The Power of the Powerless

The analysis is aimed to address, interpret and analyse an essay – Vaclav Havel’s “the Power of the Powerless” – which has had an immense influence on world social science, and, most importantly, to continue the core thesis of the theory of Gramsci hegemony, pursuant to which the backbone of the hegemonic system is the absence of alternative and even the possibility of its existence.

It seems that Vaclav Havel1 already by his essay’s title – “the Power of the Powerless”2 , attempts to hint the reader at the problem of the existence of a certain paradox, which he has tried to solve in the essay.

In this event, Havel already begins his text telling about a specter haunting in Eastern Europe, which was called a “dissent” – dissidence – in the West.

Tinting his text with a “Marxist” shade, I think that Havel tries to draw parallels between “dissidence” and Marxist “communism”, furthermore, it can be supposed that Havel purposefully emphasizes the existence of serious power potential of these two phenomena, and it is not by chance that inspecting the “power” of dissidence in line with the “power” of communism, Havel tries to illustrate the massive power that dissidence bears within and which may play a crucial role in the developments of East European history.

Hence, a fact should be paid attention to, that the author views dissidence in the context of particular “power” and certain “manifestations” of that power. Speaking of that power, Havel notes that dissidence as such is not given from “above”, it is what it is – the natural consequence, the outcome of postcolonial system. Speaking of the system, the author highlights the political inertness of that system which cannot accept and even presuppose any kind of dissidence and preserves and spreads its power explicitly, by repressive means, and under certain conditions is not even able to be vitalised without serious use of force. Consequently, it is evident that the system itself should endeavour and by all means betake the imposition of “its reality”.

Stepping forward, let us try to specify all the most important cornerstone questions and phenomena on which the author has cast a light, analysing the relations of power and individual:

  1. How the author defines the existence of the “ideology” of postcolonial system
  2. The postcolonalism itself
  3. Living in truth
  4. Self-takeover

Therefore, we will try to illustrate the views of the author on these questions in detail, his approaches, as well as to represent our approaches towards the author and his viewpoints and ideas.

Havel, speaking about the presence of ideologies in postcolonial systems and their role, as the main tool for the existence and vitalisation notes that “ideology” in postcolonial system acquires “a character of unfathomable religion”, it should be noted here that by emphasizing the term – unfathomable, the author tries to draw our attention to the attitude which the society possesses towards that ideology, moreover, it is “the only truth”, and the society, recognising it as the only truth, simultaneously stands for the bearer, vitaliser, continuer of that truth and never puts it in doubt. Moving forward, Havel notes that for a man being the particle of that system, unformed, that is – not having certain principles, the ideology becomes “an easy refuge”.

It is enough that a man takes, accepts that ideology and that’s it… from that moment onwards the life of that man is filled with meaning, everything in surrounding becomes easily cognisable, the unclear questions leave, the loneliness of that man leaves, the man bearing and realising the ideology becomes the full member of the society, he fears from loneliness and any kind of anxiety no longer.5

The author fairly notices that for this “cheap refuge” man pays way too high a cost which is – the refusal of his own common sense, conscience and responsibility. Accordingly, an identification of centers of power and truth takes place for a man. Thus, for this man power and truth become tantamount and equal, power and truth reciprocally generate the principles, the indisputable reality-truth, which, as a result, should have become the life-reality of that man.

Havel then mentions that in the case of postcolonial system the primary function of the ideology is in the creation and vitalisation of the artificial way of connection with the world which inspires the individual with an illusion, moreover, the latter is the bearer of complete, deserving and moral features unquestionable – permitting not to be so in reality. Thus, Havel gives us the sight that the fundamental function of the ideology is the creation of the illusion as if people, along with their worldview approaches, live in absolute consensus with real life.

In this event we see the type of individual which aims at becoming a subject in imposed reality and at any cost struggles being within the borders of totalitarian system, having the absolute otherness of aspirations compared to the other man-particles of totalitarian system. People seek to implement and realise their freedom, in the face of polyphony, iridescence, self-determination, self-organization and in contrast to it – the totalitarian system is the confirmation of uniformity, discipline, monolithism and, most importantly, if human life yearns for impossible forms, the totalitarian system is then the apologist of the most possible conditions.

From this angle, while vitalising totalitarian society, ideology is aimed to cover the abyss which may and should emerge between an individual and the aims and aspirations of the system, showing, or better to say – totally repressively obligating the idea that the intentions of the system stem from people’s life demands, which is the axis of the monopoly of the uniform, colourless, total ideological system.

Consequently, the vitalisation of totalitarian system begins at the moment when things are not called by their names, furthermore, when nothing is called by its name, we can say. When, for instance, in 1968 the events entitled “the Prague Spring” are qualified as brotherly assistance-occupation by the regime, diverse local cultures are repressed and subordinated to the so-called general development and the permissiveness of the authority is qualified as legality.

The system, due to the use of force, invests and makes localise the reality given from above in which people live in a truthful way, more by token, the reality is distorted and life in lie is represented as true life, the sole and acceptable truth.

Speaking of auto-totality Havel brings forth an example, according to which the director of a vegetable kiosk hangs from his show window the following note; “Proletarians of all countries, join!”

Here the actions of the kiosk director are a classic example of auto-totality, furthermore, the greengrocer embraces the ritual accepted by all, the rules of the game, and he becomes a participant of one single game, a player, he makes the game go on vitalising, makes it proceed, he makes the reality which is generated by the ritual, continue existing.

The ideology is accepted by this greengrocer and becomes domestic ritualistic communication. Certainly, any system has a need of ritual, but the most important of all is the performer of the ritual daily – the object-subject, which is the guarantor of the system’s existence and the self-controller at a time. It is even possible that the grengrocer has not the faintest idea of why he hangs that slogan from the show window, but thereby the greengrocer tries to show that he is in harmony with the society, that he is a part of the society and has his input in the daily communication and in the realisation of the whole ritual of that society. Habermas entitles this reality a communicative action, by the same token a significant interaction takes place which in one case can successfully proceed the auto-totality and in the other case can give the greengrocer a real opportunity to accomplish a true and unprecedented ideological and political revolution. Here it is appropriate to pay attention to the influence of Hobbs’s political philosophy on Havel’s viewpoints, forasmuch as pursuant to Hobbs, society is a higher priority and has been in existence earlier than the state and in terms of the protection of its rights and freedoms has a greater significance than even state sovereignty principle, although Habermas in the same case noted that they expected (from NATO) police operations but received real war – with new technologies and old methods. Here I consider necessary to remind Havel’s famous interview to “Le Monde” newspaper, in which the latter justifies NATO’s military actions in Yugoslavia and gives the priority to human rights principle, subordinating all norms of international law.

More profoundly, the greengrocer shows his loyalty towards the authority, the current order, existing reality, and the ritual which is performed by the greengrocer, covers the nature of the authority under the face of a high, noble act call. This ritual and ideology itself and that most important slogan – as a means, are the important mortar which keeps and protects the system, merges everyone with one reality, with a true life within the limits of an indisputable reality. In this regard alone the ritualistic communication becomes the weapon and simultaneously Weberian veil3 , that the authority becomes faceless, people are dissolved in ritual, are exposed to it and generation by generation invigorate the totalitarian system. Aristotle’s social animal logistics is what motivates the greengrocer to resist the isolation, not to differ from the society, not to break the rules of the game, not even to make the attempt to doubt the risk of losing his favorable condition and safety.

Being not a particle of totalitarian system we observe it from the perspective of already existing fact, and no matter how many ties all fields of our present life possess with that system, however, in my opinion, we are protected from it at least due to the Second World War4 . What is different is the existence of its mutation forms, which is a core issue first and foremost for our society, particularly in this stage of development.

Once the given system is invested in the society and, due to people’s auto-totality, it is every day vitalised in ritualised semantic-semiotic, space-time and compulsory and meaningful way. The rest of the work is done by the individual, who every day contributes to that sacred act, day by day again and again he vitalises that system without the faintest hesitation to break the ritual, as even the slightest doubt can lead to the loss of safety and welfare. The greengrocer and others like him are both a victim and tool for that system at a time; they have lost their own nature, subordinating their own identity. Not only the greengrocer is caught in this invisible net and is in an “enslaved” condition, but also all the particles of the system’s hierarchy and the difference between the two is solely the stronger or weaker connection with the system. Assuredly, in high levels of the hierarchy the opportunities are greater but the responsibilities and dangers are high as well.

As Havel notes; “Life in lie is much more than a simple conflict between two identities. It is something far worse: it is a challenge to the very notion of identity itself”.

And now visualise one day the greengrocer decides to protest and not to play by the rules of the game… enough! Hereinafter he lives in truth, he breaks the rules, accordingly – the game itself. He says the king is naked and he is the greatest danger (putting the system under question, by the way), he tells the only truth, breaking the ritual – he ruins, which destroys the system so solid and monolithic in appearance, rips the Weberian veil of world-truth of the illusion.

Thus, Havel gives us – the powerless, a weapon to resist the absorptive system and to struggle by means of personal qualities. As long as “life of the lie” formula has not entered into contrast with “life of the truth” aspiration-action, we cannot unravel its nudity, lie, formality, and here the powerless gain power, power which is not in need of large scales, the mission of which is to provide actual alternative, the power of which is to throw light on the nakedness of the system in that darkness.

But how can all this be realised so that to become the axis of the foundation of a new authority? Life of truth is the recurrence of one’s own responsibility, which, assuredly, is a moral act, and the authorities simultaneously attempt to demoralise that act accusing of bribery, personal interest and other “immoralities” and “self-seeking”.

All these weapons are means to serve to the complex manipulation of human life, so that people lose their sense of individuality, feel themselves as the particle of a big mechanism, in which their meaning depends on their function in that system: job, apartment, social and cultural life, advancement – all this should be maximum fixed, set and listed and should be under the absolute supervision.

The author in the end makes reference to Ortega y Gasset, noting that totalitarian and post-totalitarian system and suchlike systems are simply a particle of self-locomotion of  “technical civilisation” and people should endeavour to become the owner of their own fate.

Thus, it may be concluded that Havel tried to give people back their lives, the first and the last condition of which was to call things by their names and thereby in the event of totalitarian system – to acquire potential towards life again.

1Vaclav Havel is the first president of independent Czech Republic, one of the most prominent dissidents of communist totalitarian system who played a key role. This essay is his answer to another distinguished Czech – Milan Kundera’s pessimistic views and to Prague spring incidents in 1968 that were the core motivation for the disputation between these two and genuinely appropriate for intellectuals.

2 (19.05.2016).

3German philosopher, historian and sociologist Max Weber spoke about secularity, rationalisation, intellectualisation and bureaucratisation that its first condition was the elucidation of the reality from rational and mostly clear reason and “world exposure”, and not the mystical and hence distorted and not true perception of the reality.

4The end of World War II and the defeat of Nazi Germany and its allies laid the ground for ultimately rejecting the right of totalitarian systems’ existence. The same war resulted in the USSR’s transformation which was shifting into state capitalism and was going through inner transformation.

5The conception of totalitarianism has been developed by Frankfurt school – T. Adorno, E. Fromm, H. Marcuse, Horkheimer, Benjamin W. and others, pursuant to them cultural unification, the decrease of critical thinking and the clearance of the border between the fields of private and social life are the best conditions for totalitarian system’s uninterrupted functioning.


  1. Edgar A. Habermas:, The key concept, New York: Routledge, 2006․
  2. Habermas J. The Theory of communicative Action,Volume 1. Reason and the Rationalization of society, Beacon press, Boston, 1984. 465p.
  3. Хабермас Юрген, Расколотый Запад //Пер с нем. О.И. Величко и Е.Л. Петренко. – М.: Изд-во Весь мир, 2008, с. 9-29.
  4. McClelland, J. S. , A History of Western Political Thought, New York; Routledge,2005․
  5.,_%D0%92%D0%B0%D1%86%D0%BB%D0%B0%D0%B2 (19․05․2016).
  6. (19.05.2016)․
  7. (19.05.2016)
  8. (19.05.2016).

Author: Gor Madoyan: © All rights are reserved

Translated by Marine Ohanjanyan