Monday, May 19, 2014

‘Don’t Give Up Your Rifle!’ and Other Lessons from Serbia’s Timok Rebellion of 1883

Serbia’s situation in the latter half of the 19th century resembles ours today within the American Empire:  Two political parties, supposedly different but at their heart tending toward the same centralized, absolute, authoritarian goal; a new third party formed from, and growing because of, the discontent in the hinterland with the two establishment parties; and the attempt by those parties to destroy their new rival.  The Tea Party is thus far a weak shadow of Serbia’s manlier Radical Party (and thus perhaps a better comparison would be with the Southern National Congress, Texas Nationalist Movement, Alaska Independence Party, etc.). 

Howbeit, as the political rebellion against Washington City and the God-hating, corporate, transnational elite who control it grows in the [u]nited States, we would do very well to pay attention to how Serbia’s similar political rebellion, the Timok Rebellion of 1883, unfolded.  The background, which the reader is encouraged to seek out at the site below, is covered in the preceding part of this essay by Fr Matthew; as we want to focus here on the Rebellion itself and its aftermath, we quote only from the latter half.

 . . .

As this paper has shown thus far, it was a very complex set of causes, though, in a very general way, can be reduced to the age old fight between a conservative peasant and a government–with its own prestige at heart–willing to force modernization on a peasantry, uniformly called “backward” as a rhetorical device to justify the liquidation of peasant tradition.

Peasant political ideology in the Slavic world, prior to their being dragooned into the army or into the industrial economy was pure national anarchism. It was the stress on the religious and ethnic component of identity, with a great deal of hostility to the state which, certainly in the 1880s was anti- national, seeking support from banks in Paris and Vienna rather than from internal sources (in fact, this writer is willing to make the claim that Liberals and Conservatives in Serbian politics in the 1880s were two factions to an extent controlled by French and Austrian finance capital respectively). Orthodoxy and ethnicity (itself heavily religious in tone) was the basic sense of identity of the Serbian peasant. But this included the more amorphous ideas of family liberty through the zadrugy, regional autonomy and the concept of a national militia rather than a professional army. All of this was violated in the process of the rebellion.

The efficient cause of the fighting was indeed the attempt to disarm the peasantry. After the army’s battles with the peasants sporadically before, there were many, Milan at the head (after the attempt on his life) who no longer trusted the peasant classes. These were the descendants of the haiduks– decentralized bands of rebels against the Ottoman occupation–decendants of a people who spent the last 300 years living a life below the radar of the arrogant Islamic occupiers. Their entire life was one of resistance and the constant readiness for battle. They, to put it mildly, were an extremely difficult group to control. The Radical idea was very simple: does it make any sense to have fought this long and hard for independence only to hand over Serbia to Parisian or Viennese bankers and their puppets? There was no peasant that did not understand such a simple yet profound question.

The excuse for disarming the peasants was that the new Mauser rifles were too advanced for the peasantry to store and maintain. Hence, the army was to confiscate the old rifles, then keep the new Mauser’s at state magazines. Of course, no one took that seriously, because the lack of technical expertise to maintain a Mauser had nothing to do with confiscating the older weapons. The peasantry realized quickly what this truly was: Milan’s attempt to keep the Radicals out of power forever by disarming the peasantry in the Timok valley, always the stronghold of rebellion, Orthodoxy and Radicalism. Stokes writes:

Under the Ottomans the Serbs could not bear arms as a rule, so when the First and Second Uprisings expelled the Ottomans the ordinary Serbian make overcompensated, coming to feel by 1850 that a man was undressed in public if he did not appear with a weapon. The widespread distribution of arms during the Ottoman wars did nothing to lessen the sense that the rifle was man’s true support (281-2)

This writer chafes at Stokes’ condescending “overcompensating” remark, since she skillfully explains precisely why this was not an overcompensation, but an aspect of Serbian life, dictated by the humiliation of Ottoman control, and being called a “raya,” or “cattle” by the Ottoman authorities. As in Montenegro, the rifle was a symbol of independence against imperialism, and more than a symbol, the very reality of the fact that independence only comes with bloodshed, and there is nothing inherently wrong or “evil” about this. It remains, however, a concept foreign to the modern schoolmarm or university hack.

Refusing to listen to pleas for “calm” from the bourgeois politicians, the eastern Serbs quickly and effectively organized. Shooting the men sent to confiscate what they considered, though 200 years of fighting, to be their birthright, a rifle, Milan dedicated his reign to destroying these peasants at any cost. Under the older concept of the popular militia (as opposed to a standing army), the peasant kept his rifle at home. He was to bring it to the proper muster in time of war, with food and ammunition. It was this that drove the Turks out of Europe. Thus, there was a deeper situation here, one that took place in nearly all European nations at one time or another, the idea that a popular militia is just that–popular. It cannot be used against the interests of the ethnos since it was the ethnos, at least when mobilizing for war. The new professional army, however, proved its mettle and fought against the peasantry. One might even say that this rebellion was in fact an all out civil war, one between the old popular militia with out of date weapons, and the new standing army, financed directly by Viennese bankers. It is worth noting that local priests were some of the most militant of the leaders of the popular militia (Stokes, 285). She also mentions how jittery Milan was, calling the newly minted officer corps to his chambers, telling them how terrible their position would be under the Radical “rabble.”

Unfortunately, the rebellion was suppressed, largely because the troops stood firm, and, importantly, because it was geographically isolated in eastern Serbia. Like the defeat of Pugachev in Russia, the Jacobites in England, Shay’s Rebellion in America, and even the American War Between the States, the victory of the central state meant many things. Chief among them were:

·                          The continued and unabated indebtedness of the agricultural classes, which was particular acute in Serbia. There is an exact correlation between the penetration of the state into the Serbian hinterland (a long and slow process) and peasant indebtedness. Penetration of the state meant penetration of financial capital, and that penetration meant the creation of centralized agricultural units, and that meant the destruction of the stable, self-reliant and liberty-loving zadruga system. The zadruga had few supporters in Belgrade, and none in Vienna. Only in Russia did this system receive at least token support.

·                          The increasing centralization of political power, should be considered a given, since this is one of the major causes of the above rebellions. However one slices it historically or morally, centralization must mean, by its very constitution, the rule of elites, and that those elites will develop interests of themselves and the state, separate from the people they are supposed to rule. Though it is rarely articulated in this way, this concern is one of the central ideas of populist rebellion throughout history. So far, the rebels have never been wrong.

·                          The demoralization of the truly patriotic forces of the nation. This is subtle, but important. In Serbia, the Radicals, widely seen to have “led” the rebellion (and idea highly exaggerated), fell to pieces, and eventually, after the reign of Milan had come to an end, under the charismatic Nikola Pascic, the Radicals were to be reborn, but as a party of the city. Once the rebellion failed, the radicals thought that only through institutional reform (rather than direct peasant agitation) can Serbia be saved. It is the Radical position to this day.

·                          After Timok, Serbia became an increasingly centralized political entity, eventually becoming part of Yugoslavia. Yugoslavia is a result of the failure of the Timok rebellion. Without the defeat of the rebellious peasant zadrugy, the increasing centralization and isolation of the ruling classes would have been impossible.

·                          Lastly, the destruction of the peasant economy and the introduction of centralized agricultural units was a direct result of the Timok rebellion. As all the literature shows, the penetration of capital into the countryside through state power meant the destruction of the zadruga, the Serbian family and the local, self-sufficient local economy. Of course, this in turn leads to the dislocation of peasant populations and the disruption of peasant traditional life and the centrality of Orthodoxy. Without Timok, Tito could never have been successful, and Yugoslavia could never have come into being. It took the destruction of the traditional peasant way of life in order to permit these forces to emerge and to become dominant.

By way of conclusion, it might be said, with some trepidation, that world history in the modern era is based upon the battle between peasant tradition, marked by the primacy of religion, family, decentralization, agriculture and self-sufficiency, and that of modernity, marked by centralization, industry, schedules, oligarchy, democracy and ideology. This basic pattern is replicated in the American Civil War, Shay’s rebellion, Pugachev and Razin in Russia, the Pilgrimage of Grace in England, the Gaelic rebellions in Ireland, Cossack resistance in Ukraine, and nearly all peasant religious, ethnic and anarchist rebellions around the world. It is one and the same battle. The victory of the forces of modernization comes about through better weaponry and scientific leadership methods over the primal rage of the exploited peasants. Furthermore, in the 20th century, legitimate peasant movements, such as in Latin America and south Asia, have been hijacked by Marxist revolutionaries in the name of the Enlightenment. It is the unholy alliance of modern science, ideology, economic theory, secularism and modern global capitalism that has destroyed the peasantry, and dragooned what’s left into the factory. Modernity is one large human rights abuse.

Source:  Fr Matthew Raphael Johnson,, posted 5 Dec. 2006, accessed 30 April 2014

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