The “politics of the sinless” and the “superficiality of the everyday”: Michnik, Havel, and the post-communist worldSaturday, February 21st, 2015
Marci Shore, acclaimed author of The Taste of Ashes: The Afterlife of Totalitarianism in Eastern Europe, has written an important article – indispensable writing, really – over at the Weekly Standard. It’s one that merits not only reading, but reading – so I’m printing out a version for slow reading when I get some more work done this weekend. The focus of her essay is a Adam Michnik‘s The Trouble with History, edited by Irena Grudzińska Gross and published last year by Yale University Press. The Book Haven has written about Polish journalist and Solidarity leader Michnik here and here, and about Marci here and here and here and about Irena here and here. Read Marci’s article in its entirety here. Fellow dissident Václav Havel, the playwright, essayist, and president of the post-communist Czech Republic, also plays a role in the piece – we’ve written about him here and here and here. A few excerpts from Marci’s article below:
The story of “living in truth” involves urban intellectuals hiking up a mountain. In August 1978, four Charter 77 signatories (including Havel, who was not ordinarily much of a hiker) met with their Polish counterparts (including Michnik) on Sněžka Mountain on the Czechoslovak-Polish border. Havel pulled a bottle of vodka from his backpack. A lifelong friendship was not all that resulted from that first encounter between the two men.
On Sněžka, they spoke about the political resonance of seemingly insignificant moral acts. Michnik asked Havel to write down his thoughts. Three months later, an underground courier appeared at Michnik’s Warsaw apartment with a manuscript entitled “The Power of the Powerless.” Havel’s essay introduced an ordinary green-grocer who, every morning, displays in the shop window a sign stating: “Workers of the world unite!” Neither he nor his customers believe in the Communist slogan. Even the members of the regime no longer believe in it. All know it to be a lie.
Yet what else can the greengrocer do? If he were to refuse to display the sign, he could be questioned, detained, arrested—which suggests that displaying a slogan in which no one believes is of great importance. If, one day, all the greengrocers were to take down their signs, that would be the beginning of a revolution. And so the seemingly powerless greengrocer is not so powerless after all. He bears responsibility; by failing to “live in truth,” people like the green-grocer “confirm the system, fulfill the system, make the system, are the system.”
This is a diagnosis of post-1968 communism as a descent into inauthenticity, and it comes not from the comfortable classics of Western liberal (or conservative) thought but, rather, from Martin Heidegger.
One lesson for the West was about responsibility in conditions of moral ambiguity. In Havel’s autobiographical one-act play Audience (1975), Havel’s alter ego Ferdinand Vaněk is a dissident playwright working at a brewery. The secret police have demanded that the brewmaster file weekly reports on Vaněk. The brewmaster becomes nervous: He finds it difficult to compose the reports. Could Vaněk, perhaps, write them? “You could do that much for me, couldn’t you?” he asks Vaněk. “It would be child’s play for you! You’re a writer, damn it, right?”
Vaněk appreciates the brew-master’s kind treatment of him; nonetheless, he refuses to write the reports about himself. For Vaněk, this is “a matter of principle.” The brewmaster breaks down:
And what about me? You’re just gonna let me sink, right? You’re just gonna say, fuck you! It’s okay if I end up being an asshole! Me, I can wallow in this shit, because I don’t count, I ain’t nothin’ but a regular brewery hick—but the VIP here can’t have any part of this! It’s okay if I get smeared with shit, so long the VIP here stays clean! . . . All I’m good for is to be the manure that your damn principles gonna grow out of . . .
In Audience, everyone is implicated: the regime, the brewmaster, Vaněk himself. The brewmaster is a variation of the greengrocer; he is both victim and oppressor.
For Michnik, among the disappointments of post-communism has been the rise of right-wing nationalist populism, accompanied by an official memory politics known as “historical policy.” The essence of historical policy is a denial of moral ambiguity and a failure to take responsibility. It is an attempt to enforce a national historical narrative that presents “the thesis that all Polish disasters were the result of Polish benevolence, trust, and gentleness, and of the malice and cruelty of foreigners.”
For Michnik, historical policy is absurd: Communism had not simply been a Soviet occupation; everyone had taken part. In order to do something good, one had to participate in a system that was evil. Between heroes and villains there were many shades of gray. This was among the reasons why “lustration”—the purging from government and public life of those who had collaborated with the secret police—was not a straightforward matter. Many were put on secret police lists of potential informers without their knowledge. Others found themselves on those lists because they had once met with an agent at a restaurant or had succumbed to threats to their children.
Moreover, those placed most at risk by lustration were those who had been in the opposition—after all, it was their circles the secret police had tried to infiltrate. Those safest under lustration were the greengrocers. The post-Communist antipathy towards the dissidents, Havel believed, had its roots in the dissidents’ serving as people’s bad consciences. He and Michnik were among those who, under communism, had sat in prison the longest. They were also among those most willing to forgive. For Michnik, historical policy and lustration reflected a Jacobin-like impulse to impose a politics of the sinless. And the problem with revolutionary purity was that it led to the guillotine.
The trouble with revolution, Michnik finds, is also its aftermath: the superficiality of the everyday. Once upon a time, East Europeans had stayed up all night copying censored poems by hand. Now, no one had time to read serious literature. The omnipresence of Communist propaganda had been replaced by the omnipresence of quasi-pornographic tabloids. The revolution had brought the end of censorship. Then, the market had taken over—and had proven to be tawdry. “Suddenly all great value systems are collapsing,” Michnik observed.
“[A]long with the development of this consumerist global civilization grows a mass of people who do not create any values,” Havel said during one of his last conversations with Michnik. For Michnik, this “axiological vacuum” was “a typical phenomenon of periods of restoration as described by Stendhal in The Red and the Black: this is a time of cynicism, intrigues, careerism.” Michnik grew preoccupied with Julien Sorel, Stendhal’s weak plebian hero who seeks authenticity in illicit love affairs: “Let everyone take care of himself in the desert of egoism called life,” Julien says.
In 1989, Michnik’s friend, the philosopher Marcin Król, was among those who had considered liberty to be the great priority. But individualism began to dominate all other values. “We were stupid,” Król said in an interview last year. No longer does anyone pose metaphysical questions like “Where does evil come from?” The dramas of characters like Julien Sorel resulted from their awareness of the weight of their actions. The lack of an answer to the question of whether they behaved well or badly was the source of great suffering. “Today,” Król said, “the lack of an answer does not hurt.” And that is the problem: It should hurt.