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The Debate That Won't Die: Havel And Kundera On Whether Protest Is Worthwhile

Former Czech President Vaclav Havel (left) and writer Milan Kundera sparred in print.
Former Czech President Vaclav Havel (left) and writer Milan Kundera sparred in print.

Until his death on December 18, Vaclav Havel was one of the two most famous living Czech writers in the world. The other is Milan Kundera, now 82 and living in France.

They made for a fascinating duo: Kundera was born into a middle-class family in Moravia, Havel was born into a wealthy family in Bohemia; Kundera was a loyal Communist in his youth, Havel never joined the party; Kundera’s fiction tends to be pessimistic about human nature, whereas Havel’s essays inspired people with their optimism; and while Kundera left Czechoslovakia in 1975 and achieved fame and fortune as a novelist based in Paris, Havel stayed in his native land to live the arduous life of a dissident, either in prison or under constant surveillance by the secret police.

What many in the English-speaking world do not know is that in the winter of 1968-1969, a few months after the Kremlin sent tanks to crush the Prague Spring, Kundera and Havel waged a fierce battle in print about what, if anything, could be salvaged from the wreckage. The debate began in December 1968, when Kundera published an essay called “The Czech Lot” in the journal "Listy." As that turbulent year drew to a close, Kundera took stock of the situation and argued that, although being a small country in a bad neighborhood imposed certain inescapable limitations, not all was lost, and there was even cause for hope:

The significance of the new Czechoslovak politics was too far-reaching not to run into resistance. The conflict, of course, was more drastic than we anticipated, and the trials undergone by this new politics were brutal. But I refuse to call it a national catastrophe, as our somewhat tearful public tends to do today. I would even venture to say that, in spite of this public opinion, the significance of the Czechoslovak autumn may even surpass the significance of the Czechoslovak spring.

What happened is something that no one expected: a new politics has endured this frightful conflict. It has retreated, true, but it has not broken down, it has not collapsed. It has not reestablished a police state, it hasn’t accepted doctrinal restraints on intellectual life, it hasn’t renounced itself, it hasn’t betrayed its principles, it hasn’t surrendered its people, and not only has it not lost the support of the public; at the very moment of mortal danger it united behind itself the entire nation, whose internal existence is stronger than it was before August. And furthermore: If its political representatives must work with the possibilities as they exist right now, people from all walks of life, especially the young, are preserving within themselves a consciousness of the pre-August goals in their uncompromising entirety. And in this there is enormous hope for the future. And not for the distant future, but for the near one.

In early 1969, Havel wrote a scathing response to Kundera in the journal "Tvar," in an essay he called “The Czech Lot?”:

All of us -- the entire Czech nation, that is -- must no doubt be pleased when we find out that we have gained recognition for our stand in August, even from Milan Kundera, that blithely skeptical, intellectual man of the world who always was apt to see our rather negative angles...Yet unfortunately one thing -- I don’t know about others, but for me definitely -- diminishes this gratifying feeling…

…This new politics supposedly endured. Did it really endure? That is the question of the day. Something from it without a doubt endured: we are not (for now?) incarcerated for our opinions, we are federalizing, the scouts have not been disbanded. But did those main, basic things -- those things from which everything else should flow, and which should guarantee this-- endure?...

A quite logical link in this pseudo-critical illusionism…is Kundera’s concept of the “Czech lot.” I do not believe in this fate, and I think that first and foremost we ourselves are the masters of our fate; we will not be freed from this by pleading selfishness nor by hiding behind our geographic position, nor by reference to our centuries-old lot of balancing between sovereignty and subjugation. Again, this is nothing but an abstraction cloaking our concrete responsibility for our concrete actions…

The world is not composed -- even though it would be very comforting to think of it that way -- of dumb superpowers that can do everything and clever little nations that can do nothing. Indeed, what happened did not happen because we are Czechs and Czechs must always suffer at the hands of their neighbors (for that is its “Czech lot”), but for reasons altogether different and more concrete. To begin talking of fate and the “Czech lot” is to move the dialogue away from the real causes of today’s Czech situation and the real possibilities for its resolution; to shirk unpleasant duty, to reduce critical reflexes to one’s own ideological dogma, prejudices, and illusions, and to disperse the concrete historical responsibility of concrete historical persons into the imperceptible cosmos of common historical parallels and abstract connections. And if someone says that here our history merely revealed its true colors, he only disguises with this what really -- in this concrete case --revealed its true colors here.

I see the summit of Kundera’s entire illusionist construct, however, in something even further: we supposedly stood -- for the first time since the end of the Middle Ages -- “at the center of world history,” because we strove -- for the first time in world history -- for “socialism without the omnipotence of the secret police, with freedom of the written and the spoken word [...]”: our experiment supposedly aimed so far into the future that we had to remain not fully understood. What a balm for our wounds! And yet what bombastic illusion! Really: if we are going to persuade each other that a country that wanted to establish freedom of expression --something that is a commonplace in most of the civilized world --and that wanted to prevent the omnipotence of the secret police, stood as a result of this at the center of world history, then we will not seriously become anything but smug fakes, ridiculous in our provincial messianism! Freedom and the rule of law are the first preconditions of a normally and healthily functioning social organism, and if some state tries, after years of absence, to renew them, it is not doing anything historically immense, but simply trying to do away with its own abnormality, to normalize

In closing: if we accepted the premise that Kundera has outlined for us -- the notion that tiny, ill-placed, good, intelligent, tormented and condemned-to-torment Czechoslovakia became by its own assiduity the most important point in the world, for which its evil neighbors, whom it did not select, cruelly punished it, so that the only thing that remains for it is its spiritual (and cultivated in private, apparently) superiority over them -- if we accepted this kitschy notion of our “lot,” we would not only find ourselves far away from all traditions of criticism (not just Czech, but any kind); we would furthermore fall into national self-delusions that could paralyze us --as a national community -- for decades….

Moral Exhibitionism

In March of 1969, Kundera published a rebuttal to Havel in an essay he titled “Radicalism and Exhibitionism,” published in "Host do domu." In the first part of his essay, he responds to Havel’s points.

If Havel declares that the Czech lot is a fate in which he does not believe, there is no more reason in that than if he were to declare that he does not believe in the human lot and then decided not to grow old. A lot is what is allotted. Man is mortal and Bohemia is in the middle of Europe. Czech politics must flow from recognition of the Czech lot and the possibilities contained in it…

We can look at the year 1968 from various angles; we can, however, hardly deny that this was a year when we began (at last, and after a long time) to realize again our own Czechoslovak possibility…

The post-August situation cannot be understood by those who do not see it in its paradoxicality: August marks the date of the stay of Russian troops on our territory; August did not, however, mark the cessation of, but in some places the strengthening of the spontaneous purging of, what I would call the Russian deformation of the socialist project from many structures of national life…The situation is difficult (perhaps more difficult than I think), but a critical analysis in no way entitles us to see it as a situation of lost hopes.

But then Kundera pivots from the substance of Havel’s argument towards new territory: a psychological analysis of Havel’s mindset that is startling in its harshness:

Havel states that no hopes endured, but unlike most people this does not arouse in him resignation or defeatism, but on the contrary a strengthened longing for action. But to what end action, when no hopes endured? However, Havel does not have just any sort of act in mind, but -- as he calls it -- a risky act; an act, in other words, that does not fear the risk of failure, which probably (indeed, let us remind ourselves once more: no hopes endured!) does not even count on success; it is not aimed at it and it is therefore indifferent to considerations about the consequences of an action and about its timeliness -- in other words, about everything we call tactics. Such action thus has only a twofold aim: (1) to unmask the world in all its irreparable amorality, and (2) to display its author in all his pure morality.

In this way what was originally a purely moral attitude (the rejection of the unjust world) has turned into pure moral exhibitionism. The effort to publicly demonstrate the beauty of one’s own morality outweighs the effort to change things for the better…

A hopeless situation will always awaken in an honest person a longing to demonstrate the purity of his position. An honest person in the darkest dictatorship longs at least once to shout out his disagreement; even if no one and nothing were to benefit by this and he were to bring about his own ruin, it is for him the only way to save at least this last thing: his face.

Yet the opposite relationship also applies: the person eager for self-display gravitates towards an understanding of the situation as hopeless, for only a hopeless situation can free him from the duty of tactical consideration and fully clears some space for his self-expression, for his exhibition. And he not only understands it as a no-win situation, but he (attracted by the irresistible seduction of theatrical conflict) is even, with his behavior, his “risky acts,” capable of making it so. Unlike reasonable (which in his lexicon means cowardly) people, he does not fear defeat. Nevertheless, he is not so wretched as to long for victory. To be more exact, he does not long for the victory of the just thing he is working for; he himself is most victorious precisely in the defeat of the thing he champions, because it is the defeat of the just thing that illuminates, with the light of an explosion, all the misery of the world and all the glory of his character.

Although these essays were written more than 40 years ago, they address themes that both authors would continue to explore throughout their careers. Kundera, for example, remains fascinated with the “lot” of small nations. For decades now it has been a subject to which he has returned again and again in his essays -- the unique influence artists wield in small nations, the vulnerability of small nations to larger neighbors, and even, as he writes in "The Curtain," the “small-context terrorism” that small nations wage against their artists by “reducing the whole meaning of a work to the role it plays in its homeland.”

But the most salient legacy of their polemic sprang from the questions Kundera raised in “Radicalism and Exhibitionism.” Does waging a public protest against a much more powerful oppressor serve any purpose if it is certain that the protest will (1) fail to attain its stated goal and (2) hurt the protester and his family? And if failure is certain, isn’t it possible that the protester’s primary motive is actually to make himself look heroic?

It’s a dilemma that millions of people living in the Soviet bloc grappled with, and few authors have analyzed it more rigorously than Havel and Kundera. Havel’s 1978 play, "Protest," is a ruthless examination of the rationalizations that most people made when they chose to avoid confrontation with their oppressors. The play consists of a long dialogue between Vanek (Havel’s alter ego) and Stanek, an acquaintance who has worked within the system, and it must have been at least partially inspired by the polemic with Kundera.

In "Protest," Stanek turns to Vanek, now a dissident, for help -- he wants Vanek to organize a petition on behalf of an incarcerated pop singer who has impregnated Stanek’s daughter. To Stanek’s surprise, Vanek has already prepared a petition that has been signed by many other dissidents, and he invites Stanek to sign as well. What follows is a lengthy monologue by Stanek that is painful to read, so naked are his feelings of shame, and so blatant are his attempts to suppress that shame with ostensibly objective, tactical considerations. In the end, Stanek rationalizes himself into the perverse position that adding his name to the petition would actually be selfish, because it would glorify himself but do nothing for the singer. Sound familiar?

Meanwhile, there’s a strikingly similar scene of a “petition ambush” in Kundera’s 1984 novel, "The Unbearable Lightness of Being." Tomas is a former surgeon who now works as a window-washer in Prague because he wrote an article that displeased the post-1968 government. A former newspaper editor and Tomas’s son ask him to sign a petition on behalf of Czech political prisoners. As he thinks it over, he considers the act of signing “possibly noble but certainly, and totally, useless.” Furthermore, his son and the editor are putting pressure on him to sign in a way that bears a disturbing resemblance to the coercive tactics often used by the regime. In the end, Tomas decides that his love for his wife makes signing impossible: “There was only one criterion for all his decisions: he must do nothing that could harm her. Tomas could not save political prisoners, but he could make Tereza happy.”

In a 1986 interview, Havel specifically addressed that scene in "The Unbearable Lightness of Being." While praising Kundera’s novel, Havel countered that in fact the petition in question did enormous amounts of good: first, the petition provided critical psychological nourishment to the prisoners by letting them know that they had not been forgotten and that people would still agitate for them; and second, the petition began the slow but steady process of straightening the “civic backbones” of the Czech people.

Yet who could argue with Tomas’s logic? To protest an authoritarian regime was to willingly bring hardship not only into one’s own life but into the lives of every member of one’s family, even one’s children.

Perhaps the most delicious irony in the Havel-Kundera polemic is that Kundera, who here plays the role of the optimist, would a few years later emigrate to France and become the most important spokesman in the West for the proposition that the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 was a “death sentence” for his country and “a catastrophe whose consequences will be felt for centuries.” Kundera turned out to be spectacularly wrong -- and not just once, but twice. In the polemic with Havel, his assertions that the reforms of the Prague Spring had survived the Soviet invasion now look laughable; but he was equally wrong years later when he wrote in "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" that Czechoslovakia would be subjugated by Russia “for ever and ever.” Little did he know that, before the decade was through, Czechoslovakia would again be free -- thanks in large part to the “moral exhibitionism” of its new president, Vaclav Havel.

Translations of the foregoing excerpts from the Kundera-Havel polemic are by the author.

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