Mon 29 November 2021

Julian Petley looks back to the Soviet oppression of Czechoslovakia and the dissidence of the playwright Václav Havel for an understanding of the Post-Truth ideology of Donald Trump and Boris Johnson

In the May 2021 print edition of Byline Times, Anthony Barnett wrote a malediction on “The People’s Democracy of Johnsonia”, in which “teachers in schools, the journalists who publish the images of the Great Leader, civil servants, broadcasters, say what they need to say – but they don’t believe in what they are saying”. MPs and civil servants with integrity are dismissed, planning is governed by kick-backs, public money is dished out to companies run by government cronies, and declarations about the importance of law and order go hand-in-hand with courts being run down and starved of resources.

Meanwhile, most newspapers simply ignore these outrages – all the while, of course, insisting on the vital importance of ‘press freedom’ – and life is characterised by “a pervading sense of helplessness and private melancholia”.  

This reminded me of another country in the not so distant past. A place where “fear of being prevented from continuing their work leads many scientists and artists to give allegiance to ideas they do not in fact accept, to write things they do not agree with or know to be false”.

Where “so many public and influential positions are occupied, more than ever before, by notorious careerists, opportunists, charlatans, and men of dubious record”, by people who are “willing to support anything as long as it brings them some advantage”. 

Where, as a result of the shocks of recent history and the system established in their wake, people have lost “any faith in the future, in the possibility of setting public affairs right, in the meaning of a struggle for truth and justice. They shrug off anything that goes beyond their everyday, routine concern for their own livelihood; they seek ways of escape”. 

An instrumental conception of truth is precisely what characterised post-totalitarian regimes

In this benighted place, these ways lead inwards, for the more people abandon any hope of general reform and lose faith in being able to exercise any real influence on the external world, the more they become preoccupied with themselves, their families and their homes: “It is there that they find rest, there that they can forget the world’s folly and freely exercise their creative talents … In short, they turn their main attention to the material aspects of their private lives”.

Living the Lie

What we have here is a critique of the state of Czechoslovakia in the mid-1970s. The writer is Václav Havel, in an open letter to Dr Gustáv Husák, who replaced Alexander Dubćek as leader of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia in 1969 and remained in power until 1987.   

I knew about this place, as I had been a regular visitor to it since 1968 when I actually witnessed the early stages of its invasion by the forces of the Warsaw Pact.

I was first struck during the dog days of Thatcherism by the parallels between this dystopia and the UK, particularly in the light of her regime’s determination to impose a new form of political, economic and ideological “common sense” and to delegitimise and deracinate those who resisted this process. This involved a bleak and seemingly endless kulturkampf against what came to be known as the “chattering classes” (obvious forebears of the currently hated “woke”), a war in which The Sunday Times under Andrew Neil played a major role. In the process, many of its targets either went into a form of “inner emigration” or, willingly or unwillingly, fell into line.     

Of course, to compare two different countries at two different points in time is fraught with difficulties. In particular, to draw parallels between Husák’s Czechoslovakia and Johnson’s Britain is to invite the riposte that the former was not a democracy in the accepted western sense whereas the latter is, however imperfect some may find it. But equally, Czechoslovakia, for all the oppressive qualities of its political system, was not the same as the Soviet Union at its most Stalinist, which is why Havel repeatedly referred to it as a “post-totalitarian” state.

As Havel argued in his 1978 essay ‘The Power of the Powerless’, the Soviet bloc had by then ceased to be an enclave isolated from the West and immune to the processes occurring within it. Indeed, it was an integral part of that larger world, whose values had already thoroughly penetrated it. In his view, it was “simply another form of the consumer and industrial society, with all its concomitant social, intellectual, and psychological consequences. It is impossible to understand the nature of power in our system properly without taking this into account”. 

Havel argues that “the post-totalitarian system touches people at every step, but it does so with its ideological gloves on”. Here the ideology consists not of hammered-home Stalinist diktats but, rather, of a whole system of mystifications about the beneficence of the government, the importance of freedom of expression and other human rights, the fairness of the legal system, and so on and so forth.

Individuals are not required to believe in all of these, but “they must behave as though they did”. This means that “they must live within a lie. They need not accept the lie. It is enough for them to have accepted their life with it and in it. For by this very fact, individuals confirm the system, fulfil the system, make the system, are the system”. 

This in turn connects back to Havel’s critique of consumerism in that, in his view, people’s adaptation to living a lie is connected with “their vulnerability to the attractions of mass indifference”. But this also causes him to wonder whether, “in the end, is not the greyness and the emptiness of life in the post-totalitarian system only an inflated caricature of modern life in general?”. Indeed, he goes so far as to argue that the characteristics of life in post-totalitarian societies should serve as a warning to the West by “revealing to it its own latent tendencies”.

From Normalisation to Hypernormalisation

Paradoxically, whilst many on the Right in the UK were exploiting the fate of Czechoslovakia to propagandise on behalf of values that would come to be labelled ‘Thatcherite’, the country’s leading dissident was mounting a sustained critique of consumerism that strongly echoed western thinkers on the left such as Daniel Boorstin (The Image) and Herbert Marcuse (One Dimensional Man).

But Havel’s strictures on consumerism were only one aspect of a much wider critique of the western parliamentary democracies, in which “people are manipulated in ways that are infinitely more subtle and refined than the brutal methods used in the post-totalitarian societies”. 

Such political systems he criticised as a “static complex of rigid, conceptually sloppy, and politically pragmatic mass political parties run by professional apparatuses”’ which released the citizen from “all forms of concrete and personal responsibility”.  These exist alongside the “complex focuses of capital accumulation engaged in secret manipulations and expansion; the omnipresent dictatorship of consumption, production, advertising, commerce, consumer culture”, and a flood of information.

Of course, Havel was writing long before the coming of the internet, which has swelled the information flood into a tsunami. This has enabled the global spread of dis- and mis-information and the arrival of what some have argued is the ‘post-truth’ era. One consequence of this deluge is that for ruthless politicians such as Trump, and to a lesser extent Johnson, ‘truth’ is whatever suits their political purposes at any given moment.

But such an instrumental conception of truth is precisely what characterised post-totalitarian regimes. As Paul Wilson, the original translator of ‘The Power of the Powerless’, has argued in an issue of the journal East European Politics & Societies devoted to Havel’s essay, now that  “trumpeting outright lies appears to be a more effective route to gaining and holding onto political power than deploying verifiable facts” we need to ask whether “the practice of the big, persistent lie [will] prove so effective a tool of dominance that it will become institutionalised, creating a world in which mendacity becomes first the norm and then the rule?”.

Will democratic institutions cease to serve people’s interests and become instead instruments of maintaining and extending power? And, if so, will it lead people to forego their real interests and, instead, to “embrace an illusory democracy, if only to protect themselves by a show of loyalty to the system or the people running it? Will ‘living within the lie’ become ‘the new normal?’”.

In his introduction to The Power of the Powerless which, demonstrating its contemporary relevance, was published in book form in 2018, Timothy Snyder argued that “the continuity between communism and our world is normalisation: mendacity without metaphysics, communicated by technology”. And such normalisation is precisely the subject of a key passage in the letter to Husák which has a very particular resonance at the present time:

We only need to raise our sights a little above our limited daily perspective in order to realise with horror how hastily we are all abandoning positions which only yesterday we refused to desert. What social conscience only yesterday regarded as improper is today casually excused; tomorrow it will eventually be thought natural, and the day after be held up as a model of behaviour. What yesterday we declared impossible, or at least averred we would never get accustomed to, today we accept, without astonishment, as a fact of life. And, conversely, things that a little while ago we took for granted we now treat as exceptional: and soon who knows we might think of them as unattainable chimeras. 

Is this not uncannily akin to the “pervading sense of helplessness and private melancholia” discerned by Anthony Barnett in ‘Johnsonia’? The sinking feeling that, in spite of the terrible damage to society wrought by over a decade of ‘austerity’, the revelations of governmental corruption and dishonesty on the grand scale, the desperate state of the NHS, the ever-rising death-toll from COVID-19, the outright refusal on the part of the government to acknowledge the destructive consequences of Brexit, the official inaction and equivocation in the face of impending global catastrophe, and so on and on, there really is no alternative and all one can do is keep calm and carry on whilst staring gloomily out of the Overton window.  


Byline Times is funded by its subscribers. Receive our monthly print edition and help to support fearless, independent journalism.

Thank you for reading this article

New to Byline Times? Find out more about us


A new type of newspaper – independent, fearless, outside the system. Fund a better media.

Don’t miss a story…

Our leading investigations include Brexit, Empire & the culture war, Russian interference, Coronavirus, cronyism and far right radicalisation. We also introduce new voices of colour in Our Lives Matter.

More stories filed under Culture