On Czech Marxism: An interview with Ivan Landa and Jan Mervart

LeftEast’s James Robertson speaks with Czech scholars Ivan Landa and Jan Mervart about their current project collating and translating some of the key texts from the history of Czech Marxism.

Robertson: Both of you are currently involved in publishing a series of English translations of works by Czech (and Slovak?) Marxists. Can you say a few words about this project? How did it come about? Which philosophers you are working on?

Landa: In fact we are currently pursuing two bigger parallel editorial projects: English translations of some of the most interesting Czech Marxist thinkers and besides that the critical editions of their work in the Czech language. Both projects are closely tied together, since the second is the basis for the first.

As far as I remember, the beginnings of our editorial project go back to 2011. Jan had just published his book on Czechoslovak writers during the 1960s, and I was preparing a seminar on Karel Kosík’s Dialectics of the Concrete. So we had a lot to discuss. As our excitement about the ideas of different Czechoslovak Marxists arose, we also realized that these philosophers are either completely ignored in our country’s academia, or almost forgotten abroad – of course, with a few exceptions. And we felt that this unpleasant situation should be changed somehow.

Later on, an idea of preparing a complete Czech edition of Karel Kosík’s writings came to our mind. Kosík was among the most prominent and interesting Marxist thinkers in the former Czechoslovakia and perhaps one of the most renowned abroad. Together with his famous book Dialectics of the Concrete he also published many interesting essays, short notes and polemics, which are lesser known, although they are very instructive for understanding what was going on in Marxism, not only in Central East Europe, during the second half of twentieth century. So our ambition was to reissue everything Kosík had ever published or written for print during his lifetime. This was an idea. Yet, it had to wait around for its realization for a while…

The Portuguese translation of Kosik's Dialectics of the Concrete

The Portuguese translation of Kosik’s Dialectics of the Concrete

In the meantime, as I was reading material for my teaching, I came across James H. Satterwhite’s seminal book, Varieties of Marxist Humanism on Philosophical Revision in Postwar Eastern Europe. I decided to write him. We’ve exchanged only a few emails but he put us in contact with Sebastian Budgen at Brill. Sebastian, as we soon learned, was very enthusiastic about publishing different “obscure” Marxist authors from Central East Europe in Brill’s Historical Materialism series. Since that time we have been in touch with Sebastian who — through his constant interest – has encouraged us in our activity.

First, we prepared a comprehensive English volume which includes not only revised translations of Kosík’s texts published earlier (including his book Dialectics of the Concrete), but also some newly translated texts which make up nearly half of the whole volume. Although it was only in 2013 and 2014, when we received generous financial support from the Czech Academy of Sciences, that we began the work on translations.

In parallel, we’ve started to work on a critical edition in Czech of Karel Kosík’s collected works which has crystalized into seven volumes. Three volumes are already finalized: one of Kosík’s essays on political activities and thoughts on the Czech radical democrats of 1848, a volume which includes his essays on culture and politics from the period of 1956–1967 and finally a re-edition of Dialectics of the Concrete published in 1963 with Kosík’s philosophical essays from roughly the same time period.

I should add that substantial progress in our work was made possible only in 2013 when the Department for the Study of Modern Czech Philosophy was founded within the Institute of Philosophy at the Czech Academy of Sciences. There it was possible to build a small team of researchers who are conducting their research not only on the history of Marxism but also on the political and social thought of Central East European dissidents, anarchists or socialists movements of the 19th and 20th Century.

At the same time, two young scholars joined us in exploring the history of Central East European Marxism. Joe Grim Feinberg, a philosopher and cultural anthropologist, has edited an immensely interesting collection of Ivan Sviták’s essays on culture and politics under the title The Windmills of Humanity. He also works with us on the English edition of Kosík’s texts. Another colleague, Petr Kužel, is a philosopher and expert on Louis Althusser’s philosophy. Recently he has prepared a Czech edition of the hitherto unpublished manuscript Working Analysis by the Czech philosopher and poet Egon Bondy in 1969, in which Bondy analyzes Soviet type societies and compares them with the Chinese model. It is a highly productive read.

As we recently received further generous financial support from our home institution, we can continue with our project of English translations. The current work in progress is a volume dedicated to Robert Kalivoda’s thought. He was an extremely interesting philosopher and historian, who is unfortunately barely known in English-speaking countries. The volume shall include his most important texts on Marxist anthropology, on Marxism and psychoanalysis, and on utopia and emancipation. Of course, there are many other thinkers deserving of attention – publishing their work either in Czech or English is eine Zukunftsmusik, as Germans say…

Mervart: At the same time, it would be worth doing more to publish some Slovak Marxists such as Igor Hrušovský, Miroslav Kusý or Andrej Kopčok. Whereas the first was mostly influenced by structuralism, and the second was devoted to philosophy of politics and to the idea of an “institutional revolution”, Kopčok was preoccupied with the philosophy of Man and with the Yugoslav Praxis School. Unfortunately, we are not able to deal with such a project thus far. It is not a question of traditional Czech ignorance towards Slovak culture, but rather for practical reasons we need to finish or at least fully develop the Czech part first.

However, this brings us to a related project which we have just started. Together with Joe and some other – mostly Prague-based – leftist intellectuals, we founded a theoretical journal which would critically revive and update Central and Eastern European traditions of radical thought. It should help us to mediate these traditions and bring them (especially that of the Czechs) to a broader international public. Its title is Contradictions and the first issue might be published later this year. Next to peer reviewed studies and essays it brings some unpublished extracts from our publishing project (in this case, for example, Kosík’s highly interesting text ‘Classes and the Real Structure of Society’).

Robertson: Briefly, what is the history of Marxist thought in the Czech and Slovak languages in the twentieth century? How was it effected by the Stalinist coups of 1948 and 1968?

Landa: It is a very complex question. In the history of Czech Marxist thought we can observe certain periods or even cycles, not dissimilar to Kondratiev waves in the economy (although philosophical cycles occurred, at least in Czechoslovakia, approximately once per twenty years or so).

You can observe periods of lively reception which often consisted in translating canonical texts of classics (Marx, Engels, Lenin) or key authors of Western Marxism (Lukács, Korsch, Gramsci etc.) and also in producing an amount of doxographies. This was usually followed by the creative period throughout which many philosophers developed original insights and came up with philosophical theories of their own.

You can further observe a lack of stagnation, since creative periods were, as a rule, interrupted and almost immediately succeeded by the periods of recession and later even depression, by which I mean marginalization and displacement of Marxist thought into the periphery of intellectual life. The Czechoslovak coup d’état from 1948 and the enforced failure of the Prague Spring 1968 you have mentioned could serve as nice examples for such abrupt changes.

The English edition of Gardavsky's God is not yet dead

The English edition of Gardavsky’s God is not yet dead

Just to mention the most interesting Marxist thinkers from the 1960s period. Besides Karel Kosík or Robert Kalivoda, there was also Vítězslav Gardavský. In 1968 he published a book God is Not Yet Dead, which was also translated into English. The book became an important contribution to Marxist-Christian dialogue at that time, since it promoted a sophisticated version of Marxist atheism, understanding “atheism” as a metaphysics which is integral to Marxism. Curiously enough, he sought the roots of this kind of metaphysics in early apocalyptic Christianity, or even in the Old Testament prophetic tradition.

On the prophetic tradition Gardavský wrote a voluminous study entitled An Angel on the Tip of the Sword: Jeremiah in the early 1970s after being expelled from academia and during his “journeys” working on drilling rigs around the country. In this work he defends what contemporary Czech political philosopher Pavel Barša recently called “Hebraic Communism”.

I should also mention the name of Lubomír Sochor who understood himself primarily as a historian of Marxist thought. He finished his Contributions to the History of Marxist Philosophy in the 1970s just before leaving for immigration to France where he was working mainly on the role of mass-media in Soviet-type societies, on the cult of Stalin etc.

Mervart: When we speak about both parts of former Czechoslovakia we need to clarify its specifics. At first sight, it looks like one monolith: both languages as well as cultures are closely related, there was one mutual state etc. Nevertheless, under a closer look we can actually see two stories that are similar and dissimilar at the same time. The case of Czech and Slovak Marxism is very typical in this sense. Both intellectual traditions were derived and related from/to slightly different sources and inspirations. Taking this into consideration, it is not surprising that Czech Marxism was not in a permanent dialogue with its Slovak contemporary and vice versa.

Despite the fact that Dialectics of the Concrete was positively reviewed in Slovak journals the Marxist humanist trend remained mostly limited to Czech philosophy. A similar pattern was repeated in the case of Marxist-Christian dialogue which had minimal influence in Slovakia.

To offer another example, and one of the reasons for such a diversity at the same time: whereas one of the most influential aspects within the development of Czech Marxism was the legacy of the interwar avant-garde,  in the eastern part of the former republic this tradition was too weak to be influential. Compared to Czech lands where debates also oscillated around such topics as the Czech humanist tradition including the experience with bourgeois democracy, the post-Stalinist debates in Slovakia were often related to national questions.

To be understood correctly, I am not stating that one tradition was more developed than the other; merely that they emphasized and developed different topics and questions. What they definitely have in common was the harsh critique of the Stalinist period in which Slovak intellectuals were often more radical than Czechs.

Speaking about the avant-garde: it played an indisputably important role in forming Czech Marxist thought already during the 1920s and 1930s. A strong and mostly socialist oriented generation of post WWI artists and thinkers created a vivid intellectual environment in former Czechoslovakia (specifically in cities such Prague and Brno). Many of its members were politically active in the communist movement and Marxism soon became very popular. A leading avant-garde theorist Karel Teige considered Marxism to be the backbone of modern art. This point of view strongly influenced the Czech surrealist group.

Karel Teige

Karel Teige

Aside from Karel Teige, there were other inspiring thinkers such as the psychoanalyst Bohuslav Brouk or historian and philosopher Záviš Kalandra who was later executed in a Stalinist trial in 1950. Kalandra was one of the most talented Czech thinkers of the 20th century; his study on early Czech medieval mythology (Czech Paganism, 1947) or his considerations on the theory of dreams belong to the most original material that has been written on these topics.

In the second half of the 1930s, surrealists also represented a relatively isolated island of intellectuals that articulated an uncompromising critique of Stalinist cultural policy and the Moscow show trials (for example Teige’s Surrealism Against the Current, 1938).

Although we should not reduce the history of interwar Marxism into a dichotomy of an autonomous (surrealist) and party-loyal (socialist realist) Marxist current. On the contrary, even during the 1930s we can notice highly interesting debates between supporters of surrealism on the one hand and of (socialist-) realism on the other. Considerations on the role of art in the society produced by thinkers such as Bedřich Václavek, Kurt Konrád or Eduard Urx deserve our attention even today. Their Marxist argumentation was far away from the postwar Stalinist schematism of A. A. Zhdanov.

Not surprisingly, during the 1960s it was not only the avant-garde Marxist theory or the prophetic critique of Stalinism but also the intellectual seriousness of Václavek and Konrád which attracted the attention of humanist-oriented Marxists, as, for example, Robert Kalivoda and Karel Kosík.

To go back to the part of your question which Ivan nicely explained with the example of waves, I would like add that from the long term perspective of the 20th century it was not only about 1948 and 1968. Of course, both Stalinization as well as the conservative post-Stalinist suppression of the Prague Spring played a highly negative role in the history of Czech and Slovak Marxism. The first meant the definite end of the avant-garde movement, the latter of Marxist humanism, respectively of any kind of Marxism as a critical theory.

We should not forget that after twenty years of so called normalization, when critical Marxism was still relevant for some dissidents (for example Petr Uhl, Jaroslav Suk, Egon Bondy), there came the Velvet Revolution of 1989. In the early post-communist conditions Marxism was identified with the official Marxist-Leninist ideology of ‘real socialism’ and as such this part of the Czech intellectual tradition was completely displaced from the public intellectual sphere.

Although one might have expected another wave of critical Marxism, the era of capitalist restoration was characterized by a conservative Heideggerianism and Marxism was even more marginalized than before. Such thinkers as Karel Kosík or Egon Bondy that still more or less followed the Marxist tradition found themselves on the periphery of Czech academic life; although they were extremely important for those members of our generation that were critical of the hegemonic discourse.

This situation has been changing since the mid-2000s, which is an observable trend in all Central-East European countries. Some intellectuals that were enthusiastic supporters of the new order became more skeptical of its developments (for example Václav Bělohradský) and even more and more intellectuals of our and the younger generation are in contact with contemporary critiques of capitalism. Marxism for them does not represent a curse anymore; it is becoming an irrepressible intellectual impulse. Even from the academic perspective, today Marxism is a relevant part of the history of thought. In such an atmosphere, our project is not only legitimized but also welcomed by many scholars and intellectuals. We only hope to have more than another ten years for developing it; but who knows, this is definitely not the end of history…

Robertson: Do you think there are a specific set of philosophical/political/economic concerns that distinguish Eastern/Central European Marxism from those of Western Marxism?

Landa: I’ll speak only about the most creative period within Czech Marxism which falls in the 1960s. I want to start with one observation, without wishing to fall prey to cheap psychologizing. The generation of Marxist intellectuals, born in the 1920s and 1930s, usually had unique experiences. As youngsters they were involved in the resistance movement during WWII and became communists. Then they were actively building socialism in Czechoslovakia, allegedly realizing socialist revolution. Yet another formative experience was of different shades of Stalinism “with” and later “without” Stalin.

Karel Kosik

Karel Kosik

Now, I believe that all those experiences made them aware of the revolutionary mission that philosophy could or should undertake within society; and also made them sensitive to phenomena which are usually characterized in Marxist jargon as “alienation”, “reification”, “exploitation” etc. These experiences they went through set up, at least for some of them, a theoretical agenda which they pursued in the 1950s and then from the 1960s onwards, i.e. to carry out Marxist analysis of both capitalist and Soviet-type societies, to elaborate theories of alienation, to think about philosophical anthropology and so on.

Mervart: I think that such a distinction between Western and Central European Marxism could be a little bit misleading. Where, for example, do Lukács or Luxemburg belong? To the Western or to the Central European tradition? Nevertheless, I see your point and agree that the situation within this region was/is slightly different from Western European countries. It was definitely the personal experience with Stalinism and “real socialism” what made the situation different for Central European thinkers.

However, it was also the geographical determination of the region and its dynamic history in the 20th century. In contrast to the German, English or French Marxist tradition, from the very beginning for those Marxists living in Central Europe one of the crucial questions was actually related to the national question. What to achieve first: national liberation or international revolution; and is the first definitely solved with the realization of the latter? Such questions were an immanent part of Central European Marxist thought. It is visible in Austroslavist Marxism, it follows in Hungarian, Czechoslovak or Polish Marxist critiques of state socialist regimes and ends in today’s problematic relationship to the EU.

Of course you can orientalize it as a kind of backwardness but without understanding it, it is difficult to explain the intellectual development of this part of Europe. Where, for example, does the preoccupation with culture among Marxists (Kalivoda, Kosík, Haraszti) come from? Is it not related to their attempt to solve the question of autonomous and justifiable national being in opposition to official ideology that comes from external sources? Even though he would not identify himself as a Marxist at that time, a good example of this way of thinking is Milan Kundera’s essay ‘The Tragedy of Central Europe’ from 1984. It is unimaginable that such an essay based on a strong conviction of geographical uniqueness could have been written by French, English or German thinker.

So as not to emphasize only the differences, in Central European Marxism we can observe similar debates as were occurring in Western Europe. For example, among the important features of post-Stalinist critiques of Stalinism belonged the tensions between empiricism and theory. Supporters of the first advocated for facts against ideologized reality (Stalinism) and supporters of the latter saw in the domination of empirical facts another form of manipulation and a threat for Marxism as a theory.

This example demonstrates nicely the preoccupation with general Marxist questions, yet the accents were different here and this debate could not be developed to the extent of the Western one (Althusser vs. Thompson) because it was simply overshadowed by other demands of the post-Stalinist era.

Today, we are in a similar situation, there is a lot happening which is related to general discussions within Western Marxism (or critical theory in general), nevertheless certain specificities of the region determine the shape of our debates at the same time. I do not know how popular the essays of Gaspár Miklós Tamás are outside of Central Europe but discussions about his term “post-fascism” are of extreme importance here.

Robertson: Perhaps the Czech philosopher best known in continental circles today is Jan Patočka. Obviously much of his reception in the West was shaped by his dissident work with Charter 77 and consequently he has tended to be understood as primarily an opponent of both the Stalinist state and, therefore, of Marxism more generally. Do you think this is an accurate reading of his philosophical work? Where does Patočka sit in the intellectual legacy your project is helping to uncover?

Landa: You are completely right in that Jan Patočka is perhaps the best known Czech philosopher worldwide. Nevertheless, his reception in the West both preceded and in some ways came much later after Charter 77. Patočka, who was deeply rooted in the phenomenological tradition, enjoyed a growing reputation as an insightful interpreter of Husserl, Heidegger or Hegel already in the 1960s, especially in phenomenological circles in West Germany and France. At that time he was much lesser known as an independent thinker. In fact, as a systematic philosopher who developed his highly original philosophical position, (the so-called “asubjective phenomenology”) he has started to be recognized only in the last two decades, i.e. some ten years after Charter 77.

Jan Patocka

Jan Patocka

Certainly, it is without doubt that Jan Patočka played a decisive role in Czech philosophy – as a writer, teacher and interlocutor. His influence was decisive for many Marxist intellectuals born in the 1920s and 1930s (as it was for many dissidents in the 1970s). In private reading circles, on occasions of public lectures and seminars, and of course through his publications he introduced them to Edmund Husserl’s phenomenology and to Martin Heidegger’s thought.

Although he was sympathetic to many Marxist intellectuals, at the same time he also performed a constructive criticism of their positions. The best example would be Patočka’s repeated engagement with Kosík’s Dialectics of the Concrete, which still belongs, to my mind, to the best that has ever been written on this book. To be sure, under Patočka’s influence some Marxist intellectuals abandoned Marxism altogether and became full-blooded phenomenologists, whereas others tried to combine different Denkstils characteristic for Marxism and phenomenology, in creating a unique mixture – phenomenological Marxism. In a word: Jan Patočka’s work and influence is definitely an important part of the story we want to tell.

As to your question about the proper reading of his philosophical work, Patočka was never much explicit about his stance towards Marxism or communism. Yet, in his early writings on Negative Platonism, where Patočka develops his intriguing theory of modernity, he coins the term “super-civilizational radicalism”. With this term he refers, roughly speaking, to the type of modernity which he finds exemplified both in capitalist and Soviet-type societies. Now, for him Marxism articulates super-civilizational radicalism on a theoretical level with certain ontological implications and a specific philosophy of history. Thus, to put it crudely, I believe that Patočka took up a critical stance towards Marxism. Nevertheless, he still considered Marxism to be an intellectually strong opponent. And that is why Marxist intellectuals could profit at that time from Patočka’s non-superficial criticism.

Mervart: Undoubtedly, as Ivan noted, Patočka’s critique of Marxism represents definitely an important part of our project. Simultaneously, it is not easy to explain to some of Patočka’s followers that a real critique is in fact a kind of positive relationship. Patočka simply took Marxism seriously, which they often do not.

Robertson: Given that you are working on this project, it is safe to assume that you think the legacy of Czech (and Slovak) Marxism has some relevance for us today. What is it?

Landa: You know, it is a little bit tricky to talk about legacy or legacies of philosophers. As you’ve just suggested the legacy of a philosopher or of some current of thought bears relation to its “relevance for us today”. Yet, what is to be counted as relevant or unimportant depends on how you are reading the texts.

In this context I want to mention Sebastian Rödl’s (who is a German philosopher from Leipzig) instructive paper “Das Erbe der Philosophen” on the legacy of Hegel. He considers various ways through which to approach thinkers with regard to their relevance. The first is, what I would call, a “projective” reading: We just bring into the text our problems and find there our solutions. In such a reading, a certain philosopher, whom we are trying to understand, just thinks and says more or less the same we are thinking and saying today, so that we receive back only what we have invested in the beginning. This is, to be sure, a doubtful legacy.

Or we can be engaged in a “contrastive” reading and assume that philosopher XY was occupied with problems which – seen from a contemporary perspective – are either solved, e.g. by present day physics, evolutionary biology and economic theories, or proved to be pseudoproblems according to linguistic analysis. It implies that neither the solutions he or she proposed could bear any “relevancy for us today”. Therefore there is no such a thing as legacy in this case.

But, finally, we can also treat a certain philosopher as “untimely” or “outdated” in the sense that it is not possible, and here I am quoting Sebastian Rödl, to situate him or her “within the contemporary debates, because he or she articulates certain insights which are cut-off from the dominant dogma that determines those debates”. Nevertheless, such insights could open, ideally, a fresh and paradoxically entirely new philosophical perspective within contemporary debates bringing us beyond the mainstream dogmas and philosophical “vogues”. Accordingly, although certain philosophers – their ideas and philosophical theories – can appear at first glance “untimely” or even “outdated”, and not really “in vogue”, this fact does not imply that their ideas have no “relevance for us today”.

To return back to your question concerning the legacy of Czech Marxism, I believe that it is “untimely” or “outdated” and at the same time relevant in this above-mentioned sense, so that it has some legacy after all. I am saying this although I am aware of the fact that we still have only limited knowledge of it. There is considerable amount of archival materials which has to be carefully examined and lot of interpretative work which has to be carried out.

Now, what is this legacy? In my opinion it lies in the attempts Czech Marxists made to rethink or even reconstruct historical materialism. At the general level, the majority of them were more or less concerned either with social structure or with history as they were thinking about alienation, exploitation, ideology, revolution, labor, technological progress etc.

Vaclav Belohradsky

Vaclav Belohradsky

Now, Jürgen Habermas in his Towards a Reconstruction of Historical Materialism says that such a reconstruction should proceed in the following way: take it to pieces, think through and repair them, and finally to put those pieces together again and obtain a new, viable result. In the case of Czech Marxists, their strengths sometimes lie in doing deconstructive and another times in doing constructive work.

To give an example: Robert Kalivoda, whom I have already mentioned, developed a kind of psychoanalytical materialism. He thought that historical materialism in its traditional formulation tries to “explain motifs of human behavior from social, i.e. economic conditions”, so that economic structure plays here a crucial role in explaining the sociality of human being. Psychoanalytical materialism would rather claim that human existence is primarily determined by a biopsychic structure which is more basic and as such underlies “social conditions of human existence”. Economic structure is not, in fact, real infrastructure but a special kind of superstructure, since, when compared with the “biopsychic powers of man”, it is only secondary. Accordingly, psychoanalytical materialism assumes that behind the productive forces and formation of socio-economic relations rests “biopsychic energy”.

What I find interesting, regardless of the question of if and how historical materialism could be reconstructed, are the implications of those ideas for philosophical anthropology. Since Kalivoda makes in this context a distinction between human nature and human essence, saying that human nature is not bound to any historical epoch or socio-economic formation, therefore being pre-social and pre-historical. It is an “anthropological constant”. Whereas human essence is according to him historically and socially modified (in its form and content), being something like human’s so-called “second nature”. Those ideas, for example, could be topical within contemporary debates concerning anthropological difference.

Mervart: First of all, it is a tradition taking Marxism as a critical theory which, I assume, is always important. The problem lies in the overestimation on the one hand and in the underestimation on the other. Simply, Czech and Slovak thinkers were not genial neither marginal. But they definitely need to be studied and critically reassessed. Without that we won’t know where to follow them, where to develop them and where to criticize them.

What we need to do as well is to place the Czech and Slovak Marxist tradition into a broader international context. Only in comparison with Polish, Hungarian, German, Yugoslav and Russian Marxism can we can see its originality as well its limitedness. However this task is not possible without further international collaboration.

Jan Mervart

Jan Mervart is researcher at the Institute of Philosophy, Czech Academy of Sciences. He is predominantly devoted to Czech and Slovak intellectual history of the 20th century.




Ivan LandaIvan Landa is researcher at the Institute of Philosophy, Czech Academy of Sciences. In his recent work he focuses on the history of Central East European Marxism