Vaclav Havel’s Legacy A Reminder of the Noncommunist Left

Vaclav Havel's spirit of left-leaning libertarianism fought communist totalitarianism.


The death of Czech dissident-turned-president Vaclav Havel is, or should have been, a helpful reminder that there was such a thing called the "noncommunist left."

In 1948, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. identified the NCL, as it was known in State Department circles, as a bulwark against encroaching Soviet communism in  Europe:

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What countries have achieved a fair degree of political and economic stability? Britain, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Belgium, Netherlands, Austria. What is the Communist strength in these countries? In every case, negligible. What is the Socialist strength? In every case, the Socialist Party participates in the government and controls the national labor federation. What countries in western Europe are conspicuously lacking in political and economic stability? France and Italy ...

Why has Socialism been able to contain Communism in most of these countries and not in France and Italy? One factor is certainly the fact that in the stable countries the Socialist parties have always retained their faith in free society; they have remained consistently anti-Communist; as a result, Communism was permitted no foothold in the labor movement or in the political world. But in France and Italy, where the Socialist parties were more doctrinaire, they were weakened gravely by the disease of united-frontism.

Havel was a complicated figure; he was a playwright who, before his formal political career, had thought little of economics. It wouldn't be quite right to say he was a legatee of the old NCL—at least not in the sense of partisan affiliation. But his angular artistic sensibility; his nostalgia for the "groundedness" of agricultural community; his recoiling at every agent of human depersonalization, not merely the totalitarian state—Havel's closest American analogue is perhaps the writer Wendell Berry, who defies easy left-right pigeonholing but is assuredly not a movement conservative.

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In an essay entitled "Politics and Conscience," which surfaced in Prague in 1985 as part of a samizdat collection of dissident writings and was later included in Open Letters: Selected Writings, 1965-1990, Havel sounded downright bored with the clash of Western ideologies:

Or the question about socialism and capitalism! I have to admit that it gives me a sense of emerging from the depths of the last century. It seems to me that these thoroughly ideological and often semantically confused categories have long been beside the point. The question is wholly other, deeper and equally relevant to all all: whether we shall, by whatever means, succeed in reconstituting the natural world as the true terrain of politics, rehabilitating the personal experience of human beings as the initial measure of things, placing morality above politics and responsibility above our desires, in making human community meaningful...

One of Havel's last disbursements of political capital was to support the Czech Republic's Green Party in 2009.

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Havel's resistance to communist tyranny flowed from a spirit of left-libertarianism. It was a far cry from Ayn Rand's deification of the industrial businessman.

Rand's materialist romanticism has infected the American right—to the point that the Cold War is remembered merely as a clash between socialism and capitalism.

It was that. But it was much more than that. The recent images of weeping North Koreans reminds us that totalitarianism does not settle for your wallet. It wants your conscience.

Contrary to what the likes of Glenn Beck insist, there were people of the left, like Havel, and even card-carry socialists, who refused to compromise theirs.