Václav Havel
Václav Havel; drawing by David Levine

Václav Havel, the courageous leading dissident in the years of Communist control of Czechoslovakia, and more recently president of that country, needs no introduction to the readers of The New York Review. His name has appeared on the pages of the Review in a number of capacities. Known originally primarily as a play-wright, Havel has always been a prolific and engaging writer. His literary output in later years has taken exclusively the form of essays, letters, and published interviews; and after his release from prison in 1983, several volumes of English translations of such materials saw publication, prior to the appearance of the volume here under review. 1

With very minor exceptions, the materials contained in those volumes were written during the Communist period of Czechoslovak history and reflected Havel’s preoccupation with the tremendous strains that rested upon his life and those of so many others in those tragic years. The volume to which this present discussion is devoted was written in the summer of 1991 and reviewed by the author in early 1992—that is, during his second presidency of that country, now terminated by his recent withdrawal.

It is the first such volume, therefore, to reflect the author’s reactions to the tremendous events, including prominently his own experiences, of the period of liberation. It speaks, however, for the depth and solidity of his thinking that this fundamental change in the political environment occasioned, and required, no significant revision of the convictions and principles that had inspired his earlier writings. These last were simply applied to the new situation; and they seem to have lost none of their relevance or their force in the process.

Leaving aside the first section of the book, entitled “Politics, Morality, and Civility” (which was placed last in the original Czech edition and will be given similar place here), the first material to meet the reader’s eye is the long section (the longest in the book) that deals, under the title “In a Time of Transition,” with the internal political problems of the Czechoslovak state as they presented themselves to Havel during his second presidency, when the book was written. Much of this section is devoted to constitutional problems. The present constitution, inherited from the Communist period, being plainly unsuitable for the present era, Havel, a strong opponent of proportional representation and advocate of the strengthening of the presidency, pressed hard, while president, for the early preparation of a new one. But this question soon became en-meshed with the problem (among others) of Slovak separatism; and pending a resolution of that problem, no serious progress in the constitutional question was possible.

This being the case, it was not surprising that a large portion of this first section of Havel’s book was addressed to the future of the Czech-Slovak relationship. And an agonizing matter this was for a man of Havel’s generous impulses, torn between a broad-minded sympathy and understanding for Slovak national feeling, on the one hand, and exasperation with the erratic and irresponsible behavior of Slovak politicians (and some of the Czech ones as well) in the official discussions of this bitter problem. It remained throughout his conviction, and one for which he offered a number of serious arguments, that a complete separation of the two peoples would be nothing but “a grave misfortune” for all concerned. And his reluctance to preside over a break-up of the country was apparently one of the principal reasons for his withdrawal from the presidential office.

There is a particularly tragic aspect to Havel’s helplessness in the face of this problem, for it is hard to believe that the Slovaks, whether independent or otherwise, will ever have a fairer, more tolerant, or more understanding chief of state than Václav Havel would have been at the head of a continuing Czechoslovakia. And indeed, this writer knows of no evidence that the majority of the Slovaks, if challenged by the sort of referendum Havel has urged, would favor a complete separation. But here is where the professional politicians come in. The drift toward separation appears to have been largely the product of their narrowness of concept and their tendency to play with words and slogans that would shore up their own positions. Things will no doubt continue to be this way.

Among Havel’s comments on this subject there were a few observations about politicians and politics that were clearly part of his general political philosophy and had a much wider relevance than to Czechoslovak problems alone. He did not challenge the usefulness or the necessity of the political party as such. He saw it as “an integral part of modern democracy and an expression of its plurality of opinion.” But he minced no words in expressing his impatience with what he calls “the dictatorship of partisanship,” which he defines as “the excessive influence of parties in the system of political power.” Political parties, he writes, can become “a shadow state within a state.” The loyalties they demand “can count for more than the will of the electorate.” Their pre-electoral maneuverings have a tendency to supersede society’s interests. Electors come to be governed by people they never elected. Political decisions come to be determined by the tactics and strategies of partisan competition. “A few months before the election,” he noted,


electoral politics are already dominating political life…. There are articles about partisan bickering, bragging and intrigue, predictions about who will join with whom and against whom, who will help (or harm) whose chances in the election, who might eventually shift support to whom, who is beholden to whom or falling out with whom. Politicians seem to be devoting more time to party politics than to their jobs. Not a single law is passed without a debate about how a particular stand might serve a party’s popularity. Ideas, no matter how absurd, are touted to gain favour with the electorate…. All this displaces a responsible interest in the prosperity and success of the broader community.

These views were written, of course, about conditions in Czechoslovakia; and this being a country in which, according to Havel’s translator, Paul Wilson, “forty parties, coalitions, and movements” were competing in the most recent election,2 they are not surprising. But no one who has been following pre-election developments in the United States will fail to note the wider connotations of Havel’s remarks. It is not hard to detect in them not only echoes of early Federalist anxieties about “factionalism” in the emerging American political system, but also something of the impatience with rampant partisanship that caused so many Americans to greet with sympathy and satisfaction Mr. Ross Perot’s strictures on the American political establishment of this day.

It is in fact a question whether Havel, in these observations, did not strike a chord that resonated with the public of a number of modern democracies. It would be hard, of course, to deny the vulnerability of modern democracy generally to domination by party machines and personalities in whose motivation for political involvement a devotion to the public interest is diluted, to put it mildly, by considerations of another and less admirable nature. It has been customary in the past for most Western peoples to accept this situation with a resigned shrug of the shoulders, as one of the prices for political freedom. But the years immediately ahead mark the passage not only of a century but of are age in Western civilization, and the advent of an age that is bound to place many new and unprecedented strains on the resources of modern democracy. What Havel has done, intentionally or otherwise, is to raise the question whether these developments do not call for adaptive changes in democratic systems, and whether, in particular, the democracies can continue to afford the luxury of leaving the great affairs of state so extensively dependent upon the outcome of struggles among political factions more immediately concerned with their own competitive fortunes than with the major problems of national interest. This comes out particularly clearly in his opposition to proportional representation, and in his feeling that the choices the common citizen should be asked and permitted to make in the election booth should be ones among individuals, not among parties.

The next section of Havel’s book, entitled “What I Believe,” is devoted primarily to questions of ideology, doctrine, dogma—whatever one wishes to call it. It places principal emphasis on his skepticism and aversion with relation to all schematic thinking of this nature. He firmly rejects what he describes as the Communist effort “to unite all economic entities under the authority of a single monstrous owner…one central voice of reason that deems itself more clever than life itself”; and he accepts without stint the basic necessity of a market economy. But he warns against making a dogma out of the attachment to the free market. The state, too, has its part to play; but this is limited to the establishment by legislation of the rules of the game, to making the usual “macroeconomic decisions,” and to formulating clear policies for all those situations in which government finds itself compelled to accept involvement. All this admittedly requires some sort of a master plan, or strategy, the aim of which should be the maximum gradual reduction of precisely this involvement, recognizing, of course, that its total elimination will never be possible.

The chapter “The Task of Independence,” which follows, is devoted to the foreign policy of the Czechoslovak state as it existed at the time of Havel’s writing (although there is no reason why most of it should not be applicable to the rump “Czech” state by which that older one will presumably be replaced). Not surprisingly, it is a moderate and thoroughly peaceable policy that Havel envisages. It is marked by an eagerness for association with the remainder of Europe through whatever international bodies, whether the European Community or the Council of Europe, or the CSCE, or even NATO, lend themselves to this relationship and this, then, in whatever ways seem possible and promising. Of all this it can only be said, with assurance, that a Europe concerned for its own peace and prosperity will encounter no obstacles in any Czechoslovak or rump Czech state dominated, as either of these would be likely to be, whether or not Havel is in the presidential office, by his ideas and personality.


In his observations on this subject, Havel could not avoid the effort to come to terms with one of the great overarching problems of the international life in the emerging age, which is the tension, everywhere, between the forces of integration and disintegration—this is a problem that embraces not only the restlessness of national minorities within the framework of a larger state but also the struggles of new and small states to find a middle ground between their overpowering longing for the trappings of sovereignty, on the one hand, and the obvious fact, on the other hand, of a degree of real dependence on outside forces that make a mockery of all strivings for total independence. Underlying this entire problem is of course the lack of a suitable intermediary status between that of complete formal subservience of a minority within a larger state, and, on the other hand, its total (but unreal) independence and equality with all other states as a member of the universal UN community. What Havel has to say about Czechoslovakia’s relationship to these problems is thoughtful and sensible; but no more than anyone else is he in a position to come up with sweeping and universally applicable and acceptable answers to this most baffling and recalcitrant of contemporary world problems.

The chapter entitled “Beyond the Shock of Freedom” sets forth Havel’s vision—a dream he calls it—of Czechoslovakia as he would hope to see it one or two decades hence. The text of this chapter having appeared in somewhat different form in The New York Review of June 25, 1992, under the title “My Dream for Czechoslovakia,” there is no need for a recounting of its many features at this point. Suffice it to note that Havel would be the first to deny that what he is presenting is a plausible utopia. He is well aware that his dream could never be realized in its totality:

A heaven on earth in which people all love each other and everyone is hard-working, well-mannered, and virtuous, in which the land flourishes and everything is sweetness and light, working harmoniously to the satisfaction of God: this will never be. On the contrary, the world has had the worst experiences with utopian thinkers who promised all that. Evil will remain with us, no one will ever eliminate human suffering, the political arena will always attract irresponsible and ambitious adventurers and charlatans. And man will not stop destroying the world. In this regard, I have no illusions.

But all great statesmanship, as Martin Luther King suggested, must begin with some sort of a dream; and the one Havel describes—the dream of a small people with limited resources that has nevertheless come to terms with its international entourage, its natural environment, and itself—is so far ahead of most of the dreams that have inspired statesmanship in this brutal century that the reader can only acknowledge his respect for the dreamer, even if this means sharing the wistfulness that inspired the dream.

In the first chapter of this book (which I, like the original Czech publisher, have reserved for the end of this discussion) Havel sets forth and defends his effort to move his country, despite the many obstacles that lie across the path, in the direction of his dream. Of the difficulty of the task he has no illusions. He is aware, as few others could be, of the damage done to the moral fabric of Czechoslovak society by decades of Communist abuse. He had made this clear in his earlier writings. But the reality, as observable in the years since the liberation, exceeded his worst fears. What followed upon the removal of the heavy Communist hand was “an enormous and dazzling explosion of every imaginable human vice.” Society had indeed freed itself; but in some ways it was behaving “worse than when it was in chains”; and it would take years to develop and cultivate a new moral order.

This, however, in Havel’s view, was no cause for despair. “The only lost cause is one we give up on before we enter the struggle.” And he had no doubt that the people at large would be responsive to his effort to create that new order. There was among them a dormant good will that needed only to be touched—that longed in fact to be recognized and cultivated. Nor was there any need for cynicism or deception in the approach to them. Politics was not essentially a disreputable business. There was no ultimate conflict between morality and successful political leadership. Politics as the practice of morality was not easy; but it was possible.

In this moving affirmation of confidence in the decency, the good will, and the latent responsiveness of the common man to responsible leadership there was bound to be, one might suppose, even in a man as little given to outward piety as Havel, a touch of something very close to a religious faith, guarded and undemonstrative, if you will, but none the less sincere. “Our death,” he wrote,

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 judgement everything is subject. Genuine conscience and genuine responsibility are always, in the end, explicable only as an expression of the silent assumption that we are observed “from above,” that everything is visible, nothing is forgotten, and so earthly time has no power to wipe away the sharp disappointments of earthly failure: our spirit knows that it is not the only entity aware of these failures.

Havel denies being a philosopher. He describes himself, instead, as “only an occasional essayist or a philosophically inclined literary man.” But what emerges from these pages is a remarkably integral view, and a strongly held one, of many things. And it is surely rare for the president of a modern country, while still in office, to offer to the public so unsparing an exposure of what one can only call his political and personal philosophy. And what is even more striking still is the elevated quality, morally and intellectually, of the philosophy that emerges from this effort. If we look for its origins, we find that they were forged and tempered in the grueling experience of his long personal conflict with a Communist regime (an experience that included some four years in prison), and in his persistent effort to understand both that regime and his own people’s reaction to it.

Is there not, one wonders, a lesson in this? How much more comfortable and easy it was, by comparison, for the leaders of Western societies never touched by the Communist hand to concentrate their heavy-lidded gaze exclusively on the material aspects of modern life—such things as economic growth, unemployment, budgetary problems—and to leave the moral condition of society to the public schools, the churches, the commercially dominated mass media. But can this, one asks, go on? Will there not have to be a more determined and structured effort to confront young people with the seriousness of life and its problems, and with the full measure of their responsibility for responding to it, if they are to meet the coming age head-on? These, in any case, are the questions with which at least one reader puts down Havel’s book; and they suggest that in the writing of it he was serving purposes wider than those of which he was aware.

One cannot leave this subject without a word of recognition for the quality of Paul Wilson’s translation. Wilson has been translating Havel’s books for several years, and the intimate acquaintance with Havel’s thought that this engendered has no doubt been uniquely helpful to him in finding the proper terms for its rendition in another language. The reader, in any case, is grateful for a text of such fluency and naturalness that he is allowed to forget that it is a translation.

This Issue

September 24, 1992