[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.