Beginning with the First Partition in 1772 and concluding with the Third Partition in 1795, the division of Polish territory between Austria, Prussia and Russia led to the erasure of Poland from the European map [1]. The Polish struggle for independence – achieved only 123 years later in the aftermath of World War I – represents a case study of two political strategies, known in Polish historiography as the Romantic and Positivist streams to the nationalist movement. Romantic and Positivist strategies find their respective correlates in ‘outsider’ and ‘insider’ tendencies in campaigning. This example emphasizes the mutual dependence of the two approaches. The time-frame involved reiterates the importance of taking a long view in forming judgements about social and political change.



In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Poland had become weakened by the abuse of the liberum veto. This mechanism, rooted in the intention – progressive for its time – to accord all ‘gentlemen’ an equal say in affairs of state, relied on a principle of unanimity, opening up the risk of paralysis and manipulation by hostile states able to bribe or coerce nobles into exercising their veto. The liberum veto acted as a tragedy of the commons writ large across a nation’s fate.


In the First Partition, Poland lost 30% of its territory and in the Second Partition of 1793, more or less another 35%. The Third Partition of 1795 applied the coup de grace through which Poland ceased to exist as an independent state.


Different paths to a common goal

Throughout the period of partition, “Poland's ideology was its independence” [2]. The two key political figures of the early twentieth century, Jósef Piłsudski and Roman Dmowski – the former the archetypal romantic, the latter the nationalist movement's chief positivist – “both gave pride of place in their thinking to the concept of the nation” [3]. But the two differed fundamentally in their basic 'theory of change'. For Piłsudski, “Independence [was] the first and essential precondition for all purposeful political activity”, while for Dmowski, “independence was more of an ultimate goal than an immediate necessity” [4].


Simplicity and certainty: the Romantic path

The Romantic path sought decisive, immediate change, all problems solved in one movement through the forcible expulsion of the Austrian, Prussian and Russian occupiers. It accorded a high premium to honour and to the act of resistance itself, having “no sympathy for moral compromise or political subterfuge” [5]. ‘Insider’ approaches and the willingness to accept less than the full achievement of the basic goal of independence had no place in Romantic thought. Unwavering belief in the justice of the cause enabled Romantics to think in terms of any and all tactics, including violence.


While for the Positivists, violence was “worse than a waste of time [since it] diverted people's energies from the really effective if less sensational methods of national regeneration” [6], the Romantics saw armed rebellion as a means by which Poles would regain their self-respect, its value seen in moral as much as in political terms. For those killed during or exiled following an uprising, violent resistance was a mark of honour and proof-of-Polishness.


Romanticism led successive generations of Poles into major armed uprisings, most notably in 1830 and 1863. The Third Partition itself had been a reaction to the Kościuszko Uprising which sought to overturn the political and territorial losses of the Second Partition. Like all other subsequent uprisings, its immediate consequences were to make matters worse, not better.


Even when it failed, Romantic resistance offered emotional security, a “strong and simple [stance] appealing to the moral sense of the individual” [7]. Likewise, outsider campaigning is appealingly simple: it feels good to think yourself to be on the side of what is right. It allows you to disallow the notion that politics might be complicated, a balance of interests in which compromise is inevitable.


Complexity and pragmatism: the Positivist path

Positivism worked on the assumption that “in order to take their place among the modern nations of Europe, the Poles must first improve the trade and industry of the Polish provinces, build towns and railways and raise the literacy and national consciousness of the population” [8]. While Romanticism focused on intentions, Positivism focused on outcomes. Its strategy was “flexible [and] malleable” and accorded a central importance to “prudence and restraint... Dmowski's stance was more complicated, giving more emphasis to the corporate rights and interests of society as a whole” [9].


The Positivists operated to a pragmatic model of seeking incremental change, the gradual accumulation of small gains in such areas as language and cultural rights. Poles would regain self-respect through hard work, with economic growth as proof-of-competence and the legitimacy to be an independent state.


Positivists – and modern-day campaigners employing an insider strategy – do not see compromise as a defeat, as Romantic outsiders would, but a reflection of political reality, the realization that you can never get everything that you want from political engagement.


The mutual dependence of insiders and outsiders

A superficial analysis of the two paths of Polish independence campaigning would suggest that Positivism had more impact, winning concrete concessions especially in the areas occupied by Austria, while the various Romantic-inspired uprisings were failures. However, taking a longer view, these acts of resistance were crucial to the achievement of independence in 1918 through preserving the idea and legitimacy of the Polish nation in both domestic and international eyes. At the point of gaining independence, the mutual dependence between the Romantic and Positivist branches of the nationalist movement played out in real time: Piłsudski and his followers were on the ground to declare and defend a Polish Republic while Dmowski was in Paris to make Poland's case to the victorious allies [10].


The Polish example suggests that you cannot have insiders without outsiders, nor outsiders without insiders. The ‘revolutionary’ threat which outsiders pose makes the concession of incremental steps to insiders more likely. Outsider actions which fail in the short term are nonetheless a key part of the reason why results are achieved over the longer-term [11].


The point is not to choose between insider and outsider approaches, but to plan a campaign, whether predominantly insider or outsider, in relation to other campaigns which adopt a different strategy. If there is a tendency to assume that insider strategies are more effective because they bring tangible reward, even if small in scale, in the short-term, campaigners should maintain a high level of ambition. A dash of romanticism and the rediscovery of the moral basis for action will keep campaigners focused on the point on the horizon – the ultimate goal of political and / or social change – and not only the noise and action in the foreground and the minutiae of their political influencing strategies.


[1] Strictly speaking, it was the territory of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth which was partitioned.

[2] Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin, Timothy Snyder, 2010, p.6.

[3] Heart of Europe: the Past in Poland's Present, Norman Davies, 2001, p116.

[4] Ibid., p121.

[5] Ibid., p122.

[6] Ibid., p122.

[7] Ibid., p123.

[8] Ibid., p148-9.

[9] Ibid., p123.

[10] Snyder, p6.

[11] Quoting Tim Gee's description of an anti-road protest in the UK as having been “an absolutely successful campaign in every respect except stopping the road”, Jim Coe notes how outsider actions can raise the political and financial cost to campaign targets of continuing down a certain path, eventuallly leading them to change policy; Syria and Shelley; Jim Coe, 30 August 2013,

Insider and outsider paths to independence

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