A kind of bi-polar political thinking is becoming more and more common in today’s politically polarized world…everyone is expected to be unquestionably loyal to the position he belongs to or has been assigned to.

Václav Havel wrote that in 1986. You know I’m not a loud person, but when I read that, I could’ve opened the window and shouted. Someone understood…someone got it.

In our glorious Age of Whatever-You-Want-to-Call-It, anyone who considers themselves moderate, and/or independent, or (oh, horrors!) apolitical is between a rock and a hard place. Both political poles are out for political blood, it seems. You vote for what you judge to be the lesser of two weevils, and everyone assumes you are a “X Supporter.” You point out So-and-So might have a good idea about Y, and you’re accused of agreeing with So-and-So on A, B, and C. It’s enough to make anyone want to hide their head in the sand and not even bother.

Havel understood the struggles of life under a government that frustrates you and a society polluted with ideology and propaganda. The issue for him was not specific to communism, nor to any specific political identity:

I don’t hold with any particular ideology, doctrine or, even less, any political party or faction… If I serve anything, then only my own conscience…if I criticize my government, then not because it happens to be a communist government but because it is bad.

“I Take the Side of Truth” (1983)

When you feel like no one represents you, when speech is no longer free, and when society tries to pigeonhole you into identities, parties, and groups—you can feel so powerless and, at times, apathetic. Havel’s outlook, as summarized in Open Letters, speaks directly to the problems of the 21st century and (sadly, in retrospect) is as relevant for us as it was for his Soviet readership.

Playwright, Prisoner, President

Photo: Jaroslav Krejčí, CC BY-SA

Václav Havel was born in Prague in 1936. Due to prejudices against the wealthy, his opportunities were stunted due to his family background, but he managed to forge a successful career for himself writing plays. Eventually, Havel’s enthusiasm for free thought and speech, both in writing and in daily life, led him to the forefront of the “wrong side” of Soviet life.

Havel used his writing and analytical abilities towards various dissident movements and documents in Czechoslovakia. In return, the Soviet authorities hounded him, placing him under house arrest and several times in prison. Though a reluctant politician, he was elected president shortly after the non-violent Velvet Revolution: he would hold the distinction of being the last president of Czechoslovakia, as well as (later on) the first president of the Czech Republic. After public service, Havel went back to writing plays, and he passed away in 2011.

As a disclaimer—I know very little about Czech history. I also know nothing about Havel beyond his Wikipedia article and this collection of his writings, Open Letters. I’m not in any position to opine on his qualities as a president, so this review will focus solely on the book, viewed from a broader political science and philosophy perspective.

Live Within the Truth

Open Letters covers the years 1965–1990. As the editor Paul Wilson suggests, the selections can be roughly viewed as following into two groups: those written before his longest prison term (1979–1983) and those written after it. The first group is, alternately, more focused and specific to people and events; the second group of writings is philosophically broad and universally framed.

The heart of the book is Havel’s famous essay The Power of the Powerless, a parable about a greengrocer who refuses to display communist propaganda in his shop window. I first came across it back in 2013 (my history professor at the time was also a Soviet dissident and survivor, so the topic interested me strongly). After reading it, I remember the mixed feelings of awe and dread it left in me.

The premise is so simple, it’s disturbing. Would you take the smallest step required of you to just live within the truth? Don’t think of it as “dissent” in the typical sense (Havel resists the notion even of dividing people into dissenters and non-dissenters). Rather, it’s living your life without any of the “white lies” we may be committing, even unconsciously, which over time surrender our actual autonomy. The analogy of a greengrocer and shop sign sounds quaint, but there are modern-day equivalents.

Not to take too much of a personal detour, but I remember making “live within the truth” a personal goal, back in 2013 fresh after reading this essay (and full of young optimism). I’ve always considered myself a stubbornly honest person, but either events overtook me or my eyes were finally opened to my weaknesses—probably a bit of both. Through senior year at uni and beyond, it was insanely hard to be the brave greengrocer. I remember as many failures as successes in living within the truth. Even today, the battle against sacrificing your true self for an easy identity (regardless of the goodness or validity of said identity) is a conflict I still struggle with. Solzhenitsyn’s “live not by lies” is a little easier—it implies deliberate deception, which I can safely say I avoid. But to “live within the truth” is intentional, conscious honesty, eyes wide-open to any tendencies to take the safe white lie, the easy way out, or just stay silent when you should speak.

Havel’s emphasis on the power of the individual and the greater spiritual good is something I can readily understand. In a way, his model of civic duty reflects the model of Christian duty, though he does not outright say so (the book, for the most part, lacks any religious references, though once or twice Havel implies a belief in God). My impression, from reading Havel, is that he sees the individual’s moral and spiritual integrity as of primary importance, so that even should a person suffer for their principles’ sake (as he did), there is no loss to the individual, and in time society benefits. By contrast, life in a lie is spiritually damaging to the individual and to the nation as a whole.

Part 2 to come…

17 thoughts on “Never Powerless: Václav Havel’s Open Letters – Part 1

  1. fascinating… i recall reading about Havel when he first became president; it was mind blowing to hear his “liberal” ideas… i don’t think a person could survive today by trying to “live within the truth”… polarization of one sort or another seems to have permeated society completely… unless they have an independent income of some sort… v interesting post, tx…

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    1. Yes… after that year of trying it, I ended up with an addition to the motto, and that is “choose your battles.” Sometimes you only enough impetus for a few, so you have to decide what’s really going to make the biggest impact – small win today, or bigger win in the future.

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  2. Sounds like he is a product of the Cold War, a time I was growing up but only remember the end, which was an encouraging time. However, so many of those voices who endured life behind the iron curtain have not been heard enough. Lately, I have been wanted to revisit that part of history. So this sounds like exactly what I would want to read. Solzhenitsyn complained that no one wanted to hear the (Russian) voices of Communism. And it is amazing how close to the truth he was/is. Anyway, Havel’s philosophy seems commonsensical, and I’d be open to hearing him out. I may even agree with him.

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    1. Ugh…you have my permission to correct my grammar, especially Iron Curtain and incorrect use of verbs. (My husband called me while I was writing my comment, and I hit post before I reread it, obviously.)

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    2. The Cold War holds a lot of fascination for me, too, since it’s the reason my dad came to the U.S. from Vietnam. I kind of feel like it never really ended; I know a lot of people of my generation have a strong psychological/emotion association to it via their parents (and of course from a Marxist perspective, the struggle is still ongoing).

      I really need to read more Solzhenitsyn (have only read “Live Not by Lies” so far).

      As far as grammar, I am no judge… and I’m terrible at pronunciation!

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  3. Hmm, interesting. Maybe in America, we have only focused on the Western side of the end of the Cold War and not at the way it has affected Asia.

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  4. i’m not sure what happened: but this section wasn’t there the last time i checked unless i’m losing my brains, which is entirely possible, haha…

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    1. Oh that’s weird… It could be with all the updates I’ve been doing, maybe some parts of the website were not rendering fully (browser caching or something). If it happens again let me know 🙂

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    1. Cleo, what’s great about this book is each essay is standalone, so you can kind of read it on-and-off. 🙂 I think it took me over a year to read it, total.

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  5. ‘ A kind of bi-polar political thinking is becoming more and more common in today’s politically polarized world…everyone is expected to be unquestionably loyal to the position he belongs to or has been assigned to.’ Oh, yes! We’ve had interesting times politically since the coronavirus lockdown. The Opposition party is actually letting the Government alone to a certain extent. So unusual. It’s normally argy-bargy all the way but I think the seriousness of the situation has toned down everything. It would be good if it continues. There’s a role for Opposition parties but in normal times it seems to be they have to disagree with everything the Government in power is trying to do. 🙂 I haven’t read anything by Havel but quite a bit by Solzhenitsyn. Re the Cold War, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold is so good in its depiction of that time, as is Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Hope you are well & getting in a good amount of reading.

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    1. That’s really interesting, Carol… I wish I could say the same for the U.S., but unfortunately tensions have nearly boiled over here, with both sides politicizing the situation for their own purposes. I’m a right-leaning independent who lives in a very liberal state (Washington), and I have to say, for the first time I have been impressed with our governor and his handling of the situation. I just wish cooler heads would prevail in both parties.

      Thanks for those recommendations, by the way. I keep hearing good things about le Carre so I will definitely keep him on my reading radar. Take care! 🙂

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  6. Hi Marian,
    As you can see, I went back to WordPress. I don’t know, something about Blogger doesn’t suit me. Anyway, this is a fantastic post, and more than interesting! I went into the military in 1983, that time period was called the second cold war. We trained not only for middle eastern conflict, but what all of us in the military thought would be an eventual and catastrophic war in this Soviet run region of Germany and Europe. I was actually in Germany for a time and saw first hand the communist Eastern Bloc and the Berlin wall. In fact, we have a piece of the Berlin wall in a shadow-box on our living room shelf. Have a great week!

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    1. What an interesting experience, and how cool to have a physical piece of the history as a reminder! I was born after the USSR dissolved, so my knowledge of the era is a scrapbook of things I’ve read, my dad’s memories of life in Vietnam, and conversations with friends. It’s kind of surreal, but I guess that is how 9/11 must seem to the youngest generation now.

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