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In perceiving the Soviet Union as permanent, orderly, and legitimate, Kissinger shared a failure of analysis with the rest of the foreign-policy elite -- notably excepting the scholar and former head of the State Department's policy-planning staff George Kennan, the Harvard historian Richard Pipes, the British scholar and journalist Bernard Levin, and the Eureka College graduate Ronald Reagan.

   Kissinger, Metternich, and Realism (Robert D. Kaplan, June 1999, Atlantic)
Darwin’s book is very important and serves me as a basis in natural science for the class struggle in history.

    Karl Marx in a letter to Ferdinand Lassalle (January 16, 1861)
First, a bit of general history. Communism, like all ideologies that are offered as substitutes for liberal democracy, suffered from a fatal flaw: it had to portray itself as organic, but everywhere had to be imposed by force and maintained by totalitarianism. In the initial burst of enthusiasm for such regimes, we might allow that the Communists even believed that they were participants in a natural and evolutionary step. But, as the systems failed and the oppressed populations refused to come around to those beliefs, that initial fervor was replaced by rigid bureaucratic statism, which essentially only functioned in opposition to the liberalism it still despised. In their later stages, Communist parties did not retain much fealty to their foundational ideology, they only sought to maintain power. Regardless, however, of whether their goal was world evolution or party aggrandizement, it was always necessary for the state to crush any and all genuinely organic forms existing in human society, since they were rivals for the loyalty of the citizenry.

On the particular level, any illusions that Communism was natural or Historical were completely destroyed in Czechoslovakia when the Soviet tanks rolled in to crush the Prague Spring in 1968. From thence forward, all that was left was the arch-bureaucratic form. But there's a funny thing about bureaucracies, they almost have minds of their own. Or perhaps more apt, they are machines that go of themselves. Thus, after East and West agreed to the Helsinki Accords, regimes like the one in Czechoslovakia actually wrote human rights language into their legal codes, whether they ever intended to live up to them or not. This gave an opening to dissidents to argue that all they were really asking for was that the government adhere to its own laws. This is what the Charter 77 movement did in Czechoslovakia. Eventually forcing these contradictions helped to undermine the government to the point where--though it tried to hang on even after the Soviet Union collapsed--Czechs were able to enjoy a "Velvet Revolution," in which power was transferred peacefully. In 1989, one of the founders of Charter 77, Vaclav Havel, was named president and won democratic elections the following year.

We all recall Havel, but there is a danger, as we slip further from the events of the Cold War, that we will forget other courageous men and women who fought against Communism in Eastern Europe. With this in mind, Flagg Taylor made it his mission to see this collection of essays by the great Catholic dissident Vaclav Benda published in English. Some of what's here is inevitably dated and arcane, but the concept and essay for which Benda was most famous deserves our continuing attention: The Parallel Polis.

Benda's argument in the Parallel Polis was that Charter 77 had made a moral case for human rights and resistance to the regime, but had not offered a positive program as an alternative. Meanwhile, the imbalance of power between individuals and the state meant that while one could feel morally superior the reality on the ground was that the individual could be crushed by the state. This led to subsequent feelings of disillusionment and despair. What Benda proposed in place of a merely moral posture was that people band together to create and maintain Edmund Burke's "little platoons," the mediating structures of civil society that are independent of any state:
Most structures that are connected, in one way or another, with the life of the community (i.e., to political life) are either inadequate or harmful. I suggest that we join forces in creating, slowly but surely, parallel structures that are capable, to a limited degree at least, of supplementing the generally beneficial and necessary functions that are missing in the existing structures, and where possible, to use those existing structures, to humanize them.
Benda noted that some parallel structures were already functional: in the black economy and in music, art and literature. He also took note of the fact that the legal structure, as we said above, was already at war with itself internally and could be exploited by liberals. Developing this parallel polis further would require adding on alternative journalism, social networking with similar movements abroad, fostering civic and political organizations, etc. As Mr. Flagg has described in interviews, the Communists depended on what the Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski called "perfect integration through perfect fragmentation,” or the complete atomization of human society so that the individual's sole relationship would be with the state. Benda's idea was that they could be fought--and defeated--if people pursued a sort of "tikkun olam" and repaired and rebuilt private civil society.

Benda's concept is easy to appreciate in the English-speaking world where, in addition to Burke, de Tocqueville observed that the breadth and width of independent voluntary associations in America was a key to our success. Arguably, the peaceful transition of his own country from Communist dictatorship to liberal democracy was made possible--or at least made smoother--by the way in which the dissident movement created parallel structures that offered an extant alternative to the regime. And we can see his continuing influence today in the adoption of his ideas by those religious conservatives who advocate for the Benedict Option--an insulation of Christians and Christianity from the corrupting influences of the state and societal pressures. And Benda's ideas got him in some hot water towards the end of his life in a way that is entirely consistent with his beliefs, when he praised Augusto Pinochet. While even some former allies attacked him for betraying human rights, Benda answered that Pinochet had to be judged in the context of how he defended Chile and Chilean civil society from the sort of destructive Communism that threatened his nation. We might merely note here that Pinochet voluntarily transitioned Chile to democracy once that threat was gone and left behind a society in which democracy has never subsequently been threatened and which enjoys a GDP per capita that is double, triple, even quadruple that of the Latin American states that did succumb to Communism.

One final note, a personal one. We receive many requests to review books and time constraints unfortunately mean I have to turn most down. More rarely we simply receive a book in the mail and are never really certain how it appeared. This book was one of the latter, but it's published by the exceptionally fine St. Augustine's Press and I assumed they had just sent it because we are a list somewhere. Then, in putting together the links below, I discovered that Mr. Taylor was mentored by our sadly departed friend, Peter Augustine Lawler. I'd honestly never heard of Vaclav Benda before reading this book and consider myself fortunate to have read him now. I'd like to think that Peter suggested us to someone somewhere along the line and this is one last gift from the great man.


Grade: (A-)


Vaclav Benda Links:

    -VIDEO DISCUSSION: Parallel Polis: Václav Benda as a thinker for 21st century?: Alexander Vondra & Flagg Taylor (Ten O?rodek My?li Politycznej, 2/14/20)
    -PODCAST: Episode 149: ‘The Memorandum’ by Vaclav Havel (Great Books Podcast, 9/29/2020)
    -PODCAST: Living in Truth - Vaclav Havel on Existential Dissent & the Re-discovery of Conscience (Michael Matheson Miller, The Moral Imagination)

Book-related and General Links:

    -Václav Benda (Wikipedia)
    -Vaclav Benda: CZECH DISSIDENT AND POLITICIAN (Encyclopaedia Britannica)
    -Parallel Polis (Wikipedia)
    -BOOK SITE: The Long Night Of The Watchman: Essays 1977-1989 (St. Augustine Press)
    -ESSAY: Vaclav Benda and The Long Night of the Watchman (Flagg Taylor, March 7, 2018, Ricochet)
    -TRIBUTE: At Last Peter Lawler Can Talk To Vaclav Benda And Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn In Person: The renowned and sought-after scholar was more than an intellectual giant—he was a humble and considerate friend as well. (Flagg Taylor, JUNE 1, 2017, The Federalist)
    -ESSAY: On Czech Dissent (Flagg Taylor, 18 December 2014, Society)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: A Historical Look At Totalitarianism Through Vaclav Benda And Charter 77 with Flagg Taylor (Ben Domenech, FEBRUARY 2, 2017, The Federalist)
    -ESSAY: Parallel Polis, or An Independent Society in Central and Eastern Europe: An Inquiry (VÁCLAV BENDA, MILAN ŠIME?KA, IVAN M. JIROUS, JI?Í DIENSTBIER, VÁCLAV HAVEL, LADISLAV HEJDÁNEK, JAN ŠIMSA and Paul Wilson, SPRING/SUMMER 1988, Social Research
    -INTERVIEW: Vaclav Benda, Man Of Conscience (ROD DREHER with F. Flagg Taylor IV, March 6, 2018, American Conservative)
    -ESSAY: My Night At Vaclav Benda’s (ROD DREHER, March 13, 2018, American Conservative)
    -ESSAY: Building the “Parallel Polis” (FLAGG TAYLOR, 2/14/17, Law & Liberty)
    -OBIT: Vaclav Benda: A dissident before and after Czechoslovakia's Velvet Revolution (Michael Bourdeaux, 22 Jun 1999, The Guardian)
    -OBIT: Obituary: Vaclav Benda (Felix Corley, 6 June 1999 , Independent)
    -TRIBUTE: VACLAV BENDA 1946 - 1999: one of the most active members of the Charter '77 (Garden of the Righteous)
    -ESSAY: The Radical Catholicism of Vaclav Benda: An Enfant Terrible of Czech Dissidence (Eva Cermanova)
    -ARTICLE: Human rights activist praises Pinochet (UPI, June 6, 1994)
    -ESSAY: Václav Havel’s Lessons on How to Create a “Parallel Polis” (Pankaj Mishra, February 8, 2017, The New Yorker)
    -ESSAY: From 'Parallel Society' to Civil Society: surfacing from authoritarianism (Michal Bron Jr, January 2004)
    -ESSAY: Parallel Polis: Toward a theoretical framework of the modern public sphere and the structural advantages of the internet to foster and maintain parallel social and political institutions (Taso G. Logos, Ted M. Coopman, San Jose State University, Jonathan Tomhave, 2013, New Media and Society)
    -ESSAY: The Hero Europe Needed: A quarter century after the Velvet Revolution, Václav Havel's legacy is in disarray. His life illuminates a dissident generation's dreams and the revenge that history has taken on them. (MICHAEL IGNATIEFF MARCH 2015, The Atlantic)
    -ESSAY: Between past and future: Central European dissent in historical perspective (BARBARA FALK, 26 May 2011, Eurozine)
    -ESSAY: Polis/Counter-polis: On the Civic Benedict Option (Susannah Black on April 18, 2017, Mere Orthodoxy)
-ARCHIVES: Flagg Taylor (Law & Liberty)
    -REVIEW: of Long Night of the Watchman (SOHRAB AHMARI, Commentary)
    -REVIEW: of Long Night of the Watchman (Joshua Dill, Law & Liberty)