Alexander Dubcek’s reforms in Czechoslovakia in 1968 were ultimately adopted by the USSR, but he would have been disappointed by the outcome, writes
The spectre of student revolution haunted Europe in 1968, as protesters against America’s war in Vietnam clashed with police in London, Paris, Rome and West Berlin.
The epicentre of this revolt was the Sorbonne in Paris, where in May 1968 university students used torn-up cobblestones to fight French riot police. Protests spread to the factories and millions of workers came out on strike.
The regime of President General de Gaulle teetered on the edge of collapse, saved only by a general election at the end of June, which served to mobilise the forces of conservatism.
The May-June revolution in France proved to be an illusion, however, and 50 years later many of its leaders are no longer anarchists or socialists dreaming of a collectivist utopia, but are advocates of the possessive individualism embodied in western liberal capitalism.
It was another event in 1968 that was to be, in the long-term, more momentous; the so-called ‘Prague Spring’ ushered in by Alexander Dubcek, elected in January 1968 as leader of the Czechoslovak communist party.
Dubcek initiated a programme of reforms under the slogan “socialism with a human face”.
His aim was to create a socialist system based on the active consent and participation of the people. He intended to reform Czechoslovakia’s authoritarian socialist system and modify the communist party to make it more open and pluralistic.
These goals were embedded in the party’s ‘action programme’ of April 1968, which charted a course towards a reformed communism that would be free and democratic as well as socialist.
This democratic turn in Czechoslovak politics was not so surprising. It was the only state in central and eastern Europe where democracy survived between the First and Second World Wars.
In 1946, the communists and their socialist allies won a majority of the votes in the country’s first postwar election.
Unfortunately, Czechoslovakia was in the Soviet bloc and Moscow insisted on the imposition of an authoritarian state socialist system when the East-West cold war broke out in the late 1940s.
Dubcek’s challenge to the Soviet model of socialism was hugely popular with the Czechoslovak public, and students were to the fore of the participatory political revival that was called the Prague Spring. While radicals in the west challenged their governments head-on, activists in Czechoslovakia supported Dubcek against hard-line opponents within the communist party who resisted his democratic reforms because they feared it would de-stabilise the socialist system.
The Prague Spring was not the first challenge to authoritarian socialism within the communist bloc. In 1956, Hungarians had risen in violent revolt against Moscow’s rule, prompting a massive military intervention by the Soviets.
Thousands died in the ensuing battles in the capital, Budapest, while hundreds of thousands more were arrested or fled into exile.
The Czechoslovak ‘revolution’, however, was different. It was a reform process; not a revolt against the party but change for the better directed by its leaders. It was also peaceful, not violent.
And the aim was to reform the socialist system for the better, not to overthrow it.
Above all, Dubcek remained explicitly loyal to the Soviet Union and had no intention of leading Czechoslovakia out of the communist bloc.
Dubcek, Slovak-born, had been brought up in the USSR. During the war, he was a communist partisan in Slovakia and was wounded during the Slovak National Rising against the Germans in August 1944. After the war, he spent many years being politically educated in the Soviet Union.
Soviet leaders were, nevertheless, disturbed by what was happening in Czechoslovakia. They feared the Prague Spring would develop into a counter-revolution like that in Hungary.
Particularly disturbing was the abolition of censorship in Czechoslovakia, which opened the floodgates to a torrent of criticism of the Soviet Union and of Moscow’s military alliance, the Warsaw Pact.
The Soviets began lobbying and pressing for Dubcek’s reforms to be slowed down. Warsaw Pact manoeuvres in Czechoslovakia helped to bring pressure to bear, carrying the implied threat of a military intervention to nip the Prague Spring in the bud.
The crisis in Soviet-Czechoslovak relations came to a head in July, when a statement by the leaders of the communist parties of Bulgaria, East Germany, Hungary, Poland and the USSR — the ‘Warsaw Letter’ — claimed “hostile forces” were conspiring to detach Czechoslovakia from the socialist camp.
Dubcek and his comrades replied that they remained committed to the socialist community, that socialism in Czechoslovakia was not under threat, and that the reforms of the Prague Spring must continue.
In early August, the signatories of the Warsaw letter met Czechoslovak representatives in Bratislava, the Slovak capital.
The result was a public declaration of communist solidarity and a collective commitment to defend socialism and the Soviet bloc.
Moscow appeared to have forced the Dubcek leadership to retreat from its reform policy, but within days of the Bratislava Declaration, the Soviet leadership had lost faith in a political solution to the Czechoslovak crisis and had resolved to impose its will by military force.
A decision to invade Czechoslovakia was taken by the Soviet politburo on August 17 and, during the night of the Aug 20-21, twenty divisions from the five Warsaw letter countries crossed the border into Czechoslovakia. Unlike Hungary in 1956, there was no armed struggle. Opposition to the Soviet-led invaders took the form of passive resistance and peaceful protest.
Soviet soldiers were told their mission was to crush an incipient counter-revolution. What they found was peaceable protesters who wanted to argue with them about the true meaning of socialist solidarity. Images of street discussions with Soviet tank commanders were broadcast across the world and evoked much more sympathy than rioting bourgeois students in Paris.
The military intervention is sometimes called a Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia, but this was not a Warsaw Pact decision.
Both Czechoslovakia and Romania were members of the Warsaw Pact and neither was consulted. Nor did Tito’s Yugoslavia — a member of the socialist camp if not the Soviet bloc — give its consent.
Communist China — which had split from the USSR in the early 1960s — was scathing about the invasion and compared it to Hitler’s takeover of the country in 1939.
The invasion was also opposed publicly by a number of western communist parties. Indeed, in the weeks before the invasion, western party leaders had been highly active in support of Dubcek and worked hard to avert Soviet military action.
At stake for these parties was the credibility of their adherence to a democratic socialism. The communist-led peace movement was also perturbed by the invasion.
It, too, split when a number of its national branches condemned the Soviet military action. AmongMoscow’s other political losses was the negative impact of the invasion on the developing détente with the United States and other western countries that had manifested after the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.
So why did Moscow abandon any hope of a political solution to the Czechoslovak crisis? The basic reason was that party general secretary Leonid Brezhnev and the other Soviet leaders fell out with Dubcek. They felt betrayed by him, saw him as insincere and dishonest and decided he was not acting as a true communist and comrade should.
A similar breakdown in personal relations had taken place between Brezhnev’s predecessor Nikita Khrushchev, and Imre Nagy, the reform communist leader of the Hungarian revolt, though this time the consequences were significantly less bloody than in 1956.
After the invasion, Dubcek was abducted and taken to Moscow, where Brezhnev told him that “without trust there is no love. Thus, we have to find a solution so that there will be not only trust, but mutual love as well”.
Brezhnev’s crude effort to restore comradely love, alas, failed. Dubcek was allowed by the Soviets to remain in office for a few months, but was removed in April 1969 following anti-Russian protests sparked by Czechoslovakia’s defeat of the USSR in the world ice hockey championships.
An ongoing process of “normalisation” conducted within the Czechoslovak communist party entailed the expulsion of half-a-million supporters of the Prague Spring. Among those expellees were many activists and leaders of the 1989 “Velvet Revolution” that brought down the communist regime.
The invasion of Czechoslovakia transgressed all norms of international law and was inimical to the idea that different types of socialism could flourish, a proclamation made by the Soviets themselves at their 1956 20th party congress.
Soviet propagandists proposed many different justifications for the invasion, most infamously the “Brezhnev Doctrine”, a quasi-legal doctrine of limited sovereignty.
Under this doctrine, socialist states’ freedom of action must be constrained both by their loyalty to the Soviet Union and by the overall interests of the socialist camp, interests to be defined by Moscow, which also reserved the right to take unilateral protective action.
Khrushchev had suggested a similar justification for invading Hungary in 1956. It was a mirror image of American fears about the domino effect of a communist victory in the war in Vietnam. Moscow worried that anyreforms that undermined communist party rule in Czechoslovakia were a threat to all socialist systems throughout the Soviet bloc.
The invasion of Czechoslovakia seemed to signal an end to the dream of reconciling democracy and communism, despite the considerable efforts of western Eurocommunists to agitate for a democratic road towards the creation of a pluralistic socialist system in which freedom and civil liberties, as well as social and welfare rights, would be guaranteed.
Then, in 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev was elected leader of the Soviet communist party. Gorbachev had come of political age in the 1950s, when Khrushchev denounced Stalin and relaxed Stalinist repression. Among the young Gorbachev’s friends at Moscow University was fellow law student, Zdenek Mlynar, who later became one of the leaders of the Prague Spring.
Gorbachev shared Mlynar’s and Dubcek’s vision of socialism with a human face. The glasnost — openness — reforms he introduced into the USSR in the late 1980s bore a striking resemblance to those of the Prague Spring ‘action programme’.
Gorbachev also sympathised with the Eurocommunists’ rejection of authoritarian imposition of Soviet-style socialism and admired the mass, popular democratic support enjoyed by the Italian and French communist parties.
Like Dubcek, Gorbachev sought to reinvigorate the socialist system by making it more open and democratic. Being truthful about the past was a central plank of his programme and in 1988 – on the 20th anniversary of the invasion of Spring.
In 1989, Gorbachev’s democratic revolution in the USSR spread to the rest of the Soviet bloc and caused a series of upheavals that crashed communist regimes across Eastern Europe.
Reform communism was already far advanced in Poland and Hungary, but the falling dominoes became unstoppable with the November 1989 breach of the Berlin Wall. Czechoslovakia was to be next. Mass demonstrations in Prague were supported by Dubcek, who was hailed as a hero by the crowds. As in East Germany, the government was forced to resign.
A western-style multiparty system was introduced and the writer Vaclav Haval, a long-time dissident, became the country’s president, while Dubcek was elected chairman of the federal parliament.
Two years after the people’s revolutions in Eastern Europe the communist system in the Soviet Union
collapsed following a failed coup attempt by Gorbachev’s opponents within the party.
The USSR disintegrated into its constituent republics and Gorbachev resigned as its president on Christmas day 1991.
The Gorbachev phenomenon was rooted in the Prague Spring and in the movement for a democratic communism. Without the example of reform communists such as Dubcek it is doubtful Gorbachev would have attempted such radical change in the USSR and, without his reforms, the Soviet Union would, in all likelihood, have continued to exist and world politics would still be overdetermined by a dangerous cold war and nuclear arms race.
Dubcek saw the 1989 Velvet Revolution as a vindication of his socialist humanism. He died in 1992 but, like Gorbachev, he would likely have been severely disappointed by the end results of his efforts.
Authoritarian socialism was replaced not by socialist democracy but by unbridled western-style liberal capitalism.
Today, that liberal democratic version of capitalism is under threat from authoritarian-inclined anti-establishment populists across Europe, not least in Slovakia and the Czech Republic.
The complete failure of the communist project — a defeat that western rhetoric promised would bring liberation to millions — has resulted in the untrammelled triumph of globalist forces, pushing millions into poverty and launching the century of multi-billionaires.
When socialism and communism existed as a living counterweight to capitalist forces, western liberal democracies tended to be more mindful of all their citizens’ needs, not only cultivating those who benefit most from free market capitalism.
Increasingly, those citizens who have been effectively devoiced by the beneficiaries of globalisation and de-regulation have directed their resentment into support for authoritarian demagogic populists.
The idealism and optimism of the Prague Spring are the lost ideals of a previous century, but they remain far preferable to many of the other political alternatives now on offer.