December 17, 2013
Vaclav Havel’s Fairy Tale
By SLAWOMIR SIERAKOWSKI
Against the backdrop of today’s petty politics, the stories of great political leaders like Mohandas K. Gandhi or Nelson Mandela look like fairy tales. Let us recount the adventures of another of these giants, Vaclav Havel, the Czech dissident and politician, on the second anniversary of his death.
The story does have its fairy-tale elements. Once upon a time, there was a great and ancient city with a great and ancient castle, and in that castle there lived a great philosopher-king. This ruler succeeded where philosophers since Plato had failed — that is, in building a state. His country’s affluence matched that of the industrious nations to the West, the only such country among the otherwise impoverished Slavic lands.
This land, created in 1918, was Czechoslovakia, the city was Prague and its philosopher-king was named Tomas Masaryk. His country was among the very few not to fall under the spell of authoritarianism in the 1930s. His grateful people called him Daddy.
Many years later, this wonderful land would become the subject of yet another fairy tale. After defeating the dark forces of Communism, a humble sage, Vaclav Havel, found himself its leader, ensconced in Hradcany Castle, in 1990.
He described his trajectory from criminal to four-term president in his memoirs, comparing it to the stories of Honza, a character common in many Czech fairy tales: “Little Honza — although everyone tells him it’s hopeless — beats his head against the wall for so long that the wall eventually collapses and he becomes king and rules and rules and rules for 13 long years.”
Though usually very modest, Havel understood what his example meant for others: “Why shouldn’t such a story with such a happy ending be exalted? Might it not be a source of hope for others who have not yet experienced the fall of their wall?” Those watching today’s news will immediately think of the brave Ukrainians in Kiev’s Euromaidan, or of Russian political activists.
The biographies of dissidents offer invaluable solace to current and future nonconformists, who, without much hope of success, follow the path outlined by their convictions. It is different with dissidents’ manifestoes, which, once the fight is over, quickly reach their expiration date and are buried in the historical archive. Havel remains one of the very few exceptions.
As Adam Michnik, the Polish anti-Communist activist, recently admitted, “I think that for my dissident friends — and for me, too — the dissident philosophy of life was enough. It was not enough for Havel.”
Former dissidents entered the new era with the naïveté of children on their first trip to the toy store; out of everything that was Western, the invisible hand of the market proved most alluring. But Havel was different, because he did not simply look at Communism or capitalism from the perspective of the other. He considered both systems to be two versions of the same crisis of civilization.
In what is perhaps the most important manifesto of anti-Communist dissent, his 1978 “Power of the Powerless,” Havel expresses this very clearly. Modern democratic societies offered “no fundamental opposition to the automatism of technological civilization and the industrial-consumer society, for they, too, are being dragged helplessly along by it.”
These are not the views of a naïve idealist who came to terms with “reality” as soon as he assumed the presidency, something confirmed by Havel’s 2006 autobiography, “Briefly, Please.”
He chose the title as a sign of opposition to the stupidity of the commercialized media, which convert everything into mindless platitudes for rapid transmission. The book’s American publisher inadvertently proved his point by changing its title to something more marketable and banal, while also confirming the fairy-tale nature of his story: “To the Castle and Back.”
In post-Communist countries, newborn capitalists’ faith in capitalism was so ardent that even members of the Chicago school of economics, who came rushing in as advisers on how to move to free markets almost overnight, seemed like careful idealists, while John Maynard Keynes was shunned as practically a Communist.
But Havel saw a new danger. “I am also an opponent of market fundamentalism and dogmatism, for which the snide brigade” — his term for “journalists who sneered ironically at everything they felt was not capitalistic enough” — “have branded me a left winger.”
Havel noted the world’s addiction to the drug of short-term profit, which gives pleasure in the moment, but in the long run becomes a threat to development. He noted the simulated pluralism of both opinions and goods. “The pressure toward soulless uniformity that is perceptible everywhere today — despite the seemingly endless array of choices among a seemingly infinite array of products pretending to be different from one another — poses a great threat to all forms of uniqueness.”
The same can be found in politics, so he postulated seeking an alternative to the shopworn and very technocratic political parties through “an effort to rid them of their hidden, subtle, and omnipresent power, which itself is a denial of the principles of representative democracy.”
Havel took seriously what many veteran dissidents considered a waste of time: the new social movements arising in the post-Communist Eastern Europe, like feminism or the global justice movement. He was taken with environmentalism as early as the 1970s, and he saw urban issues as a political priority long before they became a matter of course for the rest of us.
Every system is based on universal conformism, meaning we are all both victims and agents. We can either remain solitary and accept the imperfect reality that confronts us, or challenge it together. Havel longed for an “existential revolution,” just as Tomas Masaryk before him longed for a “revolution of hearts and minds.” Both were similarly distrustful of institutions and trusting in the power of the powerless. Havel demonstrated that this power no longer exists in fairy tales alone.
Slawomir Sierakowski is a sociologist, a founder of the Krytyka Polityczna movement and the director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Warsaw. This article was translated by Maria Blackwood from the Polish.