Havel on the “spiritual or moral dimensions of politics”

(Durham, NH) I think that Vaclav Havel’s 1992 speech in Poland is famous, but I am focusing on it for the first time because we have assigned it for our summer institute of civic studies, which starts on Monday.

Not long after the fall of communism, Havel argued that the special ethos of the democratic dissident movements was being lost, and he wanted to “breathe something of the dissident experience into practical politics.” He explained:

    The dissident movement was not typically ideological. Of course, some of us tended more to the right, others to the left, some were close to one trend in opinion or politics, others to another. Nevertheless, I don’t think this was the most important thing. What was essential was something different: the courage to confront evil together and in solidarity, the will to come to an agreement and to cooperate, the willingness to place the common and general interest over any personal or group interests, the feeling of common responsibility for the world and the willingness personally to stand behind one’s own deeds. Truth and certain elementary values such as respect for human rights, civil society, the indivisibility of freedom, the rule of law these were notions that bound us together and made it worth our while to enter again and again into an unequal struggle with the powers that be.

    By politics with a spiritual dimension, I do not understand politics that is merely technological competition for power, limited to that which can be practically achieved and seeking primarily to satisfy this or that particular interest. Nor do I understand by it a politics that is concerned merely to promote a given ideological or political conception.

I am moved by the idea of politics that’s not “technological”–which means, I think, that it’s not about trying to get the goal you want (even an altruistic or idealistic goal) in efficient ways. Efficient politics leads to manipulation and social engineering. Havel later adds that the “aim of an ideology … can be achieved.” Ideologies have end-states, such as socialized medicine or a free market. Havel prefers something that can never be achieved, a “never-ending effort” to make the world better by acting well. Each good act leaves a benign “trace.”

I am also moved by his understanding that “to follow this path demands infinite tenacity, infinite patience, much ingenuity, iron nerves, great dedication, and last but not least, great courage.” That is even more evident 17 years later than it was in 1992, shortly after the great democratic revolutions in Europe and South Africa.

But I am not sure what I think about Havel’s main claim–which I haven’t quoted so far–that the heart of a better politics is achieving a personal “moral stance.” Three possible responses occur to me:

1. The dissidents could be revolutionary by being personally moral in a courageous way, without risking controversy about what was moral. Communism in its later stages was so bankrupt (literally and otherwise) that by simply telling the truth, refusing government jobs, signing manifestos, and so on, one rebuked the system and helped to bring the whole rotten edifice down. Under those circumstances, Catholic conservatives, free-market libertarians, and even Frank Zappa fans could unite without controversy. But that moment ended when they inherited a complex, flawed, but not easily fixed democratic society. Then groups inevitably disagreed about what should be done, and simply being moral on a personal level could no longer repair the world. The dissident experience became basically irrelevant. Havel is nostalgic but not strategic.

2. Havel is right that all we need is to be moral, but the question is: What does morality demand? If you’re comfortable answering that question with a phrase like “classical utilitarianism,” or “Catholic social doctrine,” then you have an adequate political theory. But obviously, it will be controversial, because everything really depends on your moral views. So there will be no consensus or harmony, just a conventional debate about moral positions.

3. Havel is onto something about the need to avoid ideological and technocratic politics, but his emphasis on personal morality is misleading–especially when he talks about “thousands of tiny, inconspicuous, everyday decisions” that are moral. That’s not the path to an alternative politics. The right path involves carefully developing and then fighting to protect venues in which people can discuss and address common issues without pursuing pre-determined goals or following pre-determined scripts. It requires specific moral commitments: to equal respect, openness, and “negative capability.” As Havel says, “all of this is easy to say but difficult to do.”

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  1. Pingback: Vaclav Havel: To the Castle and Back | anotherpanacea

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