Journée d'étude "Enlightenment Agrarian Republics From the Vaud to Poland and America – and Beyond", Unil, 29 septembre 2018

  • Long live the worker-peasant alliance!

Enlightenment Agrarian Republics

From the Vaud to Poland and America – and Beyond

Université de Lausanne 28 septembre 2018


This project in intellectual history focuses on the political and economic ideas that were formed around and within three existing agrarian republics during the Enlightenment: Vaud, Poland, and America. From the mid 1750s onward, an increasing number of observers predicted that European societies were headed for revolution. The standard causes that were cited were the spiraling public debts, the continuous increase in taxes imposed on the rural population, the depopulation of the countryside, and a luxury-driven urbanization and subsequent pauperization of those failing to find employment in urban manufacturing. At the heart of this trend, it was frequently argued, was the imbalance between agriculture and industry, which explains the fascination many Enlightenment thinkers expressed for the model of an agrarian republic. While the classical model of an agrarian republic seemed immune to the corrosive features of modern politics and thus offered hope for a more socially stable and peaceful Europe, it too had its drawbacks, the most notorious of which being that it relied on institutionalized slavery which made it not only inherently unjust, but also resistant to economic reforms. The current project aims to study this eighteenth-century debate about agrarian republics by looking at how three real existing agrarian republics themselves thought about their place within the modern world and, especially, the prospect of reform. For this, it will focus on a set of questions that were central to the reform discourse in all three of these agrarian republics. First, how did slavery, or the state of subjection, affect economic performance, and how did it square with the republican ideal of equality? Second, how could parts of the rural population be integrated into the developing industrial sector without causing the stagnation of agricultural productivity? Also, what institutional adjustments were thought necessary in order to limit the social effects of urban pauperization? Third, what political framework was best suited to keeping an economically efficient agrarian republic from transforming into a full-blown capitalist society? By studying how reform thinkers working within an agrarian republican context addressed these questions, and how they shared their reform experience through a network of intellectual and personal ties, a new assessment of the position of agrarian republics in Enlightenment reform discourse will emerge.

Why "Enlightenment Agrarian Republics"? What does the title signify? Venturi's and Pocock's path-breaking work on eighteenth-century republicanism, political economy, and reform theory surveyed a vast comparative international panorama, sweeping across Europe from east to west and north to south, from Russia to America and Sweden to Italy. This research paradigm has been driven especially by a focus on commercial republics: the Netherlands, England, Geneva and America. While the commercial and financial success of these republics made their constitutions objects of international emulation and major subjects of a wider European reform discourse, the success of commercial republics was a dangerously double-edged sword, due to the intensification of inter-state commercial rivalry, Machiavellian reason of state applied to trade, and a precarious balance of power between military-fiscal states addicted to credit supplied by international financial markets. The threat of state bankruptcy in particular exposed borrowers (England) and lenders (Geneva) alike to the danger of sudden collapse.

Agrarian republics, and agricultural reform discourse more generally, need to be put back into the picture. This should not be taken to conjure Arcadian flights of fancy based upon visions of tranquil citizen-farmers or nostalgia for virtuous ancient simplicity. Rather, Enlightenment agrarian reformers were squarely concerned with the commercialization of agriculture, the challenges of achieving balanced exchange of manufacturing and agricultural surpluses, and the influence of money and taxes within the differential market and pricing dynamics of the agriculture and manufacturing sectors.

In the aftermath of the Seven Years' War, thinkers across Europe sought to unpack the problems of the modern state with the aim of understanding the possibilities and constraints for reforming and correcting Europe's political economy. This has increasingly become a preoccupation of historians of political thought, likely in no small part in response to the challenges of globalization and nationalism in the twenty-first century.

The present meeting will have two overarching aims. First, to assess the current state of the historiography in order to identify the most important questions for future research. Secondly, to clarify how the intuitions behind the "Enlightenment Agrarian Republics" project can be built into a meaningful organizing framework for collaborative research. Concerning the latter point, it needs to be emphasized that the title of "Enlightenment Agrarian Republics" seeks to inspire new ideas rather than to constrain them within a narrow channel.

Thus, "Enlightenment" may be understood here in a minimalist sense simply to refer to "the eighteenth century" – rather than as a claim about when or where "enlightenment" took place or what it consisted of. That said, we do not wish to impose strict chronological limitations; on the contrary, we are keen to build bridges into the history of nineteenth-century political thought.

Similarly, our interest in agrarian reforms should not be misinterpreted as a lack of interest in commerce, finance or manufacturing industry. As we have already tried to suggest, the language of eighteenth-century agrarian reform theory offered a sophisticated perspective on the problems of demography, urbanization, taxation and political representation. Agrarian reform theory may helpfully be thought of as what would today be called "development economics."

Finally, we are not solely interested in republics – though we do consider it imperative to understand the actual historical conditions of republican governments (as opposed to treating "republicanism" principally as an ideological tradition or idiom). We wish to study economic reform efforts within both monarchies and republics, and we are interested in ideas of monarchy as the constitutional state form par excellence, ranging from the democratic royalism of d'Argenson to the theories of republican and constitutional monarchy of Sieyès, Hegel and beyond. Thinking historically about the formal inequalities that were characteristic of republican governments (such as aristocracy, slavery and colonial dominion) can uncover challenges to the fashionable view of "republicanism" as the patrimony of modern representative democracy.


9:30-10:00 – Welcome by Béla Kapossy, Round of Introductions

10:00-10:30 – Aris Della Fontana Thesis Presentation
Malgré l'histoire. Horizons réformateurs au XVIIIème siècle à Gênes et Venise

10:30-11:00 – Christoph Oelmann Thesis Presentation
Rétablissement and agricultural policy in Electoral Saxony, 1763-1773

11:15-11:50 – Overview of the Project and Historiography (Kapossy)

11:50-12:30 – Themes in The Spirit of Legislation (Clure)

2:00-2:30 – The Counts Mniszech and The Spirit of Legislation (Szymański)

2:30-3:00 – The Vaudois Spirit of Legislation (Bertholet)

3:00-3:30 – Diffusion of The Spirit of Legislation: Italy, Saxony and Beyond

4:00-5:30 – Reflections and Concluding Remarks

Actualité publiée le 08.10.2018