Wednesday, April 15, 2015

The celebration goes on

In ‘Celebrating with Homer’ I invited you to my celebration of the 35th anniversary of the visit of the Master of Balliol to my philosophy seminar in Prague. The online celebration will go on until October. In October 15, 1980 the Czechoslovak Communist Party cultural weekly Tvorba published an article ‘How a campaign of provocation is produced’, which was devoted to the involvement of Oxford dons in my philosophy seminar. The article opens with a clarion call:

‘The necessity for international cooperation, the exchange of scientific knowledge, and dialogue are generally acknowledged by honest and respectable scientists throughout the world. This constitutes an important part of the endeavour to maintain and strengthen peace around the world. In the spirit of the stimuli provided by the Final Act at Helsinki, the scope for cooperation and the exchange of knowledge grows and intensifies even in the social sciences. The steadily increasing importance of scientific contact is expressed and actively endorsed by representative forums in the social sciences; and the stream of world congresses of philosophers, sociologists, political scientists, economists and historians has convincingly shown the advantages of this present dialogue.’

But then: ‘Side by side with this undoubtedly fruitful and beneficial policy, which is the only policy possible for the future, we have been confronted with the efforts of militant anti-communist forces to stop, prevent and reverse this hitherto positive development. In the last two years a provocative action against the Czechoslovak Republic, artificially raked around the so-called “Tomin case”, acquired such a character. Some people actually began to hunt after “protests” against the actions of the Czechoslovak authorities; without asking a single question and without establishing the true state of affairs they began to defend our “colleague philosopher” Tomin.’

The authors of the article Kořínek and Pulcman don’t say a word concerning the reasons for the “protests” and for defending “our colleague philosopher” Tomin. So let me quote a few lines from my article ‘Inside the Security State’ published in the New Statesman on May 16, 1980:

‘When I go out of the door of our flat I bump into the Security [two policemen in uniform; after the Communist takeover of 1948 the police were called ‘bezpečnost’, security, to emphasize their new, people-friendly role]. Four months ago members of the Security carried a table and two chairs into the third floor of the house in which we live, right in front of our door. Against our will, two of them stay there twenty-four hours a day, in four-hour shifts. The Security does not interfere in our flat but its presence outside the doors has changed everything within. I start to play with my ten-year-old son Marek, but only because I forget for a while about Security. The moment I realize that they are outside the door through which every word is heard, let alone shouts and laughter, we stop. I like to sing – but I don’t sing well. I used to sing when no-one was at home. I start to sing – then I realize that the Security is outside and stop singing. My wife and I start talking but inevitably, the ears of the Security intrude. Our words sound artificial. We become unwilling actors in front of an unwanted audience. The possibility of being alone with each other and therefore of being ourselves is taken away from us.’

But back to the Tvorba article: ‘Some English, French, American, and West German bourgeois philosophers began to write up protests and even to put pressure upon the President of the International Association of Philosophical Sicieties (FISP), Professor A. Diemer, to “interfere”. But it sufficed for the president of this international association to do the most natural thing, viz. to inform himself by asking the representatives of Czechoslovak philosophy – and the bubble of the “Tomin case”, blown up to monstrous dimensions, immediately burst.’

The article follows a Letter from Professor Radovan Richta, Director of the Institute for Philosophy and Sociology, to Professor A. Diemer, from which I quote: ‘Tomin is worth nothing in philosophy. It is self-evident that Mr Tomin would not find the means to live for a single week if he were interesting merely for what he did in philosophy. I think that the people who supported and visited Mr Tomin will find themselves convinced, in a short time and on the basis of their own experience, that there has been no case of “suppression of philosophers in the Czechoslovak Republic”, but rather that it was a case of one person who wanted to profit from the hopes of some circles to intensify the world crisis and to poison efforts at international cooperation.’

Let me end this post with another quotation from my article ‘Inside the Security State’:
‘Plato gave mankind a vision of the philosopher-ruler. It is based on fairly simple concepts: power which is not guided by knowledge is blind and destructive; it can be of no real use to anyone who does not understand the meaning of a virtuous life; it will destroy the society which is ruled by it, destroy those close to the ruler and, above all, it will destroy the ruler himself. Only the knowledge of Good and Truth enables one to return power to its rightful place, to change it from a purely destructive force into an instrument for forging a well-ordered society and the means of achieving a virtuous and happy life. The correct perception and use of power requires knowledge. It is therefore knowledge which bestows the right to govern.

Although there are many differences in content (Plato saw reality only in what is immutable and Ideal; Marx only in what is historical and material) Platonism does have something in common with Marxism. Marx perceived that capitalist society, created by the free play of economic forces, contains within itself the elements of its own destruction. The production of goods, which should merely fulfil the needs of material existence, has become an end in itself, man becoming merely the means for creation of an abstract value – capital. It is necessary radically to change the world, and the key to such a revolutionary change is a true theory of reality and its dynamics. Marxism discovers the motive force of revolution – the proletariat – and unites with it.  After the revolution Marxism provides legitimation for the most developed representatives of the victorious proletariat to rule the society. Just as in Plato’s ideal state, the possession of proper theory authorises those who will rule and govern.

As attempts to gain knowledge about the world, Platonism and Marxism are poles apart in content. So, what could be the meaning of that small agreement in form: that the correct view of the world – the scientific world-view – gives the right to govern?

An answer comes to mind. Just as Plato found it necessary to exclude from the community of his Republic the artist, the fashion-monger and the purveyor of unacceptable myths, so, in pursuit of Marx’s vision of communism as the liberation of all creative forces, it became necessary for the authorized vanguard of the working class – the Communist Party – to exclude from participation in government all those who, because of their class origin, were unqualified to direct the society.

Especially dangerous were those who paid lip-service to Marxism, but in reality tried to revise it and dilute it with divisive foreign elements. It soon became apparent that new and spontaneous forms of cultural expression, beginning with dress and hair-style and ending with poetry, song and dance, were especially dangerous for the journey of the people towards communism.

As it was very difficult to recognise who was a true Marxist, it was necessary to find a simple, accessible, and practical criterion. In Marx’s attempt to find a theory which would enable man to change the world and to create conditions for his own full development within a framework of free interpersonal relations, the destruction of all forms of idealism played a central role.

Crucial above all was the unmasking of the true nature of religion – ‘the opium of the people’ – which inculcated passive resignation in the face of poverty, repression, lawlessness and bondage. So faith in God, belief in the after-life, the burden of idealism – these were the issues on which people could be examined during interviews in the course of vetting.

It was possible to see with one’s own eyes who still went to church; it was possible to hear with one’s own ears, among neighbours, friends and even family, whether those who stopped going to church had really departed from their misguided beliefs and prejudices and whether their conversion to the scientific world-view was complete.

The problem of good government is a pressing one today, but I do not want philosophy to provide me with a solution, or credentials to be a ruler and so to propagate the Platonic “Noble Lie”. I see in philosophy the possibility of living freely, but when I speak about living freely I don’t mean some absolute freedom, but simply freedom within the framework of law. I should be able to speak as I think, and to act as I feel is correct. I should be able to relate responsibly to my words and actions, and not to have to disguise them. Confronted with power I should not have to produce some other persona, some other face, some other morality. I do not think one can do so with impunity. I do not believe one can maintain two faces without losing inner unity. One cannot “lie” face-to-face with power – even if “they don’t deserve anything better” – without one’s inner truth suffering. Philosophy which becomes the base of a free life poses a problem for the state power – how to rule free people. Charter 77 [a petition that asked the Czechoslovak government to respect basic human rights] has turned this dilemma into a problem which encompasses the whole society and which is beyond the capacities of the present power in this state to solve. To resolve this difficulty the power would have to change internally.

However, instead of this necessary inner change the power ostentatiously flaunts its repressive mechanisms. It economises on medicines, on children’s clothing and on pensions but, when it comes to curbing the activity of people trying to live a little freely, it spares neither expense nor effort. When it does not succeed in destroying one’s integrity by external limitations, it seeks to undermine it from inside.

The security outside our doors is not merely an external restriction of our freedom against which one can successfully build an inner freedom. The Security controlling all our visitors penetrates into our relationships with other people and into the most intimate recesses of our own lives. Is it possible in such a situation to maintain the search for a philosophy which would give one the strength to live freely in this society? With every freely said word and with each freely taken step we invite each other to a free life – with all the implications that the refusal of such an invitation has for every one of us. Can we, in the given conditions, relate to each other responsibly and at the same time invite one another to a free existence?’

I wrote the article in Czech in December 1979 and distributed a copy to a few friends, mostly Charter 77 signatories. The next day the Security disappeared from our house. It was one of my greatest victories.

Dr Kathleen Wilkes (she was the first from Oxford that gave a talk in my philosophy seminar, in April 1979) visited me in Prague in May 1980. On that occasion she asked me why Petr Pithart, a prominent signatory of the Charter 77, organised a petition among signatories against the publication of my article ‘Inside the Security State’; it was signed by 60 of them, Kathy told me. I replied: ‘Ask Petr Pithart.’ I do not know whether she did so; we never discussed the issue again.

The Petition did not prevent the publication of the article in the New Statesman, but it appears to have exercised its influence. When a Dutch journal wanted to publish it – it was already translated into Dutch – the Editor of the New Statesman refused to give permission for its publication. I learnt this from the Editor. He told me while donating to me Julien Benda’s La Trahison des Clercs (The Betrayal of the Intellectuals). Coincidentally, Alan Montefiore, one of the Oxford dons who had visited my seminar in 1979, asked me: ‘Do you think we have betrayed you?’ I answered: ‘How could you betray me? It is you whom you have betrayed.’

As the Tvorba article said, Professor Richta wrote to Professor Diemer, and the bubble of the “Tomin case” immediately burst. Or was it more complicated? It was, as my blog post of November 18, 2014 “The 25th anniversary of Nick Cohen’s ‘The Pub Philosopher’” indicates.

Petr Pithart became the Prime Minister of the Czechoslovak Republic in February 1990 in the wake of the Velvet Revolution that took place in November-December 1989.

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