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Havel and the 'power of the powerless'

The laurels being heaped on former Czech president Václav Havel, who died at the weekend, by reactionary world leaders should not blind us to his courageous role in the break-up of Stalinist rule in eastern Europe.

Havel grew up in the aftermath of the grotesque anti-Semitic Slansky show trials in 1952 in which 11 leaders of the Czech Communist Party were put to death in a Stalinist purge. He reflected in an intense way the contradictory, often tormented lives of his countrywomen and men before and after the Prague Spring of 1968, when Soviet tanks rolled into the country and crushed the reform movement led by Alexander Dubcek.

Havel served five years in jail – some of them with hard labour – for founding the Charter 77 movement and the Committee for the Defence of the Unjustly Prosecuted. Being a liberal under Stalinism was no easy road to take. He broke what a fellow writer called the silence of the swamp in the grim years that followed the Soviet crackdown.

Along with other Czech writers and musicians, including the Plastic People of the Universe, Havel went outside and beyond his youthful calling as a playwright to mock and defy Stalinist officialdom.

Havel called his country Absurdistan, and this sense that reality was more surreal than the imagination pervaded his work and also his life. For someone with such undoubted talents as a playwright and political thinker to become a political leader, a president no less, is a tribute not only to the man’s inherent strengths but also the creativity of the Czech nation.

I had the privilege of seeing one of his last plays, Leaving, performed in Richmond’s Orange Tree Theatre in 2008 during a Havel season. Havel’s ironic send-up of a politician on his way out of power brought together the ironic-surreal traditions of Czech culture with a self-mocking contemporary twist. On that score alone, Havel’s ability to embrace and deploy a host of contradictions with humour and grace revealed that no ordinary mind was at work here.

In 1978, he wrote an essay called The Power of the Powerless which championed the notion of the self-movement of people from below and encapsulates both Havel’s political strengths and weaknesses. Havel wrote that “latent social crises can at any time... provoke a wide variety of political change... evoke unexpected and unforeseen social unrest and explosions of discontent.”

He saw the “dissident” movement against Stalinism as only one of many factors in political development focusing above all on the “defence of people” – clearly a vital issue for those living under bureaucratic, authoritarian rule. Although he did not like the word dissident, he saw the movement as addressing the “hidden spheres of society, since it is not a matter of confronting the regime on the level of actual power”.

Havel was acutely aware that the policies adopted by superpowers can bring about sudden changes and upsets. It was, in fact, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s decision to hold multi-party elections in the Soviet Union in the spring of 1989 and his refusal, made clear in July of that year, to deploy Warsaw Pact troops again in Eastern Europe that gave the green light to the 1989 political revolutions, first in Poland and Hungary and then in Czechoslovakia.

Havel was elected President of Czechoslovakia in December 1989 and installed in Prague castle where he lightened up the atmosphere by zooming around on a child’s scooter. But while the end of Stalinism was a great achievement, the Czech people were before long embroiled in the rush to impose free market capitalism in the region.

In 1992 pro-capitalist leader Václav Klaus was elected and the movement for separating the country into two separate states gained momentum. Klaus and another politician Vladimír Mečiar pushed through the dissolution of Czechoslovakia into two states even though it was supported by only a third of the population. Havel refused to back the break-up of the country.

His ethical but also highly practical approach, his espousal of green politics and vision of transcending present society, deserve respect. What outlives Havel is the task of embracing the spirit of 1989 in developing creative ways to mount a successful challenge to today’s ruling political-corporate elites who have created a global Absurdistan.

Corinna Lotz
A World to Win secretary
19 December 2011

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