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Where there is word, there is responsibility for mankind

A conversation with Basil Kerski, director of the European Solidarity Centre in Gdańsk. Interviewers: New Eastern Europe.

NEW EASTERN EUROPE: For today’s meeting you brought with you a book authored by the late Lord Ralf Dahrendorf…

BASIL KERSKI: Yes, this is his 2006 work titled Versuchungen der Unfreiheit. Die Intellektuellen in Zeiten der Prüfung. Ralf Dahrendorf wrote here about the breakthroughs which we experienced in the 20th and early 21st centuries. These were the events of 1945, 1968, 1989 and 2001. The most interesting in this book is the chapter where Dahrendorf analyses the challenges that still await us. Reading this piece today, we can see how much of his forecast is confirmed by reality.

January 2, 2019 - Basil Kerski - InterviewsIssue 1 2019Magazine

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Grzegorz Mehring / Archiwum ECS

For example, Dahrendorf wrote that even though 20th century fascism or communism will not come back, we will see a social fascination with the “closed welfare” model. Dahrendorf, who was a British-German sociologist and politician and a warden of St Anthony’s College, University of Oxford as well as a member of the British House of Lords, believed that there was no one single model of democracy; just as there is no single model of authoritarianism.

And the second part of the title? That is the intellectuals…

Dahrendorf not only reflects on who an intellectual is, but also who he or she is not. And here, for example, the author argues that it is not enough to be intelligent, to be an academic. It is not enough to be a man of letters…

If intelligence is not enough, then what is it that decides whom we call an intellectual?

In Dahrendorf’s view an intellectual is somebody who defends values and universal human rights. It is somebody who believes in the power of the written and spoken word. For Dahrendorf an intellectual is somebody who believes in positive social change and is driven by the idea of an open society. This definition is very close to my heart, however I wonder if it truly reflects the full picture of the role and influence that intellectuals have today.

In other words…

Today we are observing changes which were created by intellectuals who also believe in the agency power of words. However, these intellectuals want new authoritarian and reactionary forms. They are promoting the idea of closing societies, even though in so doing they are also referring to values; for example, to Christianity.

Would you call them enemies of democracy, to use Karl Popper’s term? Maybe we should also adopt such a dichotomy: public intellectuals vs enemies of democracy?

Thinking in terms of dichotomy takes us away from a precise analysis of reality. I would take a different approach. In other words, today we can see that the intellectuals who defend an open society, democracy and universal human rights are unfortunately very weak. Not many people willingly listen to them. That is why their role is the most heroic one.

But don’t universal values sound today, well, too universal? That is; aren’t they too general for today’s recipients?

One’s authority does not come from what she or he says. It is also a reflection as to whether the values that s/he talks about have been implemented by them personally. It is thus the person’s public path that determines authority. And here the most telling example of an intellectual is, until today, Albert Camus. Camus came from a modest family background. He had to fight hard for his higher education. His social sensitivity was authentic. As a man of Mediterranean culture he kept distance to French nationalism and imperialism. Also, his universal humanism was very authentic. At the time of the Second World War he stood with the anti-fascist resistance movement and did not join the collaborators. As somebody who had left wing views, Camus also understood the danger of red totalitarianism.

In his Nobel Prize speech, delivered in 1957 at the University in Uppsala, Camus presented an image of an intellectual as a partisan. Of course he did not talk about guerrilla fighters in the military sense, but was talking about somebody who was independent – independent of political systems. But also somebody who defends those who are left behind by the government. This is a beautiful metaphor. Camus was of the opinion that every writer carries a responsibility – not only for their words but also for people’s fate. Hence, a writer, an artist, or an intellectual should not be narcissistic.

It is important to understand the context. At the time when Camus received the Nobel Prize in Literature, he was in complete isolation. He was excoriated for his L’home révolté (The Rebel) and for his naiveté for not joining the main movements that nonetheless were positively changing the world. His conflict with Jean-Paul Sartre was yet something more than a debate over Stalinism. Camus showed then that he was on the side of those who were protesting against the communist authorities in 1956 in Hungary and in Poland. Hence, he supported both the Hungarian revolutionaries and the Poznań workers.

What is even more significant is that Camus’ authority had a double dimension. First of all, it could be seen in his active role in the French resistance movement. Today, I would also add to this that Camus was a Frenchman who came from a cultural periphery and who set up the tone for the French language. And this is not only because Camus was born in Algeria, but – what is equally important – that he associated himself with those who were excluded. His last novel, which was published after his death – The First Man – is, among other things, a portrait of his mother who was an illiterate woman. Significantly, in this work Camus shows his support towards people who, from the perspective of the dominating French culture, did not play any important role. While writing about them Camus says: where there is a word and where there is philosophy and thought, there is responsibility for mankind.

Does this responsibility mean that every artist or public intellectual is faced with a choice?

This responsibility leads us to the definition of the term “intellectual”. An intellectual is someone who is aware of the social consequences of his or her activities and thoughts. Intellectuals take responsibility for them. This is a very idealistic approach, but the not so distant experiences of the 19th and 20th centuries have demonstrated that despite the industrial revolution and material well-being, our images about the reality are what influence our life or security. All of the crises that humanity has experienced were a result of constructs that were created in people’s heads.

In that case who were public intellectuals?

These are men and women of letters (written and spoken) who stand in defence of human dignity. And this dignity is guaranteed by an open society and democratic rule based on universal human rights. For me the most respectful public intellectuals were those who directly experienced totalitarian regimes, despotic political systems or closed societies and yet they could warn us against the authoritarian temptations. Here I would include such names as: Primo Levi, Czesław Miłosz, Józef Czapski or Václav Havel. But let us remember that there is one more aspect of the term “intellectual”, which points to its negative connotations.

I myself was surprised when I recently returned to the debate surrounding the Dreyfus affair where the term “intellectual” was used as an accusation of the antisemitic, anti-Dreyfus side. It was not Georges Clemenceau, as publisher of Émile Zola’s text J’accuse! who called Zola an intellectual and that from the beginning this word had positive connotations. It was actually the authoritarian side that accused Clemenceau and Zola of being intellectuals. This means that from the very beginning, the term “intellectual” was used by nationalistically-minded populists against the democrats. It was used by them to exclude the critical and enlightened voices and to stop the emancipation processes. Today in Europe we are observing an increase in similar tendencies among those who want to stop processes of cultural change, migration, advancement of migrants, further emancipation of women and equal treatment.

Going back to Dahrendorf, he uses the term “anti-Enlightenment” as something which we are to expect in the 21st century. I believe that this new wave of “anti-Enlightenment” can be currently observed in Europe and around the world. This is nothing new, of course. Our societies have always seen a problem in the emancipation of minorities which became connectors between new groups of society. Such was the case with Prussian, Austrian or French Jews. Now too the new elites have emerged and started to question the order of the world, just like it was 100 years ago during the Dreyfus affair.

Looking at today’s Europe from this perspective, I would say that we are dealing with a denial of the process which is popularly called multikulti. In other words, multi-culturalism. This is not even that much related to culture and its transformation as cultures have always been dynamic and fluid. They are inspired by different sources. This relates to people who do not fit. What I mean here is the elite that have different ethnic backgrounds, different skin colours and different collective memories. They start getting new social and cultural positions which automatically generates change. I can see this process very clearly in Germany.

Today, German literature, film or art is being created, to a great extent, by Germans who have immigrant backgrounds. These are the most interesting voices of the German cultural scene as they bring in universal, at times non-European, experiences into German culture. In this way, they enrich it. They are very ambitious. They raise respect, but among some also irritation. Yet multikulti does not only mean an encounter of a European and non-European culture. It is also, for example, the encounter between the post-communist culture of East Germany with the western, Rhine and Catholic cultures. This also generates transformation, tension, conflict and encourages people to think about closing themselves from others.

Those who oppose multi-culturalism suggest that we are dealing now with some new phenomena, but the truth is that Europe was always multi-cultural…

And that is why I believe that today’s greatest intellectuals are actually outside of Europe. At least when it comes to the cosmopolitan model of an intellectual that we are talking about. This is also the same understanding that Dahrendorf had in mind. For him Arthur Koestler was an intellectual. Also, recently I was at Ai Weiwei’s exhibit in Marseille and in my view this artist is an intellectual. Of course he is Chinese, but a universal artist as well. And that is why his works play an important role in Europe. They defend individuals in China, but they also defend our freedom. Weiwei shows that images are today’s instruments of expressing words. I would not even be afraid to call this phenomenon a positive one. That is why I believe that the Polish film director, the late Andrzej Wajda, was an intellectual of the 20th century. He showed us how to use the language of images. Interestingly, he used literature as his inspiration, and even enforced its message by films.

This reference to Wajda takes us to the next question: Where are today’s Polish intellectuals?

Or maybe it is better to formulate it this way: Weren’t the filmmakers the last of the Polish intellectuals? The names of such intellectuals that come to my mind are: Krzysztof Kieślowski, Agnieszka Holland, Paweł Pawlikowski or Małgorzata Szumowska. I have a feeling that the new generation of Polish intellectuals is yet to come, but these will be people who will negate all aspects of today’s mainstream culture. What we can see today is narcissism which reduces art to fun. This is the opposite to Camus’s intellectual. This narcissism shows a very negative attitude to politics and to the state.

Isn’t this narcissism a reaction to what was earlier offered by communist art and social realism?

The narcissism of artists was always used by totalitarian and authoritarian governments. The question is: Where are these people who will stand against the majority and say that there is no freedom without defending minorities. This is the challenge of our times.

Maybe such a voice will come from the periphery? For example, from a representative of Ukrainian migrants?

Here we touch another issue; namely, each country has its own challenges and that is why it needs intellectuals. When we look at Germany, we can see that there are intellectuals who link the East and West.

But coming back to Ukraine; this is a multi-ethnic and multi-religious state. So maybe it is from there that we can expect the coming of a new generation of European public intellectuals?

The strong voices of Ukrainian intellectuals are very important. Here we have Yuri Andrukhovych, Oksana Zabuzhko, Serhiy Zhadan, Andrey Kurkov, Mykola Riabchuk, or Yaroslav Hrytsak. This is a pro-democratic, pro-European voice which is against Vladimir Putin’s aggressive authoritarianism and neo-imperialism. Ukrainian intellectuals are also the defenders of the European world order that emerged from the anti-Soviet revolutions of 1989-1991. Ukraine has the advantage that its intellectuals are multi-lingual. They speak English, German, Polish, but also Russian. Thus, they are important connectors between East and West. Between the Europe of the European Union and the eastern, post-communist, part of the continent.

Is there then a chance that these Ukrainian intellectuals will start to co-create the debate on Europe and its future, also in Poland?

But in a way they have turned away from Poland. Poland is now struggling with some strong anti-western, almost nationalistic, sentiments, which have weakened its international reputation. As a result, Poland is currently on Europe’s political periphery. In addition, we are deeply stuck in historical disputes and focused on internal problems. This keeps us away from many problems of today’s world and makes us less interested in the opinions of our neighbours. We have turned away from them, despite our dreams of playing a leading role in such initiatives as the Three Seas. Thereby, our public and intellectual life stopped being attractive for our neighbours. I hope that this changes and that Polish-Ukrainian relations will survive these difficult years. The truth is that in the last three decades we have managed to build strong intellectual ties with Ukraine. As a result Poland now has a whole range of publishing houses and artistic circles which co-operate with Ukrainian partners. Unfortunately, the political elite, which have started to turn a blind eye to some nationalistic groups, do not want to build their political capital on reconciliation with Ukraine.

A similar tendency can be seen in regards to the Balkans. Polish foreign policy barely notices this region, even though there are intense ties between Poland and different Balkan states in the area of culture. And it is in the Balkans today where there is a goldmine of intellectuals who have something important to tell us about our times. It is in the Balkan states where important works are being created now. Artists from this region also have very different biographies from those of their peers in Central and Western Europe. These are people who have had direct experience with war and ethnic cleansing. When put in a situation of choice, they chose defence of human rights and human dignity. This can be best seen in literature.

But don’t you think that Ukrainians and inhabitants of the Balkans are under an impression that they are on Europe’s periphery? And maybe that is why they focus more on the problems of their own societies than engage in the European discourse?

The great change in world politics always inclines an encounter of the periphery with the centre. Just like the Vietnam War changed America, even though Americans got involved in this war only for indirect purposes, as the real enemy was the Soviet Union. The similar case was the war in Afghanistan. The role of a periphery which enforced the dynamics of the centre was also played by Gdańsk in the 1980s. Maybe we should ask, then, the question as to whether an intellectual is not somebody who defends those who are weak and fights for the perspective of the periphery? Isn’t an intellectual someone who is not afraid to link very different cultures and different points of view?

An intellectual is yet not someone who leads people in an authoritarian way, but somebody who shows them that life means permanent change. It is someone who shows that while individually we are weak and have fears (which we should have) there is also no salvation in aggression, nor in a totalitarian control of life. And that permanent change is something we need to accept and use in such a way as it will become beneficial and good for us.

Can a politician be an intellectual?

No. A politician is not an intellectual. Even intellectuals who become politicians have it difficult to remain intellectuals for one reason: they have to use different instruments in their activities. For example, politicians cannot openly say what they think. Thus, an intellectual is somebody who does not have political power, but somebody who has greater freedom of expression than politicians. As a result, an intellectual can have an even greater influence on people’s understanding of the world. This makes the voice of intellectuals so important that it can also influence politicians.

What kind of power do intellectuals have?

It is of course the easiest to be a (pseudo-)intellectual with destructive power – a populist intelligent. All bad things were born in people’s minds and many authoritarian leaders started as charismatic men of words – Lenin, Joseph Goebbels or Pol Pot. Naturally, these people do not fall into Dahrendorf’s normative approach. It is much more difficult to prove the constructive power of intellectuals who defend, let us call it, democratic forms. Their constructive role can probably be best seen in social movements. Every time we ask the question as to what stands behind a social movement, we see that there is an idea that gives it a political force.

Returning to the destructive power of intellectuals, today in addition to public intellectuals we see the so-called influencers. Their role is the most visible in social media…

Modern technological changes bring everything that progress has always brought. They can be an effective instrument for intellectuals, but they can also be used by those who are not interested in universal human rights and who only pursue their own interests. It seems to me that today we have a lot of self-proclaimed public intellectuals, or influencers as they are called, who are a part of this political spectacle. Yet, they only want to make comments and get people’s attention. They do not want to defend values, promote solutions, or positively co-create politics. This is not an accusation towards them, but rather stressing that being an intellectual means taking responsibility and risks. Not everybody has that ability.

 So they are simply cynical players?

Maybe we should now ask the key question: Where are today’s intellectuals? Before our today’s conversation, I also asked myself if I was an intellectual; and let me put it this way: as a public person, responsible for a cultural institution, but also as an editor, I answer myself a series of questions every day. Was I honest and brave? Was I faithful to my values? Or was I participating in a public debate to make a name for myself? For public figures there is a very fluid border between narcissism, vanity, engagement, compromise and opportunism. But they also have one more choice: to say no.

What we also observe today are these strange ideological hybrids which, for example, combine the imperialistic visions of Aleksandr Dugin and progressive ideas of Thomas Piketty. What is your take on that?

But this phenomenon has already been well-described. You know what has missed our analysis? Indifference. And the fact that even though we live in the times of the intellect, the greatest value today is an imaginary value. This is this deepest revolution and something which I also cannot fully comprehend. But coming back to indifference; look at how many people are out there who have amazing intellect and yet are indifferent. In other words, how limited do we get in our imagination despite our growing abilities? This is, in a way, a similar situation to that of the early 20th century when scientific progress expanded our knowledge and abilities, but reduced our humanitarian sensitivity.

Translated by Iwona Reichardt

Basil Kerski is the director of the European Solidarity Centre in Gdańsk and the editor in chief of Dialog, a Polish-German bilingual monthly magazine.

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