The Chances for Central Europe

15. 3. 2017

Eastward expansion of the European Union is a historically unprecedented development. In Europe there never—literally never—was a stable political structure encompassing the East and the West of the continent.

A cursory look at various statistics and social and economic indices may encourage a view that the last fifteen years were a good period for virtually all countries of Central and Eastern Europe. The GDP has been growing, foreign investment and EU funds have been coming in, infrastructure has been built, longevity has been increasing, etc. Some countries of the region, such as Poland, entered a stage of growth and stability long unseen in their history.

There is a lot of truth in such a picture. But a more detailed analysis will reveal many weaker elements. Serious doubts are raised by growing inequalities. OECD data show that Poland, the local development leader, is a place where inequalities grow at a pace considerably surpassing the average for the planet (which as a whole is also not journeying towards general equality).

You do not need to be a fierce ideologue to worry about the growth of inequalities. Many studies and meta-analysis conducted recently by economists interested in the so-called Kuznetz Curve indicate that equality favors economic growth while inequality is damaging for it. Social disparities also lead to a growth of crime and are harmful to overall quality of living, for the rich as well. For would the millionaires really want a world modelled on South Africa from the times of the worst Apartheid, where the rich had to separate themselves from the poor with high tension barbed wire and their children could not leave their homes without bodyguards armed to the teeth?

It is also worth to take a note of another fact clearly visible in another historical perspective: a relatively good situation of Central and Eastern Europe is something decidedly new. Throughout most of the modern period—the beginning of which I place at the turn of the 16th century—the region was plagued by various forms of misery and backwardness: economic underdevelopment, collapse of political structures and various forms of social enslavement. Admirers of former glory, freedom and “multiculturalism”avant la lettre allow themselves to be seduced by an idealized image of the past, which, as historians such as Daniel Beauvois or Perry Anderson argue, has little in common with the social and political reality of this part of Europe. Historical analysis focused on long-term perspective shows that backwardness was exceptionally persistent here and only in the second half of the 20th century it was partly overcome at least.

The Fate of Slaves

In many European languages there is a strong etymological connection, originating from Latin, between the words “slave” and “Slav.” Besides English it can be heard in today’s French and Spanish, where the word for a “slave” is esclave and eslavo respectively. If we take a look at the history of the Central and Eastern European region, inhabited mostly by Slavs (by the way, it is the largest ethnic group in Europe), this connection will turn out to be much more significant than a purely incidental etymology. Contrary to what might initially seem, it does not point to the period of antiquity, when a part of Roman slaves was recruited from Slavs, but to the Middle Ages, when Slav prisoners of war were sold as slaves (such an etymology of the English word “slave”is given, for example, in the Merriam Webster dictionary).

Later history of the Central and Eastern European region shows that subjugation and enslavement was a permanent element of the condition of this part of the European continent and its inhabitants. In the West entering modernity, emerging since the turn of the 16th century, meant a loosening of the bonds of personal dependence and their gradual turning into more abstract relations, mediated mostly by the market. It did not necessarily mean an improvement of the fate of the poorest and often even led to its worsening, for the new system did not inherit the safeguards and guarantees offered by feudalism. But it opened chances for mobility and advancement, first taken advantage of by the most crafty and determined and later by all the rest. The mass migration of the poor across the Atlantic is the best example of that.

While the West was headed towards new ways of organizing social and economic life, the East was getting bogged down in something which is sometimes called the second serfdom. It consisted in harshening the exploitation of the peasants and a marked constraining of their freedom. In many respects this system was remindful of slavery, although it differed from it in many important respects—for example, destroying families through selling individuals was not part of the serfdom system, but selling peasants with villages they were ascribed to was a wide-spread practice, just as the landlord deciding about marriages, remarriages by widows or the peasant children (for example, who may leave the village and go into apprenticeship). Such relations dominated most regions east of the Elbe, including practically all of the area we now call Central and Eastern Europe. So the fate of Slavs was the fate of slaves.

The consequences of such a state of things for the region were multifarious and led to the emergence of long-lasting structures (in the sense ascribed to this term by Fernand Braudel and other historians from the Annales school), which determined the Central and Eastern European fates for centuries to come. As shown by researchers from the so-called Polish school of economic history, above all Witold Kula and Marian Małowist (today their line of thinking is continued by such historians as Jacek Kochanowicz, Krzysztof Brzeszczyn or Anna Sosnowska), in the 16th century the development paths of the East and West of Europe forked out in different directions. In the 16th century, the results of this process were still unperceivable but later they were felt ever more strongly. There is no room here for full characteristics of this process and I refer the interested readers to my most recent book Fantomowe ciało króla. Peryferyjne zmagania z nowoczesną formą [The king’s phantom body: peripheral struggles with modern form], where I devote several hundred pages to a detailed analysis of this phenomenon. We can say in broad terms that the line between the West and the East, more or less identical with the Elbe, was the border between progress and backwardness, manifested in many spheres of life: the economy, social relations, politics and culture. Although we are speaking about developments from many centuries back, their results are still felt today and only in the 20th century this disadvantageous situation of Central and Eastern Europe was reverted. But more about it in a while.

Peripheral Integration

The picture so sketched must be supplemented with two elements. First, the transformations of the East and West of the continent were closely interrelated. The East did not form an autonomous social and economic arrangement but it was closely integrated with the emergent capitalist economy/world (I use this term in the sense ascribed to it by Fernand Braudel and Immanuel Wallerstein). Polish peasants, clasped with the chains of serfdom, produced mostly goods not for the domestic market but for exports to the West. Marian Małowist, of whom I already spoke, showed in his excellent book Wschód a Zachód Europy w XIII-XVI wieku [The East and West of Europe in the 13th–16th centuries] that virtually all countries of Eastern Europe specialized in this period in exporting of low-processed agricultural products, natural products and raw materials (grain, cattle, tar, timber, etc.). And so their integration with the capitalist economy—constitutive for social relations in the Central and Eastern European region—was a peripheral integration from the very start. A similar claim regarding Russia was made by Bors Kagarlitsky in his recently published book An Empire of the Peripheries: Russia on the world system.

For the money from the sale of what peasants produced through their bondage and toil the nobility bought luxury goods—furniture, jewelry, cloths, fabrics, home appliances, spices, etc. It successfully halted local accumulation of capital, for the whole surplus went abroad. And in the structural-systemic perspective this differentiated the fate of peasant serfs in the East from the fate of urban proletariat in the West. Both groups were exploited, both suffered from poverty, but while the appropriated product of the labor of (proto)industrial hired workers was accumulated within their own societies and favored the development of the means of production, thus creating conditions for a more just and equal distribution of wealth, the effects of the labor of peasant serfs turned exclusively into the means of consumption for their masters, which successfully prevented all acts of redistribution other than such as those in the Ukraine in 1917–1921, that is acts of robbery and unproductive destruction (Zofia Kossak- Szczucka excellently described it in her Pożoga [Conflagration]).

Another important issue we must mention is the role of local Eastern European elites in relegating the region to the function of a hinterland providing raw materials and cheap labor. Central and Eastern Europe succumbed to the state of inferiority against the West and dependence on it not as a result of deliberate and hostile scheming by Western capitalists. Of course, they did take advantage of what was happening and without them history would probably have taken a different course but the key political factor was the behavior of aristocratic elites from the period, for it was in their interest to deepen the backwardness and dependence of their countries.

An excellent example of that was the Polish nobility, called by Juliusz Słowacki (in the poem Agamemnon’s Grave) “The burning shirt of Deianira”. This social group or class manifested a remarkable shrewdness and determination in such a way of furnishing their world, which would bring them most profit. It achieved a crushing victory in not only confrontation with the peasantry, pushing inhabitants of the countryside into serfdom, but also with the townspeople, successfully sidelining them and excluding from the political game. The consequences were obvious: In pre-Partitions Poland capitalism could not develop, for there was neither a strong burghership, from which a middle class could emerge, nor free peasantry, a reservoir of cheap, hired labor migrating to cities and hence forming a hotbed of the proletariat. As a result, there was neither industrialization nor urbanization, that is two elements which were becoming the foundations for the economic prosperity of the West.

A Permanent Division of Europe?

It would seem that all this is a “song of the past,” irrelevant to contemporary globalized and radically different world. Personally, I disagree with such a vision of the world. The past is never a closed book and generally speaking there is no such thing as the present or contemporary times not fundamentally marked by the presence of what may seem dead, finished and relegated to the dustbin of history. This point has been made by many authors in Polish humanities. I will mention only two of them: Maria Janion in such books as Projekt krytyki fantazmatycznej [A project of phantasmatic criticism] and Niesamowita słowiańszczyzna [Amazing Slavness], and Przemysław Czapliński in his excellent Resztki nowoczesności [Relics of modernity] showing the incredible permanence of the models of Sarmatian culture and their presence in seemingly quite incompatible contexts, for example the popular culture of the People’s Republic.

We must also remember that the gradual emergence from backwardness in Central and Eastern Europe—except for the Czech Republic, which followed a development path much closer to the Western one—is a truly recent development. Only the 20th century brought important changes in this respect. With all the doubts and reservations concerning the Soviet hegemony in the region—and I am the last person to ascribe to the assumptions and methods of the Bolshevik communism—but we must admit that the so-called people’s republics were growth projects and they allowed many countries to shed the centuries-long peripheral backwardness through urbanization, industrialization and material modernization. It is wrong to look at the entire communist period in the light of the decline in the 1980s, strongly influenced by external factors, such as the global debt crisis.

The experiment from the turn of the 21st century, that is eastward expansion of the European Union, is a historically unprecedented development in this context. In Europe there never—literally never—was a stable political structure encompassing the East and the West of the continent. The border between them always separated fundamentally different social and political orders. In antique times the influence of the Roman Empire ended on this line, and in the Middle Ages that of the Carolingians, and with them of the so-called classic feudalism, radically different from the system of princely law dominating, for example, on the territories of Poland. I have already described the parting of the development paths of the East and the West in modern times. Stability of this division is also confirmed by the fact that the western border of the Kingdom of Poland and then of the First Republic remained practically unchanged from the 15th until late 18th century. In the 20th century Soviet influences stopped more or less on the Elbe. So the European Union, with members from both these blocks and thus expressing the desire to create a coherent social, cultural and political system over and above the traditional and lasting division into the East and West of Europe, is an unprecedented undertaking.

History shows that the separation between the Eastern and Western part of the European continent never worked to the advantage of the East, and it would be good to draw lessons from that: survival and development of the European Union is in our interest. It does not mean that I regard the current condition of the EU as ideal and its development direction as indisputable. The European Union has many flaws, the biggest among them being the advantage of economic integration over the social and cultural one and the fundamental democracy deficits, which lead to the fact that unelected bodies have too much to say in the EU. But in general its existence is favorable for its Central European members.

The First Third World

And finally one remark which is important above all in my native, Polish cultural context: The story about the peripheral fate of Central and Eastern Europe, including its largest country that is the Republic of Poland, is by no means an attempt at constructing yet another narrative of suffering and martyrdom. It is true that at the dawn of modernity the region was historically the first Third World. But we must remember that with the growth of capitalism its peripheries were also growing, taking the shape of successive colonies, dominions, protectorates and dependent territories and as Edward Said estimated, at the height of the colonial project they encompassed 80% of the planet.

This fact allows us to look at our particular fates in a completely new, universal way: in a very early stage we experienced a peripheral integration with the capitalist economy/world with all its negative consequences. It means that our history is as much part of the universal and global history of capitalism as history of England, France or Germany, but we experienced it in a different, much more negative way. It is not true that capitalism emerged somewhere in the West without our participation. From the very beginning, we were a constitutive part of this process, which is well illustrated by the fact that the Dutch called the Baltic trade with the East moedernegotie—mother of all trade. But from this peripheral participation in capitalism we should learn an important and very relevant lesson: a system based on the center-peripheries division is advantageous for the center but destructive for the peripheries.

This experience, not borrowed from some anti-globalism imported from the West but forming a constitutive element of our own history and identity, may and should today become the basis for a definition—political and ethical—of the place of Poland in the contemporary world. Aspirations for advancement just within the existing center-peripheries structure (this is the height of ambitions of the majority of Polish politicians and some intellectuals) in this perspective do not look like a noble or valuable goal. We may and should seek for something more—aim at questioning and transforming this framework and look for partners for that undertaking not in the East and not in the West but in the South—in Latin America, Africa, Asia and other regions which like us have gone through the experience of subjugation and peripheralization. It is there that I would see the opportunity for and possibility of a positive discharging of the messianist strivings and tendencies, to this day haunting our Polish soul.

Jan Sowa

is a dialectical materialist social theorist and researcher. He holds a PhD in sociology and a habilitation in cultural studies. He is a member of the Committee on Cultural Studies of the Polish Academy of Sciences and he works as the curator for discursive programs and research at Biennale Warszawa. He edited and authored several books and published numerous articles in Poland and abroad.

Share this on social media

Support Aspen Institute

The support of our corporate partners, individual members and donors is critical to sustaining our work. We encourage you to join us at our roundtable discussions, forums, symposia, and special event dinners.

These web pages use cookies to provide their services. You get more information about the cookies after clicking on the button “Detailed setting”. You can set the cookies which we will be able to use, or you can give us your consent to use all the cookies by clicking on the button “Allow all”. You can change the setting of cookies at any time in the footer of our web pages.
Cookies are small files saved in your terminal equipment, into which certain settings and data are saved, which you exchange with our pages by means of your browser. The contents of these files are shared between your browser and our servers or the servers of our partners. We need some of the cookies so that our web page could function properly, we need others for analytical and marketing purposes.