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Discussion about Jan Strzelecki in Berlin Nov 2015

Jan Strzelecki

Doubts in Intellectual integrity and Extremism - some thoughts

I woke up this morning to the news that Brussels has been declared to be under terrorist alert stage 4 since the city was facing an absolute threat of terror. It was broadcasted on the radio that the metro is not operating. Furthermore advise was given to avoid train stations and places where many people could gather.

Yesterday hostages were taken in Mali, never mind what happens daily in Syria, Iraq and in African places of conflicts. And all of this has to be somehow comprehended in the wake of the attacks which took place in Paris January 13. That is a lot all at once. What is happening?

Being in Berlin is one interesting location to observe and to reflect these latest developments, and this for many reasons. Here different cultural streams converge, but mainly in contrast to Athens not so much along the South-North axiom, but much more along the East-West axiom. It includes the German-Polish dialogue.


Yesterday I attended a discussion in a Polish-German bookstore about Jan Strzelecki. Present were Magdalena Grochowska who had written a biography about this intellectual who stood for fraternity and hope as far as humanity is concerned. Partner in this discussion round was Wolfgang Templin who has quite a colourful background in the former DDR. Moderation had Marcin Piekoszewski.

The term fate was used often in this discussion. One example thereof was how Jan Strzelecki ended his life. His fate was that he died tragically at the hands of the very people - workers, low income - he had fought for throughout his life. His car had stalled since he had ran out of gasoline. He stayed in the car and tried to read something. But then three workers came along. He was on a lonely road. They knocked on the window of the car. Not suspecting anything, he got out of his car without any fear and was towards the three completely friendly. But the three wanted to rob him and hence they beat him up. Apparently he did not resist or fight back, only shouted "what are you doing?". He died two weeks later from the injuries he had suffered from the beating.

The question about such an intellectual is especially relevant, given the Polish history being reflected upon differently in the post Communism era. It is also a matter of seeing and understanding that many of the intellectuals oscilliated between religion and politics, opposition and conformity. Always the position assumed had also to do with survival within a system. For intellectuals like Kolakowski and Strzelecki, it meant also in Poland a question as to which organisation they should join? Naturally the Communist Party ranked high at that time. After they joined, they found it often out very quickly that it was extremely difficult to reconcile their values with what the party was really implementing.

The question in view of the history of these intellectuals is important. Joining a party risks to be viewed and judged in retrospect as having no intellectual integrity or else in having compromised the original ethical view. By giving up a certain individual independence, they risked by joining to lose their intellectual freedom to question abuse of power.

Often they would enter inner and outer conflicts without being really fully in control. It meant that they had to leave sooner or later again the party, if they were not thrown out by the party. For instance, Sartre himself had joined the Communist Party out of the belief that only at such an organisational level things can be fought and left the party after the Budapest uprising was suppressed violently in 1956. The East German writer Christa Wolf stayed even as member of the Central Committee till the bitter end, while her husband had been ousted. His argument was to be ousted is an honour, while to leave oneself is not.

However, is it really a matter of belief? The question is touched upon by Arthur Koestler in 'The God that failed' or even more so in „Darkness at noon“. The moment a Communist returns to the open questions he posed in his childhood, and no longer believes the party has a monopoly on truth, he is no longer useful to the party. Still it remains to be of interest why so many intellectuals think either the party or the church can provide an intellectual home, one capable of giving orientation and faith in oneself as much in others?

Yet if it is about the intellectual seeking a bridge to connect with the common people, then one remark by Wolfgang Templin is significant to illuminate as well a difference between the former DDR and Poland. Whereas the Catholic belief is widely shared by all in Poland, the Protestant church in the former DDR is by comparison not such a strong connecting and therefore also not a binding element. That question reappeared when Magdalena Grochowska confessed that she as well Strzelecki joined the pilgrimage (something Benedict Anderson describes as key to understanding the making of the new communities imagined already beforehand by those who develop a new kind of literarcy). Only Strzelecki went out of his love for the Polish pope even further than her by putting on his head a cap, she added in a free flowing discussion taking the listeners through her biography of that man. The cap was really a kind of symbol which can be understood in its significance once the history of this man is kept in mind.

Hence it is difficult to be just to these figures. Daniel Cohn Bendit said about Glucksman who died recently that "thinking entails the possibility of making mistakes." Whether that suffices as justification - Glucksman had supported the invasion into Iraq in 2003 - is doubtful.

Definitely all of this needs to be discussed especially in Poland where the recent election has brought into government nationalist politicians. This political development cannot be explained without looking at the changes in society. Many of the younger generation revolt similar to the students in 1968 against their fathers or elder generations. Often they accuse them for having compromised themselves by working for the system i.e. for having joined the now completely discredited Communist party. Thus many of the younger generations tend to reject altogether anyone having to do with the Communist past.

The outcome of this revolt is an extreme nationalist viewpoint. However, it cannot be explained solely with such negative attitudes towards the past. Definitely those who revolt against the past risk not to learn from the past. If they destroy everything and think justice and law can be based on something radical new, they will be in for a huge surprise. Adorno had warned repeatedly that the new seeks only the new, but will be forced sooner or later to flee back into old, well established structures. The latter carry within them again the risk to incriminate those who wish to uphold values of humanity and therefore have retained their intellectual integrity, while those returning in reality to the past become reactionary, always inclined to abort all possibilities of viewing reality in contraction to their general negative attitude. At best, the outcome will be resignation. A mild compromise will be definitely be unavoidable. Thus they will be inclined to seek reassurance in the saying that no one is perfect. That is also entailed in what Daniel Cohn Bendit says about Glucksman. All this muddle and failure leaves many exposed in an even greater uncertainty as to what they can one do to change society, to bring about justice, and this without compromising a morality which is truly based on an ethical vision of human values! The latter was an open question in the discussion in that bookstore of wonderful niches and loveable imperfections, even if a perfect translation system was provided for those who could not speak either Polish or else German.

By the way, it was no accident that figures like Adam Michnik were referred to by the discussants. They did so how they saw Adam Michnik or Strzelecki when it comes to appraise how they wished to uphold the hope in humanity and practice fraternity as one of the values derived from the French Revolution. Since failures marked the real outcome, it was hard for these intellectuals to keep up any hope. But where have those values gone to? Is 'brotherhood' no longer realizable? Ever since George Steiner posed a crucial question in his book 'Language and Silence', doubt prevails as legacy of WWII that a free and just society is most difficult to be realized once intelligence can be functionalized, and they engaged themselves for the system, but do so without any ethical orientation (Bertrand Russell). The political question, including that of brotherhood especially in the wake of the attacks in Paris, is all the more whether or not a just society can be realized within this current political and economic system. The latter includes the European Union and especially what undemocratic procedure has been adopted to realize the TIPP related negotiations.

Out of all these difficulties in the seventies of the 20th century evolved critical intellectuals who created the prerequisite for Soliarnosc. The trade union recognized the worker again as historical figure. Then came martial law in 1981 and finally a liberal phase once the Communist Party disappeared after 1989.

Today Poland has an extreme Nationalist party forming the government. Not only this signals a social tendency which reflects a transformation of a society deeply embedded in the Catholic religion. Above all, it seems as if extreme Right wing movements are becoming the norm in daily life. It pushes Poland into an anti-Europe direction and inclined not to open itself up to refugees in need of shelter. Where has gone the credo of Solidarnosc?

There happened something two days ago in Wroclaw, which signals a new form of mixture of protest and symbols used to express something going even further than what can be imagined right now. 

I have heard that protesters of the Extreme Right burned an effigy of a Jew during a demonstration in the streets of Wroclaw. The authorities have pressed charges but practically the police stood by when it happened. Something similar has happened in the Dresden demonstration with someone carrying a gallow to hang Merkel. 

The people present yesterday at that discussion in the German-Polish bookstore expressed horror at what happened in Wroclaw. One woman stated it most directly. She would have thought this kind of agitation in the streets was impossible. After all what happened during the years leading up to WWII, and then the Holocaust itself, was a cultural and human shock. So how is it possible for the extreme Right being allowed to outlash their hatred, and to direct it once again against the Jew? It risks that a state is not longer neutral, ready to protect the one who cannot protect his or her own life. Rather by becoming highly discriminate in treating people not as equals, but wishes to differentiate between Poles and non-Poles, it will become a Racist state. The current Nationalism in Poland risks to overturn all the positive values achieved in the twentieth century and first decade in the twentyfirst century.

By the way, young people in Greece use theories developed by philosophers like Michel Foucault, and therefore call the Greek state as well as being racist. It is exemplified by how refugees are treated and call detention centres equally as concentration camps. It indicates how moral condemnation of the present done in analogy of what horrific crimes against humanity happened in the past, can be a misleading construction of reality, but at the same time, in Greece it is a stance of the youth in favour of the refugees. It amounts to a human appeal not to discriminate but to treat every human being as equal.

About the extreme Right, many of them strive want to resolve a paradox, for they seek the support of the state so that they act out their aggression and prejudice. They do not wish to be bothered by the democratic need to have their views being questioned any further. Rather they wish the state to give them the legitimacy to act in an inhuman way. That does not differ from the German soldier pushing Jews off the train and into Auschwitz. In Nürnberg even the highest commanders would claim they were following merely orders. The misconception of legality and ethics was further promoted by calling the banal evil, as if the real problem of such aggression could not be perceived onhand of a single man like Eichman. Intolerance can be viewed as someone having made up his or her mind, and even if not really convinced fully in the truth of the position being held, due to all other uncertainties, still an extreme view is acted upon and expressed as a need to push something through through without compromise. Hegel called it the need of the state to have the power to enforce the law, but in German it is called 'Durchsetzungskraft'. It means no recognition is given to resistance as something legitimate in human terms.

Hence those who become extreme, radical and sceptical, they feel and think no longer to be able or willing to participate in what Michael D. Higgins would call culture as 'search for truth'. That presupposes openness to doubt.

Interestingly enough, Eric Antonis as artistic director when Antwerp was European Capital of Culture in 1993, called culture is doubt. We lack this openness, due to hardly any philosophy giving support to face this doubt.

Given that Wroclaw is going to be European Capital of Culture, how will culture be used to alter attitudes of extremists? That includes all those no longer willing to reconsider their political positioning. For they have made up the mind the system, Capitalism, the Western world, the consumer society is only corrupt and deserves nothing better than destruction. Forgotten is how pleasant if you can go shopping without fear of a bomb blast, as shown in the films of Bunel already the case when the bourgeoisie society has grown bored of itself and at the same time unable to come to terms with the tensions between the sexes without giving up a true sense of love both for the other and for people in general. Freud called the second kind of love libido, hence the security of feeling to be connected to other people and therefore free of fear to be forgotten by the others.

Once everyone has become isolated and like an autistic child, without orientation, there is the high risk of wishing to break out of this prison of silence by either joining those who shout the loudest or else those who will want to revenge themselves for being radical losers by inflicting as much damage as possible on this vulnerable society. It is a kind of revenge for not having success in this society.

Criticism follows often this path and ends in a generalized version of rejecting everything. Once this has become a generally shared world view, desparation spreads as any society is undermined once people no longer know how to discuss hard but fair, and especially are not willing to contradict if someone says only nonsense or something stupid. The latter presupposes everything can be negated, even the language used to exchange viewpoints.

Hatto Fischer

Berlin 20.11.2015


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