Václav Havel has lent his name and inspiration to many events and movements. His dissident writings have been translated into Arabic, serving as point of reference for activists and thinkers contemplating entrenched but brittle authoritarian regimes.
More expectedly, perhaps Havel’s is a liberal oppositionists in Putin’s Russia which – as Havel himself suggested in later life – has seen communist structures morph into a new repressive structures. So it’s no surprise to see a Guardian commentary by Natalie Nougayrède that flags Havel and the Central European dissident movement as inspiration for young, radical left movements that have emerged in Western and South Europe.
It’s a balanced piece, which notes the obvious differences between normalisation era Czechoslovakia regime and the far more open and competitive political and social systems of Western Europe. The typewriter and carbon paper technology of 1970 and 80s samizdat is also clearly a world away from networked and internet-based communications of the early 21st century – even for those fighting authoritarian regimes thumb drives and encryption software have replaced clandestine printing and duplicating.
And Nougayrède is surely right when she suggests Václav Havel is in some ways an unlikely source of inspiration for Podemos, Syriza and similar movements (themselves often the products of mash-up of various heterodox Marxist traditions, Trotskyist, Maoist, Euro-communist etc)
The sharp critique of Western societies Havel expressed in his writing of 1970s and 1980s as somewhat less extreme version of a single impersonal technocratic mass civilization mellowed after the fall of communism into a pragmatic, if critical, acceptance of conventional parliamentary democracy, capitalism and the European Union. Havel’s disdain for party politics and big scale economics also saw him quickly outmanoeuvred after 1989 by opponents, on both left and right, who realised more quickly than he did both that parties were necessary workhorses of democracy and that voters’ concerns about economic security and prosperity needed addressing head on. Read More…
A couple of days before the election I answered a journalist’s questions about the differences between British and UK parties for a mini-interview for the Czech financial freesheet E15. It wasn’t the first time I had chewed such things over but it was an interesting exercise. My thoughts? There is less more of an ideological divide in Czech politics, although not the gulf you would think from Czech parties in-your-face campaigning, and the UK has a post-Thatcherite consensus on certain fundamentals; the Czech Social Democrats’ high profile campaign defence of the welfare state and avoidance of the issue of how and when not if to make cuts makes it a very different political animal from the British Labour Party – although not necessarily less genuinely social democratic; the closest CEE equivalents to Blairite New Labopur were probably the market friendly ex-Communist parties of Hungary, Poland and Slovakia, but in the end they all got electorally roasted; if there is no Czech or Central European Nick Clegg is it probably because swathes of CEE voters tend to recognise themselves more in blunt spoken pugnacious strongmen like Orbán, Fico, Paroubek or even Topolánek than the role of clean cut middle class everyman (and, of course, it’s always a man) that British politicians seek to play – and English voters to go for. Interestingly, explaining the Liberal Democrats through a Czech prism is a convoluted and difficult exercise.
At 8 o’clock in the morning of 6 May, I walked down to polling station with my daughter before school, past a mass of Lib Dem hoarding that seems mysteriously to grow in size every day – perhaps a side effect of ‘Cleggmania’ – still wondering who to vote for. If there is a rising Lib Dem tide there is, the Guardian’s online poll-and-seat calculator suggests, an outside chance of this fairly solid Conservative seat changing hands.
There are no queues and I cast my vote, but instantly have h a vague presentiment that I had not quite done the right thing.
how records were smuggled in and traded on black market burzy in the woods near Prague in 1970s and 80s; how musicians made amps from electrical hobby kits; how boring the 1976 trial was; how capitalism is indeed the same as communism; how Brabenec fell over into middle of a performance at the National Theatre, but was forgiven.
The final question, from the Masaryk Society’s Michael Tate, who has brilliantly organized both this event and the Plastics’ concert in London at the South Bank in January, asks whether the group has not become too disneyfied as kitsch cultural icon. But it’s late in the evening and they need a cigarette, so all we get from Brabebc is a rather zen answer to the effect that the group’s credo is “Don’t be Stupid” – which would also make a good slogan for a university, I thought. Eva Turnová more straightfowardly explains that they are somewhat allergic to ageing hippies, who remember the group from 1970s and prefer to play for young people and international audiences. She can speak Chinese.
Brabenec was also interviewed this morning on the radion in the slightly unlikely venue of the BBC’s Midweek programme – listenable here.
Update: Tom Stoppard who was in the audience at the event (note to self: he was probably the bloke with the white manbag) and has played a big role in enabling the Plastics’ gig at the South Bank – has written a profile of the band and its music in the Times.
It’s a clever strategy. Unlike Klaus – who can wow and work a crowd and charm opponents, but whose efforts to join the victorious Czech football team and be one of the lads was one of the more excruciating things I remember seeing on Czech TV – the Ordinary Bloke role is one Topolánek can do very well. Equally, cleverly there’s no need to do much politics: no party programme (as yet) to defend and no big billboard campaign to annoy people and remind them they’ll have to go and: just the occasional swim or game of volleyball in lidos and sports grounds across various factory towns interspered with a bit of well publicized cycling between locations (taking the limo for the hilly bits, you understand). And, of course, Topol’s change of scene also leaves Karel Schwarzenberg – staring down lugubriously down from posters everywhere like some kind of aristocratic Big Brother – and the very boouent TOP09 party a free run in Prague, where they are likely to do well and, where, conincidentally Topolánek’s main party rivals are based.
I keep my eyes peeled, half watching the kids, half wondering if Topolánek will turn up. Perhaps he has already turned up, incognitio? There is a bloke who looks a bit like him sitting on the lilo on the other side of the pool. But then again, he is reading the crime page of left-wing daily Právo, where would probably be a step too far even for this new style of low-key, politics-free summer election non-campaign.
Emboldened, I went downstairs to deal with his mate, who I knew was waiting down there in the dark.
Damn pesky blighters hornets… But the kids are terrified of them.