The Gift of a Human Politics: Remembering Vaclav Havel

By: Paul Linden-Retek 18 December 2012, Prague One year ago today, Czechs and citizens from around the world began to slowly say goodbye to Václav Havel, paying their respects to a man who profoundly inspired them and whose moral presence the world so

By: Paul Linden-Retek

18 December 2012, Prague

One year ago today, Czechs and citizens from around the world began to slowly say goodbye to Václav Havel, paying their respects to a man who profoundly inspired them and whose moral presence the world so desperately needed.  In the three days of state mourning in December 2011, and tonight on Hradčanské náměstí before the Castle gates and elsewhere, a space opened in which we began to comprehend the immensity of our loss, the depth of what happened to us with his passing.  There was, within this space, the recognition of Havel’s great gift to us: not only the courage to hope and to see a future different and brighter than the present, but also the promise that politics itself can be caring and honest, humble and good, that politics can be humane.  The gift of a humane politics is one that can now endure only in our hearts and in our efforts; it is a project begun but of course never finished by Havel.  He gestured at it—this humanity can always only be gestured towards.  It is, as all ideals, unachievable by our flawed and finite selves, the imperfection and vulnerability of which Havel understood so very well.  But this, our inheritance from a great and kind man, is worthy of our reflection and, ultimately—as our task—worthy of our support.


Havel would be the first to admit that he was not a systematic thinker.  While he had no formal higher education in philosophy or literature, Havel did however possess an innate and brilliant intuition for the world and its hidden dimensions.  Moreover, he had a gift of being able to capture essential and complex ideas with accessible, moving, almost lyrical prose and with great depth and culture.

A genuinely kind, gracious man, he sought to preserve in everything that he did the authentic dimension of human experience: authentic not only in the sense of being truthful, of ‘living in truth,’ but also in the willing of undistorted solidarity in communal experience, creating spaces for the collective act of openly being-with.  Theater for Havel meant something close to this, the insistence on a shared moment in which—through the purposeful absurdity and irony of his plays—an authentic human subjectivity could emerge amidst the callousness and anomie of modern, bureaucratized life.

Perhaps of all of his writings, the seminal essay ‘The Power of the Powerless’ is his finest, an exemplary articulation of modern ideology’s inner workings.  If nothing else, the salience and insight of this text will be Havel’s greatest intellectual legacy, perhaps all the more so in our contemporary, supposedly ‘post-ideological’ world.  For Havel, the insidiousness of ideology resides in its playing with a person’s desire to be rooted, to be given answers, to return from existential exile.  In so doing, however, ideology frees one from thought and thus from responsibility.  The ideologically paralyzed person is a demoralized person, participating in empty and false systems of signification, ‘living in a lie.’  A woman killed by a falling stone window ledge, her fate brushed aside in the Communist press by emphasizing the ‘dignity of the human mission’ over mere ‘local matters;’ or the ridiculous but ideologically essential posturing by the greengrocer putting a ‘Workers of the World, Unite!’ sign among his vegetables.  In a political climate that denied freedom of speech, Havel sought to preserve his and others’ freedom of thought, to peel back the ideological layers of received values, to exercise amidst the grayness some form of moral responsibility.

Havel speaks often of Being or its memory.  Whether a remnant of his Heideggerian roots or a place-holder for God, Being calls forth a vision of the beyond, a relationship with and a responsibility for that which has not yet come, a respect for time and for the ‘wholly Other’ that might surprise us.  It is, of course, a highly ambiguous term and perhaps an empty one, though Havel insisted that it holds everything together for him.  Without a certain deference to the beyond, human virtue would almost always degenerate into self-serving and short-sighted opportunism, would fall prey to vanity and egoistic isolation, to nothingness.

Havel was skeptical of calculation, pragmatism, and utilitarian logics.  These have their place in today’s complex world, to be sure, but they must not overwhelm our moral universe; they must not define it.  For, if we ever let them do so, we would surely betray ourselves; we would surrender our sense of responsibility.  Just as technology threatens to alienate human beings from nature, so too does political opportunism threaten to alienate us from one another, from our humanity in its universal yet individuated form.  Insofar as politics can be a humane endeavor, opportunism threatens to turn politics into a shameful obverse.

Indeed, Havel often feared that the personal and political freedoms we have come to enjoy today in post-Communist Eastern Europe have done just this, in the end rewarding only those who can use politics the most selfishly and the most cruelly for personal gain.  Havel reminds us often that a democratic legal order must be coupled always with a robust moral order, an ever-evolving set of civic virtues that tie the individual to his community.  While the art of politics must always begin with the dignity of the individual, an individual is not an alienated, atomized self.  This is not the individual that Havel envisioned in his writings.  This is not the individual Havel was.  Rather, Havel’s individual was a human being always caught in-between, existing as a finite self with unique personality and history, and yet also conscious of her connection to an infinite humanity that resided subtly within her, calling to others for recognition.  A politics sensitive to the individual was also one that fostered among citizens a sense of collective responsibility for the fate of fellow human beings, a politics of solidarity.

As such, Havel’s politics was a humane politics: it was small, it was personal, it hoped to retain elements of face-to-face interaction and intimate relationships of care whenever possible.  It was, in this sense, ill suited for larger democratic processes or to modern republics.  But it was always a grounding ideal to be incorporated in the judgment of existing systems.  We might disappoint in our efforts to be democratic and humane, but we could do so intelligently.  We would learn, as Beckett wrote, to “fail better.”  According to Havel, politics is not merely the routine of elections, hidden compromises, coalitions and budget negotiations.  Sometimes, politics can be something more.  Sometimes we try to remake a world, and politics becomes the practice of bringing something new into being.  Like Hannah Arendt before him, Havel always believed that this human capacity to begin anew was the core source of human freedom.

The articulation of this regulative ideal became Havel’s strong suit, and it was something that took on a charming form in his skilled literary hands.  He wrote with grace and with precision, with humor and with warmth.  Wisdom is not imparted; it is discovered.  Each text a conversation between author and reader, Havel lays bare his own doubts and misgivings.  In the end, we believe him because we trust him; we trust him not to deceive us.  The power of the powerless, the politics of conscience, living in truth, the art of the impossible: these phrases not only depict ethical orientations and inspire, they disclose entire new worlds of thought and action.  They open us up to our own dreams of better things to come, to dreams we once had for ourselves but perhaps have since forgotten.

“Truth and love must prevail over lies and hatred.”  It is a curious but telling aspect of Havel’s well-known saying, from its inspirations in Jan Hus (‘Truth prevails’), that it was seldom clear whether the proper verb modality here was the indicative or imperative: ‘prevails’ or ‘must prevail.’  While the moral tenor seems rather obvious, it is formally ambiguous whether Havel is making a descriptive or normative claim.  This is what ought be; or this is simply how the world is, when you look more closely, when you study history deeply enough, when you believe, as he does, in its long arc bending towards justice.  But this ambiguity is also what gives the saying strength; it is never merely disembodied as a moral injunction from nowhere.  It is, rather, an entry into the world, into a better world that, while it might not exist now, does exist at some other point—in the future, somewhere else, above us, within us, elsewhere.  It is a world both held out before us as an ideal yet simultaneously with us, deferred yet present, a promise we have made to ourselves.

But let me end here.  As always, the time of mourning and marking loss should not be a time for discussion or inquiry.  Neither, however, should it be a time of forgetting.  Václav Havel’s absence will be felt, and he left us at a time when we are ill prepared to be without him.  As we attempt to understand his passing, I hope that our moments of reflection will linger, that our consciousness will remain raised.  But part of me does fear that, instead and almost imperceptibly, it will soon be that his presence will simply no longer be felt, and that we and the world will be the poorer for it.

Let us hope, then, that we will for a long time to come continue to feel his absence, to call to him; that is, to call to all that he has left of himself among us, to the part of him that remains, to his present absence.  In our grief and in our remembrance, we must quote him, read and reread him, speak about his ideas, build on them, embrace them as our shared task.  This, too, will be our continued act of mourning: to try to live by his example, to affirm that politics can be a place for kindness and idealism, love and humility, that it can be a bridge—however brief—between eros and caritas.  In this call, in our only recourse, in our jostling of time to bring forth his words and his smile, he is with us once again.

After all, Havel’s injunction to ‘live in truth’ was always only a beginning.  Going forth, let it be ours.

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