“FROM DISSIDENT TO ANTI-IMPERIALIST PERFORMER”

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André Vltchek | Dispatches
A DISCUSSION WITH MILAN KOHOUT

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Kohout and Vltchek

Vltchek (l) and Kohout.

Milan Kohout is a naturalized US citizen, an anti-capitalist thinker, performer, and a professor. He was born and raised in Czechoslovakia. During the Cold War he was one of the signatories of ‘CHARTER 77’, the most prominent dissident movement in then socialist Czechoslovakia. But after immigrating to the United States, he became a determined fighter against Western imperialism.

This discussion took place on October 12, 2014, in Klikarov, a small village in West Bohemia (Czech Republic).


 

AV: You often say, very correctly, that those of you who signed “Charter 77”, and those who were involved in the underground/opposition movement during the Cold War, were actually socialists, some even Marxists. That includes you. You are definitely a left-wing intellectual. But that could be seen as a clear paradox: the West was ‘pitching you’, promoting you, as a prominent group of anti-Communists. Could you talk about this paradox?

MK: There was, of course, such paradox; a great paradox, because most of the people from the underground movement, or of the ‘Second Culture’, as we called it, were deeply supportive of leftist values. That included sharing everything, instead of collecting things. We believed in the common ownership of property and production means. But we never thought about it from such angle – philosophically we did not realize that our values were leftist. So while we were fighting against a so-called Communist government, we actually believed in  Communist ideals.

Btw, when I say this to my fellow ‘Charter-77’ mates who never left this country, they often get very pissed off – they don’t want to admit this.

AV: You actually said earlier that even Vaclav Havel, who, during his political career, fully sold out to the Western imperialism and who even went to Washington where he gave several servile speeches in exchange for standing ovations from the top representatives of the regime… that even Havel, when he was one of the member of your movement, was actually sharing those leftist ideals.

MK: But of course! Some of his philosophical views were actually Marxist.

AV: So what actually happened? How did people like him changed?

MK: After the so-called ‘Velvet Revolution’, I was actually very proud of Vaclav Havel, because he was publicly declaring that he wasn’t going to live in the Presidential mansion. He stayed in his modest apartment, was driving his own car to the office…

AV: He was even riding his pushbike all around the Presidential castle…

MK: Yes… He was becoming something of a true ‘folk hero’, or what we could call ‘people’s President’. But later everything changed… perhaps because his roots were, after all, from the bourgeoisie. He was from a bourgeois family.

AV: One of the richest in Prague…

MK: Also, I guess his advisors, after he became the President, started to influence him, telling him that if he would continue living this sort of ‘leftist lifestyle’, he would be interfering with the ‘capitalist direction’ in which the country was moving. They were most likely telling him that he would be seen as sabotaging great Western values like ‘freedom’ and ‘economic growth’… And also, probably, high political position tends to corrupt… And he began changing, slowly but irreversibly. Eventually he collected all the former properties of his family, in so-called ‘restitutions’. He began supporting the imperialistic US foreign policy, which for me was something extremely embarrassing. He lost the connection with real life: he began living in the greenhouse of the chosen people.


The artist as a cultural provocateur. Click on any image to expand. Fierce political art takes courage. 


AV: Which brings me to the subject, which we already discussed earlier: no matter what problems Czechoslovakia faced in the Soviet-era, the country was decisively not in the Western greenhouse – it was firmly on the side of the oppressed people, who were fighting for freedom and against Western colonialism, all over the world. The entire Eastern Block actually had helped the liberation struggles on all continents. There would be no freedom and no end to colonialism without the Soviets, Czechs, or East Germans… Also, Czech and Slovak engineers, doctors, and teachers – they did some incredible work for humanity, for the people in Africa, Asia… 

MK: As Cubans have been doing until now…

AV:  Yes. But now, looking back, it appears that a huge percentage of people were, during the Communist era, actually dreaming about joining the West and indirectly or even directly, joining the oppressors. Now when so many former progressive dissidents turned around as Havel did, now when the country got divided [into the Czech Republic and Slovakia] and both parts have determinately joined the Western imperialist and economic structures, it is obvious that the Czech and Slovak republics are willing to do absolutely nothing positive for the rest of the world. They are actually participating in and supporting almost all aggressions designed in Washington, London and Paris.

Are people happy? Is it what they really wanted?

MK: I really don’t understand what is going on in the minds of the people here, in the Czech Republic.

Of course, certain ‘selected parts of the society’, those who own something, those who are so-called successful in business, those who became very rich, they are very happy with where it is all going. And these people own the mass media and they are promoting this right-wing system. But I think that the poor people are waking up from their dream, that ‘if they would liberate themselves from the totalitarian system’, they would start to live ‘free lives’, ‘joyful lives’.

None of those dreams really came true. For most of people, life now is much more horrible than it was under socialism [assuming such life was indeed horrible,  since the assumption was based on a profoundly erroneous understanding of the capitalist way of life and even their own relative condition.—Eds).

AV: When you say horrible, we have to remember that the Czech Republic is still a very rich country. And it is, at least for its own citizens, offering some sort of Social Democratic mattress; a cushion… There is free medical care of relatively very high quality, free education, subsidized culture and excellent and cheap public transportation all over the country. What did change for the worse?


 


 

MK: Before the so-called ‘Velvet Revolution’, people were complaining about not having access to certain type of information, or certain cultural products, including certain films. They were not allowed to travel abroad, whenever they wanted, etcetera. But they didn’t realize that their dignity of life was much, much better then, than it is nowadays. They didn’t realize that when capitalism enters, they would start to feel anxieties, very deep existential anxieties… They would start being terrified that they would lose jobs.

They are now forced to trade their human dignity for keeping their jobs.

Now they have to kiss the backsides of their bosses much more than they would have to, under Communism.

It is all very interesting, as people used to have certain advantages, which were of course created, built and established by the socialist movements throughout history. And they sort of forgot, having those values and advantages, that…

AV: They took things for granted?

MK: They did take things for granted. They did not even realize that they had some great things, that they had great lives. Suddenly, when they began losing them, they realized that something is going terribly wrong. Some people are now very disappointed.

I spent one year in Moravia with my wife. There is the highest unemployment rate in the country, and you can hear big complaints there.

It is very interesting: this shift from socialist system to capitalist one. Under socialism, Czechoslovakia was producing everything, literally from needles to locomotives.


 

kohout-slave-roped

AV: Nuclear reactors, airplanes, big riverboats…

MK: Yes! Everything… From nuclear reactors to clothing: everything was produced here. Food was produced here. It was a self-sustaining country.

Now everything changed! All the national industry is gone. Sold or stolen by those…

AV:or downgraded. The airplane industry is gone; factories that used to export locomotives all over the world were bought by Western multi-nationals and are now producing railroad cars…

MK: Yes… Everything is sort of gone, and while it was privatized, production was moved east, and so-called Western ‘investment’ moved into the country, building those ‘slave-labor’, huge production halls, where people work like in the Charlie Chaplin films, like in “Modern Times”.

So it is real pity that people totally misunderstood the word ‘freedom’.

AV: Do you suggest that there was more freedom here, some 30 years ago then there is now?

MK: Depends for whom. But I used to say to my students at Tufts University in Boston, when I was asked ‘when I felt most free’… I always told them: “During the ‘totalitarian system’ in Czechoslovakia!”

AV: Or more precisely, during the so-called totalitarian system…

We see the same thing in China, right now. You performed in China, and my work too, is often shown there.

In many ways, artists are more free there, than in the West. In Beijing, artists are addressing much more important issues, and making enormous impact on society, than those who are working in London or in New York.


 


 

MK: Yes, I know that from my own experience. I curated a big festival of performing arts, in Beijing, about 4 years ago. I was very surprised by how deeply critical some of their work was there. While I read in the Western propaganda media, that Communist China is censoring, sending people to jail because of their critical voices, etcetera. It was all quite different from what I witnessed there.

AV: Also, from our own experience in Czechoslovakia… I am trying to connect these dots… In Czechoslovakia, as you pointed out earlier, people were complaining that some type of information was not readily available. But also, at the same time, the information in the Communist Czechoslovakia, mattered. In the present-day, in pro-Western and capitalist Czech Republic, the information means very little, and people can actually change very little, even if they do have access to the information.

MK: Under the socialist government, of what the West called ‘totalitarian system’, people complained… We complained… But we always found the way to get the information that we were looking for. And we were very proactive to get hold of the information. And then we valued what we got; we really studied that information, we really processed it. And we had plenty of time. We had real luxury of time, under the socialist system. So you could enjoy reading books, listen to music, watching films…

AV: Sometime even at the workplace, because it seems that nobody really worked too hard.

[Both laughing]

MK: Well, the meaning of life is not some slave labor, is it? In theory, it was actually part of that socialist or communist system – to increase the quality of life. So, it was all about the quality of life, but not necessarily the quantity of things consumed.

On the other hand, the capitalist economic system is based on ‘markets’. Its ideologues are saying that such system is providing many more goods. ‘Stuff’, you know… Yes, but the price is that the quality of life gets dramatically reduced. [And not everyone under capitalism gets the “stuff”, either. The vast majority in the capitalist periphery live miserable lives of want of even essentials.—Eds)

AV: You then have 3 cars, 5 phones, but you don’t really need them.

MK: You don’t need them, and you don’t have time to live. You are permanently terrified of losing your job, or of many other things.

AV: So you fight all this, and you use your art, your performances to attack the stupidity of life under capitalism. You are also attacking religious dogmas, which are very closely connected to all this – to power, exploitation, oppression… And you are attacking imperialism. What response do you get all over the world, because you are not performing just here (Czech Republic), but also in the United States, all over Europe, in China, Israel and in many other places. Are you filling the gap? Do you feel that people are longing for such art, such political and engaged performances?

MK: I think so. I have gotten very positive responses, the fact that actually keeps me going. Sometimes people just approach me on the street and say: “Your art is great. It increases our awareness about this and that stupidity!” I don’t even know how many people are affected by my pieces…

AV: Milan, you are taking direct action in many parts of the world. You have been attacking Israel for its treatment of Palestinians. You have been attacking Czechs for how they treat Roma people. You almost single-handedly helped to dismantle that wall of shame that was erected in Usti nad Labem, in order to separate white Czechs and Gypsies/Roma… You are throwing raw meat at the priests in the churches, to highlight the crimes against humanity committed by Christianity. You are invading the shopping centers and malls; mock-praying to the god of mammon. You do many things that other people would never dare to do. Do you get arrested, intimidated or even attacked?

MK: Oh yes, many times! I had been arrested many times. I even had to face the court, when I was doing that famous piece in Boston, at the beginning of the mortgage loan scandal. When the banks were selling those loans to poor people and those people could not afford to pay the mortgage and then ended up committing suicide. So I decided to do a performance in front of the headquarters of the Bank of America, which was one of the most horrible, disgusting institutions at that time; cheating the people… So I placed the set of nooses in front of the bank, and I had a sign there: ‘nooses on sale’. My message was: If you come here to apply for a loan, buy also a noose’.

AV: Just in case…

MK: Just in case! But police came, they arrested me; they took it deadly seriously… The city filed criminal charges against me, and I had to attend court hearings for several months. The case was: ‘City of Boston vs Milan Kohout’. And they came up with some 150-years old law, which was stating that you couldn’t sell the stuff in front of a bank house. That law was apparently applied only once, during those 150 years. But it was clear that they were trying to find something against me… At the end I was acquitted. My case generated enormous media attention, including that from the National Public Radio.


“The quality of life under socialism, as we mentioned, was much higher, especially compared to this capitalist slavery!”


 

AV: Milan, both of us are traveling intensively all over the world. You clearly see the danger coming from Western imperialism. Do you take the threat seriously? Do you agree that Western imperialism is increasingly in control of the planet; a fact that could lead to extremely tragic consequences?

MK: Absolutely! I lived in the US for 26 years, so I witnessed that period of time when US power became very aggressive. And I realized that it was very logical and connected to the decomposition of the Eastern Block. After the Communist block collapsed, the West had suddenly no opposition. There was suddenly a great vacuum with no opposition, and they filled it immediately, with their aggressive business interests, because it is clear that at the ‘top of the pyramid’ is the economic dictatorship. It was suddenly a tremendous opportunity to enslave hundreds and hundreds of millions of people. And they did it!

AV: And this country –the Czech Republic – from where we are discussing the world right now, is suddenly part of this Western regime… It is collaborating again.

MK: But of course…

AV: It is not a victim, anymore, as it wanted to be seen in the past… It is part of the oppressor’s club. Do people realize it? Is there any discussion, any debate regarding this issue?

MK: I am pleased to say that some people, including those in academia, are beginning to realize it. But it is a very recent development. In the meantime, this aggressive capitalist regime took over almost all the means of production, as well as mass media. And they are brainwashing adults, as well as young children. They are permanently terrifying them with twisted lies about the Communist times, and those young brains of course believe what they are told, because that’s the information that is given to them. And they are so, so brainwashed, those young kids, that it is almost unbelievable! The propaganda created some Orwellian dogmas like that ‘in Communist days people were all wearing some gray clothes and walking slowly down the streets like zombies’… Complete nonsense! It was not at all like that! Because many aspects of life under Communism were much more free than they are now!

AV: And much more fun…

MK: Much more fun! The quality of life, as we mentioned, was much higher, especially compared to this capitalist slavery!

AV: But there is now a global opposition; the coalition of countries that are resisting the dictates of the West: there is Latin America, Russia, China, South Africa, Iran, even some small countries like Eritrea. And this opposition is becoming very powerful, because it counts with great brains, and with increasingly powerful media. Both of us belong to that opposition. Do people here, in the Czech Republic, but also in Poland where you are often teaching, realize that they ended up on the wrong side of history, by joining the West?

MK: Some people probably do, already, but not yet the majority.

But back to the arts: it is a great duty, it is the task of the artists to create such awareness. Artists have to teach people. Fuck all that esthetic and cognitive and conceptional profile of the artwork! And let’s go back to engaged political art, because there is an incredible need for it, nowadays. There is still hope that this disaster that has been taking place for the last 30 years, could be reversed. For us to fight now is to fight for the very survival on this planet!


 

ABOUT THE PRINCIPALS

Milan Kohout (now a US citizen) is originally from The Czech Republic.  There he got his M.S. in Electrical Engineering. He was an independent artist in the so-called “Second Culture”. Later he became a signatory member and art activist of the dissident human rights organization CHARTER 77 (a group of mostly artists from “Second Culture” nominated for the Nobel Prize in 1985 and which initiated the non violent Velvet Revolution which toppled the existing pro-Soviet government in 1989). 

Following many interrogations he was forced by CZ security police to leave his country in 1986 due to his political art activism. After several years in a refugee camp he was granted asylum in the United States. 

In 1993 Milan received his Diploma from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston

Since 1994 Milan has been a member of the Mobius Artists Group (www.Mobius.org). Here he has created many full-scale Performance Art pieces (both collaborative and solo) 

His work concentrates mostly on the subject of human rights (recently rights of Roma/ Gypsies) and politics (critique of totalitarian capitalism and fundamentalist religions) 

As Mobius Artists Group member he has participated on numerous international art exchange programs and festivals around the world (China, Thailand, Croatia, Taiwan, Czech Rep, Poland, Cuba, USA, Israel etc). and has been the recipient of number of awards, grants, residencies (Grant from The Fund for US Artists at International Festivals, Tanne Foundation Annual Award, First Prize at International Theater Festival in Pula, Best National Czech Independent Film Award, Arizona State University residency, PSi conference in London 2006, Art Residency in Israel/ Palestine 2009, etc.) 


 

Andre Vltchek is a novelist, filmmaker and investigative journalist. He covered wars and conflicts in dozens of countries. The result is his latest book: “Fighting Against Western Imperialism ‘Pluto’ published his discussion with Noam Chomsky: On Western Terrorism. His critically acclaimed political novel Point of No Return is re-edited and available. Oceania is his book on Western imperialism in the South Pacific. His provocative book about post-Suharto Indonesia and the market-fundamentalist model is called “Indonesia – The Archipelago of Fear”. His feature documentary, “Rwanda Gambit” is about Rwandan history and the plunder of DR Congo. After living for many years in Latin America and Oceania, Vltchek presently resides and works in East Asia and Africa. He can be reached through his website or his Twitter.


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