Alexander Stambolisky

John McClaughry

[Reprinted from the Newsletter of the E.F. Schumacher Society, Spring 1997]

Among the human race's heroes of decentralism must be a man who actually became the leader of Bulgaria, and died a martyr to the decentralist cause. He was Alexander Stambolisky, and for four turbulent years, beset by murderous opposition, he gave the world an example of what a true non-authoritarian people's state might be like.

The remarkable Stambolisky deserves to be far better known in world history. He was an ardent pacifist, at a time when nationalistic jingoism led every Balkan state into repeated military adventures. He had faith in the ability of the common people -- in Bulgaria, principally peasants -- to practice self-government at a time when government was thought to be the concern only of the monarch, the nobility and the intelligentsia. He was a fearless man who could look the Czar in the eye and tell him that the continuation of a war would cost the Czar his head.

Stambolisky was called upon -- reluctantly -- by Czar Boris to form a government late in 1919, after the BANU had won the most seats in the parliamentary elections. He refused an alliance with the nascent Bulgarian Communist Party because the Communists would not accept the BANU position favoring private land ownership by the peasants. Ultimately he was able to piece together a bare majority by awarding many important Cabinet posts to minor parties. A Communist-sponsored general strike collapsed, and in the new elections of March 1920, Stambolisky's BANU won a strong working majority.

The cornerstone of BANU's domestic policy was the idea of "labor property," a concept essentially identical to that of John Locke. Everyone was entitled to enough privately owned land to support his family; no one could own a vast estate. The Stambolisky government carried out a wide-ranging land reform program, offering compensation to the large landowners who were expropriated in favor of peasants, who paid for their new plots over twenty years at low rates. In the cities, Stambolisky even evicted government bureaus and converted their quarters into apartments for working people, an experiment that may well be unique in world history.

On top of this base of widely distributed land ownership Stambolisky fostered a wide variety of cooperatives and credit associations. A national "Grain Consortium" managed the export trade, stabilized the price of grain to the farmers, and ultimately paid to the farmers up to 60% of the trading profits in addition to the price of the grain purchased. Cooperatives were also successfully launched in fishing and forestry.

The most famous reform initiated by Stambolisky was Compulsory Labor Service. While the compulsory aspect seems objectionable to many modern readers, it must be viewed in context. At the time, military service was compulsory, and included indoctrination in irredentism and jingoism. Stambolisky converted this form of conscription into the more benign domestic service corps, replacing militarism with practical vocational education. Men served for a year, women for six months. Unfortunately, the program never got a complete test because the upper class forced the government to permit the purchase of exemption, and the World War I Control Commission opposed it as an attempt to rearm in violation of the Treaty of Neuilly.

In education, Stambolisky succeeded in creating a new type of secondary curriculum emphasizing practical skills. He broke Communist control of the teaching corps and gave control back to the local communities which thereafter elected their own teachers.

All that Stambolisky accomplished-in his brief three years of effective rule-was accomplished over virtually insuperable obstacles. The powerful landowners and propertied classes bitterly opposed him. So did the university professors, who were forced to teach instead of devoting their time to political intrigue. The country itself was under the effective control of the victors of World War I. And finally, some 15,000 hostile, armed soldiers of the exiled White Russian army were at large within the country during the last two years of BANU rule. All of these forces conspired to overthrow the BANU government and brutally murdered Stambolisky and his lieutenants in June of 1923.

After Stambolisky's death Bulgaria slid quickly into turbulence, fascism, and, after World War II, Communist tyranny. Nonetheless he is remembered in his country as a bold and courageous leader in the cause of the common people-and many no doubt would be more than happy to have him back today.