Nomen est omen

ANALYSIS  Ivana Maksić Published: 07. 03. 2024.

From Self-governance to Submission

In Search of ‘Society’

Two years ago the 150th anniversary of the Paris Commune was marked. It was an event that brought about the workers’ seizure of power, which, albeit short-term, led to the articulation and implementation of political demands, many of which are unimaginable today. These were the abolition of the standing army and the death penalty, child and night labor, the writing off of debts and rents, as well as the confiscation and nationalization of church property. Churches were supposed to become places of political action and education. The workers were to be given ownership of the means of production, while recognizing the right of the factory owner to certain compensation. Punishment of workers, widespread up until then, was prohibited. During the siege, a high degree of workers’ self-management was achieved, and the workers, along with other commune members – journalists, doctors, artists, and all other politically active citizens in dire need for a fairer society -were involved in direct government, i.e. direct action and direct democracy. The Commune was strongly anti-monarchist. It was created under the influence of the First International, and its red flag, which replaced the national tricolor, symbolically continued to be raised even later, ideologically marking the October Revolution, the Spanish Civil War and other progressive movements and rebellions. Although women did not have the right to vote back then, during the Commune they were extremely active and they established feminist initiatives. The Commune granted all civil rights to foreigners, regardless of their origin or social status, because its flag was considered to be the flag of the Republic of the whole world.

Despite its political importance, a ‘negative overtone’ is still associated with the Commune today – all due to its armed takeover of power, although direct democracy, which rests on the active participation of citizens in the power, was explicitly stated in the Revolutionary Constitution of 1793, when the insurrection was declared ‘the most sacred of the rights and the most indispensable of duties ’1.

Tens of thousands of victims were precisely the result of its brutal suppression, i.e. the retaliation that followed during the so-called Bloody Sunday. The Communards were defeated, between 10,000 and 20,000 of them were killed, they were imprisoned, punished with forced labor, exiled or fled the country. The new era of colonial conquests and exploitation of the western and northern parts of the African continent and Indochina has begun, resulting in millions of newly subjugated people, which further lead to exacerbating social and other inequalities.


In the 1870s, Serbia was marked by the emergence of capitalism, as well as strong bureaucracy and centralism. Only those citizens who paid ’levy’ on their property, work or income had the right to vote. For every three cabinet ministers elected by the people, there was one appointed by the prince. The freedom of the press and the freedom of assembly were only declaratively guaranteed by the Constitution, whereas in reality Serbia was a police state characterised by censorship.

Externally, Serbia was economically highly dependent on Austria, as witnessed by Bernhard Singer, a member of the Austrian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, who, in one of his studies, wrote that all countries that entered the scope of Austrian economic and political interests, including Serbia ‘can have their own rulers, they can even appoint their kings, they can preserve their territorial autonomy, their legislation, their languages and customs, but they must comply economically and militarily. ’2

About 90% of the total population lived in the countryside, where strong pauperization was taking place, due to huge over-indebtedness. The position of the working class, then in the making, was unbearable since they commonly worked more than ten hours a day in extremely poor conditions.

Even in such Serbia at the time, a new political force started to emerge as a reaction to the two prevailing political options – a liberal and a conservative one. The interference of the police in the work and the control of the election of ‘municipal officers’ led to the idea of the necessity of introducing self-government as a way of resisting the bureaucratic system and growing militarism.


Kragujevac, where Topolivnica3was located, had a reputation of being the most important industrial center back then, and it was also known as the place of political activity of Svetozar Marković, a member of the First International and the first socialist and internationalist in Serbia and the Balkans. Being one of the first to criticize the interference of the state power in municipal affairs, as well as the Greater Serbian ideology4, realising that its attempt to restore the medieval state would externally make Serbia a colonizer, (which would permanently set it against its neighbors), whereas domestically it would make it a police state, Svetozar Marković was already sentenced to prison in 1874.

In the ‘Radenik’ newspaper, he wrote, among other topics, about the Paris Commune, and it was Kragujevac where he also established Javnost (a newspaper for science and politics) and Oslobođenje. At that time, many French students who had connections with the Paris Communards had their scholarships taken away and were forced to return to Serbia, which was also the case with Maša Kojić, who translated the ‘History of the Paris Commune’.

In the year when the Paris Commune was declared, the authorities in Serbia, together with the reactionary forces, demanded that the newspaper ‘Radenik’ be banned, and all people who favoured the idea of freedom and equality were declared murderers, ‘criminals of the fatherland’, ‘traitors of Serbia’ and ‘nihilists’.

Despite such repressive measures, the politicization of wider social strata – primarily workers, teachers and intellectuals started to take place. Signatures were being collected for Prince Milan Obrenović to resign and leave Serbia, in order to declare it a republic. There were students’ rebellions against then widespread spying on pupils and students by boarding school supervisors and the harsh school suspensions, and the minister of education placed all the blame on the pupils – completely ignoring the causes of their actions.

Topolivnica workers paid income taxes and therefore they gained the right to vote and elect their representatives, that is, the municipal ‘officers’. Although the idea of self-government was not widely accepted in the conditions of strict police control, and although only 276 of the 1,665 people who had the right to vote did so, the municipal power was nevertheless seized from the hands of the privileged classes, and, after a failed election fraud, the supporters of Svetozar Marković’s ideas won.


Because of the slogan Self-Government, there were beatings in the streets, workers’ and students’ dismissals, multiple arrests and hearings.

In three years, the 150th anniversary of the February demonstrations in Kragujevac will be marked. It was one of the few bright moments in the political history of Serbia, an event often described as an echo of the Paris Commune, but almost completely forgotten today.

In 1876, the citizens simply gathered to celebrate the electoral victory that guaranteed greater equality and better living conditions. On that occasion, a Red Flag with Self-Government inscription on it was carried by protesters throughout the city, while marches and the Marseillaise were played.

It is interesting to note that Miloje Barjaktarević, the archpriest of Kragujevac at the time, supported the street demonstrators and welcomed them in his yard, after which he was detained and lost his service, whereas Vule Paštrmac, a high school teacher at the time, , declared: ‘There shall be some blood for that would be the proof that our people are not yet in favor of self-government, and then the army must rush in, and reinforce the laws, take everything under command and bring everything back to normal.’5

Police ambushes indeed followed, and soldiers caught and beat citizens who voted for confidence in the board, yelling at individuals – you want self-government? Milan Obrenović issued an order to the Minister of Defense to instruct the commander of the Kragujevac standing army to ‘hold power in his hands, arrest all participants, take the army to his bazaar and cut anyone who opposes to pieces, and shoot the folk, who would interfere with the execution of orders and otherwise, without pardon, and do everything possible to ensure order and appropriately punish even those who did not actively participate in the rebellious demonstration.’6 Ljubomir Kaljević, the Prime Minister at the time, announced his resignation in case that the Minister of Defense agreed to carry out this order, warning the prince that it was a ‘petty demonstration’ which posed no threat, and that the unarmed demonstrators’ ‘only fault was that they had carried the Red Flag, instead of the official national one ’.7

The liberal newspaper ‘Istok’ sensationally reported that in Kragujevac ‘sans-culottes’ were elected, i.e. ‘wearing no breeches’ and that the municipality fell into the hands of nihilists. There were completely unrealistic reports in the press that people with a red communist flag wanted to declare the town of Kragujevac a ‘free and independent commune’, that the demonstrators intended to burn Kragujevac down, just as the Communards burned Paris down. Narodne novine (The People’s Newspaper) from Zagreb blamed the citizens of Kragujevac for not being ‘eager to prevent the communist scoundrels’.

The victory in the municipal elections, which meant the political struggle for local self-government and for the wider participation of the masses in deciding on affairs and matters of common interest, ended with the repressive backlash, the exhaustion and torture of politically active citizens, especially the thirty ones accused of being ‘ringleaders’ They were held in detention for about a hundred days, without the visitation rights, often locked in a single room where they were also forced to defecate. Because of the slogan Self-Government, there were beatings in the streets, workers’ and students’ dismissals, multiple arrests and hearings.8

That very year, the Serbo-Turkish War broke out, the last issue of Marković’s ‘Oslobođenje’ was published, rights of self-government were abolished and the police continued to appoint and replace municipal officials.

Official historiography that deals with the period of the 1870s rarely mentions Kragujevac’s Red Flag Demonstrations, and sometimes even falsifies the whole event. On the ceremonial hall walls of my former elementary school ‘Svetozar Marković’ during the ‘90s, wooden letters that made the word Self-Government still stood, but on the door leading behind the small stage, a huge portrait of Saint Sava was painted. After the collapse of the SFRY and the waves of privatizations, Kragujevac has become a deindustrialized town with workers’ heritage and history continuously and actively being erased, while simultaneously, in accordance with revisionist policies, the Orthodox Church and the exclusive ‘princely-Serbian’ heritage and history are glorified.


‘Serbia among plum trees’ today is Serbia among criminals, and he very fact that a large number of people are ready to defend felons and war criminals is nothing but a direct consequence of the fact that it is legal, legitimate and highly lucrative within the given political system.

One of the most common lamentations in present Serbia is expressed in a phrase ‘We are no longer a society’, although it is not quite clear why we should defend a society that no longer exists, i.e. how would such, already disintegrated society, be defended and from what, and what would its adhesive force be?

How come that neoliberals, with so much faith in the entrepreneurial power of the individual, suddenly want a society, post festum, decades after its end was triumphantly proclaimed?9 Could it not, in fact, be said that ‘society’ functions exactly as it is structured, because, in essence, it represents ‘only a shadow cast by successive forms of power’? Thus it used to be ‘the totality of the subjects of the absolutist state from the time of Leviathan,’ and today it represents ‘the totality of economic actors within the liberal state.’10

‘Serbia among plum trees’11 today is Serbia among criminals, and he very fact that a large number of people are ready to defend felons and war criminals is nothing but a direct consequence of the fact that it is legal, legitimate and highly lucrative within the given political system. It is not only power as such that is capillary, but also the sovereign power that has long ago permeated, bribed and leased all public institutions and spaces. And although the current order is on the verge of collapsing, people are globally still willing to die for the nation and the territory, while at the same time their fight for freedom and equality is greatly subsiding.


What is the connection between geopolitical interests and the interests of a certain local community, that is, the communal, common interests of the people who constitute it? Is it even sustainable to continuously vote within a completely destroyed infrastructure of a territory ruled by a criminal power and to repeatedly reconcile oneself to the ‘citizens’electoral will ’? Is it possible to articulate politics outside the space of the polling stations and how to articulate that inherent antagonism that should be synonymous with the new concept of politics? In other words, is nowadays people’s political capacity being exhausted in an act of granting legitimacy to the sovereign power, that is, in a ‘bad infinity’ of a complicit and (dis)interested submission?

Compared to the clearly expressed demand for self-government in the nineteenth-century Serbia, our present-day unfulfilled dream is merely an idea of a peaceful ‘transfer of power’ and thus it should not come as a surprise that the protest demands we now articulate are truly no longer political, but exclusively – party and power-related.

1 Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of 1793, thelast article.

2 Cited in Živomir Spasić’s book, Kragujevac red flag 1876, Radnički university in Kragujevac, Kragujevac, 1972, p. 13.

3 It was relocated from Belgrade back in 1851.

4 He was the first to critically use the term Greater Serbia in his texts.

5 Živomir Spasić, The Red Flag of Kragujevac 1876, Labor University in Kragujevac, Kragujevac, 1972, p. 71.

6 Ibid, p. 82.

7 Ibid, p. 83.

8 One of the most frequently asked questions at hearings was ‘As a civil servant, how could you raise a flag that is not Serbian, but red and revolutionary?’, p. 95.

9 Here I am referring to M. Thatcher’s famous statement that there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families.

10 The Invisible Committee, To Our Friends, translated from French by Đorđe Čolić, FMK, Belgrade, 2016, p. 144.

11 A reference to Oskar Davičo’s poem Serbia. The poem was written in 1939 and published in 1950.

Translation to English: Ivana Purtić

Proof reading: Ivana Maksić

The text in Serbian is published in the Bulletin TENANT 20&21

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