people gathering in room

Havel’s Vision for Freedom Through Parallel Structures

If you’re searching for a success story for toppling totalitarianism, it would be difficult to find a better example than Václav Havel. His participation in the 1989 Velvet Revolution (a relatively peaceful transition of Czechoslovakia away from the oppressive Communist state which was responsible for the deaths of millions) wrote a script for the breakup of the Eastern Bloc. This poet-turned-political-dissident would eventually translate a passion for freedom and independence into political action, as the last president of Czechoslovakia and the first president of the Czech Republic when Slovakia peacefully broke away to form its own independent country.

In his essay, The Power of the Powerless,  Havel outlines the important role of common people in bringing about the collapse of the Soviet Union by simply choosing to live in truth. He describes a totalitarian society that aligns remarkably well with the current state of government, both here in the U.S. and throughout the world. Our current governments are power structures in which ideology and legal codes are mere formalities that serve to legitimize the state creating what he calls “a world of appearances, a mere ritual, a formalized language deprived of semantic contact with reality and transformed into a system of ritual signs that replace reality with pseudo-reality.”

We are Living in a “World of Appearances”

To apply this to a more contemporary situation, consider that there is a Bill of Rights which purportedly serves to enshrine the civil liberties of citizens. This document is now simply a tool that gives a façade of legitimacy to a government that has chosen to disregard any substance within it. The idea that The Bill of Rights protects the freedoms of Americans is a lie, used to support the false reality beneath which the current establishment hides. The Soviet ideology rested on claims of representing the worker, who stood in bread lines for hours while members of the Politburo enjoyed all manner of perks. The “world of appearances” is not reality.

These lies are crucially important to the continuation of the power structures. Without them the structure would crumble. For this reason, a common citizen, “living within the truth,” becomes an existential threat to those structures. Though political rivals or dissidents can easily be targeted, people living and telling the truth create a “hidden world of reality” that cannot so easily be measured or quashed.

Housekeepers will tell you, “For every mouse you see there are fifty you don’t see.” Although individuals that are not conforming may be discovered and thwarted by the power hungry, there are many more learning the truth, observing the reality, and seeing through the lies. By the time these communities of truth become large enough to be visible, they are far too powerful to be suppressed. Truth-tellers create a “second culture” that provides comfort and support to those within it, making it attractive to outsiders which, in turn, promotes further growth. Since there is no moral obligation to adhere to a system that relies upon deception and tyranny, those choosing to live within the truth may do so with a clear conscience, although it may be in opposition to established authority.

How to Live Within the Truth

Essentially, living within the truth involves robbing the establishment of power by working outside of its nominal control. This might be simply ignoring certain mandates, such as keeping chickens or building a shed on your property when those activities are officially prohibited. Sometimes such quiet dissidents gather together to create what Havel refers to as “parallel structures,” alternatives to state-sanctioned power, which allow the truth-tellers build the “second culture.”

COVID-related lockdowns stimulated many parallel structures, as people sought to privately meet their own needs which were publicly forbidden. When churches and restaurants were closed, people coordinated small, informal gatherings in their homes. Some businesses determined to be “non-essential” by authorities continued to operate under the radar screen, in defiance of the rules.

The arts, as Havel knew well, provide a haven for those living within truth. Music, literature, and art can carry important anti-establishment messages and often serve as a starting point for resistance to the system. This is why these avenues are so often banned, censored, or cancelled. Totalitarians try to drive the arts into the hands of a small number of gatekeepers. Record labels, production companies, and publishing houses, often cooperate with powerful institutions, to control what is seen, heard, and otherwise consumed by the public. Living within the truth requires operating outside of those entities by creating parallel distributors such as small publishing houses or performance networks that can resist such control.

Anything that exists and grows outside of the establishment, takes power away from the establishment. Homeschooling is one of the most important ways to rob the state of its influence over children. Supporting small, local businesses denies those resources to corporate giants that use their influence to lobby government and crush free-market competition. Engaging in private charity disrupts the narrative that a social safety net depends upon government force. Government surveillance can be inhibited by paying with cash, avoiding heavily surveilled public roadways, and embracing alternative technologies. Marginalized neighborhoods will often have elders who help to work out disputes and keep the peace rather than relying on corrupt courts and law enforcement. For those willing to physically relocate, the many free-county projects taking place throughout the country can provide strength and support.

Our Call to Action

Now is an ideal time to begin living in truth. While the world is circling the totalitarian drain, it has yet to disappear into it completely, so many of these practices are still perfectly legal. These are things that we can do right now, without waiting for government representation or political reform. The longer that we wait, the more difficult the struggle.

It is important to keep in mind that whenever a practice emerges that threatens the system, there will certainly follow an effort to regulate or prohibit it. That is when resistance is most important, whether that resistance takes the form of innovation, finding loopholes, or outright defiance. As Havel said, “It is not enough to stare up the steps, we must step up the stairs.”

A similar article previously published at

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.