The Velvet Revolution: 30 years of freedom in which some of us are freer than others

This month marks 30th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution: the wave of mass demonstrations against the one-party government of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia. Beginning on 17th November 1989, when riot police surpressed a student demonstration in Prague, and lasting until late December that year, the protests lead to the country’s transition from communism to parliamentary republic. On the 30th anniversary of these events, Jaroslava Tomanova writes for Freedom News, asking: did Velvet Revolution really bring the freedom everyone was hoping for? 

“Nation is nothing more and nothing less than a socially constructed community, imagined by the people who perceive themselves as part of that group,” wrote political scientist Benedict Anderson in 1983 (1). After years of living abroad, Anderson’s quote comes to my mind every now and then, but on November 17th, it felt more relevant than usual.

In the last ten years I have spent more time living abroad than in the Czech Republic. It sounds a little strange, but I feel more Czech when I am abroad than I do at home. Living in a foreign country has shaped my relation to my own nationality; everyday things that are taken for granted at home are suddenly questioned and need to be explained and re-contextualised. It makes one re-evaluate them, which exposes the contingency of truths and habits. Living and working with people of different cultures has made me aware of the Czech part of my identity more than anything else, although I have never felt my nationality to be one of the defining features of who I am.

Thirty years ago, my parents’ generation won the opportunity to re-establish a democratic government. Time to celebrate, so to speak. But just like on a personal level when one turns 30, it is also time to evaluate what we, as a nation, have become and how we want to live in the following decades. Traditionally at the celebrations of November 17th we have heard speeches from various public figures or dissidents and even artists and student representatives who somehow declare political neutrality and deliberately give up positioning themselves politically. Although presented as an attempt to go beyond politics on public, I see these statements as rather obsolete and even implicitly political by leaving room for the stronger and already prevailing “truths” that promote the preservation of the status quo as the only possible present and future.

At the heart of the commemorations of the Velvet Revolution seems to be the key word “freedom” that our generation is supposed to be thankful for. For a leftist critic, questions arise: “how free are we?” and “are we all equally free?” The answer is that it depends on what we mean by “freedom”, of course. Frequently, the post-Velvet freedom is equated to the freedom of the market, the free exercise of property rights, the freedom of (possible) expression or the freedom of (possible) movement. But I see freedom also as a situation or state of being where we are able to express our creativity unhindered by constraints of both material scarcity and coercive social institutions or by living free from coercive, exploitative and alienating social relationships of production. The situation we find ourselves in 30 years after the Revolution is nowhere near such freedom.

Freedom should be here for everyone, and therefore I see it also strongly linked to equality, i.e. the state of being equal in status, rights and opportunities. In that sense, 30 Years of Freedom (30 Let Svobody in Czech), which became the tagline uniting this year’s remembrance rituals, sounds like a joke or, rather, a populist slogan celebrating 30 years of neoliberal politics. Where we are today is a strong legacy of the rage of the post-Velvet transitional years, in which governments, especially those led by Klaus (2), looked up to “more mature” Western democracies such as Great Britain and the US to catch up with what Thatcher’s and Reagan’s governments achieved.

Equality as an expression somehow still carries the aftertaste of the rhetoric of the past regime and is therefore detached from the concept of freedom. Orwell’s allegorical novella Animal Farm (3), which used to be part of our school curricula, exposed the false egalitarianism of Bolshevism in the pigs’ famous quote: “all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” But, somewhat ironically, it is the five years of life in what remained of Great Britain after decades of rampant capitalism that bring Orwell’s quote, quite vividly, to my mind. Looking at the rising problem of social as well as economic inequality, even while we are still living in the illusion of freedom in capitalist terms, makes me believe that some of us are definitely freer than others.

For me, November 17th has always been a day of contemplation on truth and love that our first post-Velvet president, Havel, became identified with. I like Havel, but I like Foucault even more – particularly because he denies the concept of universal truth and drives our attention to the political, economic and institutional regimes in which “truth” is produced (4). How much have the regimes of Havel’s truth to do with those of ours – politically, economically and institutionally? Havel’s concept of truth was instead concerned with its existential and moral dimension and, therefore, his famous saying “truth and love must prevail over lies and hatred” is an important ideal, particularly because it gives us hope, similar to a universal spiritual entity. However, using the opportunity of this important anniversary of the Velvet Revolution to critically evaluate the state of the arts of Czech politics, I am searching for Havel’s legacy in political terms. In that sense, although I agree that moral gurus have the power to connect people, I remain sceptical that Havel’s “truth and love” have the power to mobilise the Czechs to pursue a common political goal.

There is no more time to be wasted in transcendental apolitical nostalgia. I dedicate my support to democratic socialist politics, which need a radical agenda to combat capitalist discourses that have been driving our “regimes of truth” since 1989. Neoliberalism has been diffused into our public policies and culture for the past three decades, and I believe it is time to finally acknowledge ourselves as a confident and grown-up democracy. Being a grown-up means taking full responsibility for one’s life and, therefore, in the case of the Czech Republic, for defining a strong programme that will constitute a new “politics of truth”, as Foucault calls it, in order to re-evaluate the concept of freedom in terms of more egalitarian political philosophies.

Jaroslava Tomanova

Notes:

(1) Benedict Anderson, Imagined communities : reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism (Revised edition.), London, Verso, 2006.

(2) Václav Klaus served as the Czechoslovak and Czech Prime Minister 1992 – 1998 and as the Czech President between the years 2003 – 2013

(3) Gorge Orwell, Animal farm : a fairy story, London, Secker & Warburg, 1987.

(4) TRUTH AND POWER : an interview with Michel Foucault, Critique of Anthropology, 4(13-14), 1979, pp. 131–7. https://doi.org/10.1177/0308275X7900401311


Photo: demonstration in Prague, then Czechoslovakia, 25th November 1989. Credit: ŠJů, CC BY-SA 3.0