The Responsibility of Intellectuals

President Havel gave the following address at Victoria University, in Wellington, New Zealand, on March 31, 1995.

Some time ago a wise old man came to see me in Prague and I listened to him with admiration. Shortly afterward I heard that he had died. His name was Karl Popper. He was a world traveler who watched the course of the biggest war ever waged by humankind—the war unleashed by the tribal fury of Nazi ideology—from this country, from New Zealand. It was here that he thought about the state of the world, and it was here that he wrote his most important books. Undoubtedly influenced by the harmonious coexistence of people of different cultures on the islands of New Zealand, he asked himself why it was so difficult for the idea of an open society to prevail against wave after wave of tribalism, and he inquired into the spiritual background of all enemies of the open society and into the patterns of their thinking.

Addressing you on this ceremonial occasion, I should like to offer a few remarks on Sir Karl Popper’s thoughts, as a tribute to the recently deceased thinker.

One of the targets of Popper’s profound criticism—he supported by ample evidence—was a phenomenon he called holistic social engineering. He used this term to describe attempts to change the world for the better, completely and globally, on the basis of some preconceived ideology that purported to understand all the laws of historical development and to describe inclusively, comprehensively, and holistically a state of affairs that would be the ultimate realization of these laws. Popper clearly demonstrated that this pattern of human thinking and behavior can only lead to totalitarianism.

I come from a country that lived for several decades under a Communist regime, and on the basis of my own experience, I can confirm that Sir Karl Popper was right. In the beginning was an allegedly scientific theory of historical laws; it was Marxist theory and it subsequently gave rise to the Communist utopia, the vision of a paradise on earth. That vision eventually produced the gulags, the endless suffering of many nations, the endless violation of the human being. Anything that in any way opposed the Communist vision of the world—thus calling that vision into question or actually proving it wrong—was mercilessly crushed. Needless to say, life, with its unfathomable diversity and unpredictability, would not be squeezed into the crude Marxist cage. The guardians of the cage could only suppress and destroy whatever they could not force into it. Ultimately, they had to declare war on life itself and its innermost essence. I could give you thousands of concrete examples of how all the natural manifestations of life were stifled in the name of an abstract, theoretical vision of a better world. It was not just that there were what we call human rights abuses. This enforced vision led to the moral, political, and economic devastation of all of …

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