Internationalism as an Alternative Political Strategy in the Modern History of Balkans

by Vangelis Koutalis

[Greek Social Forum, Thessaloniki june 2003]

Internationalism can be traced back historically to the universalistic democratic aspirations of the European Enlightenment. We are all, more or less, acquainted with the fact that the pursuit of political liberation and social justice, or in a more moderate sense, of constitutional government and social prosperity, that inspired correspondingly the French and the American revolutions, brought forth the modern concept of the nation-state, as a community of citizens, established so as to guarantee natural rights across a unified dominion. It is also true, however, that the emergence of rationalism, as a prominent philosophical orientation, the recourse to the common ability for reasonable cogitation and the invocation of the conscious collective will of civil society, could not but foster the belief that the struggle against absolutism and tyranny bore a definite universalistic undertone[i].

The perspective of emancipation, indeed, rendered attainable the possibility to be brought together under the same banners men of different native lands and different cultural origins, not this time under the ordinances of a despot or an emperor, but as an effect of rational, free choice. If revolutionary patriotism proclaimed that every person, regardless of descent, merited freedom and happiness, the choice of going beyond the horizons of a native territory or of a cultural background was at least intelligible and somehow adaptive to the liberal ideal of nation, which had to do more with a human, rationally constituted community and less with an excluding fatherland. Without fail, a whole transformation of social relations was underlying; the generalization of commodities’ production, the expansion of international commercial exchanges and the industrial organization of social labor, moulded the context where these yet non-contradictory values of patriotic republicanism and libertarian cosmopolitanism found their objective grasp from the last decades of 18th century to the middles of 19th’. But these universalistic connotations of enlightenment were not merely a nebulous offspring of capitalism’s juvenility. They could be articulated so as to form an alternative, not pro-bourgeois, political direction, appropriate for these social classes, the most deprived of social potentialities, that tended to emphasize more in the just distribution of wealth than in constitutive enactments.

Internationalism of the 19th and 20th centuries was an evolvement of this first-born political prospect. Before long, the promises of revolutionary bourgeoisie proved to have been overridden. Nation became a word that actually signified a militaristic and bureaucratic mechanism, and the collective social will turned out to be nothing but an abstract expression of social puissance, a political myth profitable for the perpetuation of class inequality and political oppression. Internationalism was the awareness, enunciated in political terms, from the exploited and oppressed part of European societies of the fact that freedom and happiness were not to be obtained inside the borders of a nation-state, neither under the auspices of the compatriot capitalists or landowners. Emancipation was substantially a universal cause, or as Karl Marx set it forth[ii], it was a universally human question fairly raised only by those who are deprived of their humanity, because of their status in social production; that is, a question, the answer of which is a radical revolution for the achievement of political liberation and social equality on international grounds, in a scale where the solidarity, the veritable fraternity, of those who remain politically powerless and socially impuissant, could be actuated.

After the bitter upshot of the last European democratic eruption, that of 1848, for many revolutionaries it was clear that bourgeoisie had already crossed the road, going as far as the opposite barricade. It was then that Michael Bakunin, one emblematic figure of the 19th century revolutionary spirit, appealing to the Slavic populations stated that “social revolution…appears as a natural, necessary corollary of the political revolution” and likewise “so long as there may be a single persecuted nation in Europe, the decisive and complete triumph of democracy will not be possible anywhere[iii]. In nation-state, in chauvinistic fatherland, the elongation of dominance was retained by the exploitation of the subordinate classes and by the oppression of other nationalities. This interrelation of political and social critique was particularly pivotal in modern history of the Balkans. Here, the oriental despotism of Osmanlis had under its yoke a multicultural population, and the social differentiation, which was a development determined by the insertion of the Ottoman Empire into the commercial and diplomatic space of the European states, acquired an uneven rhythm, combining the tardiness of classes’ separation and of the industrial organizing of social labor with the intensification of the exploitation of the peasantry from the landowners and the overmuch accumulation of commercial and money-dealing capital. Thus, the uneven modernization was attended by the sharpening of social inequalities[iv]. Even more, the Balkan bourgeoisies’ impotence to homogenize, each one for its own sake, a sufficient for the economic growth space, as a unified political, namely national space, rendered nation-state-building a process in which social contradictions revealed themselves sharply in recurrent political crisis. Even a so vigilant theorist as Friedrich Engels underestimated this dialectic of social and political international chain-reactions, that is tenacious in modern Balkans[v]. Still, the successive struggles of Balkan peasantry and proletariat evinced this linking of national with social question, as a complication of political and social crisis[vi].

In southeastern Europe the repercussions of the French Revolution motivated what has been termed as Balkan radicalism[vii]. During the decade of 1790 the Austrian police suppressed two revolutionary conspiracies: the one was held by the Serb-Croat Jacobins with leading figure the Physics’ teacher Martinović and the other was set up by the Greek-speaking Vlach Rhigas Feraios and his comrades. Rhigas as well as Martinović transmitted the modern scientific theories about matter in the Balkans and at the same time they prepared a political revolution. Their movements were forerunners of the Greek and Serbian revolutions, but their revolutionary patriotism was characterized by an almost internationalist nuance, of which one could find only some enfeebled reverberations in the revolutionary wars of 1821 and of 1804/1815, notwithstanding its Balkan impact. In the case of Rhigas, furthermore, republicanism was coupled by a stout social critique. In this respect, Rhigas in fact presented a political strategy, alternative to that of the enlightened absolutism, which during the 18th century was the political leitmotiv of the emerging class of Greek-speaking merchants. The “Greek Republic” that Rhigas putted forward was a multi-ethnic, multi-religious democracy, that could guarantee equally, for its unified sovereign people, a whole set of social and political rights, and had as a connecting bond the Greek language, as an officially recognized state language, owing to its being the most elaborated literal instrument at that time, in the Balkans, for the traditions of humanism and enlightenment to be decanted[viii].

The following, however, unfolding of Balkan history was rather different. Balkan radicalism was outflanked by nationalism, which thenceforth had two distinct meanings. On the one side, nationalism gave voice to the objective of the organizing of an oppressed population in the form of a political society. On the other, nationalism had the credentials of chauvinistic state politics for the sake of each national exploiter class. Only the second from of nationalism was hegemonic in the sense that it could postulate the interests of one social class as general interests of an organized society. Nationalism was indeed the ideology of the ascendant Balkan bourgeoisies and dynastic oligarchies, but it also functioned as a halfway, segmental consciousness of the political oppression. Whenever the leading forces in the movements of the oppressed populations did not manage to link the national-political question with the class-social antagonism, the national claims was incorporated into the chauvinistic-imperialist framework. Still, the social struggles of the subordinate classes of one nation-state could neither attain their historical objectives, as far as this nation-state continued to oppress another population, which defined itself as a cultural community in the road to be formed as a political society or at least to achieve national/cultural autonomy[ix].

Anyway, the nation-states that were constructed in the Balkans’ peninsula staved off the perspective of democratic multicultural cohabitation in the name of their dominion’s stretching out, in the same way that their elites declined any republican radicalism so as to ground their power on a balancing of liberalism from above and enlightened despotism. From the middles of 19th century in Balkan political life “nation” was being defined mostly as an ethnic community that had to be restored collecting its scattered unredeemed pieces. Greece ought to be “Great Greece”, Bulgaria “Great Bulgaria”, Serbia “Great Serbia”, until the verdict of the most successful ethnic cleansing is disclosed. The European territory of the disintegrating Ottoman Empire became a field of bloody jostling between militaristic states that excluded each other – while they all oppressed national minorities – with the bisectional mediation of European imperialisms, each one of them looking forward for a better position in the course for what Lenin aptly called “the distribution of the already distributed world”.

Cosmopolitanism, nevertheless, found its successor scheme in revolutionary socialism. The uneven rhythms of capitalist development and social differentiation in Southeastern Europe had as a result not militant workers or professional revolutionaries but sections of intellectuals that were not patronized by the state or the ruling classes to play the leading role in the positioning of internationalism within reach of the peculiar Balkan social and political stakes. In Belgrade at 1865 a number of radical Balkan intellectuals founded the “Democratic Oriental Federation”, proposing a federation from Alps to Cyprus based on political freedom and social equality. They confirmed their adherence to the ideals of French Revolution unraveling the universalistic connotations of enlightenment’s politics till their radical, egalitarian consequences, in the line of Saint-Simon’s federalism and in relation to the socialist ideas of Marx or Bakunin. It is interesting to note that some years later, in 1884, it was founded in Athens the “Oriental Federation”, an initiative of Greek intellectuals and some Balkan politicians that was one of the last samples of bourgeois federalism, endorsing a political mixture of fainted democratic politics and moderate nationalism[x]. On the contrary, the first Balkan socialist groups embraced a consistent federalist orientation and a resolute internationalist outlook. In France, a “League for the Balkan Confederation”, was constituted in 1894, in which participated Greek, Bulgarian, Serbian, Rumanian and Armenian socialists. The Greek socialist Pavlos Argyriadés, who was elected as its president, laid stress on the programmatic support to Macedonian autonomy inside the general federation of SE Europe, apprehending the complexity of Macedonian question and the perils that the controversy of Bulgaria, Serbia and Greece for its population’s portioning entailed[xi]. These socialist groups of Balkan intellectuals were not yet able to challenge the bourgeoisies or the dynastic oligarchies. The advance, however, of the international worker’s movement underpinned these aspirations and conveyed them into the field of the central political conflicts.

With the turn of the century, in 1903, came about the uprising of Macedonian poor peasantry that led to the Krushevo Republic in Macedonia and Strandzha Commune in Thrace. The revolutionaries’ rule in these districts lasted only for two or three weeks but, especially in Strandzha, they attempted to establish a communitarian system, on the basis of the same good old principles of European revolutionary spirit: freedom – equality – solidarity. They also took into account the conjunction of national oppression, as a political one, and class exploitation. One appeal to the Greek population laid stress on the fact that they “were not fighting for the re-establishment of a Bulgarian empire, but only for human rights”. In fact, for militants such as the socialist Delchev, the anarchists Gerzhikov, Merdzhanov, and the “boatmen” guerrillas of Salonika, that participated in the national movement retaining a political outlook, more or less, independent from the nationalist Macedonian IMRO, national liberation meant radical political liberation and – as “a necessary corollary of it” – shaking off the social shackles[xii].

The next manifestation of the consonance of political crisis with a social one came immediately after the ascent in power of New Turks in 1908. From July of that year to December, more than a hundred strikes broke out from Salonika to Istanbul, from Aydin to Beirut. The workers in Ottoman Empire, by this massive independent action, expressed their class eagerness and pointed out that in this multi-ethnic empire they represented an active social force in political vigilance for the implementation of democratic reforms that “New Turks” had promised[xiii]. The following year, in Salonika the – mostly Hebrew – “Socialist Workers Association” merged with two Bulgarian socialist groups and the “Socialist Worker’s Federation of Ottoman Workers” was founded. It was the first time in Ottoman Empire that there was a massive rank-and-file internationalist organization, with deep roots in the urban proletariat. Although “Federation” underestimated, till 1913, the political significance of the national question, as this significance manifested itself in the right of national self-determination, and its leadership kept a moderate position in regard with the pro-bourgeois tendencies in Balkan social-democratic parties, as a political endeavor it was a major step for the development of independent class politics in the Balkans[xiv].

The course of events had been accelerated. In Belgrade on January 1910 was held the first congress of the social-democratic parties of SE Europe with delegations from Serbia, Bulgaria, Rumania, Turkey, Montenegro, Macedonia and the Slavic areas of Austria-Hungary. There, the main parameters of the Balkan riddle were put forth. The accomplishment of multi-cultural cohabitation and multi-national co-operation had as its premise the abolishment of the violently drawn borders and the end of the subjection to European imperialisms in its interlacing with the objectives of the ruling Balkan bourgeoisies. National question was a question about the democratic right of every population to attain its political, national unity, and this right, in turn, could be imbedded only in a society devoid of oppression and exploitation. This is exactly what the slogan of “Balkan Federative Republic” epitomized[xv]. When the Balkan states let loose their armies so as to solve in the battlefields the prolonged problems of the declined Ottoman Empire, the Balkan social-democratic parties preserved their independency, aware of the fact that Balkan wars were intended to ensure not the freedom of Balkan peoples but the expansion of the exploiter classes’ domination. The newspaper “Solidaridad Obradera” of “Federation” in Salonika was banned on October of 1912 when it issued the manifesto where the Balkan social-democratic parties castigated the trigger-happy policy of Balkan bourgeoisies along with the New Turks’ chauvinism and the European imperialisms’ ulterior motives. This antiwar, internationalist manifesto was particularly penetrative: “Bourgeoisie and nationalism are powerless to set up a true lasting national unity. That which is created by the war will be destroyed by another war…. Nationalism only alters the name of the masters and the degrees of oppression, but it does not abolish them. Political democracy alone, with true equality for every element, without racial, religious or class discrimination, can create real national unity[xvi].

The unclosed circle of political and social crisis in the Balkans explains why the Balkan socialists were less affected by the advancing bureaucratization of the European political organizations of proletariat that led to the submission of the majority of their leaderships to the predatory imperialist First World War. The summer of 1915 in Bucharest was held the second Balkan social-democratic conference, which was moreover the first international anti-war conference of socialists, before Zimmerwald, with delegations from Rumania, Bulgaria, Serbia and Greece. The outcome of the conference was the “Balkan Workers’ Social Democratic Federation”, a network of the working class driven by the principles of revolutionary socialism and consistent with the political strategy of “Balkan Federative Republic”. Georgi Dimitrov some days later in the newspaper of the Bulgarian party “Rabotnicheski Vestnik” pointed out that:The first major practical step for the unification of the Balkan nations has been made by unifying the socialist proletariat in Rumania, Serbia, Bulgaria and Greece into one Balkan Social Democratic Federation. And this federation of the Balkan Social Democratic Parties and trade union associations is being formed not only because it is quite obvious that only artificial boundaries divide the peoples of the Balkan Peninsula and that they are bound by the same fate, but because without this organization it is impossible to carry out an effective struggle for the realization of a Balkan Federative Republic, in which all the Balkan peoples can find their only true salvation[xvii]. Christian Rakovsky, a prominent revolutionary internationalist of the Rumanian social-democratic party, and later a leading militant in the socialist democracy of Ukrainia, was the main organizer of this meeting.

The socialist revolution in Russia, two years later, that produced a state without national definition (it was just a union of socialist democracies), empowered revolutionary internationalism in Balkans and rendered it a political choice bound with the hopes of millions of workers. Thus, the foundation of the Third (Communist) International brought together in the ranks of an international political structure socialists from every corner of the Balkans. The “Balkan Workers’ Social Democratic Federation” in 1919 turned into the “Balkan Communist Federation” and the slogan of “Balkan Federative Republic” acquired an outright revolutionary actuality. All this period (till the middles of 1920s) every revolutionary crisis in one country was regarded as a moment of the world revolution; every social struggle against the one or the other national bourgeoisie, as part of the struggles of the international proletariat for social emancipation; every political conflict in national level, as a concrete expression of the general confrontation between bourgeois state and workers’ emerging or potential power. One of the most arresting instances in this period of internationalist struggles’ vigor was the anti-war movement during the military campaign of Greece in Asia Minor. The Greek communists appealed to the Greek soldiers for “class war against the imperialist war” of Greek capitalists, for the withdrawal of Greek army and for international class solidarity. One of the leaders of this antiwar movement was Pantelis Pouliopoulos, who later became secretary of the Greek Communist Party and one of the protagonists in the internal political conflicts that brought about the appearance of the Left Opposition in Greece[xviii].

The history of Balkan internationalism seems to be interrupted at the ends of the decade of 1920, when the Parties of Communist International, the one after the other, adopted the program of “socialism in one country”, and, as a result, pulled out of the way the perspective of an internationalist solution for actual political problems. The internationalists were thenceforward a minority in the organized workers’ movement and there was hardly any space in the central political agenda for internationalism as a political strategy. Balkan Communist Federation was subordinated to the interests of the bureaucracy of the Soviet party-state till its dissolution in 1939. The following dissolution of the Communist International itself in 1943 was this process’ crest, signaling the end of a whole period colored by massive internationalist socialist struggles.

Sixty years later, we are in the position to weigh up the aftermath of this rift. In the last decade of 20th century, Yugoslavia, one multi-ethnic state, and a bureaucratic party-state regime, was fragmentated, in the midst of horrible wars of ethnic cleansing. Nowadays the social-democracy of the stronger capitalism of Balkans, of Greece, seems at ease when its spoke-persons exclaim “Greece überalles”, something that in this period of neoliberal globalization does not, of course, imply straightaway military campaigns, but it does imply economical and political control from the part of Greek capitalists over the Balkans. The Greek CP’s leadership, also, finds it normal to justify the acts of “socialist”-nationalist hangmen, such as Milosevic, in the name of patriotic anti-imperialism. A cynicism seems to have replaced every vestige of the internationalist background of the massive parties that had historical relations with the working class in Balkans.

The hope, however, for freedom and equality, for an emancipated society, has been not extinguished yet from this part of the map. During the bloodshed in former Yugoslavia there were militants, citizens and sections of workers (as in Tuzla) that defended the democratic right of self-determination as well as a multicultural, multi-ethnic solution. And now, with the refreshing internationalist “contagion” of the world movement against neoliberal globalization we have the opportunity to rebuild in SE Europe an international network of solidarity.

The wreckage of C.C.C.P. or of Yugoslavian federalism is not the wreckage of a union of socialist democracies or of a socialist Balkan federation. The cases of C.C.C.P. and Yugoslavia prove that a viable union or federation could be only one, which ensures political freedom and social equality. Besides that, the historical failure of the bureaucratic party-state regimes is not a historical affirmation for the effective functioning of the capitalist nation-states’ structures. The bloodshed in former Yugoslavia evinced that the historical problems of nation-state building in Balkans remain in suspense. The vicious circle of chauvinism and militarism is tied up with the “iron cage” of political oppression and social inequality in conditions of class hegemony, which is inscribed in the nation-state’s structures, and of profit-oriented economy, which is the other name for the systemized appropriation of the social surplus-product by a social minority that possesses the means of social production. If we are destined to remember Srebrenica, if we are destined to undergo the domination of a social class, that of capitalists, which organizes internationally the infringement of our social and political rights, then we, the Balkan social activists, wage-earners, immigrants, unemployed, women, are likewise destined to question radically this destiny. We have to articulate an alternative political strategy for the Balkans, reinventing the revolutionary internationalist perspective that was present for the most part of our peninsula’s contemporary social and political history. The fight for multicultural, federative, democratic, egalitarian, ecological, feminist, in a word, socialist Balkans is not an anachronism, but a concrete utopia tantamount to the rebirth of hope of the oppressed and exploited Balkanians.


Vangelis Koutalis

[i] See Hannah Arendt: “On revolution”, Harmondsworth, 1987 (1963) and Perry Anderson, “Internationalism. A Breviary”, New Left Review March-April 2002/14, p. 5-25. The last article is accessible in:

[ii]  Einleitung zur Kritik der Hegelschen Rechtsphilosophie” (1844), in Karl Marx/ Friedrich Engels – Werke, Band 1. Berlin/DDR. 1976, S. 378-391. The text is accessible in:

[iii] Michael Bakunin, “Appeal to the Slavs” (1848), in “Bakunin on Anarchy”, transl. ed. by Sam Dolgoff, Toronto 1971, pp. 63-68. The text is accessible in:

[iv] For the relations between Ottoman Empire and Europe see Daniel Goffman, “The Ottoman Empire and the early modern Europe”, Cambridge 2002. For the industrialization process see Ljuben Berov, “The industrial revolution and the countries of South-eastern Europe in the nineteenth and early twentienth centuries”, in “The industrial revolution in national context” eds. Mikuláš Teich – Roy Porter, Cambridge 1996, pp. 290-328. For the modern history of Balkans see Mark Mazower, “The Balkans”, London 2000, L.S. Stavrianos, “The Balkans since 1453”, New York 2000 (1958).

[v] Friedrich Engels, “Der Demokratische Panslavismus” (1849), in Karl Marx - Friedrich Engels - Werke, Band 6, Berlin/DDR 1959, S. 270-286. Search in:

[vi] See the analysis of Leon Trotsky, “The Balkans and the Balkan wars 1912-1913”, Greek transl. by Paraskevas Matalas, Athens 1993. (English edition: “The War correspondence of Leon Trotsky: The Balkan Wars 1912-1913”, New York 1980).

[vii] Paschalis Kitromilidis, “The French Revolution and the Southeastern Europe” (in Greek), Athens 1990, pp. 109-138.

[viii] Rhigas Feraios, “Revolutionary Scripts”, Greek/English edition, trans. Vassilis K. Zervoulakos, ed. Dimitrios Karaberopoulos, Athens 2002, Yannis Kordatos, “Rigas Feraios and Balkan Federation”, Athens 1974 (1945), and for a more general view Paschalis Kitromilidis, “Tradition, Enlightenment and Revolution”, Ph.d. Dissertation, Harvard 1978 (transl. as “The Neohellenic Enlightenment. The political and social ideas” by St. Nikoloudi, Athens 1996).

[ix] For this correlation of national question and social revolutionary objectives see Michael Löwy, “Fatherland or Mother Earth? Essays on the National Question”, London, 1998.

[x] For “Democratic Oriental Federation”, its Greek section “Rhigas”, and “Oriental Federation” see Loukianos Hasiotis, “The Oriental Federation:  two Greek federalist movements of 19th century” (in Greek), Thessaloniki 2001.

[xi] L.S. Stavrianos, “Balkan Federation. A history of the movement towards Balkan unity in modern times”, Menasha, Wisconsin 1944, pp. 150-1.

[xii] Georgi Khadzhiev, “Natsionalnoto osvobozhdeniye i bezvlastniyat federalizum” (“National Liberation and Libertarian Federalism”), Sofia 1992. One can find translated into English and Spanish the sections regarding the Macedonian uprising in:

or in

[xiii] E. Attila Aytekin, “The Ottoman-Turkish labour movement and international solidarity: A hundred years ago. A hundred years later”, lecture in the workshop “The International Labour Movement on the Thresholds of Two Centuries” for the centennial jubilee of Swedish Labour Movement Archives and Library, 24/25 October 2002. The paper is accessible in:

[xiv] For the history and the political profile of “Federation” see Abraham Benaroya, “The first steps of Greek proletariat” (1931), (in Greek), Athens 1986 (1975), Antonis Liakos, “The Socialist Workers’ Federation of Thessaloniki and the Socialist Youth. The articles of association” (in Greek), Thessaloniki 1985. 

[xv] See the report of Trotsky, op.cit., and pp. 71-81. L.S. Stavrianos, op. cit., p.186, and pp. 289-291, where the resolution of the congress is transcribed in full (Appendix C).

[xvi] L.S. Stavrianos, op. cit., Appendix G, “Manifesto of the socialists of Turkey and of Balkans”, pp. 297-301.

[xvii] Georgi Dimitrov, “The significance of the Second Balkan Conference”, in “Selected Works, Vol. 1, Sofia 1972, pp. 49-52. The text is accessible in:

[xviii] See the resolutions of the First Panhellenic Congress of Former Soldiers and Victims of War, “War against the War” (1924), Athens, without chronology. The text is accessible in:

See also, Pantelis Pouliopoulos, “Articles, thesis, and polemics” (in Greek), Athens 1976.