Slavic Political Theology: Słowacki Between Bakunin and Schmitt

There was once a small city with only a few people in it. And a powerful king came against it, surrounded it and built huge siege works against it. Now there lived in that city a man poor but wise, and he saved the city by his wisdom. But nobody remembered that poor man. So I said, “Wisdom is better than strength.” But the poor man’s wisdom is despised, and his words are no longer heeded (Eccles 9:14­­–16).


Central Europe is a blood altar.[1] For centuries the rivalry between Sea and Land, East and West, Asia and Europe, Russia and Germany has been waged here. The powers and principalities have been immolating us in burnt offerings. Every people and every state that appears in this space can immediately attract aggression from both warring geopolitical blocks, who temporarily regain peace through joint attack or joint indifference. From this sacrificial ground, we can best see that the paradigm of modernity is stasis, global civil war, the destroyer of all things.[2] One that should not be confused with the commonplace use of the word “stasis,” as inactivity or equilibrium.  


Warring Brothers

Naked violence is never naked. Where violence rises, the sacred must appear. Criminal pacts at once become holy alliances. Since, in our part of the world, social explosions are a constant of history, we are inundated by a wild sacrum and sacred symbols. Here, politics becomes theological and theology becomes political. This is why the concept of “political theology” has emerged and developed between East and West, Russia and Germany, in this very region.

First, in 1871 Mikhail Bakunin (1814–1876), the Russian eternal revolutionary, used “political theology” as a concept to exclude or “close” political theology as a reality.[3] Although by doing so he wanted to expose the fallacy of Giuseppe Mazzini’s political theology, his real enemy was any political theology that legitimized the state, and, in particular, the political theology of “reaction,” i.e., the Russian and German empires. Half a century later, the concept of “political theology” was intercepted by Carl Schmitt, the future “crown jurist of the Third Reich.” While Bakunin wanted to “close” all political theology, Schmitt wanted to show that it was a Grundbegriff. Bakunin wanted rebellion and revolution, Schmitt stood proudly on the side of reaction. In his view “political theology” became a polemical Kampfberiff, the banner under which he fought against anarchism, defended the Grand Inquisitor, the former Sacrum Imperium, and ultimately imagined the new Germany as Reich, a superpower that will create a great space around itself, the Grossraum

Political theology is not, however, just a subject of scholarly disputes, it is (first and foremost) a legitimization of violence and power. In the 19th century, it made it possible to believe that the Russian empire was not a colonizer and prison of nations, but a herald of most noble theological ideals, defined in Uvarov’s “triadic formula”: orthodoxy (one faith), autocracy (one ruler) and nationality (one people). Uvarov’s triad established the ideological canon of the tsarist empire and at the same time sentenced to death the peoples of Central and Eastern Europe. By linking imperium and sacerdotium, the tsarist ideologues legitimized the inseparable and eternal union of Ruthenian Ukraine (“Little Russia”) with Russia (“Great Russia”) and at the same time delegitimized the “godless” Ukrainian national movement, which under nationalist banners wanted to tear apart the sacred covenant between the Empire and the Orthodox Church.

Russian imperial political theology had its counterpart in the German political theology of the nascent Second Reich. There, Kulturkampf, racism and colonization were legitimized by a belief in “one people” (ein Volk), “one empire” (ein Reich), and “one God” (ein Gott). Similarly, decades later, the Third Reich pursued a vision of one people (ein Volk), one empire (ein Reich), and one Führer, who meanwhile took the place of God. But after all, God was on the German side all the time—God with them.


Slava and Słowo

East Central Europe has been trapped in a stasis between Bakunin’s anarchist anti-theology and imperial theology à la Schmitt for the past two centuries. In the nineteenth century, Poles were much closer to the theology of rebellion and insurrection. In his electrifying speech on 29 November 1847 in Paris, Bakunin won Polish hearts, concluding his speech with a plea for forgiveness and a vision of an end to the stasis between Poles and Russians:

The reconciliation of Russia and Poland is an immense work, well worthy of our complete devotion. It is the emancipation of 60 million men, it is the deliverance of all the Slavic peoples who groan under a foreign yoke, and, finally, it is the fall, the final fall of despotism in Europe! So let it come then, this great day of reconciliation, —the day when the Russians, united with you by the same sentiments, fighting for the same cause and against a common enemy, will have the right to burst with you into your Polish national tune, that hymn of Slavic liberty: Jeszcze Polska nie zginęła! Poland is Not Yet Lost! [emphasis mine].[4]

The Polish translator of Bakunin’s speech introduced one crucial nuance in comparison with the French original, as he used two forms to address Slavdom: “Sławiański” (referring to “Slavic peoples”) and “Słowiański” (referring to “Slavic” or literally “Slovic” liberty). In the mid-nineteenth century, this distinction was of fundamental consequence, since “Sławiański”/”Slavic” referred to “sława” (i.e. glory, fame), while “Słowiański”/”Slovic” to “słowo” (i.e., word).

All significant concepts of human culture are secularized concepts associated with violence and the sacred. “Sława” is derived from the Proto-Indo-European ḱleu (to hear), which was the source of the Greek kleos. Kleos is formed from kudos, which in archaic Greece meant a “magic talisman of supremacy” of a hero over his opponents, a favor from the god, which could then be spread among contemporaries and even immortalized by poets in the form of kleos. Kleos was present in posthumous laments, calling the dead by name, songs, stories, and the erection of vaults. The kudos dies with the hero, but the kleos continues after the hero’s death, passing from generation to generation, from father to son. In this way, the kudos, which comes from the gods, returns to the gods as kleos. The kleos-kydos economy is thus sacred from the very beginning, linking gods and humans in a single chain of exchange.[5]

“Sława” would thus be the archaic theologico-political concept par excellence. Interestingly, Polish bards (i.e., Romantic poets), the fathers of the modern Polish nation, did not want to associate Slavdom with kleos, glory, “sława” but with the word, that is, “słowo.” In his Lectures on Slavic literature at the Collège de France in 1840s, Adam Mickiewicz (1798­–1855), the king of Central Eastern European poets, claimed that Slavs were the people of the word, or rather the Word of God. In a similar spirit, Juliusz Słowacki (1809–1849), the great Mickiewicz’s rival, argued that the transition from the “Slovs,” who loved freedom and equality, to the “Slavs” was the result of the invasion of the germanic Normans, who imposed the institutions of the state on the communal Rus. For Słowacki, the “Slovs” were the sons of the Word, prayer, miracle, martyrdom, while the “Slavs” were the sons of violence, fire and blood. It was from this perspective that Słowacki listened to Bakunin that memorable evening in 1847.

Bakunin visited Słowacki in his Parisian apartment in rue de Ponthieu. Słowacki might have met Bakunin precisely during his address to Poles. It made such an impression on him that the very next day he penned a poem. Both thinkers shared a sympathy for “eternal revolution” and “sacred anarchy” as well as unquenchable hatred of the tsar. For Słowacki, Nicholas I of Russia was a usurper, a “descendant of the Mongols” who profaned our national tradition and his royal dignity. The tsar was not an earthly god who possessed an immortal body, but an ordinary man who had only a physical, dying body. By representing the tsar as a corpse without any glory and power, Slowacki’s desacralization of the Russian ruler was radical.

Though Słowacki agreed with Bakunin that the tsar’s violence was never sacred, eventually he did not want to side with Bakunin’s political project. The difference between the two was that Bakunin allowed himself to be carried away by visions of a future bloody transformation of the world, while Slovacki saw that the tsar had already died. Violence did not fascinate the Polish author, as he saw that nothing—except death and suffering—laid behind it. Hence he distanced himself from the Russian anarchist, who “in white gloves and with a smile on his lips would behead despots with an axe, as if it were a parlor game.” He expressed the same ambivalence in his poem devoted to Bakunin’s address:

God started the current of Thing,
Today hearts as stones shatter,

Yesterday I heard a mustachioed Moskal,

Who declared in Paris a sacred rebellion.

Słowacki recognized that the rebellion, stasis, proclaimed by “mustachioed” Bakunin was connected with the sacred, even God-inspired. “Sacred rebellion” must have been particularly close to Słowacki, since a few months later during the Spring of Nations he proclaimed: “And I say unto you that today the epoch of holy anarchy has come.” Bakunin’s “sacred rebellion,” however, was not the same as Słowacki’s “holy anarchy.” In the next stanza of the poem, the bard showed that the revolutionary represented a false holiness, as he rejected the Christian, and hence “Slovic” idea of martyrdom and replaced it with calls for violence coming from Asia (the Mongols) or Paris (Robespierre). Bakunin only ostensibly fought against the tsar and the state—in fact, he used the same violence as they did. So, in this respect, he was as much a descendant of the Mongols as Nicholas I.


Politics as a Problem

Bakunin fascinated not only contemporary Poles, but also decades later Carl Schmitt, who appreciated the radicalism of the Russian. Schmitt knew that Bakunin, given a choice between Christ or Barabbas, Cain or Abel, God or Satan, would not have sought any “liberal” compromise between the two, but would have sided wholeheartedly with Barabbas, Cain, and Satan, whom he wanted to serve.[6]

In Schmitt's perspective, Bakunin was one of the first to stir up a global stasis. The author of The Nomos of the Earth pointed out that stasis appears in the Gospels of Luke and Mark in the context of Barabbas raising a rebellion in Jerusalem. In doing so, he agreed with Jürgen Moltmann, who argued that it was Jesus who more deeply introduced unrest into Rome’s political theology than all the Jewish political rebels. In fact, martyrs of the next decades and centuries followed Jesus in his footsteps, bringing stasis to the very center of the pax Romana.[7]

Nevertheless, when Schmitt recalled the scene in the Gospels in which a crowd of Jews confronted Pilate with the question “Christ or Barabbas?,” it was not at all clear whose side he would take. Barabbas, we read, was thrown into prison for a murder and a rebellion, i.e., stasis (Luke 23:18–25, Mark 15:7). Pilate’s decision was symbolic and fundamental. As Joseph Ratzinger reminded, “Barabbas was a messianic figure. The choice of Jesus versus Barabbas is not accidental; two messiah figures, two forms of messianic belief stand in opposition.”[8] We could add that the opposition between two messianism was the one between earthly glory and the Word.

In order to avert the threat of stasis, Pilate had to release Barabbas, who had started a political stasis in Jerusalem, and convict Jesus, who threatened a much more destructive stasis. In the end, therefore, Schmitt sided with Pilate, in whom he saw not as a symbol of the empire’s callousness, but as a representative of a neutral power confronting the religious prejudices of the empire’s subject peoples. Bakunin-Barabbas and Pilate-Schmitt cease thus to appear to be opposites, as they perfectly complement each other. They are rather, in René Girard’s phrase, “monstrous doubles.” From the perspective of mimetic theory, Bakunin and Schmitt are possessed by the sacrificial mechanism, representing its two phases: stasis (Bakunin) and sovereign (Schmitt).[9]

The passage from order to disorder and back from disorder to order is based on scapegoating, misrecognized by instigators who never know what they do. Schmitt rightly identified the elemental difference that set him apart from Bakunin: he dreaded social undifferentiation, whereas Bakunin yearned for it. Bakunin correctly recognized the violence of the sovereign, which Schmitt represented, at the same time Schmitt correctly recognized the violence of rebellion, which in turn was represented by Bakunin. Yet while recognizing the violence in a rival, they did not see their own violence. Critically, both were unable to see that there was a deeper unity between them which was constituted by the scapegoating Christ. Their joint expulsion of Christ was the basis of the fundamental unity hidden behind their rivalry (see Figure 1).

Figure 1

Slavic political theology begins in this very blind spot. To get out of the stasis between Barabbas and Pilate, Słowacki chose Christ. And he believed that only by following Christ can we break the cycle of violence. He looked at reality not from the point of view of a sovereign or a rebel, but from the point of view of a victim. Stepping into the place of the victims, he proclaimed the wisdom that no one wanted—and still no one wants—to heed.


Divine Stasis

Erik Peterson’s great contribution was to point out that Schmitt’s bad politics was due to his bad theology. Schmitt, in an attempt to defend himself against Peterson’s accusations, employed the concept of stasis to point out that, according to Gregory of Nazianzus “The One–to Hen–is always in uproar–stasiazon–against itself–pros heauton.”[10] This meant that—contrary to Gregory’s intentions—Schmitt placed the problem of enmity and the enemy at the very core of the doctrine of the Trinity. Therefore, he believed, theology necessarily became stasiology, in which god is pitted against god, when, for example, the merciful Jesus saves us from the menacing God-Father of justice. Goethe, on whose authority Schmitt invoked here, formulated this thought as follows: nemo contra deum nisi deus ipse, i.e., “no one is/can do anything against God except God himself.”[11] Although for Bakunin theological considerations were only old wives’ tales, he could not resist presenting the Holy Trinity in terms of stasiology.[12] What both visions of the Trinity had in common was that they omitted the Holy Spirit as the Spirit of Love between the Father and the Son, and completely rejected the role of the Theotokos, the Mother of God, “full of grace.”

Slowacki’s vision of the Trinity was, not coincidentally, much closer to Christian orthodoxy. In one of the editions of the bard’s writings, the poem about Bakunin was preceded by the following epigram: “I comprehend God in the Trinity—He is hosted in my chest, // He created me—and as long as I am holy I create holy shapes for Him.” Słowacki found God in his heart, but also saw that God in the Trinity alone should be present in the world. For Słowacki, the only king, the king of kings, is God and the Messiah, Jesus Christ. All powers and principalities, all earthly kings are desacralized by God’s Word and glory. But Christ does not reign in the sense that he is a greater power who can bind other powers, but a king who comes as a “child,” a “shepherd,” or a “peasant”: “My King, my Lord—he is not a strong man, / Not the one—on whom three crowns are piled.”


Christ Casts Out Satan

How is it possible that Bakunin and Schmitt reading the Gospels did not comprehend that the Father and the Son are one? Why did Schmitt manipulate the words of Gregory of Nazianzus? Why did he go on some erudite journeys to find the source of the motif of warring gods (or warring brothers), while this motif is present in basically all mythologies, which consist largely of descriptions of the history of battles between gods. But it is precisely this type of mythology that prevented Schmitt from reading and understanding the novelty of the Gospel, which is the end of all mythologies justifying violence. For Jesus makes it clear that God is not in stasis. Only Satan can be divided against himself (Matt 12:23–28).

As Girard shows in his brilliant interpretation in The Scapegoat, Satan is divided against himself, as satanic violence is overcome by yet more satanic violence, while at the same time the violence is all the time hiding behind the glow of the sacred. The spiral of violence never stops, but only leads to the expulsion of scapegoats blamed for stasis. God does not cast out evil spirits through Beelzebub. Then he would just be a stronger Beelzebub. “Or else how can one enter into a strong man’s house, and spoil his goods, except he first bind the strong man?” (Matt 12:29). This is not the way of Christ, who says clearly, “But if I cast out devils by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God is come unto you” (Matt 12:27–28). “The good news is,” comments Girard, “that scapegoats can no longer save men, the persecutors’ accounts of their persecutions are no longer valid, and truth shines into dark places. God is not violent, the true God has nothing to do with violence, and he speaks to us not through distant intermediaries but directly. The Son he sends us is one with him. The Kingdom of God is at hand.”[13] Jesus does not banish Satan by force, but by his witness. He, absolutely innocent, lets himself be killed by Satan to show the falsity of all accusations and political theologies. The Holy Spirit, whom he leaves us, becomes the defender of all his witnesses, that is, the martyrs. From now on, violence and human sacrifice can no longer be justified. In this way, God brings peace, and the exposed Satan falls from heaven like lightning.

Schmitt and Bakunin, looking at God, see only violence, because they themselves are subject to the power of violence. It seems that in their interpretations of the Gospel, Satan gazes upon Satan, while in their political theologies, Satan casts out Satan. The story of Jesus is full of violence, and will not lead to a change of heart, for those who only see violence everywhere. The Passion will remain just another collective murder for them. But the moment they understand the true message of Jesus, the message of peace and forgiveness, they will repent, free themselves from stasis and enter the space of peace. This was the path Słowacki probed. He wanted to show that a false god cannot cast out another false god. Only the True God, whose kingdom is not of this world, can do so. No one can do anything against a god, unless God himself does something! No one can do anything against Satan but Christ himself! This is the path of Slavic political theology which encourages us to seek not earthly glory, but the Word, Logos.

[1] See T. Snyder, Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, 2010. This is an abbreviated version of the text prepared for the “Rethinking Leadership seminar-series” at Harris Manchester College, Oxford. The project was realized by the Two Wings Institute in cooperation with the Oxford Centre for the Resolution of Intractable Conflict, the Centre for Democracy and Peace Building, the Oxford Polish Association, and the Polish Institute in London. The project was funded by the Polish National Foundation. I would like to thank Krzysztof Niewiadomski, Mateusz Stróżyński, Arkadiusz Górnisiewicz and Filip Łapiński (who prompted me with key biblical contexts). The full version of the text was published in Polish in the newest, 13, issue of the apocalyptic magazine “44” (

[2] Agamben, Stasis: Civil War as a Political Paradigm, 2015.

[5] Girard, Violence and the Sacred, 2005, 161–163.

[6] Schmitt, Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty, 2005, 62, 64.

[7] M. Jeong, The Collapse of Society in Luke 23: A Thucydidean Take on Jesus’ Passion, “New Testament Studies,” 2021, 67.3, 317–335.

[8] Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration, 2007, 40–41.

[9] See Agamben, Stasis, 46.

[10] Schmitt, Political Theology II: The Myth of the Closure of any Political Theology, 2014, 122.

[11] Ibid., 126.

[12] Bakunin, God and the State.

[13] Girard, Scapegoat, 1986, 189.

Featured Image: Joe Biden visit to Kyiv, 20 February 2023; Source: Twitter account of the POTUS, PD-Gov.


Michał Łuczewski

Michał Łuczewski, associate professor at the Department of Sociology, University of Warsaw, co-founder of the Two Wings Institute, an author of books on solidarity (Solidarity. Step by Step), everyday political theology in a Polish village (1370–2007) and the struggle for moral capital between Germany, Poland and Russia.

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