The twentieth century, a century marked by the horrors of totalitarianism, demands that we remember it. However, memory will be short-lived and ineffectual without understanding. And the need to understand requires that we do not simply recall the atrocities and victims of communist regimes, but consider why and how these regimes were able to perpetuate themselves and dominate so much of the world in the latter half of the twentieth century.
Part of the answer here lies in the attractions of ideological thinking and the destruction of memory. The communists were wildly successful in creating and maintaining a pseudo-reality of civic harmony, equality and fraternity. That is, in the midst of widespread dysfunction and failure in social and economic terms, the communists propagated the image of highly successful political system. And in this crucial and peculiar enterprise they depended upon the participation (both in an active and passive sense) of the population over which they ruled. Here lies a distinctive feature of totalitarianism: the forced participation in the crimes and lies of the regime. The strength and durability of communism can be found in this spider’s web of ideological institutions, language and everyday behavior. As Waldemar Gurian once put it, “A living lie—and that is the tragedy of human life—is superior, as force, to a dead truth.”
Yet, paradoxically, this towering structure of lies was also the system’s great weakness. For if people one day decided not to participate in these lies, what had once seemed weighty, pervasive and compelling might be exposed as empty and eminently contestable. But how could one strike a blow against the fortress of communism in a way that would be visible to the citizenry? And how could one strike a blow that would actually damage the structure? It turned out that the visibility of truth was the key to doing real damage.
In early January of 1977 there appeared in the former Czechoslovakia a brief, bureaucratic text called Charter 77, signed by 241 people. The Charter declared itself to be an “informal and open association of people” and not an “organization” with a “formal membership.” It set out no political reform agenda. It did something modest yet revolutionary. It simply announced that the so-called Helsinki Accords—international covenants on civil, political, and social rights—had been officially incorporated into Czechoslovak law in October of the previous year. This meant that the constituted political authorities were bound by law to guarantee and protect certain rights that they had heretofore been violating, for example freedom of expression and freedom of religious confession.
Charter 77 and its sister organization VONS (The Committee to Defend of the Unjustly Persecuted, which was formed in the spring of 1978) announced to the regime that citizens were watching—and that they were recording what they saw. People could no longer disappear without a trace as they had in the 1950s. When activists were persecuted, aid was offered to their families, and information about their arrests and their cases was publicized at home and abroad. The Charter had its own newsletter called Infoch which circulated for this purpose. Charter 77 aimed to create an authentic public with its own informational organs distinct from the party-state and its newspaper, Rudé právo. This public would need to stand up and assert itself despite the likelihood of persecution. As Jan Patočka, the eminent Czech philosopher and one of the three initial Charter spokespeople put it, “The greater the fear and servility, the more have the mighty dared, the more they dare and will dare. Nothing can make them relax their grip except a corrosion of their confidence—a realization that their acts and injustice and discrimination do not pass unnoticed, that the waters do not close over the stones they throw.”
Patočka argued that the restoration of a real public was dependent on a kind of moral awakening, a willingness on the part of the citizenry to stand tall in the face of the persecution which was certain to come. In one of his more famous passages, he wrote, “Our people have once more become aware that there are things for which it is worthwhile to suffer, that the things for which we might have to suffer are those which make life worthwhile, and that without them all our arts, literature, and culture become mere trades leading only from the desk to the pay office and back. We know all that now, not in the least thanks to Charter 77 and all it has meant.”
The Charter thus created a kind of infrastructure dedicated to proclaiming the truth about the regime’s assertions and persecutions. It made visible to all—by expressly announcing what was known but rarely openly acknowledged—the gap between the façade of “really-existing socialism” and the reality of everyday life. And it was able to endure despite the vicious backlash of the regime against many signatories and sympathizers. Its endurance was a sign that people were willing to suffer for the restoration of a community that would no longer participate in the lies of communism. But this endurance was by no means guaranteed by the birth of the Charter. We will explore just how Charter 77 managed to adapt and attract new followers in a subsequent post.