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Standing Up to Tyranny

books and culture

Standing Up to Tyranny

The work and sacrifices of Czech dissident Václav Benda exemplify dedication to liberty. September 13, 2018
The Social Order

The Long Night of the Watchman: Essays by Václav Benda, 1977-1989, edited by F. Flagg Taylor IV, translated by Barbara Day (St. Augustine’s Press, 344 pp., $35.00) 

We owe a debt to Flagg Taylor and Barbara Day for making Václav Benda’s remarkable anti-totalitarian writings available to English-language readers in a handsome and accessible volume. In his thoughtful introduction, Taylor convincingly argues that the Czech belongs in that small coterie of writers, thinkers, and actors—Solzhenitsyn and Havel included—who fought totalitarianism with courage and lucidity. In their distinctive ways, these great figures illuminated “the nature of their totalitarian enemy and how their battle could be fought and won.” Benda is barely known in the Western world outside his native context. But these writings ought to make his witness and achievement much more widely recognized among all those who continue to strive to understand the tragedy of twentieth-century totalitarianism. Benda, who died before age 60, was a patriot, Christian, and lover of liberty who profoundly illuminated the nature of evil in our time. He never confused his Christian faith with a call to passivity. His writings and activities played a major role in setting the stage for the annus mirabilis of 1989, the revolutionary year when Communism behind the Iron Curtain imploded. 

Benda was a thinker of great philosophical, political, and theological acumen, but he was driven out of the humanities, and then the sciences, and then the university as a whole, in the years after Soviet and Warsaw Pact tanks crushed the Prague Spring in August 1968. Like many Czech dissidents, he was reduced to becoming a stoker, a menial position at the bottom of the social hierarchy. He was something of a latecomer to Charter 77, the independent initiative of Czechoslovakian citizens (in the beginning, just 243 people signed on), who demanded that the Communist regime live up to its human rights commitments under the 1975 Helsinki Agreements. Once he joined, he committed himself with vigor and moral seriousness. He would become one of the most impressive theorists in the Czech underground, pointing realistically to a future freed from totalitarian domination. For his activities with Charter 77 (for which he was twice a spokesman) and his work with VONS (the Czech acronym for The Committee to Defend the Unjustly Persecuted), he received a prison sentence of four years, which he served from 1979 to 1983. His wife Kamila, undeterred, made the Benda flat in Prague a refuge for those harassed by the Communist party-state.  

As Taylor points out, Benda’s name will be forever associated with a 1978 samizdat essay, “The Parallel Polis,” and an even more penetrating 1985 sequel, “The Meaning, Context, and Legacy of the Parallel Polis” (chapters 11 and 19 in this volume). Havel famously called on his fellow citizens “to live in truth” and to reject the ideological lies at the heart of “really existing socialism.” That was the paradoxical source of “The Power of the Powerless,” to cite Havel’s most influential samizdat essay. Benda appreciated the existential vulnerability of a state founded on limitless ideological mendacity. But he argued for taking things a step further. Havel was right about the “natural resistance of life to totalitarianism”—that was a great ground of hope. But resistance could be contained—if not crushed—by the ideological state. What was also needed was a self-conscious effort to build an incipient civil society—parallel structures “in areas such as the economy, education, and culture.” Samizdat showed the way, and underground writing about literature, theater, music, and film revealed the beginnings of a truly independent thought that owed nothing to the repulsive orthodoxies of the Communist party-state.

Benda placed particular hopes in “new endeavors such as underground educational seminars.” In the 1985 essay, he highlighted how the totalitarian state would self-consciously have to destroy these new civic initiatives. If an incipient civil society could “constantly conquer new territory,” a “morally dangerous” situation would arise for an increasingly ossified totalitarian state that was losing its self-confidence. And when the moment of crisis came, society would listen to the “sufficiently clear” and “sufficiently authoritative” articulations of the civic and political culture arising out of—and growing strength from—the “parallel polis.” The ideological Emperor would truly have no clothes, its impotence revealed for all to see. As it turns out, Benda’s prognostications proved prophetic. With Havel, he saw the hidden vulnerabilities of a seemingly all-powerful ideological state. The two men were the most far-seeing theorists of Czech dissidence. 

Benda was a serious Catholic and a leader of the religious wing of Czechoslovakian dissidence. He believed that no real cooperation or modus vivendi could exist between the totalitarian state and a Christianity worthy of the name. Lucid essays such as “Catholicism and Politics” (1979) trace the systematic persecution and suffering of the Catholic Church in Czechoslovakia since the late 1940s. Benda admired the courage and forbearance of many Czechoslovakian Catholics, but also criticized the passivity of those who isolated themselves from the anti-totalitarian struggle. In essay after essay, Benda lamented the failure of his co-religionists to bear full witness to their civic obligations. The great evangelical commandment to “love one’s neighbor as one loves oneself” was incompatible with “pure spirituality” and a comprehensive withdrawal from civic life. Prayer and humility—authentic goods—were not sufficient responses to the evils of applied ideology. 

In “Catholicism and Politics,” Benda calls for Christians to help build a new polis that respects fellowship, the dignity of the person, and the liberties that belong to free men and women. In a thoughtful companion essay called “Responsibility in Politics and for Politics” (1986), Benda affirms the Aristotelian idea of a human being as a zoon politikon, a political animal, even as he acknowledges that the great imperative to love one’s neighbor as one loves oneself necessarily goes beyond the territorial and material limits of the polis. Human beings are both political and social animals. Benda wants to remind his fellow Christians (and apathetic participants in the technological societies of East and West more generally) that “the political or social dimension of human life is at least as rich and complicated as the private sphere.” Totalitarianism politicizes everything, yes, but in the deepest sense it mutilates the polis and the civic common good. It is ultimately anti-political. Benda reminds us that the fight against totalitarianism is necessarily a struggle for the integrity of politics, rightly understood.

I should note that while Benda is above all a serious and measured political thinker, he is not insensitive to the eschatological dimensions of the struggle between totalitarian mendacity and the defenders of the liberty and dignity of human beings. In “Responsibility in Politics and for Politics,” he affirms that there is a “black and white” dimension to the struggle against totalitarian evil. Like Solzhenitsyn, he believes that totalitarianism must be fought with “fire and sword” if it is not to triumph globally. He quotes the suggestive remarks of the underground Polish writer Maciej Poleski, who wrote that “It is possible to fight for the freedom of the Christian religion through humility and mercy.” But, Poleski added, “Christian civilization must be defended with fire and sword.”

Benda called himself a “conservative radical.” Like many Eastern dissidents, he thought modernity itself was complicit in the murderous conquest of human nature that characterized totalitarianism during its most destructive periods. He was convinced that the West was increasingly blind to the struggle between good and evil in the human soul and to the moral foundations of authentic liberty. But he abhorred the notion of “moral equivalence” between the Communist East and the liberal but decadent West. He had no sympathy for socialism or for peace movements that were blind to the real nature of totalitarian despotism. Yet, in a fascinating 1985 letter to Roger Scruton—the English conservative political philosopher who had done so much to aid the Czech underground—Benda quarreled (respectfully) with Scruton’s advice for the Czech dissidents to avoid sustained contact or cooperation with Western peace movements, many of which were naïve about the real nature of life behind the Iron Curtain.  

Benda and Scruton were close philosophically and shared a common aversion to socialism and pacifism. Yet Benda thought contact with Western peace groups was worth the effort of expanding the dialogue about peace and war beyond narrow leftist circles. He thought the “fascination of bad slogans has its limits,” and some Western peace groups might benefit from dialogue with anti-totalitarian voices in Eastern Europe. Interested readers might also see Havel’s suggestive 1985 essay, “The Anatomy of a Reticence” (in his book Open Letters), which straddles the fence between Scruton and Benda on whether dialogue ought to be pursued with such groups who. Benda’s response to Scruton is rather surprising and reveals an ecumenism in the practical judgments of this essentially conservative man. 

Perhaps Benda’s furthest-reaching insight was to recognize just how profound the social atomization promoted by “really existing socialism” was. The ideological regimes of East-Central Europe, he suggested, drove an Iron Curtain between East and West, between countries in the Eastern bloc, between regions, towns, and families—and even within the consciousness of individual souls. Totalitarian power must not only be resisted, he maintained; every effort must also be made to recover human fellowship and the sense of a polis compatible with Christian conscience. The Benda of these essays, written between 1977 and 1989, is a consistent foe of the mixture of totalitarianism, passivity, and moral nihilism that has done so much damage to political life and individual souls in the East and West. 

Benda went on to become the head of the Czech Christian Democratic party. He also actively investigated the crimes of the Communist period for seven years after the fall of Communism. That coming to terms with the past was a morally and politically necessary activity. He made some mistakes: meeting with General Pinochet when the latter visited Prague in 1994 undoubtedly hurt Benda’s credibility (he thought, not without some reason, that Pinochet had saved Chile from full-scale totalitarianism). But Benda will remain a guide for those opposed to the totalitarian temptation, who want to think deeply and seriously about a polis worthy of human beings and the civic witness appropriate to Christians seeking to sustain the civic common good.

Photo: Jorge Royan

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