Czech soft power

Photo: Peter Župník

The American political scientist Joseph Nye has provoked a great debate with his reflections on the role of soft power in foreign policy. He suggested that a state can assert its will in its relations with other states either by economic or military means (hard power), or by means of its attractiveness or sex appeal.  One might say that national states emanate charisma in that they are formed around civilizational values, a term [the late Czech philosopher] Jan Patočka coined for systems of ideas and experiences capable of being universally human by definition rather than through the assertion of the will and declaration of certain individuals. Nations emanate civilizational values, arousing interest and respect; they are global in that they break down barriers between languages and classes and awaken supranational social movements. We might simply refer to civilizational values as truths – Czech, French, German truths. They all have their own proponents and while some truths provoke bloody civil wars, others help unite nations. A demand for truths arises whenever it is necessary to explode systems of ideas whose validity has been simply asserted by authorities.

Modern nations are social movements, brought to life by the emancipating energy of civilizational values around which they are formed. Each nationalism has its own poetics, with a fascinating truth at its core that transcends the interests of oligarchies and decrees issued by authorities; from very early on the voice of a nation has also been linked with the struggle for recognition by those who are excluded, with the struggle of the parts without participation – e.g. the proletariat, the silenced minorities – to become parts with participation of a nation.

In times of emergency, when the demand for authority is rapidly on the rise, nationalisms become re-ethnicized, cutting themselves off from the truths whence they derive. However, the truths underlying nationalism cannot be silenced, they can only be drowned out.

The following statements, which [influential Czech communist historian and politician] Zdeněk Nejedlý], repeated ad infinitum in the 1950s, might serve as an example of the building of a national myth:  “‘Oh what a glorious era (Hussitism) was… glorious thanks to the great idea and the great force that the Czech nation has contributed not only to Czech history but also to the history of all mankind; in those days all of Europe knew and admired or hated the new heretic… Bohemia.”’ This statement can serve as a mathematical formula for nationalism into which various variables can be substituted. For instance: the glorious era of the French Revolution has given the history of mankind the idea of equality, as all of Europe admired or hated the revolutionary French. In their essence, statements like these convey the global appeal of our truth, which confers greatness on our nation.

We might thus say that nations, in their capacity as the most powerful social movements of the modern era, are formed around truths whose universalizing appeal enables them to gain the recognition of other nations in global public opinion – such as the great French Revolution, British constitutionalism, the American Constitution, Jan Hus at the Council of Constance, the German critique of technical civilization, the struggle of the Russian culture against nihilism; Masaryk’s democracy. These truths include in themselves their violent and degenerate versions as well as the views of their radical critics.

Let us simplify the term “‘soft power”’ and define it as universally accepted values from which power derives its legitimacy, or the support of those over whom it is wielded. In the past, both the USSR and the US have wielded exceptional soft power but they squandered it because of the immense gulf between American values and American power on the one hand and that between the values of communism and Soviet power on the other. Obama had a great opportunity to restore American soft power.

We are all familiar with the soft power of great nations – as children, we played at partisans and cowboys in the streets and later read The Catcher in the Rye, imitated Hollywood film heroes, dressed (and felt) like the beat generation, sang French chansons, studied British constitutionalism or the British philosophy of language.

Can small nations have soft power, too? Can they inject great themes into world history? In his memorable speech at the Fourth [Czechoslovak] Writers’’ Congress in 1967 Milan Kundera talked of non-self-evident nations which, unlike the great nations, have to justify their right to exist by creating civilizational values. In their case, this activity is linked to the very issue of being, which may be the reason why smaller nations (beginning with the ancient Greek polis) have shown a much greater degree of creativity (both in cultural and economic terms) than large empires. That is certainly true; however, we ought to add that the culture of small nations also tends to be slightly hysterical, as if the awareness of the fact that the creation of values is linked to the very existence or non-existence of the nation has placed too great a burden on the culture, often imposing a state-constituting self-censorship on it.

A.J. Liehm, one of the key protagonists of the Czechoslovak twentieth century, founded the journal Lettre internationale in Paris, whose mission was to fight against the parochialism of great nations. The journal was very well received and helped the intellectuals in Paris – albeit not all of them – to start perceiving the truths of small nations, particularly those of Central Europe, as a shared European civilizational value.  In a recent interview with Literární noviny, entitled Fifteen Years of History Have Been Erased, A.J. Liehm claims that the Czechs, incapable of inheriting their own past, are trying to erase it and by doing so they are destroying civilizational values created by previous generations. I believe that this denial of our past, the inability to come to terms with it as something that can only be understood but not erased, is a tragic feature of Czech history. To come to terms with one’’s past means to learn to inherit civilizational values that have formed our nation, both in terms of their claim to universal validity and their contradictions. Communism, too, was a civilizational value, its tragic mistakes containing the seeds of a truth, which over the past two centuries had illuminated many lies, helping us to see through them.

Erasing history is just a continuation of what was worst about communism – the willingness to become point zero, a new beginning.

In our modern history it is the second, post-Munich Czechoslovak Republic that offers a cautionary tale of our passion for erasing things, as intellectuals, mainly Catholic ones, chose to spit on the defeated Czechoslovakia – on [founder and first President of Czechoslovakia] Masaryk, on [writer Karel] Čapek, on [President Eduard] Beneš, on democracy. They unleashed a ruthless campaign for a return to the ethnic notion of nation, declaring Masaryk’’s humane democracy an expression of pathological megalomania that had brought about our destruction. The nation must be cleansed: “‘Our country must never again be a serpent’’s cave of cold demons, a safe lair of procurers and poisoners”’ – wrote [Catholic writer] Jaroslav Durych. And [literary critic] Ladislav Jehlička added: “‘Creep back into your hiding places like bats… and you will emerge cleansed – we will have labour camps waiting. And now keep silent, silent, silent!”’

This mania for erasure is a malady that has also afflicted our contemporary Right, making it heir to the Second Republic, as [Catholic theologian] Tomáš Halík recently pointed out. The erasure tragically weakens the Czech Republic’’s soft power – suffice it to cite the disastrous Czech EU presidency that was ushered in by the grotesque slogan ‘We’’ll show Europe! and whose cornerstone was the warning against a deepening European integration, the fight against the regulation of the market economy (I can’’t remember which European leader referred to it as the naivité of the convert) and a hypocritical post-communist anti-communism.

From what civilizational values do the Czechs derive their modest soft power in Europe?

First, I would say that the Czechs still constitute a creative part of Central European culture in the Kundera and [Claudio] Magris sense, which has profoundly influenced European understanding of the contradictions of modernity – the critique of the faith in scientific language which was meant to replace religion and all ideologies, the faith in the happy ending of history to which the new man, having discovered the laws of history, steered the helm singing a happy tune. “‘History is not the all-destroying bulldozer it is said to be / It leaves behind underpasses, crypts, gaps”’, writes Eugenio Montale.

There is something universally valid about the Czech defence of life in these gaps, in the defence of pábení [an expression coined by Bohumil Hrabal, something like palavering] and of hinternational [behind-historical] existences, as [German-speaking Czech Jewish writer] Johannes Urzidil put it, the tragicomic defence of unyielding peripheries with their view of everything and nothing, since surviving in the gaps of history was a mass experience of the twentieth century. The international reception of works by the likes of Claudio Magris, Thomas Bernhard, Joseph Roth, Milan Kundera, Bohumil Hrabal, Elfriede Jelinek and Elias Canetti proves that the Central European anti-avantgarde notion of modernity continues to be one of the vivid, bitter and irrepressible European truths, a shared European value.

Second, the reversals of fortune in Central Europe in general and in the Czech Lands in particular have been sudden and brutal, thrusting deep splinters into people’’s souls. The art of pulling these splinters out without anaesthetic is a civilizational value of our national identity, one of our national truths, similar to the awareness of “‘stains that cannot be cleaned without damaging the core of the fabric”’. Rapid alternations of chances in different times (“‘Those were different times and today the times are quite different again” – says a character in a Karel Steigerwald play) has crushed our life projects, leaving us homesick for lives which our conscience has not allowed us to live, like phantom pain in an amputated limb. This breeds the poetics of clipped wings, the solidarity with the defeated who, confused by pain, sometimes spread their clipped wings in a heroic flight that ends in a fall. Intimate Lighting, Ivan Passer’’s extraordinary film debut, is still shown all around the world and is understood everywhere.

Present-day Czech culture, intimidated by the imperative Erase the evil past! is not able to inherit this Czecho(Slovak) truth.

Third, democratic socialism. It was Milan Kundera who defended the key role this truth has played in Czecho(Slovak) identity in his famous 1969 polemic with Václav Havel. In his view, the Prague Spring was the ultimate (and, in human history, the first) attempt to create a socialism combined with the freedom of the written and spoken word, with public opinion that is being heard and policies that are based on it, with a freely evolving modern culture and people who have lost their fear. The Prague Spring is a European civilizational value because it demonstrated the enormous democratic possibilities that lie dormant in the socialist social project. However distant the zeal of Kundera’’s statement might be to us today, I believe there is truth at its core. Jan Patočka himself, the man who provided the profound philosophical rationale for Charter 77, said in his introduction to the philosophy of Czech history after August 1968, that the idea of equality taken to complete equalization, including in economic and social terms, is close to our hearts, our incorporation into the socialist bloc is understandable and consistent. Just as understandable and consistent, however, is an adherence to the universally democratizing tendency. It was for this that Milada Horáková [Czech Social Democratic politician executed in 1949 after the first political show trial following the Communist takeover] sacrificed her life.

The globalization of capitalism brought about social incommensurability ([sociologist] Jan Keller) and along with it a new understanding of the class conditioning of civil rights and liberties. The socialist project – based as it is on the link between the abstract freedom from (compulsory ideologies, censorship, authorities) and the concrete freedom to (secure the material conditions necessary for carrying out individual projects, education, healthcare, housing), as well as on the genuine equality of citizens who are not only free but also possess the means necessary to lead a free life – has regained a unique relevance.

Fourth, the legacy of Charter 77. What I have in mind here is Václav Havel’’s living in truth, the example of ethically justified civil disobedience that aroused a wave of philosophical interest in Europe in the 1980s as a more profound critique of the status quo imposed by powers-that-be than the theatrical Prague Spring and other Euro-American cultural and political funfairs.  In spite of all the derision that his truth-and-love motto has recently been the target of, Václav Havel has reopened a key question of the European legacy, i.e. the relationship between conscience and political power, between fact and norm, between legitimacy and legality, between values and institutions, between the state and civil society. Things that are legitimate are never quite legal, while what is legal is never fully legitimate – the tension between these two poles that cannot be reduced to each other must never cease, being as it is a vital principle of public space and civil society.

The notion of living in truth derives from a profound leitmotif of Czech history. Recalling the forcible conversion of the Protestants in Bohemia to the right faith following the Battle of the White Mountain, the terrible rift between conscience and religion (in [historian] Josef Pekař’s words a boundless and limitless misfortune), Cardinal Beran in his Latin speech at the Second Vatican Council contributed to a breakthrough in the acceptance of tolerance in the Catholic Church not only as the right to err but also as a precondition of human dignity without which religious faith is but a ritual.

In my book The Society of Servitude I recall [philosopher Karel] Kosík’’s interpretation of Jan Hus’’s letter from Constance. Every schoolchild used to know this letter by heart but since I doubt this is the case today, I will quote these words, which will never ring hollow in my country: A theologian said to me that everything would be good and permitted to me if I yield to the Council, adding: Should the Council pronounce that you have only one eye, even if you have two eyes you would be obliged to profess with the Council that it is the case. I replied: Even if the whole world insisted that this was the case, possessing the wisdom that I have today, my conscience would not allow me to accept it.

Karel Kosík regards this brief text as a civilizational value created by our ancestors, as an eternal truth of mankind to which we must constantly return. From the point of view of the theologian quoted by Hus reason frees us from the obligation of living in truth and from following our conscience. For him being sensible means being obedient. However, an educated man differs from a merely qualified man – such as an official or a manager – in that he does not strip away his conscience as an unnecessary scruple but, on the contrary, he follows his conscience. The Green critique of economic growth is a question of education, not skills; reducing education to skills that can be sold on the labour market is the strategic goal followed by the privatization of education.

Our Right perceives Charter 77 as nothing but a media bubble. In their view, communism was defeated by those who agreed with the theologians in Hus’’s story, pretending to profess, as the Council demanded, that they had only one eye even though they had two. In Robert Sedláček’’s documentary Tenkrát (Back Then) [Prime Minister] Václav Klaus says: Charter 77 had no appeal to me whatsoever. It was led by people whom I had no reason to respect, people linked to 1968… a world that was absolutely, lethally unacceptable to me.

The four truths I have tried to capture here are the historical sources of the Czech Republic’’s modest soft power, of our global legibility. All these civilizational values bind us tightly to European spiritual struggles, as the grand old saying goes.

Václav Klaus presents his own concept of truths which we Czechs ought to defend and from which we ought to derive our legibility for our European neighbours. He claims, among other things, that Europeans have again stopped trusting the market, again believing that state intervention is more sensible. These countries have embraced something we fought against under communism… And now we see that people who lack our experience, who lack our degree of sensitivity to these issues, are merrily pushing us back to a period that is becoming increasingly reminiscent of our past.

In fact, it is exactly the other way round. The experience of communism ought to make us allergic to unshakeable faith in systems that are blood-related brethren and that lie, starting with the names they give themselves – socialism, democracy, as Tom Stoppard says in his play Rock’’n’’Roll. It is this faith in the steadfast functioning of systems – all systems, be they a party, the market or globalization – that we need to liberate ourselves from, this is what constitutes our true lesson from the past!

Václav Klaus, on the other hand, declares: …since the essential step following the fall of communism had to be openness, a liberalizing and a deregulatory tendency, I am 100 percent certain that the same tendencies now have to prevail throughout Europe and throughout the Western world.

This appeal is just a self-centred absolutisation of the first steps during the transition that refuses to see its disastrous, unintended consequences. It is quite grotesque to elevate Czech privatization to a Czech truth from which the Czech Republic ought to derive its soft power. To me it smacks of nostalgia for the building enthusiasm of the 1990s of which Václav Klaus was the main protagonist.

The Right has tried to base Czech soft power on a fetishized national sovereignty threatened by the Brussels juggernaut, on a resistance to civil society, on the mysticism of deregulated markets, the privatization of public goods, the resistance to the Green critique of the system and an environmentally-motivated market regulation, on the defence of nuclear energy at any cost and against everyone. It is a display of rather hackneyed ideas from the 1980s that have long been disproved by globalization and that rapidly diminish our modest soft power.

I believe the Left has a great task head, that of creating a Czech cultural policy. I used to avoid this formula, often used by A.J. Liehm, which to me smacked of the past. Nowadays, however, I admit that small nations cannot manage without a cultural policy, since otherwise they cannot play their (albeit very small) global role. A cultural policy means nurturing the truths and civilizational values whose meaning is generally understood; it means creating an environment in which our truths can grow and spread, acquiring international legibility and becoming a shared European civilizational value.

The only thing that the current erasure of the past will achieve is the destruction of the civilizational values that have helped shape us as a modern nation. The Czech Right is not conservative; it is nihilist.

Translation: Julia Sherwood. The essay appeared in the Salon supplement of the daily Právo.