Behind the Iron Curtain, in smoke-filled apartments in Warsaw and Budapest, intellectuals from The New School gathered with their Polish and Hungarian counterparts for marathon discussions on dictatorship, democracy, and the future of the Soviet bloc.
“We argued endlessly about everything: on the phenomenon of totalitarianism, on the condition of an intellectual caught up in politics . . . on a process of transformation of the communist dictatorship that would itself be full of traps and new dangers,” Adam Michnik, a Polish dissident and historian, recalled of the exchanges in the mid-1980s.
The Democracy Seminars—held in semi-clandestine conditions, in private apartments to avoid detection by communist authorities—were organized to address the very immediate and pressing possibility of democratic reform in totalitarian states. The world the intellectuals imagined came closer to reality with the peaceful negotiations that ended communist rule in the spring of 1989 in Poland, and ultimately, the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
But the seminars didn’t stop with the fall of the Berlin Wall; rather, they evolved into a 25-year tradition of collaborating across continents to confront social, political, and cultural challenges in all corners of the world. That tradition has been carried on at the Democracy and Diversity (D&D) Institute, an initiative that brings New School students together with European academics and activists each summer for an intimate three-week-long set of seminars and workshops featuring vigorous debates on critical issues of democratic life. Participants meet in the global city of Wrocław, Poland.
Now in its 25th year, the signature program of The New School for Social Research’s (NSSR) Transregional Center for Democratic Studies (TCDS) epitomizes the values of The New School, “bringing an interdisciplinary, comparative, and highly interactive approach to the challenges facing today’s world,” says Elzbieta Matynia, the founding director of TCDS.
“Over the years, the institute has gained an exceptional international reputation as a major transatlantic bridge that brings Americans and Europeans closer to ideas generated in both parts of the world,” she adds. “And though we like to think of ourselves as critical thinkers, we have to make allowances and admit that through some mysterious alchemy, a remarkable esprit de corps seems to re-emerge like clockwork every year.”
Participants of the D&D Institute come together this year amid a sea change in European politics. In 1991, the institute’s inaugural year, its members dealt with issues surrounding the transition to democracy; now, on the institute’s 25th anniversary, they confront the “shrinking of democracy,” triggered by the rise of right-wing, populist political movements, Matynia says.
“The Cold War is over, but the world, and Europe, are again in trouble,” she adds. “There’s a question of whether the young and still fragile democracies of eastern and central Europe can survive this crisis.”
Taking their cue from this development, leaders of the D&D Institute this year decided on the theme “In Unsettling Times: An Effort in Understanding.” In the course of the summer institute, a conference, “Shrinking of Democracy: An un-Conference,” was organized by the NSSR Europe Collective—a network of the D&D Institute’s distinguished alumni and partners throughout Europe—to examine antidemocratic trends around the world.
Participants heard from an impressive range of accomplished thinkers, leading three core seminars on memory, political violence, and the ethics and politics of sight. Vera List Professor of Philosophy Richard Bernstein, who is co-teaching at the D&D Institute with Carol Bernstein, was honored this year with a special professorship of the city of Wrocław. In addition, poet Adam Zagajewski of the Committee for Social Thought at the University of Chicago; distinguished philosopher Ágnes Heller; Ada Ushpiz, director of the acclaimed documentary Vita Activa: The Spirit of Hannah Arendt; and Judith Friedlander, a former dean of NSSR and author of a forthcoming book on The New School, shared their insights with students.
Students at this year’s D&D Institute cherished the opportunity to both hear from and share their perspectives with these accomplished intellectuals.
“As a participant in the 25th Democracy and Diversity Institute, I found the experience both challenging and enriching,” says Cagla Orpen, who studies Politics and Historical Studies. “Not only did I get to meet and study with students from different parts of the world, but I also had the unique experience of living in an international scholastic community where theoretical discussions would continue for the rest of the day. Many of the participants come from countries which had conflicts with one another in the past. There was an understanding that nationalistic differences were to be put aside, and we were able to think critically, often self-critically, about important world issues.”
The seeds for the D&D Institute were planted in a little more than three decades ago during the 50th anniversary celebration of the University in Exile, founded as a haven for scholars who had been dismissed from teaching positions by the Italian fascists or had to flee Nazi Germany. Among the individuals awarded honorary doctorates was Michnik, who, as a dissident, was thrown in prison. It was only months later that Michnik, freed as a result of a general amnesty, was able to accept his award in person from then New School President Jonathan Fanton and professor of sociology Jeffrey Goldfarb.
At the time, Michnik suggested “a more substantive and durable form of interaction,” such as semi-regular seminars that could be conducted in parallel sessions at The New School, Warsaw, and Budapest,” Matynia says.
“Like almost everything that Michnik envisioned, the initiative thrived and took on a life of its own,” adds Matynia, who helped lead the way for the transformation of the Democracy Seminars into the Transregional Center for Democratic Studies.
Today the initiative continues to thrive, enriching The New School’s tradition of scholarly excellence, civic engagement, and ethical commitment to the larger world. TCDS creates unique opportunities for graduate study, advanced research, and cross-cultural collaboration—opportunities that prepare students to confront some of the most pressing issues of our time.