Vaclav Havel: Concluding Thoughts

It’s been a joy visiting here at Concurring Opinions again – thank you to the Co-Op crew for the opportunity. I’m going to take my leap month early this year and consider this January 32nd so I can finish up the Havel posts.

Havel’s Presidency had its up and downs, but what is stunning to me is that he managed it all. There was simply no precedent for a transition of power in Czechoslovakia. Try to imagine, if you can, arriving in the White House tomorrow, to find it abandoned. You have no political experience. You are in charge of the country, and it is convulsing in revolution. Where do you begin? How do you begin?

Havel did what he knew best: he sat down to write, in this case not a play or essay, but a constitution. Havel was the principal architect and drafter of the Czech Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms. As in the case of much of Havel’s writing, it is striking in its parsimony. Much of the bitter history of totalitarian and post-totalitarian society is starkly if implicitly revealed in each articulated principle:

Democratic values constitute the foundation of the state.
The freedom of thought, conscience, and religious conviction is guaranteed.
The inviolability of the person and of her privacy is guaranteed.
A person’s dwelling is inviolable. It may not be entered without the permission of the person living there.
Only a law may designate which acts constitute a crime.
Censorship is not permitted.
Everyone who suffers from material need has the right to such assistance as is necessary to ensure her a basic living standard.
Everyone has the right to the protection of her health.
Everyone has the right to education.
Everyone has the right to demand that her human dignity be respected.

A few final thoughts on Havel: He was not anti-communist. He was horrified by the effects of a system, created by and embodied through individuals, which had encouraged people to avoid two fundamental and ultimately inescapable responsibilities: the responsibility to themselves to live truthfully, and the responsibility to each other to live kindly. He did not ultimately seek a political revolution, but rather an existential one. The type of existence he imagined was incompatible with post-totalitarianism, so a political revolution would be an inevitable by-product of that existential revolution in post-totalitarian states.

But Havel’s critique was hardly limited to communist post-totalitarian regimes; it applied with equal force to capitalist, democratic systems, if such systems encouraged people to avoid their two fundamental and inescapable responsibilities: the responsibility to themselves to live truthfully, and the responsibility to each other to live kindly. In particular, Havel saw in the consumerist West a dangerous phenomenon: individuals attempting to sate themselves through by material satisfactions, to shirk moral responsibility to themselves, each other, and for the actions of their state. Havel saw that the he need for an existential revolution in such a society is just as great, and perhaps as inevitable, since people probably cannot withstand the internal pressure of alienation from themselves forever. In a consumerist society, we consume with increasing speed but can never quite consume enough to be satisfied. Eventually, perhaps, it will become clear that one cannot avoid one’s moral responsibilities with more and better things. As Havel forecast with amazing prescience about the sudden collapse of the East European regimes, such systems are vulnerable to “a sudden explosion of civic unrest, a sharp conflict inside an apparently monolithic power structure, or simply an irrepressible transformation in the social and intellectual climate.”

I, for one, hope that time is coming. And when I say hope, I mean hope as Havel meant it: “not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.”


You may also like...

11 Responses

  1. Thanks again, Mark, this series was quite a treat!

    All good wishes,

  2. A.J. Sutter says:

    I’ll second Patrick. Thanks especially for a series good enough to teach from. I plan to use it, along with “The Power of the Powerless,” in a politics course on protest that I’ll be teaching in Japan starting in April.

  3. Mark Edwards says:

    Thank you both so much. I really appreciate it. I wish I had had time to write more cogent replies to your comments, and to more fully give Havel his due. Perhaps we can continue the conversation via email.

  4. Josh says:

    This has been a great series. Thank you for putting it together, Mark.

  5. Elizabeth A. Wilson says:

    I really appreciated the series too and may work it into my human rights courses this semester. BTW I spent a year and a half in the Czech Republic in the early 90’s and got the chance at least once to shake Havel’s hand. I also met his brother and other friends from the underground days who were less busy running a country. I was lucky to be there when the first elections were held — it was quite a heady time.

  6. Jordan J. Paust says:

    It does remind one of human rights law and, more recently, aspects of the “Arab Spring.” See also

  7. Jordan J. Paust says:

    sorry, the site is

  8. Mark Edwards says:

    Thank you all. Jordan, I look forward to reading your article.

  9. Daniel Solove says:

    Mark — wonderful series. I learned quite a lot. Thanks for such detailed and insightful posts.

  10. Mark Edwards says:

    Thank you, Dan. I appreciate the opportunity.

  11. Frank Pasquale says:

    Sorry I didn’t comment earlier–this is really a remarkable series. I hope you will collect the pieces and publish it.