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Václav Havel and the meaning of socialism

Ten years on from his death, the Czech dissident and former leader may be a hero to the Right, but his ideas were radically egalitarian

Michael Hauser
23 January 2022, 12.00am
A photo of Havel by artist Jiri David hangs on the wall of the Wallenstein Garden in Prague to mark the 10th anniversary of his passing
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Michal Kamaryt/CTK Photo/Alamy Live News

December marked ten years since the death of the Czech playwright and statesman Václav Havel. Even from this vantage point, it’s not easy to understand the legacy of this contradictory personality.

On the one hand, in the Czech Republic, which he led after the fall of communism, he is being sanctified. Havel is becoming an empty symbol of freedom and democracy and an icon of the liberal Right, which uses him as the foundation of its narrative that the triumph of liberal-democratic capitalism was a moral victory over the evil of communism. On the other, critics of Havel’s legacy are prone to making the one-sided argument that he was a mere political stagehand, making props for plays that were actually written and directed by the US, both on the domestic and international scene.

Yet these interpretations underplay the originality of Havel’s ideas, which were based on a critique not only of the communist system, but of the victorious West. Havel proposed an alternative to what the Czech philosopher Jan Patočka called “super-civilisation”. This describes a system in which everything is turned into mechanical procedures and instruments, where automation and soulless rationalisation dominate – something prevalent in the West, as well as under state socialism. These two economic systems, argued Patočka, were therefore entering the same crisis. Western civilisation had managed to hide it better, but that only made its crisis even deeper.

During the Velvet Revolution of November 1989, Havel made it clear that his political vision did not entail copying the West outright. He was aware of the pitfalls of the Western model, in which democracy becomes a ‘partocracy’, where individual parties go for one another’s throats while sharing control of the same mechanisms of power and money. Havel believed instead that politics could make do without classical political parties. This was no mere utopia: instead of engaging in power struggles, people of “goodwill” would join together in an open citizens’ forum where they would learn how to democratically administer public affairs.

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Havel’s movement, the Civic Forum, was not supposed to be merely a temporary platform for opinions, serving as a bridge between two political systems. In its original conception, it was meant to form a permanent democratic framework for non-political – or more properly, non-party – politics.

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The Civic Forum

The idea of the Civic Forum had been discussed in Czech dissident circles as far back as the 1970s. What’s surprising however, is how much it shared with the vision of some forward-thinking communists at the time.

In his book ‘The Prague Spring: Departure into a New World’, Martin Schulze Wessel describes the remarkable new conception of the Communist Party that Petr Pithart came up with during the Prague Spring of 1968. Pithart, who had been a party member since 1960, went on to collaborate with Havel in dissident activity, becoming Czech prime minister in 1990.

Like Havel, Pithart did not want to copy the Western parliamentary model – which in the minds of the public was associated with the corruption, scandals and fragmented party landscape of the interwar First Republic. Instead, he argued that the Communist Party should be an “empty framework, a platform, where the process of continual confrontation of opinions, which are also verified by society’s praxis, is organised by the vanguard, who are recognised and respected by society”. The Party was to become “more a continuum of progressive ideas than a continuum of apparatuses”.

Today, this proposal seems strikingly reminiscent of the later Civic Forum, which was an empty framework for the exchange of ‘progressive’ ideas that emerged from the Velvet Revolution. Both were innovative political formations that were supposed to overcome the limits of both the Eastern and Western systems, in which Havel – after Patočka – saw a single super-civilisation in crisis.

Havel and the Prague Spring

Yet while Havel’s ideas seem to overlap with those of reformist communists during the Prague Spring, he did not endorse them in 1968. Instead, he advocated – notably, in a dispute with the author Milan Kundera in the late 1960s – a return to the “normality” of Western civilisation.

Something’s wrong here. Is Havel’s idea of non-party politics really a return to normality? During the Velvet Revolution he argued not only against parties, but against a return to capitalism and for the dissolution of both NATO and the Warsaw Pact.

What’s more, by a return to ‘normal’, Havel meant freedom of expression and an end to the arbitrary power of the secret police – but he overlooked the fact that Western civilisation was no paragon either in this respect. In the 1960s, the US was waging war in Vietnam and there were mass radical protest movements in the US, France, West Germany and elsewhere. Segregation of the African-American population persisted, while France and Great Britain were – or had recently been – at war with national liberation movements in their colonies, using brutal tactics of suppression.

How can we explain Havel’s blindness to these things in his polemic with Kundera? Perhaps Havel just didn’t want to admit how radical his ideas were at the time, or that they resonated with those of the Prague Spring – because that would have implied a partial endorsement of a communist system he opposed.

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There was nearly society-wide consensus that as a power, the communist party could create a more democratic and humane society than those in western liberal capitalism.

Socialism and Charter 77

Havel also diverged from today’s ‘normality’ in his relationship to socialism. In the 1950s and 1960s he would describe himself in letters to friends as an “old socialist”. Charter 77, the dissident movement that Havel was part of during the 1970s and 1980s, took its name from a manifesto titled “100 years of Czech Socialism”, which demanded that the regime take the original ideas of socialism seriously and begin implementing them.

By this, Charter 77 meant “eliminating all social and political inequality”, “equal rights and equal responsibilities”, “a change of the means of labour for the general good of society”, “just distribution of the proceeds of labour” and “abolishing all class domination”. Havel and the other signatories end with the proclamation: “We, as socialists and democrats, feel a personal responsibility for the fulfilment of these principles.”

Although Havel distanced himself from Marx after 1989, he never explicitly recanted his belief in the original ideals of socialism. He simply stopped speaking about them, like nearly everyone else, drawing instead on the Patočkean concepts of super-civilisation, being and transcendence.

Nonetheless, in a 1990 speech Havel declared that “even compromised words can have their original meaning returned, and I have no doubt that the various reviving or emerging parties of a leftist orientation will be able to return the meaning of the word ‘socialism’”.

Today, when the Left is again seeking a new orientation, it would do well to listen to Havel and restore the original meaning of this ‘compromised’ word. Were it to achieve this, in the face of the ongoing crisis of Western civilisation, then perhaps Havel – were he still alive – would once again call himself an “old socialist”.

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