A Conversation with Karel Hvizdala

By Vaclav Havel

Translated from the Czech and with an introduction by Paul Wilson

Knopf. 228 pp. $19.95

AS THE 20th century veers into its last decade, it seems only natural that intellectuals stand at the helm of Central and Eastern Europe. After all, aren't they best equipped to articulate the notion of human beings as nature's most artful creation -- and as its most endangered species?

In Hungary the interim president is Arpad Goncz, an insightful novelist, essayist and translator who was jailed for six years in the aftermath of the 1956 uprising. In Poland Prime Minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki is a former Catholic publisher and Bronislaw Geremek, Solidarity parliamentary caucus leader, is a professor of medieval history. (Keep in mind that Polish intellectuals were the first to forge the alliance between dissident intelligentsia and worker activists by founding in 1976 KOR -- the Workers' Defense Committee -- without which there would be no Solidarity and no free elections in the Eastern Bloc.) And in Czechoslovakia, Vaclav Havel -- the innovative master of the absurdist stage, to whom, in tribute, Samuel Beckett dedicated "Catastrophe," a play inspired by Havel's political stance and imprisonment -- is president.

Disturbing the Peace is a collection of Havel's spontaneous and frank conversations with Karel Hvizdala, a Czechoslovak journalist. It was completed in 1986 and issued by Edice Expedice, Havel's own samizdat, then published in Czechoslovakia in 1989 as the first samizdat to appear there legally. Whether talking about his family background or himself in real life, the dramatis personae of his plays or the harsh impact of his imprisonments, Havel comes across as an intellectual par excellence, a parliamentarian of the politics of hope. Elected president in December, today Vaclav Havel charts a new chapter in Czechoslovak history. It is fitting tribute to a man who was one of the prime pensadores of Charter 77, the unprecedented political initiative that aimed, in Havel's words, at "saying goodby forever to the principle of 'the leading role of the party.' " Charter 77 also, remarkably, united in a nonviolent, nonpartisan and ultimately open and tolerant manner masses of people of diverse backgrounds, views and occupations.

Founded in 1977 and incorporating the lesson of the 1968 Prague Spring of "what is permitted and not permitted," the Manifesto of Charter 77 culminated in the Civic Forum, the nonviolent and nonpartisan alliance that Havel brought about in November. As he relates here, the manifesto sought the humanist tradition of a midpoint between protest and consensus, conformism and idiosyncrasy, participation and withdrawal. It was as grounded in the spiritual defiance of Jan Hus, the Czech religious reformer who was the antecedent of the Protestant Reformation, as in the Jeffersonian tenet that "all men are created equal." It drew intellectual sustenance from Tomas Garrigue Masaryk, the philosopher and educator who was the first president of Czechoslovakia, and from the wisdom of Eduard Benes, sociologist and economist and Masaryk's enlightened foreign minister, who succeeded him as president of Czechoslovakia.

Motivated by Havel, who in these conversations acknowledges the role of many activists in its development, Charter 77 called for the creation of a brand-new direct counterpart to the hierarchical autocracy of communism and fascism. It was a new type of participatory democracy, "a free, informal, open community of people of different convictions, different faiths and different professions united by the will to strive individually and collectively for the respect of civil and human rights in our own country and through the world. Charter 77 is not an organization; it has no rules, permanent bodies or formal membership. It does not form the basis for any oppositional political activity."

In Disturbing the Peace, Havel reflects that, in the years that have elapsed since the making of that manifesto, as a political activist he has come to favor "an economic system based on the maximum possible plurality of many decentralized, structurally varied, and preferably small enterprises that respect the specific nature of different localities and different traditions and that resist the pressures of uniformity by maintaining a plurality of modes of ownership and economic decision-making, from private (indispensable in the area of crafts, trades, services, small business, and retail enterprises and areas of agriculture and, of course, in culture as well) through various types of cooperative and shareholding ventures, collective ownerships (connected with self-management schemes), right up to state ownership."

It is perhaps worth noting here that the theoretical demolition of the myth of the Communist Party as the vanguard of the working class began in Eastern Europe with publication in 1957 of The New Class: An Analysis of the Communist System, by another intellectual, Milovan Djilas, the communist leader who, until his imprisonment, was a vice president of Yugoslavia during the Tito regime. It is also worth contrasting Havel's hopes with Djilas's characterization of the communist system: "The Communist leaders handle national property as their own, but at the same time they waste it as if it were somebody else's. Such is the nature of ownership and government of the system."

If Disturbing the Peace merits our utmost attention, it is because these auto-reflective conversations conducted four years before Havel's unexpected presidency contain a truly Jeffersonian vision of massive social reforms. That vision, so respectful of human rights in Czechoslovakia today, could affect social change in any country that, putting up with a totalitarian establishment, is still more put off by the prospect of civil war. Novelist Jerzy Kosinski is a fellow at Timothy Dwight College at Yale University and a past president of PEN American Center.