Continuity and Change in Poland:
Conservatism in Polish Political Thought

By Rett R. Ludwikowski. Washington, DC. The Catholic University of America Press. 1991. xv + 313 pages. Hardcover. $39.95.

Ewa M.Thompson

This is a balancing accompaniment to most books on Polish historiography and political thought, in that it deals with a current in Polish intellectual life that has been little remembered by the left-wing Polish cultural establishment. For it has to be said clearly that ever since the partitions, the tenor of Polish intellectual life has been leftist, even as the population at large fervently clung to a fairly conservative version of Roman Catholicism.

According to Ludwikowski, the early Polish conservatives were mostly ultramontanists, or believers in Poland's unique mission among nations. Such was the Rev. Pawel Woronicz, a nineteenth-century forerunner of Polish messianism (otherwise known as the brainchild of Andrzej Towianski), and Henryk Rzewuski, a believer in the spirit of the nation and the rights of aristocracy—like Joseph de Maistre to whom he was indebted. Of a different nature was the conservatism of Prince Drucki-Lubecki, Minister of Treasury in the Kingdom of Poland in 1821–1830, who understood that Poland's role as the granary of Europe had ended owing to a lack of access to the Baltic Sea and the protectionist grain laws of the British (otherwise known as advocates of free trade). Lubecki had no illusions about the opening of western markets to Polish goods, and instead of competing in the west he advocated building economic bridges to the east. It may be argued that this policy was forced on him by the Russian tsar whose employee he was. Be it as it may, the eastward orientation of Polish industry continued for generations, and it did not serve Poland well in the twentieth century. It was forced on Poland by the great powers and its modification is certainly in order; change has been attempted by economic conservatives in the government of the Third Republic, among them Jan Krzysztof Bielecki.

According to Lubecki's friend, Prince Sapieha (as narrated by Ludwikowski), Lubecki's goal was not the armed struggle for independence but an intellectual takeover of the Russian empire, an intellectual Wallenrodism if you like. Lubecki had obviously underestimated both the ability to deceive and the depth of the patriotic feelings in Russia. Furthermore, Lubecki was no democrat, believing rather in a reliance on the upper classes and distrusting universal franchise.

The works of nineteenth-century Polish conservative thinkers need to be translated into English.

Ludwikowski points out that "for Polish conservatives, society was an organic entity formed in a historical process of gradual development." This organic notion was a legacy of the Catholic Middle Ages but its formulation was probably due to the poorly digested ideas of such German thinkers as Herder. Ludwikowski sees the Constitution of 3 May 1791 as a source of both conservative and liberal (in contemporary American sense) ideas and developments. The 1791 Constitution bore much influence of the French left, notably of Rousseau, but it also asserted a special role of the upper classes to whom it dispensed most of the democratic rights the Poles so like to speak about when they boast of the far-sightedness of the Third of May Constitution. Ludwikowski weaves into his narrative a story of some prominent representatives of the radical left in Polish intellectual life, beginning with Stanislaw Staszic, an eighteenth century ex-priest whose Advice to Poland proclaimed the will of the nation to be the source of political power; and W. Gutkowski, author of a socialist utopia, A Journey to Kalopea (1817).

After the 1830 rising, the politically active part of Polish society was forced to emigrate. An emigration center was established in Paris with whatever family money the landed aristocracy managed to transfer abroad. (This seems entirely justified in view of the fact that, had they not done so, the Russian government would have confiscated it and used it to build a couple more palaces in St. Petersburg, or buy a few more art treasures for the Winter Palace.) But many insurrectionists who fled Poland were penniless, and their fate is somewhat less pretty than that of the leader of the "Great Emigration," Prince Adam Czartoryski. In the 1830s the emigres from Poland were perhaps the first wave of immigrants from eastern Europe that was to flow almost uninterruptedly to the west throughout the next two centuries. (This unwelcome immigration was largely caused by the callous consent of the western powers to the partitions of Poland in the eighteenth century. The law of unintended consequences.)

The disastrous 1830 rising was preceded by a relative abundance of left wing revolutionary literature; the 1831 disaster brought the sobering of minds and inclination toward conservative thought. It was around the Czartoryskis residence in Paris that the futile and, from the present standpoint, useless theories about Poland began to be articulated. Numerous writers came up with their own versions of Polish history and why Poland failed, and what Poland should become in the future. There were some interesting writers among them, such as Zygmunt Krasinski, a poet and a philosopher, whose views on aristocracy and democracy deserve further study.

Shortly after the 1830 rising, a serious conservative movement arose in Galicia. This group of well-rooted people (unlike the Paris emigres, they had a steady source of income either from their estates, or from gainful employment at the Jagiellonian University, or by being employed in the Austrian administration) began to formulate what was to become for Poles a quintessentially conservative "Polish" philosophy for years to come. The movement had its own periodical, Czas, founded in 1848. It was generally loyalist to the partitioning powers, and it proclaimed the principle of gradual and organic development of society. After the 1863 rising, the movement split into the "Cracow historians" school (they began publishing Przeglad Polski in 1866) and the less intellectual "Podole" group which was basically dedicated to promoting Polishness in Ukraine, resisting the Ukrainian national movement and opposing the idea of land reform. The Cracow historians published a manifesto, the famous Teka Stanczyka, in which they chastised Poles for their shortcomings.

In Warsaw, Gazeta Codzienna (edited by the novelist Jozef Ignacy Kraszewski) provided a forum for the exchange of ideas, among them the promotion of values "typical of bourgeois mentality: charity, thrift, industriousness, diligence, and persistence." Social Darwinism found few adherents among Polish conservatives. Polish economists argued that free trade has to depend on the level of industrial development of a country. Given the restrictions placed on Polish trade and industry by the occupying powers, this does not seem as disappointing as it otherwise would have been. Andrzej Zamoyski advocated "organic work and political inertia," while his adversary, Margrave Alexander Wielopolski, favored conciliation with the partitioning powers. The "tri-loyalism" advocated by the Cracow "Stanczyks" was widely accepted among Polish conservatives after the failed 1863 rising, from Wlodzimierz Spasowicz in St. Petersburg to the reactionary Antoni Walewski in Krakow. Conservatism suffered a defeat with the appearance of the socialist and nationalist movements in the late nineteenth century. Among the latter, Roman Dmowski's National Democracy (Endecja) placed itself squarely on the far right side of the political spectrum, pushing conservatives toward the center. Matters were made more complicated by the Austrian government's policy of pitting Polish peasants against Polish landowners, a policy that resulted in the disastrous peasant revolt of 1846 while making the peasants susceptible to socialist ideologies and preventing the peasant-intelligentsia alliance for years to come.

The narrative weaves through Poland's political turmoil and fragmentation in the nineteenth century, and it sketches out twentieth-century developments. In 1919 Poland entered independence with two traditions of neo-conservatism: the Krakow one, which took a grim view of pre-partition Poland, and the Warsaw one, which emphasized the accomplishments of the Noble Democracy before partitions. Neither was perceived as relevant to the restoration of independence which was widely credited to Jozef Pilsudski, a one-time socialist and a fervent Polish patriot. The constitution of 17 March 1921 was indebted to its 1791 predecessor and favored a strong legislation and a weak presidency. The country hobbled along, scoring impressive gains against overwhelming odds. The much-criticized new Constitution of 23 April 1935 established a strong presidency, and it has to be viewed in the context of the two totalitarian neighbors of Poland, Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia.

In Soviet-occupied Poland after World War II, two intellectuals, Stefan Kisielewski and Leopold Tyrmand, carried on the banner of conservatism on the pages of the eclectic Tygodnik Powszechny, a Catholic weekly founded by Jerzy Turowicz. At that time, conservatism was called "liberalism," a curious reversal of terminology that could only occur in a country cut off from contacts with western conservative terminology and forced to use the Aesopian language by communist censors. Unfortunately, then as before, ideas were discussed as properties of people rather than of movements, and the connections, if any, between Polish conservatism and western trends (not names!) remained obscure.

Such is the content. The book is not without blemishes. Structurally, it is somewhat chaotic, with major bits of information hidden in the middle of paragraphs rather than heralded at their beginning. The art of sorting out information and deciding what is important and what is less so is only occasionally applied. One wonders whether the description of ultramontanism (both Polish and French) was not written under the influence of that craving for respectability which conservatives have displayed in a generally hostile environment. Economic and philosophical conservatisms are not always clearly delineated. There is a tendency in the book to list names and external facts at the expense of analysis. Teka Stanczyka is never analyzed, and many other key conservative documents likewise are merely mentioned. To describe the participation of conservatives in the national uprising as "romantic" seems deeply erroneous to me; rather, such loyalty might be described as "Catholic." There is in this book a residual sympathy toward the French Revolution, the sympathy fostered by the generations of Polish leftists, a surprising feature especially in a Polish writer who should be better aware of the connection between European acquiescence to the partitions of Poland and European worry over the conflagration in France in 1789 (if it were not for the French Revolution, the partitions of Poland might not have taken place). It is not altogether clear in what way Polish conservatism was "anti-rationalist" (perhaps in a Cartesian way but certainly not in a Thomistic way). A separate chapter on the connection between Catholicism and conservative ideologies is missing. Personalities rather than analyses dominate the book. There are some mistranslations: O Rzad Chlopskich Dusz should be translated as Who Will Rule the Peasants' Souls? rather than For a Legion of Peasant Souls (p. 203).

But all these shortcomings are balanced by the fact that the book is of a pioneering nature, and that it is poised to become the starting point for more detailed and focused studies of Polish conservatism. There is a need to republish the works of nineteenth-century Polish conservatives in Poland and abroad. Marcin Krol's anthology is nice but insufficient, and many other sources quoted by Ludwikowski are archival. Professor Ludwikowski has approached an important topic competently, readably and with occasional flair. His is one of the worthwhile books that had to be written and deserve to be purchased.

Ewa M.Thompson is Professor of Slavic Studies at Rice University.

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