On Political and AntiPolitical Politics Václav Bělohradský

In his work The World Revolution, Masaryk states that his politics have always been apolitical, primarily cultural and moral. In an essay on Masaryk’s political legacy, Karel Čapek claims that “creative politics consists of the continual effort to bring harmony to contentious and discordant life and create higher order from, and within, this harmony.” Furthermore, Čapek considers this kind of politics to be akin to “poetry or music.” Communists defined their politics as “revolutionary,” and therefore antipolitical: for them the construction of a new world is a goal that is so urgent, universal, and serious that they feel entitled (perhaps even compelled) to violate all the formal rules of democracy, which in comparison with their aims are nothing but “mere politicking.” Václav Havel talks about “antipolitical politics” in a different sense: it is a hallmark of this late stage in history that morality, the natural world, life intentions have come into conflict with the technological-administrative, self-driven movement of our civilization and are thus “matters of politics.” Every person’s struggle for their own identity has become the basis for “antipolitical politics,” because it seems as though power does not wish to admit that it is only the thin surface of human life, and as a result should be subordinate to its depth.

Thus we see that in Czech society politics is overburdened with matters of higher and more universal instance than those which are actually the concern of politics. What does this constant criticism of “political politics” indicate?

The role played by the expression “antipolitical politics” in our political history shows that the most important aspect of democracy, the difference between regime and government, has not yet become a generally shared experience. Regime is a set of rules guiding the struggle for power and its execution, which is respected by all the players in the political game, thus ensuring that the victory of one or other political party does not jeopardize the rules of the game as such. This rationalistic definition of “regime” needs to be given more depth: “regime” is a suprapolitical category, rooted in culture, religion, the moral tradition of the nation, language. Governments change, yet the regime remains. The regime includes, for example, the judiciary, education, the constitution, the army, all of which are independent of changing governments. This is symbolically expressed by the fact that they are subordinate to the king, the president, or to parliament directly. A judge cannot be sacked by a particular government just as a professor cannot be forced to teach in a different way than he or she did before it came to power, because the professor is a subject of the institutions of the regime, not that particular government. The regime is also a kind of myth, a grand unifying narrative which concerns each one of us, permeating our biographies, and is the axis of our identity. The important point is that only the process of changing governments itself clarifies what regime is and what is merely government. Thus, for example, the French socialists were staunch critics of de Gaulle’s Fifth Republic whose presidential regime they considered a threat to democracy. When the Socialist Party won the election and yet did not alter the structure of the Fifth Republic, de Gaulle became a tradition, a regime. “Regime” is therefore not only something theoretical, something written down: it arises through the fact that in the process of the changing of parties in government and in opposition, certain rules are shown to be shared by all. Naturally even regimes change, but more slowly and in a different way than governments: they change through public discussion, the influence of art and criticism in general, the growth of wisdom and historical experience.

Let us now return to the expression “antipolitical politics.” This expression is only legitimate when it refers to an effort to change a regime in a situation where issues have emerged that cannot be solved through a change of government within the framework of the old rules of the game, within the old “world view.” And that is why politics then finds itself under pressure from suprapolitical categories: culture attains the decisive position in society and the engaged individual forces the politician out of the game. Such antipolitical politics, such expulsion of politics by culture, is only legitimate with the proviso that the players involved do not wish to govern, but merely be a creative part of the regime. A regime defines the framework of government, but in itself is a suprapolitical category, because it actually indicates what is good and what is evil, what is human and what is inhuman, what is natural to us and what is alien. If any government wished to be the embodiment of good, humanity and that which what is most natural to us, then no opposition against it could be legitimate because it would represent the fight for the inhuman, evil, and alien. Democracy, on the other hand, means that good, humanism, and whatever is natural to humans cannot be brought to light in any other way than through disputation within the framework of what is common to us all. A judge’s decision or an artist’s criticism reflect detachment with respect to governance as such: neither a judge nor a writer should want to govern; rather, they should be part of the process of forming a regime, contributing to the definition of what we share. Let us summarize: the expression “apolitical politics” refers to the struggle for a regime, criticism of the rules of the game, the way we see the world and its parts. The bearers of “antipolitical politics” tend to be intellectuals and artists. These critics of “political politics” or “mere politics” do not wish to govern themselves, however. Thus the moment must arrive when the regime has been established, becoming the set of shared rules of the game and thus opening space for “political politics,” for political action, competition for power among political parties which do not offer good and humanism, but “only” solutions to various problems of collective existence.

The widespread departure from “political politics” to “antipolitical politics” essentially indicates that there is still no room for politics in our society which, absorbed as it is by the construction of regime, scorns “mere politics.” This is partly the legacy of the national revival, when a handful of writers resurrected a half-forgotten language and tried to “raise it to the level of worldly education and thus ensure it remains alive” (Neruda). The politician is thus put under the direct control of the intellectual. During the First Republic, Prague Castle symbolized “antipolitical politics,” the higher reasons for our nationhood, our worldliness. During the period of totalitarian government, culture became an instrument of the “antipolitical politics” referred to by Havel.

In our country there was never room for “ordinary politics” which does not bring “higher order” into our lives, but proposes solutions for the ordinary problems of collective existence. The situation today is just as contradictory. With its antipolitical politics, the Civic Forum (Občanské forum—OF) created a regime, embodying the shared rules of the struggle for power and opening up space for “political politics.” But it cannot enter this space as a “civic movement,” because that would mean becoming the “government of a regime,” and the difference between regime and government would thus vanish from general awareness. The regime ensures that governments change, it does not govern. In his inaugural speech, Ronald Reagan said that the most important thing on the day of taking over power is that it is an ordinary day in the life of the nation which people do not get particularly excited about. The Civic Forum gave us hope that soon the changing of government will be an ordinary day in the life our state, and that is of historical merit. If it wishes to be part of this run-of-the-mill day of democracy, it must allow itself to break up into ordinary political parties that will carry out “political politics.”


Václav Bělohradský, “O politice politické a antipolitické,” Kapitalismus a občanské ctnosti, Československý spisovatel, Prague 1992, p. 31–34.