Polish Machiavelli? Maurycy Mochnacki -- romantic and realist

He was arrested by the Russians for being a member of an independence organization. He was subjected to a strict investigation, which led to his self-criticism, but a very perverse one: he wrote a memorial in which he accused tsarism of having... too much freedom in the territory of the Russian Partition.

Machiavellianism is considered to be synonymous with cynicism and political cunning. Hardly surprising then that the politicians who practice it don't talk about it publicly. In essence, Machiavellianism, put simply, is the art of hiding one's actions, all in the name of the principle that "the end justifies the means". It's about pursuing a course of action that delivers a desired political outcome, while not revealing or bragging about the devious means by which it was accomplished .

This is the common, one might even say pop-culture, approach to a phenomenon, that -- let us remind ourselves -- is named after Niccolo Machiavelli, the Italian Renaissance office-holder and diplomat who was (and is) famed his treatise "The Prince", a kind of how-to guide on the effective exercise of power.

Therefore, if Machiavellianism equates with an attitude that is associated with cheating and manipulation in politics, then terms like "Machiavellian" bear the hallmarks of epithets. In Polish public debate, applying such terminology against opponents (political and otherwise) is standard. However, this merits taking a look at how the Polish version of Machiavellianism featured in a broader historical and cultural context. Such a review could suggest that we are dealing with a noble but unconscious falsification of reality.

The year 2023 was designated by the Sejm [Parliament] of the Republic of Poland as the Year of Maurycy Mochnacki. On September 13, we celebrate the 220th anniversary of the birth of this singular political thinker, a man accused by his opponents of Machiavellianism.

We are talking about a monumental figure, who, in his short life (just 31 years), had a huge impact on Polish culture. A leading theoretician of Romanticism, he became its trendsetting proponent.

He wrote extensively on a wide range of topics. He discussed political, historical and philosophical issues, while reviewing literary and musical works -- he was also a pianist. He also dealt with translations.

Mochnacki's involvement in the fight to regain independent Polish statehood speaks for itself. He participated in the November Uprising [1830-1831], and even before that he was active in the anti-tsar conspiracy. His views and activities gained him antagonists in independence circles.

In 1823, Mochnacki was arrested by the Russians for belonging to the Union of Free Poles. He was subjected to an intense investigation, which led to his self-criticism, one that was very perverse. He wrote a memoir in which, among other things, he accused tsarism of having too much freedom in the territory of the Russian Partition [the former territories of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth annexed by the Russian Empire in the course of late-18th-century Partitions of Poland]. As a result, he was set free. Later, his circumstances were such that he was compelled to work for a spell in the censorship office. When it became clear that he was not paying due attention to his duties there, he was fired.
Niccolò Machiavelli (1469 - 1527). Photo: Mary Evans Picture Library/Forum
Discussions continue to this day about Mochnacki's difficult experiences in the 1820s. His behavior at the time can be interpreted in various ways but also as a manifestation of emerging Machiavellianism. Although then a young man, Mochnacki in a sense outplayed his persecutors. And it was this same ability and desire that was to guide him later as he looked for ways to defeat the powers that stood in the way of Polish independence aspirations.

Mochnacki sought to restore the Polish monarchy. He was convinced that the leading position in independent Poland should be retained by the nobility, and that their mission as the nation's elite would be to democratize Poles. In the text "On the Social Revolution in Poland", he outlined a vision of Poland that was "paved with coats of arms".

  He combined discourses that, in the common opinion, contradict each other. He was a political realist and at the same time -- as already said -- a romantic.

When it comes to romanticism, Mochnacki rejected the raptures and exaltations that characterize this cultural trend. He was an opponent of the romantic moralization of politics. He perceived politics as a field of conflict between colliding interests, not a clash between good people and bad people. He saw in romanticism a national idiom that could be an expression of the feeling and will of Poles, and therefore of what constitutes Polish national subjectivity. Mochnacki wanted Poles to recognize themselves -- as he stated in "Dethroning Nicholas" - "in the indivisible being of the entire nation." Romanticism was supposed to be a factor in the spiritual consolidation of Poles and, at the same time, their cultural emancipation. Mochnacki's political realism as a 19th-century thinker is astutely analysed by Bronisław Łagowski in his excellent book "Political Philosophy of Maurycy Mochnacki" ("Filozofia Polityczna Maurycego Mochnackiego", Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1981), which was re-published this year by Ośrodek Myśli Politycznej (the Center for Political Thought). It is worth digressing here: Łagowski was a member of the Polish United Workers' Party during the times of the Polish People's Republic. But in supporting the power of the communist party, he referred -- which may sound surprising today -- not to Marxism-Leninism, but to conservative arguments in favor of a strong state.

In Łagowski's book about Mochnacki, we read, among other things: "Considering politics only as a field of means, and therefore taking it in the dimension of reality, not duty, we must conclude that it is subject, like all reality, to the law of causality, which means that only power has the ability here to cause effects. And let's add that this means everything that can transform into power. No right – moral or otherwise – can win with causality or even come into contact with it. This is a truism that everyone agrees on, and whose implications only Machiavellians recognize."

Yet, according to Łagowski, Mochnacki was not a worshiper of power for its own sake. He treated it as a key tool for what he considered to be the priority, i.e. Poles attaining their independence. But by condemning the spiritual moralization in politics, he mantained that as far as the good of the nation was concerned, one should never hesitate to use extraordinary measures -- even dictatorial rule.
Łagowski's views about Mochnacki's Machiavellianism are well illustrated by the thinker's attitude to the revolutionary movements in Europe. Mochnacki was a conservative and was not ideologically on their side. But in the success of their movements he perceived a chance for Polish independence. Regaining independence, he concluded, would require the destruction of the system of powers built on the Holy Alliance. And this was what the revolutionaries wanted to achieve on the Old Continent as well.

However, when it comes to allies of the Polish cause in the international arena, Mochnacki was not subject to political illusions. Jarosław Marek Rymkiewicz [the Polish poet, essayist, dramatist, translator and literary critic] writes brilliantly on this subject. The latest issue of the quarterly "Kronos" (no. 1/2023) contains three fragments of his unfinished book about Mochnacki. In one of them, the 19th-century thinker is portrayed as follows: "Mochnacki should not be accused of naivety -- he was compared to Danton and Robespierre and called a hothead and fanatic as well as a revolutionary madman (...), but he was (also) a sharp and sober politician, who knew well that no one would help Poles -- if they did not help themselves."

Polish politicians today should be inspired by Mochnacki's legacy. This, however, does not mean that his writings should be accepted uncritically, especially since Poles are in a completely different situation today than they were in the 19th century.

Nevertheless, today there are situations that bring to mind Mochnacki's thinking. This is surely the case when Polish politicians are morally blackmailed into sacrificing the Polish national interest on the altar of so many sublime and abstract ideas.  There is nothing amoral about them effectively resisting such pressure and promoting their arguments -- even if we call it Machiavellianism.

– Filip Memches

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

– Translated by Agnieszka Rakoczy
Main photo: Maurycy Mochnacki monument in Warsaw. Photo: PAP/Szymon Pulcyn
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