To Dissent or Not To Dissent

In The Art of Travel Fall 2017, 10. Books (2), Prague by Vivian1 Comment

Vaclav Havel– the man, the myth, the legend. Here in the Czech Republic, there’s not a single citizen who doesn’t know of him. His presence permeates everywhere in the country, from the airport you arrive in, Vaclav Havel, to the country’s spirit as a whole.

For a little bit of background, Vaclav Havel was a Czech playwright, poet, and political dissident, who, following the fall of Communism, became the first president of the Czech Republic. He became a leading figure in a coalition of noncommunist groups called the Civic Forum, and a key influencer in the Velvet Revolution, which was the non-violent event that marked the end of communism in Czechoslovakia.

His overwhelming legacy here in the Czech Republic, which is why I thought it was most appropriate to read Open Letters: Selected Writings by Vaclav Havel for my second book this semester. The book is exactly as the title deems it: a curation of his most influential and resonant letters, from the early 1960s  to his New Year’s message in 1990. Of these writings, I found two particularly interesting: his letter called, “Dear Dr. Husák” and his most well-known essay, “The Power of the Powerless”. The two juxtapose each other perfectly while complimenting each other in an incredible way. While the first describes the overwhelming power and influence of the Communist party over Czech citizens and predicts the end of the regime, the other makes a startling claim that the oppressed in a Communist regime are complicit to the system, and have the individual power to revolt.

To further explain, in Havel’s letter, “Dear Dr. Husák”, he describes why and how people were so submissive to the regime. He explains that fear is what propels communist power, stating how “for fear of losing his job, the schoolteacher teaches things he does not believe; fearing for his future, the pupil repeats them after him.” Yet, despite his extensive explanations and descriptions, he warns Husák that this era will cease to continue. Havel asserts Husák resistance has fermented within the citizens of Czechoslovakia, in response to the “permanent humiliation of their human dignity.”

Meanwhile in his essay, “The Power of the Powerless”, Havel takes a different approach in explaining the communist dominance. He makes a bold and unique statement, illustrating two main points:

  1. The communist regime’s sole intent is to create an ideology that can become a false reality and therefore terminate all dissent.
  2. The communist system can only operate with the collaborations of all individuals in the system.

As such, Havel proposes an interesting idea: the oppressed are both a victim and an accomplice to the communist regime. One who is oppressed is willing to “live within the lie” fabricated by the system, and is stripped of his dignity and is no more than a Communist puppet. At the same time, however, Havel states that the one and the only way to dissent is simply to “live within the truth”. He claims, “by breaking the rules of the game, [the citizen living within the truth] has disrupted the game as such. He has exposed it as a mere game. He has shattered the world of appearances, the fundamental pillar of the system.”

With these two statements, he approaches the idea of Communism from two very different perspectives. But his message remains the same: to empower individuals and spark dissent; to push people”to change things for the better, to try to win more freedom, more respect for human dignity, to work for an economy that functions better, less destruction of the earth, government by more sensible politicians, the right to speak the truth– and finally, to ensure that people do not lose hope when confronted with the truth, but instead try to draw the practical lessons from it”.


  1. Hey Vivian! I actually read Power and Powerless by Havel for my Social Foundations III class! It’s definitely not an easy read, I commend you. I wonder what you think of his dissenting views, as I found them almost hypocritical and an ineffective way of getting across his broader points. I really like his point that we unless we are freed from oppression, we are living as puppets. This point stays with me, and I think is helpful to remember when we are carrying on as developers of the future. Takes a lot to get through that reading, I commend you!

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