Czechoslovakia (1968): Stalinism rocked by crisis - Part One

To mark the 40th anniversary of the invasion of Czechoslovakia, we are here reprinting an article by Alan Woods, first written on September 4, 1968, and published in the Winter edition of the Spark, in which he clearly relates the momentous events that shook the Stalinist regimes and explains their significance.

To mark the 40th anniversary of the invasion of Czechoslovakia, we are here reprinting an article by Alan Woods, first written on September 4, 1968, and published in the Winter edition of the Spark, in which he clearly relates the momentous events that shook the Stalinist regimes and explains their significance.

The Meaning of Dubcek

The movement in Czechoslovakia began last summer with a stormy session of the Czech Writers' Union, which endorsed resolution in support of the protest of the Soviet author Solzhenitsyn against censorship, and affirmed that their work would 'never serve a strictly propagandist function'. The ferment among the Czech intelligentsia rapidly spread to the students, who demonstrated in the winter when the electricity failed and the lights went out in their hostels. They paraded through the streets with posters bearing the cryptic slogan: "Give us light."

The Secret Police brutally attacked the demonstration, wounding several students. It was a measure of the nervousness of the bureaucracy then that they strove to pacify the students by offering to pay the hospital bills of the injured demonstrators. This offer was met by the bold demand that those responsible for the outrage must be punished and the press must publish all the facts about the incident. The student leaders warned that if the papers did not tell the truth they would march to the factories and explain the facts to the workers.

The split in the bureaucracy and the fall of Novotny which followed these events cannot be explained simply by the actions of the writers and students, but must be seen against a background of the slowing down of economic growth and the crisis of the Czech economy in the last few years. The crazy attempt on the part of the various national Stalinist bureaucracies of Eastern Europe to build socialism in 'their own' countries has led to a situation where each state attempts to construct every branch of industry 'independently' and without consideration of the inevitable restrictions imposed by the old capitalist national boundaries.

Thus, throughout the Fifties, the Czech bureaucracy tried to force the development of heavy industry, to the detriment of consumer production, leading to a chronic imbalance between industry and agriculture, a lop-sided development of industry itself, chronic shortages of consumer goods, and unbelievably, actual overproduction in a nationalised, planned economy! The myopic planning 'from above' which decreed production of heavy industrial products, and still more heavy industrial products, together with all the inefficiency, bungling and mismanagement of a bureaucratised economy, led to the widespread stockpiling of goods, which often became useless.

The necessity of 'meeting the plan' led to the replacement of quality with quantity: so that those consumer goods which were produced, could not be sold on the world market, while their price put them beyond the reach of the Czech workers. A State Commission in 1964 reported that of 4,000 production lines inspected in 50 factories, only one-third could be judged of competitive standard. The Czech economy, which had been the showpiece of the Stalinist world in the Fifties, was grinding to a halt, clogged with bureaucracy.

The need to rationalize the economy, plus fear of the consequences among the Czech workers of a further slowing down of the productive forces, led to a split in the upper layers of the Czech bureaucracy and the emergence of the Dubcek wing of 'reformers', so beloved of the Western capitalist press. For Marxists, however, all this journalistic sentimentality must be replaced by a simple question: whom did Dubcek represent? Whose interests did his programme serve?

What was Dubcek doing in all those years of Novotny Stalinism? Why was it only in 1967-68 that he found his tongue and suddenly discovered all the evils of the old regime? Some of his 'liberal' friends had very sudden conversions indeed. For instance, Jiri Hendrych, the Party spokesman on cultural affairs, who in January was preaching sweetness and light and calling for 'fresh approaches' to the creative intelligentsia, at last year's Writers' Congress, stormed out of the hall, with the words: "I have finally reached the end of my patience with your people." Subsequently, he was behind the expulsion from the Party of a number of militant writers.

The main plank of Dubcek's programme was economic reform. His proposals broadly agreed with the 'Libermanist' policies introduced in East Germany in 1963 and in Russia in 1965. Under the scheme the directives from the central plan would give way to plans drawn up by individual enterprises or associations of enterprises. Far from abolishing the privileges and wealth of the bureaucrats, Dubcek aims to increase the wage differentials, to grant 'incentives' to the factory managers. The move is, in fact, a Bonapartist manoeuvre on the part of the tops of the regime to balance on one set of bureaucrats (the factory managers, 'technologists', etc.), as against a different layer (state bureaucrats).

An article in the 'Sunday Times' (21st July) graphically revealed the social stratum on which Dubcek leans for his stable support. In an interview, a Czech factory director gave, his reasons for backing the new leadership:

"We have much more freedom now in this factory. We don't have the same old idiots interfering in our production. We can find our own customers. We don't have any problems with spare parts or deliveries.

But wages are a problem. The average worker gets 2,100 crowns monthly (roughly £50), but the engineers only get six per cent more. We need a differential of at least 30 per cent...

We have our own army and police. If somebody tries to wreck socialism here in Czechoslovakia, our police and army can deal with them. We don't need the Russians to help us..."

The contemptuous attitude of our 'liberal' factory director to the workers stands exposed in the next episode.

At this point the telephone rang and Mr Kalousek answered it. Afterwards he turned to me with a sigh and said: "It's one of the workers wanting to ask me about a new resolution. You know I don't agree with making these resolutions, even though I agree with what they say. People get all excited, work stops and that costs money."

Novotny attempted to appeal to the factories for support and to turn the working class against the 'bourgeois intellectuals'. Early this year, Western newspapers reported that many workers were suspicious of Dubcek, and with good reason. It is true that the 'Libermanisation' of the Russian economy, as expected by the Marxists, has had the immediate effect of boosting the Soviet economy. Last year the gross industrial production of the USSR grew by 10, the highest figure since 1959. There has been a marked improvement in the production of consumer goods. But Khrushchev's reforms of 1957 also had a similar effect-before the 'decentralisation' ended up with an orgy of corruption and dislocation which led to a sharp about-turn and the fall of Khrushchev himself.

If one takes the case of Yugoslavia, which Dubcek and Co. have held up as a model for the Czechoslovak economy, the future of the present 'Libermanist' escapade can be seen as a mirror. In 1965, the Yugoslav bureaucracy carried the process of decentralisation and 'rationalisation' to its further lengths. Then, too, the Yugoslav economy spurted forward: it enjoyed the highest growth rate of all the Stalinist states, excluding China.

What is the position today? Production in many sectors is at a standstill. Central planning has almost broken down. In 1967 production was expected to rise by 9, and instead fell by 0.4. Decentralisation has led to increasing conflicts between enterprises, dislocation of the economy, and a wave of inter-enterprise law suits for the recovery of bad debts! Worst of all, we are confronted with the spectacle-in a "socialist" country -of 300,000 unemployed-not counting 400,000 Yugoslavs who cannot find work in their own country and have to work in capitalist enterprises in the West!

Undoubtedly, Dubcek's economic reforms would, in the last analysis, work against the interests of the Czech workers. Competition between state-owned enterprises would mean that the numerous unprofitable factories would go to the wall, producing large-scale unemployment, especially in the more backward region of Slovakia.

From the outset, Dubcek aimed to enlist the support primarily of the intellectuals and students, who have been the most vocal in his support. The Czech bureaucracy was clearly frightened that the ferment among the intelligentsia would spread to the workers. The lessons of the "Crooked Circle" in Poland and the "Petöfi Circle" in Hungary, whose agitation sparked off the violent mass movements in 1956, was not lost on Dubcek and the other bureaucrats. They were prepared to grant concessions temporarily, especially to the intelligentsia, in order to preserve their own privileged position. These reforms were far less sweeping than the reforms carried out by Gomulka in 1956. Why then did the Russian bureaucracy choose to intervene?

The first thing which alarmed Brezhnev and the leaders of the Russian bureaucracy was the rapid development of the mass movement in Czechoslovakia. For all the timidity of Dubcek's reforms (it now emerges that Dubcek himself was a 'compromise' candidate of the Central Committee, i.e. not even the most radical of the bureaucrats!) they undoubtedly acted as a catalyst to the profound feelings of discontent that were 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. From all over the country resolutions poured in demanding the sacking of Novotny and the speeding up of reforms. For the first time, meetings of the CP themselves were the scene of noisy discussions, criticism and even the removal of candidates from the official lists. An attempted coup of Novotny followers merely acted as a whip to stir up the masses further. The movement was gathering impetus. The bureaucracy was forced to swim along with the current, to grant reform after reform.

The fear of the Russian bureaucracy that the mass movement in Czechoslovakia would get out of control emerges very clearly from the text of the letter sent from the Warsaw meeting of Russia and her four allies which alleged that:

"The forces of reaction, taking advantage of the weakening of the party leadership of the country, abusing demagogically the slogan of democratisation, unleashed a campaign against the CPC and its honest and devoted cadres, with the open intention to liquidate the leading role of the party, to undermine the socialist system, to set Czechoslovakia against the other socialist countries."

The Kremlin feared that Dubcek and the "honest and devoted cadres" of Czech Stalinism would be unable to control the movement and that had been unleashed by the split in the leadership. Above all it feared for "the leading role of the party", i.e. it feared the emergence of new workers' parties, which would provide a genuine socialist alternative to Stalinism: the letter continued:

"Political organisations and clubs formed recently outside the framework of the National Front have in fact become headquarters of the forces of reaction. The social democrats stubbornly demand the creation of their own party, organise underground committees strive to split the working-class movement in Czechoslovakia, to reach out for the leadership of the country with the aim of restoring the bourgeois system."

The accusation that the Socialist system in Czechoslovakia was threatened by "forces of reaction" wishing to restore capitalism is the usual contemptible formula used by the Russian bureaucracy to frighten the workers of the East into line in a crisis situation. Brezhnev and other CC members did their best to "prove" the point by a series of frame-ups in the best Stalinist tradition. Thus the news of the famous "arms dump" of West German weapons was issued by the East German radio before the Czechs had announced it!

On July 30th, the workers' committee of the Auto-Praka factory issued a statement denouncing as a forgery a letter in 'Pravda', purporting to be from the factory, which condemned Czechoslovakian calls to withdraw Soviet troops. For all the clumsy allegations 'Pravda' has not been able to prove the existence of any group, journal or party in Czechoslovakia that has called for a return to capitalism.

But the Warsaw letter did name one group which it regarded as particularly dangerous, namely the group of 80 intellectuals and workers calling for the speeding up of democratisation, in the document known as the "Two Thousand Words". This "platform of counter-revolution", as the Warsaw letter calls it, advocated the use of strikes and demonstrations to speed up the purge of Novotny men still in office. The Russian press waxed indignant at the suggestion that strikes could take place "under socialism". But Lenin explained as early as 1921 that in a workers' state with bureaucratic deformations the workers have the right to defend themselves, even against their own state-and that was in a relatively healthy workers' state.

As to the "leading role of the party" which, the Stalinists assert is a "fundamental principle of Leninism", this too is a downright distortion. As one Czech leader correctly pointed out on television, Lenin was always in favour of the existence of several Soviet parties as a necessary safeguard for workers' democracy. After October, the only Party that was suppressed was the fascist Black Hundreds. Even the bourgeois Cadet Party was not immediately banned. It was only the pressure of the Civil War and the intervention which forced the One-Party state on the Bolsheviks, as an unwelcome measure, to be terminated as soon as possible. Only after the victory of the Stalinist counter-revolution, which took power out of the hands of the working class and into the hands of a privileged caste of officials, was the "Leninist principle" of the One-Party state discovered.

The Stalinist bureaucracies of Russia and Eastern Europe fear strikes like the plague because these can grow into a movement to overthrow their rule. Even more do they fear the growth of political organisations around which can rapidly crystalise an alternative socialist programme to the caricature of socialism that exists in these countries.

The heavy pressure from the Kremlin produced the desired response in Prague. Replying to the Warsaw Letter, the Presidium of the Czech Party hastened to assure their Soviet comrades that:

"The number of fears expressed in the letter were also expressed in the resolution of our May plenary session of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia."

The letter agreed that "extremist tendencies" and "the remnants of anti-socialist forces in our society" were at work and that these "prevent us from achieving only those results in our political work which we ourselves wish." But the letter goes on to warn Brezhnev against trying to put back the clock in Czechoslovakia, for fear of provoking the working class.

"Any indication of a return to these methods would evoke the resistance of the working class, the workers, co-operative farmers, and intelligentsia. The party would, by such a step, imperil its political leading role and would create a situation in which a power conflict would really arise."

The "liberal" faction realised quite clearly that to continue to use the old methods of rule by the mailed fist and club was out of the question. If the concessions and reforms created a dangerous situation for the bureaucracy, then an attempt to enforce the old methods would be ten times more dangerous. When a whole people stands up and says "No", no force on earth can move them.

The immediate intention of Dubcek was to grant concessions, which, while removing the worst causes of discontent, left intact the power and privileges of the ruling clique:

"In general, the Party has been able to overcome political demagogy in these questions which attempted to utilise the justified demands of the workers to disorganise our system and which fanned an impromptu movement in the name of 'workers' demands' in order to make the economic and political situation in our country more difficult. At the same time...we are solving some urgent social and political problems such as the increase of low pensions and urgent wage increases."

The Czech leadership fully agreed with the Russian comrades in the condemnation of "campaigns and unjustified slanders against various functionaries and public officials- including members of the new leadership of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia-which are conducted from extremist positions both left and right." It condemned the "2,000 words which urge people to engage in anarchist acts and to isolation of the constitutional character of our political reform." But again, the Czech bureaucracy warned that the suppression of these "extremist tendencies" could not take place immediately. The September Extraordinary Party Congress would work out new laws on political parties and of "unofficial" groups, clubs and parties.

The pressure from Moscow must not be seen as the cause of Dubcek's "backsliding". From the very beginning, Dubcek's main consideration was to head off and restrict the movement of the Czech masses. While, with the one hand, in the wake of the new movement of protest, the "liberals" were hurriedly throwing out concessions, they were repeatedly warning the workers to "avoid another Hungary at all costs".

Appeals for "calm" and "patience" and "dignity" have been a constant and monotonous theme of the new regime in its attempt to lull the masses into passivity. But as the pressure from the other frightened bureaucratic cliques stepped up, so the Czech bureaucracy began retreating step by step, from the limited concessions that had been made.

After the notorious "Bratislava Agreement", the Czech press was warned off printing articles "too critical" of the Soviet Union. Earlier General Pochlik was removed from his post as head of the defence department of the Central Committee for his public criticism of the Warsaw Pact, and a purge of the Czech press was already underway.

At a meeting together with Ceausescu in Prague on August 16th Dubcek denounced petitions calling for the abandonment of the Peoples' Militia (police): "We need order in our country," he said. "The meetings in Prague (i.e. public discussions), if they continue, will have a negative effect on the democratisation progress." ('The Times', August 17th). Clearly, the Czech bureaucracy was taking very seriously the warnings of their fraternal Soviet comrades to "put their house in order".

[To be continued ...]


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