Václav Havel: The Power of the Powerless
To the memory of Jan Patocka
“The Power of the Powerless” (October 1978) was originally written (“quickly,” Havel said later) as a discussion piece for a projected joint Polish Czechoslovak volume of essays on the subject of freedom and power. All the participants were to receive Havel’s essay, and then respond to it in writing. Twenty participants were chosen on both sides, but only the Czechoslovak side was completed. Meanwhile, in May 1979, some of the Czechoslovak contributors who were also members of VONS (the Committee to Defend the Unjustly Prosecuted), including Havel, were arrested, and it was decided to go ahead and “publish” the Czechoslovak contributions separately.
Havel’s essay has had a profound impact on Eastern Europe. Here is what Zbygniew Bujak, a Solidarity activist, told me: “This essay reached us in the Ursus factory in 1979 at a point when we felt we were at the end of the road. Inspired by KOR [the Polish Workers’ Defense Committee], 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 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. Shouldn’t we be coming up with other methods, other ways?
“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 ig8o-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. When I look at the victories of Solidarity, and of Charter 77, I see in them an astonishing fulfillment of the prophecies and knowledge contained in Havel’s essay.”
Translated by Paul Wilson, “The Power of the Powerless” has appeared several times in English, foremost in The Power of the Powerless: Citizens Against the State in Central-Eastern Europe, edited by John Keane, with an Introduction by Steven Lukes (London: Hutchinson, 1985). That volume includes a selection of nine other essays from the original Czech and Slovak collection.
A specter is haunting Eastern Europe: the specter of what in the West is called “dissent.” This specter has not appeared out of thin air. It is a natural and inevitable consequence of the present historical phase of the system it is haunting. It was born at a time when this system, for a thousand reasons, can no longer base itself on the unadulterated, brutal, and arbitrary application of power, eliminating all expressions of nonconformity. What is more, the system has become so ossified politically that there is practically no way for such nonconformity to be implemented within its official structures.
Who are these so-called dissidents? Where does their point of view come from, and what importance does it have? What is the significance of the “independent initiatives” in which “dissidents” collaborate, and what real chances do such initiatives have of success? Is it appropriate to refer to “dissidents” as an opposition? If so, what exactly is such an opposition within the framework of this system? What does it do? What role does it play in society? What are its hopes and on what are they based? Is it within the power of the “dissidents”-as a category of subcitizen outside the power establishment-to have any influence at all on society and the social system? Can they actually change anything?
I think that an examination of these questions-an examination of the potential of the “powerless”-can only begin with an examination of the nature of power in the circumstances in which these powerless people operate…
To succeed, traditional Americans must know what has come before.
The occupied peoples of Eastern Europe kept their cultures alive for nearly 50 years while occupied by Stalin and his successors.
Poland had done so previously for more than 100 years.
America must live in the hearts of the traditional American people.
For as long as it takes.
You can stop fighting when you are dead.
Until then, resist.