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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 our missions

August Cesarec
Traduction de Iva Polak

Texte intégral

1Title: Nacionalno pitanje i naši zadaci (The national question and our missions)

2Originally published: Borba, organ Nezavisna radničke partije Jugoslavije; a series of four articles published in August and September 1923. The excerpt is the third article, published on 30 August 1923 under the sub-title Osnovni naš nacionalni stav: federalizam

3Language: Croatian
The excerpt used is from August Cesarec, Izbor članaka, ed, by Nusret Se-ferović (Beograd: Kultura, 1962), pp. 30–35.

About the author

4August Cesarec [1893, Zagreb – 1941, Zagreb]: writer and publicist. As a gymnasium student he joined the Nacionalistička Omladina (Yugoslav Nationalistic Youth), a radical revolutionary group of young Serbs and Croats advocating the idea of unitary Yugoslav ism. In 1912, he was sentenced to three-year imprisonment for taking part in the assassination attempt of the Croatian ban Slavko Cuvaj (see Franjo Rački, Yugoslavism). In 1915, he went to occupied Serbia. In 1918, he joined the Socialist Party, and in 1920, was linked to the Communist fraction after the dismantling of the party. During the 1920s and 1930s, he became, along with his friend Miroslav Krleža, the most prominent Croatian left-wing intellectual. Simultaneously, Cesarec spearheaded the ‘socially engaged’ literary project, which ultimately led him to part ways with Krleža, who advocated the autonomy of art. He spent three years in the USSR (1934–1937), and published an enthusiastic account of Soviet life. Shortly before the German attack on Yugoslavia, he was imprisoned together with other Croatian communists, and was finally put to death by the Ustasha regime in July 1941. In socialist Yugoslavia, Cesarec’s intellectual contribution was perceived to be in line with that of Krleža, which had strongly contested Croatian ‘petit-bourgeois’ nationalism, and advocated the national emancipation of Croatia within a socialist South Slavic federation. However, after the 1990s, based on some of his works from the late 1930s which strongly emphasized the notion of Croatian national identity, Cesarec was reinterpreted by some critics as an advocate of an independent socialist Croatia.

5Main works: Dački pokret [The students’ movement] (1912); Sudite me: ispovi-jed siromaha [Put me on trial: the confessions of a poor man] (1925); Careva kraljevina: roman o nama kakovi smo bili [The emperor’s kingdom: the novel of what we were] (1925); Stjepan Radić i republika [Stjepan Radić and the republic] (1925); Zlatni mladić i njegove žrtve: roman o svijeiu na stranputici [The golden youth and its victims: a novel about the world on the side-track] (1927); Tonkina jedina ljubav [Tonka’s only love] (1931); Psihoanaliza i individualna psihologija [Psychoanalysis and individual psychology] (1931); Bjegunci [Fugitives] (1933); Današnja Rusija [Today’s Russia] (1937); Novele [Short stories] (1939); Sin Domovine [The son of the homeland] (1940).


6In the aftermath of the First World War, the newly founded Yugoslav socialist movement advocated the idea of a unitary Yugoslav nation. This was partly motivated by the early post-War Comintern policy, aiming at an international proletarian revolution in a politically unstable Europe. However, it was also embedded strongly in the ideology of pre-war Croatian and Serbian socialist parties, as well as that of the left-wing faction of the ‘Yugoslav Nationalist Youth,’ a South Slavic youth movement from Austro-Hungary that advocated the national-revolutionary idea of radical Yugoslav integralism. All these factions considered the unitary Yugoslav nation as a precondition for south Slavic social emancipation. Along the lines of the Comintern agenda, the party labeled emerging non-Serb national identities as the invention of a reactionary bourgeoisie, thus focusing exclusively upon the notion of revolutionary class struggle. This position was even more radicalized after the break up of the socialist movement and the emergence in 1920 of an independent Komunistička Partija Jugoslavije (Communist Party of Yugoslavia, hereafter CPY), led mostly by the adherents of the ex-’Yugoslav Nationalist Youth.’ The members of this group claimed that the process of Yugoslav national unification had been achieved, and hence they demanded the immediate start of socialist revolutionary activities. Due to its support of uni-tarism, and due to the efficient administrative measures of the government in curtailing communist agitation, the party, which had emerged as the strongest anti-regime political force in the chaotic conditions of the initial post-war years, would diminish into a minor political force by the early 1920s. The party was forced to abandon unitarism under the impact of new directives from the Comintern, stipulating the endorsement of the national-self determination principle as a precondition for socialist revolution.

7Starting in 1922, this change of policy was the result of a broader strategic shift within the Comintern towards a communist alliance with the agrarian movements of the East European nations. Thus, the Comintern forced the CPY to support non-Serbian demands, in particular Stjepan Radić’s Croatian Peopie’s Peasant Party, which labeled Yugoslavia and the other nascent East European states as “counter-revolutionary Versailles creatures,” thus insisting on their dismantling. These newly emerged nations were expected to be incorporated into a ‘Balkan-Danube federation of worker-peasant states.’ By 1923, these new directions prompted a debate concerning the issue of nationality between two groups. On the one hand, there was the pro-Comintern left-wing faction, which was the majority and consisted mostly of ex-Yugoslav Nationalist Youth members, and on the other hand, there was the unitarist right-wing opposition, which comprised mostly the older generation of Serbian socialists. Finally, in 1924, the CPY announced its support of the national-self determination rights of the Croats, Macedonians and Slovenes within the framework of a Balkan-Danube alliance, endorsing the preservation of Yugoslavia only as a short-term arrangement. This policy was further radicalized in the early 1930s in the form of a program for the dismantling of Yugoslavia in line with the revival of the Comintern policy of ‘class struggle.’ It was eventually reversed after the appointment of Josip Broz Tito as the party leader in 1937, when the CPY adopted the notion of a South Slavic socialist federation, taking the USSR as its model. This notion remained valid throughout the entire life of socialist Yugoslavia until its final demise in the 1990s.

8Cesarec’s text represents the most profound expression of the left-wing faction’s standpoint in the 1923 debate. It primarily targeted the ‘right-wing’ faction that considered peasant movements politically backward. It also argued against the claim that the notion of nationality was of an exclusively bourgeois character. Under Comintern pressure, the right-wing faction was forced to endorse political concessions to non-Serbian nations. Still, it kept insisting on the progressive character of unitarism as a catalyst for the “united working-class anti-capitalist front,” due to its purported impact on the efforts of the backward Serbian bourgeoisie to reach the level of its more progressive Croatian and Slovenian counterparts. Thus, Cesarec first condemned the way the unitarian principle had been implemented, accusing its proponents of having undermined the revolution, as Serbian hegemony had only managed to transfigure Yugoslavia into “a state of nations.” He also stressed his conviction that South Slavic unity could be defined according to “objective” criteria, thus revealing that he conceded to the existence of distinct South Slavic national identities only for strategic reasons. However, in order to support federalism, Cesarec firstly embarked on a reinterpretation of South Slavic political relations. This led to a shift away from the previous perception of the roles of the Croatian and Serbian peasantry. The latter, previously considered as the progressive agent of South Slavic unity, was now viewed as its primary obstacle, due to its support for Serbian hegemony. On the other hand, Cesarec interpreted the Croatian peasant movement and other non-Serbian national initiatives as being progressive, since their demands for federation paved the ground for a socialist revolution. Ironically, since he followed the Leninist notion of federation as a transitional stage in achieving communist democratic centralism, Cesarec’s federalism ended up achieving what the party had always opted for, that is the unitarist objective.

9Although his vision of federation as an alliance of already shaped Croat, Serbian and Slovene nationalities resembled Stjepan Radić’s idea of South Slav federalism, the latter was discredited by Cesarec on the grounds that federalism could not possibly be realized due to the ethnic heterogeneity of the South Slavic territories. This tension between the proclaimed principle of federation and an inherent centralist inclination was present throughout the entire history of the CPY, leading non-Serbian political agents to accuse Tito’s socialist regime of promoting a ‘Greater Serbian’ ideal. However, Cesarec’s undisguised advocacy of South Slavic federalism, almost without reference to the Comintern’s ‘Balkan-Danube alliance’ project, distinguishes him from the left-wing mainstream that closely followed Comintern instructions.

10In socialist Yugoslavia, Cesarec’s text was labeled as the most outstanding indication of the CPY’s turn from unitarism to federalism, and was also interpreted as a direct predecessor of the party’s federalist program during the Tito era. In the 1990s, this reading was abandoned due to attempts to reinterpret Cesarec through his position in the late 1930s, when he had allegedly become an advocate of an independent communist Croatia.


The national question and our missions

III. Our basic national standpoint: federalism

  • 1 ‘Serbian’ denotes the ethnic Serb population in present-day Serbia, while the ‘Serb’ denotes the e (...)
  • 2 Cesarec refers to the region inhabited by “Prečani” which means literally “people living across or (...)

12I have said that the bourgeoisie in Serbia—though at this point I prefer say the Serbian bourgeoisie outside Serbia1—is experiencing the events of 1848 in the region north of the Danube and Sava and west of the Drina2—though at this point I prefer to say the events of 1848 in Croatia. Naturally, this comparison is not at all perfect and can reveal quite opposing features! However, it does reveal two important similarities: first, that the Serbian bourgeoisie is suppressing the national revolution of the Croats and the Slovenes in the same manner as the Croatians have done to the Hungarians; and second, that the Serbian bourgeoisie, as once the Croatian one did, used to side with Russia and the Habsburgs, while now it functions in its international relations as a total and official vassal siding with the main leaders of today’s European counterrevolution, England and especially France. I may add that the Serbian bourgeoisie is not going through any national revolution such as the one that occurred in Croatia in 1848 because it went through it a long time ago or it is going through it to the extent to which the Serbs north of the Danube and Sava and west of the Drina are going through it, and that, at the same time, this bourgeoisie maintains power which enables it to support this final national revolution of the Serbs with violence against the revolutions of the Slovenes and Croats as well as the other peoples of Yugoslavia. Therefore, we have to conclude that even on the national level, this bourgeoisie was progressive until unification—of course, with some interruptions—but ceased to be so after the unification. This bourgeoisie is still not progressive today; to the contrary, it is reactionary.

13“What does this mean, did you not say initially that Yugoslavia meant progress?” I hear some complain. “And who guards this progress today but the Serbian bourgeoisie? So, how can it be that this bourgeoisie is no longer progressive?”

14However, it is enough to recall some claims from my other paper, in which I stated that this progress came from above and not below. Moreover, this progress was carried out without the people’s vote at the exact moment when the people should have been asked—at the moment of the state’s establishment—and this created a knot before our very eyes in which our national question became entangled: Yugoslavia as a state means progress, but progress does not mean Yugoslavia as it currently is. The unification of nations means progress, but progress does not mean the unification that is about to be carried out. By neglecting the manner in which our nation has become part of Yugoslavia, in which it has never integrated formally and from which it has remained ideologically separate, the Serbian bourgeoisie has shown total inability to realize that our people, especially those from north of the Danube and Sava and west of the Drina, can reach a new stage only via a step-by-step policy of national compromise in order to be able to develop along the lines of the ideological unification following formal unification. On the contrary, due to clear objectives and numerous personal reasons, the Serbian bourgeoisie has opted for a reactionary method of imposed unilateralism and dictatorship realized politically in the form of centralism, which simply means a grave violation of the principle of national self-determination and national subjugation disguised in some abstract principle of national oneness.

15It is the fault of the Serbian and, until the end of 1920, the Croatian and Slovene bourgeoisie that national oneness has become a mere abstract principle without content. Even though objectively speaking we still constitute one nation, the common people do not feel this way at all! And we must, by all means, draw the conclusion that Yugoslavia, which is based on the principle of the nation-state, is, as a matter of fact, a state of nationalities, a state of the peoples.

16All other conclusions that have by now become our missions’ duties regarding the national question are drawn from this conclusion which is historically justifiable and completely understandable only to those who look at history through a dialectical lens and who see in history a guarantee for the proletariat, for that matter, not absolutely necessary for a more regular and more individual development of our nation in the future, in accordance with our objective national oneness.

17In his propositions prepared for the Second Congress of the Comintern, under item 2 Lenin has emphasized the following: “[…] The Communist Party, as a conscious representative of the fight of the proletariat for the sake of overthrowing the oppression of the bourgeoisie, must, even when it comes to the national question, start not from the abstract and formal principle, but from the following: first, with the exact estimation of the specific historical and especially economic conditions; second—which I will give in brief— with the exact identification of interests of the working class in contrast to “general” national interests and interests of the bourgeoisie; and third, with a clear delineation between the oppressed nations and oppressing nations.”

18Let us see how we can comply with Lenin’s conditions. As regards the Serbs, I believe that I have already fulfilled these conditions and I will discuss them in brief or make them more transparent: first, their bourgeoisie protects itself from an economically superior one using political hegemony, and it is politically and nationally violent and reactionary; second, the interests of their peasants are based on the objective agreement with other peasants and the working class, and are, hence, completely in opposition to the interests of the bourgeoisie. However, let us not be mistaken, their peasants believe that their interests are safe from the bourgeoisie due to their partial objective benefits. And third, the Serbs are still the ruling nation in comparison to other nations even though from the point of view of class, they are partially oppressed by their own bourgeoisie.

19Let us look at the opposite side without beating around the bush, or at least at the most serious example, that of the Croatians.

  • 3 Indeed, the reason for the decline of the Croatian bourgeoisie is not only connected to the situat (...)

20We notice the following. First, the Croatian bourgeoisie, though economically better positioned and as such better equipped to lead an economic unification of the state, is politically oppressed. Nevertheless, it is developing economically and even unifying the country economically by investing its capital all over the country. But due to its political limitations this economic development is slow.3 Second, its economic interests and the economic interests of other classes—the workers and peasants—are, as anywhere else, diametrically different due to class exploitation by the bourgeoisie. But this opposition, historically and politically speaking, shows two different phenomena that do not exist on the Serbian side. These are the following: first, the Croatian bourgeoisie, more than the Serbian one, is creating better conditions for leading the revolution of the proletariat and for instigating the industrialization and capitalist era of the proletariat; second, it is deprived of the political power and cannot function as a political and national oppressor of other classes and peoples. Moreover, all classes, especially the peasants, force the bourgeoisie to appropriate more progressive politics. And this is how we finally come to the answer under the third point: the whole Croatian nation, notwithstanding class differences, feels nationally oppressed—bourgeoisie, peasants and workers alike.

21If the same kind of analysis were applied to other nations, the results would be similar, provided we identified those other nations territorially as the Montenegrins, or nationally as the Slovenes, Macedonians or the ethnic minorities. We also see that all these nations have launched their struggle for self-determination against the rule of the Serbian nation, by using various slogans such as federation or autonomy.

22We have seen that what lies behind the Serbian slogan of centralism— besides hegemony and reaction—is only an abstract principle of national oneness: hence, who knows what catchwords such as federalism, confederacy and autonomy may stand for.

23First of all, we will not go far if we identify those slogans as being exclusively bourgeois even if they are also definitely bourgeois slogans. It is our historical sin that both the bourgeoisie, and the peasants, have identified them before we have. It is common knowledge that the bourgeoisie hides its class interests behind such slogans. Moreover, it was because of such slogans that the bourgeoisie itself started cooperating with the Bosnian feudal lords after the Vidovdan Constitution in exchange for Serbia prior to the stated Constitution. These are all historical sins of the bourgeoisie that will come around to haunt it. These are our sins as well and we must expose them with our class politics. However, this does not mean that we have done enough by expressing our disapproval because disapproval itself does not mean anything, or it means everything—to the Serbian bourgeoisie, the emblem of national oppression.

24We must not, not even for a moment, forget the historical meaning of the Croatian and Slovene bourgeoisies which they adopted unquestioningly when they sided with the ultimate national revolution. The historical meaning of these two bourgeoisies already lies in the fact that unlike the Serbian bourgeoisie and notwithstanding their rejection of national oneness and support for federalism, they have unconsciously become the most important factor of a possible step towards achieving oneness, or at least national reconciliation as a precondition for centralism: this, following the rage of nationalism, is our ultimate goal in a distant future. As progress used to be on the side of the Serbian bourgeoisie, so is historical-dialectic progress on the side of the Croatian and Slovene bourgeoisies. The materialization of this progress is visible in their slogans on federation and autonomy, which are not based on some abstract principle but on the totality of specific national movements of the common people.

25Hence, we cannot deprive the bourgeoisie of its right to national self-determination or even oppose their slogans based on the pretext that they come from the bourgeoisie alone; on the contrary, we must support them but we must do so in a wiser manner than before. It is our duty to warn the common people that their fight for self-determination is safer if they join forces with us, but we have to be aware that we will gain their trust only to the extent to which we show them that we are prepared to help them now when they follow the bourgeoisie and not us, which, in turn, means that we will be helping the bourgeoisie itself.

26In this respect, we still need to be aware of our basic standpoint and our duty that I will elaborate on in conclusion.

27Until recently, we have consumed ink writing about ourselves as being the only supporters of the idea of national oneness (which is actually true), and today, observing a revolt among the people, we have placed the emphasis on self-determination of the people that might go as far as separation. Is it enough? Is it not too geeky and insufficiently specific? I believe that we will keep on repelling the masses instead of drawing them closer by using such general slogans, and we will continue to give reasons to the federalist bourgeoisie to successfully present us to the peasants and workers as social patriots and label us as agents of national oppression imposed by the Serbian bourgeoisie. However, we need to add some fuel of living concreteness to our dry slogans in order to make them burst into flames that may become the guiding lights of the masses. The only way we can achieve this is by positioning ourselves in relation to the specific demands of individual nations or countries as verified twice during elections.

28So, what shall we do?

  • 4 However, some may ask whether state centralism implies the centralism of the party. These two are (...)

29We are all against centralism, today’s state centralism led in the name of national oppression—though we are always for centralism of the party.4 We have to be against it notwithstanding the standpoint of the Serbian peasants. “Democracy of the proletariat must now be aware of the Russian chauvinism of the great Russian peasants—not in the sense of concessions but in the sense of fight—and it will have to remain so, probably for a very long time.” However, when we have finally found our way, we now must admit that we have stopped half way through. Now when our sick leg is well again, we are afraid to step forward courageously and consistently and say what we stand for, since we have said what we are against. We, the democratic proletariat, can only support what the oppressed peoples of certain counties have voted for on two occasions: autonomy, where people seek autonomy—be it within the state along with the Slovenes, Bosnian Muslims and Montenegrins, or outside the state within a wider federation with the Macedonians and possibly the Montenegrins, or for federation or confederation as desired by the Croats.

30“Federation represents a transition toward the total oneness of the workers of different nations”, as Lenin has stated in the above quoted works. Only subjectively do we represent different nations today. So, can anything stop us or is it not our obligation and basic mission to support and vote for this transitory form that will surely be transitory even after our revolution of the proletariat?

31All other duties come out of this basic mission. I will not elaborate on them because I believe that they depend on local specific conditions in various counties and among various peoples. What matters is that I believe that the further duties as well as our whole national politics can be successful only if we accept our basic duty and standpoint, namely, federalism. When I say federalism I actually mean what some nations of Yugoslavia name differently—autonomy, confederation, etc.


1 ‘Serbian’ denotes the ethnic Serb population in present-day Serbia, while the ‘Serb’ denotes the ethnic Serb population from Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. At the same time, the term ‘Serb’ is used as a generic term which refers to a whole Serb ethnic population.

2 Cesarec refers to the region inhabited by “Prečani” which means literally “people living across or on the other side”, that is to say, the population living across or on the other side of the Danube and Sava and west of the Drina River. The term is used by Serbians to denote Slovenians and Croats, as well as Bosnian and Croatian Serbs.

3 Indeed, the reason for the decline of the Croatian bourgeoisie is not only connected to the situation conditioned by the Serbian hegemony, but also to the overall European condition marked by crises and the standpoints of numerous bourgeoisies in relation thereto. Even for the topic of our discussion, it would be useful to show the economic connections and foreign affairs of the Croatian bourgeoisie in relation to the situation in Europe. However, we cannot focus here thereon; it is clear that the Croatian bourgeoisie represents one of the European counterrevolutionary factions by siding hesitantly with England, which is increasingly becoming more dangerous than France, and tomorrow this faction may become reactionary. However, on the whole, the standpoint of the Croatian bourgeoisie in this matter is not as defined and visible as the standpoint of the Serbian one. However, it is extremely important to note that unlike the Serbian peasants, the Croatian as well as the Slovenian peasants stand side-by-side with their bourgeoisie more prominently, something which is especially visible in their standpoint towards Soviet Russia and Vrangel’s White Army. This can be attributed to one reason alone: the burden of feudalism and the unresolved agrarian question are not tormenting Serbian peasants to the same degree [Author’s footnote].

4 However, some may ask whether state centralism implies the centralism of the party. These two are not related. Even when the latter was put into jeopardy, we should not place it above the national revolution leading to the Croatian separation. However, this very separation is highly unlikely, despite the apparent interests of even the most radical Croatian bourgeoisie and peasants on the national level. Hence, the slogan of self-determination until separation has, in this respect, probably no solid ground and is interesting only to those who hide their unconscious opportunism behind this most radical word in relation to the current forceful oneness of the state [Author’s footnote].


Iva Polak (Traducteur)

© Central European University Press, 2010

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