Thursday, July 17, 2014


I have just read a collection of essays by Adam Michnik, a man I admire enormously: an historian, a dissident who was imprisoned in Poland, a thinker and somebody who, after the fall of Communism, decided not to fall into the trap of becoming a politician but took on the editorship of Gazeta Wyborcza, though he is now a less than active Editor-in-Chief.

Before I get attacked (something that has not happened for a little while about which I am a little peeved) for talking about politics being a trap, let me point out that in my opinion politics is essential and, sadly, politicians are needed but experience tells one that intellectuals, particularly "public" intellectuals make rotten politicians and tend to incline towards personal authoritarianism.

His latest collection is called The Trouble with History and, having been published first in the Gazeta Wyborcza, has now been translated into English. To some extent it is disappointing: the political essays are of great interest but the historic ones, which seem to be an obsessive analysis of Stendhal and his disgust with post-revolutionary and post-Napoleonic France made me recall how often I have thought of Central European intellectuals as having a somewhat hysterical way of writing and dishevelled way of thinking.

Nevertheless, I do think that book contributes a good deal to our understanding of East European history in the last few decades and gives one food for thought on the subject of democracy and historic attitudes. As such I do recommend it to people. I should also like to know what Polish reaction was to the essays when they were first published. I can see that a few things Michnic writes may not have gone down particularly well with some of his readers.

Unusually I read the Foreword by James Davison Hunter and John M. Owen IV as well and was very glad I had done. Here are a couple of paragraphs from it that might interest people who do not think that democracy consists of elections and nothing else or that elections somehow create democracy.
... contemporary democratic politics can never be understood as only about the interests and actions of political economy or power alone. The moral and ethical dimension of modern democratic politics is intrinsic: not only impossible to disentangle from the actual actions and procedures of the state, but foundational to any government that calls itself democratic. Freedom, tolerance, hope, and respect for human dignity are not secondary, then but primary. As we witness among democratic revolutionaries everywhere, they matter absolutely. Such ideals have made it possible to endure not only the indignities and suffering impsoed by oppressive powers but also, often enough, the world's indifference to their struggle.

The conditions that make for vibrant democracies are fragile; all the more so in populations divided by wealth, race, ethnicity, religion, language, and tribe. Whatever else might be entailed, they require some minimal understandings of justice that are shared and binding across all differences. This is the foundation of any legitimacy a regime can hope for. But those understandings also have to be credibly and consistently approximated within its political institutions and practices. Without those shared commitments and credible enactments, constitutions will become hollow speech acts, emptied of authority and, in the end, a "parchment barrier" to tyranny. Democracy may retain certain formality, but the authority that underwrites it loses its humanizing constraints, leaving a political machinery capable of the crudest expressions of domination on behalf of some factional interests against others.
These are thoughts to be discussed as are some of Adam Michnic's subsequent ones, to which I shall return in other postings.

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