Last weekend I spent a long weekend in Prague with my husband Bryan Hubbard for our 32nd anniversary.
Along with marveling at the beauty and history of this historical city – the treasures of Charles Bridge, the magnificent cathedral on a hill, the marvel that is the astronomical clock – I was drawn to discover more about how the Czech Republic managed to win freedom from the Soviet Union bloc nonviolently, in what, in a nod to the Velvet Underground, got called the Velvet Revolution.
We’d been in a Czech student bookstore scanning the shelves for English titles, when I saw and bought The Power of the Powerless, Vaclav Havel’s classic essay on political dissent.
When he wrote the pamphlet, Havel wasn’t the international political figure he eventually became or even a formal dissident, but a playwright who believed that the Soviet authorities had forced his countrymen to live a monstrous lie.
He wrote his seminal essay in October 1978 in response to the reaction of the authorities to Charter 77, a human-rights petition he and others were responsible for producing.
In his essay Havel distinguishes between a totalitarian state, where state repression occurs and is reinforced by brute force, and what he terms ‘the post-totalitarian state,’ where the state is maintained through far more insidious means.
In the latter, the totalitarian aims of the state are so woven into the warp and woof of culture that they actually get reinforced by the citizens themselves.
As Havel writes: ‘They must live within a lie. They need not accept the lie. It is enough for them to have accepted their life with it and in it. For by this very fact, individuals confirm the system, fulfill the system, make the system, are the system.’
Havel’s famous example is a greengrocer, who has a placard in his shop window: ‘Workers of the world unite.’ As he says, this grocer doesn’t believe one jot in the slogan; he knows that idea of workers having any real say or power is a lie.
But he has to hang it in his window for fear of drawing attention to himself and risking the censure of his customers.
Imagine if one day, the grocer removes the sign. His neighbors will stop buying from his shop or socializing with him, says Havel. Some may notify the authorities, who will remove him from his shop. He will be ostracized by his countrymen and thereafter forced to do degrading work.
In that sense, society does the dirty work for the state. Like everyone in the country, through the conformity of the citizens and its acceptance of the status quo, everyone is forced to live a lie.
Nevertheless, Havel argued that every one of the so-called ‘powerless’ have enormous personal power to ‘live the truth’ by quietly refusing to live by the acceptable cultural norms established by the State and tacitly agreed by its citizens.
He believed that the state is, in a sense, powerless because even the most totalitarian regime cannot control for every moment of an individual’s life and that each of us carries the responsibility to live in truth. He also believes that citizens can create ‘parallel’ structures within society that will help a society held together by force ultimately collapse.
Havel didn’t believe that the answer was parliamentary democracy, which has its own shortcomings.
‘In a democracy,’ he wrote, ‘human beings may enjoy many personal freedoms and securities that are unknown to us, but in the end they do them no good, for they too are ultimately victims . . . of secret manipulations and expansion; the omnipresent dictatorship of consumption, production, advertising, commerce, consumer culture.’
Although The Power of the Powerless was suppressed by the Communist regime, and Havel arrested and imprisoned for four years as a result of its appearance, this meditation on power and dissent was reproduced by hand (a process of evading authorities called samizdat), passed from person to person, and translated into multiple languages, transforming into the rallying manifesto for dissent in Czechoslovakia and the Solidarity movement in other neighboring Communist countries like Poland.
Undoubtedly it played its part in ending Communism in Eastern Europe.
As one Solidarity worker wrote: ‘It maintained our spirits; we did not give up, and a year later – in August 1980 – it became clear that the party apparatus and the factory management were afraid of us. We mattered. And the rank and file saw us as leaders of the movement.’
The Soviet Union collapsed and Havel eventually became president of the Czech Republic.
And now we see it in Iran, as thousands and thousands of young women defy the regime, burning hijabs and cutting their hair in reaction to the imprisonment and subsequent death of a young woman simply for not having her headscarf in place.
It starts with one person refusing to go along and live the lie. ‘The practice of living within the truth cannot fail to be a threat to the system,’ writes Havel.
We in the West need to take note and stay vigilant. As we observe the many freedoms we take for granted – freedom of speech, the right to dissent, even true democracy – get increasingly eroded, we too need to step and create an ‘existential’ revolution.
Havel argued for nothing less than ‘a moral reconstitution of society, which no political order can replace. . .. A new experience of being, a renewed rootedness in the universe, a newly grasped sense of higher responsibility, a newfound inner relationship to other people and to the human community.’
But the revolution won’t come from the top down. It comes from a single spark, when one woman decides to throw her hijab in a pyre, or one grocer remove the sign from his store window.
It starts with you and me and a small group, just determining we’re going to do things differently.
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