A tip for Europe’s frustrated young radicals: reclaim the dissident spirit

Source: The Guardian / By Natalie Nougayrède / 

The Czech Velvet Revolution, with Václav Havel at its helm, was brave and principled. Syriza and Podemos should study it.

The current European experience is one of powerlessness, according to Adam Michnik. Photograph: Noma Bar for the Guardian
The current European experience is one of powerlessness, according to Adam Michnik. Photograph: Noma Bar for the Guardian

“Live within the truth”: it may sound slightly lofty now, but that was the core, and very powerful, message of Communist bloc dissidents in the 1970s and 80s. It is a message that might be worth revisiting in today’s Europe, where there is a dire need for new democratic inspiration – a banner often carried by young leftwing radicals who want to challenge traditional politics.

I recently attended a conference in Prague on the legacy of Václav Havel, the Czech philosopher and playwright who headed the dissident group Charter 77 and then went on to become the hero of the Velvet Revolution and president of his country. Havel died in 2011. The conference gathered civil rights activists and intellectuals from all over Europe, including Ukraine and Belarus. We sat in an alternative cultural centre, with the smiling face of Havel projected on to a screen above us. Adam Michnik, a Polish journalist and former dissident who knew Havel for more than 30 years, gave a lecture on Havel’s vision for Europe. He spoke about fundamental values – pluralism, humanism, tolerance. It was easy to feel somewhat dazed.

The fact is, it can be difficult to see how the message of those who led the dissident movements of the Soviet era can possibly carry any kind of weight today. After all, once they’d achieved their goals in eastern Europe in 1989, ex-dissidents were gradually phased out of political life. These days – except perhaps when there is a commemoration – no European leader ever refers to Václav Havel or Andrei Sakharov, or any other leading figure of the fight against dictatorship on the European continent.

The world of the samizdat, the secretly published opposition papers that were smuggled by dissident networks, is hard even to imagine for those who have grown up with the internet, and populism has taken root in Europe. All the talk tends to be about living standards, security and keeping foreigners out. The dissidents, it seems, belong in the history books.

But do they really? Adam Michnik countered that idea with one sentence: “The current European experience”, he said, “is one of powerlessness.” That was a reference to Havel’s 1978 essay The Power of the Powerless, a seminal text of 24,000 words in which he set out to define the phenomenon of dissent through non-violent, civil-society action based on individual free choice.

This should resonate with the new generation of activists in Europe, from Syriza in Greece to Podemos in Spain, and with all their sympathisers elsewhere, who seek an alternative political discourse. Of course, there is no equivalence whatsoever between the political circumstances under which Europe’s new insurgent movements are growing, and those who struggled in eastern Europe under communist rule. There is a world of difference. Fighting for social justice and transparency in an established democracy is not the same as fighting for basic freedom in a dictatorship, and often paying the price with imprisonment and torture.

Nor would these groups, the 1980s anti-Soviet dissidents and the 2010s leftwing radicals, easily find common cause on some issues. Syriza’s fawning attitude towards Putin’s Russia is a case in point. It isn’t met with much patience from those who rightly see the policies of the Kremlin as a threat to fundamental European values. Equally, Havel’s 2003 support for US policies in Iraq – at a time when he believed his country’s priority was to demonstrate transatlantic solidarity – can legitimately be criticised.

But common ground does exist, nevertheless, and it is fascinating that it is so rarely explored. It can be found in the rejection of nationalism, which has returned as a major and disastrous European malaise, and in a categorical refusal to target foreigners, immigrants or ethnic and religious groups as public scapegoats – a recipe that far-right populists thrive on. Havel used strong words about such dangers in many of his speeches, for example when he warned, very early on, about Europe’s inaction towards the nationalist hatred coming out of the Balkans in the 1990s.

Also, if joint values can be identified, they surely come with the notion that democracy is worth fighting for, and that corruption must be rooted out. Havel was a proponent of capitalism with a human face. I would add another point: strategic resilience. The dissidents of the 1970s knew they were engaged in a long-term struggle with no guarantee of success. They were looked down on by a large majority of their contemporaries as utopians, lecturers and troublemakers. There was a sweeping romanticism in some of their slogans, such as “Truth and love will overcome lies and hatred”. But, in the end, those slogans were carried by large crowds.

Many Europeans feel powerless today – young people, perhaps, most of all. A prevailing sense of being disenfranchised, frustration with the established political classes and exhaustion with economic woes all feed the notion that very little can be done about the surrounding reality – except radical revolt. This sentiment can exist among human rights activists in Belarus just as it can among the Spanish and Greek unemployed, or among those who worry about climate change and digital surveillance. The environment was, by the way, one of Havel’s obsessions, and there is not much doubt that he would have felt serious unease about the way in which the internet is used both for censorship and massive data collection.

It could be useful to connect some dots. As I travel from Warsaw and Tallinn to Barcelona and London, I am struck by the lack of exchange or common platforms between the younger generations, who want to spread democracy in the east, and those who think democracy needs to be rejuvenated in western Europe. It’s as if two parallel universes have failed to engage with one another, missing the chance to learn from each other’s experiences. In The Power of the Powerless, Havel didn’t only define resistance to dictatorship: he also examined the failings of modern western society. Strikingly, he criticised a “static complex of rigid, conceptually sloppy and politically pragmatic mass political parties, run by professional apparatuses and releasing the citizen from all form of personal responsibility”. Some of this rings truer today than it did 36 years ago. It’s worth reading, wherever you live.