Political philosophy of dissidence

Jakub Jirsa

Thu – 15:50-17:25, door no. 208 (Celetna str.)

(the course starts on 14th of October, i.e. the second week of the term)


The main topic of the seminar will be political thought of dissidence in communist east-central European countries (Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia) during the seventies and eighties of 20th century. We will read and discuss several essays and theoretical texts by authors such as Leszek Kolakowski, Jacek Kuron, Adam Michnik, Vaclav Havel, Vaclav Benda, Petr Pithart, Janos Kis, Miklos Haraszti and Gyorgy Konrad.

The topics discussed will be moral responsibility under totalitarian regime, the nature of political oppression, lie and truth, political alternatives, utopias etc. We will use several texts from modern political thought and social philosophy mainstream in order to compare the two discourses and to gain some methodological/philosophical apparatus to discuss the texts by dissidents.


14.10. – Introduction

·        a very brief introduction to the post-war history of Central and Eastern Europe and its politics (see excellent Tony Judt, Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 or Jacques Rupnik, Other Europe)

·        discussion of the secondary literature

·        distribution of presentations


21.10. Politics, morality and dissent – what are we going to discuss

·        Hannah Arendt, “Personal Responsibility under Dictatorship” in Responsibility and Judgement, Schocken Books, New York 2003, 17-48.

·        Louis Althusser, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses” in Lenin and Philosophy and other essays, Monthly Review Press, New York & London, 127-186.

·        Martin Heidegger, “… Poetically, Man Dwells …” in Philosophical and Political Writings, Continuum, London & New York 2003, 265-278.


4.11. and 11.11. - Václav Havel and Leszek Kolakowski on power, truth and lie

·        Václav Havel, “The Power of Powerless” in The Power of the Powerless: Citizens Against the State in Central Eastern Europe, M.E. Sharpe 1985, 23-96.

·        Leszek Kolakowski, “Totalitarianism & the Lie” in Commentary Magazine 1983, reprinted and re-edited as “Totalitarianism and the Virtue of the Lie” in Irving Howe, Geogre Orwell, 1984 Revisited: Totalitarianism in Our Century, Harper & Row, 1983.

o      Harry Frankfurt, “On Bullshit”, in The Importance of What We Care About, CUP, Cambridge 2007, 117-133.

o      Jean Bethke Elshtain, "A Performer of Political Thought: Václav Havel on Freedom and Responsibility" in Marketa Goetz-Stankiewicz, Phyllis Carey (eds.): Critical Essays on Václav Havel, G.K. Hall 1999, 112-126.


18.11. – Miklós Haraszti: Freedom and Equality in a Worker’s State

·        Miklós Haraszti, A Worker in a Worker’s State, Universe Books, New York 1977, 21-25, 42-52, 56-79, 147-157 and “The Trial of Miklós Haraszti” (159-175).

·        Miklós Haraszti, The Velvet Prison: Artists Under State Socialism, A New Republic Books, New York 1983, 5-34, 129-159.

o       G. A. Cohen, "The Structure of Proletarian Unfreedom" in Philosophy and Public Affairs, Vol. 12, No. 1. (Witnter 1983), pp. 3-33.

o       John Grey, “Against Cohen on Proletarian Unfreedom” in Post-Liberalism: Studies in Political Thought, Routledge 1993, pp. 123-155.


25.11. – George Konrád: Antipolitics, Intellectuals and Political Utopia

·        George Konrád, Antipolitics, HBJ, New York and London 1984, pp. 11-16, 31-38, 91-98, 109-113, 216-243.

o      Aurel Kolnai, “The Utopian Mentality” in The Utopian Mind and Other Papers, Athlone, London 1995, 155-175.

o      Richard Hofstadter, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, Vintage Books, New York 1962, pp. 25-51.


2.12. – Adam Michnik: Resistance and Power

·        Adam Michnik, Letters From Prison and Other Essays, University of California Press, Berkeley 1985, 41-63, 135-148.

o      Alan Renwick, “Anti-Political or Just Anti-Communist?”, in East European Politics and Societies, 2006 20: 286-318.

o      Jirí Pribán, “Political Dissent, Human Rights, and Legal Transformations”, in East European Politics and Societies, 2005 19: 553-572.


9.12. – Václav Benda: Parallel Jerusalem

·        Václav Benda et al., "Parallel Polis, or An Independent Society in Central and Eastern Europe: An Inquiry", in  Social Research 55.1-2, 214-222.

·        Václav Benda, “Catholicism and politics”, in The Power of the Powerless: Citizens Against the State in Central Eastern Europe, M.E. Sharpe 1985: 110-124.

o      Hannah Arendt, “Religion and Politics” in Essays in Understanding, Shocken Books, New York 1994, 368-390.


The program for two remaining sessions (16.12., 6.1.) will be decided during the first half of the term according to the interests of participants. The options include: Laszlo Bruszt on paternalism and related contemporary literature; Václav Havel on morality and politics (will be read with Thomas Nagel on “dirty hands” and Kolnai’s essay “The Moral Theme in Political Division”); or discussion of Czesław Miłosz’s The Captive Mind.


Secondary readings:

Buber-Neumann, Margarete, Under Two Dictators: Prisoner of Stalin and Hitler, Pimlico 2009 [political biography].

Dahrendorf, R., Reflections on the Revolution in Europe, Transaction Publishers 2004.

Falk, Barbara J., The Dilemmas of Dissidence in East-Central Europe, CEU Press 2003.

Glover, Jonathan, Humanity, Pimlico 2001.

Goetz-Stankiewicz, M. (ed) Critical essays on Vaclav Havel, Hall New York 1999.

Judt, Tony, „The Dilemmas of Dissidence: the Politics of Opposition in East-central Europe“, in East European Politics and Societies 1988; 2; 185-240.

Keane, John, Vaclav Havel: A Political Tragedy in Six Acts, Basic Books 2000.

Todorov, Tzvetan, Hope and Memory, Atlantic Books 2003.