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Havel's mentality of a reform communist

Ex-president Václav Klaus gave an interview to The Youth Front Today today [sic], an influential post-Komsomol daily in Czechia, and he proved that he's still capable of igniting a huge storm whenever he likes.

Most of the reactions were unfortunately deeply negative – in particular, the whole pseudointellectual PC front exploded like a nuclear bomb. But I feel that Klaus must in some way enjoy such responses, anyway.

Havel (left), Klaus (right). I am afraid that the readers who needed this caption will find the rest of the blog post below too technical. ;-) Second row: Havel's Prague Castle chancellor Ivan Medek (left), his etiquette guru Ladislav Špaček (right).

Let me say that while I may be similar to Klaus in some respects, I don't really enjoy being in a similar situation. While I realize my own superiority relatively to low-quality critics as well as Klaus does, I still suffer when I am exposed to such things.

But let me return to the interview. In the interview, he described his predecessor, Czechoslovakia's and Czechia's first modern democratic president and ex-dissident Václav Havel (1936-2011). Havel wasn't formally a communist, Klaus said, but Havel's sentiments pretty much coincided with those of the reform communists.

Klaus pointed out that Havel would hate political parties and contributed to the general animosity of the Czech public towards the standard political parties – that's what Klaus will never forgive to Havel, we were told. Havel would prefer some movements or NGOs. And he would also prefer to destroy things – but he would never build anything. Klaus' party was repeatedly recommending Havel as the president, being aware of his influence and his role as a symbol, but it was a "necessary evil".

These were rather tough words. The first issue that makes them controversial is the slogan that "the dead people should only be talked about nicely". My environment has kind of educated me to embrace this principle. So I think it's likely that I wouldn't talk about my dead predecessor in a similar way.

On the other hand, if I think about the issues analytically, I do think that the slogan is irrational and counterproductive. It's important to talk about the history – and most people who were creating the "genuine" history are dead by now. We shouldn't create new taboos and false images of personalities who have "already" earned the positive sign.

Let me mention that about a week ago, I was stunned what happened to Klaus as a candidate for an interesting – but not stellar – job. The social democratic minister of education Mr Chládek announced that he would appoint Václav Klaus Sr (although his son, Václav Klaus Jr, an ex-principal of the most prestigious high school in Czechia, PORG Gymnasium, was another natural candidate) as the boss of a new government committee for the education reform. Chládek sensibly said that one needs diverse ideas and powerful minds in such a committee.

Some of the usual suspects immediately started to complain so Chládek quickly changed the plan so that Klaus would only lead the commission whose task is to appoint the aforementioned committee for education reform. ;-) It was seemingly just a subtle difference but it was actually a substantial one, and the original simpler plan was Chládek's plan at the beginning even though he decided to obscure this fact later. After another day, when the criticism by the usual suspects grew even stronger, Chládek abandoned the whole idea and promised not to pick any politicians or ex-politicians to that committee at all.

I refuse to memorize the names of these usual suspects – various mediocre pseudointellectuals, rank-and-file lawyers, unproductive scientists, and failed politicians who have (with a few marginal exceptions) never achieved anything substantial. These people – often pretending to be right-wingers – always repeat their usual left-wing critical clichés about the privatization and its alleged kleptocratic format in Czechia, about the 2013 amnesty that "no one" liked (I did!), and a few other things. It makes almost no sense.

Klaus was the most essential person to have actually built our standard democracy based on readable political parties (at least that's how it worked as recently as a few years ago), the market economy (including liberalization of prices, privatization, and so on), and who was also the mastermind behind the Velvet Divorce of Czechoslovakia surgically performed at the moment when the federation started to look unsustainable. And I could continue for hours what Klaus has done for Czechoslovakia and Czechia – and the world.

He's immensely interested in the education system, is a professor at the University of Economics where he sometimes teaches, attends the sessions of its research councils, and so on. He's been given dozens of honorary doctorates – and I am sure that many of them would have been awarded even if he hadn't been a top Czech politician – and there are many other achievements of this sort. From the formal perspective, he seems to possess everything that is needed for such work – in a committee that decides about the education reform – but it's still possible for some intellectual dwarfs to de facto veto him.

These people are literally controlling the academic environment, the media, and several other resorts. They are controlling these sectors of the society in an analogous way in which communists and even the Nazis controlled them during those totalitarian systems. You can be a Ms Nobody or a Mr Nobody but if you appoint yourself to the role of the co-defender of the right things and political correctness and the fight against corruption and all this stinky cr@p, you are able to destroy anyone and at any time.

Now, Klaus obviously doesn't care. He's being invited to give several talks all over the world every week. Don't be afraid of his survival. But just imagine how a younger person who is more than a spineless politically correct coward would have to suffer in this academic environment that is literally controlled by these mediocre and immoral people who don't allow any deviation from their stinky group think – not even if you're the ex-president of the country. I can't really imagine today that I would have to deal with this mess. Klaus is obviously right about 99% of things he says about the flaws (and increasingly serious flaws) of the Czech (and Western) education system and if some people who can't compare to him are able to defend the absurd notion that they are morally superior and to eliminate Klaus from such places, be sure that they are eliminating less powerful people than Klaus much more easily.

But back to Havel. And let me add your humble correspondent as he was 25 years ago to the mix.

You know, I was a teenage dissident and a typical Havlist in the 1980s. 4 people on the whole high school (among 1,000 students or so) refused to join SSM. It is not a supersymmetric standard model but rather the Czech counterpart of "Kosmomol". Instead, I had "STOR", a student organization, a sort of teenage Charter 1977 with the document printed on a printer connected to my Commodore 64.

My clearly pro-Western orientation had many sources. Of course that I would think that my own thinking about the world was the key. But I admit that I had to be affected by Radio Free Europe that I would listen to more or less every day during the final year or two of communism. Two uncles of mine – on both sides – had been in emigration. I've had quite some exposure to the Western products and similar things (my father, grandmother – and mother, on the other side – were allowed to meet my uncles at some points; I wasn't, of course). We would also sometimes watch Western German TV in Pilsen. And in many respects, the late communism was much more tolerant than many Westerners think. You shouldn't imagine that we were living in an isolated North Korean camp.

At any rate, I was obviously representing my class during the petition writing on the high school when the Velvet Revolution exploded (before the global school leader of the petition writing, our history instructor and the young female boss of the Communist Party on the high school, what an irony, kicked me out of the room for having compared communism to Nazism), and was promoting Havel as the president in November 1989 when most of my classmates didn't have a clue who Havel was (many of them had learned it from me in early October 1989, during the potato picking brigade, when some good pranksters managed to print a birthday wish to Havel in the main communist newspaper – Havel was nicknamed Ferdinand Vaněk, a hero from his play, and his photograph was added, and Rudé Právo thanked him for everything he is doing and will be doing). And I've enjoyed the dramatic promotion of prisoner Havel to a president as well as the special treatment he would be getting in the world – at least for several years.

Already in late 1989 and surely sometime in 1990, it was already manifest to me that I was closer to Klaus' ODS than to Havel (I could mention that in late 1989, I especially liked Benda's KDS for a while, but that looks like a small episode today) – and sometimes in 1992, I had already no doubts about that. There were various early political contests in the post-revolution Czechoslovakia, like Zeman-vs-Klaus or even Sládek-vs-democratic-parties (a far right populist), but I managed to realize that the true conflict was brewing outside these obvious left-vs-right confrontations.

The tension between Klaus and Havel was actually the most important post-revolution disagreement that was deciding about the future of the country.

And I would claim that this well-defined dichotomy rather accurately represents the crossroad in front of the whole Western civilization.

For quite some time, the two men wouldn't be tough to each other at all although one could see rather clearly that these men had nothing to do with one another and their relationship was cold at the human level. Sometime in 1996, the hostilities bubbled up to the surface. You could hear assorted anti-capitalist slogans from Havel. The market economy was a "chandlery". I have no idea how to translate "hokynářství"; it's the shop of a tradesman, grocer, a little retailer. The idea is that the market economy is just about some efforts of some petty people to earn a few bucks by some tricks – while people like Havel are transcending such things.

Klaus was different. He wanted the market economy without adjectives, the standardized competition between readable, ideologically rooted political parties, as we knew it in the West, and related features of the Western society that had been spontaneously discovered in the previous decades and centuries. He didn't want to try any major "experiments" or "third ways". He had to be worried about the post-democracy and the PC and the dictatorship of NGOs and related things for quite some time – many years before I could see those things myself. So I was obviously "somewhere in between Klaus and Havel" most of the time albeit closer to Klaus.

Many articles describing the today's "scandal" chose to point out that according to Klaus, Havel was mentally a reform communist. Most (if not all) of the reactions by the blogs and Internet commenters are trash – they are just viewing it as an insult that should be responded to with another, much shallower and much more childish insult. That's what most writers do. But Klaus has raised an interesting point. It's nontrivial but at the end, I think it is very true.

Just to be sure, Havel's "class" origin didn't give him any reason to promote socialism. He would inherit huge assets after the fall of communism (including the film ateliers in the Barandov suburbs and Lucerna, a large concert hall on the Wenceslaus Square, among other things) because he came from an extremely rich family in Prague. The communist propaganda would sometimes write rather disgusting texts describing the family as a group of Nazi collaborators. Of course that I needed some time to even consider the possibility that there could have been something true about those comments, too. (I needed much less time to notice that they were probably mostly right about Havel's hobby to drink beer.) Havel wasn't a good manager in any way. I think his brother Ivan, an interdisciplinary scientist (who lended his laptop to me during a talk last Summer, thanks), did somewhat better. (The two brothers' families, especially the wives, would fight in various lawsuits.) But whatever currently works within the assets that used to belong to the Havel family 80 years ago is due to other people's skills.

But even among rich folks, socialism is sometimes popular (don't forget how rich Engels was, and I won't even mention Soros). Sometimes the wealth and the associated sense of guilt even helps people to become socialists. Havel was very active during the 1968 Prague Spring. I think that at that time, it could have been difficult to distinguish "reform communists" from "pro-capitalists". The trend where Czechoslovakia was going was self-evident – away from the medium-softness-core communist regime towards (mostly) democracy and freedom. It could have been uncertain how far different people wanted to go. And if the Warsaw Pact tanks hadn't stopped the process, they could have realized that many of them actually didn't want the process to go too far.

Because Havel became a famous, indisputable dissident in the 1970s who didn't hesitate to spend years in jail – especially here in Pilsen: The Václav Havel Prison would be a much more appropriate name than the Václav Havel Airport in Prague because he wasn't actually afraid to spend time in this building, unlike the airplanes – one could naturally assume that he was "more radical", and therefore "more pro-capitalist", than just some ordinary reform communists.

But I do think that this implication is logically flawed. The willingness to be arrested isn't the same thing as a genuine thirst for freedom or capitalism. I was reminded about those things when I met Milan Kohout, an ex-dissident and a crazy artist whom I know both from Boston and Pilsen, in the pub two weeks ago. He used to be a dissident during communism, emigrated to the U.S., moved to the black neighborhood of Boston (Roxbury), and became a dissident in the U.S., too. He's more left-wing than any extreme left-winger I have ever repeatedly criticized on this blog. For him, the Czech Communist Party is still a gang of radical right-wingers – no kidding. He also can't tolerate if you mention that e.g. Henry Ford was white. The cars and all great inventions and discoveries of the last 500 years were de facto made by some black slaves in ships, he is willing to argue. A complete nutcase. Why I talk about him: Because I want to say that people may also be dissidents because they are in some respects even more communist than the communist party that is ruling in their country.

Havel's own essays have sometimes used the word "socialism" (in a positive sense). Sometimes, he urges his pals "not to use the word socialism" anymore. He's switched between these modes a few times – both before and after the fall of communism. But with the hindsight, it seems rather obvious to me that these oscillations were purely cosmetic and he always liked the essence of the arrangement of the political life that people like to describe as socialism – although with the wishful thinking that the totalitarian arrangement of the society may be almost surgically separated from the "nice" socialism (it cannot). He just thought that the brand may have been sufficiently discredited so that it became counterproductive to use it at some points. But he liked the essence hiding behind the word. Havel's conservative image had almost nothing to do with the reality.

Throughout most of the 1990s, and maybe even for a few years of the new century, I wouldn't think about Havel as an originator of some really bad trends. You know, in the 1990s, we still remembered communism too well and we were (or at least I was) partially afraid of some "complete restoration" of the pre-1989 regime. Havel was the symbol of the transition from communism and totalitarianism to capitalism and democracy. So he had a positive sign. Things were simple.

I don't want to say that my thinking was this simple-minded. It wasn't. But the real disagreements and unacceptable political changes we are seeing today were simply not "screaming loudly" in the 1990s. If someone wanted everything to be owned or determined by the government or a group of self-anointed wise men, he would be reminded to be just like the communists and this template for the criticism was apparently working for many years and was sufficient to direct Czechoslovakia in "pretty much" the right direction.

But one can't really use communism as the benchmark forever. It was becoming increasingly irrelevant and bad as a regime to compare with – because the society and the economy are changing in numerous ways and it is simply bizarre to compare two very different eras. And indeed, people who are still fighting some communist ghosts are detached from the reality and from the real problems that are important today, I agree with Klaus and others. On the other hand, I think that there are also bad consequences of the "disappearance" of the comparisons with communism because many current undesirable trends are structurally analogous to the communist arrangement and no one seems to care anymore.

If one could think more deeply about the trends, things would have been clearer to us – at least as clear as they were to Klaus. With the hindsight, it correct to say that Havel's plan always was to create a system similar to the post-democratic regime that seems to be emerging in Europe (and maybe even elsewhere in the West) – with the network of NGOs and "intellectuals" who control the media, schools, and indirectly politics as well. A system where – once again – no real opposition is allowed or needed. If some real opposition emerges, it is quickly character assassinated and eliminated from the public life. An international system where everything is decided by "wise folks" somewhere in Belgium who must have been selected directly by God. You know this mess so please add 6 more paragraphs of a juicy rant below.


In the 1990s, it was just not possible for me to predict that these would be problems with the society that I would consider essential in 2014. In that first post-revolutionary decade, I would be more occupied with the totally standard "left-vs-right" division of politics. While much of it is as important as it was 20 years ago, there are new topics and new efforts to transform the world of politics that can't be easily parameterized by the "left-vs-right axis" anymore (especially because many people who are promoting the "new world order" similar to left-wing totalitarian systems are very rich capitalists who benefit in many ways, and because of other messy aspects of the present era). And if we look from the direction of the new dimension that polarizes things, Havel simply seems to be on the wrong side of the history. I say "wrong" but it's the side that seems to be winning. Sadly.

The extra decades of hindsight put much of Havel's declared anticommunism into a new light, too. Havel would always call himself an anticommunist and he enjoyed this label; Klaus would always refuse it, being just a non-communist. How is this thing compatible with Havel's being clearly more left-wing than Klaus? Well, I am afraid that the bulk of what Havel used to call "anticommunism" was actually a nationally or racially powered hatred towards Russia. I am going to assume that the readers are able to distinguish "Russia" from "communism". Tom V., I kindly ask you to make the assumption that they're different entities for a while. You know, one could argue that Putin is actually much more conservative than Havel was – this is the example of the reasons why I find it so absurd to identify (especially current) Russia with communism and the haters of Russia with non-communism.

Of course, when I remember the communist propaganda articles about Havel's ancestors (family) and their relations with the Nazis, the realizations become somewhat scary. To a large extent, when Havel called himself an "anticommunist" and when he indicated that the label was important for him, he meant that he would probably choose the Third Reich and not the USSR as an ally. Well, I surely wouldn't have!

It's hard to exactly determine what Havel actually believed and how strongly he cared about it. But there are also the people who currently like to sell themselves as "intellectual heirs" to Havel. Many if not most of those like to consider themselves right-wing (in Czechia). But if you actually analyze what makes them right-wingers in their own eyes, it's not too hard to conclude that it's not their social conservative values or the belief in the intrinsic abilities of the unregulated market economy or their respect for the political competition without some extra "positive discrimination" for certain classes. It's more accurate to say that Russophobia is a major thing that leads them to call themselves right-wingers. And it's too bad – especially because most of the Russians are rather socially conservative and pro-market folks these days.

Many of these "heirs to Havel" really suck and I still want to keep a mostly positive image of Havel in my memory. But the links between Havel and these people (although these links are often going in one direction only, a direction that Havel can no longer influence) simply and unavoidably degrade Havel's image in my mind. As a teenage dissident, I would be fighting against the wrong system, not against a nation that I would dislike because of some stupid racist prejudices, and it's doubly bad if someone's optics was reversed.

To summarize, Klaus has been the Czechoslovakia's most important initiator of and contributor to intellectual discussions about very many topics for 25 years. Havel remained more famous than Klaus – and always (since December 1989) got a better treatment from the world and the media etc. – and Klaus may rightfully think that it's unfair. So in this sense, the Havlists may be right that there's some "jealousy" over here. On the other hand, it's very important to point out that it's a totally justified case of grievance. And I am sure that the anti-Klaus explosions by these pseudointellectuals appear because of these people's jealousy towards Klaus whom they can't even remotely be compared with. And this jealousy is also justified because these people are intellectual dwarfs in comparison with Klaus, indeed.

Try to scream louder, dwarfs, peckers, and schmeckels, maybe you will grow taller! ;-)

By the way, sometimes we talk about things like PLM, the politico-legal-media complex, and similar not quite catchy slogans to describe how the centers of power are being reorganized. Klaus has offered an equally uncatchy but amusing description of the current regime in Czechia. It is Sobotkish-Babišian-Moraveckish-Janečkian (and perhaps Bradáčian). ;-) Just for you to understand, Sobotka is a relatively boring ordinary social democratic prime minister. Babiš is an oligarch and vice-premier. Moravec is the most well-known political TV and radio host (and incidentally a gay) and Janeček is a trained mathematician and a billionaire made rich from fast trading who has founded a ludicrous "movement against corruption" and a quasi-religious sect "Positive Evolution" that hasn't positively evolved for a few years. Ms Bradáčová is a top-tier prosecutor who likes to fight big economic crimes.

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reader ny-ktahn said...

Lumo and Scott. Please check out the I want to make peace with my old friends, my family. Please help me do this.

reader Luboš Motl said...

Dear Ktahn, it's good that you contact me as the ultimate peacemaker and diplomat because that's one of the things I am very good at - whether everyone appreciates it or not. ;-)

But just to be sure. What have you done? Could you just write it in clear sentences here? Have you murdered or raped someone?

reader RAF III said...

Lubos - Though I agree with your assessments of Klaus and Havel I will always fondly remember Havel for his essay The Power of the Powerless. I still find it terribly poignant and just as apt with respect to todays PC tyranny as it was yesterdays communist tyranny. It is ironic that it speaks against the system he favored.
For anyone interested, here it is:
in Czech -
in English -

reader Luboš Motl said...

Yup, I still like this essay, and a few others by him, too. I find it hard to compare all the "current" questions with his writing. As a famous writer, he was probably located in a different age so many of his ideas just can no longer be consistently applied 30 or 40 years later.

reader RAF III said...

Lubos - I have read very little of Havel and always in translations so I can't really evaluate the quality of his writing.
I didn't mean to imply a 'structural' similarity between the two oppressive systems of different ages; but the constancy of human nature in response to such oppression is the same at all times. This is what I found so poignant about his essay - his description of the personal, psychological toll exacted on those living in such societies.
Your description of Havel makes him sound like a typical western 'liberal' who thinks that if the good, smart people are put in charge all will be well.


reader Luboš Motl said...

Dear RAF, Havel's writing wasn't super-perfect literature from the linguistic or formal viewpoint. It was good enough.

I didn't mean to suggest he was just another Western liberal. He had something more special, spiritual, individualistic in himself. The favored policies are a different matter and he probably wasn't that far from the normal Western left-wing intellectuals in those respects.

reader RAF III said...

Lubos - Please be assured that I was not trying to impose western political taxonomy on the Czechs. The only 'box' I would put Havel in would have the label 'naive humanist'. I certainly don't accept the 'boxes' of western liberals and I'm quite sure that you and Klaus have an infinitely better understanding of your history and politics than I ever will.
The internal politics of any country is often baffling to an outsider, especially if communism or religion is thrown into the mix. What's the difference between The People's Front of Judea and The Judean People's Front? Perhaps Kowalkowski knows.
In other words - I don't trust the labels on any of these boxes so please cut me some slack.

reader Luboš Motl said...

I think that your boxing etc. makes a lot of sense, e.g. naive humanist is a good description! ;-)

No idea about the differences between the Judea organizations - I don't even know whether they're Jewish or Arab. ;-) I guess Jewish because Arabs don't use this name for the territory? ;-)

reader RAF III said...

Lubos - The Judea thing was a reference to a scene in the Monty Python film The Life of Brian. It's worth watching - very funny.

reader Luboš Motl said...

Funny, thanks! Others see

reader pEGO said...

Lumo ;) this debate is for ten Pilsner beers, so I will short it to one joke in Czech language 8-)
"Dobrý den. Kde je tady škola Václava Havla?"
"Jděte touhle ulicí Václava Havla až přijdete na náměstí Václava Havla, pak se dáte přes park Václava Havla, přijdete na nábřeží Václava Havla, pak přes most Václava Havla a jste na místě."

reader Luboš Motl said...


reader TomVonk said...

many of them had learned it from me in early October 1989, during the potato picking brigade, ...
God Lubos .... bramborový brigády !
THAT was a conquest of the proletarian class that will probably stay unrivalled forever.
Like locusts we would fall all over some little unsuspecting village in the middle of Bohemia, drink, play cards, hunt girls (even the ugly ones) and more generally sabotage the socialist order of the society.
I remember going out at night and helping a friend to hide some big stones under the field so that the next day the rotating wheel unearthing the potatoes would hit it and and break what would earn us again a hours of drinking because the said socialist order of the society didn't provide for spare parts :)
To Havel's topic.
My grandmother born Janeckova was from the family of the founder and owner of the Jawa machine and motorcycle factories (Jawa meaning JAnecek WAnderer).
They were living not far from the Havels who were poorer than we (my ancestors) were but wealthy and cultivated enough to be frequented. We are talking here about pre war times.
So my mother knew the small Vaclav and met him often.
She told me that he was a very introverted, shy boy living in a dreamy world . He would not communicate much with others and would not seek contact with others either. A kind of sociopath would one say today.
That's how a direct witness of his childhood is defining him.

reader Luboš Motl said...

Dear Tom, good! I have mostly positive memories to these potato brigades. If communism survived for a few more years, maybe we would experience the hops brigades in the college, too. ;-)

But we did lots of fun. I once won a few dollar bet that I would roll myself in the mud thrice - with the dirty outfit, it didn't matter and the money looked good at that time.

My classmate - sitting in the same bench - V.Kr., the future president of Patria Finance - would win another dollar for eating an earthworm.

Now, a retarded colleague in the same "team" picking potatoes would be finding mice in the field and throwing them to the chimneys of the tractors, and so on.

Plus lots of songs played when we stayed somewhere overnight, which we only did a few times. We were usually going to a Přeštice JZD every day.

Note that Přeštice is the town South of Pilsen with the statue of their famous pigs.

That's exactly where we were starting the work every day. ;-)

People in Přeštice often have a more-Pilsner-than-Pilseners accent:

reader TomVonk said...

Only 1 day ?
We were always going for a full week. That's why our arrival in a village was a calamity comparable to a locust plague.
I don't remember the villages anymore - it was always another one every year.
Ah the mice ! Now that you mention it, I think it was about the same everywhere and at any date under the communism.
We also always had someone who would catch them and kill them in some unpleasant ways (I remember a guy making political processes where the mouse was declared ennemy of people and hanged (literally)).
I also thave mostly positive memories because we were far from school and parents and during this week we made more mischief, drinking and gambling than in the rest of the year.
On the other hand I have a very bad memory of the JZD bosses who would insult us, call us antisocial and parasites because our "work moral" was not one of slaves what they expected from some dubious town intellectuals who should fear them and obey.
Actually it earned me to be thrown out of the college for 2 weeks because I told to one of those illiterate JZD fools who was again in a ragefit something very similar to the famous "Proletáři všech zemí polibte mi prdel". And I was told that I should be happy that it was only 2 weeks.
So even there one could not forget that living under communism was dangerous and that overlords stayed overlords even on a potato field in the middle of nowhere.

reader Luboš Motl said...

I didn't say we only went once for the brigade. We have spent about a month on these brigades in total!