Author’s note: I originally published this essay in 2012, but brought it back in the face of the recent oppression in the Ukraine by a power-hungry Russian-backed government. The enduring lesson of Vaclav Havel’s immortalized essay, “The Power of the Powerless”, is that the ineradicable antidote to naked power or power veiled in ideology is, quite simply, to “live within the truth”. As Winston Churchill once said, “”The truth is incontrovertible. Malice may attack it, ignorance may deride it, but in the end, there it is.” Indeed…there it is.
“A spectre is haunting eastern Europe: the spectre of what in the West is called dissent.”
It was 1978 when these words were first penned. A forty-two year old Czech playwright, Vaclav Havel, living in a ruthless Communist society felt he had little choice but to write. Havel, a man with suspect bourgeois roots and subversive political tendencies had previously proven himself to be an “uncooperative citizen” in Communist-run Czechoslovakia. In his youth, Havel had been denied various educational opportunities due to his family’s intellectual and bourgeois upbringing, so instead he would find himself writing internationally-acclaimed plays. In spite of clear fears and frustrations, Havel was making a life for himself.
But in 1968, all of this would change. This year would see an eight month Czechoslovakian experiment of liberalization of travel, media, and speech (also known as the “Prague Spring”) crushed by the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies. During that time, Vaclav Havel would lend his voice to the resistance on Radio Free Czechoslovakia further solidifying his reputation as an enemy of the state. Subsequently, a draconian enforcement of Communist ideology through police-state tactics and civil rights deprivation would lead to Havel’s plays being banned and his travel curtailed. Defiant, Havel would illegally publish and distribute new plays and, most famously, collaborate with 250 others on the composition of Charter 77, a blistering attack on the repressive nature of the Czech Communist regime. Dubbed renegades, traitors, and agents of imperialism, the Communist government escalated efforts to persecute any involved in this work of subversion. Vaclav Havel, having proved to be a bright, unbending leader of a group of “dissidents” in Communist Czech society, soon found himself pursued, harassed, and ultimately arrested and imprisoned. But just prior to his arrest, Havel found that the perilous life he was leading helped him in ways he hadn’t anticipated – it sharply concentrated his mind. As his (and his countrymen’s) freedoms became increasingly encroached upon, a paradoxical truth became apparent. In a militant and mighty system erected on a bedrock of lies, the greatest weapon to confront it came not in the form of armies and guns, but in something quite clear and simple: the truth. And so Vaclav Havel began to write.
The Power of the Powerless is perhaps the most famous essay Vaclav Havel would ever write. Furthermore, it is one of the most well-known and instrumental pieces of dissident literature in the Cold War. Passed initially through underground channels in Eastern Europe, it would provide hope and solidarity to dissident movements in numerous Communist-bloc countries. More importantly, it would provide an education to the “Free World” about life in a Communist despotism that would rival the works of Orwell, Koestler, and Solzhenitsyn. The timing of this essay would also be fortuitous following Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Harvard Commencement Address (A World Split Apart) by several months, and preceding Pope John Paul II‘s visit to Poland and the emergence of the Polish Solidarity movement by less than two years.
The enduring question to be asked, however, about The Power of the Powerless is “What does this essay say and why does it matter?”. Vaclav Havel told people what it was really like living in a Communist system. In the tradition of Solzhenitsyn, Orwell, Kolakowski and Kennan, Havel shined a bright light in the dark corners, physically shook the rotting edifice and weaved a compelling narrative so that all people – whether intellectual Communist fellow-travelers or worldly firebrand dissidents – would recognize the intellectual bankruptcy and moral turpitude of the Communist enterprise. And he did it brilliantly.
Havel described the Communist system as an anomalous dictatorship. Unlike most dictatorships which are local, lacking true historical roots, and legitimized largely by military power, the Communist dictatorship behaved like a “secularized religion”. It covered a broad area of diverse cultures, professed to be rooted in historical socialist movements with philosophical godfathers like Marx and Engels and, while conventional and nuclear weaponry posed as ultimate trump cards, it was often social pressures and indoctrination that enabled order to be maintained. As Havel would write:
“[Communism] offers a ready answer to any question whatsoever; it can scarcely be accepted only in part, and accepting it has profound implications for human life. In an era when metaphysical and existential certainties are in a state of crisis, when people are being uprooted and alienated and are losing their sense of what this world means, this ideology inevitably has a certain hypnotic charm. To wandering humankind it offers an immediate available home: all one has to do is accept it, and suddenly everything becomes clear once more, life take on new meaning, and all mysteries, unanswered questions, anxiety, and loneliness vanish. Of course, one pays dearly for this low rent home: the price is abdication of one’s own reason, conscience, and responsibility, for an essential aspect of this ideology is the consignment of reason and conscience to a higher authority. The principle here is that the center of power is identical with the center of truth.”
Undoubtedly, with control of civil and military power as well as the levers of economic production, the Communist system was clearly coercive. But an eerie complicity – a willingness of many to emotionally, spiritually and ideologically “buy-in” or believe in the system – distinguishes Communist dictatorship from others where “buy-in” is simply cynically ingratiating oneself to the power structure in exchange for goods and services. This system was different. Havel writes,
“Ideology is a specious way of relating to the world. It offers human beings the illusion of an identity, of dignity, and of morality while making it easier for them to part with them… It enables people to deceive their conscience and conceal their true position and their inglorious modus vivendi, both from the world and from themselves… It is a veil behind which human beings can hide their own ‘fallen existence’, their trivialization, and their adaptation to the status quo.”
The Communist system, while promising to serve the people, ruthlessly demands the people serve it. While professing to protect the collective dignity of the people, it casually destroys the dignity of the individual in the name of the collective. These lies, the bald-faced hypocrisies, are accompanied by so many others, as Havel recounts:
“Government by bureaucracy is called popular government; the working class is enslaved in the name of the working class; the complete degradation of the individual is presented as his or her ultimate liberation; depriving people of information is called making it available; the use of power to manipulate is called the public control of power, and the arbitrary use of power is called observing the legal code; the repression of culture is called its development; the expansion of imperial influence is presented as support for the oppressed; the lack of free expression becomes the highest form of freedom; farcical elections become the highest form of democracy; banning independent thought becomes the most scientific of world views; military occupation becomes fraternal assistance. Because the regime is captive to its own lies, it must falsify everything. It falsifies the past. It falsifies the present, and it falsifies the future. It falsifies statistics. It pretends not to possess an omnipotent and unprincipled police apparatus. It pretends to respect human rights. It pretends to persecute no one. It pretends to fear nothing. It pretends to pretend nothing.”
It is here that Vaclav Havel makes one of his most compelling points about living within the Communist system:
“Individuals need not believe all these mystifications, but they must behave as though they did, or they must at least tolerate them in silence, or get along well with those who work with them. For this reason, however, they must live within a lie. They 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, fulfill the system, make the system, ARE the system.”
Two points permeate Havel’s writing on the Communist system and its inhabitants. First, the regime is intent, at all costs, to craft a metaphysics, an ideology, a pseudo-reality to fill in any and all cracks of doubt or dissent by its subjects. If people are orderly because they are fearful, a circumstance is created which is unstable and ultimately unsustainable because fear breeds resentment and resentment breeds revolt. Instead, by crafting a world of lies, appearances, rituals and philosophico-spiritual language, a regime can lull its underlings at worst and convert them at best to “the cause”. And what, is “the cause”? Power… indisputably and unflinchingly secure in the hands of the regime.
The second point Havel makes is the utter necessity for each individual’s complicity with the system – each individual’s willingness to “live within the lie.” For each citizen to comply – actively or passively – is to endorse the system, to contribute to the “pseudo-reality” of lies crafted by the regime, to pressure fellow citizens to fall in line, to push the frontiers of the dictatorship one person further against the truth of the “free world”. In doing so, the citizen has become both victim and accomplice. He loses his dignity. He has been used. He is empty and rendered less than human. That is, unless… he opts to “live within the truth.”
To “live within the truth” is to defy the unreality – in big ways, or in small. Havel’s example of a green-grocer organizing an underground group, or simply not putting a propaganda poster in his window is excellent. There is no shortage of fear (or brutal consequence) under these regimes and Havel admits this with sympathy. At the same time, he reinforces that fissures in the edifice of lies can come in big forms or small – and no small act of “living within the truth” is without its impact on the oppressive regime. Havel reinforces the threat of “living within the truth”:
“By breaking the rules of the game, [the citizen living within the truth] has disrupted the game as such. He has exposed it as a mere game. He has shattered the world of appearances, the fundamental pillar of the system. He has upset the power structure by tearing apart what holds it together. He has demonstrated that living a lie is living a lie. He has broken through the exalted facade of the system and exposed the real, base foundations of power. He has said that the emperor is naked. And because the emperor is in fact naked, something extremely dangerous has happened: by his action, the greengrocer has addressed the world. He has enabled everyone to peer behind the curtain. He has shown everyone that it IS possible to live within the truth. Living within the lie can constitute the system only if it is universal. The principle must embrace and permeate everything. There are no terms whatsoever on which it can coexist with living within the truth, and therefore everyone who steps out of line DENIES IT IN PRINCIPLE AND THREATENS IT IN ITS ENTIRETY…If the main pillar of the system is living a lie, then it is not surprising that the fundamental threat to it is living the truth. This is why it must be suppressed more severely than anything else.”
In Havel’s eyes, to “live within the truth” requires a few things. First, a recognition of the “hidden sphere” within us and between us that will never be fed, fulfilled or sustained by an external system, ideology, or abstraction. This “sphere” is a soul to be filled with faith, truth, and beauty. Second, a recognition that the edifice of society is the individual and the essence of the individual is a dignity that is inextinguishable. Finally, courage to object in ways big and small to a regime’s dehumanizing pseudo-realities that diminish human dignity in any way. To “live within the truth” is to empower the individual in even the most oppressive of circumstances. It is the power of the powerless.
Vaclav Havel and his fellow dissidents underwent withering trials to arrive at the wisdom evident in their lives and works. The lessons learned were hard-earned. Let us hope that these lessons are not easily forgotten.
Vaclav Havel (1936-2011)
Requiescat in pace.