Vaclav Havel, Part II: The Power of the Powerless

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3 Responses

  1. Mark,

    Wonderful stuff, thank you.

    On the paragraph beginning “Havel argued, if people had the power…. [….],” and the quote from Havel: “individuals confirm the system, fulfill the system, make the system, are the system:”

    I think this is significant for several reasons. It underlines the fact that in important respects people throughout society contribute to and continue to be complicit in the conditions responsible for their oppression. As Gandhi said, people need to be awakened to the “power” that lies in their hands, and take responsibility for it. The image we often entertain of “totalitarian power” is one of sheer (or absolute) domination, with little or no opportunities for people to exercise this latent power. This passivity in the face of the coercive power over others only serves to broaden and fortify the non-democratic exercises of that power. Havel’s argument assumes or asserts a strong claim about the nature of individual and collective political (in the widest sense) responsibility, one I think is equally applicable for our time and place, particularly when people bitch and moan about their politicians or corporations or finance capitalism, what have you, yet do little or nothing by way of articulating a theory and praxis here and now that embodies both critique and possible or plausible alternatives to the status quo.

    Philosophically speaking, Havel was clearly, deeply, indeed intimately (through the philosopher Jan Patočka) influenced by phenomenology and existentialism, at least as these schools of thought were understood and employed in East-Central Europe (which is vastly different from the way they were received and interpreted in Anglo-American analytic philosophy circles). There’s a brief introduction to the role of the former philosophy, for example, in Paul Wilson’s introduction to his translation of Havel’s remarkable prison letters, Letters to Olga (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1988). This is yet testament once again to the truth of the cliché that “ideas matter” (it’s painful if not disturbing to read some contemporary celebrity intellectuals and even philosophers pronounce on the ‘meaninglessness’ or debilitating vagueness of the notion of ‘human dignity;’ for them, alas, such an idea ‘matters,’ but wholly in the wrong way). Havel was one of a number of intellectuals who responded (if perhaps unwittingly) in courageous and eloquent fashion to Sartre’s 1965 lecture, “A Plea for Intellectuals:”

    1. “He must struggle against the perpetual rebirth of ideology amongst the popular classes. In other words, he should attack externally and internally every ideological representation that they entertain of themselves or their power (the ‘positive hero,’ the ‘personality cult,’ the ‘glorification of the proletariat’…).
    2. He must make use of the capital of knowledge he has acquired from the dominant class in order to help raise popular culture—that is to say, the foundations of a universal culture.
    3. Whenever necessary and particularly in the present conjuncture, he should help to form technicians of practical knowledge within the underprivileged classes…in the hope that they will become the organic intellectuals of the working class….
    4. He must recover his own ends (universality of knowledge, freedom of thought, truth) by rediscovering them as the real ends sought by all those in struggle—that is, as the future of man.
    5. He should try to radicalize actions under way, by demonstrating the ultimate objectives beyond immediate aims—in other words, universalization as a historical goal of the working class.
    6. He must act a guardian of the historical ends pursued by the masses, against all political power [used here in a conventional sense]—including the power of mass parties and apparatuses of the working class itself.” [….] (Jean-Paul Sartre, ‘A Plea for Intellectuals,’ a series of lectures delivered in Tokyo and Kyoto in 1965 and published in Sartre’s Between Existentialism and Marxism. New York: Morrow Quill, 1979: 228-285).

    On a related note, I think it helps to use the expression “post-totalitarian,” as did Havel, to distinguish the nature of the Party-State Communist regimes of East-Central Europe from, for example, what preceded them in both the Stalinist Soviet Union and Nazi Germany (and other ‘totalitarian’ regimes outside of Europe in Asia).

    You may of course be addressing this when you get to your discussion of Charter 77, but I did want to point out that things were occurring elsewhere: in Poland, the Soviet Union, the German Democratic Republic, and Hungary (and even in Western Europe, especially West Germany), for instance, that concretely and “spiritually” (as a form of ‘solidarity’) united “dissidents” across Europe. Intellectuals and activists learned of (and took to heart) these transnational stories and events in spite of censorship and repression, which further emboldened their efforts. I have written about this in Poland, for example, in my introduction to a bibliography on “socio-political conflict resolution and nonviolence” (using the Polish case as an ‘historical exemplum’) here:

    I don’t mean to downplay the role and impact of Charter 77, but only to place it within the larger social and historical context so as not to forget the parts played by nonviolent resistance strategies and tactics elsewhere that likewise had cross-border consequences for opposition politics. Havel himself was one of a handful of prominent East-Central intellectuals (or, perhaps better, ‘intelligentsia’ in the sense used by Boris Kagarlitsky in his book, The Thinking Reed: Intellectuals and the Soviet State from 1917 to the Present [1988]): Jacek Kuroń, Adam Michnik, Jan Józef Lipski, Rudolf Bahro, George Konrád, Iván Szelényi, Milan Šimečka, among others, who played both formal and informal leadership roles in the quest for democratic change in East-Central Europe that relied on legal and nonviolent forms of political resistance (the scrupulous endeavor to work, insofar as was possible, within the existing legal constraints of the respective regimes is sometimes ignored in narrating these stories).

    Finally, permit me to mention a recent work very much relevant to some of the larger lessons and implications of Charter 77, and so on, namely, Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan, Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict. New York: Columbia University Press, 2011.

    I look forward with relish to your future intallments!

  2. To reinforce the point made above about the relevance of Havel’s ideas outside the “post-totalitarian” system, in fact, their relevance to putatively democratic societies, please see my post, “Václav Havel & The Existential Revolution:” (cross-posted at ReligousLeftLaw)

  3. Mark Edwards says:

    Patrick —

    Wow! Thank you for your astonishing, insightful commentary. It’s a dream come true to get enagement like this.

    A couple of quick responses, then later I’ll respond with some that take a bit more thought.

    You’re absolutely right that the quote above (“individuals confirm the system, fulfill the system, make the system, are the system”) is critical both to his work as a whole and to understanding his idea of the post-totalitarian system, as opposed to totalitarianism. What have believed was that by acting within the confines of the system individuals had become the system; and since they were free, if willing to pay the price, to refuse to act within the system, they were responsible for their choices. In fact, in the original, the word “are” in “are the system” is italicized; for some reason, that didn’t show up in my post, though I tried.

    You are also dead on about the important influence of Jan Patocka on Havel’s thinking and the Charter 77 movement as a whole. I am planning on addressing that in the next installment, though i strongly suspect you could do it better than I. I think in general Patocka’s influence isn’t as well understood as it should be, which is probably a lingering effect of his pre-mature death, while his works were still banned, following his last interrogation by the secret police.

    You are also right that other dissident groups, in other East European countries, were already active both before and contemporaneously with the Charter 77 group. In fact, one of the little known stories that I intend to address in the next installment is the clandestine meetings, in the mountainous border between Poland and the Czech lands, of the Polish group KOR (including Michnik and others) and the Charter 77 groups. I even have a few pictures of the meetings to show you.

    Finally, as I’ll write about in that next installment, Charter 77 was not alone in developing the use of transnational human rights law as a lever against their own government. But they were at least contemporaneous with the first (along with Yuri Orlov in the Soviet Union), if not the first, to see that the 1975 Helsinki Accords could be played back against their own government in a way the regime could not ignore. In fact, as we’ll see, Zdenek Mlynar and Jiri Hajek, both former members of the Dubcek regime and active in the Charter 77 group, proposed using the Helsinki Accords as leverage and framing demands ‘legalistically’ very early in the process.

    Anyway, I’m going to write about all of this shortly, and I’m about to go read your stuff on Havel at ratiojuris (I hadn’t realized you had already written about him, or might not have started this!).

    Thanks again so very much for the insightful commentary. I can’t wait to continue this exchange.