Laczó: I would like to address the topic of your experience as an intellectual in politics. How and why did you decide to enter politics and what made you leave it? How do you look back on the political experience you gathered over the years?
Antohi: The first connection between me as an intellectual and the realm of politics emerged by default in the family milieu. My first serious civic-political act was when I initiated a samizdat publication, a rather innocent magazine for teenagers, written by hand on A4 paper. It was related our experiences as students in an elite high school. Between eleven and fifteen I had been drawing cartoons, usually to make fun of our teachers, and at fifteen I had collected such cartoons in a kind of ephemeral ‘publication,’ Bulevardul. Not all the teachers who found themselves caricatured appreciated my cartoons but otherwise I didn’t get into trouble. I came back to the same spirit of irony and sarcasm when I was seventeen, and added fully conscious, more radical, already political nuances. In April 1974 a new law of the press was adopted in Romania. I read it very carefully to find a possibility of doing something against or at least outside it. I could not do much. The law was supposedly abolishing censorship but in fact it was re-instituting it, not only in the minds of the authors (self-censorship had existed before), but also by distributing it ubiquitously, delegating it to all editorial offices. The law was a fake sign of liberalization. It was the final act in the process of deliberalization that had started in 1971, after the brief period of relative regime relaxation initiated in the mid 1960s.
I figured out that the Party-state had not thought of one thing, namely that you could write something by hand in one copy, and then circulate it from hand to hand. Ours was a magazine for the smart, curious adolescents of the 1970s, covering philosophy, poetry, music (Yes and Pink Floyd, jazz and all that, classical, etc.), sports, and so on. While there were several contributors, and three editors-in-chief, I was the mastermind and the scribe: I copied everything by hand. The magazine, Major (the title indicated both our age—we were seventeen or eighteen—and our ambition), was appreciated by teachers and even the school principal, who liked us a lot. But it also attracted the attention of the secret police. They came when Xerox copies of the magazine surfaced in high schools and at the university. It had been photocopied and disseminated by people whom we did not know. Typewriters were under control, later they had to be registered with the police, but Xerox machines were not policed similarly. There was an exclusivity contract between Xerox and Communist Romania, such machines existed in R&D institutes, large factories, etc. One of the unintended consequences was that people with access to such equipment would photocopy stuff for their own personal use, and for the thriving black market (from elite items such as forbidden books, foreign or pre-Communist, to porn calendars and popular literature). This Xerox monopoly, known to other ‘people’s democracies’, was similar to the quasi-monopoly of a certain brand of whisky, which Ceauşescu’s son Nicu was drinking: you could find any number of bottles of it, and no other type of whisky in mid to late 1980s Romania.
The samizdat prompted the intervention of the secret police. They came to our school and started a series of interrogations, intimidation, blackmail and pressure. This is how, by the end of February 1976, I was forced to write reports for the dreaded Securitate. Roughly between 1974 and the end of 1989 I lived under permanent surveillance (even when I was writing reports on others, since my reports were considered “insincere”, according to preserved Securitate documents) and constant pressure, which moved up significantly in May 1983. It was again about a publication. Since 1982 I was the editor-in-chief of my university journal, Dialog, a task I was undertaking as a civic-political-intellectual form of disobedience. As a result, Dialog acquired the reputation of a forum of (relatively) free thought, was enthusiastically reviewed by the Romanian service of Radio Free Europe (the single most important source of cultural-ideological credibility for many intellectuals and readers making up the ‘silent civil society’ under Communism). Some of the members of the Dialog circle (roughly coextensive with what in Romania is known as the Iasi Group, centered around Dialog and another student journal, Opinia studenteasca) were more diplomatic, more prudent, functioning as a counterweight and to a certain extent securing a niche for the more radical wing. There were two absolutely radical characters among us, Luca Pitu and Dan Petrescu; later, they became outspoken dissidents, especially Dan, whose book-length dialogue on the current situation of Romania with another member of the circle, Liviu Cangeopol, smuggled out of the country in 1988, was only published in 1990 (published earlier, it would have become one of the few pieces of evidence supporting the claim that even Romania had its dissident intellectuals). They were formulating, also on our behalf, an anticommunist platform, a radical critique of the regime, a call for it abolishment.
We did a series of other things. For example, we started to write a novel, a postmodern parody on collectivization. I suggested the title, a pun on the title of a Stalinist novel on collectivization, and added “revisited”, in the spirit of Huxley’s Brave New World Revisited or Samuel Butler’s Erehwon Revisited. The four of us were taking turns to write the chapters. I wrote the first one, setting the stage and much of the tone. In December 1982, at a national conference of young writers, Dan Petrescu and I were asked to read out loud some of our essays. We decided to read excerpts from our novel. I read, among others, passages taken verbatim from a speech by Gheorghiu-Dej (Romania’s Stalinist leader), but imitating the peculiar voice of Ceauşescu. One could call this a postmodern anachronism. This was an experiment, after all. There were numerous quotations, allusions, allegories and other such rhetorical tricks in the text, amounting simultaneously to an aesthetic and a (subversive) political metatext. There were also many cryptic, (self-)ironical, parodic references to major texts of literary theory, philosophy, etc., although the story was about peasants in a village and about the collective farm, tractors, etc. The Securitate did not appreciate our postmodern experiments, however. They could only read literally... So text was confiscated during by the police searches of May 1983, and never found again. It was typed, but (again!) in only one copy. We hope to find it whenever all the Securitate archives will be truly open.
The ‘group’ (like all groups, it looked more coherent to outsiders) was emerging as something dangerous in the eyes of the authorities. It had to be dismantled, and we were waiting for this to happen. We were demoted as editors of the journal, and there was serious pressure on us; two show trials were organized at our university after the interrogatories and several months of harassment. The show trials were seemingly separate, but they happened according to the exact same rules. One was ‘featuring’ the chairman of the editorial board, Alexandru Calinescu, the other was ‘featuring’ me, the chief editor. We were rescued basically by the quick and vocal intervention of Radio Free Europe’s Romanian section, which started to mobilize public opinion in the West in our support. Of course, we were no heroes. In any case, I wasn’t. I didn’t have the guts to rebel and break free. Our ‘group’ was far from the point of no return reached by the few real heroes, like writer Paul Goma, a former political prisoner, who had joined Charter 77 and had tried to put together an alliance of workers and intellectuals. Dan Petrescu reached that level later on, especially after 1987. This was the climate of my youth, in a nutshell. To this day, I believe that intellectuals ought to become public intellectuals and fully engage in the discussion (if not always in the solution) of current affairs in their countries. I continue to do so, even from a distance.
I also need to tell you that at the time I did not know that most of the intellectuals in Eastern Europe would be a disappointment when reaching public offices after the fall of communism. When as an intellectual or as an academic you are in such a position, you simply have to shelve for a while your intellectual projects, and concentrate on the job: become a bureaucrat, routinize your charisma, forget about other things! As it turned out, most intellectuals were unable to do this. Psychologically, structurally, due to their formation, education, training, I am not exactly sure why, but this certainly was a very serious shortcoming. When there was a chance for me to work for the Government in December 1989, I agreed without hesitation to serve under my mentor Şora. We were daydreaming reforms of education prior to 1989, we were forming ideal governments, etc. As you know, there was no negotiated transition in Romania, no handshakes were involved, like in Hungary, and nobody could foresee such a turn of events, but some of us were nevertheless developing practical ideas for the uncertain post-communist future. I jumped at the opportunity and I joined the Ministry of Education and Science and stayed in office for almost a year, working on the management of the national school system (which includes the schools for ethnic minorities, especially for the Hungarian minority) and on the reform of education. I was doing my job against all odds, learning my trade by doing and by means of avid readings in the field. I think I learned it quite well. This is how I came to work with the World Bank as a consultant for the reform of education and science in Eastern Europe, an experience that taught me a lot. When the post-communist power consolidated itself, partly because some of my intellectual fellows deserted the stage, or never appeared on it in the first place, I decided to move on with my academic career. I found myself in an increasingly quixotic position. I was forced to take political sides. The moment was not revolutionary any longer, but more one of management and slowly of restoration; I had to subscribe to a number of projects and actions I couldn’t agree with; I would have had to accept more and more political and clientalistic pressures. I refused several offers to be promoted, and when my presence in the Ministry seemed to become useless from my viewpoint, I left.
I decided, as I said, to go on with my academic projects. But, to this day, I know pretty well what is going on in Romania, and I am still involved civically and politically as a public intellectual. This was the case even when I was away in France, Germany or the USA, and especially when I was spending most of my time in Budapest, an overnight train ride away from Bucharest. The best patriotic investment of my time and energy resources, I thought, involved a topographical separation from my country. This has enabled me to develop my academic career and at the same time be more efficient as a public intellectual. For half a generation, until October 2006, this was my life.
Laczó: Knowing how difficult it is to map the relations between intellectuals of countries you do not know so well and taking into account the level of ignorance about Romanian cultural phenomena Romania here in Hungary, could I ask you to describe the way you see your place within the Romanian community of intellectuals? What are the major fault lines, be they of a cultural, disciplinary, or political nature? Who are the groups or individuals you appreciate greatly, and with whom are you in disagreement or debate with?
Antohi: As I mentioned, in the 1980s I was member of this ‘group’ in Iasi, and we had a truly intensive socialization. We had limited opportunities, we could not travel or do much. Prior to 1989, I was a radical, but not brave enough to take action, especially because I was under the continuous surveillance and pressure I mentioned. Already before 1989 I started to suspect that many who were against the then current political situation were ready to accept other arrangements, provided they would be given a little bit of exposure, some privileges and so on. In communist countries, there is a fine line between the aura of the saint/dissident and the privileges of the opportunist--the person who plays by the rules. Some of us had the courage to dissent openly and got punished. I was at the lower end of this social segment, who accepted to lose, even lose a lot at given moments. (PS, December 2006: Reporting occasionally to the Securitate between 1976 and 1982 did not improve my condition in any way, this ‘pact with the devil’ did not function in my case. I lost my moral self, not merely my self-esteem, for nothing! But I thought I had no choice, as I couldn’t count on the help of anyone in the establishment in case the threats --expulsion from schools, prison, etc.--were to be enacted.) Otherwise, I had a rather unambiguous political-historical-ideological position; it was not an ‘organic’ drive to class struggle (I do not believe such concepts), but I shared the antipathy of my milieu towards communism. All these factors remained relevant after 1989, when I discovered that those who were opposing communism were doing that for a number of reasons. Simply put, some cannot adjust to any system, to any type of order. They are permanent revolutionaries, rebels with or without a cause who readjust, rearrange and reposition their dissidence, or rather cognitive dissonance in every system. This reminds us of those over-privileged and self-righteous Western intellectuals who take up some good cause from time to time. While this is morally and ethically laudable, it remains relatively suspicious anthropologically. Some privileged people can and do have genuine moral concerns. But they seem to be the exception to the rule.
I was longing for some form of freedom. My differentia specifica was that I was systematically reading political philosophy, political science, social sciences in general, in order to understand what was going on in the real world. I developed a competent and even professional reflection on politics while going through history, engaging in politics and getting out of it. This singles me out, alongside very few other Romanian intellectuals. Most of our colleagues were, many of them still are, like many Eastern Europeans, to be understood along the lines of what Alexis de Tocqueville called “abstract and literary politics”, which is created and disseminated by the literati, by philosophers, etc. Of course, there were no such disciplinary boundaries in the early post-1789 days or in the 1830s, when Tocqueville was writing Democracy in America. He noticed that the entire French nation was formatted, their minds were shaped by the literati, by means of visions, vocabularies, understandings of history, which went from the top down to the lowest strata of society. Thus, rather than debating about and changing the realities of politics, people were entangled in a discursive maze of principles, fantasies, images, representations. This was the case and still is the case seventeen years after 1989 with some Eastern European intellectuals. I differ from them. My intellectual development substantiates this claim, starting with my program of reading about utopianism since the mid 1970s and writing critically about utopias since the early 1980s. The books and most of the articles I have written before 1989 were on utopianism. I thought I was living in Utopia (to me, there is no distinction between utopia and dystopia). I hoped I would add something to the critique on utopianism from within, and thus put to good use my own (miserable) lived experience, not just my readings.
Consequently, I was more experienced and competent in dealing with all the new things coming upon us after 1989. If one merely looks at the index of my writings from before 1989, some of which were only published after 1990, when censorship was abolished, one notices the highly political nature of my readings under Communism. Most of these readings were absent from the horizon of most Romanian intellectuals. Their scholarly references were mainly “abstract and literary”, and their social experiences were relatively limited. Many if not most of them were coming from an urban priviligentsia background, they were people who one way or other lead better lives than I did. This is one of the reasons of my work in the Ministry of Education and Science: I wanted to give children from all strata of our society a better access to quality schools and to books in general, I knew the underprivileged groups will become even more so if abandoned by the new political establishment. And I wanted to undo the legacy of Communist Romania by starting from its dystopian core—education and ideology.
For my position to be understood outside Romania I would have to refer to my adherence to a form of qualified liberalism in which there are some conservative components. This goes back to Tocqueville, if I have to name any intellectual ancestry, and definitely goes through Raymond Aron and his ‘school’ in France. So while I was trying to challenge left-wing illiberalisms, especially the national-communists and the rare Marxists in Romania when I was coming of age, I could use references from the inter-war Romanian canon, because of their anticommunism. But when there was a chance, i.e., when the Communist system was no longer around, and post-communist national-communists were taking a resolute right-wing turn, I challenged the other (symmetric) illiberalisms as well, the right-wing ones. Thus I would place myself in the tradition of liberalism from Tocqueville to Aron and on, with an added emphasis on historicity, i.e., on changing time-space-agency constellations. This emphasis on historicity is another significant point on which I differ from many of my Romanian peers. Perhaps my deepest connection to historical studies is my horror of anachronism. I am keen on keeping track of historical developments and of the various regimes of historicity (which only exist as blends, hybrids, composites). I am looking for ways to recontextualize, reposition principles that can also be construed as atemporal, but in my opinion can only be properly deployed and understood in connection with time and temporality, with history and historicity.
I think I see my country better than many of my countrymen who live there full time. I frequently say this in my public interventions, and some people agree. Others do not. They would cast me as a traveler who occasionally passes by and teaches lessons to the natives. Some of the public intellectuals, academics, and spin doctors who remained in Romania were blinded by their own growing privileges, supported for ten to fifteen years by generous Western organizations, including the Soros Foundation. These people, usually called ‘political analysts’, were able to reach a high level of material comfort, more recently from their publications and presence in the media, especially electronic (some TV talk-show hosts are now paid ten to twenty thousand euros per month); they have simply forgotten about the bulk and bottom of Romanian society. Many problems of public interest do not get discussed the way they should, while there is a heavy emphasis on politicking and scandals. This is also why I have trouble relating to Western intellectuals and politicians. I think I have a critical mind and a certain experience with politics and history, with thinking about them. I am not easily won over by any kind of ideological offer. I am always trying to understand with all the tools available; sometimes I might pick up a tool from Marx or from a conservative or from a ‘paleoliberal.’ This happens rarely, but if there is something worth considering, revising, not using automatically, then why not? This is the way I read Tocqueville and Aron, Isaiah Berlin, Ludwig von Mises or Karl Popper and so on. I read critically and historically, not with the ahistorical, dogmatic passion of the neophyte, of the convert.
Maybe this has to do with my being a rather skeptical person. I am pessimistic, maybe by nature but definitely by experience and reflection. But I am an active pessimist. Historicizing skepticism has eventually become my take on life. This is not relativism, far from it, nor a traditional form of conservatism, with an analytical matrix under it. It is not logical sophistry, nor a formal analysis of the world. It is rather a position based on the awareness of the multiplicity of possibilities and of how they get narrowed down or mutated according to contexts. So I am frequently in disagreement with just about everybody in Romania, and this is fine by me. Still, some take some interest in what I say. Any of my books of conversations, of which I have published four, gets reviewed by ca. fifty different authors, and is referred to years later. This is an indication that I might strike a chord, or several. When I used to publish my long annual interviews on ‘the state of the nation’, they were carried by the weekly 22 in two consecutive issues, were triggering many letters to the editor, and were further discussed in the media. Sometimes, much of what I say ought to be obvious to everybody. Much to my dismay, such ‘banalities’ are hardly ever discussed, never seriously studied by social scientists. More recently, there appeared some empirical research along the lines I hoped for. But these research projects are not carried out by people who belong to the highest stratum of intellectuals, but rather by people who are still struggling, usually young scholars who have studied abroad. I have a profound ‘elective affinities’ with such people. They are not free of biases either, they have to find orientation, which is exceptionally difficult in this post-communist chaos that has lasted for seventeen years and does not seem to be over. But at least they tackle the most crucial issues of our time.
Laczó: What are the topics you are currently working on and what kind of plans do you have for the future?
Antohi: I have about 14 book manuscripts on this table [the interview took place in Antohi’s office], some are edited or co-edited volumes, some are my own. Some went to the press already, others are on their way. Do not wait for my complete works, they are going to be published only after my death! These undertakings keep me busy, they motivate me. The topics I am addressing range from more technical studies on the symbolic foundations of nationalism, on what I call ethnic ontologies, these idiosyncratic worldviews that high cultural milieus develop to collections of articles, interviews, collective volumes, etc.
A very important part of my work comes down to a mediation between Western intellectual and academic circles and Romania. I am trying to push forth the translation of books I think are fundamental for the understanding of the world, and I work various publishers in Romania. I suggest titles and whenever I can I write introductions or afterwords. Sometimes these end up being very long, and maybe didactic if not pedantic. But I think it is important for the Romanian reader to have a thorough introduction to a book written in a completely different context, almost impossible to understand without painstaking footnoting and critical commentary. I hope my work in this direction serves a larger audience. This I see as a very important part of what I do, and I collect such intercultural mediations in volumes.
 PS. December 2006: I told the full story in a text first published by Romanian newspaper Cotidianul on September 4 and 5, 2006; an edited version appeared in a collective volume, also in Romanian; full German and English translations are under way. A book-length memoir is among my ongoing projects, pending further access to the former Securitate archives.