An Unsung Opponent of Totalitarian Power

“Power,” wrote Václav Benda, “is capable of liquidating or perverting almost everything. But not quite everything! We should continue to surround their totalitarianism with our reality.”

Written in 1988, these were bold words for a dissident under the communist regime of the country then known as Czechoslovakia. They were well-informed words—well-informed by four years in prison, professional humiliation, harassment, surveillance. And they were words that would soon, and suddenly, be vindicated by the collapse of communism the following year.

Benda (1946-1999) was one of the unsung heroes of the 1989 revolution. A spokesman for the Charter 77 dissident movement, he was a founding member of the Committee for the Defense of the Unjustly Persecuted, a samizdat essayist, and, after communism’s fall, a politician and head of the Czech Office for the Documentation and Investigation of the Crimes of Communism. The Long Night of the Watchman, edited by F. Flagg Taylor IV, is the newly translated collection of his writings between 1977 and 1989. Stubborn, complex, drily ironic, humane, and distinctly Christian, Benda’s words are the reality that he shored up against the onslaught of totalitarianism.

The regime that persecuted him, Benda believed, was definitely not “post-totalitarian,” to use Václav Havel’s term for the bureaucratic dictatorship put into place after the Prague Spring of 1968; it was, however, decidedly post-ideological. Ideological fanatics had long since disappeared from the Party (they’d been purged). Students were barely conversant with Marxist terminology. The “apparent transparency” of Marxist doctrine had become nothing more than “the ideological camouflage of a much more primary orientation to force and power.” The nature of this “primary orientation”—Benda saw communism, at core, as a program for the seizure and exercise of untrammeled power—meant that it was natural, maybe even predictable, that the regime should have devolved into “pure illegitimacy . . . that makes a point of the fact that it neither serves nor is responsible to anything else (truth, human society, tradition, laws, not even to its own ideas).”

Moribund Oppressor

Yet the scope of the state’s ambitions was undiminished. It still aspired to control every aspect of society, “starting with the weather and ending with the souls of individuals.” This aspiration was unstable and unsustainable, Benda thought, insofar as it was arbitrary, cut off from truth and from reality. The totalitarian state was overbearing but fragile. Sooner or later, it would fail: “More or less random causes and extremely unforeseeable events can unleash an avalanche capable of shaking the very foundations of totalitarianism . . . although it cannot be deliberately triggered, in its early stages it can be channeled (and it itself looks for such direction and for firm orientation points).”

This outlook on totalitarianism informed Benda’s best known political concept, the “parallel polis.” The mission of the parallel polis, as outlined in the eponymous working paper and in subsequent essays, is the slow and steady creation of parallel educational, artistic, scientific, and civic organizations able to stand alongside the ones controlled by the regime. They are not to be “underground,” or “alternate,” but “parallel”—meaning that they have as strong a claim on legitimacy as official institutions, and are tasked with preserving the nation’s knowledge, traditions, and memory when official institutions will not. The world of force and power can isolate itself from truth and life, but only for so long. One day, the kakocracy will fall, and the nation will need to rebuild. If the parallel polis is successful, it will have preserved what is of value in the nation’s tradition.

It is a weighty mission, with nothing less than civilization on the line. He who sees the responsibility, let him take it up. Not everyone will dare. It is much to Benda’s credit that he shouldered this responsibility and paid the price for it—losing numerous jobs, going to prison, and suffering humiliations of all sorts, including raids on his house, arrest, interrogation, surveillance, and the harassment of his wife and children.

The Duties of Freedom

Weighty, binding decisions like these—the kind with consequences, the kind that you can’t just back out of—are central to Benda’s notion of freedom. He sees the dignity of the human person as rooted in the ability to make permanent resolutions that are not dictated merely by exterior circumstance. This applies just as much to marriage vows as to political dissidence: “Every marriage promise that is kept, every fidelity in defiance of adversity, is a radical defiance of our finitude, something that elevates us higher than the angels.”

What threatens this human responsibility? Any ideology that reduces human choice to the product of circumstances—whether it is historical materialism or behaviorism. Political programs that offer “delusions of revolutionary simplification.” Even a puritanical or pharisaical approach to religion that tries to provide a set of rules and regulations capacious enough to resolve every dilemma of the human predicament. Benda is both bothered and amused by such attempts to “correct the Creator’s ‘minor’ blunders—for example, the fact that he gave man free will.”

Running like a leitmotif through Benda’s comments on everything from politics to history to social reformism is the concept of the felix culpa, the “happy fault that earned for us so great, so glorious a Redeemer,” in the words proclaimed at the Roman Catholic Easter vigil. Sin is evil in itself, but “happy” or “fortunate” in that it presents us with the possibility of redemption. The difficulties of the human condition, the chaos and cruelty of our times, all conspire to present us with a deeply meaningful, even heroic, world of moral choice. Benda professes a “very ordinary earthly hope in the basic good direction of this world, created and redeemed by God, and in the human ability to learn from all these negative experiences and use them to our advantage.”

This basic attitude toward the world, as good but fallen, is applied to topics as broad as property ownership and social equality. Property ownership can be a school of responsibility, writes Benda, where we develop a “caring relationship of affectionate responsibility for what is entrusted to us,” but it also has the clear potential to be a moral stumbling block and even the cause of damnation. Similarly, beyond the fact that he considers most yearning for social equality to be, at root, mere covetousness, Benda is not altogether convinced that eliminating inequality is desirable per se. He sees in the aspiration to achieve this a potentially prideful desire to rejigger the moral arena.

Ruminative essays published as samizdat under totalitarian coercion are, from our Western viewpoint, a highly anomalous form of political commentary. With the distorting mirror of totalitarianism removed, one or two of Benda’s sociopolitical observations are revealed to land somewhat off the mark. Is it really “socialism” as such that requires both parents to work outside the home and children to undergo eight hours of schooling a day, and pushes the rent on tiny urban apartments up so high? More poignantly, was Benda wrong to put so much faith in Catholic political engagement? Today, his Czech homeland routinely polls as the most atheistic country on earth (now, as then, the Czech Republic’s sister nation of Slovakia is more solidly religious).

What Benda’s Sympathetic Understanding Teaches Us

Benda claimed to have been made “political” only by necessity. His own political beliefs, insofar as they are elaborated here, would be familiar to a conservative liberal of a Tocquevillean stripe. In a proper polity, politics ought to be just one facet of life, and a restricted one at that, very much secondary to family and community life, where one learns and receives the much more fundamental gifts of mutual love, freedom, and individuality.

The author’s focus on human responsibility inspires a deeply humane attitude toward the mass of his countrymen, even the perpetrators of evil. His hackles are raised whenever his interlocutors—whether émigré writers who savage their ideological opponents from the safety of the West or young activists who matter-of-factly ask the Charter 77 generation to hand over their ideological identification papers—demand to know which people are the good ones and which are the bad. He refuses to accept any such Manichaean division because he is aware that much of the country’s population is complicit to some degree or another with the regime, and also because he genuinely hopes for their redemption. “I am steadfastly convinced,” he writes, “that thorough resistance to evil is fully compatible with a permanent struggle for the souls (and a struggle for souls without love and understanding is only an empty declaration) of those who from pride, lack of awareness or weakness gave themselves to its service.”

Our historical past—our spiritual, cultural, civilizational, and social heritage—is one in which “good by far predominated over evil,” writes Václav Benda. We ought to try to learn from it with an attitude of humble and non-ideological evaluation, avoiding either drastic rejection or unrealistic nostalgia. And we ought to apply this attitude of sympathetic understanding to our brothers and sisters in this day as well. “Let us not however be unjust to the men and women of this twentieth century (let us rather pray for them and whoever has the courage to blaspheme, let him ask God why he has tested them above their strength and when His mercy again outweighs His justice.)”