Over ten years ago, Michal Kopeček, Balázs Trencsényi, and colleagues decided to embark on an ambitious intellectual history of modern political thought that would span all of East Central Europe. The resulting two volumes—“a must-read” (Holly Case) and “a work of reflection and learning that readers will turn to for generations” (John Connelly)—constitute a milestone in the historiography of the region, as well as an innovative editorial attempt to engage dozens of scholars across languages in a cooperative, group-authored product. Alex Langstaff sat down with them to discuss their project and its contemporary political stakes.
Alex Langstaff: I know these volumes have many layers behind them–their own history. Tell us how it began.
Balázs Trencsényi: We have to go back to a previous multi-volume project, Discourses of Collective Identity, when we were still Ph.D. students or post-docs trying to do something that went beyond the national historical trends we resented. All of us came from certain subcultures, in which the transnational and multinational were cultivated as counter-traditions—like a liberal Catholic, Balkanist, or Central Europeanist supra-national tradition—and we found each other. We realized that the respective national canons were not transparent. So we collected texts in five volumes that students could actually use as synthetic anthologies. We had to invent these from scratch, and over the course of fourteen years, we found that we had produced a metanarrative but that there was no room in the series for it.
In 2007, when the European Research Council was launched by those disappointed by the non-academic logic of EU funding (trying to hack the system from the outside but eventually becoming hacked by the logic of the very system), we applied in its first year and received a large grant. We created a big group, with six fellows and about twenty-five recurrent team members, moved around one hundred people, and had twenty-five research workshops over the years. It was a huge project, something the EU research funding bodies would not accept anymore now. Throughout the five years, we visited all the intellectual centers of the region, creating a dialogue with local colleagues from Plovdiv to Tirana, L’viv to Vilnius. This dialogue took on very specific dynamics: instead of us telling them what our objective was, we brought a counter-narrative to the traditional story of national hagiography and wanted to see if they could find themselves in that narrative.
The team was specifically composed to cover most of the region’s languages. Four of us spoke Hungarian, for example, so quite unusually we could work through materials in tandem. This allowed us to have a genuinely group-written text that transgressed standard national boundaries.
AL: The volumes cover intellectual figures in eugenics, economics, aesthetics, but the common thread is undoubtedly ‘political’. What was it about ‘political’ thought that attracted you? And can you explain what you expected the project to achieve regionally?
Michal Kopeček: In generational terms, there was an increased interest in the history of political ideas in the 1990s democratization moment—a lot was imported from the West, and a lot of it was “transitology,” a social-scientific language of transition to democracy and market economy that was hard for historians to work with. But we knew an effort to understand politics in the region could not begin from reading Michael Walzer. Polish and Hungarian historiography had their own established traditions in the history of political thought, but this was rather an exception—you did not have this in other countries. Of course, “national” political thought had always been reflected, but more as a part of building specific political identities—e.g. post-1989 liberalism—rather than as a historical discipline with clear a methodology. And a comparative regional aspect was missing completely in this respect.
Offering a regional and transnational reading, we wanted to overcome the pitfalls of methodological nationalism. At the same time, we did not seek to override the respective national canons through some abstracted, detached Central or East European myth. I still believe that national historiographies are the major engines driving most of contemporary historical knowledge production, and therefore we must engage them. One of the strong feelings we had in the early 1990s was also that while there may be a European intellectual canon to which the thinkers and politicians in the region always referred—no one had to teach them about J. S. Mill, or Carl Schmitt—there has been little space for East Central European thought within this European canon, and very little exchange of knowledge between neighboring countries. So, the Czechs might know the European canon, but not the Polish one. In this sense, we were driven by a sort of emancipatory urge for our own national and regional contexts, but also by a desire to see to what extent we were talking about parallel stories.
AL: So in some respects this grew out of a generational experience?
BT: Of course, you will get these contextualist answers from us because we are contextualists! There was a double miscommunication problem: in the 1990s, it was clear that with the booming interest in East Central European politics, everyone was reading Havel and Kołakowski, but usually in a sort of selective way, a kind of cherry-picking in marked contrast to local discussions; and in the 2000s, there was even more distortion when this general interest in dissident figures diminished, but certain preconceptions and forms of selective reading persisted. One might find scholarship extracting marginal figures but ignoring discussions of the major stakeholders of a given period, in order to fit the needs and preferences of specifically Western audiences and historiographical trends. Obviously, there was, and continues to be, the problem of Western political actors misreading political reactions from East Central Europe— think of the “skeletons in the bag” narrative about nationalism, as if there was no communist nationalism!
And finally, many of us were repeatedly encountering the following situation at conferences: The Western colleague would present on an unknown paper by J.S. Mill criticizing Tocqueville, and of course he would not have to contextualize Mill or the slavery question. Then you would get the Eastern European participant who is talking about Palacký and, instead of talking about the text, would have to provide an entire intellectual biography! Because people in the audience would say, “Ok, but who is Palacký?” So we had both this individual and existential pressure to create a work that would stop the informed Western reader from exclaiming that they had never heard about these figures, and that would move not just these individual thinkers but also the linkages between them into the global discussion. Otherwise, we would just be repeating biographical information until the end of our lives.
AL: I hope you will not have to explain who Palacký is again! The project took over ten years— how did it evolve, especially with the changing political environment within Europe?
BT: When we started work on this project, we were still facing the optimist moment of European integration. There was a need for a common European story to tell. And we did not want to create a superficial, positive discrimination narrative, where you would pick one person from each country and say they are ‘integrated’. Rather, we wanted to provide those engaging seriously with the idea of a European story with a framework with which one would have to negotiate. All the while, of course, not arrogating to ourselves the claim to tell the final story, or final truth. The project was intended much more as playing a Popperian game of putting together some working hypothesis that could be falsified. It is meant as an intellectual provocation, and we hope that people will engage in the dialogue it proposes and, if need be, demolish our interpretative framework.
AL: And did you see the comparative and transnational intellectual lenses diverge or conflict at all? Did you primarily approach it as a transnational project?
MK: As comparativists, we are rather suspicious of attempts to create transnationalism for its own sake. But through our dialogical method, we arrived at a genuinely transnational story that emerged quite naturally. Rereading the book, I am surprised at how much it is there!
BT: Yes, we tried for a transnationalism from below—not a transnational story that is illustrated with national actors, but one that starts from local, provincial or regional contexts of identification and gradually gives rise to non-national space as an actor.
AL: How did this collaborative praxis shape your own work? And were there unexpected discoveries?
BT: The stakes of the work changed radically between 2007 and 2018. Although we started with a framework that sought to redress European imbalances, it became clear in political culture and European fragmentation by the end of the process that these kinds of East-West cleavages are not going away. Our story is not the owl of Minerva flying and overcoming this cleavage. If our project could appear as a regionalist, self-reproducing marginalization, the advent of Trump and Brexit put things into global perspective! In my case, I was suddenly forced to deal with very contemporary history. I am trained as an early modernist, but over the last five years, most of my intellectual history has focused on the last two decades, trying to understand what happened.
MK: I would say the project enabled us to overcome both our ingrained nationalist and regional stereotypes, including certain mythologies like the Kunderian Central European myth that has been severely criticized since the 1990s by both cultural figures from and scholars working on the Balkans. This regional myth is obviously something the political actors of the region toy with, but it also projects itself into the settings of comparativist work, which we generally find positive and which has its own self-regulatory mechanisms. My own research sometimes runs the risk of becoming a “Visegrád story” (e.g. focusing on the “core” dissident cultures of East Central Europe such as Polish, Czechoslovak and Hungarian). But once you add Ukraine, Yugoslavia, Romania and others to the picture, this Visegrád self-centeredness gets really watered down.
BT: Yes, our project is not only asking Europeans to look into the canon from the outside—we forced ourselves to do the same. When we worked on dissent, for example, we did not start with Czechoslovakia or Poland, and the usual figures like Adam Michnik. We realized that there is, in fact, a vastly overlooked story of 1960s Ukraine, which is preceding the happenings in the non-Soviet countries in Eastern Europe and which features the relationship between national and civil society-based dissent as a natural part of the story.
MK: There is a canonical story about how dissident movements came about—the Helsinki effect, KOR, ROPCiO, Charter 77—but as Balazs says, once you get the Ukrainian story or the Baltic story next to the Polish one, you see that there is a whole spectrum of oppositional activities throughout the region, only with different stresses in different countries. This also helps overcome the self-mythologization of dissidents after 1989, which often occurred less because they intended it than because they told their stories so many times. But in addition to derailing canonical stories, we found fields of new research topics through our effort towards synthetic history, including theoreticians of authoritarian state-socialist governance in the 1970s and 1980s, which included industrial and social management, political sociology or the theory of authoritarian socialist Rechtsstaat.
AL: When reading the volumes, I am struck by the patterns I had previously been unaware of between thinkers and movements, say agrarian political economists in Romania and Latvia. How did you negotiate the synchronicity or divergence between geographically diverse intellectuals? Sometimes there is some connection between them, other times none.
BT: We were trying to take a soft approach to causality, avoiding a single master narrative but also the simple aggregation of individual positions. In Hayden White’s terms, we were situated somewhere between a contextualist and an ideographic method. In some cases, we had a hunch that similarities might not be a coincidence, but in the case of other figures, it was interesting to discover that there was no link whatsoever, even though the debate was unfolding similarly—in which case we would discuss a certain regional predicament rather than genealogy.
AL: Covering so many national contexts (and over two hundred years!), how did you actually come to select the intellectuals that you included in the volumes, and those you excluded? Was there a systematic process?
BT: We played a sort of ironic game and created a ranking system. On the first level were constitutive figures, those present on the international stage, who we were expected to engage with—the Masaryks, Havels, and Michniks. On the second level, we had figures that were important on the local level, but not on the transnational. Third came illustrative figures for a given phenomenon. We called them “three star,” “two star,” and “one star,” partly reflecting the level of hotels we were staying in. This was a mnemotechnical way to ensure none of the “three star” figures were missing.
MK: This actually became a very pragmatic tool for prioritizing while discussing things with six authors and many other people involved in the project. Categorizing whether someone that was being discussed was “two star” or “three star” helped us work out the basic narrative structure, in the sense of “these fourteen people have to appear in the national communism chapter” etc. It was a truly collective undertaking, and some of our friends joked that we were reviving a form of Soviet collective writing-group practice! The volumes were simply not written by one author, and we consciously pushed back against the pervasive myth of the genius author in the hermeneutic sciences.
AL: Do you have any goals for how the volumes should be received within, and beyond, the region?
BT: We always joked that the death of the book would be the East Central European historians who only look at the few lines per chapter that are about their own national culture and comment: “You chose intellectual A and B. But how come you left out C, they were just as important!” And we have indeed encountered this kind of myopic nationalist reaction, where readers were only interested in how their own culture is represented. Our response was always: “Please, skip reading about the culture you know best!”
MK: I am confident that the project will reach not only regional specialists. It has a strong narrative and can also be used as a compendium, even though it was not structured this way. If you are working on agrarian populism in one or two countries, you can see how the concept operates within the whole region. And we hope that it will reach historians in the so-called Western canon and aid their efforts to rethink the European narrative, as we provide enough points of connection for them to engage us. Our dream would be that it is read by students of the region we are writing about, leading them to rethink their own stories through the broader comparative framework we provide.
BT: We should not forget that the volumes were able to get published at the very moment that the publishing world is collapsing. If this project had been published ten years ago, there would have been enough institutional infrastructure for it to be translated into five languages. Today, I am afraid, we are reencountering stark cleavages with the rise of the populist right and the retrenchment of the nationalist narrative, which is not only for pensioners and frustrated margins, it is socializing students and present more than ever in the educational system. In this environment, if the text is not translated from the English, it might miss entire regional readerships—which would be a shame, given that we are deconstructing nationalisms through contextualization, not through parodies or self-denial.
AL: Finally, the key question: did you enjoy it?
MK: Immensely! It was a lot of hard work, but mostly of the joyous kind. We struggled most with the post-1989 chapter. In a field like intellectual history, you feel a need for distance, and we were children of this transition period. As Balázs mentioned, we had anticipated it ending in a happy European unification story, but the moment that we realized this was not going to be the case with the contemporary political situation, we knew our projected ending had to change as well. Showcasing the development of political thought in this region is our contribution to a self-reflection of political cultures, which took on, next to our scholarly engagement, a kind of civic duty in the last few years.
BT: It mattered that people involved in the project knew each other from before, and that there was a sort of moral and intellectual commitment we shared. I think all of us probably felt a certain personal responsibility. It was a common journey. And with the unexpected nature of our funding, there was a sense that this was a ‘never before and never again’ opportunity to actually do something bigger. This bound us together too. ~
Michal Kopeček is Head of the Ideas and Concepts Department at the Institute of Contemporary History in Prague, and Co-Director of Imre Kertész Kolleg, Friedrich Schiller University in Jena.
Balázs Trencsényi is Professor in the Department of History, Central European University Budapest. His research focuses on the comparative history of political thought in East Central Europe and the history of historiography. He is Co-Director of Pasts, Inc., Center for Historical Studies at CEU and Editor of the periodical East Central Europe (Brill).
This project was funded by ERC grant no. 204477, hosted by the Center for Advanced Study, Sofia.
Alex Langstaff is a Ph.D. candidate in Modern European History at New York University. He has recently written on the Begriffsgeschichte of crisis, and the relationship between Ernst Kantorowicz and Hans Blumenberg.