Sunday, 20 March 2011

Bakunin on Serbia

Here is a section of Russian Anarchist Mikhail Bakunin's critique of the state in his work 'Statism and Anarchy', written in 1873, which concerns 19th century Serbia. And being a good Balkan Anarchist, I had to share this on my blog!

In this text, Bakunin observes how young, intelligent Serbs, who left their towns and villages full of patriotism and love of freedom, returned from various European centres of education to their homeland, only to become no better than self-serving bureaucrats sponging off the very people they originally intended to liberate from centuries of Ottoman Turkish rule!

Bakunin mentions "Turkish Serbia" a couple of times, which judging by the context of these five paragraphs, refers to the then Principality of Serbia, which enjoyed a certain level of autonomy within the Ottoman Empire at the time he wrote this.

Some Preconditions for a Social Revolution

The Serbian people shed their blood in torrents and finally freed themselves from Turkish slavery, but no sooner did they become an independent principality than they were again and perhaps even more enslaved by what they thought was their own state, the Serbian nation. As soon as this part of Serbia took on all the features – laws, institutions, etc. – common to all states, the national vitality and heroism which had sustained them in their successful war against the Turks suddenly collapsed. The people, though ignorant and very poor, but passionate, vigorous, naturally intelligent, and freedom-loving, were suddenly transformed into a meek, apathetic herd, easy victims of bureaucratic plunder and despotism.

There are no nobles, no big landowners, no industrialists, and no very wealthy merchants in Turkish Serbia. Yet in spite of this there emerged a new bureaucratic aristocracy composed of young men educated, partly at state expense, in Odessa, Moscow, St. Petersburg, Vienna, Paris, Germany, and Switzerland. Before they were corrupted in the service of the State, these young men distinguished themselves by their love for their people, their liberalism, and lately by their democratic and socialistic inclinations. But no sooner did they enter the state’s service than the iron logic of their situation, inherent in the exercise of certain hierarchical and politically advantageous prerogatives, took its toll, and the young men became cynical bureaucratic martinets while still mouthing patriotic and liberal slogans. And, as is well known, a liberal bureaucrat is incomparably worse than any dyed-in-the-wool reactionary state official.

Moreover, the demands of certain positions are more compelling than noble sentiments and even the best intentions. Upon returning home from abroad, the young Serbs are bound to pay back the debt owed to the State for their education and maintenance; they feel that they are morally obliged to serve their benefactor, the government. Since there is no other employment for educated young men, they become state functionaries, and become members of the only aristocracy in the country, the bureaucratic class. Once integrated into this class, they inevitably become enemies of the people…

And then the most unscrupulous and the shrewdest manage to gain control of the microscopic government of this microscopic state, and immediately begin to sell themselves to all corners, at home to the reigning prince or a pretender to the throne. In Serbia, the overthrow of one prince and the installation of another one is called a “revolution.” Or they may peddle their influence to one, several, or even all the great domineering states – Russia, Austria, Turkey, etc.

One can easily imagine how the people live in such a state! Ironically enough, the principality of Serbia is a constitutional state, and all the legislators are elected by the people. It is worth noting that Turkish Serbia differs from other states in this principal respect: there is only one class in control of the government, the bureaucracy. The one and only function of the State, therefore, is to exploit the Serbian people in order to provide the bureaucrats with all the comforts of life. [My emphasis in bold and underline]

You can read the rest of Bakunin's critique of the state here hosted by the Marxists Internet Archive at, home to a library of literature by a number of social thinkers including Karl Marx, whose theories Bakunin criticised at great length! Indeed, it was precisely the intellectual and philosophical dispute between these two revolutionaries, which gave rise to the ideological distinctions between Marxism and Anarchism.

However, what I find so prophetic about Bakunin's observations of Serbia in the 19th century, is how relevant it is to — and very descriptive of — today's Serbia in the 21st century! Although this was written before Serbia secured its independence from Turkey, before the Balkan Wars, the World wars, the Monarchic and Communist Yugoslav states and the break-up of the latter, today more than ever, especially following the nationalistic and statist wars and political turmoil of the 1990s, Serbia is still home to a freedom-loving yet ever-apathetic people, who have fallen — and can still fall — victim to bureaucratic plunder and despotism, while listening to patriotic and liberal slogans being touted by a variety of politicians, some of whom have questionable scruples to say the least!


C Mark said...

Alan, you wrote: "Serbia is still home to a freedom-loving yet ever-apathetic people, who have fallen — and can still fall — victim to bureaucratic plunder and despotism, while listening to patriotic and liberal slogans being touted by a variety of politicians, some of whom have questionable scruples to say the least!"

I'm not sure that's limited to Serbia!

Balkan Ⓐnarchist said...

You're damn right, C Mark!

Anonymous said...

Old Serbia - New Labour!

Balkan Ⓐnarchist said...

Owen, let me hear what exactly you mean by "Old Serbia - New Labour!"

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