A Brief History of Serbian Socialism, Part I

Small Logo  By: Stevo M. Lapchevich – translated from Serbian by Novak Drashkovic                                  & edited by Joaquin Flores

A Brief History of Serbian Socialism,
Part One

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The First Serbian Uprising inspired Serbian socialist thought and was connected to the early abolition of feudalism and landlordism

old-english-calligraphy-alphabet-the development of socialist ideas in the Balkans is closely tied to the political life of Serbia in the second half of the 19th century. Arising in a tributary country semi-independent from the occupying Ottoman Empire, in a land of lords and impoverished peasants living on the edge of survival, Serbia is a land of a people that was the first one in Europe to liberate itself from feudalism in the fourth decade of the 19th century.  We should recall here that Serbian prince Miloš Obrenović I issued a decree according to which arable land could only be owned by the people that are farming it, as opposed to the rising Serbian aristocracy.  Serbian socialist idea, unlike almost any other at that point in time, strived not only for the creation of a socially just, but also nationally independent and free state that would on the basis of self-government and self-determination unify the entire Serbian people.

In that regard, the first Serbian socialists that emerged from 1865 to 1885 interpreted the popular, anarchist (Bakuninist), and later Marxist ideas exclusively through a national lens, so the theoretical conflict between the workers and the capitalists was nothing more to them than the conflict between the oppressed Serbian people (the proletariat) and it’s Austrian and Ottoman oppressors – the owners of the means of production.[1]

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The main method of the struggle was to be an armed uprising; a unique “internal” (social) revolution directed against the developing bourgeoisie, and external (national) revolution directed against the occupying forces of Istanbul and Vienna that still held great parts of Serbian ethnic space under their control. The state that was to be created was, in theory, founded not on the principles of government centralism, but on the principles of self-government decentralization, on autonomous units: municipalities on the political level, and zadrugas[2] on the economic level, i.e. communes that would enable Serbia to skip the phase of capitalism and transit from a pre-capitalist society directly into agrarian socialism.

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“Only the Co-operative (Zadruga) can save the World from Catastrophe”

On the geopolitical plane, Serbian socialism fought to create a unified Balkan (con)federal state that would be able to resist not only the influence of Germany, Austro-Hungary, France or any other Western power, but also of Russia, who was often (and with good reason) regarded as using the pan-Slavic feelings of orthodox Slavs for its own imperialist purposes. In that regard, the Balkan geopolitical idea included first and foremost Serbs and Bulgarians, as the two closest peoples in the peninsula, and through them Romanians, Greeks, and only later Croats and Slovenes, but also Turks who were considered welcome if they would renounce their imperialist tendencies.

Up to 1934 or 1935 the Serbian (and later Yugoslav) socialist idea was strictly republican and more or less atheistic and progressivist. Only with the creation of the Yugoslav National Movement,  Zbor,  did a religious, national, conservative, and monarchical socialism enter the Serbian and Yugoslav political scene, much like the Romanian Iron Guard to whom it was ideologically connected, though more complex and all encompassing.

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Shield of Zbor

However, the 50 year long rule of Tito’s communist, Trotskyist regime[3] , that was hostile towards the Serbian national interest, enabled it, through reinterpretation of teachings and practical works of former Serbian socialists, to divert the Serbian national idea, show it as “backward” and distant from socialist ideas, and leave it as such to be forgotten by history, highlighting the Titoist ( Austro-Hungarian and anti-Soviet ) form of Marxism as the only authentic socialist thought.

By doing just the opposite, and wishing to introduce the international community to the history of Serbian national and socialist thought, we bring to you this short historical review of Serbian socialism.

Through national freedom to social equality: Zivojin Zujovic

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Zivojin Zujovic


In his 112th  book of “The Chronicle” for the 1867-1869 period, Matica Srpska – in its time one of the most influential scientific institutes of the Serbs –  published a text under the title “Of wages: A passage from political and economic studies” by the young author Zivojin Zujovic.

Thanks to this work, for the first time in Serbian history “a new period” characterized by the ideal of social equality and justice, and “a new man” as its main proponent, was agitated for.  As it is rightly noted by one of the founders of Serbian social democracy, Dragisa Lapcevic, in his book “The history of Socialism in Serbia”, Zujovic was the first proponent of socialist thought among the Serbian people.

Believing that man has only one goal in life towards which he should enthusiastically strive, regardless of obstacles, Zujovic along with his successors, left a huge collection of papers, reports, letters, analytic writings and propaganda materials that represent the basis for a modern study of early Serbian socialist thought.[4]

Zujovic did not learn his socialism from the disempowered German workers, but from Russian populists and by the example of the struggle of Russian peasantry, liberated from the iron grip of the country’s nobility. Given the fact that Serbia of his time was an agrarian country, it is only natural for Zujovic to direct his thought at fixing the position of Serbian farmers, noting that a minimal private possession of land should be kept and that joining into communities should occur upon voluntary and spontaneous basis.

In terms of solving the national question of Serbs divided by two empires and three faiths, Zujovic was a proponent of a national and social revolution that would not only unite the entire Serbian ethnic space, but also seek to create a unified Balkan geopolitics that would be able to resist both the West and the East, under the slogan of “(Return) the Balkans to its peoples”.

Accordingly, Zujovic was actively involved in the opening of Serbian schools in today’s Macedonia, while in terms of dealing with Vienna he focused on resisting the destructive operations of the Jesuits who, by converting the orthodox Serbs to Roman Catholicism, sought to turn them into political Croats, traditionally loyal to the Dual Monarchy. To this issue he dedicated one of his best political works titled “On conversion to Roman Catholicism in Herzegovina”, which is in turn the first extensive writing on the destructive pro-zealotist influence of Austrian Jesuits on Serbian soil.

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The Worker

The socialist seed that was planted by Zujovic will give its richest fruits during the sixth and seventh decade of the 19th century when the political scene of Serbia and the entire Balkans will be taken by Svetozar Markovic (1846-1875) , the founder of the first socialist paper (“The Worker”, started in June of 1871.) and the biggest figure of our socialism to this day.

Two freedoms – national and social: Svetozar Markovic

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Svetozar Markovic

During his lifetime of less than 30 years, Svetozar Markovic wrote  hundreds of works for the most influential Serbian magazines of the day, “Work of the People” [Narodno Delo, in Serbian, in connoting the ongoing ‘mission’ and accomplishments of the people – ed.] as the correspondent for Serbia and the Balkans for the Russian section of the First International.  He started a couple of socialist papers, for what he spent some time in Serbian prisons, he held close ties with Bulgarian socialist, nationalist and revolutionary émigrés, he prepared the Serbian people of Bosnia and Herzegovina for an uprising against the Ottomans that would, in his mind, lead not only to the destruction of the Ottoman Empire and Austria, but also liberal Serbia, and rather would incorporate it into a federation of Balkan socialist states.

Fighting for the economic emancipation of the Serbian people, together with his friends with whom he, still a student in Zurich, founded a Socialist party, he established several economic communities, thus proving to Serbian liberals that a business could be successfully conducted without amassing enormous profits. In trading, he gave the advantage to domestic products arguing that a high demand for Austrian and German products will lead to the destruction of still underdeveloped domestic production.

Holding the position that the foundation of Serbian socialism lies with its farmers, like Zivojin Zujovic, he argued against the breakup of zadruga communities and for keeping the traditional collective ownership of farmlands and the means of production. On the political level he argued for communitarian cooperation through municipalities, holding that the state should represent their unity, instead of a separate centralist government that would not allow them to prosper. In that regard he was an ardent opponent of Serbian bureaucracy which he held as being irresponsible to anything but its own good, for which it was willing to sacrifice anything, including its people.

In his writings, Markovic stood up in defense of the 1871 Paris Commune, praised Young Italy, supported the ideal of people’s self-determination, praised the work of the International, worked on the enlightenment of his people, fought against the rise of capitalism in Serbia believing, like Zujovic, that the country could skip that phase on its road to a better tomorrow. For all that, he holds the title of “the founder of Serbian socialism”, while Zujovic is usually considered its “forerunner”.

In 1872, in the time of the preparation of the Serbian people of Bosnia and Herzegovina for the upcoming uprising, he writes his most significant work, titled “Serbia in the East”, which was set as a unique guide for the future revolutionaries, revealing one of the best ideas for the outlook of the future Serbian state.

As the main goal of the national policy, “Serbia in the East” proclaims the creation of a unified Serbian state, allied primarily with Bulgaria in a unique Balkan geopolitical space. The creation of such a space that would, according to Markovic, be able to set itself free from all foreign influence, lies not only in achieving national, but also social freedom.  Such a project called for fundamental reforms on all levels of society.

Speaking of the Serbian ethnic space, Markovic, unlike the latter Tito’s Austro-Marxists, states that Serbs comprise the majority of the population in Serbia, Old Serbia (todays Kosovo and Metohija and Macedonia), Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Austrian Frontiers, as he called them (today part of Serbian Vojvodina and former Republic of Serbian Krajina, occupied by Croatia in 1995), and therefore states that all these areas, according to the will of its people, have the right to join Serbia in a single state.

Serbian freedom, Markovic states clearly, can only be achieved through the freedom of the entire Balkans and the life in that freedom is purely dependent upon the unity of small Balkan nations, mutually similar in spiritual and cultural ways. Accordingly, he argued against the idea of “Greater Serbia” which in the time comprised not only the Serbian, but also Bulgarian and Greek parts of the Balkans, labeling it as nothing more than an instrument of Serbian liberal bureaucracy aimed only at expanding its own rule.

Although Titoist historians tried to portray Markovic as being keen on the idea of cooperating with the Croats, the founder of Serbian left nationalism stated that the Croats only had one goal, that being to spread their religio-ethnicity at the expense of the Serbian people.

Also, Markovic feared the totalitarian Croatian spirit and doubted that Croats, as a nation raised to serve Vienna, were able to accept the true values that socialism brings, one of those being tolerance for other peoples, in this case the Serbs. Summarizing the characteristics of Croatian elites, he states that they are preoccupied with balls, dances, parties, singing, “fine” arts, gossip, “fine” literature, and of course, Greater Croatia.

Let us recall, the unification of ethnic Serbia with other free states of the Balkans was, according to Markovic, possible only through revolutionary action that will, as he wrote, “break the shackles that divide and subdue the Serbian people”. For him, the revolution is not only the end of old, but also the beginning of the new. “Starting from the specific historical conditions and possibilities, Markovic holds every revolution in the Balkans to be a mix of national and social liberation, without blindly copying foreign concepts unadjusted to the specific conditions of the Balkans for ‘there’s no other solution than the revolution in the Balkan peninsula, a revolution that would end in destruction of all the current states that prevent their peoples from uniting as free men and equal workers, unified through municipalities and states as they please.’”

Unfortunately, Svetozar Markovic didn’t see the start of the Serbian uprising in Bosnia and Herzegovina. He died in Trieste, in February of 1875, only a few months before the first shots were fired in Herzegovina. In spite of that, his socialist pupils were among the most prominent leaders of the uprising, and it’s worth noting that socialist thinkers Manojlo Hrvacanin (a prominent associate and a personal friend of Bakunin) and Vladimir Ljotic   ( Marx’s[5] appointed trustee in The International and the first translator of the Communist party manifesto to Serbian) brought the prince and future king of Serbia, Petar Karadjordjevic, to the uprising where he fought under his nom de guerre, Petar Mrkonjic.

  • End Part I

In the next installment, we will further develop the history of Serbian socialism as it moves into the 20th century.  The 20th century inherits the 19th, but brought significant change, and increased polarization in the movement for national sovereignty and socialism.  The strains of Christian Narodnik Anarchism would play an influential role in the further development of Serbian socialism and Radicalism, and had a distinctly ‘Eastern Character’ and was somewhat less inclined to be influenced by changes in Europe and with that the rise of the Second International, with its later figures like Bernstein and Kautsky, et al.

If we produce the planned third installment, we will move forward to the Russian Revolution of 1917 that would shake the world, and the creation of the Third International would have a tremendous influence on the developments in Serbian political life.  The distinctly secular and at times anti-religious character of Western European socialism would further alienate many in Serbia from those developments, contributing to this polarization between Christian Anarcho-Socialism and Syndicalism, and Marxian Socialisms of the West.  1917 would entirely reconfigure this. With this we conclude part I of our series, which will come in several installments. – J. Flores

Editor’s note: The Center for Syncretic Studies has begun this historical research project in connection with two upcoming projects in Serbia which we will be involved in.

The first involves collaboration with Serbian Eurasianists, Socialists/Communists, Anarchists and Nationalists of the left and right, as well as with researchers in parallel public think tanks in Serbia, to develop a syncretic ideology for Serbia.  It’s roots already lay in the history of Serbian socialism and it will require little in the way of ‘wheel invention’.  A major difference between syncretic ideology in former Soviet space and former  Yugoslavia is that in the Soviet case, there are two major differences: The Russian Revolution is seen by and large as a ‘native’ revolution to Russia (excepting the ‘Jewish Bolshevik conspiracy’ beleiver segment of society), whereas Marxism-Leninism and later Titoism in Yugoslavia is often considered to be a matter of importing the histories of others.  For Russia it came by revolution, for Yugoslavia, by tanks.  One strength in former Soviet space today is the more or less successful integration and reconciliation of Leninist conceptions and symbolism with both nationalist, pre-revolutionary, ancient, and religious symbolism and viewpoints.  The Austro-Marxist nature of the Tito era in socialist Yugoslavia has made a similar development much less appealing or feasible.

The second involves the development of a Serbian National Worker’s Union, that will require an ideology and historical references, icons, and certain ideological commitments. This will be an important tool for national sovereignty as well: the largest companies in Serbia are foreign owned, and so once again as was the case 150 years ago, the struggle for national liberation and self-determination is linked hand in hand with the struggle for worker’s power and socialism.  The piece below and this series is written by Mr. Lapchevich who will be serving as the Center’s primary labor history researcher for these two projects.   ***

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[1] Because of that, Serbian socialists vigorously supported the struggle of the Paris Commune in which they saw not only the struggle of the socially oppressed, but also a national struggle of the Paris proletariat against the Prussian invader at a point in time when monarchist France abandoned the fight.

[2] A zadruga refers to a type of rural community historically common among Serbs. Originally, generally formed of one extended family or a clan of related families, the zadruga held its property, herds and money in common, with usually the oldest (patriarch) member ruling and making decisions for the family, though at times he would delegate this right at an old age to one of his sons.

Because the zadruga was based on a patrilocal system, when a girl married, she left her parents’ zadruga and joined that of her husband. Within the zadruga, all of the family members worked to ensure that the needs of every other member were met.

The zadruga eventually went into decline beginning in the late 19th century, as the largest started to become unmanageable and broke into smaller zadrugas or formed villages. However, the zadruga system continues to color life in the Balkans; the typically intense concern for family found among South Slavs even today is partly due to centuries of living in the zadruga system. Many modern-day villages in the Balkans have their roots in a zadruga, a large number of them carrying the name of the one that founded them.

Villages and neighbourhoods that originated from zadrugas can often be recognized by the patronymic suffixes, such as -ivci, -evci, -ovci, -inci, -ci, -ane, -ene, etc., on their names.

This type of traditional, village style cooperation is very similar to a late 19th-century Russian system called obshchina.

[3] “The Soviets and their satellite states often accused Yugoslavia of Trotskyism and social-democracy, charges loosely based on Tito’s samoupravljanje (self-management) and the theory of associated labor (profit sharing policies and worker-owned industries initiated by him, Milovan Đilas, and Edvard Kardelj in 1950). In these, the Soviet leadership saw the seeds of council communism or even corporatism.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Titoism#Ideology.

In addition to this are two other matters to contemplate – Trotskyism is here viewed similarly to the ‘leftist’ Communism of Rosa Luxemburg who opposed national self-determination.  Secondly, is the view that Trotskyism is compared with both crypto-fascism and openness with the West, which Tito in his own way is often accused of by ‘anti-revisionist’ Marxist-Leninists.

[4] As the first Serbian socialist, Zujovic will share a lot with his successors. Like Svetozar Markovic and Dimitrije Cenic, he died in the prime of his life, leaving his work unfinished. Also, it’s worth noting that he came from a poor family and that he gained his first serious intellectual experiences in the East (In Kiev and Saint Petersburg), only later moving to the West (Zurich and Munich).

[5] It’s worth noting that first Serbian socialists interpreted the works of Marx in a nationalist manner, viewing his struggle for peoples self-determination and against imperialism as the best instrument for accomplishing the Serbian national interest, conflicted with Turkish and Austro-Hungarian imperialism, and the struggle of the proletariat for its rights as the struggle of the impoverished Serbian peasantry against its corrupt liberal bureaucracy and emerging bourgeoisie.

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