The Moral Politician
“A specter is haunting Eastern Europe,” the Czech playwright Václav Havel wrote in 1978, “the specter of what in the West is called ‘dissent.’” In echoing the opening salvo of the Communist Manifesto, Havel was thumbing his nose at the regime he lived under, but his words had an earnest intent as well as a satirical one. Like Marx and Engels, he was trying to call an intellectual force to arms. He hoped to convoke a new kind of human organization, ad hoc and by design temporary, accruing no power in itself, and led not by designated authorities but by individuals who happened to have charisma.
Timely writing often grows stale, especially if it’s about politics. Havel knew this. Many politicians “play a key role at a particular moment,” he wrote in his memoir To the Castle and Back (2007); “a long, dull life can sometimes erase the memory.” Yet Havel’s judgment has been contradicted by his early protest writings, which have gained new relevance as the specter of dissent has returned to haunt much of the planet, from the Chinese town of Wukan to Wall Street, Cairo and Moscow. In addition to being a playwright and a politician, Havel, who died in December, was a philosopher, and his insight into how humans in groups understand themselves still speaks to the way we live in the world.
Havel was born in 1936 into one of the grandest bourgeois families in Czechoslovakia. One of his grandfathers built a movie theater that was to become the first in the country to screen talkies; his other grandfather was ambassador to Austria and Hungary. His father was a Prague real estate magnate, and a gay uncle was a pioneer in the nation’s film industry. The family owned a six-story mansion in downtown Prague on the bank of the Vltava River, as well as a country estate. After World War II, Václav attended prep school, where his dorm’s resident adviser was the future director Milos Forman. After Communists came to power, in 1948, the government appropriated the Havel family’s country estate, cinema, film studio and all but two rooms on the top floor of the urban mansion. Václav was expelled from school because of his class background. Eventually even the family china was nationalized.
At a writers’ conference in 1956, Havel, at the time a floundering economics student and a literary unknown, caused a small stir by accusing establishment writers of failing to read poets outside the Stalinist-era canon. Over the next couple of years, during his military service, he entertained himself and friends by writing plays, and after leaving the army he took jobs as a stagehand and eventually as a playwright in small Prague theaters that were experimenting with literary absurdism. His break came in 1963, when Communist censors were so demoralized by the Cuban missile crisis that they permitted a production ofThe Garden Party, his first full-length play, which satirized bureaucracy. In 1965 he again set a writers’ conference on edge, this time with a bold defense of a literary magazine he was editing, which had sidestepped state ideology and dodged the literary establishment’s control. The political thaw known as the Prague Spring was under way. In April 1968 an essay of Havel’s appealed for the creation of an opposition party, and Moscow put his name on a blacklist. Soviet tanks rolled into the country in August, and in March 1969 Havel found in his home a bug planted by State Security (StB), Czechoslovakia’s Communist-era secret police. His long internal exile had begun.
A few years later, Havel and other banned Czech writers felt they had little to lose. They took culture into their own hands, publishing books by typing up carbon copies and smuggling manuscripts to West German printers, and staging plays in living rooms and pubs. In April 1975 Havel addressed an open letter of protest to Gustav Husák, then the general secretary of the Czechoslovak Communist Party, decrying the national climate of existential fear and “basically fraudulent social consciousness.” In January 1976 he met Ivan Martin Jirous, manager of the loud, foul-mouthed, hard-partying, long-haired rock musicians known as the Plastic People of the Universe. When the Plastics were arrested several weeks later, Havel recognized that the arrests were, as he later put it, “an attack on the spiritual and intellectual freedom of man, camouflaged as an attack on criminality.” The solidarity he forged between the dissident intellectuals in his circle and the outsider rock musicians in Jirous’s became the basis of Charter 77, a leaderless group organized around a text that called on the Czechoslovak government to live up to a recent pledge to honor human rights, including the right to free public expression. On January 5, 1977, the police chased down Havel and a friend as they tried to mail copies of the charter to its 243 signatories. Havel, a Charter 77 spokesman, was soon arrested. When he was released in May, the Communists scored a propaganda victory by publishing a letter in which he had asked to be freed, having signaled to the authorities that he intended to resign from Charter 77. Havel regretted the letter bitterly. “I had undeniably written something that ‘met them halfway,’” he later admitted, and as if in atonement, he threw himself into dissident activity even more fervidly.