Monday, 19 December 2011

The Bigger Picture

Over on Comment is Free, Neil Clark writes:

He was the symbol of 1989, the anti-communist playwright who helped free his country – and the rest of eastern Europe – from Stalinist tyranny and who put the countries that lay behind the iron curtain on the road to democracy. So goes the dominant narrative of the life of Václav Havel, the former Czech president, who died on Sunday aged 75. Havel, we are told, was a hero and one of the greatest Europeans of our age.

But, as with the recent consecration of Christopher Hitchens, another "progressive" opponent of the communist regimes of eastern Europe who found favour with Washington's neocons, there is another side to the story. No one questions that Havel, who went to prison twice, was a brave man who had the courage to stand up for his views. Yet the question which needs to be asked is whether his political campaigning made his country, and the world, a better place.

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.

Although he did clash with his uber-Thatcherite presidential successor, Václav Klaus, over economic policy, Havel, the son of a wealthy entrepreneur whose companies were nationalised when the communists came to power, showed little concern for the plight of ordinary people who lost out in the change towards a market economy. And there were losers aplenty. While the years following the liberation of eastern Europe from communism by Havel and his fellow dissidents are routinely portrayed in the west as one big success story, the reality is rather different. A 2009 Lancet study concluded that as many as 1 million working-age men died due to the health problems brought on by mass privatisation. As economies across eastern Europe were restructured so inequalities and social divisions grew. A 2011 OECD report found that Havel's Czech Republic had the joint-second largest rise in income inequality in OECD members since the mid-1980s.

Havel's true political allegiances came to the fore during his years as president. Like fellow dissident Lech Walesa, he supported the Nato bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999. In 2002, he sided with the rightwing Republican hawks on Iraq.

Lauding Havel is not only doing a disservice to the millions of ordinary people in eastern Europe who have not been served well by his politics, but to the innocent men, women and children killed by the western military adventures he supported. While Havel was a man of undoubted talent and intellect, it's time we stopped eulogising people simply because they were anti-communist dissidents, and instead look at the bigger picture.


  1. Do you agree with Neil Clark?

  2. That Eastern Europe went through, and is largely still going through, a phase of gangster capitalism after the Wall came down, yes. Hardly what those Polish priests and East German pastors had in mind.

    That far too many of the dissidents went on to flag-wavers for neoconservatism, yes.

    And that opposition to Stalinism only proved what they were against, not what they were for, yes. Edward Norman had warned about that all the way back in his Reith Lectures. Richard Nixon took the same view.

    The same was largely true of South Africa. The same was true of Iraq. The same was true of Libya. The same is true of Iran. The same is true of China. The same is true of Syria.

    And just how good are Havel's plays, really? I might be wrong, but I suspect a Beyond The Fringe effect here, making anything appear earth-shattering if it is a little bit daring for its time and place, and a bit clever-clever in that well-heeled, male, undergraduate way.

  3. Is his criticism of Havel's politics legitimate?

  4. To that extent, yes.

    We need to get over many of the Eastern European dissidents (including Havel), in the way that we need to get over the ANC.

  5. I think people fail to understand the point of Mr. Clark's article. There was indeed a downside to the transition to capitalism in Eastern Europe.

    It is not hard to find stories about the poverty, homelessness, unemployment, prostitution, and drug use that increased dramatically because of the way in which the transition to capitalism was handled.

    I don’t buy the argument that the Eastern Europeans had to undergo “shock therapy” because their economies were so dysfunctional. Western Europe and Japan recovered from arguably greater catastrophes after the Second World War and built relatively humane economies.

    The Eastern Europeans should have been allowed to slowly reform their economies into social democracies.

    Instead, Western “experts” swooped in and forced neoliberal orthodoxy on the masses, in collusion with corrupt ex-communist officials.