Vaclav Havel – All Together

For some reason, we are diffident about citing someone as our hero.  Fine to call an individual you admire exemplary, an outstanding leader, a true innovator, an exceptional performer, but a hero?  Is it yet another word that has been debased by overuse?  Or is it that to talk about heroes is to sound adolescent?  No matter, for me Václav Havel is one of my heroes, living a life full of  extraordinary achievements as a writer, playwright, activist and politician; above all, he was an intellectual whose practice drew on his critical thinking.  All this was achieved despite huge challenges in his first twenty five years.  His life is an inspiration for anyone seeking to take steps, however tiny, to make the world a better place.  His essays have made me want to be a better person;  every week my calendar reminds me of his injunction to “live in truth”.

Born into a wealthy family, his father was a successful real estate developer, his mother a journalist.  Czechoslovakia had been a parliamentary democracy from the end of the First World War until 1939.  However, the infamous Munich Agreement had seen the UK and France agreeing to a policy of appeasement, ceding of part of Czechoslovakia to Hitler’s Germany.  This craven response was the result of UK Prime-Minister Neville Chamberlin’s ludicrous belief it would end German aggression.  When Chamberlin returned to the UK he said, “The settlement of the Czechoslovakian problem, which has now been achieved is, in my view, only the prelude to a larger settlement in which all Europe may find peace”, and added, later the same day, “My good friends, for the second time in our history, a British Prime Minister has returned from Germany bringing peace with honour. I believe it is peace for our time.”  What a fool.  Hitler went on to chop up more of Czechoslovakia, the prelude to the horrible excesses of the Second World War.  Equally important, the Czechs felt that the West had abandoned them in Munich, a view with fateful consequences.

Havel was seven years old when the brief Third Republic of Czechoslovakia came to an end (it was to last from 1945 to 1948).  In February 1948, the consequences of appeasement were to pave the way for the Communists to take power in a coup d’état, making Czechoslovakia a ‘people’s democracy’.  This meant communist principles pervaded cultural and intellectual life, the economy was committed to central planning, and the country became a satellite state in the Soviet Union.  For Havel, his bourgeois background ensured he would be prevented from study beyond secondary school level; in the early 1950s he began a four-year apprenticeship as a laboratory assistant while taking evening classes to completed his secondary education.   In 1959 he had completed his two years of compulsory military service, and looked for a way to pursue the intellectual interests he had developed as a child.  With most choices restricted because of his family background, he began working as a theatre stagehand, while studying drama through a correspondence course at the Prague Academy of Performing Arts.  By 1963, his own plays were being performed, well received as contributions to Prague’s tradition of the theatre of the absurd.

In 1968, Alexander Dubček was elected First Secretary of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia.  Dubček was a liberal, and proposed a series of reforms to decentralise the economy and loosen restrictions on media, speech and travel.  So began the Prague Spring, a time of open debate and increasingly radical proposals.  The Soviet Union was not impressed, and sent half a million Warsaw Pact troops and tanks to occupy the country.  The Russians claimed it would take four days to ‘pacify’ the country, but civilian resistance ensured it took eight months.  Czechoslovakia remained controlled by the Soviet Union until 1989.  An activist like many others, Havel found his plays banned from 1968 onwards, nor was he able to travel to see any of the many overseas performances of his work.

Rather than forcing him to submit, the events of 1968 made him more determined.  Working for a while at a brewery, he wrote a clever but critical play around a character, Vaněk, (a fictional representation of Havel).  He was becoming one of the leading dissidents in Prague, and was among of the founders of Charter 77, a group dedicated to seeking rights for Czechoslovak citizens.  He was a key figure in preparing the Charter 77 manifesto, initiated in response to the imprisonment of members of the rock group Plastic People of the Universe (the group’s members were found guilty of non-conformity, having long hair, using obscenities, and being involved in underground activities).  By now, Havel was constantly under surveillance, and thrown into prison on several occasions, once for four years between 1979 and 1983.

For me, one of the most important outcomes from that time was his essay ‘The Power of the Powerless’. [i]  If you haven’t read it, I believe you should.  It is a clear and determined critique of totalitarianism.  Once read, you won’t forget the opening lines:  “A specter is haunting Eastern Europe: the specter of what in the West is called ‘dissent’” This is, of course, a deliberate play on the opening sentence of the Communist Manifesto (‘A spectre is haunting Europe—the spectre of Communism’).  Havel continues, “It is a natural and inevitable consequence of the present historical phase of the system it is haunting.”

The essay goes on to analyse the Soviet system of the time, and the way in which it had completely embraced the lives of people under the regime.  In a famous section, he explains the significance of a sign on a shop window:

“The manager of a fruit-and-vegetable shop places in his window, among the onions and carrots, the slogan: “Workers of the world, unite!” Why does he do it? What is he trying to communicate to the world? Is he genuinely enthusiastic about the idea of unity among the workers of the world? Is his enthusiasm so great that he feels an irrepressible impulse to acquaint the public with his ideals? Has he really given more than a moment’s thought to how such a unification might occur and what it would mean?

I think it can safely be assumed that the overwhelming majority of shopkeepers never think about the slogans they put in their windows, nor do they use them to express their real opinions. That poster was delivered to our greengrocer from the enterprise head-quarters along with the onions and carrots. He put them all into the window simply because it has been done that way for years, because everyone does it, and because that is the way it has to be. If he were to refuse, there could be trouble. He could be reproached for not having the proper decoration in his window; someone might even accuse him of disloyalty. He does it because these things must be done if one is to get along in life. It is one of the thousands of details that guarantee him a relatively tranquil life “in harmony with society,” as they say.

Obviously the greengrocer is indifferent to the semantic content of the slogan on exhibit …  The slogan is really a sign, and as such it contains a subliminal but very definite message. Verbally, it might be expressed this way: “I, the greengrocer XY, live here and I know what I must do. I behave in the manner expected of me. I can be depended upon and am beyond reproach. I am obedient and therefore I have the right to be left in peace.” …  if the greengrocer had been instructed to display the slogan “I am afraid and therefore unquestioningly obedient; he would not be nearly as indifferent to its semantics, even though the statement would reflect the truth. The greengrocer would be embarrassed and ashamed to put such an unequivocal statement of his own degradation in the shop window, and quite naturally so, for he is a human being and thus has a sense of his own dignity. To overcome this complication, his expression of loyalty must take the form of a sign which, at least on its textual surface, indicates a level of disinterested conviction. It must allow the greengrocer to say, “What’s wrong with the workers of the world uniting?” Thus the sign helps the greengrocer to conceal from himself the low foundations of his obedience, at the same time concealing the low foundations of power. It hides them behind the facade of something high. And that something is ideology.

I could continue to quote from Section III of Havel’s paper.  Actually, I would like to have you read the whole essay. [ii] Havel is both analytical and frightening, demonstrating how completely the communists had enveloped Czechoslovakian citizens in a degrading and demeaning system, but almost without their being aware this was the case.  Later, when writing about being a dissident, Havel said, “we never decided to become dissidents.  We have been transformed into them, without quite knowing how, sometimes we have ended up in prison without precisely knowing how.  We simply went ahead and did certain things that we felt we ought to do, and that seemed to us decent to do, nothing more nor less.” [iii]  From his perspective, change had to come through ideas, throwing off an ideology, rather than from fighting in the streets.

His views were prophetic and influential.  While Havel was back in prison in 1989, discontent had been increasing:  poor living standards saw more overt challenges to the communist economic system, and many, both leaders and workers, signed petitions in support of Havel.  The pressure for change mounted.  In November the government crushed a student demonstration in Prague.  It was the 50th anniversary of International Students Day, a day when Nazi soldiers had stormed Prague University.  Two days after this, actors and audience members of the audience in a theatre were joined by Havel and other members of Charter 77, where they established the Civic Forum, a popular movement seeking change and calling for  the dismissal of those  responsible for the International Students Day violence.  Students went on strike, and the Civic Forum demanded the removal of the Communist Party from the country’s constitution.

The events, now known the Velvet Revolution, [iv]  quickly gained support, and by the end of November, the pressure on the government was immense.  It collapsed, then tried to establish a more moderate communist leadership, which also failed.  As an aside, I learnt that one element of the demonstrations of the Velvet Revolution was the jingling of keys to signify support. The practice had a double meaning—it symbolized the unlocking of doors, and at the same time a way of telling the Communists, “Goodbye, it’s time to go home”.  Very ingenious!

On 29 December, Václav Havel was elected President of Czechoslovakia.  However, as one Australian Prime-Minister once said, ‘life wasn’t meant to be easy”, and it wasn’t.  Very quickly, tensions rose between the Czechs and the Slovaks, while Havel tried to keep Czechoslovakia united.  By 1992, the Slovaks had declared their independence, and Havel resigned, unwilling to be president as the country broke up.  However, once the Czech Republic was created (at the same time as an independent Slovakia), he stood for election as its first president, on 26 January 1993.  While the new constitution gave most power to the prime minister, Havel remained very influential.  He stood down at the end of his second term, in February 2003.

Is this a history lesson?  It isn’t meant to be.  While his career as a leader and political figure is important, it illustrates his desire to see change through agreement, rather than relying on street battles:  there had been enough evidence of Russia’s willingness to crush any peoples’ revolutions.  They were doomed to fail.  Havel believed real change came from unmasking ideologies, letting the truth be seen.  It is why I keep going back to what he wrote.

Among his plays and papers, his speech on receiving the 1994 Philadelphia Liberty Medal summarises views.  I wish I had the wit to convey ideas so eloquently.  Going back to read his response, he addressed two key issues that are as relevant now as they were 25 years ago.  The first was on the limits of science:

Classical modern science described only the surface of things, a single dimension of reality.  And the more dogmatically science treated it as the only dimension, as the very essence of reality, the more misleading it became.  We may know immeasurably more about the universe than our ancestors did, and yet it increasingly seems that they knew something more essential about it than we do, something that escapes us.

The same thing is true of nature as of ourselves.  the more thoroughly all our organs and their functions, their internal structure, and the biochemical reactions that take place within them, are described, the more we seem to fail to grasp the spirit, purpose, and meaning of the system that they create together and that we experience as our unique self.

Well, I have written about that before.  The other was on our interdependence, and what this means for human rights:

The idea of human rights and freedoms must be an integral part of any meaningful world order.  Yet I think it must be anchored in a different place, and in a different way, than has been the case so far.  Paradoxically, inspiration for the renewal of this lost integrity can once again be found in science, in a science that is new – postmodern – and producing ideas that in a certain sense allow it to transcend its own limits.  I will give two examples.

The “anthropic cosmological principle” brings us to an idea, perhaps as old as humanity itself, that we are not at all just an accidental anomaly, the microscopic caprice of a tiny particle whirling in the endless depths of the universe.  Instead, we are mysteriously connected to the universe, we are mirrored in it, just as the entire evolution of the universe is mirrored in us …

The second example is the “Gaia hypothesis.”  This theory brings together proof that the dense network of mutual interactions between the organic and inorganic portions of the Earth’s surface form  single system, a kind of mega-organism, a living planet, Gaia, named after an ancient goddess recognizable as an archetype of the Earth Mother in perhaps all religions.  According to the Gaia hypothesis, we are parts of a greater whole.  Our destiny is not dependent merely on what we do for ourselves but also on what we do for Gaia as a whole.  If we endanger her, she will dispense with us in the interests of a higher value – life itself.

The Gaia Hypothesis has been regularly rubbished by biologists, advocates of Darwin’s ‘survival of the fittest’ and confident geneticists.  Not all, however.  Today some are rethinking how the Gaia concept might be updated and make sense, even from an evolutionary, survival of the fittest perspective. [v]  Like Havel, I believe we are part of a complex, interdependent biosphere.  Like Havel, I am certain that if we endanger the biosphere, we endanger our life on earth.  Like Havel, I aspire to ‘live in truth’.  As Havel suggested, the world we should seek to preserve, for humanity, for the planet, is one that recognises we are ‘all together’.

[i] Later published by Knopf in 1991 the US in his Open Letters: Selected Writings 1965-90,


[iii] The comment is cited by John Keane in his 2000 book Václav Havel (Basic Books) and on his website

[iv] So named because it was a revolution that succeeded without violence

[v] Is the Earth an organism? W Ford Doolittle, Aeon, December 2020