When Bulgarian Peasants Read Karl Kautsky

The Second International’s history is usually seen through the prism of the Social Democratic Party of Germany, a mass party in an industrial power. But militants in the Balkans had to adapt its lessons to their own local realities — and in the decades before World War I, they were the first socialists to confront the looming dangers of the national question.

Peasants near Tirnovo, Bulgaria, 1906. (William Le Queux)

In 1911, an elderly woman in typical peasant dress walks into a socialist bookshop in the small Bulgarian town of Vrats. “Grandmother, we don’t have the books you are looking for,” remarks the shopkeeper, when he has finally taken notice of her. Unfazed by his rude dismissal, she calmly requests a copy of Friedrich Engels’s Anti-Dühring and asks if they have a particular work by Karl Kautsky on hand. The shopkeeper, somewhat taken aback, obliges her requests — and she leaves the store satisfied.

This story is one among many glimpses into the lives of early Bulgarian socialists included in Maria Todorova’s The Lost World of Socialists at Europe’s Margins. The peasant woman mentioned, Angelina Boneva, is one of the subjects of its detailed biographical chapters, which depict a rich history of socialist militants from outside the movement’s Western Europe core. Indeed, while this episode is an amusing curiosity, it is also shown to be an apt metaphor for Bulgaria’s social-democratic movement at the turn of the century.

But why would an old peasant woman be interested in the works of German Marxists? And what would a nation of peasant smallholdings stand to benefit from Marxian socialism, with its focus on the organization of the industrial working class? The answers have much to tell us about the socialist project of this era, far beyond Bulgaria.

Class Action

Up through the 1920s, the Bulgarian economy was primarily and stubbornly agricultural. During the four decades between the country’s de facto independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1878 and its emergence from World War I, the share of the national economy employed in agriculture hardly budged (indeed, it went from 69 percent in 1890 to 66.4 percent in 1911). But increased population growth and falling mortality meant that the absolute number of people employed in industry was steadily rising. This was the context in which the socialist movement grew.

Todorova’s book is focused on the biographical rather than the statistical; it draws from a database of nearly 3,500 individuals involved in socialist politics in Bulgaria from the 1870s to the 1920s. These were mostly members and fellow travelers of the prewar Bulgarian Workers’ Social Democratic Party, BWSDP, which split into “Narrow” and “Broad” parties in the first years of the new century. But they also include Russian-influenced Narodniks, anarchists, and other agrarian and nationalist radicals.

The picture that emerges of the development of Bulgarian socialism is a slow transition of small, eclectic socialist groups of varying ideological influences to a more stable organization drawing strength and stability from ties to the Second International. The socialist movement strove for mass membership in the face of repression, struggled with its belief in the central role of the industrial proletariat, and faced the question of how to develop a socialist position toward the national question in the unique, multinational Balkan context.

The first generation of socialists that Todorova discusses had no substantial party organizations or significant trade union movement. It took the consolidation of the “Narrow” and “Broad” parties, and their respective unions, for a substantial working-class membership to develop. Before World War I, socialists were less often industrial proletarians or peasants, and more often urban workers of various sorts (state-employed railway personnel are an illustrative example); many were lower-middle-class intellectuals like schoolteachers of poor or peasant backgrounds. Those with a university education were more often than not lawyers.

Before the Balkan Wars of 1912–13 — and especially before the turn of the century — the most common form of exposure to socialism was the influence of a schoolteacher or through socialist study groups made up of secondary-school students. Teacher was the most common single occupation among prewar socialists (19 percent of the total), though, taken as a whole, various kinds of laborer outnumbered them significantly (42 percent).

The woman from the opening anecdote is an illuminating example: Angelina Boneva was born to a poor peasant family, but managed to run away aged twenty-three. Only then could she gain an elementary education and later receive a scholarship to train as a teacher. Later, she became a member of a social-democratic teachers’ organization in 1908–10 — by all accounts, she remained a dedicated socialist until her death in 1938.

The prevalence of teachers and other intellectuals in Bulgaria’s socialist movement meant that, Todorova tells us, “one of the most hotly debated issues in the first decade of the twentieth century was whether teachers and the intelligentsia as a whole belonged to the proletariat or to the petty bourgeoisie.” Unsurprisingly, they weren’t able to resolve this debate, which still troubles socialists today. A further result was the proliferation of Marxist reading circles in schools, among both boys and girls.

Socialist organizations were not banned. But state employees could be dismissed if their political activities were known — and “troublesome” teachers could be removed by unsympathetic officials. Lawyers were freer than teachers and state employees to act publicly on behalf of a socialist party — and with their independent incomes, they could advocate socialist ideas without catastrophic risks to their livelihoods.

The Russian Path?

Although Bulgaria remained a thoroughly agricultural country, this did not necessarily lead to the overwhelming growth of a socialist thought centered on peasants. This had been true in Russia, where before the growth of Marxist-influenced socialism in the 1890s, the main radical political organization was the Narodniks (literally “populists,” a term the author avoids because of its contemporary connotations). These intellectuals aimed to foment radical action among the Tsarist empire’s impoverished peasant majority.

Given Russia’s wider force of example, it’s easy to imagine that before the Socialist International gained strength and spread the gospel of Marxism, the socialist tradition more rooted in rural and peasant traditions would have been popular in Bulgaria, too.

Some historians do portray the development of Bulgarian socialism as following a similar pattern to that of Russia.

Yet Todorova warns against simplistic parallels. The Bulgarian equivalent, called siromakhomilstvo (literally, “love for the poor”), remained a relatively marginal political force, in part due to the general overall poverty of the country and because “the absence of a gentry and a small bourgeoisie, intellectuals were part of the people faced often with poverty in an increasingly destabilizing economic climate.”

The Bulgarian countryside. (William John Gauthier / Flickr)

Thus, instead of socialists grappling with how to draw landless agricultural laborers into their own political organizations, the key strategic question after the turn of the century was how and when to cooperate with the main party of small agricultural interests: the Bulgarian Agrarian National Union (BANU). Rather than following a Russian path of development, Bulgarian socialism grew from a unique combination of influences: occasionally Russian, at times German, and often totally homegrown in the Balkans.

Conspiratorial Reading Groups

The influence from Germany may seem surprising, given that it was, unlike Bulgaria, already a leading — and rising — industrial power. Yet a key connection with German-style social democracy, hegemonic in the Second International, founded in 1889, was a commitment to operating within the existing legal structure as much as possible and fighting for more democratic and political rights. Bulgarian socialists were able to freely form parties and run in elections, securing over 20 percent of the vote in 1913. If harsh Tsarist repression led Russian radicals toward conspiratorial tactics out of necessity, the same could not be said of relatively free Bulgaria.

This context makes the stories of some of the earlier Bulgarian radical groups particularly intriguing. Spiro Gulabchev, the founder of several circles in the 1880s, believed in a relatively nonviolent form of political activity. While early Russian Narodniks trusted in revolutionary action, Gulabchev believed in the power of the word. He especially championed the power of radical education — meaning the appropriate consciousness would have to be imparted before any real revolution could successfully take place.

Nevertheless, the form his clubs took was itself thoroughly conspiratorial. A group in any one town had no direct contact with any of the others, and individual members were not to form relationships or get to know other members personally. But if they weren’t planning any imminent bombings or assassinations (and the historical record shows they were not), what accounts for all the secrecy? According to one historian writing in the 1970s, it was for the psychological effect: if young people couldn’t be enticed to join an organization and undergo its political education with the excitement of the deed, they could at least be made to feel very revolutionary by being secretive.

While Gulabchev’s circles were certainly inspired in some ways by the Russian example, in Bulgaria this form of organization fell in significance after the turn of the century. Todorova insists that rather than a change in perspective of key figures toward a more Marxist or social-democratic viewpoint, this largely owed to different sets or generations of radicals beginning to succeed in organizing differently.

In short: Those who adopted Marxism in the 1890s and 1900s had largely been revolutionary nationalists disillusioned with Bulgaria’s path of independence. And rather than a Russian influence giving way to a German one, the Russian influence continued to exist, but in an increasingly anarchist and often explicitly anti-Marxist direction (through Gulabchev’s organizations and his book and pamphlet publishing venture, which endured until 1905).

The National Question

So, Bulgarian socialists looked to the international movement for guidance, if not necessarily imitating it entirely. This is clear from the story of Angelina Boneva, who went into the shop searching for a book by Karl Kautsky, a prominent member of the German social-democratic party and one of the international socialist movement’s foremost intellectuals.

Todorova’s extended introduction contains a fascinating collection of information on what socialist literature was made available in the Balkans in the 1880–1914 period. She shows that many of the reading materials made available to Bulgarian socialists were translated works shared through Second International networks. Here, by far the greatest number of works were translations from German — amounting to around 40 percent in the Bulgarian case.

When it comes to specific authors, Kautsky topped the list of most-translated works, with fifty-one texts in these decades, as compared to Georgi Plekhanov’s forty-two, Karl Marx’s twenty-one and Engels’s seventeen. Todorova uses this to make a compelling case that Bulgarian socialists and their organizations were often more influenced by German socialism and the socialism of the Second International writ large than by Russian socialism in particular.

But this is not to move Bulgaria out from the shadow of Russia only to put it under a German one. One area where the Bulgarian and Balkan socialists more generally could not find guidance from foreign theoreticians concerned their particular problems of nationalism and national autonomy.

Austrian Social Democrats, in particular Otto Bauer, are recognized for their early attempts to engage with and elaborate a position on the national question, at least in the context of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. But Todorova shows how the small Bulgarian movement in fact influenced the thinking of the leading European socialists.

Many of the socialist movement’s most influential figures were also members of the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (IMRO), which wanted autonomy from the Ottoman Empire for the Macedonian region, but was skeptical of a future for the Balkans consisting of a patchwork of small, fully independent nation states.

Instead, some Bulgarian and Macedonian socialists began advocating the idea of a Balkan federation. The federative idea was widely shared in Bulgaria and often debated. It has much in common with the more well-known Austro-Marxist idea, but had been around since as early as the 1860s and was prominent in the movement from the 1880s onward.

Dimitar Blagoev and Christian Rakovsky published on this very theme and attempted to get the International to pay attention to the Macedonian question. But when it came to making practical interventions or even symbolic resolutions, the International was wary of weighing in on issues of national self-determination when it had the potential to feed great-power animosity that could even lead to war.

So, although in principle socialists supported national self-determination, the Balkans was seen as a particularly risky terrain for the International to intervene. Many thought the International should instead focus on its “more important and more immediate interest, that of the proletariat,” as the Austrian Victor Adler put it.

Despite such attempts to evade this decisive question, Todorova insists that the federative idea should be considered one of the Bulgarian movement’s main theoretical contributions to socialist thinking in the Second International. She refers to this movement’s most famed figure, Kautsky, advocating this same idea as early as 1909 — and while some accounts have almost credited him with coming up with the idea, it should not be forgotten that its origins lie outside the movement’s German core. Kautsky, the purported “pope of Marxism,” just gave it his blessing.

Against the War

The Bulgarian movement was faced with a unique and challenging organizing context. Unlike some leading Second International parties at the turn of the century, its vision of its future could not easily ignore or subordinate the challenges of nationalism and national self-determination.

So, despite its country’s marginality, it found themselves particularly well-equipped to face the realities of nationalism and war. As Todorova notes, “the Bulgarian socialist parties and factions on the eve of the Balkan Wars espoused the pacifist orientation of the International in support of the status quo as a guarantee against a general conflagration.”

Yet once war became pan-European, the same could not be said of other socialist parties, almost all of which supported their own national governments’ calls to arms. When Bulgaria broke its neutrality and joined the war in 1915, its “Narrow” socialist party was one of few parties anywhere in Europe that stood up against the slaughter.