Reading Rousseau: Considerations on the Government of Poland (and end of the sequence)

I have a copy of  a new edition of Rousseau.  I won’t mention what edition exactly until I’ve finished blogging on its contents, which will mostly be about Rousseau’s thought rather than the qualities of the edition.  I’ll comment on the edition after I’ve posted on its contents, bit by bit, by which time I should have the basis for a judgement.

Rousseau was invited to help reform the constitutions of not just one, but two, states.  First Corsica, as discussed in the last post, and then Poland.  Both states disappeared soon afterwards.  Corsica was absorbed into France, but has kept a sense of separate identity, now recognised in French arrangements for regional government.  Poland was partitioned in the late eighteenth century between Russia, Poland and Austria, with Russia as the major beneficiary.  Polish identity and national aspirations certainly did not disappear, and it was revived as a state after World War One, with an interruption for Nazi occupation, followed by a redrawing of boundaries. Anyway, Rousseau was unable to help preserve independence, and leaders in both states would have been better off thinking about emergency measures against aggression, rather than the reflections of  Swiss-French thinker, looking for the revival of antique republicanism.  The leaders probably spent little if any time thinking about Rousseau anyway, so we can’t blame him for their laxity in defending national existence.  Some kind of emergency dictatorial power imposing maximum national unity and military mobilisation, with the goal of defence in extreme depth ,in a total people’s war against foreign aggression, relying on popular insurgency and guerrilla operations as much as, if not more than, field armies, inflicting casualties and costs on invading powers that outweighed the political will behind invasion  would I suppose have been the only possible way of preserving sovereignty against vastly more powerful neighbouring and greedy powers.  Those ideas are really ideas that come out of the French Revolution, the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars, popular and state reactions to Napoleonic occupation, and the subsequent military theorising of Carl von Clausewitz (and even that has a massive gap around popular guerrilla war). Rousseau perhaps touches on the military aspect, but more through nostalgic republicanism than through awareness of strategic realities.

The Considerations on the Government of Poland, make it clear that Rousseau was well aware of the precarious nature of Polish political institutions and the deeply dangerous weakness of the state compared with its great power neighbours, and show a strong awareness of the need to adapt his own political thought to Polish realities, so it would not do to just dismiss Rousseau as an irrelevant theoriser.  It has to be said that reading it just gives me the constant impression of someone who looks at Poland and then tries to think how he can make it as close as possible to the ancient Spartan and Roman republics. Reservations about the centrality of slavery to Sparta, even more so than in other ancient republics, which Rousseau displays at the end of ‘Principles of the Right of War’ are absent here. Rousseau does briefly note here that Poland gives peasants less than no rights, when also  he describes the aristocracy as having all the rights and the burgers (merchant class presumably) as having none.  There is a brief indication in that of disgust with Polish arrangements, and he does call for ways of integrating the population into the political system without attempting to abandon a political system that Rousseau could see would  not be abandoned by its beneficiaries whatever the likely risk it posed to national survival.

The risk came out of the notorious arrangement of the Polish Sjem (parliament) which consisted of aristocracy only, in which any one member could use a veto to end proceedings and annul all laws passed in that session. This is a fascinating example of the pride of feudal, or neo-feudal, aristocracy, which is one of the sources of  modern individualist thought.  Such pride, and the associated underlying political and economic arrangements which gave rise to it, was a constant source of destabilisation in the Middle Ages, and sometimes of struggle against monarchical tyranny. In the context of late eighteenth century Poland, aristocratic individualistic pride made the state so vulnerable that as Rousseau points out, the amazing thing is it still existed.

Rousseau begins with some of his general points, such as that the executive must be subordinate to the general will, which is the whole people acting as the sovereign. States undergo an inevitable process of decay, as the executive power always usurps the power of the general will.  There is a familiar emphasis on the importance of legislation influencing the population through customs, manners, morals and so on.  As I’ve said before, this bit seems to me very important in understanding Rousseau’s mobilising myth of the general will, it is not so much a literal event, as a way of describing legislation that reflects the best customs and morals of a people and therefore can create institutions rooted in the population, and reinforcing its best aspects. Rousseau offers paradoxes of the kind to be found in The Social Contract, such as suggesting that the rue of law over men is fundamental, but is impossible to achieve.  One reaction to this would be that a document of advice for a state close to collapse is hardly the time or the place to display a passion for paradox (Kierkegaard’s view of philosophy), but it adds to the interest of the text for us.

Rousseau’s advice includes a central choice between: Poland continuing as a normal European power, with the pursuit of wealth, the arts, international influence and the like; and Poland becoming a modern Sparta, great in its isolation at the centre of the proto-Europe (how I like to think of the very loose community of ancient Greek states).  What this relies on is an opposition between corrupted wealthy cosmopolitan states which lack the natural vitality for self-defence; and small autarkic rural states  where natural strength is perfected and able to deter any invasion.  This is a reference to contrasts between the virtuous early Roman republic and the decadent late Roman republic, Greece against Persia, Sparta against the other Greek states.  A return to the ancient austere republicanism is Rousseau’s ideal, even when applied to the large aristocratic-monarchical state of Poland.  One problem with this is that Rousseau failed to notice what David Hume (who was a friend of Rousseau for a while) and Adam Smith (who was a reader of Rousseau) did notice, which is that ancient contrast between the natural strength of ‘barbaric’ peoples agains the cultivated weakness of ‘civilised’ peoples which had some power in explaining ancient history, could not explain the modern world where commercial states could use wealth to become militarily strong enough to prevent the ancient pattern of ‘barbarians’ raiding and destroying more civilised peoples.  Even looking at ancient history, we should note that Greece was as rich as Persia (or so economic historians now think) and that strong powers tended to be commercial powers (Athens, Rome, Carthage and others).  The impending emergency in Poland perhaps meant that a bit of Spartan spirit was needed, and that was what rescued the French Republic from foreign and internal enemies, but Rousseau is not talking about emergency measures, he is suggesting long term changes in the structure of the state.

Rousseau’s proposed changes for Poland often relate to quite detailed issues of how to make existing balances and separations of power much efficient and less prone to breakdown. This reminds me of Frederick the Great’s Enlightenment reforms in Prussia, they both created broader citizenship rights and reinforced old hierarchies.  Maybe Frederick Hohenzollern was the great Rousseau disciple of his time (not by design as far as a I know), and those reforsm strengthened the Prussian state that partook of the partition of Poland (all of the monarchs concerned were ‘Enlightened’ despots).  The most dramatic proposals from Rousseau for Poland include a voluntary withdrawal from peripheral territories to make the country more unified, and a regionalisation of the country2s political institutions to provide some kind of bridge between the local nobility and the monarchy.  The latter proposal, in particular, certainly undermines some lazy preconceptions of Rousseau the fanatic for unitary and homogeneous republicanism.

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