The Victims of Communism Foundation's Blog

The Parallel Polis and the Arts of Freedom

The Parallel Polis and the Arts of Freedom

The voice of Charter 77 called for a moral awakening. A group of Czechoslovak citizens had announced that they would not shrink from proclaiming the truth about “really existing socialism,” whatever the consequences. This meant both speaking the truth about the regime and refusing to passively participate in the falsehoods that upheld it. The Charter encouraged people, in Václav Havel’s famous words, to “live in truth.”

But however important this challenge to the regime was, there were real questions about its sustainability. The vicious crackdown on the Charter community was successful, to a significant degree, in isolating it from the larger population. Signing a petition for the release of some political prisoner, circulating Charter documents, or even being associated with its supporters was quite risky. A casual conversation with someone associated with the Charter could lead to interrogation by the StB, the Czechoslovak secret police. In the course of my interviews, more than one signatory has told me that she would even avoid eye contact with friends on the street for fear of causing those friends unnecessary entanglements.

According to Václav Benda, an early signatory to Charter 77, the strategy seemed to have two weaknesses. It was utterly naïve insofar as it took the regime’s claims about abiding by its own laws at face value, and its genuine and high-minded moral stance, though able to unite a diverse array of signatories, did not include concrete aims. Furthermore, the Charter movement seemed to be operating in infertile soil. During the 1970s-80s period of “normalization,” the regime required only outward expressions of loyalty and conformity from its subjects. There was widespread cynicism about politics, even within the Communist Party itself. As Benda wrote at the time, “On the outside everyone is committed to agreement, optimism and periodic rejoicing; behind closed doors everyone (middle party cadres and StB officers not excepted) expresses themselves negatively, pessimistically and with deep skepticism. Believing in Communism has become just as dangerous as speaking one’s mind about it—all those fanatics have gradually been eliminated.” The Charter 77 movement confronted a deeply apolitical and cynical population. What was needed was a way to re-politicize the population.

It may seem strange to speak of “re-politicization” as a solution to the woes of a totalitarian regime. Totalitarian regimes are, after all, hyper-political! Politics seems to be everywhere! This is, in a sense, true enough, but the politics of a totalitarian regime is really pseudo-politics. Its moments of collective speech and deliberative action are for display only. They demonstrate an all-pervasive pseudo-reality achieved only through the destruction of all autonomous social and civic bonds.

Benda understood that the Charter needed to transform its noble moral stance into a meaningful political and social force. So he put forward the idea of the “parallel polis.” By this he meant the creation of parallel structures (alongside the official ones) that would activate and sustain a truly communal life. Such parallel activity, Benda pointed out, was already occurring in the black market economy and in independent music, literature, and theater. The Charter, Benda argued, ought to devote its time and energy to promoting and securing ever more space for these and similar activities. It was in these spaces that a concrete communal life was trying to reassert itself; that people could go to experience meaningful bonds of trust and affection; that they could truly put things in common and expand their horizon of concern beyond a small circle of family and friends.

Yet this would require a self-conscious effort to publicize these activities and get more people involved. This was a risky proposition, given the StB’s use of informants and its desire to penetrate any activity that smacked of autonomy. Yet Benda argued that pushing against the restrictions of the regime was worth the risk, because the state’s claim to total dominion over every sphere of life was ultimately unrealizable. Benda argued that there was a “natural resistance of life” to totalitarianism. People would by nature seek out places to realize their freedom. But he insisted that there was an important difference between this natural resistance on the one hand and the “deliberate expansion of the space in which the parallel polis can exist” on the other. “The former is a cluster of flowers that has grown in a place accidentally sheltered from the killing winds of totalitarianism and easily destroyed when those winds change direction. The latter is a trench whose elimination depends strictly on a calculated move by the state power to destroy it. Given the time and the means available, only a certain number of trenches can be eliminated. If, at the same time, the parallel polis is able to produce more such trenches than it loses, a situation arises that is mortally dangerous for the regime: it is a blow at the very heart of its power.”

Thus the Czechs discovered that the desire and capacity for freedom depended upon a communal life where people exercised the habits of association. It is in precisely these seemingly insignificant spaces where all tyrannies meet their challenge. But there is nothing “automatic” about the desire or the capacity. The arts of freedom must be learned anew by each generation.


Flagg Taylor teaches political science at Skidmore College. He recently edited The Long Night of the Watchman: Essays by Václav Benda, 1977-1989, which will be out this spring from St. Augustine’s Press.