Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 2, No 2
17 January 2000

Jan Čulík Č U L Í K ' S  C Z E C H  R E P U B L I C:
Who's Afraid of Rational Thought?
If you want to understand the Czech Republic,
study Marxism

Jan Čulík

It is remarkable how immovable the ethos of a country remains, more than ten years after the fall of the totalitarian regime. One of the most interesting developments in the Czech Republic of the recent weeks was the opinion poll according to which the most electoral support would now be given by Czech voters to a hypothetical political party, formed on the basis of the recent proclamation by former 1989 student leaders "Thank you, please leave."

This political party, which of course does not exist, would, if it existed, command the support of 25 per cent of the Czech population. An expression of frustration from Czech politics? Certainly, but also something more. Czech voters continue to believe that they will find a ("right-wing") grouping on the political scene which will solve all their problems for them. It is in fact "right wing" Czech politicians and their actions who have been the source of the Czech voters' frustration.

Václav Žák, a Czech political commentator and editor-in-chief of the Listy bi-monthly, writes in Britské listy of 17th January, 2000:

"When I heard this news on the radio, I began to wonder whether there is a country which would recognise this as a serious reason for giving me political asylum. (This is an attempt at a sad joke.) It follows from further opinion polls that this non-existent party would primarily take over the current voters of the [right wing] parties, Václav Klaus's Civic Democratic Party (ODS) and the Freedom Union [which had split from Klaus's party late in 1997-early in 1998]. These are disillusioned Czech right wing voters.

Who are the Czech right wing voters? In short, they are the people who believe that

  • Collectivism is wrong, individualsm is right, competition is a panacea for everything

  • The market is the primary organising principle of society

  • Everyone is fully responsible for his or her own predicament and should not expect help from anywhere else

  • The poor are lazy people who do not want to work

  • Only the rich can behave ethically, they are the only ones who can afford to do so

  • All communists are morally defective by virtue of having been members of the communist party. The whole forty years of communism was an Age of Darkness

  • Everything must be privatised as soon as possible because private property is always better than state property

  • Privatisation produces first owners, the market then finds the best owners

  • Restructuring must be undertaken by private owners - the state is incapable of doing this

  • State officials are corrupt idiots; hence it is necessary to reduce the civil service to a minimum. This is approximately the whole spiritual equipment of a Czech right wing voter who in 1992 accepted the vision that freedom and the market creates prosperity. Most of these people do not know what a complex mechanism the contemporary state is. Neither these voters, nor their politicians (with a few exceptions) have sat a Public Administration examination at any university, not even in Africa.

    It must be said that some points of the above Ten Commandments are valid, but if they are all taken together, they constitute a highly destructive mixture: it is impossible to base any sensible policies on these beliefs. The commentaries of [the most widely read Czech daily newspaper] Mladá fronta Dnes have perpetuated these beliefs: these commentaries are a perfect example of thoughtless propaganda in a free society. And the Czech public, frustrated by the consequences of the policies which it has chosen and supported, like a drug addict, attempt to cure their frustration by another dose of the same cliches, which are just as stupid as the cliches spread by Václav Klaus - the only difference now being that these new cliches attempt to moralise.

    The crisis of Czech politics is the result of the disintegration of the state, which was brought about by Czech right wing politicians. It is also the result of the malfunctioning of Czech political parties. Political corruption makes it impossible for them to conduct consistent and reasonable policies because any attempt at creating a transparent economy makes it impossible for the cowboy businessmen, brought into being by Klaus's policies, to conduct their business without hindrance."

    Václav Žák

    Ideological blinkers

    There are still a large number of commentators who will defend this state of affairs from a hardened, emotional, ideological point of view. Marxism is still a potent force in the Czech Republic. Once, it controlled almost all public debate. Now it only exists as a huge vacuum area in the Czech public sphere. Commentators define themselves vis-a-vis this invisible balloon of Marxism. They react violently if they see anything vaguely reminiscent of Marxist ideology. It can be almost anything. You argue rationally and convincingly? Too bad, Lenin and Stalin did so too.

    Andrew Stroehlein reports that one Czech school after the fall of communism abolished the regular fire drills - surely it was communist nonsense because it had been introduced in the era of communist totalitarianism. No truly right wing, liberal school in the West runs fire drills! (Similarly, soon after the fall of communism, the Czechoslovak authorities abolished the emergency measures which were due to kick in during large unforeseen natural catastrophes. This is why the floods in the summer of 1997 were so lethal.)

    "Communists used intellectual argumentation to their own ends - hence all intellectual argumentation is suspect"

    Here is an example of this type of reasoning by a leading Czech literary critic, Viktor Šlajchrt. He writes regularly for the political cultural weekly Respekt. This is an English translation of a review of Jak Češi myslí, Jan Čulík's book of selections from the internet daily Britské listy (Milenium Publishing, Chomutov, 1999, 480 pp., ISBN 80-86201-14-7):

    Worrying about Čulík

    During a cold, from which I have been suffering since the last century, I have been devoting myself to reading. Over the past few days I read the fat volume, co-writted and edited by Jan Čulík, Jak Češi myslí, a book of selections from Britské listy, a Czech-language internet daily. In a way, the volume is an impressive example of public debate, whose participants, scattered around the world, seem very erudite. Maybe a new way is being born here how to form political attitudes, opinions and programmes. Maybe also an influential new strata of people is coming into being who will wish to implement these principles in practice.

    I do not wish to review Čulík's book, for I am not sufficiently industrious or clever to do that. I only want to make a few remarks on some of the tendencies which worry me.

    Čulík as well as the other authors included in the volume set out their arguments very well. Their capability to argue is based on a maximum of information they have understood, as well as on various teachings, philosophical opinions and economic analyses they have fully grasped. They display high levels of professionalism. An individual acquires such capabilities only if he or she undergoes special schooling.

    In the communist era it was difficult to argue with the well-qualified propagandists who used the Marxist Leninist method of argumentation. Their opponents and their personal experience were seemingly on their own, while the communist propagandists had acquired their professional persuasiveness from research institutes and universities. You could only argue by pointing to your own personal empirical experience which the Marxists despised, since they had acquired higher knowledge of absolute truth from their university lectures.

    I cannot argue with Čulík, either. I cannot distinguish whether he speaks only on his own behalf or on behalf of a social strata to which he belongs by his profession.

    But you can professionally - and persuasively - argue in favour of anything and if such a debater is not countered by a similarly trained opponent, ordinary people can put their empirical experience in their pipes and smoke it. Western universities and the western intellectual establishment have been cloning an identical type of intellectual for dozens of years now, and so a community of such "debaters" has come into being. They now demand to be heard.

    History has however shown us repeatedly that sweet fruit has been the result of the work of good, taciturn farmers and businessmen, while the work of "debaters" has always turned into bitter tragicomedy.

    The book of selections from Britské listy only pretends to be open. It is true that occasionally a right-wing voice is heard, but it is invariably drowned by the noise of argumentation from the left. Maybe this is the result of Čulík's biased selection process, maybe it is the result of a strange composition of Čulík's readership.

    The notion, that in the West, the ongoing democratic debate gradually sifts through the viable and the non-viable arguments and a political consensus arises which then turns into civilisational rules, seems to me dangerous. Čulík argues that after the formation of such civilisational consensus, society than no longer debates these issues because it regards differing views as rubbish.

    This is exactly how the Czech "intellectuals", greatly assisted by President Beneš and the communists ostracised the Czech Agrarian Party after 1945 - yet the Agrarians were extremely sensible. How much we need them now...

    On the one hand, Čulík's book heralds the arrival of the era of individualism, on the other hand it wants to codify public debate and to subordinate it to conventions, even though these may be sophisticated and modern.

    Čulík pretends to talk about the most advanced Western journalism, which he presents as a model, for the Czechs. If this were to be the case, it would mean that the best journalists in the world would do nothing else but attack their governments, turn politicians into criminals and their own colleagues into the heroes of the times (especially if these colleagues were good pals of theirs, like Čulík's pal Ivan Kytka).

    Aggresiveness is for Čulík the highest value in journalism, no matter to which politician it is applied. It would seem that if a politician wins the election, he or she must assume the burden of collective guilt, which also emburdens those who voted for him. According to Čulík, both the voters and the winning politicians deserve to be defamed.

    As an empiricist, I am really stunned how strongly Čulík hates entertainment. In his view, entertainment is always unambiguously superficial and escapist, while it is the real duty of the media to rouse people, point to politicians' mistakes and shortcomings, to criticise abuses of power etc.

    But the world has had deplorable experiences with public figures who despised entertainment . It is of course possible to admit that ferocious campaigns, sarcastic pronouncements full of hatred and public executions are also, in a way, amusing and attractive. After all, they greatly entertained Lenin and Lenin's successor Stalin entertained the public by stunning show trial performances. Maybe Čulík would accept this type of entertainment: after all, rousing the public is cleverly connected with criticising abuses in it.

    These are my doubts about Čulík's book. However, I again hasten to add that Čulík's book is intelligent and allows us to acquaint ourselves with the thinking of an advanced civilisation. But it should be less biased.

    A few remarks by JC on the margin of Mr. Šlajchrt's review

  • It was not difficult to defeat lecturers in Marxism-Leninism in their argumentation, however, it was dangerous to do so.

  • You cannot persuasively argue in favour of anything.

  • Jak Češi myslí includes several "right-wing" texts, for instance František Nepil's criticism of Václav Klaus's privatisation. Mr. Šlajchrt does not realise this because he evidently regards all criticism of Václav Klaus as automatically left wing.

  • How the consensus in Western democratic societies is formed. Mr. Šlajchrt has not properly understood this line of argument. The book argues that problems are continually debated in Western democratic societies and as a result of these public debates, a general consensus on basic civilisational values arises. This consensus is valid not because it is artificially imposed on society but because people are aware of the persuasive arguments, underpinning its individual parts. When new information comes to light, the social consensus is naturally adjusted. This is a continuing, never-ending process.

  • Jan Čulík does not regard aggresivity as the highest journalistic value.

  • Mr Šlajchrt seems to argue that politicians in power should not be criticised because they have a political mandate. He seems to forget that in democracy, their enormous power must be continually checked by efficient public scrutiny.

  • Jan Čulík does not attack entertainment. He criticises manipulative media programming which enslaves the viewers by selling them dross by pretending it is gold.

    Jan Čulík, 29 December 1999

    The author is the publisher of the Czech Internet daily Britské listy.

    Archive of Jan Čulík's articles in CER



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