Czech Political Culture in the 1990s

In this brief talk, I would like to deal with two topics. Firstly; what is the current state of Czech civilisation and Czech political culture? How might these differ from these political cultures and civilisations which prevail in the West, particularly in Great Britain? Secondly, has Czech literature ever reflected on these differences, endeavouring to come to terms with them?

Superficially it would appear that economically, politically and culturally, Czech society is probably the most successful, and the most stable, of all post-communist societies. But closer examination reveals that even Czech society has been deeply traumatised by almost forty-five years of communist totalitarianism and finds itself, even now, more than five years after the democratic revolution, in a state of serious chaos and confusion.

The essence of my talk is primarily drawn from personal experience gained in Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic over the past six years, during which time my work as a journalist has brought me into contact with people from all walks of life. However, there is a relatively extensive body of literature, defining the basic characteristics of people forced to live under left-wing or right-ring dictatorships for many decades. This literature lends a more general, objective background to my personal experiences. Some authors have labelled the type of person who has emerged from many years of East European communism as 'homo sovieticus'. In my view, it is one of the most interesting questions of today, highly relevant both for East and West, to study what happens when 'homo sovieticus' is suddenly required to adapt him or herself to the conditions of a market economy and Western-style democracy.

The current situation in the Czech Republic would appear to have shaken many illusions that Czech intellectuals have held about their nation. The Czechs have always prided themselves on their highly sophisticated literature and culture. As in the case of the Welsh nation in recent times, the Czechs at the beginning of the nineteenth century literally resurrected their language as a vehicle of cultural and intellectual discourse. By the end of the 18th century, the German language had taken over from Czech in Bohemia as an instrument of literate communication. In the 19th century, the articulate Czech national identity had been resurrected not by business expansion, not by scientific discovery, but by an extraordinary flowering of Czech national culture. Hence, for most of the twentieth century, the Czechs have defined themselves through their culture, based on a very high moral code, summed up by the slogan of Czechoslovak presidents "Truth prevails", and put succinctly by Tomas Masaryk, first president of the pre-war democratic Czechoslovak Republic, when he said that the life of the Czechs and Slovaks should be guided by two simple commandments: "Do not be afraid" and "Do not steal." Masaryk was a philosopher in presidential office, but his highly ethical attitude was based on a centuries-long tradition of Czech literature which, from the fourteenth century onwards, was, for a long time virtually obsessed with the concepts of right and wrong and with the principles of proper moral living.

The situation now seems different. It is hard to tell whether there have always been fatal flaws in the Czech national character or whether the current situation is primarily a direct result of four decades of communist rule, of which the last, the 1980s, was undoubtedly the most destructive.

There are signs that even before the Nazi and communist totalitarian scourges all was not well with the social attitudes of the Czechs. Indigenous commentators from the beginning of the century, such as Karel Capek, Jan Patocka, Ferdinand Peroutka and F. X. Salda, complained bitterly of various defects in the national character. These writers were mostly concerned that the prolonged history of the subjugation of the small Czech nation, dating back to the catastrophic defeat of the Czech Protestants in the Battle of the White Mountain in 1621, at the beginning of Thirty Years' War, had brought about fatal flaws in the Czech national character. According to pre-war Czech commentators, the Czechs had developed a subservient, slave mentality, being unable to stand up for their rights openly, thus seeking to achieve their ends by indirect means, often by deceit. Selfishness, rather than public-spiritedness, was the order of the day. Karel Capek complained in the 1920s that Czech society was unable to cultivate the art of objective, logical public debate and that it tended to succumb to fruitless, superficial emotional argumentation, perpetually complaining without ever attempting to take action to set things right. After 1968, Erazim Kohak, then Professor of Philosophy at Boston University, pointed out that these negative features should not be regarded as inherently Czech, being typical of all communities living under oppression. In earlier times, these so-called Czech attitudes were apparently widespread in the oppressed black communities of the American South. However, if pre-war commentators complained that the Czechs had acquired a slave mentality during the decades of the Habsburg oppression, later writers pointed out that the Nazi occupation and subsequent communist totalitarianism caused slave mentality features almost totally to overwhelm the Czech national character.

There is another aspect to this. When I arrived in Great Britain seventeen years ago, I quickly noticed that the British intellectual elite is not accorded the same superficial respect as is the case in Central Europe - in fact many ordinary British people seemed to regard academics as mildly eccentric. In spite of this, the ideas of the British elite did percolate throughout society very effectively, by some curious, indirect means. There was a relatively firm framework within which British intellectuals set the nation's agenda, defined its problems and attempted to solve them. A British plumber might not perhaps consciously know anything about contemporary British philosophy and would probably even regard philosophy as being irrelevant to his life. Nevertheless, it was apparent that the plumber's day-to-day practical life was in many ways guided by the philosopher's thoughts, even though the plumber was not aware of this. In a similar indirect way, for instance themes from modern contemporary art percolated through Britain from creative innovators to members of the general public via television advertising.

By contrast, in communist Czechoslovakia, superficial Central-European respect was still being accorded to intellectuals well into the 1980s. However, this had merely degenerated into yet another empty ritual. All communication links between the national elite and the man in the street had been ruthlessly cut. The Nazis were the first to realise that intellectuals were a danger to totalitarianism, and, as Vaclav Cerny states in his memoirs, they launched a direct, ruthless assault on the two most 'subversive' strata of the Czech nation: the intelligentsia and the army. Nazi rule was however too short to complete the task. That was achieved later by the communists.

Under communism, an intellectual had two choices: to conform to communist propaganda and relinquish all attempts at original, independent thought, thus submitting to emasculation and enforced silence, or to defy the totalitarian authorities, become a non-person and risk physical annihilation. Either way the lines of communication between the intellectual 'head' of the nation and its 'body', the ordinary people, were blocked. Without the head as a guiding force, the decapitated body of the Czech nation blindly and aimlessly stumbled off track during the decades of communist rule, into a dead end, being tempted materially, even under the cloak of communist ideology, towards various consumerist vices. Under communism, people had to abdicate their adulthood. They filled their lives instead with various displacement activities.

In the 1980s, the totalitarian system in Czechoslovakia became relatively weak, allowing a community of independent intellectuals, so-called dissidents to emerge and exist in an isolated ghetto. These dissidents could do almost nothing else but write. Their enormous output shows how different their civilisation had become from the value system of the rest of society, that blind, beheaded body which had stalked off without direction. Even on a purely formal level, by its stylistic sophistication, the writing of many of the dissidents retained continuity with the mature Czech culture of pre-communist times, while the writing of the pro-communist authors was not only dross in form, but also in content.

But, with hindsight, it now appears that the task of the dissident, anti-communist writers was simple. It is always easier to fight against oppression than to unite to support any constructive programme. Czech dissidents fought for human rights. This struggle appeared to have a universal humanist theme. The works of Czech dissident authors seemed to be written in a common, internationally understood language. These were pressing, intense accounts of concrete individual experiences, which somehow managed to get very close to the universal essence of life. It seemed from the West that Czech dissident writers, oppressed by the Communists, shared a common cultural heritage with the Western elite and were effectively a part of Western civilisation.

With the fall of communism, it became apparent that this was actually not the case. While the frame of reference of Czech dissident intellectuals was undoubtedly closer to Western civilisation than the cultural frame of reference of the headless, degenerate body of the bulk of society, it was still very far indeed from, for instance, Anglo-Saxon independent debate and discourse. Moreover, the fall of communism shocked and confused the Czech dissident intellectuals. The new landscape was unfamiliar to them. They quickly became disorientated. The fact that their value system differed greatly from the 'civilisation' of the 'headless body of society' was now a serious problem.

And then something very interesting happened. The 'headless body of society', which had been craving the most primitive pleasures of Western society (although unable to show this openly since it paid lip service to communist ideology), overwhelmed its alienated 'head', the dissident intellectuals, the only independent elite in the country. After a short spell during which dissident politicians ruled Czechoslovakia in a temporary power vacuum, the electorate voted most of them out of office. Ordinary people were not prepared to accept their values. For many of them these values were too complex, for most of them they were simply too alien.

Under communism, there were a number of non-dissidents, intelligent, relatively well-educated people, who were quietly trying to do good work in their fields for the benefit of society, for the day communism falls. These people are still working in this way, however, they have no national voice and they have very limited access to the media and to official office. Furthermore, they are isolated from one another. If it were possible to create a network for these people where they could publicly exchange ideas and coordinate their activities in order to increase their impact, this would be a significant step towards the creation of civil society in the Czech Republic.

What kind of civilisation has prevailed in the Czech Republic in the five years since the fall of communism?

Under communism, official propaganda informed people in Czechoslovakia that everything in the West was bad. Because nobody believed the communists, most people automatically assumed the opposite: that everything in the West was good. Thus with the fall of communism the Czechs enthusiastically and uncritically embraced the most crass aspects of life in the West that had been long denied to them. Theirs has been basically a heathen attitude. They have forgotten the central Christian belief: namely that this world is an imperfect and basically inhospitable place which can only be made fit for living if we incessantly strive to improve it, if we fight against its imperfections.

Life in a Western democracy depends on the existence of an active civil society, the direct involvement of individual citizens in the running of their country primarily by means of a myriad of civic organizations and associations. In the Czech Republic, civil society has not come into being. The Czech premier Vaclav Klaus, whose beliefs paradoxically combine certain tenets of Thatcherism with remnants of communist belief in the importance of the state above individual citizens, positively discourages the idea of the independent involvement of citizens in public affairs, outwith the framework of official political parties. Like Margaret Thatcher, Mr. Klaus accepts the concept of the individual citizen, whom he sees hopefully, as a potential entrepreneur, and disdains the concept of society. 'Look to it that each of you, individually, gets rich,' says Mr. Klaus to his citizens. 'Business is what matters and morals are irrelevant in business, where the market principle rules.'

Many people in the Czech Republic have eagerly and uncritically embraced this ideology. It is as if there were an insatiable hunger, after almost fifty years of communism, to do exactly as Mr. Klaus preaches. On the other hand, there are many young people who are instinctively looking for some spiritual and philosophical guidance, with little success.

One of the greatest problems in the Czech Republic now, if not the greatest problem of all, is that the Czech media are very weak, and ineffectual.

Independent journalism provides the most important nutrition for society's inevitable self-reflection. The institution of independent journalism is almost totally lacking in the Czech Republic. Newspapers either regurgitate verbatim reports of statements by government ministers, rarely comparing them with independent views. Or they present fragmented, superficial information about various scandals in public life. These are never properly investigated and never systematically followed up. Primarily as a result of low quality journalism, confusion reigns in the Czech Republic. There are no received, independent civilisational standards. The role of Czech intellectuals in society is now minimal. Another problem is demographic. People who have had high quality education and could have served finally, after the fall of communism, as a link between the relatively high cultural standards of the pre-war Republic are almost all retired or dead. The educational standards of the younger generation are generally not high.

A recent debate in the Observer newspaper defined the British working class lifestyle by the concepts of diffidence, self-restraint (which includes lack of open debate) and conformity to superimposed rules. The debate associated British middle class lifestyle with the concepts of choice and freedom, open discussion and highly valued education. The life of most of Czech society seems undoubtedly guided by the principle of constraint. Czech people are still used to deferring to regulations imposed from above, just as in totalitarian times. From the times of communism they are also used to lack of open debate. The ostensibly British middle class concepts of 'choice and freedom', open debate and highly valued education and trust at the heart of the social contract between the professions and society seem to be non-existent in Czech society. It leads one reluctantly to the conclusion that communism in Czechoslovakia succeeded in turning most of society into proletarians. This seems to be a natural consequence of the rule of mediocrity and the elimination of spontaneous, independent thought processes in an attempt to impose artificial controls on reality.

Even official statistics seem to confirm this view. Even now, only some 20 percent of Czechs receive secondary education. Only 17 percent receive university education. The government has no plans significantly to increase the number of university students. It is introducing fees for university education, which will undoubtedly even further limit access to university study.

A few years before the fall of communism, the Czech dissident writer Eva Kanturkova circulated a samizdat essay in which she commented on the journey of her young son-in-law to the West. The young man came back from the West with a clutch of experiences, documenting that, as he said, 'somehow their civilisation is now totally different from others. They live in a different era.'

Has Czech literature ever attempted to map out these differences? It certainly is not doing it now: travelling to the West for longer periods of time, a requirement for absorbing Western civilisation, is very expensive and hence inaccessible to most Czech writers. However, there was a time when Czech literature was interested in comparing its own culture with that of the West. From the 1970s onwards, small independent Czech publishing houses in the West brought out original works by authors banned in Czechoslovakia. The output of these publishing houses has been generally labelled 'émigré literature'.

This is a misnomer. It is in fact very difficult to define émigré literature. Many books brought out by the Czech publishing houses in the West were written by samizdat authors in Prague. The idea of an exiled writer, commenting on the situation in his country somehow 'from afar' does not really work in this electronic age, either. I would like to offer a tighter definition of Czech émigré literature. It should include those works which compare and contrast their experience of life in the West with their experience of life under communism. The first names that spring to mind are those of Josef Skvorecky and Milan Kundera, but there were others.

Moving from the communist East to the capitalist West usually involved a traumatic psychological transition because the individual needed to adjust to a radically different outlook, the philosophy and mentality of an unknown environment, usually in a situation of deep uncertainty about one's future.

Perhaps Czech émigré literature par excellence is specifically that literature which attempts to map out different stages of psychological transformation, the process of acquiring knowledge of one's own new environment, as Jaroslav Hutka put it, the process of 'being born, but this time without childhood'. Karel Hvizdala's book of interviews with twenty Czech writers living in the West published in 1981 provides a valuable introduction to this problem because it features conversations with authors who find themselves at differing stages of this assimilation process.

In conclusion, I will mention the most important writers who in the 1970s and 1980s started comparing life in communist Czechoslovakia with life in the West. Using comedy and surrealist inspired caricature, often of a linguistic nature, Josef Skvorecky compared life under Nazism and communism in Central Europe with the value system of contemporary Canadians, amongst whom his alter ego, Danny Smiricky, landed up. In Scherzo Capriccioso, Skvorecky compared life in Bohemia in Dvorak's time with life in the United States, the linking theme being Dvorak's stay in America in the 1890s. Milan Kundera, a highly sophisticated author who has always set great store by knowledge, erudition and philosophical argument, reacted to Western consumerism by radically simplifying his style and adopting certain features of open didacticism. Kundera is even more critical in his work towards the West than Josef Skvorecky. His attitude displays perhaps the typical predicament of an East European expatriot. Eastern Europe in Kundera's work is intolerable because it is totalitarian. Western Europe is intolerable because it is absurd, degenerate and impotent.

There are some authors who have consciously tried to record the process of psychological change which takes place in the individual after he leaves the East. One of the most interesting works in this respect is a collection of carefully styled texts by Vlastimil Tresnak, originally a protest singer, but truly an author of many talents entitled The Bermuda Triangle (1986). Another Czech protest singer, Jaroslav Hutka, also produced an interesting record of his adaptation to the West, in a book of feuilletons, entitled A Fire in a Second-Hand Shop. The Second-hand shop was the emotional and nationalistic garbage, the myths with which every Czech is normally emburdened. Hutka literally enraged some members of the Czech émigré community by looking at the predicament of his native land from a new, Western point of view. Here is one of Hutka's typical pronouncements that would enrage the émigré community: 'Surely a struggle against a dictatorship is not yet a free existence. In fact, such a struggle is only one of the manifestations of a dictatorship. What we must be creating is a free world, not just an anti-communist world.' Another typical 'émigré' writer, who compared Czech civilisation with that of the West in his stories and novels was Jaroslav Vejvoda.

A critic cannot obviously prescribe themes to writers. Nevertheless, it is a pity that the examination of Czech civilisation, in contrast to the civilisation in the West, which started in the 1980s because many Czech authors were forced to leave their native country, has not continued. The examination of the difference between the Czech way of life and the Western way of life is currently one of the most topical themes that should be studied, especially now that the Czech Republic is trying to join the European community.

However, the role of Czech literature seems to have diminished since the fall of communism and it is a question whether, in a new situation, literature can once again assume the role of the national conscience which it used to play in the past.

To recapitulate: at the beginning of the 19th century, Czech literature and culture helped give birth to the modern Czech nation. After the initial impetus, the role of consolidating the Czech nation towards the end of the 19th century was overtaken by business and industry. Free discourse, providing a feeding ground for social self-examination, continued to be conducted by the intellectual elite, whose ideas influenced the ethos of society in an indirect, powerful way, as happens in Britain. Communist totalitarianism destroyed the relationship between the independent Czech elite and the nation and seriously undermined the elite itself. Czech intellectuals find it difficult in the current state of flux to find a language, comprehensible to society by means of which they could re-establish their relationship with society.