Czechoslovakia: the legacy of 1968

July 3, 1991

Peter Annear

The sudden collapse of the Czechoslovak Communist government in November 1989 was prepared by decades of Stalinism. In the second of a series of reports, PETER ANNEAR writes from Prague on how sections of the old Communist Party are attempting to come to terms with the past.

Because of its history, its more difficult economic conditions and its closer proximity to the USSR, Slovakia's politics are more to the left than in the Czech lands, giving the former Communists a bigger voice. In the Slovak parliament, the Strana Demokratie L'avice (SDL — Party of the Democratic Left, the renamed Slovak section of the old CP) forms part of an opposition alliance with the Slovak National Party and the For Democratic Slovakia party of sacked popular premier Vladimir Meciar, who recently split from Public Against Violence (VPN — Civic Forum's sister organisation).

Local election results indicate public acceptance of the SDL: in May it captured 16% of republic-wide mayoral positions and 46% of local councillor positions.

Paradoxically, the Slovak party has moved even closer to Social Democracy. "We have witnessed the historic defeat of one sort of social experiment", Peter Weiss, the young and energetic new SDL leader, told me in the early weeks of a chilly spring in Bratislava, the Slovak capital.

"Though it occurred for different reasons, our process could be compared to the transformation of the Italian Communist Party ... From the historical point of view, the type of organisations which originated from the Communist International are outlived."

By way of comparison, Pavel Sefel, an adviser to the Czech party leadership, says its positions would be closer to those of the French CP.

The immediate goal of the SDL is to counter the shift to the right in Czechoslovak politics. Weiss said it is necessary to create the conditions for a variety of forms of property ownership, it is essential to take into account the social aspects of changes in the economic structure, and within the Czechoslovak federation the goal of the SDL is to defend Slovak national interests.

Failures

The collapse of 1989 owes nearly everything to the failures of 1968. Sefel thinks an unfavourable international situation, both within the Eastern bloc and vis-a-vis the West, was a key source of

the breakdown in reform.

A government committee presently studying that period has concluded, like the KSCM researchers, that most of the initiative for the Warsaw Pact aggression came not from Brezhnev nor from the Soviet generals, although they were very willing to be a part of it, but that Ulbricht and Gomulka, the bosses of the German Democratic Republic and Poland, played the major initiating role.

Also, Sefel added, "there is a valid hypothesis that if the Czechoslovak developments were to lead to the creation of a new economic and political model of socialism it would not have been accepted by some Western governments. The cold war atmosphere of the time should not be forgotten."

In any case, he said, it was only a matter of time before changes in the party leadership were to be carried out in a way that corresponded with the wishes of the Soviet party:

"The particular 'solution' adopted in 1968, which, apart from the aggression, did formally maintain basic legal standards, was only the second alternative considered at the time. Some forces were preparing simultaneously another alternative, similar to the Hungarian 'solution' in the 1950s, involving very wide repression and political trials of those who were the bearers of the 1968 reform process. So under these circumstance Husak's leadership and the conception of those supporting it were considered to be a lesser evil. Even some of those who were later fired from their posts and persecuted share this opinion."

All the same, "normalisation" cut deep: many were banned from their professions and had to clean windows, students were prevented from entering university studies, scientists faced enormous obstructions in appointment to scientific and pedagogic posts, there were extensive restrictions on travel. Including family members, the numbers affected reached a million.

The intelligentsia

"Soon after the Russians occupied my country in 1968, I (like thousands and thousands of other Czechs) lost the privilege of working. No one was allowed to hire me", writes emigré Czechoslovak author Milan Kundera.

"I too had once danced in a ring", he writes in reference to his fellow members in the Communist Party. "It was in the spring of 1948. The Communists had just taken power in my country, the Socialist and Christian Democrat ministers had fled abroad, and I took other Communist students by the hand, I put my arms around their shoulders, and we took two steps in place, one step forward, lifted first one leg and then the other, and we did it just about every month, there being always something to celebrate ... Then

one day I said something I would better have left unsaid. I was expelled from the party and had to leave the circle."

Intellectuals have historically formed an important layer in Czechoslovak society, which is one reason for the common refrain that the Czechoslovak nation has a very strong collective memory, with deep-seated resentment of centuries of domination, first by the Austrians and later, more briefly, by Nazi Germany and then the USSR.

The 1967 Prague writers' conference adopted a resolution which recalled the "high level of democracy and freedom" enjoyed by Czechoslovakia before the war, when "the most eminent representatives of Czech and Slovak literature freely decided in favour of socialism". The resolution was a rejection of the Novotny government's controls over Czechoslovakia's literary establishment, which turned all writing into unalloyed propaganda.

In 1968 Dubcek headed a reform alliance of Prague liberals and defenders of Slovak rights, lending weight to the intellectual elite over the more conservative administrative elite. A section of the intelligentsia organised in Charter 77 again stepped forward in 1989 to grab political power away from the crumbling Communist leadership, and then to form a pro-capitalist government personified by its president, playwright Vaclav Havel, who had called for an opposition party as early as 1967.

There is now a sense of irony about Havel's brilliant and famous 1975 "Letter to Gustav Husak", in which he denounced the regime's "bombastic slogans about the unprecedented increase in every sort of freedom and the unique structural variety of life" alongside the "unprecedented drabness and the squalor of life reduced to a hunt for consumer goods". How long will it be before his own, monetarist, government attempts to elevate Czechoslovaks above these same pursuits?

Given the experience of post-1968 "normalisation", it is not surprising many intellectuals headed to the right. But it has not been all one way. While the government includes key literary intellectuals, Sefel says many members of the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (KSCM, the Czech party) are intellectuals of a scientific persuasion. The non-communist left also includes politicised intellectuals.

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