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Toward a Hopeful Politics: Václav Havel’s Legacy of Responsible Commitment

Czech playwright, activist, and politician Václav Havel was not a religious man, at least not in the sense in which we normally use that term. His political writing, however, was imbued with an unashamed devotion to a transcendent which, fan of Martin Heidegger that he was, he called Being. “Being” for Havel is not a sort of higher creature, an identifiable god. Rather, it signifies a sort of cosmic interconnection whereby individuals rely on and are responsible to the world beyond themselves. As Havel wrote, “we are mysteriously connected to the entire universe, we are mirrored in it, just as the entire evolution of the universe is mirrored in us.”[1] The thinker asserted that Being beckons us to the recognition of our common ground in it and hence, to the acknowledgment that we must live responsibly with and toward one another. When we live in this way, we live in truth to Being.

Havel’s rather general notion of living in truth to Being was particularly effective at uniting citizens within the former Czechoslovakia—a country of diverse cultures, religions, and viewpoints—in the struggle for dignity within a repressive regime. If their aspirations were to be achieved, the Czechs, Slovaks, ethnic Germans, Catholics, progressive Communists, and others who lived within the nation had to find common ground; they had to work together to produce substantive change in the organization and governance of society. Recognizing a common connection in Being not only provided a starting point that was acceptable to these groups and individuals; it also, as I shall illustrate, provided a defense against the regime’s use of fear to pit its citizens against each other. Throughout much of his political writings, Havel is, of course, addressing the particular circumstances of Communist Czechoslovakia, but his focused analyses and demands for more just governance in his country display convictions that are especially relevant in the currently polarized political climate in the United States.

The interplay of hope and fear is a constant theme in Havel’s analyses of ideology, culture, and what he calls “post-totalitarian” regimes.[2] As he moves back and forth between analysis and exhortation, he examines how a conscious grounding in Being provides the foundation for fear-defying hope. An understanding of this vision of existence is useful when considering how contemporary US society may overcome its own fears concerning collective life.

Hope’s Defense against Post-Totalitarian Fear

Havel describes the generalized fear propagated by Czechoslovakia’s post-totalitarian regime as one that, in removing individuals from their responsibility to themselves and others, disabled their ability to act in any significant public way. In this society, the regime maintained itself at least partly through the self-policing it forced upon its citizens. Never knowing who was a member of the secret police; who was an informer; who would interpret a look, expression, or action as subversive; or who would manufacture evidence for one reason or another, caused individuals to be constantly on their guard against each other, always aware that the slightest misstep might have devastating consequences. Thus, the post-totalitarian regime created a society of fear and distrust.

But it was not only the average citizen who lived in fear; those citizens who were in power were also beholden to this system of general surveillance. Hence, toeing the line and carrying out orders was a much safer proposition than sticking one’s neck out for an ideal or fellow citizen. Subscribing to the status quo provided the surest guarantee of one’s safety. Because if the system were to fall, not only might the power holders be targeted for revenge, but everything they had so conscientiously stood for would be replaced with an unknown, leaving them without direction and with no clear indication about how to live. However such leaders really felt, then, about the regime or their roles within it, their compliance effectively helped to keep the system in place.

The threat of serious punishments, such as imprisonment, was part of this decision to acquiesce, but Havel says that what citizens really feared was the denial of more everyday comforts and the loss of such privileges as receiving permission to work in one’s chosen profession or sending one’s child to university. The majority of the population, then, attended to their business and tried to remain invisible, keeping their opinions to themselves, displaying the appropriate signs in the windows, and repeating the right slogans.[3] Like the power holders they feared, these citizens’ passivity essentially gave carte blanche to the regime, solidifying the precariousness of the very circumstances they were trying so hard to make secure.

The government used the people’s desire for everyday stability to its advantage, reminding them not only of the consequences of defiance, but also about the benefits that cooperation would bring; after all, Czechoslovakia had one of the highest living standards in the Communist bloc.[4] The government signaled to its citizens that everything they had, all their material prosperity, was only theirs thanks to their withdrawal from the public, and especially the political, sphere, where significant decisions about their lives were made for them. As noted above, this surrender of personal and societal responsibility effectively sanctioned the continuance of injustice against them and others. Havel asserted that this situation provided confirmation that people had lost touch with “the absolute,” with some sort of shared belief in values such as “sincerity, altruism, dignity, and honour,” which form the core of human identity.[5] A society that exists without the guidance of such values, Havel wrote, is alienated from itself and is deprived of the means to conduct a free or decent life.

To reclaim our responsibility and combat our fears, Havel says that we must have access to hope. However, Havel’s concept of hope is not the kind of hope preached by positive psychology or the prosperity gospel—that if you just believe, good things will come to you.[6] In fact, the hope Havel advocates is not for a particular thing, improved situation, or “happy ending.” Rather, it is “an orientation of the spirit,” a sort of guiding disposition that directs itself beyond any particular situation or desire.[7] This posture forms the basis for how one acts in all aspects of life, a stance that is possible and effective because it is grounded in and emerges from the transcendent, from Being.

Havel maintains that we discover hope when we recognize our inherent interconnection within Being. Once we see how our interactions with others affect the state of the whole, we realize that these connections demand solidarity with and respect for all others, regardless of the situation. We also begin to place faith in the possibility that when we voice our opinions or speak out against injustice, our interlocutors, taking strength from our refusal to give in to fear, will also act in hope. And beyond just abstaining from reporting, punishing, or avoiding us, this reciprocal action goes one step further; our interlocutors may even begin to speak their own minds and to act more freely. With a critical mass of hopeful actors, the possibility emerges that the officials to whom one protests or the power holders who make decisions about our fate might also recognize our commonality in Being. Hope, however, accepts the chance that such developments may not occur on a grand scale—but it also refuses to abandon the prospect that those who are open to Being will continue to stand with us and to bear witness to the freedom embodied by such openness. Hope, then, is not dependent on individual successes or failures but is a spiritual constant that provides the strength to live according to our common grounding in Being.[8]

Havel saw evidence of such hope when citizens engaged in cultural life. Growing youth involvement in religious groups, participation in creative musicians’ circles such as the Jazz Section, the existence of the underground university and theater groups, and the work of overtly political organizations such as Charter 77 and VONS made the regime uncomfortable; within these groups, citizens were asserting that they had some say in running their own lives.[9] In operating their organizations, in some instances without the approval of the government, these individuals assumed responsibility for themselves, each other, and the group as a whole. After the fall of Communism, it was the members of such groups, who were already familiar with the give-and-take of collective ventures, who helped construct the new government, realizing that attention to our interconnection in Being was more necessary than ever. New uncertainties—about how to govern, how to address economic instability, and how to treat members of the old regime—presented challenges that, if not centered in an attitude of respect for all citizens, could have easily undermined the Velvet Revolution’s achievements. Over twenty years later, the Czech Republic and Slovakia continue to deal with these challenges,[10] but the hope that Havel advocated is evident in the continuing progress made by both countries in formulating new models of collective life.

Havel’s Legacy of Hope for the United States

We must be wary, of course, of drawing parallels between Communist Czechoslovakia and our lives, culture, and politics in a twenty-first-century representative democracy. Indeed, in comparison to the social pressures and government influence that Havel and his people faced in Czechoslovakia, fear cannot seem anything but tame in the United States. For example, it may sound farfetched to say that the individualism typical of US culture masks a particular type of fear. Recent outcries against “socialism” and perceived government intrusion into our “freedoms,” however, display an extreme form of American anxiety about interdependence, a sense of apprehension and fear that Havel’s insights may be particularly suited to helping us address and alleviate.

As the sociologist Robert N. Bellah points out, in thinking about collective self-governance, Americans suffer from a language problem; the country was founded upon and reared on self-sufficiency and personal independence. Consequently, our habits of thought and terms of discourse have caused us to become unaccustomed—even unable—to thinking about collective life in any way but as a group of individuals, a group in which each member strives for individual autonomy and leaves the others to do the same for themselves. Bellah notes that this disposition amounts to “ontological individualism. That is, the self is the only real thing in the world. I am real. All of you are more or less fictitious.” Living according to such an outlook, “limited to a language of radical individual autonomy,” people “cannot think of themselves or others except as arbitrary centers of volition. They cannot express the fullness of being that is actually there.”[11]

The way in which many Americans envision the good life, then, not only entails neglect of others’ needs and desires, but it also involves being constantly on guard against potential constraints that may be placed upon us. True autonomy, we believe, is equivalent to freedom from anything that would make claims upon the individual. Demands are feared as encroachments upon our ability to direct our life as we desire. If we cannot successfully avoid such intrusions, we are obviously not fully independent, and hence, we are not worthy to be called individuals. Additionally, if people dare to ask others for assistance, such requests are not only seen as proof of the petitioners’ weakness, but they are also often interpreted as attempts by the petitioners to achieve their desires by piggybacking on the hard work of others instead of doing that work themselves. Absent here is the understanding that humans cannot act in isolation from each other and that interdependence contributes to the health, strength, and richness of individuals and societies.

The valorization of isolated autonomy is evident, for example, in cries against government welfare programs, immigrant amnesty, public health care, government regulation of business, and “socialism” in general.[12] People who take this perspective fear both that their material possessions will be decreased or taken away and that they will somehow be cheated if others receive assistance that they do not believe they require. This sense of ressentiment[13] may disguise the unacknowledged fear that if we accept the validity of social safety nets, we may have to make use of them at some point in our own lives, thereby compromising our independence. And people tend to mask this fear with the openly declared anxiety that, should such assistance to others continue, the country as we know it will become unrecognizable and that we will abandon our historical respect for individual freedom along with it. As has been especially evident in recent national conversations about health care and taxation, for example, some people who expect such outcomes attempt to avoid this destruction of individual freedom by broadcasting ill-informed pronouncements that are intended to instill equal levels of fear in others. As a result, policy discussions become confused and then stall as legislators attempt to separate fact from falsity and sometimes give in to their own fear of losing their jobs by backing away from contested issues.[14] Throughout this process, rhetoric becomes increasingly angry and accusatory, a situation which polarizes debates to an even greater degree and calls into doubt the belief that people of varying opinions are able to or even desirous of working or living together.

In spite of the division that occurs due to this devotion to self-sufficiency, hope may lie in the reality of our interconnected lives. Although we praise personal independence, Americans often participate in volunteer work and social groups that encourage or even require members’ involvement in each other’s lives. Religious organizations are especially exemplary in this regard. Here, members not only support each other emotionally, spiritually, and often, materially, due to their grounding in a transcendent, but even more importantly, they frequently reach out to people outside of their organization who are in need. Within such organizations, demands are made upon members’ time and finances;[15] these believers give up some degree of their “freedom from” in order to expand their community’s “freedom to” work in truth to Being. And they do all of this without giving up their individuality; they do this without receiving money, recognition, or some sort of compensating favor that evens the sum total of benefits gained by each party.

Religious organizations, of course, are just as susceptible as any other group to the sorts of fears I discussed previously,[16] but at their best, these organizations embody the sort of hopeful responsibility in Being that Havel sees as requisite for a just world. In doing so, they paint a picture of human interdependence that keeps individuality and freedom intact. The potential danger of these and other organizations, however, may lie in a tendency to circumscribe responsible action within the groups themselves and to view with suspicion and fear the outside world that does not practice the same traditions or subscribe to some or all of their beliefs. The fact, though, that we are able to participate as complex individuals within smaller organizations provides us with evidence that some form of interdependence and acceptance of demands upon our time and money do not constitute threats to our autonomy. It should also demonstrate that addressing the needs of others neither robs us of our freedom nor provides the recipients of our efforts with an unfair advantage over us. In short, the reality of participation in voluntary organizations should furnish us with hope for the possibility and desirability of a communal life of interdependent solidarity and respect. The good that emerges when we surrender our fears—along with our time, energy, and even money—to further the efforts of these smaller-scale organizations should be spread to the wider (political) community.

At least three objections may emerge in response to my arguments. First, the claim may be made that Havel’s understanding of Being amounts to an empty pluralism which renders all convictions equally valid as long as no one infringes on anyone else’s preferences. In such a case, particular belief systems might constitute nothing more than idiosyncratic personal preferences with no legitimate claim to make demands of others within the wider public sphere. Second, my suggestion that we translate our efforts at collective interaction within religious and other voluntary organizations into wider political activity may be read as an assertion that involvement with the secular and/or the public sphere overrides all other commitments. Third and following on the coattails of the previous objection, some readers may object to the comparison between participation in voluntary organizations and involvement in broader political self-governance, as if the two forms of cooperation were essentially the same.

Regarding the first objection, I admit that Havel’s understanding of Being is extremely general and that it appears to leave no room for competing belief systems to make claims of greater or lesser validity regarding the specific look of Being. But even though Havel expresses discomfort at “replacing an uncertain ‘something’ with a completely unambiguous personal God,” his appeals to transcendence refuse to deny the value of particular metaphysical claims.[17] Although he never embraced a specific religious tradition as his own, Havel recognized and was unwilling to reject the hope provided to adherents of various belief systems within his country’s dissident movement. To this extent he was decisively post-secular in inclination. With all of their differences intact, Catholics, reform Communists, atheists, agnostics, Slovaks, Czechs, and others acted together in Being to bring down a government that had not allowed any of them to take responsibility for themselves as themselves.

Another thinker who may provide further insight into how me might fruitfully coexist despite our different beliefs is Abdulaziz Sachedina. In defending the compatibility of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights with Muslim theology, Sachedina notes that a sense of universal justice is fundamental to most religions. Recognition of this parallel should, he says, allow adherents of different faiths to act in support of universal rights, permitting them to converse about the protections of those rights without having to set aside their own interpretations of them. He observes that “traditional societies had universal notions of justice and had worked towards principles of coexistence among themselves and others long before the secular modernist spoke about the contractarian theory of corporate life that shaped modern politics.”[18] Hence, religious groups should not fear that subscribing to statements of universal human rights will compromise their beliefs. Acknowledging our interconnection in Being, then, does not constitute a leveling of our differences or encourage an atmosphere where anything goes. Rather, this recognition of commonality allows us to bring our differences to the table and to decide together how to behave responsibly toward each other as different people. At the very least, the call to responsibility within Being reminds us to listen to each other as we are and to set aside the fear that such reception on our part will compromise our beliefs.

Contrary to the second objection—that with my appeal to expand our interaction with others beyond the boundaries of voluntary organizations I am likewise asserting that our concern for politics should override all other responsibilities—my suggestion is merely that our participation in voluntary organizations be expanded to wider political participation. I do not propose naive trust in government or claim that an active political life constitutes our highest good. My appeal is, rather, a call to a form of participation in Being that, as shown by low voter turnout and political involvement in the United States,[19] has been neglected by much of the nation’s populace. Hopeful participation in collective public governance means that by finding solidarity with others—including our neighbors, officials, and the media—and pressing forward in action, we hold ourselves and all others accountable to the health of Being as a whole. Performing such work requires having enough hope in the possibilities of collective existence that we are able to engage in difficult conversations that go beyond safe, surface generalities or simplistic sound bites and slogans, that go beyond fear of unknown outcomes and that open us to the possible demands that our neighbors may make upon us.

The third objection is somewhat related to the second—namely, that I cannot hold up voluntary organizations as proof that we have nothing to fear from the demands of government. It may be objected that the two entities, broadly construed, exhibit fundamentally distinct natures: the very adjective used to describe the first sort—“voluntary”—points to their essential dissimilarity. As opposed to the rule of government, we may leave the “jurisdiction” of a voluntary organization at any time; we may choose to follow or not to follow the precepts of such organizations without incurring any legal penalty against ourselves.

I acknowledge these differences. I acknowledge that government may seem like a menacing force we cannot escape—even if we leave the country, we will find ourselves under the rule of yet another authority. And I acknowledge that when we think about government, especially at the federal level, we reflect upon how decision makers and bureaucrats are faceless and disconnected from us. These realities make it difficult to feel as if our presence is valued or even noticed. However, the government depends upon us, the very people it rules. The political realm is a space in which we may transform government to act more responsibly toward us, a shaping process that bears similarities to the work—such as committee and planning meetings, budgeting and fund-raising, construction of bylaws and regulations, and so forth—that we carry out in maintaining the health of our voluntary organizations.[20] Therefore, in holding up the activities of these smaller institutions as proof that we are able to devote parts of ourselves to a collective project of decision making and action, I merely point out the capacities we already demonstrate in actively and responsibly structuring our individual and collective lives, without viewing the demands of such activity as infringements upon our freedom.

* * *

After an unshakable hope helped bring about the fall of Communism, Havel constantly called his fellow citizens to become involved with each other in the political sphere, to move past their fears of the corrupt and corrupting nature of political participation and their apprehension of unknowns. Pointing to what seemingly impossible things collective determination had already achieved for them, he called the people to overcome their concerns about safeguarding what they had, to let down their defenses, and to instead work together. Let us honor his legacy by confronting our own fears of such collective participation, embracing the hope that his work—and our own—continues to inspire.



[1] Havel, “The Need for Transcendence in the Postmodern World” (speech, Independence Hall, Philadelphia, July 4, 1994), http://www.worldtrans.org/whole/havelspeech.html.

[2] Havel, “The Power of the Powerless,” in Open Letters, 131. Havel uses the term post-totalitarian to describe governmental systems, such as those in force within the late-twentieth-century Communist bloc, that operate via total ideological control over citizens’ actions and beliefs. In such structures, nations are governed simultaneously in no centralized fashion, and citizens’ fear of each other is essential to the ability of such a system to remain intact.

[3] As a representation of this sort of behavior, Havel offers up the picture of a greengrocer who displays a sign, distributed by the Communist Party, in his shop window. See Havel, “The Power of the Powerless,” 132.

[4] “[P]ersonal consumption” and “food consumption” increased markedly after World War II, the country was enjoying “narrow income differentials,” and “by the end of the 1950s,” nearly all citizens possessed health insurance and had access to medical care. Hugh LeCaine Agnew, The Czechs and the Lands of the Bohemian Crown (Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, 2004), 247.

[5] Havel, “Letter to Dr. Gustáv Husák,” in Open Letters, 15.

[6] A less simplistic elaboration of positive psychology and the prosperity gospel would constitute a digression. For a thoughtful analysis of both, however, see Barbara Ehrenreich, Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking is Undermining America (New York, NY: Metropolitan Books, 2009).

[7] Havel, Disturbing the Peace: A Conversation with Karel Hvíždala (New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), 201 and 181.

[8] Havel uses the term spiritual to describe a commitment to human needs over and above the demands of technology, efficiency, ideology, and other constructions that harm or suppress such needs.

[9] For a discussion of these groups and others, see Havel, Disturbing the Peace, especially 182.

[10] In 1993, Czechoslovakia split up to form two new nations, the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

[11] Bellah, “Individualism and Commitment in American Life” (lecture, University of California, Santa Barbara, February 20, 1986), http://www.robertbellah.com/lectures_4.htm.

[12] For an example of such valorizations, see “Fascism vs Socialism Which We Are Currently Facing,” Tea Party Activists (blog), December 20, 2009, http://www.teapartyactivists.com/tea-party-thoughs/fascism-vs-socialism-which-are-we-currently-facing/.

[13] Or “resentment.” The Nietzschean understanding of the term points to an individual’s or group’s begrudging of others’ enjoyment of or success in life, especially when those individuals or group members feel that their own ascetic or self-moderating behavior, while morally correct, does not allow them the same so-called benefits enjoyed by their less hard-working, anxiety-ridden counterparts. For a good examination of this disposition, see Gilles Deleuze, Nietzsche and Philosophy, trans. Hugh Tomlinson (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 1983).

[14] As an example of groups who fear our country sliding into an unrecognizable, freedomless society, note the name of a group propounding such beliefs, the How to Take Back America Conference; for a good example of factually questionable assertions that attempt to spark fear in others, see Anthony DiMaggio, The Rise of the Tea Party: Political Discontent and Corporate Media in the Age of Obama (New York, NY: Monthly Review Press, 2011), especially 73–77; and for an example of US politicians avoiding action because of fear and misinformation, particularly in relation to the health-care debate, see “A History of Death Panels: A Timeline,” Media Matters for America, March 22, 2011, http://mediamatters.org/research/201103220009.

[15] Examples of such demands on members’ time and finances include being at and helping run worship services, tithing and donating money to the organization’s efforts, participating in volunteer efforts run by the organization, assisting needy members of the organization, and so forth.

[16] Note, for example, how many of the supporters of a welfare-free state also lay claim to a religious tradition. For instance, see Scott Clement and John C. Green, “The Tea Party, Religion, and Social Views,” Pew Research Center Publications, February 23, 2011, http://pewresearch.org/pubs/1903/tea-party-movement-religion-social-issues-conservative-christian.

[17] Edward E. Ericson, “Living Responsibly: Václav Havel’s View,” Religion and Liberty 8, no. 5 (1998): 5–7, http://www.acton.org/pub/religion-liberty/volume-8-number-5/living-responsibly-v%C3%A1clav-havels-view.

[18] Sachedina, “The Clash of Universalisms: Religious and Secular in Human Rights,” Hedgehog Review (Fall 2007), http://www.consciencelaws.org/issues-ethical/ethical099.html.

[19] For voter turnout statistics, see “Voter turnout data for United States,” Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, http://www.idea.int/vt/country_view.cfm?CountryCode=US; and S. Karthick Ramakrishnan, “Political Participation and Civic Voluntarism,” http://www.leap.org/inform_ppi_downloads.html, especially 35–37.

[20] For local lawmakers’ opinions on constituents’ involvement in the political process, see William Barnes and Bonnie Mann, Making Local Democracy Work: Municipal Officials’ Views About Public Engagement, Research Report for the National League of Cities Center for Research & Innovation (Washington, DC: National League of Cities, 2010).

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Author:
Katy Scrogin :
Katy Scrogin is an independent scholar and translator who focuses on issues of political philosophy, media, and ethics. She lives in Fredericksburg, Texas.
  • Jay Sullivan

    I think it would benefit you to do some reading on the ideas of the American feminist Jane Addams where she develops the theory that ethics need to evolve to match the complexity of social and economic structures. Try “Democracy and Social Ethics” and her essay on the Pullman strike of 1894, “A Modern Lear”.

  • Nsagnibene

    Fascinating article! Quiet inspired to have hope with our government. Thanks

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