The Power of the Powerless was written by Václav Havel in the summer of 1978 and began circulating in samizdat in 1979. It is justly famous for the influence it had in the decade leading up to the revolutions of 1989.
Its central idea was “living in truth”, and it proved to be immensely powerful. The assessment of TheEconomist, in its obituary for Havel in 2011, was that “no single phrase did more to inspire those trying to subvert and overthrow the Communist empire in Europe”. The first words of Havel’s manifesto mocked another famous phrase, the first words of TheCommunistManifesto: “A spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of Communism.” His appeal “to live in the truth” helped to vanquish this spectre in Europe. Perhaps it can help to vanquish some of the spectres that haunt our own times. Whether this is a possibility that is open to us depends on what it means to live in truth in democracy. Considering this question can also shed another light on the public character of religion in liberal democracy, as what should be one of the pre-eminent means of living in truth.
THE ORIGINS OF “THE POWER OF THE POWERLESS”
Havel made his appeal in very different conditions to our own. He wrote The Power of the Powerless at his summer home in Hrádeček (two hours northeast of Prague) under conditions of intensifying police harassment. Police stationed conspicuously on the road leading to his house stopped all visitors, sometimes fined them and confiscated their licences, and warned them that they entered “at their own risk”. Policemen accompanied Havel “wherever he went, shopping in town or walking his dog” and even into the sauna. By the end of the year they had built an observation tower across the road from his house and were sabotaging the heating and plumbing. As his biographer Michael Zantovsky observes, Havel “fared better than other activists at this time”, who were subjected to “bullying, beatings, blackmail intended to make them leave the country, kidnappings [and] illegal house raids and searches”; but by the end of May the following year he would be back in jail.
Havel’s first stint in jail was at the beginning of 1977. He was arrested as one of the spokesmen for Charter 77 which issued a short document calling on the government of the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic to abide by its obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, to which it had acceded in 1976 under the Helsinki Accords. Shortly after Charter 77’s declaration was published in the West the Communist leadership condemned the declaration as “an anti-state, counter-revolutionary document” and its signatories as “adversaries of socialism”. A ferocious public campaign was generated against Charter 77 and anyone suspected of being involved with it. In schools and workplaces around the country people were required to attend meetings “where their task was to outdo one another in condemning the Charter and expressing their moral disgust with its signatories”. At the end of January hundreds of actors, musicians and artists attended a televised meeting to sign a declaration condemning “renegades and traitors”. Thousands “signed this and similar declarations at a number of public meetings convened in theatres, publishing houses, universities, scientific institutes and other places suspected of harbouring intellectuals”, although some resisted the intimidation and pressure to do so. As Havel noted in The Power of the Powerless, the government collected “millions of signatures” in its “campaign to compel the entire nation to declare that Charter 77 was wrong”, which in itself proved the truth of the claims Charter 77 made.
House searches and interrogations of those suspected of being involved with Charter 77 accompanied this campaign. Another of Charter 77’s spokesmen, the philosopher Jan Patočka, was called in for interrogation on an almost daily basis from early January 1977. After an interrogation on 4 March lasting eleven hours he was admitted to hospital with chest pains and died a week later. Police then disrupted his funeral. Havel remained in detention until 20 May. He was subjected to intense psychological pressure to repudiate Charter 77 and to resign as a spokesman. The experience left him feeling deeply compromised and humiliated, which seems to be precisely what the secret police intended in his case. Following a trial in October, three other Charter 77 signatories were imprisoned while Havel was given a suspended sentence. This was probably also intended to discredit Havel and to deepen recriminations and division among Charter 77 supporters. These efforts were not successful. Havel continued his work with others against the regime, signing petitions and open letters and taking part in the establishment of the Committee for the Defence of the Unjustly Persecuted (VONS) in April 1978. In August and September he attended illegal meetings with the Polish Workers’ Defence Committee (KOR) in the Krkonoše mountains on the border between Poland and Czechoslovakia. By the end of October he had completed The Power of the Powerless.
THE INDIVISIBILITY OF FREEDOM
As Havel explains in his essay, the catalyst for Charter 77 and what followed from it was the 1976 trial of an underground rock band called The Plastic People of the Universe. These musicians operated illegally, outside the closely regulated channels for officially approved rock music, and the lyrics of their songs and their demeanour and lifestyle reflected this. For Havel, they were like any number of rock groups that exist in a free society:
They had no political past, or even any well-defined political positions. They were simply young people who wanted to live in their own way, to make music they liked, [and] to sing what they wanted to sing, to live in harmony with themselves and to express themselves in a truthful way.
The attack on them was “camouflaged as an attack on criminality”, “a judicial attack”, but in Havel’s eyes it was “an attack by the totalitarian system on life itself, on the very essence of human freedom and integrity”. For if the regime could punish musicians simply for playing the music they liked, especially without this being noticed, it “could well start locking up everyone who thought independently and who expressed himself independently, even if he did so only in private”.
The attack on “The Plastics” highlighted two critical points for Havel. By unintentionally revealing the system’s determination “to make life entirely the same, to surgically remove from it everything … that stood out, that was independent and unclassifiable”, it uncovered the “yawning abyss” between totalitarianism and “the real aims of life”:
while life, in its essence, moves towards plurality, diversity, independent self-constitution and self-organisation, in short, towards the fulfilment of its own freedom, the post-totalitarian system demands conformity, uniformity, and discipline. The aims of the system reveal its most essential characteristic to be introversion, a movement towards being ever more completely and unreservedly itself, which means that the radius of its influence is continually widening as well.
It also brought about a powerful realisation among many different groups previously isolated from each other “that freedom is indivisible”. The freedom of the Plastics to play their music was understood as being “essentially the same” as the freedom to reflect and write on political and philosophical matters, and “the freedom to express and defend the various social and political interests of society”. This inspired “a genuine sense of solidarity with the young musicians”, based on the realisation “that not standing up for the freedom of others, regardless of how remote their means of creativity or their attitude to life” may be, “meant surrendering one’s own freedom”. The attack on an obscure rock group was “an attack on the very notion of ‘living within the truth’”, and the response to it demonstrated what living in truth entails: a defence of plurality and “independent self-constitution” as the real aims of life; solidarity in place of the “principle of exclusion” and closed communities; and a defence of the freedom of the individual anchored in accepting responsibility for others.
The origins of Charter 77 and the defence of The Plastics highlight another important aspect of living in truth for Havel. The forces that eventually come to resist the system are not primarily political, although their resistance inevitably brings them into the political realm to propose a different form of politics. They originate elsewhere “for the most part”, in “the far broader area of the ‘pre- political’, where ‘living within the lie’ confronts ‘living within the truth’, that is, where the demands of the post-totalitarian system conflict with the real aims of life”. The famous example Havel gives of this conflict is the manager of a fruit and vegetable shop who places the slogan “Workers of the World Unite!” in his window. The greengrocer does this not because the slogan expresses his real opinions or even because he has given it any thought, but because this is what everyone does and has done for years, and a failure to do so could cause trouble. Placing the sign in the window protects him against accusations of disloyalty and from potential informers and the consequences that follow. “It is one of the thousands of details that guarantee him a relatively tranquil life.”
The slogan is in fact a sign. Its subliminal message is “… I know what I must do … I am obedient and therefore have the right to be left in peace”. Put more bluntly, it says “I am afraid and unquestioningly obedient”. Of course it would be embarrassing and shameful to ask the greengrocer to place “such an unequivocal statement of his own degradation in the shop window”, and so the sign takes the form of an expression of “disinterested conviction” about “the workers of the world uniting”. Textually, the slogan indicates a high motivation. Functionally, it “helps the greengrocer to conceal from himself the low foundations of his obedience”, while at the same time concealing the low foundations of power in the post- totalitarian system, which the slogan legitimises.
The parable of the greengrocer illustrates the way in which the system “touches people at every step, but … with its ideological gloves on”. This ideology “pretends that the requirements of the system derive from the requirements of life”, when in fact “it is a world of appearances trying to pass for reality”. It pretends that its form of tyranny is the highest form of freedom, while pretending that it pretends nothing. The system becomes “captive to its own lies” and “must falsify everything”: the past, the present, the future, human nature, life in common. “Individuals need not believe all these mystifications, but they must behave as if they did, or they must at least tolerate them in silence.” This is all that is required of them to confirm the system, to make the system, to become the system. In this way, the slogan in the greengrocer’s window, apparently senseless, “makes sense nevertheless”. It forms part of a panorama to which everyone is required to contribute in singly senseless ways which, when cumulated, remind everyone not only of “where they are living and what is expected of them”, but of “what everyone else is doing and … what they must do as well”.
The post-totalitarian system’s “suppression of the aims of life is a complex process, … based on the multifaceted manipulation of all expressions of life”. What seems to be a public expression of personal conviction (“workers of the world unite”) is a cover for the shame to which an individual is reduced when fear prevents him from speaking his own mind. What appears to be individual participation in a spontaneous consensus, “in harmony with society”, is a surrender of one’s own identity which brings pressure to bear on others in support of an enforced position. At the same time, however, “every free human act or expression … must necessarily appear as a threat to the system”.
Totalitarianism over-extends by attempting to conform life to itself. In this, as Havel himself demonstrated to such astonishing effect, lies its vulnerability. “Under the orderly surface of the life of lies, … there slumbers the hidden sphere of life in its real aims, of its hidden openness to truth.” Living the truth is “the repressed alternative, the authentic aim to which living a lie is an inauthentic response”. Living a lie is only possible because of the “human predisposition to truth” and the massive energies we invest, individually and communally, in resisting it and denying its claims upon us. If we can find the courage to turn towards it, however, everything changes. A system based on the falsification of the good, which asserts falsehood as truth, cannot tolerate anyone who refuses to play the game, even if it is merely an obscure greengrocer who simply begins to say what he thinks and perhaps even “finds the strength in himself to express solidarity with those whom his conscience commands him to support”. He has no “physical or actual power”, but his decision to act and speak for himself illuminates his surroundings and exposes the game. He will, of course, be punished for this in a multitude of ways. For “if the main pillar of the system is living a lie, then it is not surprising that the fundamental threat to it is living the truth. That is why it must be suppressed more severely than anything else.”
THE POWER LIES YIELD TO TRUTH
The totalitarian system’s assertion of its ideal world against reality requires universal assent. It “must embrace and permeate everything”. Everything in life must conform to it, reinforce it, validate it. Even though the system sustains itself through manipulation and violence it cannot coexist with an individual attempting to live in the truth, because living in truth “denies it in principle and threatens it in its entirety”. This gives truth “a very special import, one unknown in other contexts. In this system, truth plays a far greater (and above all, a far different) role as a factor of power, or as an outright political force”. The game of lies the system imposes makes “every free expression of life” a threat, including forms of expression such as a rock concert or an open letter signed by intellectuals, to which “no one would attribute any potential political significance, not to mention explosive power” in free societies. Living in truth attracts this power in a post-totalitarian system because the system claims total dominion, not only over society but over the individual, who is co-opted into compromising for himself “the essential aims of life [which] are present naturally in every person”: human dignity, moral integrity, “the free expression of being, and a sense of transcendence…”. The manipulation and compromise is comprehensive, relentless and brazen. It makes life grey, empty and exhausting, so that, with time and in the absence of terror, living in truth accrues a strong attraction as a source of new life and freedom despite the immense cost it entails.
At the same time, living within the lie is not peculiar to totalitarianism. We can only be compelled to live within a lie because as human beings “we are in fact capable of living in this way” and coming to terms with it to a greater or lesser extent. “In everyone there is some willingness to merge with the anonymous crowd and to flow comfortably along with it down the river of pseudo-life.” Havel suggests that “the post-totalitarian system has been built on foundations laid down by the historical encounter between dictatorship and the consumer society”, and that our “far-reaching adaptability to living a lie” is connected to “the general unwillingness of consumer-oriented people to sacrifice some material certainties for the sake of their own spiritual and moral integrity”, and “their vulnerability to the attractions of mass indifference”. For this reason, Havel argues that the post- totalitarian system is “only an inflated caricature of modern life in general” and stands “as a kind of warning to the West, revealing its own latent tendencies”. In the democracies “people are manipulated in ways that are infinitely more subtle and refined than the brutal methods used” in the post-totalitarian system. They “enjoy many personal freedoms and securities” unknown in that system, but find it no easier to resist the trivialisation of so much of existence and the indifference to responsibility for others. The “automatism” of technological societies, post- totalitarian or democratic, is a crisis for modern humanity, and the greater space democracy provides “for the genuine aims of life, the better the crisis is hidden from people and the more deeply do they become immersed in it”.
Havel makes clear the reasons why living in the truth has such power in a closed system of falsehood and domination such as post-totalitarianism. He underscores the unique power that living within the truth acquires in those conditions, and the way it gives “political significance” and even “explosive power” to expressions of ordinary life which in free societies pass, for the most part, without notice. In free societies there are massively greater opportunities for individuals and communities to pursue the real aims of life, and the dynamism and prosperity of these societies is a product of this. At the same time, the abundance of room to live as a human being makes it easier to lose sight of what this entails, and more difficult to grapple with “the illusory nature of freedoms not based on personal responsibility”. The injuries people sustain to their own dignity as human beings and the compromises they make against their moral integrity are more often the result of free choices and unforced errors, rather than the unfree choices and forced errors that constitute much of life in post-totalitarianism; and the concealment of the true nature of this situation behind “something higher” tends to be more self-generated, drawing on some false presuppositions at the heart of free societies, rather than an interpretation of reality imposed by the power structure. The “integrity of post-totalitarian power” is founded “on the universality of ‘living with a lie’”, and the conditions of a free society usually provide correctives to prevent falsehoods from attaining universality, even if they can nevertheless acquire dominant roles in shaping the direction of culture and the policies of governments. The two societies are vastly different: uniformity and unfreedom on the one hand, where living in truth is most powerful; and plurality and limitless freedom on the other, where it is much harder for living in truth to have an impact.
“TRUTH? WHAT IS THAT?” (JN 18:38)
Part of making “room for the genuine aims of life” is respecting the freedom of people to “live their own way, in the spirit of their own hierarchy of values”, but Havel is not a relativist. “The ‘independent life of society’” must have as its basis “serving truth consistently, purposely and articulately”. In his 1984 lecture “Politics and Conscience”, Havel spoke of how the nature of human existence and personal experience continually points us to something beyond our own horizon, “that might escape our understanding and our grasp but, for just that reason, firmly grounds this world, bestows upon it order and measure, and is the hidden source of all rules, customs, commandments, prohibitions and norms that hold within it”. The absolute beyond our horizon is the source of our sense of meaningfulness in existence, our sense that “we are somehow answerable” for our lives and the lives of others. It locates us in “a world of responsibility”, which is the foundation of living in truth. Its “proper point of departure” is “concern for others” and “deepening one’s responsibility to and for the whole”.
For this reason living in truth is not simply authenticity. During the last days of the Soviet Union, Svetlana Alexievich recorded the recollections of Vasily Petrovich, a life-long Communist in old age. “We dreamt of worldwide revolution”, he says, quoting Aleksandr Blok’s poem “The Twelve” about spreading fire throughout the world, although omitting the line about fire drenched in blood. “We thought that it was possible to build a new world where everyone would be happy. We thought that it was possible. I sincerely believed in it! Completely sincerely!” “Our era – my era – was a great era! Nobody lived for himself.” Although his wife was killed during Stalin’s terror and he himself was arrested and tortured, his final wish is “to die a Communist”. “You can’t judge us according to logic”, he tells Alexievich. “You can only judge us according to the laws of religion. Faith! Our faith will make you jealous!” From the account that Alexievich records for us, there seems to be no reason to doubt Vasily Petrovich’s authenticity or the account he gives of himself and his convictions. However, a genuine conviction that bloodshed is necessary to bring about justice on earth does not make the falsification of the good an expression of living in truth, even if witness to this conviction has withstood personal experience of such violence. The distinction between the two is not difficult to draw. Truth is not violence. “Even the most promising project of ‘general well-being’ convicts itself of inhumanity the moment it demands a single involuntary death.” There is no question about Vasily Petrovich’s faith, but living in faith is not the same thing as living in truth. Religion itself must be grounded in the reality of human existence, “occurring within the space-time universe yet intrinsically oriented beyond it”, and not in wish-fulfilment and a “counterfeit of transcendence”.
A FAMILY RESEMBLANCE
Living in truth, anchored in accepting and grasping responsibility for others here and now in the place “where the Lord has set us down”, thus points us to perhaps the prime form of refusal of responsibility, which is “deep-rooted refusals to engage with reality”. As Brendan Purcell has observed in relation to Solzhenitsyn’s writings (which were clearly an influence on Havel), it is this refusal of responsibility that underlies a wide range of vices and sustains profoundly “disordering beliefs” in societies and political systems. In post-totalitarian Czechoslovakia, the compromises of the greengrocer and millions like him were made as adaptations “to the conditions in which they live”, but indifferent to the consequences for others and denying the reality that, in doing so, they helped to perpetuate those conditions. Often, perhaps mostly, these compromises were not made with any malign intent but from fear, and from legitimate and entirely understandable concerns to protect oneself, one’s livelihood or one’s family. Part of the insidiousness of the totalitarian system was the way it manipulated the sense of responsibility that most people have towards those closest to them, against a sense of responsibility towards those further away.
The situation in free societies is very different. There is far greater scope for resisting manipulation and for exposing it, and there is no one centre of power exercising dominion over all which also identifies itself as the one source of truth. However, while it is more diffuse there is manipulation, arising from different currents in culture and society, sometimes cutting across each other, sometimes flowing together; and on some issues, a small number when compared to the whole but concerning important questions, there are “adaptations to conditions” which share at least a family resemblance to those Havel describes. Two obvious examples can be given here. There has been a significant shift in determination to establish the permissibility of abortion and euthanasia as normative. Quite distinct from this and of quite a different order of importance, the rapid legitimisation of norms of sexuality, marriage and human identity as male and female which have displaced more traditional understandings, has been accompanied by ample signalling that a new orthodoxy in these areas is being established. There are complicated motivations and investments among those who are broadly supportive of these developments – individuals, families, community groups and institutions – centring around respect for freedom and autonomy, compassion and the appropriate response to suffering, equality and discrimination, and most immediately for people, care and concern for loved ones; and by no means do all those who welcome these changes in culture and morality require them to be imposed on or validated by everyone else.
However at the hard edge of these developments, where they are more strongly driven by ideological considerations than concern for persons, semi-soft means of intimidation and harassment (political correctness, speech codes, “safe spaces”, protracted and expensive judicial or administrative processes, fines, the refusal or cancellation of accreditation to study, teach or practice a profession, loss of employment, public “shaming” campaigns, et cetera), make it very clear to people “what everyone else is doing and … what they must do as well”. At this ideological level, a refusal to accept these norms cannot be allowed to go unpunished because they must be accepted as universal. To be permitted to reject them and retain standing as a decent human being, which is what respect for freedom of conscience or freedom of religion and belief grants, is understood as calling them radically into question. There are in the nature of their propositions some realities that these norms cannot overcome (on the one hand, that we should not kill; on the other, that there is a givenness to sexuality, marriage and human identity which we should respect, as we also respect the freedom of others) so that to prevail, they must be enforced. Not everyone insists on pushing these issues to this point, but when they are prosecuted ideologically, adaptations to these conditions are required which, in an analogous way to Havel’s description, help to sustain them and foster an indifference to the consequences for others.
LIVING IN TRUTH IN DEMOCRACY
Havel’s reflections on some of the dynamics of modern culture and politics as he encountered them in an exaggerated and brutal form in totalitarian society are also reflections on some perennial aspects of the human condition; in particular our capacity for self-deception, for averting our eyes, and the demoralisation this causes for ourselves and others. He also underscores the fundamental human orientation to the truth and the transcendent which enables us to free ourselves from this and to recover trust and hope for the future. From this we can identify three essential principles for living in truth in a democracy. First and foremost it requires us to speak the truth and not adapt ourselves to falsehoods. As Vladimir Tismaneanu comments, this is precisely where the power of the powerless lies for Havel: “the moral life starts at the moment we refuse to lie. The world may be full of injustice but let me not add to it.” Second, a refusal to add to injustice and a commitment to speaking the truth preclude violence, and in particular any proposition that violence is necessary to bring about “fundamental” change, which always make human lives “less fundamental”. Living in truth in a democracy means refusing to kill. Finally, the manipulation of people and the responsibility they have to one another for the purpose of sustaining an ideology in power is one of the central themes of The Power of the Powerless. This provides a third premise for living in truth in democracy: to resist everything which reduces people to things or threatens to deprive persons of personhood. Expressing these principles in terms of refusal and resistance is not to treat them as negatives, as always being against something; only to emphasise that clarity about what cannot be countenanced is often the foundation for meeting our responsibilities to ourselves and to others. Expressed more positively, they are the commitments which make “whatever is properly human in us possible”: truth, life and friendship.