Sunday, December 18, 2011

Václav Havel & The Existential Revolution

The playwright, essayist, and dissident, Václav Havel (1936-2011), died on Sunday. Havel was one of the foremost leaders of Czechoslovakia’s 1989 “Velvet Revolution,” the genesis of which was the invasion by the Soviet Union and four other Warsaw Pact states of the country in August 1968 so as to put a stop to its “popular experiment [in] reform socialism.” While the seeds of the nonviolent Velvet Revolution were planted during this particular revolt against Party-State Socialism, in the short term, the invasion was successful: “by 1970, Czechoslovakia had become one of the most rigidly orthodox states in the Soviet bloc.” One might reasonably conclude that nonviolent civil resistance clearly failed in this case, although it has been plausibly argued that the principle variables in determining the outcome were found in the orbit of “high politics,” the precise nature of the civil resistance possessing, therefore, little relevance to that outcome. Yet the commitment to nonviolent civil resistance did not disappear, even if the opposition’s strategies and tactics (exemplified by the Citizens’ Forum and The Public against Violence) differed this time ‘round. What is more, the geo-political circumstances had significantly changed for the better in the intervening period, and it may well have been this fact that was decisive in explaining the comparative success of the Velvet Revolution.

Havel did not simply oppose, with considerable courage, the post-totalitarian society’s structural and political constraints on “living within the truth,” nor was his conception of a nonviolent revolution solely social or political in essence or orientation. In his well-known essay, “The Power of the Powerless” (1978), Havel wrote of the need for broad “existential revolution” in the industrial and post-industrial nation-states of the Northern hemisphere. It is only upon the basis of such a revolution that can one hope to achieve a “generally ethical—and, of course ultimately a political—reconstitution of society.” Without here going into details, Havel’s conception of an existential revolution is uncannily similar in important respects to Rudolf Bahro’s largely cognitive conception of “general emancipation” first outlined in The Alternative in Eastern Europe (1978, published in German in 1977) and later articulated in a “deep ecology” and more explicitly spiritual framework (wherein the forces of reason are now ‘relativized’ in the ‘economy of consciousness’) after Bahro moved to West Germany and became a leading spokesperson for the “fundamentalist” faction of Die Grünen. Havel here outlines the necessity of an existential revolution, the basic premises of which should be attractive to those of us who identify with the “religious left:”

“What we call the consumer and industrial (or post-industrial) society, and Ortega y Gasset once understood as ‘the revolt of the masses,’ as well as the intellectual, moral, political and social misery in the world today: all of this is perhaps merely an aspect of the deep crisis in which humanity, dragged helplessly along by the automatism of global technological civilization, finds itself.

The post-totalitarian system is only one aspect—a particularly drastic aspect and thus all the more revealing of its real origins—of the general inability of modern humanity to be master of its own situation. The automatism of the post-totalitarian system is merely an extreme version of the global automatism of technological civilization [what Rudolf Bahro, after Lewis Mumford, refers to as the ‘Megamachine’]. The human failure that it mirrors is only one variant of the general failure of modern humanity.

This planetary challenge to the position of human beings in the world is, of course, also taking place in the Western world, the only difference being the social and political forms it takes. [….] There is no real evidence that Western democracy, that is, the democracy of the traditional parliamentary type, can offer solutions that are any more profound. It may even be said that the more room there is in the Western democracies (compared to our world), for the genuine aims of life, the better the crisis is hidden from people and the more deeply do they become immersed in it.

[….] People are manipulated in ways that are infinitely more subtle and refined than the brutal methods used in the post-totalitarian societies. But this static conception of rigid, conceptually sloppy and politically pragmatic mass political parties run by professional apparatuses and releasing the citizen from all forms of concrete and personal responsibility; and those complex forces of capital accumulation engaged in secret manipulations and expansion; the omnipresent dictatorship of consumption, production, advertising, commerce, consumer culture, and all that flood of information: all of it, so often analyzed and described, can only with great difficulty be imagined as the source of humanity’s rediscovery of itself. [….] In a democracy, human beings may enjoy many personal freedoms and securities that are unknown to us, but in the end they do them no good, for they too are ultimately victims of the same automatism, and are incapable of defending their concerns about their own identity or preventing their superficialization [sic] or transcending concerns about their own personal survival to become proud and responsible members of the polis, making a genuine contribution to the creation of its destiny. [….]

Above all, any existential revolution should provide hope of a moral reconstitution of society, which means a radical renewal of the relationship of human beings to what I have called the ‘human order,’ which no political order can replace. A new experience of being, a renewed rootedness in the universe, a newly grasped sense of ‘higher responsibility,’ a new-found inner relationship to other people and to the human community—these factors clearly indicate the direction in which we must go.

And the political consequences? Most probably they could be reflected in the constitution of structures that will derive from this ‘new spirit,’ from human factors rather than from a particular formalization of political relationships and guarantees. In other words, the issue is the rehabilitation of values like trust, openness, responsibility, solidarity, love. I believe in structures held together more by a commonly shared feeling of the importance of certain communities than by commonly shared ambitions directed ‘outward.’”

In a later piece, “Politics and Conscience” (1984)*, Havel writes in a Gandhian-like vein that he

“favour[s] ‘anti-political politics’ [which calls to mind the Hungarian writer György (George) Konrád’s Antipolitics (1984)] that is, politics not as the technology of power and manipulation, of cybernetic rule over humans or as the art of the useful, but politics as one of the ways of seeking and achieving meaningful lives, of protecting them and serving them. I favour politics as practical morality, as service to the truth, as essentially human and humanly measured care for our fellow humans. It is, I presume, an approach which, in this world, is extremely impractical and difficult to apply in daily life. Still, I know no better alternative.”

* This was intended for the University of Toulouse where Havel was to be awarded an honorary doctorate but was unable to attend.

References and Further Reading:
  • Bahro, Rudolf (David Fernbach, tr.). The Alternative in Eastern Europe. London: NLB, 1978.
  • Bahro, Rudolf. From Red to Green: Interviews with New Left Review. London: Verso Editions and NLB, 1984.
  • Bahro, Rudolf (Mary Tyler, tr.). Building the Green Movement. Philadelphia, PA: New Society Publishers, 1986.
  • Bahro, Rudolf (David Clarke, tr., and Palden Jenkins, ed.). Avoiding Social and Ecological Disaster: The Politics of World Transformation. Bath, UK: Gateway Books, 1994.
  • Garton Ash, Timothy. The Magic Lantern: The Revolution of ’89 Witnessed in Warsaw, Budapest, Berlin and Prague. New York: Vintage, 3rd ed., 1999.
  • Havel, Václav (Jan Vladislav, ed.). Living in Truth. London: Faber and Faber, 1987.
  • Havel, Václav (Paul Wilson, tr.). Letters to Olga: June 1979—September 1982. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1988.
  • Konrad, George (Richard E. Allen, tr.). Antipolitics: An Essay. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1984.
  • Williams, Kieran. “Civil Resistance in Czechoslovakia: From Soviet Invasion to ‘Velvet Revolution,’ 1968-89,” in Adam Roberts and Timothy Garton Ash, eds. Civil Resistance and Power Politics: The Experience of Nonviolent Action from Gandhi to the Present. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.


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