Capitalism with a Human Face?

Article excerpt

On New Year's Day, 1990, Vaclav Havel, the playwright and human, rights activist who had served time in jail under the previous communist regime, delivered his first major public address as president of Czechoslovakia:

My dear fellow citizens:

For forty years you heard from my predecessors on this day different variations on the same theme: how our country flourished, how many million tons of steel we produced, how happy we all were, how we trusted our government, and what bright perspectives were unfolding in front of us.

I assume you did not propose me for this office so that I, too, would lie to you.

Later in that speech, Havel made reference to Tomas Garrigue Masaryk, a great founder of the Czechoslovak nation, and also to the long tradition of Czech religious humanism:

Our first president wrote: "Jesus, not Caesar" In this he followed our philosophers Chelcicky and Comenius. I dare to say that we may even have an opportunity to spread this idea further and introduce a new element into European and global politics. Our country, if that is what we want, can now permanently radiate love, understanding, the power of spirit and ideas. It is precisely this glow that we can offer as our specific contribution to international politics.

Both passages are characteristic of Havel's style and sensibility. The first expresses (as Havel wrote elsewhere) a distinctive Central European skepticism," a disillusioned and satirical stance toward state power and utopian programs; and the second, a kind of Christmas-morning idealism - which is, after all, akin to utopianism. Havel has by now gained worldwide fame by championing "anti-political politics," by "living in the truth," and by giving a strong affirmative answer to his own question: "Is it possible in today's complex world for people who are guided by their consciences sciences or the basic ethical categories of the everyday world to take an active part in politics?"

He certainly stands out as one of the most decent and literate heads of state anywhere in the world. Havel gets away with sentiments which are hypocritical or merely banal in the mouths of more partisan creatures, precisely because he has the true instincts and intelligence of a public citizen. Two recent collections of his writings, Open Letters and Summer Meditations (both published by Vintage), do not really add anything new to the critique of communism advanced earlier in works such as Czeslaw Milosz's The Captive Mind or Milovan Djilas' The New Class. Nothing in Havel's essays matches the tragic, phantasmagoric quality of Milosz nor the thorough analytic spirit of Djilas; but what does shine through is his famous civility - indeed, his deep commitment to "civil society" in every sense.

Havel's essays are written in the plainest possible style, to be of use to the widest circle of literate citizens. And at least one of his essays, "The Power of the Powerless," written in 1978, will remain one of the most important historical documents of this century, since it had such a profound influence on independent citizen initiatives and dissent throughout Central and Eastern Europe. Like Thomas Paine's Common Sense or The Communist Manifesto, Havel's work was both a historical summary and a call to action. Action of a special kind: "living in the truth" in such a way that, even if the number of witnesses were few at first, the fight cast on a whole structure of falsehood would be sure to grow. In this way, "parallel structures" would multiply, prefigure the future, and bring about nonviolent change. His words (often published and circulated samizdat-style) and his work with reform groups such as Charter 77 and the Committee to Defend the Unjustly Prosecuted brought him the honor of serving time in prison from 1979 to 1983.

In Czechoslovakia, the parallel structures" included more or less underground cultural and musical scenes. A crucial catalyst for citizen dissent was the trial in 1976 of the Plastic People of the Universe, a rock band which fell afoul of the authorities. …