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  1. Long reads
9 July 2001

Why Plato can’t run the republic

Can intellectuals ever be politicians? The experience of the Czech Republic suggests they should sti

By Robin Shepherd

For those with a penchant for fairy-tale endings, Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution against communism had it all. One story goes that when Jiri Dienstbier failed to turn up for work one morning in December 1989 – for his dissidence, the writer was punished to work as a boiler stoker – his anxious colleagues worried that he had been arrested again. Concern, however, gave way to general relief at the happy news that his absence had been made necessary by his swearing-in ceremony as the country’s new foreign minister. He later returned to complete the shift.

It was the kind of story that encapsulated much. You might not have known a lot about the politics. The history might have escaped you. And until it became a tourist hot spot, the precise location of the country might have had you reaching for the atlas. But if a boiler stoker had just been appointed foreign minister, you knew instinctively that something extraordinary was happening.

The human angle was compelling. But the Velvet Revolution offered something more. In the heart of Europe, an experiment was taking place. The western intelligentsia held its breath. A group of highly principled intellectuals was about to take over an entire political establishment. Shades of Plato. The newly installed president, the playwright and essayist Vaclav Havel, set out the vision in his first New Year’s address to the nation.

“Our country”, he said, “. . . can now permanently radiate love, understanding, the power of the intellect and ideas . . .”

In March this year, I found myself browsing that speech in a beer bar in the old Mala Strana section of Prague, which lies at the foot of the castle. Low-arching stone ceilings. A surly waiter, five foaming beer glasses in each hand. Subdued, but magnificently central European, the perfect setting for a conversation.

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“Look”, said Marketa, whose parents were once low-ranking Communist Party members, “the dissidents were fine. But they never actually did anything after communism. All talk, no action. Anyway, they should have been writing books, not doing politics. There was a lot to do here. We needed professionals.”

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Her concerns were widely shared. Most of the dissidents had dropped out as early as the 1992 election – falling foul of the first properly contested poll since the fall of communism. Today, the amiable but ailing Havel still holds a torch for the old dissident elite. But the critical mass is long gone. The Czech political establishment looks depressingly familiar – sharp-dressed, smooth-talking, cocksure professionals, just like everywhere else.

Jan Lopatka, the son of the literary critic of the same name, was brought up around the dissidents. His father, a signatory of the Charter 77 human rights petition, had edited Havel’s Letters to Olga – prison letters to the playwright’s wife. In 1993, Lopatka Sr hanged himself in his flat on Templova, in the heart of the Old Town.

The reasons are complex and highly personal. But one factor may have been Lopatka’s simple failure to adapt to the new society. Years of harassment, when supremely gifted intellectuals had been forced into unskilled, manual employment, had taken their toll.

Even those who survived faced problems with adapting: many felt opposed to the very idea of party politics, which they saw as an affront to the dictates of individual conscience. If they saw deficiencies in their policies, they owned up and ditched them. The presentation was a non-starter. In the early days, Havel’s trousers were so high off his feet that Czechs routinely used a derivation of his last name – Havlovky – to denote the sartorial crime of wearing one’s trousers at half-mast.

Come the professionals. Middle-ranking communists and officials hailing from the so-called grey zone – comprising people who had never been prepared to commit to the dissident cause, but who had broadly sympathised with its aims – were the obvious beneficiaries of the change of regime. Like Havel’s nemesis, the Thatcherite (and profoundly unpleasant) former prime minister Vaclav Klaus, such people were used to the slick art of back-room dealing. While the dissidents had been demoted to manual labour, they had gained experience in managing people. Compromise was an integral part of their life experience.

It wasn’t that the dissidents didn’t get it. Rather, they had been raised in an environment where their own integrity was all they had to cling on to. In the dissident-speak of the 1970s, they had made a commitment to “live in truth”. The new boys from the grey zone promised to double living standards. The dissidents spoke of guilt.

“People didn’t like the dissidents,” says the younger Lopatka. “The dissidents had shown that, if you were prepared to sacrifice something, you didn’t have to collaborate. Most people were opportunists under communism, especially after 1968. That’s how they survived then and that’s how they have risen to the top now.”

If you wind your way through the narrow, cobbled streets of Prague’s Old Town, across the Charles Bridge and up into the mass of tiny alleyways in Mala Strana, it is difficult not to get a sense that the Czech experience should have been different. Prague is a city infused with the best of the European cultural experience. The architectural range is unparalleled in the region. Smoke-filled beerhouses hum with the buzz of political discussion. This was the home of Kafka. Unlike in most countries, intellectuals are respected and people respect intellectual values.

None of this is to idealise the dissidents. Men of principle they may have been, but they were also capable of extraordinary errors of judgement. The name Vaclav Benda immediately springs to mind. I can see him now, sitting in a room crowded with journalists at the police headquarters on Bartolomejska, in central Prague, in the mid-1990s. Scruffily dressed, highly intelligent, Benda was one of the most courageous and imaginative of the dissidents under communism, and one of the most outspokenly misguided after its demise. His post-revolutionary contribution will be remembered for two things: his leadership of the committee investigating the crimes of communism, and the luncheon invitation he extended to General Augusto Pinochet in 1994.

Maybe it is only human that those who suffered under communism should flirt with sympathy for those who made communists suffer in other parts of the world. But, thought many Czechs, it probably takes an intellectual to lead a crusade against the crimes of his own country’s past and simultaneously offer legitimacy to a man responsible for similar crimes elsewhere.

Earlier this year, I was back in the newly reopened Cafe Slavia. Its spartan interior has been polished up a bit. This one-time favourite of the old dissidents offers a vast view of Prague Castle, towering over the red roofs of Mala Strana, the Lichtenstein Palace on the left and the Charles Bridge in the background. The castle is the pivotal image of Prague around which all else revolves. Havel once sat in the Slavia and looked up at it. Now he sits inside it, 11 years after Alexander Dubcek led him out to become Czechoslovakia’s first non-communist leader in 41 years.

Havel is the last of a generation. The most prominent of the former dissidents, he is also the most enduring symbol of the transition from communism. But to many of his critics, the old man of east European dissidence has made a transition of his own and one which does not altogether fit with the Havel of old. The dissidents have been taken out of politics; has politics, many ask rhetorically, taken the dissident out of the president?

In the most obvious sense, the answer is yes. Havel is the head of state. He sits at the apex of the Czech political establishment. He has, quite legitimately, made millions (of dollars) from the restitution of property seized by the communists. He is the public face of a liberal-democratic, capitalist country. His role is to promote and defend, not to criticise and knock down. He now stands on the other side of the barricades, as the anti-capitalist demonstrations showed all too clearly at the IMF/World Bank conference in Prague last year.

It is a common criticism, but, perhaps, a tad superficial. Havel became a dissident because a totalitarian state had made it impossible for him and people like him to engage in the most innocent of activities – reading and writing books, travelling abroad and the like. In so far as they did have a political programme, the disparate band of anti-communists, former communists, Christian democrats and democratic socialists that made up the dissident movement simply wanted the kind of pluralist democracy they now live in. Their maximal political aims were achieved in 1989. A bunch of demonstrators dressed in clown costumes may have decided that smashing up McDonald’s would advance the cause of the global underclass and Havel may sit in Prague Castle wearing a three-piece suit, but that does not mean that he has sold out.

Yet Havel raises another, fundamental question: can intellectuals involve themselves in practical politics and manage to retain their integrity as intellectuals at all? As Timothy Garton Ash has argued, broadly, the answer to this question is no. The primary, self-defining aim of the intellectual is to uncover uncomfortable truths, to position himself constantly in opposition to established certainties, and to excite controversy. Therefore, by nature, his relationship with the political establishment is adversarial.

What Havel has proved, instead, during his years in power, is that governing requires compromise. As anyone who reads Havel’s presidential speeches can see, they are full of abstract, ethereal meditations, conspicuously devoid of specifics. To put it less generously, Havel, as non-party leader, feels he can accommodate the various political parties only by waffling. Gone is “living in truth”.

The experience of the Czech dissidents after 1989 makes for a sobering lesson. It is not simply that intellectuals make bad politicians. Rather, it is not easy to see how politicians can be intellectuals at all, at least in the morally charged sense of the word “intellectual” that the Czech dissidents made their own. Perhaps intellectuals should stick to what they are good at: being slightly eccentric misfits, brilliant at telling us how to run our countries, but not well suited to doing the job themselves.

The author’s Czechoslovakia: the Velvet Revolution and beyond (£14.99 pbk) was published by Palgrave in June 2000