Written on December 16, 2007 by DeansTalk in Arts & Cultures & Societies, Literature

On Rereading Václav Havel’s, ‘The Power of the Powerless’

Jeremy Whitty, IE Business School Global MBA Student 2007-08

I have imagination, and nothing that is real is alien to me              –George Santayana   Little Essays


In just under two years we all shall remember the fall of the Berlin wall. Therefore before volumes appear in print about it, Solidarity and the Velvet Revolution, it is worth asking whether a handful of dissident intellectuals really did make a difference? Is Havel’s essay "The Power of the Powerless" as relevant today as it was in communist Prague, when it showed the "moral rot" of the political system infused with lies and shrouded in a mask of appearances, where even language had lost its semantic meaning? And if it is relevant, and if a handful of dissidents can make a difference, where are they now?

The Czech regime, although described as post-totalitarian by Havel, certainly had totalitarian ambitions. There was a one party system which continued to demand the total subservience of society to the state. People were no longer expected to show enthusiasm for the system, but they had to play the game, to "live within the lie". Yet, despite the over-arching control of the state apparatus, a handful of intellectuals did make a difference; in November 1989, when Czech dissidents and opposition groups came together to form the Civic Forum, there was only 200 of them. Furthermore, their influence spread beyond their own borders, a solidarity activist, Zbygniew Bujak, recounts the "profound" impact Havel’s essay had on solidarity members in the Ursus factory in 1979. People thought Solidarity were "crazy" for taking the risk of speaking the truth "about the factory, the country, the politics" but Havel’s essays gave them the "theoretical underpinnings" for their work and "maintained our spirits". According to Bujak, less than a year later, the party and factory management "were afraid of us. We mattered". This is an immensely important statement. That any one person or group of individuals could actually matter is a concept totally alien to a totalitarian system.

In his essay, Havel claims the main purpose of a dissident’s work is to have an impact on society not on the power structure. The dissident’s role is to defend people, to boost the confidence of citizens, to shatter the world of appearances, to unmask the real nature of power. To speak the truth. He also throws in the caveat that dissidents must carry out these tasks without assuming themselves to be "elites" or "that they alone know best". Now, before one assumes he was caught up in a utopian fantasy, Havel did warn that although a dissident’s work will not be the only factor that influences the future of a society, in fact the dissident’s significance can pale when compared to social crises, power shifts, economic factors and international politics and interests.

Havel sees dissent as a natural phenomenon when a system is based on the unadulterated, brutal, arbitrary application of power which eliminates all expressions of non-conformity and where everybody is acutely aware of the consequences for oneself and one’s family if one does not do as required. By setting out a stark contrast between "natural" dissent and a "brutal" (unnatural) system, he highlights that there is no moral foundation for acceptance of the latter. His focus remains constantly on the individual. This keeps alive the pronounced contrast between the philosophy of the dissident and that of the regime, where an individual, no matter what his rank, is not worth anything except as fuel for the machine. In Havel’s view, everyone is enslaved, just to differing degrees and dissidents are those who speak out against the hypocrisy which permeates life in the system, in any system, where lies are inherent, not only in ideology, which legitimises the system, but in semantics too. Havel claims that citizens actively support this legitimisation by playing the game and buying into the lie. "All those who live within the lie confirm the system, fulfil the system, make the system, are the system". Which is fair enough, except, there is no dignity in living a lie. The only way to lead a dignified life is to view one’s life, and live it, as a moral act by always seeking the truth. In its simplest form, dissent is the attempt to regain control over one’s own sense of responsibility and it is a conscious decision that anybody can make, at anytime, despite the pervading ideology one might be living in.

Havel is well aware of the "hypnotic charm" of ideology, which is "extremely flexible, has an answer for everything" and where "all you have to do is accept". But the price is high; it costs one’s reason, conscience and responsibility. It is a price which can never bring about a true, real and moral human existence. In fact, the longer a regime is in power, the looser its ties to reality become, because over time ideology is subordinated to the interests of the political structure, where it must create a world of appearances, become a ritual where the language used becomes increasingly meaningless. In Czechoslovakia, there was a total separation of the public and private spheres. Ordinary people lived two separate lives as evidenced by "unkempt public spaces but… clean and tidy homes", smiles and conversations were reserved for family and friends. In the same way, a dual set of morals existed. People thought it commonplace to lie in public, liars were more valued than honest workers and citizens felt it was acceptable to steal from the regime but not from each other. The regime, of course thought the exact opposite, and a status quo, or rather social stasis ensued.

But what can a dissident do? During this time, people turned completely away from the public sphere and instead focused on obtaining more material possessions and more comfortable lives. This meant that people were not only disinterested in the ruling elite, but those who spoke out against the system had very little relevance themselves. G.M. Tamás describes dissidents as an odd bunch who "had beards, spoke foreign languages and were the first to carry their children in pouches." He explains how they spoke of "strange things" like "parallel public sphere" and "dissident sub-culture". In short, they were "a pain in the neck". He gives the following reasons for the initial lack of popular support for dissidents: They challenged the efficacy of reforms, seen by most as the "only possible salvation", they challenged the political discourse and the assumption that all resistance was so dangerous it was impossible. They challenged the moral stance of those who opposed the regime but didn’t act. Some dissidents were seen as turncoats and attention seekers. Judt expresses the view of most Czechoslovakian people when he claims that the intellectuals were a "marginal" group of "self appointed spokespeople".

However, somehow the "feeble … lonely voices of dissenters from behind the Iron Curtain" did make a difference. Tamás claims that by speaking out they proved that the quest for liberty and justice was universal and that the regime was not necessarily a permanent fixture and somehow people rallied behind the dissidents and opposition groups of Civic Forum in late 1989. Under the leadership of Havel and a half dozen others, students started the velvet revolution. Actors and workers followed and together they negotiated their way into freedom and briefly, towards a truth.

How did it happen? For a start, the Czechs felt they were not like the nomenklatura, thus when it became apparent that there was a crisis of legitimacy in the regime, and seeing the peaceful overthrow of communist regimes all around them, they realised they could safely do more than just listen to or read the words of dissidents. They knew that they too could become dissidents, take to the streets and shout out their own words, words which had a genuine semantic meaning, words which expressed their true feelings and desires for their nation and their lives. Ultimately, words proved to be central to the downfall of the regime. They were the words of dissident negotiators, the words of the chanting masses, the words of hastily improvised posters in shop windows. As Timothy Garton Ash wrote, regimes "lived by the word and perished by the word". One of the greatest achievements of a handful of dissident intellectuals could be summed up as, "Pravda Vitězí". The only questions I have left are;

Do those very words hold any meaning now?

Have they too disengaged from reality?

Is democracy itself now a world of appearances, a ritual whose language ceases to be based in reality?

And if so, where are the dissidents?


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