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Prague: Intellectuals & Politicians

Imagine a theater critic who is suddenly hauled up from the stalls to act in the play he meant to review. What should he do then? Write the review without mentioning his own part? Appraise his own performance? This is the strange dilemma in which I find myself as I sit down to write this essay. Yet it is a dilemma curiously appropriate to the subject, as will, I trust, emerge. Let me explain.

Earlier this year I received a letter informing me that I had been elected an honorary member of Czech PEN, in gratitude for what I had done for Czech writers in the years up to 1989. I was touched by the gesture. The letter also invited me to attend the 61st World Congress of International PEN, which would be held in Prague in November.

Now there is a great deal to be said against attending any international congress of writers, anywhere, any time. But Prague is a city where writers and intellectuals, especially the numerous banned writers and intellectuals, published only in samizdat or the West, had a singular importance up to 1989. This occasion would take place five years to the month after the “revolution of the Magic Lantern,” which I described at the time in these pages.1 That had catapulted many of them quite unexpectedly into positions of power, which some retain but others have in the meantime left or lost. Those characteristic post-Communist mutations, dilemmas, and ironies are concentrated—almost as in an archetype—in the person of the writer-president Václav Havel. All this, I thought, might make this particular writers’ congress more than usually interesting.

It did.


On the plane out, I looked back through my notebooks from the heady days of November 1989 in the Magic Lantern theater, and recalled the leading actors in the play then directed by, and starring, Václav Havel. Among my visiting cards I found one given me in the Magic Lantern by someone who, at the time, had only a minor part—as an economist prized for his professional expertise by the writers, philosophers, journalists, and historians then leading the Civic Forum. I have the card before me as I write. Actually nothing more than a typewritten slip of paper, it reads: “Dr. Václav Klaus, Head of Department for Macroeconomic Analysis, Institute for Forecasting, Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences.”

In Prague I soon found that the position of intellectuals was very much a live subject, and one that, like so many others in the Czech lands today, had come to be politicized around the, so to speak, magnetic polarity between the two Václavs, now better known as President Havel and Prime Minister Klaus. Havel was understood to be calling for the voice of independent intellectuals to be heard more clearly, enriching the country’s political debate. Klaus, the intellectual anti-intellectual, was heard to be skeptical of this notion, both on general grounds and because Havel was for it.

I talked briefly to the prime minister in the days before the PEN congress opened. Dr. Klaus received me in his tastefully appointed office, its walls decorated with framed honorary doctorates, prizes, and photographs of himself with very important persons. In the course of an interesting conversation, mainly about Europe, he thrust into my hands a selection of his lectures and speeches from the last three years, which he had got his office to type up, photocopy, and bind. This collector’s item of, as it were, prime ministerial samizdat—entitled Dismantling Socialism: An Interim Report—well documents his characteristic mixture of sharp economic analysis and bold political salesmanship. Helpfully, he pointed out the best pieces.

The PEN congress itself was opened by President Havel. Welcoming his fellow writers from around the world “first and foremost as a colleague… and only secondarily as a representative of the Czech Republic” he went on to express the hope that our presence would “introduce important spiritual and intellectual stimuli into this sometimes too materialistic and somewhat provincial setting….” Intellectuals, he argued, have a responsibility to engage in “politics in the broadest sense of the word.” And not just in the broadest sense:

I once asked a friend of mine, a wonderful man and a wonderful writer, to fill a certain political post. He refused, arguing that someone had to remain independent. I replied that if you all said that, it could happen that in the end, no one will be independent, because there won’t be anyone around to make that independence possible and stand behind it.

However: “I am not suggesting, dear colleagues, that you all become presidents in your own countries, or that each of you go out and start a political party.” But we should, he suggested,

gradually begin to create something like a worldwide lobby, a special brotherhood or, if I may use the word, a somewhat conspiratorial mafia, whose aim is not just to write marvelous books or occasional manifestoes but to have an impact on politics and its human perceptions in a spirit of solidarity, and in a coordinated, deliberate way…

Politicians, at least the wiser ones,” he continued, “will not reject such activity but, on the contrary, will welcome it. I, for instance, would welcome hearing, in this country, a really strong and eloquent voice coming from my colleagues, one that could not be ignored no matter how critical it might be, a voice that did more than merely grumble, or engage in esoteric reflection, but became a clear public and political fact.” He then concluded with an eloquent appeal for us all to stand up for Salman Rushdie, for Wole Soyinka, and for Bosnian intellectuals.

Emboldened by this speech, the assembled PEN delegates could begin their usual round of reports, resolutions, and the all-important business of supporting persecuted and imprisoned writers—work in which Czech writers who had themselves long been persecuted or imprisoned could now join. But you could see at once (though I’m not sure how many of the international PEN delegates did see at once) that Havel’s speech was as much addressed to the domestic audience. And it was a blow—a pen-thrust—at Klaus, whom Czech readers, radio listeners, or television viewers would immediately understand not to be among those “wiser” politicians who would welcome independent intellectual criticism.

Indeed, that very day Czech readers could find in the newspaper Lidové Noviny a column by Václav Klaus rejecting, in the name of liberalism, the demand recently made by a group of intellectuals that the showing of violence on television be regulated by the state. President Havel had come out in support of the intellectuals’ petition.

In the evening, the prime minister, who as a regular newspaper columnist and essayist is himself a member of Czech PEN, gave a reception for the PEN delegates. His speech of welcome was also in part an answer to Havel’s welcome speech in the morning, thus producing further symptoms of slight bafflement among those delegates who thought they were just attending a writers congress. As we left the reception, officials distributed free copies of two books (in Czech) by Václav Klaus, almost as if to say: “Look, he writes books too!” One of the books is called Why Am I a Conservative?, 2 and begins with a glowing tribute to Margaret Thatcher, entitled “Inspiration.”

The next day there was a panel discussion on the very general theme of “intellectuals, government policy and tolerance” in a large hall at the foreign ministry. The most prominent panelist was none other than the writer-premier Václav Klaus. He was joined on the platform by the Hungarian essayist György Konrád (himself a former president of International PEN, and someone who has written extensively on the role of intellectuals), the Czech novelist Ivan Klíma, writers from Germany, Sweden, and Turkey, and myself. Extracts from the discussion were to be broadcast on Czech television. Good press coverage for the prime minister among these intellectuals would no doubt (albeit marginally) enhance his public image, which might be useful in the imminent local government elections. In fact, the prime minister was going straight from this discussion to campaign for his party in the provinces.

Before the discussion we were handed copies of an essay on tolerance, nicely printed in five languages. And who was the essay by? Comenius? John Locke? Voltaire? No, by Václav Klaus. That philosopher of tolerance then opened the discussion with a remarkable short statement in which he announced that in a free country, such as the Czech Republic had now become, the distinction between “dependent” and “independent” intellectuals no longer had any real importance. Some intellectuals were in politics, others not. Expert advice was always welcome. But it made no sense to speak any more about a special role for “independent” intellectuals.

Now the critic was hauled on stage. For this sally could not go unanswered. I began my reply by saying that it was both appropriate and moving to discuss the subject of “intellectuals, government policy, and tolerance” in Prague, where, for twenty-one long years, from the Soviet invasion of 1968 until the Velvet Revolution, some individual Czechs—and Slovaks—had given us a shining example of what intellectuals can do in opposition to a repressive state. The names of Jan Patocka and Václav Havel must stand for many, many more whom I would like to name.

Five years on, however, we happily find ourselves in very different times in Central Europe. What was the role of intellectuals now? I argued, against Klaus, that independence is a crucial attribute of what it should mean to be an intellectual. Not just in a dictatorship but precisely in a liberal, democratic state, independent intellectuals have a crucial role to play.

There should be, I suggested, a necessarily adversarial (but not necessarily hostile) relationship between the independent intellectual and the professional politician. The intellectual’s job is to seek the truth, and then to present it as fully and clearly and interestingly as possible. The politician’s job is to work in half-truth. The very word party implies partial, one-sided. (The Czech word for party, strana, meaning literally “side,” says it even more clearly.) Of course, the opposition parties then present the other side, the other half of the truth. But this is one of those strange cases where two halves don’t make a whole.

The position of a non-executive president or constitutional monarch may, I noted, be a partial exception to this rule. Such a person, standing above party politics, may contribute to setting certain higher intellectual or moral standards in public life. But as a rule there is a necessary and healthy division of labor in a liberal state between independent intellectuals and professional politicians. Arguably this is as important as the formal separation of powers between executive, legislature, and judiciary. It is part of the larger and all-important creative tension between the state and civil society.

  1. 1

    See my “The Revolution of the Magic Lantern, The New York Review, January 18, 1990, and The Magic Lantern (Random House, 1990).

  2. 2

    Václav Klaus, Proc jsem konzervativcem? (Prague: TOP Agency, 1992).

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