The Prague Spring and after

Submitted by dalcassian on 26 July, 2014 - 12:57

1: April 1968: A "Cultural Revolution"?

The unique liberalisation of the long frozen Stalinist regime in Czechoslovakia and the echoes across the border in Poland inevitably recall the events of 1956. That time, a series of shocks and explosions, beginning with the 20th. Congress of the CPSU and continuing with the workers' uprising in Posnan and the formation of the Polish Workers Councils, rapidly led to the Hungarian Revolution: a spontaneous rising of the working class to take power from the bureaucratic regime and the Russian Army. The spark which ignited Hungary was not only the mass action in Poland, but also the limited liberalisation there: a liberalisation from above which allowed the bureaucracy, led by Gomulka,to ride the tiger of the proletarian revolt without being gobbled up by it. Those who took to the streets of Budapest initially in solidarity with the Poles, soon found themselves travelling much further and faster than the people they set out to emulate. Here the bureaucrats needed Russian tanks to reassert their domination.

Today the reforms in Czechoslovakia are beginning to look like having as disturbing an effect as had the Polish thaw 11 years ago.

At the beginning of January Antonin Novotny, last except Hoxha of the old-style Stalinist party bosses, was removed as First Secretary of the Czech CP. He retains the post of President of the Republic. Clearly this was because of the delicate balance of forces within the Central Committee, where his opponents only have a small majority, rather than any excess of liberalism on the part of the reformist faction of Alexander Dubcek. The reformists' victory was far from assured. During the struggle in the Central Committee an attempt was made by General Sejna to bring the army into the balance in support tof Novotny. Now Sejna's defection to the USA (where all the good Stalinists, including Stalin's own daughter Svetlana, seem to head these days!) has further discredited and weakened the Novotnyites.

The strong and continuing resistance to the long overdue unfreezing of the political regime has led the reformist faction to accelerate rapidly the speed of the reforms. The effect has been an explosion of liberalism, all the greater for the fact that it
follows a regime which has long lagged behind the political innovations of the other East European bureaucracies.

In practice censorship has ended and there is freedom of expression. The Writers' Union, deprived of its too critical paper only last Autumn, has had its right to publish restored. There has been a purge of the top Novotnyite hatchetmen, including The Chief of the Secret Police and the Minister of the Interior. A tidal wave of criticism threatens to wash away the abuses of the system. Nothing is sacred any more, and criticism is encouraged by the reformist faction. The government is criticised, the Party is criticised, the leadership is criticised. Novotny is openly attacked and in turn has gone to the factories agitating to the workers against the new "intellectuals'" regime. He is replied to - but not as yet interfered with.

And this is obviously a major key to the situation, the open struggle of two bureaucratic factions. In this there is a certain analogy with China - only on and immensely higher level of development and culture, and with immensely more favourable possibilities for the working class to go over head of both bureaucratic factions and. take direct control of society. Apparently until January Novotny entertained hopes of a comeback, using his entrenched supporters and counting on diffident reserve on the part of the working class in face of the new economic policies.

The conservative have thus pushed their opponents further than they would otherwise have gone in relaxing bureaucratic control, and no doubt further than the whole ruling caste can allow as a permanent arrangement. In turn, if there emerged the immediate possibility of the working-class, as yet aloof, intervening with sharp anti-bureaucratic demands (as opposed to criticising aspects of past bureaucratic rule) the reaction could go the other way and strengthen the Conservatives in a come-back bid. This has been the immediate effect of the Czech events on Poland where exploitation of anti-Semitism by the regime is only one of the old and supposedly dead Stalinist manipulation techniques to crawl out of the woodwork.

What are the driving forces making for this unprecedentedly thorough reform from above? What is the background? What are the perspectives?

Except for East Germany, Czechoslovakia is the most advanced of all the so-called satellite countries. It had an established industry in the nineteenth century, and even before World War Two Czech industry and construction accounted for a big majority of the labour force. It was a modern industrialised country, with bourgeois democracy and a well-established, militant labour movement. It was therefore radically different from all the other, predominantly backward and agrarian, satellite countries. It had a very strong Communist Party which already in 1938 had 80.000 members (out of a a total population of 14 million) and a well-established, militant labour movement. The deep mass roots or the CCP is a major factor in the present situation, lending a certain stability and a genuine if highly distorted Communist tradition to look back to in the current reorganisations.

It was a mass party with communist aspirations, enrolling the most militant workers and supported finally by the majority of the working class. But it was by no means a healthy party. How deeply it was poisoned by Stalinism is shown by its chauvinistic persecution of the Sudeten Germans and the Hungarian minority in the country at the end of the Second World War. Before the war a sizeable proportion of the Party membership had been German, but now all class criteria were forgotten. During the war-time junketings it became a stern advocate of the total expulsion of the Sudeten Germans from Czechoslovakia .

After 1945 the 2 1/2 million remaining Sudetens (the Nazi ones had fled) were persecuted: they had to wear special armbands; they weren't allowed to use public communications; they were officially allocated the same rations as the Jews had received under the Nazis; they were conscripted for forced labour in the uranium mines. Finally they wear expelled. The Communist Party was actively responsible for this nationalistic viciousness. Between 1945 and 1950 Germans (except those who had been in exile) could not join the Party. Even old members could not rejoin. The Hungarian — also 'enemy nationals' — were similarly treated: 650,000 where deprived of citizenship and 100,000 expelled from the country.

During the war the Party, active in the resistance, (particularly in Slovakia) had gained enormously, aided by the prestige of Russia and the Red Army. In the 1946 election it got 38% of the votes, emerging as the biggest party. There can be little
doubt that the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia could have made a revolution in its own right after 1945. Of course, like the French, Italian and other parties it did no such thing, accepting Stalin's policy of living with capitalism. The Slovak CP in 1945 fused with some left social Democrats and was all set to lead a revolutionary take-over: it was stopped by Soviet agents parachuted into Slovakia especially to hold it back.

Led by Clement Gottwald in the government and with control of key ministries such as the Interior (that is, of key sectors of the state re-established after 1945 in a twisted and bureaucratic version of dual power) the party began to entrench itself. It had patronage, growing power, the Russian army on its borders and a mass base. It grew phenomenally in this situation. The eighth Party Congress in 1946 reported that the party had 1,159,164 members. By November 1948,there were 2 1/2 million members - or one in three of all Czech adults! Of all the open takeovers n response to the deepening chill of the Cold War by the East European CPs in the '47-'48 period, the so-called "coup" in Czechoslovakia was the least like a coup. It was a popular revolution, but one distorted and corrupted at its inception by the direct Russian Stalinist influence and by the bureaucratised Stalinist nature of the mass party itself.


After the Stalinist coup d'etat in February 1948 the Czechs entered the Stalinist strait-jacket in earnest. As in all the East European countries there was a purge of the party. In 1952 Rudolph Slansky was deposed, tried and hanged together with a dozen of his supporters, as a Titoist. Party membership was somewhat reduced, but, even so, the Czech CP remained uniquely large. In I96O it was 12% of the population , as compared to the Russian party at 4% .

In 1945, the retreating Germans abandoned the Czech property they had confiscated: with little war damage, it amounted to three quarters of all industry. The first independent Government, faced with chaos, nationalised this property - and carried out some land reform. After 1948, nationalisation was extended to cover most of the rest of industry. The economy was organised after the Russian model, with rigid bureaucratic control from above of almost every detail. The workers were rigidly controlled and suppressed (though they had the highest living standards of all the Stalinist states, including Russia) There were forced labour camps. The planning was divorced from the workers, utterly inflexible and undemocratic, with emphasis arbitrarily on heavy industry. Nonetheless, the economy, taking off from a very high base, made serious progress. Between 1948 and 1961 National Income rose by 167%; industrial output by l65%; construction by 354%; farm output by 10% , personal consumption by 107%.


In 1961 National Income rose by 7%, a slight drop but still respectable. Then in 1962, when it came to totting up the figures, it was found that National Income had risen by only 0.5%. For the next two years the slump continued, the economy stagnant.
The figures tell the story: 1949 to 1960 Gross Product and National Income rose respectively by 8.6% and 8.2% p.a. From 1961 to 1964 the figures were 3.3% and 1.6% p.a.

The Stalinist economic dead end illustrated in these figures, and the attempt of the bureaucrats to find a way out of it - while avoiding the only real solution: direct workers' control, management and planning of the economy - generated the present situation. It reflects the economic pressure on the bureaucracy for innovation, and the counter pressure of a rigid and immobile old-Stalinist regime which had remained pretty well undisturbed (apart from minor concessions) by the events of '56 and after. What had happened was this: up to 1961 the economy had expanded under the impetus of the nationalised and planned structure imposed on the economy after 1948.

It had done this despite the bureaucratic waste and bungling of the regime. But by 1961 the physical resources, raw materials and labour power available were exhausted. The possibilities of crude physical expansion on the given level of efficiency and labour productivity had been used up. No more resources could be drawn into production. There was an acute shortage of labour. Incapacities of essential industries like steel were felt throughout the economy. It became clear that production could only continue to expand on the basis of a better use of existing resources to increase productivity, and of a more efficient division of labour, internally and externally. The inability of the Stalinist bureaucrats to really plan and integrate the economies of the various countries they dominate was felt most acutely by highly industrialised Czechoslovakia, dependent as it is on effective international division of labour.

Moreover, as a result of the waste and irrational patterns imposed on the economy by Stalinism, industrial equipment fell behind, leading to further problems for a country based on export of machinery and import of raw materials.

A more intensive use of resources was vitally necessary: but the typical old-fashioned Stalinist organisation of industry (with its massive dead weight of non-productive bureaucracy, its clumsy bureaucratic planning, its stultified and inaccurate pricing and accounting, and with the workers alienated and their initiative stifled) was not suitable for achieving this. For example, the personnel of a typical factory, a small clothing factory in the town of Banska Bystrica, was deployed as follows: 270 production workers; 6 directors, 14 security officers and time checkers, 49 accountants and clerks, 7 planning officials, 9 statisticians and 21 social workers and educational and political personnel. (The Financial Times, 26.7.63). No wonder there was a labour shortage!

By 1962 the 3rd, 5 year plan had had to be abandoned. The old type of bureaucratic planning was at a dead end. The period since has been one of attempting to break out of the cul-de-sac. The crisis was an intimation that the bureaucratic strait-jacket had become an absolute brake on economic development. The bureaucracy had two alternatives. It could sit tight and wait for an explosion from below. Or it could attempt to find different methods, to adapt itself while retaining physical and manipulative control, as well as the privileges deriving from this control.

"Socialist Market Economy", the course the bureaucracy chose was a version of 'Libermanism' - a limited restoration internally of the free play of the market and a loosening of central bureaucratic planning in favour of a certain autonomy for local bureaucrats. After a slow beginning in 1963, by early 1965, 40% of the factories were under this new regime. Enterprises - ie local bureaucrats - were free to produce what they liked. From the returns, assuming sales, they paid taxes and paid the state for factory 'capital', and from the remainder paid wages (above a minimum) and salaries - their own cut - which could rise steeply according to returns. They could also plough back the revenue into the enterprise.

The economy began to improve. In the middle of 1966, after a conflict in the Central Committee, it was decided to put the whole economy on the new basis in January I967. The bureaucracy broke with central planning of the old sort in favour of something
called a "socialist market economy". Ownership was to remain public. So was broad general control in the form of five and ten year plans. Basic wage rates would continue to be fixed, and big investment decisions would continue to be centralised. Within this framework there would be free play of a market economy. Thus the extremes of the economic pressure forced Czechoslovakia, so stagnant and conservative politically, to become an economic innovator second in daring only to Jugoslavia.

The contradictions in this new "market Socialism" are pretty clear. The new method has been praised in the west for its flexibility, and its wide application is urged. It is more 'sophisticated' than the crude bureaucratic ukase of old. Naturally the bourgeois
economists feel reassured and flattered about their own system.

But socialists have always pointed to the irrationality and the tremendous waste of the capitalist market economy. Some of these ill effects of the law of blind averages, the crude fluctuations and short-term profit chasing, are bound also to appear even within the structural planning envisaged by the bureaucracy. Some factories will get richer; some will be squeezed out, creating unemployment - or, as it is called there as well as here, "redeployment". There will be the waste or overproduction in some fields, shortages in others. There will be a growth in economic privileges for the managing bureaucracy - and much else. What is being done in Czechoslovakia is to substitute one wasteful method for another. The differences are marginal at best: the results so far, seen in the 1967 figures, have been much less rosy than expected.


Socialism demands detailed planning and conscious control. It is a great irony that Czechoslovakia is, materially, one of the workers' states most suited to this advanced planning. But who plans? That is the key. Bureaucratic planning of every detail from
on high has always proved wasteful and inefficient. The irremovable, uncontrollable bureaucracy, living on the backs of the workers, cannot plan rationally. When they attempt it they are like a blind man in the dark threading a hundred needles simultaneously. Hence the bungling and the waste, despite the advantages of nationalisation(demonstrated so graphically in the course of the 1950s). Hence the blind alleys of the last few years.

But there is another type of planning - planning by a free working-class in full democratic control of its own life. It is impossible to achieve full detailed control of a modern economy and plan efficiently unless the planning is done by those most intimately involved in production. That is socialist planning. But this sort of planning will of course be won only by the elimination of the bureaucracy by the working class in a Political Revolution.

Significantly, the bureaucrats chose the road of limited market freedom rather than even the hint of working-class industrial democracy. The bureaucracy opts for a capitalist-style rationalisation rather than proletarian socialism. Naturally! Leon Trotsky remarked on the dual nature of the bureaucrat in a workers' state where the bureaucracy has usurped power. Their position rests on the nationalised economy and is inseparable from it. But they yearn for ownership to stabilise their privileged position. The new reform, while aiming to protect them from the workers, gives the best of both worlds to the bureaucrats. It is a bureaucratic millenium of increased freedom for individual bureaucrats: 'autonomy' within the nationalised economy. Empirically they have found an 'alternative' to their old blind alley, aimed at preserving and even enhancing their own status while freeing the blocked pores of the economy and society.


However, the old habits of the appaxachniki persisted even while implementing the new economics. A liberalisation of the social-political system was urgently needed to make the looser economy function. Throughout 1967 the conflict between the Novotny regime and the needs of the innovated economy made itself felt in growing tension and economic confusion. The students and intellectuals were the spearhead of the discontent. They faced suspensions, had publications banned and fought battles in the streets against the police. "Finally in Januarv this year a number of pressures that had been building up for a long time suddenly created a sort of opposition coalition in the Central Committee. There were the reforming economists, dismayed that the introduction of market principles and other changes agreed in 1966 had been reduced to chaos by half-measures and political interference. There were the writers, formed into an unexpectedly solid front by clumsy attempts to curb them. Student demonstrators had made it impossible to ignore the alienation of youth. And then came the grievances of Slovakia, put forward by Mr. Dubcek, which were a catalyst. "Also there were old Party people, from pre-war, who had not forgotten socialism, and wore becoming more active... (The Times, 11.3.68). So Novotny was pushed out. Today the struggle is about whether he stays out. Tomorrow it may be about whether all the bureaucratic factions get thrown out.


In the past there have been brief liberalisations in deformed workers' states - the Chinese Hundred Flowers period of '57 for example. Each time the apparatus has reasserted itself very quickly. As in Hungary in 1956, attempts to do so can lead to
explosions and to the movement passing over the heads of the bureaucrats. There is as yet no sign of this in Czechoslovakia. Newspaper correspondents depict Czech workers eagerly watching the debates on television rather than taking to the streets. But events in Czechoslovakia have already called forth echoes in Poland: students, shouting "Long live Czechoslovakia", have demonstrated for more freedom. They leave no doubt what sort of freedom they mean by singing the Internationale in the streets.


It seems certain that there will have to be some attempt at a clamp down once the reformers have consolidated themselves. The bureaucracy cannot allow full freedom of discussion for long. It would inevitably lead to a growing consciousness by the workers of their historic opposition to bureaucratic interests, followed by attempts to do something about it. The economic oppression which lent so much explosiveness in 1956 is not quite so intense. But even so the bureaucrats know that only through confusion and in the dark can they survive. Democracy would rapidly lead to a giant growth in real socialist consciousness amongst the workers and to a movement to oust the bureaucracy for good. The emergence of a genuinely revolutionary workers party to lead and organise the fight against the bureaucracy would be inevitable.

Though a clamping down is very likely in Czechoslovakia, the recent and continuing economic shake-up makes the situation unprecedented. Many of the intellectuals who have the stage at the moment are obviously striving to prevent the development of a situation where the workers would intervene. There are already warnings about not being too 'elemental'. But the bureaucratic faction fight, with its charges and counter-charges hurled about, and its demagogic appeals to the proletarians, will help to rouse and involve them. Likewise when the reformists agitate against the Conservatives before workers, they say that they have well paid jobs and privileges for which they arc not qualified. They, as a bureaucratic faction, do not question the system of privileges as such. But this sort of talk is bound to bring the very system into question. And it will be the workers, not the bureaucrats, who question bureaucracy as such.

Meanwhile, the political reforms now proposed are an exact parallel to the economic reforms of the last few years. Alongside the reversion to the market economy rather than forward to socialist workers' control, we base see the reforming bureaucrats talking,
not of workers' councils, but of increasing the functions of the National Assembly. No - these bureaucrats are not about to usher in socialism on a leash!

This new stage of Stalinism is one fraught with peril for the ruling caste. Attempting to modify their system they hope to avoid a repeat of 1956. But the unevenness between the various states has already led to upsets in Poland. The really exciting
thing about the reforms in Czechoslovakia and the echoes in Poland is that these are the very conditions where the working class can best prepare itself for the overthrow of all the bureaucrats, both conservatives and reformists. Stalinism in this new stage is compelled to create some of the conditions for its own destruction. A split bureaucracy is feeling its way forward politically and economically. Even given all its powers of oppression (temporarily 'withdrawn') and of manipulation (somewhat impaired by the bureaucratic split, but nonetheless intact) the situation is bound for them to be full of the dangers of an independent proletarian intervention to settle accounts with all the bureaucrats.

This, the Political Revolution to achieve political and economic proletarian Democracy in any of the workers' states, will be the key to the greatest advances in world socialism since 1917. It will have a tremendous effect on the advanced capitalist countries, the other workers' states, and also on the 'backward' countries. It may be a lot nearer than we think. Reform from above will help generate revolution from below.

From Workers Fight 5, April 1968

2: August 1968


The Czech-Russian crisis, Russia threatening, manoeuvring,and brandishing her tanks and troops to intimidate the reforming Dubcek regime, shows just how insecure the Russian establishment feels. It knows that the Stalinist regimes in Russia and East Europe are built on sand and recently the sands have been visibly shifting, largely in response to the Czech 'liberalisation'. The Russians fear the disintegrating effects of the Czech example on the rest of the bloc. More than anything they are terrified that the Dubcek CP will lose control of the Czech ferment, thus reproducing the pattern that unfolded in Hungary in 1956.

At one point in late July it almost looked as if they would use Soviet troops to turn the Czech clock back, thus presenting the world with a new experience: war between 2 Stalinist bureaucracies. But the obvious grip of the Dubcek men on the Czech situation convinced them that it was as yet unnecessary. And they had to reckon the cost of a new Hungary: the leaders of most Western CPs declared that they would not share the odium this time, as they did in 1956.

The drastic reform from above to which the majority of the CPC was driven by the crisis in their economy (see W.F.5) has sent earth tremours echoing throughout East Europe and into Russia itself, where a cultural clampdown signals growing discontent.The Stalinists are acutely conscious that beneath the unstable bureaucratic crust is the lava of workers1 revolution,looking for cracks: they remember 1956.Thus once more we see that Stalinism is a regime of almost permanent crisis rent by explosive contradictions.

The basic contradiction is between the interests of the workers and of the rotten political/social bureaucracy which monopolises power and as a rule maintains a stifling dictatorship of the apparatus over the working class. This expresses itself as a contradiction between the nationalised economic structure from which the capitalists have been eliminated, and bureaucratic rule,

A nationalised economy needs planning and conscious control by those who do the work: real planning demands freedom of discussion, of information, of collective choice of goals. Working class democracy is as necessary for economic efficiency as is oxygen to a man's bodily functioning: lack of it produces convulsions, waste, contradictions. But the ruling bureaucracy is a parasitic social formation which ensures its own material well-being and privileges by tightly controlling society. It fears democracy because it would lead to the workers questioning its prerogatives and privileges. It fears democracy because it fears the working class. Thus it cannot plan or organise the nationalised economy rationally. It plans and organises the economy in its own way, from on high - administering people as things, with the workers alienated and excluded from control as under capitalism.

Though statification of the economy ends the characteristic fetters of capitalism on production internally, bureaucratic rule in these states creates new types of contradictions. The necessary dynamism of a nationalised economy is full conscious control in every pore of the economy - and that is only possible by way of the democratic control of the millions who live in the pores of the economy. Crude control from above is an anachronism, inefficient and wasteful, as if one had a new Jaguar car and harnessed a mule to pull it along! In advanced Czechoslovakia the economic consequences of this situation became so catastrophic as to force the present innovations (limited restoration of the free market internally, including its peculiar type of waste). First came the economic changes in early 1967, and later the political reforms, as the bureaucracy groped for a reorganisation that would allow it to keep control against the workers: the future of the Dubcek regime depends on whether it can maintain this control - and convince the Russians that it can.

In Russia the power of the bureaucratic caste arose out of the backwardness of the country and the isolation of the October Revolution in the '20s. It seized power in a counter-revolution against Bolshevism. In most of the other East European countries the bureaucrats were lifted or aided into the saddle by their Russian puppet masters, in whose image they moulded themselves.

Added to the contradictions between the workers and the bureaucracy, in the bloc as a whole there is tension arising from the national oppression and parasitism of Russia's relations with most of the other countries, and also conflicts of interest between the various national bureaucracies. This patchwork of tensions is aggravated by the unevenness of development within the various 'satellite' countries, and between these countries and Russia itself .When the rulers in one country move to ease their own situation they threaten the stability of their neighbours: Hungary, in 1956 was initially sparked off by the much milder movement in Poland - and went on to flower into one of the most significant working class revolts in three decades.

Hence the alarm of the Russian, Polish and East German bureaucrats at the Czech liberalisation. What they fear was made plain in their notorious letter of July 18. They bluntly demanded a return of censorship and a general totalitarian reassertion of rigid control by the CP. Significantly the Czech Party's reply simply reassured them that they could keep control in their own way, and might in fact lose it if they tried to retreat. That it is the contagion of liberalisation, and fear for the continued control of the CPC, which haunt the Russians, is shown by their explicit statement of support for the economic innovations of Sik and Dubcek.

The empirical Dubcek leadership first discovered the uses of 'freedom' last January, because they needed to bludgeon the Novotny-ite Old Guard - which was ruining the economy and clearly intending to maintain its power. After the Special CPC Congress in September, at which the remaining "Old Guard" (still about 40% of the CC) will be eliminated, the 'new men' will be in a much better position to reassert themselves where necessary. For the moment the conflict with the Russians has consolidated their control in a genuinely popular way.

Their letter of reply to the Russians equated both Right and Left "extremism" and they will undoubtedly move backwards though not necessarily all the way. The demonstrations of the 'phlegmatic' Czechs against even a hint of a sell-out to the Russians shows one consideration which will make them cautious.The future of 'liberalisation' will evolve within tho triple pressures of: the Russians; tho need to dominate the Czech workers; and the needs of the new economic set up.

Here sharp clashes between the workers and the reforming bureaucrats are in the making. Economic 'rationalisation' will
cut into workers' standards. Among the tasks openly discussed is to "shake-out" and "redeploy" (ie sack) up to 5 million workers. Dubcek may be assured of control at present - but the workers have yet to speak their piece on the 'new model' "market socialist" economy.

Despite the bureaucratic nature of the new regime, Czech national self-determination and the political reforms (limited as they are) are to the advantage of the Czech workers. There is no doubt where they stand in the Russc-Czech confrontation. Experience, however, will show them that the new regime is not qualitatively different, and that the other side of the liberal-bureaucratic coin is ferocious attacks on their standards and conditions. Then those who are mere pawns in the present confrontation will move to take control of the board.

Workers Fight 8, August 1968

Footnote: on August 20, 1968 the Russian army and the armies of its east European satellite states invaded Czechoslovakia and snuffed out the Dubcek experiment of "socialism with a human face".

Add new comment

This website uses cookies, you can find out more and set your preferences here.
By continuing to use this website, you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms & Conditions.