Was it Western strength that triumphed over communism or Western freedom? It was both, of course, but Václav Havel, who died last week at the age of 75 in the Czech Republic, has always had a special place in the hearts of those who stress the latter. Lech Walesa, with his shipyard electrician’s demeanor, seemed like a character out of Berlin Alexanderplatz or some other proletarian novel of the 1920s. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, particularly after he went into exile in Vermont and began to rail against American materialism, often came off like a medieval monk. Havel, a son of real-estate moguls who had a country house and a wine cellar and a collection of Frank Zappa records and a marriage that didn’t tie him down overmuch . . . now, that’s more like the Western idea of a role model. But we sell Havel short if we don’t reckon with his personal strength and self-abnegation.
President Obama stressed Havel’s “peaceful resistance” this week. That is the wrong emphasis. It is not that Havel was particularly given to violence, but he was no pacifist. He came to take a Manichean view of the Cold War as a clash between “two enormous forces, one a defender of freedom, the other a source of nightmares.” His one driving obsession as Czech president was to get his country into NATO.
Havel was not easygoing about his opposition to communism. He spent five years of his adult life in prison—this in a country where conformism was extreme and dissidents were few. “Dissident,” curiously, is a word that Havel chose not to apply to himself. That may be because the Czechoslovak opposition to Soviet-style communism that culminated in the Prague Spring of 1968 was carried out by “reform” or “nondogmatic” Communists around Alexander Dubcek.
If those were dissidents, then Havel was something different and more durable. He never belonged to the Communist party, and a case can be made that he was genuinely apolitical. Morality, as much as politics, was at the root of his abhorrence of communism. In his great samizdat essay of 1978, “The Power of the Powerless,” he complained that to describe Communist rule as a mere dictatorship “tends to obscure rather than clarify the real nature of power in this system.” Whereas Stalinism had assaulted the bodies of its opponents, this “post-totalitarian” communism assaulted their souls. Dishonesty, not brutality, is its besetting sin and the foundation of its power.
Havel asks us to imagine a manager of a fruit-and-vegetable shop who receives a sign from his supplier that reads “Workers of the world, unite!” This man understands quite well that he is supposed to put it among his goods where everyone can see it. If he doesn’t, there will be trouble. With a dramatist’s keenness, Havel shows that if the greengrocer wants to give in to the authorities’ wishes, he has an easy rationalization: The green-grocer doesn’t believe what’s on the sign. Neither do his customers. Neither do the authorities who are so insistent that he display it. In fact, should those authorities decide to destroy the greengrocer’s life, they “will not do so from any authentic inner conviction.” So, really, it makes no difference whether he displays the sign or not.
But there, writes Havel, the greengrocer is terribly, culpably wrong. The sign really does convey a message, even if it is one that has nothing to do with the words printed on it. It means “I, the greengrocer XY, live here and I know what I must do” or “I am afraid and therefore unquestioningly obedient.” The function of Communist ideology, writes Havel once he gets worked up, is to conceal from the greengrocer “the low foundations of his obedience” and “the low foundations of power.”
The government is not stupid: It does not need, or expect, to convince citizens that the lie is right or plausible. “It is enough for them to have accepted their life with it and in it.” Communism poisons the soul by compelling everyone in a society to tell such lies to himself.
That is one truth that Havel did not forget as president. In his televised New Year’s Day address in 1990 shortly after becoming president, he told his listeners: “We are morally sick, because we have grown used to saying one thing and thinking another.”