Havel, the dissident playwright who vaulted from a communist jail cell to the presidency of Czechoslovakia in just a few months during the “Velvet Revolution” of 1989 and who died on Sunday, also criticized the nominally democratic West.
Havel repeatedly argued that the crisis facing the Soviet bloc was an extreme version of the crisis facing the entire modern world. In his 1984 essay “Politics and Conscience,” he wrote, “No error could be greater than the one looming largest: that of a failure to understand the totalitarian systems for what they ultimately are — a convex mirror of all modern civilization and a harsh, perhaps final, call for a global recasting of how that civilization understands itself.”
Havel’s body of literary work — including absurdist plays, essays on dissent, letters from prison, presidential speeches as well as a political memoir — have been understood far too selectively. While he did correctly diagnose the problems of Soviet totalitarianism, he also argued with remarkable lucidity that the real problem was not politics, but the dehumanization of people across the entire globe. He said the zeal in Western societies to oppose communism was like that of an ugly person attempting to smash a mirrored reflection.
In his famous 1978 essay, “The Power of the Powerless,” Havel asked whether or not Central European totalitarian regimes “in fact stand ... as a kind of warning to the West, revealing to it its own latent tendencies.”
Under a totalitarian regime, dehumanization took the form of subjugating the needs of human beings and the environment to the demands of ideology and a command economy, reinforced by clumsy, overt political repression. In the West today, it takes the form of subjugating those same human and environmental needs to the demands of an ideology and a free market economy that require ever higher levels of profit and consumerism — reinforced, alas, by increasing levels of clumsy, overt political repression, though nowhere near Soviet levels.
The relevance of Havel’s analysis of totalitarian repression for the post-Cold War world can be seen across the world today, from the movement that has come to be known as the Arab Spring to our own Occupy Wall Street and its offshoots.
In Havel’s view, dissent is not so much a political phenomenon as it is a matter of asserting human identity and the human spirit in defiance of systems that trample or ignore it.
It is not difficult to read the events of 2011 as the playing out of Havel’s prophetic observations.
As we honor Havel as the great moral thinker he was, we must remember him and his message accurately — not selectively in a way that conveniently lets us off the moral hook.
David S. Danaher is a professor of Slavic languages at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He has taught “The Writings of Václav Havel: Critique of Modern Society,” since 2002. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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