Veselin Masleša (April 20, 1906 - June 14, 1943) was a Yugoslav writer, activist and partisan from Banja Luka, Bosnia and Hertzegovina. To scholars of his time, he is known for his literary works, not least two major studies: one on the Serbian socialist philosopher and politician Svetozar Marković and another on the revolutionary organisation "Mlada Bosna" ("Young Bosnia"), which was responsible for the assassination of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Masleša also studied law at the University of Zagreb, economics in Frankfurt, and then political economy and sociology in Paris. After returning to Yugoslavia, he was arrested several times for communist beliefs before going underground and joining the partisan resistance in Montenegro during World War II. He died during the infamous Battle of Sutjeska, drowning while crossing the Sutjeska River during a Nazi offensive. In 1951, he was posthumously awarded the title of "People's Hero of Yugoslavia" and a well-known publishing house in Sarajevo was also named after him - because of which he is still known to the general public across former Yugoslavia. What is less well known, however, is that Masleša regularly attended lectures at the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt when it was still known as a hotspot of Marxist economics and before it became known as the birthplace of critical theory, or even before Adorno and Horkheimer arrived. The following article attempts to correct this omission. It consists of an introduction followed by an English translation of a chapter from one of Masleša's biographies, in which Mira Mitrović, his biographer, describes his stay at the early Frankfurt School, where, among other things, he listened to lectures by the Marxist economist Henryk Grossman.
Frankfurt School, Henryk Grossman, Marxism, Mira Mitrović, Veselin Masleša, Yugoslavia.
I was planning on writing an essay on the reception of the 20th century Marxist economist Henryk Grossman in Yugoslavia. According to Rick Kuhn, a crucial biographer of Grossman, until the 1960s, Grossman’s “political audience was tiny. During the 1930s, translations of Grossman’s work only appeared in Japanese, Czech and Serbo-Croatian, but not French, Spanish or English, let alone Russian. With two exceptions, it was not until the late 1960s that more of Grossman’s work was republished in any language.”1 – the two exceptions being Czech and Serbo-Croatian.
Hence, in order to study Grossman’s role in Yugoslavia, one had to research the people who translated him – Mara Fran and Veselin Masleša. Although they began translating Grossman already before the Second World War, they couldn’t complete the translate as the papers were allegedly confiscated by the police. At least, this was stated by Mara Fran, who was responsible for the 1983 Yugoslav translation of Grossman’s The Law of Accumulation and the Breakdown of the Capitalist System, also Being a Theory of Crises.2 After writing a short biography of Henryk Grossman, instead of a conclusion, she writes:
At this point, I would like to mention that Veselin Masleša and I wanted to translate The Law of Accumulation and the Breakdown of the Capitalist System together before the war. I finished most of my half, but had to destroy the manuscript during the war. Shortly after our deal, Veso was arrested. He later told me that he did translate some parts and that he would finish his half of the text as soon as he had the time. However, after the liberation, while going through his manuscripts along with his friend Jelena, that translation was never found. So, I had to begin the work anew, when the publishing house “Kultura” decided to incorporate this translation into its plan during the early fifties. This should be written down as one of the many unfulfilled intentions of a comrade who never made it back from the war of liberation.”
Masleša would later die by drowning while being pursued by Nazis during the Yugoslav battle of Sutjeska. After the Second World War, Masleša was posthumously declared People’s Hero of Yugoslavia. Up until this day, he remains depicted as a partisan war hero: a Sarajevo-based publishing house was named after him; streets carry his name, etc.
But, except for this brief mention in Mara’s 1983 translation of The Law of Accumulation, little was known of Masleša’s relation to Grossman. Or, at least, so it seems at first glance. Actually, apart from Mara’s brief comment, an entire biography of Masleša was published in 1963, written by his friend, Mira Mitrović.3 It covers what is probably the least known period of Masleša’s career, not only to English-speaking readers but also to Serbo-Croatian speakers: the time that Masleša spent in the early Frankfurt School listening to Grossman in person.
This is precisely the topic of the following translation from the aforementioned biography of Masleša. It depicts Masleša’s time at the Institute for Social Research, where he listened to Henryk Grossman, while the rest of the book also confirms that later on, Masleša developed his own theories of state capitalism and even analysed the Morgan Stanley bank, etc. Hence what follows is a translation of a chapter depicting Masleša’s time in the Frankfurt School from Mira Mitrović’s biography called Veselin Masleša (Mitrović, Mitra, Veselin Masleša, Nolit: Beograd, 1964, pp. 34 – 39. Translated by Aleksandar Matković).
In Frankfurt on the Main, [Veselin] Masleša had the opportunity to study subjects which he personally considered of the utmost importance, both at the Faculty of Economics and at the Institute for Social Research, which was appended to the University. The Institute was established and financed by a young German communist named Felix Weil, the son of a millionaire from Frankfurt, on the advice of Clara Zetkin. The first director of the Institute was professor Dr. Carl Grünberg, an Austrian socialist, who had written a book on the agrarian question in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The Institute, then equipped with one of the best libraries for the study of social sciences, gave students outstanding possibilities for the study of economic, sociological, and political questions from the standpoint of Marxism.
If Masleša’s enthusiasm for socialism and revolution was based on youthful rebellious attitudes and predominantly politico-moral resistance to the bourgeois class, and if, up until that point, his theoretical background was based on a few popularisations of Marxist literature, here, in the atmosphere of the Frankfurt Institute, his fervour and attitudes acquired their basis in Marxism. His beliefs began to be elaborated in terms of the laws of social development and their progression towards socialism by way of an objective breakdown of capitalism. The revolutionary store of [knowledge] which Masleša carried within him, along with his culture and savviness, proved to be good grounds for an extensive study of Marxism.
In this “red fortress”, as the Institute was then called, among an international caucus of young Marxists, Marx’s every word was studied in detail, in the original. His interpreters were criticised if, out of good or any other intentions, they tried to interpret or develop Marx’s thought in what was considered an inadequate manner. In that barely one year of study, Masleša attended lectures, engaged in discussions, and [wrote] seminar papers on several important topics relating to political economy, agrarian policy, and the development of the workers’ movement. Crises in capitalist society – this was a topic wide enough to enable the research of the most minute aspects of political economy. It was always a good opportunity for ongoing and especially important discussions about the inevitability of an economic breakdown of capitalism and contemporary paths and opportunities which would lead to said breakdown.
[Maslеša puzzled over questions like] How, when, and where must capitalism, by the inevitability of its own development, experience a final breakdown? Is everything playing out according to Marx’s accounts? The revolution has won in the most backward country; Lenin gave an explanation for how and why it won precisely in Russia. But why not in Germany? What is capitalism’s most vulnerable spot and to what extent will it be able to accommodate itself in the most developed countries? Which methods enable the capitalist economy to carry on? Cartels, trusts? For how long? Only by means of war? Will it be able, and, if so, for how long, to overcome anarchy in the economy? What is the best tactic for the revolutionary movement to accelerate the otherwise inevitable breakdown of capitalism?
Masleša must have been feverishly obsessed with seeking an answer to all questions related to the breakdown of capitalism. So many conclusions relating to strategies and tactics of the world’s working-class movement depended on interpreting the theoretical standpoints of Marxism in order to find correct answers to all similar questions.
And yet, the revolutionary wave had subsided; the German working class was paying for its long-lasting divisions in the workers’ movement with the price of a failed revolution. [Germany], one of the world’s most developed countries, defeated in war, a cradle of Marxism, did not follow the example of the Russian proletariat, underdeveloped and far fewer in number, to its proletarian revolution until the end. The defeat was preceded by many years of divisions within the working-class movement, [over two paths]: revolution or evolution. Now the time had come to foot the bill – that was the conclusion – for all the staggering and opportunism of the Second International and its reduction of the workers’ struggle to parliamentarian issues and tax revolts [tarifne pokrete]. The success of the Russian Revolution had concluded, it would seem that it was only by way of a revolution that capitalism could be broken down, and opened up a perspective for a quicker breakdown of capitalism on the world level.
However, imperialism, a new epoch of capitalism, opened up novel theoretical questions. In the wake of the First World War, Rosa Luxemburg aimed in her book Accumulation of Capital to examine and explain the laws of this epoch of imperialism, portray novel facts of economic life, and undertake an analysis of the circulation of total social capital and explain the process of its reproduction. This, a hugely important theoretical question in itself, and seemingly academic, caused much lengthy discussion regarding the assessment of the ability of capitalism to resist the crises in which it, inevitably and cyclically, found itself. [Her] theses on the inner contradictions of capitalism and its adaptability caused discussions regarding the sufficiency and insufficiency of various forms of working-class struggle. The Comintern led a fierce struggle against the reformists and revisionists, against certain interpretations of a mechanistic breakdown of capitalism and the inevitable law of social dynamics, arguing for the necessity of revolution. [For the communists] It was necessary to acquire a good knowledge of Marxism in order to fight in the first revolutionary rows of the workers’ movement and enter into all the complexities and problems of the contemporary world.
Masleša was afforded the rare opportunity to study Marxism and political economy in the special atmosphere of the Frankfurt Institute, where the theory of Marxism and its connection with contemporary problems of the international working-class movement received great attention. One professor at the Institute was Henryk Grossman, then forty years of age, a connoisseur of Marx and especially of political economy. He had also begun dealing with the problem of the accumulation of capital, the relation between constant and variable capital, and the theory of crises. At the time of Masleša’s studies, Grossman held lectures on the subject “Crises in Capitalist Societies”. He was surely at the peak of his work upon the publication of his book, The Law of Accumulation and the Breakdown of Capitalism in 1929. Besides Grossman, Masleša listened to lectures on the history of socialism by Professor Carl Grünberg, Grossman’s former professor at the University in Vienna. Understandably, besides the history of socialism, Masleša also took courses in Hegelian dialectics as well as the history of philosophy and some other areas.
Perhaps Masleša’s serious interest in the economic sciences was piqued not so much by accumulated knowledge, as by his studious grappling with scientific methodology. These studies at the University in Frankfurt, no matter how short, reveal Masleša’s ability to learn and probe the crux of the problem, along with his quick reflexes and talent for recognising and combining all the components which lie inside a certain truth and his skilful use of arguments at a very early stage.
In his seminar papers – the notebooks which have survived are a testament to this – he taught himself systems of evaluation in the original, his good command of German and French meaning there was no need for translation. His tendency to rely above all on facts, to evaluate and analyse them in his work independently, later became a hallmark even of his most succinct newspaper contributions, written in earnest.
It was already then, when the personality of man is obscured by youth and barely visible, that his friends from his studies, such as Mara Fran, appreciated his extraordinary working capacity, his strong intellect and the ease with which he laid out his thought. At the same time, he was known for his generosity in discussion and his quick and efficient wit, sharp but never spiteful or vulnerable. A beautiful and uncommon combination in a man – sharp humour and cheerful generosity – always infused his relations to other people with vitality. Those personal qualities of his were never diminished, neither by all the harshness and chaos of political life, nor by the strictness of illegal party work and discipline.
One day, he had to quickly return from Frankfurt to Banja Luka. His mother called him by letter, perhaps she even apologised for not being able to provide money for his studies abroad. The collapse of his family’s store was imminent, as a consequence of [his indebted father] having signed some bills of exchange or, perhaps, of the lack of a man’s help in business affairs.
The following year, 1927, he went to Paris for some time, where he attended lectures on political economy and sociology. Not much is known about his studies in France, but more is clear about his political activities among Yugoslav students and expatriated workers. They did not call him to come home then. He told his mother that his reason for returning from Paris was that he was missing his family. In fact, he had been ordered to leave France. When he arrived in Belgrade, he was immediately exiled to his birthplace [Banja Luka]. It is thought that all of this was arranged by [Miroslav] Spalajković, the incumbent Yugoslav Minister of foreign affairs, due to Masleša’s communist activities among expatriate Yugoslavs. Thus he began his first year of adulthood with an arrest.4
Translation from the Serbo-Croatian language: Aleksandar Matković. Corrections: Tea Hadžiristić, Mihajlo Matković. The translation above was originally published on my blog, along with a discussion of sources, here: https://aleksandarmatkovic.wordpress.com/2021/05/22/a-yugoslav-in-the-frankfurt-school/
- 1. Kuhn, R. (2002), Henryk Grossman and the Recovery of Marxism, p. 25. Available here: http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.823.4571&rep=rep1&type=pdf (Accessed on September 28 2021). In another place (namely in his biography of Grossman’s life of a similar title), Kuhn even points out that Yugoslav translations were crucial to Grossman’s international reputation and underlines his close connections to Belgrade Marxists: “Grossman’s international reputation was still an asset for the institute, given the limited public recognition of its other members. His work had been translated into Japanese, Czech, and, thanks to the efforts of Yugoslav Marxists, Serbo-Croatian. Believing that he was destitute after fleeing from Nazi Germany, the comrades in Belgrade had even offered to send Grossman monthly financial contributions.” Kuhn, R. (2006), Henryk Grossman and the Recovery of Marxism, University of Illinois Press, p. 182.
- 2. Despite translating Marx and Engels from German to Serbo-Croatian (including Theories of Surplus Value, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, The Poverty of Philosophy, etc.), Mara was never known to the wider (post-)Yugoslav public. Despite the scarcity of materials, I have found several clues about her, including hints as to her possible studying in Frankfurt along with Masleša, all of which I discussed in the appendix to the blogpost where the translation below was taken from: https://aleksandarmatkovic.wordpress.com/2021/05/22/a-yugoslav-in-the-frankfurt-school/). More research will surely follow and the blogpost will probably be updated soon.
- 3. Being a revolutionary who actively participated in the national liberation struggle during WWII, as well as a feminist and the first female Serbian Minister of education during Tito’s Yugoslavia, Mitra was a well-known figure herself and wrote several books regarding her experiences in WWII. Masleša’s biography is one of them.
- 4. N.B. In Yugoslavia at the time, full maturity was considered to be reached at the year of 21.