What is the link between the European counter-revolutionaries of the 17th and 18th centuries and today’s self-declared illiberals? Who were modern conservatives and what kind of ideas did they preach? How the idea of Christian Europe was understood at that time? Who was allowed to speak on behalf of European history back then?
In this conversation with RevDem editor, Kasia Krzyżanowska, Matthijs Lok answers these questions and more and discusses his newest book Europe Against Revolution: Conservatism, Enlightenment, and the Making of the Past (OUP 2023).
Matthijs Lok — a senior lecturer (tenured universitair docent) in Modern European History at the European Studies Department of the University of Amsterdam. His main interest concerns the role of ideas in political change and ‘counter-narratives’ of political modernity and globlization. He has published extensively on regime changes, state and nation formation, conservatism, cosmopolitanism, eurocentrism, (Counter) Enlightenment, ideas of Europe, and monarchy from a transnational and comparative perspective. In 2023 his latest book Europe against Revolution came out with Oxford University Press.
Kasia Krzyżanowska: You start your book with a conference held in 2020 and organised by self-declared European conservatives who lament over the decline of Europe, deride liberal progress, and call for a renewal of European institutions. How does this opening relate to the main ideas you present in the book?
Matthijs Lok: It is a book about the past, about the 18th and 19th century, but also about the present. Nowadays, we see, I think, two competing ideas of Europe. One is more liberal, usually supportive of European integration, and the other one is more of an illiberal version of what Europe is and what it should be. What I try to do in the book is to take a little longer historical perspective especially on this illiberal or, you can call it, the conservative idea of Europe.
What I try to do from this longer historical perspective is to confront the idea that Europe has gotten corrupted, that there is too much liberalism and widespread atheism which corrupts it, and that thus it is in need of spiritual regeneration. That is actually a very old idea; it goes back to the late 18th century.
On the one hand I wanted to find the origins of these ideas, especially the anti-liberal ideas of Europe, but at the same time, I also found it interesting that there are often no simple continuities in many ways. For instance, one of the interesting conclusions I reached was that most of the counterrevolutionaries I have been studying were not nationalists; they were anti-nationalists, and that they did not like nationalism at all, which they associated with the French Revolution. Of course, contemporary illiberal-conservatives are often — almost always — nationalists, and they claim that they are coming from this longer and older tradition. However, when you look at this tradition, you also see very strong discontinuities and many differences between the two.
On the one hand I was looking for the origins of illiberal or conservative Europeanism, but on the other, I also found many differences which I did not expect. In that sense, it is not a book that glorifies conservative Europeanism. Many conservatives claim to be part of this longer tradition and I try to be critical of that in my book.
Who are your main actors or the protagonists of your book? You call them counterrevolutionary ‘historical Europeanists’ and show that they had an extended international network of friends that included e.g., Thomas Paine. You call them “intermediary thinker-agents” who combined writing with practical jobs. How did their ideas circulate?
Because it is such a large topic, I had to focus on certain key figures. What I find interesting is that most of those people are not known anymore today. They are not very famous. Thinkers like Voltaire or Montesquieu are still being read, but these are people(i.e. the counterrevolutionaries) have been forgotten, but at the time themselves were very famous.
Europe at the beginning of the 19th century was like a village. We often see ideological opponents having dinner together in the evening. People know each other, they go to dinner together, they go to dancing together. I found it interesting that the people I study are not only thinkers. Those people were often very active in political life in bureaucracies. I was interested in how they interacted with these great ideas. For instance, one person I studied was called Nicholas Vogt, and was the teacher of Metternich. Metternich was the one who constructed the European order after Vienna. They all have links to big historical events, but they are also thinkers and writers.
I found it interesting that they were often very famous at the time, but are not anymore. They were not just ideologues or writing philosophy, but philosophers in action, which I think is always the most interesting concept to study. I wanted to give these people a voice and understand how they saw the world. Not because I always find them very sympathetic. Some people are not sympathetic at all! One of my case studies actually defended slavery for instance. But my idea behind the book was to give them a voice.
Did they make up a coherent movement?
There is some coherence in the sense that some ideas kept consistently coming back. They were all very much pluralists. They believed very much in the Enlightenment, especially the French Enlightenment. But also, the revolutionaries wanted to create a very homogeneous world with one idea. The counterrevolutionaries, by contrast, were all ideologues of diversity. They said Europe is characterized by diversity in politics, culture, religion, and economy, and this diversity is threatened by the revolution.
So, what is interesting nowadays is that when you think about diversity, it is mostly a progressive idea. But at least in its origin, it was actually a conservative idea.
They actually like the idea of progress, especially gradual one.What revolutionaries want is to break down the old structure and try to build something new. This was not a good idea for the conservatives. They were very different in terms of languages and backgrounds; some were very religious, and others are more legal in their way of thinking. But they all shared four or five common elements. One of them was diversity, interestingly enough.
Now I start to ask myself what made Montesquieu or Voltaire remembered, and the actors that you discuss forgotten? Why have your protagonists not been studied as extensively as these French thinkers?
Well, they didn’t fit in with our contemporary categories. On the one hand of course they were not nationalists; they were critical of nationalism. They were often Europeanist. They were very cosmopolitan because they wanted to look beyond national boundaries.They were usually very international; they had many friends abroad. At the same time, they usually confined their will to Christianity. They used the boundaries of Christianity. So, in that sense they are not truly world citizens, and they were also against the revolution.
Of course today, we see the world being divided by conservative nationalists on the one hand, and liberal cosmopolitans, on the other. The counterrevolutionaries do not fit into either category, thereby making them interesting for a historian. They are hard to understand from a more contemporary perspective.
You mentioned that Europe at that time was an “essentially historical continent” reinvented by French Revolution critics. What were they opposing in the idea of revolution, what did the prefix “counter” mean for them? And how democratic and equal was the counter-revolution?
This is quite an interesting argument. They say revolution is destroying civilisation. The European civilisation has been growing over the years. They invented this idea that what characterises Europe is its history- you have old castles and buildings. This is true of course if you compare it to the States. Europe is an old continent, a historical one. The idea of Europe being a historical continent is taken for granted now. But these were the first people who actually invented the idea that what characterises Europe is its history. You do not find this in the 17th century.
Itis paradoxical that this whole idea of Europe being seen as a historical continent is quite new and comes out of this era. The idea was that it had been developing incredibly slowly into this unique free continent. Then the revolution came along and tried to destroy it all. They thought of these revolutionaries as barbarians that wanted to destroy culture and freedom;– that they want to turn Europe into some kind of “Africa”.
The counterrevolutionaries actually said that those revolutionaries were not Europeans; they were outside European history. And that they are more like Africans .Some, like Napoleon, were always called “the African” by his critics.
They were placing the revolution outside of European history. By contrast, it is very interesting if you go to the House of European Histories in Brussels for instance. There, the French Revolution is more or less at the core of European history. The counterrevolutionaries had an entirely different perspective on what is European and what is not. They talked about this historical civilisation which was being destroyed by these revolutionaries who are barbarians. On the one hand, they wanted to create anarchism, and on the other hand, the revolutionaries created a powerful state–a Leviathan–which will crush us all. Because of this, there is now this idea of the state being very powerful.
Let us talk about the national differences around or among the counterrevolutionary thinkers. For example, you write that Burke was not really well-received in France, where Catholic counterrevolutionaries believed that the Revolution was not a sudden eruption but rather stemmed from French and European history. There were also different approaches towards the potential leadership of the unified Europe of the future. What can we say about the national variations among the counterrevolutionaries, and how deep were those differences?
Well, as you said, there were very important national differences. Although when we talk about, for instance, Germany, of course, there was not a unified Germany at the time. For instance, I have a case study from Northern Germany, from Göttingen, who is a Protestant, and I have a Catholic from Mainz.Also, there is a case study from Vienna. What is interesting for these people is that their regional background is usually much more important to them than their national background.
When we talk about national differences, I think regional differences are usually more important to them. Also the religious differences– the fact that they are Protestants, Catholics, or Orthodox– often says a lot more than national differences.
There are, of course, books about conservatism, nationalism, and counterrevolution. But you always have it from within a national angle. What I try to do with this book is to say these ideas are also Europeans. They often have very European outlook.Without denyingthat the ideas stress the importance of national boundaries because they were being created at the time, I think it is also necessary to look beyond national boundaries.
In the conversation between Charles-Alexandre Calonne, a former French minister, and Edmund Burke, I found that though they both talked about the ancient constitution and about moderation, but they didn’t always understand each other. There was this conversation across boundaries, but at the same time I think many of these thinkers often didn’t understand each other. The work of Burke was translated into German, but the translator added a third of the book to it — he added a lot of his own ideas. So yes, there were national boundaries but were often crossed too.
We can talk a bit about the selection of the protagonists in your book- you expand on the pool of writers by including people from less studied countries like Spain, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, and Belgium. But you clearly offer a Western Europe-centric narrative here, which you justify it by providing pragmatic reasons. However, can you tell us a bit about what happened during that time in other countries from Eastern Europe or central Europe?
That is a really good question. Well, this book has been taken me over ten years to write. There was a moment when I had to stop. And as you said, there were some pragmatic reasons, especially linguistic ones, that informed my decision-making. At the start of the book, I collaborated a lot with Monika Baar, who has written an excellent book on historiographical and European ideas. So, part of the issues you raised were already covered in a work by Monika Baar, who is now an EUI professor.
What is interesting at this moment is that this new hierarchy has been created, not only in geopolitical, but also in historiographical terms. Those who can speak for European history are mostly British and, in this case, Scottish, as well as French authors. German authors appear here to a lesser extent and are mainly from Göttingen, and indeed, from Eastern and Central Europe. Countries which were very important in the 16th century, like Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, have disappear from the scene.
What I tried to do in the book is see how a new hierarchy is being created regarding who is allowed to speak on behalf of European history. On the top of the hierarchy are mostly writers from Edinburgh, London, Paris and Göttingen — these being the cities where European history is being made.
Central-Eastern Europe, before the hierarchy was created, was part of European history and the writers were very interesting. Then, they more or less faded from view and are now ignored to a large extent. This is in spite of people like Joseph de Maistre looking towards Russia, which from a contemporary perspective is also interesting. Of course, we still know that many of the illiberals and radical conservatives such as, for instance, those in the Netherlands look towards Russia as the source of European regeneration. Often, they never visited Russia, nor did they anything about Russia.
I was interested about how we read about people like Albert Schweitzer in Germany, but also Joseph de Maistre, who was a diplomat in Saint Petersburg. Also, we see that Russia is a source for European renewal. We can see that this old idea of Russia, again popping up today, has very old roots. But on the whole, the main story in my book is the one about the creation of new centers and peripheries. I hope other people will write more about Central-Eastern Europe. Although, as I said, I recommend Monika Baar’s book in this respect.
It is a good moment to ask about the cosmopolitanism of your protagonists, who travelled a lot around Europe and beyond. You call your protagonists “reluctant cosmopolitans” who, sometimes involuntarily, pursued emigrant lives. What were the European spaces they created in exile? Also, how did they experience the state of being an émigré? And how did this experience change their outlook on the history of Europe?
What is interesting about almost all my protagonists is that they were all exiles, refugees, and asylum seekers. This is because they were often forced by the revolutionary armies or the revolutionary turmoil to leave their country. They did not plan this at all; they thought they were having very boring lives, and then a revolution erupted, because of which they had to flee or had to go. They all had experienced exile and migration. Of course, you will find none of this whole discourse against refugees, which is very difficult for contemporary conservatives. None of this is there because they were all refugees and asylum seekers.
They travelled all around, met in places like London, Saint Petersburg, and in the New World, and created ideas of Europe. They dreamt about Europe in the spaces of exile.
Of course nowadays, when you think about refugees and migrants, you think about them being very progressive or on the progressive sides; these refugees were conservative and counter-revolutionary refugees. And they were dreaming of, for instance, recreating ancient regimes in Africa or the Caribbean.
There is a fascinating book by German historian, Friedemann Pestel, at the University of Freiburg titled “Kosmopoliten Wider Willen”. With regards, “Reluctant cosmopolitans”, the counterrevolutionaries describe themselves this way. They became cosmopolitans; but it was not their intention to be. And it is also a different kind of cosmopolitanism than a revolutionary cosmopolitanism. However, I would still call it cosmopolitanism.
What was the vision of institutional Europe of the counterrevolutionaries? How did they envision perpetual peace and equilibrium in Europe and beyond? Did they have any vision for an integrated Europe in their minds?
Yes, they did. You think about European integration always in terms of the 20th century and after the Second World War. But already in the revolutionary wars and Napoleonic wars,many people designed ideas of how to achieve peace in Europe. They were often inspired by enlightened ideas by someone like Saint Pierre, or other older ideas. Interestingly, they all thought of different ideas; for instance, Joseph de Maistre thought of a European Union ruled by the papacy. There were whole schemes of European integration and European peace, which are very different from ours (for instance, there was an idea of a council of kings).
But what is fascinating is that all kinds of people tried to come up with schemes and with different institutions. They all believed that they could create European peace forever. Especially in 1815, there was this idea that after the collapse of the Napoleonic Empire, there was the hope that integration could be achieved. There was for a very short period of time an optimistic mood that all the crowned heads could come together in Vienna. And, of course, they did come together in Vienna. It had never happened before that all the kings, even the tzar, came together at a conference. And, of course, after a few years , a huge disappointment set in — this very high expectation of a new era where European peace could created and Europe could be regenerated, was not realized.
But you will find in almost all of my sources that these authors came up with ideas and institutions which were all very different. The Protestants were different from the Catholics. They all had their national interest at heart, but it was also a fascinating era because it was all very fluid. People came up with new ideas – a dream of their own Europe, which is very different from the European Union today.
Would you say that the EU’s motto, “united in diversity”, might stem from the thought of the early 19th-century German thinkers? You write that they positively assessed the alleged political, cultural, and economic contrasts typical of European history.
They all very much agree on this idea that the essence of Europe is its diversity. And, of course, that all are part of the Christian worldview (the colonies are a whole different story though). Germany has a background in the Holy Roman Empire with a lack of a centralized state, so those ideas on diversity are very strong among the German thinkers. You can also find them in other sources. These sources would very much agree with the idea of European diversity as a motto. Maybe the motto-makers at the European Parliament might not want to have this origin.
Even if you go to the late 19th century, someone like Blanc, or the other more conservative historians, all share this idea that Europe is unique because it has different aspects. I think that’s different than, for instance, in India; there, you also have this idea of unity and diversity among the States.
Behind the idea of diversity there is a concept of confrontation: there are troubles which actually make the continent stronger. It is not always harmonious.
I think that is very different from what you will find in other parts of the world — not the idea that there is diversity, but actually that there is not always harmony. You do not always need harmony to create a civilization.
What was these thinkers’ vision of the European colonies?
What was interesting was that a German history professorArnoldHeeren came up with an idea of a pan-European colony in Egypt. Some counterrevolutionaries had ideas of common European colonies. Others were critical of European exploitation. There were also people — like former Jesuit — who were saying things like Spanish colonization was good because it helped Catholicism. That is interesting because you have a lot of research on liberal imperialism and liberal colonization, but I think the whole idea of counterrevolution and conservative imperialism is a different story that has not been researched so much as liberal imperialism. Also, these counterrevolutionaries were very much convinced of European superiority — that they had a superior Christian religion which could be spread. At the same time, they are very critical of the homogeneousness of say, the French revolutionaries. And we also find arguments that say, ‘OK, you cannot impose the same ideas all over the world’.
There is a certain tension between those two stances. On the one hand, there is a sense of European superiority. On the other hand, there is also this idea of the value of diversity, particularly within Christianity as part of a Christian Unitary entity as a whole. And also, some counterrevolutionaries write positively about Islam. Some even compare the Germans to the Muslims, andrefer to the Arabs, for instance, as common people. It is not a simple picture.
Let me ask about Christianity, precisely because a common feature among the authors you describe is a yearning for spiritual renewal. One of your protagonists even claimed that the historian was like a priest who has a duty to make sense of the world by writing history. How did your actors develop this mystical religious element? What was the articulation of the idea of Christian Europe at that time?
One of my findings is that European history is more than just neutral history writing. There is often something more. And from many of my authors, it was very religious. It is almost like God was explaining himself through European history.
It was always more than just a historical narrative. It is always a certain way of finding meaning, there are often esoteric elements there as well. However, this is not only for counterrevolutionaries, but also for the revolutionaries. I start my chapter with the revolutionary historian called Bonneville, who also used esoteric elements. So, it is not only the conservatives who do that; it is often more with regards the way history was written in Europe. There was often the idea that history has a deeper meaning- not one where God’s direct interference can be felt, but one where divine providence can be learnt by studying European history.
European history replaced religion — or at least the Bible, the Holy Scripture — as a way of reading God. This was certainly the case with the work of Joseph de Maistre, but also with others. By studying European history, you could find almost a religious interpretation; you are almost like a priest reading a story. I also found it interesting that people like Chateaubriand, or other religious authors, often defended religion for its nonn-religious features. For instance, Chateaubriand said that Christianity is the best religion because it brought civilization, education, and commerce.
They were defending religion, but the arguments were often not religious; they often used very classical and enlightened arguments. One of my conclusions is that we cannot say that after the French revolution, secular history replaced religious history. Rather, it is very much fused, and often you find both elements together.
Have you observed any explicit resistance towards liberal ideas?
When reading current day illiberals like Orbán or Kaczyński, one sees that they often say that liberalism brings about an atomic society where individuals only care about themselves. What is interesting is that these arguments were voiced in the almost the exact same terms in the 18th century: this idea that liberals are arrogant and that they rely too much on reason, fused with the sense of community being destroyed. For instance, one of my protagonists told the story of a servant of a philosopher. The philosopher was an enlightened thinker of liberalism. The servant of the philosopher was so convinced by liberal ideas so much so that he was no longer obedient to his master and he stole all his possessions. So, the philosopher was presented as being betrayed by his servant because he lost all faith in hierarchy and community as a result of his liberal ideas. This idea that liberalism, it was argued, destroys societies and creates selfish individuals, which in the end, will lead to a decline and fall of European civilization. This is a very old idea. You can find them too in the 18th and 19th century. Thus, in that sense, these older ideas are echoing our current debates. That said there are a lot of differences as well.
What was interesting for me was is that you presented the counterrevolutionaries as the missing thread of Enlightenment. It is quite a counter intuitive thought that they were equally part of the Enlightenment movement. Could you explain why you see these protagonist of yours as a part of a particular trend of Enlightenment? What point did the anti-philosophers and the French philosophers share, and where did they disagree?
That was one of the surprises of my research. When I started my research, I thought they would all be opponents of the Enlightenment. But when I did my research, almost all of them tried to use the Enlightenment for their purposes. I find it interesting that they not only opposed the Enlightenment, but that they created their own Enlightenment. They adopted it for their own purposes. So, what you see happening in the late 18th century is polarization. It is a cultural war. Similar to our own commonly shared ideas about European history and European progress that are now becoming part of polarized camps.
When we study the Enlightenment, we use to think the Enlightenment usually led up to the French Revolution or that it was the basis for progressive ideas such as that of human rights. Yes, it certainly was. But there was also a more conservative strain that is often forgotten and that actually uses the Enlightenment for its purposes. When you think about Enlightenment and the legacies of the Enlightenment, you also have to look at these more conservative strains. However, there are political implications. I know some people on the left don’t like the Enlightenment. They think there is proof that the Enlightenment has a conservative bias based on where we are at now. I don’t know what the political implications of my claims are. But as for me, as a historian, I find this really unexpected and interesting.
In closing, let me ask a more personal question: out of your protagonists’ ideas, which ones did you find most inspiring for today’s times and challenges, and why?
That was always a question in the back of my mind. You want to say something new for historians, for academics. Well, as I said, I’m not politically conservative myself. I was not going to build a whole panorama of heroes based on this research, not at all.
But what I found most useful in studying these authors is that today, we have this huge conflict between national conservatives and liberal cosmopolitans. What I find interesting is how easily, for them, they could combine the local loyalty to the locality, the region, the nation, Europe, and for some, even the larger mankind.
I’m not over-sympathetic. Some of these protagonists were not sympathetic: they liked hierarchy, and they wanted women to be in a subservient place. That said, based on their work, what I found useful for us today, was the way in which they tried to combine cosmopolitanism with local and national loyalties. In that sense, their ideas might still appeal to us today.
If you ask me about a specific person whose ideas appealed to me, I would say that would be Niklas Vogt, who was a professor at Mainz. He wrote nicely about Mainz, a city he loved. He saw it as the centre of the universe (many people would disagree today). But despite this, his analysis goes from the Rhineland to Germany, from Germany to Europe, from Europe to the world. And he does this very organically. And I think that is still something useful for us today. You don’t have to decide between your love for your locality, city, wider European identities, or even global citizenship. And I think that that is the most sympathetic part of their ideas.
In collaboration with Angela Trentin and Rohit Sarma.
This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.