Roger Scruton and a special relationship

Roger Scruton, photo: author

One of the most prominent guests at the Forum 2000 conference in Prague earlier this month was the conservative English philosopher and writer Roger Scruton. In the Czech Republic he is well known not just for his extensive writings on the history of modern philosophy, but also for close links he forged with Czechoslovakia in the years before the fall of communism. In this week’s Czech Books, Roger Scruton talks to David Vaughan about how his special relationship to this country has developed over the years.

Roger Scruton,  photo: author
With outspokenly conservative political views, and as a vocal critic of the European Union, Roger Scruton courts controversy. But he is best known for a number of brilliantly written books that have helped to explain and popularize philosophy from the 18th century to the present day. His writings on aesthetics have also been influential, and he has written fiction and even opera. But here in the Czech Republic Roger Scruton is also known for a different reason. He was one of the few Western academics in the 1970s and 80s to take an active interest in what was happening behind the Iron Curtain. At some risk to himself, he helped to forge and sustain links between Czechoslovakia’s dissident thinkers and academics, and their counterparts at universities in the West. So when I met Roger Scruton on the fringes of Forum 2000, our conversation began with his first visit to this country over thirty years ago.

“I came here at the request of a colleague, Kathy Wilkes, who wanted me to talk to a group of her friends whom she had discovered here in Prague, who got together in an apartment to discuss philosophy, literature, history – the broad questions of the day – but in particular philosophy.”

And this was at the end of the 1970s, the beginning of the 1980s?

“Yes, this was in 1979. She asked me to give a lecture. I didn’t know what to lecture on so I thought that I would talk to them about Wittgenstein’s private language argument, thinking that if they were philosophers they’d be interested in that.”

And were they?

“They were, but they were far more interested in the fact that I was visiting at all, given that I had to pass by a cordon of policemen to get into the apartment. The atmosphere of tension was palpable.”

The Theological Faculty at Cambridge
And so the idea behind visits by yourself and others was for people in Czechoslovakia during this rather dark period of “normalization” to be exposed to the exchange of ideas, to what was going on in Western Europe and beyond, in terms of philosophy and discussion of philosophy.

“That’s right. Our broad conception was that since there were these colleagues who had been forbidden to teach, these students who had been forbidden to learn, and at the same time, since this was clearly a situation in which people were really interested in philosophical ideas and these ideas would have relevance to their situation, this was a wonderful opportunity to begin something of a new kind. What we began was effectively an underground university, which started simply with philosophical discussions, but gradually evolved into structured courses, which would be taught in secret, but would involve some young people as well as the older professors. And eventually we started teaching for a Cambridge external degree in the Theological Faculty, in which we taught structured courses, brought in books, encouraged samizdat translations and printing, and finally examined the official examinations underground. People sat the examination in a cellar and the papers were smuggled out through the diplomatic bag.”

Why the Theological Faculty?

“The Theological Faculty at Cambridge was the only one that responded to our request to help. All the others that we asked thought that we were too dodgy to touch.”

So it was a kind of divine intervention…

“Well, it was partly that these were good Christian people, who recognized the call of duty when it came, but it’s also because the Theology Faculty in Cambridge is independent of the university, for historical reasons.”

And you were doing all this under the noses of the secret police in Czechoslovakia, who obviously were very interested in what you were doing, and, I should imagine, were doing as much as they could to trip you up on the way…

“Of course, the secret police had some knowledge of what we were doing, and tried to trip us up. But our little circle of friends were not stupid people. We rose to the challenge and felt quite a considerable exhilaration in planning our activities so that we couldn’t be tripped up. One of my colleagues, who was in a grey area, working in a Czech university in computer science, actually was the first person to invent a software programme in the Czech language. He gave it to us before any officials could get hold of it, so that we were able to send in messages on floppy discs before the secret police had any way of communicating with each other in Czech by the same method.”

And from within Britain as well you were organizing people to come out to Czechoslovakia. Well known British philosophers, historians and academics came out – and philosophers from other countries too – most famously Jacques Derrida, so it must have taken a great deal of organization.

“Yes, it did take a lot of organization and of course we had to raise the money to do this. But it was enjoyable organization. Eventually it became really difficult in 1989 when communism collapsed, because we still had to go on. We had lots of obligations and we had some money and friends here who were dependent on us. So then we had to re-organize it as an official charity, a not-for-profit organization.”

It’s ironic that you say it was more difficult after 1989. Is that because it was the period that has sometimes been described as the time of the “Wild East”, when it was very complicated for people outside working with Czechoslovakia and doing things like setting up charitable organizations?

“Yes, the legal framework didn’t exist. We had also to help to build the legal framework in which we would work.”

And what was the aim of actually staying here, because in a sense the task was complete and the borders were open?

“Since our purpose had been to introduce people here to developments in higher education, we felt we ought to keep on doing that since they still needed to learn it, and a lot of the faculties needed restructuring – in particular law. There had been only a kind of “Potemkin” law under the communist system, and Czech universities and legal departments needed to rediscover the whole tradition of legal thinking. And that did require academic input from the West. We worked in conjunction with a lot of different people on that.”

I’d be interested in asking you in the other direction as well – as a thinker and philosopher being thrown into the very different context of communist Czechoslovakia. To what extent did it influence your own thinking and your perspective on the world?

“It had a very big impact on me. As a convinced conservative, I didn’t have any temptation to think anything but negatively of socialism in general and communism in particular. But I hadn’t ever envisaged to myself what it meant psychically, what it meant in the individual psyche of the individual person, and the way in which it invaded and poisoned relations between people. That was an absolute revelation to me, to see this poison around me and the difficulty of doing what Havel recommended, which was ‘living in truth’.”

There must have been an element of embarrassment as well. You could play a game, couldn’t you? Being from the West, you could always go out again, you could always leave.

“Absolutely. That was one of the very disturbing things. I could call it a sort of ‘holiday in Hell’, in which case, should I really have been there? Wasn’t I just exacerbating the torment?”

And you did actually end up suffering under the secret police, in that you were ultimately thrown out of this country under quite unpleasant circumstances.

“Yes, I was arrested and they threw me out. They were never very pleasant. But by then I didn’t mind because everything had been set up. I knew it was going to be my last visit and it was a sort of farewell anyway.”

And how has your relationship to this country developed since the fall of communism? There was the chaos and also the euphoria after the fall of communism, and then there was – for many people – the shock of the split of Czechoslovakia, and then the sober and sometimes long and painful process of transformation to the market economy, to parliamentary democracy. How have you been observing or accompanying this process?

“Well, obviously I didn’t lose my interest in this country. I’ve continued to come here, although increasingly rarely, but I have kept closely in touch with people I knew in the old dissident days and also the young people who grew up under them and shortly after, in the early 1990s. And I’ve often been asked to come and talk about the political situation and about my form of conservatism, and the way in which it may or may not be applicable in this part of the world. So I’ve had a certain influence on the margins, on particular people.”

You’ve written extensively on people’s relationship to the state and to the nation. Did the split of Czechoslovakia come as a surprise to you?

“No actually, I was not surprised by that, because, after all, it was an unnatural union, it was a union which was artificially created after the end of the First World War. It was made to work by Masaryk [Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, the first Czechoslovak president] very brilliantly. But there were these unsolved problems of minorities, particularly the German minority, who were responsible for throwing everything into disorder as soon as the Nazis came to power in Germany. There were similar problems with the Hungarians in Slovakia. The fact is that Slovakia always belonged to the Hungarian monarchy, the Czech Lands to the Austrian monarchy. There were a lot of structural distinctions and a lot of problems that had never really been faced during the First Republic.”

I’ve just been rereading your book “England and the Need for Nations”. I was looking for parallels between the English and the Czech experience, and I actually found it quite hard to find very many. One historical experience that is very common in Central Europe is of states or nations whose boundaries are not clearly defined. Czechoslovakia was a case in point, made up of several nations – including the Sudeten Germans. It’s very complicated making such a state work, where all the linguistic groups and national groups – as they define themselves – can identify with that state. I was looking for some answers in your book, but I found it hard to find them.

“Yes, I think you’re right. The Austro-Hungarian Empire was a remarkable solution to this problem, because it enabled people to identify themselves as nations, but without identifying those nations as against their neighbours. They were all part of an over-arching scheme of things that enabled them to live in a sort of equilibrium. But of course the First World War brought that to an end and people were assembled in so-called nation states, often without there being any ethnic or linguistic unity – or even religious unity – of the people themselves. And of course that meant that these states were inherently unstable. We saw this especially, of course, in the Balkan states. Britain is very different. We are not a nation state. We have three or four nations, which learnt to come together again under a kind of empire over several hundred years. But now, with the loss of our empire, funnily enough, similar tensions have arisen. We have got a movement towards Scottish nationalism, it is true that the Scots always vote Labour and the English always vote Conservative. You know, there are some major differences, which probably will lead to a split there too.”

One of the ideas that was very strong in Czechoslovakia after the fall of communism was the idea of “returning to Europe”. I think that because communist Czechoslovakia was cut off from Western Europe by a physical and mental border, the sense of European identity – of being deprived of something – was very strong, whereas in Britain I have the impression that people tend to underestimate how European they are.

“This is a very difficult and far-reaching question. I would like to say about myself that I’m a great believer in European civilization and in achieving the kind of unity in Europe of which Europeans are the deserving heirs. I’m only a Eurosceptic to the extent of thinking that the actual process of the European Union went the wrong way. That’s to say, it developed a top-down system of legislation, rather than a bottom-up system of agreements, and we’re now suffering from that. It goes against the grain for British people who are used to English common law and the whole bottom-up system of government that we have, to accept these dictatorial laws which come out of nowhere. And I think other countries too feel that. But I agree with you that the British people are totally part of Europe. We did, though, have an empire which identified us with the broader seas beyond.”

But in 1938, for example, the Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain decided that the Empire was more important than Europe [when he signed the Munich Agreement] and most Czechs would argue that he made a grave mistake.

“Yes. I mean, obviously, Neville Chamberlain did make a mistake. These mistakes cannot be gone back on, but I would just say that, of course we are part of Europe, but our language unites us across the Atlantic with the Americans much more than we could ever be united with the people of Europe in that cultural way.”

You’re here in Prague and it’s a beautiful autumn day. The city is very different from the Prague that you knew when you first came here. On the one hand, of course, it’s far more affluent, it’s more open, it’s quite a cosmopolitan city, but it’s also full of billboards – often covering the whole façades of old buildings so that you can’t even see the façade any more – it’s become quite a vulgar city, a very modern city. A lot of the romance of the old Prague has gone. Do you feel any regrets or nostalgia?

Prague,  photo: CTK
“Of course I do. I certainly regret the silence of old Prague. I don’t regret the fact that it was all crumbling into dust. I didn’t know whether it would even survive. I don’t regret the unhappiness of the people or anything like that. But it has been dragged into the modern world not by its own soul, but by the predators who have come in from outside to a great extent. And of course there are certain legislative measures that ought to have been taken, like forbidding billboards and forbidding this kind of advertising vulgarity, which would have saved it from the worst of the desecration that we see. In Britain, as we know, billboards are illegal, it’s illegal to put pictures like that on the façade of a building, and it should have been like that here. There are a lot of things that could have been done to make it more difficult to deface the city, but in time those legislative measures will come. Once you build up a proud urban middle class, a city does begin to look after itself and I’m hoping it will look after itself again.”