Vaclav Havel's 'The Power of the Powerless' Endures

As his speech ended, and before he could be whisked from the room, I ignored his bodyguards and rushed the podium. I approached the small and unlikely man and silently held out the book and pen. He beamed with a smile. Authors quietly rejoice whenever they are asked to sign their own works -- even this giant whose words steered the events of world history.

The well-worn paperback was Open Secrets, a collection of essays by the Czech poet President Vaclav Havel. It was 1998 and President Havel was visiting the United States. I had been tipped off that he’d be speaking to an audience in the bowels of Congress, so I grabbed my copy of his book and set off.

I’ve collected signed books of moonwalkers and rock stars, politicians and new-media pioneers, but I treasure my signed copy of Open Secrets above all. Under his signature, he drew a simple and charming heart.


1998 seems so far off now, and not merely in time. In 1998, America had lived through an age of moral clarity, despite the best efforts of Havel’s foes to blur those lines at home and abroad. America had enjoyed a largely unbroken string of presidencies where America’s moral place in world affairs was without question: Clinton, Bush, Reagan, Nixon, Kennedy, Eisenhower, and on.

Decade after decade, American leaders had defended the universal truth of human liberty.

Naturally, Havel himself had experienced this binary battle between human dignity and what he would refer to as "living the lie." His recurring visits to the regime’s prisons sharpened this understanding. Good was good and evil was evil.

Only the most dedicated administration shill or the most comfortable Beltway parasite could deny today that America has become detached from the moral clarity that guided the nation through those decades. Nearly 7 in 10 Americans think the country is headed down the wrong track. A sizable majority thinks that America’s best days are in the past, not in the future.

Americans in 2015 might find value in discovering, or revisiting, one of Havel’s monumental essays, "The Power of the Powerless." Though in that essay Havel was describing efforts to escape from what he referred to as a “post-totalitarian” existence, the essay has value for those in the West seeking to arrest the drift toward it.

To Havel, “post-totalitarian” was not a term relating to sequence. "Post-totalitarian" did not mean a government that arises after the evolution or collapse of a totalitarian structure of the sort we typically associate with singular omnipotent leaders.  Instead, “post-totalitarian” to Havel described a massive, bureaucratic culture that controlled vast territory over people’s lives, the economy, and was not tolerant of deviation or dissent.

Havel’s distinction between “post-totalitarianism” and the more consuming and familiar forms of totalitarianism has serious implications for our discourse today. Americans, even conservatives, tend to skip over Havel’s post-totalitarian nightmares in the continuum between Scandinavian-style socialism and Hilter’s style of totalitarianism. We forget about a big bureaucratic leviathan that masks its truly evil nature. Reading "The Power of the Powerless," you explore a post-totalitarian bureaucratic system that sucks out the soul in ways that a traditional totalitarian system does not.