From Havel to Habermas
Nov 27th 2008
Central Europe's missing political philosophy
THEY gripped the world, but left political philosophers yawning. According to Jürgen Habermas, a German philosopher, the revolutions that overturned decades of totalitarian rule in central and eastern Europe in 1989 were marked by a “total lack of ideas that are either innovative or orientated towards the future”.
In a sense that was right. One of the most memorable images of the extraordinary “Velvet Revolution” in what was then Czechoslovakia in November 1989 was a map showing a ladder, reaching from the depths of central Europe up a cliff, to the heights of the western part of the continent. “Zpět do Evropy” it read: “Back to Europe”.
For millions of people behind the Iron Curtain, abstract political philosophy and grand schemes had brought nothing but trouble. Vaclav Havel, whom the revolution propelled into Prague Castle as president, said his dream was to live in a “small boring European country”.
But actually Mr Habermas is wrong: a revival of the spirit of 1989 is just what both old and new Europe need. A Czech-born scholar from Harvard, Paul Linden-Retek, has recently finished a fascinating philosophical comparison between Mr Habermas and Mr Havel.
At first sight, it’s a stretch: Mr Habermas epitomises the German academic stratosphere; put crudely, his main idea is to revive and correct the Enlightenment by reviving the “public sphere” (in other words, getting people talking about decisions that they can influence). Mr Havel’s thinking is more literary than academic. He had no formal higher education (although he is much influenced by Jan Patočka, a Czech philosopher who died under secret police interrogation).
Yet both men have written powerfully against totalitarianism. Both deal with the influence of impersonal systems on modern life. Both deal with language and its uses. Both have little time for the contortions of structuralists and the like.
Mr Linden-Retek’s study shows that Messrs Havel and Habermas essentially share a critique of post-1989 politics in central Europe. Totalitarianism is gone, but milder doses of repression, apathy, injustice, and alienation remain. But Mr Habermas misses the big lesson of 1989: that politics need not be just the boring business of elites and insiders. It is, at least potentially, an exciting affair in which outsiders, even against great odds, can make a difference. Those who took part in the Orange Revolution in Ukraine or in the wild enthusiasm of Barack Obama’s campaign for the American presidency felt something of the same (regardless of the disappointment that the first has delivered and the second may bring).
Mr Linden-Retek’s mother, Daniela Retkova, was an admired aide to Mr Havel in the early 1990s. Her son’s work is well aimed and well timed to prompt an overdue discussion about the legacy of 1989. Having swallowed (but not wholly digested) a Western menu after the collapse of communism, might east Europeans now be ready to take a critical look at the political model that resulted? It is tempting to hope so.
As Ivan Krastev, a Bulgarian pundit, has noted, the model of elections contested by parties with mass membership and historically defined positions didn’t work very well even when it was braced by the cold war need to compete against communism. Twenty years on, amid huge technological, social and economic changes, it looks threadbare in both east and west: money matters too much, ideas too little. What, for example, does e-democracy (for example, wiki-style public input to lawmaking) mean for Mr Habermas’s deliberative model? Those planning next year’s anniversary festivities in Prague could do worse than to invite Messrs Havel and Habermas to a public discussion.
Thursday, November 27, 2008