Václav Havel: Democracy as Spiritual Discipline

News of Václav Havel’s death arrived just days after the New York Times literally stopped the presses to report on the death of the brilliant, caustic, maddening intellectual iconoclast Christopher Hitchens.  Hitchens and Havel shared a fierce and fearless opposition to tyrannies, whether from the right or left. For me, Havel’s passing brings a more reflective sadness, a sense of what he could yet have taught Americans about the moral responsibilities of citizens and politicians in a democratic society.

Havel, of course, was an accidental politician, a playwright and former political prisoner-turned-president after his leadership of the “Velvet Revolution” against Soviet-sponsored tyranny in Czechoslovakia. I am not a Havel scholar, but I have been moved deeply by the emotionally transparent way he addressed the staggering challenge of steering Czechoslovakia away from totalitarianism and toward social democracy while resisting pressures to embrace free-market fundamentalism.

While still sitting president, and before Czechoslovakia split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia, Havel bared his mind, heart, and soul in a remarkable collection of essays written in the summer of 1991 and published in English by Knopf the following year as Summer Meditations. In contrast to Hitchens’ pyrotechnic polemics, these essays are imbued with a quiet conviction that politics should be a high moral calling.


Twenty years later, Havel’s meditations from a nation struggling into democracy have much to say to those of us in a nation struggling with our own democracy: 

There is no simple set of instructions on how to proceed. A moral and intellectual state cannot be established through a constitution, or through law, or through directives, but only through complex, long-term, and never-ending work involving education and self-education. […] It is not, in short, something we can simply declare or introduce. It is a way of going about things, and it demands the courage to breathe moral and spiritual motivation into everything, to seek the human dimension in all things. Science, technology, expertise, and so-called professionalism are not enough. Something more is necessary. For the sake of simplicity, it might be called spirit. Or feeling. Or conscience. 

On moving from a state-controlled economy toward a market economy based on individual responsibility, plurality of ownership and decision-making, while resisting pressures from free-market fundamentalists to abandon any regulation or social principles:

Right-wing dogmatism, with its sour-faced intolerance and fanatical faith in general precepts, bothers me as much as left-wing prejudices, illusions, and utopias. Today, unfortunately, we often find that a straightforward analysis of specific problems and a calm, unbiased consideration of them are being pushed out of public debate by something that might be called ‘market madness.’ […] It is a great mistake to think that the marketplace and morality are mutually exclusive. Precisely the opposite is true: the marketplace can work only if it has its own morality — a morality generally enshrined in laws, regulations, traditions, experiences, customs — in the rules of the game, to put it simply. No game can be played without rules.

Havel told citizens that they held immense responsibility for holding institutions and individuals accountable:

The law is undoubtedly an instrument of justice, but it would be an utterly meaningless instrument if no one used it responsibly. From our own recent experience we all know too well what can happen to even a decent law in the hands of an unscrupulous judge, and how easily unscrupulous people can use democratic institutions to introduce dictatorship and terror. […] That these institutions can help us become more human is obvious; that is why they were created, and why we are building them now. But if they are to guarantee anything to us, it is we, first of all, who must guarantee them.  

Havel also wrote that politicians have a moral obligation to call their followers to be true to their best selves rather than pander to or inflame their followers’ worst instincts:

Time and time again I have been persuaded that a huge potential of goodwill is slumbering within our society. It’s just that it’s incoherent, suppressed, confused, crippled and perplexed — as though it does not know what to rely on, where to begin, where or how to find meaningful outlets. 

In such a state of affairs, 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. They say a nation gets the politicians it deserves. […] At the same time – paradoxically – the opposite is also true; society is a mirror of its politicians. It is largely up to the politicians which social forces they choose to liberate and which they choose to suppress, whether they rely on the good in each citizen or the bad. 

Unfortunately, many politicians do not live up to this ideal. Havel saw partisanship and the sowing of general anti-government hostility as particularly dangerous:

It is enough to look around our political scene (whose lack of civility is merely a reflection of the more general crisis of civility)….Mutual accusations, denunciations, and slander among political opponents knows no bounds. One politician will undermine another’s work only because they belong to different political parties. Partisan considerations still visibly take precedence over pragmatic attempts to arrive at reasonable and useful solutions to problems. Analysis is pushed out of the press by scandalmongering. Supporting the government in a good cause is practically shameful; kicking it in the shins, on the other hand, is praiseworthy. Sniping at politicians who declare their support for another political group is a matter of course. Anyone can accuse anyone else of intrigue or incompetence, or of having a shady past and shady intentions… 

[…] Citizens are become more and more disgusted with all this, and their disgust is understandably directed against the democratic government they themselves elected. 

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 face of our present social marasmus. There is no reason to think that this struggle is a lost cause. The only lost cause is one we give up on before we enter the struggle.

Havel utterly rejected the kind of dishonest and destructive “ends justify the means” politics that seems to dominate so much of our political discourse:

…Of course, I don’t know whether directness, truth, and the democratic spirit will succeed. But I do know how not to succeed, which is by choosing means that contradict the ends. As we know from history, that is the best way to eliminate the very ends we set out to achieve. 

In other words, if there is to be any chance at all of success, there is only one way to strive for decency, reason, responsibility, sincerity, civility, and tolerance, and that is decently, reasonably, responsibly, sincerely, civilly, and tolerantly. I’m aware that, in everyday politics, that is not seen as the most practical way of going about it….

I see the only way forward in that old, familiar injunction; “live in truth.”

But Havel was not naïve about the need for eternal vigilance.

If I talk here about my political — or more precisely, my civil — program, about my notion of the kind of politics and values and ideals I wish to struggle for, this is not to say that I am entertaining the naïve hope that this struggle may one day be over. […]

Neither I nor anyone else will ever win this war once and for all. At the very most, we can win a battle or two — and not even that is certain. Yet I still think it makes sense to wage this war persistently. It has been waged for centuries, and it will continue to be waged – we hope – for centuries to come. This must be done on principle, because it is the right thing to do. Or, if you like, because God wants it that way. It is an eternal, never-ending struggle waged not just by good people (among whom I count myself, more or less) against evil people, by honorable people against dishonorable people, by people who think about the world and eternity against people who think only of themselves and the moment. It takes place inside everyone. It is what makes a person a person and life, life.

Havel understood that the mechanisms and institutions of democracy also depend on a commitment to what we could call the spirit of democracy, in opposition to rigid ideological thinking:

I am convinced that we will never build a democratic state based on rule of law if we do not at the same time build a state that is – regardless of how unscientific this may sound to the ears of a political scientist – humane, moral, intellectual and spiritual, and cultural. […]

Building an intellectual and spiritual state — a state based on ideas — does not mean building an ideological state. Indeed, an ideological state cannot be intellectual or spiritual. A state based on ideas is precisely the opposite: it is meant to extricate human beings from the straitjacket of ideological interpretations, and to rehabilitate them as subjects of individual conscience, of individual thinking backed up by experience, of individual responsibility, and with a love for their neighbors that is anything but abstract.

A state based on ideas should be no more and no less than a guarantee of freedom and security for people who know that the state and its institutions can stand behind them only if they themselves take responsibility for the state — that is, if they see it as their own project and their own home, as something they need not fear, as something they can — without shame — love, because they have built it for themselves.