Photo credit: Public Seminar


“’two going together’ are better able both to think and to act.”

—Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, Book VIII, Chapter I, on friendship.

I was just starting to wind down my tenure as Editor-in-Chief of Perspectives on Politics when I had my first actual conversation with Jeff Goldfarb. I had just published a lead editorial essay entitled “Toward a More Public Political Science,” and I was looking for a good public outlet for a short piece I had written on the shocking disco fire in Bucharest that was threatening—and eventually brought down– the Romanian government of then-Prime Minister Victor Ponta. Vaguely aware of the existence of an online website called Public Seminar, I sent Jeff Goldfarb, its editor, my piece. He immediately responded with excitement, and within a few days “Romanian Tragedy, Romanian Miracle: Glimmers of hope in European Politics” was published.

Little did I know that this would be the start of a friendship that would become a defining aspect of my intellectual and political life.

I had actually encountered Jeff on the page years before, in 1989, when I read his book Beyond Glasnost: The Post-Totalitarian Mind.  That book had a profound effect on my thinking and, since most of what I do involves thinking, on my life. I still consider it one of the most important books written on the experience of totalitarianism and post-totalitarianism in Eastern Europe. Jeff’s study combines cultural sociology, intellectual and political history, and contemporary political analysis. The writings of Havel, Michnik, Konrad, Haraszti and their colleagues came alive on the book’s pages, and the perspective offered there stimulated and helped to shape my own engagement with these figures, influencing both my teaching and my scholarly writing.

Re-reading the book now, on the occasion of Jeff’s retirement—from his long-held teaching post at the New School—two things about Beyond Glasnost stand out.

The first is the book’s combination of prescience and political wisdom. It makes no reference to what came to be called “the Revolutions of 1989,” and with good reason, because it came out weeks before those revolutionary events unfolded. And yet in so many ways the book both anticipated these events and furnishes us with an indispensable guide to them. The book’s central theme—the cultural and political openings made possible by Mikhail Gorbachev’s “Glasnost”—points towards the possibility announced in its very title: the unfolding of developments beyond Glasnost.

Jeff treats this possibility with nuance and care. He takes seriously the real changes introduced in the Soviet bloc by Gorbachev, and also the real limits of these changes. He regards Gorbachev’s “Glasnost” as a response to a long-gestating independent civil society in Eastern Europe, and as “an official policy of openness and publicity [that] is an official imitation of the struggles and accomplishments of subjugated people.” But he also considers the possibility that the political changes set in motion will generate further change.

He writes:

It is not appropriate to predict which way . . . Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union will go. It suffices to emphasize that they are moving, to greater and lesser degrees, within a new post-totalitarian situation. Epitomized by Solidarity, this new situation is defined by a new language and autonomous public action. It involves changes in the relationships between force and reason and between official and unofficial life, an undermining of the legitimation through disbelief, and an unlocking of previously untapped cultural and political energies.

The changes that would erupt within weeks of the book’s publication, and that would unfold for decades to come, only confirm the depth of the book’s analysis, the accuracy of its identification of new openings, and the wisdom of its author’s rhetorical caution about the unpredictability of political outcomes.

At the same time, the book’s closing paragraph is astonishingly resonant today, more than three decades later, as Eastern Europe, then a potential laboratory of liberal democracy, has become a laboratory of “illiberal democracy,” xenophobia, and authoritarianism:

In Central Europe, a fertile ground for totalitarianism, where intolerance, suspicious jealousies, and hatreds have been the material of politics, where modern barbarism reached its peak, a new democratic political culture is emerging. As should be clear to the reader by now, I have no confidence that this political culture must in the end prevail. Even stronger neototalitarian states may well emerge. We can, though, have hope, and our hopes will have greater substance if we learn from those who have experienced and moved beyond totalitarianism.  

The possibility of new “dark times” is recognized in Beyond Glasnost, even as the book is buoyed by a sense of hope and a commitment to keeping the spirit of freedom alive.

And this brings me to the second thing about the book that stands out: its current timeliness, and the extent to which it speaks to the ongoing importance of Jeff Goldfarb’s life work and the consistency of the values that underlay his commitment both to public sociology and to public engagement.

Jeff’s very first words in Beyond Glasnost are, unsurprisingly, in his “Acknowledgments.” Jeff is characteristically generous in thanking the many people whose support and collaboration helped to shape his thinking, from his dear friend Adam Michnik to his beloved partner in life, Naomi Goldfarb. But, like his friendship, Jeff’s generosity is not a mere personal sentimentality. It is also a form of Aristotelian philia in the best and most civic of senses, an enactment of the kinds of connections and reciprocities that give meaning to life and that make public action possible.

These are the very first words written by Jeff in his book:

I began this inquiry as a continuation of a conversation I had in the private apartment of an extraordinary man in Warsaw. I continued and developed the inquiry as I was challenged during serious and sometimes contentious discussions with my colleagues in New York at the New School for Social Research. My goal in this inquiry is not to reveal some political or social scientific truth, but to stimulate further critical discussions about sustaining the ideals of democracy, culture, and justice beyond totalitarian certitudes.

Conversation, dialogue, collaboration, and other people—these things define everything of value for Jeff. What follows these words is a paragraph thanking Michnik for his friendship and his example:  

Because of his inspiration, regular exchanges among Hungarian, Polish, American, and other colleagues address problems of politics and culture in the ongoing Democracy Seminar of the New School. This manuscript is the first of what I imagine will be a series of works to come out of that seminar.

In this paragraph, Jeff tells his readers so much about himself and what is important to him, and also forecasts his future efforts, efforts that indeed encompass all three of the modes of being analyzed by his hero, Hannah Arendt: labor, work, and praxis.

Back in the late eighties, Jeff told us that he would devote his life’s work to cultivating the public work associated with the original Democracy Seminar. And in the three decades that followed he has done exactly what he has promised, through his extensive writing, speaking, and teaching, and through his indefatigable effort to create and sustain networks of communication that are also networks of collegiality and collaboration, bonds of friendship and citizenship.

Jeff is a public intellectual who is also a nurturer of publics, a speaker always mindful of his audience, and an active listener always seeking to encourage and promote the voices of others in dialogue.

He did this when he created the appropriately named Public Seminar, and he is doing this now through his more recent efforts to revitalize the very same Democracy Seminar that he referenced in his 1989 book.

I have never known a more generous person than Jeff Goldfarb.

I have experienced first-hand his intellectual and political generosity, in the way that he not simply welcomed me to Public Seminar, but often prioritized the publication of my own relentless writing over his own writing, and thus magnified my voice at the expense of his own.

But it would be wrong for me to end this tribute by implying that Jeff Goldfarb is somehow selfless. For nothing could be further from the truth. And the truth is Jeff is also a man who is profoundly self-possessed and committed to what he believes. His generosity, both political and personal, is grounded in a rare and indeed extraordinary combination of modesty and self-confidence that makes him an indispensable colleague, an exceptional leader, and a genuine pleasure to be around.

In all of his capacities—as a father, husband, teacher, colleague, fellow citizen, and friend—Jeff both personifies and enacts what Hannah Arendt called amor mundi—love of the world.

Jeff is leaving behind his teaching position at the New School, but he is not abjuring his love of the world. In true Arendtian spirit, he is making space for a new generation and for the novelty it brings, while simultaneously opening up a new space in which to rediscover and recreate himself anew.

The Democracy Seminar will no doubt flourish in new ways. Jeff will surely continue to write, to talk and to listen, to enrich the lives of all who know him, and to make the world a better place. For wherever Jeff goes and whatever Jeff does, he brings with him a deep and infectious friendship, and through his words and his smile, he makes us all “better able both to think and to act.”

Jeffrey C. Isaac is James H. Rudy Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington. His books include Democracy in Dark Times (1998); The Poverty of Progressivism: The Future of American Democracy in a Time of Liberal Decline (2003), and Arendt, Camus, and Modern Rebellion (1994).