M & E on the South Slavs
uburoi at panix.com
Fri Sep 29 09:19:03 MDT 1995
While marxists puzzle today over what line to take on Bosnia, it is
interesting to look back at what the founders of scientific socialism had
to say about that part of the world.
Around the middle of the 19C, Marx favored the collapse of the
Ottoman Empire and proposed that it be replaced by either "the
establishment of a Greek Empire [!] or of a Federal Republic of Slavonic
states" (*The Eastern Question*). He also expected, or wanted, Britain and
France to play a kind of Bonapartist revolutionary role in the Balkans by
dismantling the Ottoman Empire, part of the notion he entertained that
imperialism could under some circumstances perform a historically
progressive function. Marx was disappointed, however, by the outcome of
the Crimean War, which he had thought would realize this plan. He saw
that Britain and France had actually worked to *preserve* the Turkish
Empire (at that time) as bulwark against Czarist Russia. Concerning the
South Slavs, Marx originally had hope that their nationalism would be a
revolutionary force, not only against the Ottomans but against
Austro-Hungary as well. But here his attitude was ambivalent, because he
didn't want the South Slavs to fall under the sway of the pan-Slavism
encouraged by the Czar. When the Slavs failed to rise in the 1850s, Marx
turned increasingly in a substitutionist direction, eventually supporting
Turkey in the Russo-Turkish War of 1876, because it was the 'lesser evil'
opposed to Russia, the principal reactionary bastion in Europe.
Engels was more of a German nationalist than Marx. Like the
master, he supported Polish, Italian, etc. nationalism, but opposed that
of the South Slavs, whom he though unfit for national independence.
Apparently he was quite bigoted, referring to them as "historyless,"
"dwarf peoples," a pack of thieves," and "pieces of wreckage" ( from
correspondence with Bernstein). Even more than Marx, Engels feared Slavic
nationalism as the cat's paw of Russian imperialism that would damage the
revolutionary potential of the German working class. He thought it best
that the South Slavs remain suppressed by the Austro-Hungarian empire
until Russian had been humbled. He even seemed to support the idea that
Austro-Germany had a 'civilizing mission' in the Balkans: the Slavs had
to be raised to a higher (i.e., German) level of culture.
What to make of this in light of recent events? Were they alive
today, would M & E still support substitutionist politics (i.e., some
force other than the proletariat, which isn't historically ready, has to
make the revolution or prepare the ground)? It would mean throwing
support behind this or that imperialist camp, or one or another
nationalism (mini-imperialism) deemed more "progressive" than its rivals.
It seems that M & E didn't have workable solutions, were clutching at
straws, bowing to unpleasant contingencies at every turn.
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