Vaclav Havel: the passing of one of modern Europe's greatest sons
Vaclav Havel was one of the most remarkable political intellectuals of post-war Europe. He died on Sunday at the age of 75
Important parts of this could be said of non-communist systems of government too and after the Velvet Revolution Havel would have much to say about the broader problems of civilizational decline, Western self-loathing, the trivialising temptations of consumerism, and the barrenness of life in an increasingly post-religious world.
But the fact was that Havel lived most of his life in a communist dictatorship, and it was against communism that his greatest battles would have to be fought.
The central insight of Power of the Powerless is described in an image Havel created that spread like wildfire in dissident circles across the communist world. He asked his readers to imagine a communist era shopkeeper putting the slogan “Workers of the World Unite” inside his shop window along with the onions and the carrots.
What is he up to?
“The slogan is really a sign,” Havel explains. “and as such it contains a subliminal but very definite message. Verbally it might be expressed this way: “I, the Greengrocer XY, live here and I know what I must do. I behave in the manner expected of me. I can be depended upon… I have the right to be left in peace.”
The communist party does not need people to believe in its ideology, but it does need them to pay homage to it. Society as a whole thus becomes infused with lies and deceit.
Havel was able to see all this while it was happening to him and to understand that if the system depends on lies for its very existence one can threaten it merely by telling the truth. That is the power of the powerless.
He understood that a society governed by totalitarian ideology will quickly cease to be governed by that ideology if alternative realities are available.
And so the dissidents set up “parallel structures” such as the private publishing initiatives producing Samizdat (literally meaning “self-published”), theatre groups, literary circles and so on.
Indeed, the injunction to Live In Truth became the motto by which an entire generation of East European dissidents coped with communist oppression, and eventually defeated it.
And Havel, as many would acknowledge, was the man who inspired them.
There is an end of an era feel about the death of Havel. Partly that is because of the sense in which the life of the man and the fate of a continent were so deeply intertwined.
But it is also because, for all the wrong reasons, there is a danger that Europe is about to begin a new era all of its own. If we are to avoid disaster, we had better hope that Vaclav Havel was not the last of his kind.
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