Václav Havel: From the Prague Spring to the Velvet Revolution to the Year of the Protestor

We’re an empire now. And when we act, we create our own reality. –Senior Bush Advisor to Ron Suskind


It can be said, therefore, that ideology, as that instrument of internal communication which assures the power structure of inner cohesion is, in the post-totalitarian system, something that transcends the physical aspects of power, something that dominates it to a considerable degree, and therefore, tends to assure its continuity as well. It is one of the pillars of the system’s external stability. This pillar, however, is built on a very unstable foundation. It is built on lies. It works only as long as people are willing to live within the lie. –Václav Havel, “Power of the Powerless

In his essay, Power of the Powerless, Václav Havel described how citizens of “post-totalitarian” societies perform certain rituals–his central example was a green grocer putting the sign, “Workers of the World, Unite!” in his shop window every morning, but he saw the “dictatorship of consumption” to work similarly–to signify their adherence to the ideology on which power in the system rests. The system relies on (and rewards, with access to a comfortable livelihood) the universal performance of such rituals to sustain the ideology that gives the raw power behind the system some legitimacy. He argued that if people began to live within the truth–stopped putting up the sign every morning and paid the consequences in terms of lost benefits–it might expose the lie behind the myths people told themselves about their society.

But the moment someone breaks through in one place, when one person cries out, “the emperor is naked!”–when a single person breaks the rules of the game, thus exposing it as a game–everything suddenly appears in another light and the whole crust seems then to be made of a tissue on the point of tearing and disintegrating uncontrollably.

For Havel, the moment that started the Charter 77 movement, and ultimately, a decade later, the Velvet Revolution, was the 1976 trial–on charges of disturbing the peace–of the underground rock band, Plastic People of the Universe. In a feuilleton called “The Trial” Havel described how the event exposed the illegitimacy of the authorities and their ideology. Yet even as that became clear–even as it became clear that this rather ordinary event was going to take on much deeper significance–the government continued to play its part, thereby delegitimizing itself. Havel used the language of theater to describe what happened.

What is even stranger, nothing could be done about it: the play, once it started, had to be played through to the end, thus finally showing how terribly its initiators had entangled themselves in the net of their own prestige. They did not dare to halt the whole thing and admit their error, but rather went through with the embarrassing spectacle to the very end. At the same time the actors in this spectacle found themselves in a paradoxical situation: the more honestly they played their parts, the more obviously they uncovered their unforeseen meaning, thus becoming the co-creators of an entirely different performance than they had thought they were playing, or had wanted to play.

Out of that moment, Charter 77 formed as a fairly amorphous group designed to insist the government fulfill the human rights commitments it had signed onto:

Charter 77 is a loose, informal and open association of people of various shades of opinion, faiths and professions united by the will to strive individually and collectively for the respecting of civic and human rights in our own country and throughout the world.

[snip] Charter 77 is not an organization; it has no rules, permanent bodies or formal membership. It embraces everyone who agrees with its ideas and participates in its work. It does not form the basis for any oppositional political activity. Like many similar citizen initiatives in various countries, West and East, it seeks to promote the general public interest. It does not aim, then, to set out its own platform of political or social reform or change, but within its own field of impact to conduct a constructive dialogue with the political and state authorities, particularly by drawing attention to individual cases where human and civic frights are violated, to document such grievances and suggest remedies, to make proposals of a more general character calculated to reinforce such rights and machinery for protecting them, to act as an intermediary in situations of conflict which may lead to violations of rights, and so forth.

Out of that movement (and more generally since the Prague Spring), as Havel describes in Power of the Powerless, might be built a “parallel polis,” a culture growing out of people’s urge for self-organization and living in the truth. As it happened in Eastern Europe, this included underground rock, samizdat, free universities, and so forth. Havel hoped (writing in 1978, over a decade before the Velvet Revolution) this parallel polis would,

slowly but surely become a social phenomenon of growing importance, taking a real part in the life of society with increasing clarity and influencing the general situation.

As history played out, that parallel polis played perhaps an even larger role in Czechoslovakia’s history than the man who would one day serve as its President might have hoped.

When he spoke of post-totalitarian society, Havel meant communist, not capitalist, society. But as I suggested, he didn’t believe post-capitalist countries were much better.

People are manipulated in ways that are infinitely more subtle and refined than the brutal methods used in the post-totalitarian societies. But this static complex of rigid, conceptually sloppy, and politically pragmatic mass political parties run by professional apparatuses and releasing the citizen from all forms of concrete and personal responsibility; and those complex focuses of capital accumulation engaged in secret manipulations and expansion; the omnipresent dictatorship of consumption, production, advertising, commerce, consumer culture, and all that flood of information: all of it, so often analyzed and described, can only with great difficulty be imagined as the source of humanity’s rediscovery of itself.

He predicted it would take far more for those in democratic countries to wake up to the way the system ideologically co-opted people.

In democratic societies, where the violence done to human beings is not nearly so obvious and cruel, this fundamental revolution in politics has yet to happen, and some things will probably have to get worse there before the urgent need for that revolution is reflected in politics.

I can’t help but think what an appropriate time it was–almost exactly a year to the day after Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation did, world-wide, what the Plastic People of the Universe trial did in 1976: show everything in a different light and set off the potential disintegration of the system. And, too, Havel died as the US government finally set in motion Bradley Manning’s trial, one that like that trial in 1976 may well have a predictable outcome that nevertheless will damage the legitimacy of the government.

Havel lived to see oligarchy ascending into power in the developed world. And he lived to see the nearly worldwide reaction against globalized oligarchy–a global moment akin to the events of 1968 and 1989 that Havel played such a key role in. This moment, it seems, was an appropriate time for Havel to pass on the torch of dissidence.

29 replies
  1. MadDog says:

    Havel’s analysis seems to be saying that here in the democratic West, “this fundamental revolution in politics” won’t occur until “Occupy Wall Street” becomes “Occupy Main Street”.

    How far we have to fall, or conversely, how far we have to climb for this to happen is anybody’s guess, but rest assured, the journey is underway.

  2. emptywheel says:

    @MadDog: I don’t know whether he’s commented much on events of the last year (and remember he served the Neocons’ ends in recent years). But I’m not sure he’d go that far. Rather, I think the financial collapse may be demonstrating the urgent need for change he spoke about.

  3. emptywheel says:

    One thing that I noted on twitter but not in this piece btw: a close scholar of Havel’s (who himself passed away some time ago) once described to me being brought to DC by the CIA as communism was collapsing. They didn’t even know, really, what Havel was about and wanted to know from this scholar and a few others what leaders might arise in the stead.

    I’ve always been fascinated by that. Remember, we did a lot to empower dissidents in Eastern Block with things like RAdio Free Europe. I’ve long puzzled about how I compare that to our intervention in places like Georgia and Iran.

    That, to me, may be a signature of where our intervention turns from noble into corrupt: whether we know of, or pre-picked the winners, of the movement. That’s why I like seeing our pre-Tahrir interactions with the April 6 movement in Egypt. We knew of them, made sure their YouTubes didn’t get taken down. But we totally refused to believe they might succeed.

  4. phred says:

    I like your point on the timing of Manning’s hearing. Nonetheless what strikes me most about it is its proximity to Christmas and the fact they started on a Friday and are running straight through the weekend. Seems to me the government is doing its best to keep the hearing out of the public eye — or at least hope people are too busy shopping, baking, and wrapping to notice.

  5. allan says:

    From David Remmick’s 2003 New Yorker profile of Havel:

    After the revolution, he continued, “we were babes in the woods, and so I went to the West for help.” Officials from MI6 and the C.I.A. helped the Czechs rebuild the security system, ridding it, above all, of its function as a private police and army force for the government.

    You have to wonder how much that influence affected Havel’s decision to back the invasion of Iraq.

  6. posaune says:

    Thank you so much EW for marking his passing. One year I read Letters to Olga, one letter per day. It was the most fruitful thing I did that year because it made me think, think deeply.

  7. rosalind says:

    @phred: Kevin Gosztola, doing the FDL liveblog at Manning’s hearing, tweeted today:

    “Good amount of US media has no interest in #Manning hearing. Media #s way down today. Foreign media represented though”

    The US Trad Med covered the first day but now evidently are all off doing their Holiday shopping. Priorities.

  8. MadDog says:

    @emptywheel: Well, if he won’t/didn’t, I will. So there! *g*

    Seriously, the connection of Havel’s analysis to an “Occupy Main Street” was all mine. Your Havel quote here seems to expand the envelope beyond just the oligarchs playing with OPM in their casino:

    “…those complex focuses of capital accumulation engaged in secret manipulations and expansion; the omnipresent dictatorship of consumption, production, advertising, commerce, consumer culture, and all that flood of information: all of it…”

    It reminds me of the oh, so familiar refrain I’d been constantly hearing on the national and local news over the past couple of days where the gauge of how well Americans are doing is the evidence of how much of their own money they deplete spending on shopping.

    It has struck me how inherently corrupt that gauge is.

    That the draining of American pocketbooks on the consumption of objects they don’t need should be held out in our system as a positive and acclaimed measure of that system, is instead to me, an indictment of how inured the enslaved have become to unthinkingly powering the “consume because you can” tread-mill until all is spent and we fall out only to be replaced by our same task-bred descendants.

  9. emptywheel says:

    @posaune: Sounds like a great way to read them. I’ve decided when I come back from the Christmas holiday I’m gonna dig out my Havel collection (it’s way back in our storage location). I’m hoping some of his plays get some coverage, cause I only saw two performed live.

  10. phred says:

    @rosalind: I’m shocked, shocked! ; )

    I guess now that we have codified indefinite detention and a preference for military rather than civilian legal proceedings, no one is supposed to view Manning’s treatment as anything out of the ordinary or undue.

  11. emptywheel says:

    @MadDog: Oh, trust me, I was thinking of OWS as I wrote this. The notion of a parallel polis organized rather organically is very close. And while Charter 77 had spokespeople–something OWS has largely avoided–like OWS it saw itself as a group only insofar as people affirmatively chose to belong to it, not via any formal membership.

    Add in things like the seminars some OWS sites have set up, and there are key similarities.

    In my diss, I covered a fight that Havel and Ludvik Vaculik had in 1978-79 (so roughly the same time as Power of the Powerless) over how they would expand the movement particularly as its members kept getting thrown in jail. Vaculik wondered whether going to prison was worth all that much, and suggested that they should encourage more people to engage in “modest works” (a term Toma Masaryk invoked during CS’ struggle for independence).

    Under such circumstances, each piece of honestly done work, each display of incorruptibility, each gesture of good will straying from cold routine, each step or look without a mask, has the value of a heroic act.

    Havel saw this as an attack on heroic actions.

    [referring to Vaculik’s argument] it worked in its core and its consequences in this way: a proper man is not made into a hero and is not thrown into prison. Because to be a hero is something asocial, it is not that correct and honest work that proper people like and which continues society in its path: it is omething that offends people, something which they dread. Heroes are dangerous above all because they only worse conditions.

    A bunch of the other dissidents weighed in and they started arguing about whether they could even be having the argument via the feuilleton and also whether by using language about normal men and the active minority they were adopting the language of official journalism and thereby debasing the actions it described.

    But while they were arguing about who was or was not in their circle (or in this minority of people who were active), Vaculik started circulating the feuilletons outside of that circle. He got several anonymous responses–effectively, achieving precisely what the argument was about. The responses said a key part of their decision to speak up for the first time had to do with Vaculik’s solidarity with them.

    Even though I don’t know if I understood your feilleton correctly, I woudl like to say that after a long time I read something that spoke to me and expressed my feelings. … I feel that you express solidarity with those that many would call cowards or traitors, and even with your opponents. The efforts of solidarity with anybody is close to me, so I am sending you the following several lines.

    In other words, in that case, one thing they needed to do was acknowledge the legitimacy of people’s fear and encourage them to do what they could.

    I actually think OWS (and the Arab spring protests) more deliberately tried to reach out, particularly to cops. I think that’s key–encouraging people to wean themselves off their fear gradually and engaging them intellectually while they do so.

  12. masaccio says:

    Havel is right about the way we all buy into the dominant consumer mentality, to the point of borrowing to sustain it. We have to change ourselves to force change on the oligarchy.

  13. MadDog says:

    @emptywheel: I think I like Vaculik’s argument that even small rays of sunshine are worthy accomplishments, and in truth, I suspect more of our specie’s real accomplishments fit this description than great leap forwards. That isn’t to say that Havel’s heroic actions are not also worthy, but an inch of progress is still progress.

    I’m also glad to see your dissertation was meaningful in a real world sense. It is all to common for PhD candidates to polish nuggets of useless dross rather than uncover fruitful truths.

  14. emptywheel says:

    @masaccio: Well it’s not even the borrowing, per se. It’s that by buying into the consumer mentality we sustain the myth that we’re part of a capitalist system and it delivers what we need.

  15. eCAHNomics says:

    Completely ignorant about Havel.

    From this post it seems like he was all over the place.

    If I pieced together this narrative, would it be in line with what others know better than I?

    Havel was in the right place at the right time. He made the right noises/speeches, which got him to the top of the mountain.

    Once there, he rubbed shoulders with others in power which made him rethink his tradeoffs.

    I admit I was put off by his sign in the window and the analogy to emperor’s new clothes. I think those are myths perpetrated on the naive. Only purpose is to identify the troublemakers so they can be dispensed with.

  16. scribe says:


    That the draining of American pocketbooks on the consumption of objects they don’t need should be held out in our system as a positive and acclaimed measure of that system, is instead to me, an indictment of how inured the enslaved have become to unthinkingly powering the “consume because you can” tread-mill until all is spent and we fall out only to be replaced by our same task-bred descendants

    It’s of a piece with the repeated pronouncements from the Presidents and senior pols of both parties, telling us how “The Best of America” are her soldiers. The best we have, in the pols’ minds and voices, are the people whose job (and for many, sadly, their purpose in life) is to kill their fellow man and wreck things, all in response to the whims of the pols and their financers.

    Rather perverse. Yet, everywhere one turns hosannas are sung to those soldiers and what we’re told is their heroism (whatever that means), a fortiori by preachers and flock who call themselves Christian (one might easily find a direct correspondence between the vigors of their religiosity and their militarism and soldier-jock-sniffing) and damnation hurled by the same crowd at those who would dare to counsel Jesus’ injunction to Peter: “put up your sword”.

    It’s going to get a lot worse before it gets better.

  17. PeasantParty says:

    @emptywheel: I agree with that. I also thank you for this Post.

    One of the things that interested me most about OWS was their seminars on Direct Democracy. Most people have not delved that far or been curious enough to look, but I have to say they are making people think. It is a good thing in my eyes. They are also focusing on the farce of foreclosure. The American people own those homes now via TARP and QE. They are bringing attention to the banks throwing people out into the streets homeless while still claiming ownership!

    Why can’t the bulk of America open their eyes and see that?

  18. Bob Schacht says:

    The implicit comparison of Chapter 77 with OWS is intriguing. Maybe we should start Chapter 77s here in the US? Or would it be better just to join our local OWS?

    I hope people in OWS will see your work on Chapter 77, so that it may become part of their conversation. To me, the most hopeful thing about OWS is the mutual self education about democracy, and democratic processes; that is inspiring. Their experiments with New England Town Meetings are awesome. Schools have not been doing enough teaching civics, but that is what the OWS experiences have taught their participants.

    Interesting stuff.

    Bob in AZ

  19. lucie13 says:

    “–Senior Bush Advisor to Ron Suskind” –typo, I think

    The Charter 77 concept is very intriguing. The thing is, should a document like that be replicated? If a similar charter were written by intellectuals, known activists, community leaders and heads of organizations of diverse viewpoints, would it pick up steam? Or should Occupy simply capitalize on the historical reference?

  20. emptywheel says:

    This post, which links to this one, makes explicit one more comparison I didn’t make explicitly, but was also thinking of: the self-imolation of Czech Jan Palach with Bouazizi. It’s worth checking out.

  21. emptywheel says:

    @Bob Schacht: I don’t think OWS needs a Charter 77 (their GAs are doing that work, anyway).

    Though I do think it time that the human rights community lay out all the claims to human rights support we make that we don’t deliver. We’ve been doing that implicitly for years, but I think doing so would be more effective under Obama.

  22. Tom Allen says:

    @emptywheel: Capitalism is like sperm. It’s useful for fertilization, but it can’t do the whole job itself. A purely capitalist society ends up a waste of spilled seed. Believe me, I know whereof I speak. :-P

    I’ll spare you the complementary “socialism is like ova” analogy, which I leave to the reader. Shorter: we need both to reproduce. :-)

  23. Desider says:

    @emptywheel: Our intervention in Ukraine’s Orange Revolution, Georgia’s Rose, Iran in the 1990’s were all good examples of pretty benign intervention. (we also helped out Solidarity a lot, but that was much more a cold war operation, while I think aid we gave to the Serbian protests had to be hush hush thanks to our bombing irritating erstwhile fans)

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