Living within the truth

Onora O’Neill

In the twenty stagnant years between the Prague Spring and the Eastern European revolutions of 1989 there were two conduits for intellectual contact between intellectuals in Eastern and Western Europe. The official British channel, sustained both by the British Academy and by the British Council, carried a two-way flow of carefully scrutinised visits by academics and writers. For those visiting Eastwards the pace was genteel: lecturing that would have been done in a concentrated burst in the West, conferences that would have taken a weekend between working weeks, were prolonged. Conversations crawled. The visits were never without interest – they were glimpses into secluded worlds – but the interest wasn’t mainly intellectual. Visitors told themselves that the tedium would be worth it if they made contact with some people who were able to talk more freely, or if those people got a chance to visit Westwards. Since Westwards visits were a valuable perk, they were controlled by Directors of Institutes and Academies, and used to reward reliable stalwarts rather than to encourage free spirits. ‘Foreign collaboration’ was part of an institute’s plan and system of control, with the result that return vists, even when run on Western lines, were guaranteed their share of tedium. In the last eighteen months some of those frustrated free spirits have been making up for lost time, and also reproaching Westerners for maintaining and using official channels in the past, and so conniving with a system that rewarded intellectual stagnation with travel opportunities.

For much of this period, and especially for Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary, official channels were supplemented by unofficial ones. Unofficial contacts also relied on various institutions, including the Dubrovnik Inter-University Centre, the Institut für die Wissenschaften vom Menschen in Vienna, the Soros Foundation and the Jan Hus Foundation, but their most distinctive feature has been a virtual absence of central co-ordination. They have relied on a network of intellectuals – many of the British ones from Oxford, and many of them philosophers – who have taken small initiatives. These intellectuals have visited and invited, have found small subsidies and supplied books, made contact and talked, organised conferences on neutral turf, and revived the ancient academic practice of corresponding. The logistics of such arrangements were no more than tedious for those at the Western end they could be tough and risky for those at the Eastern end. Their lives included hours of queuing, and the risk that the powers-that-were, both in their institutes,and departments and beyond, would prove hostile.

Their activities could only be sustained if they took the responsibilities of intellectuals seriously – which they did. Those responsibities were not liked in official circles: the standard Soviet textbook on ethics, a collective work called Ethics published in Moscow in 1986 and translated into English in 1989, has a great deal to say about responsibility, but not a word about the responsibilities of intellectuals, let alone about their political responsibilities. In societies which vested all responsibilities for informed criticism solely in the Party, the term ‘responsibilities of intellectuals’ was code for a challenge to authority, an opposition which must by definition be disloyal and which was denied institutional embodiment in press, party or parliament.

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