Political Culture in Serbia
NATIONALISM AS DESTINY
By Latinka Perovic
A way to thank you all for being here tonight is to
tell you the truth: in a way I have myself initiated this lecture. When
people from Vojvodina Turnabout asked me to participate in some of the
events of their election campaign I promptly suggested a lecture on
political culture in Serbia.
One of the reasons why I suggested the topic is my
deep belief that we all cannot serve public interest in the same manner.
Our experiences are different but so are our perception of the past and
the present. And there is yet another reason: in the times when
ideologies, value systems and regimes change an individual is at a loss.
An individual can hardly discern historical inertia from its either
spontaneous or organized opposition. In other words, he can hardly
discern the old from the new.
One of Serbia’s biggest erudite persons in the first
half of the 19th century, Zivojin Peric, West-oriented and liberal
lawyer, wrote in the aftermath of the WWI, “There are not only
graveyards for people but also graveyards of ideas. How huge are the
graveyards of the ideas and entire systems!” From the angle of history,
it takes long for the ideas to die: the ideas metamorphose until they
come to their essence. This process cannot be deciphered by one science
only – history – but by a multidisciplinary approach. The society
without understanding for this process is unaware of its realistic
possibilities. For, democracy is not a goal but the means for the
society to find rational solutions that necessitate harmonized ambitions
and capabilities, consideration for the Other and assessment of one’s
prospects against the global and historical backdrop.
In the past 25 years the slogan “everyone has the
right to the opinion of his own” has been a benchmark of democracy in
Serbia. That is elementary, natural democracy, wrote Jovan Cvijic in the
aftermath of the Balkan wars. It is such especially when one’s own
opinion undermines the same right of the Other of different ethnicity,
religion, political stands, gender and sexual orientation. Contemporary
totalitarian ideologies and systems have derived from the hierarchy of
thoughts graded by goals, either social or national. Disrespect for
different opinions that is in the nature of all things, but also for the
hierarchy of thought manifest in institutional separation between a
modern state and a society generates overall crisis of trust and
fatalist beliefs that there is no choice.
One can always make a choice. This is why no one can
say that he has nothing to do with the outcome of the elections. Making
a choice is a responsibility, the same as denial of all possible choices
– without a choice of one’s own – is denial of responsibility. I always
like to quote Russian philosopher and founding father of populist
socialism, Alexander Herzen, saying, “History, like nature, never stakes
everything on a single throw of dice.” What dice games has Serbia
“played” in its modern history?
In the search for the answer a group of Serb
historians has been studying political culture of a modern Serbia for
years. They have been studying the guiding ideas and the cultural
circles from which they had emerged. Serbia of the 19th century – the
country of farmers, poor, illiterate and without tradition – could not
have generated these ideas: it has taken them over from Russia as
“manufactures.” And it has taken over the followers of these ideas from
home, organizations they had established, their goals and their means.
And, especially, it has taken over the reception of these ideas, their
social resonance and duration. There are three characteristics of our
approach to political culture in Serbia.
First, we see historians, ethnologists, geographers
and psychologists researching national character and mentality of Serbs
as our unavoidable precursors.
Then, we draw a distinction between a predominant
pattern of political culture and its alternative. Interpretation of a
mainstream pattern as the one and only made political culture monistic.
However, when digging deeper one realizes that since mid-19th century
Serbia’s political culture has been at least binary: there has been a
mainstream pattern and an alternative one. In today’s deliberately
generated confusion people are either unaware of or would not
acknowledge the results of the study of the early Serb socialism that
determined the history of Serbia’s left – radicalism and socialism. The
same refers to the results of the study of Serb liberalism, social
democracy and federalism.
Finally, there is the manner chroniclers,
ethnologists, historians, diplomats and journalists perceived Serbia in
19th and 20th centuries. They are major sources of information
testifying that authors from the East and the West more agree than
differ in their perceptions of the modern Serbia.
So, the crucial ideas of the political culture of the
modern Serbia have been identified. Before summarizing these ideas, let
me draw your attention to three issues: social, cultural and
civilizational foundation of Serbia’s political culture; its ideological
founding fathers; and, the pivot of their ideas.
Referring to the 19th century Serbia, historian and
legal scholar Slobodan Jovanovic said, “/It is/ a country with simple
tasks, a new country.” In other words, the country without a tradition:
dynastic, partisan and class. “The only well-founded and constant
tradition is nationalism. It is nationalism that inspires rulers’,
parties’ and masses’ victories.”
This only tradition is totalitarian by its very
nature. It excludes inner differences: social above all and then
political. From the angle of this tradition, institutions, mechanisms
and procedures of a modern state and society are means that destroy
unity and expose “the sides” to foreign enemies. Means for attaining the
goal of this tradition were appropriate. “We are,” said Slobodan
Jovanovic, “a young and unrefined nation that has only begun to
accumulate political experience and, having no know-how, solves problems
This was the case in both foreign and domestic policy.
In his testamentary study “A Contribution to the Research of Serb
National Character” – a major intellectual and moral inventory not only
by a historian but also a learned Serb nationalist – Slobodan Jovanovic
pinpoints the discrepancy between ambitions and possibilities, and
taking up force instead of a compromise, especially in the Kingdom of
Yugoslavia as major traits of Serb national character – or political
culture – that has lead to tragic outcomes in 19th and 20th centuries.
He explained this by non-existence of a cultural pattern or by
semi-intellectuals hooked up with power and parties, who were dominating
the public life.
In the beginning of the 20th century farmers made up
85.9 of Serbia’s population, 79.7 percent of persons above six years of
age were illiterate and only two towns had 10,000-50,000 citizens.
Educated people made a thin layer. They made up a reservoir of clerks
but also a hotbed of ideas. Most foreigners writing about the 20th
century Serbia found that its intelligentsia differs not from ordinary
citizens, and that instead of leading it adjusts itself to people’s
instincts and so promotes underdevelopment as national identity.
However, since mid-19th century, especially after Serbia’s independence
in 1878, Serb intelligentsia has begun to bifurcate. Their point of
discord were priorities – liberation and unification of all Serbs on the
one hand, or development of an independent state by the Western model.
These two branches were labeled in different ways: East and West,
collectivism and individualism, pan-Serb program and Serb program.
Nikola Pasic, one of key players in the modern history
of Serbia, precisely described the actors and the sum and substance of
this division. “Ordinary people were dissatisfied with the outcome (of
the Berlin Congress). On the other hand, intelligentsia separated into
two groups,” he wrote. Liberals and progressists made one current of
thought or one party in the conflict in the parliament and the media. As
they both were “advocates of institutions by the Western model,” Pasic
categorized them in one group. The only difference between them,
according to Pasic, was that liberals “were more cautious about taking
over Western models,” whereas progressists “wanted to turn Serbia
immediately into some small Western state.” Socialists and then radicals
made the second group, as Pasic put it. They advocated a popular state
as an antithesis of both absolutistic and liberal state.
A popular state manifests collective interests, rights
and will; it embodies people as a whole, socially and ethnically. It is
organized by the principle of people’s self-government and has a
people’s party as a factor of integration. A state established with this
party in power, the state that will control production and distribute
goods to the advantage of the poor that are in the majority, and that
will round up people’s unification and liberation – that was the major
concept promoted by socialists-radicals, actually their ideology.
The teaching about avoiding of the course Western
nations have traveled has already been in place at the point the
above-mentioned dilemma sharpened. That teaching was in fact a replica
of Russian revolutionary populism. Trying to avoid proletarianism, early
Serb radicals were “finding” new ideas in the old ones and relying on
patriarchal institutions that helped Serbs to survive under Turkish
occupation. According to them, the guiding principles of these
institutions, plus reliance on socialism, were foundation strong enough
to make it possible for the Serb nation to encounter Western
civilization and its capitalism, liberalism and civil society, but
emerge more developed, economically and socially, while authentic. Their
idea about Serb civilization includes a variant of nationalism. Radicals
and communists alike copied the same pattern.
Ideology of radicalism – based on the people’s party,
the people’s state and the people’s self-government – emerged from
populist socialism. The ideology went through two phases: the phase of
destruction of institutions and then the phase of total occupation of
these institutions. National liberation and unification was a higher on
the state agenda than development. Speaking of his credo, Nikola Pasic,
leader of the People’s Radical Party since its establishment till his
death, fifty years all in all, wrote, “For me, national freedom of the
entire Serb people has always been a loftier ideal than freedom of Serbs
in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia.” Focus on a pan-Serb state was the sum and
substance of political culture. It implies unity of people, social and
political, embodied in the People’s Radical Party. All other parties are
not only its enemies but also enemies of people. They were subject to
political and physical abuse.
Only a handful of social-democrat and liberal MPs
opposed this fierce nationalism and militarism, especially in 1890s.
Domestic development was subject to the goals beyond borders. An
uprising stalled the first synchronous reforms (in economy, education,
healthcare, railroads, army, etc.) implemented by the People’s Radical
Party after independence and actually realized by Serbia’s first
intellectuals. Once it came to power – after the 1888 Constitution and
with a new ruler on the throne – in addition to masses of farmers
supporting it, the People’s Radical Party “radicalized” all institutions
and turned Serbia into a one-party state. It approved modernization for
pragmatic reasons – but modernization without modernity. In other words,
it accepted scientific achievement of Western civilization but not its
philosophy and value system based on individual freedoms, political and
Serbian scholars have differently labeled an
alternative to the predominant political culture: liberalism vs.
populism or all forms of populism marking Serbia’s modern history
(socialist, radical and communist populism); individualism vs.
collectivism; Serbian vs. pan-Serbian. From the angle of history, the
most justified label for the alternative to Serbia’s political culture
is – liberalism. Of course, neither in Serbia nor in the Balkans is
liberalism backed by a history of its own.
However, in historical context and as manifestation of
aspirations for economic and political freedoms, the rule of law and the
respect for political and cultural diversity, liberalism visible marked
all the stages of modern history, including the era of ex-Yugoslavia: it
has always been that “other” throw of dice. It remained a brave and
responsible alternative to this very day when we are standing on the
ruins of the longstanding symbiosis of state socialism and nationalism.
The alternative ready, with the helping hand from Europe, to change the
predominant political pattern, worn out and degenerated in the 1990s
wars. This is why it is so important to extract from political memory
that fragile, but constant liberal tradition standing for individual
freedom, the rule of law and solidarity among people and nations. The
real past is more pluralistic than presented in ideological
interpretations meant to convince people that a choice is of no avail
since everything had been staked “on a single throw of dice” long ago –
in other words, to convince people that nationalism is Serbia’s destiny.
Lecture delivered at the public debate organized
by the Turnabout Movement of Vojvodina in Novi Sad on April 24, 2012.