Why Plato Can't Run the Republic

By Shepherd, Robin | New Statesman (1996), July 9, 2001 | Go to article overview

Why Plato Can't Run the Republic


Shepherd, Robin, New Statesman (1996)


Can intellectuals ever be politicians? The experience of the Czech Republic suggests they should stick to being eccentric misfits.

For those with a penchant for fairytale endings, Czechoslovakia's Velvet Revolution against communism had it all. One story goes that when Jiri Dienstbier failed to turn up for work one morning in December 1989 -- for his dissidence, the writer was punished to work as a boiler stoker -- his anxious colleagues worried that he had been arrested again. Concern, however, gave way to general relief at the happy news that his absence had been made necessary by his swearing-in ceremony as the country's new foreign minister. He later returned to complete the shift.

It was the kind of story that encapsulated much. You might not have known a lot about the politics. The history might have escaped you. And until it became a tourist hot spot, the precise location of the country might have had you reaching for the atlas. But if a boiler stoker had just been appointed foreign minister, you knew instinctively that something extraordinary was happening.

The human angle was compelling. But the Velvet Revolution offered something more. In the heart of Europe, an experiment was taking place. The western intelligentsia held its breath. A group of highly principled intellectuals was about to take over an entire political establishment. Shades of Plato. The newly installed president, the playwright and essayist Vaclav Havel, set out the vision in his first New Year's address to the nation.

"Our country", he said, "... can now permanently radiate love, understanding, the power of the intellect and ideas ..."

In March this year, I found myself browsing that speech in a beer bar in the old Mala Strana section of Prague, which lies at the foot of the castle. Low-arching stone ceilings. A surly waiter, five foaming beer glasses in each hand. Subdued, but magnificently central European, the perfect setting for a conversation.

"Look", said Marketa, whose parents were once low-ranking Communist Party members, "the dissidents were fine. But they never actually did anything after communism. All talk, no action. Anyway, they should have been writing books, not doing politics. There was a lot to do here. We needed professionals."

Her concerns were widely shared. Most of the dissidents had dropped out as early as the 1992 election -- falling foul of the first properly contested poll since the fall of communism. Today, the amiable but ailing Havel still holds a torch for the old dissident elite. But the critical mass is long gone. The Czech political establishment looks depressingly familiar -- sharp-dressed, smooth-talking, cocksure professionals, just like everywhere else.

Jan Lopatka, the son of the literary critic of the same name, was brought up around the dissidents. His father, a signatory of the Charter 77 human rights petition, had edited Havel's Letters to Olga -- prison letters to the playwright's wife. In 1993, Lopatka Sr hanged himself in his flat on Templova, in the heart of the Old Town.

The reasons are complex and highly personal. But one factor may have been Lopatka's simple failure to adapt to the new society. Years of harassment, when supremely gifted intellectuals had been forced into unskilled, manual employment, had taken their toll.

Even those who survived faced problems with adapting: many felt opposed to the very idea of party politics, which they saw as an affront to the dictates of individual conscience. If they saw deficiencies in their policies, they owned up and ditched them. The presentation was a non-starter. In the early days, Havel's trousers were so high off his feet that Czechs routinely used a derivation of his last name -- Havlovky -- to denote the sartorial crime of wearing one's trousers at half-mast.

Come the professionals. Middle-ranking communists and officials hailing from the so-called grey zone -- comprising people who had never been prepared to commit to the dissident cause, but who had broadly sympathised with its aims -- were the obvious beneficiaries of the change of regime. …

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