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Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Philosophy in Times of Communism

Philosophy in Times of Communism – Reflections from Beyond
By Paul Richard Blum (Loyola University Maryland, currently Univerzita Palackého v Olomouci)

It is difficult to write about my experiences with Czech philosophers of the times before the Velvet Revolution without speaking ad hominem. Fact is that Stanislav Sousedík was the first scholar at all whom I got to know as living under the conditions of communism or socialism. And it is possible to tie the fact that in Spring 2012 I am a guest professor at Palacký University into a narrative that starts in the early 1980s when I first met him. However, I need to refrain from telling anecdotes because I do not own them as long as the heroes of those stories were the heroes that survived oppression. And yet, it was those anecdotes that opened my eyes.
For instance, when I looked for some 17th century books at the Strahov library, coming from West Berlin, the librarian approached me and rattled down a number of questions (how is the Berlin library, how many books, what kind of books, …) and excused himself saying: "We know nothing, nothing …" At that point I had learned something. Or how I gradually learned – by the measure in which the authorities chose to withhold printing paper – that editing the works of Comenius on the mercy of the Party can be subversive and conspiratorial.  The history of oppression, and specifically of communism, is full of stories of the same structure – and that is the point!
What I gathered early on is that Aristotle's theory of antiperistasis works in the human world: oppression of the mind strengthens those intellectual and moral forces that are, indeed, strong. And hence oppression hatches its own defeat. The communist or socialist regimes of the 20th century were defeated by those strong minds. Hence my conclusion was: resistance is possible. Resistance does not have to take on violent forms, because it is oppression itself that occasions the measure and means of resistance. Hence a second conclusion: I would wish never to be forced to resist. As I said, the anecdotes that would illustrate these conclusions are owned by their agents: Sousedík and countless others whom I met in almost all countries under (former) Soviet domination since the 1980s. They will, telling those stories in their own words, establish a living tradition from the inside of the life of the mind under duress.
One more meaning I want to point out, namely, a sense of circumspection born out of insecurity that may be essential for all human endeavors and certainly should give profile to the way a philosopher, who is lucky not to be endangered, proceeds while thinking. Let me mask this lesson with another story. I was honored (well, back then, I was just plunged into that) to teach in the "Pantoffeluniversität", these unofficial gatherings around some local or foreign philosophy teacher in some private apartment. When we Westerners asked who the audience was, we were told it is safer for them and for us, not to know. Later I came to speculate, since many Dominican friars were among the students, whether I might have had in front of me the present Cardinal of Prague or his friend the late President of the Czech Republic. My conclusion is: always think as a philosopher and a teacher as though you had a future Cardinal or President among your students!