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The Power of the Powerless (Vintage Classics)

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Václav Havel’s remarkable and rousing essay on the tyranny of apathy, with a new introduction by Timothy Snyder Cowed by life under Communist Party rule, a greengrocer hangs a placard in their shop window: Workers of the world, unite! Is it a sign of the grocer’s unerring ideology? Or a symbol of the lies we perform to protect ourselves? Written in 1978, Václav Havel’s Václav Havel’s remarkable and rousing essay on the tyranny of apathy, with a new introduction by Timothy Snyder Cowed by life under Communist Party rule, a greengrocer hangs a placard in their shop window: Workers of the world, unite! Is it a sign of the grocer’s unerring ideology? Or a symbol of the lies we perform to protect ourselves? Written in 1978, Václav Havel’s meditation on political dissent – the rituals of its suppression, and the sparks that re-ignite it – would prove the guiding manifesto for uniting Solidarity movements across the Soviet Union. A portrait of activism in the face of falsehood and intimidation, The Power of the Powerless remains a rousing call against the allure of apathy. 'Havel’s diagnosis of political pathologies has a special resonance in the age of Trump' Pankaj Mishra


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Václav Havel’s remarkable and rousing essay on the tyranny of apathy, with a new introduction by Timothy Snyder Cowed by life under Communist Party rule, a greengrocer hangs a placard in their shop window: Workers of the world, unite! Is it a sign of the grocer’s unerring ideology? Or a symbol of the lies we perform to protect ourselves? Written in 1978, Václav Havel’s Václav Havel’s remarkable and rousing essay on the tyranny of apathy, with a new introduction by Timothy Snyder Cowed by life under Communist Party rule, a greengrocer hangs a placard in their shop window: Workers of the world, unite! Is it a sign of the grocer’s unerring ideology? Or a symbol of the lies we perform to protect ourselves? Written in 1978, Václav Havel’s meditation on political dissent – the rituals of its suppression, and the sparks that re-ignite it – would prove the guiding manifesto for uniting Solidarity movements across the Soviet Union. A portrait of activism in the face of falsehood and intimidation, The Power of the Powerless remains a rousing call against the allure of apathy. 'Havel’s diagnosis of political pathologies has a special resonance in the age of Trump' Pankaj Mishra

30 review for The Power of the Powerless (Vintage Classics)

  1. 4 out of 5

    Audrey

    I am constitutionally incapable of giving any Havel-related materials less than a full five-star rating.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Charles Haywood

    This book was once famous, but was mostly forgotten when Communism died and so-called liberal democracy seemed ascendant. It is increasingly famous again, and relevant, in these days of a new creeping totalitarianism, this time in the West itself. Such timelessness is the signature of a classic work, so my goal today is to explicate Václav Havel’s thought, and to show why its time has come round again. Havel, for a time one of the most famous men in the world, was a Czech playwright, and an oppon This book was once famous, but was mostly forgotten when Communism died and so-called liberal democracy seemed ascendant. It is increasingly famous again, and relevant, in these days of a new creeping totalitarianism, this time in the West itself. Such timelessness is the signature of a classic work, so my goal today is to explicate Václav Havel’s thought, and to show why its time has come round again. Havel, for a time one of the most famous men in the world, was a Czech playwright, and an opponent of its Soviet-installed Communist system. He shot to prominence in the mid-1970s, although he had been involved in opposition to Communism since the late 1960s. As viewed from the West, he became one of the key voices of dissent, and he had a political career after the fall of Communism. But when he wrote this long essay (this is actually a book with several essays, but I am only discussing Havel’s), he was relatively obscure outside Czechoslovakia, and this essay, "The Power of the Powerless," was the catalyst and skeleton for much of the subsequent internal opposition to Communism in Central Europe. The frame for Havel’s entire essay is that of a greengrocer who puts in his shop window a sign, “Workers of the World, Unite!” Havel’s purpose is to analyze why the grocer does this in a totalitarian society (here Communist, but in no way limited to Communism philosophically), and what that means for the society of which the greengrocer is a part. Havel assumes, of course, that the grocer does not install the sign to show actual support for Communism or for the government, but because of some set of implicit or explicit pressures. The overarching pressure is to ensure peace and stability for his life—to not rock the boat, to not become a target. It is necessary, in the eyes of the powerful, that he do so, not because one sign in one shop matters, but because it is part of a web of such signs and other signals of compliance, the whole “panorama that everyone is very much aware of. This panorama, of course, has a subliminal meaning as well: it reminds people where they are living and what is expected of them. It tells them what everyone else is doing, and indicates to them what they must do as well, if they don’t want to be excluded, to fall into isolation, alienate themselves from society, break the rules of the game, and risk the loss of peace and tranquility and security.” It is critical to note that the greengrocer and everyone in his position have all “adapted to the conditions in which they live, but in doing so, they help to create those conditions.” The self-perpetuating nature of the system, and that everyone is a part of it, is key. Unlike classic dictatorships, “By pulling everyone into its power structure, the post-totalitarian system makes everyone instruments of a mutual totality.” In placing the sign given to him, the greengrocer effectively strengthens the totality of the ruling ideology, and humiliates himself. Although it might appear to be, it is not the same in effect as if he had a sign saying “I am afraid and therefore unquestioningly obedient,” even though the substantive content of the sign is the same. The ideological nature of the slogan instead forms “a bridge of excuses between the system and the individual,” which makes it possible to “pretend that the requirements of the system derive from the requirements of life.” But make no mistake, the greengrocer, and all others in his position, in the “panorama,” must “live within a lie. They need not accept the lie. It is enough for them to have accepted their life with it and in it. For by this very fact, individuals confirm the system, fulfil the system, make the system, are the system.” Reality has nothing to do with it; in fact, such an ideology is so strong, Havel says, that “there is nothing to prevent ideology from becoming more and more removed from reality.” So far, this is fascinating and insightful (and, as I will discuss later, increasingly characteristic of Western society). But what happens when the greengrocer rebels? What if he refuses to place the sign, instead choosing to “live within the truth”? He reclaims his identity and dignity, but “the bill is not long in coming.” He will not go to jail (probably), but he will become isolated within the system and within society, and be punished with loss of employment, vacations, and other necessities and desirable tokens of life. The punishment must, from the ruling state’s perspective, greatly exceed a proportionate response to the actual immediate impact of the greengrocer’s little revolt, because his impact is potentially immense. He has struck at the feet of clay of the entire system, and “Living within the lie can constitute the system only if it is universal. The principle must embrace and permeate everything. . . . [T]herefore anyone who steps out of line denies it in principle and threatens it in its entirety.” Hence the ritual of suppression and humiliation, the scapegoating, of anyone who steps out of line (there is probably something of René Girard in this, but I am turning to Girard soon, so I cannot precisely tell, yet). Thus the key counterposition of Havel’s thought is truth vs. lie, and living within the truth vs. living within the lie. Each person must do one or the other, but if enough people choose truth, totalitarianism cannot survive. (This is why Solzhenitsyn was expelled by the U.S.S.R., which was constrained from killing him, the traditional Communist solution. He was a witness to living within the truth, not a man with some unique talent or insight.) Crucially, this is only indirectly a struggle for power—Havel has nothing in common with, say, Foucault or other postmodern thinkers who view the world through the lens of power. In fact, the totalitarian system will, in all likelihood, retain all power until its end (an end Havel could not foresee), thus any challenge means only that “the center of gravity of any potential political threat shifts to the area of the existential and the prepolitical: usually without any conscious effort, living within the truth becomes the one natural point of departure for all activities that work against the automatism [that is, the ideological power] of the system.” Havel is hopeful that living within the truth has a future, for the simple reason that living within a lie necessarily creates “a deep moral crisis in society.” One result is the formation of such civic intermediary groups as Charter 77, Havel’s main specific touchstone of dissident thought in this essay. Charter 77 began as a surprise (a spontaneous response to suppression of a popular rock band) and “prepolitical”; its force came from its moral core and its participants’ willingness to live within the truth. Prompt and ongoing suppression of any prepolitical civic intermediary institutions is essential to the maintenance of a totalitarian state, because they deepen the fractures caused by living within a lie (one reason that the Left in the West has done its best to destroy all such institutions, very successfully, either directly or by mutating them into tools of ideological indoctrination, as has been done to the Boy Scouts). The state instead fills the gap with “ideological ritual,” but that ritual still has a limited shelf life, Havel thinks, because it is based on living within a lie. For the most part, living within the truth does not consist of dramatic actions. Immolation and martyrdom are not called for. “[L]iving within the truth covers a vast territory full of modest expressions of human volition, the vast majority of which will remain anonymous and whose political impact will probably never be felt or described any more concretely than simply as a part of a social climate or mood. Most of these expressions remain elementary revolts against manipulation: you simply straighten your backbone and live in greater dignity as an individual.” In this thought, and, in fact, in all of Havel’s essay, can be found strong echoes of the currently wildly popular Jordan Peterson, whose focus is not precisely on survival under totalitarianism, but survival in modernity. Given that two of Peterson’s specific focuses are speaking the truth and standing straight up, and that key to Peterson’s thought is that reality exists, my guess is that a fruitful blend of Peterson and Havel could be made, one that would speak directly to the problems of modernity. I will stick to my knitting for now, though. Havel criticizes those opposed to the Czech state whose main focus of opposition was creating a new politics. They miss that politics follows the prepolitical, the “independent spiritual and social life of society.” If that is lacking, politics is meaningless in a totalitarian state. Offering alternative political programs is a fatal mistake; instead, one should “open oneself up fully to the world of human existence and then [ ] draw political conclusions only after having analyzed it.” That is, living within the truth will point the way to a new politics, when and if that new politics becomes both viable and necessary. Thus, those living within the truth are not, objectively, an “opposition.” They are instead normal people showing the way to other normal people. For that reason, Havel spends a lot of time pointing out that the common view of the “dissident” as a minority is the exact opposite of the truth. In fact, such a person speaks aloud what everyone else is thinking—even what the government is thinking. The key question is how to make connections to the silent and then build upon those connections (and the answer is to visibly live within the truth). Similarly, dissidents don’t like to be called dissidents, a label applied to them by the Communist authorities. “They have not consciously decided to be professional malcontents, rather as one decides to be a tailor or blacksmith.” They never decide to be dissidents at all. “Dissidents” are merely those who are willing and able to take the first steps publicly to live within the truth; it does not (necessarily) mean they have the most courage, just that they are able to do so in their circumstances. And the government fears them not because they are a “power clique,” or for the alternative politics they offer, but precisely for the opposite reason: they are “ordinary people with ordinary cares, differing from the rest only in that they say aloud what the rest cannot say or are afraid to say.” For Havel, therefore, revolt is not the answer (and would not even work, not just because of the power of the state, but because to most people, who are “soporific,” revolt would be unacceptable). One of his few concrete suggestions is holding the Communists to their own legal code, which was, in fact, a popular and successful tactic through the 1980s. Havel is quite aware that “the [Communist] laws are no more than a façade, an aspect of the world of appearances, a mere game behind which lies total manipulation.” Nonetheless, the unobserved laws still serve the purpose of ritual, binding the totalitarian state together, and since “the system cannot do without the law, because it is hopelessly tied down to the necessity of pretending the laws are observed, it is compelled to react in some way to such appeals [to the letter of the law by those living within the truth].” I am less convinced of this, and tend to think that this tactic was successful mostly because Communist systems had invisibly started to lose the will to continue, and a minority in the West used the false nature of the legal code to attack Communist regimes by highlighting their lies. Havel makes no predictions of how matters will go in practice and rejects any value in speculation. By definition, “living within the truth” is an organic (and far from perfect) function, about which it is impossible to state what the future holds, other than inability for both truth and lies to peacefully coexist, meaning there will always be “latent or open conflict” if even a single person chooses to live within the truth. If and when this movement succeeds, Havel did not envision, or endorse, what is held up to us today as the ideal, so-called liberal democracy. This is generally known, but usually, it is suggested Havel and his compatriots in resistance to Communism (real, risky, resistance, not today’s sour and stupid #Resistance) instead wanted a “third way,” or democratic socialism, or something like that. But this is incorrect, totally, and only said, then and now, so that preening Western leftists can pretend that those who lived under actual socialism had any use for it, and merely wanted a slightly different form of socialism. On the contrary, Havel (not religious himself) wanted a spiritual, national, renewal in which democracy in the modern Western sense of “liberal democracy” would play a modest, limited part, economics was not at the forefront, and traditional values rejected by the rulers of the modern West would play a very large part. That is to say, he saw the flaws in liberal democracy early, and he was not interested in socialism, or any system of government economic control, though he did see the spiritual dangers of consumerism. He called for society to “provide hope of a moral reconstitution of society, which means a radical renewal of the relationship of human beings to what I have called the ‘human order,’ which no political order can replace. A new experience of being, a renewed rootedness in the universe, a newly grasped sense of higher responsibility, a newfound inner relationship to other people and to the human community-these factors clearly indicate the direction in which we must go.” Ethics first, then politics. Havel explicitly hopes to avoid the problems earlier identified by José Ortega y Gasset, the “revolt of the masses,” where a combination of mediocre men and false guidance by putative experts was running Western Europe into the ground, through encouraging mediocrity and spiritual anomie, and by worshipping the false gods of technology, emancipation, and consumerism (totally aside from the struggle with Communism). What this meant for Havel as far as a future political system is not precisely laid out, but what he does say suggests he believed in what today would be considered a profoundly traditionally conservative vision of the new political system. “There can and must be structures that are open, dynamic and small; beyond a certain point, human ties like personal trust and personal responsibility cannot work. There must be structures that in principle place no limits on the genesis of different structures. Any accumulation of power (one of the characteristics of automatism) should be profoundly alien to it.” These should not be permanent structures, but explicitly ad hoc, transient ones. And, critically, Havel wants real subsidiarity (not the EU’s fake subsidiarity), “It is only with the full existential backing of every member of the community that a permanent bulwark against ‘creeping totalitarianism’ can be established. These structures should naturally arise from below as a consequence of authentic social ‘self-organization.’” None of this would be guided by any ideology; “the essence of such a ‘post-democracy’ is also that it can only develop via facti, as a process deriving directly from life . . . .” Havel ultimately had one of the chief voices in the post-Communist Czech political system, in which echoes of these thoughts can be found, along with many compromises, problems, and variations. It is always easier to write essays than to govern, even if writing was more dangerous to Havel personally. It is important to remember that the Left has constructed a false history over the past thirty years; liberals and progressives in the West claim that they opposed totalitarian Communism until its collapse in 1989. Nothing could be farther from the truth, and as Ryszard Legutko has documented, both before and after the collapse of Communism, Western liberals felt more kinship with Communism than with people like Havel. A read of "The Power of the Powerless" makes that very clear; Havel’s thought has little or nothing in common with the calls for meeting Communism in the middle that were the real bread-and-butter of all but a few people in the West, until 1989. A second falsehood accompanies this first one—that the peoples of Central Europe sought to escape Communism so they could join the liberal democracies of the West. In its crudest form, this falsehood focuses on consumer goods as the touchstone—supposedly, people got tired of living with only being able to buy a narrow range of shoddy goods. Which is true, up to a point. I travelled in Hungary in the 1980s, as a teenager, and again immediately after the fall of Communism, throughout Central Europe, and there was certainly a dearth of decent consumer goods. But that was an ancillary problem to most people who lived there. In a less crude form, the falsehood held that oppressed peoples supposedly sought “democracy,” meaning “liberal democracy.” That is, they sought to receive a dubious package that included some increased freedoms, but mostly meant destruction of national cultures and traditions, sexual emancipation, erosion of religious belief, weakening of the rule of law, the strengthening of the state at the expense of private action, and the unfettered ability to vote for whatever was approved by the ruling classes, but nothing else. Havel’s essay gives the lie to all this, both directly and in the philosophy he conveys, which does not call for unfettered autonomy or personal emancipation, but the reconstruction of civil society along traditional lines. [Review continues as first comment.]

  3. 4 out of 5

    Megan

    A friend recently mentioned that there's a large photo of Havel at a local blues club, posing with the owner, and I said, "Hovel who?" So, that's full disclosure. And then I read this recently (written by Michael Pollan OF. COURSE.) in The New York Times Magazine: "Sometimes you have to act as if acting will make a difference, even when you can’t prove that it will. That, after all, was precisely what happened in Communist Czechoslovakia and Poland, when a handful of individuals like Vaclav Havel A friend recently mentioned that there's a large photo of Havel at a local blues club, posing with the owner, and I said, "Hovel who?" So, that's full disclosure. And then I read this recently (written by Michael Pollan OF. COURSE.) in The New York Times Magazine: "Sometimes you have to act as if acting will make a difference, even when you can’t prove that it will. That, after all, was precisely what happened in Communist Czechoslovakia and Poland, when a handful of individuals like Vaclav Havel and Adam Michnik resolved that they would simply conduct their lives “as if” they lived in a free society. That improbable bet created a tiny space of liberty that, in time, expanded to take in, and then help take down, the whole of the Eastern bloc." I'm hoping this book will redeem me of my ignorance.

  4. 5 out of 5

    James Foster

    This book is a collection of essays by “dissidents” from the former Soviet Union bloc, just before the Soviet Union fell. I only read the Havel essay, “The Power of the Powerless”, and only comment on that here. There are two ways to read this essay: as a historical document capturing the mood in Czechoslovakia at the time of the “velvet revolution”, or as a reflection on how to respond to authoritarianism (or, more accurately, to what Havel calls “post-authoritarianism”). My motivation was the This book is a collection of essays by “dissidents” from the former Soviet Union bloc, just before the Soviet Union fell. I only read the Havel essay, “The Power of the Powerless”, and only comment on that here. There are two ways to read this essay: as a historical document capturing the mood in Czechoslovakia at the time of the “velvet revolution”, or as a reflection on how to respond to authoritarianism (or, more accurately, to what Havel calls “post-authoritarianism”). My motivation was the second, which I think is far more important and interesting. Nonetheless, as a historical document, the argument is that the kind of revolution that led to a “post authoritarian” society in Czechoslovakia was neither political nor a rebellion, nor even dissent (which is why Havel refers to people like him as “dissidents”, in quotes). Rather, it was the necessary consequence of individuals choosing to live authentically. One prime example was Egon Krantz and the Plastic People, an early Czech punk rock group that was tried by the regime as enemies of the state. The only song I remember from this group (yes, I did listen to them in the 80s) was “Poduvhody Mandarin” (forgive the spelling), “the Miraculous Mandarin”. So, here was a group of artists singing about the artificial, “plastic” nature of their countrymen, and the authoritarianism that made them so. Their art embodied the spirit of the time, where just making your own kind of music was officially rebellion. (I also think the song was a reference to “the Miraculous Mandarin” by Bartok, inviting Czechs to remember their radically innovative musical past—but that’s a discussion for another day.) Reading Havel’s essay today, we have to wonder what went wrong. When the essay appeared, it seemed that freedom was in the air, fueling a nascent cultural renaissance that would enrich the entire world. But today, much of Europe is sliding back into authoritarianism, with Poland and Russia being the saddest examples. Even the United States has embraced a new authoritarianism. Today, the mood is grim, either because we recognize the abyss that authoritarianism presents, or because we choose to use raw political power to respond to our grim perception of reality. So, it behooves us to read this essay as more than a memoir. The deeper argument here is that the true power of the Velvet Revolution was the spirit of individual free expression, which Havel calls “living in truth”, rather than political opposition. His memorable example is a grocer who stops putting his “workers of the world, unite” sign in his vegetable bin, because he recognizes it is meaningless and he chooses to stop saying meaningless things. There are many analogues today. People might choose not to applaud when someone says “thank you for your service”, because the words have become meaningless (and service members deserve material support, not cant). Or people might refuse to stifle discussion or policy with claims of “Islamaphobia”, or “homophobia”. Or voters might reject slogans like “government is (always) bad” or “deficits are (always) evil”. The simple act of refusing to speak nonsense, of living “in the truth,” is how we could exercise the “power of the powerless”. The next step is to form “parallel structures”, as Havel calls them, where groups of people who choose authenticity also choose to build community. But here is the risk and, I think, the key to understanding why authoritarianism and ideology are resurgent. These communities can become insular when the “truths” in which they live are selective and incompatible. It can be difficult to avoid the temptation to use political power tribally. Today, we have a regressive left who has largely stopped talking or listening to the right. And we have an affronted right who thinks they have been passed by. Both are putting their little signs out, for example as “coexist” bumper stickers or yellow ribbons. Both recognize the essential meaninglessness of the others’ signals, but neither recognizes their own. Thus we have two camps of “powerless” people, who are using the “power” of honest expression to demonize the other, while refusing to “live in the truth” within their own clique. This tendency to fragment and selectively “dissent” is the weakness in Havel’s argument. I mustn’t leave the impression that there is parity between the left and the right, though. The left tends to use political power to help those who need help (ignoring the paternalism therein). But the right often uses power as punishment, and to support the already powerful. Thus the left is more likely to retain ill-considered social programs. But the right is more likely to restructure the economy for the very rich, bloat the largest military in the world, or rewrite election rules to stifle competition (or perhaps they are just better at it). This is why the back-sliding from the Velvet Revolution and its kin is overwhelmingly toward authoritarianism. In short, the powerless do have the power to live authentically. But there is no guarantee this will make life universally better in any sustainable way. There is always the risk that our honesty will only go so far.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Chris

    Thirty years ago I read Power of the Powerless. I was working in a homeless shelter and watching the homeless population swell under Reagan's deregulation of the housing market and the injustice done to the mentally ill of this country. I read it then, I guess, hoping for some step by step instructions to overcome the the cold-hearted capitalism that was causing such suffering. I work now at a affordable housing organization and, daily, I'm reminded that we still live with the hardships Reagan d Thirty years ago I read Power of the Powerless. I was working in a homeless shelter and watching the homeless population swell under Reagan's deregulation of the housing market and the injustice done to the mentally ill of this country. I read it then, I guess, hoping for some step by step instructions to overcome the the cold-hearted capitalism that was causing such suffering. I work now at a affordable housing organization and, daily, I'm reminded that we still live with the hardships Reagan decided we could live with. ( Before 1980, rental costs were figured at 25% of monthly income, Federal Housing rents and subsidies were matched to that percentage. Reagan increased the percentage to 30%, cutting an additional 5% into the already meager assistance from poor families. Almost 40 years later, 30% is still the benchmark.) Thirty years ago, Havel's essay showed me the similarities between the "post-totalitarian" regime he struggled under and our "post-democratic" system. Aside from the collapse of Soviet Bloc, not much has changed in 30 years. I picked up this essay again after last November's rise of The Swamp Thing. Under Reagan, I did not feel totally helpless; There were Democratic opponents, strong in congress, willing to uphold the "safety net" and Civil Rights that Roosevelt, Kennedy, and Johnson had set. Now, there are few. Most Democrats speak neo-liberalism and Capitalism, even in its deadly, embarrassing, death spasms, seems to still hold allure, as if there is still some way we will buy our way out of declining natural resources and increasing pollution of our water, air, and habitat. Havel's essay is most hopeful when he speaks of creating a parallel "polis". Large masses of Czechs, Slovaks, Poles, and Others rejected the official culture of the Communist countries and created their own, circulating samizdat writings, staging unofficial rock music concerts and plays, creating not just a community, but a whole society that tolerated their official governments just enough to stay (in most cases, and when not pushed too hard) out of prison, but offered no support, no legitimacy to the regimes. In crises, of course, the regimes could not rely on the people and, abandoned, they collapsed. In the final sections of the essay, Havel speaks of a need for an allegiance to a "human order" above any sort of political order. He acknowledges the world, not just the "post-totalitarian" states, but the world, is imperiled by what Heidegger described as humanity's ineptitude when face to face with the planetary power of technology. We are beholden to technology and automation. Havel suggests small, self-managed communities are the way to overcome the enslavement of technologies. After writing much about the "post-totalitarian" societies of the Communist states, he writes knowingly of the powerlessness found in the Western, "post-democratic" states. There is a certain satisfaction rereading this essay now, knowing how things unfolded in Eastern Europe. Last year, however, I attended a talk by Eda Kriseova, writer, professor, Havel's press secretary and biographer. She spoke of the political culture of contemporary Czechia. She recounted sadly about the consumer culture, the xenophobia, and the regressive politicians. The Czech lands are no better at fending off the enticements of technology. I reread Power of the Powerless in the last month while reading about the appointments of anti-environmental EPA heads, Corporate CEOs for Secretary of State, racist Attorney Generals, and anti-union Secretaries of Labor. I was looking for some parallels between the Communist totalitarians and the new Capitalist totalitarians. I realised that "dissidents" of the Soviet Bloc were struggling primarily to voice their culture, native, historic, and chaotic, not political, idealistic, and regimented. The Communist governments always declared their belief in human rights. When they imprisoned artists, expelled writers for their free expression, the people pointed out the contradiction. Here, Now, in "the greatest 'post-democracy' in the world", we have few who contest our right to express ourselves. The threat is there are men in power that want to deny our human rights. The Power of the Powerless is a valuable document, as history, as a primer, as an ideal.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Rianor

    Absolutely brilliant and precise analysis of the post-totalitarian system. It is amazing how much of these thoughts are universal and could be applied even now. The immense power of humble living in truth could not be explained better. Furthermore, last three chapters are pretty much ahead of its own time, and ahead of today's time, as is true with lot of good 20th century philosophy. Absolutely brilliant and precise analysis of the post-totalitarian system. It is amazing how much of these thoughts are universal and could be applied even now. The immense power of humble living in truth could not be explained better. Furthermore, last three chapters are pretty much ahead of its own time, and ahead of today's time, as is true with lot of good 20th century philosophy.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Michal Sventek

    Probably the best book I've read this year. Havel describes the life within and the functions of the totalitarian (or post-totalitarian, as he calls it) Czechoslovak communist regime, how it self-perpetuates itself and even the people on the highest positions are not truly free. He talks about living in truth and how little lies that we allow ourselves and little exceptions we do for the regime help it immensely. Living in the truth, that is expressing our true wants and needs, our true opinions a Probably the best book I've read this year. Havel describes the life within and the functions of the totalitarian (or post-totalitarian, as he calls it) Czechoslovak communist regime, how it self-perpetuates itself and even the people on the highest positions are not truly free. He talks about living in truth and how little lies that we allow ourselves and little exceptions we do for the regime help it immensely. Living in the truth, that is expressing our true wants and needs, our true opinions and goals, is what drives 'dissent' and makes you a part of it. That is the most dangerous weapon against the totalitarians. In this it reminded me of Frankl's 'Man's Search for Meaning', where truth and inner motivation helps the death camp inhabitants to survive - for it is the one thing that cannot be taken away from them. Living it, believing in it, is their key to freedom and their weapon for survival. One thing that was a bit confusing, however, was Timothy Snyder's foreword. I think he misinterprets and over-interprets Havel's ideas and work + tries to excuse Marxism and Communist thought in some ways (even to go as far as to say that Havel does not really criticize communism, because [sic] everyone during that time was criticizing communism), despite the fact that Havel just a few pages after that (and many more later) rips into communism and its ideological basis. To summarize this review, this was truly the best book I've read this year and I recommend it dearly. 5/5

  8. 4 out of 5

    Vagabond of Letters, DLitt

    Resistance to the soft totalitarian side of totalitarianism, but less applicable in an era of degenerate legality.

  9. 4 out of 5

    armin

    Havel discusses totalitarian regimes, or post totalitarians in his words, and the western consumerism. What He probably didn’t see coming was post-totalitarian regimes translating and selling his books!

  10. 4 out of 5

    Quiver

    Individuals can be alienated from themselves only because there is something in them to alienate. The terrain of this violation is their authentic existence. Living the truth is thus woven directly into the texture of living a lie. It is the repressed alternative, the authentic aim to which living a lie is an inauthentic response. Only against this background does living a lie make any sense: it exists because of that background. In its excusatory, chimerical rootedness in the human order, it is Individuals can be alienated from themselves only because there is something in them to alienate. The terrain of this violation is their authentic existence. Living the truth is thus woven directly into the texture of living a lie. It is the repressed alternative, the authentic aim to which living a lie is an inauthentic response. Only against this background does living a lie make any sense: it exists because of that background. In its excusatory, chimerical rootedness in the human order, it is a response to nothing other than the human predisposition to truth. Under the orderly surface of the life of lies, therefore, there slumbers the hidden sphere of life in its real aims, of its hidden openness to truth. The singular, explosive, incalculable political power of living within the truth resides in the fact that living openly within the truth has an ally, invisible to be sure, but omnipresent: this hidden sphere. It is from this sphere that life lived openly in the truth grows; it is to this sphere that it speaks, and in it that it finds understanding. This is where the potential for communication exists. But this place is hidden and therefore, from the perspective of power, very dangerous. Havel's essay is indeed relevant today, especially in countries that have tried to move away from the socialist model, but haven't quite succeeded. What he calls a post-totalitarian system—one that is committed to upholding itself at the cost of individual freedom—has been replaced by a modernised, capitalist hybrid (that might be called a post-posttotalitarian system, by analogy with variants of post-postmodernism). The main feature remains, namely the auto-totality of the individual, where the line runs de facto through each person, for everyone in his or her own way is both a victim and a supporter of the system. Read it. Study it.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Mateusz

    As a person continuously humiliated by mental torment, when with my mind deprived of privacy (as in -voices), deprived of freedom (as in - obsessive compulsive thinking), I found the same values that Havel found in dissidents whose inner truth did not allow to compromise with living a lie. Of course one should not compare a mentally ill person to a dissident, but often dissidents in Soviet Russia were branded as 'mentally ill' and stuffed psychiatric drugs (Haloperidol et al) to destroy their in As a person continuously humiliated by mental torment, when with my mind deprived of privacy (as in -voices), deprived of freedom (as in - obsessive compulsive thinking), I found the same values that Havel found in dissidents whose inner truth did not allow to compromise with living a lie. Of course one should not compare a mentally ill person to a dissident, but often dissidents in Soviet Russia were branded as 'mentally ill' and stuffed psychiatric drugs (Haloperidol et al) to destroy their intellectual capacities. Years later, when my situation got stable, I found that after a human being is stripped of everything - pride, dignity, valor, merit, he discovers what remains - pure ideas, whether it be freedom, love, nobility, responsibility, compassion, commitment. These and other ideas are the exit from the Platonic cave. They become a measuring rod of everything around, they make us reach for the humane and the Divine. This is the pre-political, the state of genuine humaneness which is difficult to define, but a person consious enough knows when it is lacking. Havel's work is a super-structure in which the main theme - the pre-political in the humane is equally valid and timelessly important in the modern post-democratic times. It is very important to bear in mind what is it that defines this humaneness, and where exactly we turn into political cyborgs, in a delayed notion of collapse of the human spirit into a wretched digital manipulation of the cognitive cybernetics of mass media and power structures and 'system of rule' of the modern age, that by the means of inverted totalitarianism introduces exactly the notions of post-totalitarian rule, yet in reverse - leading back to totalitarianism by slow, hidden steps, in bright-daylight and a reshuffled sense of concepts of a different economic order.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Gina

    I had put a note earlier that I had tried to do this a quick read-through (I was using an online version and I somewhat underestimated its length) and I realized I needed to go slowly, and give it more attention. I am glad I did. There is a lot in here, and it is very profound, and I kind of wish I had done it in a discussion group, so I could learn from it with other people. It is so relevant now. I think the most overwhelming impression though is the importance of personal integrity and intelle I had put a note earlier that I had tried to do this a quick read-through (I was using an online version and I somewhat underestimated its length) and I realized I needed to go slowly, and give it more attention. I am glad I did. There is a lot in here, and it is very profound, and I kind of wish I had done it in a discussion group, so I could learn from it with other people. It is so relevant now. I think the most overwhelming impression though is the importance of personal integrity and intellectual honesty. We are not post-totalitarianism yet, but with where we are there are a lot of opportunities to give up parts of your soul, to conform with the system in order to get along. Even things like doing your job well - when someone with higher rank stands in the way of that - can end up being a testing ground, and there can be a high cost. "There are some things worth suffering for." Havel quotes Jan Patocka. I don't want to suffer, but I want to hold on to my individuality and authenticity and my soul more, and there is power in people doing that. I love that so much of their work comes from just defending a band that was just being themselves. Art matters, and people matter. That was the other most important thing. It's not about any philosophy, but about people's lives. Lots of food for thought here. I am glad it's online, because hard copies can be hard to find. This might be a good time for a reprinting.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Raleigh

    Because the regime is captive to its own lies, it must falsify everything. It falsifies the past. It falsifies the present, and it falsifies the future. It falsifies statistics...It pretends to respect human rights. It pretends to persecute no one...Individuals need not believe all these mystifications, but they must behave as though they did, or they must at least tolerate them in silence, or get along well with those who work with them. For this reason, however, they must live within a lie. T Because the regime is captive to its own lies, it must falsify everything. It falsifies the past. It falsifies the present, and it falsifies the future. It falsifies statistics...It pretends to respect human rights. It pretends to persecute no one...Individuals need not believe all these mystifications, but they must behave as though they did, or they must at least tolerate them in silence, or get along well with those who work with them. For this reason, however, they must live within a lie. They need not accept the lie. It is enough for them to have accepted their life with it and in it. For by this very fact, individuals confirm the system, fulfil the system, make the system, are the system. Brilliant, powerful, insightful. From the standpoint of wanting to learn more about "dissident" movements in Communist Czechoslovakia, The Power of the Powerless is deeply interesting. Havel discusses the strange nature of the "post-totalitarian" system of the time — how to live in such a system meant you had to knowingly live a lie — and why so many Czechoslovakian people accepted and ultimately fed into this system for decades before the Velvet Revolution. I saw way more parallels to modern, democratic societies than is comfortable. More than anything, I think it's a reminder not to be complacent.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Amy Tong

    Despite being written in 1978 during Communist Czechoslovakia, The Power of the Powerless is a timeless text that speaks volumes about the nature and fragility of political systems. In this essay, Havel clearly articulates the feelings of apathy and disenchantment amongst citizens, particularly during times where true systemic change seems illusive. However, he contends that truthful words and living with personal integrity are key to overcoming this sense of powerlessness, and argues that each Despite being written in 1978 during Communist Czechoslovakia, The Power of the Powerless is a timeless text that speaks volumes about the nature and fragility of political systems. In this essay, Havel clearly articulates the feelings of apathy and disenchantment amongst citizens, particularly during times where true systemic change seems illusive. However, he contends that truthful words and living with personal integrity are key to overcoming this sense of powerlessness, and argues that each of us have the responsibility to be a bit more courageous than we want to be in enacting change. The Power of the Powerless is a thought-provoking and memorable work that pushes readers to unlearn their pre-conceptions of the world.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Linda

    Havel's essay lays the groundwork to inspire all of us to facilitate change in the world by living in the truth instead of accepting the lies of authority. This was so revealing to me that it changed my world view significantly. I couldn't recommend this book more highly. Havel's essay lays the groundwork to inspire all of us to facilitate change in the world by living in the truth instead of accepting the lies of authority. This was so revealing to me that it changed my world view significantly. I couldn't recommend this book more highly.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Bradley

    Great essay. It reminds me of Aung San Suu Kyi's "It's not power that corrupts, but fear." Great essay. It reminds me of Aung San Suu Kyi's "It's not power that corrupts, but fear."

  17. 5 out of 5

    David Shane

    Chesterton said that freedom was something you learned to value after you lost it, as a suffocating man suddenly discovers the value of oxygen. Havel, writing in communist Eastern Europe, knew the importance of freedom, truth, and human dignity. In the "so you want your FREEDUMB" United States today we casually dismiss the value of all three. We should strive to learn their importance from people who lost them so we don't lose them ourselves. Chesterton said that freedom was something you learned to value after you lost it, as a suffocating man suddenly discovers the value of oxygen. Havel, writing in communist Eastern Europe, knew the importance of freedom, truth, and human dignity. In the "so you want your FREEDUMB" United States today we casually dismiss the value of all three. We should strive to learn their importance from people who lost them so we don't lose them ourselves.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Sebastian Štros

    The beginning is great. The main thought is provocative, strong yet simple. Definitely worth the read and probably the best political philosophy by Czech writer I have yet read. However, this is the vibe of the first 20-30 pages then 70 pages are just applying and slightly furthering the one thought without major inventiveness. During this part I set the book aside. The final 20 pages are a gentle introduction to Heidegger’s fundamental crisis of technological society. Though the explanation of The beginning is great. The main thought is provocative, strong yet simple. Definitely worth the read and probably the best political philosophy by Czech writer I have yet read. However, this is the vibe of the first 20-30 pages then 70 pages are just applying and slightly furthering the one thought without major inventiveness. During this part I set the book aside. The final 20 pages are a gentle introduction to Heidegger’s fundamental crisis of technological society. Though the explanation of the last part is pleasant, there too is nothing new. I very much recommend the book but reading past 35th page is a bit unnecesary.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Ben Rogers

    This was a fairly good book. Surprising how old it is, as it read like a fairly modern book. Very verbose read - pretty advanced honestly. But important read. 3.5/5

  20. 4 out of 5

    Andrew Mattice

    I observe that it has become very popular in the age of Trump to define oneself as being “anti-trump”, part of “the resistance”, “operation 45”, etc. Vaclav Havel makes a very good argument for how stupid this is. To define yourself as a “dissenter” necessarily defines you as subordinate to that against which you dissent. Resistance is only defined in terms of what you are resisting. What do you call the losing side in a Supreme Court decision? The dissent. Don’t live to be against what you belie I observe that it has become very popular in the age of Trump to define oneself as being “anti-trump”, part of “the resistance”, “operation 45”, etc. Vaclav Havel makes a very good argument for how stupid this is. To define yourself as a “dissenter” necessarily defines you as subordinate to that against which you dissent. Resistance is only defined in terms of what you are resisting. What do you call the losing side in a Supreme Court decision? The dissent. Don’t live to be against what you believe is false; live to be for what you believe is true. There is much greater power in standing for what you believe than in standing against what you don’t believe. It’s a subtle distinction yet it makes all the difference in the world. Go out and live your truth. That is the heart of the essay.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Shem Doupé

    Don’t be the green grocer who puts the sign in his window because that’s what everyone else does.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Eclaghorn

    Post- totalitarian state living. Are we returning to this?

  23. 5 out of 5

    David Steele

    An important and insightful study. Havel went to jail for writing this, so I thought the least I could do was read it! Like many writers of the bloc, the author is a fan of long sentences. Maybe it’s just a language translation thing, or maybe the brief, down-to-earth style of modern English is a new development. Either way, it often feels like you need a diagram to unpick various paragraphs. Much of the value from this book comes from understanding Havels’s analogy of a grocer who hangs as sign i An important and insightful study. Havel went to jail for writing this, so I thought the least I could do was read it! Like many writers of the bloc, the author is a fan of long sentences. Maybe it’s just a language translation thing, or maybe the brief, down-to-earth style of modern English is a new development. Either way, it often feels like you need a diagram to unpick various paragraphs. Much of the value from this book comes from understanding Havels’s analogy of a grocer who hangs as sign in his shop window “workers of the world unite”. There are some valuable philosophical and political arguments made in the essay, that can equally be applied to many other examples of populism, such as fascism, “wokism”, and tribal behaviour at football matches. But the concept is simple to explain, and once made, its logical extension to most crowd-led situations (such as social media) are fairly obvious. For example, the argument “well, why SHOULDN’T the workers of the world unite? What’s wrong with the workers uniting?” Can easily be applied to football players taking a knee: “Well, why SHOULDN’T they take a knee if they want to - are you some sort of racist?” Or the issue of women “choosing” to wear full body and face coverings in public. These arguments make sense until you have one single footballer , or one isolated woman in Yemen, who thinks it would be nice to choose something different, but finds themselves unable to do so. In both cases, their compliance helps to create a self-perpetuating culture in which dissent is impossible for others. And this is the problem with the book. It’s core concept is so simple that it can be explained in this review. Okay, there are a few more points, such as the analogy of a guy in the beer factory who has good ideas but isn’t given any attention by the management, or an argument about the sanctioning of rock bands, but ultimately, there is an awful lot of esoteric text for a very straightforward argument.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Tim Chambers

    "This essay reached us in the Ursus factory in 1979 at a point when we felt we were at the end of the road...we had been speaking on the shop floor, talking to people, participating in public meetings, trying to speak the truth about the factory, the country, and politics. There came a moment when people thought that we were crazy. Why were we doing this? Why were we taking such risks? Not seeing any immediate and tangible results, we began to doubt the purposefulness of what we were doing...The "This essay reached us in the Ursus factory in 1979 at a point when we felt we were at the end of the road...we had been speaking on the shop floor, talking to people, participating in public meetings, trying to speak the truth about the factory, the country, and politics. There came a moment when people thought that we were crazy. Why were we doing this? Why were we taking such risks? Not seeing any immediate and tangible results, we began to doubt the purposefulness of what we were doing...Then came the essay by Havel. Reading it gave us the theoretical underpinnings for our activity. It maintained our spirits; we did not give up, and a year later — in August 1980 — it became clear that the party apparatus and the factory management were afraid of us. We mattered. And the rank and file saw us as leaders of the movement...[5] -Zbigniew Bujak, Solidarity activist, recalling the effect that Havel's essay had upon the leaders of Poland's nascent Solidarity movement"

  25. 4 out of 5

    Fraser Sherman

    Havel's essay (I read it as a standalone) argues that the Communist dictatorships of the late 20th century were fundamentally different from previous dictatorships. The earlier versions were a pure power-grab with very little roots in society; Communism draws on longstanding strains of authoritarianism and uses ideology to rationalize its existence, even though power has stopped taking the tenets of ideology seriously. Havel sees dissidents as the main threat to the system, though he believes the Havel's essay (I read it as a standalone) argues that the Communist dictatorships of the late 20th century were fundamentally different from previous dictatorships. The earlier versions were a pure power-grab with very little roots in society; Communism draws on longstanding strains of authoritarianism and uses ideology to rationalize its existence, even though power has stopped taking the tenets of ideology seriously. Havel sees dissidents as the main threat to the system, though he believes the West is wrong in thinking of them as a political movement. Instead, they're simply people trying to do their own thing and live their own truth rather than conforming to what the state's ideology requires — and by so doing, they're a threat, because they show how little substance there is to the state's beliefs. There's a lot that's interesting and perceptive in Havel's analysis, though it doesn't give me much insight into what to do in the U.S.' current political mess.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Jeremy Ray

    Always interesting to read about life under Soviet rule, and this captures well the second-order effects of propaganda which cause people to self-censor and potentially even lose their own identities. It looks inward, at how the external power can have internal effects, so long as the individual is willing to sacrifice their truth for safety. It illustrates how such a system of ritual and performance needs everyone to participate. Those who dissent, even by small means, shine a light on the rest Always interesting to read about life under Soviet rule, and this captures well the second-order effects of propaganda which cause people to self-censor and potentially even lose their own identities. It looks inward, at how the external power can have internal effects, so long as the individual is willing to sacrifice their truth for safety. It illustrates how such a system of ritual and performance needs everyone to participate. Those who dissent, even by small means, shine a light on the rest of the act as a farce -- making such brave actions more important that they would seem to be.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Arup

    Living in truth as the antidote to come out of a post-totalitarian society and eventually building a post-democratic society. A call for individual awareness to honour and maintain actual freedoms (as opposed to formal freedoms of modern democracies) and strive to achieve a society where human dignity is central motivation behind any action or organisation.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Justin Lonas

    Living in the truth is a spiritual and cultural discipline before it can become a political one, and there can be no freedom, justice, or peace without honesty.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Dominik

    I read it because sometimes I find totalitarian systems fascinating. Vaclav Havel is talking about how (post) totalitarian system works, in an abstract sense. How it's ideology works and how people react to it. But I wanted to see how current system today relates to communism in Europe in 20th century. By current system I mean new normal, this plandemic deceit that took over our society. This what we live in today and back then have one thing in common. The whole story is permeated with LIES. Com I read it because sometimes I find totalitarian systems fascinating. Vaclav Havel is talking about how (post) totalitarian system works, in an abstract sense. How it's ideology works and how people react to it. But I wanted to see how current system today relates to communism in Europe in 20th century. By current system I mean new normal, this plandemic deceit that took over our society. This what we live in today and back then have one thing in common. The whole story is permeated with LIES. Communism was a lie, so they had to falsify everything. This pandemic is a LIE, so they have to falsify everything, every day, 24/7. The most dangerous thing individual can do to shake the corrupt system is to live in truth, and with the truth. That's why everyone that hasn't took the vaccine or anyone that doesn't wear mask can have his moral satisfaction. Every power has its lifespan, and this story will eventually shatter on its own lies. When the system is built on a big lie, everything has to be falsified. And because they have to lie, they have to lie continuously to maintain the story, over and over, and then the number of lies rises exponentially. Eventually, the lies become so bizarre (actually they ARE bizarre already), so the story becomes so logically inconsistent and the only thing that's left is inertial compliance, but that eventually ends, too. I believe that's how the nature of reality functions. When will that moment be? Communism lasted for decades, maybe this will destroy itself in a few years, or few decades, who knows. But I hope the time will come, the sooner the better, and I will joyfully MOCK everyone who complied to this LIE. Of course, I can't put a big blame on someone that complies in a situation where non compliance results in losing the job, financial and existential stability etc. But there are so many people that comply just because they are conformists. And these people will hide the fact that they complied. Just like many people hided their membership in the communist Party when communism fell.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Heather Propes

    Havel writes about the reality of living in a post-totalitarian system, having lived in communist Czechoslovakia. His essay "The Power of the Powerless" is very important, now especially, since we in the post-Trump USA are living in a time of news suppression and media that is very closely and un-apologetically sympathetic with the new democratic government. Havel describes a system of suppression which is veiled and hidden by laws and rules, which leaders must follow to prove their authority. H Havel writes about the reality of living in a post-totalitarian system, having lived in communist Czechoslovakia. His essay "The Power of the Powerless" is very important, now especially, since we in the post-Trump USA are living in a time of news suppression and media that is very closely and un-apologetically sympathetic with the new democratic government. Havel describes a system of suppression which is veiled and hidden by laws and rules, which leaders must follow to prove their authority. He gives an example of a small shop owner who puts a sign in his window saying "workers unite" without thinking about whether he agrees with this slogan, only because it will save him from trouble with local communist officials. The store owner is "going along to get along" with the rules rather than thinking independently or "living in truth". This could be compared to most of the rules governing COVID, including perpetual school shutdowns and mask laws, and how people unquestioningly follow them to avoid trouble. Havel also writes about the "small scale" worker who is judged and mistrusted by party officials who would rather close his independent small business altogether. Here I see a parallel to the status of the small restaurant/gym/hair salon owner who must contend with lock downs by the local authorities due to ever changing COVID regulations. Meanwhile small businesses must bear the majority of losses, while traffic and sales are driven to mega businesses like Amazon, who act as bodyguards for pro-government media control by ousting dissident voices and platforms such as Parler. Havel talks about a "parallel economy" that rises up in the totalitarian state, with underground books (photocopied, back then, in the 80s), radio stations, churches and even schools. A parallel world where dissidents exist in their own truth, sharing information and living their lives while working to avoid detection by the watchful repressive government. This could be compared to our world of now, where free-speech platforms such as Parler, Clouthub which do not remove content, and churches struggle to stay open (and probably exist in underground networks) while large government-approved platforms such as Twitter and Facebook remove content that supports the political group that is not currently in power, while movies such as "Run Hide Fight", which do not promote Hollywood's "woke" agenda that racism is all-pervasive, can not get mainstream distribution. I use "Run Hide Fight", Parler, Newsmax, etc as examples of activity in "parallel" economy. All of the parallels I describe have resulted from the era after 2016, the time of the Trump presidency, and the resulting polarization and division caused by the mainstream media. There are many quotable passages in "The Power of the Powerless". Here is one that is especially meaningful to me, now under the COVID world and the post-Trump administration with all the repression, rules and silencing that is required to maintain it, and where anyone opposed to Biden and democrats is suspect and relegated to the status of a dissident, as they try to live out their daily lives: "The post-totalitarian system is mounting a total assault on humans and humans stand against it alone, abandoned and isolated. It is therefore entirely natural that all the “dissident” movements are explicitly defensive movements: they exist to defend human beings and the genuine aims of life against the aims of the system". This essay is important to read now more than ever. I never imagined that Havel, sitting in the communist Eastern block and dreaming out live in the "free" west, would be describing the fate of the USA in another 40 years, but here we are.

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