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Prague: Intellectuals & Politicians

Yet I also have a serious disagreement with him about the role that intellectuals can play in politics, in the narrow sense of competing for power and holding office. The sharp distinction I drew on that panel between the roles of the intellectual and the politician is one that ever since Havel became president of Czechoslovakia at the end of 1989 he has consistently refused to accept. As it happened, I went straight from the panel discussion in the foreign ministry to a lively private discussion with the president on precisely this issue, in the more congenial surroundings of a riverside pub. (György Konrád also came from the panel to the pub, and joined cannily in the debate.)

Now on this particular issue a discussion with Havel is obviously far more important than any argument with Klaus. Klaus will be judged on his record as a politician, and on his very considerable achievements in the rapid transformation of the Czech economy. Despite his at times almost comical desire to be taken seriously as a writer, his views on intellectuals are, so to speak, an optional extra. By contrast, the subject is central to Havel’s whole life and work. His essays, lectures, and prison letters from the last quarter-century are, taken altogether, among the most vivid, sustained, and searching explorations of the moral and political responsibility of the intellectual produced anywhere in Europe. Indeed, it is difficult to think of any figure in the contemporary world who has more cumulative authority to speak on this issue than Václav Havel.

If you said “the intellectual and politics” in the 1960s, the immediate free association might be “Sartre” or perhaps “Bertrand Russell.” Say it now, whether in Paris, New York, Berlin, or Rome, and one of the first associations will be “Havel.” If he is right, what he says will be important not just for the Czech lands; if he is wrong, it matters for the rest of us too.

Fortunately, I don’t just have to rely on a pub conversation for this judgment. Three volumes of Havel’s speeches have now appeared in Czech, and a Prague publisher has just issued a selection in English, entitled Toward a Civil Society.6 Although the English selection is heavily biased toward his major foreign appearances, and to that extent gives a slightly misleading impression of what he has been doing for the last five years, it does contain the most important and systematic statements of his views since he became president. Havel told me that he regards his presidential speeches as the intellectual continuation of the essays, lectures, and prison letters of the dissident years. “Then I wrote essays, now I write speeches,” he said, suggesting that only the form of what he does with words has changed, not the essential content of the intellectual activity.

Certainly as presidential speeches go these are quite extraordinary. Extraordinary in the range of subjects they address, from Maastricht to the Anthropic Cosmological Principle, from European security to the legacy of the Czechoslovak security police, from Kafka to the need for a higher something which Havel cannot quite bring himself to call God. Extraordinary in their literary quality. Extraordinary in their frank and vivid insights based, as throughout his earlier work, on a kind of wry agonizing about his own existential dilemmas. Since his present dilemma—or, at least, one of them—is that of the intellectual in politics, there is much on that in his speeches. And sometimes in unlikely places.

Nearly two years ago, a mutual friend brought me, with the president’s greetings, the typescript of a speech delivered in the Asahi Hall in Tokyo in April 1992, and now reproduced in this volume. The speech is devoted to the place of the intellectual in politics. Having described the peculiar post-Communist situation in which “poets, philosophers, singers became members of Parliament, government ministers or even presidents,” he proceeds to take issue with “a British friend of mine” who “has said that one of the biggest problems of the post-Communist states lies in the inability of their leaders to make up their minds about who they are. Are they independent intellectuals or practicing politicians?”

Having explained that he understands only too well what I have in mind, he goes on to ask if this may actually be “not a dilemma, but a historic challenge? What if in fact it challenged them to introduce a new tone, a new element, a new dimension into politics?” Based on their specific experience under totalitarianism, might they not inject “a new wind, [a] new spirit, a new spirituality … into the established stereotypes of present-day politics?” Faced with the huge challenges of overpopulation, poverty, pollution, ethnic and social unrest, what is needed is a change “in the sphere of the spirit, of human consciousness and self-knowledge….”

Politics is increasingly becoming the domain of specialists, but it should be the domain of people.

with a heightened sense of responsibility and heightened understanding for the mysterious complexity of Being. If intellectuals claim to be such people, they would virtually be denying the truth of that claim if they refused to take upon themselves the burden of public offices on the grounds that it would mean dirtying their hands. Those who say that politics is disreputable in fact help make it so.

He does not know, he says in conclusion, who will be proved right, but he regards it as

…a challenge to take a great risk and launch a great adventure…. It is up to those of us whom fate has put in this position to demonstrate whether my British friend has shown foresight, or has simply been too influenced by the banal idea that everyone should stick to his own trade.

Heaven only knows what the Japanese audience made of the president from Prague conducting a longrange discussion with someone in Oxford from a platform in Tokyo. But the result is certainly one of the clearest and fullest statements of his position. Elsewhere he restates and elaborates on various parts of it. Right at the outset, in his 1990 New Year’s Address, he expresses the hope that the new Czechoslovakia can “permanently radiate love, understanding, the power of the spirit and of ideas,” with a new version of the founding president TomᚠGarrigue Masaryk’s concept of politics based on morality. (“Jesus, not Caesar,” as Masaryk famously wrote.)

If the hope of the world lies in human consciousness,” Havel tells a joint session of the US Congress in February 1990, “then it is obvious that intellectuals cannot go on forever avoiding their share of responsibility for the world and hiding their distaste for politics under an alleged need to be independent.” And he said there what he repeated in opening the PEN congress nearly five years later: that if everyone remained independent then in the end nobody would be independent.

Perhaps his most remarkable treatment of the subject, however, is a speech he delivered in Copenhagen in May 1991. Here he confronts head-on what he calls the “diabolical” temptations of power. He now finds himself, he writes,

in the world of privileges, exceptions, perks, in the world of VIPs who gradually lose track of how much a streetcar ticket or butter costs, how to make a cup of coffee, how to drive a car and how to place a telephone call. In other words, I find myself on the threshold of the very world of the Communist fat cats whom I have criticized all my life. And worst of all, everything has its own unassailable logic.

Someone who forgets how to drive a car, do the shopping, make himself coffee and place a telephone call is not the same person who had known how to do those things all his life.” The politician becomes “a captive of his position, his perks, his office. That which apparently confirms his identity and thus his existence in fact subtly takes that identity and existence away from him.” This is vintage Havel, probing through a combination of ironical observation and agonized introspection to a larger truth, as he did in “The Power of the Powerless.” It hints at a great essay to come: on the powerlessness of the powerful.

Yet the conclusion of this speech is surprising. It does not follow, he says, “that it is not proper to devote oneself to politics because politics is in principle immoral.” What follows is that politics requires people of higher responsibility, taste, tact, and moral sensitivity. “Those who claim that politics is a dirty business are lying to us. Politics is work of a kind that requires especially pure people, because it is especially easy to become morally tainted.”7

He returns to the theme in a speech at New York University in October 1991, comparing himself to a literary critic well known for his sharp judgments who is suddenly called upon to write a novel. First he quotes his own refutation of the charge that politics is “an essentially disreputable business”:

Of course, in politics, as anywhere else in life, it is impossible and pointless to say everything, all at once, to just anyone. But that does not mean having to lie. All you need is tact, the proper instincts, and good taste. One surprising experience from “high politics” is this: I have discovered that good taste is more useful here than a degree in political science.

(This may be less surprising to anyone who has studied political science.)

Then he notes that in the few weeks since he wrote those words “fate played a joke on me. It punished me for my self-assurance by exposing me to an immensely difficult dilemma. A democratically elected Parliament passed a bill I considered to be morally flawed, yet which our constitution required me to sign.” This was the so-called “lustration” bill, which, as Havel explains, banned from public service whole categories of people who had been implicated in the Communist regime, with inadequate rights of individual appeal. He describes his decision: to sign the bill and then propose an amendment to parliament.

He does not know, he concludes, whether his decision was the right one, whether this part of the “novel” he is writing would meet the standards he set earlier as a critic. “History can probably be the only judge of that.” He still does not think that politics requires one to behave immorally. “My latest experience, however, makes me want to underline five times a sentence that, until a few weeks ago, I thought unnecessary to underline even once: that the way of a truly moral politics is neither simple nor easy.”

Six months later comes the Tokyo long-range argument with me, which is, so far as I can judge, his last major stab at this issue before he resigned as the president of a now clearly dissolving Czechoslovakia in July 1992. (The English edition rather glosses over this discontinuity, but what is described as his “abdication speech” can be found in the relevant Czech volume.)8 Since he came back to the Castle as President of the Czech Republic in January 1993, courtesy of the votes of Václav Klaus’s ODS party, and with much reduced powers, he has returned to the theme on various occasions, most recently in his welcome speech to the PEN congress, but without, so far as I can see, adding significant new elements to his argument.

  1. 6

    The full title of the English-language volume is Toward a Civil Society: Selected Speeches & Writings 1990–1994 (Prague: Lidové Noviny, 1994). A note on the copyright page indicates that this volume is edited by Paul Wilson, with the translations by Paul Wilson and others. The Czech collections are Václav Havel, Projevy leden-cerven 1990 (Speeches: January-June 1990) (Prague: Vysehrad, 1990). Václav Havel, Vázeni obcané, Projevy cervenec 1990–cervenec 1992 (Dear Citizens: Speeches, July 1990–July 1992) (Prague: Lidové Noviny, 1992), and Vâlav Havel 1992 & 1993 (Prague: Paseka, 1994).

  2. 7

    The Czech original is even more emphatic, saying literally, “All lie who tell us that politics is a dirty business.”

  3. 8

    Václav Havel, Vázení obcané, pp. 198–199.

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