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The Democracy Seminar, Then and Now

An Invitation

We are imagining a forum for activists and thinkers who support democracy against the looming global threats of authoritarianism. The definitive feature would be openness. It would be a direct outgrowth of a small, international, at first clandestine, informal and improvised New School project, “The Democracy Seminar,” first proposed by Adam Michnik in 1984.

At that time, Michnik was a dissident, in and out of prison. Now, he will be able to freely take part, even as he seems to be public enemy #1 in the eyes of the ultra-nationalist powers that be in Poland. Then, he couldn’t be an active participant in the seminar he proposed because of his steadfast commitment to the seminar’s topic. Now, democracy is again under attack, and not only in his country, as he explained yesterday in his contribution to our discussion: From Velvet Revolution to Velvet Dictatorship.

The new Democracy Seminar would continue the work Public Seminar presented in our U.S. centered Election Forum and Post-Election Forum, and in our feature posts in the Liberal Democracy in Question series, but with an added comparative and historical richness, building upon Michnik’s proposal in 1984 and his recent reflections.

He first proposed his idea to me at the end of an extraordinary week we spent together. A New School delegation, Jonathan Fanton, the President of the University, Joan and Adrian DeWind, a member of The New School’s Board of Trustees, and I traveled to Warsaw to present Michnik an honorary doctorate. Czeslaw Milosz had accepted the degree in Michnik’s absence earlier that year, during The New School’s special ceremony marking the fiftieth anniversary of the University in Exile.

Michnik received the degree from us in the private, unusually large and well-appointed, apartment of Edward Lipinski, a noted grand old man of the opposition then, a former Communist, with a remarkable private collection of art that very much looked like a room in the National Museum. Just about all the leading figures of the democratic opposition in Warsaw were there. The apartment was across the street from the prison that was Michnik’s home for years. The electricity was cut. The lights of a Scandinavian television crew provided the illumination. After the ceremony, we went to the Monument to Ghetto Heroes and to the grave of Rev. Jerzy Popieluszko, the murdered Solidarity priest, and then out to dinner at the luxury Hotel Forum. The New School group and Adam, along with two giants of the democratic opposition, Bronisław Geremek and Jacek Kuroń, attracted intense attention from the staff, the Polish and mostly foreign guests, and no doubt the undercover diners from the Ministry of the Interior. The activities of the day had a formal quality to them, not so much that of dissident resistance, more that of an alternative official reality.

The following week was another matter. I was profoundly moved by how moved Michnik was by the degree, and that we had come to give it to him personally. It connected him and his colleagues to a larger world, confirmed that they weren’t alone, that what they did in repressive shadows was seen. Each day, Michnik made a point of introducing me to his extensive network of friends and democratic co-conspirators, as we talked about our mutual friends in Czechoslovakia and Hungary. We shared our  admiration at a distance for the dissidents in the Soviet Union, along with the copper mining union militants, opposing Pinochet’s military dictatorship in Chile. We discussed his interests in the remarkable peaceful negotiated transition from dictatorship to democracy in Spain. We also talked about books and authors, about the poetry of Milosz and the political thought of Hannah Arendt, among many others.

On the last day of my visit, we went to the Cardiology Institute on the outskirts of Warsaw to spend some time with Jan Józef Lipski, the distinguished historian, social critic and socialist activist. Since he was too ill to come to the ceremony in Lipinski’s apartment, we had to visit Lipski in the hospital. Adam wanted me to meet all those he most admired and to share the honor with each of them, it seemed. When we left the hospital, walking on the way to pick up the bus back to the city center, Adam turned to me and proposed that now that we were New School colleagues, we should create a seminar with our mutual friends and colleagues, on the topic of democracy, on the problems of dictatorship, of authoritarianism and totalitarianism. We would read and discuss the same books in Warsaw, Prague, Budapest and New York, and we would exchange reports of our deliberations.

Somehow, despite all the technical difficulties (remember not only was there no World Wide Web; there were secret police, strict border controls and political repression), the seminars managed to function, with informal exchanges before the transformations of 1989, and then functioned more openly and broadly for a number of years afterward, particularly around the more repressive corners of the old Soviet bloc. Liberals, conservatives and socialists took part in these discussions. They included critical focus on the tyrannies of the left and the right, and competing nationalisms. In a sense, they were detailed elaborations of the discussions Adam and I had in that December week in 1984. They were small things in my understanding, with big consequences.

By the way, a short time after that week in Warsaw, Michnik was again arrested and charged with treason. He wrote an open letter to people of good will to observe his trial in Gdansk, published in The New York Times. Through Warsaw correspondent of The Times, Michael Kaufman, Adam asked me to come to observe the trial. I went and was denied access, and was denounced in the Communist Party daily, Trybuna Ludu, but through his lawyers, Adam instructed me about  how to get the seminar going in Warsaw in his absence, which I did.

And now, we have the idea to revive the seminar, not facing the technical and political obstacles to open debate of the past, but facing the escalating global challenges to democracy. The idea presented itself when Michnik was the guest speaker in the class Elżbieta Matynia and I are conducting, Women and Men in Dark Times. On the same day, we published Jeffrey C. Isaac’s book #Against Trump and had a launch party, highlighted by a discussion between Jeff and Adam. Elżbieta, Deva Woodly and I joined in. The day closed with a dinner at one of my favorite local haunts.

At the Salam, I thought of the idea of a new Democracy Seminar. We will build upon past activities and extend them, start by inviting upon our circle of friends and colleagues, and welcome others in. Thus, this invitation. We will use the full power of the the internet, combining it with face to face interaction, to create a community of critical intelligence to understand the global authoritarian wave and consider ways of working against it. Our discussion will follow the logic of my week with Michnik, of the original Democracy Seminar, and of the significant outgrowths of the Seminar in the annual summer Institute on Democracy and Diversity of the Transregional Center for Democratic Studies, and in the many other activities of the Center. Alternative perspectives are welcome. Critical insights from the left, right and center are welcome. As the anti-communist Adam Michnik expressed support for the opponents of anti-communist dictator Pinochet, we will welcome all who stand opposed to the new authoritarians: Trump, Kaczyński, Orban, Erdoğan, Putin, Duterte, et al.

There will be much to discuss. How we understand the the authoritarian threat will differ, as will our ideas about effective ways of opposing it. Some will think that liberal democracy is the cause of the present problems, while others will think it the solution, and still others will take my kind of gray position in between. I imagine that the role of “neo-liberalism” will be debated. How the media facilitate, but also provide the grounds for opposition to, the new authoritarianism certainly will also be debated, as will the legacies of colonialism, imperialism, racism and sexism, along with other issues that do not come to my mind immediately on this gray, hot Friday morning.

My gray sensibility will lead me to interpret discussions analyses, diagnoses and prognoses in my way, and I, no doubt, will be writing about this here. But, I know others will provide alternative interpretations, and we will publish these as well. I hope it will lead to better understanding among the opponents who together see their common enemies and develop a capacity to act together in common cause despite their differences.

Focused on the present threats, the motto of Public Seminar will provide a guide:

“Confronting fundamental problems of the human condition and pressing problems of the day, using the broad resources of social research, we seek to provoke critical and informed discussion by any means necessary.”

Some time in the coming weeks, we will officially launch the Public Seminar feature “The Democracy Seminar” (I am considering July 4th, Independence Day in the United States). Ideas about how we should proceed, along with post proposals on the topic are in the meanwhile strongly encouraged.

Jeffrey C. Goldfarb, the Michael E. Gellert Professor of Sociology at The New School for Social Research, is the Publisher and founder of Public Seminar.

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Jeffrey C. Goldfarb

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