Democracy and Social Justice


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March 11, 2021

Democracy and Social Justice

On the significance of C.T. Vivian and Adam Michnik

  • Democracy
  • Social justice
  • University in Exile

C. T. Vivian’s posthumous bookIt’s in the Action: Memories of a Nonviolent Warrioris coming out soon. This reminds me of an important 1984 New School event in which he was honored. That day, the focus came to be upon Adam Michnik. Today, I am remembering Vivian along with Michnik, as I seek to understand the challenge of simultaneously pursuing democracy and social justice.

The New York Times, April 26, 1984:

“A Polish Nobel laureate in exile stood in a church on lower Fifth Avenue yesterday and read an open letter of moral outrage from a jailed dissident in Poland to his jailer. The letter, as another speaker put it, fell like ”a tornado” on the 50th anniversary of the University in Exile.” 

The University in Exile saved 180 scholars and artists, and their cultural contributions, from Nazi annihilation. It also enriched the creative work of subsequent generations of scholars and artists, including me, and gave clear definition to the unique university that is the New School. It commemorated the fiftieth anniversary in a ceremony that recognized human rights struggles from around the world.

Among those receiving honorary doctorates were Jaime Castillo Velasco, a former Minister of Justice in Chile and founder of its Commission for Human Rights; Lev Kopelev, a leader of the Soviet Human Rights Movement who then lived in West Germany; Helen Suzman, a liberal opponent of apartheid in South Africa; and Vivian, a legendary leader of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States and then chairman of the Anti-Klan Network, along with Adam Michnik, a leading democracy and human rights activist in Poland. The Maryknoll Sisters of St. Dominic were also honored, highlighting the sacrifice of two missionaries who served the poor and the oppressed and were murdered by military junta in El Salvador, as was Hans Speier, now deceased, but then the only surviving member of the original ten faculty of the University in Exile

I was involved backstage in the celebration as Miłosz’s guide that April day. I was with him before and after he, the 1980 Nobel Laureate for Literature, read Adam Michnik’s letter from prison to General Czesław Kiszczak, the Minister of the Interior of People’s Poland. I fondly remember Miłosz telling me how he felt connected to the New School when during WWII he was translating a text by Jacque Maritain, who was then in exile at the New School. 

The political and moral significance of the University in Exile was summarized and honored that April morning, as was noted in The New York Times front page report. Later that year, in December, I joined the President of The New School, Jonathan Fanton, in presenting Michnik his honorary degree in person at a semi-clandestine ceremony, also reported in the Times

Following that ceremony my work with colleagues at the New School; Andrew Arato, Ferenc Feher, Agnes Heller, Jose Casanova, and most notably Elzbieta Matynia; developed rapidly and extensively in Poland, in East Central Europe and then far beyond the region. We worked with others, exiles and internal exiles, struggling for human rights, academic freedom, democracy and independent critical inquiry, set apart from the powers that be, and often directed against them. Among the activities were: The Democracy Seminar, the East and Central Europe program, the Transregional Center for Democratic Studies, the annual Democracy and Diversity Institutes in Poland and South Africa, and many others. 

My own research and writing were very much shaped by these activities. Indeed, in some ways, they were my attempt to illuminate the theoretical and political meaning of these initiatives, as I investigated, “the post totalitarian mind,”cynicism in the United States“the pursuit of democracy in Central Europe,”the intellectual in democratic societythe politics of small things, and reinventing political culture.

I remain committed to the value of this work, with its focus on political freedom and the constitution of a free public life, the major concern of Michnik in many of his activities before 1984. But this morning, thinking about Vivian, I am also aware of the works’ limitations when it doesn’t systematically confront problems of social justice.

Vivian was a civil rights hero. He took part in lunch counter sit-ins in 1947, the freedom rides and voter registration drives, steadfastly putting his body on the line, trained in radical non-violent resistance to white supremacy. His leadership in the civil rights movement was, of course, concerned with political freedoms, the freedom to vote and participate, and the struggle for full citizenship of African Americans. But it also included righting social injustices: struggling for equality in education and housing, access to public services and support, and against economic inequality and poverty. Without the political freedoms, he and other leaders of the civil rights movement knew, the social injustices would not be addressed, but also without social justice, the political freedoms could not be fully realized. 

A fully realized democracy cannot be achieved without social justice advances, and these advances require a robust democracy: this is the wisdom of the civil rights movement to which Vivian dedicated his life. The same wisdom was articulated in Michnik’s Poland by the labor movement of Solidarność in the 1980s. “No Bread Without Freedom” was a key slogan of the movement. Yet, exactly how social justice and democracy are related is far from clear.

The workers of Solidarność and Civil Rights activists hoped for a simple correlation: fight for political freedom, for a more open and fair democracy, and social justice would be achievable. The political successes of the civil rights movement logically would lead to and support “the poor peoples’ campaign.”  Create “an Independent Self-governing Trade Union Solidarność”, and the economic and social injustices produced by an autocratic party state could be fought against. Yet, there are complications. Democracy and social justice are not directly correlated.

Liberal democrats believe that social justice can best be realized once democratic institutions are established. These institutions provide a framework for justice, and democratic political contestation sets priorities and enables them to be realized. Political conservatives tend to believe the same, though they also tend to be skeptical about social justice. After all: “the poor will always be with us.”

Social democrats and democratic socialists, on the other hand, emphasize how social justice is a pre-condition for democracy. Feminists, LGBTQ activists and advocates for racial justice agree. In that I find this position convincing, I very much appreciate the term used by the most progressive wing of the Democratic Party in the U.S: “Justice Democrats.” Economic inequality, racism, and sexism and gender inequality must be addressed for all the people to govern. This is the meaning of Vivian’s activism. We justice democrats agree that social justice requires democracy, and democracy requires social justice.

Yet, it’s not that simple, as Hannah Arendt has argued most persuasively in her classic book, On Revolution. The pursuit of justice, the pursuit of equality and resentment about inequalities can overwhelm the constitution of a democratic political order. The American Revolution was successful, in Arendt’s provocative judgment, because it was not overwhelmed by questions of social justice (in her term, “the social question”), whereas the French Revolution was. Contrary to the prevailing opinion, this was, in her judgment, the key to the success of the American Revolution and the failure of the French.

When I first read On Revolution, as a graduate student preparing my dissertation, I thought she was mistaken. Agreeing with the broad consensus on such matters, it was clear to me that exactly because the French revolution more directly addressed the social question, it was a genuine revolution, as Theda Skocpol was then analyzing in States and Revolutions, which built upon a long consensus of students of revolutions. 

Yet, as I was observing the major changes in Poland that led to Solidarność and the ultimate peaceful revolutions throughout the former Soviet bloc, I found Arendt’s position particularly cogent. I distinctly remember, as I describe in my essay, “Hannah and Me,” devouring all her writings because they so well described before the fact what was developing all around the Soviet bloc. She explains the importance of politics as an end in itself, i.e., politics that has as its primary goal the constitution of a free space for political action. I observed this firsthand as I studied student theater in the early 1970s, the Polish democratic opposition in the mid and late 1970s, and Solidarność in the 1980s. (I later theorized it as the power of the politics of small things.) Those involved in these activities were to varying degrees for or against the ruling Party and its regime, holding a wide variety of different positions, but they acted together to constitute the space for their autonomous activity apart from the dictates of the regime. And consequently, they constituted a power that overwhelmed the regime, though they would repeatedly profess that this was not their primary end. In the small settings of the theater and the opposition, people explained this to me. To the broad public, this was confirmed by the leadership of Solidarność when it proclaimed that it recognized “the leading role of the Communist Party.”

Thinking about Michnik and Vivian apparently leads me, then, in two opposing directions. On the one hand, social justice and democracy are intimately connected, while on the other, they must be kept apart if democracy is to have a chance to be constituted. I believe this is a real dilemma, knitted into the fabric of social and political life. It is a striking example of what I call the social condition: a dilemma that raises a simple question, with no single answer. Rather it calls for judgment, informed opinion and political answers. no clear black and white solutions. Thus, “gray is beautiful.” How we proceed facing such dilemmas very much depends on the circumstances. And we don’t have to move in one direction. We can understand that we must move in two directions, concerning democracy and social justice, in Michnik’s and Vivian’s.

Thus, to make this complication concrete, I think Justice Democrats should collaborate with anti-Trump Republicans and conservatives in support of American democracy, as it has suffered the damage created by Trump and Trumpism. In this case, the pursuit of justice is secondary to the need to constitute democracy. But the same Republicans and conservatives should be opposed if they obstruct the pursuit of justice: progressive and moderate Democrats need to present a united front against conservatives and Republicans in pursuit of social justice ends, for example supporting a less-than-perfect bill that will radically reduce child poverty in the United States. When it comes to the fundamental constitution of the democratic polity, justice has to be a secondary concern. But in order to fully strengthen the democracy, social justice must be fully pursued. And when the opportunity arises, it must be the primary concern both for the realization of justice and democracy.

I believe because the issues of social justice weren’t sufficiently addressed after 1989, the great democratic advances then achieved are now under attack, and I fear being reversed in much of East Central Europe. And because of the advancing inequalities in recent years in the United States and much of the world, and because of the enduing unaddressed legacies of slavery in the United States and colonialism in much of the world, democracy has been under attack and receded. With this in mind, I think it is wise to now recall the significance of the New School’s honoring Vivian, along with Michnik, in 1984.

Jeffrey C. Goldfarb is the Michael E. Gellert Professor of Sociology at the New School for Social Research. He is also the Founder and Publisher of Public Seminar.

This post was initially published in the Democracy Seminar’s newsletter of March 9, 2021.


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