Charter 77 and the “solidarity of the shaken”

The individual should learn to expose himself to the risk of giving up his egoistic prerogatives, in order to build a new form of community.

Isotta Comboni
26 March 2015
Europe, the Very Idea

Europe, the very idea is a series on the philosophical notion of Europe and what reflection upon it can lend to the sphere of concrete politics.



Charter77“When Jan Patocka wrote about Charter 77, he used the term ‘solidarity of the shaken’. He was thinking of those who dared resist impersonal power and to confront it with the only thing at their disposal, their own humanity.”[1]

With this observation Václav Havel refers to an essential idea developed in one of the final works of the Czech philosopher, Jan Patočka, Heretical Essays in the Philosophy of History, in which Patočka analyses the meaning of war in the twentieth century. It is precisely in this text that Patočka introduces the idea of “solidarity of the shaken”, meaning with it a particular bond that originates between people who have experienced a strong disturbance of the certainties, big and small, that hold their lives in place.

The “shaken” is an individual whose everyday assurances have been overturned by a deeply shocking experience, which allows them to change their perspective on life. From Patočka’s point of view, the shaken are “those who are capable of understanding what life and death are all about, and so what history is about”[2], as they have regained the true meaning of their own life through the experience of an actual danger. By rediscovering the meaning of their death, human beings can also understand what life really is, i.e. something that cannot be restricted to ordinary every day experience, or limited to mere facts.

“The solidarity of the shaken is built up in persecution and uncertainty: that is its front line, quiet, without fanfare or sensation even there where this aspect of the ruling Force seeks to seize it.”[3]

These words remind us of the meaning of the dissident action engendered by Charter 77, as its signatories themselves defined it. Indeed, Havel and Patočka have highlighted the concept of a pure solidarity, experienced in a disturbing moment, which has guided them to a deep sense of sharing and loyalty. They have consciously chosen to leave the safe ground of everydayness in order to live a dangerous experience which allows them to create a new kind of commonality. Czechoslovakian dissidents were shaken persons, living a life exposed to danger and “problematicity”. Havel, Patočka and all the signatories of Charter 77 followed the direction of an ethical, critical and essential choice, which created a strong solidarity despite the differences existing between these people.

Charter 77 springs from a background of friendship and solidarity among people who share our concern for those ideals that have inspired, and continue to inspire, their lives and their work.” (From the Declaration of Charter 77).

Moreover, in his book The Power of the Powerless, published in 1978 and dedicated to Patočka, Havel analysed the meaning of dissidence in Czechoslovakia as it is linked to the fundamental human need to live with dignity and independence. Political dissent, understood in these terms, acquires an “existential level”, since it stems from the need to live with responsibility and conscientiousness. The signatories of Charter 77, therefore, despite the impossibility of immediately improving their social context, succeeded in creating a sympathetic community of  “powerless men”, by affirming their own human dignity and convictions. The important meaning of this political action is still visible in contemporary politics. Only consider how the Charter 77 movement was explicitly referred to by Liu Xiaobo and other Chinese dissidents in 2008, on occasion of the publication of Charter 08, with the aim of requesting observance of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

So, how is it possible to comprehend this particular concept of solidarity today? Our world keeps on its harsh globalizing path; both physical and virtual distances are decreasing, with the consequence of making everything more accessible: places, as well as information. All these new opportunities should go along with a development of our moral consciousness, enabling us to enlarge our historical and cultural horizons, and to overthrow old barriers and prejudices.

Paradoxically it seems that what occurs is the contrary: the development of our technical knowledge does not correspond to an improvement of our ethical sensitivity. A mutual cooperation between people is often prevented by the insurgence of growing intolerance, extremisms and populism. Rethinking Charter 77 today leads us to assume responsibility for our behaviour, comparing it with others. We should ask ourselves how to realize the idea of solidarity proposed by Havel, Patočka and other Czechoslovakian dissidents. The individual should learn to expose himself to the risk of giving up his egoistic prerogatives, in order to build a new form of community.

As Patočka has shown, man is basically defined by his actions. Today we have the great opportunity and, at the same time, the considerable challenge to give these actions a new meaning and a new scope, by becoming world citizens. This is an opportunity we should not waste.

[1] V. Havel, Politics and conscience, 1984.

[2] J. Patočka, Heretical Essays in the Philosophy of History, Chicago: Open Court, 1996, p. 134.

[3] Ibid., p. 135.



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