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About Matti Puolakka’s Lifework

Matti Puolakka by the seaside in western Finland.
Matti by the seaside in western Finland. PHOTO: © Uusi historia ry.
Written by Pertti Koskela

We are undergoing the greatest upheaval in human history. The 2.5-million-year journey of the Homo family is coming to an end. Either humanity begins a new phase in its history, or it will perish. The threat of climate disaster and the current pandemic are the most obvious examples of this.

“…time apprehended in thoughts”

The Finnish philosopher Matti Puolakka (1947–2018) took it upon himself to summarise the human journey and to show a way forward towards a global society – a way based on current, empirically observable phenomena.

In short, the global society is humankind organised on the basis of self-knowledge, i.e., the study of its history.

The philosophical universal history created by Puolakka, a unifying view of prehistory and history, leans on Aristotelian-Hegelian-Marxist philosophical tradition while at the same time overthrowing it.

Philosophy of history is the cornerstone of Puolakka’s world outlook. His concept of history is teleological. If there were no laws in history – if history were merely chaos and chance – humans could not learn anything from it.

The concept of the survival of humankind is in there, how the development of the self-knowledge of the humankind – the whole of the history of philosophy –  is related to the actual, economico-political history of the Homo family. The current era is an era of the unification of humankind.

Puolakka once said:

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“Summaries concerning the whole journey of humankind are the most important knowledge for a human on human, society and the world in general. There can be no other ultimate barrier against barbarism. Kant called them universal histories.”

Man is a mystery: if you spend your entire life trying to puzzle it out, then do not say that you have wasted your time. I occupy myself with this mystery, because I want to be a man.

Three Major Sources of Puolakka’s Grand Narrative

When Puolakka outlined the basic features of the global society, he did not come up with wishful ideas of “how it should be”, but instead studied “how did we get here”. His view is, in Hegel’s words, “its time apprehended in thoughts”.

His world outlook has three main sources:

(1) New empirical scientific findings from prehistory; the origins of the human genus; and the distinction between human and animal.

(2) Phenomena related to the changing of the era: the rise and fall of socialism and the emergence of “red fascism” in socialist countries; the information technological revolution; globalisation and the rise of the speculative financial capital; the founding of the EU and its worsening crisis; and the growing threat of the self-destruction of humanity.

(3) Personal life experiences. Puolakka saw that even people with high moral standards can fall into envy and bitterness towards a good friend. Even people who have worked admirably for some good cause can fall into a blind social psychological power game within their circle of friends. Nonetheless, he never lost his fundamental trust in human potential.

Towards a new overall view on human history

Puolakka started out as a Marxist thinker, but his views went far beyond Marxism early on.

Back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, he and his friends supported the rebellion movement in China, the so-called Cultural Revolution, which was designed to prevent bureaucratisation in China the way it had happened in the Soviet Union. But as early as in 1971, he began to criticise the Marxist moral-philosophical line, which was the ideological basis for the extremities during the Cultural Revolution. The ideal – “absolute unselfishness” – led to self-denial, self-delusion and hypocrisy. Puolakka also criticised the view on human nature of the Cultural Revolution – especially the attitude toward opponents and those who supposedly had made mistakes.

He replaced the ideal of unselfishness with the principle of self-knowledge.

In 1982 he published a book called “Mikä ihminen on? Marxismin kriisi, maailmanhistorian suurin käänne ja uuden maailmankatsomuksen välttämättömyys” (“The Crucial Question Is the Human Essence. The Crisis of Marxism, the Biggest Turn in World History and the Necessity of a New World Outlook”). With the failure of the Cultural Revolution in the background, it took the form of a systematic critique of the Maoist philosophy, but at the same time, it demonstrated the incoherence and inadequacy of all the central concepts of Marxism. – The greatest mistake of Marxism was to deny or downplay the significance of a universal human nature.

He then rejected the socialist project entirely, though admitting the enduring philosophical value of some Marxist views.

From the early 1990s, he dedicated his life to creating his own view of universal history – the grand narrative of this age. There is no greater task modern philosophers can set for themselves.

Matti Puolakka practising tai chi.
Matti practising tai chi. © Uusi historia ry.

A Man who Knew too much

Puolakka was quite unknown as a thinker during his lifetime, although his views were the subject of theses at Finnish universities. His philosophical production is extensive, but he published very little during his life. Why?

Since the 1970s, he was subjected to various types of physical and psychological persecution, unique in the history of western democracies. He was a man who knew too much.

The influential circles in Finland never forgave Puolakka and his associates for telling the truth about Finlandization at a time when the entire Finnish political and cultural elite had given in to self-censorship.

Firstly, in the 1970s and 1980s, he led research groups on Finlandization, the nature of the Soviet Union and its imperialist foreign policy. Critical research on the Soviet Union was practically forbidden in Finland at the time; there was none of it in Finnish universities. A law was proposed in Parliament to prohibit criticism of the Soviet Union – luckily, it did not get enough support.

Puolakka predicted, on analytical arguments, the collapse of the Soviet Union 10 years before it happened, only to be met with scornful laughter. The influential circles in Finland never forgave Puolakka and his associates for telling the truth about Finlandization at a time when the entire Finnish political and cultural elite had given in to self-censorship.

Secondly, Puolakka saw and was able to explain all too well what was going on around him, for example, the Russian hybrid influence in Finland from the beginning of the 21st century. It intensified gradually and as late as after the occupation of Crimea the Finnish society has little by little woken up.

Portrait of Matti Puolakka by Iris Keinänen.
Matti's portrait by Iris Keinänen. © Uusi historia ry.

Thirdly, as early as almost 20 years ago, during the eastern enlargement of the European Union, he saw the deepening legality crisis into which the Union was heading. This view was partly based on our own experience: we intended to establish a research centre in Estonia to organise debates and studies about philosophy of history, the turn of the era, phenomena in the near history of different countries, e.g., Finlandization. We hoped the University of Tartu would take the lead. The idea was to combine the studies and debate with cultural activities and tourism. The project was destroyed with well-organised slandering campaigns in both Finnish and Estonian media and finally with a Kafkaesque show trial and a juridical murder in Estonia. Despite all its progress, Estonia was notorious for numerous juridical scandals during the privatisation process in the years 1995-2004.

”Against the rest of the world”

Leo Tolstoy once wrote:

“To a lackey no man can be great, for a lackey has his own conception of greatness.” [1]

In Finnish social media, newspapers and literature, Puolakka has been exposed to slander, lies and misrepresentations. We will respond to them in due course. There is one striking feature to all of them: they ignore his life work and instead concentrate passionately to blacken his character. Those writings say a lot about their authors, but about Matti Puolakka they only say that his greatness as a thinker and as a human being was and is incomprehensible to the “lackeys”.

Puolakka described his attitude in one of his last dictations in the autumn of 2018:

“I’m free because I think about what is right and what is wrong. It is the main problem for me. That is why I live for humankind, not for myself. That is why I’m not afraid to set myself philosophico-politically alone – well, alone with my friends – against the rest of the world.”

REFERENCES

[1] Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace, Book Fifteen, V, https://www.gutenberg.org/files/2600/2600-h/2600-h.htm

QUOTE 

From F. M. Dostoevsky’s letter to his brother. Konstantin Mochulski, Dostoevsky: His Life and Work, Princeton University Press 1971, 17.

FEATURED IMAGE
Matti Puolakka by the seaside in western Finland.

Matti Puolakka by the seaside in western Finland. © New History Association.

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