James Robertson details the history of 1968 in Czechoslovakia, when masses of workers and students challenged the Stalinist order, calling for “socialism with a human face”.

FROM BERKELEY, California to Algiers and from Saigon to Paris the years surrounding 1968 saw mass challenges to the established orders. In the West, it shattered the illusion that capitalism had reached a harmonious stability. In the East the Prague Spring, the mass movement for reform in Czechoslovakia, revealed to the world the oppression that lay at the heart of the USSR. Both in Eastern Europe and in the new social movements in the West, a new wave of people began to question the Stalinist communist parties and look elsewhere for political alternatives-to re-establish the freedom at the heart of socialism.

Stalinism

When Russian society emerged from the ravages of civil war and economic crisis in the mid-1920s, the revolutionary movements that had brought the Bolsheviks to power had totally collapsed. The bureaucracy of the fledgling party-state began to see itself as a class with its own interests.

Between 1924 and 1932, as this bureaucratic class acquired more political power, the original gains of the revolution of 1917 (workers control of production, real gains against oppression, an end to involvement in the brutality of imperialist war) were wound back. The needs of people were subordinated to the drive to increase production. Power was centralised into the hands of factory managers. Industrialisation and collectivisation of the peasantry took the lives of millions in an attempt to strengthen the Soviet economy against its international competitors. The bureaucratic class became deeply suspicious of any activity that did not come from its own upper echelons.

Upon the ruins of the grassroots organisations which led the revolution in 1917, a form of state capitalism was set up to propel the USSR onto the world stage. In order to compete with the US, Europe and Japan, the Soviet Union became embroiled in the imperial conflicts of the 20th century.

The USSR dominated its Eastern European puppet states after World War II. In addition, across Europe communist parties had their policy dictated to them by the Soviet Union. These parties were seen by the Russian state as pawns in a global struggle for control and this often had serious consequences for local communist parties.

Although Stalinism managed to masquerade as a radical alternative to capitalism after its victory against the Nazis, by the end of 1968 the veil of radicalism was torn away. In the West the old Stalinist monoliths were unable to respond to the growing student and worker radicalism and in the East the crushing of the Prague Spring revealed the ugly truth about the Soviet Union’s relationship to Eastern Europe.

Eastern Bloc reformism

It was from the people of Eastern Europe that the biggest challenges to Stalinism emerged. After World War Two, Eastern Europe fell under the imperial control of the Soviet Union whose Red Army had “liberated” the region from the Nazis. Local communist parties took power through Soviet-backed coups and often introduced brutal repression against workers, peasants and intellectuals who had their own ideas about liberation and socialism.

Nonetheless some people, including a large section of Czechoslovak society, welcomed them. Thus, the Czechoslovak writer, Milan Kundera wrote about the coup by the Czechoslovak Communist Party: “And so it happened that in February 1948 the Communists took power, not in bloodshed and violence, but to the cheers of about half the population. And please note: the half that cheered was the more dynamic, the more intelligent, the better half.”

The contradictions of Stalinism didn’t take long to emerge, however. While Western capitalism was able to separate economic and political struggles, by tying the economy to the state Stalinism made economic struggles political.

The ways of accumulating wealth in Western capitalism require constantly changing and remaking the means of production (machinery, industries, markets, etc)-the same applied to the Soviet economies. The difference, however, was that under the Stalinist system, tight bureaucratic control prevented or held back this constant renewal, rapidly leading to stagnation and crisis.

As stagnation took hold in Hungary and Poland in the 1950s reformist factions within these party states began to look to economic liberalisation as a solution to the growing economic crisis.

Liberalisation, however, was a dangerous process for the elites. In order to secure greater economic freedom from the old conservative leaders, reformers had to appeal to the mass of society.

To build their support amongst the population the reformers couched their demands as part of a wider campaign: “Liberalisation!” Not just of the economy, but of culture, society and the legal and political systems. This politicisation of the people always ran the risk of sparking a more general criticism of the system as a whole. The Hungarian revolution of 1956 was the result of such reform movements, as were the workers’ revolts in Poland in the same year and, as we will see, the Prague Spring.

Reformism in Czechoslovakia

Stagnation came late to Czechoslovakia. With a rapidly expanding economy and wages up 30 per cent from pre-war levels, the pressure to reform was absent in Czechoslovakia. This allowed party leaders to rule relatively unchallenged, both from within their own ranks and outside the party.

It wasn’t until 1963, when economic development stagnated, that the Czechoslovak bureaucracy began to split. In 1963 an economist, Ota Sik, was requested to set up a new government commission to solve the crisis-the commission became a rallying point for reformist bureaucrats.

As the 1960s progressed, this commission began to push for liberalisation. The growing conflict between reformists and conservatives split the party, from the central committee to the local institutions. A struggle for the future direction of Czechoslovakia divided the ruling class, and it was only a matter of time before that struggle spilled out from the echelons of the state into the universities, the streets and the factories.

The point where the debates broke through the party ranks and into the public was at the Fourth Congress of the Union of Writers in June 1967. Writers and party intellectuals such as Milan Kundera, Ludvik Vaculik, and future Czech president Vaclav Havel, launched an attack on the leadership of Antonin Novoty and his conservative supporters. Of course the outspoken writers were “disciplined” by the party, but the criticism sent a message to the public: the conservatives were on the way out.

The students, the new revolutionary subjects of ’68, didn’t miss their chance. Just like students in the West, Czechoslovak youth had long been dissatisfied with the status quo. Students made up less than 0.5 per cent of the Communist Party, and the conservative approach of the regime stifled youth culture-rock’n’roll and social clubs were deemed suspicious and closely monitored by the regime.

Angry with their poor living conditions and frustrated at censorship, the campuses became organising grounds for the left-wing opposition to the regime. Underground student circles began to circulate illegal literature, including the work of dissidents from both West and East. In October 1967 two thousands students marched in Prague against the poor condition of student housing. Their slogan, “We Want Light!” referred both to the problems of electricity supply and the censorship of the regime.

Their demonstration was brutally repressed by the police, which only further radicalised the campuses. Just as in the West, the experience of repression and censorship on campus drew students into discussions over the nature of the system and led them to begin to articulate alternatives.

The internal party conflict came to a head when, in January 1968, the hegemony of the conservatives was shattered as the reformists secured a victory within the party ranks-appointing the Slovakian reformist Alexander Dubcek as general secretary. In April the reformists formed a new government and released an Action Plan, declaring the liberal direction of the new government. The thaw had begun.

The Action Plan

The Action Plan outlined a series of civil, political, economic and national freedoms, including the freedom of speech and association, the right to travel to Western countries and an end to arbitrary arrests by the security organs. The country was federalised to allow the Slovak lands some autonomy and more political powers were given to local organisations.

Bound up in these freedoms were a series of economic reforms that limited the role of central planning by the government. They provided greater room for Czechoslovak enterprises to find markets in the West and to move their production away from reliance on (or, more accurately, the dictates of) the Soviet Union. For a country under the domination of a paranoid party-state which was in turn under the strict control of powerful Moscow bureaucrats, these were dramatic changes.

Nonetheless, we shouldn’t look at the Action Plan as a list of demands. Rather the plan attempted to draw the mass of Czechoslovaks against the conservative factions. The reformists hoped to win the population to a reformed version of Stalinism, but in doing so they created the space in which a more radical challenge to Stalinism could be forged. The plan’s importance lay in its dynamic effect on the mass of people.

Society flourishes

The effect was dynamic. Within weeks journals and newspapers began to publish criticisms of the government, reports from the student demonstrations in France and Italy, as well as the work of numerous non-Stalinist Marxists, including Trotsky and Bukharin. Discussions about the possibilities of workers self-management were held in open forums, and the ideas of the New Left were reported on. New political clubs, independent of the regime, were formed where people discussed, debated and petitioned the government for further changes. At one point censors even requested that their jobs be done away with!

The workers movement began to assert itself. The Action Plan created a space for activists to further workplace democracy even though it didn’t mention workers’ rights. In March 1968 the Revolutionary Trade Union Movement, an organ firmly under the thumb of the regime, held a general conference where rank and file activists fought for greater independence from the state. Workers found the confidence to strike to achieve their wage demands or to force the resignation of unpopular managers. Locomotive workers even attempted to set up an Independent Federation of Railway Crews.

Moreover, as the year progressed, more radical intellectuals made a concerted effort to forge an alliance with the working class against the Stalinist bureaucracy. In an article published in the trade union daily, Prace, in April 1968, two intellectuals argued that: “The relationship between intellectuals and the workers as conceived by Marx was destroyed by the Stalinist power-apparatuses…made up as they are of the police and the bureaucracy, these apparatuses can rule over these groups and over the whole of society only once they have managed to make the intellectuals look ugly to the workers and the workers to the intellectuals.”

This was met by support amongst huge sections of the working class. Factories held meetings, passed resolutions and wrote letters supporting outspoken dissidents. Some workers even began to form “Committees for the Defence of Free Speech”, which were designed to organise a working class movement to defend the reforms.

By June it was estimated that there were hundreds of these committees involving thousands of workers. Some workers were even reported to be voicing the demand “Unions without Communists!” Although the movement was crushed before an organised leadership could develop, the possibilities offered by a renewed struggle from below were incredible and, for the ruling class, terrifying.

Soviet invasion

Nobody felt that terror more than the Soviet leaders in Moscow-they had experienced the challenge of confronting the militant working class in Hungary in 1956 when workers’ councils organised the armed resistance to the Soviet invasion. Worse still was that news of the Czechoslovak reforms was beginning to reach other parts of the communist bloc-particularly Ukraine and East Germany.

Students in Poland and Yugoslavia had already caught on to the international mood of rebellion and the Prague Spring threatened to inspire opposition to Soviet-backed bureaucrats throughout Eastern Europe.

The response was swift-on August 21 200,000 troops from the Soviet Union, Poland, East Germany, Hungary and Bulgaria invaded Czechoslovakia. They arrested the leading reformists, including Dubcek, and occupied the airports, communications centres and various party buildings and public places.

Around the world the Soviet Union was condemned. The invasion fed into the rhetoric of the Cold War, with the US and British governments holding it up as an example of the “totalitarianism” of the communist project.

More importantly, though, the invasion was further proof to the social movements in the West of the corruption of Stalinism and the need for a democratic socialism. Even prominent communists in the West who had backed the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 shirked from supporting the attack on the Prague Spring.

Parties in Scandinavia, Great Britain and Italy called for a conference of Western European communists to offer their support to the Czechoslovaks, and even the ultra-Stalinist French party condemned the invasion.

In Czechoslovakia itself, the invasion only helped to further radicalise what was previously a cautious reformist movement. As Soviet tanks poured into Prague, hundreds of thousands of people occupied the streets in protest. Massing in public squares they confronted the invading troops, engaged them in debate, blocked their entry to buildings and even removed street signs to confuse them. Radio stations began broadcasting reports of the spontaneous protests, calling on the population to resist the invaders.

Workers initiated a series of sporadic strikes, and others held back food and water from the foreign soldiers. The mass passive resistance encouraged disarray within the ranks of the invading army; some soldiers defected, others committed suicide, still others began to agitate for democracy within their own ranks, forcing the Soviet leadership to send 200 secret police to deal with the insubordination.

This outburst of popular participation forced the Soviets to negotiate an end to the crisis, and Dubcek and his reformists were happy to oblige. The Czechoslovak reformists saved themselves, by agreeing to collaborate with the invading forces, but became responsible for the huge challenge of putting down the mass movement for reform.

Resistance to ‘Normalisation’

From August 1968 to August 1969 the reformists attempted to re-assert their control of the country, revoking previous freedoms and purging the party of liberals. Mass demonstrations were the consequence. Students organised sit-ins, radio stations and newspapers continued to violate censorship and workers at factory meetings passed resolutions condemning the Soviets. Wildcat strikes broke out in parts of Prague. In November students organised nation-wide sit-down strikes and occupations, to which local factories sent delegates, recalling the events in Paris six months prior. In December the powerful national student union and the national steelworkers’ union called for a general strike, which the party leadership struggled, successfully, to prevent.

Protests continued into 1969. Tragically, on January 16 Jan Palach, a 21-year-old history student, set-himself alight in central Prague in protest to the Soviet forces. In response to his death thousands of students took to the streets and his memorial ceremony became a mass demonstration when 800,000 people turned out across the country. In March, after Czechoslovakia defeated Russia in an ice hockey match, spontaneous demonstrations broke out and protesters attacked Soviet officers and police.

Without a coherent and organized strategy to move ahead, the movement drifted into disillusionment and by August 1969 resistance to the Russians had become a lost cause. The last significant demonstration took place on the anniversary of the invasion, August 21 1969, and was brutally put down with around 3700 people arrested. The government passed emergency legislation to ‘protect and strengthen public order’, signalling the end of the reformist experiment in Czechoslovakia. The conservatism of the 1950s was re-imposed. The fight for “socialism with a human face” had been defeated.

…And its aftermath

The Prague Spring and its defeat sent shockwaves through the world and dispelled the illusions many people had in Stalinism. It became common in student and anti-war demonstrations in the West it became common to hear denunciations of “imperialism, East and West.”

Along with the Vietnam Tet offensive and the French general strike, the struggle against Russian troops in Czechoslovakia was one of the events of 1968, which saw the re-birth of the idea of revolution and the struggle for socialism from below.

Although state capitalism would continue to run Czechoslovakia for another 20 years, the eruption of workers’ struggles in neighbouring Poland-in 1971, 1976 and then the free trade union movement Solidarnosc in 1980-continued to reveal the depth of the crisis in the Eastern Bloc.

The movement that brought down the regimes of Eastern Europe and the Berlin Wall in 1989 looked a lot like Czechoslovakia in 1968.

The revolutions that overthrew the Stalinist system in Eastern Europe were founded on the aspiration towards freedom and democracy of the mass of the population, but were led by dissidents and economists more concerned with establishing “European” liberal capitalist states than struggling for a real, grassroots democracy.

Western neo-liberals heralded the events of 1989 as the proof that capitalism was “the only game in town” and that the market and democracy went hand in hand.

But after the Berlin wall fell and the enthusiasm for revolution died down, Eastern Europe was rocked by the chaos of IMF-directed shock therapy economics, organised crime and unemployment. The communist prty bosses became bosses of privatised industries.

In Russia and Eastern Europe, the despair has fed right wing movements. But it has also brought renewed struggle. In 2000, in Serbia, the government of Slobodan Milosevic was brought down by huge contingents of striking mineworkers marching on Parliament. While Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s air force bombs Georgia, Ford factory workers in Petersburg are forging independent unions to fight for their rights.

In the West, US imperialism is attempting to reassert its hegemony by inflicting the horrors of Vietnam on Iraq and Afghanistan.

The events of 1968 shook the ruling elites to their foundation. On the streets of Paris and Prague, millions saw that a new world really was possible.

As neo-liberal market capitalism spreads its tentacles across the world, returning to the ideals and aspirations of 1968 is more important than ever.

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