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Modernism: The Creation of Nation-States

Ahmet Ersoy
Maciej Górny
Vangelis Kechriotis

Chapter V. Socialism and the nationality question

The national question and the social democrats

Bohumír Šmeral
Traduction de Robert Russell

Texte intégral

1Title: Národnostni otázka a sociálni demokracie (The national question and the social democrats)

2Originally published: in Protokol IX. sjezdu Českoslovanské sociálni demokratické strany dělnické (Prague: Zář, 1909) pp. 116–151.

3Language: Czech
The excerpts used are from Bohumír Šmeral, Výbor z dila, vol. I (1902–1921), ed. by Jan Galandauer (Prague: Svoboda, 1981), pp. 132–152.

About the author

4Bohumír Šmeral [1880, Třebíč (Ger. Trebitsch, Bohemian-Moravian Uplands) – 1941, Moscow]: politician and journalist. In 1896 while still in secondary school in Třebíč, Šmeral joined Pokrok (Progress), a social democratic workers’ association. Later, while studying law at Prague, he was active in the Czecho-Slav Social Democratic Workers’ Party. In 1899–1918, he was an editor of the party newspaper, Právo lidu (People’s right). In the meantime he translated Friedrich Engels, Karl Kautsky, and other socialist theorists into Czech and became one of the most important theoreticians in the party. At its ninth congress, in 1909, he was elected to the executive committee, becoming the main representative of the Marxist Internationalist branch of the party and the chief theorist of the ‘national question,’ in which he was inspired by the Austro-Marxists Karl Renner and Otto Bauer. In 1911, Smeral was elected a deputy to the Reichsrat, where he became the spiritus agens of the parliamentary club of the Czecho-Slav social democrats. At the beginning of First World War, he played a leading role in loyalist pro-Austrian politics and was among the initiators of the establishment of the ‘Czech Union’ in the Diet uniting the Czech political representatives in the name of national interests. Nevertheless, the growing nationalist emotions both within as well as outside the party forced him to resign from all party functions in September 1917. In May 1921, Šmeral helped to found the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, becoming its first chairman until 1924, and managed to attract mass support from among Czech workers. With the beginning of the ‘Bolshe-vization’ of the party, however, he was ostracized. In 1926, he was removed from the executive board of the Communist International and was totally marginalized in the Party at home. In the service of the Comintern, he was sent to China and Mongolia and later worked in various places. He was allowed to return to Czechoslovakia only after the 1935 turn towards the Popular Front tactics in the Communist movement. After his death, he left behind a highly contested and unsuccessfully suppressed legacy of the non-Bolshevik origins of the Czechoslovak Communist Party. Today, contested as he is, Smeral is seen as one of the most original Czech theorists of radical socialism.

5Main works: Kdo jsou a co chtějί sociálni demokrati? [Who are the social democrats and what are their aims?] (1906); Materiálie k dějinám dělnického hnutί v Rakousku, zvláště se zřetelem na dělnické hnuti české [Materials concerning the history of the workers’ movement in Austria, especially with regard to the Czech workers’ movement] (1906); Národnostnί otázka v sociálni demokracii až do sjezdu hajnfeldského [The national question in social democracy until the Heinfeld congress] (1909); Pravda o sovětském Rusku [The truth about Soviet Russia] (1920), Boj za osvobozenί Činy [The fight for the liberation of China] (1927).


6The Czecho-Slav Social Democratic Workers’ Party was founded in 1878 at a congress in Břevnov (now part of Prague) as a section within the Austrian social democracy. In the 1890s, the party already had a considerable following, particularly among the industrial working class. In 1893, it adopted an autonomous status while still belonging to the Austrian Social Democratic Party in Cisleithania. In the elections of 1907, the first with universal suffrage, the Czech Social Democratic Party emerged as the strongest Czech political party, with 39.8 percent of the general vote in Bohemia and 30.7 percent in Moravia. In its first declaration in the Reichsrat, it distanced itself from Czech nationalism and the politics of state rights, and denounced the efforts to divide the Empire into national states, while stressing that it was only socialism that could bring both social and national justice.

7In their first Břevnov political program, Czech social democrats declared as their task organizing Czech-speaking workers not only in the Bohemian Lands, but also in Vienna and Lower Austria. They did not question the multinational character of the party; in the light of the strong national antagonism in Austria in this period, however, they saw the old supra-ethnic principle prevailing in the Social Democratic Party of Austria as being outdated. Therefore, stressing the principle of autonomy of the Czech branch, they pushed forward the concept of the ‘federalization’ of the all-Austrian party which was finally acknowledged as a principle at the Vienna Congress in June 1897. In this conception, the federalist solution was understood as a precondition for a true workers’ internationalism.

8Among the Viennese social democratic leaders, however, and even more so in the headquarters of the trade unions, the projected federalization of the party was perceived as an element that sharpened the national differences, and hence damaged the unity and power of the workers’ movement in Austria. This situation led to the ‘conflict of the trade unions’ in 1910. The imperial ‘Trade Unions Commission’ insisted on one, unified organizational structure, whereas the majority of Czech social democrats protested against what they understood as redundant supra-ethnic centralism. The International Socialist Congress in Copenhagen, in 1910, condemned the stance of the Czechs, who did not, however, stop fighting against Viennese centralism until the First World War. At that time, the Czech social democrats found themselves in a peculiar position on the domestic political scene. Apart from their Marxist internationalism, the social democrats refused the main tenet of Czech politics of the last forty years—namely, the state rights argumentation based on the historical rights of the lands of the Bohemian Crown. As a result, the nationalist politicians called them enemies of the nation and the Czech National Socialist Party was founded in 1897 by the political activist and journalist Vaclav Klofáč in order to alienate Czech workers from the social democrats. With their program that combined moderate reform socialism and nationalism, the Czech national socialists significantly challenged the social democratic policies, though they never achieved a higher percentage of votes than their social democratic opponents.

9After ‘federalizing’ itself, the Austrian Social Democratic Party turned towards the national question in the Empire, which was addressed in the nationality program accepted at the congress in Brünn (Brno) in 1899. Based on the Austro-Marxist nationality conception formulated by Karl Renner and Otto Bauer it called for the establishment of a democratic federation that would consist of autonomous, nationally defined districts instead of historical lands. All districts dominated by one nation would form a national branch that should possess full autonomy in national issues. The Marxist Left in the Czecho-Slav Social Democratic Party, whose main representative was Bohumír Šmeral, picked up this concept and elaborated on it. At the IX Prague Congress of the party in September 1909, Šmeral gave a long speech on the national question, the most eloquent formulation on the subject from within the Czech workers’ movement. With direct reference to FrantiŠek Palacký’s 1848–49 ethnic federalist program, based, however, on a Marxist, historical materialist understanding of history, Šmeral expressed his belief that the ‘Czech question’ would achieve its most appropriate solution only within the borders of multinational Austria-Hungary. He claimed, however, that the state must reform itself. In contrast to other Czech political parties and their state right arguments, Šmeral called for the full national autonomy of every nationality in Austria, and for the democratization and decentralization of state administration. The final result, in his view, was obviously not the establishment of a liberal democracy, but the historical victory of Socialism.

10Šmeral retained these views in the subsequent years, which led him to support the activist policy towards Austria during the First World War. Especially after 1915, this policy was increasingly challenged within the party by the revisionists around FrantiŠek Modráček and by the independentists of Gustav Haberman. It was eventually marginalized after the Masaryk-led campaign for an independent Czechoslovakia also attracted most of the social democratic leaders. The new Stalinist leadership of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia after 1929, and even more so the official Communist discourse after the Second World War, praised Smeral’s ‘internationalist’ views. It denounced, however, his nationality conception and pro-Austrian stance as an unacceptable Austro-Marxist political reformism that, allegedly, anticipated his ‘rightist’ position in the 1920s. Today, his federalist ideas are seen as an integral part of the turn-of-the-century Czech politics. Those advocating such a policy saw their future within Austria, though a significantly restructured one.


The national question and the social democrats

12Constitutionally, Austria-Hungary must reform itself from the present du-alistic-centralistic non-popular constitutional structure into a democratic federation of free and equal nations. This is necessary not only in view of the economic and cultural power wielded by its various nationalities, but also because it serves the needs of our foreign policy. […]

13The reform of relations between the Empire’s ethnic constituents is as important a problem for Austria as was hitherto the introduction of universal suffrage. The chief aim of social democracy is to exercise a decisive influence on the development of these relations, as it was in the struggle for equal voting rights. This is the touchstone that will prove whether at heart we are now sufficiently mature, sufficiently socialist, sufficiently free from short-term tactical considerations and able to rise above the past and present state of these relations to become the one true expression of historical necessity in today’s Austria, and the creators of tomorrow’s new Austria of free, autonomous nations.

14If social democracy is to fulfill its task in this regard, it will be necessary for the social democratic parties of all ethnic communities to accept a unified plan for the transformation of the Empire, which is complete and precise in every detail. This should be our new nationalities program, the elaboration of which should be a major aim of this congress. […]

15Now with your permission I shall expound my own view of the basis on which our new nationalities program should be constructed.

16Before a builder can erect a new building, he must have knowledge of the laws of mechanics, physics, chemistry, and so on, in as far as they affect the construction process. So we too, who would be workers on the great edifice of a whole new state, must first be aware of the laws of social development upon which depend the birth, growth and subsequent mutations of every social organism. […] The chief influence of capitalism was its tendency to create large state entities. Only a large state can provide an adequate market for the products of capitalist manufacture; only a large state has the power and authority to protect the interests of its capitalists both within and beyond its own confines. Besides its tendency to create large states, capitalism also had the effect of fostering the idea of nationhood. […]

17In short, industrialism gave rise to national consciousness and the national movement, through which the nation, in as far as it was perceived as a unified whole, undifferentiated as to class, regained decisive influence and power within the state. Wherever these two tendencies—to create both larger states and national awareness—overlap and a great nation with a sense of nationhood provides the basis for the creation of a great state, the result is a great capitalist nation-empire: France, unified Germany, unified Italy! Where this is not the case, however—where a tendency (albeit born of the same causes) to create small national groups, each with its own aspirations to power and separate identity, is opposed to the creation of a large state—the process is far more difficult and painful. For then it is not simply one nationality fighting an absolutist state, but several, which are in addition fighting for power among themselves. The historical process must create an entirely new constitutional and institutional model, which would meet every nation’s cultural and national need for independence, as well as its immediate economic needs within a large state. This is the way things are developing in Austria-Hungary today, and the aim of the program that we at this congress wish to formulate must be to understand and to expound this development, and thereby facilitate and hasten it. […]

18The most important and powerful force and that most suited to quell nationalist passions is the working class. This is a consequence not merely of its views or attitudes, but also, and chiefly, of its material interests. Economically, Czech workers have nothing to gain by being opposed to German workers, or workers of any other nationality, in the way that, say, the petit bourgeois have. On the contrary, working people share common economic interests regardless of their nationality. The Czech working class cannot be considered in isolation from the German working class, and vice versa. Its sense of national belonging is not most perfectly expressed, as it is for bourgeois patriots, in the motto: “Each to his own”. This would mean, in proletarian parlance: “Czech workers! Work only with other Czech workers; work only for Czech employers!” Ultimately this would lead to the principle now being invoked to justify the shameful practice of strikebreaking: “Czech workers! Forget your own interests and support Czech capitalists, so that you may live with them in harmony!” […]

19However, the fact that the Czech working class is being forced into a stance of extreme opposition vis-à-vis the Czech bourgeoisie does not in any way imply a lack of national awareness. The more aware and educated it becomes, the better its own social and material interests will be served. Awareness and education can only be achieved through good Czech schools, Czech newspapers, Czech literature, etc. It is not the flimsy tissue of sentiment, but a tougher fiber by far, personal interest, that binds the Czech worker to those most noble manifestations of a nation’s life: national schools, a national literature, a national culture. How much worthier is such a bond, conjoining as it does the selfish interests of the working class with those of the whole nation, than the merely economic aspirations, and means to their attainment, that are the wellspring of bourgeois radical patriotism! Indeed, the principles of socialism, properly understood, will result in the workers of one nationality assisting those of another, oppressed, nationality to assert their own cultural identity. Yes, German workers too will realize, not on mere principle but in their own interest, that their Czech fellows, if they are not to be strikebreakers and troublemakers at work, should have access to education in schools whose language of instruction they understand. Similarly, Czech workers have a vested interest in the rights and enlightenment of their Slovak or Croatian fellows and so on […].

20But all these formal, legalistic reasons are for us of secondary importance. We have other, purely practical reasons for opposing a political program of state rights. With its most unpopular aspect, and for us social democrats its most unacceptable, I shall deal first. We must reject this program as unfair, since, in the case of the Germans, it breaches the principle of fair treatment for minorities. Anyone who honestly and sincerely supports the state rights program must of necessity be fundamentally opposed to the state in its present constitutional form. Anyone who sees state rights as the main thrust of Czech policy, rather than a mere embellishment, can entertain no thought of compromise; he will not be satisfied until the three Sudeten lands are constituted into a single independent and sovereign empire with its own central Parliament and its own ministry; until this new state frees itself from the union with Austrian state and these two otherwise mutually alien states are united by, at most, only a single sovereign—which is precisely the goal the Hungarian policy of state rights repeatedly strives to attain. And this is where we social democrats, heedless of the belligerent zeal of patriotic chauvinists, must ask ourselves: Is it possible, for reasons of simple justice alone, for Czech politics to go down that path? A reactivated state consisting of the Sudeten lands would not be a Czech state, but a Czech-German one, where a whole third of the population would be of German nationality, and where the Czechs would enjoy a perpetual two-thirds majority in Parliament and government. Quite naturally, we Czechs would like to see a change in the present centralized constitution of Austria, where we as a people are outnumbered. And for this very reason we should be neither surprised nor offended by the Sudeten Germans’ unyielding resistance to the formation of a new state entity that would confer on them exactly the same oppressed status that is now the lot of the Czechs within the Austrian Empire. If we do not understand this, we are sanctioning the unjust conditions in which we ourselves live today. For this moral reason alone, and particularly for us, the state rights program cannot be countenanced. […]

21As opposed to slogans about state rights, the aims of the Czech social democrats’ nationalities policy are:

  1. Absolute autonomy for each of the Austrian Empire’s ethnic communities based on the principle of individual rights with respect to national culture.
  2. In all other respects, the creation of a democratic, decentralized state administration and bureaucracy based on the principle of self-determination. […]


Robert Russell (Traducteur)

© Central European University Press, 2010

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