Vaclav Havel: Rock ’n’ Roll and the Power of the Powerless

Vaclav Havel’s genius was to understand that totalitarianism persisted only by coercing its victims into becoming complicit in a delusion. His preferred term for this was to “live within the lie,” a phenomenon he explained in his landmark 1978 essay, “The Power of the Powerless,” which Anne Applebaum rightly suggests has since become required reading for peaceful revolutionists everywhere. Yet all too many of the eulogies for this dissident playwright have neglected to explain how his greatest disquisition came to be written. 

Havel’s political philosophy was intertwined with his talents as a storyteller, invoking parables to explain his theories of life under “post-totalitarianism.” For example, the greengrocer who hangs a sign in the window of his shop that reads: “Workers of the world, unite!” The greengrocer likely hasn’t reflected on meaning of that slogan or compared its triumphalism to the bathetic life around him; he hangs the sign out of self-preservation, in order to keep his job and stay on the right side of the secret policeman and the commissar. Through such acts of insincerity, Havel argued, the greengrocer forfeits not only his reason but his very right to reason. He has chosen to inhabit the “world of appearances, a mere ritual, a formalized language deprived of semantic contact with reality and transformed into a system of ritual signs that replace reality with pseudo-reality.” The system endures without much physical coercion by making conscripts of the ruler and the ruled alike: the greengrocer has little power but is as unfree as the prime minister who has greater power: “The real accomplice in this involvement, therefore, is not another person, but the system itself.” 

But what would happen if one day the greengrocer decided to quarrel with the Marxist slogan? What if he didn’t hang that sign in his window but instead criticized the slogan or suggested that circumstances around him did not in fact reflect the unity of the workers of the world? What if he called a bureaucratic government exactly that instead of a “people’s government,” or a military occupation exactly that instead of “fraternal assistance”? The “world of appearances” would become the world of brute reality, and the greengrocer would find himself “living within the truth.” He wouldn’t need a platform or manifesto to do this; the simple act of refusing to repeat the lies of the regime would make him a dissident. The powerless would become empowered.

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Vaclav Havel (1936–2011)

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This revelation was part of the logic underpinning the Charter 77 movement, of which Havel was a coauthor and guiding force. Charter 77 came to international attention when it accused the arch-Stalinist regime of Gustav Husak of failing to live up to the Helsinki Agreement by trying and imprisoning a handful of rock musicians for performing in an “illegal” concert.

The 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and the rise of Husak, Moscow’s satrap of “normalization,” had vitiated the promise of the Prague Spring, the ill-fated attempt to construct “socialism with a human face” led by reformist Communist leader Alexander Dubcek. The Prague Spring inspired some of the best minds of the country to engage in the question of political alternatives. As a reform communist, Milan Kundera, the future postmodern pessimist behind The Unbearable Lightness of Being, outlined his unbearably optimistic view in an essay called “Czech Destiny,” arguing that “[t]he new politics survived this terrible conflict ... It retreated, yes, but it did not disintegrate, it did not collapse.” “Czech Destiny” was an essay with which Havel strongly disagreed.

Another dramatist, Sir Tom Stoppard, wonderfully captured the resulting argument between these two Eastern European artists in his underrated 2006 play Rock ’n’ Roll. Stoppard’s protagonist is Jan, a stand-in for Kundera. Jan returns to post-1968 Prague after studying Marxism at Cambridge and pretending to believe in it as a reluctant informant tasked with monitoring the activities of a famous Red don loosely modeled on Eric Hobsbawm: “For once this country found the best in itself. We’ve been done over by big powerful nations for hundreds of years but this time we refused our destiny.” Jan is speaking to his friend Ferdinand, a Czech native and self-styled political dissident whom Stoppard named after the eponymous alter ego in Havel’s Vanek trilogy of plays (Audience, Private View, and Protest). Ferdinand is also Stoppard’s surrogate for Havel: “It’s not destiny, you moron,” he answers to Jan’s misguided hopefulness, “It’s the neighbors worrying about their slaves revolting if we get away with it.” Like Kundera, Jan is still living within the lie.

And yet, as Havel later wrote in “The Power of the Powerless,” the very idea of Communist “reform” was itself a sign of the decrepitude of the whole post-totalitarian edifice. Havel being Havel, he couched this critique in the language of the theater:

The Prague Spring is usually understood as a clash between two groups on the level of real power: those who wanted to maintain the system as it was and those who wanted to reform it. It is frequently forgotten, however, that this encounter was merely the final act and the inevitable consequence of a long drama originally played out chiefly in the theatre of the spirit and the conscience of society. And that somewhere at the beginning of this drama, there were individuals who were willing to live within the truth, even when things were at their worst. These people had no access to real power, nor did they aspire to it.

Who were these people? Were they intellectuals like Havel and Kundera, with their samizdat essays and earnest petitions, or were they a new species of greengrocer—apolitical longhairs who took their cues from Lou Reed and Mick Jagger? What the Chartists aspired to was simply getting The Plastic People of the Universe, an underground psychedelic rock band named after a Frank Zappa lyric, out of jail. It was a small act of defiance with big implications. Havel continues:

Their trial was not a confrontation of two differing political forces or conceptions, but two differing conceptions of life. On the one hand, there was the sterile Puritanism of the post-totalitarian establishment and, on the other hand, unknown young people who wanted no more than to be able to live within the truth, to play the music they enjoyed, to sing songs that were relevant to their lives, and to live freely in dignity and partnership.

This observation grew out of Havel’s own conversion experience in 1976. At first, he didn’t hold the Plastics in high regard (too vulgar and silly), and the people who loved the Plastics thought that Havel and his highbrow ilk were stuffed-shirts. It was only after he listened to a recording of the Plastics that Havel understood the point of them: “There was a strange magic in the music, and a kind of inner warning. Here was something serious and genuine … Suddenly I realized that, regardless of how many vulgar words these people used or how long their hair was, truth was on their side.”

Truth was on their side. Stoppard puts this realization magnificently in Rock ’n’ Roll, this time, in a dialectical plot twist, making Jan the new mouthpiece for Havel. Jan is describing the Plastics’ Warholian artistic director, Ivan Jirous, who has just been arrested with the band—in life, this occurred just before the first Plastics performance Havel was due to attend. Ferdinand demands to know who wields the greater moral authority—the eggheads or the burnouts? Jan answers that the burnouts do, explaining that the reason Ferdinand is free but Jirous is in jail is

because the policeman insulted him. About his hair. Jirous doesn’t cut his hair. It makes the policeman angry, so he starts something and it ends with Jirous in gaol. But what is the policeman angry about? What difference does long hair make? The policeman is angry about his fear. The policeman’s fear is what makes him angry. He’s frightened by indifference. Jirous doesn’t care. He doesn’t care enough even to cut his hair. The policeman isn’t frightened by dissidents! Why should he be? Police love dissidents, like the Inquisition loved heretics. Heretics give meaning to the defenders of the faith. ... But the Plastics don’t care at all. They’re unbribable. They’re coming from somewhere else, from where the Muses come from. They’re not heretics. They’re pagans.

Charter 77 was Havel’s enlistment of the heretic in the service of the pagan. The result was his own incarceration, international fame, and the germinal idea that led to his writing “The Power of the Powerless.” And he was right. Together, the heretics and pagans changed the world.

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