Human Rights and Republicanism in Central European Dissent, 1968-1989


To speak of dissident republicanism in Central and Eastern Europe is not self-evident. No dissident identified with the political tradition of republican liberty rediscovered in the West in the 1970s. Yet, scholars detected the political language of republicanism in the democratic opposition very early on, finding within it an explanation for the unique character of dissident political philosophy and self-organizing civil society practice.

These interpretations have never prevailed in research. While the anti-communist democratic opposition cannot be interpreted through one or two ideological traditions, this presentation attempted to develop and refine existing republican interpretations by focusing on the presence of republican motives in the dissident understanding of human rights. Whereas the socialist and liberal conceptions of human rights had their theoreticians and defenders among dissidents, the republican understanding of human rights (as participatory rights) in dissent was implicit but widely present.

Michal Kopeček argued that the republican language of human rights (and the related concept of freedom) was not only one of the available human rights languages next to socialist, liberal, Christian, or nationalist but quite a prominent one. Kopeček elaborated his arguments based on concrete examples of prominent dissident thinkers Jan Patočka, Václav Havel, Jacek Kuroń, and Ágnes Heller.

Michal Kopeček, is Head of the Department of Ideas and Concepts at the Institute of Contemporary History, Czech Academy of Sciences, Prague, and former Co-Director of Imre Kertész Kolleg, Friedrich Schiller University in Jena. His research is focused on the comparative modern intellectual history of East Central Europe, nationalism, the history of communist dictatorship and post-socialism in Eastern Europe. Among his recent publications are co-authored Czechoslovakism (Routledge 2022), Architects of Long-Systemic Change: Expert Roots of Post-Socialism in Czechoslovakia (in Czech, Prague 2019) and the multi-volume A History of Modern Political Thought in East Central Europe (Oxford University Press 2016; 2018). He is finishing a monograph on the Legacy of Dissidence in East Central Europe 1970s-2000s, focusing on dissident political and legal thought and practices.

Misha Glenny, Rector of the IWM, introduced the speaker and moderated the ensuing Q&A with the audience.