Thinking with Ranajit Guha about the Macedonians

Jane Cowan

It was by grappling with historical materials from colonial and postcolonial India that Ranajit Guha developed the concepts and methods that became central to subaltern studies. But how well do those concepts and methods ‘travel’? To what extent can they help to generate insights about contexts beyond India, and even beyond the colonial world? An anthropologist of Greece, fresh from doctoral fieldwork in Greek Macedonia, I was alerted in 1993 to Guha’s now classic article, ‘The Prose of Counter-insurgency‘, as the more-than-a-century-long-and-still-unresolved Macedonian Question erupted, yet again, with the breakup of Yugoslavia. Guha’s bold, playful methods of reading historical documents helped me to probe the highly polarised controversy over the identities, loyalties and histories of Greece’s Macedonians and the real lives it obscured.

My perspective on the Macedonian Question’s long-term effects for people who lived there was grounded in my research in central Greek Macedonia, the portion of a diversely imagined, previously Ottoman territory that had been ceded to Greece in 1912 as a result of the Balkan Wars and, since then, energetically Hellenised. Between 1983-1985 I carried out sixteen months of ethnographic fieldwork in the small mountain town of Sohos, 60 km northeast of Thessaloniki. Predominantly bilingual Modern Greek and Slavic-speakers, Sohoians had been taught to be embarrassed by, yet were also secretly proud of and deeply attached to, their local Slavic language (which they mostly called ‘Bulgarian’) and their town’s polyglot practices of joking, nicknaming, singing and storytelling in Greek, Bulgarian and Turkish. But they strongly identified as Greek. Descendants of landless or land-poor tenant farmers, labourers and craftspeople, they had followed the lead of their wealthier Patriarchist Orthodox Christian and Greek-identified (though originally Vlach-speaking) bosses and landlords in supporting the Greek side against the Bulgarian side in the Macedonian Struggle for territory in the period 1903-1908. Countless Sohoians told me that ‘they had always been Greek’, despite their Slavic language. It was not a contradiction, therefore, when they insisted to me in the mid-1980s that they ‘were not a minority’. Nor did they want to be considered as Macedonians who were not also Greeks.

The stance of Sohoians, like those of most of Greece’s Slavic-speakers who – whether ‘always’, or over time and in response to assimilatory pressures – had come to identify as Greeks, differed markedly from some members of communities in the ‘same’ population in several towns and villages in western Greek Macedonia, around 250 km to the west of Sohos. As supporters and activists in the ‘Movement for Balkan Progress’ and the ‘Macedonian Human Rights Movement’ that emerged in the late 1980s, they called for Macedonians to be recognised by the Greek state as a ‘minority’ (cautiously framed as an ‘ethnic’, rather than ‘national’, minority). Citing their distinctive language, as well as their customs and musical traditions, they demanded the right to be taught and to use freely their Macedonian mother tongue, as well as to sing their songs and dance their dances at community festivals without police harassment. On behalf of the significant number among them who had been stripped of their citizenship, as members or supporters of the Communist-led Democratic Army, after fleeing over Greece’s northern borders in the final weeks of  the Greek Civil War (1946-49), they demanded that Macedonians living abroad who refused to declare themselves ‘ethnically Greek’ be reinstated as Greek citizens and allowed to return to Greece to reunite with relatives, visit family graves and reclaim their confiscated properties.  Although the activists in western Greek Macedonia could not have anticipated it, their movement became nationally visible, and their demands for recognition – to both the Greek government and to European institutions -played out, at the very moment of Yugoslavia’s disintegration. This coincidence intensified suspicion among many Greeks of their motives, and stoked fears that behind claims for human rights lay dreams of Macedonian secession.

During my regular visits to Greece and from afar, in England and Switzerland in the early 1990s, I watched as the public furore over the Macedonian movement’s program and activities intensified. While the Greek and Greek-American media largely condemned them, with one exceptionally virulent ultraright weekly, Stohos, regularly labelling the activists ‘Gypsy Skopjeans’ and spies for Skopje (their derogatory name for the new republic), the activists were supported by international human rights NGOs and several EU parliamentarians, as well as by local and international scholars. The half dozen or so anthropologists working with Slavic-speaking communities in the region, including myself, were pulled in as experts, or waded into the fray voluntarily. But the polarised, moralistic and highly emotional character of the debate over ‘who’ the Macedonians were, and what ‘they’ wanted, did not fit with the historical, social and political complexity and variation ‘on the ground’, making it difficult to know how to intervene constructively. Some who did, like the Greek anthropologist Anastasia Karakasidou, faced vilification and death threats, although much of what she pointed out was common knowledge to those who lived in, or knew, the region.

It must have been around 1993 when I was describing the complicated and fraught situation, and the dilemmas it raised for local people and for scholars, to the Africanist anthropologist and specialist on Kenya, Ivan Karp. Ivan had co-supervised my Indiana University doctoral dissertation on the performance of gender in social dancing in northern Greece. Although I had completed the dissertation in 1987, I continued regularly to seek out his counsel as an astute analyst and creative thinker who read widely, across disciplines. ‘What could I read to help me make sense of this, theoretically?’ I asked. He thought for a while, then replied: ‘Ranajit Guha, The Prose of Counter-insurgency.

It is a remarkable text. Examining historical accounts of peasant revolts in India under the British Raj in the late 18th and 19th centuries, Guha categorised them into primary, secondary and tertiary discourses, distinguished by appearance in time, in relation to the original event, and what he called their ‘filiation’. Whether written by British colonial protagonists, observers or later interpreters, or by Indian scholars (bourgeois nationalist or Marxist), these texts shared a similar structure. Ideologically opposed, they mirrored each other. Borrowing an evaluative binary famously employed by Mao Zedong, Guha showed that an element that was marked in the British colonialist discourse on the revolts as ‘terrible’ (‘insurgents’, ‘fanatics’, committing ‘daring and wanton atrocities on the inhabitants’) would appear in the Indian nationalist discourse as ‘fine’ (‘peasants’, ‘Islamic puritans’, involved in ‘resistance to oppression’).  However, these accounts revealed little, Guha claimed, since they interpreted the rebels’ actions within a larger story (the transcendental Destiny of the British Empire, or alternatively, the struggle of Indian workers and peasants against foreign, as well as indigenous, oppressors) whose contours the authors already knew. In assimilating these peasant uprisings ‘to the career of the Raj, the Nation or the People’, and thus treating the rebels’ motivations as already known, they failed to grasp their specific political consciousness: in this case, its rootedness in a religious worldview. Rebels’ own narratives that they were following a divine command, or that they carried out rituals to ward off the apocalypse of the Primeval Serpents, Lag and Lagini, were treated by the writers as fanaticism, backwardness or propagandistic cunning. Whether approaching the topic from the right or the left, Guha wrote damningly, the writers ‘[refused] to acknowledge the insurgent as the subject of his own history’. This historiography failed, moreover, to comprehend ‘the many other contradictions’ of such rural insurrections: that they contained betrayal as well as solidarity, for instance. Treating them as either traitorous or heroic, writers had failed to grasp, Guha claimed, their internal messiness and ambiguity.

The polarised yet similarly off the mark discourses that Guha was describing in the historiography of Indian peasant revolts resonated strongly with the debate around the ‘insurgents’ of the Macedonian movement for human rights. In both public and academic spheres, though with varying degrees of nuance and courtesy, both attackers and defenders used nationalist discourses, or discourses informed by nationalist assumptions. Thus, certain journalists, academics and public figures mobilised an aggressive Greek nationalist discourse. They judged the activists’ ongoing activities as ‘terrible’, and some insultingly characterised them, as well as those who publicly supported them, as anti-Greek spies, ‘Gypsy Skopians’, separatists and traitors. Defenders were a diverse group, and included local supporters, academics, professionals, international human rights and minority rights NGOs and Macedonians active in refugee associations in the Macedonian diaspora, in Australia, north America, Eastern Europe and the new republic. Macedonian refugee associations and Macedonian intellectuals mobilised Macedonian nationalist arguments most explicitly to portray the activists’ activities as ‘fine’: as heroic resistance to an oppressive nationalising state, as justified exposure of long-standing Macedonian persecution and violent assimilation to Greekness and as legitimate demands for recognition of ethnic (in their view, national) uniqueness. The discourse of international NGOs could be similarly Manichean.

In the polarised debates surrounding this Macedonian movement, one saw the proses of insurgency and counter-insurgency portraying, as ‘fine’ or ‘terrible’, the actions of ‘insurgent’ Greek citizens with a Macedonian ethnic or national consciousness. But it often seemed that the subject whose actions were on trial as ‘fine’ or ‘terrible’ was the Greek state, or more abstractly, the longer-term projects of Hellenism and Greek nationalism. For one side, that project to create a unified nation out of Ottoman diversity was a noble and glorious project of inclusion, one built on education, culture, a shared Orthodox Christianity and the enlightened and inspiring legacies of Greece’s 2500 years of civilisation. For the other side, it was a fundamentally violent project, one that judged Macedonians’ Slavic mother tongue as linguistically inferior and its speakers politically suspect and that entailed denationalisation, forced assimilation, harassment, discrimination and social exclusion. Such intensely partisan assessments rarely acknowledged Macedonians’ more complicated, more mixed lived experiences that scholars had already begun to document.

The most inspiring provocation of Guha’s piece, and the one that spoke most strongly to me regarding the Macedonian case, concerned his charge that historians of Indian peasant revolts had ‘[refused] to acknowledge the insurgent as the subject of his own history’. Guha insisted on the importance of exploring that history and acknowledging the specificity of the subjectivity it produced. Ironically, Guha’s schematic, triadic formulation creates its own powerful, almost mythic discourse that, arguably, underserves his argument, for he certainly would have known that there was not a single insurgent or a singular insurgent consciousness. Nonetheless, Guha helped me to sharpen my grasp of the ways that those speaking the opposed yet similar Greek and Macedonian nationalist discourses typically ‘talk past each other’ while ‘talking over’—denouncing, ignoring or taking no interest in the diverse consciousnesses, situationally-variable identity performances and complex subjectivities of—the flesh-and-blood subjects that each side claims as ‘ours’.

Jane K. Cowan is Emeritus Professor of Anthropology at the University of Sussex. A specialist of contemporary Greece, her award-winning first book, Dance and the Body Politic in Northern Greece, investigated gender, dance, sociability and embodiment. Since the mid-1990s, with a focus on the region and “question” of Macedonia, she has been exploring culture and rights (inCulture and Rights: Anthropological Perspectives, co-edited with Marie-Bénédicte Dembour and Richard A. Wilson, and inMacedonia: The Politics of Identity and Difference), as well as the nexus of rights claiming and international supervision. This research spans minority petitioning to the League of Nations’ Minorities Section to, with Julie Billaud, contemporary human rights auditing at the Universal Periodic Review, a United Nations human rights mechanism. She is president of the Society for the Anthropology of Europe (2022-2024), a section of the American Anthropological Association.

Header Image Credit: Author’s photo


Cowan, Jane 2024. ‘Thinking with Ranajit Guha about the Macedonians’ Discover Society: New Series 4 (1):