Monday, 27 January 2020

Dragan Plavsic on The Balkan Socialist Tradition (2003)

The Balkan Socialist Tradition and the Balkan Federation (latest issue of Revolutionary History)
Written By: Dragan Plavsic
Date: September 2003
Published In LSHG Newsletter Issue 19: Autumn 2003 


The current issue of Revolutionary History (due out in late September) is devoted to socialist writings on the national question in the Balkans between 1871 and 1914. During this period the leading Balkan socialists, such as Bulgarian Marxists Dimitur Blagoev and Christian Rakovsky, and the lesser known Serbian Marxist Dimitrije Tucovic, developed an idea central to socialist thought on the national question in the Balkans – the idea of a Balkan federation as a bulwark against both imperialist intervention and nationalist conflict across the peninsula. The nationalist wars in former Yugoslavia during the 1990s, and US imperialist intervention in Bosnia in 1995 and Kosovo in 1999 which transformed these provinces into colonies, means that this idea remains directly relevant today.

The issue begins with a general introduction (plus maps) which provides historical background and introduces the main themes, followed by sections on: the early Balkan socialists; the Eastern Question debate in German Social Democracy 1896-97; Macedonia in the wake of the 1903 uprising; the Young Turk Revolution of 1908; the Habsburg annexation of Bosnia in 1908; the Balkan federation idea; the Balkan Wars of 1912-13; and the First World War. Each section has an explanatory introduction followed by articles by leading socialists on the historical events or issues raised. Most of the articles are by Balkan socialists but there are also important articles by leading western socialists, such as Otto Bauer, Karl Kautsky and Rosa Luxemburg. All articles, except one, appear in English for the first time.

The articles by Balkan socialists deal with a variety of theoretical and practical questions. How can socialists oppose the multinational Habsburg and Ottoman Empires without succumbing to nationalist plans for their dismemberment? How should socialists work with a mass national liberation movement, such as the one in Ottoman Macedonia? What attitude should be taken towards the Young Turk Revolution, led by nationalist army officers? Were the Balkan bourgeoisies capable of forging a Balkan federation and what role should the working class play? Should socialists oppose the First Balkan War, a war of liberation waged by the Balkan states against the Ottoman Empire, because it was also a war of conquest?

In addition to these questions, the issue also deals with the attitude of western socialists to the Balkans. An entire section is devoted to the debate Rosa Luxemburg provoked in the German Social Democratic Party in the mid 1890s, when she sought to overturn Marx and Engels’ opposition to the national liberation struggle of the Balkan Slavs, a struggle they had regarded as a Trojan horse for Tsarist Russia. Other sections explore critical disagreements between western and Balkan socialists. Opposing the 1908 Habsburg annexation of Ottoman Bosnia, Serbian socialists called for the province to be allowed to exercise its right to self-determination by plebiscite, but Austrian socialists were prepared only to support the province’s right to autonomy within the confines of the Habsburg Empire. The final section on the First World War deals with the greatest moment in the history of Balkan socialism – the Serbian Party’s vote against war credits in 1914 as Austrian troops crossed into Serbia at the outbreak of war, but as most western socialists treacherously fell into line behind the war policy of their own imperial ruling classes.

The critical guiding idea of a Balkan federation as the only way of overcoming the region’s petty divisiveness and of unifying it against imperialist intervention is present throughout these debates. The most far-sighted of the Balkan socialists saw a central role for the working class in forging such a federation given the mutually destructive territorial rivalries of the Balkan ruling classes. It is this federal idea, rooted in working class struggle, that has a relevance well beyond the Balkans today. For where else have divisions sponsored by imperialists sown such discord and so guaranteed imperialist domination as in the Middle East? It is there too that the arguments of the Balkan socialists may help us in our common struggle against US imperialism

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