Havel’s Topicality

We say Havel, we think an intellectual in politics. Against this fundamental fact the political beliefs of the author of The Power of the Powerless somehow fade into the background. It is not really necessary to know how they evolved in the course of a half-century. A much more interesting question is his involvement in politics itself—where it came from, what it consisted in, and what follows from it for us.

It is worth noting that Václav Havel (1936-2011) was not always an involved writer. He himself, remembering his youth spent in a small avant-garde theatre in Prague in the early 1960s, defined himself as an “expert-idiot” (V. Havel, Dálkový výslech, Praha 1990). Having said that, I must point out that the emergence of the political in Havel’s life had nothing to do with a sudden epiphany, conversion, or U-turn. It was a long process, connected both with his intellectual and artistic maturing, and with his lifelong skeptical— euphemistically speaking—attitude towards the Communist Party.

It has not changed in the spring and summer of 1968, when the party leadership undertook an inconsistent and ultimately unsuccessful attempt at liberalizing the system. The later Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and the neo-Stalinization of the country set the context in which the life strategy of the “expert-idiot” lost its ethical value: afterwards it was no longer a method of preserving inner freedom but an act of opportunism and self-betrayal. The key to preserving his inner autonomy and—in the last analysis—his own personality turned to be the most important concept in the political vocabulary of Václav Havel. That word is responsibility.

I suggested at the outset that dissection of Havel’s political evolution, although evidently possible, would not bring us closer to understanding his phenomenon. Instead it is worth looking at the evolution of his philosophical beliefs. Certainly, there was an influence of Martin Heidegger on Havel, including direct references, but it must have been mediated through others and it was revised in the process.

In the 1960s Havel became interested in “the root cause of the alienation of the modern man,” that is “the still increasing tension between the scientific/technological perception and attitude to reality, determining us to a larger and larger extent, and the true needs and possibilities of the human individual. We are able to learn more and more about man,” said Havel in the spring of 1968, “about ourselves, about society, science is becoming more and more specialized, it extends its scope, but at the same time our overall view of the world, formed by scientific discoveries, to a diminishing extent answers our questions about the meaning of life. With less and less hope we ask questions about the meaning of our own existence, about the possibility of self-fulfillment. This phenomenon of alienation is universal, present in the whole civilized world. […] Therefore I am not quite prepared to believe in the theory that alienation in socialism is not true alienation, that alienation in capitalism is somehow more ‘alienated.’” (A. J. Liehm, Generace, Praha 1990).

What is striking about this fragment is the 32-year-old playwright’s belief in the fundamental similarity between the capitalist West and the communist East, in the common source of social dilemmas on both sides of the Iron Curtain, in the role played in the alarming process of alienation of man from contemporary world by the progressive spread of technology, as well as the author’s belief that the world—the whole civilized world—was plunging in a crisis which could threaten its existence. These are (at that stage germinating and a bit clumsy) the most important motives of the two most famous essays of Havel from the 1970s, namely the Letter to Husák (1975) and The Power of the Powerless (1978).

Understandably, strictly political (or anti-political) themes are still absent here: reflections on the meaning of the terms “dissident” and “oppositionist,” the postulate of “living in truth” and a call for a “parallel polis,” that is a network of authentic communities which in the future, as Havel wrote, “would constitute the foundation for a better organization of society” (V. Havel, Moc bezmocných, Praha 1990), both in the post-totalitarian East, and in the post-democratic West. All these lines of thinking appeared only in the late 1970s; they were literally unimaginable without the experience of the Charter 77 and the acquaintance with Jan Patočka.

“Living in truth,” one of the most famous topoi in Havel’s thinking, originates from the philosophy and practice of Patočka. As Aviezer Tucker, a researcher of the phenomenological sources of the Czech dissident movement, wrote: “Patočka conceived the crisis of modernity as the destruction of the Christian-Platonic ontology of responsibility […] Patočka thought that he discovered sacrifice as a mean for transcending modern everydayness without resorting to orgiastic escape. He sought to found >>communities of the shattered<<, dissidents who sacrificed everydayness and assumed responsibility through confrontation with their own finitude, death, a confrontation that this leader of Charter 77 did not survive. […] [He] fulfilled in his life a unique integration of philosophy and practice, assuming moral responsibility and accepting consequentially a Socratic fate in a struggle for human rights.” (A. Tucker, The Legacies of Totalitarianism: A Theoretical Framework, Cambridge 2015.)

Havel transferred Patočka’s philosophical and ethical category of responsibility to political theory and practice. Today it means that wanting to fulfil the ideal of “a better society,” we have to preserve democracy and civil society first.

Aleksander Kaczorowski

Aleksander Kaczorowski is an editor-in-chief of Aspen Review Central Europe, former deputy editor-in-chief of Newsweek Polska and chief editor of the Op-ed section of Gazeta Wyborcza. His recent books include biographies of Václav Havel or Bohumil Hrabal. He won Václav Burian Prize for cultural contribution to the Central European dialogue (2016).

Share this on social media

Support Aspen Institute

The support of our corporate partners, individual members and donors is critical to sustaining our work. We encourage you to join us at our roundtable discussions, forums, symposia, and special event dinners.