How the Left sees the Life of Vaclav Havel, and why they Do Not Mourn his Passing
PJ Media readers know why we mourn the passing of Vaclav Havel. On this site, Michael Ledeen beautifully laid out the reasons why the world knows it has lost one of its greatest leaders. Ledeen put it in these words: “he was one of a handful of people who changed the world by fighting totalitarian Communism and then, having defeated it, inspired his people to rejoin the Western world, embrace capitalism, and support democratic dissidents everywhere.”
But now that almost a week has passed since Havel’s death, some on the Western Left have decided to let their true feelings about Havel out. Despite having to give some lip service to Havel’s integrity and what he accomplished, these men of the Left quickly get to what they really think: Havel helped destroy the great ideal of Communism as a worthy goal, and for that, he cannot be forgiven.
The most egregious is the blog in the British paper The Guardian. The headline to Neil Clark’s article reads, “Another Side of the Story.” Clark immediately ties Havel up with another individual who has just passed way, Christopher Hitchens, whose “consecration” he strongly objects to. For Hitchens was, he writes, “ another ‘progressive’ opponent of the communist regimes of eastern Europe who found favour with Washington's neocons.”
Clark does not question that Havel was “a brave man” who stood up for his views. That he cannot deny. It is Havel’s views, and his anti-Communism, that he detests. For Havel, he writes, did not help make his country “and the world, a better place.” In particular, denying everything we know about the nature of Stalinism in Eastern Europe -- the repression, the bureaucracy, the lack of necessary consumer goods to lead a decent life, the ever pervasive secret police -- he faults Havel for the following:
Havel's anti-communist critique contained little if any acknowledgement of the positive achievements of the regimes of eastern Europe in the fields of employment, welfare provision, education and women's rights. Or the fact that communism, for all its faults, was still a system which put the economic needs of the majority first.
Surely Mr. Clark must be kidding. Has he not read any of the scores of books revealing the nature of life under what his comrades then called “really existing socialism”? Does he not realize that all these so-called “positive achievements” were there mainly in the minds of the state and Party propaganda apparatus, and that the only people to have them were the Party’s apparatchiks? Does he really believe that communism put the needs of “the majority first”? What accounts, then, for the scores of brave crowds who swept Havel into office, and who openly taunted the regime’s spokesmen as liars and no different than the Nazis who ruled before them?
Clark does not stop with the above. In true Communistpeak, he attacks Havel as “the son of a wealthy entrepreneur,” in other words used by the Maoists of the day, a “capitalist roader.” How dare the son of a bourgeois merchant becomes a national hero? Havel, to Clark, as to the comrades who ruled for decades, had no right to power, since he came from the hated capitalist class.
Clark comes up with statistics meant to prove how life became horrible in the Czech Republic after privatization. He cites a study that one million died due to health problems which resulted. We see no statistics about how many died during Communist rule, both in political prisons or from the polluted lakes and rivers and air from uncontrolled industrial pollution, which under Communism was a concern no government addressed. And horror of horrors, there is now “income inequality” in the Czech Republic. Certainly, Communism took care of that problem. All were equal, and shared the scarce resources available, making everyone poor except the Party rulers.
Even worse, Havel had the temerity to support “the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999,” and then “sided with the rightwing Republican hawks on Iraq.” As we look at both cases, it is clear that Havel had it right both times. NATO intervened to destroy massacres carried out by the Serbs under the leadership of the last brutal ruler of post-Tito Yugoslavia, and under the Bush doctrine, the Iraqi people were freed from Saddam Hussein’s tyranny. Clark ends by saying we should “look at the bigger picture,” and realize how Havel supported the killing of innocent men, women and children” conducted by “western military adventures he supported.”
Writing at The Daily Beast, Geoffrey Robertson also is displeased with Havel, but even more displeased with the fact, as he sees it, that “the American right has claimed him as their own,” while in fact, he believes Havel wanted only to “balance socialism and freedom.” Havel, he argues, wanted most of all “to lift the Stalinist miasma that had wearily settled over Czechoslovakia,” so that in its place there could be created “the democratic socialism in which he believed.”
Unlike Clark, who thinks Stalinism was good for the Czech people, Robertson knows it was bad, but claims that Havel was himself a socialist. Robertson at least knows how bad life was under Communism, and how repressive the government was. A supporter of Czech dissidents at the time and of their Charter 77, he tells us how “its leading members were sacked from their jobs” and later “arrested on charges of ‘unlicensed trading.’”
Certainly, Havel talked about “socialist legality,” a mechanism for showing how the regime ignored its own vaunted standards, which never meant much. But Robertson writes that “Havel’s presidency was plagued by…the difficulties of keeping any socialist faith at all in a free-market free-for-all.” And Robertson shows his own, but not Havel’s, disappointment that the Czechs wanted “guidance in contract law and in the conveyancing of private property.” In other words, having ended communism, they failed to move on to the kind of socialism favored by Robertson.
Robertson, unlike Clark, honors Havel for things like support of the NATO intervention against Yugoslavia, which he writes “was an influential contribution to the evolving principle of humanitarian intervention,” and he honors him for standing “with Sakharov at the head of the pantheon of people prepared to sacrifice their own liberty so others could enjoy theirs.” But he faults him for being unable to “reconcile his beliefs in both socialism and freedom.”
In 2002, the writer Joshua Muravchik wrote a book about socialism’s failure called Heaven on Earth:The Rise and Fall of Socialism. On the book’s back is a blurb from none other than Vaclav Havel, who wrote: “I have always been suspicious of people who claim to have the key to heaven on earth. This book shows why.” Muravchik’s book is the story of the failure of any form of socialism, not just its Soviet style variant. Would Havel have endorsed its central conclusion if he still was a socialist?
In both the case of Neil Clark, who believes Havel was bad for destroying communism, and Geoffrey Robertson, who is sad that he didn’t bring democratic socialism in Communism’s place, you have the two poles of Leftist criticism of Havel. They amount to sadness that the socialist alternative to democratic capitalism ended with the destruction of the Soviet client states. That tells us more about the writers of these pieces than it does about Vaclav Havel.