Sunday, October 18, 2015

3 Lasting repercussions of what happened thirty five years ago

Kořínek and Pulcman wrote in their article: ‘One would be inclined to say that the campaign “Tomin” is just base, ridiculous and mean. But the fact is that it is a tendentiously timed campaign which aims to discredit socialist Czechoslovakia. These are attacks which do not contribute in any way towards mutual understanding and friendship between nations, and this is in direct contradiction with the Final Act in Helsinki. They touch our honour. In such case we cannot remain silent.’

This sounds personal. Kořínek, one of the two, had some reasons to feel hurt. In 1975 I stumbled on a letter written by a Czech philosopher Karel Kosík and addressed to J. Paul Sartre, published in Le Monde (for more details see ‘A fool’s hopes’ on my blog, May 11, 2015). The correspondence moved me deeply, and so I wrote to the Editor of the Rudé Právo (the Red Right, ‘the mouthpiece of the Czech Communist Party’, as Nick Cohen aptly characterizes it in ‘The Pub Philosopher’). I began by listing Kosík’s complaints: 1. He has been deprived of the possibility to do work, for which he is qualified. 2. He is excluded from participation in the activities of our scientific institutions. 3. He cannot publish what he writes; his books have been removed from public libraries. 4. The Police confiscated 1000 pages of his preparatory notes for the works On praxis, and On truth. Then I asked the Editor, whether the allegations were true, and ended my letter with three questions: ‘If true, is all this happening in compliance with our laws? If it is against our laws, what can I do as a citizen, so that the respect for the law may be restored? If it is in compliance with the laws, what can I do so that the laws are changed and it becomes prohibited to treat citizens of our republic in this way?’

Kořínek replied: ‘I acknowledge your letter of 4.7.1975. I cannot give you any more information concerning Karel Kosík. As you yourself write, Kosík turned to Le Monde and not to Rudé právo. We cannot competently consider the case; for this is the matter for the state organs dealing with it. Only they could give you any further information. – With comradely greetings, Jaroslav Kořínek, the Deputy Editor.

And so I wrote a letter to the West German Spiegel (Mirror): ‘I am one of those adults who like fairy-tails. I like the one in which an important role plays a mirror (Spiegel) that always tells the truth. If I were a citizen of the Federal Republic of Germany, I would ask the Spiegel (Mirror): “Is it true that Members of the Communist Party cannot obtain teaching posts in my country? If it is true, what can I do to stop this encroachment on the fundamental rights of a citizen?” But I am not a citizen of the Federal Republic of Germany and the Spiegel (Mirror) cannot answer my questions. And so I am addressing the Spiegel merely with a request to mirror and thus emphasize questions which I have been asking in my country. A few weeks ago I read in Le Monde … the Rudé právo replied to me that they cannot answer my questions, for Karel Kosík wrote to a bourgeois newspaper in the West instead of the Rudé právo. And here I get to my most important question: Can we give up the right to join “the socialists, democrats, and communists” in the West – I am quoting the closing words from Kosík’s letter to Sartre – in demanding fundamental respect for law and justice in our socialist country? Can such a joint request be rejected simply because of its being a joint request?’

On July 28 I wrote in my letter to the Rudé právo: ‘I am enclosing a copy of my letter to the West German Spiegel concerning your paper. Allow me to use this occasion to ask you a favour. In L’Humanité of May 16 I read the Declaration of Freedoms, which the Communist Party of France offered to French citizens for discussion. I have found the Declaration highly interesting. I suggested to the shift-manager that we should discuss it at the next workers’ meeting. I suggested the same to the Head of the Factory Trade Unions, and I talked about it to my fellow-workers. I met with varied responses: ‘I have two children, leave me alone.’ – ‘It’s easy for the French Communists to make such declarations when they have no power in their hands. Do you really think they would be interested in freedom, if they got power?’ – ‘We used to make a mistake thinking that we can talk to people about anything. With people in the factory you can talk about whether they get adequately rewarded for their work. But I have learnt at the [Communist Party] teach-in that we cannot talk to people about such matters as “matter and spirit”, “materialism and idealism”, we cannot talk to people about the fundamental philosophic question.’ In the end the Director of the factory, Mr Trávníček, took my suggestion seriously and asked me for a copy of the Declaration: “I’ll get it translated and then decide what to do about it”. But a few days ago he told me that he could not find anybody willing to translate it. I presume you have got a translation of this important document. Would you send me a copy, so that I could give it to the Director for consideration?’

Kořínek replied: ‘I answered your previous letter promptly and to the point. The fact that you addressed your letter to the West German Spiegel clearly shows your real objective. In view of that, I think that it is pointless to continue our correspondence.’

The next day, when I wanted to buy L’Humanité I could not get it. Until then L’Humanité was freely available in kiosks and shops selling newspapers, but then it disappeared from Prague kiosks and news-paper shops, and from then on it remained unavailable.

I wrote one more letter to the Rudé právo, from which I quote: ‘I am sitting in the Prague Power Plant, in the area that lies under the low pressure turbine. I am separated from the sewer under my feet by a metal plate, which is full of holes and upon which I have built a shelter. The sewer stinks, it is hard to breath; I feel thick when I think that today I must serve a sixteen hour shift. I hold in my hands a letter from the Rudé právo: “I answered your previous letter promptly and to the point … it is pointless to continue our correspondence.”

I am sorry comrade Kořínek for troubling you again. I did want to stop writing to you, as you wished, but today I serve a sixteen hour shift, the sewer stinks, the air is un-breathable, and I have got a thought: “If you find reading and answering my letters so objectionable, let us change our places. I have got the prerequisite education in Marxist philosophy, enriched by a five year work in a factory. It will be easy for you to obtain the qualification of a turbine operator in the condenser area; it takes just a month of in-training. If we exchange our places, I shall read patiently your letters and do everything in my power to facilitate your further professional advancement.

I have done what I could to transform this place into a place where one can combine looking after turbines with study. Before I came, it was unimaginable that a worker could open and read a book during a shift; nowadays combining intellectual activity with looking after the turbines became a matter of course for almost every turbine operator. And most importantly, I gradually managed to build in the condenser area a shelter. Water will not be dripping on your books, the space above your head will be covered by four metal plates, a big cardboard, a big plastic plate, a bag made of hemp, a curtain, and many rags that fill any holes … The Director calls it a caveman’s den. It is not aesthetically pleasing; I built it with discarded material I found all around the factory. But it serves its purpose. Before I built it, water dripping behind one’s neck and a sharp draft penetrating into the bones had been a lot of every turbine operator working in the condenser area.  Everyone who worked here more than a few months ended up stricken with rheumatism.

I’ve done what could be done for improving the conditions for work and study directly in the factory, but all my efforts remained fruitless as far as the broader conditions for professional advancement in the study of Marxist Philosophy are concerned. I wrote to the Philosophy Institute asking the Director to allow me to present the results of my philosophic investigations at the Institute. The response was negative: ‘By becoming a turbine operator you have excluded yourself from any contact with the Institute.’ If we exchange our places, I shall do everything in my power to prevent the Dean of the Philosophy Faculty at Charles University from refusing to allow you to defend your Candidate Dissertation ‘on moral and political grounds’.

A number of thoughts come to my mind at this point: Shall we and our children live in a socialist society in which will be space for free development of everyone? Or shall we remain a society in which people are deprived of free expression of their thoughts, in which some people are deprived of the possibility to publish, and if they write anything, their manuscripts are confiscated, and they are prevented from getting engaged in work for socialism at home and abroad?

These things are important and they require full engagement and commitment of a dedicated Communist. I have never become a Member of the Communist Party, and if we exchanged our places, I would not have the authority, which is needed. So let me stay in my place as a turbine operator, and you in your position of a Deputy Editor of the Rudé Právo. This will enable you to strain every nerve in the fight for making it possible that fruitful participation in the development of our society becomes open for all those who were excluded from it during the past five years. Our society cannot afford to discard their creative potential any longer.’


Struggling with the translation of my letters to Kořínek into English, I can’t help thinking of a letter I received two years ago from Professor Bone, the Master of Balliol. I asked him for permission to present at Balliol a lecture on ‘Human Spiritual Nature and the X of Neurophysiologists’. On October 4, 2013 he replied: 'My apologies for apparent rudeness. You are unlikely to know that in a very small way I was involved in that struggle, as a visitor myself in odd circumstances, starting by talking about Byron and literature in general to some of those who had lost their positions in Charles after 1968, one of whom, Alois Bejblik, now sadly dead, became a close friend. It is not I fear possible to give you a platform in Balliol, but I do understand the significance of the 17th November.'

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