Vaclav Havel

I think my fondness for the late Vaclav Havel (1936-2011) can be explained partly in generational terms. He became world-famous when I was young–the Velvet Revolution occurred the year I graduated from college as a student of political philosophy–and Prague turned into the European destination for young Americans, supplanting Paris. Images of the president of Czechoslovakia walking to his office in the Prague Castle in jeans, leather jacket, and backpack were icons matched only by photographs of Nelson Mandela from the same years.

Havel in 1990, visiting the prison where he had been incarcerated, via Columbia Journalism Review

I was going to write some substantive comments about Havel’s political thought, but I find that I’ve already noted the main points here. In short, his genius was to understand that politics need not be about trying to reach some kind of outcome that matches your values or interests and that can be codified in laws and politics. (He called that a “technological” understanding of politics, taking the terminology from Heidegger.) The alternative is politics as open-ended dialogue and caring interaction with other people, moving not toward a known goal but rather embodying an authentic community.

The limit of Havel’s thought was his inability to bring that kind of “antipolitics” with him into power. The dissidents who opted out of Communist society constructed an authentic community–because they had no ability to make decisions binding on others. Once Havel was thrust, like some fairy-tale character, into the Castle made famous by Kafka, regular politics took over and the magic was gone. His country literally split in half against his wishes, and the “other Vaclav,” Vaclav Klaus, steered the rump Czech Republic in a neoliberal direction. But Havel never lost his personal compass nor his sense of irony, humor, and compassion.

If we could learn how to preserve the ethic of a dissident movement after it achieves power, we would find the key to the deepest afflictions of modernity. Meanwhile, we should salute Havel as one of the few who courageously and skilfully tried.

(By the way: Vaclav is pronounced VATZ-lav. It sounds better that way and it’s correct. Fittingly, it means Wenceslas: the Good King and the quasi-legendary father of the Czech people.)

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.