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The Historical Distinctiveness of Central Europe

A Study in the Philosophy of History


Krzysztof Brzechczyn

The aim of this book is to explain economic dualism in the history of modern Europe. The emergence of the manorial-serf economy in the Bohemia, Poland, and Hungary in the 16th and the 17th centuries was the result of a cumulative impact of various circumstantial factors. The weakness of cities in Central Europe disturbed the social balance – so characteristic for Western-European societies – between burghers and the nobility. The political dominance of the nobility hampered the development of cities and limited the influence of burghers, paving the way to the rise of serfdom and manorial farms. These processes were accompanied by increased demand for agricultural products in Western Europe

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Is it justified to employ the notion of “Central Europe”? Some argue that it is unreasonable and even harmful. Employment of this notion might have been acceptable during communist times, when it was supposed to emphasize the fact that nations located in this part of Europe, dependent on the Soviet Union, and simply identified with the East, have a distinct identity. However, nowadays each country from our region enjoys a status of a full member of the European Union, and each aspires to be recognized as a society of an entirely western type. In this context, an emphasis on regional distinctiveness can be understood as politically incorrect, as it suggests that Central-European societies have not risen yet to the Western standards and have to be labelled with a notion-prosthesis, such as “Central,” understood as “not entirely Western” Europe.

Furthermore, the notion of “Central Europe” is very blurry: it is unclear which countries currently belong to Central Europe. For instance, let us ponder on the following question: does Estonia belong to Central Europe? A geopolitical intuition suggests that it did not before 1991. As a Soviet Republic, Estonia certainly belonged to Eastern Europe. However, the scope and speed of economic reforms introduced in Estonia after gaining independence forces us to exclude this country from the Eastern-European type of society and rather include it – despite its northern geographical location – in Central Europe.

The above-mentioned blurriness of the notions of “Western Europe,” “Central Europe,” and “Eastern Europe” stems from the fact that distinct social structures and systems are identified with geographical terms. As a result, it is sometimes unclear whether the notion of Central Europe is employed in a purely geographic sense, or in a historical or social sense. Australia is situated to the South-East of Europe; however, Australian society is identified with a Western socio-political system. Thus, in this case geographical location is not essential. The affiliation of Australia with the West is determined by a set of features, which represent a social system that has emerged and evolved in a particular geographic area, and which took its name from this area.

Following from this, the notion of a Central-European society is synonymous with a social system, in which – let us state upfront – Western and Eastern features interweave. Hence, what shall we do with the case of Estonia? It appears that a twofold answer is possible:

if a social system, which arose in the Estonian society, is consistent with an assumed model of a Central-European society, then the country belongs to Central Europe. To evade the risk of offending geographic intuitions, one commonly adds the adjective “Eastern;”

if a social system, which arose in the Estonian society, does not have the features of a system allowing to include the country in the Central-European society (nor in the Western society), then, despite my enormous sympathy for the Estonians, the country belongs to Eastern Europe.

The purport of this book is to put forward arguments in favor of the thesis that Central-European societies have a different social structure than their Western-European counterparts and that the former have evolved in accordance with different rules and regularities. In this respect, distinctive features began to gradually appear in the Central-European path of development at the turn of the 15th century. The river Elbe became the borderline between the two developmental zones. West of the river, towns, craft production, and manufacture continued to expand, while peasants gained personal freedom. The social balance between burghers and the nobility enabled the state to gain in power and transform in the modern period from a state monarchy into an absolutist monarchy. By contrast, east of the river Elbe, towns in all countries of the region went through a considerable crisis – a decrease of population and craft production. In rural craftsmanship, the rise of a manorial-serf economy superseded the earlier monetary economy. The process was accompanied by growth in obligations imposed by the lords over the peasantry, and by the introduction of the so-called second serfdom. Additionally, the economic domination of the nobility was strengthened in political life – in all Central-European societies, burghers exerted an insubstantial impact on public life as compared to Western Europe, whereas the state was subordinated to the interests of the nobility. The rise and evolution of the manorial-serf economy, which allowed for an increase of exploitation of the peasantry, was the basic factor bringing about a differentiation between two fundamental economic zones in modern Europe.

In this book – located in the field of the theory of the historical process or theoretical history – I put forward an explanation of the above-mentioned developmental differentiation. The book is divided into four parts. The first part (“On the Nature of Developmental Differentiation of Central Europe”) outlines the key problems of the work. The first chapter (“In Defense of the Theory of the Historical Process”) opens with a critical analysis of the accusations formulated by Isaiah Berlin, Karl R. Popper, Jean-François Lyotard, and Aviezer Tucker against the possibility of practicing theoretical history or a substantial philosophy of history.

The second chapter (“The Concept of Central Europe”) deals with key topics, which appeared in the debate concerning the division of the European continent in historiography, the borders of Central Europe, and the sources of its distinctiveness. The third chapter “On the Distinctiveness of Central Europe” – which provides a direct transition to the pivotal issue of the book – presents existing concepts explaining the Central-European developmental differentiation put forward by Jeremy Blum, Robert Brenner, Daniel Chirot, Marian Małowist, Władysław Rusiński, Jan Rutkowski, Jerzy Topolski, Immanuel Wallerstein, and Benedykt Zientara.

The second part of the book (“Methodological Assumptions”) analyzes the phenomenon of historical distinctiveness of Central Europe against a methodological plane. My intension is to enrich the idealizational theory of science with the so-called concept of cascade processes, which allows us to capture the peculiarities of history within the idealizational approach to science in an improved way. A domineering opinion is that the model of the natural sciences, which employs the method of idealization, does not apply to the humanities. One may find a number of arguments supporting this claim in light of the idealizational theory of science. The above concept makes it possible to distinguish between two types of phenomena: essential structures dominated by the principal factor and essential structures dominated by the class of secondary factors. In the first type of phenomena, the power of influence exerted by the principal factor is greater than the joint powers of influence of secondary factors. In contrast, in the second type of the essential structures, the joint powers of influence of secondary factors is greater than the power of influence exerted by the principal factor, although the power of influence of the latter is greater than the power of influence of each secondary factor treated separately. Essential structures dominated by the principal factor are characteristic for the natural sciences, and essential structures dominated by secondary factors – for the social sciences. The phenomenon of a process of a cascade may occur in the latter type of essential structures. It is a gradual accumulation of various secondary factors up to the point when their joint influence becomes greater than the influence of the principal factor.

The fourth chapter in Part II titled “The Method of Idealization in the Historical Sciences” sheds light on the key ideas of the method of idealization and its application to the historical sciences. The chapter offers an idealizational reconstruction of the following theories: the theory of the genesis of second serfdom put forward by Evsey D. Domar, the theory of feudal system in Poland presented by Witold Kula, the model of the economy of Greater Poland put forward by Jerzy Topolski and the model of intercontinental trade developed by Frédéric Mauro. The fifth chapter (“The Methodological Characterization of the Cascade Effect”) of the book uses the conceptual apparatus of the idealizational theory of science to characterize the cascade process and analyses its consequences for the idealizational structure of the scientific theory and historical narrative.

Part III (“Theoretical Assumptions”) of the book applies the conceptualized process of a cascade to historical development. To that end, it is necessary to adopt a particular approach to the historical process. In the present book I adopted the theory of historical development formulated in non-Marxian historical materialism (hereinafter referred to as n-Mhm). Two subsequent chapters of Part III lay out the fundamental assumptions of the theory. The sixth chapter “The Basic Ideas of Non-Marxian Historical Materialism” outlines the basic theses of the theory of political development. It presents a division into class and supra-class societies in n-Mhm. A society of the State of Teutonic Knights represents the latter type of a social structure. This chapter puts forth reflections on the mono-linear and multi-linear approach to historical development, in light of the presented concept, using the example of the emergence of socialism in Russia.

The seventh chapter of this part entitled “Ownership and Revolution in non-Marxian Historical Materialism” discusses fundamental models of economic development: the basic model of an economic society and the model of a feudal society. The chapter provides a critical analysis of the status of the so-called Christian model of man. Additionally, it puts forward a distinction between two types of economic revolutions, based on anthropological assumptions of a non-Christian model of man. Moreover, adding the above distinction modifies the model of development of an economic society.

It appears that the cascade processes brought about one of the greatest paradoxes in the modern history of Europe, namely economic dualism. From the 13th to the 15th century, Western-European and Central-European societies evolved in accordance with analogical developmental regularities: traditional forms of natural economy were being replaced with rent economy, towns expanded, and local and international trade developed. However, since the turn of the 15th and 16th centuries, in a number of Central-European countries, and particularly in Poland, Bohemia, and Hungary, a manorial-serf economy arose. The evolution of a manorial-serf economy brought about a collapse of the urban realm of economy, caused serfdom to be introduced in the rural areas, and trade exchange with the West to gain a unilateral character – Central Europe has specialized in exporting agricultural products and raw materials, and in importing highly-process craft products. The differentiation of the developmental paths of Western Europe and Central Europe was a result of the impact of cascade processes, namely a gradual accumulation of various factors – secondary, from the viewpoint of n-Mhm, including: the shortage of manpower, underdevelopment of towns, demand for grain in Western Europe, etc., which exerted a greater joint influence than the influence of factors perceived as principal.

The fourth part of the book “The Conceptualization of the Distinctiveness of Central Europe” deals with the above-mentioned issue. In the eighth chapter entitled “Models of the Source of a Cascade,” I build a theoretical model of an economic society with a shortage of manpower. In accordance with the concept under study, the shortage of workforce is the factor, which initiated a cascade of secondary factors, which, in turn, outweighed the impact of the principal factor. For comparative purposes, I also build a model of an economic society with a surplus of manpower. In the ninth chapter (“The Genesis of European Differentiation”), I draw on historical literature to reconstruct subsequent links of a cascade of factors responsible for developmental divergence of European societies. From the factors appearing in the cascade, I identify its core as consisting of factors, which operated in each of the societies under study, and factors characteristic for particular societies. The analysis presented in this part of the book combines theoretical and empirical approaches. I investigate a number of the above factors, namely the social consequences of both the deficiency and the surplus of workforce, by building models of socio-economic development in n-Mhm. In my reconstruction of the influence of the remaining factors of the cascade of European differentiation I draw on the prolific historiographic literature devoted to the history of Central Europe.

The present book is a considerably modified and expanded edition of my doctoral thesis authored in the years 1990–1995 at the Department of Philosophy of the Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań (AMU) under the supervision of Professor Leszek Nowak (1943–2009). Professor Nowak referred to extensive fragments of the thesis in his seminars held at the Chair of Epistemology at the Department of Philosophy at AMU, professor Jerzy Topolski (1928–1998) in his seminars held by at the Chair of Methodology and Modern History at the Department of History at AMU, professor Janusz Goćkowski (1935–2010) in his seminars held at the Chair of Philosophy and Sociology of Science, and professor Teresa Grabińska in her seminars held at the Chair of Methodology of Science, at the Department of Social and Economic Sciences at Wrocław University of Technology. I would like to take this opportunity to express my gratitude to the participants of the above-mentioned seminars for expressing interest in the results of my work and for their friendly criticism. I would also like to thank professor Jerzy Topolski for his substantive and bibliographical guidelines supplied throughout my work on this volume. The book has also greatly benefited from the review provided by professor Jan Pomorski.

The “Bibliography” provides a translation of the Polish titles of articles, chapters, and books into English. I used fragments of my articles previously published in English, adequately expanded and modified for the purpose of the book:

“The State of Teutonic Order as a Socialist Society,” in: Social System, Rationality and Revolution. Poznań Studies in the Philosophy of the Sciences and the Humanities, Vol. 33, eds. Leszek Nowak and Marcin Paprzycki (Amsterdam/Atlanta, GA: Rodopi, 1993), pp. 397–417.

“In Defence of Metanarrative in the Philosophy of History,” Interstitio. East European Review of Historical Anthropology, Vol. 2, No. 1(3) (2008), pp. 7–22.

“Methodological Peculiarities of History in the light of Idealizational Theory of Science,” in: Idealization XIII: Modeling in History. Poznań Studies in the Philosophy of the Sciences and the Humanities, Vol. 97, ed. Krzysztof Brzechczyn (Amsterdam/New York: Rodopi, 2009), pp. 137–157.

“The Distinctiveness of Central Europe in light of the Cascadeness of the Historical Process,” in: Idealization XIII: Modeling in History. Poznań Studies in the Philosophy of the Sciences and the Humanities, Vol. 97, ed. Krzysztof Brzechczyn (Amsterdam/New York: Rodopi, 2009), pp. 231–269.

“Strategies of Comparative Analysis in Historical Comparative Sociology: An Attempt at an Explication within the Conceptual Framework of the Idealizational Theory of Science,” in: Idealization XIV: Models in Science. Poznan Studies in the Philosophy of the Sciences and the Humanities, Vol. 108, eds. Krzysztof Brzechczyn and Giacomo Borbone (Boston/Leiden: Brill/Rodopi, 2016), pp. 184–201.