Daniel Kroupa: Lessons from Patočka

Today the main thing is to stop the highest government authorities from introducing authoritarian elements into our system and from turning to the East, towards Russia and China. This motivates into action even those who are not particularly interested in politics, says Daniel Kroupa in an interview with Łukasz Grzesiczak.

ŁUKASZ GRZESICZAK: You were an MP and a senator, today you are an academic lecturer. Don’t you miss big politics?

DANIEL KROUPA: No, I really don’t miss “big politics”, as you call it. I experienced it during the Velvet Revolution and shortly after the transition, when it was important to re-build the constitution, regulations, the law as such. Today, politics is not “big”, but deals with small things and is largely governed by routine, and a parliamentarian as an individual has no influence over it. So it is quite tiring for creative people working in the parliament or even in the government. You have to spend long hours in meetings about things you have to deal with, but you don’t relate to them personally. At one meeting we talked about building regulations, then about kindergartens, then about international agreements. You jump from one topic to another, it’s confusing for you, you are drowning in paperwork. And there is no energy left for reading and writing. So for me, the departure from “big politics” was a kind of liberation.

Are you saying that politics used to be different, or did you just find yourself in it at a very special time?

I am still very interested in politics, in its theoretical aspect. I, of course, focus on political philosophy, but I also observe politics in practice. After the revolution, during the transition from a totalitarian to a democratic system, many things had to be thought through. You had to work from morning to night. In the first year, I sat in parliament from eight o’clock in the morning to past midnight almost every day. After a few months, I was completely exhausted, on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Today it is easy to push work on someone else, but at that time anyone who felt even a little bit of responsibility worked very hard.

But once politics starts to settle down, other forces come to the fore. At the beginning they have no impact. I mean here, for example, lobbying for certain regulations, and then lobbying becomes less and less political and more economic. This is when corruption appears. Then we entered the stage of clientelism when large groups formed in the economy and planted their people in politics. Politics ceased to be politics but became a kind of business. Finally, we entered the oligarchic stage, in which the “bosses” are not satisfied with filling government positions with their own people, but end up entering politics themselves, trying to take control not only of the political scene but also of the media and other areas.

November marks the thirtieth anniversary of the Velvet Revolution. Could you list a few things that were achieved, which you consider to be a success, and a few things that were not?

I will start at the end—that is a fundamental theme for me. It is interesting, but it is also very sad to see how things that were of no interest to anyone at the beginning suddenly developed in such a way that they are beginning to destroy the democratic system in the country.

One achievement was that the totalitarian tools that the communist authorities employed to control society were removed. In our country, these democratic changes took place very quickly, in just a few months or even weeks. After the first two years, the system was already well-formed. In the economic area, it took longer, a few years.

It is a great success that a stable framework for the Czech Republic was created so quickly. But it was impossible to fill it with content, it was impossible to create strong political parties, such as in Germany. Our political parties are weak, the strongest have 10-15 thousand members. At present, the ruling party is said to have only 3.5 thousand members. Looking from the West to the East, it is apparent that the number of people willing to get involved in governing the state is decreasing. This is the cause of political instability.

We also failed to create conditions for small and medium-sized companies. The scene was quickly taken over by big players, we did not manage to separate business from politics and media.

There is a great deal of talk today about the crisis in the Czech media…

It was a success that it was possible to transform the state media into public media, which form a quite solid structure now. But the private media were simply “unleashed”. Initially, there was a ban on interrupting programs with advertising, but this was financially disadvantageous for certain companies, so lobbyists used several corrupt parliamentarians to instigate a change in the law. In this way, private media gained a lot of power, but this does not mean that public media were significantly weakened—they are still functioning quite vigorously in the Czech Republic.

Education reform: the previously top-down and state-run education system was decentralized. Consequently, at the level of elementary schools, the decisive voice belongs now to municipalities, and at the level of secondary schools to regions, while universities are public, with private universities functioning alongside them. As far as legal and formal reforms are concerned, the transition from a totalitarian to a democratic system was quite successful.

But once politics starts to settle down, other forces come to the fore. In the beginning, they have no impact. I mean here, for example, lobbying for certain regulations. This is when corruption appears.

There is a lot of optimism in you…

But I do not have any problem with talking about what we did not manage to achieve.
I think that we lacked a policy on higher education. Admittedly, we boosted the percentage of people with a university, but at the same time, the overall level of education did not increase very much. Education is in crisis in terms of what should be taught and how.

I see it as a lecturer, in the entrance exams at the university—the candidates are less and less knowledgeable from year to year. What we also failed to change is the Marxist vision of an economic base and a cultural, scientific and spiritual superstructure.

The point is that in this vision economics is still the foundation of everything, and the rest—cultural, spiritual, educational values—is only an addition. This is a misconception of modern society because it must be based on education and culture, creativity and entrepreneurship. It is these features that drive the economy, not the other way round.

The organization Million Moments for Democracy wants to hold another major demonstration in Prague in November. In June it attracted about 300,000 people. Many people compared this demonstration to the events of November 1989. As a witness to the Velvet Revolution, do you believe that these comparisons are justified?

Of course, they are not justified in the sense that at present it is not a question of changing the regime from totalitarian to democratic. Today the main thing is to stop the highest government authorities from introducing authoritarian elements into our system and from turning to the East, towards Russia and China. This motivates into action even those who are not particularly interested in politics.

In Slovakia, the government collapsed after similar demonstrations. Why is it different in the Czech Republic, why don’t the demonstrations change anything?

Because the demonstrations failed to change the mindset of the people, they did not make them stop voting for the ruling parties. When the Czech Prime minister Andrej Babiš realized that he still had 30% support, he concluded that he did not have to worry about the demonstrations, that he could ignore them. And the President has already been elected for a second term and will not be able to run for office again, so he focuses on his allies—he rewards them and punishes his opponents.

When did you realize that the Communist Party in Czechoslovakia could finally collapse? At what point did this become clear to you?

On 17 November. It was then that I understood that the Communist Party could not go on like this, that the moment had come to make a decision. It became clear to me at the beginning of December, during the talks between Václav Havel and the new Secretary-General of the Communist Party, Karel Urbánek, that the Civic Forum would win. The entire nation was then waiting in suspense to see how these talks played out. I met Havel on Wenceslas Square, he was running towards me and laughing. I asked him what had happened and he said: “Urbánek wanted me to sign books for him.” I asked him what kind of books he said that his own. I say to this: “All right, but what happens next?” And Havel goes: “Well, they are in deep shit.” That was the moment when I realized that changes were inevitable.

Were the events in Poland at that time also important for the Czech Republic?

Of course, it was hugely important. The moment when Karol Wojtyła was elected Pope was extremely important for us. We met with friends and celebrated—we studied phenomenology, so the Pope, who studied Max Scheller and his ethics and actually was also a phenomenologist, was “our man”. His election as Pope was unbelievable, it was the first harbinger of better times.

It is a great success that a stable framework for the Czech Republic was created so quickly. But it was impossible to fill it with content, it was impossible to create strong political parties, such as in Germany.

I learned Polish then, I read the works of Western contemporary literature mostly in Polish because they were not available- ble in Czech. I had a subscription to the Catholic monthly Znak, I bought books in a Polish bookstore at the corner of Wenceslas Square and Jindřišská Street. Then I discovered that in my district in Prague one could watch Polish television. I also listened to Radio Free Europe in Polish. So Poland had a huge significance for me. We followed what was happening there with huge interest.

Which events before 1989 were, in your opinion, the most important for the fall of communism? Would you mention Charter 77 in this context?

Yes, but not only that. I organized philosophical seminars in Prague, attended by the most important philosophers of the day, such as Charles Taylor. They brought us out of isolation and made it possible for us to catch up at least a little bit with the development of Western thought. In the second half of the 1980s, we were very much involved in political philosophy and economics, we were visited by August von Hayek’s students, they brought us books and gave us lectures. Thanks to this, many people later knew what to strive for, how to act politically in practice.

You were a student of Professor Jan Patočka. How do you assess his influence on the fight against communism? How do you remember him as a human being?

Patočka played a crucial role because he offered us an alternative to the official Marxist line of thought. In terms of erudition and general knowledge, he was far superior to the stars of Western neo-Marxism of the 1960s. He thought very intensively about the fate of Europe, he made us seek out contacts in countries that were in a similar position as ours, such as Poland and Hungary. Finally, although he spent his entire life trying to stay out of politics, he took a stand on human rights and entered politics after the Helsinki Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe. He thus showed that philosophy is not just about sitting at home and thinking, but that there are situations where a philosopher has a duty to put his philosophy into practice and proclaim it in real life.

Daniel Kroupa

is a Czech politician and philosopher, dissident, signatory of Charter 77, President of the Civic Democratic Alliance (ODA) from 1998 to 2001, former MP, Euro MP and senator. After the Velvet Revolution, he taught political philosophy at several faculties of Charles University in Prague. From 2005 to 2015, he was the Head of the Department of Political Science and Philosophy of the Faculty of Arts, University of Ústí nad Labem. Since 2015 he has been an assistant professor at this department.

Łukasz Grzesiczak

Łukasz Grzesiczak is a Polish journalist and writer publishing his texts in Czech and Polish journals.

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