Prague, 1968

Image: Andrea Ch
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By RONALD LEÓN NÚÑEZ*

The crushing of the revolution in Prague was a military success at an enormous political cost. Stalinist brutality had once again tarnished the image of socialism

Among the countries of the former Soviet bloc, Czechoslovakia was one of the most industrialized. Its GDP per capita was 20% higher than that of the USSR itself.[I] It had a working class with a significant tradition of struggle. During the German occupation, local resistance had eliminated Reinhard Heydrich, one of the architects of the Nazi genocide in Europe.

The Red Army occupied the country in the context of the defeat of the Third Reich. The Czechoslovak Communist Party (CCP) took power in 1948, establishing a single-party regime, subordinate to Moscow.

In the 1950s, local Stalinism was consolidated through purges, arrests, torture, judicial farces, etc.[ii] A suffocating climate of terror permeated society. The CCP's tight control extended far beyond politics and the economy. The press, literature, painting, music, science... nothing escaped the regime's censorship.

Social discontent increased when, in the early 1960s, the economy entered a recession. This heightened the political crisis. The bureaucracy, in turn, seemed immune to the people's hardships. In the context of economic and social crisis and unbearable police rule, the PCC promulgated a new Constitution, dictated by Moscow, which declared: “the construction of socialism has been completed (…)”.

In 1967, the questioning of Stalinism intensified. The Czechoslovak Writers' Union encouraged a broad movement, initially led by intellectuals and students, that criticized economic policy and opposed censorship.. O Literární Noviny, a communist weekly for writers, published articles suggesting that literature be independent of party doctrine. The regime reaffirmed that control of the magazine would be carried out by the Ministry of Culture. Measures of this type, however, did not prevent the clamor for freedom of expression, press, artistic creation and scientific research from continuing to grow.

Students took part in marches for better education and more freedoms. The protests were harshly repressed, but police violence fueled the democratic movement. Soon the demand for a fair federation between Czechs and Slovaks arose, denied by the Soviets.[iii] Two decades of Stalinist dictatorship made the country's subordination to the USSR intolerable. It should be noted that, as in Berlin, Poland and Hungary, the national question erupted with great force in the preparation of the political revolution in Czechoslovakia.

On the other hand, the demand for freedom of union and party organization directly challenged the PCC's political monopoly. The democratic movement impacted the top hierarchy of the ruling party. He aggravated the division between those who admitted the need for certain reforms, in the sense of making concessions that could dissipate discontent, and the so-called “hardliners”, who demanded redoubled repression to contain the crisis before it became uncontrollable. Thus, the first divisions emerged in the PCC.

Dubcek, the tolerated reformer

Pressure from the movement led to the dismissal of Antonín Novotný, general secretary of the PCC since 1953, in January 1968. He was succeeded by Alexander Dubcek, a leader of the bureaucratic wing considered “reformist”. This change was initially authorized by Leonid Brezhnev, supreme leader of the USSR since 1964.

Alexander Dubcek's wing did not intend any political revolution. Through secondary concessions, he sought new forms of dialogue with the masses fed up with Russian totalitarianism in order to demobilize them, not to encourage the end of the Soviet occupation regime. The objective was not to end the PCC's political dominance, but to return some degree of popular credibility to that party, to recycle the government's image to dissipate discontent, but without reaching the ultimate consequences. In short, it was a faction willing to give up their rings so as not to lose their fingers. Alexander Dubcek called this policy “socialism with a human face”.

In February 1968, he declared that the party's mission was "to build an advanced socialist society on solid economic foundations...a socialism that corresponds to the historical democratic traditions of Czechoslovakia, in accordance with the experience of other communist parties...",[iv] although he made it clear that the new policy aimed to “strengthen the party’s leading role more effectively”.

On March 30, Novotný lost the position of president to General Ludvík Svoboda, a respected war hero aligned with the “reformists”. In April, the CCP adopted the slogan “socialism with a human face”. Thus, the Dubcek-Svoboda government announced an Action Program based on moderate democratic and economic reforms, but which, in the context of existing oppression, was received with great expectations by the population.

Censorship was abolished on March 4. New newspapers appeared. There was a flowering of artistic expression. Some debates on thorny issues have become public. The press detailed the crimes committed against the country during Stalin's government, national oppression and criticized the privileges of apparatchik. The Action Program provided for a controlled political opening: secret vote to elect leaders, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, freedom of expression, freedom of movement, economic emphasis on the production of consumer goods, admission of direct trade with Western powers and a ten-year transition to multi-party rule. The new government moved towards a federation of two republics, the Czech Socialist Republic and the Slovak Socialist Republic. In fact, this was Alexander Dubcek's only measure that survived the Soviet invasion.

The Action Program, although timid, amazed the PCC conservatives. Society, in turn, pressed for an acceleration of democratic reforms. Abuses were publicized and old purges were revised. Among others, Slánský was fully rehabilitated in May 1968. The Writers' Union appointed a commission, headed by the poet Jaroslav Seifert, to investigate the persecution of intellectuals since 1948. It was not long before non-partisan publications appeared, such as the trade union newspaper Works.

New political, cultural and artistic clubs emerged. The hard-line wing, alarmed, demanded the reintroduction of censorship. Dubcek's wing insisted on a moderate policy. However, the new government never questioned the PCC's position as the supreme leader of society. In May, it was announced that the 14th CPC Congress would meet on September 9. The conclave would incorporate the Action Program into the party's statute, draft a federalization law and elect a new Central Committee.

The reforms had gone beyond what Brezhnev could tolerate. Moscow denounced the process as “a development towards capitalism” and demanded explanations from Dubcek. On March 23, at a meeting in Dresden, representatives of the USSR, Hungary, Poland, Bulgaria and East Germany sharply criticized the Czechoslovak delegation. For the leaders of the Warsaw Pact, any allusion to democratization cast doubt on the Soviet model. Gomulka and János Kádár, dictators of Poland and Hungary, were particularly concerned about the possibility that freedom of the press in Czechoslovakia would lead to a process similar to that of, according to them, the “Hungarian counter-revolution” of 1956.

A new meeting was held between July 29th and August 1st. Brezhnev was present. On the other side of the table were Dubcek and Svodoba. Czechoslovaks defended ongoing reforms, but reaffirmed their loyalty to Moscow, their participation in the Warsaw Pact and COMECON[v] (5). They accepted the commitment to contain possible “anti-socialist” tendencies, prevent the resurgence of the Czechoslovak Social Democratic Party and increase control of the press. Brezhnev reluctantly agreed to this arrangement. Moscow promised to withdraw its troops from Czechoslovakia, although it would keep them along the border, and to authorize the CCP Congress scheduled for September.

However, the weather was still unstable. In March, students, tired of being accused of “restoring capitalism”, published an Open Letter to the Workers. They denounced that the smear campaign was intended to separate them from the working class. Then, the first contacts were made between students and workers in the factories, and the worker-student unity of the anti-bureaucratic movement was put into practice.

At the end of June, the Two Thousand Words manifesto appeared, a “proclamation to workers, peasants, employees, artists, scientists, technicians, everyone”,[vi] written by renowned journalist and writer Ludvík Vaculík. Basically, he was putting pressure on Alexander Dubcek to speed up the promised reform process. The Manifesto was a severe criticism of the bureaucratic degeneration of the party and the regime. It was signed by more than 100.000 people. Abroad, the worker-student movement of the famous French Maio unreservedly supported the process of opening Czechoslovakia.

Vaculík's text, of course, had limitations. He did not propose the overthrow of the PCC, but its reform. In essence, he tried to maintain hope in the possibility of internal regeneration of the party and, consequently, of the regime. In this sense, he ended up expressing political support for the government and Alexander Dubcek's wing in the party's factional dispute.

However, the proclamation infuriated Brezhnev in Moscow, who called the document a “counter-revolutionary act.” In Czechoslovakia, Alexander Dubcek, the The Presidium of the party and the cabinet also denounced the Two Thousand Words, exposing the limits of their reformist intentions.

In the context of this climate of instability, the Kremlin withdrew its support for Alexander Dubcek. On August 3, Brezhnev, Ulbricht (German Democratic Republic, GDR) and Gomulka met in Bratislava and decided that the Action Program was a “political and organizational platform of counter-revolution”, leaving open the possibility of a military invasion.

Limited sovereignty

Finally, the CPSU Politburo decided to use force on August 16. On the night of August 20th to 21st, a combined force of four countries from the former Warsaw Pact – Soviet Union, Bulgaria, Poland and Hungary – invaded Czechoslovakia.[vii] Within hours, more than 250.000 soldiers and 2.000 tanks occupied the capital.

Alexander Dubcek defended passivity, but thousands of people took to the streets in protest. Some tried to talk to Russian tank operators. A contingent of Polish soldiers entered and left the country because people had changed the road signs.

The Czechoslovaks painted Soviet tanks with swastikas, alluding to the Nazi invasion of 1938. On August 26, the resistance published the decalogue of non-cooperation with the invader: “I don't know, I don't know, I won't say, I don't have, I don't know how do, I will not give, I cannot, I will not, I will not teach, I will not do.”

On the walls were graffiti like “The Soviet circus is back in Prague” or “Lenin, stand up, Brezhnev is crazy!”

However, despite resistance, the city was taken. The party Congress was held underground, in a factory on the outskirts of Prague, guarded by workers' militias. More than 1.100 delegates repudiated the Soviet occupation.

On the first day of the invasion, Dubcek, Svoboda and other cabinet members were arrested and taken to Moscow. Under heavy pressure, they capitulated one after another. On August 26, they signed the Moscow Protocol, which justified armed intervention, reestablished censorship, denounced the 14th Congress of the PCC and its resolutions, reaffirmed loyalty to the Warsaw Pact, among other points. The Prague Spring had ended under the tracks of Russian tanks.

There were courageous demonstrations against the invasion in some Warsaw Pact countries. In Moscow's Red Square, eight demonstrators protested on August 25. They were arrested and sent to the gulag. One of them, Natalia Gorbanevskaya, was sentenced to forced confinement in a psychiatric clinic specialized in receiving the most dangerous opponents. In Warsaw, Ryszard Siwiec set himself on fire on September 8 to protest the aggression against Czechoslovakia. On January 16, 1969, Jan Palach, a 20-year-old Czech student, set himself on fire in Prague for the same reason. On February 25, 18-year-old student Jan Zajíc sacrificed himself in the same city. In the GDR, isolated protests were quickly silenced by the Stasi (East German secret police).

On November 7, 1968, a crowd defied the occupation troops and burned the Soviet flag in Prague. On the 17th of the same month, a student strike took over the University of Prague. On August 21, 1969, the first anniversary of the Soviet invasion, a series of demonstrations in several Czechoslovak cities defied the government's ban. At least five young people were killed during the repression. These were the last breaths of the Prague Spring, which was dying.

Normalization

Moscow kept Alexander Dubcek in office for a few months, even though he was already a political corpse. In April 1969, he lost his post as general secretary to Gustáv Husák, a bureaucrat who would rule the country until 1989. After a few months as ambassador to Turkey, Alexander Dubcek ended up as a forest park employee.

The period of “normalization” had begun. All democratic reforms of 1968 were reversed. The prisons were full. Between 1969 and 1971, more than 500.000 CCP members were expelled. Stalinist terror was fully reestablished.

Brezhnev justified the invasion of Czechoslovakia by enunciating the concept of “limited sovereignty”: “When there are forces hostile to socialism and attempt to change the development of any socialist country towards capitalism, they become not just a problem of the country in question, but a common problem that concerns all communist countries”. The Brezhnev doctrine was born[viii] which, in reality, summarized the attitude that the USSR had adopted towards political revolutions in its area of ​​influence.

Soviet propaganda accused the masses of Czechoslovakia – as well as the masses of Berlin and Hungary before them – of promoting the “restoration of capitalism”. Fidel Castro aligned himself with Moscow and supported the invasion: “The essential thing in whether or not to accept [the Russian invasion] is whether or not the socialist camp could allow the development of a political situation that would lead to the dismemberment of a socialist country and the his fall into the arms of imperialism. In our opinion, this is not permitted and the socialist camp has the right to prevent it in one way or another.”[ix].

Those nostalgic for Stalinism, more than half a century later, repeat the same story. However, a rigorous analysis of the facts does not authorize this conclusion. The Czechoslovak people did not fight for a capitalist restoration. At no point, to use Trotsky’s formulation, was “changing the economic bases of society” in question. Neither in Czechoslovakia, nor in any of the countries where processes of anti-bureaucratic political revolution broke out. The masses, in a context of relentless repression, fought in their own way to regenerate the communist parties and the former workers' states. The people aspired to workers' democracy.

From the Soviet point of view, the crushing of the political revolution in Prague was a military success at an enormous political cost. The invasion deepened the crisis in many European communist parties, especially in Italy, France and Spain, which would end up distancing themselves from Moscow to promote so-called Eurocommunism, a clearly social democratic tendency.

Stalinist brutality once again tarnished the image of socialism in the eyes of the world. The scenes of Soviet tanks repressing unarmed civilians gave precious ammunition to imperialist propaganda, ready to associate Stalinist totalitarianism with communism. However, it was the Thermidorian bureaucracy, not the Czechoslovak masses, that made things easier for the anti-communist movement. This is an important element of the historical balance.

As historian Pierre Broué said: “Certainly, the bourgeoisie can only rejoice when, for millions of people, the image of communism has the repulsive face of Stalinism, bureaucratic dictatorship, brute force and police repression against young people and workers”[X].

Winter has come to Prague. However, the winds of freedom would blow again in Eastern Europe. In 1980, the anti-bureaucratic political revolution with the greatest worker weight in history would break out in Poland.

*Ronald Leon Nunez he holds a doctorate in history from USP. Author, among other books, of The War against Paraguay under debate (Sundermann). [https://amzn.to/48sUSvJ]

Originally published on ABC newspaper.

Notes


[I] TALPE, Jan. The working states of the glacis. Discussion about the European East. São Paulo: Editora Lorca, 2019, p. 91 (https://amzn.to/48m8mcR).

[ii] The most famous of the mock trials took place in 1952. Slánský, secretary of the CCP, and Foreign Minister Clementis were sentenced to hang on charges of “Trotskyism-Titoism-Zionism”. The only “evidence”, as usual, was the forced confessions of the accused.

[iii] Although the USSR oppressed and exploited the country and its two nationalities, Moscow was particularly averse to the Slovak community, traditionally more hostile to Russian domination.

[iv] Jaromir Navratil. The Prague Spring, 1968. Central European University Press, 2006, pp. 52-54 (https://amzn.to/3PR6fGH).

[v] COMECON, Mutual Economic Aid Council. Founded in 1949, it was an organization for economic cooperation between the USSR and its satellite states.

[vi] The Manifest Two thousand words, 27/06/1968.

[vii] Romania, Yugoslavia and Albania refused to participate in the invasion. The Soviet command did not appeal to GDR troops to avoid reliving memories of the 1938 Nazi invasion, although this was inevitable.

[viii] Brezhnev confirmed this doctrine on November 13, 1968, at the 5th Congress of the Polish Communist Party.

[ix] Search: https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=257351126301585.

[X] See: https://www.laizquierdadiario.com/La-primavera-de-los-pueblos-comienza-en-Praga.


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