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The Power of Truth in a ‘Post-Truth’ Age

Fifty years on, the Czech philosophers of the Prague Spring have much to offer the current moment.

Soviet troops in Prague (Reg Lancaster/Express/Getty Images)

When the tanks of the Soviet Union and other Warsaw Pact nations rumbled into Czechoslovakia on August 20, 1968, Czech philosopher Ivan Sviták had a fateful decision to make.

Support for gradual reform of Czech Communism had emerged within the ranks of the party itself in 1968. But the profound policy shift proved difficult for the state to manage. Czechoslovakia’s communists were caught between demands for wider and speedier democratic transformation from the country’s citizens, and the determination of the Soviet Union and other Warsaw Pact states to reverse these reforms entirely.  

As a professor of philosophy at Prague’s Charles University, Sviták had helped shape public thinking about reform, his writings and lectures growing increasingly bold over its twelve years of development. By March 1968, Sviták was calling for a complete renovation of Czechoslovakia’s communist system.

“Our achieving democratic socialism is contingent upon the liquidation of the mechanisms of totalitarian dictatorship and the totalitarian way of thinking,” he wrote in one of his published lectures, advocating “free press and public opinion.”

Sviták’s notoriety reached such dimensions in that heady spring that the radical French students who occupied the Sorbonne sent him a telegram with their “fraternal greetings” at the height of the tumult in Paris in May 1968. But the philosopher also became a key target of the forces of reaction inside and outside the country.

As Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia to stop the so-called Prague Spring in its tracks, Sviták was attending a conference in Vienna. His choice was a stark and simple one: Stay or go back.  He chose to stay in the West—at least “until the occupation was over,” as he told The New York Times in September 1968.

Less than a month after the invasion, Sviták was already a fellow at Columbia University, moving in a position arranged for him by Zbigniew Brzezinski. (The Times also reported that he’d had his briefcase and passport stolen as he slept in a Manhattan hotel. Welcome to America.)

Sviták was much in demand in the immediate aftermath of the Soviet Union’s intervention. He was quoted widely in Western media outlets, and he published two books: Man and His World: A Marxian View and The Czechoslovak Experiment 1968-1969.

It took little over a year for the country’s hardline communists to reassert totalitarian rule and suffocate reforms in a grim spectacle referred to as the “normalization.” Sviták’s notoriety (and audience) faded. The dissidents who did stay behind, most notably playwright and future president of Czechoslovakia Vaclav Havel, pushed to the forefront of the public imagination in the 1970s and 1980s.  

Sviták ended up teaching at California State University, Chico, a place he jokingly dubbed “Chico-Slovakia.” In a 1988 profile in the New York Times, he quipped:  ‘’I didn’t go to jail. I went to the California State University instead.’’

The Velvet Revolution opened the door for Sviták’s return in 1989. And in the five years before his death from cancer in 1994, Sviták was once again a voice of opposition, finding himself with very strange bedfellows.

Upon his return, Sviták felt a deep revulsion for the neoliberal forces unleashed in Czechoslovakia after the end of totalitarian rule. It was a tide of revanchism and privatization (and, in some cases, plunder) led by the country’s prime minister and future president Vaclav Klaus, who styled himself after British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. 

Sviták’s response was not only expressed in furious polemics with the new leaders, including his former dissident comrade and new Czechoslovak president Havel, but also in a return to active politics. Sviták contested – and won – a seat in Czechoslovakia’s Federal Assembly in 1992 as part of a broad coalition of leftist forces (“Levy Blok”), spearheaded by the reconstituted remnant of the country’s Communist Party.

“The mainstream view on [Sviták] after 1989 was that he’d ‘gone crazy,’” Joe Grim Feinberg, a research fellow at the Czech Academy of Sciences, observed to me by email. “How could someone who was treated so badly by the Communists come back and then enter into a political alliance with them? Either he’d gone mad, or was just a dinosaur who was just too stubborn to give up on his Marxism.”

But now, according to Feinberg, who edited a 2014 volume of Sviták’s essays, a reassessment of Sviták’s legacy is well underway: “A younger generation of leftists, tired of the post-1989 anti-Communist discourse, has a lot more respect for him, seeing him as one of the few public voices to continue to maintain a critical voice, and not become a spokesman for the new powers.”

It is not only young leftists in the Czech Republic who are having a new look at Sviták. His philosophy of politics—formulated in the passions of reform and sobered by the failure of the Prague Spring—possesses a continuing richness and resonance, especially a new generation explores hybrids of the democracy and socialism Sviták sought to create in 1968, and mulls the question of when ideologies, regardless of where they sit on the left-right spectrum, become too extreme or illiberal for their original adherents.   

At the root of Sviták’s work is an exuberance about human possibility, and an insistence that principle should trump party in every circumstance. Citizens who put truth at the forefront of their political sensibility and activity, he argued, possessed a unique power to reshape the world for the better.

At various moments in 1968 and 1969, Sviták wrote succinct and aphoristic “commandments” for various players in the Prague Spring and its aftermath. In a piece advising for intellectuals who had hit “rock bottom” in 1969, Sviták observed that “Life is the test of your possibilities in history, of your imagination, of your courage, of your intellect.” 

Sviták saw the best of these possibilities as a politics that was rooted firmly in truth. Not the final truth proclaimed by ideologues, he argued, but an ongoing search and refinement. “Truth is res nullius, something belonging to nobody, precisely because it belongs to everyone who seeks it,” he wrote in 1956. “People who live in absolute certainty that they have found the truth are dangerous. They will watch the executions of heretics and criminals, because what they are watching is not an execution and a crime, but an act of justice.”

Truth—and especially political truth—has been a central concern in Czech philosophy since Bohemian religious reformer Jan Hus was burned at the stake by the Catholic Church in the 15th century. “Pravda Vítězí,” or “Truth prevails,” ascribed to Hus, is the Czech Republic’s national motto.

For Sviták, political truth was the essential weapon to fight totalitarian power, “the most dangerous enemy of any totalitarian dictatorship,” because the absolute power of the bureaucratic elite is possible only thanks to misinformation about the conditions in which people live.” Meanwhile, totalitarians’ contempt for truth actually reflected their deepest fears. Political truth-tellers don’t even need to seek out open conflict with power, he observed in a July 1968 essay. Their mere existence is an affront to it. 

Svitak’s contemporary, the more famous Vaclav Havel defined his famous concept, “living in truth,” i.e. establishing political truth, as a process requiring a carefully calibrated dance of affirmations and negations leading incrementally to political change. One must recognize that one is living a lie under totalitarianism, and refuse at a personal level to observe the forms and rituals required by unjust power. When sufficient numbers at last begin to live in this truth, and it begins to permeate society, citizens can unite collectively to negate and then overthrow totalitarianism. 

But Sviták’s view of the transformative power of truth was less incremental, and less attuned to strategy. A commitment to truth, in his view, had the inherent power and purity to shake and reshape political reality. “Speak the truth regardless of tactical considerations, since concessions to tactics are concessions to truth,” he wrote only a month before the tanks arrived in Prague. “If you cannot speak the truth, be silent.” Philosophy and intellectual honesty were, for him, the equivalent of a superweapon in a guerrilla resistance war: a tool to obtain human freedom.

Yet Sviták meditated deeply on the failures of the Prague Spring. Writing twenty years after the idealist reform movement was crushed, he called it “a classic example of how literature as a substitute for politics cannot, at a critical moment, offer any alternative” to what he dubbed “professional politics.” The power of the thoughts and words must be married to the active exercise of political power. Perhaps that is part of the reason why Sviták, after his return to his homeland, sought political office and unlikely political alliances, rather than advocating from the lecture hall as he had in the sixties.

Sviták’s obstinacy in opposition did not always find favor with his contemporaries. “Basically, it seems he had an instinct to oppose anything that seemed fashionable or mainstream,” said Feinberg. “When he was criticizing Communist leaders, this made him popular. When he criticized the reform Communists for not going far enough, it was the same. When he criticized fellow dissidents and exiles, he alienated them. When he criticized the post-Communist leadership, he didn’t earn many friends.” But, Feinberg added, “Whatever personal virtues or flaws led him to take his critical stances, they were valuable stances, often taken at times when no one else was willing to take them, or to do so publicly.”

Read against our own political turmoil and possibilities, Sviták’s writings brim over with an intellectual courage and ebullience that is as vital today as it was 50 years ago. Amidst contemporary politics rife with polarization, accusations of “fake news,” and seemingly endless catalogues of presidential falsehoods, Sviták’s work reminds us that an absolute commitment to speaking the truth clearly has immense power to challenge authoritarian distortions. Yet it also reminds us that mere speaking is not enough; the truth must be wedded to concrete civic action to prevail.