Václav Benda (1946-1999) was a Czech dissident, companion of Václav Havel, and signatory of Charter 77–the political manifesto that played a pivotal role in the downfall of communism in what was once Czechoslovakia. When he wasn’t unemployed and living on benefits, Benda worked variously as a philosopher, a biologist, a mathematician, a computer programmer, a stoker, and a cow herder, among other jobs. This owed mainly to his principled opposition to the communist regime, which punished dissidents by destroying their careers. Benda was, above all, a piercing critic of socialism and totalitarianism.
Nowadays, we are living through a socialist renaissance of sorts in the West. Bernie Sanders won the hearts of young Democrats in the 2016 election, while, across the Atlantic, the unreconstructed socialist Jeremy Corbyn has captured the imagination of young Britons with his brand of 1970s nostalgia politics. Young intellectuals are especially susceptible to the socialist temptation, including some young Catholics, who apparently have no memory–or contemporary awareness–of the depredations inflicted on the Church by collectivist regimes. Benda, then, is an urgent thinker for our moment, and thanks to an anthology just published by St. Augustine’s Press, English-language readers can finally become familiar with his luminous writings.
The book will be of historical interest to students of Charter 77 and the Czech anti-communist movement. But Benda’s insights–on the nature of totalitarian regimes, on religious faith and dissident politics, and on spiritual renewal in societies shattered by dictatorship–have application far beyond the specific historical context that produced them. It is his moral thinking on socialism and “social justice” that should be especially instructive to the young comrades. When, in 1985, some supporters of Charter 77 published a statement in support of Western “peace” movements that functioned as apologists for Soviet aggression, Benda penned a furious letter denouncing their views.
“Whoever tolerates social inequality or even increases it,” the errant 77’ers had written, “is responsible for hunger and poverty.” Benda meticulously and utterly dismantled this proposition, and it is worth quoting his comments at some length:
In Europe, the countries where hunger and poverty are burning issues are Poland, Romania and maybe the USSR; that is, countries which vehemently proclaim and forcefully implement the requirements of social equality. . . . Denying social inequality always inevitably means also the denial fundamental human and civil rights and freedoms. This is not an accident brought about by the imperfection of previous projects of social equality or those who realized them; social equality represents the liquidation of societas, the polis, its transformation into a shapeless, nonsensical and in the end permanently enslaved mass of individuals, dispossessed of their generally useful freedoms, of their human dignity and values and of their rights and privileges. Not even in the Kingdom of Christ (disregarding that any attempt to establish it by human force alone leads to destructive consequences) will there be equality in this sense: there will be places on the right and on the left, on the steps of the throne or nearby–although their allocation will be directed by other than earthly criteria, and the last will be first. . . .
I cannot see even a grain of good in Socialist ideas; the more they resemble some other reasonable and humanly justified ideas or feelings in some respects, the more they are unacceptable and destructive. The whole concept is so perverse that it completely spoils any elements of truth while it uses their appeal to deceive less experienced minds and less assured hearts. . . . It seduces and is still capable of seducing many to very effective and very unfortunate activity. If, for lack of space, I have to choose a slogan as well, I would formulate my position thus: to oppose all Socialist ideas and fabrications untiringly and completely mercilessly; especially to unmask preemptively every camouflage which could enable it to rise again from the ashes. . . .
Benda felt this hatred of socialism in his bones. Two years earlier, he had been released from a half-decade stint in prison for the political “crime” of promoting Charter 77. Let’s hope the young writers who pine for socialism while living in the comfort of Islington, Dupont Circle, and Midtown West never have to suffer what Benda and his fellow dissidents suffered for freedom.