Friday, January 06, 2012

Vaclav Havel and his legacy: A Czech perspective


 I  received this email from a reader who grew up in the former Czechoslovakia. They've very kindly given me permission to publish it in full here.

Dear Neil,

I just wanted to congratulate you on your article:


I grew up in what was then Czechoslovakia in the 1980s and eventually left Czech Republic in mid-90s with my father. I return regularly, and have seen some of the effects of free market capitalism on the country since then.

Although most of the population under Communism wanted a change, it was mainly a) to be able to govern themselves, and b) to have their individual freedoms - ability to travel abroad for example. These were not economic or social motives.

After the initial celebration following the Velvet Revolution, large sections of the society began to mourn the socio-economic value system under Communism, with the Communist party actually increasing its (now somewhat more genuine) support.

My own father, who left because he was very much a Havel follower in the 70s and 80s and an active anti-Communist now lives in the UK and has changed his outlook, now understanding that what was perceived as completely false propaganda about the west and inequality, poverty and wealth hoarding had a grain of truth in it.

I still respect what Havel has achieved in his pursuit of certain freedoms and rights, which were very much lacking under a Communist regime, however the other side of the story, as you have put it, is rarely told. I hope it will be explored more and I was disappointed to see so many ignorant comments responding to the article. I'm sure you have spoken to other Czech people who told a range of stories and I hope mine is in some way a helpful addition.

9 comments:

vvoi said...

Sir,
One can argue about the changes in Eastern Europe. Some may even suggest that the good old days were better. I totally disagree with that.
However, it is an entirely different issue to question Havel's ethical standards because he fought the communist regime.
I would recommend that before writing an article like the one you did, you actually read what the one you attack has to say himself. Even his early writings, from 1978 on, are not just critical of the regime, but also warn against the temptation of seeing communism as all-evil and capitalism/liberalism as all-good. His criticism of a materialist society that blindly believes that it is enough to have democracy in order to have a just world serves as inspiration to many left-wing movements, and some of his ideas on social justice, ecology and humanism are phenomenal. Did he manage to put those in practice? He tried. Maybe not enough. But once again, his writing tells the story of his attempts. What I find shocking in your text is not the opinion, it is the lack of interest in getting to sources that could help you better judge a man you seem to know so little about.

Neil Clark said...

vvoi: @it is entirely different issue to question Havel's ethical questions because he fought the communist regime'. Er, I don't do that. I acknowledged his bravery in this regard.

But I'm afraid Havel had plenty of time after 1989 to fight against neoliberal capitalism and a 'materialist society', but he didn't do it. As I've said before opposing communism doesnt mean lining up with neoliberals and neocons but Havel did just that.

"some of his ideas on social justice, ecology and humanism are phenomenal." unfortunately we didn't see too many of these 'phenomenal' ideas when he enthusiastically supported bombing Belgrade back to the Dark Ages in 1999, or his support for illegal military intervention against Iraq.

Anyone can wax eloquent about 'social justice, ecology and humanism' it's what they do when they are in positions of power and influence that really counts. Post 1989 Havel lined up with some of the meanest and most reactionary figures on the planet.(the man he's with in the photo above is one such example). would any true progressive want to line up with George W. Bush?

Ian said...

lol, I think it is the tag anti-neolibralism that makes me chuckle on these bits you have posted on Havel.

I think vvoi makes some valid points there about the person that Havel actually was, and what he stood for. But you are able to ruffle up your feathers again and blast the anti-liberal liberals that suggest the situation and Havel is/were nuanced.

I get the feeling that you just weren't too keen on anyone who supported the bombing campaign against the ‘much misunderstood Milosovic’. You seem to have absolutely no understanding of where and why Havel arrived at his decision to support that campaign, just lazily call him a neo-con because he met GWB.

Whilst I have no doubt about the sincerity of the person that has written this letter to you, I have just come back from a week in the Czech Republic myself and was surprised at the genuine reaction to Havel’s death. Wenceslas square was adorned with a massive portrait of him and the memorials at the Wenceslas statue were all written in Czech (not by western expats). All the Czechs I spoke to were genuinely saddened by the loss, even those that I know were not supporters of him during his presidency.

I can't really be bothered to carry on suggesting you should perhaps try to understand Havel, you have made up your mind, that’s fine but not exactly a quality I would like in reporter/ blogger. Now you can pull me apart with some last wordism.

Neil Clark said...

Ian: i've no intention of pulling you apart with 'last wordism', but wanted to respond to some of the points you made:

"blast the anti-liberal liberals that suggest the situation and Havel is/were nuanced."

My article on VH was nuanced, unlike most others which appeared in the MSM.
I acknowledged his bravery in the communist era. I merely said that we need to assess his legacy a bit more critically.
What I am challenging, in my VH piece and others, is a dominant narrative which says:
1. the communist regimes of the 70s and 80s had no achievements whatsoever.
2. everything that has happened since 1989 in the former communist countries has been fantastic- and that consequently anyone who looks back nostalgically to the old days is some form of 'idiot'. What was it that the Economist said?

"You seem to have absolutely no understanding of where and why Havel arrived at his decision to support that campaign, just lazily call him a neo-con because he met GWB."

I don't call VH a neo-con just because he met Bush- but because of his world view and support for US-sponsored military interventions- not just in the Balkans, but against Iraq too.

Ian said...

Actually for once your response has shed some light on your perspective. So thanks for that.

I get some idea of where you are coming from with your analysis, even if I don't find it convincing or related to Havel as I understand him.

I think looking into why Havel supported those military interventions really would be enlightening.

Personally I feel his logic on supporting the Kosovo action was sound, but idealistic in the extreme on Iraq, of course whether the outcomes were as he desired I don’t know. However, both of these were not based on neo-con principles.

Also I fail see why in your assessment Havel was a keen instigator of mass privatisations. Even in the Magic Lantern he was concerned about throwing the baby out with the bath water, part of the reasoning behind attempting to make the revolution ‘Velvet’.

Oh well, thanks for actually explaining yourself in your response to this rather than just slinging mud like you did to critical responses elsewhere, it was actually much more enlightening.

brian said...

FYI
on Havel etc
http://gowans.wordpress.com/2011/12/20/we-lived-better-then/

Ian said...

Thanks brian for that link.

Magnificent peice of satire. oh...

brian said...

michael parenti on Havel:
http://dandelionsalad.wordpress.com/2011/12/18/must-we-adore-vaclav-havel-by-michael-parenti-1997/

brian said...

'I get the feeling that you just weren't too keen on anyone who supported the bombing campaign against the ‘much misunderstood Milosovic’. You seem to have absolutely no understanding of where and why Havel arrived at his decision to support that campaign, just lazily call him a neo-con because he met GWB.'

there was no bombing campaign against Milosevic...it was a bombing campaign against a free and independent people and country of Yugoslavia, in which NATO/US had no compunction to getting help from and aiding terrorists of the KLA.

its no surprise Havel supported it...it shows he has no compunction to killing people if it ends a socialist state that belongs to another people