Czechoslovakia’s brief Spring

Twenty years ago this month Russian. East German. Hungarian and Polish tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia and put an end to the “Prague Spring”, an attempt to liberalise the state capitalist regime there.

The process of liberalisation had begun in January when the Central Committee of the Czechoslovak Communist Party voted to replace the ageing Stalinist Novotny as General Secretary with Alexander Dubcek. This represented a decisive victory for the liberalising elements within the Party over the conservative elements. In April the Party published a 24,000 word Action Programme entitled Czechoslovakia’s Road to Socialism. On the political field, it proposed an end to censorship, the introduction of freedom of assembly, the expression of minority opinion and various other reforms of a democratic nature. On the economic field, it sought to move away from the centralised, bureaucratic kind of state capitalism that existed in the country towards a more decentralised, market-oriented kind that came to be known as “market socialism” (despite the contradiction in terms). Under a plan drawn up by a professor of economics. Ota Sik, who became one of the deputy Prime Ministers, individual state enterprises were to be given a wide measure of autonomy and forced to compete for markets and bank loans; in addition, elected works councils were to be instituted as a means of preventing management from slipping back into lazy, bureaucratic ways.

Real steps were taken in the direction of freedom of expression and assembly: censorship was actually abolished and views critical of the regime could be freely expressed. Outside Czechoslovakia, intellectuals who had always been sympathetic to Russia but secretly felt guilty about its totalitarian nature welcomed the changes as the coming of “socialism [read: state capitalism] with a human face”.

The changes were less welcome to the Russian ruling class and indeed to elements within the Czechoslovak ruling class too. As the statement we published in the Socialist Standard at the time made clear, the main concern of the Russian ruling class was strategic: they were afraid that political liberalisation might get out of hand and lead to Czechoslovakia escaping from the Russian sphere of interest. As this was not a development they could risk, they sent in their tanks to restore a political regime that was potentially less dangerous.

Leading role of the party
Basically, the sort of political regime the Russian ruling class wanted to see in Czechoslovakia was one similar to their own. where “the leading role of the Communist Party” was firmly entrenched. Because of the nature of state capitalism in Russia and similar countries the ruling elite needs to be tightly organised to exercise its control over the means of production. Any weakening of “the leading role of the Party” is therefore a weakening of the position of a ruling class made up of those who occupy the top posts in the Party, the government, the armed forces and the nationalised industries and who in Russia are known as “nomenklatura” after the list of posts filled by party appointees.

Liberal elements within the Czechoslovak Party had begun to waver on the question of the leading role of the Party and it was this that led the Russian rulers to defend their strategic interests. The Party’s Action Programme, published in April 1968, had declared that “the leading role of the Party was too often understood as a monopolistic concentration of power in the hands of the party organs” and in a questionnaire prepared with the collaboration of the Party’s Central Committee and published in the Party’s journal Rude Pravo on 13 May, readers were asked to answer such questions as:

Does the internal democratisation of a Communist Party provide a sufficient guarantee of democracy?
Can you speak of democracy as being socialist when the leading role is held only by the Communist Party?
Should the Communist Party carry out its leadership role through serving devotedly free, progressive socialist development, or through ruling over society?

Technocrats and bureaucrats
Actually, in questioning the leading role of the Party, the liberal elements within the Czechoslovak ruling class had no intention of abdicating power. As the last question above shows, they still wanted the Party to play this role but in a less authoritarian fashion.

They had been forced into this position by the economic situation that had arisen in Czechoslovakia. Leading economists like Ota Sik realised that in the context of world capitalism what Czechoslovakia needed was a competitive economy whose products were able to compete in terms of price and quality with those of other countries. According to Sik. the only way to revitalise the Czechoslovak economy to this end was to move away from centralised, bureaucratic control to decentralised, market control. This would naturally involve taking power from some of the bureaucrats and giving it to industrial managers. It was in this sense that the leading role of the Party was questioned: not that the Party should give up power, but that it should no longer seek to take all decisions centrally.

This — a struggle between technocrats and bureaucrats — is how the struggle between liberals and conservatives was seen, inside as well as outside Czechoslovakia. The present writer recalls a discussion at one of our outdoor meetings in the summer of 1968 in which a Czech student argued that Dubcek was working, quite correctly in his view, to end “the dictatorship of the proletariat” in Czechoslovakia, by which he meant the rule over competent technocrats like his father by (as he put it) “thick workers” appointed to management posts on the basis of their Party loyalty!

It was in fact such ex-workers whose position and privileges were threatened by the Dubcek reforms and who welcomed the Russian tanks with open arms. The conservative elements within the Czechoslovak ruling class were restored to power in August 1968 (Dubcek was not finally removed from office and demoted to a forestry worker until April 1969). but this did not mean that the country’s economic problems went away. The new government the Russians installed tried to solve them by introducing a certain measure of “market socialism” while strictly upholding the “leading role” (or political monopoly) of the Party

From Prague to Moscow
Ironically, twenty years later Russia is facing the same sort of economic problems as did Czechoslovakia, and Gorbachev has embraced the economic analysis and solution proposed by Ota Sik in 1968: the granting of autonomy to individual state enterprises to swim or sink in a competitive market situation.

For this is what the much-vaunted perestroika, or restructuring, amounts to. And like Dubcek. Gorbachev has met with resistance from conservative elements within the ruling class, those whose power and privileges are threatened by a relaxation of central, bureaucratic control over the economy. To overcome this Gorbachev too has appealed for support among the population in general, but unlike Dubcek has not for one moment questioned “the leading role of the Party”; and he has no intention of doing so. since he firmly believes that the Party should retain its monopoly of political power. All he wants is to overcome conservative resistance to the economic perestroika that has become necessary to revive Russia’s stagnating economy. The furthest he is prepared to go in permitting activity outside Party control is local pressure groups over local issues such as preserving some historic building or opposing a road going through their back gardens.

Gorbachev would answer the three questions posed by Rude Pravo in May 1968. “Yes. the internal democratisation of a Communist Party does provide a sufficient guarantee of democracy”; “Yes, you can speak of democracy being socialist when the leading role is held only by the Communist Party”, and “Yes. the Communist Party should carry out its leadership role through ruling over society”. On this issue he is in complete agreement with his alleged rival Ligachev. who has declared that “the guarantee of the irreversability of perestroika is the Communist Party” (Observer, 5 June)

For Gorbachev does not believe in democracy. What he believes in is what used to be called “oligarchy”. the rule of the few, in his case the leaders of the Communist Party. Nor do the constitutional measures he proposes — limitation on length of terms of office, secret ballots for the election of Party leaders, more power to Party members in Soviets — amount to a “democratisation” of the Party. All he is trying to devise is some method for renewing the cadres of the vanguard party so as to avoid a repetition of the recent government of Russia by sick and tired old men. The Communist Party will continue to be run from the top down even if those at the top are chosen differently (and even that remains to be seen: Khrushchev proposed the same sort of measures in 1960 and the Central Committee used its new powers to vote him out of office).

A collectively-owning state capitalist class such as exists in Russia recruits its members and leaders in a different way from the individually-owning private capitalist class in the West. The latter renews itself through inheritance and also by some small businessmen becoming richer, while the administration of its political affairs is left to politicians elected by a capitalist-minded populace. In Russia the ruling class is organised as a hierarchy — the Party — renewed by recruitment and promotion.

Gorbachev’s concern is to provide mechanisms to enable younger and more dynamic people to rise to the top of the hierarchy without having to wait for their predecessors to die. so as to allow the Russian ruling class to pursue its interests at home and abroad more efficiently. This has nothing whatsoever to do with democracy, not even with the limited political democracy that exists in some Western countries. It is not a process of democratisation. but one of reorganisation of the promotion procedures within the Russian ruling class.

Adam Buick