Saturday, January 7, 2012

Vaclav Havel, Part II: The Power of the Powerless

Havel (2)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.] Plakat-brusel

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.

Mark A. Edwards

Cross-posted at Concurring Opinions

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