Charter 77 (1977 - 1989)


The Lokashakti Encyclopedia of Nonviolence, Peace, & Social Justice

Charter 77, Photo credit JOEL ROBINE/AFP/Getty Images

Human rights and dissident movement organized by intellectuals in Communist Czechoslovakia that helped spawn the peaceful "Velvet Revolution" in the fall of 1989. Charter 77 was the product of debate among disenfranchised intellectuals and reformers purged from the Communist Party after the 1968 Soviet invasion. The charter's initial signatories represented a broad spectrum of Czechoslovak society, including writers, academics, journalists, former politicians, party functionaries, technicians, students, and a smattering of blue-collar workers. The instigators of the charter sought the widest possible movement of citizens in defense of fundamental civil liberties.

According to its founding declaration, dated January 1, 1977, "Charter 77 is a free, informal, and open community of people of different convictions, different faiths, and different professions, united by the will to strive, individually and collectively, for the respect of civic and human rights." The Chartists stressed that they were not establishing a political organization, because Charter 77 had no rules, statutes, permanent bodies, or formal membership. Furthermore, the charter did not avowedly propose a program of political reform, but wished to conduct a constructive dialogue with the state authorities.

Charter 77 urged the involvement of citizens in guarding a spectrum of civil rights. The Chartists demanded that Prague obey its own laws and respect the international obligations it had freely undertaken, including the Helsinki Final Act signed in 1975. The appearance of Charter 77 was psychologically important, because it breached the barrier of fear that the regime had cultivated since 1968. The avoidance of political overtones and its commitment to act openly and strictly within the law broadened the charter's appeal. Though the founders harbored few illusions that the authorities would respond positively to their propositions, they reasoned that Charter 77 could at least create a climate in which far-ranging political changes could eventually materialize.

The question of whether the Chartists should function openly or clandestinely was resolved early on. It was decided that secretive resolved early on. It was decided that secretive and anonymous activities would be counterproductive, because they would provide the government with a clear-cut excuse for strangling the movement at birth and dismissing it as an "anti-state conspiracy.” Instead, by operating openly and disclosing the names of its signatories from the outset, Charter 77 depicted itself as a fully legal human rights campaign without subversive intentions. Moreover, by declaring itself in favor of "constructive dialogue" with the government, the Chartists could further deflect the inevitable official offensive.

Anyone was at liberty to sign the charter, but because the movement lacked any formal structure there was little need to recruit masses of activists. Moreover, the Chartists evidently did not rate their success according to the number of signatories, but rather by their effectiveness in influencing the regime and stimulating autonomous citizens' initiatives. The majority of Chartists reasoned that the best compromise between restricted and mass membership was to encourage various cultural and educational pursuits parallel to those controlled by the state.

Charter 77 combined several political and nonpolitical groups and individuals. The charter did not constitute a formal union or federation of these groups, did not publicly represent any of them, nor did it evolve into a mouthpiece for their views. It simply provided a platform and an opportunity for action by people who could subordinate their personal opinions and ideological orientations to the larger human rights cause. When the charter was launched, one of the largest groups to sign was made up of "ex-Communists" or reform Communists, including former Minister of Foreign Affairs Jiri Hajek. Initially, they formed about half the signatories, but over the years their percentage of the total declined to a small minority. The influence of reform Communists within Charter 77 was most noticeable in the signatories' repeated calls for dialogue with the regime and in the underlying belief that the party was still capable of instigating reform.

Charte 77 signatoriesA second sizable group within Charter 77 consisted of a mixture of "democratic socialists" and "independent liberals," including such notable figures as the sociologist Rudolf Battek. A number of them periodically criticized the ex-Communists for unnecessary moderation and urged more direct political activism. Although many of the "independents" envisaged little prospect for systematic reform, they conceded that given the political impasse only the application of consistent pressure on the authorities could bring dividends. A campaign for human rights seemed to offer the most realistic chance of success and could ultimately evolve into a more substantive opposition force if circumstances became more favorable. The independent liberals appeared to have been the most ardent supporters of independent initiatives in culture and education, and fully supported the pursuit of international contacts with Eastern dissidents and Western sympathizers.

The third significant element within Charter 77 consisted of religious activists, including the much persecuted Catholic priest Father Václav Maly. The movement provided a forum that helped Protestants, Catholics, and other denominations unite around the campaign for freedom of belief, worship, and assembly. The religious groups did not adopt any specific political orientation, but instead espoused a practical humanism that enabled them to act in concert with nonreligious Chartists. A growing number of practicing Christians joined the campaign or provided support; some were also involved in the unofficial "underground church. "

In addition to the better-defined groups and tendencies, Charter 77 attracted an assortment of unaffiliated intellectuals such as the acclaimed playwright Václav Havel, young people from the "cultural underground," and ordinary citizens without strong political views. The wide spectrum of orientations within the charter did not include any explicitly nationalist elements. Splinter groups or factions did not materialize and a general unity of purpose was maintained.

The number of Charter 77 signatories stood at under two thousand in 1988, but there were certainly many more active supporters or passive sympathizers. How many is difficult to know. Charter 77 proved unable to kindle widespread and active support among the majority of the population. The crushing of the Prague Spring reforms and two decades of paralyzing "normalization" left most Czechoslovaks in a resigned mood. Although a majority was latently hostile to the regime, there was little immediate prospect for citizens to exert real influence on government policies. Like subjects in most other communist states, Czechoslovaks remained skeptical about the advisability of independent action and preferred to devote their attention to private or consumer concerns. Irrespective of how many thousands were actually involved in human rights activities, underlying, if inchoate, popular support proved sufficient to enable the movement’s active minority to persevere despite constant government harassment.

The backbone of Charter 77 activities consisted of compiling, producing, and disseminating various unofficial texts. These included communiqués and statements signed by the three annually selected spokespersons, letters, petitions, political or literary essays (feuilletons), and situation reports. These documents explained charter initiatives and outlined concrete proposals for economic and political reform. They were intended for domestic and international audiences by highlighting conditions in Czechoslovakia and canvassing support for the human rights campaign. Besides defending civil liberties and sponsoring independent publishing, educational, and cultural pursuits, Charter 77 sought to restore "humanism" in social relations. It stressed ethics, morality, honesty, and individual responsibility. Chartists maintained that people did not need to become members of any specific organization or even sign the charter; they should simply aim to recreate “elementary human values” in a hostile political setting that favored bribery, dishonesty, corruption, greed, and selfishness.

In the late 1980s, on the eve of the Communist collapse, Charter 77 increasingly spoke out in favor of political pluralism and announced that it was ready to support and defend almost any independent political endeavor. However, the movement also cautioned that it would continue to avoid formulating any political program or establishing an oppositionist grouping under its auspices. Charter 77 also attempted to become more visible and gain wider influence by organizing outdoor rallies, symposia, and demonstrations on pertinent occasions. For example, Chartists tried to arrange rallies in Prague on Human Rights Day each December. The Chartists also appealed for greater grassroots activism in all manner of independent pursuits. Their objective was to expand public activities beyond the narrow confines of the traditional dissident circles. The cautious reforms enacted by the Prague regime in 1989 were clearly insufficient to satisfy dissident demands and growing popular aspirations for liberty. After a series of mass demonstrations and strikes in November and December 1989, the Communist government fell in what became known as the "Velvet Revolution."

Janusz Bugajski, reprinted with permission, from Protest, Power, and Change: An Encyclopedia of Nonviolent Action from ACT-UP to Women's Suffrage.  Roger Powers, William Vogele, Christoper Kreugler, and Ronald McCarthy, eds. New York: Garland Publishing, 1997.

Selected material about Charter 77
  • Bugajski, Janusz. Czechoslovakia: Charter 77's Decade of Dissent. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1987.
  • Bugajski, Janusz, and Maxine Pollack. East European Fault Lines: Dissent, Opposition, and Social Activism. Boulder, Colo.: Westview, 1989.

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