Attempts to Escape the Logic of Capitalism; On the Political Tragedy of Vaclav Havel

Attempts to Escape the Logic of Capitalism
Attempts to Escape the Logic of Capitalism

[Review of [amazon asin=B01K0TINR2&text=Václav Havel: A Political Tragedy in Six Acts] by John Keane]

In 1974, Paul Theroux visited Vietnam, after the peace agreement and the withdrawal of the US Army, but before the Communist takeover. He writes about it in [amazon asin=0141189142&text=The Great Railway Bazaar]. A couple of hundred US soldiers were still there – deserters, officially and legally non-existent, living in slum shacks with their Vietnamese wives, earning a living by smuggling or other crimes. In Theroux’s hands, these individuals become representative of Vietnam’s place in global power politics. From them, we gradually unravel the complex totality of Vietnamese society. When Keane is at his best, he displays the same ability to extract from small details the global context of what was going on in Czechoslovakia. The weakest passages in the book are those which attempt to deal more conceptually with the nature of ‘totalitarian’ regimes or the social implications of modern technology. Instead of an account of the inner antagonisms of Communist regimes, we get the standard liberal clichés about ‘totalitarian control’. Towards the end of his book, Keane touches on the old idea of the ‘King’s Two Bodies’ and points to the equivalent importance of the Leader’s body in Communist regimes. A ‘pre-modern’ political order, he writes, relies on having such sacred bodies, while the democratic system, in which the place of power is supposedly empty, is open to competitive struggle. But this contrast fails to grasp the intricacies of ‘totalitarianism’. It is not that Keane is too directly anti-Communist, but that his liberal-democratic stance prevents him from seeing the horrifying paradox of the ‘Stalinist Leader’.

Lenin’s first major stroke, which he suffered in May 1922, left his right side virtually paralysed and for a while deprived him of speech. He realised that his active political life was over and asked Stalin for some poison so that he could kill himself; Stalin took the matter to the Politburo, which voted against Lenin’s wish. Lenin assumed that because he was no longer of any use to the revolutionary struggle, death was the only option – ‘calmly enjoying old age’ was out of the question. The idea of his funeral as a great state event he found repulsive. This was not modesty: he was simply indifferent to the fate of his body, regarding it as an instrument to be ruthlessly exploited and discarded when no longer useful.

With Stalinism, however, the body of the Leader became ‘objectively beautiful’. In ‘On the Problem of the Beautiful in Soviet Art’, an essay from 1950, the Soviet critic Nedoshivin wrote: ‘Amid all the beautiful material of life, the first place should be occupied by images of our great leaders . . . The sublime beauty of the leaders . . . is the basis for the coinciding of the “beautiful” and the “true” in the art of socialist realism.’ This has nothing to do with the Leader’s physical attributes and everything to do with abstract ideals. The Leader in fact is like the Lady in courtly love poetry – cold, distanced, inhuman. Both the Leninist and the Stalinist Leader are thoroughly alienated, but in opposite ways: the Leninist Leader displays radical self-instrumentalisation on behalf of the Revolution, while in the case of the Stalinist Leader, the ‘real person’ is treated as an appendix to the fetishised and celebrated public image. No wonder the official photos of the Stalinist era were so often retouched, and with a clumsiness so obvious it almost seemed intentional. It signalled that the ‘real person’ with all his idiosyncrasies had been replaced by a wooden effigy. One rumour circulating about Kim Il Yong is that he actually died in a car crash a couple of years ago and a double has taken his place for rare public appearances, so that the crowds can catch a glimpse of the object of their worship. This is the ultimate confirmation that the ‘real personality’ of the Stalinist leader is thoroughly irrelevant. Havel of course is the inverse of that: while the Stalinist Leader is reduced to a ritualistically praised effigy, Havel’s charisma is that of a ‘real person’. The paradox is that a genuine ‘cult of personality’ can thrive only in a democracy.


Havel also discerned the fraudulence of what I would call the ‘interpassive socialism’ of the Western academic Left. These leftists aren’t interested in activity – merely in ‘authentic’ experience. They allow themselves to pursue their well-paid academic careers in the West, while using the idealised Other (Cuba, Nicaragua, Tito’s Yugoslavia) as the stuff of their ideological dreams: they dream through the Other, but turn their backs on it if it disturbs their complacency by abandoning socialism and opting for liberal capitalism. What is of special interest here is the lack of understanding between the Western Left and dissidents such as Havel. In the eyes of the Western Left, Eastern dissidents were too naive in their belief in liberal democracy – in rejecting socialism, they threw out the baby with the bath water. In the eyes of the dissidents, the Western Left played patronising games with them, disavowing the true harshness of totalitarianism. The idea that the dissidents were somehow guilty for not seizing the unique opportunity provided by the disintegration of socialism to invent an authentic alternative to capitalism was pure hypocrisy.

In dissecting Late Socialism, Havel was always aware that Western liberal democracy was far from meeting the ideals of authentic community and ‘living in truth’ on behalf of which he and other dissidents opposed Communism. He was faced, then, with the problem of combining a rejection of ‘totalitarianism’ with the need to offer critical insight into Western democracy. His solution was to follow Heidegger and to see in the technological hubris of capitalism, its mad dance of self-enhancing productivity, the expression of a more fundamental transcendental-ontological principle – ‘will to power’, ‘instrumental reason’ – equally evident in the Communist attempt to overcome capitalism. This was the argument of Adorno’s and Horkheimer’s [amazon asin=0804736332&text=Dialectic of Enlightenment], which first engineered the fateful shift from concrete socio-political analysis to philosophico-anthropological generalisation, by means of which ‘instrumental reason’ is no longer grounded in concrete capitalist social relations, but is instead posited as their quasi-transcendental ‘foundation’. The moment that Havel endorsed Heidegger’s recourse to quasi-anthropological or philosophical principle, Stalinism lost its specificity, its specific political dynamic, and turned into just another example of this principle (as exemplified by Heidegger’s remark, in his Introduction to Metaphysics, that, in the long run, Russian Communism and Americanism were ‘metaphysically one and the same’).


Even the most ‘totalitarian’ Stalinist ideology is radically ambiguous. While the universe of Stalinist politics was undoubtedly one of hypocrisy and arbitrary terror, in the late Thirties the great Soviet films (say, the Gorky trilogy) epitomised authentic solidarity for audiences across Europe. In one memorable film about the Civil War, a mother with a young son is exposed as a counter-revolutionary spy. A group of Bolsheviks put her on trial and at the very beginning of the trial, an old Bolshevik demands that the sentence be severe, but just. After she confesses her crime, the court (an informal collective of Bolshevik soldiers) rules that she was seduced into enemy activity by her difficult social circumstances; she is therefore sentenced to be fully integrated into the new socialist collective, to be taught to write and read and to acquire a proper education, while her son, who is unwell, is to be given proper medical care. The surprised woman bursts out crying, unable to understand the court’s benevolence, and the old Bolshevik nods: ‘Yes, this is a severe, but just sentence!’ No matter how manipulative such scenes were, no matter how far they were from the reality of ‘revolutionary justice’, they nonetheless bore witness to a new sense of justice; and as such, gave viewers new ethical standards against which reality could be measured.

[Zizek hereafter recounts the Kosovo case, and the ‘ideal subject-victim’ Meli.]

[Extract. Published in London Review of Books, on October 28th 1999.]