Czechoslovakia ten years ago

Czechoslovakia, as its unwieldy name suggests, was one of the artificial “nation-States” set up after the First World War, containing within its borders not only people whose mother-tongue was Czech or Slovak but considerable minorities speaking Hungarian, Polish, German and Ukrainian. These last two minorities provided the excuse, before the war, for parts of Czechoslovakia to be annexed by Germany (since restored) and, after the war, for parts to be annexed by Russia (where they still are today).

A mere glance at the map of Europe shows why, for strategic reasons, Czechoslovakia could never hope to pursue an independent foreign policy for any length of time. One end of the country points into the middle of Germany, the other (even more prominently on pre-war maps) into Russia. The victorious powers in the First World War who had set up Czechoslovakia in 1919 agreed twenty years later, at Munich, that it should form part of the German sphere of influence. After the war, at Yalta, it was agreed that it should be transferred to the Russian sphere, where it has been since the Stalinist coup d’etat in 1948, a position which was dramatically re-asserted ten years ago this month when Russian tanks rolled into the streets of Prague.

The Russian re-invasion of Czechoslovakia was motivated mainly by strategic considerations, the fear that the political changes begun by the Dubcek government would get out of hand and lead to Czechoslovakia trying to break away from the Russian empire.

Dubcek had succeeded Novotny, a hard-line Stalinist, as the leader of the Czechoslovak Communist Party in January 1968 as part of a process in which the “liberals” in the Party triumphed over the “conservatives”. The sort of state capitalist regime which exists in Russia and East Europe is based on a State monopoly over the means of production, but where the State is itself monopolised by a privileged group who thus own and control the means of production just as much as the more traditional capitalist class of Western countries.

This state capitalist ruling class monopolises the means of production as a class, but within it there are various groups with their own sectional interests such as the military, Party and managerial bureaucracies. In the classic Stalinist model, power is firmly in the hands of the Party bureaucracy — people as often as not originally from working-class backgrounds, who are basically politicians without technical qualifications; they make policy and it is to them that the military and managerial bureaucracies are subordinated. But because factory managers and other technocrats are also generally obliged to be members of the Party, conflicts of sectional interest within the state capitalist ruling class express themselves as conflicts inside the Party.

In Czechoslovakia the election of Dubcek as Party leader, and the “Prague Spring” which followed with the relaxation of censorship and talk of “socialism ( = state capitalism) with a human face”, represented the victory of the managerial section of the ruling class over the more strictly party-political section. The overcentralized state capitalism of the Stalin era, in which all decisions were taken centrally by the Party bureaucracy and industrial managers had merely to execute them was beginning to become inefficient even in Russia itself and various experiments in decentralization and so-called “market socialism” (an absurd contradiction in terms since socialism necessarily involves the disappearance of the market) were made. It was the implementation of such measures that in Czechoslovakia gave the managerial bureaucracy a certain degree of independence and allowed them to mount a challenge against and eventually oust the Stalinist old guard.

The Dubcek period in Czechoslovakia, then, represented the coming to power of a different section of the capitalist ruling class: the managers as opposed to the politicians. Some people were quite frank that this was what it was all about. The present writer recalls a Czech tourist at one of our meetings in Hyde Park in the summer of 1968 who somewhat arrogantly declared that Dubcek represented the end of the “dictatorship of the proletariat” by which he meant the end of “stupid workers”, i.e. political leaders from a working-class background) giving orders to more educated managers and technocrats like his father.

The programme of the triumphant Dubcek wing of the Czechoslovak Communist Party was essentially an extension of “market socialism”. This would have involved a further relaxation of centralized planning and more competition between enterprises for sales and profits. Enterprises were to be given the right to hire and fire, so turning the “hidden unemployment” (over manning) associated with the old system into an open reserve army of labour. There was even talk of enterprises being allowed to raise money by issuing bonds which would be traded centrally on a revived stock exchange! Ota Šik, the theorist of all this, now recognises, in exile, that the old system was a form of State capitalism but fails to realise that his “market socialism” was even more recognisably a form of capitalism.

Together with this economic liberalisation was to go a political liberalisation. Censorship in the newspapers, on the radio and television and in the arts was relaxed; the powers of the police were reduced. Here, as opposed to the economic reforms, was something from which the working class might have benefited. For freedom of discussion is the ideal, even indispensable, condition for the development of socialist ideas since it is only out of a full and frank discussion of their experiences under capitalism that the working class can come to acquire the majority socialist understanding necessary before capitalism can be replaced by Socialism. In the spring of 1968 a small, tentative step was taken in Czechoslovakia in a direction which might have led to the limited political democracy such as exists in Western countries, with its relative freedom of speech, more than one political party, collective bargaining between trade unions and employers, etc.

It was precisely a fear that such a system might eventually lead strategically-important Czechoslovakia out of the Soviet bloc that led the Russian ruling class to decide to send its troops in to overthrow Dubcek and install the puppet regime under Husak which is still in power today. The Dubcek regime itself had never suggested leaving the Soviet bloc (they had learnt the lesson of Czechoslovakia’s brief history: that it can’t have an independent foreign policy but must be dominated either by Germany or by Russia), but, as far as the Russian ruling class were concerned, this was no guarantee as to what, with the advent of a measure of political democracy, some future Czech government might try to do.

Socialists are naturally concerned about whether or not political democracy exists under capitalism. For the existence of some political democracy, limited and distorted though it must be by the class structure of capitalism, is central to our case for the peaceful propagation of socialist ideas culminating in the peaceful establishment of Socialism by democratic political action based on majority socialist understanding.

The Dubcek regime represented a section of the state capitalist ruling class and would have proved to be just as anti-working class as the previous Stalinist governments of Czechoslovakia. So no tears needed to be shed for it. But this split in the ruling class was beginning to allow workers in Czechoslovakia (just as had happened in Western Europe in the 19th century) a certain freedom to manoeuvre, both on the political and industrial fields and the continuation of this process might have led to a situation in which the open propagation of socialist ideas in Czechoslovakia became possible.


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