Living in truth: Havel’s anti-totalitarian philosophy that remains relevant

By Martin Vogel


Book review: Havel: A Life, by Michael Žantovský

Michael Žantovský’s biography of Václav Havel is a striking portrait of moral leadership, compromised by office, but all the more admirable for that. Havel was the Czech dissident and suppressed playwright who led his country through one of the world’s few peaceful revolutions to become its first democratic president after the fall of Communism.

I’ve long been interested in Havel, one of the most significant political leaders of my lifetime. But there’s much to sustain the interest of the general reader: not least, the insider account of how the dissheveled, self-effacing Havel and his coterie of artists and intellectuals took office and toured the world, bewitching the likes of Mikhail Gorbachev and Bill Clinton.

I remember attending, before all that happened, stagings of Havel’s plays at the tiny Orange Tree theatre in Richmond. They struck me then as missives from the dark side: pieces of actuality, bravely delivered, which spoke of the bewildering conditions of life, far removed from the comforts of Western democracy. 25 years on from the Velvet Revolution, what strikes me now is the relevance of Havel’s leadership to our own life and times.

From the biography, Havel appears an even more exceptional individual than he did at the time. Barred from education by the regime because of his bourgeois background, he educated himself through his teenage years by hanging out with Bohemians in Prague cafes. Unlike many other dissidents, Havel never held any conviction in the possibility of reforming Communism. He recognised that in its totalitarian nature, its refusal to tolerate any political expression except through the Communist Pary, it was rotten to the core. So rather than try to ameliorate the regime, he opposed it fully.

There was an existential character to his stance that he set out in his essay The Power of the Powerless. Here he developed the insight that the regime operated by pressurising people to “divest themselves of their innermost identity” through eliciting rituals of support – expressions of compliance that they might not believe deep down, but which they were content to offer for the sake of a quiet life. The regime managed with relatively little violence, compared with say Stalin’s Russia or Hitler’s Germany, because it in effect recruited into enacting the system anyone who simply went along with it:

“Individuals … need not accept the lie. It is enough for them to have accepted their life with it and in it. For by this very fact, individuals confirm the system, fulfil the system, make the system, are the system.” 

It followed from this insight that, if the system’s power hinged on the individual’s willingness not to withhold ritual approval, then living in truth became an act of powerful defiance:

“Individuals can be alienated from themselves only because there is something to alienate. The terrain of this violation is their authentic existence. Living the truth is thus woven directly into the texture of living a lie. It is the repressed alternative, the authentic aim to which living a lie is an inauthentic response.”

Havel thus sought to live in truth, refusing to offer rituals of support; instead mounting what at the time must have seemed like foolhardy acts of opposition. He wrote a solitary letter to the Czechoslovak Communist leader, Gustáv Husák, deconstructing his claims to legitimacy and, in effect, declaring war on the regime. As a renowned playwright, he had some protection from persecution. But he championed the rights of more marginal non-conformists, such as various bands of hippy musicians, because he recognised that the hardest cases to defend represented the sharp end of the fight for liberty.

Havel was convinced that living in truth was emancipatory. The power of the powerless lay in the potential for the regime to collapse if enough people refused to comply. Once a system is unable to extract ritual endorsements, its ideological pretensions collapse. At the time, this might have seemed like idealistic fancy. It’s not hard to see why other dissidents may have focussed on reform. Yet Havel’s fancy was vindicated – and in remarkably shorter order than anyone would have envisaged in the 1970s and ‘80s.

This may seem remote from today’s concerns. But living a lie is prevalent in Western democracies too. There are easy analogies to be drawn between totalitarian dictatorship and modern organisations with their “engagement” programmes that insist that employees align with their values, and gagging orders for those that don’t. They have official narratives of empowerment, but the lived experience is more often one of dreary conformity, covering one’s arse and tolerating excessive pressure.

Living a lie is manifest at the broader level of society too. We live in a society in which capital’s losses are socialised and its profits privatised but collude in the lie that we organise ourselves for the welfare of everyone. We collude in the fantasy of socialised healthcare in denial of the evidence that bureaucratised health institutions attend first and foremost to their own interest.

I was reading the biography at the time of the Charlie Hebdo murders in Paris. An edition of Channel 4 News that I watched asked with concern whether the French magazine was alone in fighting for the liberal value of freedom of speech while in the same report announcing that it was the policy of the programme not to portray images of the prophet Mohammed. Media outlets that proclaim their pride in publishing without fear or favour contort themselves on the ostensible grounds of avoiding offence, when really they are motivated by the understandable fear of being murdered. Living in truth would not necessarily compel them to publish images that might put them at risk, but it might require that they level with their audiences about why they withhold them. Imagine what it might do for public understanding if instead of talking about avoiding offence a newspaper or television programme were simply to say, “We are not exercising our freedom of speech in this instance because we fear that to do so could put our lives at risk.”

Havel himself was notable for exercising compromise in the spirit of living in truth. An advocate of non-violence, he instigated the accession into NATO of former Communist states and supported the Gulf War of 1992. As President of Czechoslovakia, he saw it as his duty to hold his country together but facilitated a cordial separation between the Czech and Slovak sides. He was an exceptionally unpolitical politician, detaching himself from his power base in Civic Forum when he took office because he felt the President needed to stand above the parties. This undoubtedly diminished him as apparatchiks maneouvred around him. But, driven by a sense of duty, he stuck it out through 12 years as President of Czechoslovakia and then the Czech Republic – to steer his country through the transition to democracy and to protect it (with some success) from those who sought to undermine the constitution.

Havel’s example shows above all that it is always worth persisting even when the odds seem stacked against you. He became most powerful vis-a-vis the Communist regime when he faced down his own fear of going to prison. He served four years and emerged the uncontested leader of the opposition. There were many factors which led to the collapse of Communism. But in Czechoslovakia, at least, its end was hastened by the path that Havel trod. Reduced to its simplest expression, his strategy was to withhold co-operation with the intolerable. Living in truth demands nothing less.

Havel: A Life, by Michael Žantovský. Available from Amazon.