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A History of Modern Political Thought in East Central EuropeVolume I: Negotiating Modernity in the 'Long Nineteenth Century'$

Balázs Trencsényi, Maciej Janowski, Monika Baar, Maria Falina, and Michal Kopecek

Print publication date: 2016

Print ISBN-13: 9780198737148

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: April 2016

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198737148.001.0001

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(p.15) Part I The Discovery of Modernity: Enlightened Statecraft, Discourses of Reform, and Civilizational Narratives

(p.15) Part I The Discovery of Modernity: Enlightened Statecraft, Discourses of Reform, and Civilizational Narratives

A History of Modern Political Thought in East Central Europe
Oxford University Press

The Enlightenment is usually depicted as a great cultural epoch of the type that gives to every region in which it appears a certain easily recognizable imprint, manifesting itself in a specific type of phraseology, social behavior, or public activity. The pronounced universalism of this intellectual tradition, which at least at first sight seems to stress only the common features of human nature as opposed to local and historical specificities, also contributes to this impression of general uniformity. Nevertheless, it is obvious that the project of Enlightenment relied everywhere on local preconditions that tinted it with various sorts of local concerns. Local thinkers, authors, artists, and intellectuals had their own dilemmas and problems, stemming from the hitherto existing intellectual traditions and their specific sociocultural contexts. Consequently, the history of Enlightenment political thought in East Central Europe also needs to be told from the perspective of the plurality of “Enlightenments,” rather than “a unified and universal intellectual movement” radiating concentrically from Paris.1 These local “Enlightenments” were shaped by local and transcultural agents, transfers, and debates. What provided for them a common framework, however, was a comparable set of questions and a mindset shaped by this transcultural dialogue.2

(p.16) In the context of Enlightenment political thought across Europe, a central theme was the feasibility of keeping together and in harmony societies marked by institutional and denominational diversity that had been accentuated by devastating religious and civil wars throughout the seventeenth century. This search for cohesion could be framed in terms of a new understanding of rulership and reason of state seeking to satisfy the needs of the population. This also implied the reinterpretation of patriotism in terms of an identification with the institutions or “spirit” of the fatherland. Second, cohesion could be defined in the light of a new understanding of social bonds: along these lines, the Enlightenment moved away from previous paradigms praising frugality and martial valor as the key virtues of a polity and developed a new understanding of society stressing polished interaction and commerce. As sociability became a central category, it led to the re-evaluation of the social functions of conversation and the creation of specific settings promoting civility such as salons, academies, and theaters and a new style of printed press, as well as the social role of women as being among the principal “agents” of sociability.3 Third, during this period a principal constitutive experience was the expansion of cultural and geographical horizons, exposing the radical diversity of civilizational patterns and political arrangements.4 All this gave the notion of civility, as a marker of enlightened European societies, a specific resonance. The growing awareness of the spatial and also temporal multiplicity of civilizational forms prompted Enlightenment thinkers to frame their cultural and political projects in a hierarchy, locating the relative position of a given community on a “scale” and thus by implication marking out the desirable direction of development.5 Last but not least, in the face of this experience of religious, societal, and civilizational plurality these thinkers focused on the question whether it was possible to base political norms on reason, transcending the seeming multiplicity of cultures and deriving them from the universally valid laws of nature.

The political thought of the Enlightenment in East Central Europe was the product of a multilayered interaction with paradigms stemming from different sources. The ideas coming from various centers, from Paris and Edinburgh to Göttingen and Pisa, encountered specific local intellectual and social conditions to which they had to accommodate. The peculiarities of reception and “negotiation” often meant that a particular thread of Enlightenment could coexist with another, although in the “original” setting they were consecutive (p.17) rather than simultaneous. Thus, sentimentalism in Poland appeared at the same moment as classicism and both developed simultaneously, whereas in France sentimentalism was the reaction of a post-classical generation. Sometimes the situation was even more complicated: in Southeast Europe, strong Enlightenment influence appeared simultaneously with the reception of Romantic ideas in the 1820s and even later. What is more, one might encounter traces of Enlightenment political thought in some contexts as late as the 1840s and 1850s, already feeding into Positivism.

These mutations have to do with the political situation of the various regions, with their variegated social structures and their plurality of religious denominations, as well as with the nature of their cultural and linguistic development prior to the mid-eighteenth century.6 Generally speaking, in East Central Europe the nobility and the clergy were the strata most receptive to foreign intellectual influence. Only at some distance was the secular intelligentsia, still in the very early stage of formation. Furthermore, the clergy’s imprint differed among Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox territories. In the Catholic lands, the late Baroque intellectual formation, with its curiositas and encyclopedic interest in collecting and systematizing, provided the background for the intellectual activities of the Enlightenment. This is especially visible in Bohemia, where great Baroque thinkers such as Bohuslav Balbín laid the foundations of the historical criticism which came to be developed by the Bohemian Enlightenment.7 In Protestant lands, however, it was the influence of Pietism rather than “erudition” that served as the vehicle of new ideas which—radiating from the center of Pietist education, the University of Halle, as well as the newly founded University of Göttingen—distinguished themselves especially in the realm of educational reforms.8 While in certain cases it also had an impact on Catholics, the most immediate Pietistic influence was on Protestants in what is now Latvia and Estonia and was then the historical province of Livonia, until 1772 divided between Poland and Russia and later entirely under Russian rule.9

In Orthodox cultures the transfer was usually even more complex. In some cases it came about as a result of the Western and Central European travels of the local elite who were becoming conscious of the gap between their society and the civilization of the West; in other cases it was linked to “reforms from above” deriving from ideological models stemming from Istanbul or (p.18) St. Petersburg. Obviously, the relative proximity to Western European sources in each case influenced the trajectories of transfer and adaptation. It is telling that Fénelon’s Les Aventures de Télémaque, written in the late seventeenth century but often read as a popularization of the Enlightenment vision of virtuous rule, was translated into Hungarian by László Haller in 1755, while the Bulgarian translation by Paraskev G. Piperov was published almost a century later, in 1845.

The political transformations marking the second half of the eighteenth century in East Central Europe were closely interrelated. One of the most visible developments was the emergence of a new type of increasingly bureaucratized and centralized territorial state, manifested in the rise of Prussia and the growth of the regional power of the Habsburg Monarchy and Russia (although all of these polities remained composite states, albeit to varying degrees). Against this, we can identify polities that were unable to adapt to this new model of statehood and thus entered a path of decline. This was certainly the case with the Ottoman Empire, which was becoming increasingly exposed to foreign intervention (manifested notably by the humiliating Treaty of Küçük Kaynarca which concluded the Russo-Turkish war in 1774), but its most symbolic instance was the decline and ultimate collapse of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (1795), a composite state that failed to transform itself into a centralized polity.

While this process has been commonly described in terms of the rise of “enlightened absolutism,” we need to bear in mind the contested nature of this concept. Both noun and adjective are equally misleading.10 Absolutism in the eighteenth century was a project, not a political reality. The perfect bureaucratic machine that would implement the will of the benevolent monarch was but a dream: the state apparatus was far too small to influence local customs and social structures, and far too divergent in its origins and vested interests to be able to act as an obedient tool of the ruler. The monarchy itself was in practice much more involved in the power struggles with the estates, the clergy, and other social forces than the idealized picture would like to have it. The wholly “enlightened” nature of absolutism is also doubtful. The reference to the Enlightenment could justify very different types of politics—centered on the estates or on a monarch, anticlerical or moderately religious, industrialist-mercantilist or agriculturalist-physiocratic, and so on. Despite these qualifications, it seems that the concept of enlightened absolutism, as a model rather than a reality, cannot be completely excluded from a story of (p.19) Enlightenment political thinking in East Central Europe, bearing in mind that its ambiguities are themselves part and parcel of the story.

However, it was not only absolutism that was ready to strengthen its legitimacy through Enlightenment ideas and catchwords. It was also possible to reformulate the privileges of the estates by using an enlightened political rhetoric and to try to reform the polity along the lines of modern territorial statehood, but not in the direction of a more concentrated royal power. In Poland, where noble republicanism had the greatest following among the political cultures of the region, those who did not confine themselves to the unreflective defense of the existing system called for a reform of parliamentarianism that would take from the king those prerogatives that he still possessed and transfer them to the diet. The diet, in turn, would have to be transformed in various ways so that it could serve as a viable central power itself. Elements of this agenda can be found already in the reasoning of Stanisław Dunin-Karwicki, who presented a draft of reform plans in the first decade of the eighteenth century.11

In Hungary, among the strongest intellectual traditions was the doctrine of the Holy Crown, which had undergone tremendous changes but proved unexpectedly vital through the late eighteenth and even the nineteenth centuries.12 This pre-modern representation of the community intersected with the assertion of the corporate privileges of the nobility but could also accommodate a new patriotic understanding of the political community. In Bohemia, apart from the Hussite tradition, overshadowed for a time by the Counter-Reformation but revived in the late eighteenth century, the tradition of Baroque erudition had a “patriotic” flavor, in the sense of both defense of territorial privileges and pride in Slavic ancestry. These themes were also picked up by Enlightenment thinkers. In the Danubian Principalities as well, Enlightenment references, inspired by the Polish and Western European republican traditions, were used to legitimize the collective privileges of the nobility.13 The rise of the projects of “enlightened absolutism” and the competing estate-based reform discourses presented the political elites and all individuals willing to take part in political life with an inescapable dilemma: to support or to resist the ruler? This dilemma would be the starting point for much of the political reflection in the region in the second half of the eighteenth century.

(p.20) What made this dual scheme all the more dominant was the relative sociopolitical and ideological weakness of the stratum that came to reconfigure the political and ideological field in late eighteenth-century Western Europe: the “third estate.” The main hindrance to the emergence of an enlightened third estate in East Central Europe was the absence of urban centers that could rival Paris, Naples, and Edinburgh, with a citizenry capable of playing a significant political role and even able to exert physical pressure. In Hungary, as Kálmán Benda reminds us, the population of all Hungarian towns taken together was still about 100,000 less than that of Paris.14 The only city in the region that could at certain moments produce an environment of a specific urban politics was, for a short time, Warsaw. At the turn of the 1780s and 1790s we encounter an organized movement originating from the third estate that presented their demands to the diet. A member of the Warsaw burgher elite, Michał Świniarski, was committed by the City Council to prepare a memorandum with arguments for the admission of urban delegates to the diet. His arguments were almost exclusively historical, recalling the unjust expulsion of the third estate from the diet and evoking ancient privileges. Whatever allusions to fashionable political ideas, such as human rights or natural law, that are found in Świniarski’s text were inserted there by one the most important ideologists of Polish Enlightenment, Hugo Kołłątaj (1750–1812), a priest of gentry origins who clearly wanted to put together some sort of ideological manifesto rather than just a technical argument for the redress of grievances.15

Elements of bourgeois political identity could be observed in much smaller and demographically stagnant urban areas that possessed a tradition of municipal autonomy. Especially on the Baltic and Adriatic coasts, many towns maintained at least some vestiges of medieval self-government, even though most of them had been incorporated into larger states by the end of the early modern period. In the late eighteenth century, there were attempts to resuscitate these traditions and use them as a vehicle for the broadening of political representation. In the Venetian-ruled eastern Adriatic, the 1770s saw the emergence of radical politics that challenged the governing bodies of the municipalities. This was especially true for some coastal towns in Istria, where the city councils became the arena for a political contention between the old patrician elite, which dominated the municipal institutions, and the emergent middle classes demanding a larger share of political influence.16 Just as in the case of Warsaw, these demands were usually uttered in a political (p.21) language of legal privileges rather than natural rights. Although they lacked a cohesive vision of social or political transformation, the pursuit of these demands brought about an alliance between segments of the urban middle class and the plebeian population, which was to gain momentum on the eve of the Napoleonic occupation.

While the first part of the period in question, up to the 1780s, was characterized by a relatively slow transformation, the political and cultural upheaval in the decades around the turn of the century was extremely dramatic and changed the entire outlook of the region. A key experience of the elites in the region was that of the partitions of Poland, which had double consequences: they transformed the balance of power in the region, creating a new and different constellation with Russia as one of the central players, and they opened the way for the accelerated growth of national ideas. A “historical nation” (whatever that ambiguous term may mean) deprived of its polity necessarily felt the deprivation as something especially unjust, as a reduction to the level of simple “peoples.” Consequently, the Poles for at least half a century served as the most ardent propagators of national and revolutionary ideas in East Central Europe.

In a broader sense the most important constitutive experiences of the period were doubtless the repercussions of the French Revolution and especially the Napoleonic Wars. The early 1790s saw a number of local reform movements, to a certain extent inspired by events in France but also by the local crises of “enlightened absolutist” statecraft, which aimed to reconstruct their respective political systems and extend constitutional liberties to social strata that had been denied them so far. In the Habsburg Monarchy this tension came to the fore after the death of Joseph II in 1790, which opened up a veritable Pandora’s box of complaints and manifestos, with various groups seeking either to protect the rights they had acquired as a result of reforms from above (such as the emancipation of the non-Catholic denominations and the regulation of the status of serfs) or to recover their lost privileges (especially the nobility, which sought to restore its immunity from taxation). This triggered agitated debates, especially in those cases (like Hungary, Bohemia, and Croatia) where the coronation of the new king, Leopold II (r. 1790–1792), was linked to the convocation of the diets. Significantly, the accumulated frustration of the estates with the centralism of the former monarch and the hope of former supporters of the Josephinian project for social and religious emancipation met in a common agenda of reform at these diets.17 Furthermore, those national groups which did not have constitutional traditions of parliamentary representation (such as the Serbs in Hungary) also had a noticeable tendency to hold assemblies and assert their corporate privileges. Leopold seemed to be (p.22) a fitting partner for all these initiatives of constitutional self-assertion, having already gained a reputation as an enlightened and peace-loving ruler of Tuscany, where he had used much more tactful means than his brother to co-opt and contain the various strata of society.

While these diets were classical early modern institutions for the representation of the privileged estates (the aristocracy, high clergy, country gentry, and—to a very limited extent—the cities), the European political atmosphere, and particularly the events of the French Revolution, which had caused the transformation of the Assembly of Estates into an Assemblée Constituante, had a considerable impact on the political imagination of the East Central European elites and opened up discussion about the basis and forms of government. In Austria, for some time it seemed that it would be possible to develop a broad coalition of forces on a common constitutionalist platform. However, Leopold II’s short reign, troubled by foreign problems (the new emperor inherited a war with the Ottoman Empire), resulted in an aborted reformist impetus that generated a great deal of frustration. These constitutionalist movements foundered on the growing fear caused by the radicalization of the Revolution, which made any open call for reform an object of official suspicion and led to repressive measures. Paradoxically, it was often the movements’ own weaknesses, that is, their inability to maintain the delicate internal consensus reached vis-à-vis the monarch, which made them look more dangerous to the established order than they arguably were, since the dynamics of internal conflicts seemed dangerously similar to the meltdown of the French Estates that gave birth to the French Revolution.

One outcome of these tensions and growing disaffection was the emergence of radical streams outside of the traditional framework of political negotiation (diets, etc.). These streams were usually referred to as “Jacobin,” although most of the East Central European representatives were far removed from the revolutionary egalitarianism of the French and had close links to the noble constitutionalism of the previous decades. The most spectacular case of such a movement, the ill-fated Martinovics conspiracy in Hungary (1794–95), represented this ambiguity in its very organizational structure, as it was divided into a more moderate noble reformist branch and a more radical bourgeois democratic one.

After the turn of the century, the dynamic military situation led to a reconfiguration of the political and social outlook of the region, as seemingly everlasting political frameworks such as the Holy Roman Empire collapsed (in 1806), new political entities emerged (Serbia during the first uprising, 1804–13; the Duchy of Warsaw in 1807; the Illyrian Provinces in 1809), and even those that did not change their status (like Hungary and Bohemia which were part of the Austrian Empire, or the Danubian Principalities remaining under Ottoman rule) were profoundly shaken by the course of events. This period of upheaval came to an end with the Vienna Congress of 1815, when (p.23) the political map of Europe was redrawn to consolidate the Restoration order. This, however, did not mean a similarly clear-cut turning point in ideological terms, as both the counter-revolutionary camp and the post-revolutionary liberals developed an ideological mix blending Enlightenment elements with the new Romantic sensibilities. Thus, rather than a brisk and irreversible shift from Enlightenment to Romanticism we find a number of transitory forms, hybrids, and dialogue between different intellectual subcultures.18 (p.24)


(1) John G. A. Pocock, Barbarism and Religion, vol. 1: The Enlightenments of Edward Gibbon 1737–1764 (Cambridge, 1999), 13. For an attempt to balance local contextualization and generic definition in a Western European comparative framework see John Robertson, The Case for the Enlightenment: Scotland and Naples, 1680–1760 (Cambridge, 2005).

(2) László Kontler, “Introduction: The Enlightenment in Central Europe?” in Discourses of Collective Identity, 1:33–44; and Kontler, Translations, Histories, Enlightenments: William Robertson in Germany, 1760–1795 (Basingstoke, 2014). For a more skeptical take on conceiving of the Enlightenment in East Central Europe in regional terms, emphasizing instead the importance of local sociocultural settings, see Teodora Shek Brnardić, “Intellectual Movements and Geopolitical Regionalization. The Case of the East European Enlightenment,” East Central Europe 32:1–2 (2005): 7–55.

(3) Anthony La Vopa, “Conceiving a Public: Ideas and Society in Eighteenth-Century Europe,” Journal of Modern History 64 (1992): 76–116.

(4) Anthony Pagden, European Encounters with the New World (New Haven, 1993); Peter Hulme and Ludmila Jordanova, eds., The Enlightenment and Its Shadows (London, 1990).

(5) Accounts of stadial or conjectural history in the context of Scotland: Harro M. Höpfl, “From Savage to Scotsman: Conjectural History in the Scottish Enlightenment,” Journal of British Studies 17 (1978): 19–40.

(6) Roy Porter and Mikuláš Teich, eds., Enlightenment in National Context (Cambridge, 1981).

(7) Balbín’s Dissertatio apologetica pro lingua Slavonica praecipue Bohemica was published in 1775 by František Martin Pelcl, one of the “national awakeners.”

(8) Albrecht Ritschl, Geschichte des Pietismus, 3 vols. (Bonn, 1880–86); Jean-Marie Carré, Le piétisme de Halle et la philosophie des lumières (Paris, 1913); Luigi Marino, Praeceptores Germaniae: Göttingen 1770–1820 (Göttingen, 1995).

(9) Gvido Straube and Mati Laur, “Der Hallische Pietismus und die Herrnhuter Brüdergemeine in Liv- und Estland im 18. Jahrhundert,” Forschungen zur baltischen Geschichte 4 (2009): 97–114.

(10) Antony Lentin, Enlightened Absolutism, 1760–1790. A Documentary Sourcebook (Newcastle, 1985); Hamish M. Scott, ed., Enlightened Absolutism: Reform and Reformers in Later Eighteenth-Century Europe (Basingstoke, 1990); Derek Beales, Enlightenment and Reform in Eighteenth-Century Europe (London, 2005).

(11) Arkadiusz Michał Stasiak, “Republican and Monarchical Patriotism in Polish Political Thought during the Enlightenment,” in Balázs Trencsényi and Márton Zászkaliczky, eds., Whose Love of Which Country? Composite States, National Histories and Patriotic Discourses in Early Modern East Central Europe (Leiden, 2010), 711–34.

(12) Kees Teszelszky, Az ismeretlen Korona. Jelentések, szimbólumok és nemzeti identitás (Pannonhalma, 2009).

(13) Vlad Georgescu, Political Ideas and the Enlightenment in the Romanian Principalities, 1750–1831 (Boulder, 1971).

(14) Kálmán Benda, Emberbarát vagy hazafi? Tanulmányok a felvilágosodás korának magyarországi törtenetéből (Budapest, 1978), 109.

(15) On Kołłątaj’s contribution to the diet see Maria Pasztor, Hugo Kołłątaj na Sejmie Wielkim w latach 1791–92 (Warsaw, 1991).

(16) Corinne Brenko et al., Gli ultimi giorni della Serenissima in Istria: l’insurrezione popolare di Isola del 1797 (Izola, 2010), 93–5.

(17) Gerda Lettner, Der Rückzugsgefecht der Aufklärung in Wien, 1790–92 (Frankfurt, 1988).

(18) Endre Bojtár, “Az ember feljő.” A felvilágosodás és a romantika a közép- és kelet-európai irodalmakban (Budapest, 1986); Vladimír Macura, “Problems and Paradoxes of the National Revival,” in Mikuláš Teich, ed., Bohemia in History (Cambridge, 1998), 182–97.