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Out of favor with ‘progress’: Dr. C reviews Polish scholar Lelewel

Date: April 2007

The Sarmatian Review, vol. 27, no. 2 (April 2007):1316-1317. Out of Favor with “Progress” Attracted by the apparent similarities in their historical development, Joachim Lelewel (1786-1861), Poland’s famous leftist scholar, sets out to outline A Historical Parallel of Spain and Poland in the 16th, 17th, and 19th Centuries.

Lelewel’s is an early exercise in comparativism. His methodology draws on the Antiquity, Enlightenment, and Romanticism. Plutarch’s Parallel Lives serves as his partial model. “Enlightened” anti-Catholicism pervades Lelewel’s work, while Romantic liberal nationalism supplies its main ideological message. Unlike his illustrious contemporary Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881), the Polish scholar eschews spinning tales about “The Great Man in History.” He insists that “comparisons cannot focus on a brief moment. They must be based upon the entire course of the life of a nation. They do not look for identical elements; true, they pinpoint the differences hidden in apparent and incidental similarities” (p. 19). The nation is more important than the state and therefore Lelewel downplays the instituti

onal forces emphasized by his other famous contemporary, Heinrich von Ranke (1798-1876). That Lelewel was a nationalist is obvious. However, his brand of Romantic nationalism has its roots firmly planted in the tradition of the multi-ethnic Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The scholar’s Polishness was a conscious choice and not a function of “blood and soil.” And, for Lelewel, this was not just mere theory. His grandfather’s name was Heinrich Löllhöffel von Löwensprung, a Polonized noble Prussian family transplanted from Austria. They quickly became staunch Polish patriots.

One thus chose to be Polish, which entailed a duty to fight for the nation’s freedom. One’s will made one Polish. Within this volonté générale context, according to Lelewel, “Progress” was the hidden hand that inevitably propelled the engine of history, on the one hand. On the other, the humanity’s development was retarded by nefarious reactionary forces: the Throne and the Altar. The Historical Parallel dutifully follows this set up. In an interesting esthetic innovation, Lelewel analyses each nation in separate, parallel columns which he interrupts periodically with synthetic comments in standard text format. The scholar argues that Christianity meant Western civilization. Nations which adopted the Christian faith late were therefore culturally retarded.

That impacted Poland, which, to a large extent, modeled itself after the West but joined it only after a millennium apart. Christian since before its inception, Spain was on the other side of the scale. Spain dominated both land and sea. Poland was a land power. Both were magnificent, the latter in particular resplendent in its freedom. However, by the 17th century both nations suffered from serious internal problems. “Internal factors of the decline of the states can exist dormant for a very long time unless they are assisted by external factors” (p. 30). Predatory neighbors provided the external stimuli to collapse. What Russia became for the noble Commonwealth, France was for its Iberian neighbor.

These crafty enemies first were propelled by the matters of religion and then by “mercantile and military interests” (p. 35). Their nefarious meddling and brute force destroyed Spain and Poland. The former was reduced to a status of a French dependency. The latter was completely eradicated from the map by Russia, Prussia, and Austria. Yes, the affairs were rotten in Poland and Spain. The former was paralyzed by a “noble democracy” (demokratyzm szlachecki) run amuck; the latter suffered of “somber and reckless despotism” (posępny i nieprzezorny despotyzm) (p. 38). However, Lelewel never tires of repeating that, “if the external forces did not meddle,” the once glorious states would not collapse. Could the Poles and the Spaniards have dealt successfully with both internal and external problems to prevent the collapse? Lelewel doubts it: “It all stemmed from the universal flow of things. To reverse, stop, and predict it was not in human power” (p. 38).

Overwhelming, unassailable forces of history control human events. The scholar clearly believes in historical determinism. The engine of history is “Progress”: “for eight hundred years the European family has been on the track of progress” (p. 44). Because of its “mad political freedom” (p. 41), Poland fell afoul of the forces that determine winners and losers in history.This begs a question: Was the destruction and partition of Poland “progress”? But Lelewel fails to posit such a question. Instead, he wistfully proposes that if only Poland latches itself to the train of Progress, it should automatically regain its freedom. In other words, Lelewel thinks that if Poland becomes progressive, leftist, and revolutionary, it will free itself.

Unfortunately, many in the Polish elite shared this mad vision and therefore the Poles, as perfect revolutionaries, became Karl Marx’s favorite nation in the 19th century. And everyone at home paid for this romantic folly. Aside from crude determinism, Lelewel subscribes to a number of other prejudices befitting a leftist. He claims for example that Christianity crippled one’s brain. Various religious injunctions “bound one’s mind, chained one’s free genius, created moral captivity, narrowed one’s thought, and forced the abasement of one’s reason and heart” (p. 39).

The Catholics are more afflicted by the malady than the Protestants. For Lelewel, the Jesuits serve the role which the Jews play for the anti-Semites. And he freely subscribes to the “black legend” of the Inquisition, a staple of progressive propaganda. The scholar also indulges in what can be termed as “psycho-history.” His work is peppered with proto-sociological vignettes about “the Spaniard bloated with smugness and arrogance,” on the one hand, and “the Pole smitten with his own pride” (p. 39) Or, to recall a few other bon mots: “the predilection of [the Spanish] nation toward a greater excitability of the senses and cruelty of the heart suffered and committed more violent deeds; hence, a more savage and terrible fanaticism existed among the Spaniards” (p. 31).

As for the Poles, “the inclination of the nation, which was more gentle and moderate, never allowed any overly violent steps; hence, Poland’s fanaticism was slow in arriving and it failed to develop in quite as rabid a form” (p. 31). Little wonder that even today the Spanish are not very interested in translating Lelewel into their language and publishing his ethnic stereotypes, which they take for Polish nationalist self-love.

All in all, according to Lelewel, Spain and Poland are different nations. The most salient similarity was that each, for a variety of complex, usually unrelated reasons, fell off the train of “Progress.” And, the scholar argues quite correctly, it is extremely hard for a nation to succeed if it fails to conform to the spirit of the times. Success requires operating in congruity with the historical forces, even if one is against them. True patriots of all stripes should take a cue from Lelewel on this point. But, arguably, it is quite hard, on the account of the unwieldiness of his prose and staleness of his leftist thought, to learn statecraft from him. Therefore it will be hard to applaud Jan Kieniewicz, who resurrected the latest edition of A Historical Parallel, in his proposition that “Lelewel ought to be read.”

That would be a task perhaps grudgingly indispensable for a specialist, but hardly advisable for a layman. Try Edmund Burke. Or, better yet, read Zygmunt Count Krasiński, in particular if you wish to savor the best of Polish Romanticism.

Joachim Lelewel, Historyczna paralela Hiszpanii z Polską w XVI, XVII, XVIII wieku [The Historical Parallel of Spain and Poland in the 16th, 17th, and 19th Centuries], new edition by Jan Kieniewicz (Warszawa: Wydawnictwo DiG, OBTA, 2006).

ISBN 83-7181-412-7, 978-83-412-9 (DIG) ISBN 83-923482-2-2, 978-83-923482-2-1 (OBTA UW)