Polish conservatism, or thinking about the whole (Interview)

Added: 2017-10-30
Added: 2017-10-30

Mateusz Ciołkowski: Professor, historians of political thought assume that the key event for the formation of modern conservatism was the French Revolution, while its founder was British politician and thinker Edmund Burke. In the case of Poland, which loses its independence at the end of the 18th century, and its lands become divided between the invaders, can we indicate an analogous historical moment and figure?

Professor Bogdan Szlachta: It is usually assumed that Polish conservatism was born during the November Uprising and right after its end. And so, between the third partition of Poland in 1795 and the outbreak of the uprising in 1830, we didn’t have positions which would bear signs of conservatism. For almost two generations, there were no thinkers who, referring to the conservative thinking, would play an important role in the intellectual life of the Poles living in the three partitions. It is assumed that they usually counted on assistance from abroad, such as that from Napoleon I, or they advocated a liberal approach, associated with Russian and Prussian monarchs. The outbreak of the November Uprising, which was connected with the decisions of the public authorities (still Polish at that time), as well as its defeat, brought about the appearance of authors who began their deliberations in a conservative spirit.

The so-called Kraków group is considered the first conservative environment. Aleksander Wielopolski, a future important figure in the Kingdom of Poland, Antoni Zygmunt Helcel, a lawyer of German origin who edited the journal of the environment, and Paweł Popiel, who had the longest influence on subsequent generations of Galician conservatives, are associated with the group. The three: Wielopolski, Helcel and Popiel, are usually treated as the first Polish conservatives or members of the first observable conservative movement. At the beginning of the 1930s, the last of those mentioned discussed issues important to conservatives with the Rzewuski brothers, including Leon, who is still classified as a representative of Christian socialism. Discussions on the influence of Christianity on political thinking, reflection on the conditions of survival of the nation, and its aspirations will be important elements of the Polish conservative tradition. The nation was conceived as a clearly structured community whose hierarchy is difficult to change, although it is subject to evolution in the long run. Also, Jean Jacques Rousseau’s concept of the people which loses or announces the abolition of social diversity, was assessed critically.

It is worth realising that members of the first group of Polish conservatives were aware of a certain problem, unknown to other European nations: after all, the First Rzeczpospolita was a powerful state, one of the largest territories in Europe; since the time of its great power in the 16th century, sustained with more and more effort in the 17th and 18th centuries, the central authority was getting weaker. To some extent, the Great Sejm of 1788-1792 and the Constitution of 3 May 1791 turned against these weaknesses, against the domination of particularistic thinking about the interests of individual members of the nation, that is, the Nobles, at the expense of the wellbeing, or perhaps even existing, of the whole. Liberum veto, a sign of this domination, is also a sign of a problem often appearing in the thinking of conservatives: should we maintain the State which existed before the Great Sejm and was changed by the Constitution of 3 May, or rather the form of it which was introduced by the Constitution? In other words, should a conservative honour what was before the attempts to rectify the state of affairs in the First Rzeczpospolita, or rather what the violent and radical protest of 1791 introduced?

Even the first conservatives who were aware of the problem of ‘what to preserve?’, pointed out that it is not so much a particularistic thought which should be preserved, as the existence and wellbeing of the nation as a whole. They asked a question whether the nation also includes the handicapped or still just the Nobles, asserting that the nation is the whole despite its division between the three invaders, and the whole encompassing both the so-called leading layer, or the Nobles, and other social groups. The reflection on the social hierarchy and the need to maintain it was combined in the 1930s with a reflection on one of the main shortcomings in political thinking of the Poles in the end of the First Rzeczpospolita. It was a reflection on disrespect, and even downplaying the political power (government), existing in order to perpetuate the order of the moral value, or the legal value. Representatives of the Kraków group clearly emphasised two issues: on the one hand, the need to keep the whole despite its separation and strengthening the whole within it, between its individual layers; on the other hand, the question of normative conditions of the order within society, and similar conditions of the activity of the power, necessary to maintain order in the social whole, basically composed of the Nobles and non-Nobles.

These were also fundamental problems even when the so-called Peasant Uprising took place in Galicia in 1846. At that time, it transpired that the Austrian authorities, although they were supposed to carry out the task of ordering relations within the social whole, rather oppose its individual parts, and strengthen the opposition of unprivileged layers (peasants) against the Nobles. It was then that people realised that it was impossible to count on governments in an uncritical manner, as their actions are not at all aimed at ordering the relations between individual members of the nation, but rather to play them off against one another.

Professor, you mentioned the Galician Slaughter. In this context, I would like to ask: was the historical and political experience of the Polish conservatism of the 19th century closer to the experience of the French, or the British?

It is usually assumed that members of the Kraków circle who usually criticised, among others, the achievements of G.W.F. Hegel, knew two projects which were called conservative. The first of them, associated with the works of Edmund Burke (also preceding the outbreak of the Great French Revolution), assumed the existence and evolutionary variability (though without violating the so-called basic principles) of the so-called ‘natural constitution’ of a society, allowing to justify, for example, the thesis that the Government Act of 1791 restored the content of the Polish natural constitution, removing or weakening the effects of the previously prevailing particularistic way of thinking, and should be honoured by each partition power; otherwise, they would duplicate the mistake of Englishman Warren Hastings who denied India's natural constitution. Attempts to justify politically significant acts, such as the Glorious Revolution and even the so-called ‘American Revolution’ (which, despite the violence, was supposed to restore what had been violated and constitutive of the nation, just like the Polish Constitution of 3 May) were connected with this model.

Also known were the achievements of Joseph de Maistre, the creator of the second model, considered by the representatives of the Kraków group as problematic, as it (while referring to the natural constitution) didn’t explain ‘the natural’ by the process of evolutionary changes, but rather by the ‘beginning’; requiring a return to what was before; therefore, reaching to  what was before the Constitution of 3 May, what was changed by this act. The model, somewhat close to the heart of Henryk Rzewuski in the middle of the 19th century, was considered by the representatives of the Kraków group as a ‘false conservatism’ project. However, it is worth noting that Burke's model, which was closer to their heart, could also be problematic when it was used to justify the need for the existence of a government which, despite cultural differences, was supposed to honour the natural constitution of the Poles. It was mainly due to the Galicia Uprising and its support by the Austrian government that Wielopolski and Rzewuski were exposed to the accusation of national apostasy for the announcement of a union with Russia. It seems, however, that in the mainstream of the Polish conservative thought of the mid-nineteenth century, Burke's model was chosen more eagerly than de Maistre’s model; in the first, people sought, in particular, justification for the existence and the need to preserve the natural constitution of  many nations as components of the multinational monarchy.

Professor, from what you are saying, it appears that the Polish conservatives of the 19th century were in a very difficult political and intellectual situation. But, perhaps, the monarchists were in an even worse position; on the one hand, they operated under the monarchy, which was imposed on them, and, on the other hand, under a very strong Polish Insurrectionist tradition. How did they function between these opposites?

The insurrection tradition, associated above all with the November and January uprisings, was indeed extremely strong, connected with appeals to undertake an ‘extraordinary act’, aimed at liberating the nation, and in some terms, also to a radical transformation of Polish society. These appeals were particularly loud in emigration, where the foundations of conservative (and, to some extent, monarchist) thinking were also created. Supporters of two main positions: those connected with Prince Adam Czartoryski’s Lambert Hotel, and ultramontanists, emphasising the importance of the papacy, were heading in different directions. The former, sometimes exposing the need for an extraordinary act, formulated a monarchic concept not so much referring to the electoral monarchy, as (due to the lack of a dynasty to which the Poles could appeal) to the proposal of a real king; a real leader of the Poles who are seeking to achieve independence. Regardless of whether the creators of this proposal were based on liberal, or rather conservative foundations, the proposal seems interesting because it resulted from the thinking focused on action rather than considering normative conditions and calling on the rulers, including the partition powers, to restore them. Consequently, there was an interesting tension in the conservative thinking between those who stressed the need to find a monarch who would also care for the survival of the Polish nation, perhaps including in it more and more numerous groups, dispersed in various partitions, and those who thought ‘normatively’. The monarchists were in a difficult position, as they could not refer to the dynastic tradition; when the project of the real king transpired to be ineffective, usually – similarly to Galicia in relation to the Habsburgs – people appealed to monarchs sitting on the thrones who, in the opinion of conservative people, were able to guarantee the continuation of the natural constitution, also among the Poles. It should be remembered that also in the conservative tradition at the time, in the 19th century, although not frequently at first, the Republican project was considered a form suitable for Poland, among others, due to the previous elective tradition.

In the second half of the 19th century, we can again refer to the Galician tradition. One of the best-known conservative circles in Poland was the Stańczyk’s group, made up of prominent scholars but also politicians taking part in the political life of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Based on this very environment, could you please reconstruct the discussion about the problem of national apostasy? It seems that it is important for understanding the specificity of the dilemmas and views of the Polish conservatives of that time.

You posed the question very aptly. Polish literature often raises the question as to whether the Stańczyk’s group, operating, from the second half of the 1860s, in the so-called autonomous Galicia, in the dualistic monarchy of the Habsburgs, were still dreaming of an independent Rzeczpospolita, or they accepted the need to recognise the foreign Austrian power, and fell into the apostasy that you mentioned. The problem is very interesting, but we must understand that, for many years after the Revolutions of 1848, the centralist tendency dominated in the Habsburg monarchy. The tendency was combined with the idea of ​​a possibility to elect to representative bodies, representatives of units rather than representatives of individual nations of the monarchy. In the face of domination of German-speaking voters in the Austrian part of the monarchy, the threat was that their representatives would prevail in the legislative bodies. If we realise this, then we will understand that centralist tendencies, associated with decisions regarding electoral law, could lead to minimising the interests of individual nations, such as the Poles or Czechs, and even to putting, in the face of the so-called State that was widely feared at that time, of individual citizens deprived of their nationality.

If we look at the speeches of representatives of the Stańczyk's group from this perspective, we will notice that they, being aware of growth of the contemporary State up to the stage of its ‘pantheisation’ (as it was described then), warned people against the threat that the German majority would dominate the public life. They put a special emphasis on the need to defend and develop Polish culture; they opposed the new and dangerous model of relations between the State and an individual (as a citizen, but no longer a member of a nation, co-existing alongside others within the same multinational monarchy). They were looking at the monarchy as a whole, ruled by the emperor of many countries and many nations. In other words, our today's strictly liberal habits in thinking about the State were dangerous or limited from the point of view of the Kraków Stańczyk’s group.

If, therefore, we take into account the aforementioned perspective, we will notice that representatives of the Stańczyk’s group tried to preserve Polishness to the greatest possible extent, taking into consideration the conditions under the Habsburg monarchy. They weren’t only struggling with strictly individualistic thinking, leading to subjecting a minority to the German majority, but they were striving to think about the national whole remaining within the monarchy ruled by the ruler of the Habsburg dynasty. The ruler which (as some tried to convince) should see the countries belonging to his monarchy, honour their separateness and the differences between these nations. Therefore, it is difficult to talk about their apostasy; on the contrary, we can see an unusual interest in the survival of a nation professing a religion which was also close to the Habsburgs’ hearts. This was important, because the Stańczyk’s group showed that, in fact, of all the partition powers, only Austria remained Catholic; for this reason, the greatest hopes should be placed in it. I think this is the point of view which we should bear in mind when looking at the appeals to the monarch, calling him to care for the countries, rather than for individual units only, as well as calling him to critically approach the dangerous way of thinking based on denial of nations as groups involving individual units, treated either completely separately, driven by their own particular interests, or as embedded in the entire ‘class’ or ‘layered’ groups, but not national. Perhaps their way of thinking about the Nobles as the leading layer, raising peasants in the ‘organic nation’ was outdated or less attractive. Perhaps it was the reason for which they were also attacked by ultramontanists, accusing the Stańczyk’s group of instrumentalising the Church for political purposes. Perhaps fit was the reason for which they were getting into the most serious or the easiest recognisable dispute (carried out until today) with a liberal way of thinking, justifying the possibility of designing by individuals of their own rules of action, free from entanglement in the natural constitution of the nation as an ‘oppressive tool’ in the hands of the hegemonic group, and still trying to impose ‘moral dogmas’.

One could say that the Stańczyk’s group benefited to a great extent from what the representatives of the so-called Kraków circle, mentioned by us before, have achieved. They were getting into disputes characteristic of the last three decades of the 19th century and first decade of the 20th century; with groups entering the public sphere, e.g. peasants and burghers, which we associate with the so-called liberal journals. What's more, they argued about how to understand Catholicism, the role of the Church in the state; whether it should be perceived as a political power or merely a power which affects the spiritual and normative realms.

We should remember that representatives of the Stańczyk’s group are not the only conservatives, acting even in the Habsburg monarchy. Usually, the group of conservative Podolaks is mentioned right next to them. The Podolaks were operating primarily in eastern Galicia. In Podolak's thinking, we find a very pronounced nationalistic emphasis, the primacy (not only cultural) of the Poles over Ruthenians, today referred to as Ukrainians. In Stańczyk’s group’s thinking, it is difficult to find the nationalist accent, which promises interesting disputes of the interwar period. They mainly pointed to the need to preserve the hierarchy in the society which would be perceived organically, and the duties of the royal court towards the commune, rather than the hierarchy of the people living in the territory of the Austrian Empire. They wanted to show that the Poles co-create Galicia with the Ruthenians.

Professor, you mentioned the fact that the Stańczyk’s group created a very specific manifesto, which was transferred, also thanks to successive generations of this school, to the interwar period, i.e. to the time when Poland regained its independence in 1918. Perhaps one should ask: bearing in mind that large modern democratisation processes were launched at that time, how has this change in the circumstances influenced the nature of Polish conservatism?

We must admit that conservative circles, active in the Polish political life of the interwar period, were of little importance. Certain transformations, taking place in the first decade of the 20th century, led to the weakening of the influence of ‘thinking by the terms of nations as a whole’ or ‘the States as a whole’. As a political force, as members of political parties, the conservatives were marginalised, knowing that political parties are now forming for groups which have different interests than maintaining the former ‘organic whole’ in the long run. Therefore, one could say that their thinking of the ‘whole’ was less and less up-to-date.

Nevertheless, the conservatives participated in ideological disputes in the period of the Second Rzeczpospolita. A large and significant group was created by those who, due to their academic preparation, could reflect on areas of political life, such as the law. Among lawyers, many remembered previous disputes, including the position of the Stańczyk’s group, and tried to use these ways of conservative thinking in that situation. They played a great role during the discussion on the constitution of the new, independent Poland. What’s characteristic (and what constitutes a certain transfer from the previous era), they clearly opposed the solutions introduced in the Constitution of March 1921, for example, the principle of people's sovereignty, found, primarily, in France’s experience. Władysław Leopold Jaworski or Stanisław Estreicher argued that the Constitution of 1921 refers to the ‘people’ which are merely the ‘personification fiction’. At the same time, they discussed what the normative conditions of the legislator's activity should be; whether (in accordance with the tendencies prevailing in contemporary Europe) these are only the rights and freedoms of a human being as an abstract unit, or rather the norm of natural law, being aware that the tendency to release ‘people’, as the legislator, from these kinds of restrictions, was becoming increasingly clear. In this respect, the most spectacular proposal was made by the aforementioned Władysław Leopold Jaworski, who, in his draft constitution, prepared in the late 1920s, spoke about the so-called principles of Christ's morality, which the President of the Rzeczpospolita was supposed to take into account; he had the right to deny a legislative proposal of the parliament if it was found that it wasn’t in line with the principles of Christ’s morality.


It is also interesting that these conservatives supported the coup d'état carried out by Marshal Józef Piłsudski in 1926.

Yes, they did, but also, they joined the stream, critical of the March constitution and, at the same time, preparing the draft of the new Basic Law. It is often acknowledged that Jaworski’s Projekt Konstytucji [The Constitution Project] somehow defined the way of thinking which laid the foundations of the Constitution of 1935, as it focused on a State embracing the whole regardless of the religious or cultural diversity of its citizens as its components, ensuring (declaratively: conflict-free) harmonisation of the interests of various groups. At least as a postulate, this approach was aimed at ending the threats borne by particularistic thinking, the party-oriented (or even party-favouring) thinking, but also at removing dangers associated with parliamentary power as the possibility of setting any standards by the parliament as a representative of the ‘people’ free from any normative restrictions. Jaworski’s project is a proof of the vitality of conservative thinking in Poland.

Recently added articles


This website is a part of the project entitled ‘Polish Political Thought and Independence: A Program for the Promotion of Polish Intellectual Heritage Abroad’, generously funded
by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland as A part of ‘Public Diplomacy 2017’ programme, component ‘Collaboration in the field of Public Diplomacy 2017’.
Design by Stereoplan