Book Review

 

Once upon a time, in the early nineteenth century, European nationalism was progressive, democratic, idealistic, and universalist; later, it became reactionary, authoritarian, “realistic,” and parochial. When and how did such a change happen? That’s the question Brian Porter asks and partially answers in When Nationalism Began to Hate: Imagining Modern Politics in Nineteenth-Century Poland (2000). His method is to focus on a particular country, Poland, and to retrace the evolution there of “discursive frameworks” pertaining to the concept of nation from the early to the late nineteenth century. He “explores how writers, artists, political activists, philosophers, poets, journalists, military officers, and others in nineteenth-century Poland used the term ‘nation’” (p. 5). Contrary to the assumptions of many scholars, he argues that it was not simply “inevitable” that nationalism would degenerate into a violent, exclusionary ideology by virtue only of its “logic”; nor did such degeneration happen only when the ideology finally became a mass movement, as is often thought. Rather, intellectuals had to “reconfigure the very concept of the nation” before nationalism could turn into a hate-saturated ideology -- and that transformation occurred before it became a mass movement. This argument, like most of the others in the book, is convincing. In the end, however, the book’s narrow focus on rhetoric and intellectual debates limits its completeness as an account of the rise of Polish nationalism.

 

Porter begins by considering the “good” kind of nationalism that prevailed in the first half of the century. It was essentially a manifestation of romanticism, and so was mainly an affair of intellectual elites. In this ideology, the “nation” was scarcely a defined entity at all; it was not an ethnically and culturally homogeneous community with regard to which there were “outsiders” and “insiders.” Instead, it was an ideal, “a principle that gave meaning to history... Poland, which was said to exist in the hearts of all Poles, embodied an ethical principle and acted as a motive force in history” (p. 20). Specifically, Poland embodied the principle of freedom, as opposed to the tyranny and evil that Russia (which ruled over much of Poland) embodied. For the nationalist, “to speak of national liberation for Poland was to imagine a chiliastic moment of emancipation for all humanity -- ‘for our freedom and yours,’ as the slogan of the day put it” (p. 5). Ukrainians, Lithuanians, even Jews could be Poles if in their acts they embodied the patriotic and revolutionary principles of freedom and justice. Such an ideology made it difficult for one to be both a Polish nationalist and a political conservative.

 

This romantic nationalism, which celebrated the patriotic deed rather than a particular ethnolinguistic community, collapsed after the January Insurrection of 1863, a year that Porter compares to 1848 in Western Europe. It crushed the old illusions and idealism, and started the process that would culminate in reactionary Polish nationalism three or four decades later. What happened, in brief, is that after the defeat of high-minded romantic nationalism in 1863, intellectuals returned to earth. A group of them, called (misleadingly) the “positivists,” embraced liberalism and science so as to define and hopefully elevate the nation, which now became an ethnolinguistic community rather than an ideal or spirit. This conceptual move set intellectuals on the path toward “solidifying cultural boundaries” and ultimately excluding categories of people from the nation, who as a result became the “enemy.” The positivists themselves, however, did not go to this reactionary extreme; they remained historical optimists who looked forward to a future liberal utopia.

 

One of the most interesting arguments in Porter’s book is the claim that what separated liberal and socialist optimists from authoritarian nationalist “pessimists” was a sense of “historical time.” In the late 1880s a split occurred among leftist intellectuals in Warsaw: some of them drifted away from socialism and towards nationalism. Porter’s argument is that the main reason for this split was that the future nationalists lost the Marxist faith in historical inevitability and teleology. They decided that if a revolution were going to happen it would have to be willed; one could not simply wait for the “laws of history” to bring it about (in part because “the people” did not have sufficient understanding of their own interests). In order to will a revolution, however, social discipline was necessary, order, strong authority to guide the masses in the right direction. The socialists could tolerate subversion and disorder in the present because of their faith in the future; the nationalists could not, which led them to eschew talk of class struggle in favor of “the ‘duty’ of workers and peasants to subordinate their own needs to a higher cause and to obey their betters” (who were supposedly acting, though, in the interest of workers and peasants) (p. 144). The abandonment of class struggle meant the embrace of national struggle. But the question then arose: if “the nation” or “the people” included the vast majority of the country -- even aristocrats and most of the bourgeoisie -- who was not a member of the nation? The answer had to be outside agitators, foreign exploiters, and Jews. Thus, through a few conceptual moves, former leftists and socialists arrived at a position that, despite their own self-understandings as revolutionaries and democrats, amounted to a version of the radical right.

 

Porter’s reconstruction of nationalists’ logic is convincing; the whole book, moreover, succeeds in showing how the liberatory nationalism of the 1830s, while not really turning into the authoritarian nationalism of the 1890s and later -- for the latter had different origins in a different social context (the 1880s) than that of the 1830s -- gave way to it. Ultimately, despite Porter’s aversion to the label, the book is essentially an intellectual history, and a good one. As stated (or implied) earlier, however, to really explain the rise of modern Polish nationalism it would be necessary to pay much more attention to socioeconomic forces and the international social and cultural context than Porter does.

NOTES OF AN UNDERGROUND HUMANIST

© 2014-2019 by Chris Wright