Collaboration and Democracy


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November 29, 2021

Collaboration and Democracy

Thoughts Anticipating the Democracy Seminar Webinar on Collaborating with Enemies, Opponents and Friends

  • afghanistan
  • Brazil
  • Democracy
  • opponents
  • Poland
  • sollaboration
  • South Africa
  • United States

The Democracy Seminar has been very active the past few months, considering global authoritarian developments and exploring the democratic responses to the developments. We have also been polishing our new platform, in anticipation of the official launch of the platform on December 3rd. Here are my introductory thoughts on the topic of our launch event, “democracy and collaboration.” Jeff

"Serious Discussion" - sculpture by Tejosh Halder - Faculty of Fine Arts - University of Dhaka - Dhaka Bangladesh. Photo by Biswarup Ganguly. Source: WikiCommons.
“Serious Discussion” – sculpture by Tejosh Halder – Faculty of Fine Arts – University of Dhaka – Dhaka Bangladesh. Photo by Biswarup Ganguly. Source: WikiCommons.

Collaborating with the enemy is a political “offense.” After Nazism, after Communism, after Imperialism, those who worked with the hated regime were vilified, often for good reasons, sometimes a bit too readily. 

But in the face of a common enemy, collaboration is a political necessity. Political factions needed to bury their differences and collaborate, in order to create a united front against the Nazis, the Communists, and the Imperialists. I observed this personally in Poland. The turning point in the struggle against the oppressive rule of the Polish Communist Party (officially, the Polish United Workers Party) was when intellectuals and workers joined forces, and when the secular left and the religious right engaged in a dialogue. In such instances, while collaboration with friends is a clear political necessity, collaboration among opponents presents challenges and puzzles in need of careful exploration, with promise but also pitfalls. 

Recognizing the offenses, necessities and puzzles, and how to respond to them, requires judgment and is crucial to democratic politics. This is a pressing matter in the global struggle against the worldwide rise of new forms of authoritarianism. 

We in the Democracy Seminar are in search of good judgment.

In recent months, we have been observing and debating how the questions surrounding collaboration inform opponents of the Taliban in Afghanistan, both before and after its victory. We will consider how collaboration among traditional opponents may have opened the possibility of overturning right-wing populism in the Czech Republic and among its neighbors. And in the launch, we will discuss how in Brazil, Poland, South Africa and the United States collaboration can support or undermine work against attacks on democracy and the rule of law.

Friends: As we launch the new platform, I am reminded how the Democracy Seminar was first conceived. I was in Poland in December 1984, along with the President of the New School, Jonathan Fanton, and a member of our Board of Trustees, Adrian DeWind (a founder of Human Rights Watch). We were there to present an honorary doctorate to Adam Michnik in recognition of his work as an oppositional activist and leading thinker of the democratic opposition. When the honor was first announced at a special university event celebrating Michnik and six other human rights activists from around the world in April of that year, marking the fiftieth anniversary of the University in Exile in New York, Michnik sat in prison in Warsaw. The Polish Nobel Prize winning poet, Czesław Miłosz accepted the degree in his absence, reading Michnik’s now famous letter to the Minister of the Interior, General Kiszczak, refusing exile as an alternative to imprisonment. The reading made it to the front page of The New York Times. Our visit to Warsaw also made it to The Times. 

I had arrived in Warsaw a few days before the event to help with last minute details concerning the clandestine ceremony, and then spent the week after with Adam. During our week together, Adam introduced me to his circle of friends and colleagues in the democratic opposition. The high points included the formal ceremony presenting the honorary degree to him in the apartment of the economist Edward Lipinski, the grand old man of the democratic opposition, and a lunch at the Hotel Forum, following the ceremony, in which Fanton and DeWind and his wife, joined Bronslaw Geremek, Jacek Kuron, and Adam. I translated the discussion. Although I don’t remember exactly what we discussed, I vividly remember the responses of the waiters and diners to this notable meal, between well dressed westerners and notorious “anti-socialist elements.” There was a studied curiosity among those who knew something about this open display of “underground Solidarność,” no doubt including the curiosity of the security forces.  After the formal public events, Adam and I shared meals and drinks with many others in private apartments, including Adam’s. Our ongoing discussion centered on the politics of the day in Poland, the United States, and beyond, and on illuminating books and articles, and about common friends. 

On the last day of my stay, Adam took me to a cardiac hospital on the outskirts of Warsaw to meet Jan Jozef Lipski, a founding member of the key collaborative project of the democratic opposition, KOR, the Committee to Defend Workers, and its historian. He was unable to attend the ceremony or the various meetings during the week because of his heart condition. They discussed Lipski’s examination of the history of Polish fascism in the 1930s and ‘40s as well as their involvement in contemporary Polish politics. On leaving the hospital, walking to catch a bus back to the city center, Adam stopped, noting that now that he was a member of the New School and I had met his circle of friends and colleagues, we should form together a seminar with our common friends in Warsaw, Budapest and Prague. He named György Bence and János Kis in Budapest and Václav Havel and Petr Pithart in Prague. We would have a normal discussion about selected books and political issues in Prague, Budapest and New York, and we would compare notes on each of the discussions. With great difficulties, including Adam’s re-imprisonment weeks after our meeting, the seminar was formed and functioned, first clandestinely in Warsaw and Budapest (given the state of repression the Prague branch didn’t develop), and then after the transformations of 1989, all around the old Soviet Bloc. The first book discussed was Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism.

I met Adam’s circle of friends that week in December of 1984. The Democracy Seminar widened the circle, and now in the present global crises, we are expanding the circle even further.

With my tongue in my check, I have called the Democracy Seminar a “Worldwide Committee of Democratic Correspondence,” echoing the name of the network of American revolutionaries in the 1770s, “The Committee of Correspondence.” But as I have been recently thinking about its history, I’ve been thinking that it might be better to call it a worldwide collaboration of friends of democracy. Among our contributors and our public, there are important differences of political experience, opinion and theoretical perspective. Yet, we share common concerns about and commitments to democracy as the basis of our friendships. We share a democratic sensibility. This is clear to us at our monthly contributors’ meetings, at the meetings of our executive committee, and during our webinars, which reveal mutual respect across all sorts of divides—gender, race and sexual, political and religious orientation.

And with this friendship, we are collaborating to discuss the puzzles of collaboration together, in the official launch of our site, with special focus on Afghanistan, Brazil, Poland, South Africa and the United States. 

I’m looking forward to the webinar. I wonder how Obaidullah Baheer weighs the imperative to collaborate with others who wish to resist the repressive policies of the Taliban, with the need to work with the Taliban to diminish the impact of these policies on a suffering Afghan population. I further wonder about his efforts to constitute zones of independent social and cultural life apart from the regime and its politically engaged opponents, in my terms constituting the power of “the politics of small things.” I am also looking forward to what my dear friend Shireen Hassim has to say about the issue of collaboration and democracy in South Africa. I remember talking to her about the need for a legitimate democratic opposition to the ANC in the late 1990s, made extremely difficult by the fact that the only visible opposition seemed to be a traditionally liberal white political party. The complicated relationships between collaboration and democracy were at issue then and through the years of the unhappy development of corruption and misrule that are endemic aspects of one-party state. I wonder if the promise of collaboration can lead to a way out. In Brazil, the way out seems to be clear. An experienced democratic leader, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, offers a charismatic alternative to the authoritarian rule of Jair Bolsonaro, but I wonder: will Bolsonaro’s collaboration with the military prevail regardless of electoral outcome? And, will Lula and his Workers’ Party, and the broader public that support them, be able to hold together against this threat and be able to govern effectively? 

And then there are the challenges in Poland and the United States, two radically polarized societies, in which the shape of collaboration will, I believe, decide the future of democracy. Can all those who are committed to democracy, both those who are friends and those who have been traditional opponents, overcome their differences and defend and work to advance democracy? Karolina Wigura, who co-edited a volume that explores this problem in Poland, which was a basis of a symposium here, will take part in the webinar, as will Jeffrey C. Isaac, who organized that symposium and also organized an “open letter in defense of democracy,” an important collaborative project among opponents against the enemies of democracy in the United States, that I was proud to sign, along with a range of others from Noam Chomsky and Todd Gitlin to William Kristol and Mona Charen, editors of The Bulwark. We will be sponsoring a webinar including the organizers of the open letter—Gitlin, Isaac, and Kristol—in the near future, time and date soon to be announced.

I am convinced that balancing the pitfalls and potentials of collaboration will be crucial to the defense of democracy. It’s not always clear how to effect such a balance. And I don’t believe there are general abstract rules that can guide us. Instead, as Hannah Arendt reminded us, we have only our faculties of judgment and each other. Our worldwide collaboration of friends of democracy is a way to refine our individual and collective judgments and to furnish mutual aid and solidarity in these challenging times.

Jeffrey C. Goldfarb is the Michael E. Gellert Professor of Sociology Emeritus at The New School for Social Research.


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