Czechoslovakia in 1979: a quiet, stagnant sort of time. The 1960s had been so full of hope: finally awakening, dazed, from the nightmarish Stalinist terror of the 1950s, people had believed that Alexander Dubcek and his fellow reformists would make socialism human again, that the Prague Spring would end in a new and better Czechoslovakia. Instead, it ended with the arrival of Soviet tanks, who ushered in the period of “normalization.” Reformist socialists were purged from the government in mass, intellectuals were persecuted and driven underground, and censorship bore down on the media, arts, and scholarship. People fought the changes, but little by little, they lost their grip on the idealism and invincibility of ’68.
By the late 70s, few believed anymore that communism could change, become human, and do all the things that it had once promised to do. Yet they still lacked the resources and will to break the whole system down: it would be another decade before the end of communist rule. In the mean time, they went back to their everyday lives, and concentrated on just getting by. Joseph Rothschild and Nancy M. Wingfield sum the prevailing attitude up quite well:
Citizens who refrained from political involvement, sought no sensitive data, asked no embarrassing questions, disseminated no awkward information, flaunted no countercultural symbols, meddled in no public affairs, participated mechanically in the annual May Day rally, and voted reflexively for the party’s slate of candidates, could reasonably anticipate being allowed to live their depoliticized and deideologized lives in peace, though as internal emigrants in their own country.1
This is not to say that there was no political opposition at all in the 1970s. In fact, at the time there were some significant changes bubbling up, signs of renewed dissatisfaction that would grow in the coming years. In 1976, a popular underground rock band called The Plastic People of the Universe were arrested for performing; the uproar that resulted was part of the impetus for the creation of Charter 77, a document demanding that the government respect the human rights of its citizens. It was published in Western newspapers, and many intellectuals were arrested for signing it. But in general, the atmosphere was restrained by the knowledge that fighting the power got you nothing but more repression. Opposition movements in Czechoslovakia remained significantly smaller than those in neighboring Eastern Bloc countries, the populace more cowed and inactive.
It is in this atmosphere that Vaclav Havel wrote his famous essay, “The Power of the Powerless.” The essay tells the story of a greengrocer who puts a sign in his shop window which reads, “Workers of the World, Unite!” The greengrocer in question does not put the sign up because he wants to communicate to the world his desire to see the workers unite, but rather because the sign was distributed to him by the party. He knows that if he doesn’t put it up, he runs the risk of being seen as a dissident, which would undoubtedly cause trouble for his business and his family. So what the sign is really meant to communicate is not a message about the workers of the world, but a message of the greengrocer’s willingness to do what he is told, to comply with the government and not challenge its authority over even little matters of expression like signs in shop windows. Havel explains all this, and then digs in a little deeper:
Let us take note: If the greengrocer had been instructed to display the slogan, “I am afraid and therefore unquestioningly obedient,” he would not be nearly as indifferent to its semantics, even though the statement would reflect the truth. The greengrocer would be embarrassed and ashamed to put such an unequivocal statement of his own degradation in the shop window, and quite naturally so, for he is a human being and thus has a sense of his own dignity. To overcome this complication, his expression of loyalty must take the form of a sign which, at least on its textual surface, indicates a level of disinterested conviction. It must allow the greengrocer to say, “What’s wrong with the workers of the world uniting?” Thus the sign helps the greengrocer to conceal from himself the low foundations of his obedience, at the same time concealing the low foundations of power. It hides them behind the façade of something high. And that something is ideology.
Ideology is a specious way of relating to the world. It offers human beings the illusion of an identity, of dignity, and of morality while making it easier for them to part with them.2
The essay, in a very gentle way, is a condemnation of the silence and inaction of so much of his country, exposing it for the complicity that, on some level, it actually is. The greengrocer, of course, is not just a greengrocer, but represents the Czechoslovakian people, and the sign in his window stands for all the many thousands of acts of compliance that they commit in daily life. A system of rule like that in Czechoslovakia, what Havel calls a post-totalitarian system, can only exist because of those people who “create through their involvement a general norm and, thus, bring pressure to bear on their fellow citizens.” This is the power of the powerless: that they are, everyday, actively shaping the system that represses them. He calls this living a lie.
What if the greengrocer were to take down his sign? He could start doing only things he believes in and saying only things he thinks, and proceed to lose his job, upset his social position, and compromise his children’s future. It would not be easy. But ultimately, he would be living within the truth, which is the only way out, for both the individual and the country. For “living within the lie can constitute the system only if it is universal… there are no terms whatsoever on which it can coexist with living within the truth, and therefore everyone who steps out of line denies it in principle and threatens it in its entirety.” The essay concludes not by calling people to specific political action, but by simply stating the imperative of a life lived truthfully.
The holiness of truth is an idea that resonates back through Czech history, to the time of Jan Hus, a Bohemian priest burned at the stake in 1415 for his efforts to bring religion closer to the people. His followers, the Hussites, played no small roll in the history of the country, and Hus is a celebrated figure in Czechoslovakia even today. He is commonly regarded as a man who died not only for God but for the primacy of truth. A well-known quote of his, that “Truth prevails over all,” became the motto of the Hussites, and then later of the fledgling nation of Czechoslovakia in 1920.3 It would echo down through the ages, becoming a slogan again in the Velvet Revolution of ’89. The accusation that the greengrocers of socialist Czechoslovakia were not living within the truth was a symbolically weighty matter, calling to mind history, homeland, and God.
“The Power of the Powerless” was widely circulated in samizdat form, and was influential for many young activists and intellectuals in Czechoslovakia and elsewhere in Eastern Europe. An activist from the Polish Solidarity movement, Zbygniew Bujak, later said that “this essay reached us in the Ursus factory in 1979 at a point when we felt we were at the end of the road. Reading it gave us the theoretical underpinnings for our activity. It maintained our spirits; we did not give up…”4 Havel’s greengrocer even managed to snake his way through time and space to take me by the hand one day in a college history class, and make me think a little more about what it means to be an honest person. Vaclav Havel himself went on to lead the Velvet Revolution of 1989, and become the first president of post-communist Czechoslovakia, and later of the Czech Republic.
1 Rothschild, Joseph and Nancy M. Wingfield. Return to Diversity. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.
2 Vaclav, Havel. “The Power of the Powerless.” From Stalinism to Pluralism. Ed. Gale Stokes. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. 168-174.
3 History Online. 1996. Radio Prague. 15 March 2005. http://archiv.radio.cz/history/.
4 Kirkwood, Michael J. “Vaclav Havel.” Glasgow University. 21 October 1998. Published online by Britske Listy. 15 March 2005. http://www.britskelisty.cz/9810/19981022f.html.