12.22.11

Vaclav Havel Was Torn Between Socialism and Freedom

In the days since the death of former Czech president Václav Havel, the American right has claimed him as their own, but Geoffrey Robertson remembers a man always trying to balance socialism and freedom—and who could explain the power of jazz.

Václav Havel struck me as the most unlikely of revolutionaries, when we first met in the smoky fog of his favorite cafe overlooking Prague’s Vlata River. His nervousness had something to do with the secret police, eyeing us shiftily from their table by the window. But he was also concerned that his demands for the truth, to lift the Stalinist miasma that had wearily settled over Czechoslovakia, might eventually challenge the democratic socialism in which he believed. So at all our meetings he would chain-smoke and agonize, but not even the threat of a return to prison (he had already served four years) could weaken his resolve to fight for freedom of thought and speech.

I was in Prague to arrange support for political prisoners. Havel’s own crime had been to draw up Charter 77, a demand for human rights. It was 1986, by which time the country’s rigid but corrupt communism had produced an official rate of exchange so absurdly at variance with reality that U.S. dollars were accepted, at 30 times their official value, everywhere in the city. But when I tendered them to pay for our meal, Havel stopped me and explained (I kicked myself for not realizing) that he would immediately be re-arrested by the watching police as an accomplice in black marketeering. “This is the first rule of being a dissident,” he instructed me. “You must scrupulously obey the law.”

It was the first of many Kafka-esque ironies to which I was introduced by this unassuming philosopher-playwright. I traveled to Prague regularly from 1986 to 1988 on behalf of the Jan Hus Society, a rainbow coalition of Western writers (ranging from Tom Stoppard to Harold Pinter) that organized funding and public support for the defense of Czech dissidents. Havel was courageously prepared to act as my mentor, explaining to me which cases were important, which lawyers could be trusted to handle them, and which families most needed financial support. By this time, the authorities were playing a cat-and-mouse game with the playwright: his celebrity in the West gave him a certain protection, but he was always being threatened with a return to prison if his activities became too embarrassing.

Dr. Husak’s Stalinist government was doing a good job of embarrassing itself. It had just passed a criminal law against possessing a copy of the 1966 edition of the Frank Zappa Songbook, and an 18-year-old youth had already been sent to prison. “He was a dissident,” Havel told me sorrowfully “before he was a man.” The government’s concern about Zappa dated from 1976, when members of the Plastic People of the Universe—a rock band that took its name from the Songbook—were jailed in the first assault on “alternative” culture. Now it had arrested the entire executive staff of the Czech Jazz Society, who had published a three volume Encyclopaedia of Rock with a long entry on Zappa. It was to assist their defense that I had first come to Prague to meet Havel, who explained how important the case was to his strategy of “velvet revolution,” of confronting and confounding communism with its own phony commitments to human rights.

The genius of Charter 77 had been to argue that the Czech government’s ratification of the U.N.’s International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights had imported these “rights” into its municipal law, pursuant to promises made by the Soviets in the Helsinki Agreement. This was something of a fudge (Helsinki was a rudimentary handshake on East/West cooperation, specifically made nonbinding so the U.S. could sign), but it called the Soviet bluff: human-rights appeals by dissidents could gather momentum by taking these international agreements at their face value, however much the governments who signed them lacked any intention of honoring them.

So the Jazz Society was briefly permitted to flourish, attracting more than 100,000 young people to its “Rock on the Left Wing” concerts, it’s tree plantings in honor of John Lennon, and its seminars with Green parties from Western Europe. Havel’s involvement with the Jazz Society provided him with the support base that came out on the streets to propel him to the presidency in 1989. But in 1986 its existence, by clinging to its supposed rights under the Helsinki Agreement and through its UNESCO affiliation, had infuriated the government. Its leading members were sacked from their jobs and then, when they continued to organize concerts, arrested on charges of “unlicensed trading.” The government pretended to the world that this was simply a fraud case (“a crime in your country too” Czech diplomats would say to Western counterparts), but this was propaganda: the Jazz Society had been a strictly nonprofit enterprise.

Havel identified this case as a crucial test for socialist legality and took me along to the trial of its chairman, Karel Srp. This was the time of Soviet-style “telephone justice” when the trial itself was a sham: the verdict (and more importantly the sentence) was delivered in a telephone call from the party boss to the judge on the night before the hearing. There had been sufficient fuss made about the case in the West for Srp to be given a lenient sentence—two years' imprisonment—and when we emerged on the steps of the court for Havel to announce the result to several hundred waiting supporters, they struck up a ragged chorus of “We Shall Overcome.” “You can always tell who are the secret police on these occasions,” explained Havel with a tight grin. “They are the ones who know all the words.”

I have never much liked jazz—you keep thinking it will turn into a tune, and it doesn’t. But it had been banned by Stalin and condemned as “decadent” by the Nazis. What, I asked Havel, is its subversive secret? He gave his trademark grin and invited me to an “official” jazz concert organized by the government, after it disbanded the Jazz Society, in order to show it was not afraid of music. We sat through hours of sclerotic Russian “big bands” (old men in suits playing Glenn Miller) until after midnight, when thousands of young people turned up in the cavernous Lucerna theatre to hear Herbie Hancock and Mike Westbrook, and to laugh about the stupidity of the police. “You see now why totalitarians distrust jazz,” said Havel, “because it’s music you can talk under.”

It was to the Lucerna—ironically once owned by Havel’s wealthy family—that his supporters flocked two years later, to listen to his hoarse, halting but determined speeches about the need for a “socialist legality” which could respect human rights and allow criticism of the state. “We must fight with our only weapons—words,” he declared, and the words of the crowd, “Havel to the castle,” propelled him to the presidency, as the dishonest, geriatric regime finally faced up to the truth and withered away. One of Havel’s first actions as president was to invite Frank Zappa to make an official visit.

Back in Britain, we hosted Václav at the Institute of Contemporary Arts on his first presidential trip abroad. After his lecture, some idiot from Marxism Today asked him accusingly why he wasted so much presidential time with an American rock singer. Havel seemed lost for words, but then politeness got the better of him. “Because ... well, because he seemed a very nice man.” It would have taken too long to explain the symbolism, too many imperfect words to conjure up for some pampered English Marxist what it was like to live under the constant threat of losing one’s liberty as punishment for reading another’s lyric.

He will be turning in his grave at the accolades from George W. Bush, and The Wall Street Journal op-eds that claim him as some proto-neocon supporter of unrestrained capitalism and the invasion of Iraq.

Havel’s presidency was plagued by smoke-related illnesses and the difficulties of keeping any socialist faith at all in a free-market free-for-all. I went back to Prague to lecture on free speech but discovered that what the Czechs needed most was guidance in contract law and in the conveyancing of private property. But Havel, in and out of power over the next two decades, remained an inspiration—his speech to the Canadian Parliament during NATO’s bombing of Kosovo, which he justified “out of respect for a law that ranks higher than the law which protects the sovereignty of states,” was an influential contribution to the evolving principle of humanitarian intervention.

Václav Havel was the most humble man I have ever worked with—and probably the most influential. He stands with Sakharov at the head of the pantheon of people prepared to sacrifice their own liberty so others could enjoy theirs. Politically he achieved his aim of revising the map of middle Europe so disastrously drawn at Yalta. But philosophically, he never quite squared the circle over which he agonized in that café by the Vlata—how to reconcile his beliefs in both socialism and freedom.

Today he will be turning in his grave at the accolades from George W. Bush, and The Wall Street Journal op-eds that claim him as some proto-neocon supporter of unrestrained capitalism and the invasion of Iraq. On the contrary, he would be cheering for Bradley Manning and Occupy Wall Street—current examples of his belief in “the power of the powerless.”