The Balkan Wars, 1912-13: The War Correspondence of Leon Trotsky (New York, 1981).