Friday

10th Apr 2020

Opinion

Remembering Havel's dream

Twenty five years ago on this day (17 November), violent repression of a student protest spurred a series of events in the then Czechoslovakia that we call the Velvet Revolution.

The sclerotic authoritarian regime, tired of perpetuating the lie of life in “real socialism”, crumbled under the pressure of people ringing their keys to make clear the “period” was over.

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Some say it crumbled too easily.

That it imploded because the core nomenklatura sensed more economic opportunity in capitalism than the failed model of the developmental state which took over following the crushing of the Prague Spring.

Or that because the transition was negotiated, no real catharsis took place in the society. And that, as a result, the collective mind of the people remained much the same: prone to Schadenfreude, celebrations of mediocrity and political apathy.

To be sure, there is plenty to be dismayed about in the Czech Republic today. But the larger point is this: The crisis of politics that is taking place in the Czech Republic – of elites that do not inspire, of institutions that are not seen as true societal articulations, of the basic social compact determining shared political norms – is not exceptional.

The Czechs are back in Europe. But since that now means living through Europe’s political crisis, it is not exactly the kind of return they had been expecting.

The Power of the Powerless

If Europe is serious about doing something about this crisis, about finding a new political constitution, it should not only celebrate the annus mirabilis in which Central Europeans shook off their oppressive yoke.

It should look for inspiration in the political ideas that originated at the then Europe’s periphery. Ideas that because of their origin were sensitive both to the flaws of (post)liberal societies as well as the (post)communist ones.

When we remember the Velvet Revolution, we would be right to remember the man most closely associated with it: Vaclav Havel. And to remember him not as the idol he became, but as a political thinker.

In his essay Power of the Powerless Havel famously described how the Communist regime confined human beings, from green-grocers to prime ministers, to a world of the ritually reproduced lie.

But the (post)totalitarian system he was talking about was simply a “pure form” of politics in global modernity, one characterised by anonymisation, depersonalisation and power expressed just as a type of management and manipulation.

To resist these forces and the “temptation of nothingness”, Havel said practical morality - consistent with “living in the truth” - had to replace modern politics.

Above all this morality consisted of being responsible to the community and caring for fellow human beings, and in resisting the rituals of technical civilisation and consumer society for the sake of a more authentic human existence.

Cosmopolitan dreams

The state was a “circle of home” to Havel, one that could guarantee authentic life to its citizens insofar as it consisted not just of traditional political institutions, but also of vibrant civil society, self-organising and facilitating human participation and creativity.

But the state was only one circle among many.

Havel’s vision was cosmopolitan. His was a utopia of people united by what Czech philosopher Jan Patocka called, with reference to the global wars of the twentieth century, the “solidarity of the shaken”.

It was a vision of assumed global responsibility that did not consist merely of a human rights agenda, but also, for example, environmental issues that concern of all humankind.

In a small prison cell in the communist Czechoslovakia, a cosmopolitan dream was born that nonetheless could come true with the recognition of the simple fact that we all are responsible for the world, and that through this responsibility we relate to the “absolute horizon of being”.

On days like this, when we celebrate the historic change that took place 25 years ago but also ponder the current political situation, it is worth remembering Havel’s dream. And then perhaps choosing, with the freedom we have as human beings, to make it true.

Not for the man, but for ourselves.

Ondrej Ditrych teaches international politics at Charles University in Prague.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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