The return of freedom to a place that became morally unhinged has produced something that it clearly had to produce, and therefore something we might have expected. But it has turned out to be far more serious than anyone could have predicted: an enormous and blindingly visible explosion of every imaginable human vice. A wide range of questionable or at least ambivalent human tendencies, quietly encouraged over the years and, at the same time, quietly pressed to serve the daily operation of the totalitarian system, has suddenly been liberated, as it were, from its straitjacket and given free rein at last. The authoritarian regime imposed a certain order—if that is the right expression for it—on these vices (and in doing so “legitimized” them, in a sense). This order has now been broken down, but a new order that would limit rather than exploit these vices, an order based on a freely accepted responsibility to and for the whole of society, has not yet been built, nor could it have been, for such an order takes years to develop and cultivate.
And thus we are witnesses to a bizarre state of affairs: society has freed itself, true, but in some ways it behaves worse than when it was in chains. Criminality has grown rapidly, and the familiar sewage that in times of historical reversal always wells up from the nether regions of the collective psyche has overflowed into the mass media, especially the gutter press. But there are other, more serious and dangerous, symptoms: hatred among nationalities, suspicion, racism, even signs of fascism; vicious demagogy, intrigue, and deliberate lying; politicking, an unrestrained, unheeding struggle for purely particular interests, a hunger for power, unadulterated ambition, fanaticism of every imaginable kind; new and unprecedented varieties of robbery, the rise of different mafias; the general lack of tolerance, understanding, taste, moderation, reason, And, of course, there is a new attraction to ideologies, as if Marxism had left behind it a great, unsettling void that had to be filled at any cost.
A look around our political scene (whose lack of civility is merely a reflection of the more general crisis of civility) should suffice: with half a year to go before the elections, almost every political activity, including debates over extremely important legislation in parliament, is taking place in the shadow of a pre-election campaign, of an extravagant hunger for power and a willingness to gain the favor of a confused electorate by offering them a colorful range of attractive nonsense. Mutual accusations, denunciations, and slander among political opponents know no bounds. One politician will undermine another’s work only because both belong to different political parties. Partisan considerations still visibly take precedence over unprejudiced and pragmatic attempts to arrive at a reasonable and useful solution to problems. Analysis is pushed out of the press by scandal-mongering. (Supporting the government in a good cause is considered practically shameful; kicking it in the shins, on the contrary, is praiseworthy.) Sniping at politicians who declare their support for another political group is a matter of course. Anyone can accuse anyone else of intrigue, incompetence, of having a shady past and shady intentions.
Demagogy is everywhere, and even matters as serious as the natural longing of a people for autonomy fuel power plays and stimulate deliberate lying to the public. Many members of the so-called nomenklatura who, until very recently, were faking their concern for social justice and the working class, have cast aside their masks and, almost overnight, have openly become a class of speculators and thieves. Many a once-feared Communist is now an unscrupulous capitalist shamelessly and unequivocally laughing in the face of the same worker whose interests he once claimed to defend.
Citizens are becoming more and more clearly disgusted with all this, and their disgust is understandably directed against the democratic government that they themselves have elected. Exploiting this situation, many unsavory characters have been gaining popular favor with ideas such as, for instance, the need to throw the entire government into the Vltava River. Still, I am persuaded time and time again that a huge potential of good will is slumbering within our society.
In such a state of affairs, politicians have a duty to awaken this slumbering, or bewildered, potential to life, to offer it a direction, to ease its passage, to encourage it and give it room, or simply hope. They say a nation has the politicians it deserves. In some senses this is true: politicians are truly a mirror of the society and a kind of embodiment of its potential. At the same time—paradoxically—the opposite is also true: society is a mirror of its politicians. It is largely up to the politicians which social forces they choose to liberate and which they choose to suppress, whether they choose to rely on the good in each citizen, or on the bad. The former regime systematically mobilized the worst human qualities, like selfishness, envy, and hatred. This was far from merely being something we deserved: it was, at the same time, responsible for the way we became. Those who find themselves in politics therefore bear a heightened responsibility for the moral state of society, and it is their responsibility to seek out the best in that society, to develop and strengthen it.
In the 1980s, a certain Californian-Czech philosopher devoted not a little energy to a series of articles in which he subjected the “anti-political politics” of Charter 77 to crushing criticism and, in particular, to the way I explained that notion in my essays. Trapped in his own Marxist fallacies, he believed that as a scholar he had scientifically comprehended the entire history of the world as a history of violent revolutions and vicious power struggles. The idea that the force of truth, the power of a truthful word, the strength of a free spirit, conscience, and responsibility—not armed with machine-guns, with no longing for power, and no political intrigue—might actually change something was quite beyond the horizon of his understanding. Naturally, if you understand decency as merely a “superstructure” of the forces of production, then you can never understand political power in terms of decency.
Because his doctrine had taught him that the bourgeoisie would never voluntarily surrender its leading role and that it must be swept into the dustbin of history through violent revolution, this philosopher assumed there was no other way to sweep away the Communist government either. Yet it turned out to be possible. Moreover, it turned out to be the only way to do it. Not only that, it turned out to be the only way that made sense, since violence, as we know, breeds more violence. This is why most revolutions degenerate into dictatorships that devour their own children and produce new revolutionaries who prepare for new violence, unaware that they are digging their own graves and pushing society again onto the deadly merry-go-round of revolution and counter-revolution.
Communism was overthrown by life, by thought, by human dignity. Our recent history has confirmed that the Californian-Czech professor is wrong. Likewise, those who still claim today that politics is chiefly the manipulation of power and public opinion, and that morality has no place in it, are just as wrong. Political intrigue is not real politics, and although you can get away with it for a time, it does not bring much hope of lasting success. Through intrigue one may easily become prime minister, but that will be the extent of one’s success: one can hardly improve the world that way.
Genuine politics, politics worthy of the name, and in any case the only politics that I am willing to devote myself to, is simply serving those close to oneself: serving the community, and serving those who come after us. Its deepest roots are moral because it is a responsibility, expressed through action, to and for the whole, a responsibility that is what it is—a “higher” responsibility, which grows out of a conscious or subconscious certainty that our death ends nothing, because everything is forever being recorded and evaluated somewhere else, somewhere “above us,” in what I have called “the memory of Being,” an integral aspect of the secret order of the cosmos, of nature, and of life, which believers call God and to whose judgment everything is liable. Genuine conscience and genuine responsibility are always, in the end, explicable only as an expression of the silent assumption that we are being observed “from above,” and that “up there” everything is visible, nothing is forgotten, and therefore earthly time has no power to wipe away the pangs brought on by earthly failure: our spirit knows that it is not the only one that knows of these failures.
If there is to be a minimum chance of success, there is only one way to strive for decency, reason, responsibility, sincerity, civility, and tolerance: and that is decently, reasonably, responsibly, sincerely, civilly, and tolerantly. I’m aware that in everyday politics this is not exactly a practical way of going about it. At the same time, however, I have one great advantage; among my many bad qualities there is one that is fortunately missing: a longing or a love for power. Not being bound by it, I am essentially freer than those who, when all is said and done, cling to their power or their position somewhat more, and this allows me to indulge in the luxury of behaving untactically.
I see the only way forward in that old, familiar injunction “to live in truth.” Journalists, and in particular foreign correspondents, often ask me how the idea of “living in truth,” the idea of “antipolitical politics” or the idea of politics subordinated to conscience can, in practice, be carried out. They are curious whether, finding myself in high office, I have not had to revise much of what I once wrote as an independent critic of politics and politicians. Have I not been compelled to lower my former “dissident” expectations of politics, by which they mean the standards I derived from the “dissident experience” and which are therefore scarcely applicable outside that sphere?
There may be some who won’t believe me, but after more than two years as president in a land full of the kind of problems that presidents in stable countries never even dream of, I can safely say that I have not been compelled to recant anything of what I wrote earlier, or to change my mind about anything. In fact, my opinions have been confirmed. Despite the political distress I face every day, I am still deeply convinced that politics is not essentially a disreputable business; and to the extent that it is, it is only disreputable people who make it so. I would concede, however, that it can, more than other spheres of human activity, tempt one to disreputable practices and that therefore it places higher demands on people. But it is simply not true that a politician must lie or intrigue. That is utter nonsense, very often spread about by people who—for whatever reasons—wish to discourage others from taking an interest in public affairs.
Of course in politics, as elsewhere in life, it is impossible and pointless to say everything, all at once, to just anyone. But that does not mean having to lie. What 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 important than a postgraduate degree in political science. It is essentially a matter of form: knowing how long to speak, when to begin and when to finish, how to say something politely that your opposite number might not want to hear, how to say, always, what is most essential in a given moment, and not to speak of what is not essential or uninteresting, how to insist on your own position without offending, how to create the kind of friendly atmosphere that makes complex negotiations easier, how to keep a conversation going without prying or, on the contrary, without being aloof, how to balance serious political themes with lighter, more relaxing topics, how to plan one’s journeys judiciously and how to know when it is more appropriate not to go somewhere, when to be open and when reticent, and to what degree.
But more than that, it means having a certain instinct for the time, the atmosphere of the time, the mood of people, the nature of their worries, their frame of mind—these too can perhaps be more important than sociological surveys. An education in political science, law, economics, history, and culture is an invaluable asset to every politician, but I am still persuaded, again and again, that it is not the most important asset. Qualities like fellow-feeling, the ability to talk to others, insight, the capacity to grasp quickly not only problems but also human character, the ability to make contact, a sense of moderation: all these are immensely more important in politics. I am not saying, heaven forbid, that I myself am endowed with these qualities; not at all! These are merely my observations.
To sum up: if your heart is in the right place and if you have good taste, not only will you pass muster in politics, you are destined for it. If you are modest and do not lust after power, not only are you not unsuitable for politics, you belong there. The sine qua non of a politician is not the ability to lie; he need only be sensitive and know when, to whom, what, and how to say what he has to say. It is not true that a person of principle does not belong in politics; it is enough for his principles to be leavened with patience, deliberation, a sense of proportion, and an understanding of others. It is not true that only the unfeeling cynic, the vain, the brash, and the vulgar can succeed in politics; all such people, it is true, are drawn to politics, but in the end, decorum and good taste will always count for more.
My experience and observations confirm that politics as the practice of morality is possible. I do not deny, however, that it is not always easy to go that route, nor have I ever claimed the opposite.
This is what I wrote (some months ago) when I tried to review the experience I had gained during my presidency. At that time I had no way of knowing that I would soon find that there were occasions when it was indeed difficult to go that route. Again fate played a joke on me: it punished me for my self-confident words by presenting me with an immensely difficult dilemma: what was I to do when a democratically elected parliament passed a bill which I did not consider morally proper, yet which our Constitution required me to sign.
It was a bill aimed at preventing those who had violated human rights in the past from holding offices in public administration. The public in my country find it hard to accept that in many offices they encounter the same people who were working there under the totalitarian regime. Their anger is justified and parliament’s desire to purge the public administration of these people is entirely legitimate. The problem is that the relevant legislation is based on the principle of collective responsibility; it prohibits certain persons from holding certain offices solely on the basis of their membership in certain groups defined by external characteristics, without giving them the right to have their cases considered individually. This runs counter to the basic principles of democratic law. The files kept by the now abolished secret police are made the highest, the final, the one and only criterion of eligibility. It is a necessary law, an extraordinary law, a rigorous law. Yet at the same time, from the viewpoint of fundamental human rights, it is a highly questionable law.
What was I to do in that situation?
Basically, there were two choices. The first was to do my duty, sign the bill, thus ratifying it, and then reconcile myself to my signature being on a paper with whose contents I could not fully agree. The second alternative was to simply refuse to sign the bill. In that case it would have become effective even without my signature and I would have found myself in open conflict with our parliament, thus precipitating a political crisis and aggravating still further the rather unstable situation in my country. It would have been a typically dissident-like, a morally pure yet immensely risky act of civil disobedience. My friends were divided on the matter, some advising me to sign, others to refuse.
In the end, I decided on a third option: I signed the bill, and proposed that parliament amend it. Under the Constitution, the parliament is obliged to consider my proposal, though not, of course, to accept it. Thus it may well happen that the bill, having become law, will be valid in its present wording, with my name on it, and that a number of people will be unfairly treated as a result.*
I do not know whether my solution was a good one. I do not know whether I have helped or harmed my fellow citizens. History can probably be the only judge to that. But I still believe that politics, in its very essence, does not necessarily require one to behave immorally. My latest experience, however, confirms the truth of something that, until some weeks ago, I did not really appreciate—that the way of truly moral politics is not simple, or easy.
—Translated from the Czech by Paul Wilson
April 9, 1992
Translator’s note: In October 1991 President Havel addressed a letter to the Federal Assembly (parliament), in which he criticized this “lustration” law on two grounds: that it contradicted the Charter of Human Rights which had been legislated into the Czechoslovak constitution, and that in some sections it is based on the principle of collective guilt. He asked the deputies to consider the letter as his initiative for introducing amendments to the law. As of mid-March, the Federal Assembly has not yet debated or discussed any amendment to the law, and several of the most important political parties have gone on record as rejecting any notion of introducing amendments. ↩