Chamstwo. A Story of the Polish Serfdom: in conversation with Kacper Pobłocki

In a conversation with our editor Kasia Krzyżanowska, Kacper Pobłocki discusses his recent book Chamstwo and reflects on how Polish society was historically based on violence; elaborates on the historical sources of the name “Cham”; compares Polish predicament with other European states and discusses current state of the academia.

Kacper Pobłocki is an assistant professor at the University of Warsaw. He received his Ph.D. in humanities from the Faculty of History, Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznan, and his doctorate in sociology and social anthropology from the Central European University in Budapest. He is also a graduate of University College Utrecht in the Netherlands and was a fellow at The Center for Place, Culture and Politics at the City University of New York, directed by Professor David Harvey.

Kasia Krzyżanowska: My first question is regarding the main actors of your book, the Polish peasants. In your writing you try to break with the stereotypical picture of the Polish peasantry, that is a peasant’s life was absolutely idyllic and full of harmony with the nobility. Instead, you provide historical accounts of violence and brutality enforced by the nobility against the peasants. Please could you give our listeners a bigger picture of what the peasantry had looked like before modernity arrived in the Polish lands and what does the main title of your book Chamstwo stand for? 

Kacper Pobłocki: The book is basically an attempt to imagine what was the daily life of peasants or serfs — that’s another term in English that often comes up when we talk about this group of people. These were basically people who performed coerced, unfree and unpaid labor before the mid-19th century. 

When I was a student, I was quite interested in economic history: in Wallenstein and the Polish school of economic history. And the serfs came up quite often. There are whole lines of argument that there was second serfdom, a kind of a breach between the West and the East (Wallerstein writes about this), so it seems like it’s an important topic. But it was always very difficult for me to imagine who these people were, what their life was like, and what it actually meant to perform coerced labor. In the Polish culture and the Polish discourse, there is an overly optimistic image of that life, that these people were super happy just to do all these works for the nobility.

My book is an attempt to look at this reality from their point of view. It doesn’t say that the truth is in the middle — it’s an anthropological book and this is what we anthropologists do, we give the voice, we give the platform to the people and the peoples who have been denied that platform. I thought that for this anonymous grey mass, it’s an interesting question, what they actually thought. And it was a very diverse group. 

The title Chamstwo is a word that comes from the Curse of Ham, the Biblical story of Ham which a lot of people may have heard about. The Curse of Ham is perhaps the most common story used in many places and in different historical periods to justify black slavery. There is a great deal of global historical research on how this story has been moving around the globe from antiquity until modern times.

But it’s interesting that in Poland it’s got a local twist. As far as I know, Polish is the only language where the actual name Ham becomes a collective noun, a name that denotes a group of people. Russian is another one, but I think it’s a Polish influence. At the face value, it is a pejorative term for describing peasants or serfs like boars, as that is the one possible English translation — basically uncouth, people who do not behave well, who are dirty, uncivilized. But the term actually has a lot of different layers of meanings, and the book tries to uncover that. For example, the original meaning of the Curse of Ham, and the meaning from the 17th century, was a synonym of a son, and this is where the actual Biblical story comes in because it’s a story about how one of Noah’s sons was expelled from Noah’s household because he has offended the father. Basically, he stood out against patriarchal power, and he was punished for this, and the punishment was doing unfree and coerced labor. So it’s an interesting moment because the Curse of Ham at that moment was basically an instrument of blocking upward social mobility, and creating a chasm, a rift between what later came into two dominant groups, chamstwo and państwo, two words that we used colloquially in Polish to denote respectively the serfdom and nobility. 

For people who have not read the book and just take it into their hands for the very first time, it’s a book about peasantry. But if you have read the book, then you know that there’s another meaning of chamstwo, which is the main topic of the book — the servant of servants. 

One of the possible translations of the Biblical story is that Ham became a slave of slaves: he was punished to do perennial, unfree, coerced labor, but sometimes it’s translated also as a servant of servants. One of the most inspiring books for me, which also inspired this project to a large extent, is Ferdydurke — a novel by Gombrowicz, an early 20th-century writer who came from the nobility and wrote about life of noble households. He wrote about this relationship between chamstwo and państwo, and chamstwo are the servants at his noble house. You can see that we are moving away from peasantry and serfs to servants, because I think the servants were the real underdog.

When we talk about service labor, of course, we need to talk about gender. My characters are the people who stood against the patriarchal power of the fathers, like in the Biblical story of Ham and Noah, but whose labors are also coerced and disciplined by the means of patriarchy. 

I would like to talk a bit about the sources and your research methods. Since Polish history is mostly a tale about the nobility, and because the majority of the historical sources refer to this group only, I wanted to ask you about precisely this research method: how difficult it was for you to excavate the history of the Polish serfs, given the scarcity of the historical, legal, and literary sources. Who started to collect the histories of the serfs, and how did you manage to put them into one narrative? 

Well, there are a number of sources, but they’re quite scarce, so it’s not many.  I was hoping I would be able to weave them together and fill in the blanks, which I did. How convincing it is, that’s another story, but it’s not impossible, but it’s super difficult. As an anthropologist, I always look for first-hand accounts, that’s what I would be interested in. So, started looking at possible memoirs. There is one by Kazimierz Dyczyński. But a lot of the things I would be interested i, were not there, but he writes about violence. There are also books by people like Jakub Bojko, who wrote this fantastic book called Two Souls, which I think is basically an early Frantz Fanon. He’s not a serf, he’s a descendant of a serf. There were, in the mid to late 19th century, a number of books that were published about serfdom from the peasants’ point of view.

There were a number of accounts — their common thread was violence. That’s how this became a book about violence. It started as a book about daily life, but it quickly became a book about violence. Now, there are court sources as well, there are monographs, not many but enough. What also distinguishes the Polish academic life is that it’s very rich in terms of local-regional history. I found a number of monographs that would describe the lives of serfs in a given region in the 18th or 17th century.

I didn’t really feel I need to do original archival research because there were enough monographs that were totally scattered. The task I entertained was trying to do synthetic work. We have a number of accounts of what life was like in different parts of the Polish and Lithuanian Commonwealth. But nobody had decided to gather together what was there, whether there are common threads, whether you can actually do some kind of synthesis. That was the goal I set. There are court sources that others have used, there are complaint letters. For me they were not that important — just imagine a book written about our life based entirely on court sources, it will be totally skewed.

Can you tell us a bit more about what this violence looked like? It obviously seems that your book gives a special account of how the violence looked from the nobility against peasants, but what did it look like vice versa? What were the accounts of violence? How was it used, and against whom?

You have to imagine a world that is very different from ours, where the state, państwo (which in the Polish language happens to also mean the same thing as the nobility) is very different from the state we have today. There are no police and the army is still an elite affair to large extent. There was no schooling system, there was no tax system, and no modern media. If you take Foucault (and ha was super important for the project), then you see basically a state which is very weak, and the only way to cause people to go to work is blunt violence. That’s why this violence is shocking for us. Foucault basically wrote about it in Discipline and Punish: that the 19th century sees this change in the way violence and discipline are organized. It used to be very direct, blunt, and very bloody. Then in the 19th century modern discipline techniques emerged. 

My book starts with three chapters that describe the different aspects of this coercion. It also tries to set that particular case in a global context. That’s why the book actually opens in the US. The discourse I mentioned at the beginning of our conversation about world systems and Wallerstein tends to see serfdom as a very unique social system — and I don’t think it was very unique at that time. We’re speaking about, let’s say 300 years between late-16th century to late 19th century, and coerced labor was the norm all over the world. There is great research on the varieties of coerced labor, and American or Caribbean slavery was just one of them, but not the only one. This was just quite normal.

But then I quickly realized that violence is only half of the story, that violence has a very destructive nature and destroys social relations. We’re not speaking about violence between strangers, but between people who see each other on a daily basis.

But then I ask myself, how is this society glued together if violence is so pervasive, so omnipresent? You cannot have a society, which is glued together by violence, it just doesn’t work.

The second important topic of the book is patriarchy. The book is organized in such a way that you have these dichotomous relations that the book unravels. We start with the class relation between the serfs and the lords, which on a daily basis was basically manifested in violence and beatings, and in coercion to do with work and labor.  But then you have other kinds of dichotomies or other relationships occur because a society organized only alongside one dichotomy is like a paper society. Then you have gender identities and then you see the things start getting interesting. From a class point of view, the peasant or serf is in a disadvantaged situation. But from a gender point of view, a lot of them actually get into an advantaged position — this is where the patriarchal nature of that society emerges in a very iconic way. It’s a society of fathers who are differently perched on the social ladder, it’s the pact of the fathers that keeps the society together. The serf fathers are disciplining their minions, their daughters, their sons, and also their servants. You have a society of Noahs.

Male identity was kind of a gender pact that cut across the class divisions, and allowed the society to be glued back together. Violence is always a very complex thing. We start with this idea that it was violence used by the nobility against the serfs, but most of the time, it was the serfs doing this to themselves. 

How was this possible? Some of the peasants had to make a choice that they were siding with their oppressors. Emerging from a simple proposition that violence, alongside class lines, is what structures that society, we actually get a very messy and complex picture of reality.

This is a good moment to ask you a question about the social mobility that you already mentioned. The argumentation you employ suggests that the name you used as the title of your book, Chamstwo, already explained by you, became an ontological category for the serfs. In many instances that you provided in the book, peasants or the serf was just inferior subspecies of humans, oftentimes presented as an animal. In this context was social mobility even possible because you provide some examples of the serfs who try to become a nobleman, but often this endeavor ended up tragically, usually with death. What did this problem look like through the centuries you focus on? 

We have this common version of a feudal pyramid, where you have different estates and since these estates are legal entities, it’s difficult to move between them. We know it’s not true. I think it’s even absurd to talk about 18th-century Polish society as a feudal society, as some of the historians (like Witold Kula, the most famous Polish historian of the period) would do. Interestingly, there is no alternative version of what the social structure actually looked like, even though there’s a lot of great historical research on social mobility alongside these different categories.

To answer your question — I think is temporal.  There are moments when the walls between different classes or estates are thin, and there’s a lot of mobility up and down the social ladder. By the end of the late 18th century, these became two different races. To a late 18th-century person chamstwo was basically just a different race and there were lots of racial theories going around. This is where we’re coming back to the global aspect of the Curse of Ham — the story was racialized at certain points. In Poland, the difference in race was not in the pigment of your skin, but in terms of different social background. 

But there were moments where there was a lot of social mobility. That’s why I tried to offer an alternative image of the social structure to the one of the feudal pyramid. I think the crucial and the most interesting thing is that peasants or serfs could enjoy social mobility, but they had to cease being peasants. Social mobility meant becoming a nobleman. There were a lot of different ways of doing this by just making money. You have to also imagine that not all the economic ropes were in the hands of the nobility, there were different aspects of the economy which are run by the peasants. They actually owned land quite often, traded, and had a monopoly over the trade of cattle. They were able to amass quite a lot of capital and buy their way or marry their way into a noble family. They could go to a different part of the country and add the ‘ski’ to their surname and pretend to be a nobleman. And as it was pre-Facebook, nobody was able to check your previous life. The interesting thing, which changes after the end of serfdom where peasants can officially own land and they do so gladly, is that they could enjoy social mobility while being peasants, but not serfs. That’s the crucial difference after the end of serfdom, and this is how the peasant class also gains its dignity. By the early to mid-20th century, there are peasants who are rich and yet remain wedded to their peasant identity. That was something impossible before, you had to cease being yourself and get into somebody else’s shoes.

Only pan, a nobleman, was actually a full human being. That’s why in order to entertain social mobility peasants were also entering the group of real human beings, and everybody else was deficient in a way: if you were a woman, you were deficient; if you were a serf or were a servant, you were deficient; if you were a Jew, you were deficient.

Only property-owning male, noblemen were real citizens. The word for the nobility and citizens was also synonymous.

This leads us to the question of the citizenry. I wanted to ask you when the social cohesion stopped being hung on violence as glue and started to be more abstract? When did the peasants become Polish citizens, and what did the process of nation-building look like among the peasants? Was it an internal change for them rather than an external one? Did it happen by legal means?

In the 19th-century there was an attempt to do a version of the French revolution on the Polish territories. The nobility realized that they had to enfranchise the peasantry in order to build a state. Now, sometimes it was made for philosophical, romantic reasons — Kościuszkowcy believed that peasants were also human beings and they deserve to have equal rights. Sometimes it was purely practical. There was a big discussion throughout the 19th century about the end of serfdom and giving the serfs freedom in exchange for the military service they could offer.

In the end, they became real Polish citizens only after 1918 when the Polish state regained its independence. But the important moment is the end of serfdom. It is often perceived as a glorious moment of the end of a horrible social system. But for me, it’s kind of a gender pact: the violence goes away, but the patriarchy stays. If you read the texts of the leaders of the Polish peasant movement in the late 19th century, then they would quite often say, yeah, serfdom was a terrible thing, but now we have to look ahead, now we have the time to forge a real alliance with the nobles. This kind of male handshake, which was important before that for keeping everybody in check and keeping the society together, became stronger after the end of serfdom.

From the point of view of the servants, the end of the serfdom didn’t change much, because they were still under the influence of their local peasant father, who was an autocrat, a despot, and he had absolute power over his household.

One piece of research material that did not go into the book, in the end, is a memoir of a worker of the post-war period who was a former farmhand. For him, the socialist period in Poland was the first time he gained not even political rights, he was recognized as a human being. That’s what really matters to me at least, the moment when you can function in a society as a full-fledged human being.

I think now we can move to yet another issue that your book touches upon. This comparative dimension is visibly present in your writing. In comparative terms, how violent here the noblemen in other European states before the enlightenment, and how many of the historical instances of the cruel use of power in Poland were biased accounts that tried to represent this Eastern European country as an uncivilized one?

There was a book by Larry Wolf which describes the making of Eastern Europe in the late 18th century. You have to bear in mind that for a very long time in Europe, the East-West was not the real dichotomy, the real dichotomy was north-south, the south was civilized and the north was barbarous. From that point of view, there was no difference between Britain, Germany, and Poland. But it’s a question I ask myself and I try to get out of that conundrum.

Foucault shows that this was how things were organized all over the place. If you see accounts of how peasant uprisings were clamp down in Germany, or how many people were hanged in Britain, if you read Foucault’s account of violence in France it’s horrendous. At that time, I think there was no real difference. 

I don’t think that Poland was unique. It was specific. Violence was organized in a slightly different way in different countries. The first chapter of my book is called The Country of Gallows. Of course, Poland was not the only country where gallows were present. There is an account of a Russian aristocrat bought some of the Polish estates in the late 18th century. He was amazed to see the gallows — this is something that for him was quite distinctive about the Polish landscape. There were a lot of funny stories about gallows in the folklore. We spoke about sources, but I forgot to mention this is the most important source for me, folklore, and there were stories about how gallows were the fundament of Polish society. 

I would like to talk more about contemporary Poland and how your book relates to the current relationship and social relations in Poland. You state that some pieces of the noblemen’s racism are still somehow present in the Polish language as well in some social practices. However, the feeling of being privileged stems from the social conditions, not genetic ones anymore as it used to be previously. Do you think that the historical pretenses to an aristocratic ancestry have any practical influence on social and political life in Poland now, and do you perceive the contemporary Polish language as a repressive one?

I resisted the temptation of writing about the continuities, Chamstwo is a book about the discontinuities, and how different that reality was. I also wrote it because the topic of serfdom comes back like a boomerang in Polish society very often, and people tend to talk about the serf mentality and inefficient Polish companies, the kind of oppressive atmosphere in the workplace. 

People tend to make these analogies, and I always thought that these were shallow — they were based on a very superficial vision of what that society actually was like. My idea was to put on the table a thick description of what the realities were. I resisted the temptation of trying to show where the bridges between that reality and the life that we have now for a number of reasons. The first one is that I don’t know. The second one is what people talked about most of the time. There are journalists who are making comparisons between the work on the farm and the work in contemporary corporations, and how creativity is clamped down in both environments. I don’t think that’s where the real issue is. I think the real issue is in violence and how violence is passed on in families. That’s why Chamstwo was actually a book about family structure, the family as the fundamental unit of society. It’s a cliche, but you know, we tend to gloss over it.

The book is written only about the past. I think every writer has to bear in mind when writing a book, you’re not only thinking about what you are saying but rather you’re thinking about what goes in the head of the reader. If I structured my book in such a way that half of the book would be about the past and half of the book will be about the present, then I think the readers will focus on my interpretation of the continuities, and most of them would disagree. I thought let’s leave this task to the reader, let’s put the experience on the table and let the reader decide because this is what’s going on in the head of the reader. They are constantly trying to make these bridges. 

Your book is one among some other prominent recently published books on the history of Polish peasantry — just to name Adam Leszczyński’s “A People’s History of Poland” or Michał Rauszer’s “Bastards’ serfdom”’, some were critically acclaimed. How do you perceive this boom of interest in the Polish peasantry, both from the side of researchers and the public? Do you perceive it as an elitist intellectual fashion, a genuine project of transforming Polish intellectual history, or rather a self-awareness project for the Polish middle-class, or perhaps something entirely different?

I don’t think my book is elitist — it has been sold in 30,000 copies. It’s an essay written in a non-academic way. It’s my third book and all my three books are very different, but what brings them together is that they are trying to be accessible. I think that academia needs to be democratic, and if you’re writing in jargon, then you are basically being exclusive and undemocratic. I think this is a conversation that non-academic people are interested in, and the numbers show that, and they deserve to be part of that conversation.

What I’ve been trying to do over the last 10 years is to open up the ivory tower of academia to the larger public. In a country like Poland the lines between non-fiction writing and academic literature are not that strict, because those who don’t like my book, would say it’s too literary, and those who like it would say, yes, it’s great, it’s a bit like a novel. But it’s totally based on facts. 

To be honest, actually, the non-professional responses are most interesting for me — the conversations I had with people who had non-academic lives proved that they had more interesting things to say about the book than professionals, sadly, actually. 

But it doesn’t mean that knowledge is not interesting. It’s just that we need to find different modes of doing knowledge. I found that my previous book, which was an economic history of the world, also sold pretty well, not 30,000, but 6,000 copies, which for an economic book is also a lot. It shows that it’s possible to open up these conversations to the larger public. The key is actually in how we do it, it’s not what you say, but how you write it. I strongly believe that the format of the academic monograph needs to be rethought and we need to experiment with the form, and all the three books I wrote actually experiment with the form.

And yes, there’s also an interest in the topic, which I think is long overdue.

As we have mentioned, this is a topic that comes back to the Polish public discussion regularly, but it was always a discussion based on very flimsy evidence.

Now you have a number of books, mine as well, where people can read what we are talking about, and they are interested. It’s also generational. What brings together all these different authors working on the topic of serfdom — you mentioned three but there’s like a dozen — is that we are around 40 years old. We are already experienced, we know how to write books and we have had enough time to actually do some serious research, but we are young enough that we have a fresh perspective and we still care, we want to make a difference.

Let’s remind our listeners that Kacper Pobłocki’s book was published by one of the biggest publishers in Poland, Wydawnictwo Czarne — perhaps this is also the mother of success. 

My last question relates to one of the authors that you mentioned at the end of your book, Didier Eribon, and his narrative of being ashamed of his working-class provenance. I wanted to ask you a more general question about this emotion. How do people approach their lower or working-class backgrounds in high-profile intellectual settings in Europe? You mentioned, for example, the conferences that you attended: is it the topic that intellectuals do like to talk about or rather not? Do you see any differences in how intellectuals approach their family’s past in diverse European countries? 

Well, there are moments when the gates of social mobility are opened, and the gates of social mobility are closed. I think the post-war period, which produced a number of great intellectuals in Europe, was a moment where the gates were relatively open. We had a lot of, so-called, scholarship boys, people who would get a scholarship from a working-class background, and they would end up writing fantastic books. I think this is over. Now inter-generational financial transfers are basically the key. I am an exception because I got a scholarship at the age of 17 and I had all my education thanks to scholarships.

That’s perhaps one of the reasons why this topic is interesting for me, because it speaks to my own experience, even though this is not a book about me. But it’s quite obvious that our biographical experience shapes what we think is interesting and what we think is important. But the feeling of shame is quite universal. I don’t think my book is about shame. But shame is part of the story of what happens after serfdom — and I do not write about the consequences. The question I’m trying to answer there is why people forgot about this violence. Shame is one of the reasons that violence is shameful. People prefer to not be victimized because it is a very uncomfortable identity. When people have the choice, they tend to choose not to be a victim. That’s one of the reasons why the memory of that violence that I unravel in the book withered away.

The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

In collaboration with Karen Culver

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