Tag Archives: Democracy

Yesterday was father’s day. Many friends shared pictures to honour their fathers (some of them deceased) on social media. To express what I owe to my father, I will share this piece, which I wrote some time ago, but for some reason kept stored in my computer…

When my father spoke about WW II, one story always returned. The story of that morning when he discovered that our country had been occupied by Germany. Living close to the border, that morning he saw German soldiers passing  his parental home as if they had the right to do so – which made him realize that borders can suddenly become futile,  imaginary. After the soldiers passed, the milkman came into the street and put bottles with fresh milk in front of the house, like he did every day. The absurdity of life going on. Only now do I understand why that story was so meaningful for him, kind of summing up the connection between his convictions and actions.

At that date, May 1940, he had just turned nineteen and had started his studies at the university not long before. In the following years, he tried to find his own personal response to the occupation – intellectually and in practice – which led him to take part, three years later, in underground activities. This was not a subject about which he talked much, and when he did, it was in an almost excusing manner. The cell didn’t accomplish much, and its members as well as their families paid the highest price. Only after a few months they were found out, three members were executed, my father survived in hiding. His brothers were taken hostage, and were made to suffer the concentration camps; his younger brother perished in Bergen Belsen. The family of the founder of the cell was burned to death in their house as retaliation by the nazi’s – among them a girl with Down’s syndrom. The activities of the resistance group were to help people get into hiding with false papers, and to print and distribute pamphlets to call the people of their city to join in the general strike  of April and May – a protest strike by the Dutch people against the occupying forces.

After the war, my father never went to meetings of ancient resistance people, and didn’t like the kind of self-congratulatory atmosphere surrounding much speech about ‘the resistance’. I always understood something of the emotional side of his discomfort, as he had to live with the unspeakable personal consequences of his actions. Only now am I beginning to understand there was also a principled side to it. His actions were never for ‘the fatherland’ and he would not have participated in armed actions against the nazi’s. For he had, in a sharp light, seen the futile and imaginary character of the idea of a nation connected to a piece of the earth. It was, in his eyes, not worth the fight. He spoke often about how he saw that the era of the nation-state was over, although the world didn’t yet understand that. He was a visionary idealist – his actions were aimed at stimulating the suppressed democratic potential of actual human beings, not at saving the Dutch nation.

During the last conversation we had about the war, a few months after his 94th birthday, he told me that his resistance work did not just start when he got involved in the group initiated by his friend Toon Fredericks, as I thought. His first ‘illegal’ action was in 1940, when he intentionally ‘lost’ his identity papers, to help a Jewish man to flee or go into hiding. Again, during the Christmas time of 1942, he assisted in helping a Jewish woman with her child (the wife of an Austrian artist, who already was hiding with friends) to go into hiding in a home for the elderly nearby. These were untold stories until the end of his life. He would never want to be in position that people would applaud him for such actions. Not just because no applause could ever make up for the loss and the destruction of that time. But also, I suspect now, because he felt a distance to any public honoring of helping Jews, such as that by the state of Israel. No state power, to his view, should morally appropriate the actions of individuals to stand up for their fellow human beings. In this vein we spoke about the Paris attacks, last year: how French government officials appropriated the protests against terrorism of grieving individuals, interpreting them as support for the French nation.

My father could no longer believe in the nation state, after that morning in 1940. In discussions on political philosophy, in which I put forward Seyla Benhabib’s thoughts on this matter, and Hannah Arendt’s, he granted me that nation-states – peoples seeking protection by claiming a piece of the earth, drawing and defending borders – perhaps were still a necessary institution (the lesser evil) in these times. I, for one, did not share his 1940’s idealist belief that the problems of a nation-state system could be overcome by creating a world federation or something of that sort. I was always more on the Nietzschian side, stressing that one always has to reckon with human irrationality – in whatever era we might come to live.

Having had a full philosophical training myself, whereas he did only some courses in philosophy while studying law, and later chose practical jobs above academia (jobs in which he tried to stimulate the potential of individuals: young workers, those seeking later in life education, and young people with learning disabilities) – my argumentation was stronger. So he usually let me ‘win’ on the theoretical plane. It is only now, when I see his life ‘from the outside’ so to speak, as he died last October 2015, that I understand the consistency between his beliefs and his actions. He did believe in democracy, he did believe in the necessity of reason to organize human relations, he did believe in furthering human potential. He was very cautious of any combination of state power and national sentiments, to say the least. His hesitations over against armed resistance sprung from the same source: it would, in his eyes, always be incorporated by some kind of nationalist state power, and could not support a free flourishing of human life. As much as I can see how this position is very idealist, perhaps not of this world, I acknowledge respectfully his silent consistent adherence to the experience expressed in that story of soldiers and a milkman, of early 1940: that no nation state can protect you, in the end, and that, in spite of that, life just goes on.



From the time I was in primary school, my father and I were in an ongoing conversation and discussion on philosophy, religion, politics, law and ethics. My philosophical work has to a certain extent been the critical exploration of presuppositions and foundations that showed in these discussions. This article is meant to say thank you (a thank you that is never enough) to my father for the intellectual and critical inspiration I got from him sharing his thoughts with me.

When I was a student, in the eighties of the twentieth century, Karl Popper’s Open Society was considered not quite okay to read – at least when one considered oneself to be on the critical and leftish side of the political arena. As incomprehensible as this now seems to me – well, there were more strange things going on in that stifled age of what is called ‘Cold War’. In those polarized circumstances anyone who was not for Marx, was definitely thought to be against him, and, more, under suspicion of propagating Capitalism and its wrongs.

Popper, who had been a Marxist in his own younger days, left the movement when in a protest rally some individuals were shot dead by the police. It opened his eyes to the moral principle that no ideology justified people dying for it – which made him leave the movement. But worse, he criticized Marx to the core in the book which he considered to be his ‘War effort’ (while living peacefully in New Zealand, which he had reached in time before the Nazi’s could have hunted him in his native Austria for being of jewish decent). His criticism centered on Marx’ idea of history: that one could project into the future a blueprint of a just society, for which then, sacrifices were acceptable.

Of course he was right about this core point in Marx, which was borrowed from Hegel, and we know how it worked out in Communist countries, where the destruction of families, of personal privacy, and of lives were condoned by this idea of rightful sacrifice. Instead one should hold, Popper wrote, that history cannot progress, cannot move towards a (somehow already existing) end: ‘only we, the human individuals can do it; […] by defending and strenghtening those democratic insitutions upon which freedom, and with it progress, depends.’ Democratic institutions, because they garantuee that we can always take new courses when tried ones fail, instead of having to keep steering toward the one ideal society once thought out. And then he wrote those compelling concluding words: ‘Instead of posing as prophets we must become the makers of our fate.’

Another philosophical writer on society (who had fled Germany for similar reasons in that same period, but then to that other haven, the USA) – a writer with similar views on history – was considered to be okay for the left-wing student, since he rather revised Marxist theory from within, instead of rejecting it. I mean Herbert Marcuse, whom I mentioned earlier (in ‘Difficult Freedom’) and to whom I will probably return another time. The interesting fact is that he does not reject absolutist tendencies in theory only, but that he sees them at work also in the so-called ‘free’ world of those days. Because we have separated ideologically politics from technology, says Marcuse, we have lost a real freedom of thought. Thinking that our technological progress is a politically neutral development, we can no longer criticize the economic, ecological and humanitarian injustices that are inescapable when we let it dominate our goals. Food for thought, really, in our present days of ecological and economic (and humanitarian…) crisis!

Marcuse dares to criticize a naive faith in a certain type of democracy (which he calls ‘mass democracy’) – the kind that grants liberties, while at the same time denying freedom. Liberties for some, that is, because they are denied to ‘the exploited and persecuted of other races and colors, the unemployed and the unemployable. They exist outside of the democratic process […].’ This sounds still relevant, watching today’s world – with its masses of poor people living on the verge of subsistence, working in situations which are not officially, but actually situations of slave labour, who lack democratic institutions, or the knowledge, money and power to make use of them; more, our world with it’s large amounts of undocumented migrant workers living in the heart of ‘democratic’ nations without full citizen’s rights. They are named ‘illegal’, and my own government now wants to upgrade this downgrading by declaring illegality a penal offence.

In these conditions it is necessary to make use of any theory which will work for a better world – so forget right or left, love Marcuse’s critical analysis of false freedom, and stress at the same time that we, individuals, are the makers of our shared fate. Love Popper for rejecting so strongly the idea of rightful sacrifice, since it stresses the provisional character of any blueprint and it’s subordination to the worth of every individual life.

Karl Popper lived from 1902-1994, Herbert Marcuse from 1898-1979.

Citations are from Karl Popper The Open Society and its Enemies, Routledge, 2002 [original edition 1945] and Herbert Marcuse One Dimension Man. Studies in the Ideology of advanced industrial society, Routledge Classics, 1991 [original edition 1964].