History of Modern Political Thought in East-Central Europe

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

The Project


In the last decades, one of the most important new trends in the realm of historiography was the emerging conceptualist-contextualist approach. One could witness three equally interesting phenomena: in Britain, the new intellectual history following the so-called “Cambridge-paradigm”; in Germany, the appearance of the Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe and, most importantly, the relentless activity of its key-figure, the late Reinhart Koselleck; and in France, the evolution of the (post-)Annales theoretization of mentalités towards the methodological questions of cultural/intellectual history.

Even though these are rooted in different “national” historiographical cultures, some basic questions were surfacing in all versions of contextualist and historical-semantic research: for instance, the socio-cultural context of political discourse, or the conflicts around the definition and use of keywords were considered to be central by all authors dealing with some form of conceptual-contextual history. At the same time, a crucial factor of divergence can be found in their differing interpretations of modernity: the birth of modern politics is equated with the transition from a purported absolutism to a parliamentary monarchy in England in the late-17th century, with the dissolution of the medieval state-system and the advent of the age of ideologies as a result of the Napoleonic wars in Germany, and, obviously, with the Grande Revolution and the ensuing institutional-cultural change in France.

When we seek to put East-Central-Europe on the map of comparative intellectual history, we have to devise a methodology which is able to trace the interplay of local ideological development with a “Western” other, which itself is a dynamic category, sometimes being homogenized as a compact entity (“the West”), sometimes compartmentalized to competing sources of influence (e.g. Germanophiles vs. Francophiles vs. Anglophiles). Significantly, this “West” is not a geographical rather a symbolic category, as in many contexts “Westernization” was often coming from the East, as in the case of the Danubian Principalities in the 1820-30s, where the Russian military and administrative elite was the catalyst of “Europeanization”. Therefore, it is impossible to construct a narration of East-Central European intellectual history without the necessary layer of – often asymmetric – comparative references to the various contexts beyond this region: most of the time we are studying ideas originated outside (even if this “outside” did not mean, in view of the common European cultural tradition some kind of radical “otherness”), but contextualized inside. Thus, the East-Central European context has often been constructed in view of a generally unilinear process of cultural transmission, where the ideas were formed in constant interaction with something familiar, but external (of course, there are certain examples of the reversed process as well - the role of Polish émigrés in the 1830s in coining the Western canon of romantic revolutionary discourse - but these influences are mediated and might well be described as self-reflections of Western modernity). At the same time, the “horizontal” connections between these cultures are also crucial – both in terms of the presence of similar yet context-specific and ideologically divergent schemes of “alternative modernities” (e.g. the various versions of the Slavophile utopia), and of the impact which the Polish émigrés in question, for example, had on other national projects.

If we want to discern a compact methodological toolkit sensitive to the specificities of East-Central-Europe, rather than picking one of the methodological offers rooted in a particular historiographical culture, we have to devise a meta-language of analysis, rooted in a reflective vision of the emergence of political modernity, which is capable of incorporating the divergent experiences of the European “multiple modernities.” Therefore, developing the methodological framework of our research cannot be separated from the substantive research but they are in a “dialectical” relationship – only a more sensitive vision of the emergence of political modernity in East-Central Europe can lead to a more sophisticated methodological approach, while only the considerable refinement and adjustment of the methodological offers can lead to a more complex thematization of political modernity. To avoid the circulus vitiosus logically implied by this “double-bind” of mutual conditioning, we have to perceive both our methodology and the research process as an open-ended dynamism which is permanently reconstituted by a multiple dialogue – one that incorporates the plurality of voices representing different historical itineraries within the region and the different methodological traditions and historical visions of “Western” scholarship.

Beyond methodological and “national” divergences, modern intellectual history concentrates on social and political “contexts,” rhetorical conventions, and discursive frameworks alike. This methodological shift disqualifies the traditional ways of writing intellectual history, which focused mainly on the understanding of paradigmatic theories as parts of an ahistorical philosophia perennis, and also questions the one-sidedly determinist perspective which reduced political thought to socio-economic factors. Instead, it tries to renegotiate the relationship of history, literary studies and the social sciences, pointing out that the understanding of a political interaction might necessitate a variety of different interpretative techniques and approaches.

Seeking to map the processes of ideological transfer and also being steeped in the process of methodological transfer, the project undertakes to mediate between various historiographical traditions emerging in Eastern and Western Europe. Thus, in addition to applying the modern methods of contextual and conceptual history to “our” materials, we also intend to follow and reassess the prestigious Central and Southeast-European traditions of intellectual history, such as the “Warsaw School” (L. Kołakowski, B. Baczko, A. Walicki, J. Jedlicki), the study of the emergence of modern nationalism in its social and cultural setting (M. Hroch, J. Szűcs, J. Chlebowczyk, A. Duţu, V. Georgescu, P. Kitromilides) the sociology of knowledge and historical sociology of the intelligentsia (A. Gella, J. Szczepański, J. Szacki, N. Genchev, M. Havelka) or the experience of comparative literary history rooted in structuralism (J. Mukařovský, V. Macura, E. Bojtár).

 Drawing on these methodological traditions also prompted us to transcend conventional history of ideas and map discourses, concepts and political languages in their broader socio-cultural context. Along these lines, we seek to broaden our enquiry to economic, cultural and social ideas, as all these fields were pertinent to the debates on “the meaning of modernity” in these countries (for instance, the meta-political implications of the esthetic avant-garde). “Political thought” in the title of the project is thus meant in this broader sense. In a way, exactly this extension of the interpretative horizons makes the entire project interesting – after all, Stanisław Staszic, Nicolae Bălcescu, Gusztáv Beksics, Ferdinand Peroutka, Stoyan Mihaylovski and the likes may not be that important in view of their theoretical originality. Their texts, however, gain additional meaning by being located in their broader intellectual and social context, thus becoming representative of a generation, an intellectual movement, or a political camp, striving to apply ideological precepts of the common European pool to specific local conditions.

While devising our project, naturally, we intend to draw on the existing works on the topic. However, there are very few titles to cite which aimed at a comprehensive vision of the history of political ideas in East-Central Europe. What is available are either local case studies or synthetic works on the broader region where political thought became subordinated to a general narrative of political or cultural history. It is symptomatic that even the volumes aiming at such a comprehensive vision, such as the one edited by Michel Maslowski and Chantal Delsol, Historie des idées politiques de l'Europe centrale (1998), are compendiums of national-based case studies, failing to offer a comparative analysis. Therefore, rather than following a pre-existing pattern, we intend to draw on methodologically reflective comparative works on particular issues or regions, such as Ivo Banac and Katherine Verdery’s collective volume on interwar national characterologies (National Character and National Ideology in Interwar Eastern Europe, 1995), Balkan identities (2004) edited by Maria Todorova, or Catherine Durandin’s study on the reception of French revolutionary ideas (Révolution à la française ou à la russe, 1989). In addition, we also hope to integrate into our research the recent methodological debates on the nature of comparative and transnational history, drawing on such authors as H. Kaelble, J. Kocka, J. Rüsen, C. Conrad, M. Middell, M. Espagne, and M. Werner. Last but not least, our project is inspired by–and in a way also rooted in–the tradition of the classic syntheses of East-Central European historical phenomena based on an eminently comparative gaze, such as Josef Macůrek’s history of Eastern-European historiography (Dějepisectví evropského východu, 1946), István Bibó’s essay on the “misery of Eastern European small states” (A kelet-európai kisállamok nyomorúsága, 1947) or Oscar Halecki’s Borderlands of Western Civilization (1952).

On the whole, we are aware of the necessity of developing a radically new approach to be able to write a concise modern synthesis of political thought in the region. The key methodological challenge of the project is to avoid on the one hand a unifying narrative that would essentialize the region and, on the other hand, a traditional system of separate subchapters presenting various national histories. The focus of our inquiries is political language, the way political ideas were framed in view of the available conceptual devices, and how this became institutionalized and reproduced by the emerging nation-states. The very notion of modernization in the region is intimately linked to the emergence of modern terminologies and the transformation of vernaculars, making them capable of expressing and transmitting the new ideological programs. At the same time, rather than delving into historical linguistics we are focusing on languages not in linguistic but in semantic terms – how certain ideas became pronounceable, how certain keywords changed their meaning, how the speakers reflected on the task of “constructing” a new conceptual framework to drive home their message. Therefore, the subject of the book is not language per se, rather political languages in the sense used by John Pocock, thus analyzing the interplay of intentionality (the self-positioning of the speaker), the social and institutional setting of the discourse, and the meaning-generating process of the language itself (how certain concepts start to live a life of their own in the reception process). The constitutive elements of our “puzzle” are, thus, not so much individual thinkers as narrative patterns, rhetorical devices, keywords, as well as clusters of thinkers, intellectual milieus, and networks of ideological transmission. Thus, we will tell the story of the “negotiation of modernity” in the light of the change of intellectual styles (Romanticism, Social Darwinism, Konservative Revolution, etc.), which framed the local contexts and, in their turn, came to be framed by them.

The most innovative aspect of our research is its dialogical nature. One of the obvious gains of such an approach is that we can test the interpretative assumptions present in various national historiographies against the situations in neighboring countries. For instance, only if we see that there is a strong “peasantist” intellectual stream in inter-war Hungary or Romania, we could ask why it was relatively weaker in Poland or Greece, the existence of various Peasant parties notwithstanding. Thus, the comparison opens up questions we would not ask just taking a single national context. The notion of Late-Enlightenment and the complicated relationship of Enlightenment, Sentimentalism, Romanticism also gets a completely different heuristic force when we realize that the drift between ideological and aesthetic frameworks and the surprisingly long survival of some elements of the Enlightenment program, such as the model of stadial history and the issue of sociability, is a regional phenomenon which is crucial for understanding the nation-building narratives of the mid-19th century. Very often the local interpretative traditions written from a retrospective point of view with the intention of “canonizing” the national ideology fused the texts written in the late-eighteenth century with the 1830-1840s, presuming a kind of teleology in the formation of the modern national consciousness. By drawing attention to the Enlightenment intellectual influences and paradigms, which were often mediated by supra-national frameworks, we hope to question this vision of unproblematic “national evolution” and to indicate both the cleavages and the continuities between “Enlightenment” and “Romantic” projects.

A similar case is the notion of “critical turns”, which has originally been used for the anti-Romantic intellectual trend of the Romanian Junimea movement in the 1860-70s, but can be extended as an analytical category to describe various intellectual groupings in the region, inspired by positivism and launching an attack against “national romanticism”, while often developing a new organicist understanding of nationality. These phenomena become visible only in a comparative framework of analysis, where the research questions based on the historiography of a given case initiates a dialogue with other cases and leads to the formation of a new analytical category or research hypothesis to be tested regionally.

 We can compress these comparative “operations” into three basic types – a, raising the question of the apparent non-existence of a phenomenon based on its existence in other comparable contexts and discussing the reasons for this absence – or identifying it as a non-canonical but existing tradition (e.g. the issue of peasantisms mentioned above) b, “restoring” the common European intellectual horizons of discourses which are interpreted in a national-teleological key (the question of Late Enlightenment) and c, subsuming various phenomena, which are marked with different labels in their respective contexts, under one analytical category (the case of “critical turns”), or vice-versa – unraveling the divergent ideological functions of nominally identical notions (e.g. “Slavic democracy”).

The temporal range of the project, covering the period from the late-18th century to the beginning of the 21st, also poses serious methodological problems in terms of comparing cases which had “different temporalities” in different points of time. While the Hungarian, Polish or Bohemian Enlightenments can be compared both in their intellectual influences and temporal horizons, we encounter rather different historical dynamism if we move East or Southeast, where some of these ideas can be traced well beyond the mid-19th century. At the same time, the similar temporal frame of the Greek Enlightenment covers the markedly different intellectual sources and channels of mediation  (for instance, the Italian connection, which was not very significant in the Central European cases). The same goes for the long shadow of National Romanticism, which in most cultures of the region extends well beyond the temporal framework usually allotted to Romanticism as an esthetic category. It is the rather sinister irony of history that the moment of “synchronization” for many of these cultures, which happened in the inter-war period, coincided with the anti-modernist fashion in Europe, thus Europeanization in this sense meant exactly the rejection of a liberal-democratic value system based on an evolutionist vision of history. The communist period provides another interesting example to the heuristics of comparative research – while here the temporality of the phenomenon largely overlaps (1945-1989) for most of the countries in question, the internal dynamism of these regimes was very divergent and thus the local historiographies also developed very different interpretative patterns. Our task will be, once again, to test the validity of such analytical categories as “national Communism” in very divergent contexts (e.g. Yugoslav, Polish, Hungarian, Romanian, Bulgarian, Slovak, and in a way, not as the dominant ideology but as a contender, also Greece), tracing the very different ideological antecedents (agrarian populism, anti-Stalinism, ethno-nationalism, anti-Occidentalism) and at the same time registering the similar rhetorical claims (“own path to Socialism”, etc.).

In all these historical contexts the issue of modernity was at the core of the ideological debates and analyzing them raises important questions concerning the features of political modernity as such. A case in point is the local “hybridization” of the liberal doctrine in different contexts, where the emphasis shifted from the self-regulating mechanisms of civil society to the state-imposed new ideological and institutional structures stemming from the Western liberal model (for instance, the export of the Belgian constitution to the Balkans in the 19th century). This process serves as an ideal test-case for discussing the purported uniqueness of the Western liberal-democratic experience and the exportability of ideas and structures to societies with very different social and cultural background.

Paradoxically, appropriating the anti-modernist ideological framework in the inter-war period also formed part of a modernizing agenda, which brings us to the fundamental ambiguity of the modernist project, discussed by Zygmunt Bauman among others. In a similar way, understanding the Communist project also requires a reflective notion of modernity. There has been a tendency to interpret these regimes as derailed processes of “catching up”, but at the same time one can also argue for striking continuities between the pre-1945 authoritarian anti-modernist agenda and the post-war socialist experiment.