Václav Havel and the meaning of socialism

The Civic Forum

The idea of ​​the Civic Forum had been discussed in Czech dissident circles as early as the 1970s. What is surprising, however, is how much it shared the vision of some forward-thinking communists of the time.

In his book “The Prague Spring: Departure to a New World”, Martin Schulze Wessel describes the remarkable new conception of the Communist Party that Petr Pithart proposed during the Prague Spring of 1968. Pithart, who had been a member of the party since 1960, later collaborated with Havel in dissident activities, becoming Czech Prime Minister in 1990.

Like Havel, Pithart did not want to copy the Western parliamentary model – which in the public mind was associated with corruption, scandals and the fragmented party landscape of the interwar First Republic. Instead, he argued that the Communist Party should be an “empty framework, a platform, where the process of continuous confrontation of opinions, which are also verified by the praxis of society, is organized from the front -custody, which is recognized and respected by society”. The Party was to become “more a continuum of progressive ideas than a continuum of apparatuses.”

Today, this proposal seems vividly reminiscent of the last Civic Forum, which was an empty setting for the exchange of “progressive” ideas from the Velvet Revolution. Both were innovative political formations meant to transcend the boundaries of Eastern and Western systems, in which Havel – after Patočka – saw a single super-civilization in crisis.

Havel and the Prague Spring

Yet while Havel’s ideas seemed to overlap with those of the reformist Communists of the Prague Spring, he did not endorse them in 1968. Instead, he advocated – notably, in a dispute with author Milan Kundera in the late 1960 – a return to the “normality” of Western civilization.

Something is wrong here. Is Havel’s idea of ​​partyless politics really a return to normality? During the Velvet Revolution, he argued not only against parties, but against a return to capitalism and for the dissolution of NATO and the Warsaw Pact.

Moreover, by return to “normal”, Havel meant freedom of expression and the end of the arbitrariness of the secret police – but he forgot that Western civilization was not a paragon in this respect either. In the 1960s, the United States was waging war in Vietnam and there were mass radical protest movements in the United States, France, West Germany and elsewhere. The segregation of the African-American population persisted, while France and Britain were – or had recently been – at war with national liberation movements in their colonies, using brutal tactics of repression.

How to explain Havel’s blindness to these things in his polemic with Kundera? Perhaps Havel simply did not want to admit how radical his ideas were at the time, or how they resonated with those of the Prague Spring – for that would have implied a partial endorsement of a communist system to which he opposed.