• Email
  • Print

The Young in Prague

It would be nice to think of the protesting students as a kind of parliament of the young, a World Court, an International, judging their parents’ worlds by values of life (youth equals life—age equals death?) which are more important than property, power, establishments. But although the revolt is, notoriously, world-wide, and although there are meetings between students of different nations, the closer one looks, the more one realizes that the students have differences rooted in national circumstances. Moreover they are much influenced by whether they come from America, Western Europe, or the communist Peoples’ Democracies. They may of course hate the side which they happen to be on, the American students being anti-American, the East European students verging on anti-communism; and yet they have often a very chauvinistic way of indulging these views.

For them to agree about aims, they would have to look into the situations that separate them, analyze the circumstances which cause their disagreements; and seek below the surface for common, agreed-on values—I mean, those they attach to life, which they do agree about. But to do this they would need all the “imagination” of the French students, and the power of intellectual analysis of the German students. The French and Germans would have to understand what they have in common, and both understand what they have in common with the Czechs.

In Germany I found the students critical of the French for their weakness in political theory, contemptuous of the English for their inability to exploit causes to fight about. “We would give a million dollars to have the English racial issue in Berlin,” one of their leaders said. And he added: “Why does the London School of Economics have such a reputation for revolutionary politics? I didn’t notice any.” I found it difficult in Berlin to express sympathy with the Czech students without condemning myself out of my own mouth as a bourgeois reactionary. In Berlin, some students of the ASTA (Algemeine Studentenausschuss) said that they feared that the Czech students “admired the West.”

YET if one goes to Czechoslovakia, it does not take long to understand that the Czech students live in a situation in which it would be difficult to want to do away with consumer goods. They have so few of them. To buy a car in Prague, I was told, you have to put half the price into a bank and then wait for three years, at the end of which you pay the second half, and, if you are lucky, get your car. If, during the interval, you run short of cash and draw on the money you have set aside, then you are back at scratch, having to start all over again. Families, my informant said, go without meals in order to save up for a car. To students in Paris and West Berlin, to save up for the car that they gladly offer up as a Consumer Good’s Sacrifice aflame on some barricade, would seem a very bourgeois thing to do. But then have they ever asked themselves whether having no possessions does not help to create the sense of the values of doing without them?

This applies not just to consumer goods, but also to less obviously palpable benefits such as a multi-party system and freedom of speech. If you have these things you may see that in many respects they are false (the big interests, you say, call the tune) and you may say that the lack of freedom in the communist world is better than the pretended freedom of the so-called democratic countries. But if you don’t have any such freedom, you may envy those who having it, regard freedom as illusory. And on the whole those who don’t have either consumer goods or freedom—or who have had the experience of not having them—are in a better position to judge the merits of having and not having than those who have. For there can be no doubt that those who don’t have really know what they are talking about: while those who have may be deluding themselves when they say there is little or no difference between having and not having.

Thus my feeling with the Czech students was that, whether or not they were “bourgeois,” they were talking out of a more immediately experienced reality than the Germans and French. One can criticize them, of course, for understanding the situation of the other students as little as the French and Germans do theirs. But they seemed to have more reason on their side for not sympathizing with their colleagues. Moreover their candor is solid and convincing.

I MET in the offices of Literarni Listy on June 27 (the day of the publication in that magazine of the famous document “2,000 Words”) three young men who had been brought there to tell me about their movement. They were happy and excited about the 2,000 words. At the same time they were modest about the part the students had played in the liberalizing movement. They described their action as defensive rather than aggressive. They said it was censorship and attacks on their culture which had made them criticize the regime. In doing so, the students were followers of the writers, and not the leaders. There arose among the students what they described as “an immense negative unity” among people of the most varied opinions. What they were defending was their conscience, and they felt themselves compelled along a line of action. Then when students were expelled from the university (“in our country if someone is expelled from the University, he carries this punishment to his death”) and brutal police measures were taken against them, they felt that the methods used against the students were “unrighteous.” They found themselves in a situation which it was impossible to disguise. Everything, they said, was very simple. It became just a question of courage and having to bear the consequences. “There was a kind of toleration in us for anyone who did not have courage.”

IN COMMON with the other student protests, the Czech movement has its events that have become almost mythological. The event which proved decisive in making them come out on the side of the revolution took place, many students told me, at Strahov, a district of Prague, where, in September and early October of last year, the lighting broke down. Where, after several days, the light was not put on, the students couldn’t study, so they came out of their living quarters, and walked through the streets shouting that they wanted light “in order to make known”—as my students put it—“to all Czech people their situation.” The police, with the poetic flair which characterizes them in all countries, on hearing this cry, which was intended in a literal sense, interpreted it metaphorically, and attacked the students with great brutality.

This story seems very characteristic of the Czechs. When they asked for light, they meant electricity, just as when asking for freedom, they also mean consumer goods. They are careful, in fact, to point out that their criticism of the Communists is that in addition to destroying freedom they harmed the economy. Kafka would surely have appreciated the picture of students being beaten up because they were thought to be demanding the light of the spirit when they were just asking for light. Even Kafka might have been surprised, though, to learn that the liberalizing movement among the writers and teachers began with a conference on his writings held by members of the Academy of Learning in 1963. An initiator of this conference, Dr. Kusác, told me of this occasion, at which Professor Goldstücker—one of the heroes of the liberals—Ernst Fischer, and Roger Garaudy, were among the principal speakers. The conference led to the rehabilitation of Kafka and to a general attack on censorship (while I was in Prague in late June the censorship was abolished altogether). It also led to a question of fundamental importance being raised: whether “alienation” can continue to exist under socialist rule, or whether (it is difficult not to report this conversation in the pig German in which Dr. Kusác and I conversed) Sozialismus die Entfremdung liquidiert—socialism liquidates alienation. Needless to say, the speakers from the DDR (the German People’s Republic) thought it did—had to think it did. But the Czechs took the view that under socialism as they knew it bureaucracy, and the rule of stupid leaders, reasserted alienation. For these reasons, in this Kafkaish debate, Kafka seemed important: Kafka, whom the speakers from East Germany considered “dangerous” to socialism.

Dr. Kusác talked about this on the terrace of a pleasant restaurant, looking out over a garden: beyond dense green foliage, ochre-colored walls followed the line of a square, then sloped downhill through houses which looked as though they were carved in stone, or molded in plaster. We had been drinking wine, but in order to eat we had to go inside the rather simple whitewash-and-plain-wood restaurant, where you joined guests already sitting there at whatever table had free places. We were with some students, and they gave me very much the same picture as I was to find with the students of Literarni Listy. The main points made by the students were ably summed up in a document—part essay, part autobiography—given to me by a student leader who had undertaken considerable risks in the struggle. At the end of this document, he answers the complaints of Western students that the Czech students are indifferent to events which happen in the West. Quite frankly, he explains, the Czechs envy the Western students. The students in the West seem to them satiated with democracy and showing signs of being fed up with it. But Czech students would have been grateful during the past twenty years to live in such a democracy. Whatever conditions, may really be like in the West, to Czechs they are a dream. Students in the West are inspired by Marxist communism. But for Czech students this is connected too immediately with the horrors of the past.

AT THE BACK of the Czech experience there is in fact a kind of unknown—the unspeakable horror conveyed in the statement, in a newspaper paragraph (Daily Telegraph, July 23), of the Czech Minister of Justice, Dr. Bohuslav Kucera, that “between 60,000 and 70,000 Czechs, mostly victims of political trials held from 1950 until 1965, and former camp inmates would be rehabilitated under a 10-year program.”

Something of the horror was conveyed to me by my meeting in Prague an old friend of mine, Jiri Mucha, a distinguished Czech writer and son of the art nouveau painter. During the war Jiri was a lieutenant of the Czech division of the free French Army. Handsome, intelligent, always amusing, he was one of our allies who lifted our hearts up when he was in London. He returned to Prague after the war and was arrested in 1951 in connection with the trial of Slansky. He spent one year in solitary confinement being interrogated and treated so that he could give convincing evidence in the trial of men with whom he was supposed to have plotted but most of whom he had never met. He was then sentenced to five years forced labor, spent one year in the coal mines, and another year in uranium mines. He wrote a diary, now published under the title Living and Partly Living, of the year in the coal mines.

For me, part of the shock of seeing Jiri Mucha after all these years was to realize that he had not only been in his own tormenting darkness, but that these years were also a blank in the minds of his friends. A dictatorship had tried to turn someone vital and brilliant into a kind of living darkness. They had partly succeeded, for there was no thought of what he was suffering in the minds of his friends. A person had been made to be nothing, and nothing mutiplied by the love of those who knew him was also nothing. My feelings on learning where he had been were of guilt. I thought I should have known, that it was criminal not to have done so. When I returned to London, one of the first things I did was to ask my friends, Who had known about Jiri Mucha during those years? To my amazement, they replied that no one had known.

The horror from which the Czechs are emerging is, at the back of everything else, the horror of a period through which they have passed of a lived non-existence. They are beginning to re-emerge from this now, to have the sense—one sees it in faces—of living again, talking, being frank with one another. It is not surprising that they should have very mixed feelings about those in other countries who, wanting also to achieve awareness, and also distrusting authority and bureaucracy, seem to be fatally willing to embrace methods which led, in Czechoslovakia, to the shootings, the camps, and the forced labor. They expressed these misgivings to me again and again. And the fact that they regard consumer goods as instruments of a better and freer life should not be disregarded. They are not so squeamish that, in order to paint a sympathetic picture of them, one has to overlook the strong materialist streak in their natures. They insist on it themselves. One of them put their objection to the romanticism of the French students very explicitly: “They want to remodel the whole society according to patterns of the inner life, but in doing this they neglect the material means which are needed in order that one may enjoy an inner life.”

The students I met told me that they did not want the return of capitalism. They wanted to combine socialism with the greatest possible freedom of expression. Their position as a people with maerialist as well as idealist aspirations, is in fact very much like that of those workers with whom the students in France and Germany wish to come to an understanding. It would be foolish, then, to dismiss them for being bourgeois. In fact, the term “bourgeois” itself needs re-examination, and should not just be used as a term of contempt. In the world of those who have in common their protest against the societies in which they find themselves, there seem to be the following gradations: the bourgeois, like the French and German students, who want to be proletarianized; the proletarians, like the French and German workers, who want to be bourgeois; and the proletarianized bourgeois, like the Czechs and a great many other people in Eastern Europe, who want to become a bit bourgeois again. In all this movement, the bourgeois is the common denominator. It is as though a little pinch of the bourgeois element is the salt of revolution, and perhaps the salt of the earth. For this reason, I think more lessons are to be learned in Prague today than in Paris or in West Berlin.

  • Email
  • Print