Forty years ago, on the night of August 20th-21st Russian and other Warsaw Pact forces invaded Czechoslovakia, thus putting an end to the ‘Prague Spring.’
“Lenin wake up, Brezhnev has gone mad.” This was one of the slogans chanted on the street of Prague 40 years ago. The upheavals in Czechoslovakia had begun with a stormy session of the Writers Union which passed a resolution supporting Soviet author Solzhenitsyn’s protest against censorship.
This ferment amongst the intelligentsia rapidly spread to the students who demonstrated against power failures in their hostels. The demonstration was brutally attacked by the secret police, who wounded several of the students. The bureaucracy was so rattled that they tried to pacify the students by offering to pay the hospital bills of the injured demonstrators. The students’ response was to demand that those responsible be punished and the press publish the facts. Student leaders warned that if the papers did not report the truth they would march to the factories and report the incident to the workers themselves.
The split in the bureaucracy, the fall of Novotny and the rise of Dubcek which followed these events cannot be explained solely by the actions of the writers and the students, but must be seen against the background of the developing crisis of the Czech economy.
The insanity of the various national Stalinist bureaucracies of Eastern Europe trying to build socialism in ‘their own’ countries led to each state attempting to construct every branch of industry ‘independently,’ without giving any consideration to the inevitable restrictions imposed by the old capitalist national boundaries.
Bureaucratic planning ‘from above’ and the concomitant inefficiency, corruption and mismanagement meant that the necessity of ‘meeting the plan’ led to the replacement of quality with quantity. Those consumer goods which were produced, could not be sold on the world market, while their price put them beyond the reach of Czech workers.
The Czech economy was grinding to a halt, clogged with bureaucracy. The need to rationalise the economy, and fear of the consequences among the Czech workers, led to a split at the top of the Czech bureaucracy, and the emergence of the Dubcek wing of ‘reformers.’ In the West Dubcek and co. were lauded by the media, but what and who did Dubcek really represent?
The main thrust of Dubcek’s programme was an economic reform where directives from the central plan would be replaced by plans drawn up by individual enterprises or associations of enterprises. Far from abolishing the privileges of the bureaucrats, Dubcek was aiming to increase wage differentials and grant ‘incentives’ to the factory managers. This was a classical Bonapartist manoeuvre balancing on one set of bureaucrats (the factory managers etc.), against another layer (state bureaucrats).
Initially the Western press reported that many workers were suspicious of Dubcek, and with good reason. In the last analysis Dubcek’s reforms would work against the interests of the Czech workers. Competition between state-owned enterprises would inevitably lead to the closure of unprofitable factories producing large-scale unemployment.
From the beginning Dubcek looked primarily to the intellectuals and students for support. The Czech bureaucracy was clearly frightened that the ferment in the intelligentsia would spread to the workers – that was a lesson they had learned from the “Crooked Circle” in Poland and the “Petofi Circle” in Hungary, whose agitation sparked off the revolutionary movements of 1956. They were prepared to grant concessions temporarily, especially to the intelligentsia, in order to protect their own privileged position.
The rapid development of the mass movement in Czechoslovakia terrified Brezhnev and the Moscow bureaucracy. Dubcek’s reforms were timid (incidentally it later emerged that Dubcek himself was a compromise candidate of the Central Committee, not even the most radical of the bureaucrats!) but they were enough to act as a catalyst to the discontent welling up in the working class.
The split in the bureaucracy precipitated an unparalleled outburst of discussion, protest meetings and demonstrations. In every factory, college and village a furious discussion raged. Resolutions poured in demanding the sacking of Novotny and the speeding up of reforms. Even Communist Party meetings were the scene of noisy debate. The movement was gathering impetus and the bureaucracy was forced to swim along with the current, granting reform after reform.
The Kremlin alleged that the “forces of reaction….with the aim of restoring the bourgeois system” were behind the movement. This was the standard contemptible formula employed by the Russian bureaucracy to frighten the workers into line.
The Stalinist bureaucracies of Russia and Eastern Europe feared strikes like the plague because they saw within them the potential for a movement which could overthrow their rule. Even worse in their eyes was the development of political organisations around which an alternative socialist programme to the perverted caricature of socialism that existed in these countries could crystallise.
Heavy pressure bore down from Moscow on the Czech bureaucrats to ‘put their house in order.’ The ‘reformers’ meanwhile had realised that they could not simply rule by the old methods. If the reforms created a dangerous situation for the bureaucracy, an attempt to go back to their previous policy would be ten times as dangerous. When a whole people stand up and say “No,” no force on earth can stop them.
Dubcek’s immediate intention was to grant concessions, removing the worst causes of discontent, but leaving the power and privileges of the ruling clique intact. However the movement below could not be allowed to go too far.
The pressure from Moscow wasn’t the sole cause of Dubcek’s rapid backsliding. His main concern was to restrict the movement of the Czech masses. With one hand the bureaucrats gave out concessions, with the other they issued warnings to the workers to “avoid another Hungary at all costs.”
As always these so-called reformers constantly appealed for “calm,” attempting to lull the masses into passivity. As the pressure from other frightened Stalinist cliques mounted, the Czech bureaucracy began to retreat step by step from the concessions they had made.
The Czech press was warned off printing articles too critical of the Soviet Union. At a meeting with Romanian Stalinist leader Ceaucescu on August 16th, Dubcek announced, “We need order in our country. The meetings in Prague [i.e. public discussions], if they continue, will have a negative effect on the democratisation process.” (‘The Times’, August 17th 1968). They were taking very seriously the warnings from the Kremlin.
The Russian bureaucracy were terrified that if censorship were to be abolished in Czechoslovakia, they would be left with little justification for resisting the clamour of Soviet intellectuals for the dead hand of bureaucracy to be lifted from literature and the arts. More serious still would have been the effect on the working class. A free airing of opinions in the press would provide a focal point for organised expressions of discontent, inevitably leading in the direction of a new programme and a new party.
In Czechoslovakia, as in Hungary in 1956, (where the workers actually set up workers’ councils, soviets in all but name) the working class would undoubtedly have tried to move in the direction of the programme drafted by Lenin in 1919, based around the following four demands:
Free and democratic elections with the right of recall
No official to receive a higher wage than a skilled worker
No standing army, but an armed people
No permanent bureaucracy, “every cook should be able to be Prime Minister.”
At least one Czech journal was already raising the idea of genuine, democratic workers councils. In the course of events, experience would have demonstrated to the workers the need to by-pass the limitations imposed on them by the Dubcek clique.
In 1956 the Hungarian workers went much further than the “reformers” like Nagy and Dubcek had foreseen. They built a genuine workers’ revolution, not a social counter-revolution to overthrow the socialist property relations, but a political revolution to oust the bureaucracy and establish a healthy, democratic workers’ state. That movement was only crushed by the intervention of Russian tanks at a tremendous cost. Now again in 1968 Moscow was faced with a stark choice, either intervene which would mean yet another blow against the power and prestige of Stalinism; or stay out which would probably create an even more dangerous situation for the bureaucracy, a danger which would not be confined to the borders of Czechoslovakia. In other words, the invasion was not a sign of strength on the part of the bureaucracy but of weakness, motivated by fear.
From a superficial point of view the appearance of tanks on the streets of Prague spelt immediate and inevitable defeat for the movement in Czechoslovakia. From a purely military point of view any talk of Czech resistance to the mighty army of Soviet Russia would be ridiculous. However, for Marxists military factors by themselves are not decisive in war. If that were the case, then the young Soviet Republic would have been crushed by the twenty-one armies of foreign intervention sent against them. But this did not happen. The reason was the clear internationalist position adopted by the Bolsheviks and the class appeals made to the workers in uniform of the foreign armies. The result of the Bolshevik propaganda and fraternisation on the already demoralised troops led to mutinies in the armies of intervention which became infected with “Bolshevik influenza.”
A genuine Leninist leadership would have prepared the Czech people for the eventuality of an invasion, both politically and militarily. If the Red Army had been confronted by an armed working class organised in soviets it would have made a tremendous impact on the Russian workers in uniform. As it was, numerous eye-witness reports tell of the bewilderment and demoralisation of the troops, as the realisation dawned on them that they had been duped by their leaders. There were instances of Russian troops breaking down and weeping in the streets, protesting that they didn’t even know they were in Czechoslovakia. In this situation a clear internationalist, class appeal would have led to massive disaffection in the Red Army. The Czech workers and youth showed an instinctive grasp of the need to fraternise. Mere passive resistance is not enough though. The interventionist troops should have been made to feel the absolute determination of the Czech people to fight to the death if necessary to defend their gains. They should have been confronted with a force so implacable as to encourage them to disobey the officer with his pistol at their back. Without such a confrontation the officer caste can always force the troops back into line with the threat of the firing squad.
The tragedy of Czechoslovakia was that at the crucial moment the Czech people found themselves leaderless, disarmed and unprepared. The cowardice of the Dubcek clique, which preferred to see the country occupied rather than arm the working class, is a clear indication of their real interests.
Undoubtedly the Soviet invasion was a defeat for the Czech working class. As in 1956 the capitalist press had a field day exploiting the invasion as proof of the barbarity of communism. They shed crocodile tears but were not prepared to lift a finger to help because they knew that all the Kremlin’s propaganda about counter-revolution was a lie. There was no desire on the part of the Czech workers to restore capitalism, rather they were groping towards creating a genuine workers’ state. Of course the capitalists have no interest in allowing that to happen. So despite all their hypocrisy, they were quite pleased to see Russian forces crush the movement, while taking advantage of the cheap propaganda opportunity to drag the name of socialism through the mud. For decades the capitalist class in the West and the Stalinist bureaucrats in the East leaned on each other for support, while simultaneously the western capitalists used the crimes of Stalinism to discredit socialism, and the bureaucratic cliques relied on the threat of counter-revolution to control their own workers.
In the end it proved to be the bureaucracy itself, no longer able to guarantee its power and privileges on the basis of a nationalised planned economy strangled by the absence of democratic workers control, who turned towards capitalism as Trotsky had predicted in the 1930s. In Czechoslovakia their actions were eventually responsible for the criminal break-up of the country.
The restoration of capitalism in Russia and throughout Eastern Europe has created a nightmare for the working class. Every day is providing new lessons in the ‘wonders’ of the market. In the next period the workers of Eastern Europe will rediscover the traditions of 1956 and 1968 and the other marvellous struggles of the working class, and rediscover too the genuine programme of socialism and Bolshevism. The banner of Marx and Lenin will be recovered from the mud through which the Stalinist bureaucracies dragged it by a new generation who, standing on the shoulders of their forebears, will link arms with their brothers and sisters in the West in the struggle for a socialist future for all humanity.
This is an edited version of an article by Alan Woods originally published in 1968. This version appeared first in Socialist Appeal.
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This post was written by Alan Woods