Loyalty Unto Death: Trust and Terror in Revolutionary Macedonia

Keith Brown’s Loyalty Unto Death sets out, with great sensitivity, to uncover and retell the story of the Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (MRO) from its rise until the Illinden Uprising of 1903. Brown is invested in trying to understand civil war and insurgency more generally, and Macedonian history specifically. His research is concerned with how peasants came to support a revolutionary movement even though they were often thought  of as fatalistic and with “limited intellectual and moral horizons” (p. 5). Even from an anthropological perspective, their support seems unlikely because they were also  operating within a context in which larger imperial forces and competing ethnic groups could sabotage them. Taken as a whole, the book weaves together a fresh analysis of the MRO through multiple lenses of class, gender, geography, and ethnicity to provide a contrapuntal approach to the study of Macedonian identity and history.

The book is theoretically and historically grounded, with an eye on reading archives ethnographically, in the sense of accounting for everyday lived experiences, and reading with empathy and imagination into an archive fraught with the messiness borne of colonization. Indeed, it is Brown’s emphasis on an archive of the oppressed that sets this book apart.

Brown bases much of his analysis on the Illinden Dossier, a collection of over 3,500 pension applications that contain testimonies given in the 1940s by former MRO members. He goes to great lengths to explain how one might read these testimonies to produce an authoritative account of historically marginalized actors, an unusual possibility for a historical anthropologist especially given that oppressed and insurgent communities often don’t keep archives, and are secretive about their past. In doing this, the author takes a page out of the subaltern school literature to investigate the lives of revolutionaries using their own narratives rather than the narratives of colonial administrations and imperial governments.

Brown is concerned with much more than the MRO. He works to rescue the history of revolutionary movements from the pitfalls of methodological nationalism, whereby histories are influenced by the present national sympathies and biases of social scientists. His claim is that work on Ottoman Macedonia thus far has constituted a form of “pigeon social science” (p. 8), in which the lived realities of Macedonians have been absented by an overdetermined vocabulary of “generic nationalism.” Brown’s goal is to move beyond this methodological nationalism, and indeed, beyond the nation altogether, to show how the MRO was, to a large extent, anti-imperialist rather than simply nationalist. He argues that the emergence of the MRO does not reveal a presence or absence of national identity, but “rather a process of the creation, interaction, and conscious reordering of diverse loyalties” (p. 19). In other words, allegiance to an imagined national community was not the only driving force for the organization.

Chapter 2 is particularly powerful in the way Brown demonstrates the ways in which labor migration contributed to the development of the MRO, and more generally, how migration was connected to the revolution (p. 57). He traces some of the circuits traveled by people to illuminate the flow of ideas and the way migration contributed to organizational development and solidarity, arguing that these flows and migrations are more powerful than the “clouds and vapors of nationalism or other ideological projects” (p. 13). The MRO was weaved into a network of worldwide protest that allowed for an exchange of revolutionary ideas (p. 61), a point that should not be ignored or forgotten in thinking of contemporary global protest movements. Moreover, by exploring the labor migration of rural populations, he challenges the myth of rural isolation and inertia. He argues that peasants tried to improve their lot, ultimately returning to their villages in the lead up to the uprising. A discussion of anti-immigration laws enacted by the Ottoman Empire lends further credence to this argument (p. 66).

The book tackles other important aspects of revolutionary struggle that are often overlooked. Brown analyses oathing practices in Chapter 3 to show how loyalty was formed and how the organization operated. He compares these practices with those of other movements like the Irish Republican Army, Kenya’s Mau Mau, and Italy’s Carbonari. In Chapter 4, he describes MRO practices of legibility that brought “into being its own institutional structure” and produced self-legitimacy (p. 11), while chapter 5 details the roles, purposes, and interconnections between different cadre in the organization’s hierarchy. Such practical and instrumental issues, Brown suggests, were much more present in the Illinden dossier than questions of national belonging. In Chapter 6, readers learn how the organization acquired weapons and how it created fissures in the solidarity between Albanian and Ottoman identity.

One shortcoming of the text is a lack of engagement with the reforms of the Ottoman Empire (Tanzimat), which had granted equal rights to minorities in the period before Brown’s work. Situating the MRO within a deeper discussion of these reforms would have greatly helped the reader to follow his otherwise wonderful analysis. His only references to the Tanzimat are in the realm of economic and land reforms (p, 22, p, 47), but there is no mention of military reform and service. What was the impact of the law of equality in the 1856 edict, for example, on the decisions of the MRO and how they organized? How could an analysis of these reforms redefine the reasons behind gun smuggling and the flow of weapons?

This critique aside, Loyalty Unto Death is a fascinating account of an anti-imperialist struggle that pushes readers to think beyond the nation. It will serve as a powerful resource for both students and scholars embarking on historical ethnography, as the early chapters are rich in methodological reflections on an archival imagination, and he includes an appendix of long snippets of the Illinden Dossier so that readers have a chance to analyze the historical data for themselves. Likewise, the book will be extremely valuable for those working on revolutionary movements in search of strategies to draw out the lived experiences of underground movements.

Sami Hermez, Northwestern University in Qatar

Reviewed in this essay:

Brown, Keith. Loyalty Unto Death: Trust and Terror in Revolutionary MacedoniaBloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2013. Read more at Indiana University Press.

About Matthew Wolf-Meyer

Matthew Wolf-Meyer is an anthropologist and historian of science and medicine in the United States. He is author of The Slumbering Masses: Sleep, Medicine & Modern American Life (UMN Press, 2012), Theory for the World to Come: Speculative Fiction and Apocalyptic Anthropology (UMN Press, 2019), and Unraveling: Remaking Personhood in a Neurodiverse Age (UMN Press, 2020). He blogs at matthewwolfmeyer.com and somatosphere.net.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s