In 1979, the Czech playwright and dissident Vaclav Havel illegally published his famous essay, “The Power of the Powerless.” He analyzed the nature of the totalitarian system and the role of the individual in it, both as victim and supporter. That the Marxian and socialist promises and prophesies were unfilled and unrealizable dreams was known to all. By the late 1970s, within the Soviet-bloc countries, true believers no longer existed. Socialism in practice was a system of perpetuated power, privilege and corruption.
Yet, unlike many cruder and more traditional dictatorships, Havel argued, communism cloaked its will to power in an all-embracing ideology — an ideology that explained everything, demanded acceptance by everybody, and allowed opposition by no one. Time had demonstrated the system’s total divorce from reality — for socialism had brought neither freedom nor prosperity, neither equality nor humanity. But nothing could be permitted to cut through the veil of lies upon which the socialist order was based. Because once the veil was torn by even the smallest openings of light of truth, the foundations of the system would be threatened with collapse.
The legitimacy of the system, therefore, required continual verbal and symbolic reaffirmation of its premises and rationale for existence. Everyone was required to play according to the system’s rules of the game: repeating hollow slogans about the class struggle, voting in sham elections, participating in well-organized “spontaneous” demonstrations, declaring one’s belief in and dedication to the socialist cause and the bright and better future it had and would bring, etc.
Through obedience to and participation in these legitimizing games, the victims were forced to sanctify their oppression and could hide their fears, and the rulers could justify their power and cover their corruption. And through these means, the loyalty of all — both rulers and the ruled — was given to the system and sustained it. The individual, explained Havel, “declares his loyalty . . . in the only way the regime is capable of hearing; that is, by accepting the prescribed ritual, by accepting appearances as reality, by accepting the given rules of the game. In doing so, however, he has himself become a player in the game, thus making it possible for the game to go on, for it to exist in the first place.”
A World of Appearances
What was created was “a world of appearances, a mere ritual, a formalized language deprived of semantic contact with reality and transformed into a system of ritual signs that replace reality with pseudo-reality.” As a consequence, Havel argued, “human beings are compelled to live within a lie, but they can be compelled to do so only because they are in fact capable of living in this way. . . . In everyone there is some willingness to merge with the anonymous crowd and to flow comfortably along with it down the river of pseudo-life.”
By living the life of the lie, the individual in the socialist order was saved all the problems of independent thought, of being confronted with the dilemma of standing alone or only with a few others in opposing the lie, in facing the discomfort and hardship of social ostracism and political repercussions from those in authority, and of missing life-opportunities and chances for economic and social advancement, since the state was the sole employer and single provider of all that people needed and desired.
“If the main pillar of the system is living a lie, then it is not surprising that the fundamental threat to it is living the truth,” explained Havel. “Living within the truth . . . is . . . an attempt to regain control over one’s own sense of responsibility. In other words, it is clearly a moral act, not only because one must pay so dearly for it, but principally because it is not self-serving; the risk may bring rewards in the form of a general amelioration in the situation, or it may not.” It is the decision and the statement by the individual that the truth is more important than the material losses he may suffer, that his own sense of integrity and honesty to his own conscience is more important than the political risks he may have to face; that what he knows and thinks to be true must not be denied, regardless of whether any others choose to hear it and whether or not it succeeds in changing the world.
Havel argued, however, that an individual choosing to live the truth in the socialist order produced something more than just self-liberation. It undermined and challenged the very foundations and premises upon which the system was built and upon which it was dependent.
“By breaking the rules of the game, he has disrupted the game as such. He has exposed it as mere game. He has shattered the world of appearances, the fundamental pillar of the system. He has upset the power structure by tearing part what holds it together. He has demonstrated that living a lie is living a lie. . . . He has said the emperor is naked. And because the emperor is in fact naked, something extremely dangerous has happened. . . . He has enabled everyone to peer behind the curtain. He has shown everyone that it is possible to live within the truth.”
Living the Truth
Havel’s defense of living the truth in communist Czechoslovakia did not require everyone to have the courage to stand in a public square and declare the emperor naked, or the heroism to confront tanks and soldiers unarmed with nothing but the truth. He insisted that the pillars of the socialist state could slowly be worn down and finally destroyed if only an increasing number of people in their various walks of life would do numerous simple and sometimes hardly noticeable things that manifested a rejection of a life of the lie.
Such actions might have involved a teacher informally telling his students facts of history rather than the historical myths created by the state. It might have taken the form of a writer or an artist refusing to produce the “socialist realistic” art and literature demanded by the state, and sharing his own art or literature with a circle of friends whom he could trust. It might have been merely a refusal to vote in the one-party election or a failure to show up for a “spontaneous” demonstration or a refusal to spout the “politically correct” slogans and phrases. Or it might have been the courage to read “forbidden” literature, pass it on for others to digest and then to discuss it with friends and colleagues with whom truth could be spoken without betrayal. Or it may have manifested itself simply as an unwillingness to believe anything said by the state anymore.
Cumulatively, an alternative and parallel “independent life of society” could and did emerge in the socialist countries in the former Soviet bloc, including in the Soviet Union itself. This is what undermined and finally destroyed socialism in practice. Its bankruptcy, corruption, and lies became the breeding ground for a growing number of people first to reject its promises and then slowly and incrementally begin to do and say things that tore more and more holes in the veil of illusion upon which the system was based.
In the totalitarian societies of the Soviet bloc, the difference between truth and lies had a stark delineation. The distinction between illusion and reality finally could not be denied or ignored. In the face of empty stores and shoddy products, who could believe that socialism provided material prosperity? In a one-party state in which those in the ruling party possessed innumerable privileges denied to the vast majority, who could believe the socialist claims that theirs was a true democracy with equality for all? With prisons filled with dissidents and state censorship over all forms of communication, who could meaningfully argue that socialism respected human rights and respected civil liberties?
Life in America
In America, political life has, for a long time, been a life of lies. But it is a life of lies that is not as easy to see or to penetrate as in the socialist countries, because the distinction between illusion and reality is less starkly drawn. Several political parties appear on the voting ballot and compete for the electorate’s support; the freedom to say and do as one wishes still remains respected and protected over a wide range of choices and actions; a multitude of avenues exist for material and personal improvement without obedience and full subservience to the state; and the economic system still provides a vast array of goods and services that produces a standard of living far in excess of that enjoyed by the vast majority of people around the globe.
But a system of lies, nonetheless, underlies the American political system. If individual freedom is to be restored in America — if economic liberty is to be regained — if government is to be harnessed and controlled and limited in its powers over human life — the veil of lies must be penetrated in the United States, just as it was torn apart in the countries of the former Soviet bloc. But to do so, the nature of the lies, and the premises and principles that sustain them, must be understood. And those qualities and characteristics in man that make him capable of living a life of a lie, and often desirous of doing so, must be understood and opposed.