In December 1977 and January 1978, Frantisek Pitor and Alena Klímová were on trial in Pilsen for tape-recording the text of Charter 1977 from a foreign broadcast and then making and distributing copies of it. The judge explained to the accused that under present conditions in Czechoslovakia, no person has cause for fear. The accused were obviously somewhat dense people, unable to grasp simple points, and to ensure that this idea penetrated their consciousness, and to give them time to meditate about it, the judge awarded Pitor a sentence of three years and his young female assistant one.

These are after all mild sentences: time passes quickly, and Pitor had already been given ten years under the pre-1968 regime (a. sentence terminated by an amnesty), so that he is used to it, as you might say, and three years will seem as nothing; he will also be able to reflect on how this much milder sentence indicates a softening and liberalization.

After all, as a recidivist Pitor might have expected something worse. That he used an army copying machine to disseminate an “anti-state incitement” suggested a bland Schweik-like impertinence; he was asking for it. The report of the case does not even suggest that two further assistants, who handled the machine, were ever prosecuted.

Before we laugh at the judge, we should note that what he said to the accused has an element of truth. Contemporary Czechoslovakia is not a country of fear and trembling. In the 1950s, the following joke circulated: in what way does the Czechoslovak republic resemble a Prague tram? Answer: some sit (sedí, which means both “sitting” and “being in jail”), while others stand and tremble. In the 1950s, Prague trams had not changed since pre-Munich days. They were rickety and it was indeed impossible to stand in them when they were in motion without shaking all over. This is no longer true. The rolling stock of the Prague tram lines has been renewed and it is now perfectly possible to stand in them and shake only occasionally. As for those who are ready to sit, for political reasons, critics of the regime point to the 1,000 names signed to Charter 77 but not to many more.

If one separates liberal from authoritarian societies by whether social order is maintained by the threat of force or by more subtle and devious means with force remaining discreetly in the background and emerging only as an occasional last resort, then contemporary Czechoslovakia is a liberal society, and Pitor’s judge, was right. (I know that one can think of more stringent or more refined criteria.) Conformity with the present social order is, at most times and for most citizens, ensured by subtler and more devious means.

There is perhaps a small minority who wholeheartedly believe in the present system (though it is difficult to find them), and there is another minority, perhaps smaller, which is wholeheartedly committed to defying and denouncing it. But neither represents the normal human condition in a social situation that may, alas, turn out to be the model of one of the options available to industrial society. Most citizens are to be found along a gray spectrum in the middle, neither fully endorsing the system nor, things being what they are, firmly repudiating it, but granting it a kind of quasi legitimacy, or should one say quasi illegitimacy? They make a compromise with reality, lest worse befall. How is this compliance secured?

In most cases, not by terror, although some people are harassed and jailed. The typical citizen who refrains from protest or dissent on any given occasion, or from solidarity with those who do openly dissent, does not do so because he anticipates that otherwise, early next morning, he would be departing for a labor camp. He refrains because he has a talented child whose application to a special school or university is pending; because he has a gentleman’s agreement with his superior at his office that he can get on with serious, nondoctrinaire work, on the understanding that he will not rock the boat publicly, and to break such an understanding would be uncivil, ungracious, and endanger others who are also similarly covered by an understanding boss; because he enjoys diverse privileges which he does not wish to put at risk; because…etc.

He is encouraged in such compromise and conformity by a variety of reflections: for one thing, practically everyone else is doing just the same. A single refusal will change nothing, and the penalty incurred will be pointless. At the same time, the system is neither monolithic nor rigid. Patronage networks, protekce, corruption if you like, are rife and pervasive, but there are many countervailing networks, and if your path is blocked one way there is generally some other way; dispensers of favors have to weigh the often imponderable, not to say unpredictable, forces of diverse pressures, and to protect themselves, for who knows what way things will go? If there is no one pure, there is also perhaps no one altogether dirty, without some saving grace which could be invoked if the Day of Judgment should turn out to be run under liberal auspices. Just as everyone has someone to the right of him who is dirtier and more compromised, so everyone also has some person to the left of him who is more in peril and to whom he has shown some kindness or given some support. (This can in current idiom be described as mít svýho Ceskýho Zida, to have one’s Czech Jew, someone more precarious than oneself whom one has sheltered a bit.)


Some cling to the idea that they are at least negatively pure, that they have never taken part in doing someone down. Such purity is perhaps possible, though it can hardly be given to anyone to claim that they have never remained silent while someone was being done down. Awareness of this leads even those who would wish not to be soiled to observe that they are no longer inclined to judge others and cast moral stones. This universal part-complicity, whatever the inner reservations, a complicity which the system ensures, and which in its way it also makes sensible by its own restraint and relative mildness, is a crucial part of this style of social control. Life is compromise. It is not given to us to live and remain pure. Living under a moderate socialist dictatorship is just like the human condition, only a bit more so.

The prevailing image of the police is one of stupidity rather than of brutality. There is a vogue of policeman jokes. (Example: Czechoslovakia is sending out its first manned space probe. The crew consists of a monkey and a policeman. They are sent out under sealed orders. In space, they open their instructions. The monkey’s orders read—at 0615 hours, press red button; at 0730 hours, focus camera; at 0815, move lever to left by exactly 45 degrees; etc. The policeman’s orders read: three times a day feed monkey, but otherwise under no circumstances touch anything.)

Social control works by a kind of persuasion. An ideologically erring intellectual may be visited by a very senior official who will open the conversation with a humble request that they may mutually tutoyer each other, and then spend hours amiably persuading him to be more sensible. Who would be so churlish as not to respond, at least a bit, just to show good will? Why undermine a superior who, after all, is also doing his best in difficult times? The compromise will earn him the contempt of some who are more-liberal-than-thou…. But once this harm is done, no more is at risk, in this direction, on the next occasion. C’est le premier pas qui coute. But the first step was justified as realism, which after all is a virtue of a kind, and of saving what could be saved.

And if there is a humiliating stick hidden somewhere in this bag of sanctions it is so obscured by a bunch of carrots that people may feel it more shaming to be bought off by them than to be afraid of the stick. Some may be seduced by crudely material things, but they are perhaps the eager rather than the reluctant participants, the least admirable or formidable. In an advanced industrial society which at the same time is relatively egalitarian, such crude inducements are perhaps least significant, and seduce only those least worth seducing. The most genuinely seductive privilege is probably access to education. (If in the West, de Maistre’s executioner has been replaced by the washing machine as the base of social order, so in this society he has been replaced by the educational entrance procedure, which from a humane viewpoint is also a gain, even if not quite so great a gain as the use of consumer goods.)

The present trend is toward a de facto school-leaving age of eighteen (with only a small minority leaving earlier for unskilled employment), with the large majority continuing their training in diverse fields, often technical and practical, but all ending with a nominally identical secondary school final examination. In a system in which there are highly diversified schools after fourteen (and in some measure, before that), access to education is, together with access to patronage networks, the most important resource—and the one depends on the other.

It is this resource above all which the system manipulates to ensure compliance. Children are the state’s hostages. This is not covert: official instructions for student assessment require that four or five criteria be taken into consideration, and scholastic aptitude is but one. The others include, in effect, civic virtue and family background…. The complexity and nebulousness of these criteria make their operation hard to check, and may help to make them work in all kinds of ways.


But this central monopoly of the crucial asset, education, also does not operate in any very total way, for a number of reasons. One is the variety of pressure groups: a headmaster may have to listen to pressures from more than one ministry or other influential agency. The system is not rigid, insensitive, or totally bloody-minded: when a dissident tract cited a list of school applicants who had been unfairly treated, the iniquities were remedied. (Similarly, it is not wholly unresponsive to protests from abroad.) Technical competence and qualification cannot be ignored altogether, in a technically sophisticated society within which efficiency is understood and cannot be wholly disregarded. This is perhaps the central contradiction of this kind of society: the conflict between a nebulous, partly unintelligible ideology which no one greatly respects, and the requirements of technical competence and efficient organization. The covert pluralism and corruption presumably have the valuable function of softening and deflecting what would otherwise be a head-on collision between these two.

Such a collision is also softened by a number of social parallel organizations or multiple levels. Particularly in the realm of services, there is a parallel economy alongside the official one (palouchy). There are party educational institutions alongside the ordinary ones, nominally more and more given an equal status; and there is the duality between the culture transmitted by the family and that inculcated at school.

Politically this is a curious system. Authority is with the party, whose membership is a kind of de facto selective electorate; this electorate however is not sovereign either, and at times of crucial change must yield to persuasion from above, sanctioned by the threat of both recruitment of new and more pliable members and of the expulsion of the old, if reason alone does not persuade. In Britain, the House of Lords works on a similar principle, open to persuasion by the threat of creation of new lords if the old ones are recalcitrant, without however this added flexibility of being able to throw out old ones. And who is it who applies persuasion from the top, or decides its direction? How is he chosen? This must be decided by some kind of imponderable weighing and tacit haggling, which selects that particular individual or group having, at the same time, the best prospects of being persuasive downward to the populace and toward the Soviets. The internal methods of persuasion—warnings of “lest worse befall,” seduction by contagious compromise (better do it before the others do), elimination of some pour encourager les autres, corruption and recruitment of still others—by which one party, whose institutions have not changed, could make an about turn since 1968 would require detailed study. This, after all, is one form of social order which can, alas, work.

In connection with the dual economy, it is said that the authorities once contemplated restoring free enterprise for individual artisans, plumbers, carpenters, and such. Such an idea apparently encountered the most violent opposition from the artisans themselves, who are fervent socialists. Under capitalism, they would have to supply their own tools and materials and bear the risk of their enterprise. Under the present system, their wages cover them against risk, while tools and materials are supplied free of charge by the state, and they earn excellent money by taking on unofficial extra work, within or outside official working hours. The old joke observed that the quickest way of building socialism would be to hand it over to the working class on the palouchy system (illegal overtime or indeed working time). Given the shabby and seedy appearance of Prague, it is clear that these informally private services are greatly needed and have to be well remunerated. If Prague, a city of great beauty, were part of the free world, it no doubt would turn into a glossy tourist attraction. Its present melancholy shabbiness is incomparably more moving.

No doubt the economy could do better. A current mini-thaw of kinds is inspired, apart from détente, by a desire to place competent people in charge of an enterprise and let them get on with it. This, after all, was one of the three sources of the Prague Spring of the late 1960s—the other two being nationalist discontent in Slovakia and the effervescence of the intellectuals. These other two factors are now missing, Slovak aspirations being apparently satisfied and the effervescence replaced, among the young, by cynicism. But while the economic situation is not brilliant, it is not too bad either. Shops seem full, and one notes the weird presence of imported Western luxury goods (e.g., French brandy), which, one would have thought, a developing socialist economy could well do without. Presumably it is a good way of soaking up excess purchasing power. Contrary to the Western stereotype of socialist Eastern Europe, agriculture, though continuing to be collectivized, is doing well. Heavy capital investment appears to have paid off, and the collective farmers are said to be progressing by actually producing what they are meant to produce (rather than supplying a parallel market). People are no longer leaving the land.

In the towns, the housing shortage continues to be acute, and has led to a curious revival of the extended family. Most households seem to manage reasonably well through having three or more jobs distributed among the two spouses—but granny continues to live in the apartment, partly because it is her apartment, partly because her baby-sitting services are essential in a house in which the middle generation is very fully employed. Clearly there is a labor shortage: shop windows in Prague are full of offers of immediate employment. The cramming of three generations into smallish apartments no doubt encourages the celebrated preoccupation with weekend cottage bolt-holes (in more senses than one), which in turn is facilitated by the vacating of small farmhouses by the erstwhile petty farmers. Material life is not unbearable, and for very many must be preferable to what is remembered from the days of capitalism—except perhaps for the clerical lower middle class, which must be suffering relative deprivation both in income and status.

The tragic consequences are to be found not in material life but especially among that minority which aspires to some kind of cultural creativity, and/or is fastidious enough to suffer from the moral ambiguity, lies, and compromises by means of which the system operates. Men of middle age now feel that by the time this cloud lifts, it will be too late for them to do anything. And why should they be deprived of the opportunity for free self-expression, since they have shown their willingness to compromise with the system? The answer, no doubt, is that 1968 showed it to be impossible to liberalize cultural life without that liberalization gathering such powerful momentum that, even without any politically subversive intent, it sweeps away and reduces to absurdity the official position—which virtually no one accepts with any conviction—and thus brings in the Soviet tanks. It is sad that this should have happened to the Czechs twice: the Counter-Reformation prevailed in much the same way after the Thirty Years War.

There are two exhibitions in the Waldstein (Wallenstein’s) palace in the old town, cheek-to-jowl in the same large hall: one commemorates Comenius, the other Nejedlý. Comenius (Komenský) was the great Czech thinker and education reformer of the seventeenth century, Nejedlý a twentieth-century historian who reached communism by way of Slav and historical romanticism (his first three books were on Hussite music). As the first postwar Minister of Education he must carry much of the blame for the sterility of the 1950s, and hence of the present. (During the Slanský trials of the early 1950s he announced that not torture but Communist truth led the accused to confess.) Though not stated in so many words, the intimate juxtaposition of these two exhibitions insinuates that Nejedlý was a kind of Comenius of our time. Both exhibitions are almost wholly unattended, which is a pity. Even a mildly attentive visitor will note that after the national disaster of the battle of the White Mountain in 1620, Comenius had to go West in order to think and publish freely (he died in Holland), and that he had to flee from the Nejedlýs of his time. The attempt to present Nejedlý as his successor has a truly Orwellian quality.

The system has other paradoxes too. One hears the claim that there is less mobility for children of genuinely working-class parents than in the West—the system provides little financial incentive for those striving for higher education, and they have less aptitude for manipulating patronage support than their bourgeois rivals. Enough time has now elapsed to make the whole notion of bourgeois background tricky, for children growing up now may have ex-bourgeois parents who were however compelled to enter impeccably manual employment since 1948, and thus are, on paper, “workers.”

Another paradox: most of the Prague Spring reforms were the work of people who were then in the party; about 500,000 are said to have been purged since 1968, many of them now condemned to menial and degrading work. They were replaced by a new young generation of Julien Sorels who are said to be entirely opportunistic and ruthless—nicknamed vlcáci, Alsatian dogs—and not at all averse to persecuting the now dispossessed, erstwhile holders of party cards, some of whom were actually believers, or even still are. So unbelievers in the party take it out on believers outside it. Conversely, one active opposition group consists of ex-Communists who call themselves Euro-communists; they maintain the faith, make use of Italian CP contacts, and consider themselves the kind party-in-Avignon, the true party. More liberal dissidents accuse this group of being somewhat selective and discriminating in the support it gives to people in trouble—such as, for instance, the unfortunate Frantisek Pitor, who is not merely dissident but had once been, as you might say, a premature dissident, in the days when the former Communists had still been in.

There can be few countries in which written dissidence reaches quite such a high academic level. The works of the distinguished philosopher Jan Patocka circulate in samizdat. Patocka, the leader of Charter 1977, died at the age of seventy after overzealous interrogation. There is something bizarre about a situation in which works so academic, abstract, truly philosophical, and not remotely inflammatory, have to appear illicitly. In the West, they might with a bit of luck appear in one of the philosophers’ trade journals. They might well be refused, not because they were too partisan, virulent, or political, but because they were too difficult…. They can only be properly understood by professionals.

One of the most interesting of these works is a critique of President T.G. Masaryk’s philosophy of history and of the place of the Czech nation in it. Masaryk had been a professor of philosophy before becoming the founder and first president of the post-1918 Czechoslovak republic. This is not irrelevant—the Czechs are, all in all, very deferential to academic standing, and do not really believe that the Czech nation exists at all, unless a professor of philosophy says so. As the Communists are naturally also critical of Masaryk, it is not clear why they should not welcome Patocka’s critique of him, although admittedly it starts from premises other than their own.

It is not easy to summarize Patocka’s position, for he is quite deliberately a difficult writer. He begins by observing that philosophical reflection is the monopoly of societies in the Hellenic-Mediterranean tradition; consequently nations which are late in entering this tradition tended to combine a philosophical awakening with a national self-definition. Patocka notes that all the Slavonic nations were in this condition in the nineteenth century and that the conflation of a philosophical and national awakening was indeed characteristic of them. Patocka observes that Masaryk correctly defined the Czech problem and the criteria of its solution—but did not himself solve it correctly.

At this point, he undertakes a double-barreled attack on both the forms of the philosophical awakening Masaryk endorsed and of the national self-definition he aimed at. He criticizes Masaryk for being unduly receptive to Kantian and positivistic ideas, with the consequence that his speculations were excessively constrained, insufficiently deep, all too willing to see the world through the fragmented positive sciences, and too reluctant to be concerned with being as such. So far as history is concerned, he criticizes Masaryk for seeing the 1914-1918 war as a kind of culmination and establishment of a new liberal order, and for linking the entry of the US onto the world’s stage with the rebirth of the Czech state. He contrasts Masaryk unfavorably with Nietzsche, who seems to have replaced Husserl as Patocka’s philosophical hero.

What Patocka seems to be saying is this: world history since 1918 has taught us the inadequacy and superficiality of Masaryk’s relatively optimistic and liberal vision of the world’s development. But the greater accuracy of Nietzsche’s more pessimistic vision is rooted in his unbridled willingness to speculate without positivistic restraint and to plunge into the murkier depths of the human heart. Nietzsche’s preoccupation with the will-to-power combines psychological depth with metaphysical generality, and it is, this combination which makes him a better guide to the tragic realities of our century than Masaryk, who was too respectful of the rationalistic and positivistic decencies of nineteenth-century thought. A Marxist assessment of Masaryk’s failings would reach much the same conclusions.

All this is both interesting and debatable; but there is nothing in it, in style or content, which could lead a young man to abandon his books for the manufacture of bombs or the sabotage of the next Five Year Plan. What has happened to a country in which ideas of such abstractness or abstruseness—raising questions of whether Masaryk was really justified in taking over Kant’s attitude to metaphysics—instead of being earnestly discussed in Academy proceedings are, like pornography, illicitly passed from hand to hand?

This Issue

November 9, 1978