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A Tribute to the Late Václav Havel on the 30-Year Anniversary of the Velvet Revolution

November 2019 will mark the 30-year anniversary of the Velvet Revolution in former Czechoslovakia, led by the dissident author and playwright, the late Václav Havel (1936-2011), who subsequently became the first president of what became the Czech Republic. Havel's works reflected the evils of Communism and its inversion and twisting of morality.

In an address to the US Congress in February 1990, Havel said:

"The Communist type of totalitarian system ... unintentionally... has given us something positive: a special capacity to look, from time to time, somewhat further than someone who has not undergone this bitter experience. A person who cannot move and live a normal life because he is pinned under a boulder has more time to think about his hopes than someone who is not trapped in this way... We too can offer something to you: our experience and the knowledge that has come from it."

It is worth noting that he opened the above speech with the following statement:

"... I am speaking to you as the representative of a country which has complete freedom of speech, which is preparing for free elections, and which seeks to establish a prosperous market economy and its own foreign policy."

Havel's message not only is as apt today as it was three decades ago, but bears repeating: much of the West seems to have forgotten it.

In his collection of essays, Living in Truth (1989), Havel wrote:

"I favor 'antipolitical politics,' that is, politics not as the technology of power and manipulation, of cybernetic rule over humans or as the art of the utilitarian, but politics as one of the ways of seeking and achieving meaningful lives, of protecting them and serving them. I favor politics as practical morality, as service to the truth, as essentially human and humanly measured care for our fellow humans. It is, I presume, an approach which, in this world, is extremely impractical and difficult to apply in daily life. Still, I know no better alternative." [1]

In his book, Summer Meditations (1993), he explained:

"I have never espoused any ideology, dogma, or doctrine – left-wing, right-wing, or any other closed, ready-made system of presuppositions about the world... I feel so open to everything interesting or persuasive that it is easy for me to absorb new ideas and fit them into my picture of the world." [2]

This being "open to everything" was at the root of Havel's dedication to complete freedom, both in the marketplace of ideas and in the actual marketplace, as he repeatedly stated, for instance in the following examples:

  • "I have always known that the only economic system that works is a market economy." [3]

  • "The less the state is required to have a say in everyday economic affairs, the better." [4]

  • "The market economy is as natural and matter-of-fact to me as the air. After all, it is a system of human economic activity that has been tried and found to work over centuries (centuries? millennia!). It is the system that best corresponds to human nature. But precisely because it is so down-to-earth, it is not, and cannot constitute, a world view, a philosophy, or an ideology. Even less does it contain the meaning of life." [5]

He viewed market competition (that is, equal opportunity, not equal outcome) as the most moral system, and called out its opponents for having a "notion of 'social justice'" that is "vague" -- one that "can mean anything at all." He accused these free-market detractors for claiming that:

"[A] functioning market economy can never guarantee any genuine social justice. They point out that people have, and always will have, different degrees of industriousness, talent, and, last but not least, luck. Obviously, social justice in the sense of social equality is something the market system cannot, by its very nature, deliver. Moreover, to compel the marketplace to do so would be deeply immoral." [6]

Havel also was against government subsidies, even for artists and writers, though he himself was a writer.

"Most of our artists have, unwittingly, grown accustomed to the unending generosity of the socialist state," he wrote, continuing:

"It subsidized a number of cultural institutions and offices, heedless of whether a film cost one million or ten million crowns, or whether anyone ever went to see it. It didn't matter how many idle actors the theatres had on their payrolls; the main thing was that everyone was on one, and thus on the take."[7]

"Culture must, in part at least, learn how to make its own way. It should be partially funded through tax write-offs, and through foundations, development funds, and the like – which, by the way, are the forms that best suit its plurality and its freedom. The more varied the sources of funding for the arts and sciences, the greater variety and competition there will be in the arts and in scholarly research. The state should – in ways that are rational, open to scrutiny, and well thought out – support only those aspects of culture that are fundamental to our national identity and the civilized traditions of our land and that can't be conserved through market mechanisms alone." [8]

On national sovereignty and politics, he wrote:

"The sovereignty of the community, the region, the nation, the state – any higher sovereignty, in fact – makes sense only if it is derived from the one genuine sovereignty – that is, from the sovereignty of the human being, which finds its political expression in civil sovereignty. [9]...

"I favor a political system based on the citizen and recognizing all fundamental civil and human rights in their universal validity." [10]...

"Today, this principle is sometimes presented as if it ignored or suppressed the stratum of our home represented by our nationality. This is a crude misunderstanding." [11]...

"I certainly do not want to suppress the national dimension of a person's identity, or deny it, or refuse to acknowledge its legitimacy and its right to full self-realization." [12]...

"My home is therefore my Czechness, my nationality, and I see no reason at all why I shouldn't embrace it." [13]...

"Life and the world are as beautiful and interesting as they are because every living creature, every community, every country, every nation has its own unique identity." [14]

Although Havel has been both criticized and praised as a globalist, his positions were more complex, as is apparent in what he wrote about Europe:

"The [European] community must rely fully on the spiritual, intellectual, and political values that in recent decades have been maintained, cultivated, and practiced in the democratic countries of Western Europe. I mean values like political and economic plurality, parliamentary democracy, respect for civil rights and freedoms, the decentralization of local administration and municipal government, and all that these things imply [15]...

"It does not mean adaptation to something alien; it means, on the contrary, that nations once forcibly alienated from their own traditions, roots, and ideals are once again finding themselves; it means their return to a road they once travelled, or longed to travel, or were potentially destined to travel, as inhabitants of the same European spiritual and intellectual space."[16]

He wrote those words in the early 1990s. He reiterated a version of them in November 2009, in a speech to the European Parliament:

"Our identity is created not only by what is unique to us as individuals, but also by certain so-called shared layers of identity. The identity of each of us is molded, to a greater or lesser extent, by our membership of family, community, region, firm, church, association, political party, nation, sphere of civilization, and, last but not least, of the planetary community. All this has to do with various sorts of homes we can have... These shared affiliations are also the origin of shared sovereignty, of course. At each level of our identities we have a certain measure of sovereignty... The only thing that matters is that these sovereignties should be mutually complementary and that, as far as possible, they should not contradict each other."

It is questionable, however, whether Havel would be described today as a populist. He opposed the inauthentic bureaucratic federalization of nations, and shunned the rephrasing of language for "political correctness" purposes. In 1999, he demanded only "temporary refuge" for refugees from Kosovo. He would have agreed with a recent statement by the Dalai Lama, that:

"Europe is for Europeans... European countries should take [Middle Eastern] refugees and give them education and training, and the aim is return to their own land with certain skills."

Havel died in December 2011, a year after the so-called "Arab Spring" uprisings, and before the massive influx of migrants and refugees into Europe from the Middle East. He did not live to witness the censorship practiced by social media giants such as Facebook and Twitter, born of forced multiculturalism. The rest of us would do well, then, to remember his legacy and internalize his message:

"It really is not all that important whether, by accident or domicile, we confront a Western manager or an Eastern bureaucrat in this very modest and yet globally crucial struggle against the momentum of impersonal power.... all of us, East and West, face one fundamental task from which all else should follow. That task is one of resisting vigilantly, thoughtfully and attentively, but at the same time with total dedication, at every step and everywhere, the irrational momentum of anonymous, impersonal and inhuman power – the power of ideologies, systems, apparat, bureaucracy, artificial languages and political slogans. We must resist its complex and wholly alienating pressure, whether it takes the form of consumption, advertising, repression, technology or cliché – all of which are blood brothers of fanaticism and the wellspring of totalitarian thought."

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