NEW YORK – The world’s greatest shortage is not of oil, clean water, or food, but of moral leadership. With a commitment to truth – scientific, ethical, and personal – a society can overcome the many crises of poverty, disease, hunger, and instability that confront us. Yet power abhors truth, and battles it relentlessly. So let us pause to express gratitude to Václav Havel, who died this month, for enabling a generation to gain the chance to live in truth.
Havel was a pivotal leader of the revolutionary movements that culminated in freedom in Eastern Europe and the end, 20 years ago this month, of the Soviet Union. Havel’s plays, essays, and letters described the moral struggle of living honestly under Eastern Europe’s Communist dictatorships. He risked everything to live in truth, as he called it – honest to himself and heroically honest to the authoritarian power that repressed his society and crushed the freedoms of hundreds of millions.
He paid dearly for this choice, spending several years in prison and many more under surveillance, harassment, and censorship of his writings. Yet the glow of truth spread. Havel gave hope, courage, and even fearlessness to a generation of his compatriots. When the web of lies collapsed in November 1989, hundreds of thousands of Czechs and Slovaks poured into the streets to proclaim their freedom – and to sweep the banished and jailed playwright into Prague Castle as Czechoslovakia’s newly elected president.
I personally witnessed the power of living in truth in that year, when the leadership of Poland’s Solidarity movement asked me to help Poland with its transition to democracy and a market economy – part of what the Poles called their “return to Europe.” I met and was profoundly inspired by many in the region who, like Havel, lived in truth: Adam Michnik, Jacek Kuron, Bronislaw Geremek, Gregorsz Lindenberg, Jan Smolar, Irena Grosfeld, and, of course, Lech Walesa. These brave men and women, and those like Tadeusz Mazowiecki and Leszek Balcerowicz, who led Poland during its first steps in freedom, succeeded through their combination of courage, intellect, and integrity.
The power of truth-telling that year created a dazzling sense of possibility, for it proved the undoing of one of history’s most recalcitrant hegemonies: Soviet domination of Eastern Europe. Michnik, like Havel, radiated the joy of fearless truth. I asked him in July 1989, as Poland’s communist regime was already unraveling, when freedom would reach Prague. He replied, “By the end of the year.”
“How do you know?” I asked. “I was just with Havel in the mountains last week,” he said. “Have no fear. Freedom is on the way.” His forecast was correct, of course, with a month to spare.
Just as lies and corruption are contagious, so, too, moral truth and bravery spreads from one champion to another. Havel and Michnik could succeed in part because of the miracle of Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet leader who emerged from a poisoned system, yet who valued truth above force. And Gorbachev could triumph in part because of the sheer power of honesty of his countryman, Andrei Sakharov, the great and fearless nuclear physicist who also risked all to speak truth in the very heart of the Soviet empire – and who paid for it with years of internal exile.
These pillars of moral leadership typically drew upon still other examples, including that of Mahatma Gandhi, who called his autobiography The Story of My Experiments With Truth. They all believed that truth, both scientific and moral, could ultimately prevail against any phalanx of lies and power. Many died in the service of that belief; all of us alive today reap the benefits of their faith in the power of truth in action.
Havel’s life is a reminder of the miracles that such a credo can bring about; yet it is also a reminder of the more somber fact that truth’s victories are never definitive. Each generation must adapt its moral foundations to the ever-changing conditions of politics, culture, society, and technology.
Havel’s death comes at a time of massive demonstrations in Russia to protest ballot fraud; violence in Egypt as democratic activists battle the deeply entrenched military; an uprising in rural China against corrupt local officials; and police in body armor violently dismantling the Occupy protest sites in American cities. Power and truth remain locked in combat around the world.
Much of today’s struggle – everywhere – pits truth against greed. Even if our challenges are different from those faced by Havel, the importance of living in truth has not changed.
Today’s reality is of a world in which wealth translates into power, and power is abused in order to augment personal wealth, at the expense of the poor and the natural environment. As those in power destroy the environment, launch wars on false pretexts, foment social unrest, and ignore the plight of the poor, they seem unaware that they and their children will also pay a heavy price.
Moral leaders nowadays should build on the foundations laid by Havel. Many people, of course, now despair about the possibilities for constructive change. Yet the battles that we face – against powerful corporate lobbies, relentless public-relations spin, and our governments’ incessant lies – are a shadow of what Havel, Michnik, Sakharov, and others faced when taking on brutal Soviet-backed regimes.
In contrast to these titans of dissent, we are empowered with the instruments of social media to spread the word, overcome isolation, and mobilize millions in support of reform and renewal. Many of us enjoy minimum protections of speech and assembly, though these are inevitably hard won, imperfect, and fragile. Yet, of the profoundest importance and benefit, we are also blessed with the enduring inspiration of Havel’s life in truth.
Jeffrey D. Sachs is Professor of Economics and Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University. He is also Special Adviser to United Nations Secretary-General on the Millennium Development Goals.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2011.