Vaclav Klaus, the president of the Czech Republic, is about to take the helm of the EU. He will serve as EU President for next six months, starting January 1, 2009. This is not necessarily good news for Europeans, Americans, or any one else, given that my encounters with his oversized ego are rather typical for him.
The following is excerpted from my book, My Brother's Keeper (Rowman and Littlefield, 2003):
The hostile reception new communitarianism encountered from some of the Czech leaders mirrored concerns initially raised by leaders and intellectuals in other former communist countries when they were first exposed to our message. It also reflected the particular position of its prime minister, Václav Klaus. Klaus has been credited with the quick transition of the Czech Republic from a communist to a capitalist economy. He defines himself accurately as an extreme Milton Friedmanite and has taken great personal umbrage to my book The Moral Dimension, which challenges libertarian assumptions of Friedmanite economics. When Klaus ran into me during the World Economic Forum in Davos in 1997, he grabbed my lapel, waved his index finger in my face, and announced in a booming voice, "You are crippling my republic! You are undermining what we are trying to do! You do not understand that egoism and the profit motive are the best part of human nature. You work for those who want to return my country to communism!"
Fortunately, I was aware before this encounter that understatements and mincing words were not Klaus' trademark. Rather than punching back, I tried to calmly defend the communitarian position. My main argument was that by providing people with a strong but community-based social fabric, they would not react to rough and tumble capitalism by running back into the arms of a communist-ordered social life.
After the translation of my first communitarian book, The Spirit of Community, into German, Klaus joined a seminar I was conducting in Alpbach, Austria, for the European Forum in 1998. For a short while, he listened, but then he pulled out a prepared statement and read in a voice that vibrated down the corridors, and up the Alps.
Klaus next voiced concern alluded to by other leaders of previously communist countries:
Communitarianism... in its aversion to individualism and its advocacy of coercive means of fostering human association, is another form of collectivism.
Communitarianism wants to socialize us by forcing us into artificial, not genuine, not spontaneously formed--groups or groupings.
Communitarianism cannot win through preaching only.... they try to reach the legislators and to legislate the world according to their dreams.
By this time the seminar was familiar with our viewpoint. It seemed that most present considered Klaus's barrage to be way off the mark. It made it easier for me to respond gently one more time.
After the seminar Klaus and I went for a long stroll and then joined a few others for a lunch that lasted nearly three hours. It soon became obvious that Klaus's bluster was skin deep. He rushed to emphasize that "there was nothing personal in my statements" and that "I just enjoy debating."
During lunch he regaled us with stories about his boxing days, about testing a new racing car and other daredevil acts he was involved in. When others chimed in with their anecdotes, Klaus would soon work to recapture the center of attention. It did not take a psychologist to figure him out. Moderation, whether as a brand of communitarianism or lifestyle, did not suit Klaus's personality any more than a society could be based on his extreme libertarian principles. The fact that his government fell apart, despite his very considerable economic achievements, suggested that there might be more room for communitarianism in the Czech Republic than Klaus favored. (It would not take much.)
The best evidence to that effect was the leadership of Václav Havel. When Klaus heard that Havel had invited me to participate in his Forum 2000, Klaus simply said, "He is not my kind of a guy!" and for once Klaus was very much on the money. Every bone in Havel's body--and more importantly, the depths of his soul--is dedicated to the civic society and, through it, to his version of communitarianism. Havel carried his vision not merely to his people but to large parts of the world, through speeches that have won him great acclaim and following.
I was very much looking forward to exchanging ideas with him. On arrival in the pompously elegant, baroque Prague Castle in which the Forum took place, I found that Havel was surrounded by VIPs, including Hillary Clinton, Henry Kissinger, Adam Michnik (a flamboyant, well-known Polish dissident), Wei Jingsheng (a leading Chinese dissident), a bishop, a chief rabbi, and an Indian poet-philosopher who kept reciting the same poem about the inner beauty of lotus flowers. Moreover, Havel was absent from a good part of the proceedings; his staff explained that his health required that he rest frequently.
When I finally found myself alone with Havel, I found that his command of English was not much better than mine of Czech, in which I could not so much as buy a Pilsner Urquell. I did, though, not leave Prague completely empty-handed. I brought with me the text of a new address by Havel that we published in our quarterly The Responsive Community. In it, Havel predicted that in the next century the nation-state would cease to evoke the kind of emotional and irrational commitments it had in the past. Loyalty to the state would instead be divided among families, communities, and organizations of which we are members. Above all, he called for a commitment to principles higher than the particular interest of this or that nation, especially to human rights, freedom and human dignity, which Havel suggested are a reflection of an "infinite" and "eternal" force.
I have no firsthand evidence to support my hunch that the Czech people's views lie somewhere between Klaus' hostility and Havel's natural communitarianism. Possibly, as the distance from the communist days increases, Czechs will find it less onerous to acknowledge their own communitarian bases and expand on them.
One thing I can conclude with much confidence: citizens of all former communist societies cannot go long without some new, shared moral understanding. Those in older capitalist nations need them too, but their absence is merely more glaring in the vacuum left by collapse of communism. Communitarianism has a lot to suggest to these people--especially if we are better able to show to that it has no affinity whatsoever to communism.
Amitai Etzioni is a University Professor at the George Washington University, and the author of My Brother's Keeper: A Memoir and a Message (Rowman and Littlefield, 2003). He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. www.securityfirstbook.com