A Politika Nyelvei - Eszmetörténeti Tanulmányok

TitleA Politika Nyelvei - Eszmetörténeti Tanulmányok
Publication TypePublication review
AuthorsLaczó, Ferenc
Author(s) of reviewed materialTrencsényi, Balázs

Title translated:
The Languages of Politics - Studies in Intellectual History. Series: Eszmetörténeti Könyvtár, VI.

PublisherBudapest: Argumentum Kiadó - Bibó István Szellemi Műhely
Review year


Full Text

This first collection of studies by Balázs Trencsényi consists of a variety of case studies on the early modern and inter-war periods, it features a number of the author’s review essays and includes a crucially important, programmatic methodological and historiographical first chapter that discusses the possibilities of East Central European applications as well. With the exception of an earlier piece, the studies included here were all written between 1999 and 2004. They reflect one of the major innovations in historical studies of the last decades throughout, namely the emergence of various conceptual-contextualist approaches in intellectual history, of which Trencsényi, still in his mid-30s, is one of the most sophisticated and consistent propagators in Hungary – and more broadly, regionally as well, since he is among the few who is in the position to seriously pursue comparative projects in the intellectual history of various eastern European contexts at this point. 

The pieces in this collection are typically densely written and a plethora of points is made in each. This makes the comprehensive introduction of A politika nyelvei in a review of this length an unattainable goal. Therefore, next to brief indications of the content of other chapters, this review deals with what its author perceives as four of the most significant studies in this collection and aims to reconstruct these pieces fairly accurately. The presentation of the first two is justified by the assertion that they relate to each other as the theory of a practice and the practice of a theory, and thereby their joined presentation can hopefully enable the reader to see some of the main contours of the intellectual development and current profile of Trencsényi.  

In his major study “Eszmetörténeti program és módszertani adaptáció” (“A Program in Intellectual History and Methodological Adaptation,” previously this study appeared under the title “Keywords and Political Languages: Reflections on the East-Central European Adaptation of Contextualist-Conceptualist Intellectual History”) Trencsényi’s aim is twofold. Firstly, he presents a panoramic overview of English, German and French innovations in recent decades that have provided us with methodological offers in a conceptual-contextualist vein and have similarly analyzed concepts, contexts, semantic fields and political discourses. Notwithstanding such similarities, these innovations have moved in rather different directions and they do not seem easily reconcilable. (Attempts at various fusions have until now only come from less canonized authors and less central places, for instance the writings of Melvin Richter are notable in this respect, some of whose aims deserve comparison with Trencsényi’s.) Their philosophies of language (nominalist versus essentialist) and focus on individual versus supra-personal units have distinguished and in cases and at times even opposed the various paradigmatic ways of conducting intellectual history. Moreover, their objects of study have also been different (p.32), in the background of which is the problem of the various interpretations of modernity (perceived rather differently in various national traditions), so Trencsényi (p.34). This also means that without a new, European and meta-theoretical construction of modernity, which would no doubt have to be the result of a major collective scholarly effort, the fuller integration of perspectives appears to be beyond reach. 

Trencsényi pleads for the combined exploration of diachronic and synchronic aspects in intellectual history, and the integration of three timehorizons, which respectively analyze speech acts of authors (their temporal dimensions being days or months), political languages or discursive frames (years or decades) and longue durée transformations (measured in decades or even centuries) (p.36-7). While the writing of conceptual history in practice means partial explorations, the contours of this synthesis (or ideal model) is worth remembering.  

Secondly, Trencsényi also reflects on the possibilities of the local/regional application of these methodological offers. In exploring East Central European material, Trencsényi believes the “middle sphere” of political languages (á la Pocock, as a heuristic devise) can prove most fruitful, since the discursive space of this region is the result of (usually mostly one-way) cultural transmissions, its high intellectual culture has been discontinuous and political languages became mixed (and various developments that have been chronologically ordered elsewhere often appear simultaneously, making the intellectual lives of these countries describable with the notion of “time reservoir”). This “middle sphere” can relate to both texts and contexts, to vocabularies and political languages, to the individual and collective levels, mediate between them and offer the best chance for an inclusive, synthetic analysis.  

The study of East Central European intellectual history is mostly on ideas and conceptual frames that originate “elsewhere,” but get transformed and contextualized “within.” Importantly, Trencsényi states that “in our region the appearance of modernity is the import of (metapolitical) discourses: thus, modernity as such is a “political language”” (p.41) can be taken as one’s working hypothesis. Moreover, this “middle sphere” can prove the most readymade for comparative explorations since it questions the homogeneity of national cultures and emphasizes regional and inter-regional mutual connections (p.44).  

Discussing the key concepts of collective identity, Trencsényi points to two stages: the emergence of politics as a distinct way of language use and the intellectual movements growing out of the Enlightenment [crystallizing around key concepts of collective identity (such as das Volk, state, nation, society) that partly overlap but can be opposed, as they have frequently been]. Moreover, he claims that the conflicts of political languages have most often been over the semantic frames of the nation, which deserves comparative treatment.  

Exploration of this region with the latest intellectual tools can redraw the general European interpretative frames in the current moment of widespread interest in inter-cultural exchange, cultural reception and fragments of which East Central Europeann history provides a plethora of cases. Moreover, in these national contexts the dilemmas of political modernity (freedom versus equality, the individual versus the collective, etc.) were raised in radical fashion, another reason for potential increased interest. Thirdly, Pocock’s theory of the embeddedness of political languages in institutional practices would also have to be tested and most probably revised: in this region they often appeared without institutions – and have rather helped creating them. 

In the second, research-based article titled “A történelem rémülete. Eszmetörténeti vázlat a két világháború közötti kelet-európai nemzetkarakterológiai vitákról” (“The Terror of History. A Sketch on the Intellectual History of the Debates on National Character in Inter-War Eastern-Europe”), Trencsényi provides a comparative treatment of contexts and canons, discussing the debates on national characteristics in inter-war Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary. He is applying many of the aforementioned methodological and theoretical insights to this material which is to serve as the theme of a future monograph.  

These characterologies had diverse intellectual origins. Its most direct predecessor was the paradigm of Völkerpsychologie which merged the categories of individual psychology with the discussion of ethnocultural communities for the first time. In eastern Europe, where positivist and romantic canons merged on a large scale and cultural discourses have often overwritten those of political institutions, such a combination of elements could prove central to national cultures. In fact, dealing with the normative image of the community provided the unassailable discursive frame for political acts in the inter-war period, so Trencsényi. In other words, the questions of national essence and political modernity were joined to an unprecedented degree, after the 19th century thematized the problem of national identity and political modernity, organized debates over the conflict of “authentic” traditions and “imported” institutions. The two decisive moments in the development of the “characterology problematic” were in the early 1920s and late 1930s. By this time, the normative image of the West changed radically, and paradoxically enough it was the simultaneous reception of anti-modernist discourses that revealed the relative modernization of the intellectual cultures of eastern European countries.  

While these more general points can be made with a regional application, the discursive frames developed in significantly different ways in the three national contexts under examination. In Romania, historicist discourse gave way to “national ontologies” in the 1930s, which proved much more “resilient” in Hungary, while in Bulgaria collective identity was thematized in the space of symbolic geography rather than historical traditions (p.313). To explain these developments, a number of factors have to be identified, which had different relative weights in these national contexts.  

The most relevant questions to be considered are: which ones were the central problems of the political community and what was the structure of usable traditions? More specifically, to account for the ideological weight and direction of the discourse on national characteristics, the longue durée thematizations of national romanticisms and the successes and failures of nation-building and integrative societal projects have to be analyzed. Related to these, there is the question of the cohesion of the intellectuals (regions, denominations, generations, etc.). Fourthly, the source, influence and reception of European ideological influences have to be taken into account. The different conceptions of popular cultures and the divergent positions of “official nationalisms” also had an effect on how the endemic conflict between “Westernizers” and “autochtonists” played out. Connected to this is the question of where and how could the Left use, reject or move beyond this discourse. Moreover, the question of genres in which these discourses frequently appeared is crucial. 

To account for why in certain national contexts influential discourses were much more interested in prehistoric times and in ahistorical modes of thought, while these preoccupations were not at all similarly important in another one, all these points need to be considered empirically. The thorough exploration of this material and its presentation is likely to appear in Trencsényi’s future monograph, what we read here is a panoramic and often highly insightful analysis of major developments which are also taken beyond the inter-war years and into the communist and post-communist times (, which is otherwise still so often effaced from our view of history).  

To discuss the concrete points Trencsényi makes on his three cases would lengthen this review disproportionately, and I would therefore move to the concluding remarks made. Trencsényi describes these discourses as symptoms of the identity crisis prevalent in the region (rather than its solutions), stating that with some poignancy one might claim that how sophisticated they got related to how hysterical the political community was getting – they provide strange combinations of great intellectual efforts with cases of neuroses. While the discourse on national character proved to be a dead-end, their comparison across three cultural contexts is representative for the regional development of thought in the 20th century. 

The third study I chose to present in greater detail is the one titled “Bibó István és az “alkat-diskurzus”” (“István Bibó and the “discourse on character””) which discusses this discourse as appearing in various political languages and organizing ideological battlefields (p.183), and uses Carl Schmitt’s concept of political romanticism to interpret the phenomenon. In Hungary of the 1920s two newly defined national discourses appeared that were opposed to each other, but structurally they were very similar and they both aimed to define the national essence, so Trencsényi (p.187). The article discusses Dezső Szabó (especially the flexibility of his thought, p.190), Gyula Szekfű (with special attention to his incorporation, redefinition and appropriation of the népi canon in the 1930s, p.198) and László Németh (and his normative vision pointing in the direction of the aestheticization of politics as he also moved towards the conceptualization of dissimilation, especially retrospectively p.201, p.205, p.208). Szekfű’s attempt to merge his construction of history with the ahistorical conception of popular culture shows him on the defensive, so Trencsényi, attempting to gain back the language of national characteristics while aiming to fit it into his normative understanding of history. In the late 1930s, Németh rejected this attempt at a merger and reduced the opposition of ideas to the conflict of ethnocultural canons (p.210).  

This presentation of some of the main outlines of the discussion in the 1930s serves Trencsényi well to place and assess the value of the work of István Bibó, since Bibó’s questions were raised by these debates (see his writings from the mid-1930s) and in his criticism he used several terms from this vocabulary. This way one can see to what extent Bibó succeeded in redefining the literature on crisis, questioned the legitimacy of the “cult of the potential” (versus the actual, which is so prominent in Németh’s thinking), and undermined the discursive frames of political romanticism from within (see his piece from 1948). Bibó fitted the question of the peasantry in the normative frame of democratization, arguing that the collective and individual liberties are mutually supportive and both necessary (p.215), and managed to place the central topoi of national characteristics in the interpretative frame of the emergence of modern nationalism (p.217). His essential redescription was to show the central thought of ethnonationalist characterology as a syndrome of the distortedness of nation building, as a result of the permanent, futile and tragic conflict between modern institutions of liberty and democratic mass sentiments. Bibó’s main conceptual opposition is between stability and hysteria with which he managed to redefine the sides of the debate. His collectivism does not feature a normative definition of national authenticity, but instead it focuses on national self-determination. Therefore, his works are of reflexive-therapeutical value, so argues Trencsényi. 

Last but not least of the four studies presented in greater length is the general overview of post-1989 developments in Romanian historiography that was written together with Constantin Iordachi. This article aims to be informative and analytical. It discusses the significance of 1989, claiming that even though the monopoly of the national vulgate (that was very much supported in the pre-1989 epoch in Romania) was not broken in the public sphere, there is enormous differentiation at institutes of higher learning that enables quality innovations and experimentation adding up to a colorful though fragmented mosaic. This takes place alongside fierce debates within the community of historians (for instance between factologists, still dominant in political history, and theory-oriented scholars) and a slow opening to the outside world (that often takes the form of scholars leaving the country permanently). In short, one can discern a slow paradigm shift that happens simultaneously with a structural crisis. The changes in social structure and political expectations have largely determined the research areas covered since 1989 (p.353), the main focus being on the inter-war period and in particular on the still influential young generation.  

The article provides brief sketches of the not negligible regional variety within Romania and discusses the most important achievements in the section “Profiles and Discourses.” Irina Livezeanu’s work titled Cultural Politics in Greater Romania offered two main, arguably groundbreaking novelties: it paid special attention to the mostly neglected regional variety and embedded the origins of Romanian fascism in the process of the consolidation of the nation state that ultimately legitimated a radically ethnicist political movement. The attempt to deconstruct all Romanian cultural mythologies by Lucian Boia is useful for revealing the close links between the demands of political legitimacy and historian’s discourse, though its eclectic sources of inspiration are sometimes in conflict. The discussion of authors in the “Westernist camp” (used in quotation marks in the article since Trencsényi and Iordachi debate the overemphasis on and aim to refine our understanding of the duality of Westernists and autochtonists) includes Patapievici, Marino, Alexandrescu and Antohi. 

The case studies of the early modern period are firstly, on Spinoza, tackling the question whether his political philosophy can be viewed as a metarhetorical attempt to fix the meaning of key concepts, an attempt to redefine political language, claiming that his ultimate aim was to institute political pluralism (in Spinoza, the reason of state is the emergence of an active and flourishing citizenry), whereby he evidently distinguished himself from his contemporary Dutch context. Secondly, on William Temple’s life and works that raises the question of the conceptual frame of early modern political thinking. Thirdly, on Miklós Zrínyi and the adaptation of the discourse of reason of state in a context where the state was lacking, and the consequent possibility this offers to rethink the frame of collective identity.

Trencsényi’s review essays are, firstly, on Sándor Bene’s Theatrum Politicum, which deals with the documentation of the emergence of modern public opinion on the basis of Italian material. Trencsényi, while being impressed by the work on many accounts, points to two absences and criticizes Bene’s adoption of Viroli’s (ideological) interpretation. Secondly, Trencsényi writes on Tamás Berkes’ recent “non-romantic” Czech intellectual history in Hungarian and for Hungarians. Thirdly, on János Gyurgyák’s controversial book on the Jewish question (see: http://ece.ceu.hu/publications/trencsenyi/2001/25326). Moreover, Trencsényi offers an alternative perspective to interpret the sources published by Krisztián Ungváry on the “third way” (Ungváry views them as crucially anti-Semitic). Last, but not least, on Lucian Boia’s oeuvre, sensitively placing this influential Romanian historian, who questioned the national historiographic canon as a whole in the most coherent fashion, into his own context, concluding that his work reflects, with all its insights, ambiguities and shortcomings, the typical dilemmas of anti-nationalists identity discourses in East Central Europe.

All in all, A politika nyelvei reflects its author’s thorough reading that is combined with an unusual capacity for reflection and synthesizing. The pieces that feature here are methodologically reflected ones that have a systematic, programmatic understanding of phenomena. The presentation is complex and thorough, though often has a rather technical style. The collection is also distinguished by its exceptionally wide coverage both temporally and spatially/linguistically and Trencsényi’s serious comparative ambitions. These reasons make this collection a significant contribution to the historiography of East Central Europe and the subfield of intellectual history by a young, highly promising scholar.