History of Modern Political Thought in East-Central Europe

Centre for Advances Study (CAS), Sofia
European Research Council (ERC)

The Project

State-of-the-Art and Objectives

There is an increasing demand for a common European history that, however, cannot be based on merely projecting the Western European historical narratives on the whole continent, but requires the careful scrutiny of the specific regional and local ways of dealing with modernity.  The recent debates in comparative European politics also focused on the role of indigenous political cultures in developing and sustaining democracy. All this points to the need of well-informed, methodologically advanced empirical studies that could create a more complex framework of comparing and linking political traditions.


The aim of the project is “Europeanizing” the history of East-Central European political thought, while, at the same time, “re-negotiating” the European intellectual canon. In order to accomplish this, however, one has to go beyond the task of expanding the pool of “shared” references. It implies the rethinking of the very categories in which the history of modern political ideas—and thus of modernity, as such—has been traditionally formulated. Analyzing the contested models of modernity these cultures developed over the last two centuries, from the Enlightenment up to the Post-Communist period, the project aims at contributing to the formation of a new European intellectual history, which takes the radical multiplicity of contexts as well as the complex processes of ideological transmission and reception into account. There is an obvious need for devising such a synthetic perspective. It is rather symptomatic that in the otherwise high-quality Cambridge History of Twentieth-Century Political Thought, edited by Terence Ball and Richard Bellamy (CUP, 2003) one finds a single entry on East-Central European thinkers, namely on Georg Lukács, conveniently placed under the heading “Western Marxism.”

Besides offering a remedy to the sheer absence of references to intellectual traditions East of the Elbe, which also makes these political cultures hard to understand for an external observer in the present, there is a more theoretical reason for devising such a narrative. Thinking from the semi-periphery often meant that the paradigms originating in Western European contexts had to be “negotiated” in a setting marked by radically different local conditions. Thus, the conflicts and ambiguities around them became even sharper and more visible: this makes research into their reception, transformation or rejection relevant for debates about European values and identity and the possible emergence of Europeanized, “post-national” political cultures.

The main task of the project is devising a coherent European perspective of intellectual history and breaking the essentialist duality of “us” and “them”. This implies the tasks of “redescription” and conceptual transfer, i.e. finding a regional and trans-culturally acceptable set of analytical categories, as well as new knowledge-production – answering questions formulated on the basis of a regional comparative analysis in various local contexts. It also necessitates the “trading” of concepts: both in the direction of inserting specific historical experiences and analytical categories into European circulation, and also testing the heuristic power of such concepts as for instance “populism”. The vast bulk of comparative social and human science thinking still continues to be Western-centric. Our long-term ambition would be to contribute to the re-framing of these fundamental categories by effectively incorporating “local knowledges” of cultures outside of Western Europe, in both empirical and theoretical sense, into the comparative analysis.

In order to face this challenge we need to develop a very flexible framework of–symmetric and asymmetric–comparisons woven into our narrative, giving voice to both synchronicity and asynchrony. Significantly, in different cultural configurations processes of ideological reception and appropriation happened in markedly different rhythms, often creating different temporalities in one and the same geographical zone. The multi-layered comparative scheme (comparing these cultures to each other, but also taking into account the broader Western European context) will help us, nevertheless, to discern what is general, what is region- specific, national-specific, etc. in a given cultural phenomenon, and thus to identify the universal and the local-residual aspects of a trans-cultural trend.

The geographical scope of the project comprises the national cultures of East-Central Europe writ large, i.e. the countries wedged between the three imperial projects, Ottoman, Russian and Habsburg. Besides the task of mediating between the local canons and the pan-European framework, there is a pressing need to tackle these phenomena in the framework of entangled history within the region itself: looking at the national political traditions from a regional and cross-national perspective has a “therapeutic effect,” challenging the purported uniqueness and mimetic competition of these traditions. It is important to stress, however, that the envisioned perspective of the Project is regional but not regionalist: arguably, an essentialist East-Central European narrative would cause more harm than it would heal, functioning as a “quasi-national,” exclusionist narrative with an “Orientalist” gaze towards the East and with the resentment of the subaltern Other towards the West. At the same time, studying East-Central European intellectual phenomena can also contribute to the “de-provincializing of Western Europe”– pointing at the multiplicity of configurations Western cultural products could take.

As the project of political modernity in East-Central Europe is related to the idea of a temporal and spatial lag, the imperative of following the already existing models of the “civilized West,” the asymmetric and relational notions of Europeanization, Westernization, modernization and backwardness became constitutive of the political languages of the region. Along these lines, the history of modern Eastern European political thought has often been framed (from such, otherwise  rather divergent, perspectives as those of Yurii Lotman, Mircea Eliade, Andrzej Walicki or Katherine Verdery) in view of the “eternal debate” of local cultures and imported institutions.

The emerging modern political languages reflected this duality as it was at the root of the conflicts around the representation of the political community. We can observe the duality of the state-centered terminology (with metaphors of artificiality) and a “society-centered terminology” (focusing on organicism), which could also be reframed in terms of the contrast of mechanistic Gesellschaft and organic Gemeinschaft. Two conceptual aspects kept these options together, thus setting the framework of their conflict: first, the paradoxical presence of Western imported terminology on both sides (the very concept of “organicism” witnesses the imported nature of the autochthonist discourse), which indicates the plurality of “modernities” competing with each other; second, the integrative domain of the battle - the semantics of nationhood. This is the discursive framework of the conflict between local “autochthonists” and “Westernizers”: posing questions exactly about the imported institutional “forms” and the local “bases”. Reconstructing this debate in its multiple contexts is crucial for understanding the evolution of these cultures and polities, but it also has a pressing contemporary relevance: insensitivity to local discursive traditions might hinder or even completely block the transfer of institutional practices inherent to the processes of European integration, and can lead eventually to the resurrection of the debate of “Westernizers” and “autochthonists”, with its disruptive polarization. What is more, our aim is to go beyond the conventional vision of a binary opposition of these ideological stances and point out the complex intertwining of positions producing innumerable ideological hybrids over the last two centuries.

The principal aim of the Project is a synthetic volume, not compartmentalized according to national sub-chapters but based on a diachronic analysis especially sensitive to transnational discursive phenomena (e.g. ideological traditions transcending national borders such as liberalism, socialism, conservatism, anarchism, or federalism), and being equally open to supra-national and sub-national (regional) frameworks, where different national projects were interacting.

The projected volume based on a transnational negotiation process would be a unique scholarly achievement, as well as an indispensable tool for teaching European history of political thought and the history of Eastern Europe. The perspective of the book would be somewhere in-between the genealogical approach (telling the “story” of the emergence of various, often conflicting, versions of political modernity in the region – taking as a methodological example Quentin Skinner’s Foundations of Modern Political Thought) and the more synchronic perspective (characterizing, for instance, the Cambridge History of Political Thought series), following the parallel lives of various ideological traditions (Balkan liberalism, Konservative Revolution, Revisionist Marxism etc.).

In addition to the book, the project will catalyze a number of results, such as curriculum development, a flying seminar of history of East-Central European political ideas, publishing interim project proceedings, a web site serving as a hub of interaction of researchers around the project and the broader academic community, a thematic block on the comparative history of nationalist movements in the 19th century in the journal East Central Europe and also an increased interaction of scholars from the region and from Western Europe dealing with the history of modern political ideas.

On the whole, the main result would be a new offer of thinking about political modernity, based on the experiences of East-Central Europe, but also entering the “Great Debates” on the global scale.