Vaclav Havel’s Velvet Revolution is no script for a democratic uprising

Playwright-turned-president Vaclav Havel owed his status as anti-Communist rock star more to the West than to the Czech people.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics Politics

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Since his death at the weekend, former Czech president Vaclav Havel’s life and career have been hailed as shining symbols of how one high-minded moral man can overcome a corrupt political system. This reveals rather more about Western fantasies than about the real state of affairs in Czechoslovakia (and now the Czech Republic) during and since the 1989 ‘Velvet Revolution’ against Communism.

Havel, the dissident playwright and poet who became Czechoslovakia’s first post-Communist president, defined the West’s image of a perfect revolutionary figurehead for a small faraway country of which we know little: an urbane, Western-oriented intellectual who could play the role of media-friendly Messiah figure rather than act as political leader of a radical popular movement. It is no surprise in this respect to find that he was friends with the Dalai Lama. The Western world has subsequently elevated Havel’s non-violent, largely non-political Velvet Revolution into a supposed role model for political change from the Ukraine to Egypt.

This only shows how the term ‘revolution’ has been debased and belittled to mean whatever modest degree of political upheaval suits Western appetites. There is an important lesson here for those seeking democratic change today, such as the Arab peoples of Tunisia, Egypt and now Libya, who have seen the Western elites celebrate the triumph of their ‘revolutions’, and then quickly discovered that not too much has really changed.

The truth is that, despite all of the hype in the West two decades ago that has been repeated again since Havel’s death, there was no revolution from below in Czechoslovakia in 1989. What happened in essence – as some of us argued at the time – was that the old Soviet-backed regime corroded and collapsed from within, along with states across the Eastern bloc. Havel emerged as the figurehead of the hastily constituted new democracy that stepped in to fill the vacuum. But there is plenty of evidence to suggest that the transition was largely stage-managed by more moderate members of the old Communist nomenclature, in order to maintain their influence and limit any popular retribution. One of Havel’s closest aides in the human-rights group Charter 77 at the time was soon to describe the much-celebrated Czech revolution as ‘a Communist coup’ – one which suited the Western authorities since it limited instability. The prominence of old state officials in the ‘new’ market economy became the source of much public complaint under Havel’s presidency.

To Havel’s Western cheerleaders, however, none of this mattered. They were simply too delighted that he had apparently shown it was possible to have a democratic revolution without unleashing serious conflict or instability – and without the sort of messy, unpredictable upheaval across society that the word ‘revolution’ surely implies.

Havel was undoubtedly a personally brave man of principle, jailed for writing plays, poems and essays that questioned and ridiculed life under the Communist regime. Yet he was never the political leader of a movement in Czechoslovakia. His orientation was always towards the West. During the brief ‘Prague Spring’ of 1968, before the Soviet tanks rolled in to crush the Czech resistance, Havel and his wife took advantage of the relaxed passport rules to leave the country for an extended tour of Western capitals, where they reportedly ‘immersed themselves in the counterculture of the London and New York rock scenes’. Havel’s plays began to be put on in the West, where he was hailed as the voice of the new Czech spirit of freedom.

However, once back in Czechoslovakia Havel led a relatively quiet life under the reimposed pro-Soviet regime, until he issued his famous Open Letter to Dr Husak, Moscow’s puppet Czech leader, in 1975. This was a telling insight into Havel’s mindset; it not only criticised the regime, but also attacked the Czech people for failing to live up to the intellectual’s expectations. The people, he complained, had chosen to abandon the search for truth and justice and instead to ‘succumb to apathy and indifference’. Havel meanwhile described himself as ‘the Watchman’, keeping a lonely vigil for liberty. The Open Letter was reprinted by like-minded liberal elitists across the West, consolidating Havel’s status as their poster boy for respectable Czech ‘civil society’.

It was perhaps equally telling that Havel’s international elevation would be finally confirmed after he took a stand against the persecution of a hippy rock band, the Plastic People of the Universe. Their advocacy of a druggie dropout lifestyle as an ‘alternative’ to Communism appealed to Havel’s Sixties counterculture sensibilities. When they were arrested and jailed, he was so upset he became an early spokesman for the Charter 77 human-rights group, which was seeking and finding favour in the West.

When the Soviet-backed regime finally began to collapse internally after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Havel was effectively appointed leader of the opposition by the international community and media. The term ‘Velvet Revolution’ was coined by his Western media fan club – partly to endorse the idea of ‘soft’, non-violent political change, and partly because of Havel’s affinity for Lou Reed’s Velvet Underground. He was anointed as the rock star of East European anti-Communism, and the Western hacks and statesmen were his self-appointed groupies.

Once Havel was elected president – by parliament, not the people, according to the new constitution – he returned the favour, becoming the Czech mouthpiece for all the fashionable orthodoxies of the Western elite: he proselytised against the evils of global warming, championed the wonders of European Union membership, and even sued the tabloid media for invasion of privacy. While he was still an international celebrity, his standing among his own people became far more uncertain as the promises of the Velvet Revolution remained largely unfulfilled – ‘crushed velvet’ as one Czech writer described it. He also failed to prevent the break-up of the Czech Republic and Slovakia in January 1993.

(Speaking of the EU, the UK media used Havel’s death as an opportunity to wax nostalgic about his status as a symbol of ‘another Europe’- the united, liberal, prosperous EU that they had all fantasised about before the Fall. They still don’t get it that the current anti-democratic trends across the mess of the EU had their origins in the same Euro-courts, commissions and institutions that the Havels and Guardians welcomed as the fulfillment of their dreams.)

These things are worth thinking about now, not just to counter the hagiographies of Havel or review European history, but to take some lessons for the democratic struggles of the present. Almost everything the Western elites admired about him, from his disdain for the masses to his rejection of politics, acted to hamper the movement for change in Czechoslovakia. And the West’s praise for the partial reforms as a Velvet Revolution also contained an important message of restraint, telling the Czech people that, after just two weeks of demonstrations, their fight was over, and they could go home and leave it to Havel and Co. These are worrying patterns we have seen repeated of late in Egypt and Tunisia.

Perhaps the Velvet Revolution and Havel’s political career should be seen not so much as a role model for the Arab world and elsewhere, but as a warning of what can happen if you let the West write the script for your struggle for democracy.

Mick Hume is spiked’s editor-at-large.

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Topics Politics


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