Politics and conscience
By Vaclav Havel
“This speech is intended for the University of Toulouse, where I would have delivered it on receiving an honorary doctorate, had I been able to be present.” – Vaclav Havel
Havel was forbidden to travel abroad and replaced on that occasion by the playwright Tom Stoppard. The essay was originally published in the collection The Natural World as Political Problem: Essays on Modern Man (Prague: Edice Expedice, Vol. 188, Feb 1984) and later translated into English by Erazim Kohák and Roger Scruton (Salisbury Review, No. 2, Jan 1985).
As a boy, I lived for some time in the country and I clearly remember an experience from those days: I used to walk to school in a nearby village along a cart track through the fields and, on the way, see on the horizon a huge smokestack of some hurriedly built factory, in all likelihood in the service of war. It spewed dense brown smoke and scattered it across the sky. Each time I saw it, I had an intense sense of something profoundly wrong, of humans soiling the heavens.
I have no idea whether there was something like a science of ecology in those days; if there was, I certainly knew nothing of it. Still that “soiling of the heavens” offended me spontaneously. It seemed to me that, in it, humans are guilty of something, that they destroy something important, arbitrarily disrupting the natural order of things, and that such things cannot go unpunished.
To be sure, my revulsion was largely aesthetic; I knew nothing then of the noxious emissions which would one day devastate our forests, exterminate game, and endanger the health of people.
If a medieval man were to see something like that suddenly on the horizon — say, while out hunting — he would probably think it the work of the Devil and would fall on his knees and pray that he and his kin be saved.
What is it, actually, that the world of the medieval peasant and that of a small boy have in common? Something substantive, I think. Both the boy and the peasant are far more intensely rooted in what some philosophers call “the natural world,” or Lebenswelt, than most modern adults.
They have not yet grown alienated from the world of their actual personal experience, the world which has its morning and its evening, its down (the earth) and its up (the heavens), where the sun rises daily in the east, traverses the sky and sets in the west, and where concepts like “at home” and “in foreign parts,” good and evil, beauty and ugliness, near and far, duty and rights, still mean something living and definite.
They are still rooted in a world which knows the dividing line between all that is intimately familiar and appropriately a subject of our concern, and that which lies beyond its horizon, that before which we should bow down humbly because of the mys tery about it.
Our “I” primordially attests to that world and personally certifies it; that is the world of our lived experience, a world not yet indifferent since we are personally bound to it in our love, hatred, respect, contempt, tradition, in our interests and in that pre-reflective meaningfulness from which culture is born. That is the realm of our inimitable, inalienable, and nontransferable joy and pain, a world in which, through which, and for which we are somehow answerable, a world of personal responsibility. In this world, categories like justice, honor, treason, friendship, infidelity, courage, or empathy have a wholly tangible content, relating to actual persons and important for actual life.
At the basis of this world are values which are simply there, perennially, before we ever speak of them, before we retlect upon them and inquire about them. It owes its internal coherence to something like a “pre-speculative” assumption that the world functions and is generally possible at all only because there is something beyond its horizon, something beyond or above it that might escape our understanding and our grasp but, for just that reason, firmly grounds this world, bestows upon it its order and measure, and is the hidden source of all the rules, customs, commandments, prohibitions, and norms that hold within it.
The natural world, in virtue of its very being, bears within it the presupposition of the absolute which grounds, delimits, animates, and directs it, without which it would be unthinkable, absurd, and superfluous, and which we can only quietly respect. Any attempt to spurn it, master it, or replace it with something else, appears, within the framework of the natural world, as an expression of hubris for which humans must pay a heavy price, as did Don Juan and Faust.
To me, personally, the smokestack soiling the heavens is not just a regrettable lapse of a technology that failed to include “the ecological factor” in its calculation, one which can be easily corrected with the appropriate filter. To me it is more, the symbol of an age which seeks to transcend the boundaries of the natural world and its norms and to make it into a merely private concern, a matter of subjective preference and private feeling, of the illusions, prejudices, and whims of a “mere” individual.
It is a symbol of an epoch which denies the binding importance of personal experience including the experience of mystery and of the absolute and displaces the personally experienced absolute as the measure of the world with a new, man-made absolute, devoid of mystery, free of the “whims” of subjectivity and, as such, impersonal and inhuman. It is the absolute of so-called objectivity: the objective, rational cognition of the scientific model of the world.
Modern science, constructing its universally valid image of the world, thus crashes through the bounds of the natural world, which it can understand only as a prison of prejudices from which we must break out into the light of objectively verified truth. The natural world appears to it as no more than an unfortunate leftover from our backward ancestors, a fantasy of their childish immaturity. With that, of course, it abolishes as mere fiction even the innermost foundation of our natural world; it kills God and takes his place on the vacant throne so that henceforth it would be science which would hold the order of being in its hand as its sole legitimate guardian and be the sole legitimate arbiter of all relevant truth. For, after all, it is only science that rises above all individual subjective truths and replaces them with a superior, suprasubjective, suprapersonal truth, which is truly objective and universal.
Modern rationalism and modern science, though the work of people that, as all human works, developed within our natural world, now systematically leave it behind, deny it, degrade and defame it — and, of course, at the same time colonize it.
A modern man, whose natural world has been properly conquered by science and technology, objects to the smoke from the smokestack only if the stench penetrates his apartment. In no case, though, does he take offense at it metaphysically since he knows that the factory to which the smokestack belongs manufactures things that he needs. As a man of the technological era, he can conceive of a remedy only within the limits of technology — say, a catalytic scrubber fitted to the chimney.
Lest you misunderstand: I am not proposing that humans abolish smokestacks or prohibit science or generally return to the Middle Ages. Besides, it is not by accident that some of the most profound discoveries of modern science render the myth of objectivity surprisingly problematic and, via a remarkable detour, return us to the human subject and his world.
I wish no more than to consider, in a most general and admittedly schematic outline, the spiritual framework of modern civilization and the source of its present crisis. And though the primary focus of these reflections will be the political rather than ecological aspect of this crisis, I might, perhaps, clarify my starting point with one more ecological example.
For centuries, the basic component of European agriculture had been the family farm. In Czech, the older term for it was grunt — which itself is not without its etymological interest. The word, taken from the German Grund, actually means ground or foundation and, in Czech, acquired a peculiar semantic coloring. As the colloquial synonym for “foundation,” it points out the “groundedness” of the ground, its indubitable, traditional and pre-speculatively given authenticity and credibility.
Certainly, the family farm was a source of endless and intensifying social conflict of all kinds. Still, we cannot deny it one thing: it was rooted in the nature of its place, appropriate, harmonious, personally tested by generations of farmers and certified by the results of their husbandry. It also displayed a kind of optimal mutual proportionality in extent and kind of all that belonged to it; fields, meadows, boundaries, woods, cattle, domestic animals, water, roads, and so on. For centuries no farmer made it the topic of a scientific study. Nevertheless, it constituted a generally satisfactory economic and ecological system, within which everything was bound together by a thousand threads of mutual and meaningful connection, guaranteeing its stability as well as the stability of the product of the farmer’s husbandry.
Unlike present-day “agribusiness,” the traditional family farm was energetically self-sufficient. Though it was subject to common calamities, it was not guilty of them — unfavorable weather, cattle disease, wars and other catastrophes lay outside the farmer’s province.
Certainly, modern agricultural and social science could also improve agriculture in a thousand ways, increasing its productivity, reducing the amount of sheer drudgery, and eliminating the worst social inequities. But this is possible only on the assumption that modernization, too, will be guided by a certain humility and respect for the mysterious order of nature and for the appropriateness which derives from it and which is intrinsic to the natural world of personal experience and responsibility.
Modernization must not be simply an arrogant, megalomaniac, and brutal invasion by an impersonally objective science, represented by a newly graduated agronomist or a bureaucrat in the service of the “scientific world view.”
That, however, is just what happened to our country: our word for it was “collectivization.”
Like a tornado, it raged through the Czechoslovak countryside thirty years ago, leaving not a stone in place. Among its consequences were, on the one hand, tens of thousands of lives devastated by prison, sacrificed on the altar of a scientific Utopia offering brighter tomorrows. On the other hand, the level of social conflict and the amount of drudgery in the countryside did in fact decrease while agricultural productivity rose quantitatively. That, though, is not why I mention it. My reason is something else: thirty years after the tornado swept the traditional family farm off the face of the earth, scientists are amazed to discover what even a semiliterate farmer previously knew — that human beings must pay a heavy price for every attempt to abolish, radically, once for all and without trace, that humbly respected boundary of the natural world, with its tradition of scrupulous personal acknowledgment.
They must pay for the attempt to seize nature, to leave not a remnant of it in human hands, to ridicule its mystery; they must pay for the attempt to abolish God and to play at being God.
This is what in fact happened. With hedges plowed under and woods cut down, wild birds have died out and, with them, a natural, unpaid protector of the crops against harmful insects. Huge unified fields have led to the inevitable annual loss of millions of cubic yards of topsoil that have taken centuries to accumulate; chemical fertilizers and pesticides have catastrophically poisoned all vegetable products, the earth and the waters.
Heavy machinery systematically presses down the soil, making it impenetrable to air and thus infertile; cows in gigantic dairy farms suffer neuroses and lose their milk while agriculture siphons off ever more energy from industry-manufacture of machines, artificial fertilizers, rising transportation costs in an age of growing local specialization, and so on. In short, the prognoses are terrifying and no one knows what surprises coming years and decades may bring.
It is paradoxical: people in the age of science and technology live in the conviction that they can improve their lives because they are able to grasp and exploit the complexity of nature and the general laws of its functioning. Yet it is precisely these laws which, in the end, tragically catch up with them and get the better of them.
People thought they could explain and conquer nature — yet the outcome is that they destroyed it and disinherited themselves from it.
But what are the prospects for man “outside nature”?
It is, after all, precisely the sciences that are most recently discovering that the human body is actually only a particularly busy intersection of billions of organic microbodies, of their complex mutual contacts and influences, together forming that incredible mega-organism we call the “biosphere” in which our planet is blanketed.
The fault is not one of science as such but of the arrogance of man in the age of science. Man simply is not God, and playing God has cruel consequences.
Man has abolished the absolute horizon of his relations, denied his personal “preobjective” experience of the lived world, while relegating personal conscience and consciousness to the bathroom, as something so private that it is no one’s business.
Man rejected his responsibility as a “subjective illusion” — and in place of it installed what is now proving to be the most dangerous illusion of all: the fiction of objectivity stripped of all that is concretely human, of a rational understanding of the cosmos, and of an abstract schema of a putative “historical necessity.” As the apex of it all, man has constructed a vision of a scientifically calculable and technologically achievable “universal welfare,” that need only be invented by experimental institutes while industrial and bureaucratic factories turn it into reality.
That millions of people will be sacrificed to this illusion in scientifically run concentration camps is not something that concerns our modern man unless by chance he himself lands behind barbed wire and is thrown drastically back upon his natural world. The phenomenon of empathy, after all, belongs with that abolished realm of personal prejudice which had to yield to science, objectivity, historical necessity, technology, system, and the “apparat” — and those, being impersonal, cannot worry. They are abstract and anonymous, ever utilitarian, and thus ever a priori innocent.
And as for the future, who, personally, would care about it or even worry about it when the perspective of eternity is one of the things locked away in the bathroom, if not expelled outright into the realm of fairy tales?
If a contemporary scientist thinks at all of what will be in two hundred years, he does so solely as a disinterested observer who, basically, could not care less whether he is doing research on the metabolism of the flea, on the radio signals of pulsars, or on the global reserves of natural gas.
And a modern politician? He has absolutely no reason to care, especially if it might interfere with his chances in an election, as long as he lives in a country where there are elections.
The Czech philosopher Václav Bělohradský has persuasively developed the thought that the rationalistic spirit of modern science, founded on abstract reason and on the presumption of impersonal objectivity, has its father not only in the natural sciences, Galileo, but also a father in politics — Machiavelli, who first formulated (albeit with an undertone of malicious irony) a theory of politics as a rational technology of power.
We could say that, for all the complex historical detours, the origin of the modern state and of modern political power may be sought precisely here, that is, once again in a moment when human reason begins to “liberate” itself from the human being as such, from his personal experience, personal conscience, and personal responsibility and so also from that to which, within the framework of the natural world, all responsibility is uniquely related, his absolute horizon. Just as the modern scientists set apart the actual human being as the subject of the lived experience of the world, so, ever more evidently, do both the modern state and modern politics.
To be sure, this process by which power becomes anonymous and depersonalized, and reduced to a mere technology of rule and manipulation, has a thousand masks, variants, and expressions. In one case it is covert and inconspicuous, while in another case it is entirely overt; in one case it sneaks up on us along subtle and devious paths, in another case it is brutally direct. Essentially, though, it is the same universal trend. It is the essential trait of all modern civilization, growing directly from its spiritual structure, rooted in it by a thousand tangled tendrils and inseparable even in thought from its technological nature, its mass characteristics, and its consumer orientation.
Rulers and leaders were once personalities in their own right, with particular human faces, still in some sense personally responsible for their deeds, good and ill, whether they had been installed by dynastic tradition, by the will of the people, by a victorious battle, or by intrigue. But they have been replaced in modern times by the manager, the bureaucrat, the apparatchik — a professional ruler, manipulator, and expert in the techniques of management, manipulation, and obfuscation, filling a depersonalized intersection of functional relations, a cog in the machinery of state caught up in a predetermined role. This professional ruler is an “innocent” tool of an “innocent” anonymous power, legitimized by science, cybernetics, ideology, law, abstraction, and objectivity that is, by everything except personal responsibility to human beings as persons and neighbors.
A modern politician is transparent: behind his judicious mask and affected diction there is not a trace of a human being rooted in the order of the natural world by his loves, passions, interests, personal opinions, hatred, courage, or cruelty. All that he, too, locks away in his private bathroom. If we glimpse anything at all behind the mask, it will be only a more or less competent technician of power.
System, ideology, and apparat have deprived us — rulers as well as the ruled — of our conscience, of our common sense and natural speech and thereby, of our actual humanity. States grow ever more machine like; people are transformed into statistical choruses of voters, producers, consumers, patients, tourists, or soldiers. In politics, good and evil, categories of the natural world and therefore obsolete remnants of the past, lose all absolute meaning; the sole method of politics is quantifiable success. Power is a priori innocent because it does not grow from a world in which words like “guilt” and “innocence” retain their meaning.
This impersonal power has achieved what is its most complete expression so far in the totalitarian systems. As Bělohradský points out, the depersonalization of power and its conquest of human conscience and human speech have been successfully linked to an extra-European tradition of a “cosmological” conception of the empire (identifying the empire, as the sole true center of the world, with the world as such, and considering the human as its exclusive property). But, as the totalitarian systems clearly illustrate, this does not mean that modern impersonal power is itself an extra-European affair. The truth is the very opposite: it was precisely Europe, and the European West, that provided and frequently forced on the world all that today has become the basis of such power: natural science, rationalism, scientism, the industrial revolution, and also revolution as such, as a fanatical abstraction, through the displacement of the natural world to the bathroom down to the cult of consumption, the atomic bomb, and Marxism. And it is Europe-democratic western Europe-which today stands bewildered in the face of this ambiguous export.
The contemporary dilemma, whether to resist this reverse expansionism of its erstwhile export or to yield to it, attests to this. Should rockets, now aimed at Europe thanks to its export of spiritual and technological potential, be countered by similar and better rockets, thereby demonstrating a determination to defend such values as Europe has left, at the cost of entering into an utterly immoral game being forced upon it? Or should Europe retreat, hoping that the responsibility for the fate of the planet demonstrated thereby will infect, by its miraculous power, the rest of the world?
I think that, with respect to the relation of western Europe to the totalitarian systems, 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. If we ignore that, then it does not make any essential difference which form Europe’s efforts will take.
It might be the form of taking the totalitarian systems, in the spirit of Europe’s own rationalistic tradition, for a locally idiosyncratic attempt at achieving general welfare, to which only men of ill-will attribute expansionist tendencies.
Or, in the spirit of the same rationalistic tradition, though this time in the Machiavellian conception of politics as the technology of power, one might perceive the totalitarian regimes as a purely external threat by expansionist neighbors who can be driven back within acceptable bounds by an appropriate demonstration of power, without having to be thought about more deeply.
The first alternative is that of the person who reconciles himself to the chimney belching smoke, even though that smoke is ugly and smelly, because in the end it serves a good purpose, the production of commonly needed goods. The second alternative is that of the man who thinks that it is símply a matter of a technological flaw, which can be eliminated by technological means, such as a filter or a scrubber.
The reality, I believe, is unfortunately more serious. The chimney “soiling the heavens” is not just a technologically corrigible flaw of design, or a tax paid for a better consumerist tomorrow, but a symbol of a civilization which has renounced the absolute, which ignores the natural world and disdains its imperatives. So, too, the totalitarian systems warn of something far more serious than Western rationalism is willing to admit.
They are, most of all, a convex mirror of the inevitable consequences of rationalism, a grotesquely magnified image of its own deep tendencies, an extreme offshoot of its own development and an ominous product of its own expansion. They are a deeply informative reflection of its own crisis.
Totalitarian regimes are not merely dangerous neighbors and even less some kind of an avant-garde of world progress. Alas, just the opposite: they are the avant-garde of a global crisis of this civilization, first European, then Euro-American, and ultimately global. They are one of the possible futurological studies of the Western world, not in the sense that one day they will attack and conquer it, but in a far deeper sense that they illustrate graphically the consequences of what Bělohradský calls the “eschatology of the impersonal.”
It is the total rule of a bloated, anonymously bureaucratic power, not yet irresponsible but already operating outside all conscience, a power grounded in an omnipresent ideological fiction which can rationalize anything without ever having to come in contact with the truth. Power as the omnipresent monopoly of control, repression, and fear; power which makes thought, morality, and privacy a state monopoly and so dehumanizes them; power which long since has ceased to be the matter of a group of arbitrary rulers but which, rather, occupies and swallows up everyone so that all should become integrated within it, at least through their silence.
No one actually possesses such power, since it is the power itself which possesses everyone; it is a monstrosity which is not guided by humans but which, on the contrary, drags all persons along with its “objective” self momentum-objective in the sense of being cut off from all human standards, including human reason, and hence entirely irrational-toward a terrifying, unknown future.
Let me repeat: totalitarian power is a great reminder to contemporary civilization. Perhaps somewhere there may be some generals who think it would be best to dispatch such systems from the face of the earth and then all would be well. But that is no different from an ugly woman trying to get rid of her ugliness by smashing the mirror that reminds her of it.
Such a “final solution” is one of the typical dreams of impersonal reason-capable, as the term “fmal solution” graphically reminds us, of transforming its dreams into real ity and thereby reality into a nightmare. It would not only fail to resolve the crisis of the present world but, assuming anyone survived at all, would only aggravate it. By burdening the already heavy account of this civilization with further millions of dead, it would not block its essential trend to totalitarianism but would rather accelerate it. It would be a Pyrrhic victory, because the victors would emerge from a conflict inevitably resembling their defeated opponents far more than anyone today is willing to admit or able to imagine.
Just a minor example: imagine what a huge Gulag Archipelago would have to be built in the West, in the name of country, democracy, progress, and war discipline, to contain all who refuse to take part in the effort, whether from naivete, principle, fear, or ill will!
No evil has ever been eliminated by suppressing its symptoms. We need to address the cause itself.
From time to time I have a chance to speak with Western intellectuals who visit our country and decide to include a visit to a dissident in their itinerary — some out of genuine interest, or a willingness to understand and to express solidarity, others simply out of curiosity.
Beside the Gothic and Baroque monuments, dissidents are apparently the only thing of interest to a tourist in this uniformly dreary environment. Those conversations are usually instructive: I learn much and come to understand much. The questions most frequently asked are these:
- Do you think you can really change anything when you are so few and have no influence at all?
- Are you opposed to socialism or do you merely wish to improve it?
- Do you condemn or condone the deployment of the Pershing II and the Cruise missiles in western Europe?
- What can we do for you?
- What drives you to do what you are doing when all it brings you is persecution, prison-and no visible resultsř Would you want to see capitalism restored in your country?
Those questions are well intentioned, growing out of a desire to understand and showing that those who ask do care about the world, what it is and what it will be.
Still, precisely these and similar questions reveal to me again and again how deeply many Western intellectuals do not understand — and in some respects, cannot understand just what is taking place here, what it is that we, the so-called dissidents, are striving for and, most of all, what the overall meaning of it is.
Take, for instance, the question: “What can we do for you?” A great deal, to be sure. The more support, interest, and solidarity of free-thinking people in the world we enjoy, the less the danger of being arrested, and the greater the hope that ours will not be a voice crying in the wilderness. And yet, somewhere deep within the question there is built-in misunderstanding. After all, in the last instance the point is not to help us, a handful of “dissidents,” to keep out of jail a bit more of the time. It is not even a question of helping these nations, Czechs and Slovaks, to live a bit better, a bit more freely. They need first and foremost to help themselves.
They have waited for the help of others far too often, depended on it far too much, and far too many times came to grief: either the promised help was withdrawn at the last moment or it turned into the very opposite of their expectations. In the deepest sense, something else is at stake — the salvation of us all, of myself and my interlocutor equally.
Or is it not something that concerns us all equally? Are not my dim prospects or, conversely, my hopes his dim prospects and hopes as well? Was not my arrest an attack on him and the deceptions to which he is subjected an attack on me as well? Is not the suppression of human beings in Prague a suppression of all human beings? Is not indifference to what is happening here or even illusions about it a preparation for the kind of misery elsewhere? Does not their misery presuppose ours?
The point is not that some Czech dissident, as a person in distress, needs help. I could best help myself out of distress simply by ceasing to be a “dissident” The point is what that dissident’s flawed efforts and his fate tell us and mean, what they attest about the condition, the destiny, the opportunities, and the problems of the world, the respects in which they are or could be food for thought for others as well, for the way they see their, and so our, shared destiny, in what ways they are a warning, a challenge, a danger, or a lesson for those who visit us.
Or the question about socialism and capitalism! I have to admit that it gives me a sense of emerging from the depths of the last century. It seems to me that these thoroughly ideological and often semantically confused categories have long since been beside the point.
The question is wholly other, deeper and equally relevant to all: whether we shall, by whatever means, succeed in reconstituting the natural world as the true terrain of politics, rehabilitating the personal experience of human beings as the initial measure of things, placing morality above politics and responsibility above our desires, in making human community meaningful, in returning content to human speech, in reconstituting, as the focus of all social action, the autonomous, integral, and dignified human “I,” responsible for ourselves because we are bound to something higher, and capable of sacrificing something, in extreme cases even everything, of his banal, prosperous private life-that “rule of everydayness,” as Jan Patočka used to say — for the sake of that which gives life meaning.
It really is not all that important whether, by accident of domicile, we confront a Western manager or an Eastern bureaucrat in this very modest and yet globally crucial struggle against the momentum of impersonal power. If we can defend our humanity, then perhaps there is a hope of sorts — though even then it is by no means automatic-that we shall also find some more meaningful ways of balancing our natural claims to shared economic decision~making and to dignified social status, with the tried-and-true driving force of all work: human enterprise realized in genuine market relations.
As long, however, as our humanity remains defenseless; we will not be saved by any technical or organizational trick designed to produce better economic functioning, just as no filter on a factory smokestack will prevent a general dehumanization. To what purpose a system functions is, after all, more important than how it does so. Might it not function quite smoothly, after all, in the service of total destruction?
I speak of this because, looking at the world from the perspective which fate allotted me, I cannot avoid the impression that many people in the West still understand little of what is actually at stake in our time.
If, for instance, we take a second look at the two basic political alternatives between which Western intellectuals oscillate today, it becomes apparent that they are no more than two different ways of playing the same game, proffered by the anonymity of power. As such, they are no more than two diverse ways of moving toward the same global totalitarianism.
One way of playing the game of anonymous reason is to keep on toying with the mystery of matter — “playing God”inventing and deploying further weapons of mass destruction, all, of course, intended “for the defense of democracy” but in effect further. degrading democracy to the “uninhabitable fiction” which socialism has long since become on our side of Europe.
The other form of the game is the tempting vortex that draws so many good and sincere people into itself, the so-called struggle for peace. Certainly it need not always be so. Still, often I do have the impression that this vortex has been designed and deployed by that same treacherous, all-pervasive impersonal power as a more poetic means of colonizing human consciousness.
Please note, I have in mind impersonal power as a principle, globally, in all its instances, not only Moscow — which, if the truth be told, lacks the capability of organizing something as widespread as the contemporary peace movement. Still, could there be a better way of rendering an honest, free thinking man (the chief threat to all anonymous power) ineffectual in the world of rationalism and ideology than by offering him the simplest thesis possible, with all the apparent characteristics of a noble goal?
Could you imagine something that would more effectively fire a just mind-preoccupying it, then occupying it, and ultimately rendering it intellectually harmless-than the possibility of “a struggle against war”? Is there a more clever means of deceiving men than with the illusion that they can prevent war if they interfere with the deployment of weapons (which will be deployed in any case)? It is hard to imagine an easier way to a totalitarianism of the human spirit?
The more obvious it becomes that the weapons will indeed be deployed, the more rapidly does the mind of a person who has totally identified with the goal of preventing such deployment become radicalized, fanaticized and, in the end, alienated from itself. So a man sent off on his way by the noblest of intentions finds himself, at the journey’s end, precisely where anonymous power needs to see him: in the rut of totalitarian thought, where he is not his own and where he surrenders his own reason and conscience for the sake of another “un inhabitable fiction”! As long as that goal is served, it is not important whether we call that fiction “human well being,” “socialism,” or “peace.”
Certainly, from the standpoint of the defense and the interests of the Western world, it is not very good when someone says “Better Red than dead.” But from the viewpoint of the global, impersonal power, which transcends power blocs and, in its omnipresence, represents a truly diabolical temptation, there could be nothing better. That slogan is an infallible sign that the speaker has given up his humanity. For he has given up the ability personally to guarantee something that transcends him and so to sacrifice, in extremis, even life itself to that which makes life meaningful.
Patočka once wrote that a life not willing to sacrifice itself to what makes it meaningful is not worth living. It is just in the world of such lives and of such a “peace” — that is, under the “rule of everydayness” that wars happen most easily. In such a world, there is no moral barrier against them, no barrier guaranteed by the courage of supreme sacrifice. The door stands wide open for the irrational “securing of our interests.”
The absence of heroes who know what they are dying for is the first step on the way to the mounds of corpses of those who are slaughtered like cattle.
The slogan “Better Red than dead” does not irritate me as an expression of surrender to the Soviet Union, but it terrifies me as an expression of the renunciation by Western people of any claim to a meaningful life and of their acceptance of impersonal power as such. For what the slogan really says is that nothing is worth giving one’s life for. However, without the horizon of the highest sacrifice, all sacrifice becomes senseless. Then nothing is worth anything. Nothing means anything.
The result is a philosophy of sheer negation of our humanity. In the case of Soviet totalitarianism, such a philosophy does no more than offer a little political assistance. With respect to Western totalitarianism, it is what constitutes it, directly and primordially.
In short, I cannot overcome the impression that Western culture is threatened far more by itself than by SS-20 rockets. When a French leftist student told me with a sincere glow in his eyes that the Gulag was a tax paid for the ideals of socialism and that Solzhenitsyn is just a personally embittered man, he cast me into a deep gloom.
Is Europe really incapable of learning from its own history? Can’t that dear lad ever understand that even the most promising project of “general well-being” convicts itself of inhumanity the moment it demands a single involuntary death — that is, one which is not a conscious sacrifice of a life to its meaning? Is he really incapable of comprehending that until he finds himself incarcerated in some Soviet-style jail near Toulouse? Did the newspeak of our world so penetrate natural human speech that two people can no longer communicate even such a basic experience?
I presume that after all these stringent criticisms, I am expected to say just what I consider to be a meaningful alternative for Western humanity today in the face of political dilemmas of the contemporary world.
As all I have said suggests, it seems to me that all of us, East and West, face one fundamental task from which all else should follow. That task is one of resisting vigilantly, thoughtfully, and attentively, but at the same time with total dedication, at every step and everywhere, the irrational momentum of anonymous, impersonal, and inhuman power — the power of ideologies, systems, apparat, bureaucracy, artificial languages, and political slogans.
We must resist its complex and wholly alienating pressure, whether it takes the form of consumption, advertising, repression, technology, or cliché — all of which are the blood brothers of fanaticism and the wellspring of totalitarian thought.
We must draw our standards from our natural world, heedless of ridicule, and reaffirm its denied validity. We must honor with the humility of the wise the limits of that natural world and the mystery which lies beyond them, admitting that there is something in the order of being which evidently exceeds all our competence.
We must relate to the absolute horizon of our existence which, if we but will, we shall constantly rediscover and experience. We must make values and imperatives the starting point of all our acts, of all our personally attested, openly contemplated, and ideologically uncensored lived experience. We must trust the voice of our conscience more than that of all abstract speculations and not invent responsibilities other than the one to which the voice calls us. We must not be ashamed that we are capable of love, friendship, solidarity, sympathy, and tolerance, but just the opposite: we must set these fundamental dimensions of our humanity free from their “private” exile and accept them as the only genuine starting point of meaningful human community. We must be guided by our own reason and serve the truth under all circumstances as our own essential experience.
I know all that sounds very general, very indefínite, and very unrealistic, but I assure you that these apparently naive words stem from a very particular and not always easy experience with the world and that, if I may say so, I know what I am talking about.
The vanguard of impersonal power, which drags the world along its irrational path, lined with devastated nature and launching pads, is composed of the totalitarian regimes of our time. It is not possible to ignore them, to make excuses for them, to yield to them or to accept their way of playing the game, thereby becoming like them. I am convinced that we can face them best by studying them without prejudice, learning from them, and resisting them by being radically different, with a difference born of a continuous struggle against the evil which they may embody most clearly, but which dwells everywhere and so even within each of us.
What is most dangerous to that evil are not the rockets aimed at this or that state but the fundamental negation of this evil in the very structure of contemporary humanity: a return of humans to themselves and to their responsibility for the world; a new understanding of human rights and their persistent reaffirmation, resistance against every manifestation of impersonal power that claims to be beyond good and evil, anywhere and everywhere, no matter how it disguises its tricks and machinations, even if it does so in the name of defense against totalitarian systems.
The best resistance to totalitarianism is simply to drive it out of our own souls, our own circumstances, our own land, to drive it out of contemporary humankind. The best help to all who suffer under totalitarian regimes is to confront the evil which a totalitarian system constitutes, from which it draws its strength and on which its “vanguard” is nourished. If there is no such vanguard, no extremist sprout from which it can grow, the system will have nothing to stand on.
A reaffirmed human responsibility is the most natural barrier to all irresponsibility. If, for instance, the spiritual and technological potential of the advanced world is spread truly responsibly, not solely under the pressure of a selfish interest in profits, we can prevent its irresponsible transformation into weapons of destruction.
It surely makes much more sense to operate in the sphere of causes than simply to respond to their effects. By then, as a rule, the only possible response is by equally immoral means. To follow that path means to continue spreading the evil of irresponsibility in the world, and so to produce precisely the poison on which totalitarianism feeds.
I favor “antipolitical politics,” that is, politics not as the technology of power and manipulation, of cybernetic rule over humans or as the art of the utilitarian, but politics as one of the ways of seeking and achieving meaningful lives, of protecting them and serving them.
I favor politics as practical morality, as service to the truth, as essentially human and humanly measured care for our fellow humans. It is, I pre~sume, an approach which, in this world, is extremely impractical and difficult to apply in daily life. Still, I know no better alternative.
When I was tried and then serving my sentence, I experienced directly the importance and beneficial force of international solidarity. I shall never cease to be grateful for all its expressions. Still, I do not think that we who seek to proclaim the truth under our conditions find ourselves in an asymmetrical position, or that it should be we alone who ask for help and expect it, without being able to offer help in the direction from which it also comes.
I am convinced that what is called “dissent” in the Soviet bloc is a specific modern experience, the experience of life at the very ramparts of dehumanized power. As such, that “dissent” has the opportunity and even the duty to reflect on this experience, to testify to it and to pass it on to those fortunate enough not to have to undergo it. Thus we too have a certain opportunity to help in some ways those who help us, to help them in our deeply shared interest, in the interest oi mankind.
One such fundamental experience, that which I called “antipolitical politics,” is possible and can be effective, even though by its very nature it cannot calculate its effect beforehand. That effect, to be sure, is of a wholly different nature from what the West considers political success. It is hidden, indirect, long-term, and hard to measure; often it exists only in the invisible realm of social consciousness, conscience, and subconsciousness, and it can be almost impossible to determine what value it assumed therein and to what extent, if any, it contributes to shaping social development.
It is, however, becoming evident — and I think that is an experience of an essential and universal importance — that a single, seemingly powerless person who dares to cry out the word of truth and to stand behind it with all his person and all his life, ready to pay a high price, has, surprisingly, greater power, though formally disfranchised, than do thousands of anonymous voters.
It is becoming evident that even in today’s world, and especially on this exposed rampart where the wind blows most sharply, it is possible to oppose personal experience and the natural world to the “innocent” power and to unmask its guilt, as the author of The Gulag Archipelago has done.
It is becoming evident that truth and morality can provide a new starting point for politics and can, even today, have an undeniable political power.
The warning voice of a single brave scientist, besieged somewhere in the provinces and terrorized by a goaded community, can be heard over continents and addresses the conscience of the mighty of this world more clearly than entire brigades of hired propagandists can, though speaking to themselves.
It is becoming evident that wholly personal categories like good and evil still have their unambiguous content and, under certain circumstances, are capable of shaking the seemingly unshakable power with all its army of soldiers, policemen, and bureaucrats.
It is becoming evident that politics by no means need remain the affair of professionals and that one simple electrician with his heart in the right place, honoring something that transcends him and free of fear, can influence the history of his nation.
Yes, “antipolitical politics” is possible. Politics “from below:” Politics of man, not of the apparatus. Politics growing from the heart, not from a thesis. It is not an accident that this hopeful experience has to be lived just here, on this grim battlement. Under the “rule of everydayness” we have to descend to the very bottom of a well before we can see the stars.
When Jan Patočka wrote about Charter 77, he used the term “solidarity of the shaken.” He was thinking of those who dared resist impersonal power and to confront it with the only thing at their disposal, their own humanity.
Does not the perspective of a better future depend on something like an international community of the shaken which, ignoring state boundaries, political systems, and power blocs, standing outside the high game of traditional politics, aspiring to no titles and appointments, will seek to make a real political force out of a phenomenon so ridiculed by the technicians of power the phenomenon of human conscience?
Václav Havel (Oct 5, 1936 – Dec 18, 2011) was a celebrated Czech playwright, essayist, poet, dissident and statesman. He led Czechoslovakia through its “Velvet Revolution” and became the ninth and final president who guided this country’s return to democracy and its partition into Slovakia and the Czech Republic. He served as the Czech Republic’s first president from 1993 to 2003.
Sources: The Natural World as Political Problem: Essays on Modern Man (Prague: Edice Expedice, Vol. 188, Feb 1984, Czech) | Translated into English by Erazim Kohák and Roger Scruton (Salisbury Review, No. 2, Jan 1985).