It is hard to imagine a world without Vaclav Havel. Human, self-deprecating, witty and even absurdist, often wrong as well as right, he represented a rare voice of integrity, courage and optimism in an era that is depressingly lacking in political leadership. His autobiography To the Castle and Back captures the quintessentially Czech character of his life – a fairytale in which a dissident playwright becomes a President in Kafka’s castle and later returns to not quite normal life. It is introspective and gloomy yet pierced through with new projects and jokes. For example, he describes how he nearly had a nervous breakdown when half-cooked potatoes were served to the Japanese Emperor. ‘Fortunately, he understood this to be a Czech culinary speciality.’ He also explains that now he is no longer president, nobody knows what to call him: Mr President, Mr Former President or even just Mr Havel. ‘It’s only a matter of time before someone addresses me as “Mr former Havel”’
I first met Vaclav Havel at a meeting in Prague in 1988 that was supposed to bring together the West European peace movement and Charter 77. Unfortunately, we were all arrested and the foreigners were thrown out of the country, accused of being ‘NATO agents posing as tourists’. (Coincidentally, Christopher Hitchens, who also died this week was also there and, like me, was forced to spend our visit to Prague in police stations and the airport). Long before that meeting, however, I had been in correspondence with Havel and he had been a regular contributor to the European Nuclear Disarmament Journal, which I edited during the 1980’s.
When I first came across Havel’s ideas and the ideas of the Czech intellectuals around him, it seemed to me that they had discovered a new conceptual language in which to express the kind of politics that I was engaged in. Many of them had become window cleaners or boiler stokers or like Havel, spent time in prison in the ‘normalisation’ after 1968 and they had used the time to read and think. Havel invented concepts like ‘Anti-Politics’– a sphere of society that escapes the total hold of the overbearing state; ‘Living in Truth’– the notion of refusing the lies of the political class; or the ‘parallel polis’– the idea of an Aristotelian polis organised around the good life which would, as it were, spread out and gradually chip away at the formal political institutions. In ‘The Power of the Powerless’ Havel described the grocer who puts the slogan ‘Workers of the World Unite’ in his shop window, not because he believes it but as a badge of loyalty. His emphasis on acting autonomously according to one’s conscience and on human solidarity guided his politics throughout his life.
Less well-known in the west are his anti-materialist and anti-consumerist views. Moreover, western commentators have tended to ignore the fact that his ideas applied to the West as well as the totalitarian East. In ‘The Power of the Powerless’ he talks about the ‘global technological civilisation’:
‘The post-totalitarian system’ wrote Havel ‘ is only one aspect – a particularly drastic aspect and thus all the more revealing of its real origins – of the general inability of modern humanity to be master of its own situation. The automatism of the post-totalitarian system is merely an extreme version of the global automatism of technological civilisation. The human failure that it mirrors is only one variant of the general failure of humanity. ...It would appear that the traditional parliamentary democracies can offer no fundamental opposition to the automatism of technological civilisation and the industrial-consumer society, for they, too, are being dragged helplessly along. People are manipulated in ways that are infinitely more subtle and refined than the brutal methods used in post-totalitarian societies. …In a democracy, human beings may enjoy many personal freedoms and securities that are unknown to us, but in the end they do them no good, for they too are ultimately victims of the same automatism, and are incapable of defending their concerns about their own identity or preventing their superficialisation or transcending concerns about their own personal survival to become proud and responsible members of the polis, making a genuine contribution to the creation of its destiny.’
I did not always agree with him. We published the ‘Anatomy of Reticence’, a wonderful essay about why Czech dissidents were sceptical of the peace movement because of the way the Soviet Union had transformed the word ‘peace’ into Orwellian double speak. But I was horrified to find disparaging remarks about some courageous Italian women peace activists who had travelled to Prague to get signatures for a woman’s appeal against missiles in Europe; in the essay, he described feminism as a ‘refuge for bored housewives and dissatisfied mistresses.’
I also disagreed with his belief in a Euro-Atlantic community. He had great faith in the American variant of democracy even as he criticised the US role in Central America. It was this faith that led him to support ‘wars for human rights’, as he described the Kosovo war, and to support the invasion of Iraq. In 1985, he had signed the Prague Appeal of 1985, addressed to the European peace movements, which called for the dissolution of both NATO and the Warsaw Pact and for the establishment of a pan-European security system based on the Helsinki principles. Many of us were disappointed that, after becoming President, he favoured the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact and the expansion of NATO instead. But it was not actually a change of heart; for him, NATO represented the Euro-Atlantic community and the expansion of NATO was easier to achieve than a new security arrangement.
What was always striking about Havel was his consistency and his honesty. Even after 1989, Havel continued to support civil society. He was one of the founders of the Helsinki Citizens Assembly (an idea borne out of that fateful 1988 meeting) whose aim was to create a pan-European civil society and to support civil society in difficult places. I was the Chair of HCA during the 1990s and he continued to help us by hosting meetings of civil society groups in conflict zones, especially the Balkans, at the Castle. More recently, he has done a lot to support dissidents in China.
But perhaps most importantly he has been the inspiration for and indeed the embodiment of a set of ideas about non-violent ways of changing the relationship between state and society, about building politics from below, about the role of conscience as political power that underpin the global protests that we are witnessing today, especially in the Arab world. His death is a huge loss. We desperately need his kind of politician if the current popular uprisings are to find an institutional response.