Testament of our Revolution What we can learn today from the Czechoslovak Experience of 1977

Source: Public Seminar / https://publicseminar.org / By Martin Palous /

Martin Palous was one of the founding members of Charter 77, a broad civic movement that emerged in response to, among other things, the patent failure of the Czecholsovak Communist regime to live up to its international legal obligation to guarantee human rights that had recently been affirmed by the Helsinki Accords in 1977. In their explanation of the motivations behind the Charta and in defense of its legality, spokespersons such as Vaclav Havel and Jan Patocka were consistent in casting their arguments in moral rather than overtly political terms, defending an ideal of personal responsibility that had deep resonance in a country slowly emerging from the dispiriting period of normalization that followed the crushing of the Prague Spring in 1968. At the time an aging philosopher in ill health, Patocka would meet his dePragueath as a result of police harassment, while other members such as Palous and Havel would be persecuted by the regime in the years leading up to the Velvet Revolution in 1989. Many of the original signatories of Charta 77 would play a central role in this revolution, as well as in the government under Havel in its aftermath, including Palous who would serve as Ambassador to the United States and as Permanent Representative of Czechoslovakia to the United Nations. What follows expresses well the passion for justice and deep commitment to the ideal of personal responsibility that marked the original movement, the legacy of which continues to play a role, both concrete and symbolic, in contemporary Czech political life, with all of its complexities.Source:

–James Dodd

On February 21, 1990, Václav Havel — still under arrest less than four months previous as a “subversive element” — addressed a joint session of the U.S. Congress in his new capacity as Czechoslovak President. He was welcomed as a leader of the Velvet Revolution, which brought to an end the totalitarian communist rule in his country. In his speech Havel said:

The communist type of totalitarian system has left both our nations, Czechs and Slovaks – as it has all the nations of the Soviet Union, and the other countries the Soviet Union subjugated in its time – a legacy of countless dead, an infinite spectrum of human suffering, profound economic decline, and above all enormous human humiliation. It has brought us horrors that, fortunately, you have never known.

At the same time – unintentionally, of course – it has given us something positive: a special capacity to look, from time to time, somewhat further than those who have not undergone this bitter experience. Someone who cannot move and live a normal life because he is pinned under a boulder has more time to think about his hopes than someone who is not trapped in this way.

What I am trying to say is this: we must all learn many things from you, from how to educate our offspring, how to elect our representatives, to how to organize our economic life so that it will lead to prosperity and not poverty. But this doesn’t have to be merely assistance from the well-educated, the powerful, and the wealthy to those who have nothing to offer in return.

We, too, can offer something to you: our experience and the knowledge that has come out from it .

It is this bold assertion that we need to start from in order to formulate the tasks connected with the preservation of Havel’s legacy facing us. There is no doubt that he himself did his best to honor his commitment. It is also true that this mission he launched here in Washington, now 30 years ago, must be conceived as a lasting task. It hasn’t been finished during his lifetime, and it is still not fully accomplished!

To understand what the gist of knowledge that can, as Havel promised, come out from the experience of totalitarianism, let us depart from his own life story and highlight some of its major turning points.

The point of departure: the Czechoslovak “normalization”

In order to understand the ideas occupying the minds of revolutionaries to-be before the revolution broke out unexpectedly and found them rather unprepared for their new roles, we must return to the situation in Czechoslovakia in the first half of the 1970s. The political strategy of the new communist leadership — which got into power after the invasion of the Warsaw Pact countries led by the Soviet Union, and that set for itself the goal to “normalize” again the situation in the country — was immoral, dishonest, deceitful and treasonous. At the same time, however, it was realistic (with respect to the distribution of power in Europe divided into the East and the West in the framework of bipolar political architecture of the Cold War), and apparently working.

Step by step, the “normalizers” managed to suppress all aspirations for freedom that had suddenly burst out in Czechoslovakia during the Prague Spring of 1968, and to “convince” the absolute majority of Czechoslovak population – by means of pressure, harassment, blackmailing and omnipresent propaganda — to voluntarily accept its totalitarian enslavement again, “to extinguish in advance the smallest glimmer of independent social initiative,” as philosopher Jan Patočka put it. These words were pronounced in a lecture in a private apartment in front of a close circle of his disciples in the fall of 1973, after he had been forced to leave Charles University for second time: “to deprive the society entirely, or almost entirely, of its moral strength,” but allowing “its external physical capacities…to grow” at the same time. The form of government established in the process bluntly characterized by Patočka as “human machinery of decline and degeneration,” didn’t need the iron fist to have its way. What could be seen in action here was rather “fear, disorientation, wiles of comfort, possibility to gain advantages in the environment of general scarcity, creating here an artificially interconnected complex of motivations.”

The form of government being established in Czechoslovakia in that moment was certainly not a blood-thirsty tyranny. Gustav Husak’s normalization regime was not run by ideological fanatics, but by opportunists, ready to conform themselves with whatever realities and to use the existing power constellation to satisfy their personal needs and ambitions as much as possible. The same possibility — or at least the undisturbed life without political problems — was on offer for all those who were — after having been only temporarily “misled” and “disoriented” by those who organized the 1968 “counterrevolution” — ready to enter the proposed social contract between the government and the Czechoslovak population at large.

Was there something that could be done, if one wished neither to leave the country, nor to conform to this line, but remain loyal to one’s own deep principles, to one’s “self”? Here is what Jan Patočka suggested to his students:

Philosophical thought should help us somehow in our need. It should become our internal action in any situation…Human reality is always situational. When reflected upon, it changes thanks to the very fact of reflection…becoming at least partially clarified or on the way to clarification…People trapped by a calamity are in very different positions when they give up and when they don’t. The man who is finding himself in a desperate situation still has different options on how to behave!

Two years later, in the spring of 1975, it was Vaclav Havel — another Patočka philosophical disciple, but in his own way and in his own terms — who stepped into the debate about the current situation of Czechoslovak society and voiced a similar argument publicly, loudly and clearly. He wrote an open letter to Secretary General of Communist Party Dr. Husak to alert him of the fact that the process of normalization under his leadership had plunged Czechoslovak society into a deep “moral and spiritual crisis,” and that he should not remain indifferent to this fact, which sooner or later will have serious and unpredictable political consequences.

“As a citizen of this country,” Havel concluded his letter, I hereby request, openly and publicly, that you and the leading representatives of the present regime consider seriously the matters to which I have tried to draw your attention; that you assess in their light the degree of your historic responsibility, and act accordingly.

Unsurprisingly, the addressee never responded to the Havel’s observations and polite demands. The people, who got a chance to read them, thanks to their informal circulation, understood his message quite well, however. The “Dear Dr. Husak” letter was quickly disseminated all over the place in Czechoslovakia and its impact on the atmosphere in the society was indisputable. The deadening silence of “normalization” was broken. The question of resistance to the current variety of totalitarianism momentarily crushing the spirit of Czechs and Slovaks started to become a personal problem to be tackled and resolved at least for a few people, here and there.

And in this context, the question of human rights emerged as a sensitive social and political issue with the deep philosophical underpinnings. Patočka still continued with his private philosophical seminars for his students, but also started to collect signatures for protests and petitions. The process that culminated in the creation of Charter 77 began.

Charter 77 and its existential concept of human rights

When we look at the Charter 77’s original declaration, dated January 1, 1977, what stands out as a clear point of departure in the proposed “constructive dialogue” with the Czechoslovak Government about the state of human rights is its underlying legal argument. Two major international covenants of human rights had been recently ratified by the Czechoslovak National Assembly, and this fact bound Czechoslovakia not only to respect, but to actively implement their letter and spirit. The Czechoslovak President signed the Helsinki Accords, which in its “third basket” contained human rights commitments the participating states agreed to comply within “good faith.” What the text of Charter 77 did was point to an undeniable reality: the policies of normalization in Czechoslovakia were in clear variance with its international obligations and were raising the question of its international responsibility.

And again, as there was no answer to Havel’s open letter to Dr. Husak, the Czechoslovak government rejected this “civic initiative” and immediately launched a vicious campaign against its signatories — labeling them as pay hands of American imperialism, a bunch of reactionary, anti-socialist, subversive elements, enemies of state, social parasites, traitors… Besides the repressive apparatus of the state that was tasked to handle this issue using the methods and means at its disposal, the ruling party launched a new round of its never-ending ideological struggle with what could be seen as an inchoate new political opposition.

The legal experts from Charles University came with their servile operation to crush it down, too: the international obligations created by the ratification of said human rights covenants were obligations towards the participating states only, they said, and as such could not be regarded as a source of rights of citizens or other persons under the Czechoslovak jurisdiction. Individual human rights in Czechoslovakia were solely guaranteed by its “socialist” constitution. That was the principal legal source and basis for their concrete implementation, and for any concrete determination of what is their material content and scope in a particular case might be. The arguments of Charter 77 were plainly defective and, as such, had to be rejected.

What the international obligations of the Czechoslovak state in the area of human rights really were — and what they were not, could, indeed, be determined only in communication with its international partners in the respective contracts. From the very beginning, however, there was here another, and I would argue, a more important aspect of the Charter 77 declaration than the legal argument it contained: the motivation of its signatories.

The concept of human rights the signatories of Charter 77 — “people of various convictions, various beliefs and various professions  — were subscribing to, had undoubtedly strong existential underpinnings articulated by Patočka in his private lectures and by Havel in his “Dear Dr. Husak” letter. It could be articulated in the language of current public international law, but was primarily fed by very old and deep questions introduced to the European history by classical political philosophy and ever-present in a “dialogue of mankind” taking place between philosophers, as Patočka put it, “over the borders of centuries.” They were to be recognized and respected as a moral issue, as a fundamental source of human dignity. They were perceived in the Charter 77 context as a point of departure for overcoming the spiritual crisis, not only in normalized Czechoslovak society but in European civilization as a whole, which had succumbed to it in the “short” 20th century.

And it was no surprise that it was again Jan Patočka who stood up here with his profound philosophical perspective and stepped courageously into the Czechoslovak public space poisoned by the spirit of normalization. He interrupted his private academic activities in the fall of 1976 and became — together with Vaclav Havel and Jiri Hajek, the former communist and Czechoslovak minister of foreign affairs in 1968, one of the first three Charter 77 spokespersons. And in this capacity, he wrote — before he died, like his precursor Socrates, at the age of seventy, a little more than two months after the publication of the Charter 77’s inaugural manifesto, after having suffered a heart attack, totally exhausted by the prolonged police interrogations – several texts where he formulated clearly and with philosophical precision what Charter 77 “was and what it was not.” He proposed to start a constructive dialogue about human rights between the Czechoslovak government and Czechoslovak citizens. This was the basic point of departure the participants of Charter 77 chose for their future — joint or individual.

The thing that they all had in common was certainly not an “ideology,” a world-view or a political orientation. It was their refusal to participate in the process of human degradation organized by the ruling regime. They declared in a unified “no” to all the seductive games and dirty tricks the Czechoslovak government played constantly with the populations to get its consent, and its subjugation.

The Charter 77 signatories wanted to remind the Czechoslovak government and the society at large about certain “truths of which we are all in some sense aware” in the proposed human rights dialogue. According to Patočka, these “Socratic truths” transcend us and speak to us, whether we like them or not, from the depth of historical times, tested again and again throughout the centuries of human history. Human beings as human beings shouldn‘t be primarily concerned just about “power, glory, or money”: they should never stop listening to the voice of their conscience and “care for the soul.” They should strive to live an “examined life” under all circumstances, i.e. at unity with their inner “selves” and not just keep conforming their thoughtless behavior to the changing external circumstances and in order to stay out of trouble, to decide voluntarily “to live in lie!”

Human rights should not be primarily understood as a constantly expanding catalog of entitlements, claimed since the Enlightenment by individuals demanding their unconditional and where possible instant satisfaction. Human rights chiefly place on us an elementary duty which according to Immanuel Kant every human has towards him/herself, an obligation imposed on us not by an external authority, earthly or divine, but rooted in our very human nature: an obligation to stand up in the defense of others if their inherent dignity seems to be violated, an obligation to raise one’s voice against any injustice happening in a society one is a member of, and call for redress.

“The idea of human rights is nothing other,” as Patočka phrased it, “than the conviction that even states and even society as whole are also subject to the sovereignty of moral sentiment,” that they — albeit in principle secular, in other words, neutral in terms of religion — “recognize something unconditional that is higher than they are, something that is binding even on them, sacred (inviolable), and that, in their power to establish and maintain a rule of law, they seek to express this recognition.”

“Participants in Charter 77”, he wrote further: “do not seek any political role or privilege for themselves, and least of all wish to be any moral authority or social conscience. They condemn no one and judge no one. Their sole concern is to purify and reinforce the awareness that there is a higher authority, binding on individuals in virtue of their conscience, and governments in virtue of their signature on important international treaties, placing them under an obligation not only when it suits them, not only within the limits of political convenience and inconvenience but by their commitment, represented by their signature, to subordinate politics to justice, not vice versa.”

The “parallel polis”

It was no surprise — nor did either Patočka nor Havel nor any other signatory of Charter 77 expect — that the communist authorities didn’t make the slightest effort to pay attention to these philosophical “ruminations.” Instead, they did as they always did, firmly determined to stay in power at whatever costs. They decided to suppress the chartist revolt by all the necessary means and to keep punishing it, and all the individuals who dared to take part in it, for “subversive” actions.

It turned out, however, that no matter what this group of “failures and self-styled leaders,” as the communist daily “Rude Pravo” put it in its first attack against Chartists in January of 1977, were much more resilient opponents than the ruling totalitarian regime had expected and couldn’t be easily eliminated. What originally looked like just a desperate appeal of outcasts without a chance to have any measurable social or political effect, managed to open within the Czechoslovak society, paralyzed by the totalitarian plague, an independent public space.

It is to Patočka’s eternal credit that he succeeded in endowing it with a Socratic basis, leaving it to all who, alongside him, signed the founding document or in one way or another contributed to Charter’s work and aims. This is perhaps Patočka’s most important philosophical legacy.

It is also to Václav Havel’s eternal credit that he helped make Patočka’s Socratic questions accessible to non-philosophers. He succeeded with a rigor and cogency of his own, placing that spirit in the newly emerging public space in which the chartists found themselves together. One of them, Václav Benda, accurately dubbed this space the “parallel polis.” Havel accomplished this through his essays, plays (despite the fact they weren’t performed in Czechoslovakia and one had to settle for reading them), articles, interviews, and public activities.

The parallel polis had a life of its own in that space in the following thirteen years: it vexed the members of its public, opened up dialogues among them, sparked polemics, and helped crystallize opinions on a wide variety of matters of broad interest. If we consider the effect today of the “parallel polis:” its participants established a pluralistic quality into daily life that had long been a thing of the past. We can perceive what its participants could not, and which they likely were not fully cognizant: that despite the general decrepitude that normalized Czechoslovak society had fallen into, something new was simultaneously springing to life and demanding to be heard, something previously unseen, something that would take shape loudly and publicly, in an unpredictable and politically incalculable manner as a “revolution.”

The Charter 77’s International Context

If the Helsinki Accords initially appeared as a major victory for the Soviet Union (which had forced the recognition of its territorial gains after WWII, as the Western states had confirmed the immutability of existing borders and agreed that they would not interfere in the internal affairs of Eastern European states), there is no doubt that the emerging “ nuclei of civil society” behind the Iron Curtain succeeded in decreasing international tension, and defined more peaceful relationships between “states with different social and political systems,” and added an entirely new “human” dimension to the political process.

It was this “third basket” that subsequently proved to be the nub of the problem from the perspective of the Soviet Union and its hegemonic interests, and turned out to be at least one reason for the collapse of its empire. The questions raised by Charter 77 and other independent initiatives around the whole region, not only opened a new round of debate within international human rights law about the legal standing of individuals in the context of public international law, but they became an increasingly more and more important international political issue. Those who posed them — Czechoslovak chartists and other human rights activists in the participating states — became ipso facto essential participants, albeit indirect ones, at on-going inter-state negotiations.

During the series of Helsinki follow-up conferences (first in Belgrade, then in Madrid, and finally in Vienna), Charter 77 representatives regularly met diplomats and politicians from participating states visiting their country, discussing topical issues relating to the process with them, expressing their views on documents prepared for the conference, and commenting on all connected subjects, current and timeless.

Within the Helsinki Process, cross-border independent dialogue with neighboring Hungarians, Poles, and East Germans was also initiated. It should be noted that rich communications were opened, and solidarity among those fighting for human rights in individual Soviet bloc countries, naturally including the Soviet Union itself, acquired an increasingly international dimension.

In short, the efforts to rid the Helsinki Process of “the specter of dissent,” Havel spoke in the opening sentence of his seminal essay from 1978 The Power of the Powerless, totally failed, even though over the years whole columns of trained “exorcists” attempted something of that sort. “Helsinki from Below” became an essential element of international negotiations. The “Human Dimension” was given more and more space within the framework of continuing diplomatic talks and had ever bigger impact on their daily conduct and successful conclusion.

It is easy to claim today, as incidentally many do, that Mikhail Gorbachev’s assumption of office in Moscow and declaration of “perestroika” in 1985 had a far greater influence on the fall of the Communist regimes in 1989; that his negotiations with his American counterparts, first Reagan and then Bush, focused primarily on reducing the number of strategic nuclear weapons was the far most important factor in the fall of the Berlin Wall. One can also argue that the decisive role in this process was played not by human rights and their intrinsic morality, preached by the “dissidents,” but by the complex socio-economic changes occurring spontaneously and gradually at all levels of society in all the countries of Central and Eastern Europe.

However, this changes nothing about the fact that if we are to acquire a true, i.e., not superficial and consequently misleading, picture of what happened in the years leading to the revolutions of 1989, one cannot overlook the impact of the “power of the powerless,” analyzed by Havel and tested in the daily life of dissidents’ “parallel polis” on the on-going first invisible changes, followed by not fully “sudden” real revolutionary transformations.

There is a fundamental political lesson to be learned from this experience. People are always capable of freeing themselves — at least their hearts and minds — from their bondage. They are always offered an opportunity to “say no to the devil” and stop conforming blindly to their situation and merely adapting to the given circumstances. There is an opportunity to pose fresh questions and resuming their personal responsibility for their lives. An opportunity to become again creators of their own identity and guarantors of their own thoughts and actions, and eventually to become players when the right moment comes, as it happened in the miraculous years of 1989, a whole series of European revolutions.

In conclusion: where are we today?

The international system emerging in the first decades of the 21st century is definitely more open, more interdependent and definitely less “Eurocentric” than the “world of yesterday” in the previous century. There is no doubt, however, that the “grand opening” of the post-modern market of ideas does not necessarily generate more political freedom and improved communication between nations. On the contrary, the result is the possibility of the emergence of new, culturally motivated conflicts, the possibility that mankind, after it got rid of totalitarian ideologies, may be heading now into an era of civilizational crisis.

The victory of the old well-tested liberal ideas in the ideological conflict that fueled the Cold War, cannot change the fact of the endemic “deficiency” of the modern nation-state: the fact that modern liberalism as such is still finding itself in crisis. The ever more complex network of communications connecting non-state agents across national boundaries has been making it increasingly difficult for national governments to exert decisive control over the growing number of important political issues, curtailing the possibilities of traditional liberal politics. The process by which vital decisions are made remains often entirely opaque to most ordinary citizens, not discussed, not understood, not present in the public domain. This leads to a sense of insecurity and powerlessness among the people. What can be observed practically everywhere in the West is a growing democratic deficit. The whole game of politics is more and more distant from the lives of ordinary citizens and has begun to acquire, as some commentators point out, a bogus kind of “virtual reality.”

Globalization — or complex interdependence — is the most important characteristic of the world situation today. It has not only changed the nature of world politics but has also introduced its own negative, hidden features. International crime generating enormous amounts of money that may be used to infiltrate and corrupt the political elites, the growing vulnerability of the population to extremist views, spread through nationalistic and xenophobic rhetoric of the lowest kind, the disintegration of basic social patterns and structures in some countries or regions, which has been called the “coming anarchy” – these and other phenomena represent the dark side of our post-modern, increasingly globalized world.

What remedies could be suggested in order to cope with the question of transforming a closed political regime into a republican form of government, and deal with the problems of the newly emerging international system and of the New World Order?

In light of the experiences remembered here, I think we must pay the utmost attention to the international dialogue on human rights. The emergence of international mechanisms for their protection as a reaction to the unprecedented crimes committed by totalitarian regimes during World War II still represents one of the key factors in contemporary world politics. International society ceased to be limited by nation-states and is populated now also by many non-state actors. All efforts to cope with the tasks which transcend the limited, closed space of territorial nation-states — be it various problems which require “global governance” or the questions of regional arrangements and “integrative” frameworks — cannot be successful without the active participation of the civic element. What is urgently needed now — and all the conflicts that emerged in the post-communist world demonstrate this quite clearly — is a profound “democratization” of international relations.

The current situation in Europe, for instance, the discussions around the future European political architecture clearly demonstrates this point. A bigger threat to contemporary Europe than any external enemy is the frustration and the feeling of helplessness generated by the fact that no matter how skillful “professional” Euro-politicians and Eurocrats are, the Euro-debate monopolized by them could end in a dead-end. If it were the case, what kind of future could our “old” continent expect?

So here is Vaclav Havel’s message, based on our Central European experience with totalitarianism: One does not need to be Cassandra, in order to predict that scenarios of the future might be quite murky or even catastrophic. If we Europeans still believe that the “universalistic” European civilization is something worth preserving in the age of multiculturalism and globalization, we ourselves have to have the courage to overcome the shadows of the past: to enhance and actively promote the politics based on personal responsibility of each of us for the state of the world and in this context for effective trans-national communication. Because it is nothing else but the dialogue of mankind that can be recommended as the best and perhaps the only possible “republican remedy,” in the sense of the American Federalists, making local, national and global “governance” stronger and constituting and defending the element of freedom in the newly emerging pattern of world politics, which is still the essence and the real nature of our humanity.

Martin Palouš studied Natural Science, Philosophy and International Law. He is President of the Václav Havel Library Foundation in New York, President of International Platform for Human Rights in Cuba, and Senior Fellow at the School of International and Public Affairs at Florida International University in Miami.