Imagine a theater critic who is suddenly hauled up from the stalls to act in the play he meant to review. What should he do then? Write the review without mentioning his own part? Appraise his own performance? This is the strange dilemma in which I find myself as I sit down to write this essay. Yet it is a dilemma curiously appropriate to the subject, as will, I trust, emerge. Let me explain.

Earlier this year I received a letter informing me that I had been elected an honorary member of Czech PEN, in gratitude for what I had done for Czech writers in the years up to 1989. I was touched by the gesture. The letter also invited me to attend the 61st World Congress of International PEN, which would be held in Prague in November.

Now there is a great deal to be said against attending any international congress of writers, anywhere, any time. But Prague is a city where writers and intellectuals, especially the numerous banned writers and intellectuals, published only in samizdat or the West, had a singular importance up to 1989. This occasion would take place five years to the month after the “revolution of the Magic Lantern,” which I described at the time in these pages.1 That had catapulted many of them quite unexpectedly into positions of power, which some retain but others have in the meantime left or lost. Those characteristic post-Communist mutations, dilemmas, and ironies are concentrated—almost as in an archetype—in the person of the writer-president Václav Havel. All this, I thought, might make this particular writers’ congress more than usually interesting.

It did.


On the plane out, I looked back through my notebooks from the heady days of November 1989 in the Magic Lantern theater, and recalled the leading actors in the play then directed by, and starring, Václav Havel. Among my visiting cards I found one given me in the Magic Lantern by someone who, at the time, had only a minor part—as an economist prized for his professional expertise by the writers, philosophers, journalists, and historians then leading the Civic Forum. I have the card before me as I write. Actually nothing more than a typewritten slip of paper, it reads: “Dr. Václav Klaus, Head of Department for Macroeconomic Analysis, Institute for Forecasting, Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences.”

In Prague I soon found that the position of intellectuals was very much a live subject, and one that, like so many others in the Czech lands today, had come to be politicized around the, so to speak, magnetic polarity between the two Václavs, now better known as President Havel and Prime Minister Klaus. Havel was understood to be calling for the voice of independent intellectuals to be heard more clearly, enriching the country’s political debate. Klaus, the intellectual anti-intellectual, was heard to be skeptical of this notion, both on general grounds and because Havel was for it.

I talked briefly to the prime minister in the days before the PEN congress opened. Dr. Klaus received me in his tastefully appointed office, its walls decorated with framed honorary doctorates, prizes, and photographs of himself with very important persons. In the course of an interesting conversation, mainly about Europe, he thrust into my hands a selection of his lectures and speeches from the last three years, which he had got his office to type up, photocopy, and bind. This collector’s item of, as it were, prime ministerial samizdat—entitled Dismantling Socialism: An Interim Report—well documents his characteristic mixture of sharp economic analysis and bold political salesmanship. Helpfully, he pointed out the best pieces.

The PEN congress itself was opened by President Havel. Welcoming his fellow writers from around the world “first and foremost as a colleague… and only secondarily as a representative of the Czech Republic” he went on to express the hope that our presence would “introduce important spiritual and intellectual stimuli into this sometimes too materialistic and somewhat provincial setting….” Intellectuals, he argued, have a responsibility to engage in “politics in the broadest sense of the word.” And not just in the broadest sense:

I once asked a friend of mine, a wonderful man and a wonderful writer, to fill a certain political post. He refused, arguing that someone had to remain independent. I replied that if you all said that, it could happen that in the end, no one will be independent, because there won’t be anyone around to make that independence possible and stand behind it.

However: “I am not suggesting, dear colleagues, that you all become presidents in your own countries, or that each of you go out and start a political party.” But we should, he suggested,

gradually begin to create something like a worldwide lobby, a special brotherhood or, if I may use the word, a somewhat conspiratorial mafia, whose aim is not just to write marvelous books or occasional manifestoes but to have an impact on politics and its human perceptions in a spirit of solidarity, and in a coordinated, deliberate way…

“Politicians, at least the wiser ones,” he continued, “will not reject such activity but, on the contrary, will welcome it. I, for instance, would welcome hearing, in this country, a really strong and eloquent voice coming from my colleagues, one that could not be ignored no matter how critical it might be, a voice that did more than merely grumble, or engage in esoteric reflection, but became a clear public and political fact.” He then concluded with an eloquent appeal for us all to stand up for Salman Rushdie, for Wole Soyinka, and for Bosnian intellectuals.


Emboldened by this speech, the assembled PEN delegates could begin their usual round of reports, resolutions, and the all-important business of supporting persecuted and imprisoned writers—work in which Czech writers who had themselves long been persecuted or imprisoned could now join. But you could see at once (though I’m not sure how many of the international PEN delegates did see at once) that Havel’s speech was as much addressed to the domestic audience. And it was a blow—a pen-thrust—at Klaus, whom Czech readers, radio listeners, or television viewers would immediately understand not to be among those “wiser” politicians who would welcome independent intellectual criticism.

Indeed, that very day Czech readers could find in the newspaper Lidové Noviny a column by Václav Klaus rejecting, in the name of liberalism, the demand recently made by a group of intellectuals that the showing of violence on television be regulated by the state. President Havel had come out in support of the intellectuals’ petition.

In the evening, the prime minister, who as a regular newspaper columnist and essayist is himself a member of Czech PEN, gave a reception for the PEN delegates. His speech of welcome was also in part an answer to Havel’s welcome speech in the morning, thus producing further symptoms of slight bafflement among those delegates who thought they were just attending a writers congress. As we left the reception, officials distributed free copies of two books (in Czech) by Václav Klaus, almost as if to say: “Look, he writes books too!” One of the books is called Why Am I a Conservative?, 2 and begins with a glowing tribute to Margaret Thatcher, entitled “Inspiration.”

The next day there was a panel discussion on the very general theme of “intellectuals, government policy and tolerance” in a large hall at the foreign ministry. The most prominent panelist was none other than the writer-premier Václav Klaus. He was joined on the platform by the Hungarian essayist György Konrád (himself a former president of International PEN, and someone who has written extensively on the role of intellectuals), the Czech novelist Ivan Klíma, writers from Germany, Sweden, and Turkey, and myself. Extracts from the discussion were to be broadcast on Czech television. Good press coverage for the prime minister among these intellectuals would no doubt (albeit marginally) enhance his public image, which might be useful in the imminent local government elections. In fact, the prime minister was going straight from this discussion to campaign for his party in the provinces.

Before the discussion we were handed copies of an essay on tolerance, nicely printed in five languages. And who was the essay by? Comenius? John Locke? Voltaire? No, by Václav Klaus. That philosopher of tolerance then opened the discussion with a remarkable short statement in which he announced that in a free country, such as the Czech Republic had now become, the distinction between “dependent” and “independent” intellectuals no longer had any real importance. Some intellectuals were in politics, others not. Expert advice was always welcome. But it made no sense to speak any more about a special role for “independent” intellectuals.

Now the critic was hauled on stage. For this sally could not go unanswered. I began my reply by saying that it was both appropriate and moving to discuss the subject of “intellectuals, government policy, and tolerance” in Prague, where, for twenty-one long years, from the Soviet invasion of 1968 until the Velvet Revolution, some individual Czechs—and Slovaks—had given us a shining example of what intellectuals can do in opposition to a repressive state. The names of Jan Patocka and Václav Havel must stand for many, many more whom I would like to name.

Five years on, however, we happily find ourselves in very different times in Central Europe. What was the role of intellectuals now? I argued, against Klaus, that independence is a crucial attribute of what it should mean to be an intellectual. Not just in a dictatorship but precisely in a liberal, democratic state, independent intellectuals have a crucial role to play.


There should be, I suggested, a necessarily adversarial (but not necessarily hostile) relationship between the independent intellectual and the professional politician. The intellectual’s job is to seek the truth, and then to present it as fully and clearly and interestingly as possible. The politician’s job is to work in half-truth. The very word party implies partial, one-sided. (The Czech word for party, strana, meaning literally “side,” says it even more clearly.) Of course, the opposition parties then present the other side, the other half of the truth. But this is one of those strange cases where two halves don’t make a whole.

The position of a non-executive president or constitutional monarch may, I noted, be a partial exception to this rule. Such a person, standing above party politics, may contribute to setting certain higher intellectual or moral standards in public life. But as a rule there is a necessary and healthy division of labor in a liberal state between independent intellectuals and professional politicians. Arguably this is as important as the formal separation of powers between executive, legislature, and judiciary. It is part of the larger and all-important creative tension between the state and civil society.

Having made my main point about “intellectuals,” I commented briefly on the other words in the theme PEN asked us to discuss: “government policy and tolerance.” The liberal state—but mainly the legislature and the judiciary rather than the executive branch of government—may sometimes have to limit the freedom of the enemies of freedom. If, say, a private television channel were to mix popular light entertainment with consistent advocacy of the extermination of gypsies, a liberal state should stop it being used for that purpose. If a writer is threatened from abroad with assassination, like Salman Rushdie, the government has a duty to protect him.

Beyond this, however, the contribution of politicians in power to “tolerance” lies less in specific acts or policies than in a certain attitude and style of political conduct. No politician likes being criticized. Mrs. Thatcher would often complain about “the media.” Her current epigones blame “the chattering classes,” which, I noted, is the current English phrase for intellectuals. Yet the closer the politicians can stick to the attitude summed up in the famous phrase “I do not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,” the more secure freedom will be. This, I suggested, is where the business of PEN and the business of prime ministers meet.

Now if these thoughts were expressed around a seminar table at Harvard or Oxford they might be questioned for their simplicity or banality, but they would hardly be thought provocative.3 Here, with the Czech television cameras rolling and the famously arrogant prime minister locked in this strange intellectual-political wrestling match with his own president, they were accounted so.

Dr. Klaus was not amused by my comments. He wanted to reply immediately. He sat fuming while our strong-minded American chairwoman let all the other panelists have their turn. Then he let go. In his essay on tolerance, he had written: “The responsibility of a tolerant person is to listen attentively to others and to attempt to understand what they are saying.” This was not my experience of Dr. Klaus. Instead, I found him a sharp political debater, happy to twist an argument in order to score a point. But then, what else would you expect of a politician sitting in front of TV cameras at the beginning of an election campaign?

Yet by behaving in this way, he actually made my point far more effectively than I could myself. If he had listened attentively and then calmly made a reasoned argument in response to mine, he would have brilliantly illustrated his own proposition that there is no fundamental difference or clear dividing line between the roles of independent intellectual and professional politician. Here he would have been: a professional politician, yet arguing as an intellectual among intellectuals….

But instead, he began by exclaiming, in his peculiarly effective tone of aggressive exasperation, that he found what I had said “incredible.” He knows me as an intellectual, an essayist, he said, but I had just delivered a “political speech.” But here again he was, in a backhanded way, making my point. For the criticism only has meaning if there is, indeed, a fundamental difference between an intellectual speech and a political speech, between the way intellectuals use words and the way politicians do.

He went on to say that there is nothing worse than an intellectual delivering a political speech. Politicians may not like to be criticized, he observed, but do intellectuals? And he also found “incredible” my observation that politicians “live in half-truth.” This was a rather revealing misquotation, since one of the most famous leit-motifs in the whole Central European debate about intellectuals and politics is Václav Havel’s pre–1989 formula: “living in truth.” But what I said was that politicians work in half-truth. 4 The phrase characterizes the professional party politician’s job, not his life.

No politician worthy of the name will seriously maintain in private that what he said in a public, party-political speech is the whole truth on a particular issue. It may possibly have been the truth; it might even have been nothing but the truth; but it is most unlikely to have been the whole truth—or he will not be a very effective party politician. Every time a politician says to a journalist “off the record…” he is recognizing this elementary fact about his profession. Off the record, Václav Klaus would doubtless acknowledge this.

Here I need to explicate two issues which were not clarified in the subsequent discussion—partly, I would have to add as a critic, through my own fault. Both were raised by Ivan Klíma, in interventions which effectively supported his prime minister. First, Klíma objected to what he saw as the implication that intellectuals are morally superior to politicians, or somehow possessed of “truth” with a capital T. We have heard too much of these claims, especially in Central Europe, suggested Klíma, in a discussion which we had earlier begun and subsequently continued in private.

Look what a mess intellectuals in power have made of things! Look at the damage done by their utopias! And look what monsters they have been in their private lives! In which connection he quoted Paul Johnson’s book Intellectuals. The charge about private lives is probably the least pertinent. But there is much in the rest of the indictment. Intellectuals obviously do bear a heavy load of responsibility as architects or accomplices of some of the greatest political crimes of the twentieth century. As George Orwell caustically observed of fellow-traveling intellectuals: “No ordinary man could be such a fool.”

Yet I am not making any such high moral, let alone ideological or metaphysical, claim for intellectuals. Many politicians are no doubt better people than many intellectuals. They may also be more intelligent, better read, more cultured. My argument is only that they have, and should have, a different role, which is reflected, crucially, in a different use of language. If a politician gives a partial, one-sided, indeed self-censored account of a particular issue, he is simply doing his job. And if he manages to “sell” the part as the whole then he is doing his job effectively.

If an intellectual does that, he is not doing his job; he has failed in it. The intellectual is not the guardian or high priest of some metaphysical, ideological or pseudo-scientific Truth with a capital T. Nor is he simply the voice of Gesinnungsethik (the ethics of conviction) against the Verantwortungsethik (the ethics of responsibility) of the politician, to use Max Weber’s famous distinction. But he does have a qualitatively different responsibility for the validity, intellectual coherence, and truth of what he says and writes.

I therefore have an answer to the second question which Ivan Klíma injected into the discussion: “What do you mean by an intellectual?” What I mean is a person playing a particular role. It is the role of the thinker or writer who engages in public discussion of issues of public policy, in politics in the broadest sense, while deliberately not engaging in the pursuit of political power.

I certainly don’t mean all members of the “intelligentsia” in the broad sociological definition of “intelligentsia” officially adopted in Communist Eastern Europe; that is, everyone with higher education. Nor do I mean the “intellectuals on the road to class power” of György Konrád and Ivan Szelényi’s book of 1974;5 or the pre–1989 Václav Klaus, an employee of the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences under President Husák. These were all intellectuals, but in a different sense.

My description of the intellectual’s role, which is both a Weberian ideal type and simply an ideal, certainly has more in common with the self-understanding of the opposition intellectuals in Central and Eastern Europe before 1989; of the pre–1989 Václav Havel (who barely qualified as an “intellectual” in Communist sociology, since he had scant formal higher education and for a time did manual labor); of the patriotic Polish, Czech, or Hungarian “intelligentsia”; in their idealistic, pre- and anti-Communist interpretation of their own role. Yet it differs also fundamentally from this. In the “abnormal” conditions which have actually been normality for much of Central Europe over much of the last two centuries, intellectuals have been called upon, or have felt themselves called upon, to take roles that they did not take in the West. The conscience of the nation. The voice of the oppressed. The writer as priest, prophet, resistance fighter, and substitute politician.

Since the liberation of 1989, all these extra roles have fallen away, with stunning rapidity. This is healthy and long overdue. As Brecht’s Galileo exclaims: Unhappy the land that has need of heroes. The role of the intellectual as critic of a democratically elected government cannot be equated with that of the intellectual as leader of the opposition against an alien, totalitarian power. But I am deeply convinced that Hans Morgenthau expressed a universal and not a particular truth when he observed: Truth threatens power and power threatens truth. That applies not just to totalitarian or authoritarian power, as described in Václav Havel’s great essay “The Power of the Powerless,” but also, albeit to a lesser degree, to democratically elected and constitutionally limited power.

Now obviously, this ideal of the intellectual has never fully been achieved. Indeed, as the twentieth century closes, the catalog of the trahison des clercs is a thick volume; the list of those who preserved real independence is a thin one. In our own free societies, we see examples of journalists who have been corrupted by the proximity to power. Academic readers of The New York Review will perhaps know, in their own universities, scholars who have politically trimmed their analyses, or at least their conclusions, in the hope of following Kissinger or Brzezinski to a job in Washington. But to say that an ideal has never been fully achieved is merely to say that it is an ideal.

We have Orwell. We have Raymond Aron. We have other writers, academics, and journalists who have maintained a high standard of intellectual independence while engaging in political debate. Even in a free society, there is still an important part to be played by the spectateur engagé. By the critic on stage.


And by the playwright on stage? Václav Havel was, of course, the invisible panelist in our discussion. Klaus certainly interpreted much of what I said in the light of his running argument with Havel. Doubtless many Czech listeners did. And from what I have written so far you might also think that I was, so to speak, taking Havel’s part—breaking a lance for Václav I against Václav II. That would be a misunderstanding. It is wholly true that I feel strong ties of admiration and friendship with Václav Havel. It will also be clear that I think he is right to argue that independent intellectuals should take an active part in the public life of a democracy.

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 Tomáš Garrigue 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.

I have quoted what Havel has to say on this subject at some length, because his reflections are always interesting, but also because only through extensive quotation does a problem become apparent. The problem is that what he has to say is often vague and confused, and this analytical confusion reflects a deeper confusion about his own role.

In his PEN speech, for example, he confuses the intellectual’s engagement in politics in the broader sense (that is, without being directly involved in the pursuit of power or office) and in the narrower sense (the anecdote about urging his writer friend to take office). But, as I argued against Klaus, the distinction is very important.

The argument in the Copenhagen speech is also confused. Is he saying that politics is or is not a dirty business? If it isn’t a dirty business then why should it require exceptionally “pure” people to get involved without being corrupted? Anyway, why should we imagine that intellectuals are any better equipped to resist the temptations of power, to remain decent, upright, uncorrupted, than ordinary mortals? One might well argue, with Ivan Klíma, quite the contrary: the record of intellectuals in power in the twentieth century suggests that they are among the least likely to resist the insidious poison, precisely because they are most able to rationalize, intellectualize, or philosophically justify their own submission or corruption by referring to higher goals or values. Orwell’s faith in “ordinary men” may also be misplaced, but the history of Europe in the twentieth century gives us no grounds for believing that intellectuals will do any better.

The argument about the irresponsibility of not taking political responsibility is also a highly questionable projection from the very particular situation of post-Communist Central Europe, and specifically of V. Havel, to the general one. Of course, in the unique situation of 1989, in countries where the only alternative to the nomenklatura was a new political elite drawn largely from the ranks of more or less independent intellectuals, it would have been shirking responsibility not to take office.

“Someone had to” is, for the year 1990, an entirely valid observation. But even then it could be the polite and, as it were, PC (or, rather, MC—Morally Correct) guise for personal ambition. Lech Walesa’s “nie chce, ale musze” (“I don’t want to, but I must”) has become proverbial in Poland. In any case, this is the particular problem of a particular historical moment. As a new class of professional politicians emerges, there is no reason at all why those intellectuals who do not feel comfortable in professional politics—with its different rules of play, its different way with words—should not return to their desks, laboratories, or studios.

Then there is Havel’s powerful argument about the need to change consciousness. But why need intellectuals be in politics in order to change the consciousness of their own societies or a wider world? To be sure, it is good to have politicians with a larger vision. In conversation Havel mentions the examples of De Gaulle. Adenauer, and Churchill. But if the point is to change consciousness, then the classics of the samizdat reading list—Orwell, Hayek, Popper, and, of course, Havel—have done as much or more. You don’t have to be a president or a prime minister to change consciousness. In fact, you may stand a rather better chance if you’re not.

There remains the general claim about introducing a new moral, intellectual, and spiritual dimension into our routinized, specialized, unimaginative party politics: a “new wind,” to recall Havel’s own simile. At this point, at the latest, one has to turn from the writing to the man. For Havel now differs fundamentally from most writers or philosophers in that the test case of the truth of the propositions he is advancing is himself. As he constantly points out, the test of what Václav Havel argues in these speeches is what Václav Havel does as president (which is, of course, now mainly to give speeches).


So how far has he achieved the very high goal that he set himself five years ago? Particularly in his first two years as President of Czechoslovakia, the achievement was immense. Through his words and deeds, he both preached and practiced a resolute and morally sensitive moderation, civility, tolerance, and decency which contributed a huge amount to the peaceful, civilized nature of the transition from communism in Czechoslovakia. There was nothing inevitable about this. Were it not for him, it could have been much messier, dirtier, even bloody. Beyond that, he has been an extraordinary and much needed voice in Europe, and beyond. While the response of West European leaders to what happened five years ago was woefully inadequate, while they fiddled in Maastricht as Yugoslavia began to burn, he has constantly and eloquently reminded us of the larger historical dimensions of what has happened in Europe, and—if one can say this without too much pathos—of our duty.

Of course he did not become Plato’s philosopher-king, or even, to take the obvious comparison, a second Masaryk. At times he does seem to hold the peculiar Masarykian belief which Ernest Gellner ironically sums up as “No State Formation without Philosophic Justification.” But he is not a systematic philosopher, and 1989 was not 1918. Yet measured by any but the vertiginous standards he has set himself, the first two years of the playwright-king would be accounted a remarkable success.

Since then, however, and especially since his abdication in 1992 and his return as Czech president in 1993, it has been, to say the least, a more mixed picture. There are many reasons for this, but the one most relevant here is his refusal to choose between the roles of intellectual and politician.

If, when the Civic Forum broke up on the initiative of Václav Klaus in 1991, Havel had allowed himself to be clearly identified with the remaining movement, or some new political movement, or even—perish the thought—a political party, he would certainly have stretched the terms of his office, but he might also have had a real political power base as well as his own charisma and popularity. As it was, he refused to engage in those normal, partisan (and often dirty) politics. His power slipped away. Up came Václav II, on whose reluctant sufferance he was, in a quite humiliating way, elected Czech president in 1993, with very limited powers. Havel himself recalls with anger how members of the Czech parliament openly ignored him, reading newspapers or chatting, while he addressed them. Wryly, but with more than a touch of bitterness, he mutters, in English, the word “clown.”

Yet at the same time, his image and voice as an intellectual have become blurred. It’s not just the suits and ties (which he says he still feels uncomfortable in), the ceremonial duties and the compromises, such as that on the lustration law. It’s not just the privileged isolation from ordinary life, the life in a velvet cage which he describes so vividly in his Copenhagen speech but which has nonetheless alienated many former close associates and friends.

All that apart, there is simply the plain fact that a president’s speeches are not a writer’s essays. Text and context interact in a different and much less favorable way. Life contradicts art.

Even the outward form of Toward a Civil Society somehow speaks to us of the blurring of the voice that comes from the confusion of roles. The copyright page tells us this book is published with financial assistance from the Czech foreign ministry. Does a book by Havel really need a subsidy to be published? It comes with jacket endorsements from Zbigniew Brzezinski, Eduard Shevardnadze, and one Thomas Klestil, who, readers may like to know, is the president of Austria. Does Havel really need to be puffed by a Klestil? The cover photograph shows a man in a pin-striped suit and tie speaking in front of the yellow-stars-on-blue background of the Council of Europe and the EU. In other words, this book looks just like a professional politician’s piece of government-subsidized vanity publishing—which, of course, it definitely is not. But it looks like it.

“The strongest poison ever known came from Caesar’s laurel crown,” wrote Blake. I do not believe that Václav Havel has been poisoned by power in any normal sense. If mildly infected at all, it is in the rather unusual form of being, so to speak, aesthetically enamored of the theater of high politics—which, as he is the first to point out, is even more the theater of the absurd than the most absurdist of his own plays.

Earlier this year I heard him give a brilliantly funny description of the stage management of President Clinton’s visit to Prague, and, in particular, of his visit with Clinton to a typical Prague pub with a typical gathering of typical locals—all carefully identified by the American embassy beforehand, and including the writer Bohumil Hrabal. It was a wonderful foretaste of the book he might write when he ceases to be president. But I must admit that for a moment I did find myself uneasily wondering what the dissident writer Václav Havel would have made of such a stage-managed scene, what subtle lessons he would have drawn about the alienation of the powerful.

Probably the shortest and best retort ever made to Plato’s vision of the philosopher-king is Kant’s remark that for philosophers to become kings is neither desirable nor possible because “the possession of power unavoidably spoils the free use of reason” (weil der Besitz der Gewalt das freie Urteil der Vernunft unvermeidlich verdirbt). Havel’s case is an interesting variation on this eternal truth, because it seems to me that the greater threat to his free use of reason may actually be the relative loss of power he has experienced since 1992, a loss which Václav Klaus misses no occasion to rub in. Havel is now fighting to regain some of the lost power, staking out his own political agenda in a series of speeches stressing the importance of education, local government, civic engagement, and so on. He now even seems prepared, at least on some issues, to be a focus for opposition to Klaus, an opposition which is to be found not least within the prime minister’s own governing coalition. But to use his “spoken essays” in this instrumental way would seem to be a departure from the standards he has set himself—and simply a sad come-down from his position five years ago.

Anyway, this is not a French-style cohabitation, where an executive president with great powers can, as it were, win the political battle. Havel’s present constitutional position as non-executive president is more comparable with that of the president of the Federal Republic of Germany, an office held, until recently, by a man whom he much admires, Richard von Weizsäcker. In fact, in Summer Meditations Havel wrote that in his dream vision of (as he then still hoped) Czechoslovakia: “At the head of the state will be a gray-haired Professor with the charm of a Richard von Weizsäcker.” And as I read Havel’s speeches, especially the more recent ones, I notice some similarities—not least in a small but revealing feature of the prose. The most characteristic feature of President von Weizsäcker’s style was the rhetorical question. “Of course my office only permits me to ask questions,” he would say, before launching a series of rhetorical questions which added up to an extremely clear statement of his own views. Am I imagining things or is Havel increasingly using the same device?

One can take this particular comparison a stage further. It is an open secret that there was considerable tension between the patrician, Protestant, intellectual President von Weizsäcker and the provincial, Catholic, and less ostensibly intellectual Chancellor Kohl. In private, they could be quite rude about each other. In public, some of President von Weizsäcker’s elegant rhetorical questions could be understood as digs at the chancellor; some of the chancellor’s remarks could be interpreted as barbs in the other direction. But they certainly never descended to anything like the public Punch and Judy show which the Klaus-Havel duel has at times become, with everyone knowing who was the (unnamed) object of each elliptical speech; every occasion being interpreted in that light; and ordinary Czechs sometimes having the impression that if Havel came out in favor of eating spinach then Klaus would be sure to come out the next day against eating spinach. On impeccable neoliberal grounds, of course.

Instead, both Kohl and Weizsäcker scrupulously observed the constitutional proprieties and, at best, tried to turn their differences into complementarity rather than discord. The result was one of the most effective double-acts to lead any European state in recent history. It contributed very substantially to the peaceful achievement of German unity. If the Czech president and prime minister were to achieve such an (albeit uneasy) division of labor, it would doubtless be a great service to the Czech Republic, at home, in Europe, and in the wider world.

To be sure, this, so to speak, Weizsäcker role, would be some miles down from introducing into politics the new spiritual dimension which Havel dreamed, and perhaps still dreams, of introducing. Indeed, as the German example illustrates, in the wider European context it would not even be new. There is also a real question whether the ex-president of Czechoslovakia might not actually have a greater influence in Europe and the world today were he again able to speak with his own unique voice as an independent intellectual. But the die is cast. For another few years, at least, he will go on in the Castle, suffering up there for us; a living exemplar of the dilemmas of the intellectual in politics; condemned, like the central character in one of his own plays, to play out a role which he feels is not truly his own; and haunted and taunted by a slightly threatening character who even bears the same name. Such absurdist tricks the divine playwright plays.


With that somewhat Havelesque reflection, my Prague tale of intellectuals and politics is told, five years, almost to the day, after I told, also in these pages, the tale of the Magic Lantern. Now, as then, I have tried to tell the story as honestly as I can, at the risk of indiscretion and of causing offense. Are there any conclusions to be drawn, any lessons, even? There are, I think, possible implications for the Czech Republic, for the position of intellectuals in post-Communist Central Europe, and finally, and most tentatively, for the place of intellectuals in Europe altogether.

For the Czech Republic the immediate question is: Can the premier and the president possibly achieve the kind of moderately harmonious public relationship which Kohl and Weizsäcker achieved? Almost certainly not. Since this is a new democracy, the constitutional roles are not as clearly defined by law or by precedent. (Good fences make good neighbors.) The two have very different political views of the way the new Czech state should be built. Klaus, the Thatcherite, gives absolute priority to economic transformation, even at the cost of corruption and illegality on the way “Speed,” he says, “is more important than accuracy.” At times he seems inclined to Mrs. Thatcher’s view that “society does not exist.” Havel, whose politics, inasmuch as they can be defined at all in ordinary terms, are those of an ecologically minded social democrat, stresses the importance of culture, local government, civic participation, civil society.

Above all, though, it is the clash of personalities, and biographies. The Tale of Two Václavs is not simply that of the intellectual Havel versus the politician Klaus. To be sure, Havel is a more important intellectual and Klaus a more effective politician. But what makes it so difficult is precisely that both are intellectuals in politics, as the PEN episode nicely illustrated.

This is what makes the story at once unique and representative, for all over post-Communist Central Europe intellectuals are wrestling with similar dilemmas. Many who have gone into and remain in politics will find the dichotomy I present too sharp. The former dissident and former foreign minister Jirí Dienstbier, now the leader of a small opposition party, commented in a newspaper interview after our PEN discussion that while he agreed with my basic argument he did not feel that as a minister he had been working in half-truth. Those, now quite numerous, who after 1989 went into but are now again out of politics, will find it easier to accept such a clear dichotomy. Those who never ventured into politics will find it easier still. But they have their own problems.

The intelligentsia, one of the characteristic phenomena of modern Central and East European history, is now everywhere engulfed in sweeping change. This world of “circles of friends,” of milieux, where artists, philosophers, writers, economists, journalists all felt themselves to belong to the same group, and to be committed to a certain common ethos (albeit often honored in the breach), was something anachronistic in late twentieth-century Europe—but also something rich and fine. Its extraordinary character was summed up for me in a phrase that Ivan Klíma used in describing how he and his fellow writers had set out to revive the dormant Czech PEN club in 1989. “I was,” he said, “authorized by my circle of friends…” The peculiar world of the intelligentsia under communism was one in which you sought authorization from your circle of friends.9

Freedom has changed all that. With remarkable speed, the intelligentsia has fragmented into separate professions, as in the West: journalists, publishers, academics, actors, not to mention those who have become officials, lawyers, diplomats. The milieux have faded, the “circles of friends” have dispersed or lost their special significance. Those who have remained in purely “intellectual” professions—above all, academics—have found themselves impoverished. Moreover, it is the businessmen and entrepreneurs who are the tone-setting heroes of this time. Thus, from having an abnormal importance before 1989, independent intellectuals have plummeted to abnormal unimportance.

Yet to say that is to assume that we know what their “normal” importance would be. But do we? Is there any wider European normality in this respect, toward which post-Communist Central Europe might be either moving or contributing? In Britain the term “intellectual” is rarely used, being regarded as something continental and slightly pretentious. The recent coinage “Eurointellectuals” neatly combines both prejudices. Yet, as Lord Byron said of the word longueurs: though we have not the word, we have the thing in considerable profusion. And they exist on both left and right—although here, as elsewhere, the right tends to identify the very idea of “intellectuals” with the left.

In Germany, the days of the great public role of writers like Böll and Grass seem to be over. However, some of the country’s most interesting political debates are actually conducted by intellectuals, on the Feuilleton pages of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and in smaller journals. Yet here too you have the phenomenon of right-wing intellectuals denouncing “the intellectuals,” meaning left-wing intellectuals; in this case for their failure to welcome the unification of Germany.

In France there have been writers and thinkers identified and identifying themselves as “intellectuals,” at least since the time of the Dreyfus affair and the Manifeste des Intellectuels. Yet I doubt that anyone would today venture to write a Plaidoyer pour les intellectuels, as Sartre did in 1972. Partly, no doubt, out of an awareness of the awful misjudgments and moral failures of intellectuals in the twentieth century—and not least, French intellectuals, including, notably, Sartre. Partly because there are no obvious new utopias to be embraced—except utopian liberalism, which is a contradiction in terms. Partly, perhaps, because they are too busy appearing on television and generally competing in a crowded entertainment market.

Yet at the same time, there is, in all the major West European countries, a real crisis of popular confidence in the professional politicians, seen to be out-of-touch, self-interested careerists, tainted by corruption. The Italian debacle haunts us all.

In this sense, Havel’s call for a new spiritual and moral dimension to be introduced to politics might seem to be relevant, after all, for Western Europe. That was what many in Western Europe felt and hoped at the moment of the Magic Lantern five years ago. But the lesson is surely not that this is a time for intellectuals to enter politics, in the narrow sense of trying to become prime ministers or presidents. No, this is a time for intellectuals to be both resolutely independent and politically engaged—which means, among other things, criticizing prime ministers and presidents. Politely, of course. Constructively, wherever possible. But above all, clearly.

This Issue

January 12, 1995

  1. 1

    See my “The Revolution of the Magic Lantern, The New York Review, January 18, 1990, and The Magic Lantern (Random House, 1990). 

  2. 2

    Václav Klaus, Proc jsem konzervativcem? (Prague: TOP Agency, 1992). 

  3. 3

    A very useful exploration of this subject, partly inspired by Havel’s earlier writings, is Ian MacLean, Alan Montefiore, and Peter Winch, editors, The Political Responsibility of Intellectuals (Cambridge University Press, 1990). 

  4. 4

    I first used this phrase in an article in The New York Review, August 16, 1990. 

  5. 5

    Published in English as George Konrád and Ivan Szelényi, The Intellectuals on the Road to Class Power (Harcourt Brace, 1979), Szeleny notes in his introduction that the manuscript was completed in 1974. 

  6. 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). 

  7. 7

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

  8. 8

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

  9. 9

    The sequel is amusing. After being instrumental in reactivating the PEN club, Klíma was summoned for interrogation by the security police. Their main concern was that Václav Havel should not become president of Czech PEN. Three months later he was president of Czechoslovakia.