This ambitious and significant monograph challenges a widely encountered narrative that assumes that enlightened centralizing government brought progress and order in place of the 'archaic' privileges and exemptions that held back urban growth in early modern Europe. Based on a wide range of sources and spanning the traditional Polish caesura of 1795, this is a refreshing work that should also find its place in wider arguments about the efficacy of centralization and decentralization in the modern state.
From Citizens to Subjects challenges the common assertion in historiography that Enlightenment-era centralization and rationalization brought progress and prosperity to all European states, arguing instead that centralization failed to improve the socioeconomic position of urban residents in the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth over a hundred-year period.
Murphy examines the government of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and the several imperial administrations that replaced it after the Partitions, comparing and contrasting their relationships with local citizenry, minority communities, and nobles who enjoyed considerable autonomy in their management of the cities of present-day Poland, Ukraine, and Belarus. He shows how the failure of Enlightenment-era reform was a direct result of the inherent defects in the reformers’ visions, rather than from sabotage by shortsighted local residents. Reform in Poland-Lithuania effectively destroyed the existing system of complexities and imprecisions that had allowed certain towns to flourish, while also fostering a culture of self-government and civic republicanism among city citizens of all ranks and religions. By the mid-nineteenth century, the increasingly immobile post-Enlightenment state had transformed activist citizens into largely powerless subjects without conferring the promised material and economic benefits of centralization.
Clear, concise, and crisp, Murphy's writing style provides accessible analysis of complicated realities that many scholars in the field would like to understand but rarely find the time to master.
Murphy's work is a breath of fresh air. . . . Instead of accepting the narrative of the Enlightenment as a rational system of social and political improvement, Murphy refreshingly approaches it as a belief system instead—one that was especially liable to fail when grafted onto a world animated by radically different values, such as liberty and self-government.