A new look at Czechoslovakia's 'socialist' past

Wednesday, June 26, 1991

By Peter Annear

The unexpected collapse of Communist regimes across Eastern Europe in 1989 is a continuing subject of analysis and debate among politicians of all hues. From Prague, PETER ANNEAR reports in the first of a series.

In the early hours of a Sunday morning in late April, art student David Cerny stood bucket and brush in hand before a World War II Soviet tank mounted in Prague's Smichov district as a monument to the 1945 liberation of Czechoslovakia by the Red Army. He had just painted the tank pink. In the spirit of European disarmament, he wanted to make it more "human", he said. He was arrested, and the tank was repainted.

The seemingly innocuous incident produced a symbolic guerilla war of the paint brush in lieu of rational public debate — which this newly "democratic" country curiously lacks a year and a half after its Velvet Revolution.

First, a group of 15 federal MPs caused a small furore by again painting the tank pink to protest against Cerny's arrest. Later, a city plaque commemorating the death of Jan Palach, who self-immolated to protest against the 1968 Soviet invasion, was painted white. And in west Bohemia at Cheb, a monument to US troops killed liberating the region in 1945 was sprayed with red paint.

The hidden meaning of this illustrated polemic was revealed by right-wing politicians who denounced the Smichov monument as a Trojan horse.

The whole affair is itself a monument to the historical blank spaces left by the Stalinist writing of Czechoslovakia's postwar history, and to the current, one-sided attempt to fill them.

It is shallow indeed to label as a Trojan horse the Soviet tanks that, nearly alone, routed the Nazis and drove them back all the way to Berlin. But they did literally beat a path on which indigenous Czechoslovak communism followed.

Following the tanks

Arriving from Moscow at the eastern Slovakian town of Kosice as the Nazis fell to Soviet blows in April 1945, Klement Gottwald, soon to be the country's first Communist ruler, announced Czechoslovakia's liberation.

"You will follow in the footsteps of the Red Army", he told party activists. "You must be first to prevent chaos and thwart

attempts by anyone else but the revolutionary national committees to seize power ... [Our party] must spread everywhere, into every factory, workshop, office and community ... Our objective is to create a mass party with a dense organisational network, capable of leading the revolution."

Out of Kosice they travelled in Soviet army vans loaded with propaganda and party membership application forms. They organised the police force, restored water supplies, cleared the war debris, established emergency food supplies, rounded up quislings and got things going.

By the end of the year, a party of 40,000 had grown to 800,000. Three years later, in 1948, just prior to parliamentary elections and with electoral support somewhere approaching 50%, this party seized power and swallowed the coalition Social Democrats.

Forty years later, in 1989, after one week of mass protests, it lost power virtually without a fight. In a soon to be released book called Historic Roots, the Communist Party's current leadership has taken a long hard look at its own history and the history of the Communist movement in the 20th century. The book, which is the project of the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (KSCM — representing the Czech lands), is part of a bigger process of party reform.

In the Slovak republic, the reform process has been all but completed by the Strana Demokratie L'avice (SDL — Party of the Democratic Left) following a name change, the adoption of a new program, and a complete reregistration of membership that left the SDL with up to 60,000 of the previous 450,000 party members (making it now equivalent, compared to population, to the German Social Democratic Party), and 22 members of the Slovak parliament.

In the Czech lands, militant anticommunism invoked a defensive reaction in the party membership — which in the absence of a reregistration process still numbers 430,000 — against any appearance of compromise with the rightist political forces. In particular, this has prevented a name change. The joint federal party has 45 MPs in the national assembly following a vote of 14% in 1990 elections.

Why did it fall?

Pavel Sefel believes the demise of the Communist Party was unavoidable from the 1970s: "The system had to collapse, and those in power had to be changed". Sefel, a political adviser to the KSCM leadership, recently spoke to Green Left Weekly about the changes in the party's outlook.

Extensive economic development, which until then had made problems

manageable, was exhausted. As in the rest of the Soviet bloc, and just at the time of the scientific and technological revolution in the West, the system was at an economic, and therefore also a political, dead end.

"At the very point where intensive factors should have become decisive in economic development, the centralised economies were condemned to greater and greater backwardness. The attempt to match the speed of economic development in the West and maintain living standards at the same time, using only extensive means of growth, actually caused the expansion of backward technologies on a scale that resulted in the massive devastation of the environment in the industrial regions. That is why the system inevitably collapsed."

Party reformers knew this long before November 17, 1989, according to Sefel, but the internal situation made it impossible to achieve change from within the party.

From the early 1950s, the Communist Party had ceased to function as a political party in the normal sense and simply became an instrument of power and control. Increasing dissatisfaction with the leadership infected many party members in the years following the defeat of the 1968 Prague Spring, a sentiment that deepened when changes connected to Soviet perestroika were rejected because they would have required an accounting of the leadership's role in 1968 and during the "normalisation" period that followed.

Key reformers joined the opposition. Party chairperson Yiri Svoboda, for example, was one of the founders of Civic Forum. And the chair of the federal party council, Pavol Kanis, helped draft documents critical of the old leadership, in which the possibility of collapse was raised well before November 1989.

The course of reform

"Firstly", Sefel emphasised, "we should say the situation really needed radical economic reform leading to a market economy and to pluralist parliamentary democracy".

Sefel left me with the impression that, when it relinquished power, the new leadership may have hoped to play a bigger role, as part of a broad democratic, civic and parliamentary process based on Civic Forum, in drafting an economic reform program. If this is true, the party was double-crossed. Inside Civic Forum, a narrow monetarist view dominates the discussion, which is marked by unveiled anticommunism.

"Recently, for example, parliament refused to pass a bill on strategic planning, which many deputies think is a relic of socialism; they do not realise that it is normally applied in all advanced countries. Many deputies are just not competent", said Sefel.

The KSCM fears the results could be very bad. There is enormous pressure for the liquidation of agricultural cooperatives, perhaps linked to an alleged IMF demand for a 30% cut in agricultural output (just as it also demands in Poland). The tens of billions of crowns collected from sale of government assets could produce a dreadful inflation if the money is used outside productive investment. And there is a big danger of manipulation, speculation and the laundering of dirty money as a result of the government's method of privatisation.

Sefel said the Communist Party is looking at some means to create one organised owner from the numerous coupon holders the government's privatisation scheme will produce, as a form of collective workers' ownership of their own enterprise. But he sees this as difficult and complicated in practice.

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