Jacek Kochanowicz (1946-2014): An Escape into History

October 6, 2014

On 5 June 2014 Professor Jacek Kochanowicz gave his last lecture at Central European University. Upon the invitation of the former Head of the History Department, Prof. Nadia Al-Bagdadi, he reflected on his life as a scholar and on the circumstances and motivations that prompted him to become a historian. When he gave this lecture, Professor Kochanowicz knew that not much time was left to him. On 14 September 2014 he sent a finalized manuscript version of this lecture to colleagues and friends. This is the version you find below. After long and grave illness Professor Jacek Kochanowicz passed away on 2 October 2014.

Jacek Kochanowicz


Presented as part of the series of Ego Lectures, Central European University,

Department of History, June 5, 2014


 I feel honored – and flattered – being invited to present this Ego Lecture to my distinguished colleagues and to the students of the Central European University, which for the last fourteen years became my second academic home. This is not an easy task, to say something not blatantly self-promoting – or hypocritically modest – as well as interesting for an audience representing different generations and backgrounds. I speak as an academic to an academic audience, so obviously my scholarly interests and achievements – if there were any – should be presented. But, as this is an “ego” talk, a personal side should be present as well. So I shall try to explain the development of my scholarly interests in personal terms. Personal also in the sense that I feel formed in a large measure by some of the people whom I have met and to whom I owe many debts.

            As the title of this talk suggests, history – and an academic career – was for me an escape. A decision to become a professional academic came somewhere close to the end of my university studies and to a degree by elimination of other options that existed at the time, such as a career in public administration, in the state-owned economy, or in journalism. I was finding the overall atmosphere, or “culture” of state socialism and its institutions not to my liking. The academic world, particularly in Warsaw, seemed to offer more breathing space, and economic history of pre-industrial times turned out to be a subject outside of the interests of ideological watchers. In this sense, choosing history as a profession was an escape, to a degree possible, from the realities of state socialism.  It was, most probably, also a matter of psychological construction, making vita contemplativa more attractive to me than vita activa. But my escape, I hope, was not an outright flight, as my interests in history have been, and still are, related to the attempts to understand the present. These interests evolved, from the study of peasant economy in pre-industrial times, to the post-communist transformation, and to the reflection on the backwardness and development of East Central European periphery.


I was one of those who were privileged in various ways. My family belonged to the intelligentsia; there were university professors and publishers among my mother’s forebears, and business people and professionals, but also artists and actors, in the family of my father.[1] My mother fought in the Warsaw Uprising (August-September 1944) as a Home Army soldier, became  a German POW and, liberated by the Americans, found herself in Brussels, where she met my father, sent there as an embassy worker by  the London based Polish government in exile. After the war, she worked for the technical publishing house in Warsaw. She was responsible for the international cooperation and that put us in contacts with her foreign colleagues. I used each year to spend some time on the Warsaw international book fair, to see new publications and to get acquainted with people she knew. Once I had an occasion to shake hands with a tall, self-assured Briton – this was Robert Maxwell (1923-1991), later a controversial business and political figure in Britain, at that time the COO of the Pergamon Press, with which my mother’s firm was doing business.   My father belonged to the nomenklatura, as a high ranking official in the Ministry of Labor.[2] This was the same ministry he worked for  before  World War II.  He was a social democrat by conviction who  had few illusions about communism after a year in the Soviet Gulag during the war and five years of the Polish Stalinist prison after 1949. Still, like many members of the Polish intelligentsia formed in the interwar period, he thought working for the Polish state his duty. That made him in 1945 to return to Warsaw from London, where he had spent part of the war years. My parents had many interesting friends – among them journalists, artists, academics  – and I enjoyed much listening their conversations. Some of their friends lived in the West, which allowed for my first trips to Belgium, England and France, to improve languages, and to get a taste of Western Europe.

I consider the period between my early teens and early twenties as the most important for making who I am. One person who influenced me when I was in the high school was a young architect, a family friend. He had so much passion for his work that I also thought that I would like to follow this profession.   It turned out that my abilities were not up to my ambitions, but what remained was a lesson that one should do in life something which really matters for him or her, that the work should also be a pleasure. In the course of developing interests in architecture I read books on art history, and through these readings I increasingly became drawn to history and social sciences which I thought would help me to understand better the world around me. That made me to apply to the Department of Political Economy at the University of Warsaw. This department, with which I am affiliated until today, was at that time much less technical than it is the case now, and offered a broad training in social sciences and humanities. We obviously took the courses of the “political economy of capitalism” and “political economy of socialism,”  of mathematics, statistics and econometrics (taught by the successors of Oskar Lange, an outstanding and internationally recognized economist, a professor of my department who had died the month I started my studies), but also quite serious courses of the history of philosophy, logic, and sociology.

The University of Warsaw, my department including, was somehow unique for that epoch,  generally rather unpleasant, bleak and dreary. Also, the times when I studied – I entered the school in the fall of 1965 – were a bit unusual.  The Polish universities, as John Connelly argued in his book on the sovietization of higher education in Czechoslovakia, the GDR, and Poland, retained a degree of autonomy, were sticking to the European academic traditions,  and their professors enjoyed social prestige.[3] Contrary to what it is now – a mass education factory – the University of Warsaw had a somewhat elitist character at that time, and studying was treated seriously. In our course of political economy of capitalism we read Marx’s Capital, but discussed it like any other text. But we also read Keynes, available in Polish translation, and the translation of the famous Paul Samuelson’s Economics. The course of political economy of socialism was taught by Włodzimierz Brus (1921-2007), a leading revisionist.

State socialism – even in its post-Stalinist, relatively benign  phase – was not a particularly pleasant system, with its grey everyday life and a lack of various freedoms. But there were moments and places that were somewhat brighter than others, and intellectual and artistic Warsaw was – between 1956 and 1968 – one of them. The weekly Polityka, playing games with the censorship office, attempted as much as possible to express the views of the liberal-minded, revisionist intelligentsia, while the Kraków located Tygodnik Powszechny those of open, progressive lay Catholics. Polish film school and Polish posters, the autumn festivals of modern music, excellent theaters and cabarets, translations of some of the best of Western literature, and also of philosophy and the social sciences, several literary periodicals  are just examples of a vivid intellectual atmosphere. Among us, the university students, there was some snobbery to participate in this life, to read these novels and scholarly books and to discuss them.

As a student I was more drawn by the various peripheral courses that I have already mentioned than by our core economics/political economy training.  I was fascinated by the lectures of Krzysztof Pomian, Leszek Kołakowski’s (1927-2009)  student and colleague,  on the history of philosophy, and during the whole year of this course I tried to read on the subject as much as I could swallow. The same year I attended a seminar on analytical philosophy and logical positivism,  at which I made a presentation on Karl Popper’s Open Society and its Enemies, including the fierce Popper’s critique of the Marxist philosophy of history. Popper’s methodological position of never accepting any theory or interpretation as a final one, and his arguments against utopian and in favor of piecemeal social engineering made a lasting impression on me.

Outside my department, I listened to Zygmunt Bauman’s lectures on contemporary sociology. As is still the case today, he was at the crest of the wave of the most recent ideas and was able to present them in a fascinating way. I also attended a seminar on cross-cultural comparative sociology, led by one of the most talented Polish sociologists of the time, Stefan Nowak (1924-1989). He familiarized us with the American empirical methodology of the discipline. Two other great sociologists, Maria Ossowska (1896-1974) and Nina Assorodobraj-Kula (1908-1999) – representatives of a more humanities-oriented approach – introduced me through their lectures to historical sociology and the history of ideas. Somewhat later, I had a chance to learn more on the latter at informal, home-located seminars of Jerzy Jedlicki, with whom I remain in close friendship to this day.[4] As a doctoral student, to familiarize myself more with the historical method, I attended also a joint seminar of three excellent historians – the medievalists Henryk Samsonowicz and Benedykt Zientara (1928-1983) and the early modernist Antoni Mączak (1928-2003), with whom I remained in a somewhat closer contact afterwards. The three of them came from under the wings of Marian Małowist (1909-1988), who established a school of comparative, transnational approach in economic history, tracing the origins of Eastern Europe backwardness.

The Political Climate

But the University of Warsaw was only an island of a very relative freedom. You could end up in prison just for expressing your thoughts in writing, as happened to Jacek Kuroń (1934-2004) and Karol Modzelewski in 1965 after they wrote the famous Open Letter to the Party, as well as to some other intellectuals. Censorship and the possibility of a ban of publication were hanging over the heads of writers and intellectuals. Foreign travel was permitted, but difficult and rationed, as passports were issued on a whim of bureaucracy, and obtaining them often put applicants in humiliating situations. Printed matter was often confiscated by border control. Foreign academic publications were hard to acquire as much because of political censorship as because of extremely limited means at the disposal of libraries and individuals. Current information on sensitive issues was censored and manipulated, making the often jammed Radio Free Europe the principal source of news. All of this produced a climate of suffocation.

            My first political recollections are those of Budapest in 1956 (I was ten). During a brief  moment of political thaw in Poland, the newsreels were showing some events of the Hungarian revolution. The next recollection, a year later, was a helmeted Peoples’ Militia armed with batons on Warsaw streets – that was after the Polish leader Władysław Gomułka closed down the weekly Po Prostu, and the students protested.[5]  At the age of 14 or 15, I read The New Class by Milovan Djilas. Also, well before reading Solzhenitsyn, I knew a lot about the Gulag from my father. Still, as a student in the late sixties, I belonged to those who believed – naively, as it looks now – in the reformability of state socialism, in a possibility of some degree of liberalization and democratization of political life, as much as of economic reforms, leading to a partial introduction of market mechanisms. Those hopes ended abruptly in March 1968.

            For those of you who come from the West, the year 1968 associates probably with students’ protests in the US, France, and in other countries. For those from Eastern and Central Eastern Europe, with the Prague Spring and its dramatic ending in August of that year. For Poles, the symbolic date is the 8th of March, when a student protest gathering at the University of Warsaw was brutally dispersed by anti-riot units of Peoples’ Militia accompanied by civilian thugs. That started several months of repression, targeted at students and independent intellectuals. Some were arrested, many fired from work and universities.

The most ugly aspect of this campaign was state sponsored ant-Semitism. (Those classified as Jews were hypocritically labeled “Zionists.”) Around 30 thousand people, accused of the lack of loyalty to Poland and often banned from work, emigrated. I accompanied some of my friends who were leaving the country to say farewell at the railway station and I recollect a feeling of shame for what was being done in the name of my country. It was an experience which shed me of any illusions about the political system under which we were living. I was 22 during these events, still relatively young, and it was a forming experience. Much more brutal repression against the workers in 1970 (about 50 were gunned down), and in 1976, as well as the introduction of the martial law in 1981,  did not surprise me.

            Still, despite the purges of 1968, the University of Warsaw left considerable space for the scholarly work, which mostly attracted me. Some of my friends and colleagues engaged, particularly after 1976, into full-scale opposition activity. I had neither temperament nor nerve for that, I have to admit, so I remained a sort of a fellow traveler of the democratic opposition movement, at the best giving a helping hand in some small matters.

Witold Kula

The most important of the acquaintances with people was that with Witold Kula (1916-1988), one of the leading and internationally recognized Polish economic historians of that time, a professor at my department. After listening to his first lecture, I was immediately seduced. Before, I was barely aware  of the existence of a field of economic history. He was lecturing in an essayist style, and describing to us the past economic life in an almost visual way. Under the tutelage of his assistants, we engaged in a semi-research work, writing term papers, which I enjoyed very much.

I applied for his Master Thesis seminar. That started a long relationship of an increasingly personal character, terminated by his death in 1988, after his long suffering from the Parkinson decease. My lasting friendship with Witold’s son, Marcin, now a retired professor of history, has been a continuation of a relationship with this extraordinary family of intellectuals.  With Witold Kula, we talked all kinds of things apart of economic history, the Italian Renaissance art and the workings of the communist system prominent among them. The former helped me a lot during my several academic visits to Italy. I usually managed to combine their scholarly aims with visiting museums and architectural monuments – and also to get glimpses of the rural landscape, interesting for professional as well as aesthetic reasons.

Kula combined scholarly talent with sensitivity for arts, enormous erudition, and – last but not least – personal charm. His political sympathies  were definitely close to the left, as was the case with many members of this generation, who came to maturity during the Great Depression. But he never joined any political party, and during the war was a member of the London oriented Home Army. His most known  essay, Gusła (Witchcraft, 1958),  written in mid-fifties, has a form of an apocryphal correspondence of two Romans of the 4th century, who debated the merits and dangers of Christianity, then becoming the Empire’s official religion and bringing the message of salvation, but putting into questions the foundations of the old civilization. This was a thinly camouflaged comment on the world we lived in and an account of  an inner debate of many Polish intellectuals after World War II.

His political convictions steered him already before the war towards history of the “common people.” His early Inspiration was  the debate between the schools of  “optimist” and “pessimist” historians,  who respectively explained the partition of Poland at the end of the 18th century by the blow of foreign powers against the state having a healthy, developing economy and, conversely,  by the overall decay and an increasing weakness of this economy. Under the Marxist influence, he reformulated it closer to the debate on the transition from feudalism to capitalism. Studying the early industrial enterprises of the Polish magnates, instead of the germs of progressive capitalism, he found in them the dead-end of the traditional order of an autarchic, stagnant economy. The famous book on economic theory of feudalism gave this story a coherent interpretation and cast a doubt about the universal necessity of the passage from feudalism to capitalism.[6] His last major work on measures, perhaps the richest and most subtle of what he wrote, juxtaposed an anthropological (if not philosophical) interpretation of the traditional measurement systems with the Enlightenment inspired process of the metric reform (a modernization project avant la lettere) spread around the continental Europe by the Napoleonic armies.[7]

In his studies, he combined an imaginative interpretation of closely scrutinized primary sources with a deep methodological reflection and a vast erudition.[8] He was critical of  many of his colleagues, for him lacking imagination and conceiving the historical craft as reduced to a knowledge of the details of given place and time. Studying problems, not periods, was his ideal. He also did not care much about disciplinary borders, being inspired by economics, anthropology and sociology, but also by literature.      

Joining his seminar I thought of doing something on the Third World, the topic I was interested in, and I knew he also was. At that time, some leading Polish economists served as development experts abroad; Michał Kalecki (1899-1970) and Ignacy Sachs organized a center of Third World Studies in Warsaw, Tadeusz Łepkowski (1927-1989) led a group of young scholars (Marcin Kula one among them) into the study of Latin American history. Kula himself was stressing analogies and parallels between Eastern Europe and the Third World in his writings and lectures.  However, he refused politely my idea, saying that I probably wouldn’t  achieve more that  an intelligent literature review. But he admitted me, and his seminar – usually consisting of a small group of mavericks who did not quite fit the mainstream interests of our department – turned out to be fun. It also made me to engage into the historical study of peasant economics, my first field of research.

Peasant Economics

One of my first assignments was to make a presentation of an edited rolls of a village court – several hundred  records dating from the 16th to the 18th century, sometimes hard to understand, and recording events such as a small theft or a lease of a minuscule piece of land. I was dumb folded, having no idea at the beginning what to do with it. I copied many of those entries on index cards and started to rearrange them in various ways, looking for regularities, and finally got into some scheme how to present all this. My first experience with the historical analysis.

Kula was far from imposing a concrete thesis topic. To me, he made a general suggestion: the peasant family. Only later I understood, why – because, studying the Polish economy of the 18th century, he became vividly interested in how the pre-industrial economy, based to a large extent on non-market regulation and unpaid family work, operated. Apart of that, the pre-modern and early modern peasant economy posed another challenge, that of the very limited amount of records it left. Its analysis thus demanded a lot of intellectual effort. But the study of peasant economics was more than an intellectual puzzle. First, it allowed me not to lose some touch with the Third World issues – after all, at those times the majority of its populations were still peasants. Second, my own country was also a mostly peasant society until the 1950s, a reality I knew very little about, coming from an urban intelligentsia milieu. In both these senses, I thought that studying peasants in the past would allow me to understand the present better. I should add that the research on peasantry figured prominently  in the Polish historiography and social sciences, particularly economics and sociology, both before and after World War II. Now it is almost a forgotten topic.

For my thesis, I had quite a substantial amount of edited primary records to work with. Most of them were of a qualitative character, but I also came upon a published census of about 1,000 peasant households. My inspiration how to tackle it came mostly from the works on Russian pre-collectivization peasantry, particularly those of the agrarian economist Alexander V. Chayanov (1888-1937).  His book on the organization of peasant economy was originally published in Russian in 1925, but nearly forgotten afterwards. The 1966 English language edition had been prepared by the India specialist Daniel Thorner (1915-1974), who was Kula’s friend Chayanov argued that the level of peasant-farmer effort (“self-exploitation”), measured by the number of working hours and days  and by  the area of land taken under cultivation, was determined by the number of people in the household he had to feed. My aim thus was to test the relation between the household size and structure and the area of land it had used. Having my census, I have done that using simple statistics, and came to the conclusion that Chayanov’s hypothesis worked also under the Polish version of feudalism. More generally, and using qualitative material as well, I argued that despite the oppressive institutions of second serfdom the peasants were smart enough to negotiate some autonomy, or elbow space, if you wish.

As we are in Budapest, I would like to say that I owe a lot to Hungarian colleagues with whom I have remained in some contacts sine the 1970s, and who helped me to extend my understanding of East Central Europe. Among the historians, I should mention Ivan Berend, whom I met for the first time in Poland in the early 1970s and who was my host in Budapest in 1985, and more recently a couple of times in California. Our colleague  Istvan Rév also came to Poland a bit later, interested as much in the Polish historiography as in the workings of the democratic opposition. We became great friends, and he has remained my important source of interpretation of current Hungarian political life.  A substantial debt I owe to the late Rudolf Andorka (1931-1997) who invited me in 1978  for a conference in Vesprem. My MA thesis had already been published in an obscure Polish periodical, so now I decided to prepare the English-language version, my first attempt to express myself in this language in writing. It took me about a month of time, stolen from my then three years old daughter with whom I was spending holidays at the sea-side. Being an accomplished scholar herself now, she reciprocates by spending as much time as possible  in an archive or a library , instead of chatting with me.

The conference was fun – the hosts took us to some Balaton wine cellars – but I had almost forgotten it when I learned that Andorka sent my piece to Richard Wall in Cambridge, and as a consequence it was included into a volume co-edited by Wall, Jean Robin and Peter Laslett and published by Cambridge University Press. Now this does not sound extraordinary in any way, but we are talking about quite different times. I was additionally happy that I accomplished this without Kula’s help, on my own, so to say.

I remained wed to the peasants for a considerable time.  My doctoral dissertation, later turned into a book, was on the economics of peasant farming in the first half of the 19th century. This time I was focusing on what were the effects on the peasant economy of the far-reaching change of the economic system which came with the partitions of Poland. The partitioning powers were much more militarily and bureaucratically advanced than the old Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and as a consequence taxation was higher.  Forced to sell produce and, increasingly also labor, they contributed thus to the financing of huge state infrastructural and industrial projects, undertaken in the 1820s and after by the government of the Polish Kingdom (the Russian partition) in an effort (failed to a large extent) to modernize the country.

Trying to understand peasants’ behavior, I read as much as possible of the related theoretical and comparative literature – not solely economic history of Europe, Latin America, and Asia, but also anthropology and sociology. As some of you may be aware of, the 1960s were the heyday of peasant studies, so even with what was available in the Polish libraries there was a lot to read. Short stays  at the EHESS and MSH in Paris and at Corpus Christi in Oxford were of enormous help. In Paris, I had an occasion to familiarize better with the Annales school with which the Poles had close contacts, and to read – or perhaps, because of their size to skim through – the several regional monographs, produced by the practitioners of “total history.” The effect was my habilitation, attempting to put whatever I knew about one case that I studied on the basis of primary sources – the Polish periphery – into a broader theoretical and comparative perspective, and to show as well the long-term trajectory of economic and social change. The book was published in Polish, but I was able to have some publications in English, French, Italian and Spanish. One of them, on the Polish periphery, was a chapter in the book edited by Daniel Chirot from the University of Washington  on the origins of backwardness in Eastern Europe. It got its shape due to an unforgettable conference in Bellagio in 1985, unforgettable to a not so small degree by the presence of Eric Hobsbawm as a witty commentator. The book came out in the US in 1989, the end-year of communism, and due to that attracted quite a vast reading. 

There is no place here to summarize various more or less sound conclusions of all this work, save perhaps three points. One is that I was arguing for some room of peasants’ agency, against these interpretations which saw the second serfdom as effectively reducing peasants to its totally helpless victims. The second is that trying to put the Polish case into a broader context I was attempting for an approach which in today’s terms could be classified as transnational history.  The third was a better grasp of the importance of the rural legacy for the period of economic and social modernization in the twentieth century, particularly on the European eastern periphery, which underwent this modernization mostly under state socialism.


The academic year 1990-91, just after the collapse of communism, I spent at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, an unforgettable experience in many ways. I have known the US only from a month tour of American universities in 1981, which allowed me to meet, among others, Douglas North, William Fogel, Stanley Engerman, and Eugene Genovese, the latter three important for the deepening of  my understanding of the American slave economy, on which I read a lot in my  attempts to understand better the East Central European serfdom. The stay in the nineties – with my wife and two children – allowed us to taste America, which we did through travelling as much as it was possible within the limits of our rather modest budget. The vast, flat landscape between the Mississippi river and the Rocky Mountains, barren of people and buildings, was such a contrast with the densely populated Europe! A contrast as striking with the pastoral Princeton and hectic New York. Marta Petrusewicz, an old friend from Poland (which she left in 1968 for Italy and later the US), an author of a fascinating study of a Calabrian latifundium, was our guide and door opener to the American academic community. Another great helper was a Polish American sociologist from New School of Social Research in New York, Elżbieta Matynia – a specialist on democratic transformations and a tireless builder of intellectual relations between US, East Central Europe and South Africa.

            At the Institute, I could get in touch with many outstanding American scholars, to name those who were the faculty of my host  School of Social Sciences – Clifford Geertz, Albert Hirschman, Joan Scott, and Michael Walzer.[9] I should also add the name of Natalie Zemon Davis, whose seminar at the Princeton University I visited a couple of times. I had an opportunity to talk with the Belgian economic historian Herman van der Vee (Witold Kula’s friend), and American social historian William Hagen, then working on his magnificent  Ordinary Prussians; both were members of the School of Historical Studies. With Bill we are in close contacts since then. Hilda Sabato, an Argentinean economic historian, helped me to get a little closer to the understanding of the Latin American civilization.  The stay in the US  also enabled me to learn more about “history after the literary turn” due to an excellent seminar of Joan Scott.  Immanuel Wallerstein invited me to have a talk at the Fernand Braudel Center in Binghamton, that became the occasion to meet people working within the paradigm of world-system theory, which I knew before only from reading and an occasional correspondence with Wallerstein.

The contact with Albert Hirschman was the most important for me. He was an economist, but of a special kind, “crossing the borders” of the discipline, or “trespassing” to others – to invoke the titles of two of his books – rather than sticking to its formal rigors.[10] And indeed, after years of being an economist studying the Third World development, he had turned into a historian of ideas and a perceptible political philosopher. An avid reader of Machiavelli, Montaigne, Montesquieu, and the great nineteenth century novels, convinced about the complexities of the human nature, he preferred a verbal analysis crafted into elegant prose to mathematical models built upon simplified behavioral assumptions. Such an approach appealed to me, perhaps after  my years of conversations with Kula. In his studies on economic development, Hirschman manifested a mistrust of universal models and paradigms and of designing and planning development on the basis of aggregated figures. He rather believed in the knowledge gathered in concrete situations and (in a sort of Hayekian way) in positive reactions of economic actors to imbalances, bottlenecks, and conflict situations, specific in every case. We remained later in touch, and together with my wife and son we translated into Polish two of his books – Exit, Voice and Loyalty and The Passions and the Interests.

I was a bit tired with the peasantry, and also – not surprisingly – much of my attention was focused on what was going in Poland and around after the collapse of communism. I had some doubts about the enthusiastic pro-market rhetoric of the day and the radical dismissal of the role of the state in structuring and regulating economy and in providing public services. So I used this time mostly to read about modernization and the state in various places throughout the late 19th and the 20th century. The end-result was a sort of a failure, because I have never realized a vague idea of writing a larger book on comparative modernization – perhaps because in the course of my reading I realized that that so many books on this topic already existed. So this project remained on the level of essays and articles.

But the stay in Princeton brought other fruits. One was the invitations for teaching stays, first at the University of Washington in Seattle, and second – at the Chicago University. That brought me into contact with new institutional environment and new kind of audience, the American undergraduate and graduate students. I had to find ways to present my knowledge of the Polish history in the way they would find relevant for their interests and concerns. Another fruit were research and writing projects, as well as conference presentations,  related to the East European transformation. One of the projects I jointed on the recommendation of my old Hungarian friend, an economist Kálmán Mizsei. The project had been initiated by a political scientist Joan Nelson, a Third World specialist. In a group of East Europeans and Latin Americans we were comparing  the routes of economic and political transformations in Eastern Europe and Latin America. Working within such an international and multi-disciplinary team was fascinating and enlightening, while looking closer into the Latin American experiences helped to understand better the East Central European cases.  Another project came from the late political economist and Korea specialist Alice Amsden, whom I met through Elżbieta Matynia.. In a book written together with an economist Lance Taylor, we put into question a feasibility of building viable capitalism on the periphery without the active role of the state.

  There were two main ideas behind various writings I produced as a result of these projects. One was that, while an allergy towards the state had been understandable after the communist experience, it should not led us to neglect the positive role of the state, given the experience of many cases of modernizing countries in the twentieth century. The second was that it is hard to understand – and probably also difficult to design – the post-communist transformation without taking into consideration the past which shaped these societies. Most of the people writing at that time (in the nineties)  took upon consideration solely the burden of communist times, neglecting the pre-communist legacies of predominantly rural, backward and peripheral societies.

To my mind, the transformation has been a complex process, not only changing the economic and political institutions, but also involving a fast civilizational change of only  partly modernized, early-industrial, post-peasant societies into a sociological hybrid, combining the traits of postindustrial, industrial, and agrarian patterns of life. Moreover, as we have realized relatively late, much of this process was less a result of the design of the architects of transformation, as an outcome of the forces of globalization. 

The fall of communism and the following changes in Eastern Europe  had yet another  important consequence for me – the invitation to teach at the History Department of the CEU. My home department In Warsaw changed much during the decades that followed the events of 1989, its model being now the American mainstream economics. My field, economic history, has naturally became less appealing to students who have been seeking technical skills and looking for jobs in business. A possibility to teach history to an international audience at the CEU was thus an attractive opportunity, which I took in 2000. The diversity of professors and students there, the long stays in Hungary, and several trips to other countries in the region allowed me to deepen my familiarity with East Central  Europe and look across the borders of my own country. I very much enjoy the American-style approach to teaching at the CEU, and the work with the graduate students from so many places. Co-directing for several years together with my American colleague Marsha Siefert the departmental Ph.D. program allowed me to read and discuss dozens of research proposals, from which I learned a lot myself. I find this department a unique place in the region in terms of  overcoming a nation-centered approach to historical research, and steering towards comparative, transnational, and problem-oriented perspectives.

The years of transformation were also important on the family front. When communism collapsed, my two children  were teenagers. Now they have families of their own, and we enjoy not only them and their spouses, but also the four grandchildren.  My wife is an economist, my daughter a historical sociologist, and my son an applied sociologist. Much of the time we spend together is devoted to talking professional matters as well as all the extraordinary events  in the world.[11] With my wife we mostly talk politics during our meals, changing them into an on-going two persons private seminar. Thus, my professional life has never been separated from the life of the family.


If I would have to point the key issue linking my earlier interest on peasantry and the more recent on transformation, it would fit under the label of “backwardness.” East Central European societies, so close geographically and culturally to “the West” (Western Europe), were for most of their history economically left behind. They were, however, closely linked to the West, as most of technological, institutional, and cultural innovation has been coming from there for the whole last Millennium: the Latin Christianity, the three-field rotation, the construction technologies, the education models, the Enlightenment, the industrialization, and so forth. The feeling of being left behind became in the 19th and 20th century the source of frustration of their elites as well as of attempts to overcome it – through liberal capitalism in the second half of the 19th century, economic nationalism in the interwar period, state socialism after the World War II, and economic liberalism once again after communism collapsed. “Backwardness” is thus a consciously value-loaded term, as the comparisons with the West – since the Enlightenment and the industrial revolution till today – have been a constant factor in self-reflection of the Eastern European elites.

There is a substantial body of knowledge on the economic history of East Central Europe which sheds light on the issue of its relative backwardness. The drawbacks are that much of it is nation-oriented, with a rather few studies which would be either comparative or transnational, that there are vast gaps as far as the measurement of development is concerned, and that most of this literature is descriptive, with little attempt to put the research into theoretical and interpretative framework which would help to explain the backwardness of the region within the global context. Works of scholars such as Ivan Berend, Witold Kula, Marian Małowist, and György Ránki are exceptional.

Mentioning a “theoretical framework,” I have in mind the vast literature on economic development and modernization produced over more than one hundred years, and especially after World War II, when the Third World became one of the foci of interest of the social sciences. This literature has its antecedents in the late 19th century sociology, of importance are Marxist debates on the transition from feudalism to capitalism, theories of modernization developed in the 1950s, debates about “core” and “periphery,” studies of the European and recently the Asian “miracles,” and – during the last two or three decades – research on the long-term economic growth, inspired by neoclassical economics. According to the latter, the differences in the ability to generate growth led to the division of the world into rich (developed) and poor (backward) societies. Today, economists explain this ability by historically formed institutions, prevailing in the given societies. Increasingly, although hesitantly they turn they attention also to culture (values, norms, customs,  world-views, ideas).      

I had an occasion to expand my own interests in the latter direction when in 2002  another Hungarian friend, János Kovacs from IWM in Vienna, invited me to join – as the Polish team leader – a  collective international project on economic cultures in East Central Europe, within which I collaborated closely with my colleague, the sociologist Mira Marody, and a group of younger sociologists and historians. The end-result of this were, among others, two collective volumes published in Polish, the second under a somewhat over-general title Kultura i gospodarka  (Culture and economy, 2010). In my own contribution to this volume, I tried to put together my views on the role the culture played in the underdevelopment of the Polish lands in the modern and contemporary period.

I share the common opinion that the divergence between the Polish lands and the West, increasing since the 16th century, was closely related to the political and economic strength of the Polish  nobility vs. other groups – the peasantry and the burghers, but also vs. the royal power. As a result, two modernizing forces, capitalism and the State  – so important in the West – were absent until the partitions. The partitioning powers had relatively advanced state machineries, but they were perceived as alien and the society developed ways to bypass the State – the lesson strengthened later by World War II and by communism. Capitalism in the 19th century was weak, and to a large degree introduced by foreigners and the members of the Jewish minority (increasingly detested in the epoch of rising nationalism). The landed nobility , despite the loss of its economic and political power, remained a cultural “trend setter,” expressing its feeling of superiority towards the weak, and in large measure Jewish commercial class. The intelligentsia, a descendent of the nobility, was ambiguous, if not hostile towards capitalism. The emancipating peasantry only in some parts of the Polish lands (Prussian, and to a degree Austrian partition) proved able to modernize, mostly through the cooperative movement.

Altogether, the Polish society remained predominantly rural and peasant  until the 1950s, even more so after the war than before, as the Nazis and the Soviets decapitated the Polish society physically and socially, targeting not only the Jews, but also the business and intellectual elites. This affected the character of the socialist modernization started under Stalinism. The peasant/rural legacy (“amoral familism”)   is felt to this day. It manifests itself in the importance of personal ties and relations and in the robustness of family businesses. But also in a low level of trust, a deficit of civic spirit, and a low  capacity for social cooperation. As a consequence, there are few large, innovative domestic firms, the public administration is often dysfunctional, and the NGOs rare and weak. As was the case in the second half of the 19th century, but on a larger scale, much of the modernization is coming from the West in the form of foreign investment, funds from the European Union, and institutional changes introduced under its pressure.   

For me, an important observation stemming from our collective research on economic culture is also that of theoretical and methodological puzzle. As a historian, I have an intuitive conviction that culture matters profoundly for human behavior, including the economic activity. At the same time, I cannot dismiss the doubts of many economists  who agree that the institutions matter, but are less convinced by the role of culture. For instance, in the case of  the same region, South-East Asia, culture has been invoked as well as an explanation of stagnation, as of rapid growth. Moreover, it is difficult to define culture in operational terms and to show links with economic behavior in a way that would go beyond ad hoc speculation.

On my part, I often hear (and repeat, as I have done here) the arguments and examples of the “burden of the past,” shaping the behavior of each generation. At the same time, I have a difficulty of precisely identifying the mechanisms of social transmission of patterns of behavior, cognitive schemes, and mental attitudes from one generation to another. Perhaps historians interested in these matters should cooperate more closely with sociologists and social psychologists, better equipped to deal with them.

Recently, I have returned to the problem of backwardness from another, less “soft” perspective.  Three younger colleagues persuaded me to start a project on reconstruction of the historical GDP of the Polish lands in the period of 1870-1914, the period  recently often called “the first globalization.” It witnessed fast economic development also in East Central Europe. Putting in a crude way, at issue is whether this periphery was “catching up” (as is the case now) or whether the distance from the core increased, despite all kinds of progress in these less developed regions. We are at the initial phase of data collection, so this is too early to say anything precise at the moment. But I would like to make a word of comment on another aspect of this type of approach.

For my younger colleagues it is crucial – as we are part of economics department – to speak a common language with the economists and to be familiar with the quickly expanding (though not in Poland) field of historical economics, a descendent of cliometrics. There are inherent merits in this approach. If we take the discipline of economic history as a whole, as it developed in a recognizable form for over a century, we have to notice an enormous increase of knowledge, as much of a purely descriptive kind, as in terms of understanding how various historical economic system operated. However, we still do not know much about their performance – the capacity to generate output, comparative standards of living, and distribution of incomes. While historical economics made quite a progress in relation to various places in the world, East Central Europe – and certainly the Polish lands – remain a blank spot. So it is perhaps time to start filling the gap.

At the same time, however, the tendency for the historical economics to push out the traditional approach is worrying. The increasingly technical language of historical economists becomes hard to understand for the non-specialists, while history reduced to numbers and graphs becomes lifeless. One can only hope for more dialogue between various approaches. Myself, I was lucky, being employed by the department of economics, while remaining at the same time in close contact with history – also due to the hospitability of the CEU Department of History, where I teach for the last fourteen years. Due to that, I had an opportunity to experience two quite distinct academic cultures. I hope I profited from it.

The Relevance of History

I have started this talk saying that history was a kind of an escape for me, an attempt to find an area of relative freedom in an environment that was politically oppressive. But emigration – internal emigration perhaps even more than an actual leaving one’s country – brings its discomforts as well. Most of us, particularly those who may be labeled intellectuals, want to achieve recognition by other people and to be relevant for the life of a broader community.

 Myself, I was solving this in various ways;  the teaching – which I have always enjoyed – was one, seeking recognition among academic colleagues another, engaging (usually in very small ways) in public activity yet another. But I do not want to develop this; instead a few points  about the possible relevance of what we as historians do for the present times.

The most common and obvious reason for doing history relates to “memory,” telling people  what to remember as members of a given community, most often – the nation. This is understandable, we are social beings, we need bonds with other people, and for this reason we need to know something of the past of the  community we happen, or aspire, to belong to. However, it is important to bear in mind that this function of history, while unavoidable and to a degree desirable, brings also various dangers. One of them is giving up to the political interest of the day, which may lead to the corruption of the academic ethos.

Another reason which I would mention is to map and explain change – economic, social, political, cultural – in other words, to make us sensitive to the fact that the world is inherently unstable, and that nothing is given forever. And also (here I return to Popper) there are no laws governing these changes, and that much of the change is a result of coincidences and unintended consequences of human action, as well as of human creativity, by definition impossible to predict. The historical process is full of surprises. The Asian Miracle in the second half of the 20th century or the collapse of communism are telling examples. There will be more surprises, as there is no “end of history.”

And finally I would like to mention my most favored reason for history being interesting and relevant. It is because it shows – in a way similar to anthropology – that human life can be organized in myriad various ways, that civilizations, cultures, nations, communities have different norms, customs, ideas,  and world-views. Each time, these human arrangements are historically produced. As one of the anthropologist’s tasks is to help us understand other people better across space, our task as historians is to do the same across time.

[1] Tadeusz Kochanowicz (1910-1995) and Zofia Kochanowicz, b. Ptaszycka (1922-1997).

[2] He was a public servant between 1946-49 and then 1956-1970.

[3] John Connelly,  Captive University: The Sovietization of East German, Czech, and Polish Higher Education, 1945-1956, Chapel Hill and London: The University of North Carolina Press, 2000.

[4] Jedlicki, coming from an intelligentsia family, as a teenager took part in the Warsaw Uprising. Like many of other young people of his generation, he became seduced by communism when the war ended and the new regime started to rebuild the devastated country. In 1968, he was already devoid of any illusions and left the party in a sign of protest. That barred him from teaching (he worked at the Institute of History of the Polish Academy of Sciences), that’s why he conducted his seminars at home. In the second half of the 1970s, he joined the informal oppositional Society of Scientific Courses (TKN), which led to his internment when the martial law was declared in December 1981.

[5] During Stalinism, propaganda claimed that police batons were used  only under oppressive capitalist regime. In fact, Poland formed riot control Militia units only after the Poznań events of 1956, when having no such a force, the authorities used the army, tanks included. Paradoxically, the introduction of batons and water cannons had been a sign of a humanization of the regime. However, in 1970 and 1981 the army had been used again. 

.[6] An Economic Theory of the Feudal System: Towards a Model of the Polish Economy, 1500-1800,

Translated by ­­­­­­Lawrence Garner,  London: NLB, 1976. Originally published in 1962. The book was also translated into five other languages and provoked a vivid international debate. Jacek Kochanowicz, “La Théorie économique...après vingt ans,” Acta Poloniae Historica", vol. 56 (1987), s. 187‑211.

[7] Measures and Men, translated by Richard Szreter, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986. Originally published in 1970.

[8] Cf. his Problems and Methods of Economic History, translated by Richard Szreter, Hampshire:  Aldershot, 2001. Originally published in 1963.

[9] The former two initiated the School in the 1970s, shaping its humanities-oriented profile.

[10] Cf. his excellent biography: Jeremy Adelman, Wordly Philosopher: The Odyssey of Albert O. Hirschman, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013.

[11] As it happened, my son was in Istanbul during the 1999 Izmit earthquake, and  my daughter was in the New York City on 9/11