Vol 1, No 24
6 December 1999
B O O K R E V I E W:
Vaclav Havel: A political tragedy in six acts
532 pp. Index
Let me establish at the outset that I welcome Professor John Keane's attempt to portray Vaclav Havel as a man with political ambitions. In fact, I would argue that there is no other honest way of approaching the subject, and the widespread image of a 'reluctant president' is a deplorable diversion. Also, I support Keane's wish to draw greater attention to the general issue of power.
Let me now establish why I have serious misgivings about this book.
Its greatest shortcoming is that it is intellectually featherweight. Keane provides extensive summaries of Havel's plays, of his Letters to Olga, and of 'The Power of the Powerless', but he does not engage Havel as a philosopher or systematically analyse the development of Havel's thought. The very index to the book, on page 523, reveals that more space is dedicated to Havel's health problems (mentioned on 13 pages), physical appearance (on six pages), and relationships with women (on 12 pages) than to his philosophical interests (on four pages).
The most shocking oversight is the absence of any sustained discussion of the influence of Jan Patocka, whom Keane mentions in passing as 'the country's leading philosopher' (p. 247) and as Havel's 'philosophical mentor' (p. 253). There is no systematic exploration of Havel's thought in the tradition of Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Husserl, with only a few references to Heidegger (mainly on pp. 285-86). There is no comparison of Havel with adjacent thinkers such as Hannah Arendt, Simone Weil and Jurgen Habermas.
One might forgive such omissions were the author a hack journalist, but not if he is Professor of Politics.
A powerless argument
Keane sets himself the task of using Havel to develop a theory of power to rival and replace those descended from Machiavelli and Hobbes. He argues that these early-modern philosophers founded two traditions of thinking about power, the realist and the obedience-centred, because of which 'the study of power in modern times has been skewed in favour of the powerful', while 'the capacity for action and entitlements of the governed [...] have been badly neglected' (p. 13).
There may be truth in this, but why does Keane not challenge these traditions by tackling more recent thinkers, for example Weber and Foucault? Or, conversely, why not trace the origins of the obedience tradition farther back, to Bodin, or to medieval discussions of obligation?
In addition, Keane's representation of Machiavelli and Hobbes is inadequate. To focus strictly on The Prince (as Keane does), and not to take into account the Discourses, is to give a misleading impression of Machiavelli's priorities. The latter work makes it clear that his concern for power flowed from a larger concern for the freedom of the republic: effective leadership protects the larger community from the violent imposition of foreign ways of life, from corruption arising out of the republic's own success, and from any strife that exceeded the quotidian friction between estates and institutions that Machiavelli thought conducive to public policy.
Hobbes, in his peculiar way, justified undivided sovereignty by reference to the individual's rational self-interest: 'The end of Obedience is Protection' (Leviathan, ch. 21). The Leviathan was pitched as the best way to protect the individual from pain and death, and a sort of choice, consent or authorship was always implied, albeit unconvincingly.
I am also uneasy with Keane's reading (p. 253) of chapter 29 of Leviathan, in which Hobbes likened strong towns and corporations to 'worms in the entrayles of a naturall man'. I am not sure whether this amounts, as Keane suggests, to a blanket intolerance of all 'voluntary associations' as we understand them today. Hobbes identified 'bodies politique', which could include merchants' corporations; 'private bodies regular', namely, the family; and 'private bodies irregular', such as bands of thieves and conspirators (Leviathan, ch. 22). Most bodies politique were tolerated by Hobbes as long as they deferred to the will of the sovereign, although he was clearly displeased by the corporations' monopolistic and monopsonistic effects. Ultimately, as Deborah Baumgold argues, Hobbes most feared quarrel in the elite, not independent social action (Hobbes' Political Theory, pp. 69-70).
Keane's stated ambition is to provide a new theory of power that would centre on the interests of the governed, rather than those of the governors. While open to correction here, I have the impression that other people have been doing this for several centuries. Locke's fiduciary theory of power, in itself a response to Hobbes, comes to mind. Mill's views of representative government and liberty, and the liberal tradition of limited, constitutional government in general, were driven by the interests of the governed. Montesquieu developed a doctrine of the separation of powers with countervailing institutions to protect liberty. Burke and Tocqueville long ago recognised the value of intermediary associations in guarding the individual against atomisation and despotism.
Many of these writers, in fact, make scattered cameo appearances in this book. Keane's enterprise, therefore, is hardly original, and after 505 pages I cannot discern a new, systematic theory of power, nor do I see in it the 'manual for democrats' that Keane promises on page 14.
The Machiavellian dimension is a potentially fascinating and fruitful one, but Keane does not pursue it sufficiently. To begin with, he does not pick up Gordon Skilling's magnificent essay on the failures of Czech statecraft, 'Lions or Foxes: Heroes or Lackeys', in Czechoslovakia 1918-88: Seventy Years from Independence. In that analysis, Skilling regretted that only one Czech leader, Masaryk, possessed the Machiavellian fusion of qualities needed for successful statesmanship.
How might one update Skilling's analysis eleven years later? Has Havel displayed the necessary virtu? How has the example of Masaryk influenced Havel, both philosophically and practically?
Alfred Thomas argues that Havel, like Masaryk, has been handicapped in his truth claims by the lack of an underpinning metaphysics or ideology; would Keane agree? Is that one of the reasons why Havel could be outflanked by Vaclav Klaus, who could legitimate his policy preferences through a heady mix of liberalism and nationalism? Why not turn to Ernest Gellner's comparison of Masaryk and Havel in Telos, no. 94, winter 1993-1994?
These questions find no answer in Keane's book, for Masaryk is as conspicuously absent as Patocka.
As the preceding points suggest, Keane ignores the modest body of serious secondary literature on Havel. This is unfortunate, given that most of it is actually very good, and Keane's analysis would have benefited from consideration of it. Why does he not draw on Aviezer Tucker's Fenomenologie a politika od J. Patocky k V. Havlovi? Robert Pynsent's essay 'Questions of Identity and Responsibility in Vaclav Havel', in Questions of Identity: Czech and Slovak Ideas of Nationality and Personality? Alfred Thomas's 'Philosophy and Politics in Vaclav Havel's Largo Desolato' in The Labyrinth of the Word: Truth and Representation in Czech Literature? Markus Hipp's 'Identitat und Verantwortung im Denken Vaclav Havels', in Bohemia, vol. 36 (1995), pp. 298-329? Or Matustik's Postnational Identity: Critical Theory and Existential Philosophy in Habermas, Kierkegaard and Havel? What about Jerzy Szacki's astute critique of Havel and 'anti-politics' generally in Liberalism after Communism?
Forgotten nights at the round table
The book is a disappointment in other regards. Keane is not to be faulted for having been given almost no access to Havel himself; he is to be criticised, however, for not making better use of the next best thing, the extensive transcripts that capture Havel at work in critical moments.
The 1989 round-table talks, from which hundreds of pages of transcription were generated, deserve more than a page and a half (pp. 370-71), since they show Havel manoeuvring - sometimes skilfully, sometimes not - with the authorities when power was up for grabs. In cases where Keane does refer to the transcripts, he does not capture the full flavour of the meeting. For example, he cites the record of a planning session held on 22 December 1989 to support his important point that Havel had clearly promised to step down from the presidency after the first free elections and allow Alexander Dubcek to seek the office.
In Keane's telling of the story, Havel never took the pledge seriously, using it in Machiavellian fashion only to persuade a rival to stand aside. To give himself an escape route, according to Keane, Havel 'carefully planned a nebulously worded declaration of sympathy for the idea that, sometime in the future, a Slovak might become president' (p. 373). This episode of 'knavery' is used to illustrate power's 'polymorphously perverse' effect on Havel once he acquired a taste for it (p. 369).
Yet when we visit the transcript, we find Havel freely bringing his promise to the attention of the other leaders of Civil Forum and Public against Violence, and asking them when they thought would be the best time for him to publicise it - later that day, or in his New Year's Day presidential address, or at some other point. A Czech jurist advises thus:
Zdenek Jicinsky: Let us please consider one thing seriously. Any of us would be hard pressed to guess what shape the course of events will take in coming months. So, Vaclav should think very carefully, whether at this point he should formulate anything at all in the sense of --
The 'nebulously worded declaration' was thus the idea of someone whom Keane elsewhere portrays as a beacon of sanity and respect for the law. Unless Keane can prove that Havel somehow prompted Jicinsky's advice from behind the scenes, it appears to me that very little premeditation was at work. Rather, Jicinsky was urging Havel to be flexible and pragmatic, and Havel followed that advice.
Perhaps I overlooked it, but I saw in this book no reconstruction of Havel's reasoning for standing for the presidency in July 1990. This episode highlights the need for a treatment of Havel's pursuit of power more nuanced than one finds here. On more than one occasion, Havel has compared the presidency to imprisonment, an analogy that may be less flippant than it first appears.
Was Havel's decision to pursue the presidency in 1990, 1992, 1993 and 1998 a variation of the same curious process by which he quickly came to terms with being in prison in 1979, as admitted in Letters to Olga?2 What does this tell us about Havel's attitude to his agency vis-a-vis institutions?
On a lighter note, had Keane consulted these transcripts in detail, he would have found that Havel indeed misrepresented Klaus when introducing the Civil Forum team during the round-table talks, but it was not just the case that Klaus 'winced', as Keane reports (p. 441); rather, this exchange occurred:
Havel: ...you probably know from television, this is Doctor Volf --
More outrageous is the neglect of the valuable transcript of the summit of Czech, Slovak and federal leaders at Hradecek in November 1991, which shows Havel working hard to salvage the federation. The transcript was published in instalments in Slovenske listy and Domino efekt in 1994, so it is easily obtainable. Similar transcripts are in the public domain, at the Czech parliamentary records office in particular.
Keane's neglect of the Hradecek meeting is typical of his slipshod treatment of Havel's role in the failure of the federation. The reader is given no sense that from very early in 1990, Havel was brimming with ideas for ways in which relations between Czechs and Slovaks could be improved.
Keane does not observe that it was Havel who in March 1990 first suggested hyphenating the name of the state, which was seconded by Slovak deputies. Keane makes no mention of Havel's presentation of the draft of an entirely new federal constitution in March 1991. There is no description of Havel's five legislative initiatives, presented in December 1991 and outlined in Eric Stein's superb Czecho/Slovakia: Ethnic Conflict, Constitutional Fissure, Negotiated Breakup (1997), pp. 141-51. Havel was proposing a method for ratification of a new constitution; a radical redistribution of power between the branches of government and between the republics and centre (including a Bundesrat-type council that would sit in Bratislava); a new opportunity for ordinary citizens to demand a referendum; and a new electoral law.
These episodes are essential to any study of Havel in office, since they were his most ambitious attempts to be a legislating president, in accordance with his constitutional right.
The defeat of the president's proposals revealed the limitations of his power in a polity already dominated by parties and the inability of the federal parliament to agree on any meaningful constitutional change. A reader not aware of these important moments would come away from Keane's account with the disgracefully erroneous impression that Havel thought that the constitution inherited from 1960, with the 1968 amendments, was perfectly acceptable, as indicated on p. 453. In fact, as early as 23 January 1990, Havel reminded the federal assembly that 'we all look forward to a new Czechoslovak constitution and to the constitutions of our two national republics'.4
Keane insists that Havel, on becoming president, 'intuitively opted' not 'to cultivate the institutions of republican democracy, like parliament and a judiciary that upheld the rule of law', but 'worked for the creation of a crowned republic' (p. 376). The notion of the 'crowned republic' has no foundation in Havel's own pronouncements, but in those of Novalis, writing two hundred years ago to the Prussian king.
Novalis urged the sovereign to oversee the education of the people in republican virtues, inspiring them through charisma, example, patronage of the arts, that is, through the means at the disposal of the institution of monarchy. Without producing any evidence from Havel's statements, Keane announces that this was Havel's master plan for Czechoslovakia.
To support this claim, Keane depicts Havel as a 'new sovereign' (p. 382), and dwells at length on Havel's redecoration of the Castle and consorting with artists and musicians, and on the 'orgy of patronage' (p. 390) as the new president recruited sympathetic staff. (There is a missed opportunity to compare the impact of Havel's arrival on the Castle with Masaryk's commissioning of Slovene architect Josip Plecnik to 'democratise' it in the 1920s.)
Keane's claim that Havel did not strive 'to cultivate the institutions of republican democracy, like parliament and a judiciary that upheld the rule of law' is plausible only if we completely ignore Havel's homily on the Rechtsstaat in one of his very first presidential addresses, to the federal assembly on 23 January 1990.
From Keane's book we learn quite a bit from this book about all the president's women, but not the men, the counsellors closest to Havel during the 1990s, from Schwarzenberg and Krizan to Medek and Pehe. How did they influence him? What was it like to work with him? How did they interact with the government? Is it significant that many of Havel's closet aides had considerable experience of life outside the Czech Republic, in political exile during Communism?
How was Havel able to get his people (Vondra, Krizan, Oldrich Cerny) into executive positions in 1993 when his direct influence over ministries was curtailed? Has the Castle had a real impact on certain policies, such as the introduction of a regional tier of administration? What was the role of the Castle during the crisis of November-December 1997, and the post-election uncertainty of 1996 and 1998?
This is bread-and-butter politics, but it apparently does not interest the Professor of Politics.
We do get the necessary discussion of Havel's relations with the other Vaclav. Indeed, Havel's relationship with Vaclav Klaus was strained, as Keane shows, but it was hardly as destructive or litigious as that between presidents and premiers elsewhere in Central Europe. It did not push the constitution to breaking-point, as did the feud between Meciar and Kovac in Slovakia, or that between Walesa and Pawlak in Poland in 1995. It did not require mediation by the constitutional court, as the Goncz-Antall rivalry did in Hungary.
At the critical moment in September 1990 when an economic reform strategy had to be adopted, Havel sided with Klaus against the gradualist alternative.5 Havel accepted the redefinition and reduction of the president's role under the 1992 Czech constitution, did not demand extra powers (of appointment, for example), accepted the daily exercise of executive power by the premier and government, and used his right to return legislation very sparingly. The Havel presidency has been a bully pulpit, but not a constitutional rogue.
Keane clearly does not understand the full context of lustration. The whole point of the lustration law was to remove the issue of collaboration from the public domain and reduce it to a confidential, bureaucratic process, and thereby end the culture of open denunciation that was developing in 1991. The law was not, as Keane claims (p. 431), a by-product of the new insistence on freedom of expression and information, but rather a means of damage-limitation.
Moreover, it is not clear from Keane's account that the issue was put on the agenda by people with impeccable dissident credentials, such as Benda and Bratinka, who had wanted full public disclosure of informers' names, and that it was moderates in Civil Movement, also upstanding former dissidents, who proposed statutory lustration as a less destructive alternative.
A tragedy of errors
In several places, Keane simply gets the facts wrong:
Not a political tragedy...
Ultimately, I am unconvinced that Havel should be portrayed as a tragedian, whom Keane defines as 'an actor in a prose drama riddled with calamities, injustices and unhappy endings' (p. 10). I would argue that Edvard Benes's life was a political tragedy. Dubcek's life was a political tragedy.
While Havel's life has clearly had its moments of anguish and darkness and failure, its entirety would be a tragedy for me only if, say, before Havel's term expires the Czech Republic descends back into totalitarianism, and Havel ends his days under house arrest at Hradecek. I will be reckless enough to predict that this will not happen between now and January 2003.
...but a literary tragedy...
What is tragic is that the life story of a man so sensitive to the uses of language would itself be written in such melodramatic, juvenile prose. Dozens of pages are consumed by Keane's banal musings on birth, friendship, totalitarianism, courage and death, death, death.
...and a scholarly tragedy
While I'm on the subject of language, I should note that I was struck by a few passages which reminded me of the language of other authors, to whom Keane does not refer. Let's start with a summary of Vladimir Holan published in 1993 by Karel Brusak:
[Holan's] striving for a cold, cerebral statement encoded in a highly personal system of signs resulted in the violation of both linguistic and poetic norms. Holan uses neologisms, obsolete, recondite and deformed expressions; he distorts syntax and introduces cryptic metaphors. [...] After WWII he paid homage to the Red Army in Rudoarmejci (Red Army soldiers, 1947), and his Tobe (To you, 1947) is an incongruous collection of poems remembering his dead friends, portraying people involved in the 1945 Prague Uprising and protesting against the injustice of the imperialists and the Naziphilia of Pope Pius XII.7
Compare this with Keane's account (p. 110) of Havel's encounter with Holan, which does not cite Brusak:
For two hours Havel and Forman were treated to Holan's neologisms, cryptic metaphors, distorted syntax, and obsolete, recondite and twisted expressions. [...] [Havel] was fascinated by Holan's striving after a coldly cerebral and deliberately unorthodox poetic style. But Havel cared neither for his anti-Semitic talk nor Holan's most recent - fellow-travelling - poetic homages to the Red Army, his protests against imperialism, and his cheap cracks against the Naziphilia of Pope Pius XII.
Consider Brusak's 1993 outline of the work of Vitezslav Nezval:
Poetism, borrowing some elements from Futurism, Dadaism, and Surrealism, was intended to become 'a way of life, practising modernised epicurism in anti-Romantic poetry of Sunday afternoons, excursions, brightly lit cafes, intoxicating drinks, teeming boulevards and spa promenades as well as of silence, night and calm'. [...] After the war, as a regime poet, Nezval obliged with odes on peace, Stalin, President Gottwald and other praiseworthy subjects [...]. His output was uneven but he holds an important place in modern Czech poetry for his imagination, unlimited joie de vivre, a facility for free association, and a mastery of rhyme and rhythm.8
One finds strikingly similar language in Keane's description of Nezval (p. 109), which likewise does not refer to Brusak:
Two decades later, Havel was struck by Nezval's capacity for free association, his mastery of rhyme and rhythm. He noted as well his unlimited joie de vivre - Nezval still adored the modernized epicurism of brightly lit cafes, excursions, intoxicating drinks, spa promenades, teeming boulevards - and his sickly odes to peace, Stalin, and President Gottwald.
Take a look at Robert Pynsent's 1993 encapsulation of Jaroslav Seifert's poetry:
His first work of Proletarian Poetry, Mesto v slzach (City in tears, 1921), is a vigorous tendentious collection of spontaneous revolutionary songs; the poet enthusiast sees himself as a prophet besinging the glorious future that awaits the poor and downtrodden. With Na vlnach TSF (On the wireless waves, 1925), Seifert expresses modern life as poetry and poetry as life; the poet is a clown (see the typographical experimentation) talking about love and the whole beloved world which surrounds that love. Much of the collection consists in jolly visual or verbal jokes. His post-WWII verse manifests over-sentimentalisation (Maminka [Mummy, 1954]) [...].9
How does Keane describe Seifert on p. 109, without reference to Pynsent?
Havel showed [Seifert] some of his own earliest poems, and the two spent time discussing Seifert's work: his earliest Proletarian Poetry, in which the poet, like a prophet, sings revolutionary songs on behalf of the downtrodden; his latter use of jolly verbal and visual jokes, in which the poet rather resembles a clown who talks much of love; and the work he was soon to publish, the rather sentimental Maminka (Mummy, 1954).
Consider this section from my 1997 book, The Prague Spring and its aftermath, pp. 182-83:
The culmination of this introspection was Kundera's controversial article 'Cesky udel' [The Czech lot] in Listy on 19 December. [...] Borrowing the language of Czech mythopoeia, he declared that the attempt to build humane socialism and the dignity of the response to the invasion showed that the Czechs were fated to be a nation not of exploiters, but of creators of values. Defying public opinion, he declared that the Czechoslovak autumn was more significant than the Czechoslovak spring because it confirmed this ethical mission: the reform policies had not been abandoned, no 'police regime' had been installed, no principles were betrayed. He challenged the tens of thousands who had fled abroad to return home, and those at home to be critically optimistic: 'People who today are falling into depression and defeatism, commenting that there are not enough guarantees, that everything could end badly, that we might again end up in a marasmus of censorship and trials, that this or that could happen, are simply weak people, who can live only in illusions of certainty'. Kundera's essay was roundly criticized, for example by Havel, who disagreed that the question of guarantees was so trivial, and mourned the article as an example of typical Czech myopia (celebrating past glories rather than addressing present needs) and passive patriotism (rationalizing a disaster as a moral victory). Writing in February 1969, Havel feared that it was easier to say 'how good we were before August and how marvellous we were in August (when those baddies came here after us) than to examine what we are like now, who among us is still good and who not at all, and what must be done so that we are true to our previously earned merits!'
Now consider Keane's account (pp. 223-24) of the same episode, which makes no reference to my summary:
The need for such resistance had surfaced some months earlier in a public tussle with Milan Kundera, whose strange essay called 'The Czech Lot' (Cesky udel) had aroused much controversy after its publication in mid-December. Kundera suggested that the long-term significance of the Czechoslovak autumn would outweigh that of the Czechoslovak spring. The two periods, despite appearances to the contrary, were on a positive continuum. The attempt to build humane socialism was now being reinforced by the dignified - and successful - resistance to the invasion. The reform policies and their underlying principles remained intact, and no police state had been installed. Everybody should cheer up. Those who had fled the country, or who remained abroad after the invasion, should return. 'People who are today falling into depression and defeatism', he wrote, 'who are commenting that there is an absence of guarantees, that everything could end badly, that we might again slide into a marasmus of censorship and trials, that this or that might happen, are simply weak people, who know how to live only in the illusions of certainty'.
Writing in February 1969, Havel strongly objected to Kundera's view that things weren't so bad. It rested upon the mythopoeic presumption that the small nation of Czechs was fated to be the creator of big values, not a nation of exploiters. Kundera's position, he argued, exuded a form of typically Czech passive patriotism that served to rationalize away a disaster as a moral victory. It also suffered from a typically nostalgic form of Czech myopia, argued Havel. It was easy to celebrate imagined past glories - imagining 'how good we were before August and how marvellous we were in August (when those bad guys came to get us)' - all the while forgetting about present-day needs. Kundera could accuse him of 'moral exhibitionism'. He could insinuate that Havel was suffering from the 'illness of people anxious to prove their integrity'. Yet the harsh reality was that there was now an urgent need to 'examine what we are like now, who among us is still good and who not at all, and what must be done so that we are true to our previously earned merits'.
I believe that these coincidences of language require Keane, out of scholarly good citizenship, to ensure that in any future edition (starting with the paperback) explicit reference be made to any previously-published account that resembles his own. Likewise, Keane's treatment of the German Protectorate (around pages 49 and 54) should acknowledge Gotthold Rhode's article, 'The Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, 1939-1945', in Victor S. Mamatey and Radomir Luza, eds, A History of the Czechoslovak Republic 1918-1948 (Princeton University Press, 1973), since Rhode used many of the same sources (such as Ritter's second edition of Hitlers Tischgesprache) and made some of the same points that Keane does.
Keane announces early in the book that he himself has no heroes, and that readers 'are not likely to be left with the impression that [Havel's] life deserves heroization' (p. 11). I came to this book as someone soft and sentimental enough to have heroes, namely Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, the Sicilian magistrates who were assassinated in 1992 for their crusade against the mafia. I admire them because they were men of courage who made the most of the structures they inhabited, using the power of their office (while respecting its limits) to improve the life of their community. An unintended consequence of this biography is that Havel has risen considerably in my esteem. While I have serious reservations about his philosophy, and about his decision to seek re-election in 1998, pace Keane I respect Havel, like Falcone and Borsellino, for displaying courage and doing what he could while resisting the temptation to abuse power.
Kieran Williams is a political scientist at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London.
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