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ISSN 1213-1792


Jan Čulík


Karel Dolejší


Michal Panoch, Jan Panoch

Grafický návrh:

Štěpán Kotrba

ISSN 1213-1792
deník o všem, o čem se v České republice příliš nemluví
18. 4. 2003

Was Václav Havel's entry into the political sphere in 1989 hypocritical?

In a recent article `Dopis Olze: Stará a nová Evropa a smutný anděl dějin '[1] [BL], Mirek Vodrážka formulated questions about Václav Havel's recently ended presidency of the Czech Republic. Questions of this sort are timely. His presidency has been seen as a `tragedy': his transformation from a dissident intellectual into the president of the Republic a mistake, that, according to Vodrážka, only Olga Havlová foresaw.[2]

Vodrážka examines the famous contradiction in Havel's presidency: that months before November 1989, he was claiming not only that he would never enter politics, but that such an action would be morally wrong for all those involved in Charta 77, since the Charta's aims were moral, not political. This argument makes up the bulk of Havel's essay `O smyslu Charty 77'. Vodrážka himself has identified fundamental contradictions in earlier essays (for example `Umění pro-hry') as the inherent contradiction between morality and human rights. In 1989, says Vodrážka:

...v okamžiku, kdy Charta 77 byla vystavena normálním možnostem politiky a lákavému pokušení moci, její cíle se ukázaly být naopak závratně konečné a proto taky zanikla...

His argument runs that the contradictions in the Charta's aims which became evident after November 1989 were inherent even in earlier documents, because insistence on human rights is necessarily a question of force. It is a statement of a conviction which has designs on the freedom of another, even where it intends to create that freedom. This is in explicit contrast to the 'moral` sphere, which takes a position of absolute abdication of force and power. This is a trend running through Czech history: messianic conviction of the right which is forced on the other (Communism or military Hussitism, for example) versus absolute abdication of power (Petr Chelčický or Jan Hus himself). It is, according to Vodrážka, precisely the coexistence of these two elements that caused the fragmentation of the Charta after 1989.

That the Charta evinces contradictions is perhaps inevitable when it came into being in a period Havel called schizophrenic. The normalisation government of Czechoslovakia was absolutely predicated on fundamental incompatabilities. The origins of the post-1968 normalisation government forced it into an absurdly paradoxical situation. The popularity of the Prague Spring, coupled with the fact that the reformers of the period were working within, not against, Communism, meant that the normalisers had to impose a system whose only aim was its own perpetuation and absolute resistance to reform. It was an absolutist regime which no longer had a transcendent ideology from which to draw its legitimacy. It encouraged in the population not loyalty to the regime, but professed loyalty to the regime: its ideal citizen was Havel's greengrocer from `Moc bezmocných', whose sign `Proletariat of the world: unite', hung in his window, does not mean that he believes the proletariat of the world should unite, but that he is willing to conform to the regime. As Havel also pointed out in that essay, a citizen who actually believed the message pinned in his window would be deeply suspicious to the regime.

Charta 77 addressed itself precisely to this question of the gap between word and meaning. In the first place, this was a question of human rights. The Czechoslovak government had signed the Helsinki treaty which guaranteed its citizens protection by the Universal Bill of Human Rights; however, in practice it was not upheld. This, however, was only a concrete example of the schizophrenia which was the real target of the Charta, as Havel described in his 1986 essay `O smyslu Charty 77'. The gap between word and action was to be closed by `living in truth', as Havel put it in `Moc bezmocných'. This would not only allow a linguistic truth, where meaning and word were congruent, but would heal existential disintegration, which Havel saw as one of the effects of the normalisation regime. His arguments in `O smyslu Charty 77' focus on concepts of inside and outside, activity and passivity:

...nelze pořád jen čekat na to, až někdo jiný (shora? zvenčí?) zlepší poměry; mnozí už byli otráveni rolí věčně pasívních objektů dějin a pocítili potřebu stát se opět v určité míře jejich subjektem... (163)[3]

Thus the actual 'sense` or 'meaning` of Charta 77, according to Havel, was an existential change, not just the immediate concern of ensuring that human rights were properly enshrined in the Czechoslovak constitution. The aim was to `překročit svůj vlastní stín`, to become the `outside' which is the only possible position from which to make changes. Since the present situation was `schizophrenic', the aim of Charta 77 was to bridge that gap: to become subject, not object, to become active, not passive, to no longer suffer the verb, but wield it: in other words, to don power.

This confirms Vodrážka's argument that the Charta was founded on a faultline between the political and moral worlds. The contradiction that this causes is not merely the internal conflict of aims which Vodrážka identifies, but the fact that the Charta's aims were by definition impossible. The intention was not merely to uncover the hypocrisies in the Czechoslovak government, but an attempt to integrate the subjective and objective self in a unitary identity. One of the personal results of acting in the ways suggested by the Charta, according to Havel, is a `povznášející pocit sebepotvrzení' (165). The effect of signing the Charta thus does not have only an effect in the outside world, but on the spiritual state of the individual. The crisis is a crisis of identity which is not peculiar to the normalised Communist state. The unification of the subjective and objective self is a problem of theological dimensions. Kundera's Žert examines precisely this issue, and although it also takes place in Communist Czechoslovakia, its concerns are transferable anywhere: the essential gulf in communication and interpretation, that messages sent are not as those received, that the sign and the signified do not correspond. Only the most extreme, transcendental idealism can pretend to bridge this gap, and Havel is unashamedly idealistic. He defines moral essence or origin thus:

...danou věc neděláme z pohnutek takzvaně 'účelových`, tedy z jistoty, že má šanci na brzký, bezprostředně zjevný, verifikovatelný ... úspěch, ale prostě proto, že ji považujeme za dobrou... (165)[4]

These are the conditions for heroism -- and martyrdom. It has to be agreed that the actions of the Chartists were heroic in precisely these terms: their actions brought the certainty of persecution, unemployability, police interrogations, and in some cases, even jail sentences, and yet they continued in defiance of these fears. Ludvík Vaculík's essay `Poznámky o statečnosti' and Havel's `Žebrácká opera' deal with the problem of heroism. Havel's play opens up the contradiction between action which cleaves to eternal, transcendental ideals, and temporary, worldly aims. Although the play punishes all those characters who try to act heroically, in his speeches and insistence on the difference between the `účelový` and 'mravní`, his insistence on idealism is evident.

The difference the účelový and the non-účelový is also the difference between the idealism of the intellectual and politics. Politics is, famously, the art of the possible, and its aims are temporal and achievable. This is precisely the opposite of the aims Havel describes in 'O smyslu Charty 77`: Charta 77, is the art of the impossible. Havel himself acknowledged this:

...cíle politiky jsou konečné, zatímco cíle Charty jsou nekonečné... (167)

The intellectual, in the views of Havel and Václav Černý, cannot involve himself in politics. He or she must traditionally be independent, in order to retain the freedom to comment on the culture -- and politics -- of the day without bias or the necessity to hold party line. The intellectual is, according to Černý, 'hlasem svědomí' (127). The intellectual should be free to take up the position of the idealist that the politician must abandon in order to achieve temporal aims.

Thus `dissidence' implies a state that is permanently in opposition to the holders of power. This is distinct, of course, from political opposition. A Communist under Hitler, say, is in a different position from the dissident, because the Communist acknowledges the will to power. The Communist and fascist, whether they like it or not, stand on common ground: they simply want to build different structures upon it. Their aim is to wield power, and on this they fundamentally agree: it is only a question of what they will do with this power. The dissident intellectual, however, in Havel and Černý's formulations, should fastidiously keep himself from the temptations of power.

It is in this that the perceived contradiction in Havel's actions in late 1989 and early 1990 consists. During the Velvet Revolution the posters and chants declaiming `Havel na hrad' had mistaken Havel's dissidence for political aims. By the very fact of being in opposition, Havel seemed to be the obvious option for power in a world turning upside down. Vodrážka claims that Havel, too, made this mistake, ignoring the lone voice of his wife Olga, who recommended that he avoid politics.

Certainly, the disjunction between his statements before and after November 1989 point to the fact that his entry into politics was not, in fact, the inevitable step that most of Havel's friends and the crowds on the Prague streets perceived it to be. The contradiction can be explained in two possible ways. Firstly, and most obviously, it could be argued that Havel -- and Charta 77 -- did not believe in their own rhetoric of antipolitics and engagement with the Communist regime as legitimate. In Černý's essay 'K otázce Chartismu', within a few lines of arguing the standard Chartist line of non-political aims and engagement with the government, he is already discussing the government's unconscionable methods of `přesvědčování metodickým pořadem, jenž počíná ranou a končí třebas i oprátkou'. This, in his view, `nepřesvědčí dnes u nás ani nemluvně' (129)[5]. This is very far from an acknowledgement of the regime's legitimacy. The stance of the Charta as `moral', not `political', in this light becomes a mere ploy covering their political aims. Their claim of non-účelový engagements precisely disguises their účel. Although this contradicts notions of 'living in truth`, it would certainly be an understandable mode of action. When dealing with madness, such as the schizophrenia of the Communist state, there are two ways of procedure: to collude with the mad, adopting their vocabulary and the basic assumptions of their delusion in order to argue them into a more acceptable mode of behaviour, or to try to cure the madness, refusing any part of it. This reading suggests that Charta 77 employed the former strategy. The disintegration of Charta 77 after 1989 would suggest that its aims were in fact `konečné' after all.

Though this perhaps explains the behaviour of some Chartists, it will not hold for Havel. There is another possible explanation for his contradictory entry into politics. All Havel's writing, including his plays, turns on precisely the difference between the ideal, transcendental, and the mean interim. It is understandable that many people read his entry into politics, then, as evincing hypocrisy and opportunism, a hidden lust for power. However, it seems more likely that in the `chaos' after November 1989 which Vodrážka emphasises, it seemed possible that the difference between the ideal and the actual could be bridged. Havel's speeches at the time testify to an incredible idealism:

Troufám si říct, že snad dokonce máme možnost ... vnést ... do evropské i světové politiky nový prvek. Z naší země, budeme-li chtít, může už natrvalo vyzařovat láska, touha po porozumění, síla ducha a myšlenky. Toto záření může být přesně tím, co můžeme nabídnout jako náš osobitý příspěvek světové politice... Politika nemusí být jen uměním možného ..., ale že může být i uměním nemožného, totiž uměním udělat lepšími sebe i svět. (15)[6]

Rather than abdicating the moral high ground in order to dirty his hands with politics, Havel wants to draw politics with him onto the high ground. In a time of hope and astonishing new possibility it seemed possible that all the gaps which animated Charta 77 -- between word and action, between sign and signified, between subjective and objective selves, between politics and morality -- could be bridged.

However, attempts at the art of the impossible contain the seeds of their failure in their very title. It cannot be ignored that Havel did not bridge the gaps. The nineties were indeed a political tragedy, as John Keane has termed it, because Havel's heroic idealism was tarnished and destroyed by the passing years, turning Havel from a pacifist into someone who could sign a declaration of war. The tragedy is not, however, that Havel should have attempted the role of politician at all, but that his idealism was destroyed by the true experience of the political world. Ironically, Václav Havel's integrity and idealism, maintained so strenuously under the schizophrenia of normalisation Czechoslovakia, could not withhold the collision of the possible and impossible in democracy.

[1] Britské listy, 14.3.2003

[2] This essay will not address those elements of Vodrážka's essay which concern gender. Despite all his professed feminism, `Dopis Olze' connives in androcentrism: Olga Havlová is continually described as the `key' to her husband. The woman adopts an instrumental role with regard to the man. Furthermore, all of Vodrážka's characterisations of the feminine -- as intuitive, non-aggressive, loving etc. --   and the concomitant attributes of the masculine fall along absolutely cliched and traditional lines. However, such analysis is outwith the scope of this essay.

[3] In Prečan, Vilém ed., Charta 77: Od morální k demokratické revoluci, Bratislava: Scheinfeld-Schwarzenberg and ARCHA, 1990

[4] ibid.

[5] in O svobodě a moci, various authors, London: Palach Press, 1980

[6] in Havel, Václav, Projevy: leden-červen 1990, Praha: Nakladatelství Vyšehrad, 1990

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