The first time I heard of Vaclav Havel was in 1968 when a Czech theatre company was scheduled to perform his play “Open Air Feast” during the Shiraz Festival. In those pre-Khomeini days, Shiraz, having consolidated its position as Iran’s cultural capital, was trying to establish a claim as a leading centre of art and culture on a global scale.
In every field, the organisers of the festival looked for shortcuts to help them fly over decades, if not centuries, to reach the modern world. Not surprisingly, therefore, when it came to playwrights they sought to offer the then fashionable “theatre of the absurd”.
Havel was presented as a young dramatist in the line of festival favourites such as Samuel Becket, Eugene Ionesco, Jerzy Grotowski, Bob Wilson and Peter Brook among others. With hopes raised by the Prague Spring, everyone waited for the Czechs with great expectations.
However, just days before the festival opened, Soviet tanks moved into Prague. We had to be content with a reading of a translation of Havel’s play. Here was a free man, thinking outside the iron frame fixed by Communism and speaking of “the precarious state” of all dictatorships.
Over the years, Havel emerged as a symbol of resistance against totalitarianism. Together with other Czech freedom fighters he showed that even the most powerful armies are “helpless when facing a force they are not trained to fight.”
According to Havel, dictatorship operates by terrorising, neutralising and eventually co-opting its victims into the cobweb of corruption it weaves in society. Those fighting for freedom should protect their dignity by projecting “the power of the powerless.”
Havel challenged not only the hard Communism of Novotny and Husak but also the “soft” Socialism of Alexander Dubcek. He showed that a despotic system can not be reformed.
As fate would have it, Havel, who became one of the most famous dissidents of the 1970s, the age of dissidents par excellence, was to have a trajectory all of his own. Unlike Alexander Solzhenytsin, who replaced the cult of Sovietism with that of Slavophilia, Havel did try to replace one totalitarian ideology with another. And unlike Sakharov, Havel did not believe in the amoral neutrality of science.
Of all the dissidents of the Soviet bloc who ended up as political leaders, Havel was alone in being propelled into political power without ever wanting it. In “Interview from a Distance”, Havel relates an evening with Alexander Dubcek, the father of the “Prague Spring” and his close advisors in the fateful days of the summer of 1968.
Initially, Havel is intimidated by the presence of those powerful people. However, very quickly, he realises that his sole weapon, his words, are more powerful than Dubcek’s paraphernalia of state. That realisation enables Havel to tell Dubcek the kind of narrative no Communist leader, even one dreaming of “Socialism with a human face”, would hear in a lifetime.
Havel’s later writings reveal a long struggle with the very idea of entering the political arena as a leader rather than a dissident. We see him wonder whether an intellectual could become a politician without becoming a consummate liar. More importantly, he seeks an answer to the question whether it is possible to practice politics without becoming amoral? Havel’s answer is a brave “yes”.
One key Havellian concept is that of “change generated by patience”. To Havel, human societies are constantly changing entities that, over time, could move from one position to its very opposite. As 2011 draws to its close, one could consider this year as a perfect illustration of that concept. We have seen how a string of despotic regimes, in countries where dissent was the privilege of a handful of desperados, have been toppled by “the power of the powerless”.
One could name 2011 “The Year of Havel”. In the “Arab Spring” countries, in Iran, in several Latin American and African nations, in Russia and, even in China, the “powerless” rose to challenge the powerful with bare hands as the walls of fear, built over generations, began to crumble.
In all those countries, the despot failed to see how society changed without his spies and minions realising what was going on. Thus, when found hiding in a sewage drain, Muammar Gaddafi was simply unable to understand that things had changed. “But what have I done to you?” he kept asking his captors. We also see Bashar al-Assad telling rare visitors to his hideout in Damascus of “the profound love my people have for me.” And did you see Vladimir Putin’s face the other day as he delivered one of his televised homilies? He looked like a jilted lover, unable to understand why his sweetheart has had enough of him.
Taken to its logical conclusion, Havel’s theorem shows that the only thing that a political leader can really control is the time of his or her own exit from the stage. Leaders are swept into power by factors largely beyond their control, as Havel’s own case illustrated.
Did Havel’s theorem apply to him as well, bearing in mind that in the final period of his presidency he had lost much of his popularity?
When I met him during his presidency, Havel offered a mini guided tour of the presidential palace in Prague. He showed me a Persian carpet presented by the Iranian parliament in the 19th century to a king of Bohemia.
A few lines by Saadi, the great poet of Shiraz, adorned the carpet:
Humans are members of a single body
For in creation they are from the same essence
He who is unaware of the suffering of others
Does not merit the name of human!
When I translated the lines, Havel shook his head and said: That is a lesson for us all!