From Barton, H. Arnold. 1986. Scandinavia in the Revolutionary Era: 1760-1815. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota
Gustav IV Adolf’s (GIVA) monarchal crusade againt democratic Enlightenment in Europe
Feat.: Sweden, France, Russia, England, Prussia, and some bit players
At the turn of the 1800s in Sweden, Gustav IV Adolf (GIVA) succeeded his father Gustav III to the throne.
GIVA was determined to restore Swedish prominence in Europe. Prepared to wheel and deal for territory and his conservative-idealist aspiration to organize and lead royalist Europe against the democratizing French, in 1803 Gustav IV Adolf traveled to Germany with his Queen Frederika, a German princess. We will see that GIVA was a pretty good strategist, but he was striving against the historical tide, and as with his father who had tried in vain to institute pro-aristocratic policies against welling democracy, his elite power strategy was generally underappreciated by his rivalristic, Enlightenment-bedazzled royal relatives.
In 1804 Duke Enghien was captured by French Republican forces in Baden. This provided Gustav IV Adolf with the pretext to declare that he was ready to lead monarchist Europe against Republican France.
GIVA spearheaded a royalist Russian, British, and Austrian coalition against the French. “Brutal oppression, French despotism” is how the royalist described democratic France. He took his time negotiating, as he was bargaining for a military subsidy inexchange for Sweden’s strategic bridgehead geoposition, as well as a royal French Bourbon restoration. Finally in 1805, at the Treaty of Backaskog, GIVA won himself command of the troops in Germany, 20K pounds sterling, security of Swedish rule over Pomerania, in an all-in/all-out deal. In the Treaty, there was no mention of a royal Bourbon restoration.
Along with actually commanding soldiers in war, Gustav IV Adolf was an absolutist ruler. The Treaty of Backaskog enjoyed no support from his court advisors, and given that Sweden had long depended on French support, was considered overly idealistic, in the anti-democratic direction. Gustaf af Wetterstedt grumbled that it was “Impossible to speak with the King about commercial interests.”
Prussia was lurking, playing the dozens. It joined the monarchical coalition, only to immediately conclude an agreement with France that promised non-intervention in exchange for Hanover. Prussia’s fancy footwork broke the coalition: England and Russia withdrew from Northern Germany. But Gustav IV Adolf occupied the Hanoverian territory of Lauenberg. He used a legalistic justification to try to restore British and Russian backing and to extort unpaid, promised military subsidies. England and Russia declared GIVA’s position untenable, urging him to abandon the fight. GIVA was relentless: “A Prussian attack on Lauenberg is an attack on Sweden!” he declared, but he quietly reduced his army in Lauenberg to a token 300 men. Then GIVA instituted a naval blockade. Their commerce disrupted, this move deeply irritated his erstwhile allies, England and Russia.
Fortunately for Gustav IV Adolf, France and Russian détente broke, and GIVA returned to occupy Lauenberg. GIVA’s victory in that moment has been dubbed a “Triumph of Obstinacy.” When Sweden’s Pomeranian subjects resisted conscription, GIVA dissolved their constitution and their aristocratic privileges, which as a side-effect, dissolved the Holy Roman Empire. GIVA replaced Pomerania’s German legal institutions with Swedish legal institutions, outlawing serfdom. Pomeranian Junkers were pissed.
Prussia declared war on the French in fall of 1806, whereupon the French smashed the Prussian forces. Frederick William, King of Prussia retreated east for protection under the royal Russian wing. Now Swedish Pomerania was behind the front. Napoleon asked if GIVA would agree to peace. How do you think Old Obstinatey replied? That’s right. Absofuckinglutely not. No peace!
The German nobility of the Danish Dutchies, in Swedish Pomerania, and in Prussia were furious about the abolition of serfdom at the turn of the 19th century. But what it allowed German nobles to do is steal peasant land and stop contributing to the public. They became fatter cats than ever. In the Scandinavian territories, as in France (even today, places like Minnesota and Quebec have protections for family farms that jurisdictions under the most inegalitarian policy traditions lack), the nobles were prevented from stealing peasant land, but together with ‘rational,’ ‘producivity’-enhancing enclosures, the abolition of serfdom just created a small pool of petit-bourgeois farmers and tens of thousands of landless…people who were existentially and legally forced into compulsory labor for the liberated “kulak” class. The resolution was migration.
We won’t call those displaced multitudes any form of “slave,” because that would be un-nuanced, and uncivilized. The liberal world is discontinuous. Where socialists see the continuity of slavery, liberals see absolute, progressive breaks in the relations of production, both what they proudly claim as “nuanced” differentiation, and just as the nobility had initially feared.
The liberal world is not only discontinuous, it is flat. Liberals generally don’t recognize institutionalized and automated violence. For them, there’s just an apparent order of civility. A flat world, in which culture is Truth, the Real, and networks, institutions, and material relations are not subject to civilized observation. The violence is perceived in breaking that civility, as all the opponents of the French Revolution, and fans of enlightened absolutism (incurious about how it got enlightened), have agreed.
It does no good just to point this out. You have to use it strategically.
If we allow ourselves to think in terms of forms of slavery, then we can think together about how to stop producing the continuous, inhumane rolling modification of slaveries.
At a minimum, whatever France’s government, Sweden has geopolitically required France’s support, and either Britain or Russia’s lack of opposition. Between 1803-07, Gustav IV Adolf’s belligerent monarchism produced geopolitical policy failure, as he opposed revolutionary/Napoleonic-phase France. Despite his commitment to monarchism and opposition to democratic enlightenment, the king was a nationalist who, like his Danish counterpart, sidelined the nobility, instead working with a rational bureaucracy and freeing peasants in German communities. The foundation of his absolutism was the Swedish free-peasant social model. His ideologically-blinded geopolitical failure depleted confidence amongst not only his allies, the British, Russian, Prussian, Austrian and Portuguese anti-democratic coalition, but most fatefully, amongst his people.
Sociologically, capitalism’s ruling advantage is an articulated (bidirectional ties all the way down) chain of command AND return fealty (though the fealty may skip rungs). Significance: This is not the same as saying capitalism is only about exploitation and not appropriation. Rather, capitalism’s graduated networks of exploitation more reliably secure valuable appropriation.
Is a breakdown in centralized, professional comms the right variable for explaining information quality and political outcomes?
In 18th century Denmark the free press was the model for Europe, while Sweden’s press was under strict censorship. And yet what seems to matter much more to information flow and its capacity to support needed, otherwise-blocked reforms was the fecund culture of salons and clubs, wherein diverse, gender-inclusive, but often-homogeneous groups exchanged and debated ideas of the good life and the institutions needed to support that utopic horizon.
Our professional press would say that these salons and clubs were little more than echo chambers; but that characterization would run counter to their impressive impact fomenting enlightenment pressure, elite efforts to preemptively own those enlightenment ideas by implementation, and ultimately the democratic social realization that rational reform did not require elites.
In Scandinavia, the tactic of stifling hegemonic challenge by appointing belligerent conservative aristocrats to head the universities goes back to the turn of the 19th c.
Count Axel Fersen was appointed to Uppsala to throw out the enlightenment democrats. In the Duchies (theoretically incorporated in Denmark, but German, built on serfdom, opposed to both enlightenment democracy and enlightenment absolutism, and an original cesspool of the mysticist German romanticism that would be regurgitated in the Nazi period), Fritz Reventlow was appointed to attack enlightenment thought from the helm of the Univesity of Kiel.
“The laboring class, which alternately is utilized both by [princes and other classes]…stands ready, with the sword of destruction in one hand and the torch of enlightenment in the other” (Minerva, Sverige, 1798).
The French Revolution put the fear of god into Europe’s aristocratic and bourgeois classes. The Enlightenment was no man’s property. Together, elite fear and intellectual intimidation got shit done.
“…and this law should, if it is to protect a weaker class against a more powerful one, be given such strength and consistency that the latter shall not be able, through its strength and the other’s weakness, to disturb or hinder its effective enforcement.”
–Norwegian juridical counselor to the Danish government, Christian Colbjornsen, 1783. With the wall of Enlightenment ideas behind it, this viewpoint won the majority on the agrarian commission, leading to reforms and revolutionary advancement.
The aristocrats, as is always the case, complained that this politics of “animosity and grudge against proprietors” would result in transferring too much power to the “petty functionaries” of the state bureaucracy and so result in the society’s “ruin.”
“Orders and decorations are hung on idiots,
Stars and ribbons go to noblemen alone…
(By contrast) We teach no despotic principles,
It is for equality among men that we strive;
Nor do we, like the Jutland proprietors
Wish for slaves and peasants for us to flay.”
–from a 1787 Danish poem (PA Heiberg). The urban Danes were really getting about the freedom of expression in the late 18th century, in the context of Enlightenment clubs. periodicals,and anonymous pamphleteering.
Jutland, in breadbasket Denmark, was the Scandinavian outpost of hard-core feudal despotism.
The difference between emancipation in the Scandinavian countries v. the liberal republics is that privilege was not first abolished in the Scandinavian countries. Rather, they levelled upward. “The privileges thus gained would ultimately clear the way for the peasant’s full integration into national life” (Barton 1985: 173). That’s how you do inclusion. You make everyone sacred, not everyone profane.
The noble German administrators who managed European kingdoms were well-educated, efficient, and cosmopolitan. Their “cosmopolitanism,” understood as responsible management, did not stop them from keeping the Nordic countries divided (in accord with Russian and British policy), even making clandestine agreements with Great Britain to break emergent pan-Nordic coalition (eg. Bernstoff 1780, see Barton 1986: 118.). That is an interesting aspect of statescraft (and its market equivalent): Providing managers to your potential rivals, to keep them just disorganized enough.
What Denmark got out of this is not having to follow Sweden’s lead, or lose its Norwegian colony to Sweden. As a more egalitarian country, Sweden was more solidaristic, stronger, innovative and ambitious. Run by Germans, Denmark was the ag-economic market of Scandinavia, at the cost of a stunted domestic peasantry.
So long as the Nordic countries were divided, Bernstorff (depicted) served as a reliable noble German administrator for Denmark, until he pulled a fast one and, in the face of an agreement amongst the Scandinavian countries and Russia to form a coalition to defeat belligerent imperial England’s control of sea trade, he made a secret deal with England to subvert the coalition from Denmark.
His betrayal was discovered pretty soon and he was ousted.
One of the most important things to be done is to– like your life, people’s lives around the world and after you, and the Earth– depend upon it, produce egaliberte Enlightenment ideas and culture, including proliferating in-person “clubs” and salons, which my reading of Swedish history tells me, turn political (as tyrants know and quixotically arrange for their legal and policing apparatus to suppress). The ideas, it’s the fecundity of ideas you produce and share with vigor and confidence that can capture the minds of political-economic elites enough for others to gain strategic organizational footholds. Sure, no one wants little you to tell them how to think. But if you work with ideas from the master class position, like a servant, you make us all slaves.
Upon Gustav III’s 1772 coup d’etat, overthrowing the formidable, pugnacious, and increasingly egalitarian Riksdag, the king was keen to both improve Sweden’s war-ruined currency on the financial markets and to implement liberal-physiocrat reforms, including in the first four years, enclosures, reducing guild control over labor conditions, removal of mercantilist trade constraints, outlawing judicial torture, reducing Sweden’s model freedom of the press to mere critique of middle class state employees, and the introduction of a secret police on the French model.
Within a Swedish environment inducing him to competitiveness on the grounds of rationality, amongst the European monarchs Gustav was the greatest admirer of strains of Enlightenment philosophy. But he sternly distinguished between “true (elite) freedom” and harmful hoi poloi “license,” “benevolent philosophy” and “dangerous philosophy” which “to dominate alone, overturns all that is respectable.” As a liberal and elitist, Gustav redefined despotism as failing to preserve the executive role as distinct from the legislative, and cited philosophy that supported his incomplete autocratic rule as the kind of philosophy that “clears away all harmful prejudices, all those petty considerations.”
I feel like the reduction of critique to a focus on middle class state employees is the signature of the reactionary, elitist, conservative-liberal coup d’etat. When I say “feel like,” I mean it’s a keystone of my theoretical system.
“Their economic policy was rigidly mercantilistic, considering necessary both a small, favored entrepreneurial elite, concentrated mainly in the capital, and a large and growing population, strictly regulated in its economic pursuits and held close to the poverty line to provide cheap labor. Their system of subsidies, protective tariffs, and monetary inflation favored the larger exporters and manufacturers. As war and expansion held out tempting opportunities for officers, bureaucrats, and entrepreneurs alike, the Hats favored alliance with France…To stifle criticism, they held strongly to secrecy in Riksdag transactions and to press censorship…
The faction turned out of power in 1738, which came to be called the Caps, was in disarray, and certain of its leaders were discredited through unseemly intrigues with the Russians to overthrow their rivals.”
On Sweden in 1750. From Barton (1986).
Sweden was actually super dynamic. I can never recommend enough Barton’s (1986) “Scandinavia in the revolutionary era” for anyone interested in the Enlightenment and how that works out class-wise.
While Denmark dicked around with German princes, and in 1765 Streunsee introduced the first real progressive reforms (which were immediately overturned by a reactionary aristocratic coup, but which served as a model thereafter), Sweden took on the Enlightenment as a political project. They wrestled straight up with class conflict in the 1770s parliament, and while their king tried to organize their aristocracy as an elite bloc, the country was too influenced by Enlightenment thought, and the ladies especially refused to coordinate, one of the major factors permitting labor and social democratic organization.
Voltaire called Sweden “the freest kingdom on earth” (1756). Mably considered Sweden’s pioneering 1720 constitution the “masterpiece of modern legislation” in its provisions for “the rights of humanity and equality.”