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The Russian Revolution in Eastern Europe: ‘Resolutions of the Balkan Communist Conference’ Sofia, January 1920

The following document, ‘Resolutions of the Balkan Communist Conference’ (1920), is part of a year-long series LeftEast will run exploring the impact of the Russian Revolution in Eastern Europe. Over the course of this anniversary year we will publish historical documents, interviews and articles reflecting on the role of 1917 in reshaping the political horizons of the region.

‘Introduction: The Russian Revolution and the Balkan Communist Federation’

Modern plans for the unification of the Balkans stretch back to the late eighteenth century with the Modern Greek Enlightenment and proliferated as the Ottoman Empire entered its decline throughout the nineteenth century. Balkan federalism served multiple and rival political projects, as a tool of the imperial powers for reshaping South East Europe, as a system of alliances between the Balkan dynasties, as a vision for the liberation and revolutionary transformation of the region by nationalists and socialists. The Balkan Communist Federation formed in January 1920 inherited a tradition of radical federalist thought that stretched back to the 1870s with the ideas of the Serbian socialist Svetozar Marković and the Bulgarian revolutionary Hristo Botev. Around the turn of the century these early projects of revolutionary federalism were taken up by a new generation of social democrats who, in close dialogue with German Marxists such as Karl Kautsky, integrated the idea of a Balkan Federation into their Marxist project. While the outbreak of the Balkan Wars (1912-13) and WWI (1914-1918) posed an existential threat to revolutionary socialists and their organizations in the Balkans, by the end of the war the impact of the Russian Revolution had revived and radicalized the movement.[i]

Svetozar Markovic (1846-75), one of the founding intellectuals of the Balkan socialist tradition.
Svetozar Markovic (1846-75), one of the founding intellectuals of the Balkan socialist tradition.

The October Revolution of 1917 and the formation of the Third International (COMINTERN) in March 1919 precipitated political splits throughout the revolutionary socialist parties of the Balkans, as it did across most of the European Left. On the eve of WWI the Serbian Social Democrats and Bulgarian ‘Narrow’ socialists had already developed an uncompromising anti-war position in response to the Balkan Wars of 1912-13 and this was more or less maintained throughout the conflict of 1914-18. Their principled anti-war stance served both parties in good stead as opposition to the war grew and put them on a clear trajectory to joining the Third International. When the organization held its first congress in Moscow in March 1919, representatives were present from the Yugoslav, Bulgarian and Romanian socialist groups.[ii]

In Yugoslavia, the message of October 1917 had been carried by thousands of South Slav soldiers in the Austro-Hungarian army that had been captured on the eastern front and interned in Russian prison camps. In the aftermath of February 1917, as the effects of the revolution in Petrograd and the abdication of the Tsar reverberated throughout the empire, most of these prisoners were released, and many were caught up in the revolutionary movement. A young Austrian citizen by the name of Josip Broz, for instance, found himself in revolutionary Petrograd during the heady July Days, as soldiers and workers participated in armed marches against the Provisional Government.[iii] Following the defeat of the central powers, thousands of these former prisoners of war flooded back into the newly created Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, bringing with them the ideas and organizational practices of the Russian revolutionaries. In April 1919 the disparate cells and organizations around the country, which were (generously) estimated to represent around 130,000 activists and sympathizers, formed the Socialist Workers’ Party of Yugoslavia and immediately joined the COMINTERN.[iv]

Despite the frenetic activity of the Yugoslavs, it was in Bulgaria that the Balkan communist movement would find its firmest footing. By the summer of 1919 the Bulgarian ‘Narrow’ Socialists had become the ‘Bulgarian Communist Party’ and affiliated with the Third International. At this stage the party claimed 21,000 members (mostly demobilized peasant conscripts) and its newspaper, Rabotnicheski Vestnik, had reached a circulation of 30,000. The party’s mass base was reflected in the elections of August 1919, when they became the second largest party in the country, gaining 47 deputies to the Bulgarian parliament. Despite this, the January 1920 gathering of the Balkan communist parties found the Bulgarian group on the back foot, having been forced to withdraw their support for a general strike of railway workers, which they had hoped to use to destabilize the government of Aleksandar Stamboliiski.[v]

During these early days of the communist movement, the Romanian and Greek parties were far weaker and smaller than their Yugoslav and Bulgarian counterparts. The Socialist Party of Romania was formed in November 1918 (but did not formally affiliate with COMINTERN until 1921) and although it played a significant role in a series of strikes that swept through the country in 1919-20, it seem to have been unable to grow into a mass party. Likewise, by the time of the Balkan Communist Federation’s meeting in Sofia, the Greek Socialist Labor Party, also formed in November 1918, claimed approximately 1500 members.[vi]

Delegates of the First Congress of the Socialist Workers Party of Yugoslavia, Belgrade, 1919.
Delegates of the First Congress of the Socialist Workers Party of Yugoslavia meet in Belgrade, 1919.

The Balkan Communist Federation was conceived as a continuation of the Balkan Socialist Federation, which had brought together the social democratic parties of the Balkans in the years before WWI. Already at the COMINTERN’s first congress in March 1919 the representatives of the Yugoslav, Bulgarian and Romanian parties were grouped together as the Balkan Communist Federation. But the first meeting of the organization, which was charged with the task of coordinating the joint activities of the communist parties of South East Europe, took place in mid-January 1920 in the Bulgarian capital of Sofia.

Bulgaria was the logical host for the event. In October 1919 Aleksandar Stamboliiski, the leader of the Agrarian Union, a radical peasant party, became the Prime Minister of the country. Although hostile to the ideas of Bolshevism, Stamboliiski sought to draw on the reservoirs of popular mobilization unleashed by the October Revolution and his political authority rested on a radical populism rooted in the peasantry. Like the communists, Stamboliiski was committed to the project of Balkan federalism and, despite his ideological differences, gave his protection to the Balkan Communist Federation.[vii] The federation would continue to be based in Sofia until Stamboliiski was overthrown in the 1923 coup, at which point it moved its operations to Vienna, then the center for exiled Eastern European revolutionaries. From Red Vienna the federation continued to promote cooperation between Balkan communist parties, although its main activity seems to have been the publication of the organization’s newspaper, the multi-lingual La federation balkanique, which came out sporadically from 1924-31.

The resolutions of the first meeting of the Balkan Communist Federation are remarkable for their contemporary relevance, but also for the alternative horizons they projected. On the one hand, the document reveals that the representatives were preoccupied with the role of European imperialism in South East Europe and, in particular, with the role of debt in maintaining the region’s dependence on the victorious allied powers. The importance that the Balkan communists of 1920 placed on credit networks in entrenching the conditions of uneven of economic development between the European core and its south east periphery is of obvious relevance today, in the wake of the Greek sovereign debt crisis.

On the other hand, the document brings to light a vision of a future Balkans beyond European horizons. Positing not only a distinction but at times even a clear, colonial antagonism between the European capitalist states and the peoples of the Balkans, the representatives clearly saw the Russian Revolution as offering an alternative path to development that led away from European integration. In this regard, it is significant that nine months after their meeting in Sofia, representatives of the Balkan Communist Federation would travel to the Azerbaijani city of Baku to attend the COMINTERN’s Congress of the Peoples of the East.[viii]

– James Robertson


The problems of the Communist and Socialist Parties in the Balkans [ix]

The world war, far from having resulted in a national union of the Balkan nations and in their liberation, far from having solved their national problems and removed the cause of their mutual hatreds, has left them economically exhausted, totally bankrupt and politically subject to the great imperialistic Entente powers, under conditions which contain new sources of hatred and new wars. It is becoming evident to all the Balkan peoples that instead of having achieved, as a result of the wars, the national unity promised by the ruling bourgeoisie, they have arrived at the loss of their independence, at a state of political enslavement and starvation and extreme want among the working masses.

The Bulgarian-Romanian revolutionary, Christian Rakovsky (1873-1941).
The Bulgarian-Romanian revolutionary, Christian Rakovsky (1873-1941).

Totally ruined, burdened with enormous debts and taxes, financially and politically dependent upon Entente imperialism and having become a species of Entente colonies, the Balkan states are unable to restore by their own means the economic life within their territorial boundaries, and are moreover unable to improve the terrible conditions of the working and the propertyless masses. The enormous war debts oppressing the Balkans nations suck out their lifeblood for the benefit of the European bankers and hamper their economic development. The nations applying for help from the great imperialistic powers will be deprived of free economic development, they will have to export their raw materials into these empires and import manufactured goods.

Nothing but the Social Revolution will secure to the small nations a free existence and an independent development. It will rid them of the enormous state debts, it will set free the productive forces of all countries, saving them from the narrowness of state frontiers, and will open a free way out into the large space by uniting the small nations into an economic union.

The liberation of the Balkan nations from the political, financial and economic rule of the imperialistic Entente, their national freedom and union, the creation of conditions necessary for the development of their productive forces, all this can be achieved only if they become united and form one Balkan Socialist Soviet Republic.

The Conference of the Balkan Communist Federation declares in consequence that nothing but the proletarian revolution and the dictatorship of the proletariat with its organization of the councils of Workers’, Soldiers’ and Red Army deputies, will liberate the Balkan nations from all oppression and will afford them a possibility of self-determination, uniting them all into one Balkan Socialist Soviet Republic.

The Conference therefore calls upon the proletariat and the poor of the Balkan towns and villages, urging them to unite under the red banner of Communism, and to form powerful revolutionary organizations. It calls upon them to prepare and to arm themselves with force, with revolutionary spirit and discipline, the objective development of the conditions of life having allotted them a great historic mission. Their full liberation from all oppression, peace and welfare for the ruined and enslaved Balkan nations who have shed so much blood, depend on how they fulfill this great mission.

The Conference makes it a duty of the Balkan Communist and Socialist parties to educate the proletarian and propertyless masses in a revolutionary Socialist (Marxist) spirit, in order to make them conscious of their historic problems and the great aim of the proletarian liberating movement, and to unite them into mass organizations to struggle for the victory of the great international Communist Revolution.

The Conference of the Balkan Socialist Federation, composed of the Bulgarian Communist Party (‘Narrow Socialists’), the Socialist Labour Party (Communists) of Yugoslavia, the Socialist Labour Party of Greece and the Rumanian Socialist Party, with the participation of the representatives of all the named parties, discussed in its session of January 15, 1920 in Sofia the question of the affiliation of the Balkan Socialist Federation to the Third Communist International and arrived at the following conclusions:

1. The international revolutionary situation in the whole world, and more especially in Europe, caused by the five years of the world’s war and the irreconcilable class opposition roused by this war in modern capitalistic society, has created a new revolutionary epoch, urging with an irresistible force the proletariat of all capitalist countries to seize the political power Inevitable proletarian Socialistic Revolutions are therefore to be anticipated in the advanced European countries, most of which have already entered the primary stages of this revolution.

2. In such a revolutionary epoch, and being given such an international revolutionary situation, the Balkan Communist and Socialist Parties consider that one of their chief problems is to coordinate their actions, and using their influence on the popular masses of the Balkans, to give all possible support to the Russian Socialist Soviet Republic in the coming proletarian Socialist Revolution in Europe and to paralyze thereby the counter-revolutionary forces moved against it from the Balkans or through the Balkans.

Alexandar Stamboliiski (1879-1923), leader of the Bulgarian Agrarian National Union and prime minister of the country from 1919-1923.
Alexandar Stamboliiski (1879-1923), leader of the Bulgarian Agrarian National Union and prime minister of the country from 1919-1923.

3. The position of the Balkan nations created by the war and resulting in the deepest changes in economic life, is marked on the one hand by a colossal concentration of capital, a colossal monopolization of the means of production and of exchange, and an irreconcilable class opposition, and on the other by economic ruin, starvation, dire want and fatal exhaustion of the working classes. The Balkan bourgeois parties are incapable of coping with the present situation and of satisfying the enormous needs and desires of the working masses.

In view of such conditions, the Balkan states are facing financial bankruptcy as a result of the war, of the unbearable burden of enormous state debts and heavy financial obligations imposed on them by the great imperialistic Entente powers. Disunited, hostile to each other and subject to the imperialistic Entente powers the Balkan states are unable to restore their economic life within their territorial boundaries, and on a capitalist base without the help of the European capital. But even were this help to be granted them, it would hamper the economic development of the Balkans, and European capital will moreover itself founder in the near future under the blows of the coming Social Revolutions in Europe.

There is also in addition the lack of space, the complication of unsolved national problems and the reactionary, arbitrary forms of government employed by the bourgeoisie in the Balkans. This all leads to very hard conditions, with no possible issue for the Balkan nations, considering their disunion and the present capitalist relations. They are unable to unite and form a federation of the Balkan states under the rule of their national bourgeoisie because of the stubbornness and megalomania of the bourgeoisie, and because of the obstacles sure to be set up in this case in each of the states by the dynasties, autocracy and militarism.

All these conditions, creating such a situation in the Balkan states, as well as the growth of the Communist movement, and the fact of the proletarian Revolutions in Europe, will force the Balkan Communist and Socialist parties to seize the political power, to set up the dictatorship of the proletariat and the propertyless masses based on Workers’, Peasants’ and Soldiers’ Councils, and to found the Balkan Socialist Soviet Republic.

4. The victory of the Proletarian Socialist Revolution and the transformation of modern capitalistic society into a Communism, based on Socialist principles, will be accomplished with greater promptitude and less victims on the part of the proletariat, in proportion to the courage and the full comprehension of its necessity that will be shown in the carrying out of the dictatorship of the proletariat based on the Workers’, Peasants’, and Soldiers’ Councils and in proportion to the mutual help which the proletarians of all countries will afford each other in their revolutionary action and in proportion as they unite their revolutionary home struggles with the universal international revolutionary liberating struggle, subjecting their own separate cause to the interests of the victory of the International Proletarian Revolution.

5. In view of the accomplishment of these important tasks, the Balkan Communist and Socialist parties consider it necessary to establish close connections with each other, in order to coordinate their acts and their struggle with the activity of those proletarian parties which are fighting for the Proletarian Revolution as their immediate aim, and acknowledge the necessity of relentless class warfare for the victory of the Revolution, as well as for the proletarian dictatorship expressed in Workers’, Peasants’, and Soldiers’ Councils.

The newspaper of the Balkan Communist Federation, La federation balkanique, was published sporadically from 1924 to 1931.
The newspaper of the Balkan Communist Federation, La federation balkanique, was published sporadically from 1924 to 1931.

6. The Third Communist International, founded in Moscow in March 1919, has set as its aim:

a) to liberate the labour movement from the impure ingredients of opportunism and social patriotism which caused the bankruptcy of the Second International in 1914, and are contrary to the revolutionary struggle of the proletariat

b) to unite the forces of all genuinely revolutionary parties of the world proletariat, putting into practice the principles and methods of revolutionary relentless class struggle and the proletarian dictatorship in the form of Workers’, Peasants’ and Soldiers’ Councils

c) to secure and accelerate in such a way the victory of the universal Communist Revolution.

In consideration of all this the conference decides:

1. The Balkan Communist Federation, consisting of the Communist and Socialist parties of Bulgaria, Servia (sic.), Greece and Rumania, joins the Third Communist International and forms its Balkan section, accepting the principles and methods of the revolutionary class struggle and the proletarian dictatorship based on the Workers’, Peasants’ and Soldiers’ Councils.

2. The Balkan Socialist Federation, as the union of the Balkan Communist and Socialist parties was called up till now, will be hereafter called the “Balkan Communist Federation.”

[i] For a detailed history of socialist federalism in the Balkans and a collection of key documents from the Balkan socialist tradition, see Dragan Plavšić and Andreja Živković’s excellent edited collection: ‘The Balkan Socialist Tradition, 1871-1915’ Revolutionary History 8:3 (2003).

[ii] L.S. Stavrianos, Balkan Federation: a history of the movement towards Balkan unity in modern times (Northampton, MA: Smith College, 1942), 203.

[iii] This period of Tito’s life is covered in Geoffrey Swain’s biography of the Yugoslav leader, Tito: a biography (London: I.B. Tauris, 2011).

[iv] On the early history of the Yugoslav communist movement see Ivan Avakumović, History of the Communist Party of Yugoslavia (Aberdeen: Aberdeen University Press, 1964).

[v] On the early history of the Bulgarian communist party, see Joseph Rothschild, The Communist Party of Bulgaria: Origins and Development, 1883-1936 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1959).

[vi] On the membership of the early Greek communist movement, see Το ΚΚΕ από το 1918 έως το 1931, έκδοση της ΚΕ του ΚΚΕ, Αθήνα 1947, τόμος Α`, σελ. 30.

[vii] On the history of Stamboliiski’s Peasant Union and his government, see John Bell, Peasants in Power: Alexander Stamboliski and the Bulgarian Agrarian National Union, 1899-1923 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977).

[viii] The authoritative source on this congress is still John Riddell’s To see the Dawn: Baku, 1920 – First Congress of the Peoples of the East (New York: Pathfinder, 1993).

[ix] The original translation of this document is taken from Stavrianos, Balkan Federation, 303-306.