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Democracy Seminar oral history project

Identifier: NS-07-01-06


The Democracy Seminar, a network of seminars that ran from 1984 to 1994, and again from 2018 to the present (2021), were semi-clandestine meetings of scholars held simultaneously in Warsaw, Budapest and New York, before spreading to cities across Eastern and Central Europe. The seminar discussed topics in democratic politics and culture, and was the genesis of the Transregional Center for Democratic Studies at The New School for Social Research.

The Democracy Seminar oral history project consists of interviews conducted by Ph.D. sociology candidate Jack Wells with three sociology faculty members who were deeply involved with the Democracy Seminar: Jeffrey Goldfarb, Elzbieta Matynia and Andrew Arato.


  • 2020 April-May



1.00 Gigabytes (3 digital audio files: 2 MPeg-4, 1 MP3 format)

Scope and Contents

New School Archives student employee Jack Wells proposed this oral history project after cataloging digitized audio recordings from the Jeffrey Goldfarb papers documenting the Democracy Seminars. According to Wells, "I had a prior interest in two things. Firstly, the institutional history of The New School, where the Democracy Seminar seemed an important but under-documented event. Secondly, the idea of radical democracy (and in particular the work of Cornelius Castoriadis), where democracy is not just a particular political formation but a way of life. As such, the Democracy Seminar is interesting as both an exploration and an example of this idea. The participants in the seminar are not only discussing democracy, but engaged in a kind of democratic activity themselves. Ideally, they are actively constituting the same thing they are discussing. This is also a particularly interesting time to revisit the Democracy Seminar, with the rise of ‘illiberal democracy’ in Poland and Hungary being something the participants could reflect on."

"I chose to interview Jeffrey Goldfarb and Elzbieta Matynia as, between them, they had chaired the New York Democracy Seminar for its entire history. As such, they have an obvious impact on the seminar. Goldfarb is, along with Adam Michnik, a founding member of the seminar, while Matynia is largely responsible for the immediate practical legacy of the seminar at The New School, overseeing its evolution into the East and Central Europe Program and later the Transregional Center for Democratic Studies. Andrew Arato was chosen because, as I noted while listening to the tapes, he was one of the most frequent and regular participants in the seminar. It was also convenient to choose these three subjects, as they all worked at The New School for Social Research’s Sociology Department and I had some prior contact with all of them."

About his interviewing strategy, Wells reports, "I tried to ask fairly general questions, hoping to elicit specific stories out of the general narratives that participants offered of their involvement in the seminar. My questions tended to focus on the political aspects of the Democracy Seminar, and the interaction between my New York-based participants and their counterparts in Eastern Europe."

Wells received training, readings, and advice on conducting oral histories from New School Archives staff members. He also read transcripts of and listened to other New School Archives oral history projects, including Activism at The New School and the Parsons School of Design Centenary projects.

Language of Materials

All recordings and associated transcripts are in English.

Access Note

Collection is open for research use. Digital transcripts (PDF file format) for each interview are also available for research use. Please contact for appointment to consult audio interview with Elzbieta Matynia. Interviews with Jeffrey Goldfarb and Andrew Arato available without appointment through Digital Collections database.

Use Restrictions

To publish or post in any public form all or part of a recording or transcription from this collection, permission must be obtained in writing from the New School Archives and Special Collections. Please contact:

Historical Note

The Democracy Seminar is a network of seminars that ran from 1984 to 1994, and again from 2018 to the present (2021). In its original form, the Democracy Seminar was a semi-clandestine series of meetings of scholars held simultaneously in Warsaw, Budapest and New York, before spreading to other cities across Eastern and Central Europe. The seminar discussed topics related to democratic politics and culture, with meetings typically focused on a classic paper of democratic theory, or a forthcoming paper written by a member of the seminar.

The original idea for the Democracy Seminar was conceived of by Polish intellectual and dissident Adam Michnik (in the time between his 1984 release from prison and his 1985 re-imprisonment), and Jeffrey Goldfarb, an American sociologist at The New School. Goldfarb was the convener of the New York seminar until 1990, when fellow New School sociologist Elzbieta Matynia took over the position. The New York meetings took place in the Wolff Conference Room at The New School for Social Research. At every branch of the seminar, the first meeting discussed the work of Hannah Arendt. After the revolutions of 1989 and the fall of communism in the Eastern Bloc, the seminar lost its clandestine nature, and the first international meeting of the seminar was held in 1991 in Budapest. At this meeting it became clear that the Budapest branch of the seminar considered this the final meeting, and the various branches gradually stopped meeting between 1991 and 1994. The activities of the Democracy Seminar were subsumed under the newly created Eastern and Central Europe Program at The New School in 1990. This in turn became the Transregional Center for Democratic Studies in 1997. Key members of the original seminar include Jeffrey Goldfarb, Elzbieta Matynia, Andrew Arato, Ira Katznelson, Adam Michnik, György Bence, Ferenc Fehér, José Casanova and Czeslaw Bielecki. The New York seminar was mostly composed of students and faculty from The New School for Social Research’s Graduate Faculty with an interest in democracy, and the politics of Eastern and Central Europe and Latin America, while the other seminars tended to be composed of members of the democratic opposition in their respective countries.

Noting a global resurgence of illiberalism and authoritarianism, the Democracy Seminar was resurrected in 2018 by Jeffrey Goldfarb, Elzbieta Matynia and political scientist Jeffrey Isaac. "Democracy Seminar 2.0," as it was originally called, differs from the original seminar in that it does not meet regularly. Instead, the seminar is an online platform for written contributions, first hosted on The New School’s online journal, Public Seminar, and then on its own website from 2021. The seminar also sponsors events and discussions in the spirit of the original seminar. The first face-to-face meeting of the seminar and the official launch of the project was held on October 4-5, 2019, as part of The New School’s “Festival of New” centennial celebrations.


“International Democracy Seminar Network (1984-)”, 4 Feb. 1998, Internet Archive,

Goldfarb, J. C. “The Democracy Seminar, Then and Now” May 4, 2018, Public Seminar,

Goldfarb, J. C. “Democrats of the World, Unite!” October 31, 2019, Public Seminar,

Interviewer Biography

Jack Wells came to The New School in 2019 as an MA student in sociology. He was born in 1995 in Sydney, Australia, and holds a BCom (Bachelor of Commerce) in marketing and a BA (Hons I) in philosophy and sociology from the University of Sydney. His research interests include the interaction between critical theory and pragmatism, the use of public reason, and the sociology of consumption. In 2020, he took the course “Historical Sociology” with Andrew Arato. While at The New School, Jack held a position as an archives assistant in The New School Archives, where he developed an interest in the history of the Democracy Seminars.

Organization and Arrangement

Interviews arranged in chronological order.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

All interviews were conducted remotely via the video conferencing computer software application Zoom by Jack Wells, student employee of the New School Archives and Special Collections, and files were accessioned immediately upon download, 2020.

Existence and Location of Copies

Interviews for this project were recorded as MP3 and MP4 audio files and are available for researcher access. Digital transcripts (PDF file format) for each interview are also available for research use.

Related Materials

The New School Archives holds several collections with material related to the Democracy Seminars, principally the Jeffrey Goldfarb papers (NA.0016.01) and the Transregional Center for Democratic Studies records (NS.02.26.02). Other related collections are the Jonathan F. Fanton papers (2021.NA.01), the New School Periodicals collection (NS.05.06.01), and the New School Office of the President records (NS.01.01.03).

Guide to the Democracy Seminar oral history project
Jack Wells
October 11, 2021
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description