What Communism Still Teaches Us —Václav Havel

The fall of communism was an opportunity to create more effective global political institutions based on democratic principles — institutions that could stop what appears to be, in its current form, the self-destructive tendency of our industrial world. If we do not want to be overrun by anonymous forces, the principles of freedom, equality and solidarity must start working globally.

The fifteenth anniversary of the Velvet Revolution on November 17, 1989, which brought an end to 41 years of communist dictatorship in Czechoslovakia, is an opportunity to ponder the meaning of moral behaviour and free action. Today we live in a democratic society, but many people — not only in the Czech Republic — still believe that they are not true masters of their destiny. They have lost faith that they can really influence political developments much less influence the direction in which our civilisation is evolving.

During the communist era, most people believed that individual efforts to effect change did not make sense. Communist leaders insisted that the system was the result of history’s objective laws, which could not be challenged, and those who refused this logic were punished — just in case.

Unfortunately, the way of thinking that supported communist dictatorships has not disappeared entirely. Some politicians and pundits maintain that communism merely collapsed under its own weight — again, owing to ‘objective laws’ of history. Again, individual responsibility and individual actions are belittled. Communism, we are told, was only one of the dead ends of Western rationalism; therefore, it was sufficient to wait passively for it to fail.

The very same people often believe in other manifestations of inevitability, such as various supposed laws of the market and other ‘invisible hands’ that direct our lives. As there is not much space in such thinking for individual moral action, social critics are often ridiculed as naive moralists or elitists.

Perhaps this is one of the reasons why 15 years after the fall of communism, we again witness political apathy. Democracy is increasingly seen as a mere ritual. In general, Western societies, it seems, are experiencing a certain crisis of the democratic ethos and active citizenship. It is possible that what we are witnessing is a mere change of paradigm, caused by new technologies, and we have nothing to worry about. But perhaps the problem is deeper: global corporations, media cartels, and powerful bureaucracies are transforming political parties into organisations whose main task is no longer public service, but the protection of specific clienteles and interests. Politics is becoming a battleground for lobbyists; media trivialise serious problems; democracy often looks like a virtual game for consumers, rather than a serious business for serious citizens.

When dreaming about a democratic future, we who were dissidents certainly had some utopian illusions, as we are well aware today. However, we were not mistaken when we argued that communism was not a mere dead end of Western rationalism. Bureaucratisation, anonymous manipulation, and emphasis on mass conformism were brought to ‘perfection’ in the communist system; however, some of the very same threats are with us today.

We were already certain then that if democracy is emptied of values and reduced to a competition of political parties that have ‘guaranteed’ solutions to everything, it can be quite undemocratic. This is why we put so much emphasis on the moral dimension of politics and a vibrant civil society as counterweights to political parties and state institutions.

We also dreamed about a more just international order. The end of the bipolar world represented a great opportunity to make the international order more humane. Instead, we witness a process of economic globalisation that has escaped political control and, as such, is causing economic havoc as well as ecological devastation in many parts of the world. The fall of communism was an opportunity to create more effective global political institutions based on democratic principles — institutions that could stop what appears to be, in its current form, the self-destructive tendency of our industrial world. If we do not want to be overrun by anonymous forces, the principles of freedom, equality and solidarity — the foundation of stability and prosperity in Western democracies — must start working globally.

But, above all, it is necessary — just as it was during the communist era — that we not lose faith in the meaning of alternative centres of thought and civic action. Let’s not allow ourselves to be manipulated into believing that attempts to change the ‘established’ order and ‘objective’ laws do not make sense. Let’s try to build a global civil society, and let’s insist that politics is not just a technology of power, but needs to have a moral dimension.

At the same time, politicians in democratic countries need to think seriously about reform of international institutions, because we desperately need institutions capable of real global governance. We could start, for example, with the United Nations, which, in its current form, is a relic of the situation shortly after the end of World War II. It does not reflect the influence of some new regional powers, while immorally equating countries whose representatives are democratically elected and those whose representatives speak only for themselves or their juntas, at best.

We, the Europeans, have one specific task. Industrial civilisation, which now spans the whole world, originated in Europe. All of its miracles, as well as its terrifying contradictions, can be explained as consequences of an ethos that is initially European. Therefore, unifying Europe should set an example for the rest of the world regarding how to face the various dangers and horrors that are engulfing us today. Indeed, such a task — which is closely tied to the success of European integration — would be an authentic fulfilment of the European sense of global responsibility. And it would be a much better strategy than cheaply blaming America for the contemporary world’s various problems.

— Václav Havel 2004

One thought on “What Communism Still Teaches Us —Václav Havel

  1. […] It’s capitalism or a habitable planet – you can’t have both.

    Our economic system is unsustainable by its very nature. The only response to climate chaos and peak oil is major social change […]

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