The partitions of Poland and 'democracy'

Nov 2014
1,668
Birmingham, UK
Greetings friends

I'm in a discussion with a Polish poster on another forum, on the subject of democracy. He is an avowed opponent of the democratic model, and briefly referred to the partition of Poland as an example of the negative consequences of democracy.

This struck me as a strange assertion but I rather lack the knowledge of the subject area.

My assumptions, I suppose, are that the Polish system at the time despite the various freedoms did not really constitute democracy, but more to the point, the partitions struck me as a situation of Great Power politics where essentially a country was bullied by three neighbours- and that no system, democratic or otherwise, would have either created the problem or indeed been able to solve it.

So I suppose my questions are basically (1) can we call the Polish system democratic (apart from the nobles to what extent was their popular participation in the process and who apart from the nobles actually had any franchise?)?

(2) to what extent was the putative 'democracy' at fault or responsible for the weakness that lead to the partitions (and 2A would any version of the Polish state have been able to withstand 3 more powerful neighbours?)?

Thanks
 

Chlodio

Forum Staff
Aug 2016
4,580
Dispargum
I rather doubt that even a strong Polish state could fend off three hostile powers like that. Democracy had nothing to do with it.

Are you sure he's talking about the Three Partitions of Poland in the 18th century? It almost sounds like he's blaming the western democracies for redrawing Poland's boundaries after WW2. That criticism of democracy I can almost understand, but I think his criticism is still misplaced.
 
Nov 2014
1,668
Birmingham, UK
Yup that's what he is saying. I wasn't aware that the freedoms and constitutionalism in Poland would count as a democracy in any case, but given the imbalance of powers I can't see any kind of Stronk Monarchy that could have resisted the will of three powerful neighbours. Of course, though, I'm no expert on Polish history
 
Jul 2012
775
Australia
Among the Szlachta - who were a status group and not a class, but nevertheless dominated Polish and PLC society - there was democracy in the sense that every szlachta had the right to voice his opinions and vote in the local dietines that elected the representatives to the Sejm, regardless of his economic and social position, and to vote at royal elections (so really, much like current western democracies but on a limited franchise). Representatives to the Sejm brought with them their local dietines' decisions on matters to be discussed at the Sejm.

Although the Szlachta may have accounted for as much as 10% of the population - a far greater percentage than aristocracies in other countries at the time - most were poor. A small number of families dominated the economic and political scene and controlled the Senate which was the political decision making house, and not the lower house Sejm. Many szlachta were no more than subsistence living peasant farmers; many more were landless and penniless who found employment in a great szlachta's household or part of his men-at-arms retinue. Nevertheless they could all vote in royal elections and participate in the local dietines.

Political power was shared between the Senate/Sejm and Royalty, but the balance was with the Senate/Sejm - and it increased its advantage as time went on. Indeed, who would want to be the King of Poland?

The main point of PLC weakness was largely economic and political factors ("liberum veto") were secondary. The Szlachta had an "Arcadian Paradise" mentality, that only agricultural work (or rather the agricultural work of their serfs), was noble. They were successful in tying peasants to the soil and barring szlachta to undertake economic enterprise. Consequently Poland and the PLC missed out on the new sources of wealth being generated from new economic activity which its neighbours, particularly Prussia and Austria were pursuing. Russia was another case where the boyars were dependant on the Tsar - it just needed a strong and well organised ruler to maximise the benefit of this connection like Ivan III and the rise of the Romanovs earlier, and then Peter the Great and Catherine the Great. While these 3 states were able to re-organise themselves around new wealth and military options they provided, Poland remained stuck in the szlachta's duty to defend the state when needed through a levy-en-masse.

By 1717 the PLC was a de-facto Russian Protectorate, where the 3 countries could manipulate the use of the "Liberum Veto", a parliamentary rule that required all legislation in a parliamentary session to be passed by all (100%) of the participants. That locked Poland into an unchanging mode in the 18th century that the reform movement that emerged from 1740 could not undo. The 3rd of May 1791 Constitution and the Kosciuszko Uprising were weak efforts far to late to change the course of PLC politics. The partitions of Poland merely formalised an informal arrangement and gave the perpetrators a means to satisfy their expansionist tendencies while maintaining a certain balance of power between themselves.
 
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betgo

Ad Honorem
Jul 2011
6,427
It was an aristocratic republic or constitutional elective monarchy, not a democracy. However, its biggest problems was overly democratic feature, such as the liberum veto and the king being elected by tens of thousands of men meeting in a field with tents.
 

sparky

Ad Honorem
Jan 2017
5,172
Sydney
it was the rule of a feudal aristocracy with the old Slavic tradition of an elected ruler ,
the nobles families had their own armed retinue and separate foreign policy often at odds with each other
it was as much a republic than Venice was ,
a democracy it wasn't
there was a lot of money made exporting grains to the West , the Dutch republic being a big buyer
it resulted in screwing down the peasants in large estates located on the rivers of the Vistula basin
Danzig being the point of shipment , a rather German city
 
Last edited:

betgo

Ad Honorem
Jul 2011
6,427
It was unusual at the time, because most countries were absolute monarchies or close to absolute monarchies where the aristocracy had some power and there maybe was a weak parliament. The system in Poland was more democratic than France, Spain, or Russia, but it was more medieval with power in the hands of the nobles.

It was similar to the Venetian Republic or constitutional monarchy in England. Democracy did not exist anywhere at the time. In England 25% of adult men could voteas opposed to 3% in Poland, but it was open ballot, with many small boroughs controlled by nobles, and there was a king and a hereditary upper house. The early US was more democratic than England or Poland, but it also was not a democracy.
 

sparky

Ad Honorem
Jan 2017
5,172
Sydney
the Holy Roman Empire was elective , republics were not rare or unusual but most often were city states
Italy had plenty of them
the word Res publica is not very denominational ,
 
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May 2013
116
there
Greetings friends

I'm in a discussion with a Polish poster on another forum, on the subject of democracy. He is an avowed opponent of the democratic model, and briefly referred to the partition of Poland as an example of the negative consequences of democracy.

This struck me as a strange assertion but I rather lack the knowledge of the subject area.

My assumptions, I suppose, are that the Polish system at the time despite the various freedoms did not really constitute democracy, but more to the point, the partitions struck me as a situation of Great Power politics where essentially a country was bullied by three neighbours- and that no system, democratic or otherwise, would have either created the problem or indeed been able to solve it.

So I suppose my questions are basically (1) can we call the Polish system democratic (apart from the nobles to what extent was their popular participation in the process and who apart from the nobles actually had any franchise?)?

(2) to what extent was the putative 'democracy' at fault or responsible for the weakness that lead to the partitions (and 2A would any version of the Polish state have been able to withstand 3 more powerful neighbours?)?

Thanks
[/QUOTEyreferring to the Sejm
the Holy Roman Empire was elective , republics were not rare or unusual but most often were city states
Italy
Greetings friends

I'm in a discussion with a Polish poster on another forum, on the subject of democracy. He is an avowed opponent of the democratic model, and briefly referred to the partition of Poland as an example of the negative consequences of democracy.

This struck me as a strange assertion but I rather lack the knowledge of the subject area.

My assumptions, I suppose, are that the Polish system at the time despite the various freedoms did not really constitute democracy, but more to the point, the partitions struck me as a situation of Great Power politics where essentially a country was bullied by three neighbours- and that no system, democratic or otherwise, would have either created the problem or indeed been able to solve it.

So I suppose my questions are basically (1) can we call the Polish system democratic (apart from the nobles to what extent was their popular participation in the process and who apart from the nobles actually had any franchise?)?

(2) to what extent was the putative 'democracy' at fault or responsible for the weakness that lead to the partitions (and 2A would any version of the Polish state have been able to withstand 3 more powerful neighbours?)?

Thanks
He is referring to the fact that the Sejm played a direct role in the Partitions. Some Polish Nobles were so poor they only had their Horse, their Vote and their Sabre. So foreign powers literally bought up large blocks of the Sejm. It’s more of a cautionary tale about money in politics and foreign interfence in elections than it is a fault of democratic institutions.
 
Jul 2012
775
Australia
The Polish state devolved into regional centres again under Bolesław III's will of a seniority system for the King of Poland (1138). It took a Mongol invasion, Teutonic Knights settlement of Prussia and Silesia slipping into the Bohemian orbit to encourage Polish lords to accept the idea of a Polish monarch again. But it was still a struggle to get support and eventual acceptance of Władysław I Łokietek as King (1320). His position was tenuous, and his kingdom was not the full state he would have liked (no Pomerania or Silesia and Mazovia was a fief to revert to King of Poland on extinction of the Piast line, which did not happened until 1526). The King could not command sufficient resources to overcome opposition and alternatives to him as King of Poland. The royal position was strengthened under Casimir III the Great, but the power of regional dukes and szlachta was not subdued to royal authority so that when the King died without a male heir, the szlachta could bargain with contenders for greater privileges (1370-1385). After the disastrous personal union with Hungary, the szlachta with their dietines emerged as the dominant political institution in the country.
 
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