This year is the 100th anniversary of the establishment of the Communist Party of Yugoslavia (CPY). The CPY was the only relevant political factor in the fight against occupation and fascism because of its particular internal organisation, links to local struggles, experience in military and political organising during the Spanish Civil War, and practice of emancipatory social and political relations.
At the beginning of May 1941, in Zagreb, a conference of the Central Committee (CC) of the Communist Party of Yugoslavia was held. It is known in historiography as “The May Conference”. In the capital of the then Independent State of Croatia, the members of the CC talked and made decisions regarding the tasks of the party in response to the consequences of the April War.
It was the beginning of the organised resistance which would become an armed struggle for liberation and revolution, a month later, after the German attack on the Soviet Union. According to some estimates, at that time, the CPY had 12,000 members and the League of the Communist Youth of Yugoslavia had 30,000 members. Four years later, after huge losses from a bloody war against an enemy that was much larger, the CPY lead an army of 800,000 fighters in the new socialist country, with the status of a winner and important international position which it would keep until 1990.
How did this happen? There are many interpretations and facts which could explain this development. However, four key elements help us understand the course of events.
Internal Organisation of the CPY
There is no need to fear any terror or persecution. We are used to it; all the regimes have persecuted us during these 20 years, but the working class with its avant-garde -Communist Party- became even stronger… (First declaration to the peoples of Yugoslavia during the war, 15th of April 1941).
In 1919, at the congress in Belgrade, the Socialist Labor Party of Yugoslavia (Communist) was established. At the following congress held in Vukovar, its delegates would vote to change the name of the party to The Communist Party of Yugoslavia and for the revolutionary struggle against capitalism, in the spirit of the October Revolution. At the end of December the same year, the CPY and all related organisations were banned by a government decree known as Obznana. At that moment, the party had 65,000 members. During the spring and summer municipality elections throughout the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenians, the CPY won in a large number of cities, towns and villages, including Belgrade, Zagreb and Skopje.
After a period of unclear and divided reactions, at the Second State Conference of the CPY, held in May 1923 in Vienna, the delegates made key decisions to continue working illegally. This decision would turn out to be particularly important twenty years later during the People’s Liberation Struggle.
That moment represented the beginning of the process of real Bolschevisation of the party, with the formation of the nucleus of educated cadres that lead and organised the struggle in the spirit of the democratic centralism; it was decided that the cells should be formed within existing unions; the intensive work in the villages started as well as work on the agricultural question. Those directions were confirmed and expanded during the following conferences, for example, by the decision to establish and develop cells in companies and factories.
Regardless of the political programme, the differences between the left and right factions, the role of the Comintern and the period of the conflicts within the CPY under Stalin’s auspices, the habit of working illegally and in small cells after 1941 turned out to be an advantage in the struggle against the Nazi and collaborationist forces as well as for the functioning and developing the party’s activities.
In the cities, the youth members prepared and executed sabotages and assassinations; newspapers and propaganda materials were printed; smaller and later on bigger units had ostensibly political character. They presented themselves to the people not only as soldiers but also as emissaries of a new political project based on freedom as well as brotherhood, unity, equality and solidarity. Strict discipline in the CPY which was necessary for survival in the years of persecutions and arrests before the war ensured a permanent renewal of the cadres in spite of constant break ins and shootings during the war.
Local Questions and General People’s Struggle
You were defeated in the war, but not conquered. Glorious traditions of struggles for justice and freedom of your grandfathers cannot be forgotten. Now is the time to show that you are dignified descendants of your glorious ancestors… (The Declaration of the CC of the CPY to the people of Yugoslavia, the 12th of July 1941).
During the first discussions after the decree had been made public, members of the CPY made different proposals on how to act illegally and widen the circle of members and affiliates. In order to attract as many people as possible while not being able to do their political work openly, the CPY started creating cultural and sport societies, student’s movements and newspapers that would spread communist principles.
One of the best examples was the Revolutionary Students Movement, that was created during the 1920’s at the University of Belgrade and fought for the improvement of the students’ position. In the 1930’s it became one of the main actors in the struggle against the regime in the Kingdom and fascist organisations (ZBOR primarily); At the same time, it headed protests and strikes, spread communist ideas, and supported republicans in the Spanish Civil War. Many members of that movement joined the People’s Liberation Struggle in 1941.
This strategy used certain questions and certain needs of society – in this case, the students’ requests for better studying conditions – to present revolutionary ideas, take down the capitalist system and stop fascism. During the Second World War, that strategy would be one of the key ways to achieve larger mass support.
In that sense, the call to struggle against occupation forces reminded people of previous calls to struggle against the Turks, Germans, Bulgarians, during the Balkan Wars and the First World War. Everyone knew about these struggles, many had family members who took part in them and felt again that spirit of liberty that calls for defense of the attacked country.
On the other hand, the spreading of the uprising is closely linked to local questions. On the 27th of July 1941, the uprising started in Srb. That date would later be celebrated as the Uprising Day of the people of Croatia. At that moment, the CPY had a relatively small number of members – about 240 in that part of the country and only about 30 in the region where the uprising started. The communists stood at the head of the uprising: people, Serbs, who were already victims of the genocidal measures of the Ustashi regime, joined the CPY because the struggle was their only way to survive and the CPY was the only organised group that agreed to lead the struggle without any compromise.
Spanish Civil War: Indispensable Experience for Military and Political Organisation
German fascism is attempting to conquer the whole world, to destroy all the cultural achievements of humanity, to destroy democracy and install the darkest medieval regime, the regime of an insignificant number of German barons and big capitalists which would enslave all the peoples of the world as well as German people… (Declaration, July 25th 1941)
One of the leaders of the uprising in Srb, Marko Oreskovic Krntija, was a member of the Communist Party since 1927 and of its Central Committee since 1940. He was arrested several times, always engaged in union struggles, and in 1936 joined the international brigades which fought in Spain on the side of the Republic against fascism.
Alongside Oreskovic in Spain, around 1,700 Yugoslavs fought fascism and many communists were among them. While many were killed, those who returned brought with them particularly important experiences in struggle organisation. Partisan groups were sent to units and battalions, commanders had military experience and political commissares assigned with them were exclusively communists.
The Spanish fighters’ ability of to organise the struggle and recruit new fighters was the nightmare of the occupation forces and collaborationists: in occupied Belgrade, after the German attack of the Soviet Union, the Banjica concentration camp was formed in order to hold Spanish fighters and communists. In the begining of July 1941, the Gestapo and the collaborationists police conducted the first mass arrests.
The experience from Spain would be crucial later on as well, when the bigger military formations were formed from Partisan groups, such as brigades, divisions, corps and finally the People’s Liberation Army. The formation of the first Proletarian brigade, on the 21st of December 1941 in Rudo, was a begging of forming an organised army that would at the end of the war have 800,000 soldiers. Yugoslav Partisans received very little help from the Allies and still achieved this thanks to the work done by the CPY and the experience of the Spanish fighters.
New Proposals to the People, Different from Any Before
People’s Liberation Committees (NLC) were struggle bodies that serve the People’s Liberation Struggle. NLCs are not and cannot be organs of certain political parties and organisations. They are elected in a democratic way. All the honest patriots who show by personal example that they are good sons of their people should enter the NLCs regardless of their political orientation, religious beliefs and ethnicity… (Regulations from Foca, February 1942)
While German troops marched towards Moscow and Stalingrad in the midst of the Nazi’s occupation plan, Yugoslav Partisans created the first free territory in occupied Europe with the initial support of several units of Yugoslav Army in the Homeland (Chetniks). The units lead by Communist Party attacked and liberated Uzice and surrounding towns and villages to create the Uzice Republic.
The inhabitants of those places felt the strength and determination of the Partisans to fight without compromise against the enemy that had many troops. This was the first time that they had the possibility to learn about the revolutionary policy of the CPY, even though the policy was never in the first place. By the decision of the party itself – the struggle for liberation was in the first place. The slogan was “Freedom, bread, firewood”: immediately after the liberation, in September 1941, the NLCs were established as the first organs of governance with the task to organise new social life based on economic relations. There were departments for provisions, production, culture, education and health.
In spite of their short duration (at the end of November 1941 the Germans and the collaborationists occupied Uzice again), the NLCs represented the implementation of the political principles of the CPY. For the first time, people saw the possibility of free education and health care for all, the emancipation of women, the distribution of territory equally among people and nations and especially new social organisation without exploitation and without private property owned by an exploitative minority. People felt freedom from invaders and exploiters and started to become themselves purveyors of these ideas that were worth fighting for.
From that moment, in each liberated territory, the CPY introduced NLCs, at least temporary ones. It was from these embryonal forms of the future Yugoslav country that the Antifascist Council for the People’s Liberation of Yugoslavia was created on the 26th of November 1942 in Bihac. During its second conference in Jajce on the 29th of November 1943, the decision was made to create the Federative (and Socialist) Yugoslavia.
Instead of Conclusion
The internal organisation of the CPY, the capacity to recognise and use local questions, experience from the Spanish Civil War 1936 -1939 and emancipatory politics of the new authorities are the four key elements for understanding and answering the question: how is it possible that the abolished and persecuted party with small number of members succeeded in liberating the country and establishing new economic and social system?
The CPY had supra-national policy and presented itself everywhere as the only true fighter against the enemy as well as against traditional, nationalistic opponents. This fact gave it the opportunity to move from Slovenia to Macedonia and advocate for the same fundamental principles, showing that brotherhood and unity are not only a possible solution, but really the only solution for all. Loyalty to the Soviet Union played an important role, as the revolution had already succeeded in one place and the time had come to follow the same path.
The role of youth in that process should not be underestimated: a huge majority of the Partisan fighters and leaders, from the very beginning, were very young (many came directly from the League of the Communist Youth of Yugoslavia). In 1941, Koca Popovic was 33 years old, Ivo Lola Ribar 25, Edvard Kardelj 31, Boris Kidric 29, Milovan Djilas 30, Aleksandar Rankovic 32, Svetozar Vukmanovic Tempo 29 – Tito, aged 49, was among the “oldest” Partisans.
Their strength was the strength of the revolution. During the socialist Yugoslavia, the well-know working actions would be one of many elements that prove this.
Lastly, one of the most important facts is that, after the April War in 1941, no one wanted to lead the struggle against the invaders and fascism except individuals and, for a brief period of time, members of the destroyed army of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. This is opposed to France, Poland, Italy, Greece, where wider, democratic fronts were created or political parties established before the war actively participated in the struggle, each with its own political background and vision for the future. Only the Communist Party of Yugoslavia unconditionally went to war against the German giant, which had conquered almost the whole of Europe and was marching towards Moscow. Finally, the CPY won.
Translation from Serbian: Jelena Mandić
This article was originally published in Serbian on Apr 12, 2019.