In-Depth Analysis

Reinventing Democratic Culture: Then and Now

A Paper Prepared for Presentation for The European Solidarity Center, Gdansk University, Gdansk, Poland, October 6, 2011

It’s good to be back in Gdansk. It is especially good to be invited by The European Solidarity Center to give this lecture at the All About Freedom Festival. It’s a visit I’ve long wanted to make, and an occasion that seems to be particularly appropriate.

The last time I was here was in 1985. I was on a mission in support of Solidarity, to observe the trial of Adam Michnik, Bogdan Lis and Wladyslaw Frasyniuk. Adam had written an open letter to “people of good will” in the West to come to the trial, published in The New York Times. He also earlier through The Times Warsaw correspondent, our mutual friend, the late Michael Kaufman, asked me personally to come. It was a request I couldn’t refuse.

When I arrived I was under constant surveillance. I was denounced by Trybuna Ludu [the Communist Party official organ] for not understanding the nature of socialist justice, when I tried but was refused entry into the courtroom. It wasn’t a leisurely visit. I communicated with Adam through his lawyers. We planned together a strategy to keep going an international seminar on democracy we had been working on before his arrest. He asked for books. I did not have the occasion to go sightseeing. And the sights to be seen weren’t as beautiful as they are today.

That was one of the most dramatic times of my life. Not frightening for me personally (I knew that the worst that was likely to happen to me was that I would be expelled from the country), but very frightening for those on trial, and for the mostly unrecognized heroes of the Solidarity movement, the workers, the union leaders, the intellectuals and lawyers who during my visit helped me move through the city and make my appearance, and who risked imprisonment for their everyday actions in making Solidarity. While I then met Lech Walesa, as well as Father Jankowski [a Priest associated with Lech Walesa, who after the changes became infamous for his anti-Semitism], I was most impressed by those who acted off the center stage. They were so dedicated to and worked so hard for the cause of freedom, without apparent prospects that it would be won and without fame or fortune for themselves. It was clear to me that they created their freedom in their persistent actions. This is a key to my talk today.

What I saw then and what I observed and studied in my research and political activities in the 1970s and 80s throughout Poland and also among its neighbors, has shaped my entire intellectual life. It’s the touchstone of my work as a social theorist and researcher. I could explain in a four hour lecture how just about every one of my writings, certainly all of my books, have been informed by what I observed here, even when I am writing about my own country or about the Middle East, two other areas where I have done research and which I will explore with you today. I am, we are together, deeply indebted to the sung and unsung heroes of Solidarity. But today, I am concerned less with the debt, more with the insight that their actions provide.

I will focus on two theoretical points: “the politics of small things” and “the reinvention of political culture,” (the title of my two most recent books) in order to think about the project of reinventing democratic culture, a pressing one in my country, and in much of the world today. I will try to present a clear and condensed account of the theoretical points, and then think about them with you by considering instances of the project of the reinvention of democratic culture. I will compare the way things were here then, when I first visited your city, to the way things are now, in my country, and I will look ahead a bit to the way things might be in one of the centers of geopolitical conflict in the world today, the Middle East.

In retrospect, thinking about this part of the world and my experiences in it in 20st century, I gained two key theoretical insights which help illuminate the global situation in 21th: 1. Small things matter, democracy is in the details of everyday life interaction, and 2. Political culture is not just a matter of destiny, but also one of creativity.

First my notion of the politics of small things: a concept drawn from the political theory of Hannah Arendt and the sociology of Erving Goffman, and developed by looking carefully at the day to day life in the democratic opposition and alternative cultural activities here in Poland.

When people meet and speak in each other’s presence, and develop a capacity to act together on the basis of shared commitments, principles or ideals, they develop political power. This power is constituted in social interaction. It is realized in the concerted action. It has its basis in the definition of the situation, the power of people to define their social reality. In the power of definition, in the politics of small things, there is the power of constituting alternatives to the existing order of things. When this power involves the meeting of equals, respectful of factual truth and open to alternative interpretations of the problems they face, it is democratic. As Arendt has theorized, such meeting, talk and action constitute political power as the opposite of coercion. As Goffman investigated, this power is constituted in the expressive life of the involved people. Power by acting together, expressively created, such power has been highly consequential.

In Poland, the significance of the politics of small things was apparent during the Communist experience, contributing to the quality of life in People’s Poland, and it became a force that put an end to the experience. Its importance is underappreciated in the present political environment. I will explain by providing snapshots of experience, highlighting their significance.

As I remember the day I arrived to observe the trial of Michnik, Lis and Frasyniuk, I feel as if I was moving through an American spy thriller. Met at the Warsaw airport. Taken to an apartment. Underground solidarity, broadcast equipment in the apartment, solidarity TV and radio. After an hour or so, I was put on a train to Gdansk, given instructions to go to an apartment in the old city of Gdansk. A few minutes after I arrived on that rainy night, the phone rang. Whoever just arrived, the caller reported is being following by the authorities. I was observed from the moment I arrived in Warsaw by both the authorities and the underground. The next day I tried to enter the courtroom. I walked in a cloud of solidarity supporters and activists, women pushing baby carriages were the most impressive. Each step I took during my ten days, the authorities of the People’s Republic and the network of solidarity activists surrounded me, revealing the two sides of power. The authorities had the full power of the Party State, the secret police, the nomenklatura and the Soviet alliance behind them. Solidarity’s power was grounded in the persistent capacity of people to act together. That this power persisted and was very real was confirmed when it persisted after martial law, not to mention its ultimate triumph in 1989.

Indeed I think it is important not to interpret the meaning of Solidarity by its ultimate victory. It was not only a means to this end.  The people I met in the early and mid eighties did not anticipate the defeat of Communism and present day Poland was way beyond their imaginations. Their activities, and I believe their significance for us today, are best understood as a continuation of what they had done in the past. We misunderstand if we impose teleological meaning upon them. There was a hope that the activities then would contribute to a more decent future, but there was mostly an appreciation that it contributed to a more decent present. A world where an unjust political trial was met with fear, resignation and silence was not acceptable, even if the fall of the regime was unimaginable. Acting together immediately changed the situation for the better.

Michnik himself explained the logic of this action in his classic essay “The New Evolutionism.” This essay, together with Vaclav Havel’s classic “The Power of the Powerless,” helped me imagine my idea of the politics of small things. Thus I understood the theater movement I studied here in the early 70s and Pope John Paul II’s visit to Poland in 1979.

I wrote my dissertation on a theater movement, Polish Student Theater including such groups as Kalambur and Nawias of Wroclaw, Teatr Stu and Pleonazmus of Krakow, Teatr Plastyczna of Lublin, Teatr 77 of Lodz and Teatr Osmego Dnia of Poznan. In these theaters and in their audiences the power of the politics of small things was revealed. They were not engaged with regime or anti-regime politics. Their importance was that they provided a zone of independent sensibility for their performers and audience. In these theaters a different Poland was not only imagined and performed. It actually existed. They did not support the regime or attempt to reform or overthrow it. They created a life apart from it.

Such life apart became a societal experience in 1979. I think is the way to understand the profane significance of the Pope’s visit. To be sure, he was an opponent of Communism. But when he came here and was greeted by millions, they were not engaged in a political demonstration, but in a religious and social one. People did not flock to see the Pope and celebrate mass with him as an explicitly political, anti-regime act, instrumentally directed toward the defeat of Communism. Their activities were ends in themselves, and they came to see themselves differently. Clearly seeing this laid the groundwork of Solidarity, revealed a collective shared understanding that the Polish people had a different character than that which was imagined in the official Communist press, a perception that could imagine people acting on their own independent of officialdom, as indeed occurred on a grand scale not only when the Pope greeted the public, but also in the planning of the event.

The relationship between power and culture changed, as the nature of the culture and of the power was changed. More in a moment about that. Let’s look elsewhere to understand what was involved here.

A poetry salon in Damascus, Syria, I read about last year, before the Arab Spring, reminded me of Polish student theater. Both the theater movement and the salon are examples of constituted free zones in repressive societies. They both are examples of the politics of small thing. They, further, both demonstrate the possibility of re-inventing political culture, the possibility of reformulating the relationship between the culture of power and the power of culture.

The secret police were present at Bayt al-Qasid, the House of Poetry, in Damascus, The New York Times reported in an article published last September. Yet despite the presence of a significant arm of the repressive state, this has been a place where innovative poetry has been read, including by poets in exile, politically daring ideas are discussed, a world of alternative sensibility has been created. Not the star poets of the sixties, but young unknowns have predominated. The point has not been political agitation nor to showcase celebrity, but the creation of a special place for reading, performance and discussion of the new and challenging.  The Times article quotes a patron about a recent reading. “‘In a culture that loathes dialogue,’ the evening represented something different, said Mr. Sawah, the editor of a poetry Web site. ‘What is tackled here,’ he said, ‘would never be approached elsewhere.’”

In this poetry salon and in Polish theater, people interacted with each other on the basis of common interest in the arts. On a regular basis they presented themselves to each other, developed a shared definition of the situation, and through the expressive gestures developed a setting of trust and experimentation. Art not politics prevailed. Cynics would say that the Polish theater and the Syrian salon are safety valve mechanism, through which the young and the marginal can let off steam, as a repressive political culture prevails. But in Poland, the “safety valve” overturned the official culture, even before the collapse of the Communist regime, as I explored in my book Beyond Glasnost: the Post Totalitarian Mind. And now something remarkable is developing among Syria and its neighbors.

I am not asserting that a happy ending is necessarily the result of such cultural work: the fall of Communism, the Arab Spring. But I do want to underscore that the very existence of an alternative sensibility in a repressive context changes the nature of the social order. Poland was not simply a totalitarian during the Communist era, and the Syria of a year ago was not simply repressive. That country now is in a virtual civil war. Yet, with amazing persistence, the most violent repression has been met with incredibly sustained non-violent resistance. I believe that these miracles are not conceivable without the experience of places where the possibility for dialogue was established, places where poetry and theater could prevail, and because of this, political culture can be, has been reinvented – in Syria, at least for a discrete number of people in a particular location at a particular time. But the limits of today may be very different tomorrow. This I learned as I observed my Polish friends.