Vaclav Havel, Part II: The Power of the Powerless

During the early 1970s in Czechoslovakia, following the failed attempts of reform communists to liberalize some aspects of society while maintaining a monopoly on political power, the old guard regime re-asserted its complete control with the help of Soviet tanks, through a process that was euphemistically called “normalization.”

Amazingly, the catalytic event for Havel – that caused him to cross the Rubicon into dissidence – was the criminal trial of a Prague rock band, the Plastic People of the Universe. In a farce of a trial, the young members of the band were convicted of – well, that was never completely clear, but essentially of being out of the ordinary – and sentenced to lengthy terms in prison.

It was not because rock music was important that Havel decided to speak up – rather it was precisely because it was so unimportant. What Havel recognized in that trial was this: that the regime had decided to deny people any sphere of autonomy whatsoever. If a handful of harmless eccentrics could not, in the privacy of their derelict flats, play awful music (I’ve heard them) simply because it seemed to them a genuine expression of their beings, then the last bit of autonomous space had been breached.

Under the old implicit rules, the regime had demanded, and gotten, public obeisance: you attended the proper rallies and you kept your mouth shut about politics otherwise, you lived where you were told, worked where you were told, ate and read what you were told, and the regime probably wouldn’t bother you. But Havel had been watching for years as what he called the post-totalitarian system permeated deeper and deeper into what little private space a person might have left. And he realized that the one hope people like he clung to – that if they did and said the right things in public, they could escape a little, sometimes, in private – was a delusion. One could not escape by moving into a deeper corner of the cage.

But Havel also realized something deeper and more profound, that he eventually explicated in his underground masterpiece essay, The Power of the Powerless. He realized that by playing the game – by doing the right things in public, and hoping for a little autonomy in private – people were not just surviving in the system: they were an essential part of the system. With what I suspect was his playwright’s eye, he saw that everyone, everyone, was playing a role that had been assigned to them. An implicit bargain had been struck: I will act the way the regime wants, and the regime will not punish me.

It was a type of play, a facade.  If you want to understand what he meant in the most visceral, shockingly literal way, watch this clip from a Czech state broadcast of Spartakiada, a ‘festival of health and optimism.’  Watch it all the way to the 5:00 minute mark, and I promise you won’t forget it.  Of course, in most ways the play was less obvious, but you get the point.

[Interestingly, it is very difficult to find photographic evidence of life in Prague during this period, other than in the files of the secret police.  This is the poster from an exhibit of secret police surveillance photos of the time.  It gives you a sense of daily life.] 

But Havel also saw that in a play, the most revolutionary act is for an actor to announce to the world of the play that it is in fact a play; to refuse to play one’s part; to refuse even to walk off stage but rather to stay on stage and be real. If even one actor would do that, he could not be ignored. And if a critical mass of actors would do that – would commit to what he called “living in truth” – the whole production would collapse.

That was what he meant by the power of the powerless – he had comprehended something so simple and terrifying, and articulated it so clearly, that it could not be tolerated – that the powerless, who felt they had no choice but to play the roles they had been assigned, actually had the power to bring the entire production crashing down. The play depended upon them.

But, Havel argued, if people had the power to end the system, then they also had the power to perpetuate the system. The decision was entirely theirs. They were not mere objects in someone else’s drama; they were subjects, capable of acting according to their will and so responsible for doing so. Consider the implication of that for a moment: if the decision was theirs, then on an essential level, past the reach of the regime, and despite its best efforts, they were free. But, because they were free, they were also responsible for their choices.

The essential core of humanity in each individual – what Havel described as the “longing for humanity’s rightful dignity, for moral integrity, for free expression” – was still there. As Havel put it, “Individuals can be alienated from themselves only because there is something in them to alienate.”

Continued after the break . . .

In Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Breakfast of Champions, Kilgore Trout has a pet bird named Bill. One day, Trout opens the cage door, allowing Bill to fly free if he wants to. Bill leaves the cage, flies to the window, looks out the window for a moment at what lies in wait for him, then flies back into the cage.

What Havel did was to say aloud, not just to his countrymen but to the entire world: the cage door is open. What they did next was up to them, because living in truth required enormous courage. The powerful recognized that they faced an existential threat and would use every means at their disposal to survive. It was a hell of a lot safer to be like Bill and stay in the cage, pretending not to notice that one could, if one was prepared to pay an enormous cost, be free. But there was no neutral ground: either one lived in truth, or one perpetuated the post-totalitarian system. As Havel said, by continuing to play the roles assigned to them, “individuals confirm the system, fulfill the system, make the system, are the system.”

As for Havel, he left the cage of lies, and as he knew he would be, was dragged into the cell of a brutal communist prison.

He walked through the door by authoring with a small group of like-minded people, and attempting to publish, a document called “Charter 77.” The publication of Charter 77 was one of the most significant events of modern times, in my opinion, for four reasons: (1) it was like a sudden radio signal out of the darkness to other, tiny groups of dissidents throughout eastern Europe; (2) it was, although no one could have known it at the time, the death knell of the east European totalitarian system; (3) it practically created, out of whole cloth, the use of transnational human rights law as leverage against domestic despotism – perhaps the most significant development in law in our lifetimes; and (4) it created a model that lives today – expressly – in the streets of Tunis and Damascus and New York City, and in dark basements in Minsk and Beijing and Rangoon.

I will write more about the origins and publication of Charter 77, its use of transnational human rights law, and its continuing reverberation in the world today in the next installment.

In future installments: Havel’s years of prison, torment and temptation; the revolution; and Havel’s I, Claudius moment.

Cross-posted at PropertyProf.


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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.