We republish here a very interesting letter written in 1915 by Serbian socialist Dušan Popović to Christian Rakovsky, the great Balkan internationalist. The letter was published by Nashe Slovo (Our Word), a daily Russian language socialist newspaper published in France during the First World War and edited by Leon Trotsky. We think it contains crucial lessons for the attitude of Marxists towards imperialist war, and the way in which imperialist powers use the rights of nations as a pretext for their real aims.
The letter was written in the spring of 1915, less than a year since the start of World War One and it describes the anti-war anti-imperialist position taken by the Serbian Social Democracy (as Marxists were known at the time), as well as the mood of the different layers of the population in Serbia at that point.
Let us remember that the Serbian question provided the formal pretext for the beginning of WWI, with the assassination in Sarajevo of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria on 28 June 1914. As Popović correctly points out in his letter to Rakovsky:
“For us it was clear that, as far as the conflict between Serbia and Austria-Hungary was concerned, our country was obviously in a defensive position. Austria had been carrying on a policy of conquest against Serbia long before the latter became an independent state. (...) [b]asically Serbia is defending its life and its independence, which Austria was constantly threatening even before the Sarajevo assassination. And if Social Democracy had a legitimate right to vote for war anywhere, then certainly that was the case in Serbia above all.”
This was exactly the same appraisal made by Lenin of this question in his famous pamphlet ‘The Collapse of the Second International’ (May-June 1915):
“In the present war the national element is represented only by Serbia’s war against Austria (which, by the way, was noted in the resolution of our Party’s Berne Conference). It is only in Serbia and among the Serbs that we can find a national-liberation movement of long standing, embracing millions, ‘the masses of the people’, a movement of which the present war of Serbia against Austria is a ‘continuation’. If this war were an isolated one, i.e., if it were not connected with the general European war, with the selfish and predatory aims of Britain, Russia, etc., it would have been the duty of all socialists to desire the success of the Serbian bourgeoisie as this is the only correct and absolutely inevitable conclusion to be drawn from the national element in the present war.
However, the war was not just limited to the Serbian question, but rather was a general conflagration between different imperialist powers, in which each group of big power gangsters were using the national rights of small nations (Serbia, Belgium) as a convenient fig-leaf to cover up their real imperialist aims.
Thus, Lenin explained:
“(...) Marxist dialectics, as the last word in the scientific-evolutionary method, excludes any isolated examination of an object, i.e., one that is one-sided and monstrously distorted. The national element in the Serbo-Austrian war is not, and cannot be, of any serious significance in the general European war. If Germany wins, she will throttle Belgium, one more part of Poland, perhaps part of France, etc. If Russia wins, she will throttle Galicia, one more part of Poland, Armenia, etc. If the war ends in a ‘draw’, the old national oppression will remain. To Serbia, i.e, to perhaps one per cent or so of the participants in the present war, the war is a ‘continuation of the politics’ of the bourgeois-liberation movement. To the other ninety-nine per cent, the war is a continuation of the politics of imperialism, i.e., of the decrepit bourgeoisie, which is capable only of raping nations, not freeing them. The Triple Entente, which is ‘liberating’ Serbia, is selling the interests of Serbian liberty to Italian imperialism in return for the latter’s aid in robbing Austria.”
For Lenin, the national question was always subordinate to the class question, that is, the general interests of the working class. In this case, the decisive factor was not the self-determination of Serbia, but rather the reactionary imperialist all-out European war.
Trotsky shared this view, as he explained in The War and the International:
“If the International Social Democracy together with its Serbian contingent, offered its unyielding resistance to Serbia’s national claims, it was certainly not out of any consideration for the historic rights of Austria-Hungary to oppress and disintegrate the nationalities living within her borders; and most certainly not out of consideration for the liberating mission of the Habsburgs. Until August 1914 no one, except the black and yellow hirelings of the press, dared to breathe a word about that. The Socialists were influenced in their course of conduct by entirely different motives. First of all, the proletariat, although by no means disputing the historic right of Serbia to strive for national unity, could not trust the solution of this problem to the powers then controlling the destinies of the Serbian kingdom. And in the second place – and this was for us the deciding factor – the international Social Democracy could not sacrifice the peace of Europe to the national cause of the Serbs, recognizing, as it did, that, except for a European revolution, the only way such unity could be achieved was through a European war.” (L. Trotsky, The War and the International, 1914, our emphasis).
Finally, the same position regarding the Serbian question was advanced by Rosa Luxemburg in her Junius Pamphlet:
“If ever a state, according to formal considerations, had the right of national defence on its side, that state is Serbia. Deprived through Austrian annexations of its national unity, threatened by Austria in its very existence as a nation, forced by Austria into war, it is fighting, according to all human conceptions, for existence, for freedom, and for the civilisation of its people, But if the social democratic group is right in its position, then the Serbian social democrats who protested against the war in the parliament at Belgrade and refused to vote war credits are actually traitors to the most vital interests of their own nation. In reality the Serbian socialists Laptchevic and Kaclerovic have not only enrolled their names in letters of gold in the annals of the international socialist movement, but have shown a clear historical conception of the real causes of the war. In voting against war credits they therefore have done their country the best possible service.”
Luxemburg then goes on to point out that the Serbian ruling class had also reactionary aims in the war and had its own predatory imperialist ambitions:
“Serbia is formally engaged in a national war of defence. But its monarchy and its ruling classes are filled with expansionist desires as are the ruling classes in all modern states. They are indifferent to ethnic lines, and thus their warfare assumes an aggressive character. Thus Serbia is today reaching out toward the Adriatic coast where it is fighting out a real imperialistic conflict with Italy on the backs of the Albanians, a conflict whose final outcome will be decided not by either of the powers directly interested, but by the great powers that will speak the last word on terms of peace.”
The key point was to see the war in Serbia not in isolation but in its more general context, particularly the question of which powers stood behind her:
“But above all this we must not forget: behind Serbian nationalism stands Russian imperialism. Serbia itself is only a pawn in the great game of world politics. A judgement of the war in Serbia from a point of view that fails to take these great relations and the general world political background into account is necessarily without foundation.” (R. Luxemburg, The Junius Pamphlet, 1915).
While Lenin had criticisms of the position advanced in the Junius Pamphlet about the question of national wars in general, he commended this section of it regarding Serbia.
Therefore, the correct internationalist position to take was that of opposition to the war aims of all imperialist powers. That position was of course more difficult to take for the Serbian socialists for the obvious reason that they were forced to take a position which seemed to be against the progressive national interests of their own country, which was oppressed and attacked by an imperialist power.
Popović, as he alludes to in the letter, had abstained in the vote about the war credits in the Serbian parliament during the first Balkan War, while others in the party advocated opposition. But when it came to the outbreak of the war between the Austro-Hungarian and Serbia, the Serbian Social Democrats did not vacillate and took an internationalist anti-war position, including voting against the war credits. The memory of the national slaughter and mutual betrayals of the Balkan wars, which were the hors d'oeuvres for the Great War, must have played a role.
This was certainly not an easy position to take. Trotsky, who was in Serbia at the time, described the mood:
“To appreciate fully this action of the Serbian Socialists we must bear in mind the political situation by which they were confronted. A group of Serbian conspirators had murdered a member of the Habsburg family, the mainstay of Austro-Hungarian clericalism, militarism, and imperialism. Using this as a welcome pretext, the military parry in Vienna sent an ultimatum to Serbia, which for sheer audacity, has scarcely ever been paralleled in diplomatic history. In reply, the Serbian government made extraordinary concessions, and suggested that the solution of the question in dispute be turned over to the Hague tribunal. Thereupon Austria declared war on Serbia. If the idea of a ‘war of defence’ has any meaning at all, it certainly applied to Serbia in this instance. Nevertheless, our friends, Ljaptchevitch and Katzlerovitch, unshaken in their conviction of the course of action that they as Socialists must pursue, refused the government a vote of confidence. The writer was in Serbia at the beginning of the War. In the Skuptchina [parliament], in an atmosphere of indescribable national enthusiasm, a vote was taken on the war credits. The voting was by roll call. Two hundred members had answered ‘Yes’. Then in a moment of deathlike silence came the voice of the Socialist Ljaptchevitch ‘No’. Every one felt the moral force of this protest, and the scene has remained indelibly impressed upon my memory.” (Trotsky, The War and the International, 1914)
This is what Popović explains in his letter:
“However, for us, the decisive fact was that the war between Serbia and Austria was only a small part of a totality, merely the prologue to universal, European war, and this latter — we were profoundly convinced of this — could not fail to have a clearly pronounced imperialist character. As a result, we — being a part of the great socialist, proletarian International — considered that it was our bounden duty to oppose the war resolutely.”
Which he then follows with a bitter recrimination against the Social Democrats in the main imperialist countries who betrayed their internationalist duty and collapsed into the swamp of national chauvinism, supporting the war aims of their own imperialist bourgeois, which had not an ounce of democratic character:
“We did not want to cause any discord in the attitudes of the sections of the International, and yet it is precisely through our position that we have, contrary to our intentions, caused such discord, for, alas!, almost all the other socialist parties have voted for this war!”
There are many lessons to be learnt from this episode as to the attitude socialists must adopt when imperialist powers use their just national aspirations as small change in order to justify their own imperialist aims.
In an accompanying note by the editorial of Nashe Slovo, which was almost certainly written by Trotsky, the same point is underlined:
“[Serbian socialists] understand that the question of the fate of Serbia and Serbian socialism must not be taken in isolation. Considering it the duty of international socialism to take up an uncompromising position of struggle against the imperialism of all the warring great states, the Serbian socialists — precisely because they are internationalists — subordinate the local, limited characteristics of their position to the general logic of world imperialism and world socialism.”
As well as this important point of principle, Popović’s letter ends with a very interesting description of the mood in Serbia after the consequences of the war became clear (and it took only a few months, less than a year):
“Unfortunately, we were only too right. This war has destroyed Serbia. It would be an understatement to say the country has been decimated: half, and the best half, of our population has been destroyed. To losses in combat must be added others, even greater, caused by typhoid fever and other epidemics which, as a result of our administrative chaos, bureaucratic negligence and corruption, have claimed innumerable victims. What was best and most valuable in Serbia no longer exists. 'Greater Serbia will have no Serbs': now this phrase has become a popular saying among us. The people are completely exhausted. And all of them long for peace (our emphasis).”
The whole letter is permeated by a strong feeling of sadness and pain, which is understandable. The hammer blow of imperialist war had not only thrown internationalist socialists into isolation, but many of the best activists and cadres of the movement had perished in the trenches. At the beginning of the letter Popović mentions the death of Tucovič killed at the front in November 1914. About him Trotsky wrote:
“How many harbingers of the Balkan Federation have fallen in the wars of the last years! The heaviest blow for Serbian and all Balkan social-democracy in the war was the fate of Dimitrije Tucovič who was one of the noblest and most heroic figures of the Serbian workers’ movement.” (Leon Trotsky - ‘Political Profiles, Rakovsky and Kolarov’ (October 1915))
But nevertheless, despite all the pain, loss and suffering Popović ends his missive to Rakovsky on a note of determination: “we shall continue their struggle despite the incurable wound in our hearts.”
We recommend comrades to carefully read and reflect about the ideas contained in this extraordinary letter. With Trotsky we say: 'Learn from our heroic comrade Serbs!’
This letter was originally published by Andreja Zivkovic and Dragan Plavsic (eds), The Balkan Socialist Tradition: Balkan Socialism and the Balkan Federation, 1871-1915 (Revolutionary History, vol 8, no 3, 2003)
Jorge Martin, 27 Jan 2023
Serbian Social Democracy in the War
Letter to Christian Rakovsky
I am at Niš. Our paper Radničke Novine has been appearing from here since the beginning of the war. I have to edit it on my own because from the outbreak of the war Lapčevič has been at Skopje. We had published only a few issues of our paper after the declaration of war when the government banned it. But as soon as the panic of the first few weeks blew over, we resumed publication. Since October the paper has appeared regularly up to the present time.
You cannot imagine the conditions we are obliged to work under! But three great inspirations have maintained my efforts.
First of all, there is our highest socialist ideal, which summons us to struggle in a bitter and intransigent fashion against the universal barbarism of capitalist imperialism.
Then there was the death of my best friend, Tucovič, which caused me even greater pain than the death of my beloved brother, who also fell on the battlefield. Tucovič was my best fellow-worker, and the most active organising force of our movement. His death is an indescribable loss for our movement and an occasion of permanent mourning for me personally. But at the same time, his death gave a new enthusiasm for work and struggle; and when I have spent the day in this dark, solitary little room, when I go home in the evening, I feel some consolation at the thought that I have perhaps succeeded in advancing by another step the cause which alone will avenge the death of our unfortunate and great friend.
Finally, what encourages us to persevere is that our work is bearing fruit. Radničke Novine is read in all circles of society, and enjoys a serious influence. At present, during the slaughter, when almost all our comrades are either at the front or in their graves, Radničke Novine has achieved a circulation as high as it had at the best times before the war. A further proof is the fact that at present censorship exists almost exclusively because of Radničke Novine. It is the only opposition paper in Serbia, and almost every day the military authorities protest to the government about it. This also shows that we are making no concessions, absolutely none at all, to the generally accepted arguments and to the national and belligerent tendencies.
You will perhaps recall on this occasion those nuances that led me to disagree with the rest of the comrades at the time of the Balkan War. On that matter I would say the following: even now I stand by my old thinking on this. In any case, I am more consistent by far than those European comrades who sought from us absolute rejection of that war, which represented in a certain sense a revolution for the Balkans (or which, ultimately, could have become one), but who for their part accepted this war, which is capitalist and imperialist par excellence.
But all this is now in the past. So far as this war is concerned, we are all, without exception, in agreement since the first day of the war. On the very day when the mobilisation decree was issued, we convened our Central Committee, with our dear comrade Tucovič, and at this meeting we clearly established our position on the basis of principles.
For us it was clear that, as far as the conflict between Serbia and Austria-Hungary was concerned, our country was obviously in a defensive position. Austria had been carrying on a policy of conquest against Serbia long before the latter became an independent state. As for the assassination at Sarajevo, the blame doubtless lies with the Serbian authorities. Hence, in formal terms, part of the responsibility for provoking the war falls on Serbia. But basically Serbia is defending its life and its independence, which Austria was constantly threatening even before the Sarajevo assassination. And if Social Democracy had a legitimate right to vote for war anywhere, then certainly that was the case in Serbia above all.
However, for us, the decisive fact was that the war between Serbia and Austria was only a small part of a totality, merely the prologue to universal, European war, and this latter — we were profoundly convinced of this — could not fail to have a clearly pronounced imperialist character. As a result, we — being a part of the great socialist, proletarian International — considered that it was our bounden duty to oppose the war resolutely. We did not want to cause any discord in the attitudes of the sections of the International, and yet it is precisely through our position that we have, contrary to our intentions, caused such discord, for, alas!, almost all the other socialist parties have voted for this war!
It was a terrible moral blow for us, the hardest blow in our lives as militants. But despite everything, it has not made us waver in any way; it has not shaken our profound conviction that we have acted as socialists, and in the only way possible for socialists. The events which occurred later have merely reinforced our opinion about this war. And a few months later we learned with the greatest joy that a certain number of the very best socialists shared our opinion.
Unfortunately, we were only too right. This war has destroyed Serbia. It would be an understatement to say the country has been decimated: half, and the best half, of our population has been destroyed. To losses in combat must be added others, even greater, caused by typhoid fever and other epidemics which, as a result of our administrative chaos, bureaucratic negligence and corruption, have claimed innumerable victims. What was best and most valuable in Serbia no longer exists. 'Greater Serbia will have no Serbs': now this phrase has become a popular saying among us. The people are completely exhausted. And all of them long for peace. When three months ago, Lapčevič gave a speech to the Skupština in which he called for peace and revived the socialist project of a Balkan federation, then the whole assembly remained in silence; not one of the political parties protested against this vigorous speech. It can be said that in these circumstances and at this moment, our party expressed not only the profound beliefs and burning desires of the great suffering masses, but even the aspirations of sections of the ruling bourgeoisie which had experienced the most terrible disillusion about its chauvinist policies.
Almost all the forces of our country, forces which were ripe not only for war but for revolution, have now been destroyed, and it seems that of all the parties it is ours which has suffered the heaviest losses. After the war our party will doubtless have the broad masses with it. But it will have no militants: all our brave comrades, who had a profoundly socialist culture, and who struggled for the cause with so much ardour and devotion, and with such success, are dead. All, with their comrade Tucovič, are sleeping in their graves, and we shall not hear their voices again. As for those of us who remain living — we shall continue their struggle despite the incurable wound in our hearts.
My fraternal greetings,
From the Editorial Board
To this letter, which speaks for itself, we can add only very little. With regard to resolving the questions of contemporary international politics, some of our comrades are troubled by the fate of Serbia and Belgium. But look at how the Serbian socialists resolve this question for themselves, without bowing the revolutionary banner before the Moloch of imperialism. It is clear to them, no less so than for the social-patriots of the Triple Entente, that Serbia is the object and not the subject of the bloody game of the international powers. But for them something else is also clear. They understand that the question of the fate of Serbia and Serbian socialism must not be taken in isolation. Considering it the duty of international socialism to take up an uncompromising position of struggle against the imperialism of all the warring great states, the Serbian socialists — precisely because they are internationalists — subordinate the local, limited characteristics of their position to the general logic of world imperialism and world socialism. But the patriots of the Triple Entente do precisely the opposite: (Four-and-a-half lines cut by the French censor].
'Learn from our heroic comrade Serbs!' — we would say to the government socialists of the Triple Entente, if we could for a moment imagine that this was a matter of logical and ideological disagreement, and not the conscious, and even more so, the malicious exploitation of the Belgian and Serbian questions for the national interests of the bourgeois states. 'Learn from the Serbs!' — we shall say to the Russian workers, among whom social-nationalists are trying to sow discord and ideological corruption — from the Serbs, learn courage and the capacity to reject nation-bound views in the name of the higher demands of international socialism!
This letter, written in the spring of 1915, first appeared in Russian on 5 September 1915 on the front page of the Paris newspaper, Nashe Slovo, edited by Leon Trotsky. A French version appeared 20 years later in Alfred Rosmer Le mouvement ouvrier pendant la guerre (Paris, 1936), pp. 231-3. The Russian version contains additional material that does not appear in the French. It has not been possible to establish either the exact date of the letter, or whether it was originally written in Russian or French. This translation has been made from the French and checked against the Russian version in general as well as for additional material.
After this letter was written, the Serbian government banned Radničke Novine. But it has been replaced by the daily paper Budućnost [The Future] (Nashe Slovo note).
Dušan Popović, the outstanding Serbian journalist and the author of this letter, putting forward the objective revolutionary moments of the First Balkan War by the allies against Turkey, thought it more appropriate to abstain in the vote against credits than to vote against, and generally for less active opposition to this policy. (Nashe Slovo note)
This paragraph appears only in the Nashe Slovo version.
This section appears only in the Nashe Slovo version. Its style suggests that Trotsky wrote it. Translated from the French by Ian Buthall, with additional material translated from the Russian by Dragan Plavšić.