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Vaclav Benda, Man Of Conscience

An interview with Flagg Taylor, editor of an English translation of the Czech dissident's essays

As I was researching my book The Benedict Option, someone introduced me to Flagg Taylor, a professor of political theory at Skidmore College, saying that I ought to talk to him about Václav Benda.

Who? Václav Havel I had heard of, but not Václav Benda. I reached out to Taylor, who is a specialist on Benda, to see what he could tell m. In the end, I learned so much about the Czech anticommunist — a close collaborator of Havel’s, and the only believing Christian in the Charter 77 dissident community — that I placed Benda’s ideas at the heart of my book’s chapter on politics.

Taylor is the editor of a newly published collection of Benda’s writings, titled The Long Night Of The Watchman: Essays 1977-1989 (St. Augustine’s Press). I believe the life and the thought of Václav Benda, who died in 1999, has a lot to teach us about how to live with fidelity and integrity in a civilization where both are becoming scarce. Taylor agreed to an e-mail interview, which  I publish below.

ROD DREHER: Who was Václav Benda? Why does he matter?

FLAGG TAYLOR: Václav Benda was one of the leading Czech dissidents in the Charter 77 movement in the former Czechoslovakia. He was born in 1946 and died in 1999. He was very thoughtful about the nature of the totalitarian challenge and how one ought to confront it. The totalitarian temptation is very much with us in a variety of forms so his experience and thoughts are more relevant for us than we might think. He was particularly thoughtful about what we might call the theory and practice of dissent. There is much to be gained from an appreciation of the particular circumstances in which he and his fellow dissidents operated and how they sought to live in the midst of those difficult conditions. We can learn valuable lessons about freedom by looking at how people behave in tyrannies.

The totalitarian temptation? Most of us think that went away with the death of communism. Where do you see it today?

Well, communism isn’t dead. It survives in various forms in places like North Korea, China, and Cuba. And it survives in the hearts and minds of many people who have neither experience of the phenomenon nor familiarity with its history. Many people think it remains a feasible and desirable political alternative. But most disturbingly, the totalitarian temptation survives because we remain engulfed by the same patterns of thought which serve as its precondition. The idea of the human being as a fully autonomous subject who creates his own truth and lives without limits-this is a precondition for totalitarian projects to transform human nature. Dissidents like Benda and his close ally Václav Havel understood this.

Can you expand on this? I keep hearing from contemporary Czechs, Hungarians, and Poles that they’re seeing a culture emerge in the West today that reminds them of communism. It sounds bizarre, but when you ask them to explain it, it makes perfect sense. It has to do with a militant culture of dehumanization and control disguised as a project of liberation.

Yes, I like that way of putting it. The control/liberation dynamic is certainly there. What people feel most acutely, I suspect, is the stultifying demand for conformity. As you well know, this shows itself today in a variety of contexts: elite university campuses, corporations, etc. People who identify themselves as non-conformists can be treated quite harshly, see Bret Weinstein and James Damore! But it’s a difficult thing to speak out in view of what is likely to come your way. This is why the dissident experience under communism can be so instructive and surprisingly relevant.
The dissident experience raises the question of moral agency in a particularly stark manner. The Benda family was once pressured by the party committee of their apartment building to put a Soviet flag outside of their window to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the communist takeover of 1948. They refused. They thought this anniversary was nothing to celebrate! Now many people no doubt agreed with them yet put flags out so as not to rock the boat. They rightly feared that they or their children would be punished. For these people, it was a very rational calculation-what do I care if this silly flag sits outside of my window? I’ll just close the damn curtains. Then my child will get the proper education he deserves.
However, the Bendas thought that one must always distinguish between truth and lies. They wanted their children to be able to make such distinctions. As [Benda’s wife] Kamila Bendová put it, “The most dangerous thing is when you stop distinguishing between what is right and what is wrong and a child learns to lie automatically, without even realizing he’s telling a lie.”

Now, ultimately I side with the Bendas’ view. But it’s important to recognize that the other path is far from indefensible. And we must face the question as honestly as we can: what would we have done in their shoes? Perhaps some of our present difficulties stem from our willingness to tolerate the lies of our own side because we think the lies serve some purpose. But it’s morally corrosive.

Benda’s chief contribution to the dissident movement was his idea of a “parallel polis.” In the introduction to The Long Night of the Watchman, you write: “Benda’s parallel polis was derived from his understanding of totalitarianism’s method of imposing unity on its populace. Here he was in agreement with the Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski who used the formula ‘perfect integration through perfect fragmentation.'” Explain what this means.

Like Kolakowski, Benda understood that the means for achieving the fictive totalitarian unity directed by the state included the breaking down of social bonds developed freely and naturally, from below, by the people themselves. The totalitarian state thus by turns destroyed or co-opted the independent societal organizations such churches, scouting groups, or sporting clubs. The drive for unity necessitated the stamping out of subsidiary loyalties and affections.
While this pseudo-unity was never achieved, it’s safe to say that communist regimes proved quite adept at sowing seeds of distrust and suspicion. Engaging in any sort of independent social life was risky so most people, understandably, retreated inward.
One of the disturbing lessons of the communist experience is the extent to which our social natures can be suffocated. One quick example to highlight the drastic effects of this distrust: Mrs. Bendová said that after her family became widely known as dissidents, she would often try to avoid eye contact with her friends on the street, so as not to implicate them in her oppositional stance. She thought that whether or not to take that stance should be their decision alone, not the product of a momentary interaction on the street!
This leads to Benda’s great insight. Charter 77 was an organization devoted to publicity and the rule of law. It pledged to shine a light on the misdeeds of the communist regime and speak of its lawlessness openly. But Benda saw that this would be a difficult enterprise to sustain in terms of attracting more and more people into the fold. The Charter should also fight the regime at a deeper level.
Benda thought that people needed to be reminded of what they had lost with communism, that the Charter could help foster the rediscovery of meaningful social life. This is what he called the parallel polis. The Charter community ought to dedicate itself to developing parallel social structures to the official ones. This would reactivate people’s social natures. They could rediscover the deep rewards of friendship and devotion.
It’s funny, as Benda explains in chapter 19 of the book, although this is what he is most known for, the original parallel polis essay was produced in haste. There was a meeting of the leaders of Charter 77 in 1978 which Benda, a relative newcomer, was asked to attend. The attendees were asked to write up some thoughts on the future of the Charter. As the eager new guy, Benda showed up as the only one to have done the homework! But his essay provoked a tremendous amount of thought and discussion. We see this in Havel’s now famous essay, “The Power of the Powerless,” which discusses Benda’s concept.

What does Benda’s “parallel polis” concept have to do with us in our time and place? What can we learn from it?

Well, as you note in The Benedict Option, there are some disturbing trends in liberal democratic countries that leave people with a sense of isolation and meaninglessness which is not altogether different from the difficulties that Benda thought he had to confront. Of course the mechanisms for how this strange psychology is produced are not the same. But I think what Tocqueville calls “individualism” in Democracy in America is a more moderate version of what people experience in totalitarian regimes. So in a sense the nurturing and sustaining of people’s “relational” natures (to use the terms of the late great Peter Lawler) is part of our challenge today.

There are two ways in which our situation is perhaps more complicated. First, today people’s isolation is simply chosen to a far greater extent than under communism. It’s something they do to secure their own good. They don’t recognize it as a problem but rather as the very condition for securing their happiness. Whether it really does so is another question.

Second, isolation and loneliness make people susceptible to pernicious forms of pseudo-community that demand the erasure of one’s conscience. The flip side of hyper-individualism is various forms of collectivism that purport so satisfy our longing for community. Hence the various kinds of identity politics we see flourishing in this country today. George Orwell saw this quite clearly. In a review of Mein Kampf, he wrote, “Hitler, because in his own joyless mind he feels it with exceptional strength, knows that human beings don’t only want comfort, safety, short working-hours, hygiene, birth control, and, in general, common sense; they also, at least intermittently, want struggle and self-sacrifice, not to mention drums, flags and loyalty parades.” The yearning for belonging, for community is real. If it goes unacknowledged or if it’s not met with decent and noble possibilities, it should be no surprise that this longing will find ugly and base outlets.

David Brooks’s recent column talks about the sense of powerlessness and anomie that Millennials are living with. Reading it, I thought, “These young Americans are looking for a parallel polis.” (I blogged on it here.) Can you give some examples of what a parallel polis in our place and time might look like? That is, if you were advising alienated Millennials on how Václav Benda could help them find their way out of the dark wood, what would you tell them?

That’s a tough but fascinating question.
There is an essay in the book called “Responsibility in Politics and for Politics” which was written as a response to younger dissidents seeking advice from Charter 77 veterans like Benda. One thing he says there strikes me as very relevant to today. “If we take into account that although politics is unthinkable without morality and without certain theoretical foundations, it would be an error to confuse politics with mere moral posture (assumed as far as possible behind the carefully sealed door of one’s own privacy) or the mere presentation of Utopias and abstract considerations…if we take into account that the raison d’etre of politics is action in coordination with others in the affairs of the community, then this argument gains in importance.”
Politics as private moral posture or empty utopian exhibitionism remain powerful temptations today. And I would add apolitical cynicism to that list. These temptations are enabled, it seems to me, precisely by what Brooks discovers in these conversations with young people: the lack of knowledge and genuine understanding about our country’s principles, its institutions, and its past. Genuine civic education would go a long way to improving young people’s attitudes about their role in their various communities.
Participation in politics (in the broad sense of the term) requires virtues like gratitude, respect, and humility-these are not on display in the mindset of the activist (which is the model that is often put forward for what citizenship is supposed to look like). The activist is committed, unyielding, and passionate. Benda’s articulation of politics is quite different, “Politics is not the distillation of previous experiences, but rather the will to go on learning; it is not a prepared program but rather the search for a path in complicated and rapidly changing conditions. In my opinion politics cannot, either today or tomorrow, do without humility…without humility with regard to reality, to the dignity of our neighbors (even the worst of them), and to their opinions (even the craziest).”
What would the parallel polis look like? Well, key to answering that question, using Benda’s concept, might be that we must first distinguish genuine community from its phantom forms. Institutions that are part of the parallel polis ought to exhibit certain characteristics that make them quite different from empty forms of belonging which seem to be proliferating today. Genuine communities foster fellowship-affection for and dedication to one another. There is reciprocity in terms of contributions made and benefits gained. Individual perspectives are both valued and challenged. Natural authority is allowed to show itself. Character and intellectual formation occurs.
I’m speculating here. You won’t find any of this explicitly in Benda, but he was very attentive to our social and political natures and how communism attacked this. These rich forms of community, when they do come alive, stand out in the surrounding morass. If your readers haven’t read Roger Scruton’s novel, Notes from Underground, they should (see my review here). The novel, set in Czechoslovakia in the 1980s, contains a beautiful description of the world of underground philosophy seminars.

Benda’s essay “Back To Christianity And Politics” is hard on the Vatican’s 1970s “Ostpolitik” outreach to the Communist regimes of eastern Europe. Why was Benda, as a faithful Catholic, so critical of Rome’s initiative — and what do you think he would have to say today to Pope Francis’s overtures to the Chinese government? In his essay, Benda says it would be better for the Vatican to leave bishops’ seats “unoccupied rather than entrust them to henchmen of quite a different power and interests.” But Francis is reportedly prepared to give Beijing naming rights to China’s bishops.

The situation in Czechoslovakia in the 1970s contains important lessons for China today. In Czechoslovakia of that time, the Communist Party made sure there were collaborationist priests and bishops. The Party exerted control over the seminary as well. They left many parishes without priests and made it costly for people of faith to actually live their faith. There was a state-sponsored clerical organization called Pacem in Terris.
Now, there were faithful priests around (such as Josef Zvěřina, about whom Benda writes in the book), many of whom had spent long years in labor camps in the 1950s but who’d been released during the brief thaw in the mid to late 1960s. But they were deprived of their state license to practice their vocation. This led to an elaborate and vibrant underground church. Priests were ordained not by official bishops, but often in Poland or East Germany (as a Cardinal in Krakow the future John Paul II would ordain some of these priests). There were even underground bishops. Some feared that there was a crackdown coming on the official church so the faithful must prepare themselves for any eventuality. Benda saw no reason why the Vatican should do anything to legitimize the corruption of the Church at the hands of the state. He knew one couldn’t be a faithful Christian and a communist-it was as simple as that. He and some other faithful Catholics had an important influence on Cardinal Tomášek, the Archbishop of Prague, whom Benda writes about in chapter 8 and some other places in the book.
Things changed under John Paul II. In 1982 the Vatican issued a decree which prohibited priests from belonging to political organizations like Pacem in Terris. So we can be fairly sure that Benda would not be in favor of Pope Francis’s willingness to accommodate China’s intentions with regard to the church.

How did Benda’s Catholicism set him apart from his colleagues in the dissident movement’s leadership?

Well, it was the convention in Charter 77 to have the three spokespersons represent three groups: people of faith, the secular, artistic and intellectual contingent, and former party members and people on the left. So these important differences in political views and faiths were openly acknowledged. And it seemed not to cause any insuperable problems for the Charter!
This is an important lesson for us today. In fact, there was an offshoot of the Charter called VONS, the Committee to Defend the Unjustly Persecuted. Benda was one of the leaders of this group as well and his closest collaborator was Petr Uhl, a Trotskyite. Now, that’s not to say there were not vigorous and difficult disagreements amongst the Charter community (see, for example, the question of how the Charter should deal with the peace movements in Western Europe in the 1980s — this is what Benda’s letter to Roger Scruton is about). But they managed to work together and identify common principles and plans of action. It would be difficult to imagine a more unlikely and strange pair than Benda and Uhl.

One of the most provocative essays in the entire book is “The Family and the Totalitarian State,” in which Benda discusses the central importance of the traditional family in society. He wrote it in 1987-88, but to read it three decades later, with the family in such terrible shape as an institution, shakes one to the core. Talk briefly about how Benda saw the family in terms of socialization. Do you agree that it’s startling to see how we in what was at that time called the “free world” have achieved in terms of destroying the family what the communists dreamed of doing?

Yes, I’d agree. That essay on the family has one of the more beautiful passages in the book. It’s his vision of what the family at its best offers. Here’s Benda:

“The first gift illustrated here is the fruitful fellowship of love, in which we are bound together with our neighbour without pardon by virtue simply of our closeness; not on the basis of merit, rights and entitlements, but by virtue of mutual need and its affectionate reciprocation…The second gift is freedom, given to us so absolutely that even as finite and, in the course of the conditions of the world, seemingly rooted beings, we are able to make permanent, eternal decisions; every marriage promise that is kept, every fidelity in defiance of adversity, is a radical defiance of our finitude, something that elevates us-and with us all created corporeally-higher than the angels. The third and final gift demonstrated in family fellowship is the dignity and unique role of the individual. In practically all other social roles we are replaceable and can be relieved of them, whether rightly or wrongly. However, such a cold calculation of justice does not reign between husband and wife, between children and parents, but rather the law of love.”

Finally, what is Benda’s legacy in the Czech Republic today? How is he remembered — or is he remembered at all?

This question of the legacy of Benda and the dissidents more generally is a difficult one. It’s hard to say. Many of these former dissidents became politicians after 1989, Benda included. So they gained reputations based on their political activity in the 1990s and 2000s, which of course affected how people might see their legacies and personal histories before the collapse of communism. That past is also still very recent. For many people, the dissidents are reminders of their own failings during the communist era. So how to view the communist era gets wrapped up in the political disputes and alliances of the present.

Last November I heard Václav Klaus give a speech at the Library of Congress. There was a conference to discuss the centennial anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution. Klaus, former president of the Czech Republic and old antagonist of Václav Havel, began by discussing how communism simply “melted away.” He said that nobody defeated it and we should be wary of “self-justifying narratives” that suggest otherwise. This was clearly a shot at former dissidents. Klaus never did anything to resist communism. So clearly the communist past has left wounds that refuse to heal.

That said, I think young people in the Czech Republic are quite interested in this history and want to understand it. There is an interest in those who acquitted themselves with honor and dignity.

The Benda family at home