Today, November 17, marks the 33rd anniversary of the Velvet Revolution, the 1989 protest in Czechoslovakia that led to the overthrow of the Communist regime there and the rise of Václav Havel to the presidency of the new republic. I visited Prague for the first time the following year, and, as the saying goes, “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive.” My generation had been living since our birth with the fears of the Cold War and the threat of annihilation, and this and the fall of the Berlin Wall suddenly brightened our days. As Americans, we were warmly welcomed in Prague (and somewhat surprised to hear how much the Czechs credited Ronald Reagan with their freedom; as left-leaning young adults, this rankled somewhat), and though that warmth would not last beyond a few years, many more things seemed possible than before.
Of all the political figures I’ve experienced in my lifetime, the two that I most admire by far are Havel and Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Unsurprisingly, neither of them started out as politicians: Havel was an absurdist playwright and Zelenskyy a television comedian. They nonetheless represent just what true courage and bravery, tinged with humility, can provide to a nation, and there’s probably more to be said about that. I had my say about Havel in 2018, and I don’t apologize for the lengthy quotes from his work in the essay below; they’re still worth reading.
We may all be feeling a bit powerless these days. But let’s not end it there. Instead, to combat this feeling, let’s turn to history (if anybody still cares about that) and a dead Czech.
Václav Havel was one of the more peculiar figures to emerge from the Central European dissident community in the 1970s. A chain-smoking, beer-loving absurdist playwright, Havel was imprisoned several times for his political activities only to emerge during the Velvet Revolution to become President of Czechoslovakia in 1989, a post which he held until 2003. From then until his death in 2011, Havel served as the exemplar of a philosopher-president: dedicated to democratic ideals, but always ambivalent about the use and abuse of political power wielded through ideology alone, including a democratic ideology. When he left office in 2003, he was succeeded by Václav Klaus, a bit of a piece of work himself: a “Euroskeptic” (which Havel certainly was not) and admirer of Vladimir Putin (ditto), Klaus described scientists who warned against global warming as Communists at a National Press Club luncheon.
Below is an excerpt from Havel’s 1978 essay “The Power of the Powerless,” here translated by Paul Wilson, which landed Havel in prison the following year. Most of the essay is a consideration of what happens when ordinary citizens thoughtlessly acquiesce to an authoritarian government, whether out of fear or anything else. Back in 1978, of course, Havel could not have foreseen a “technological civilization” that included cultures like Facebook (he couldn’t have had such things in mind), and it’s clear that the health of “traditional parliamentary democracies” is not quite as robust as it used to be. His words ring eerily relevant today.
It would appear that the traditional parliamentary democracies can offer no fundamental opposition to the automatism of technological civilization and the industrial-consumer society, for they, too, are being dragged helplessly along by it. People are manipulated in ways that are infinitely more subtle and refined than the brutal methods used in the post-totalitarian societies. But this static complex of rigid, conceptually sloppy, and politically pragmatic mass political parties run by professional apparatuses and releasing the citizen from all forms of concrete and personal responsibility; and those complex focuses of capital accumulation engaged in secret manipulations and expansion; the omnipresent dictatorship of consumption, production, advertising, commerce, consumer culture, and all that flood of information: all of it, so often analyzed and described, can only with great difficulty be imagined as the source of humanity’s rediscovery of itself. In his June 1978 Harvard lecture, Solzhenitsyn describes the illusory nature of freedoms not based on personal responsibility and the chronic inability of the traditional democracies, as a result, to oppose violence and totalitarianism. In a democracy, human beings may enjoy many personal freedoms and securities that are unknown to us, but in the end they do them no good, for they too are ultimately victims of the same automatism, and are incapable of defending their concerns about their own identity or preventing their superficialization or transcending concerns about their own personal survival to become proud and responsible members of the polis, making a genuine contribution to the creation of its destiny.
Because all our prospects for a significant change for the better are very long range indeed, we are obliged to take note of this deep crisis of traditional democracy. Certainly, if conditions were to be created for democracy in some countries in the Soviet bloc (although this is becoming increasingly improbable), it might be an appropriate transitional solution that would help to restore the devastated sense of civic awareness, to renew democratic discussion, to allow for the crystallization of an elementary political plurality, an essential expression of the aims of life. But to cling to the notion of traditional parliamentary democracy as one’s political ideal and to succumb to the illusion that only this tried and true form is capable of guaranteeing human beings enduring dignity and an independent role in society would, in my opinion, be at the very least shortsighted. …
Above all, any existential revolution should provide hope of a moral reconstitution of society, which means a radical renewal of the relationship of human beings to what I have called the “human order,” which no political order can replace. A new experience of being, a renewed rootedness in the universe, a newly grasped sense of higher responsibility, a newfound inner relationship to other people and to the human community — these factors clearly indicate the direction in which we must go.
It is a perspective which doesn’t readily lend itself to a practical policy. But as Czech president, Havel tried. He achieved varying levels of success — no more and no less success, though, than presidents who weren’t prone to such metaphysical musings.
In 1993 Havel showed up in Philadelphia, appearing at Independence Hall to receive the sixth Liberty Medal, awarded annually by the National Constitution Center “to men and women of courage and conviction who have strived to secure the blessings of liberty to people the world over.” (Seventy-five years earlier, Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk had stood on the steps of the same building to proclaim the independence of the Czechs and other peoples of Central Europe.) I was there myself and heard him deliver his acceptance speech, which concluded:
The only real hope of people today is probably a renewal of our certainty that we are rooted in the Earth and, at the same time, the cosmos. This awareness endows us with the capacity for self-transcendence. Politicians at international forums may reiterate a thousand times that the basis of the new world order must be universal respect for human rights, but it will mean nothing as long as this imperative does not derive from the respect of the miracle of Being, the miracle of the universe, the miracle of nature, the miracle of our own existence. Only someone who submits to the authority of the universal order and of creation, who values the right to be part of it and a participant in it, can genuinely value himself and his neighbors, and thus honor their rights as well.
It logically follows that, in today’s multicultural world, the truly reliable path to coexistence, to peaceful coexistence and creative cooperation, must start from what is at the root of all cultures and what lies infinitely deeper in human hearts and minds than political opinion, convictions, antipathies or sympathies: it must be rooted in self-transcendence.
Transcendence as a hand reached out to those close to us, to foreigners, to the human community, to all living creatures, to nature, to the universe; transcendence as a deeply and joyously experienced need to be in harmony even with what we ourselves are not, what we do not understand, what seems distant from us in time and space, but with which we are nevertheless mysteriously linked because, together with us, all this constitutes a single world. Transcendence as the only real alternative to extinction.
The Declaration of Independence, adopted two hundred and eighteen years ago in this building, states that the Creator gave man the right to liberty. It seems man can realize that liberty only if he does not forget the One who endowed him with it.
Many of Havel’s most important essays and speeches can be found in Open Letters: Selected Writings, 1965-1990.