Understanding Vaclav Havel’s abiding relevance
In an era when populist rhetoric and rituals trump achievements and genuine belief, democracy exists, but with its key principles of dissent and non-conformity not just ignored but threatened, and totalitarianism no longer only a feature of dictatorships, it is time to turn to a modern “philosopher-king” who not only diagnosed such a situation but also suggested a remedy.
Czechoslovak (subsequently Czech) statesman, thinker, and author Vaclav Havel, whose 80th birthday would have been on October 5, was an incorrigible dissident who became a respected statesman (though much fond of rock and jazz), a profound intellectual but with a human touch, and a popular leader who was never afraid of morally right but publicly “unpopular” opinions.
Havel (1936-2011) led Czechoslovakia’s peaceful anti-Communist revolution and went on to become its first democratically-elected President since 1946. Resigning in protest against its division into Czech and Slovak, he subsequently served as President of the Czech Republic for two terms (1993-2003). His last years were spent championing the cause of rights, tolerance, peace, and the environment.
But while all these contributions are undeniable, especially re-establishing democracy in what had once been the only democracy in pre-World War II Central Europe, it is the quality and abiding relevance of his thought as a dissident that is most valuable.
Finding his wealthy and intellectual background a hindrance as the communist regime required him to align his thought with the prevailing line and restricted his choice of study and work, Havel, however, managed to do a correspondence course in dramatic arts while working as a stagehand.
His plays like “The Garden Party” (1963), about an average man who has to change his behaviour in a milieu that prizes material gain over culture and creativity, and loses his own identity to the extent his parents can’t recognise him, and “The Memorandum” (1965), parodying bureaucracy and conformity, were key works of “The Theatre of the Absurd” and made him internationally known.
But after 1968, when Soviets and Warsaw Pact countries crushed the “Prague Spring”, Havel’s plays were banned and he was forbidden to leave the country. Working in a brewery, he continued to write but got into more trouble after signing “Charter 77” calling for more rights for the people. Jail, surveillance, and relentless questioning by the secret police followed, but he remained undaunted.
It was during this period came the explosive essay “Moc Bezmocnych” (1978, “The Power of the Powerless” in English, 1985), about how to resist totalitarianism, especially pressure from the political apparatus on culture. Though he was talking about communism, doesn’t it seem familiar?
In this, Havel cites the example of a vegetable shop proprietor “who places in his window, among the onions and carrots, the slogan: ‘Workers of the world, unite!’”, and goes on to ask why he does it, what is he trying to tell the world, if he is genuinely enthusiastic about the idea, and so much so that he feels irrepressibly impelled to acquaint the public with his ideals, and above all, has he really given more than a moment’s thought to how such an eventuality might occur and its significance?
Havel concludes that this display doesn’t stem from any personal desire or belief but to signify expected behaviour and obedience, citing as responsible ideology, a “specious way of relating to the world”, offering people “the illusion of an identity, of dignity, and of morality while making it easier for them to part with them”.
Change the background and the slogan, but the questions remain worthy of being pondered over -- even in our time and country. What can be done?
Havel says the people always contain “within themselves the power to remedy their own powerlessness”, by “living in truth” in their daily life in such a post-totalitarian state. He clarifies the “post-” doesn’t mean the system is no longer totalitarian but is so in a way fundamentally different from classical dictatorships.
The long-term solution is “post-democracy”, or an “existential revolution” beyond classic parliamentary democracy which offers “hope of a moral reconstitution of society” with, above all, a “newfound inner relationship to other people and to the human community”.
But Havel was not only a dry intellectual. Recipient of top international honours, including India’s Gandhi Peace Prize (2003), his contributions and life were summed up unforgettably by possibly The Economist, which, citing his colourful life, observed that it was fitting that he had ended up President of Bohemia.
(Vikas Datta is Associate Editor with IANS. The views expressed are strictly personal.)