A Yugoslav in the Frankfurt School?

I planned on writing an essay on the reception of the 20th century Marxist economist Henryk Grossman in Yugoslavia. This includes researching the persons who translated him – Mara Fran and Veselin Masleša. Masleša is usually depicted as a Yugoslav war hero: a press was named after him, streets carry his name, etc. But what is less well known is the time that he spent in the early Frankfurt School. Even less is known about Mara Fran, but I have found several clues about her, which I discuss in the appendix to this blogpost.

The following text is a translation of a single chapter from: Mitrović, Mitra, Veselin Masleša, Nolit: Beograd, 1964, pp. 34 – 39. It depicts Masleša’s time at the Institute for Social Research, where he listened to Henryk Grossman. The rest of the book also mentions that he developed his own theories of state capitalism and even analyzed the Morgan Stanley bank, etc.  So, Masleša’s contact with the early Frankfurt School must have left more than passing effects.

Here is the translation:

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 popularizations of Marxist literature, here, in the atmosphere of the Frankfurt Institute, his fervor 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 criticized 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 backwards 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.

Imperialism, however, 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 recognizing and combining all the components which lie inside a certain truth and his skillful 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 analyze 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 humor 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 apologized 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 was gone 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.

Translation from the Serbo-Croatian language: Aleksandar Matković

Corrections: Tea Hadžiristić, Mihajlo Matković.

Appendix: on Mara Fran

I have asked around and found a friend whose grandparents knew Mara Fran. If he is correct, she used to work in the “Kultura” publishing house in Belgrade. From what I was told, she probably studied German, and from what I can see in our online libraries, she also translated most of Marx’s and Engels’ economic works (Theories of surplus value and Wage, price and profit, for instance, but there are many more). So, she obviously specialized in translating Marxist economics from German. The colleagues at the Belgrade Institute for literature (who deal with Veselin Masleša) advised me to read his biography by Mitrović Mitra, a personal friend and biographer of Masleša. The chapter translated (above) comes from that book, which I was recommended. In the whole book, Mitra mentions Mara Fran only once in the entire book, and it is in this chapter, that I translated.

It seems that Mara Fran was a colleague of Masleša –  perhaps at the Frankfurt Faculty of Economics, although the book doesn’t say that precisely. Masleša also studied in Zagreb and Paris, but both were either before or after the context in which Mitra mentions Mara. Now, given that Mara knows German and is translating economics, while the book mentions her with regards to Masleša’s studies in Germany, it is probable that she studied at the Faculty of Economics in Frankfurt – I would have to investigate that.

I have also contacted Grossman’s biographer, Rick Kuhn. I knew Kuhn mentioned that Grossman was offered financial assistance from Yugoslav communists at the time, but he told me that Grossman did not mention who in Yugoslavia offered him financial support. According to Kuhn, the information came from a letter to Frieda and Paul Mattick of 7 June 1933, which he included in the first volume of Henryk Grossman Works (p. 248):

From Yugoslavia (Belgrade) I have received the news that, despite the dictatorship there, volume 1 of Marx’s Capital will appear in a month. In this connection, my views about Marx and method are being written about (in preparation [for publication]). My supporters, the Marxist intellectuals, believe that the events in Germany have made me destitute and have offered to send me regular monthly subventions, money that they want to collect by means of voluntary deductions from their incomes. I am really very moved by this noble offer but have turned it down as my basic subsistence is secure, at least for the time being.

In a PS to the letter (p. 251) Grossman wrote:

P.S. if it is possible for you, it would be desirable to send the IWW pamphlet to Belgrade (Yugoslavia). Address: Miss Mara Fran, Beograd, Miloŝa Velikoja

In a letter to Paul Mattick on 2 October 1934 (also in Works: 1, p. 258), he wrote:

In Belgrade a translation of ‘The change in the original plan for Marx’s Capital’75 was already in press – it was to appear simultaneously with the translation of the third volume of Capital. In addition the manuscript of ‘Fifty years of struggle’ was ready and was to appear in September. Well, this week there was a raid on the home of Miss Mara Fran. She was not arrested, but my correspondence with her was confiscated along with the proofs and manuscripts.

According to Grossman’s biographer Kuhn, these are the only mentions of Grossman’s connections with Yugoslav Marxists. Kuhn also told me that, according to him, it is likely that the point of initial contact between Yugoslav communists and Grossman was in fact Veselin Masleša, who spent time at the University of Frankfurt. This is what the chapter above tackles as well.

I have also checked the address which Grossman mentions to Mattick in his letters. “Miss Mara Fran, Beograd, Miloŝa Velikoja 29.” – the correct address was “Miloša VelikoGa” (Meaning: Miloš the Great), so it is “g” instead of “j”, and the street still exists today, in a renamed form as “Kneza Miloša” (something akin to “Prince Miloš”). It is located in the very center of Belgrade, where the buildings of the Government of Serbia and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs are located, as well. 
So, my two tasks in the future will be to investigate the Faculty of Economics in Frankfurt (in order to see if she was ever a student) and the archives for the “Kultura” publishing house in Belgrade, probably at the State archives of Serbia.

As of the moment, the only information we still have on her directly comes from a post-scriptum she wrote for the 1983 translation of Grossman’s “The Law of Accumulation and the Breakdown of the Capitalist System, also Being a Theory of Crises”. After writing a short biography of Henryk Grossman, instead of a conclusion, she writes:

At this place, 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 will 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.

Aleksandar Matković 

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