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National Romanticism: The Formation of National Movements

Balázs Trencsényi
Michal Kopeček

Chapter V. National Heroism: Revolution and Counter-Revolution

Vital truths of the Polish nation

Henryk Kamieński
Traduction de Zuzanna Ładyga

Texte intégral

1Title: O prawdach żywotnych narodu polskiego (Vital truths of the Polish nation)

2Originally published: Brussels, 1844

3Language: Polish

4The excerpts used are from Andrzej Walicki and Jan Garewicz, eds., 700 lat myśli polskiej: Filozofia i myśl społeczna w latach 1831–1864 (Warszawa: Państwowe Wydawnictwo Naukowe, 1977), pp. 410–413.

About the author

5Henryk Kamieński (pseudonym: Filaret Prawdoski) [1813, Ruda (near Lublin) – 1866, Algiers]: politician and publicist, the intellectual leader of the Polish irredentist circles in the 1840s. As a young boy he took part in the November Uprising. After the amnesty he lived on his estate, working on philosophical and economic works. In the 1840s he was involved in the organization of radical conspiracies in the Congress Kingdom. His book ‘Vital truths of the Polish nation’, published in 1844, was the theoretical analysis of a social (peasant) revolution. He was arrested in 1845, convicted and sent to Siberia for five years. After he was released he moved to Switzerland where he worked on an analysis of Russian culture and the Russian state as well as on a theory of ‘guerrilla-warfare.’ Kamieński is usually associated with his cousin Edward Dembowski, leader of the unsuccessful Cracow revolution in 1846. Both of them stemmed from the gentry, and were probably the most ardent Polish revolutionary agitators of the period.

6Main works: Pamiętniki i wizerunki [Diaries and sketches] (1951); O prawdach żywotnych narodu polskiego [Vital truths of the Polish nation] (1844); Katechizm demokratyczny [Democratic Catechism] (1849); Le Russie et l’avenir (1858); Filozofia ekonomii materialnej ludzkiego społeczeństwa [Philosophy of the social economy of human society] (1843–45); Pan Józef Bojalski [Mr. Józef Bojalski] (1854).


7Kamieński’s text originates in the political debates of the Polish émigrés in the wake of the collapse of the November Uprising (1830–1831). The crucial question, which numerous political and literary writings attempted to answer, concerned the cause of the failure. The overwhelming majority of the émigrés rejected the explanation in terms of Russian military superiority and searched for internal causes. The most critical assessment of the events was provided by publicists of radical democratic convictions. Among these exiles, a new political movement was formed: the Towarzystwo Demokratyczne Polskie (Polish Democratic Society). Kamieński’s book, which fused the struggle for independence with a program of social revolution, was one of the most influential and representative formulations of the radical platform. According to Kamieński, independence could be achieved only through a mass insurrection. Several years after publishing ‘Vital truths,’ Kamieński prepared a shorter version, called ‘Democratic Catechism.’ This became very popular and was used by the emissaries sent to Poland to prepare the new uprising.

8Kamieński’s ideology met with criticism from one of the greatest Roman-tic poets, Zygmunt Krasiński (1812–1859). In his ‘Psalms of the Future’ (1845) he upheld—in contrast to Kamieński—the idea of national solidarity and refused to tie the question of independence to the question of serfdom. The political conflict shifted to the tricky field of poetry, and Kamieński did not venture to continue the debate, leaving the answer to another outstanding romantic poet, Juliusz Słowacki (1809–1849). Słowacki’s answer, ‘To the author of Psalms of the Future’, was written in 1845–1846 but was published only in 1848, to be followed by the answer by Krasiński.

9In 1846, the tragic events of the Galician ‘Jacquerie’ brought bitter disappointment for the radicals who believed in an imminent national revolution. In spite of the efforts of the emissaries and the decrees of the democratic government of Cracow, the uprising was crushed by the Galician (Polish and mainly Ruthenian) peasantry manipulated by the Austrian authorities. In the district of Tarnów, they even slaughtered several hundred of the rioting Polish gentry. These events generated a new set of conservative arguments, asserting that the radical propaganda was to blame for the anti-gentry behavior of peasants. Nevertheless, the theory of a peasant revolution was popular among Polish democrats as long as the majority of Polish peasants were still subordinated to the landowners (their enfranchisement took place only during the January Uprising in 1863–1864).

10After the defeat of the 1863 uprising, mainstream nationalism parted company with democratic ideology. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, ‘national democrats’ (see Roman Dmowski, Thoughts of a modern Pole) as well as the agrarian movement sought to attract the Polish peasantry as they were interested in gaining the support of every social strata. The radical democratic tradition of the 1840s influenced the rhetoric of Polish socialism in the late-nineteenth century (see Józef Piłsudski, On patriotism), and the socialists perceived themselves as heirs of that tradition. Finally, Kamieński’s (and the other radical democrats’) ideas were instrumentalized in actual political debates even after 1945 when they were integrated into the new ideological canon as alleged precursors of Polish Communism. Not surprisingly, Marxist historiography tended to emphasize the social program of the radical democrats, leaving aside the national question (and of course its anti-Russian edge).


Vital truths of the Polish nation

12We, a nation crushed by despotism, a nation that has fallen so many times, are now expected to rise and battle for our independence and thus win freedom for the neighboring peoples! Weak as we have always been, we are now expected to exhibit strength! For this to become possible, we need first and foremost to analyze the causes of our fall, to understand the meaning and circumstances of our enslavement, since nothing in this world has ever happened by accident. A nation should think sensibly unless it wants to become an idle playground of ill fate—our misfortunes could appear as destiny’s bitterly ironic fancy, a demonical and unexplainable set of circumstances, were they not endowed with some deeper sense signaling our mission in the history of humanity. Our country’s imprisonment and partition did have their causes as well as consequences, and thus the former should prove helpful in explaining the latter. Our fall was inevitable, but as a close scrutiny of its circumstances reveals, it has never led to the dissolution or rejection of our nationality as something useless and burdensome; instead it proves that our fate has been to grow and prepare for fulfilling our historic mission under the eye of misfortune and misery which has no equals among tutors of individual men as well as entire nations.

13As for the reasons of Poland’s decline, we shall not indulge here in elaborate historical explanations but only highlight its primal roots, which had to evolve one way or another. A nation as great as ours could not have fallen any other way than due to its own impotence; the causes of the partitions and our humiliation are to be traced within ourselves, in our progressing weakness and eventual disintegration—a decline cannot be explained otherwise than as an immediate consequence of feebleness. All this comes down to the question: “What were Poland’s weaknesses?” Some see them in the issue of the election to the throne, the gentry’s insubordination and the liberum veto, some blame the magnates and their preoccupation with private ends, while others mention the inadequate organization of government, the lack of a permanent army or public funds, etc. However, all these arguments do not touch upon the very foundation of our national impotence.

14Our weakness must have indeed been alarmingly serious, as not only were we conquered by means of very inferior forces, but what is more, the conquest met with hardly any resistance and struggle. The scale of the armed protests of the Confederation of Bar or Kościuszko’s uprising was so embarrassingly small considering the size of the nation that we must treat them as recklessly strained efforts rather than as true rebellions against foreign invaders. Had the entire country eagerly and with love roared aloud for its homeland’s independence, and had it, when faced with the threat of danger, united all its efforts, there would never have been any invasion, and the enemy who dared to attack our country would have been destroyed—a free land would burn under his feet and the flames of its population would devour his body. What deprived our nation of integrity—this divine bond between the sons of a single soil, which unites them in defense of their country in need—was all the same the reason of its decline, as it drove Polish society into impotence, which had to end in a fall. As long as despotism is alive, every weak nation will be conquered, and solely by its own weakness—no other causes for a decline of a weak nation can be found after even the most scrupulous search.

15What was that which brought disintegration and thus undermined our nation’s strength? What caused the patriotic affection for homeland and independence to decay? Indeed, the flame of this affection must have been faint at the time when the then-great nation could resolve only to small and insignificant tasks. In order to answer these questions we should direct our insight to the conditions of those living in servitude, to the privileges which turn men into possessions much like landed property or cattle, to the oppression of the most numerous social class, a class that is the source of the country’s strengths and hopes for independence. Could those who are oppressed inspire enthusiasm for independence in the same way as the free? For a slave, no country is ever a good mother, but rather a vicious stepmother who instead of love and care gives him only misery, humiliating imprisonment, injustice, and blight. Our nation, deprived of its human dignity, humiliated, and depraved by patient bowing, could not have been any other than it was, that is, dead and unstirring. This is why Poland was conquered without a great national battle and after some—only insignificant—talks.

16Therefore, what impaired our nation’s integrity, what made it incapable of opposing foreign invasion, and what as a result brought about our country’s fall, was nothing other than the oppression of our people. We were destroyed because our unity and thus also our strength were abhorrently violated by class differences. Our uprisings kept failing because we were unable to remove the stigma of our grandfathers’ sins; we were unable to awaken our people from the spell cast by their sinful heritage. Our country surrendered to foreign violators because the privileged few who led its defense had nothing in common with the rest of the nation, and guarded their own interests rooted in injustice placing against the common good. We have never won, because not once did Poland, its entire people, stand united in determination to achieve victory.

17It is a natural reaction against foreign violence to unify the nation, and shape it, using the existing sources of vitality, so that it becomes unanimous in valuing freedom above everything else and one in efforts to achieve this freedom. Before we undertake this effort, however, we need to prove, using as a premise the causes of our present misery, that our fall was not fatal but was a mere stumble; that our decay is not death but a disease soon to be cured. We have said that the causes of the nation’s decline can be found within it, not in external circumstances; applying this rule further, the decision whether this nation is to die or stay alive lies also within itself not in external circumstances which on the surface may deny that we are alive and erase us from the ranks of nations, but which sooner or later will have to accept the undeniable signs of life, the independent actions of the oppressed. For it is as impossible to conquer a nation that fervently defends its sovereignty as to keep it in chains when it generates and spreads the fire of patriotic love, when it is inspired by the spirit of unity and ready to crush everything that opposes this togetherness, the lack of which has lost the country once already, but which shall save it when sustained. Nationality is a knot that joins the sons of one soil; when it is eased the nation weakens, but when tightened it strengthens the nation regardless of external events, for better or for worse. And when this knot is undone completely, then a nation dies and disintegrates into minor elements which then become part of other nations’ bodies because it has no part to play in the journey of humanity. In the case of Poland, this knot has been weakened so that the nation was not able to withstand the pressure of surrounding despotism and therefore had to give in to it. However, the knot was not dissolved—in fact, it seems to be getting stronger and stronger, considering the growing number of uprisings and the new emotional intensity attached to the words ‘homeland’ and ‘independence.’ All this is taking place under foreign oppression, which nevertheless cannot block the flow of our national life or even obstruct its progress and development. However, a mere acknowledgement of the fact is not sufficient—we need to scrutinize its causes and draw conclusions in order to undertake actions that will eventually lead our country to salvation.

  • 1 Jadwiga (ca. 1374–1399), the queen of Poland, married in 1386 the Lithuanian duke Jogaila (baptize (...)

18A nation dies when it does not pursue any goals put forward for it by humanity, when the idea that embodies these goals does not bind its members together. All external attempts at obstructing a nation’s progress towards such goals shall never bring doom upon it, nor even a momentary pause in its existence, because a nation’s life relies on its integral strength which perpetuates its actions. The only way to destroy a nation is to take away the goals in which its power is invested and to replace them with others that are greater and more common and which absorb like useless refuse the ones that were previously cherished. Then, predictably, a nation is dissolved. There is only one rightful kind of pressure in the world, against which no one protests, and that is the burden of spirituality—the only one which inspires and perfects humanity, the only one that is never violent but always a choice of man’s free will. Our enemies never have exerted and never will exert this pressure upon us, because this is our own weapon that will not obey their command but listens only to those who march with the current of humanity’s progress, not to tyrants who always proceed against it. If the despots ever wanted to master this weapon they would have to reject despotism, for the mere touch of progressive things would turn their potency to dust. Spiritual conquest is the only force which can lead nations to unite into a larger whole. And this force is our weapon, precisely our weapon, just as military force is the exclusive weapon of humanity’s enemies, for we represent the spiritual power while they represent the material one. Poland used its spiritual force in the times of its greatness, and for this reason Lithuania cast itself into our brotherly arms; the two differing and previously hostile nations forged together a holy and indestructible alliance to work together towards the higher goals of humanity, and since then nothing has been able to force them apart. Today, no one will say that this was merely a result of Jagiełło’s marriage to Jadwiga1—alliances between nations are not a matter of personal relations; it was the Polish customs as laws, polished by Christianity, education and liberties which resulted from it, that attracted the young country of Lithuania, that conquered it spiritually and brought about the eternal brotherly union between the two countries, until death do them part.

19Poland is not dead! For it still has great aims to pursue: the spreading of freedom in Western Europe, which can be realized only through our first regaining our own independence. It is the pursuit of these goals through the achieving of sovereign existence that is this country’s binding force, a force which unites a nation of twenty million people ready to do anything once they know its potential, because spiritual conquest can only be achieved by this country and not against it. Poland shall never die, because it evolves in accordance with the general spirit of humanity which is the only guarantee of enduring; but the despotic regimes which hold her in their grip must pass away, as they go against humanity and are capable of building, if anything, only petty things.


1 Jadwiga (ca. 1374–1399), the queen of Poland, married in 1386 the Lithuanian duke Jogaila (baptized as Władysław, ca. 1351–1434), which is referred to as a founding act of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.


Zuzanna Ładyga (Traducteur)

© Central European University Press, 2007

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