Lessons in Revolution from the Republic of Professors

Source: The First Things www.firstthings.com / Blog By Matthew H. Young / Photo By Premysl Fialka /

Revolutions can be notoriously violent. However, in a brief few months in 1989, a landslide of peaceful revolutions replaced authoritarian dictators with democratic governments, defying the brutal legacy of popular revolution. In a period of a few months, revolutions took place in seven Eastern European countries—Poland, Hungary, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Albania, and Romania. In only one of those countries—Romania—was the Communist regime deposed violently.

The revolutions of 1989 were remarkable, and politically minded Christians can learn a lot from the revolutionaries themselves. The dissidents were largely revolutionaries by accident, not by trade. Vaclav Havel, the intellectual leader of the Czech resistance movement (and eventual president of Czechoslovakia) wrote: “You do not become a “dissident” just because you decide one day to take up this most unusual career. You are thrown into it by your personal sense of responsibility, combined with a complex set of external circumstances….It begins as an attempt to do your work well, and ends with being branded an enemy of society.”

Havel described his own entrance into politics. A soft-spoken, frail, aging playwright, Havel was not your typical radical. Even after his election as president, Havel dressed ubiquitously in worn corduroys and a faded t-shirt, and seemed far more interested in writing plays than practicing politics. Havel favored “politics as practical morality; as service to the truth.” Christian politicians would do well to adopt the same view. We ought to be drawn into politics by our consciences, not by our desire for power. Further, we must remember that political endeavors ought to further truth and morality first. Jesus Christ answered to Pontius Pilate “If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from this world.” Practicing these points, and putting the kingdom of Heaven first, would spare us from the traps of political maneuvering or hypocrisy.

Havel’s conscientious approach to dissent reflects, in some ways, the culture of his country. After Czechoslovakia won its independence in 1918, it became known as the “Republic of Professors”—the first two Czech presidents were notable academics. Decades later, the founders and signatories of Czech dissident group Charter 77 were not career politicians or ex-military heroes; they were poets, artists, and novelists. Under a regime that quashed individual artistic expression and imposed strict censorship on publishing, their most daring act of revolt was to continue producing art in defiance of the regime. Their latest poems, essays, and plays would be distributed in samizdat form: hand-typed carbon copies thrust in manila envelopes and covertly passed out at meetings. They were always distributed in multiples of twelve—a stack of typewriter carbons any thicker produced illegible copies.

The efforts of the dissenters were not intended to usurp power, but to protest the dehumanization of Czech society. Their poems and plays criticized the government by elevating humanity and beauty above the pragmatic and materialist government ideology. An approach to dissent that emphasized conscience over political pragmatism was responsible for the peaceful transfer of power in Prague. Change was slow-coming to Eastern Europe: early attempts at liberalization were violently suppressed in 1968. Yet, when the revolutionaries were tempted to violently depose the Communist regime in 1989, they held back, chanting “We won’t be like them!” Prague’s Velvet Revolution began as a student demonstration to commemorate Czechs killed by the Nazi regime; it became a demonstration to protest Czechs killed by the Soviet regime. It ended, however, short of killing Czechs. Five years earlier, in his essay Politics and Conscience, Havel had denounced the forceful expulsion of Communism, writing: “It would be a Pyrrhic victory, because the victors would emerge from a conflict inevitably resembling their defeated opponents.” The Czech protesters poignantly reflected the words of Paul, who wrote in his second letter to the Corinthians “We have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways.”

Whenever our government makes particularly egregious decisions, one always hears mutterings about revolution or civil disobedience. In those times, it would do Christians good to reflect on the words of Jesus and Paul, and to consider the legacy of Prague’s revolutionaries. The success of the Velvet Revolution bear witness that ideas have consequences, and that courageous dissent rooted in morality, conscience, and serving the truth can overcome even the most inhuman government.

Matthew H. Young is a summer intern at First Things. He has written for University Bookman,Civitas Review, the Carolina Journal, and other publications.