Models of Backwardness versus Transformation in Eastern Europe

By Brzechczyn, Krzysztof | East European Quarterly, Fall 2008 | Go to article overview

Models of Backwardness versus Transformation in Eastern Europe


Brzechczyn, Krzysztof, East European Quarterly


Anna Sosnowska, Zrozumiec zacofanie. Spory historykow o Europe Wschodniq (1947-1994) [To Understand Backwardness: Historians' Debates about Eastern Europe (1947-1994)]. Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Trio, 2004, pp. 387.

The phenomenon of economic backwardness of Eastern Europe has been of wide interest in the social and historical sciences for many years. In 1928, at the 6th International Congress of Historical Sciences in Oslo Jan Rutkowski (1986) presented the conception of the rise of manorialserf economy in Eastern Europe. At that time, however, neither Rutkowski's paper nor his article published in French two years later in conference proceedings excited any greater interest. (1)

The aftermath of WWII had been the Yalta division until 1989, as a result of which at least in Eastern part of Europe the debate about the causes of economic backwardness, in order for it to encompass wider intellectual and social circles, had to be continued in a more or less ideologised Marxist language. (2) The elimination of historical backwardness constituted one of core propagandist arguments substantiating the establishment of communist systems in Eastern Europe and granting them legitimisation to exercise power.

The subject of Anna Sosnowska's book Zrozumiec zacofanie. Spory historykow o Europe Wschodniq (1947-1994) [To Understand Backwardness: Historians' Debates about Eastern Europe (1947-1994)] is a reconstruction of developmental backwardness models of Eastern Europe presented in the works of four Polish historians: Marian Matowist, Witold Kula, Jerzy Topolski and Andrzej Wyczafiski. Her reconstruction is based on the conceptual categories developed by comparative historical sociology. She preceded her reconstruction of each scientist's views by a short intellectual biography.

While none of the scientists discussed by Sosnowska subjectively identified themselves with comparative historical sociology, in her opinion their works can still be placed in this sub-discipline of the social sciences because they:

* undertake studies of social macrostructures;

* interpret development and social change;

* search for explanations of social backwardness in historically shaped social structures;

* use models and apply theoretical categories;

* apply a comparative perspective.

The author assumes W. Kula's postdoctoral lecture qualification (habilitation) Social Privilege and Economic Progress of 1947 to be the beginning of the discussion on the origins of Eastern European backwardness (Kula 1983), with J. Topolski's book published 1994 Poland in Modern Times. From a Central-European Power to the Loss of Independence (1501-1795) closing the discussion, although in this case the closing date could be moved forward by six years so as to regard the year 2000 as the end of the discussion--the same year that Topolski's book Economic Breakthrough in 16th c. Poland and its Aftermath was published posthumously.

The research task proper is preceded by extensive introductory considerations. In the following chapters the author defines the notions of development, progress, growth, modernisation, backwardness, dependencies and delays (Introduction), deliberates the specific character of historical sociology alone (Chapter 1), and disambiguates the meaning of the following geographical and historical terms: Eastern Europe, Central Europe, "Slavic" Europe, and Central Eastern Europe, which are mentioned in historiography and the works of the historians in question (Chapter 3).

In her introduction she also presents the conceptions of Western authors or those who published in the West explaining the phenomenon of Eastern Europe's developmental autonomy. Sosnowska presents the conceptions of Immanuel Wallerstein, Ivan Berend and Gyorgi Ranki, Fernand Braudel, Robert Brenner, Perry Anderson and Jeno Szucs. Her presentation is structured according to two criteria/questions allowing her to classify the views of the authors mentioned above:

(i) whether or not the development of Eastern Europe was independent of Western Europe,

(ii) the origins of Western Europe's prosperity. …

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