Václav Havel: From a political dissident to a dissident politician

In examining Havel as politician it would be wrong to start with his entry into official politics in 1989. Havel has always been a politician of sorts—even when he was known predominantly as a playwright and a dissident. Most of his writings have dealt, one way or the other, with politics.


He continued a long tradition of Czech culture, which during periods of a lack of freedom served as an alternative channel of political communication. Political ambitions as well the criticism of various regimes were expressed through the language of culture.


It is an interesting hypothetical question whether Havel—if he grew up in freedom—would become an artist or a politician. In light of the fact that both literature and playwriting served Havel often as means for criticizing the totalitarian regime, one could argue that Havel was more likely to become a politician.


On the other hand, Havel has always been too unorthodox to be able to become a successful politician under “normal” conditions. In other words, Havel was catapulted into official politics by historical coincidences. If he had had to climb the ladder of party politics, it is quite likely he would have never made it all the way to the top.


The fact that Havel became the president by a historical accident has influenced his presidency. He was not always willing to play by the rules. Because he was not chosen on the basis of the rules of “standard politics”, during his entire presidency he somehow did not fit. Soon, he became a source of irritation for many party politicians. And he also irritated an increasing number of common people, for whom both his past and moralistic speeches represented an uncomfortable mirror. Surprisingly, he also irritated quite a few intellectuals, who could not understand why this man, in particular, became a favorite son of history. In the end, history, no doubt, will place Havel, even at home, where deserves to be.


From Arts to Poltiics


The adult life of Vaclav Havel is often analyzed in three separate periods: the artistic, dissident, and political. In reality, in each of those periods Havel was a writer, a dissident and a political being at the same time. What connects the three periods most of all is the fact that we can find politics in the background of all of his activities. In the fifties and the sixties, Havel ridiculed or questioned the language and practices of Communism in his plays and essays (and even some poems).  Havel’s own political activities–for example, in the Union of the Czechoslovak writers, in the editorial boards of some publications, and in some petition drives—were equally important.


In the 1970’s and the 1980’s, when Havel could not officially publish and stage his plays, he acted as an unofficial leader of the Czechoslovak dissident movement—which played the role of political opposition to the normalization regime. He considered himself to be a writer and playwright, but his plays as well as essays almost exclusively dealt with political issues.


After 1989, he became a professional politician; however, he was a rather unorthodox politician, who liked to see himself as a dissident of sorts among politicians. And although he stopped writing plays, he tried to remain a creative writer when writing most of his presidential speeches.


If we analyze all three periods of his life in more detail, it is apparent that politics—played an important role in all three of them–both as an activity and a theme of his writing.


The First period


In the 1960’s, Havel was seen as one of the most talented young playwrights and writers. However, he differed from most of his contemporaries in that his plays were not only artistic but also political acts. At the same time, they were deeply rooted in thinking about the alienated world of bureaucratic apparatuses. His plays were in essence parodies of the Communist world.


Havel started his political activities when he was only 20 years old. At a meeting of young writers in Dobris in 1956, he delivered a rebellious speech.  During this period, he also began publishing his poems and essays in the journal Kveten and elsewhere.


Some of his poems were overtly political. The same is true about some of his essays from this period. He was openly critical of the communist regime’s bureaucratic nature and of what he called “the banality of a certain kind of life” which prevailed in the communist regime. In fact, his first play, “Evening with the Family”, which he wrote in 1959, was a merciless parody of the communist society’s philistines.


 “The Garden Party”, which made him famous after it was staged in 1963, again ridiculed the banality of everyday life in “a new society” as well as the language of the bureaucratized communist regime. In essence, it was a political play—an attack on the communist system, presented in the form of art.


Havel’s next play “The Memorandum,” written in 1965, is like “The Garden Party” set in the labyrinthine world of bureaucracy, once again in a nameless organization whose purpose is never articulated. Mr. Gross, its managing  director arrives at work, one morning to find   on his office desk a memorandum written in a incomprehensible language—Ptydepe. It turns out that this artificial language has been secretly introduced behind the director’s back by his deputy. The director attempts to stops this but, instead, he is demoted and replaced by the deputy who introduced the new language.


When Gross attempts to learn what is written in his memo, he discovers that he needs a special authorization for a translation, and the application form is in Ptydepe. In other words, as Gross notes, “The only way to know what is in one’s memo is to know it already.” In the end, the Ptydepe plot fails, Gross is reinstated, but only at the cost of tolerating another new language called “Chorukor”. Havel is telling us that the system cannot be reformed, just like the communist system.


In other words, the first plays by Havel were quite political: they ridiculed both totalitarian practices and the absurdity of the totalitarian speak. Although delivered through playwriting, Havel’s message was political. At the same time, Havel was a dissident of sorts already then—at least, when we compare him with other people who wanted to democratize the regime. In 1965, at a conference of Czechoslovak writers, Havel openly criticized what he ridiculed in his plays: conventional and pseudo-ideological thinking, which, in his mind, permeated the social life of the country and was causing much damage.


He also became active in editorial circle of Tvar, a new cultural journal, which was later closed down, and revived again, for a short period of time, in 1969. At the Congress of Czechoslovak Writers’ Union in 1967, Havel delivered a passionate speech, in which he demanded the reopening of Tvar. In March 1968, he signed an open letter with 150 other writers and other cultural figures, addressed to the Central Committee of the Communist Party, in which the signatories supported further democratization. He was also elected as the chairman of a group of writers within the Union of Czechoslovak Writers, who were not members of the Communist Party.


He tried to put a distance between himself and his communist colleagues in other ways as well. In June 1968 he and some 30 other personalities issued a declaration demanding that the Social Democratic Party, which had been forcibly merged with the Communists in 1948, get a chance to explain to the public why it should be renewed.


Havel was politically active even after the Soviet-led invasion. In the spring of 1969, he delivered a powerful speech at the congress of the newly established Union of Czech Writers. His made his last public speech for almost 20 years at a meeting in Ostrava in June 1969. The communists called the meeting a provocation.


In July 1969 Havel coauthored a statement addressed to the Federal Assembly, the government,  and the Politburo of the Communist Party, in which some cultural figures rejected the policies of normalization. It came as no great surprise that later Havel was vilified in the infamous Communist Party document called “The Lessons from the Crisis Development in the party and society”.


The Second Period


When Havel became a “professional” dissident, he continued to see himself as a playwright and writer, but his activities focused more and more on the practical tasks he performed as the unofficial head of the political opposition in the country. The opposition did not exist officially, it did not have its own party, but it had its own undisputed leader—Vaclav Havel.


Even the so-called Vanek plays, which Havel wrote in this period, were more openly political than his plays from the 1960’s. In 1972, he and 34 other writers signed a petition demanding an amnesty for political prisoners. But one could argue that Havel officially entered politics as the head of the nascent dissident movement in 1975, when he wrote his famous letter to President Gustav Husak.


The letter was a merciless analysis of social and political conditions under the normalization regime. Among other things, Havel wrote: “There are fewer people than ever who really believe everything that the official propaganda says and support the government. On the other hand, we have more hypocrites than ever—to a certain extent, every citizen is being forced to become a hypocrite.”

A year later, Havel took part in efforts to defend the Plastic People of the Universe, a rock group whose members were put on trial. And in 1977, he was one of the organizers and first signatories of Charter 77, a document that launched a human rights movement in Czechoslovakia. Havel was one its first three spokesmen.


In 1978 he published his most important political essay: “The Power of the Powerless.” It was a penetrating analysis of the decaying communist regime, which has since become one of the classics of the political literature of the 20th century.


The regime silenced Havel in 1980, when he was sentenced to a four-year prison term. His “Letters to Olga”, which were censored by prison authorities, were understandable less political. However, in 1984, shortly after his release from jail, Havel published another political masterpiece: “The Politics and Conscience”. Between 1984 and the fall of the communist regime in 1989 he published a number of other interesting political texts and continued playing a leading role in the dissident movement.


The Third Period


In 1989, Havel and other dissidents were forced to become active politicians, when they led round-table talks with the collapsing communist regime. In the hindsight, it is, of course, possible to criticize Havel and other dissidents (and some people do so) for being too soft, for preferring “a velvet revolution” to being hard on the Communists. However, given the fact that Havel and his colleagues had little or no experience with professional politics, it can be argued they managed the transition process quite well.


Havel became a professional politician on 29 December 1989, when he was elected the president of Czechoslovakia. However, even after he was catapulted by history into the highest post in the country, he remained partly a dissident and partly a writer.


The purpose of his writing changed, but many of his speeches were unique philosophical essays. In comparison with other domestic and foreign politicians, Havel also spoke about matters that most politicians usually do not touch—global responsibility, the dangerous self-motion of the industrial society, active citizenship, etc.


He also played an important role in propagating the important role of a vibrant civil society in modern democracies. His various speeches and other public statements on the theme of civil society form the backbone of his political legacy from the time of his presidency. His conflict with Vaclav Klaus about the role of civil society was basically a conflict about the nature of Czech democracy.


Havel has been often accused of never extricating himself fully from some political concepts that he subscribed to as a dissident—most important, the concept of non-political politics. If we simplify, we can say that the followers of this concept believed that politics in a post-communist society should be based more on a civil society than political parties.


Two remarks are in order here. First, as far as the origins of the concept are concerned, the idea was a logical reaction to the communist environment of inflated partisanship and the symbiosis of the party with the bureaucratized state. Dissidents, and not only in Czechoslovakia, were understandably skeptical to the role of political parties in general. They hoped that, after the fall of Communism, politics will be much more based on personal engagement, authenticity, etc.


At the same time, it is necessary to dispute some views, according to which Havel remained faithful to the idea of non-political politics even after 1989. It is true that he often criticized political parties, in particular their excessive partisanship and a lack of cooperation with the civil society. At the same time, he recognized early on the fact that political parties were indispensable in modern democracies. His main concern was, just like earlier in his life, that  parties should not function as mere apparatuses, which communicate with the public in their own “ptydepe” and are alienated from reality.


His fears proved to be quite justified. In an article, published on the occasion of the 15th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution, Havel wrote:


…15 years after the fall of Communism, we again witness political apathy. Democracy is increasingly seen as a mere ritual. In general, Western societies, it seems, are experiencing a certain crisis of the democratic ethos and active citizenship.


It is possible that what we are witnessing is a mere change of paradigm, caused by new technologies, and we have nothing to worry about. But perhaps the problem is deeper: global corporations, media cartels, and powerful bureaucracies are transforming political parties into organizations whose main task is no longer public service, but the protection of specific clienteles and interests. Politics is becoming a battleground for lobbyists; media trivialize serious problems; democracy often looks like a virtual game for consumers, rather than a serious business for serious citizens. 


When dreaming about a democratic future, we who were dissidents certainly had some utopian illusions, as we are well aware today. However, we were not mistaken when we argued that Communism was not a mere dead end of Western rationalism. Bureaucratization, anonymous manipulation, and emphasis on mass conformism were brought to “perfection” in the Communist system; however, some of the very same threats are with us today.


We were already certain then that if democracy is emptied of values and reduced to a competition of political parties that have “guaranteed” solutions to everything, it can be quite undemocratic. This is why we put so much emphasis on the moral dimension of politics and a vibrant civil society as counterweights to political parties and state institutions.“


As far as the future political direction of the Czech Republic was concerned, a change in Havel’s attitudes to NATO was as important as were his various statements on the subject of political parties and a civil society. He quickly discarded some of his ideas form the dissident era that NATO should be abolished together with the Warsaw Pact and became a strong advocate of NATO enlargement to Eastern Europe as well as strong ties with the USA. At the same time, he was a tireless advocate of European integration. It may be useful to note—now that the EU is going through a serious internal crisis—that Havel already in 1998, in a speech in the French Senate, pleaded for the creation of a bicameral European parliament, pretty much like the US Congress. In fact, he was calling for the creation of a European federation.


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