by Piotr Kuligowski and Quentin Schwanck
In numerous studies, the 19th century is identified as the dawn of modern politics, for it was then that contemporary political ideologies emerged and/or gained popularity outside the narrow circles of intellectuals. Indeed, the rise of capitalism and the entanglement of deep social and economic phenomena then paved the way for new comprehensive ways of thinking and perceiving the world. This intellectual process gained a particular momentum in the period that Eric J. Hobsbawm correctly called ‘the age of revolution’ (roughly 1789–1848). It was in this period that numerous authors clustered together novel single concepts such as ‘liberalism’ and ‘socialism’ to create all-encompassing intellectual systems. These conceptual constellations subsequently allowed political actors to grasp the entirety of socio-political phenomena and recognise them within the framework of a well-ordered system of thinking.
Yet how and why could French political concepts penetrate Polish discourse and contribute to the emergence of a distinct national ideology? And how do ideologies disappear?—these are two crucial questions we have addressed in our recent research. To tackle these questions, we combined research toolkits provided by ideology studies in the way proposed by Michael Freeden and his followers, as well as the methods elaborated by the representatives of German conceptual history (Begriffsgeschichte). Therefore, we perceive ideologies as relative stable galaxies of concepts (following Freeden’s definition of concepts as the ‘building blocks of ideology’)—even though, as happens in the cosmos, certain changes may occur from time to time: supernovae explode, meteorites fall, and stars and planets collide. In other words, our perspective allowed us—by tracing the transfers and transformations of individual concepts—to grasp the moment of the emergence and disappearance of the ideology we are interested in.
In our case study we underline the role played by the asymmetrical pair of counter-concepts ‘individualism-socialism’, coined initially by the French philosopher Pierre Leroux (1797–1871), within the discourse of Polish democrats in exile. Indeed, despite the highly divergent sociopolitical conditions that obtained in Poland and France at the time, in the wider picture it is possible to observe certain common points and problems they intended to face. In particular, both Polish and French political actors from that time perceived the world as being in turmoil, and sought effective remedies to cure fears related to the modernising world. An important watershed in this story is the year 1830—a year of revolution in France, which also marked the outbreak of the anti-Russian November Uprising in the Russian-controlled part of Poland. Both events triggered profound changes in these countries’ political landscapes.
Indeed, the case of post-1789 France is particularly interesting. During the first decades of the 19th century, many French thinkers, and particularly the first socialists, acknowledged the radical changes faced by society, that is to say the collapse of political legitimacy, the contestation of religious values, and the emergence of the question sociale in the wake of liberalisation and industrialisation. Trying to describe and analyse the new human condition, early socialist thinkers such as Henri de Saint-Simon, Charles Fourier, and their successors decisively contributed to shaping modern political categories.
Their critique of the existing order led them to define the two great ideological alternatives that we still know today as socialism and liberalism, elucidating this opposition with the articulation of decisive counter-concepts. In this article, we investigate one of the most interesting cases of this ideological process, focusing on Pierre Leroux—the first French thinker to use the concept of socialisme. Leroux began to formulate his original philosophy in the 1830s and, although he was largely forgotten after the rise of scientific socialism, he greatly contributed to the political and social debate in the 19th century. As he insisted in 1857, it was he ‘who first used the word socialisme. It was then a neologism, a necessary neologism [coined] in contrast to individualisme, which was beginning to prevail.’
Indeed, in his periodical publications such as the Revue encyclopédique (1831–1833) and the Encyclopédie Nouvelle (1833–1840), but also in many of his books, Leroux formulated an innovative social philosophy based on the pair of counter-concepts individualisme and socialisme. He originally defined both terms in a pejorative fashion to describe the most extreme expressions of liberté and égalité, that is to say, atomisation and authoritarianism (referring to hierarchical forms of socialism such as Saint-Simonism): his objective being to find the golden mean between them.
Finally, Leroux adopted a positive defition of socialism on the grounds that he considered this notion to be the best one to describe his philosophy, asserting that ‘we are socialists if one calls socialism the doctrine which will not sacrifice any of the words of the formula liberté, fraternité, égalité, unité, but which will conciliate all of them.’ By doing so, he conferred a deep political dimension on this concept, and argued that the only way for a nation to become socialist was to be democratic. Indeed, democracy was for Leroux the true regime of the golden mean: as all voices would be heard and all social energies would be expressed in the democratic debate, tensions would gradually fade and the oppositions would converge in a higher state of harmony.
Pierre Leroux never became an ideological leader as he did not create a party or school of thought, but his original philosophy exerted a great influence on the 19th-century intellectual stage. His theory of democracy enabled him to become the first thinker to establish a fruitful dialogue between socialism and republicanism, thus becoming the great pioneer of republican socialism, an ideological stance and sensibility which played a great role in 19th- and 20th-century France. Furthermore, his doctrine gained a considerable audience at the European level, particularly in the small circles of the reformist elite. Indeed, as Leroux was a very close friend and interlocutor of George Sand, many of his most central ideas were presented or debated in her novels. As Sand was then the most famous female writer on the European continent, as well as an inspiration for many socialist movements, she enabled Leroux’s ideas to reach European intellectuals such as Alexander Herzen (1812–1870), Heinrich Heine (1797–1856), Giuseppe Mazzini (1805–1872), and Adam Mickiewicz (1798–1855), making him a central figure to evaluate the impact of ‘wandering ideas’ in 19th-century Europe.
In turn, the November uprising (that was finally defeated in 1831) marks a new period for Polish history, in which the massive emigration of cultural and political elites to Western Europe began. This phenomenon is called the Great Emigration, which had a profound impact on Polish culture (notably literature and poetry); but at the same time, its impact on the modernisation of the Polish political imagination should also not be underestimated.
One of the political milieus of crucial importance that emerged amidst the waves of Polish emigration was the Polish Democratic Society. The Society was created in 1832 in Paris in the wake of a split within the Polish National Committee, which was the result of debates about the failed uprising and the directions of the activities in exile. As possibly the first organisation in Europe to have the adjective ‘democratic’ in its name, the Society exerted a strong influence on Polish political life in the 19th century. In fact, it was the longest-existing organisation in exile, as its dissolution took place only in 1862. Moreover, the Society proved its organisational effectiveness: it had a clearly exposited political program and agenda, it established a network of would-be conspirators within the Polish lands, and was able to run several journals, amongst which Demokrata Polski (Polish Democrat) occupied a central place. The Society was also influential in the number of its rank-and-file members: at the peak of its activity, this organisation had approximately 2,500 members. For these reasons, certain historians (e.g., Sławomir Kalembka) have contended that the Society was in fact the very first modern Polish political party.
Thanks to these democrats’ close engagement with the ideas of the day, the asymmetrical pair of counter-concepts ‘individualism-socialism’ became transferred into Polish political discourse. As usual, however, transfer is not solely a process of passive transmission of a certain idea from its domestic context into the new absorbing one. Rather, it is always a process of creative adaptation that does not take place without frictions. From this angle, conceptual transfer arrives rather as multi-layered mediation involving numerous creative actors (authors, translators, publishing houses, funders, readers, and the like). This was exactly the case with the Polish democrats-in-exile, as they adapted the pair of ‘individualism-socialism’ to their own particular goals. Primarily, it came in handy when they tried to present themselves not as dangerous radicals, but rather as representatives of a golden mean between two extremes. In this way, the democrats made an effort to position themselves between the two political wings that existed within the Polish political milieu in exile: socialism represented by certain groups situated on the left of the Polish Democratic Society (such as the Commons of the Polish People, Gromady Ludu Polskiego), and individualism, associated with liberal-aristocratic conceptions, was to create negative alignments with the political milieu led by prince Adam Jerzy Czartoryski (1770–1861).
Over the course of time, the Polish idea of democracy broadened its meaning. In the early 1830s, when the Polish Democratic Society was formed, democracy as a concept was associated solely with certain forms of organising political power. As the debates unfolded, however, it received new layers of meaning, saturated by new transferred concepts (derived mostly from the French republicanism and early socialism). First of all, in the 1840s democracy became a definite political movement, opposed to aristocracy, and, consequently, one type of possible political identification. What is more, democracy during that decade was also associated with a specific vision of society: its realisation was to be dependent on the transformation of the Polish socio-political realities that existed at that time. Last but not least, ‘democracy’ likewise meant supporting a certain historical viewpoint, as it encompassed a precise vision of the past as well.
These conceptual changes finally set the scene for the emergence of the concept of ‘democratism’, which became a label for a fully-fledged ideology that in the Polish context encompassed several ‘spaces of experience’—to use the term Reinhart Koselleck deploys to depict our experiences not as structures depending on chronological time, but rather as interrelated, malleable, and contingent paths. Indeed, ‘democratism’ was a future-oriented concept, defined as a golden mean between socialism and individualism (or egoism). ‘Democratism’ was presented as a specific adaptation of the pure teachings of Jesus, and thus became the watchword of the Polish people’s liberation. Interestingly, however, despite its clear universalistic orientation, ‘democratism’ was further described by the Polish democrats as a native Slavic concept.
In spite of their claims, we instead suggest that the notion of ‘democratism’ itself was likely first coined in German political debates (in the early 1840s), and potentially permeated into Polish political discourse from there. This is also indicated by the fact that one of the first Polish democrats who began to use the concept of democratism was Jan Kanty Podolecki (1800–1855), who before 1848 lived in Galicia, so in the part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth controlled by Austria. Podolecki found himself in exile after 1848, and became a member of the central section of the Polish Democratic Society that was formed in London at the turn of the 1840s and 1850s. Seen from this angle, the concept of ‘democratism’ encapsulates experiences related to several different political and social contexts.
The concept of ‘democratism’, however, turned out to be relatively short-lived. In the 1850s and 1860s, when the Polish Democratic Society found itself in organisational crisis, it began to lose popularity and importance. In fact, later on, the meaning of the concept of democracy (rather than ‘democratism’) in Polish political discourse became twisted once again, no longer signifying an ideology, but rather returning to its original meaning, i.e., referring mostly to the form of organisation of political power. The history of the concept thus acts as a microcosm, offering an insight into the process by which a political ideology is constructed and then later declines.
Our method and revealed case exhibit an additional dimension of topicality, which lies not only in addressing these questions by tracing the international connections that pervade intellectual history, but likewise in shining a light onto the process of unfolding a new ideology and, subsequently, onto its disintegration. It may be particularly interesting for scholars working on contemporary history in a time of great ideological changes such as today, where numerous conceptions coined beyond the Western world are coming to the fore and constituting new ideological constellations.
Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of revolution: Europe 1789-1848 (London: Abacus, 1977).
Michael Freeden, Ideologies and political theory: a conceptual approach (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998).
Reinhart Koselleck, 'Einleitung', in: Reinhart Koselleck, Werner Conze, and Otto Brunner (eds.), Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe. Historisches Lexikon zur politisch-sozialen Sprache in Deutschland. vol. 1 (Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 1972), XIII-XXVII.
Sławomie Kalembka, Towarzystwo Demokratyczne Polskie w latach 1832-1846 (Toruń: TNT; Państwowe Wydawnictwo Naukowe, 1966), 261.
Jörn Leonhard, ‘Another “Sonderweg”? The Historical Semantics of “Democracy” in Germany’, in: Jussi Kurunmäki, Jeppe Nevers, and Henk te Velde (Eds.), Democracy in Modern Europe: A Conceptual History (New York; Oxford: Berghahn Books: 2018), 74–75.