Prague Spring 50 years on: When Soviet tanks crushed democratic socialist hopes

Protesters confront invading Warsaw Pact soldiers.

Of the many world-shaking events that took place in 1968, high on the list was the movement for reform in Czechoslovakia to create a democratic socialist alternative to the Stalinist bureaucratic dictatorships that ruled the Soviet bloc. Chris Slee takes a look at the movement, which was dramatically ended by a Soviet Union-led invasion.

On the night of August 20/21, 1968, tanks from the armies of the Soviet Union, Poland, Hungary and Bulgaria rolled into Czechoslovakia. The aim of the invaders was to crush a movement for reform.

Czechoslovakia and the four invading countries were ruled by Communist parties. They all belonged to the Warsaw Pact, a military alliance led by the Soviet Union.

The invaders justified their use of force with claims that socialism was threatened in Czechoslovakia. In reality, the invaders wanted to suppress a movement with the potential to make Czechoslovakia more genuinely socialist, ending bureaucratic misrule.

Background

Before 1968, the Czechoslovak state, like others in Eastern Europe, had been very repressive. Strict censorship silenced dissenting voices.

The Communist Party had come to power after World War II. During the war, Czechoslovakia was occupied by Nazi Germany. A broad resistance movement had developed, with the CP playing a leading role.

But it was the Soviet Army that was the main force that defeated the Nazis. The Czechoslovak resistance played an important but supplementary role.

This left the Soviet Union in a strong position to influence post-war events. Czechoslovak CP leaders had spent the war years in the Soviet Union and were subservient to Stalin's bureaucratic regime.

The CP had strong support in Czechoslovakia due to its role in the anti-Nazi resistance and for its campaigns for the rights of workers and peasants. After the war, a coalition government was formed by the CP, social democrats and several capitalist parties.

In 1946 elections, the CP won 38% of the vote, making it the strongest party in parliament. A new coalition government was formed, with CP leader Klement Gottwald as prime minister.

In 1948, non-Communist ministers resigned and the CP took sole control of the government.

The events of 1948 have been described by some as a revolution, while others call it a coup. In fact, it was a bit of both.

The CP mobilised workers and peasants to demand radical social change. CP members initiated mass meetings that called for the nationalisation of industry and for land reform. These were popular demands, and large rallies were held to support them. A one-hour general strike on February 24 had near universal participation.

At the same time, the CP carried out a purge of the army and police, removing non-Communist officers. This was a top-down process.

Jon Bloomfield, a British socialist historian, commented in his 1979 book Passive Revolution: Politics and the Czechoslovak Working Class, 1945-8: “The state machinery was transformed by replacing personnel rather than undertaking a thorough process of democratisation...

“These apparatuses remained as unaccountable to the people as previously, and indeed, with the centralisation in all spheres of society, were to become effectively removed from any popular control in the 1950s.”

Once the CP became the sole governing party, it became increasingly repressive. All other parties were banned. Workplace councils, which had played a big role in the revolution, were closed down in 1949. Many CP members were repressed.

Bloomfield said: “While thousands of innocent civilians were imprisoned or lost their jobs, in the early 1950s it was on the supposed ‘enemy within’ that the party leadership and security forces focused most of their attention.

“Thousands of party members were harassed, persecuted or imprisoned, while the notorious rigged trial of 1951-2 resulted in the execution of 11 communist leaders, including Rudolf Slansky and Otto Sling.”

The repression created a climate of fear, and consolidated a bureaucratic regime modelled on Stalin’s regime in the Soviet Union.

In 1969, Belgian Trotskyist leader Ernest Mandel commented: “The strict bureaucratisation of social life led to a near-complete divorce between the mass of toiling people — in the first place the workers — and those who had monopolised the exercise of political and economic power.”

After the death of Stalin in 1953, repression became less intense in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. These regimes still remained repressive and bureaucratic, but there was some limited debate allowed.

Specifically, there were debates within the bureaucratic elite between the technocratic and political wings. A key issue was whether there should be a greater role for the market as opposed to relying on central planning.

Meanwhile, intellectuals demanded freedom of speech and artistic expression.

Prague Spring

Alexander Dubcek, who became leader of the Czechoslovak Communist Party in January 1968, responded to these demands for reform. He eliminated censorship, and spoke of “socialism with a human face”. The resulting opening up of discussion became known as the “Prague Spring”.

But it was brought to an end eight months later.

The invasion was met with mass civil disobedience, but eventually “normality” was restored. Censorship was re-imposed. Dissenters were expelled from the CP and some lost their jobs.

Why did the Soviet leadership regard the situation in Czechoslovakia as a threat?

It is sometimes assumed that they objected to the discussion of market reforms. But this is not the case. The Soviet Union had already started to introduce market reforms, as had other Eastern European countries.

Mandel commented: “[T]he economic reforms introduced in the CSSR [Czechoslovak Socialist Republic] are only a continuation ... of the trend towards greater economic decentralisation and greater use of market mechanisms, opened up in the USSR since several years.”

In fact, Mandel noted that the Soviet Union had gone further in that direction than Dubcek proposed to do. 

Rather, a major concern that drove the invasion was the abolition of censorship. Soviet leaders were worried this could lead to criticism of the bureaucratic regime as a whole, creating an opening for discussion of democratic socialism as an alternative. Such criticism could spread to the rest of the Soviet bloc.

Also worrying the bureaucrats was the reactivation of unions and revival of workplace councils. This increased the potential for working people to challenge bureaucratic rule.

Bloomfield said: “The trade unions began to reassert themselves and play a significant part in economic and industrial issues, while a workers’ council movement re-emerged after two decades, involving workers in the issues of investment, production and managerial appointment.”

The invaders talked of the danger of capitalist restoration. But there was no significant pro-capitalist trend in Czechoslovakia at that time. The main discussion was over to reform socialism, not reintroduce capitalism.

Mandel commented: “The evidence shows overwhelmingly that the explosion of free speech and free writing after January, 1968, was largely confined to a confrontation of opinions about the way to organize a really socialist Czechoslovak Republic, and did not question the social-economic foundations of the CSSR: the nationalization of the means of production, the monopoly of foreign trade and the basic principles of a socialist planned economy.

“Opinions differed as how to manage and organize that infrastructure efficiently. No significant trend appeared in society proposing a return to a capitalist mode of production.” 

Restoring capitalism

After the invasion, however, attitudes began to change. Repression carried out in the name of socialism resulted in many people becoming disillusioned with socialism.

Some intellectuals in Eastern Europe were influenced by the neoliberal ideas becoming dominant in the West, and put into practice by leaders such as Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. The idea of reforming socialism was replaced by belief in the “free market”.

In 1989, there was an upsurge of protest throughout Eastern Europe. The government of Czechoslovakia resigned in December 1989 and an election was held in June 1990.

In 1993, Czechoslovakia split into two separate states, the Czech and Slovak republics.

The post-1989 Czechoslovak government, and post-1993 Czech and Slovak governments, implemented pro-capitalist policies. The lack of a strong and effective opposition to these policies was a result of the widespread disillusionment with socialism. This flowed from the history of bureaucratic and repressive practices, including the 1950s purges and the 1968 invasion.

Most of the people who participated in the 1989 protests had a general pro-democracy sentiment, but no clear ideas for the reorganisation of society. But some intellectuals had a definite pro-capitalist outlook, and a section of the bureaucracy saw the chance to enrich themselves as capitalists.

Privatisation of the economy began in 1990, causing growing unemployment. Near full employment had been one of the positive aspects of Czechoslovakia under the rule of the CP. It can be considered as one of the gains of the 1948 revolution, along with free health care and other social welfare measures.

In February 1990, the unemployment rate in the Czech part of Czechoslovakia was only 0.09%. By 2004, the unemployment rate in the Czech republic reached 9.69%. It later declined, but never again reached the near-zero level of 1990. It is now almost 3%. 

Czechoslovakia was not as badly affected by the economic collapse following the restoration of capitalism as Russia or some other Eastern European countries. Still, the loss of job security was a harmful consequence of the counter-revolution. Official unemployment statistics do not include those who are underemployed or precariously employed.

Foreign capital flowed into the Czech Republic, which had become a member of the European Union but had much lower wages than most EU countries.

Several new vehicle assembly plants were established. But these jobs are vulnerable to automation, as well as to any downturn in the demand for cars, for example as a result of another world capitalist economic crisis.

The loss of job security created a favourable environment for racism, directed particularly against refugees and Romani. The Czech Republic has refused to accept its share of refugees under the EU’s quota system.

However, the picture is not all bleak. Marie Heřmanová and Robert Basch, from the Open Society Foundation, said: “The public response to the migration crisis was mixed and divisive; whilst the majority of Czech citizens approve the ‘politics of discouragement’ practiced by the government, there was also an unusually strong civic movement of volunteers who participated in the distribution of humanitarian aid on the Balkan route.

“In October and November 2015, during the peak of the crisis on the Balkan route, the so-called ‘Czech Team’ was one of the biggest and most active groups in the Balkans. Czech volunteers continue with their activities today, cooperating with local authorities in refugee camps in Serbia.

“At the same time, however, civic activists and NGO advocates for refugee rights encounter hate-speech and threats.”

In 2014, Czech leftist Jiri Malek noted that the radical left was “fragmented and in many ways marginal”. Malek said “many left-wing activists [are] doing a great deal of praiseworthy and valuable work” on ecology and social issues, but they have little influence on political decision making.

Consequences

The 1968 invasion, and the repression that followed, prepared the ground for capitalist restoration 20 years later. It suppressed discussion of democratic socialism and caused disillusionment with socialism in general.

The only reliable defence against capitalist restoration could have been a working class that was politically conscious, organised and willing to mobilise to defend a socialism with which they identified and felt ownership over. The invasion badly undermined this possibility.

Writing shortly after the invasion, Mandel noted that an apathetic working class could enable capitalist restoration, whereas, “socialist democracy, by creating favourable circumstances for overcoming that apathy, is thereby the best bulwark against capitalist restoration”.

Unfortunately, the movement for socialist democracy was suppressed in 1968. Building a new socialist movement in nations formally ruled by Stalinist bureaucracies will be a difficult task.