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Modernism: The Creation of Nation-States

Ahmet Ersoy
Maciej Górny
Vangelis Kechriotis

Chapter V. Socialism and the nationality question


Constantin Dobrogeanu-Gherea
Traduction de Marius Turda

Texte intégral

1Title: Neoiobǎgia (Neo-serfdom)

2Originally Published: Neoiobǎgia. Studiu economic-sociologic al problemei noastre agrare, Bucharest, Socec, 1910

3Language: Romanian
The excerpts used are from Ion Popescu-Puturi et al. eds., Opere complete (Bucharest: Politics, 1977), pp. 11; 62; 75–76; 136; 160–161; 365; 368–369.

About the author

4Constantin Dobrogeanu-Gherea (Solomon Katz) [1855, Slavjanka (present-day Ukraine) – 1920, Bucharest]: literary critic and socialist politician. He was born into a Jewish family; his father was a merchant. Dobrogeanu-Gherea began his studies in his native village and continued his secondary education in Ekaterinoslav. In 1872, he enrolled in the Faculty of Sciences in Kharkov (Ukr. Kharkiv, present-day Ukraine), where he became a member of revolutionary and populist (narodnik) circles. Under surveillance by the tsarist secret police (the Okhrana) for revolutionary activities, he moved to Iaşi in 1875. In 1876 he moved to Bucharest, where he participated in the establishment of the first socialist groups with the help of other Russian revolutionaries and émigrés. During the Turkish-Russian war of 1877–1878, Gherea was arrested and deported to Siberia. He managed to escape and in 1879 returned to Romania. Settled in Bucharest, he contributed to the foundation of the first socialist journals in Romania, including Besarabia (Bessarabia) (1879), România viitoare (Future Romania) (1880) and Contemporanul (The Contemporary) (1881) and gained notoriety as a literary critic. In 1882, Gherea became the owner of a restaurant at the railway station in Ploieşti, which became a meeting point for socialist revolutionaries from Romania and abroad. He was also involved in politics, being a founding member of Partidul Social Democrat al Muncitorilor din România (Social-Democratic Party of Romanian Workers) in 1893, and the author of its political program. As a result, he was often considered as the intellectual father of social democracy in Romania. During the First World War, Gherea lived in Switzerland, and returned to Romania in 1919, shortly before his death. Gherea was equally praised for his contribution to the development of socialist thinking in Romania and for his social-literary criticism which focused on the social significance of the work of some Romanian classics, including Mihai Eminescu and Ion Luca Caragiale. This form of criticism found many supporters during the interwar period, including Garabet Ibrăileanu and Nicolae Iorga. In 1948, Gherea was posthumously made a member of the Romanian Academy. He was condemned by the communist regime in its early years, but was partly rehabilitated by Nicolae Ceauşescu in 1966. During the 1970s, Dobrogeanu-Gherea’s complete works were edited and he became one of the main intellectual sources used by the communist ideologues to illustrate the ‘long-tradition’ of Marxism in Romania. After 1989, although slightly marginalized by the new historiography, he gained his position as one of the main promoters of Romanian social theory.

5Main works: Anarhism şi socialism [Anarchism and socialism] (1887); Studii entice, 5 vols. [Critical studies] (1890–1897; 1925); Conceptia materialistă a istoriei [Materialist conception of history] (1892); Neoiobăgia [Neo-serfdom] (1910); Amini-tiri din trecutul depărtat [Reminiscences from the remote past] (1912); Conflictul româno-bulgar [The Romanian-Bulgarian conflict] (1913); Rǎzboiu sau neutralitate [War or neutrality] (1914).


6At the beginning of the twentieth century Romania was a predominantly agrarian country. Yet, the Romanian peasantry lived in pitiable conditions. Social commentators connected the poverty and the backwardness of the Romanian peasantry to both the lack of efficient legislation to protect its economic interests and to the inability of the Romanian state to create the markets required for economic growth. After the peasant revolt of 1907, which was brutally crushed by the army, it became clear that the peasant society was dominated by profound unrest and dissatisfaction. This event generated an affluence of cultural and political literature dedicated to explaining the condition of the peasantry, but this literature fed into a more general debate about the nature of development of the Romanian society and culture. Some authors, like the Poporanists (see Garabet Ibrăileanu, The critical spirit in Romanian culture), argued for the creation of a peasant economy dominated by small, independent holdings. Others, like the Sămănătorists (see Nicolae Iorga, The national culture and its surrogates; and Aurel C. Popovici, At the crossroads of two worlds), viewed the peasantry as the core of the social life in Romania, insisting that social harmony and gradual evolution could only be achieved if Romanian peasants are unaffected by industrialization and urbanization, both considered detrimental to Romanian national values.

7The increasing acuteness of the peasant problem in Romania prompted the emergence of new political doctrines and cultural movements as responses to the putative solutions proposed by liberal and conservative parties. Within these debates on the nature of economic and social development in Romania Gherea proposed a third way. Although he shared the Poporanists’ claim about Romania’s economic backwardness, he did not agree with one of their central arguments, namely that Romania should continue to remain an agricultural country. He strongly believed that Romania could overcome economic underdevelopment, improve social conditions and create an economically-efficient peasantry; yet he saw these developments as accompanying Romania’s industrialization. As part of a global economy, Romania was bound to follow other, economically more advanced countries: the cultural and intellectual imitation of Western Europe, characterizing Romania’s elite since the early nineteenth century, needed to be corroborated with adopting Western capitalist strategies of economic development.

8Gherea discussed first the economic conditions of the peasantry, describing at length the effects of the land reforms and the European liberal legislation introduced in Romania during and after the rule of Alexandru loan Cuza (r. 1859–1866). He, then, analyzed the moral, cultural, juridical and political effects of the agrarian system existing in Romania. Agriculture was, for him, the centre of this economic transformation, and one could not create a resourceful agriculture without sorting out the peasant problem. The land reform of 1864, instead of creating a class of healthy, independent peasants, had legalized coerced work in the form of labor contracts, resembling more semi-feudal forms of production than capitalist relations between patrons and workers. In fact, neither the peasants nor the boyars were landowners in the juridical sense, but rather co-proprietors; the peasants, for instance, had no shared individual rights over communal land. The capitalist transformation of Romania, as seen by Gherea, was based on an anomaly: the state allowed the boyars to claim modern property rights to lands to which they had only feudal rights. Gherea termed this specific form of political economy, which enabled the landowners to exploit the peasants without fulfilling any of the obligations owned to them, neo-iobăgie (neo-serfdom).

9Although a supporter of Marx and Engels (comparisons between the concept of neo-serfdom and Engels’ concept of “second serfdom” were often made), Gherea disagreed with the Marxist model of capitalist development, which denied the peasantry an active political role. He decried, for instance, the gradual disappearance of the peasant handicraft industry, which only added to the peasantry’s lack of political participation. To overcome the neo-serfdom conditions of the Romanian society, as well as the contradictions between the juridico-political and socio-economic structures, Gherea assigned the peasantry an active role in the social life of the country; the peasantry, he added, should be the agent of organizing agricultural production around capitalist principles.

10In essence, Gherea aimed to explain social reality by working out his own original program that would reflect Romania’s specific sociopolitical development. Gherea’s critique of other theories of national development followed from the suppositions which guided his own theory of national specificity. Ultimately, what prevailed, in Gherea’s analysis of the Romanian society and national economy, was not the nationalism of the Poporanists and their ideas of peasant democracy, or the socialist principles of replacing private property with public ownership, but complete industrialization and modernization. Gherea did not advocate a “separate path” for Romania, his division of “backward” and “advanced, civilized” countries notwithstanding. He therefore coupled economic and social modernity with the traditional virtues of Romanian national character, arguing for the maintenance of the nation-state, as the ideal vehicle for the creation of a capitalist system.

11Upon its publication, Gherea’s book was discussed widely in the Romanian press. Russian socialists, like Leon Trotsky (1879–1940), also commented it favorably. During the interwar period, some of the arguments put forward in ‘Neo-serfdom’ were taken up by the corporatist author Mihail Manoilescu (1891–1950), in his attempt to find a way to increase the productivity of agriculture, and encourage high productivity industry, two essential conditions for the functioning of the corporatist state. During the 1950s, Gherea was labeled anti-Marxist and his writings marginalized. One argument was that Gherea was too much influenced by the conservative critique of “forms without substance” articulated, most exemplary, by Titu Maiorescu (1840–1917). Another argument was that Gherea was not critical of sociopolitical forms borrowed from Western Europe, allegedly corresponding neither to Romania’s native conditions nor to its stage of economic, social and political evolution. With the emergence of a new scholarship on the relationship between economic underdevelopment and modernization during the 1960s and 1970s, Gherea’s ideas of neo-serfdom were revived by many Marxists scholars in Western Europe using Romania and other countries in Eastern Europe as case-studies for their analysis of the economic dependency in Latin America and Asia.



13After Gypsies and serfs were freed from serfdom and Western social-political and social-juridical order introduced, it had become obvious for most of those participating to or witnessing these profound social transformations that from this moment on, we had truly transformed into a civilized Western country. The social-juridical and political arrangements appeared as a sort of civilized garment which, replacing the Oriental one, transforms ipso facto the Oriental into a civilized person.

14There were, of course, those of the 1848 generation who saw clearer and deeper; who realized that by changing this clothing—no matter how important this was in many ways—the individual’s mentality and soul, and the profound social relations, especially socio-economic, have not changed. These individuals realized that a top-hat and a tailcoat can easily conceal a Balkan mentality and soul, and Balkan social relations: to use a term which has become common now. But they hoped that in time the new order will come into being, through the masses’ moral and cultural education and schools, and through the functioning of institutions, which—it goes without saying—need some time to adapt to people and people to them. […]

15The years 1864–1866 were the honeymoon of 1848 liberalism. The Belgian constitution, one of the most liberal in Europe, was introduced to the Romanian lands. How many beautiful hopes, and how quickly and cruelly abandoned! It did not work from the beginning. It showed—as it was easy to predict—that the engine is crippled, that it cannot function, that on these socio-political and economic foundations the production does not advance, and that many powerful interests are at risk.

  • 1 Constitutional documents adopted in 1831 in Wallachia and 1832 in Moldavia, respectively.

16The neo-serfdom system instituted since 1866 has placed the peasant, as exploited material, at the owner and leaseholder’s absolute power, and made possible and profitable his exploitation, now more intensive and exaggerated than the one permitted under the Organic Regulations.1

17One of the saddest consequences of our socio-economic system is, of course, the peasant revolt. In 1907, these revolts wrote one of the bloodiest and most tragic pages in our history, and history will judge them. History will judge the events of 1907 and give every one what they deserve. That’s for sure. This work is not historical but sociological. It aims to explain the deep causes of social phenomena characterizing our agrarian life and thus, necessarily, the causes of this tragic phenomenon called peasant revolts. The problem to solve, however, is as important as the judgment of history—in some respects even more important.

18What amazes and must amaze at first anyone who is slightly familiarized with social analysis is the periodicity of peasant revolts. In our country, revolts have something in common with the economic crises of the capitalist society explained by Karl Marx; they have the same periodicity, occurring nearly every ten years and growing in violence. […]

19We could analyze other factors which determine peasant revolts, but those enumerated and analyzed so far are enough; more so, as they are the main factors, representing all others. Our neo-serfdom, with its double-character of bourgeois capitalism and serfdom feudalism; multiple feuds, antagonisms and contradictions resulting from it; social anarchic relations in the countryside; the lack of legal norms; civic administration instituted without legal basis; the illegality which systematically affects the peasantry—all these create in the villages an atmosphere of dormant revolt. And in this atmosphere there appear powerful instigators, spreading in all villages and hamlets. These are: the state, through all its functions of a modern Western state, and the upper classes which appeared in the village itself: the peasant bourgeoisie. These powerful, large social forces gather and prepare—yearly, daily, hourly—explosive material, which, once accumulated in sufficient quantity, needs just a spark—one of many resulting from social fights—to explode. What was the spark in 1907, we all know. It was the anti-Semitic propaganda.

  • 2 Constantin Stere (1865–1936): Romanian writer and theoretician of Romanian poporanism.

20We are a country which is economically backward, and to catch up with the civilized capitalist countries, which have surpassed us so much in their cultural and economic development, we must follow the same path. And to follow this path we do not have to face fatal and invincible obstacles, resulting from our backwardness, or from the fact that we had come too late to the feast of universal capitalism and we cannot partake—as if all seats were taken—as argued by the Russian narodniks for Russia and by Mr Stere in our case.2 No! What obstructs us to follow this cultural and economic path of development is our detested national household, with its neo-serfdom, with its bureaucratic state, with its unproductive consumption, etc. So, then, it is up to us and it is in our hands that, modifying and reforming our national household, we walk safely on the same path followed by advanced civilized nations.

  • 3 Edmond Rostand (1868–1918): French poet and dramatist, promoter of neo-Romanticism

21Oh, no! A poporanist-peasant society cannot be our ideal! Or the existing society; or the ideal-Romantic one! Oh, no! Not in a stable where it is so quiet to chew, and where one can vegetate so peacefully; and not in the courtyard where the hens, ducks and geese rummage around the soil, the roosters announce the dawn, and where Rostand3 found material and inspiration for his gobbledygook poems. Nor can a rustic-idyllic society be our and the country’s ideal.

22Where fight and life bubble, where the siren calls the workers, where the working people dig out of the entrails of the earth, where massive hammers break blocks of steel, where the forest of chimneys point toward the sky, announcing the human victory against nature, where ships cross the oceans, where in gigantic cities passions and ideas are fought, today’s formidable culture and the immense culture of tomorrow is formed, where the great fight between work and capital is gauged, resulting into a new world… there and only there can our and the country’s ideal be. This enormous unrest, struggle and relentless tumult are not pains announcing death but are birth pains. There, the future is born!


1 Constitutional documents adopted in 1831 in Wallachia and 1832 in Moldavia, respectively.

2 Constantin Stere (1865–1936): Romanian writer and theoretician of Romanian poporanism.

3 Edmond Rostand (1868–1918): French poet and dramatist, promoter of neo-Romanticism

© Central European University Press, 2010

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