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Idealism & Power

In response to:

Rebirth and Death in Czechoslovakia from the September 2, 1971 issue

To the Editors:

Neal Ascherson’s highly informative report on recent literature concerning Czechoslovakia’s ill-fated experiment in socialist democracy [NYR, September 2] deserves high praise indeed, but it also deserves two footnotes and a question.

Ascherson tends to evaluate the Czechoslovak experiment less in terms of its intrinsic worth than in terms of its acceptability to Soviet imperial policy. In 1968, that was in fact the overriding consideration. Not only Dubcek, but all of us at the time grossly overestimated Soviet commitment to socialism and equally underestimated the importance of Soviet imperialism. But to introduce the imperial acceptability criterion into long-range analysis assumes that the Yalta scheme of two-power confrontation is permanent. In 1968, we had written it off prematurely, but in long range we may well have been right. The rise of China and West Europe as world powers suggests a polycentric world schema, including several major powers linked and separated by autonomous buffer zones. Neither as Czechs and Slovaks nor as socialists can we, in any case, plan our future on the assumption of permanent Soviet occupation, nor can the world hope for any relatively stable peaceful settlement on that basis. Thus for purposes of long-range consideration of the Czechoslovak model of socialist democracy the imperial acceptability criterion is far less significant than the question of internal adequacy of that model.

This is how it appeared to us, albeit prematurely, in the spring of 1968. This is also why the staged trials of the Fifties were not something we could examine—or leave alone, as your reviewer suggests we should have. I am not sure that your reviewer appreciates fully the significance of those trials for socialists, and for Slovaks and Czechs in particular. In part it may be because he selects for review a book by an English journalist who arrived in Czechoslovakia after it was all over (William Shawcross, Dubcek) and makes no mention of a far more authoritative and informed volume covering the same ground, Ludek Veselý’s Dubcek (Munich: Kindler, 1971), written by the former editor of the Czechoslovak Writers’ Union weekly, Listy.

Be that as it may, the point is that the trials were an all-stifling nightmare of socialism, and no further socialist development was possible until we had purged our consciousness of them. One of the crucial points in the development of the Czechoslovak spring from the palace revolution of January, 1968, to a national rebirth was a public meeting held in the auditorium of Slovanský dbum in January. A panel of jurists, which included Otomar Bocek from the Supreme Court, cínal from State Security, a military lawyer, and some others, was to answer questions from the floor about delinquency and particularly juvenile delinquency in our country. Early in the meeting an older worker stood up and asked openly about the trials, for years an unmentioned and unmentionable topic. As soon as he spoke, the auditorium simply exploded with questions, many of them posed by lads who looked too young to have been more than toddlers at the time of the trials, but who still spoke with the passionate, anxious concern of participants. The following day the papers carried the story, and after that, nothing but tanks could stifle the national debate.

The rebirth of socialism and the rebirth of Czechs and Slovaks as free people were directly dependent on bringing out and facing the dirty little secret whose suppression has distorted Communist policy since Kronstadt, that without human rights there can be no workers’ rights, that without justice there can be no “revolutionary” justice, that ideal founded on terror becomes a fraud.

This is what prompts my question. Facing up to the Kronstadts of our history is not exclusively a Czech and Slovak problem. It is the problem of all idealism whose practicability depends on suppression of human freedom. It might well be that the moment of rebirth of American radicalism, as of Czechoslovak socialism, will come only when American radicals face up fully to the problematic effect of violence not only on its victims, but also on those who exercise it and on the ideals in whose name it is exercised. The New York Review has already published several contributions to such discussion, and I welcome Neal Ascherson’s well-informed and well-written article as further contribution. But I wonder if it might not be well to bring such contributions into focus in an explicit confrontation with idealism and power.

Erazim V. Kohák

Department of Philosophy

Boston University, Boston, Mass.

Neal Ascherson replies:

I think Mr. Kohák may have confused my own opinions with those of some of the writers of the books under review. It would indeed be trite to judge the Czechoslovak experiment by what he calls the “imperial acceptability criterion” alone, to say that what was done and said in those months was somehow rendered void by a subsequent Soviet decision that it was politically intolerable. The question raised by Mr. Shawcross and others is anyway slightly different: they are wondering whether the invasion might have been avoided by a more cautious pace of change in early 1968, and whether some blame attaches to journalists and writers who at that time preferred to speak openly rather than prudently.

Since my article appeared, one of the creators of the reform has had something to say on this question. Josef Smrkovsky, in the interview with Davide Lajolo which appeared recently in Vie Nuove, says: “The excesses of some journalists or other writers of articles in the press and of speakers did not find any serious response and neither did they influence mass opinion, although they stirred up a lot of noise.” He goes on to attribute the invasion to the imminent September congress of the Party, which would finally have removed the “conservatives” and supporters of the Novotný regime from the central committee; that congress had, in the Soviet view, to be prevented at all costs.

Nor, I think, does anyone among the authors reviewed suggest that the political trials of the Fifties were “something we could examine—or leave alone.” Any national self-examination, any meeting which talked honestly about what the nation had come to, ran straight into the trials. There was no way round them, as Mr. Kohák says. This was not a situation in which some clever fellow in Prague Castle could compute the options of debating the trials or leaving them alone. The people were determined to thrash this thing out, and they did so. At the same time, I am not sure about Mr. Kohák’s moral interpretation of these events. He is saying that “without human rights there can be no workers’ rights,” and arguing that a reform which attempted to evade issues like the trials and glanced too nervously over its eastern shoulder would have achieved nothing of worth. But would it really have been immoral or fraudulent if a stronger leadership in Czechoslovakia had persuaded the nation to take its chosen course at a less furious pace?

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