Rebirth of Reason

War for Men's Minds

Retirement of a Velvet Revolutionary
by Peter Cresswell

In times such as these, spotting philosophical principle is like spotting wildebeest in the Antarctic. But it is precisely at times such as these in which Objectivists have the potential to make a major impact in intellectual debate. We fight well above our apparent weight and land more punches than our small stature deserves for two very good reasons: because we have reality on our side, and because we fight with the power of principle.

We stand uncompromisingly for our principles. THAT is rare enough anywhere. It is so rare in politics that those who exhibit it often gain headlines. Some few even gain the Presidency of their country in a non-violent revolution that throws of the shackles of a corrupt colonial power that seeks to extinguish freedom. Such a man is Vaclav Havel, who has just stepped down after successfully guiding the Czech Republic from communism to relative freedom.

Havel, playwright, poet, magazine editor and a dissident since the mid-sixties, led the Velvet Revolution that overturned the Communist government of Czechoslovakia in 1989 and he has remained as President of the Czech Republic until his recent retirement. The Velvet Revolution was a revolution of ideas - ideas that in the end saw the Communists concede rather than confront them; Havel won with his principles, which he developed in his many battles to beat the Bolshevik bastards back. He and his supporters were regarded as a major threat by the communists not because of their numbers, but because of what they said. More particularly, the communist government knew that when Havel said something, HE MEANT IT.

His story has parallels for us here at SOLO: during his last weeks on the 'Politically Incorrect' Show, Lindsay called New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark an "evil bitch." Now, Hideous Helen has heard much worse from others and she has let it ride - but in this case the communist bitch KNEW LINDSAY MEANT IT. So too did his listeners.

The Prime Minister sent a letter of complaint to the radio station (poor dear), & demanded to know what "corrective" action would be taken. In the event, Lindsay retracted the word "bitch"... and shortly thereafter his show was taken off air.

Ironically, the end of the PI Show saw Perigo go to parliament to report on Hideous Helen and her confreres, where he now eyeballs Helen from the press gallery as she delivers her daily platitudes.

Lindsay's battle to keep his broadcasting career and The Free Radical magazine alive has seen him end up in parliament. Vaclav Havel had as little intention to end up in his country's debating chambers; it was his fight to keep his own magazine, Tvar, alive and unbanned, that got him involved in politics, but the way he fought eventually brought down a government. His fight was based on ideas, it was based on principle, and it required an almost ineffable patience.

Havel learnt a crucial lesson in the power of principle very early in his career when he was imprisoned by his own govt, sold out by his own fellow writers who were so in thrall to the Soviets at the time - so craven - that they would rather die on their knees than ever give thought to standing up. Havel and his supporters learnt then that if they were ever to achieve anything they must stand up for themselves. They did, and eventually they won their country.

Havel's reflections on how he brought down the communist government contain some important lessons for us in our own struggles. Sometimes that struggle seems hopeless, as Havel's own struggle sometimes seemed hopeless to him. (The reflections I quote here come from the biographical interview Disturbing the Peace recorded two years before the communists fell, and two years before any indication of their demise was even apparent):

In the spring of 1975 [says Havel's translator in the book's introduction] outside the Slavia cafe, just across the street from the National Theatre in Prague, a friend handed me a well-thumbed sheaf of typewritten pages and told me to pass it on when I was through. In the real-life paranoia of Czechoslovakia in the 1970s, our encounter had a touch of conspiracy about it: reading or possessing samizdat-self- published works-was not illegal in itself, but circulating it was, and the two of us had just committed a crime. Our chances of being caught were slim, but still real enough to induce a sense of caution in us and add some salt and pepper to the moment. That evening, at home, I sat down to read in a state of excitement that only the knowledge of doing something illicit can bring.

It was an extraordinary essay, addressed to the Czechoslovak president, Gustav Husak, about the desolate state of the country seven years after the Warsaw Pact armies had crushed the Prague Spring. The author described a society governed by fear - not the cold, pit-of-the-stomach terror that Stalin had once spread throughout his empire, but a dull, existential fear that seeped into every crack and crevice of daily life and made one think twice about everything one said and did.

The letter was, in fact, a state of the union message, and it contained an unforgettable metaphor: the regime, the author said, was "entropic," a force that was gradually reducing the vital energy, diversity, and unpredictability of Czechoslovak society to a state of dull, inert uniformity. And the letter also contained a remarkable prediction: that sooner or later, this regime would become the victim of its own "lethal principle." "Life cannot be destroyed for good," the author wrote. "A secret streamlet trickles on beneath the heavy crust of inertia and pseudo-events, slowly and inconspicuously undermining it. It may be a long process, but one day it has to happen: the crust can no longer hold and starts to crack. This is the moment when something once more begins visibly to happen, something new and unique."

The letter, dated April 8, 1975, was signed "Vaclav Havel, Writer".

"Life cannot be destroyed for good." Fifteen years after Havel wrote those words in a samizdat pamphlet those streamlets burst forth, sweeping away communist regimes from Berlin to Bucharest and carrying the playwright Vaclav Havel from the ghetto of dissent to the world stage. Those extraordinary events of 1990 enrich that letter with new levels of meaning.

Havel first became involved in political resistance in the mid-sixties in his efforts to keep his small literary magazine, Tvar, alive in the face of pressure from the Communist Party to close it down, and in the process he discovered what he called "a new model of behavior" :

When arguing with a center of power, don't get sidetracked into vague [nitpicking] debates about who is right or wrong; fight for specific, concrete things, and be prepared to stick to your guns to the end.

That model of principled behaviour served him well:

On Tuesday morning, November 28,1989, Havel led a delegation of the Civic Forum to negotiate with the Communist- dominated government. The issue was not a magazine this time, it was the country. Ten days before that, the "velvet revolution" had been set in motion by a student demonstration in Prague; that was followed by a week of massive demonstrations culminating in a general strike on Monday, November 27. Early Tuesday afternoon, following the meeting, the government announced that it had agreed to write the leading role of the Communist Party out of the constitution. We do not know what was said at the meeting, but I don't think we would be far wrong to assume that the discussion stayed very close to the concrete issue of amending the constitution, and that the Civic Forum delegation stuck to their guns. A principle that Havel and his colleagues had learned decades before now stood them in good stead.

By the end of that month, Havel was President of the country in a process that readers of Atlas Shrugged could easily recognise. The battle Havel began simply to save his magazine had ended in saving Czechoslovakia. Yet he recounts how he began this battle simply by resisting pressure from his local 'Writers Union' to 'persuade' him to close the magazine. He quickly realised that his real enemies however were all those like the Writers' Union who are prepared to compromise with their enemies and sell out their friends - supposed allies who, in accepting servitude for themselves, happily impose it on him.

In the end, though, banning became more and more inevitable. The Central Committee of the Union had to make it appear as though they were doing it on their own initiative, but in fact they were ordered to do it by the Central Committee of the Communist Party. Left to themselves, the antidogmatics [as the wowsers were descriptively called] would not have banned us, but we weren't worth a rebellion inside the party so they did it anyway. Of course they explained it to us in their traditional 'antidogmatic' way: The struggle for great things - the general liberalization of conditions - demands minor compromises in things that are less important . It would not be tactical to risk an open conflict over Tvar, because there is bigger game at stake [etc., etc]. ... This is [the very] model of self-destructive politics. ...

We argued that the best way to liberalize conditions is to be uncompromising precisely in those "minor" and "unimportant details, such as the publication of this or that book or this or that little magazine. Our argument was not heard. Nevertheless, a kind of hangover from this experience remained in antidogmatic circles. And it began to spread rapidly when we refused to accept their ultimatum silently, and refused to accept the rules of the game as they had played it until then.

Havel and his Tvar team mobilised to defend themselves, organising petitions and meetings amongst their fellow writers, refusing - in Ayn Rand's words - to accept the sanction of the victim. Used to more compliant behaviour from their victims, this unusually principled resistance got under the skin of the Central Committee:

I think our efforts had a great importance, one that has not been recognized, even today. We introduced a new model of behavior: don't get involved in diffuse ... polemics with the center, to whom numerous concrete causes are always being sacrificed; fight "only" for those concrete causes, and be prepared to fight for them unswervingly, to the end. In other words, don't get mixed up in back-room wheeling and dealing, but play an open game.

I think in this sense we taught our antidogmatic colleagues a rather important lesson; ... They realized that many of their former methods were hopelessly out of date, that a new and fresher wind was blowing, that there were people - and there would obviously be more and more of them - who would not be stopped in their tracks by the argument that a concrete evil was necessary in the name of an abstract good. In short, I think that Tvar had an educational effect on the antidogmatic members of the writing community. Suddenly here was the party taking us, a handful of fellows, more seriously than the entire antidogmatic "front." And they were taking us more seriously for the simple reason that we could not be so easily talked out of our convictions.

In 1969, Havel wrote to Alexander Dubcek, the face of the brief 'Prague Spring' before it was crushed by the Soviets, pleading with him to leave political life rather than let himself be used as a propaganda pawn. Dubcek did leave office. Reflecting on that letter seventeen years later, Havel wrote:

I had written that even a purely moral act that has no hope of any immediate and visible political effect can gradually and indirectly, over time, gain in political significance. In this I found, to my own surprise, the very same idea that, having been discovered by many people at the same time, stood behind the birth of Charter 77 and which to this day I am trying - in relation to the Charter and our "dissident activities" - to develop and explain and, in various ways, make more precise.

He reflects - and remember this was two year before the Soviets fell - that several years of seemingly hopeless resistance had produced effects, though not ones that everyone would notice:

[Our various actions], of course, have wider consequences. Today far more is possible. Think of this: hundreds of people today are doing things that not a single one of them would have dared to do at the beginning of the seventies. We are now living in a truly new and different situation. This is not because the government has become more tolerant; it has simply had to get used to the new situation. It has had to yield to continuing pressure from below, which means pressure from all those apparently suicidal or exhibitionistic civic acts. People who are used to seeing society only 'from above" tend to be impatient. They want to see immediate results. Anything that does not produce immediate results seems foolish. They don't have a lot of sympathy for acts which can only be [practically] evaluated years after they take place, which are motivated by moral factors, and which therefore run the risk of never accomplishing anything. ...

Unfortunately, we live in conditions where improvement is often achieved [only] by actions that risk remaining forever in the memory of humanity [as] an exhibitionistic act of desperate people.

Havel, reflects that it is the sum total of these many 'hopeless acts' of 'exhibitionism' that in the end force change; that only by not lying down in the face of an apparently hopeless struggle are these crucial and very tangible victories achieved:

To many outside observers [the many small victories of principled action] may seem insignificant. Where are your ten-million strong trade unions? they may ask. Where are your members of parliament? Why does [the President] not negotiate with you? Why is the government not considering your proposals and acting on them? But for someone from here who is not completely indifferent, these [small signs] are far from insignificant changes; they are the main promise of the future, since he has long ago learned not to expect it from anywhere else.

I can't resist concluding with a question of my own. Isn't the reward of all those small but hopeful signs of movement this deep, inner hope that is not dependent on prognoses, and which was the primordial point of departure in this unequal struggle? Would so many of those small hopes have "come out" if there had not been this great hope "within," this hope without which it is impossible to live in dignity and meaning, much less find the will for the "hopeless enterprise" which stands at the beginning of most good things.

We Objectivist activists are in many respects such an apparently "hopeless enterprise," but one that can eventually ignite success. As Havel suggests, if our actions are to ever become "the beginning of ... good things" we must always let our hope "within" motivate us to action.

Havel himself had to spend four years in jail before his battle was won. Let us hope we do not endure a similar fate in our own battles, but I must remind you that power does not concede without a struggle. As Frederick Douglass said: " The struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle! " It may be a three-in-the-morning struggle when you lift your head after editing another press release, or writing another speech, or organising another market stall or street event or political meeting or discussion group. It may be a crisis of confidence when you want to throw it all away as hopeless; it may be a battle with yourself when you have the opportunity of wealth and public respectability but only at the price of giving up your soul it may be moral, it may be physical; or it may be both; but it will be a struggle. Get used to it.

It is a struggle, but our ideas ARE getting through. Philosophically the world is in a much worse state now than it was even five years ago, and it is getting worse around us, but we Objectivists ARE making a change in people's thinking. Slowly. Inexorably. One at a time. But it is happening. And it is noticeable - at least it is when you see it looking from the bottom up.

Remember this: since the revolution we hope to bring about is inside people's heads, it is above all with people's thinking that we are concerned - it's hard however to determine the success of such a revolution. But the signs are unmistakably there. If we wish to continue this progress then we MUST continue to be heard. We must take the winning of people's minds seriously, and we must take action in defence of our ideas.

I encourage you to reflect on whether YOU are taking the necessary action.

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