The Most Absurd Criticism Made of Vaclav Havel

The charge that he didn't fully appreciate the system that imprisoned him shows that we either forget, or have yet to learn, how just bad communism wasczech please.jpg

It's been said that Benito Mussolini made the trains run on time. Adolf Hitler presided over military parades of impeccable coordination. Under General Franco, Spain was admirably free from official prejudice against Catholics. And if you think the preceding sentences are important ones when attempting to judge the legacies of the aforementioned dictators, Neil Clark's piece in The Guardian about the supposed shortcomings of Vaclav Havel, the Czech writer and former president who died on Sunday, is probably pitched to you.

I'll quote from the intro through to the most absurd paragraph I've read in some time:

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.

Yes, in the name of "putting the economic needs of the majority first" it assigned citizens to jobs they had no desire to do, forbade them from serious journalism or art or political science, forced political prisoners to work in uranium mines, jailed or murdered dissidents, forbade immigration, and utterly failed to improve the economic standing of the majority compared to capitalism.

We in the Anglosphere have no illusions about the odiousness of fascism -- and it is a great and peculiar historical failure that we still harbor doubts about the odiousness of communism. For me, Clark's article is the journalistic equivalent of the clueless undergrads who wear CCCP t-shirts.

You can read interviews with some Czech political prisoners here.

Image credit: Reuters
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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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