Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 20, 2011

Vaclav Havel and the struggle for socialism in Czechoslovakia

Filed under: Czechoslovakia,democracy,Stalinism — louisproyect @ 5:12 pm

Somehow I find the unctuous outpouring over Vaclav Havel far more off-putting than anything said about Christopher Hitchens. With Hitchens, you at least got the impression that he enjoyed being a prick. With Havel, you got the same kind of overpowering sanctimoniousness you get with religious figures. Keeping that in mind, it should come as no surprise that Havel was close to the Dalai Lama, another snake-oil salesman.

To understand Havel, you have to go back to the beginning of Czech socialism that is a bit more complicated than is usually portrayed in the bourgeois press. While the general consensus among the anti-Stalinist left is that Eastern Europe was turned into “satellite states” of the USSR after WWII, Czech reality is far more complex.

After British imperialism decided to sell out Czechoslovakia through Neville Chamberlain’s infamous deal, respect for the Western “democracies” declined precipitously and admiration for the USSR grew rapidly. Under Nazi occupation, the CP underground fought heroically as well. Unlike the situation in France, this occupation was unimaginably brutal resulting in the death of up to 55,000 Czechs in concentration camps or through execution. Last August I reviewed Protektor, a very good film dramatizing the assassination of Reinhold Heydrich and the repression that followed. Now available from Netflix, the film captures the period well.

So it is no surprise that Edvard Benes, the left social democrat Prime Minister who was ousted by the Communists in 1948, amounted to a “friend of the Soviet Union”. In a 1943 visit to the USSR, Benes found himself “amazed at the tremendous progress that he found and saw in it confirmation of his belief that the Soviet system, having successfully withstood the difficult test of a massive invasion, was now passing through a gradual transformation to a liberalized form of socialism.” In a nutshell, Benes can be compared politically to fellow travelers of the USSR found in the USA during the New Deal.

Additionally, Czechoslovakia had the largest indigenous Communist movement anywhere in Europe before WWII. In free parliamentary elections held on May 26, 1946, the CP won 38 percent of the vote nationwide and the Social Democrats received an additional 13 percent. So we are not exactly talking about socialism imposed at the point of a bayonet.

While signing a decree to nationalize land and factories, Benes also sought to placate the west as a buttress against Soviet power. He didn’t understand that a rising anticommunist mood in Washington would effectively preclude this. Benes was perceived as being too friendly to the USSR and too radical. Hence the decision by Secretary of State James Byrnes to annul a $50 million credit to Czechoslovakia in 1945. Even after a poor harvest in 1947, the US Embassy in Prague maintained a policy of “no food and no loans” to Czechoslovakia. In essence, the country would either have to align itself with the United States or the Soviet Union.

The model of a restive population seeking to break the chains of socialism and opening the doors to multinational corporations has little to do with Czech realities. In fact, the first open revolt against the Stalinist bureaucracy was mounted in the name of “socialism with a human face”.

In the late 60s, the opposition to Soviet-style repression was not inspired by Hayek or Ayn Rand. The students and intellectuals who provided an informal vanguard were more likely to be readers of Ernest Mandel or Herbert Marcuse. In Yugoslavia, students occupied the universities raising the banner of “For a Red University”. In Czechoslovakia, the slogan was not quite so bold but it certainly expressed a desire to create a system that retained popular control over the economy.

Under Alexander Dubcek, there was a Prague Spring in 1968 that was very much in sync with the student movements of the West. In 1967 a group of writers, including Milan Kundera, threw their support behind members of the Communist Party who were ready to challenge the old way of doing things. In April of 1968, Dubcek announced an Action Programme that would have transformed the country. Politically, it stressed democratic rights of the sort that were once understood as consistent with socialism. Economically, it advocated a more market-driven approach not that different from what existed during the NEP.

Ironically, when Fidel Castro made his speech in 1968 describing Russian intervention as a necessary evil to stamp out an imperialist plot, the very “liberal” measures he was condemning in Czechoslovakia were exactly the same that he and his brother would be pursuing today.

Despite widespread support for socialism early on, the ruling CP did everything it could to dampen the people’s spirit. Even when other Eastern European CP’s were loosening their grip after Stalin’s death, the Czechoslovak CP stuck to its hidebound ways. It was committed economically and culturally to the worst abuses of the Stalin era. As is usually the case, the intelligentsia was the first segment of the population to grow restive.

Another film is useful in understanding the vise-like grip with which the CP held society captive, namely Costa-Gravas’s “The Confession” which dramatizes the Slansky trial of 1952. Rudolf Slansky was a Jewish CP’er who was put on trial for thought crimes in the same manner as the Moscow trials of the 1930s. Charged as “Trotskyist-Zionist-Titoist-bourgeois nationalist traitors, spies, and saboteurs, enemies of the Czechoslovak nation, of its People’s Democratic order, and of Socialism”, Slansky and other victims of Stalinist injustice were executed.

The purpose of these trials was exactly the same as it was under Stalin, to cower the population into silence. Even the intelligentsia, especially the writers who would later on rebel against such madness, was pressured into supporting the regime. Dusan Hamsik, a leader of of Writer’s Union that was in the vanguard of the Prague Spring, wrote: “In those days it was the writers themselves who were their own best censors; the few who thought differently never offered their words for publication — indeed never committed them to paper in most cases. For it was unthinkable that any discordant voice should raise itself.”

A bit of a thaw took place in 1962, largely as a result of economic difficulties. As is so often the case, when a Stalinist government finds it difficult to deliver the goods, it will ease up a bit in order to allow the population to blow off steam. But to make sure that his subjects did not go too far, the dictator Novotny warned:

We will not allow this decadent capitalist culture to be propagated in our society, and we will not allow the socialist system, won in hard struggles, to be attacked in various ambiguous terms in the television and often also in the theatre … we need criticism … but let no one dare touch our Communist Party, its program, or our socialist system. This must be sacred, and it must stay sacred for all … the Party maintains the right to direct cultural activity, the same as it directs and manages the entire life of the country.

Novotny was also deeply concerned about the decadent cultural influences that the West was having on Czechoslovak youth, sounding very much like the preachers denouncing Elvis in the USA: “all right, let them dance, but we will not permit these modern dances to degenerate into vulgarisms and thus actually cultivate dark lusts in our people.”

Unlike any other country in Eastern Europe, the Czech intelligentsia was disproportionately represented in the CP. This meant that when the reform-oriented faction in the party led by Dubcek sought to renovate the system, the program was a mixture of political liberalization that everybody could support and economic measures geared to the market. The working class embraced the former and held an open mind about the latter.

In December 2008, Andy Kilmister wrote an article for International Viewpoint, the magazine of the Mandelista Fourth International, titled “The `Prague Spring’ and the `Prague Autumn’” that is a must-read for understanding what happened.  It reveals that although the workers might have been sitting on the fence in the economic debate between Novotny supporters and the new government, they swung sharply against the Soviet invasion in a revolutionary manner:

Between 1 October and the end of 1968, 260 further workers councils were created, with the trade unions playing a leading role in initiating this development 17. In January 1969 a national meeting in Plzeň of councils and preparatory committees representing 890,000 employees (over a sixth of the workers in the country) took place and `thereafter, the workers’ movement sheltered the political left as the ČKD-Vysočany plant had sheltered the secret August congress’.

The agreement with the metal workers on 19 December was followed by agreements in January 1969 between the students and construction workers, mineralogical, geological and gas workers and print workers and later by collaboration with power-station workers, designer and civil engineers, lumber workers and railway workers. Galia Golan reports that `by and large these alliances held throughout 1968-9 though they were much criticized (and feared) by the conservatives in the regime. In concrete terms, they led to the formation of worker-student action committees which coordinated efforts designed to salvage what was possible of the post-January policies’. Petr Cerny describes `Prague radicals who, for a brief moment, achieved what the western left had only dreamed of in 1968: a worker-student alliance’.

While the most famous Czechoslovak writers were solidly behind the Dubcek initiatives, including Milan Kundera and Jeri Pelikan, one decided that he had no interest in reforming socialism. The whole system had to go as the NY Times obituary on Vaclav Havel makes clear:

Mr. Havel, a child of bourgeois privilege whose family lost its wealth when the Communists came to power in 1948, first became active in the Writers Union in Czechoslovakia in the mid-1960s, when his chief target was not Communism so much as it was the “reform Communism” that many were seeking.

During the Prague Spring of 1968, the brief period when reform Communists, led by Mr. Dubcek, believed that “socialism with a human face” was possible, Mr. Havel argued that Communism could never be tamed.

Moving ahead to 1989, when Stalinism entered its death-knell, Czechoslovakia was given the opportunity to pick up where the Prague Spring had left off, not having to worry about Soviet tanks. Among the politicians deemed suitable for leading a new society, Dubcek and Havel stood out—representing two different solutions to the problems that had faced for decades.

In a review of John Keane’s critical biography of Vaclav Havel, a biography that Slavoj Zizek used as a peg to attack Havel’s legacy in the London Review, Laura Secor wrote:

In 1989, five years after Havel’s release, popular demonstrations brought down the Czechoslovak government. Dubcek, Keane contends, was the obvious choice for the country’s transitional presidency — but Havel manipulated Dubcek into stepping aside, by promising to support him in the upcoming free elections. According to Keane, Havel broke that promise, betraying Dubcek and retaining the presidency for himself. Not long afterward, Czechoslovakia split.

Once in power, Havel set about the task to dismantle Czech socialism and create a new state according to the formulas established in George Soros’s Open Society Foundation and elsewhere. A section from Michael Parenti’s “Blackshirts and Reds” has been circulating widely on the Internet, including my posting to the Marxism mailing list. Written not long after the Velvet Revolution of 1989, it knocks Havel off his pedestal rather deftly:

Havel called for efforts to preserve the Christian family in the Christian nation. Presenting himself as a man of peace and stating that he would never sell arms to oppressive regimes, he sold weapons to the Philippines and the fascist regime in Thailand. In June 1994, General Pinochet, the man who butchered Chilean democracy, was reported to be arms shopping in Czechoslovakia–with no audible objections from Havel.

Havel joined wholeheartedly in George Bush’s Gulf War, an enterprise that killed over 100,000 Iraqi civilians. In 1991, along with other Eastern European pro-capitalist leaders, Havel voted with the United States to condemn human rights violations in Cuba. But he has never uttered a word of condemnation of rights violations in El Salvador, Colombia, Indonesia, or any other U.S. client state.

In 1992, while president of Czechoslovakia, Havel, the great democrat, demanded that parliament be suspended and he be allowed to rule by edict, the better to ram through free-market “reforms.” That same year, he signed a law that made the advocacy of communism a felony with a penalty of up to eight years imprisonment. He claimed the Czech constitution required him to sign it. In fact, as he knew, the law violated the Charter of Human Rights which is incorporated into the Czech constitution. In any case, it did not require his signature to become law. In 1995, he supported and signed another undemocratic law barring communists and former communists from employment in public agencies.

Now I have no way of knowing what Parenti would have been saying about the Prague Spring in 1968, but I strongly suspect that he would have agreed with Fidel Castro. For the section of the left that believes that the Soviet intervention was a “necessary evil”, there’s actually a strong affinity with liberals who have urged a vote for Gore, Kerry and Obama in recent elections. If the choice is between someone like Obama and Newt Gingrich, you have to vote for Obama. Along the same lines, a Czechoslovakia under Dubcek might have led down the slippery road to what it would become under Havel so it was necessary to back the Soviet invasion.

The possibility that an alternative to both liberalizing technocrats and open supporters of Western imperialism does not really exist in the mind of someone like a Michael Parenti or many who think this way, like Alexander Cockburn or Michel Chossudovsky. The drama in a place like Iran or Libya is always between two players, and no possibility exists for the masses to make history on their own terms.

This is the terrible political legacy that 70 years of Stalinism has left us. After WWII, a powerful constellation of nominally socialist states existed around the world, either conforming to the Soviet model or to some Bonapartist variant best expressed by Nasser’s Egypt. In such states, the authoritarianism was necessary—we were led to understand—because political freedoms would open the door to CIA subversion. It was never considered that such repression was mainly designed to enforce class distinctions that were the same in spirit or in substance like those in capitalist societies.

Social inequalities and repression of the sort symbolized by Novotny or Qaddafi’s show trials were rationalized as blemishes in a system that was historically “progressive”. When the disgruntled masses took it upon themselves to resist their rulers, the “anti-imperialist” left took the side of the rulers if there was the slightest hint of Western support. Given the realities of geopolitics, it was almost impossible to find a situation in which the CIA was not intervening. In Egypt, the contradictions were most acute as the West backed the Tahrir Square protesters and the Mubarak regime simultaneously.

If there was ever a time to break with this “lesser evil” mentality, it is now. With the deepening crisis of world capitalism, an urgent task confronts us. A revolutionary movement has to be built worldwide that makes no concessions to the paternal rule of a Qaddafi or a Novotny. There will always be the possibility that in a revolt against such rulers, things might not follow a straight and narrow path toward socialist victory but deferring to the status quo in the name of “anti-imperialism” is unacceptable.

Arise ye pris’ners of starvation
Arise ye wretched of the earth
For justice thunders condemnation
A better world’s in birth!
No more tradition’s chains shall bind us
Arise, ye slaves, no more in thrall;
The earth shall rise on new foundations
We have been naught we shall be all.

39 Comments »

  1. L, I would of thought the Yugoslav communists as well as the Greeks had a much higher influence and strength than the Czech CP did during WWII, or at least equal to it.

    Comment by David Walters — December 20, 2011 @ 6:04 pm

  2. A very interesting analysis that I would agree with on a first reading. I visited Czechoslovakia in the early 1950s as a young teenager and would still like to know more about my father’s country.

    Two immediate reactions. One of the agreements that ended WW2 – not sure which without looking it up, but perhaps Yalta, came to agree that West Germany would not join NATO. Yet it did, and this led to the foundation of the Warsaw pact. At about that time my aunt took me to Czechoslovakia and I remember the way the pun (Nato NATO? – why NATO) became briefly a sort of sour joke.

    The other is the way the causes of WW2 remain to this day highly infected and controversial. The blog Latvian History is worth looking at for a strange interpretation in which neither Chamberlain’s “appeasement” nor his U-turn to unilaterally guarantee Poland (the Danzig Corridor) play any role. Nor does the attempt by Churchill to postpone the invasion of France so that Nazi Germany and USSR could fight to the finish, leaving the Western Allies to march in almost without opposition. This was tricky as it meant timing the invasion of Normandy until the last minute. And like all such things didn’t work enough to prevent the Iron Curtain. Churchill’s speech about an iron curtain has fallen across Europe is his own doing, largely.

    Yet in all this, Czechoslovakia – and Poland – were the main victims. The EU adds a recent twist, being a US funded product of the Cold War and its pre-war espionage origins.

    Comment by Jim Kemeny — December 20, 2011 @ 6:07 pm

  3. Fidel Castro’s “defense” of the Soviet intervention in Czechoslovakia stated in the starkest terms that it was a violation of Czech national sovereignty. As a result, Fidel’s “defense” could not and was not circulated in the USSR or in Czechoslovakia at the time. Here are but two paragraphs:

    What is not appropriate here is to say that the sovereignty of the
    Czechoslovak state was not violated. That would be fiction and a lie. The
    violation was flagrant, and on this we are going to talk about the effect
    on sovereignty, and on legal and political principles. From the legal
    viewpoint, it cannot be justified. This is quite clear. In our judgment,
    the decision on Czechoslovakia can be explained only from the political
    viewpoint and not from a legal viewpoint. Frankly, it has absolutely no
    legality.

    What are the circumstances that have permitted a remedy of this nature, a
    remedy which places in a difficult situation the entire world revolutionary
    movement, a remedy which constitutes a really traumatic situation for an
    entire people–as is the present case in Czechoslovakia–a remedy which
    implies that an entire nation has to pass through the most unpleasant
    circumstances of seeing the country occupied by armies of other countries,
    although they are armies of the socialist countries. A situation in which
    millions of beings of a country have to see themselves today in the tragic
    circumstance of electing and choosing either to be passive toward these
    circumstances and this event–which so much brings to mind previous
    episodes–or to struggle in comradeship with pro-Yankee agents and spies,
    the enemies of socialism, the agents of West Germany, and all that fascist
    and reactionary rabble that in the heat of these circumstances will try to
    present itself as champions of the sovereignty, patriotism, and freedom of
    Czechoslovakia?

    FULL:
    http://lanic.utexas.edu/project/castro/db/1968/19680824.html

    Those who attack Fidel for doing what he needed to at a time when the island was completely beholden to the USSR economically usually leave out this element. In the real world revolutionaries have to do what they have to do under the specific circumstances in which they actually function. If Fidel Castro had done what some people, sitting in the comfort of their university offices would wish Castro had done in 1968, they fail to consider what the consequences for Cuba might have been.

    Basing themselves on abstractions outside of time and place are easy for anyone.

    Walter Lippmann
    Havana, Cuba

    Comment by walterlx — December 20, 2011 @ 6:35 pm

  4. Those who attack Fidel for doing what he needed to at a time when the island was completely beholden to the USSR economically usually leave out this element. In the real world revolutionaries have to do what they have to do under the specific circumstances in which they actually function.

    Well, Walter, we can’t blame Fidel Castro for saying something acceptable to the Kremlin in 1968. But what’s your excuse for writing apologetics for the past ten years or so for Mugabe and all the rest? Are you beholden to Zimbabwe economically?

    Comment by louisproyect — December 20, 2011 @ 6:43 pm

  5. Another good riddance, this time to the sanctimonious hypocrite Havel. Hitchens and Havel – what a pair newly joined to the after life!

    And yes, an abiding distrust in the masses is the generally unspoken hallmark of “post-stalinism”. On that, Louis, you omitted the key relevant phrase from the American English version:

    We want no condescending saviors
    To rule us from their judgment hall,
    We workers ask not for their favors
    Let us consult for all

    Or in French:

    Il n’est pas de sauveurs suprêmes
    Ni Dieu, ni César, ni tribun

    Someone should inform Parenti that this includes his Julius Caesar as well.

    Comment by Matt — December 20, 2011 @ 6:46 pm

  6. “The law oppresses us and chains us,
    the wage slave system drains our blood.
    The rich are free from obligation,
    the law the poor deludes.
    Too long we’ve suffered subjugation,
    equality has other laws.
    No rights say we without their duties,
    No claims on equals without cause.”

    Verse two.

    The first time I sang that song, outside the shower, that is, I was 19 years old and I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. Then I learned there was no such thing as heaven, which was okay by me because that meant there was no such thing as hell, either.

    I think the rule of thumb is this: It is permissible under certain circumstances NOT to say everything you want to say, but it is never permissible to say things you didn’t want to say.

    Comment by dave r — December 20, 2011 @ 6:54 pm

  7. Well, Walter, we can’t blame Fidel Castro for saying something acceptable to the Kremlin in 1968. But what’s your excuse for writing apologetics for the past ten years or so for Mugabe and all the rest? Are you beholden to Zimbabwe economically?

    Comment by louisproyect — December 20, 2011 @ 6:43 pm

    RESPONSE:
    Are you asking me if I would prefer the Mugabe government or the Libyan government or the Syrian government or the Iranian government to that of the Proyect administration? I wasn’t aware of Washington working hard to overthrow the Proyect regime. If they were working to overthrow the Proyect government, it should probably be defended. Please let me know when the Proyect administration comes under attack from Washington.

    In any event, posting a big laudatory commentary about Vaclav Havel, just like a previous big laudatory comment about Christopher Hitchens is a reflection of political priorities. Hitchens at least was an ex-leftist turned turncoat. As far as I know, Havel wasn’t ever even an ex-leftist. Mostly he was an anti-communist, not much different from Reagan, Bush or the rest. They died. So what?

    Comment by Walter Lippmann — December 20, 2011 @ 7:30 pm

  8. Are you asking me if I would prefer the Mugabe government or the Libyan government or the Syrian government or the Iranian government to that of the Proyect administration?

    What a stupid evasion. You know what I am talking about. You were posting dreck like this to the Marxism list before you were removed:

    “Mugabe had been elected twice–legitimately–in elections that were deemed fair by international agencies.”

    “Perhaps the greatest misconception about Mugabe is that he is some sort of a dictator. While Mugabe is not a saint, and the 2008 elections were questionable, Zimbabwe was and still is an example of free and fair democracy in Africa.”

    Walter, maybe you are not aware of this, but people get beat up or killed in Zimbabwe when they put up posters for candidates opposed to Mugabe. If you were aware of it and decided to ignore it, you are sleazier than anybody I’ve ever known from the CPUSA.

    Comment by louisproyect — December 20, 2011 @ 7:46 pm

  9. The words Louis Proyect quotes above are not the words of Walter Lippmann. You are particularly intransigent against the governments against which Washington is also campaigning. I don’t denounce you for that. Your sincerity is evident to everyone.

    We simply don’t agree on political matters. I try to maintain decorum, and generally avoid personalizing matters of political difference. It doesn’t help to clarify disputed matters, in my opinion.

    Walter Lippmann
    Havana, Cuba

    Comment by Walter Lippmann — December 20, 2011 @ 8:06 pm

  10. The words Louis Proyect quotes above are not the words of Walter Lippmann.

    No, but they are in articles that you posted to the list. I unsubbed Henry Liu years ago for crossposting some anti-Semitic articles. You are responsible for the shite that you shoved at us.

    Comment by louisproyect — December 20, 2011 @ 8:08 pm

  11. Comment by louisproyect — December 20, 2011 @ 8:19 pm

  12. Walter: “In any event, posting a big laudatory commentary about Vaclav Havel”

    Walter, are you losing your fucking mind? What is your problem? Don’t hang out here unless you read what I write. I wrote nothing “laudatory” about Havel. In fact, upon further reflection, this is such a deranged falsification of my actual post that you have left me no choice but to ban you since your trolling is a waste of bandwidth.

    Comment by louisproyect — December 20, 2011 @ 8:25 pm

  13. Obviously, a piece that began with the lines, “Somehow I find the unctuous outpouring over Vaclav Havel far more off-putting than anything said about Christopher Hitchens. With Hitchens, you at least got the impression that he enjoyed being a prick. With Havel, you got the same kind of overpowering sanctimoniousness you get with religious figures. Keeping that in mind, it should come as no surprise that Havel was close to the Dalai Lama, another snake-oil salesman.”

    was going to be one that praised Havel to the skies.

    Comment by Jim Farmelant — December 20, 2011 @ 9:15 pm

  14. I like the essay a lot, Lou. I knew the Castro comment would get some “feed back”. It is what it is: critical endorsement for the exact thing that Fidel condemns: a violation of Czech sovereignty and the smashing of any chance of “reform” within the mode of production at that time. This caused a lot of debate then, in the non-Stalinist left, including the group you and Walter were members of at the time.

    The problem with the Stalinist methodology employed by Walter is that he avoids what is the *point* of your comment…in that Fidel in ’68 saw what he and his brother are doing now as a ‘threat to really existing socialism’. I actually would of welcomed Walter’s response to what you actually wrote.

    Comment by David Walters — December 20, 2011 @ 10:05 pm

  15. I actually would of welcomed Walter’s response to what you actually wrote.

    And I would have welcomed it myself. But after 10 years of dealing with him, I have learned that this is utterly impossible. Frankly, I found full-blown Stalinists like Mark Jones, who wore the label proudly and who I considered one of my closest friends and comrades, much more willing to engage with what I wrote and to defend their own views honestly and without obfuscation. Since that is not where Walter is coming from, I have made the decision to ban him from commenting–something i probably should have done long ago.

    Comment by louisproyect — December 20, 2011 @ 10:20 pm

  16. Your comment about Dalai being a snake oil salesmen.

    I have heard on TV appearances and in print interviews that he is a boldly proclaimed marxist.

    I respect him and was just wondered why you felt that way.

    Comment by Deborah Jeffries — December 21, 2011 @ 3:29 am

  17. The Dalai Lama is an arrogant theocrat, living in luxury for propaganda purposes. I’ve known far too many leftists who think holiness shines out of his pampered arse (no doubt shiny, but he does have lower-caste servants attending to his EVERY need). His ‘birthright’ entitles him to jack shit, so maybe its best he keeps kissing celeb-ass while playing cute ‘n’ wise for the glossies. He is very much a clown for the ‘humanitarian intervention’ generation – Mia Farrow without the hair. The Lama needs to remind himself that Buddhism is about humility.

    The rule of ‘peaceful, enlightened’ monks in Tibet involved punishments, gender/class stratifications and poverty that would would make the KGB look like ‘liberators’. And no, I’m not fan of any form of imperialism, the Chinese Communist Party, or Mao Zedong for that matter.

    Comment by DW Kasper — December 21, 2011 @ 6:48 am

  18. Your essay is much preferable to Žižek’s, because it actually tries to explain where Havel originated. The reason why Havel was praised to the skies, and could do no wrong, just like Steve Jobs, is because he personally exemplified a core neoliberal idea beloved of the bourgeois elites. Just as in theology, where there are saints and sinners, martyrs and demons etc., in the bourgeois imaginary, certain individuals “show the way” (thus providing leadership), or alternatively dramatize how badly things can go wrong.

    On closer examination, the accomplishments or tragedies of these “notable individuals” turn out to be not really of their own making, and in reality their accomplishments were somewhat different from the ones imputed to them (it is, for instance, hardly believable that Steve Jobs singlehandedly invented, produced and marketed Apple technology, and that it was all his idea). The individual turns out to be not so unique, since it can be shown that a number of people were striving for the same idea.

    The point is that, for ideological purposes, it doesn’t even matter, if the story told about Havel or Steve Jobs is really true or not – what matters is the moral image conveyed about what is desirable, and what it not. It is a bit like telling a story about a news event to your children – you reduce its complexity in order to convey a few ideas which will be comprehensible to them, and speak to their experience.

    Comment by Jurriaan Bendien — December 21, 2011 @ 12:25 pm

  19. This stands in stark contrast to the rubbish pouring from the media– print and internet; right, left and center– re both Hitchens and Havel (may they rot together in saecular saeculorum) especially from those who ought to know better (i.e.) the ex-Healyite World to Win tendency in England. Louis’ analysis in my opinion is in the best traditions of employing historical materialism to explicate what is presented as a purely singular event as ideologized hero worship, by looking beneath the surface to the social relations between humans and classes which are the determinate context of real historical significance. I usually find LP insightful, stimulating, curmudgeonly, and always a worthwhile read. But this piece is actually inspiring.
    coda: Hitch and Havel will occupy different places in the Inferno: ‘Sneering Traitors’ for Hitchens; ‘Cynical Opportunists’ for Havel.

    Comment by Bob Montgomery — December 21, 2011 @ 3:29 pm

  20. I agree with comment no. 18 and Steve Jobs.

    When he died, people acted as if he was the messiah of the technology age.

    A point that has been consistently if not intentionally left out is how Apple used slave labor and exploitation to grow its world empire.

    That’s not a man that deserves one ounce of admiration, only condemnation.

    Comment by Deborah Jeffries — December 21, 2011 @ 6:21 pm

  21. This talk of the post-Communist legacy in Eastern Europe reminds me of an amazing comedy sketch done by the guys who comprise Stella back in their “the State” days. I believe it was entitled “Free Market Economy”, but all I can find when I search “the State free market economy” on youtube is libertarian drivel about how the free market is unjustly blamed for so much of the world’s troubles. Is anyone else hip to this sketch, and if so, do you have a link?
    Also, does anyone have any information on the current left situation in the Czech Republic or if Mr. Havel is just as adored in his home country as he is in the West? I’ll do a little digging, but a suggested starting point would be nice.

    Comment by Rob — December 21, 2011 @ 7:25 pm

  22. Rob I can’t find a clip but at least here’s an IMdb link for you. It’s episode 3.10
    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1299237/

    My boyfriend loves those guys…I’ve not seen this episode.

    Comment by ish — December 22, 2011 @ 5:03 am

  23. Regarding Havel’s landlord roots – his family’s properties such as Barrandovské terasy were nationalized after World War II. Right before stepped down as president of Czechoslovakia in June 1992, he had Barrandovské terasy privatized, with his family again reestablishing the right to expropriate rents from the tenancy.

    This issue isn’t addressed much. His family were some of the largest landlords in Czechoslovakia, its no wonder this weaselly-looking drunkard were against socialism in Czechoslovakia. I’ve had to hold my nose as I’ve been reading US newspaper headlines trumpeting words such as “hero”. Or calling him an artist, known for profound utterances such as “Truth and love must prevail over lies and hate.” I guess that can go up with other phrases he invented, such as “humanitarian bombing” when referring to Serbia.

    Comment by Adelson Velsky Landis — December 22, 2011 @ 6:37 pm

  24. Mr. Proyect,
    Well, credit where credit is due. For once, I agree 100% with your essay on Havel. Learned a lot from it. Great work! One of the comments mentioned Zizek’s essay about Havel. Where can that essay be found?

    Comment by Leon — December 22, 2011 @ 7:42 pm

  25. Actually, the Zizek article is linked in the article:

    http://www.lrb.co.uk/v21/n21/slavoj-zizek/attempts-to-escape-the-logic-of-capitalism

    Comment by louisproyect — December 22, 2011 @ 8:03 pm

  26. […] Vaclav Havel and the struggle for socialism in Czechoslovakia https://louisproyect.wordpress.com/2011/12/20/vaclak-havel-and-the-struggle-for-socialism-in-czechosl… […]

    Pingback by GPJA #408: Waihopai Spybase Protest Jan 20-22 « GPJA's Blog — December 23, 2011 @ 3:24 am

  27. Havel on growing up rich : “I was different from my schoolmates whose families did not have domestics, nurses or chauffeurs,” he wrote. “But I experienced these differences as a disadvantage; I felt excluded from the company of my peers.”

    What a repellent mind.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/19/world/europe/vaclav-havel-dissident-playwright-who-led-czechoslovakia-dead-at-75.html?_r=1&pagewanted=4&n=Top/Reference/Times%20Topics/People/P/Perlez,%20Jane?ref=janeperlez

    Comment by purple — December 23, 2011 @ 8:50 pm

  28. Comment no. 17, Kasper I really thought deeply about your comment about Dalai Lama and agree with you and I was very wrong which I admit.

    He does associate himself with celebrities like Richard Gere for example.

    These so called humanitarian stars he’s connected to like Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt, Sean Penn and George Clooney are just an example of the so called Hollywood left making pleas for the starving and poor in the world, yet they would not sacrifice all of their bourgeois riches for the causes they stand behind.

    They are nothing but phony hypocrites from tinseltown.

    I was very wrong about him because a man who consorts with people like that isn’t worthy of any respect.

    Comment by Deborah Jeffries — December 25, 2011 @ 4:05 am

  29. […] From here: […]

    Pingback by On “anti-imperialism” | The rose in the cross — December 26, 2011 @ 11:41 am

  30. So it would have been better if Czechoslovakia and the rest of Eastern Europe had remained Stalinist, and the USSR had not collapsed? that’s what you mean, eh?

    Comment by Jim Denham — December 26, 2011 @ 6:35 pm

  31. Denham, what kind of fuck-wit are you trying to make me sound like Andy Newman?

    Comment by louisproyect — December 26, 2011 @ 6:41 pm

  32. This potted caricature commits a double injustice by portraying Havel as the malign architect of Czech neo-liberalism: a claim that is historically inaccurate and which by omission, absolves from responsibility the real orchestrator of this process – the current Czech president, Vaclav Klaus.
    The basic problem with this argument is that it overlooks the fact that Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic had Parliamentary not Presidential political systems, with a largely figurehead President elected by Parliament. For a brief period after 1989 a combination of moral factors allowed Havel to exert some real influence over events, but this structure broke up very quickly. The Civic Forum which had propelled Havel into office began to differentiate immediately after acceding to office, and by 1992 it had split into two right wing parties, and supporters of Havel who made up the centre-left Civic Movement. This latter group received only 5% of the vote in the 1992 election, wiping out their parliamentary representation. From July 1992 onwards Havel was in the unique position of being a President without a single supporter in the legislature. His formal powers as President were very narrowly defined, and did not extend to any real involvement in domestic policy making or allow him to do any more than than delay legislation passed by Parliament. Its true that he signed the 1991 witch-hunting “Lustration” law, but both he and the Civic Movement were publicly critical of its provisions, both before and after adoption. (Some observers attribute the Civic Movement’s haemorrhaging of electoral support in 1992 to its opposition to the Lustration law.) Havel did actually deploy his limited veto power to protest at the renewal of the Law in 1995 and 2000.
    The statement that “In 1992, while president of Czechoslovakia, Havel, the great democrat, demanded that parliament be suspended and he be allowed to rule by edict, the better to ram through free-market “reforms” is nonsense. What actually happened was that during the 1991-2 constitutional debates Havel proposed an amendment to the constitution that would have givern the President a general power to dissolve a deadlocked parliament and rule by decree pending a new election. This was in the context of negotiation over Czech-Slovak relations and had nothing to do with “free market reforms” (which were largely done and dusted by then).
    In fact Havel had very little effective political power after 1991-2, as shown by his inability to prevent the breakup of Czechoslovakia. Instead he tried to assume a role as a moral guide of the nation and in that capacity was often sharply critical of the Klaus government, its neo-liberal policies, and their effect on Czech society. By all means let’s have a critical appraisal of Havel’s role in Czech history – but let’s base it on historical fact and not snide fantasy.

    Comment by Brian. O. — December 28, 2011 @ 5:36 pm

  33. This potted caricature commits a double injustice by portraying Havel as the malign architect of Czech neo-liberalism: a claim that is historically inaccurate and which by omission, absolves from responsibility the real orchestrator of this process – the current Czech president, Vaclav Klaus.

    Klaus was Havel’s Minister of Finance. He was like Margaret Thatcher while Havel was like Tony Blair. No thanks…

    Comment by louisproyect — December 28, 2011 @ 5:53 pm

  34. Brian O. strokes a lot of keys to make a quibble. At best, this is simply an addendum to LP’s article. The writer thinks all these distinctions– i.e. Havel was just along for the ride; Klaus was the professor Moriarty of market fundamentalism in Czechoslovakia– amount to real differences. Even if the writer has his/her facts right, nothing really changes. Who was it who called Blair, “Thatcher in trousers?”

    Comment by bob Montgomery — December 28, 2011 @ 10:51 pm

  35. Excellent post! Always more to it than the easy media stories that reach the masses…

    Comment by Jared — December 29, 2011 @ 12:57 am

  36. […] In the late 60s, the opposition to Soviet-style repression was not inspired by Hayek or Ayn Rand. The students and intellectuals who provided an informal vanguard were more likely to be readers of Ernest Mandel or Herbert Marcuse. In Yugoslavia, students occupied the universities raising the banner of “For a Red University”. In Czechoslovakia, the slogan was not quite so bold but it certainly expressed a desire to create a system that retained popular control over the economy…. Read More:https://louisproyect.wordpress.com/2011/12/20/vaclak-havel-and-the-struggle-for-socialism-in-czechosl… […]

    Pingback by Havel enough | Madame Pickwick Art Blog — December 29, 2011 @ 1:09 pm

  37. I am not sure if the text I am discussing here is by Louis or by Michael Parenti. But I guess I don’t need to worry about that – Havel/Klaus, Proyect,Parenti, all just quibbles in the grand historic scheme of things!
    Louis tells us that “Klaus was Havel’s finance minister” – an inaccurate statement on both formal and informal grounds. Politically the two were at each other’s throats from the word go. Its true that Havel SHARES responsibility for the neo-liberal transformation of the Czechoslovak economy, in the sense that his espousal of the liberal notion of a necessary connection between political freedom and the free market disarmed those in Civic Forum who might have fashioned an alternative vision to Klaus and Co’s project (although its unlikely that they would have succeeded even with Havel’s more consistent support). But while most politicians faced with negative consequences of their actions seek to bury the facts as deeply as possible, Havel spoke out forcefully and repeatedly against the deformations that restored Czech capitalism spawned.
    In the words of Peter Uhl,
    “A very important moment was Havel’s refusal of the Czech mafia-style capitalism in his speech before the two houses of Czech parliament in late 1997, in spite of the fact that he had unwittingly contributed to its emergence…
    “Since then, Havel and Klaus have represented two main streams of the Czech society’s further development. They embodied a battle between democracy and technocracy, between civic society and state arrogance, between “green” values and consumerism, between human rights protection and a view of the world that emphasises security…”
    (http://praguemonitor.com/2011/12/23/pr%C3%A1vo-homage-havel-staged-mainly-klaus.)

    Comment by Brian. O. — December 31, 2011 @ 2:22 pm

  38. Brian, I don’t think I disagree with anything you have written. I do believe that Havel was repulsed by Klaus’s Thatcherite initiatives but he and those who think like him in the Czech republic had little insights into their role in paving the way for the eventual outcome of a “liberalization” that saw their country’s salvation in terms of its integration into the world capitalist economy. He is a pathetic figure, more like Hamlet than Macbeth.

    Comment by louisproyect — December 31, 2011 @ 2:31 pm

  39. […] In 1992, while president of Czechoslovakia, Havel, the great democrat, demanded that parliament be suspended and he be allowed to rule by edict, the better to ram through free-market “reforms.” That same year, he signed a law that made the advocacy of communism a felony with a penalty of up to eight years imprisonment. He claimed the Czech constitution required him to sign it. In fact, as he knew, the law violated the Charter of Human Rights which is incorporated into the Czech constitution. In any case, it did not require his signature to become law. In 1995, he supported and signed another undemocratic law barring communists and former communists from employment in public agencies. Read More:https://louisproyect.wordpress.com/2011/12/20/vaclak-havel-and-the-struggle-for-socialism-in-czechosl… […]

    Pingback by havel : changing horses in mid-stream | Madame Pickwick Art Blog — January 1, 2012 @ 12:20 am


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