Reflections After the Revolution

VACLAV HAVEL sounded a consistent and clear moral tone throughout Eastern Europe's transition from communist rule to a democratic, free-market system.

This call to "live within the truth" runs from his earliest dissident essays and prison writings on through his first public address as president of Czechoslovakia. The enemy is clear: totalitarian communism. But at the core of his political theory is also a moral dimension: the conviction that "the world might actually be changed by the force of truth, the power of a truthful word, the strength of a free spirit, conscience, and responsiblity...."

Havel's "Summer Meditations" reprises these themes, but with a new and troubling undertone. These meditations were written 18 months into office, from July to August 1991, and revised for the English edition in February. Havel made these revisions, he says, in light of changes in the Soviet Union and in view of "the resistance" some of his proposals met in the Czechoslovak parliament.

Since publication of this book, that resistance to his proposals grew into a move to deny Havel reelection and dissolve the Czechoslovak state, prompting a decision to step down last week.

At one level, Havel's reflections express his own coming to terms with the demands of public life. At a deeper level, they mirror the disillusionment many East Europeans have felt as the initial promise of democracy failed to materialize.

Havel says he assumed political office with reluctance. The first suggestion that he enter politics he calls an "absurd joke." The move was unexpected, quick, and left no time to prepare thoughts for the job. But there was an impulsion to events and his place in them that he describes as not quite his own. He says he was "pulled forward by Being," "an instrument of the time."

"History ... forged ahead and through me, guiding my activities," he writes. He felt compelled to do what had to be done.

But this "era of enthusiasm, unity, mutual understanding, and dedication to a common cause" ended quickly. "Times have changed, clouds have filled the sky, clarity and general harmony have disappeared, and our country is heading into a period of not inconsiderable difficulties," he writes.

To explain the failure of decency and goodwill to preserve political life, Havel looks again to an enemy, albeit a more diffuse one. "The return of freedom to a society that was morally unhinged has produced something it clearly had to produce, and something we therefore might have expected, but which has turned out to be far more serious than anyone could have predicted: an enormous and dazzling explosion of every imaginable human vice."

These include: the erosion of culture, a "gutter" press, hatred among nationalities, signs of Fascism, rise of mafias, as well as "an unrestrained, unheeding struggle for purely particular interests, unadulterated ambition, fanaticism of every conceivable kind, ... lack of tolerance, understanding, taste, moderation, and reason."

The spectacle of former Communist apparatchiks being the first to profit from new market opportunities, of pornographers prospering while poets and playwrights languish, troubled many East Europeans who had expected that political freedom would quickly lead to a new age of prosperity and culture.

But there is another element in his writings that also helps explain the difficulties he faced in office: a deep ambivalence to political practice. There are hints of this concern even in his inaugural address: "There are free elections and an election campaign ahead of us. Let us not allow this struggle to dirty the so-far clean face of our gentle revolution."

Havel's model of the good politician is one who behaves much like a good dissident: He or she speaks out for decency, reason, responsibility, sincerity, civility, and tolerance. Politicians have a duty to "awaken this slumbering potential, to offer it direction and ease its passage, to encourage it and give it room, or simply hope."

The practice of politics is defined most clearly in terms of what it is not: Politicians should not scheme, intrigue, make deals, or think in partisan terms. There is little in this book about politics as making political choices: weighing competing goals, defining a program, negotiating compromises. There is less recognition that moral citizens may disagree - even sharply.

Havel seems to interpret opposition to his leadership as a moral weakness, and a tone of isolation and even bitterness is more in evidence in this book than in his darkest writings about totalitarian communism.

"Supporting the government in a good cause is practically shameful; kicking it in the shins, on the other hand, is praiseworthy," he writes. "...And yet, if a handful of friends and I were able to bang our heads against the wall for years by speaking the truth about Communist totalitarianism while surrounded by an ocean of apathy, there is no reason why I shouldn't go on banging my head against the wall by speaking ad nauseam, despite the condescending smiles, about responsibility and morality in the fac e of our present social marasmus."

Havel's strongest domestic opponents are Slovak nationalists, who blocked his reelection. Ironically, Havel was one of first Czechs in public life to recognize the revival of Slovak nationalism as a legitimate political demand. "Everything indicates that most Czechs had no idea how strong was the longing of the Slovaks for autonomy and for their own constitutional expression ... and how powerfully it expressed itself."

Havel describes Slovak nationalism as an "aversion" to being governed elsewhere, a politically immature longing that he expects will be subsumed in some larger European identity. But his analysis sidesteps the issues of state economic policy and the severe disparities that also fuel Slovak resentment - issues on which, as president, he had a capacity to influence.

At its best, Havel's latest book is an eloquent reminder that moral struggles do not end with the overthrow of dictators and that market values alone cannot establish a decent society.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.