Konzervativizam i konzervativne stranke

by Miša Đurković

Belgrade/Stari Banovci: Bernar/Centre for Conservative Studies, 2016

More than two hundred years ago, Goethe said that world history has to be rewritten from time to time. In the case of the history of ideas, we must agree with him. Just like Goethe, the classics are always fresh and open to new interpretations and reinterpretations under different circumstances and from different points of view. Therefore, we can and should always go back to the works of Homer, Plato, Aristotle, or Thucydides. In the realm of the history of ideas, such a process of reinterpretation is to be found in the book,Konzervativizam i konzervativne stranke (Conservatism and Conservative Parties), by Miša Đurković, now in its second edition.

We might ask whether this new interpretation is necessary. However, more than ever Eastern European nations these days need a new approach to conservatism. Readers should bear in mind that Eastern Europe was under communist rule from 1945 onwards, which meant that Marxist doctrine dominated public discourse. Thus, for over 50 years conservatism was hardly ever considered as a serious political option. There were very few books (including translations) that dealt with conservative thought — and even then, conservative ideas were almost exclusively seen as wrong and dangerous, and conservative politicians regarded as “enemies of the people.”

Marxist authors were unwilling to distinguish conservatism from the extreme right or fascism, and even less to differentiate between various currents within the conservative family. They were all put under the same label: Burke was essentially the same as Metternich, Maistre was no different from Tocqueville, Bismarck was father to Hitler, and Churchill was regarded as Mussolini’s relative.

Under such circumstances, the history of genuine Serbian conservatism was utterly neglected. Apart from a few names (mostly men that took part in the Second World War), which were used as symbols of universal evil or as suitable catchwords, no one was really interested in studying the Serbian conservative tradition. It was far more important to show — sometimes even invent — Serbian socialist thought. The framework was thus set with the socialist progressives on one side and everyone else on the other.

After the fall of communism, few things changed. As Đurković puts it, the terms ‘conservative’ and ‘right-wing’ still carry a pejorative connotation as synonyms for ‘backward’ and ‘outdated’. In other words, a leftist type of thinking prevailed in Serbia and kept a position of prominence within the public discourse long after the fall of communism. There is also the factor of ‘personal continuity’ as well: Many ex-Marxists and social revolutionaries from 1968 continue to play a significant role in academia, as they do elsewhere.

In 2007, Đurković boldly decided to step into that terra incognita. The aim of the first edition of his book was to legitimize conservative thought in the Serbian context. The book was only a brief introduction to conservative principles and values, and provided brief insights into three major conservative traditions (British, American, and German) accompanied by a history of their respective parties. When the time came for the second edition, Đurković decided that this time it should not serve only as an introduction but rather offer a new approach and provide some deeper insights.

In the ten years since that first edition, we can say that conservatism has become an integral part of Serbian public and political discourse — up to a point, of course. A number of mostly young academics now identify themselves as conservatives and are publicly recognized as such. The situation calls for a reconsideration of the Serbian conservative tradition, since it is no longer enough to deal with general conservative principles and values. Instead, there is a need for a closer examination of the actual life of an idea in the ‘here and now’.

Đurković thus identifies several ‘blind spots’ or phenomena in Serbian political thought that deserve more research and closer examination. His approach raises an important question: What did it mean to be a conservative in Serbia in the past? And what does it mean today, particularly after the failed ‘Yugoslav experiment’, years of communist rule, and 25 years since the transition to democracy began? In other words, what is left to preserve in Serbia — and what is the best way to do it?

In order to answer these questions, we must first rediscover our own traditions and, in effect, rewrite the history of Serbian conservatism. Đurković believes that such a re-evaluation is urgently needed because there are a number of issues in Serbian political life today that he believes only a robust conservatism can resolve successfully. This is the main point of the new edition of his book makes. And, it must be said, it is good that we finally have a book about conservatism written by a conservative and from the conservative point of view.

Much of the structure of the first edition of the book has been preserved. First, the author presents the history of conservative thought, discusses the place of conservative thinking within a broader political framework, and distinguishes between the democratic and authoritarian types of conservatism. The ‘Introduction’ also contains an interesting description of Russian conservatism, explains some of the main conservative principles, and discusses the complicated relationship between conservatism and the nationalist tradition.

Đurković then proceeds to give a historical overview of the development of the British, American, and German conservative traditions, and does not shy away from reinterpreting the role played by Lady Margaret Thatcher in the UK, who he says should not be reduced to a onedimensional caricature as a free market fanatic. Đurković insists that she was fundamentally a conservative, a nationalist, and a traditionalist in the best sense of these terms. The third and final part of the book considers the Serbian conservative tradition, including the period after the fall of communism.

For the foreign reader, the most interesting part might very well be the overview of the development of Serbian conservatism, which is quite useful. The author presents an array of mostly liberal-conservative intellectuals, beginning with Jovan Sterija Popović (1806–1856). For most Serbs, Sterija is only remembered as an artist and comedy writer, not as one of the first Serbian conservatives. But, as Đurković points out, even his comedies should be read in the context of a broader conservative agenda, reminding us once again that conservatism is more than just politics.

The profile of Sterija is followed by a long line of 19th century politicians, all of whom recognized the necessity of establishing institutions and modernizing Serbia’s political, economic, and cultural life. However, they also recognized the importance of honouring tradition, continuity, religion, and faith. Although Đurković never says so explicitly, his conclusion seems to be that the modern Serbian state was the work of these moderate conservatives. They were the ones who completed the effort at national liberation, established the rule of law, organized the armed forces, and established a framework for a sound and vibrant economy. In the words of Edmund Burke, they wanted to modernize in order to preserve.

The House of the National Assembly of Serbia, located in Belgrade.

Reading this book brings to mind several important aspects about modern day Serbia. It reminds us that we must make an effort to re-acquaint ourselves with our preYugoslav and pre-communist traditions and heritage. We need continuity — or, as Burke put it, a partnership with our forefathers — in order to be able to respond to modernday revolutionaries or the self-proclaimed reformists and progressives, those who think that history begins with them and their abstract political plans.

At the same time, it cannot be denied that, as Đurković says, Serbian most recent political experiences are full of rebellions and uprisings, revolutions and wars. How can a respectable conservatism — with its demand for evolving, organic political development — emerge out of such an unstable, chaotic setting?

Our first priority then should be to re-establish the institutional order because no continuity or preservation is possible without order, stability, and recognized rules. Only conservatives can establish a political consensus around these principles. In Serbia, the words of the German writer and cultural historian Arthur Moeller van den Bruck (1876–1925) are still very much true: “a conservative’s function is to create values which are worth conserving.”

The cautious reader will certainly appreciate the critical attitude adopted by the author, especially when he writes about conservative parties in Serbia. Đurković is not ready to turn a blind eye to the anachronisms, exaggerations, even eccentricities of the programmes of some existing conservative parties, or in the writings of some right-wing Serbian authors, especially after the 1990s. Such healthy scepticism is more than welcome and shows that a sense of realism is more important than an ideological label.

Conservatism is not about posing but about dealing with actual challenges. In the end, Đurković’s book is more than just an introduction to conservatism; it is also a call to action — and the rebuilding of a conservative intellectual infrastructure. The post-ideological age was a delusion. We still need a conservatism for the 21st century — and in order to establish one we must carefully re-examine its history. This book is a solid contribution to such efforts.