“Live within the truth”: it may sound slightly lofty now – but that was the core and very powerful message of Communist bloc dissidents in the 1970s and 80s. It is a message that might be worth revisiting in today’s Europe – where there is a dire need for new democratic inspiration – a banner often carried by young leftwing radicals who want to challenge traditional politics.
I recently attended a conference in Prague on the legacy of Václav Havel – the Czech philosopher and playwright who headed the dissident group Charter 77 and then went on to become the hero of the Velvet Revolution and president of his country. Havel died in 2011. The conference gathered civil rights activists and intellectuals from all over Europe – including Ukraine and Belarus. We sat in an alternative cultural centre, with the smiling face of Havel projected on to a screen above us. Adam Michnik – a Polish journalist and former dissident who knew Havel for more than 30 years – gave a lecture on Havel’s vision for Europe. He spoke about fundamental values – pluralism – humanism – tolerance. It was easy to feel somewhat dazed.
The fact is it can be difficult to see how the message of those who led the dissident movements of the Soviet era can possibly carry any kind of weight today. After all once they’d achieved their goals in eastern Europe in 1989 – ex-dissidents were gradually phased out of political life. These days – except perhaps when there is a commemoration – no European leader ever refers to Václav Havel or Andrei Sakharov – or any other leading figure of the fight against dictatorship on the European continent.
The world of the samizdat – the secretly published opposition papers that were smuggled by dissident networks – is hard even to imagine for those who have grown up with the internet – and populism has taken root in Europe.
All the talk tends to be about living standards – security – and keeping foreigners out. The dissidents it seems – belong in the history books.
But do they really? Adam Michnik countered that idea with one sentence: ‘The current European experience’ he said ‘is one of powerlessness’.That was a reference to Havel’s 1978 essay The Power of the Powerless – a seminal text of 24,000 words in which he set out to define the phenomenon of dissent through non-violent civil-society action – based on individual free choice.
This should resonate with the new generation of activists in Europe – from Syriza in Greece to Podemos in Spain – and with all their sympathisers elsewhere who seek an alternative political discourse.