Václav Benda’s Politics of Shared Responsibility

Through his life and writings, Czech dissident Václav Benda showed that political activity, in the highest sense, requires one to adhere steadfastly to moral principles and to take care that one’s efforts be effective. Above all one must act with and for one’s community: humbly seeking mutual understanding among community members and, as far as possible, fighting for the common good together.

In The Long Night of the Watchman: Essays by Václav Benda, 1977-1989, editor Flagg Taylor offers us the reflections of a man who possessed a rare combination of unwavering moral integrity and keen political shrewdness. A subject of communist Czechoslovakia, Václav Benda co-signed Charter 77, which demanded that public authorities follow the regime’s own laws and respect human rights. Benda served as the Charter’s spokesman at various times and helped found the Committee to Defend the Unjustly Persecuted, which supplemented the Charter. As a leading member of the Charter and a prominent dissenter, Benda was instrumental in ending communism in Czechoslovakia in 1989.

In this volume, which faithfully follows the Czech collection edited by Vaclav’s son, Patrik Benda, Flagg Taylor and translator Barbara Day provide English speakers invaluable access to Benda’s dissident writings. Taylor’s excellent introduction narrates Benda’s life as a dissident, using personal interviews with his wife, Kamila Bendova, and his son, Patrik. Taylor also thoughtfully analyzes some of the major concerns to which Benda’s writings are devoted.

By thinking through how to defeat totalitarianism, Benda provides a general model for political life: shared responsibility for the common good.

Benda’s writings provide insights into the evil of totalitarianism and the experience of living under, and struggling against, its oppression. Moreover, by thinking through how to defeat totalitarianism, Benda provides a general model for political life: shared responsibility for the common good. Through his life and writings, Benda showed that political activity, in the highest sense, requires one to adhere steadfastly to moral principles, and to take care that one’s efforts be effective in real life. Above all, one must act with and for one’s community: humbly seeking mutual understanding among community members and, as far as possible, fighting for the common good together.

Knowing the Enemy

Benda held that totalitarianism consists essentially in the suppression of freedom. Unlike other unjust and oppressive regimes, it claims to control human life in its totality, and therefore opposes all human freedom and privacy. Other tyrannies throughout history violated norms that tyrants themselves endorsed; but totalitarianism does not even concede that there might exist any authority above its own, or any sphere of human life that it cannot rightfully control. Such a regime must be incapable of genuine reform; there can be no hope for compromise.

Benda further noted that such a regime represses not only freedom, but also community and responsibility. Totalitarianism attains its unlimited control over the lives of individuals by “atomizing” every community within the state. As he observed: “The Iron Curtain [did] not just exist between the East and the West: it also separate[d] individual nations [with]in the East, . . . individual factories, individual families, and even individuals within those entities, from each other.” Totalitarianism gained power over all human affairs by sucking the life out of every other human association.

Benda believed it was naïve and dangerous to underestimate a totalitarian regime’s immense capacity for destruction. Its possession of all the power of the state gives it total dominion over the lives—in both body and soul—of all its subjects.

But Benda also perceived the weaknesses of totalitarian regimes, especially their inability either to satisfy or to destroy natural human longings. He wrote:

This fight will eventually be won, if mankind does not perish (which is possible) or if the main human instincts are not destroyed at their very foundations (which is very improbable); soon all that will remain of totalitarian power will be merely a grim and shameful episode of history.

Totalitarianism necessarily destroys life. But life can never be totally destroyed. Therefore life, and its desires for freedom, culture, fellowship, and love, pose a natural existential threat to communism. The totalitarian government of Czechoslovakia left even its own officials empty and dispirited. Although “almost boundless in the damage they [could] do,” they “[did] not have it in their power to succeed in anything or in any way.” They had no power to “[do] anything beneficial.” Such a weakness provided grounds for hope; though as long as the regime existed, Benda cautioned, its destruction was not guaranteed. It was necessary to fight, and to fight strategically.

The Parallel Polis

Benda believed the best way to fight a totalitarian regime was to supply the space for authentic life and freedom that the regime sought to eliminate. He proposed the creation of a “parallel polis,” his most celebrated contribution to the dissident movement.

Benda proposed this strategy when the Charter began to lose traction among the populace. He attributed the Charter’s loss of momentum to the fact that its abstract moral stance lacked a concrete aim. The human soul could not maintain enthusiasm for a moral cause without action; principles must be lived, and not merely believed. At the same time, he recognized that one could not try to destroy the regime, nor reform it by compromise. The former strategy would be suicide, and it “[could not] hope for public support.” The latter option likewise could not gain public support: “Given the ethics of the present regime, we cannot expect that the moral motivations of such behavior will generally be appreciated, or be in any way morally appealing.”

The human soul could not maintain enthusiasm for a moral cause without action; principles must be lived, and not merely believed.

Benda appreciated that political action must have the support of the public; otherwise, it will be ineffective and pointless. One ought not only to strive do the right thing: one must do it effectively, and in politics that requires winning over the people. To win the people one must meet them where they are. Most were less inclined than the Chartists to take the risk of opposing the government, but one must at least enlist their sympathy and other limited support. To that end, Benda proposed that the Chartists work with others to create and sustain parallel social structures, in the areas of education, culture, and economics, that could “supplement[] the generally beneficial and necessary functions that are missing in the existing [regime-backed] structures,” and “where possible,” to use the latter to “humanize them.”

Benda drew inspiration from already existing parallel structures and activities, like the “Second Culture,” an underground artistic and cultural scene, and “Samizdat,” the practice throughout communist Europe of spreading dissident literature by secret channels. He proposed to support such institutions and to create or help create new ones, such as educational seminars and an informational network. Appealing to people’s repressed natural inclinations for culture, art, education, and community, the Chartists would thus invite others to join in a less direct way in resisting the regime’s constriction of life. They would also give people hope and ameliorate their loss of community and freedom.

Politics as Shared Responsibility

While the concept of the “parallel polis” solved the particular problems of fighting a totalitarian government, it also reflects an insight into political life in general. Benda believed that the heart of community consists in sharing a community spirit, one that can bind people together despite disagreements over politics, methods, or even principles. Whether a community be a particular one or the general community of mankind, “the only community that can survive is one with a community spirit sensed as something unified and shared.”

Community for Benda consists more in shared responsibility to one another and to the truth than in shared views. Therefore, the parallel polis aimed to foster human relationships rooted in freedom and truth in opposition to the public culture of lies and manipulation. Benda used this concept also to critique western liberal societies, which, he believed, often undermined their citizens’ sense of a common responsibility by overemphasizing individual freedom. Nevertheless, Benda unambiguously rejected any attempt to equate western liberalism’s depravity with the absolute evil of eastern communism.

Philosophy—especially Aristotle’s—and religion powerfully shaped Benda’s thought (he was a devout Catholic), but so did his experience as a member of the Charter. The Charter was a diverse association, its members ranging from persecuted ex-communist and socialist opponents of the regime, to artists and intellectuals, such as the renowned Václav Havel, and to seriously religious people, including Catholics and Protestants. To sustain such a coalition required disciplined and open-minded cooperation. This effort taught Benda not only the utility but the moral value of compromising and working with others whose views were, in many ways, diametrically opposed to his own. Despite their differences, they shared deep moral concerns, such as the commitment to basic human rights and duties. Benda affectionately spoke of the Charter as a “school for politics.”

Benda’s approach to talking to those with whom he disagreed manifested his concern for the spirit of community. Benda would not water down the truth or agree to wrong or unjust ideas for fear of offending others. But, despite the firmness of his convictions, he acted with humility, respect, and openness toward those with whom he disagreed.

A great example is Benda’s stance toward socialists. Benda was absolutely opposed to socialism; he considered “even socialism with a human face” to be “a horrifying monster.” He saw not “even a grain of good in socialist ideas,” and believed that “the more they resemble[d] some other reasonable and humanly justified ideas or feelings in some respects, the more they [were] unacceptable and destructive.” Despite such convictions, Benda advocated openness and tolerance toward socialists; indeed, many of his close friends and allies were socialists. He wrote:

I would behave as considerately and tolerantly as possible toward all socialists, . . . always be prepared to meet them more than half-way, and overlook a dozen of their unbearable habits and resentments for the single human moment which would perhaps enable them to recover from their fatal enchantment.

Benda saw no alternative to dialoguing with one’s ideological opponents, both for their sake and for the sake of society:

[W]e must never write off the millions and hundreds of millions of fellow men who in one way or another succumbed to its error—the struggle for their souls will be less visible, but clearly a crucial part of our joint efforts. If we do not undertake it there would be nothing left for us but to impose the enemy’s practices of discipline and order.

As time went on, Benda became more confident that the hope for ending totalitarianism lay in reviving the community spirit. He and others witnessed the success of many parallel structures, some of which even drew international support. The Charter, for instance, gained publicity for its cause worldwide. Benda also took heart from the revival of public acts of Christian (and especially Catholic) devotion, such as two mass pilgrimages, for which many traveled far at great risk.

Benda’s reflections deserve the serious attention of all students of political life. His thoughts on totalitarianism reveal profound truths about human community and the human spirit. Moreover, Benda’s life and writings provide a model for political activity that is principled, prudent, and realistic, and that affirms that we all share responsibility for our common life.

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