Defending the virtues of liberty, free markets, and civilization... plus some commentary on the passing scene.

Freedom's Fidelity

Friday, December 03, 2004

Vaclav Havel on Communism

Since there has been a bit of a push in the blogosphere to replace Kofi Annan with Vaclav Havel as Sec General of tfhe UN, I thought I would pass this along. It's a bit of writing from Havel that I recently came across while reading Fukuyama's "The End of History." It was written (or at least pondered upon) as he sat in prison for his activities as a dissident, before the democratic revolutions of Eastern Europe:
The manager of a fruit and vegetable shop places in his window among the onions and carrots, the slogan: "Workers of the World Unite!" Why does he do it? What is he trying to communicate to the world? Is he genuinely enthusiastic about the idea of unity among the workers of the world? Is his enthusiasm so great that he feels an irrepressible impulse to acquaint the public with his ideals? Has he really given a moments thought to how such a unification might occur and what it would mean?...

Obviously, the greengrocer is indifferent to the semantic content of the slogan on exhibit; he does not put the slogan in this window from any personal desire to acquaint the public with the ideal it expresses. This, of course, does not mean that his action has no motive or significance at all, or that the slogan communicates nothing to anyone. The slogan is really a sign, and as such it contains a subliminal, but very definite message. Verbally, it might be expressed this way: "I, the greengrocer XY, live here and I know what I must do. I behave in the manner expected of me. I can be depended upon and am beyond reproach. I am obedient and therefore I have the right to be left in peace." This message of course has an addressee: it is directed above, to the greengrocer's superior, and at the same time it is a shield that protects the greengrocer from potential informers. The slogans real meaning, therefore, is rooted firmly in the greengrocer's existence. It reflects his vital interests. But what are those vital interests?

Let us take note: if the greengrocer had been instructed to display the slogan, "I am afraid and therefore unquestionably obedient," he would not be nearly as indifferent to its semantics, even though the statement would still reflect the truth The greengrocer would be embarrassed and ashamed to put such an unequivocal statement of his own degradation in the shop window, and quite naturally so, for he is a human being and thus has a sense of his own dignity. To overcome this complication, his expression of loyalty must take the form of a sign which, at least on its textual surface, indicates a level of disinterested conviction. It must allow the greengrocer to say, "What's wrong with the workers of the world uniting?" Thus the sign helps the greengrocer to conceal himself from the low of his obedience, at the same time concealing the low foundations of power. It hides them begind the facade of something high. And that something is ideology.

What is revealing about this, is the way in which communism operates on fear, but comes up with a convenient 'out' for individuals that are afraid but want to pretend they are not. Without that escape, men living under any repressive regime would be forced to admit to the world, and perhaps more devastatingly, to themselves that they are scared needy little animals easily manipulated by their own fears. In Havel's example above, the grocer is able to avoid this internal debate by hiding behind a sanctimonious communist slogan - a device for him to more comfortably come to terms with living inside a lie. Such was the inherent humiliation of communism.

Western Civilization is often characterized as a land fueled by crass materialism and exploitation, but it was those materials, so common in the West, that were often used to force compliance in communist states. Simple things like a refrigerator, new clothes, a vacation, or a better job were dangled in front of those that promised to behave according to the states desires and 'turn in' those who did not. These material gains meant much to those living with little to nothing in terms of possessions. And that was Havel's biggest criticism of communism - that it forced the citizenry to compromise their moral worth, their dignity, in return for petty rewards, creating a nation of men with no personalities and no true concept of self. Havel recognized this tragedy for what it was, and he would certainly recognize that much of the world's population still lives under such conditions. It's a shame that he probably wouldn't take the job.


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