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Modernism: Representations of National Culture

Ahmet Ersoy
Maciej Górny
Vangelis Kechriotis

Chapter II. The “Critical turns”: Subverting the Romantic narratives

Progressivism and conservatism in Slovakia

Bohdan Pavlů
Traduction de Pavol Lukáč

Texte intégral

1Title: Pokrokovosť a konzervativizmus na Slovensku (Progressivism and conservatism in Slovakia)

2Originally published: In Prúdy 2, 1910, No. 2, pp. 49–65.

3Language: Slovak

4The excerpts used are from Rudolf Chmel, ed., Hlasy v prúdoch času (Bratislava: Tatran 1983), pp. 128–134.

About the author

5Bohdan Pavlů [1883, Spešov (south Moravia) – 1938, Bosanski Novi (Bosnia)]: journalist, literary critic, translator and diplomat. He studied law in Prague, Vienna and Budapest. He could not conclude his studies, and from 1903 he started to work as a journalist. He belonged to a group of young Slovak intelligentsia formed around the review Prúdy (Streams). Until 1914 he was an editor of the Slovenský týdeník (Slovak weekly) and contributed also to Národní listy (National papers) and the journal Čas (Time) close to Tomáš G. Masaryk. At the beginning of the First World War he fought at the Eastern front, defected to the Russian side and became an active organizer of the pro-Entente Czechoslovak Legions in Russia. In 1917, he was elected to the Czechoslovak National Committee branch in Russia and after the establishment of the Republic he served as its political representative in Siberia. After his return to Czechoslovakia in 1920 he became the editor-in-chief of the Slovenský denník (Slovak daily) starting to work again as a diplomat two years later. He served as the Czechoslovak ambassador to Bulgaria between 1922 and 1927, and to Denmark between 1927 and 1932. In 1935 he was sent as the first Czechoslovak ambassador to USSR for a two year term. He died in a car accident during a visit to Yugoslavia as the deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs. He was an active translator, primarily of Russian literature.

6Main works: Literárne túžby [Literary desires] (1907).


7Until the end of the nineteenth century, the Slovak National Party, established out of the ‘Old Slovak School’ in 1871, was the leading political body and its main goals continued to be based upon the ‘Memorandum of the Slovak Nation’ from 1861. Prominent among those goals were the claim for national and cultural autonomy within a separate Slovak territory in Upper Hungary, the opposition to forced Magyarization and the spread of Slovak in public life and education (see Ján Palárik, What should we expect from the Hungarian constitution for our nationality and what do we need most now?). At the end of the century, however, various groups emerged within and around the Party critical to the conservative ways and ideas of the leadership, which was based in Turčiansky Svätý Martin (Hun. Turócszentmárton). The challengers reproached the leaders such as Svetozár Hurban Vajanský or Pavol Mudroň for their passive approach to politics, their Romantic political ideals which made them incapable of dealing with the changing social and economic realities, and their messianism and Romantic pan-Slavism, conjoined with the hope that Russia would liberate the Slovaks from national oppression.

8One dissenting group was formed by the representatives of political Catholicism, such as Andrej Hlinka and Ferdiš Juriga, who in 1913 established the Slovak People’s Party. Another group that built their identity in opposition to ‘Martin conservatism’ was formed around the progressivist review Hlas (Voice) which was founded in 1898. Up until its closure in 1904, this journal acted as the tribune for the movement of young critical intellectuals called hlasizmus. The movement emerged from among the Slovak students at universities in Prague, Vienna and Budapest, and was strongly influenced by the ideas of Czech political realism represented mainly by Tomáš G. Masaryk, professor of sociology in Prague. The leading figures of the Hlas group such as Vavro Šrobár, Pavol Blaho and Milan Hodža took up the main elements of Masaryk’s pragmatic philosophy and developed the concept of drobná práce (the petit work), that targeted the economic, social and moral restoration of all strata of Slovak society. Quite naturally, Hlas became an important apologist of the idea of close Slovak–Czech political and cultural cooperation. Later on, during the Czechoslovak Republic many ‘hlasists’ became firm adherents of the concept of Czechoslovakism and served as state officials in the Republic.

9Hlas ceased publication in 1904 due to internal strife, and from 1909, another review, Prúdy (Streams), took up the same critical stance. While Hlas was predominantly politically and ideologically oriented, the younger generation that founded Prúdy put more emphasis on literary and cultural matters. Among the main contributors were Bohdan Pavlů—who was sometimes considered to be the main ideologue of the early period—Ivan Markovič, Vladimír Roy, Juraj Slávik and František Votruba. The Prúdy group, which wanted to introduce modern ideas of scientific rationalism and democratic participation to Slovak society, defended modern art and also advocated Slovak– Czech cooperation. They were critical of Martin’s old conservatives and what they understood to be the Romantic heritage. At the same time, however, they tried to find ways for a dialogue between the two generations. Similarly, they sought new opportunities for Slovak–Magyar cooperation, and found support among the new generation of Hungarian intellectuals from the civic radicals grouped around Oszkár Jászi and especially their younger representatives gathered around the Budapest ‘Galilei Circle’ (K. Polányi, G. Pólya). Many of Jászi’s political essays and articles were translated and published in Prúdy. The essay below was the result of the April meeting of the Slovak university youth in Budapest in 1910, where the participants solicited Bohdan Pavlů to elaborate on the central topic of progressivism and conservatism in Slovak society. With its emphasis on democratic participation, rationalism and social dialogue it represents the most salient features of the Slovak progressivism of that time.

10With its strong pro-democratic, modernist and secularizing agenda, along with a strong affection for Czech culture and politics, the Prúdy group clearly remained rather marginal in the Slovak politics of its time. By 1922, as the journal continued its publication, Pavlů and the founding generation was replaced by more explicit exponents of Czechoslovakist ideology (F. Kaláč, F. Houdek, A. Štefánek), which only furthered its political marginalization within the Slovak environment. In cultural terms, however, the journal served as an important forum for some of the most progressive Slovak modernist artists. Both the Hlas as well as the Prúdy groups are considered by Slovak historians as important turn-of-the-century alternative voices whose radical criticism significantly contributed to the cultural modernization as well as critical self-reflection of Slovak society and politics.


Progressivism and conservatism in Slovakia


The national revival

  • 1 István Werbőczy (c. 1465–1541): Hungarian jurist and statesman who codified the noble privileges a (...)
  • 2 Ján Kvačala (1862–1934): Slovak theologian and one of the founders of the modern Comeniana studies

13The reasons for Slovak stagnation were first discovered thanks to a group of authors publishing their articles in Hlas revue. In Lassalle’s opinion, speaking out on matters as they really are is the best way to fight against some ideas. The Hlas revue group voiced their opinions, but they needed such great moral strength to do so in that period of time, that we even fail to fully recognize the importance of their efforts today. The Hlas revue group had to destroy the prejudice which prevented it from implementing new ideas and the prejudice obstructing the revival of old but forgotten traditions applicable in modern times. For example, they emphasized the idea that the strength of the nation lay in the common people contrary to the theory promoted at that time, which replaced Werbőczy’s1 tribal aristocracy with Renan’s spiritual aristocracy and considered intellectuals as representatives of the nation. Paradoxically, when the Hlas revue group emphasized a moral revival, and the good accord of the internal and external worlds with the forgotten principles of goodness and love taken from Christian doctrine, and at the same time opposed these principles against spiritual Magyarization, Mr Kvačala,2 the innocent professor of theology, suddenly could not understand which Christian principles they meant. The Hlas revue group represented the necessary and comprehensive movement against conservatism and Romanticism. The Hlas revue group supported active policy against passive one, reliance in the power of common people against the hope of the support of the Russian tsar’s autocracy, constitutional struggle and the universal right to vote against marginalized political freedoms, and the importance of education and welfare against political cure-alls. The romantically-oriented Slovak society previously disrespected prosaic and low-valued business activities. It was fashionable to speak about “high” matters: high ideals, the High Tatras, the high flight of the Slavonic eagle, high politics and the higher social strata. The Hlas revue group had to come to demonstrate the needful role of business activities within the national struggle and their equivalence to parties, balls, salutes, speeches, theatre performances and similar activities of the golden Slovak youth. The Hlas revue group movement represented the return from fantasy to reality, from speculation to empiricism, from feelings to reason, and from words to action.

  • 3 In the minds of its members.

14During the short time of their movement, which was interrupted several times and interfered by a number of side issues, the Hlas revue group did a great deal of work. They succeeded in bringing the idea of Slovak nationality to the broad population, and in considerably refreshing the literal, political and economic life, and in eliminating many social prejudices. However, they did not have enough time and energy for the basic change in capite ei membris.3 We all are to recognize future tasks and to be helpful in their performance. We must not take the position of an idle and indifferent bystander. We also reject any reproach for neglecting traditions, and for promoting nothing but new ideas without any respect for the past. Each supporter of progress must be aware of the fact that nothing builds on nothing, that progress is not revolution but rather evolution and that progress cannot be reached through upheaval but through reform. That means that each supporter of progress must build the future on the groundwork of the past. A supporter of progress must also understand that a bearer of progress should not be short on criticism, justice, and truth and devotion to his or her conviction. We should examine the health of the nation and keep what is worthy to be kept; but let us eliminate everything, which is unfit and rotten, and we will manage to find—both among the old values and present ideals—the values worthy of further development.

Democratic principles

  • 4 Vavro Šrobár (1867–1950): Slovak physician and politician, one of the key figures of the Hlas move (...)

15Our greatest hopes are based on the healthy features of the common Slovak people who managed to keep free of the Romanticism and Oblomov-like manners of Slovak intellectuals. Several years ago, Vavro Šrobár4 was right when he underlined as valuable features of common people their tenacity and self-support. He mentioned the example of Slovak emigration, which represented the natural and self-supporting response of an exploited and godforsaken nation which managed to save itself from physical destruction. More than at any time before, we should aim at discovering and awaking the deep-hidden strength of the common people. New conditions set our static countryside moving. Nowadays, Slovaks are more interested in presidential elections in America than in the appointment of a new minister in Austria. Changes implemented in the United States affect the social situation of Slovaks more than the ones implemented in Austria. Slovakia is no more separated from the surrounding world by the Chinese wall. The streams of developing European ideas, society, literature, politics and economy have reached Slovakia at last. We cannot understand any period of Slovak national history, if we fail to observe its connection with the world abroad. For example, the European movement for political freedom, which resulted in revolution in 1848, also influenced developments in Slovakia. The large development of transportation in the nineteenth century also changed the Slovak idyll, notwithstanding the intensive protests of local patriots. Slovakia could not escape, by hook or by crook, the influence of the liberal economy, which victoriously marched all over the world setting farmers free of servitude and establishing the freedom of movement and trade. Even though Slovakia managed to steel itself against a number of progressive ideas, it does not mean that the country will wear this armor forever and that Slovakia will continue to be the unshaken fortress of social, literary and religious conservatism. The wave of the Hlas revue group is so high, that it can never be stopped.


  • 5 The author refers to late remnants of pre-Christian beliefs in Russia observed till late eighteent (...)
  • 6 Kristína Royová (1860–1936), Slovak religious writer and journalist. She was the founder and leade (...)
  • 7 Why is there no third or fourth (possibility)?

16There is a saying used in Slovakia: They are going to stir up mud! However, is the surface of the Slovak nation’s soul really clear? Don’t you think it has been already muddied due to the cardinal dualism resulting from differences between Catholic and Protestant churches? Aren’t there some remains of ancient Slav pantheism at the bottom of the Slovak soul, coming up in the form of a strange identification with nature? The days of the Russian two-faith religion5 are definitely gone, but Christianity in Slovakia hasn’t yet succeeded in uprooting pagan traditions, but only in establishing some new superstitions. It is not true that Slovak farmers are not able to think, even though many people would like them to be of that kind. It was a farmer and a Catholic from the West who said: “We believe them (clergymen), but only when it comes to those things which we do not understand.” Don’t you consider the campaign of the Blue Cross religious movement, to which Kristína Royová,6 a writer, fully devoted to her literary work, or the Baptists and Nazarenes as the evidence of a religious crisis among the common people? Should the intellectual be the only one who is able to stay indifferent? If we tolerate two basic churches, Catholic and Protestant, why tertium aut quartum non datur?7 Slovak society and students—surprisingly enough—are divided into groups according to their church affiliation. We must be able to escape from this denominational dead end, in which a Magyar Protestant is closer to a Slovak Protestant then a Slovak Catholic and vice versa. Nationality must function as an integrating factor!

  • 8 Friedrich Albert Lange (1828–1875): German philosopher and political activist, one of the founding (...)

17No religion results in progress. Religion itself must not oppose progress, and science should play the role of Chief Justice. A dispute has arisen in the modern era concerning the question of whether philosophy should become the queen of science, or theology should keep its exclusive rights in this field. Modern man is striving to harmonize his religious beliefs and scientific opinions, and it is understandable that myths must make way for science and that modern man will not support dogmas contradictory to general reason and experience. Modern man will take sides with science in disputes between authority and freedom of research, revelation and reason and experience, mystery and question, infallibility and probability, tradition and criticism, subjectivity and objectivity, which all arise from the controversy between myth and science. However, even modern man cannot avoid the mysterious relationship between our feelings and nature, which Spencer, John Stuart Mill and Lange,8 the historian of materialism, wrote about; his religious feelings continue to dominate in this unknown or unknowable area.

18The Bible cannot form the basis for solving the problems of a modern state and society. Religion, and churches in particular, have to give up their hopes of the establishment of a theocracy, and the more they turn to the kingdoms which are not of this world, the less they will be endangered by the modern era. The modern era requires churches to make way for subjective beliefs, to divorce themselves from the state and to stay true to their mission. Suppressing attempts at mixing political and religious objectives—that is what the fight against clericalism should be about. I am not sure whether any Slovak theologian, either Catholic or Protestant, would dare to defend the doctrines of Tomas of Aquinas or Martin Luther on the heavenly origin of the authority of the state against the modern Hungarian government.

Backward manners

  • 9 Ján Kalinčiak (1822–1871): Slovak Romantic writer, poet and friend of Ľudovít Štúr. Most well-know (...)
  • 10 Milan Hlaváč (1875–1939): Slovak Protestant religious writer, translator and journalist.
  • 11 Svetozár Hurban Vajanský (1847–1915): the son of J. M. Hurban, one of the leading patriots of the (...)
  • 12 Pavol Országh Hviezdoslav (1849–1921): poet, playwright and translator. The greatest poet of ninet (...)
  • 13 Ivan Krasko, real name Ján Botto (1876–1958): Slovak poet and writer. He was a major representativ (...)

19Prejudices similar to those functioning in the sphere of religion can also be found in social life, literature and politics. Medieval knighthood determines our social manners. A century ago, people in England realized that it was not possible to defend one’s honor by head and shoulders, fighting like a ruffian in the local pub, and that reasonable arguments should be submitted to prove the truth. Similar backward manners can also be found in literature. It is said that literature reflects real life through problems solved in literary works; so we can also say that problems that are not reflected in literary works, are not felt to be pressing in real life. The most significant problems of Slovak life are nationality and democracy. As I have already mentioned in my introduction to Ján Kalinčiak’s novel ‘The Restoration,’9 Slovak national literature had had to travel a long and hard path until it chose common Slovak people as national literary heroes. Slovak writers were convinced that real life was not worth choosing as a subject of larger literary works. Common people and intellectuals continue to inhabit two separated worlds even today. Writers are far from realizing that they can write novels dealing with economic problems and nobody imagines the buried investments in this field. False prudery shuts its eyes to visits to houses of ill repute, and continues believing in the idyllic and innocent lives of the common people, while Hlaváč, the noble literary author, holds the exclusive right to deal with sexual problems (God defend us if we accept the opinions promoted in his book entitled ‘Woman and the Heavenly Kingdom’).10 Social and national morals are cheap. People think that a few coppers spent in promoting national objectives are enough to buy indulgences to cover their long-lasting sins. Where does this Jesuit moral come from? I think it originated as the result of theories, which set unrealistically high objectives, but vastly underestimated the practice. Theory was not checked by real life and practice did not rise over theory. This is largely apparent in the attitudes towards literature. Literature is said to be the highest function of the national spirit. However, the biblical verse saying that the letter kills but the spirit gives life has proved to be true especially in this field. The majority of Slovak literature has lost any connection to the spirit of real national life. Slovak literature continues to follow the idea of Romanticism and Hegelianism that there is no need for a poet to study or to observe life around him or her since everything flows from inside and everything can be created from within the soul and heart. I admit that intuition is the main attribute of a poet, but mythical intuition alone results only in romantic escape from reality. Vajanský11 definitely felt the same when he strongly argued that realism safeguards the harmony of two requirements laid upon literary works—truth and beauty. However, literature has left the requirement of truth and made readers believe impossible and fruitless fantasies, or laugh at literature, which they probably considered a useless luxury. The Philistinism of the majority of people resulted in their disregarding attitudes to literature, hence they dared not to oppose the general Romantic approach to literature, and writers tired of disregarding and disrespecting that which they have to face, stopped writing their best literary works—see the example of Hviezdoslav,12 the greatest Slovak poet. It is fashionable today to have his poetry in the bookcase, but have we ever read it? I think there is no need to argue that realism in art is not spiritless materialism, since Vajanský already wrote about this issue in detail. The symbolic realism of modern Slovak poetry (Ivan Krasko)13 sufficiently documents this fact13.


20I am not aiming to analyze all open questions in Slovak literature. Poverty is no reproach, but it is necessary to be willing to get away from poverty. However, people are not willing to do that, since they are afraid of the others, who may start shouting “Look, a heretic!” if they start running their business. Strong personalities aware of their mission, and ready to serve it, may succeed in improving the level of national life. The intolerance and autocratic orthodoxy of Slovaks created an environment in which any desire for activity, for freedom of thinking and for new path were nipped in the bud. That is the tragedy of the present Slovak situation, and those are the conditions, which restrain and hurt.

21We have no conclusion but one—it is necessary to cure the nation of this illness. The evil must be uprooted. We see that our most significant failure results from the dominion of feelings over reason, belief over science, speculation over empiricism, Romanticism over Realism, autocracy over the rule of people, East over West, and conservatism over progress.


1 István Werbőczy (c. 1465–1541): Hungarian jurist and statesman who codified the noble privileges after the peasant revolt of György Dózsa in 1514.

2 Ján Kvačala (1862–1934): Slovak theologian and one of the founders of the modern Comeniana studies.

3 In the minds of its members.

4 Vavro Šrobár (1867–1950): Slovak physician and politician, one of the key figures of the Hlas movement and supporter of Czechoslovakism in the interwar period.

5 The author refers to late remnants of pre-Christian beliefs in Russia observed till late eighteenth century.

6 Kristína Royová (1860–1936), Slovak religious writer and journalist. She was the founder and leader of the evangelical Blue Cross temperance movement.

7 Why is there no third or fourth (possibility)?

8 Friedrich Albert Lange (1828–1875): German philosopher and political activist, one of the founding figures of the Marburg school of neo-Kantianism. His book, Geschichte des Materialismus (History of materialism), published in 1866, was a standard introduction to materialism and the history of philosophy up to the twentieth century.

9 Ján Kalinčiak (1822–1871): Slovak Romantic writer, poet and friend of Ľudovít Štúr. Most well-known is his novel Reštavrácia (The restoration) published in 1860.

10 Milan Hlaváč (1875–1939): Slovak Protestant religious writer, translator and journalist.

11 Svetozár Hurban Vajanský (1847–1915): the son of J. M. Hurban, one of the leading patriots of the Štúr generation. Vajanský, with broad knowledge and cosmopolitan education, belongs to the main creators of modern Slovak realist prose and poetry. He introduced the genre of the social novel into Slovak literature.

12 Pavol Országh Hviezdoslav (1849–1921): poet, playwright and translator. The greatest poet of nineteenth-century Slovak realism, he introduced syllabic-tonic verse into Slovak poetry.

13 Ivan Krasko, real name Ján Botto (1876–1958): Slovak poet and writer. He was a major representative of Slovak modernist literature.


Pavol Lukáč (Traducteur)

© Central European University Press, 2010

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