The Czechoslovak Experiment 1968-1969
Prague Notebook: The Strangled Revolution
A Year Is Eight Months: Czechoslovakia 1968
Czechoslovakia Since World War II
Journal d’un contre-révolutionnaire (to be published in November by McGraw-Hill as Diary of a Counter Revolutionary, translated by Ruth Willard (256 pp., $6.95))
Stalinism in Prague: The Loebl Story
The Czechoslovak Political Trials, 1950-1954: The Suppressed Report of the Dubcek Government’s Commission of Inquiry, 1968
Few people have the sickening privilege of assisting at their own exhumation. But this privilege has been granted to the Czech and Slovak political exiles who left their country after August, 1968. The historical pathologists of Western universities and newspapers poke about in the great mud moraine in which the Czechoslovak experiment in socialist humanism lies buried. Here emerge the stumps of half-completed structures, hastily dug foundations whose purpose and origin today provide matter for invigorating controversies. There lie the contorted shapes of personalities and their utterances, caught in strange and often contradictory attitudes.
Many of these personalities stand along the edge of the excavation, giving advice: turn over this clod and find me saying something different; that shapeless lump which you have thrown aside is a night meeting which seemed at the time to be decisive, with all of us in our shirt-sleeves and several of us weeping. Their recollections and interpretations are respected. But, at the same time, they cannot control and sometimes cannot entirely recognize the preliminary judgments which “history” is beginning to pass.
How important, for example, was the military intervention? As an episode that will mark the consciousness of those who lived through the last week of August for the rest of their lives, its importance cannot be exaggerated. But, after a colder look at the evidence, one feels justified in raising the question of its political importance. Military invasion was only the penultimate deterrent; the final sanction was that the foreign forces now on the streets should install a regime of direct military-police terror and transport every dissident in the land into labor camps. The tanks and the troops, though they occupied public buildings and private offices, did not do this. They stood in Prague and Bratislava as a monstrous warning: if our demands are not fulfilled, then we shall carry out the ultimate measures.
Seen in this way, the actual move across the frontiers has less political importance. It was a theatrical heightening of the threat which was already posed by the massing of the armies around the frontiers. Similarly, the Czechoslovak Communist Party’s course of trying to stave off the threat by political concessions actually began before August 21 (witness the Presidium’s secret decision in late July at Cierna And Tisou to impose controls on the press, after Brezhnev had threatened to use force), so that the “Moscow Compromise” after the invasion |did not itself initiate the process of the surrender of liberties in exchange for dishonored promises to withdraw the troops, a process which in effect still goes on.
Other questions of this order, and much more disconcerting ones, are raised by Mr. Shawcross in his biography of Dubcek. Mr. Shawcross, a young British journalist, has produced a useful and well-written book which contains—and the author did most of the research in the difficult conditions of 1969—much information about Dubcek’s years in Slovakia which will be new to an English reader. It is a book about factual matters rather than about the social and intellectual aspects of the reform, and it is Shawcross’s interest in practicality and tactics, along with his refusal to accept uncritically the activity of the intellectuals during 1968, that leads him to his questions. In the first place, he believes that the “Prague Spring” was a failure, and that it could not have been otherwise, given the way it developed. The condition for its success could only be to win Soviet tolerance, and it did not.
Surely the Soviet Union was right. By its own standards, there was a danger of counter-revolution in Czechoslovakia in summer 1968. How it would have ended is unclear….
Secondly, he believes that the intellectuals—in particular the journalists—must bear their considerable share of responsibility for what happened in August. The behavior of the newspapers, radio, and television after the collapse of the censorship undermined Dubcek’s position. The campaign to expose the show trials of the Fifties and those who helped to stage them contrived to weaken—unintentionally—embryonic public confidence that a Communist Party that had allowed such things to happen could nonetheless be trusted again. So far as the Russians were concerned, press outbursts culminating in the “Two Thousand Words” in June confirmed their view that counterrevolution was rampant in Czechoslovakia.
This view is not a popular one. But at least two of these books confirm that Mr. Shawcross is not alone in holding it. An old friend tells the playwright Pavel Kohout, while under the first shock of the invasion: “If it hadn’t been for you, this would never have happened.” Even the philosopher Ivan Sviták, writing in April, 1968, warns against writers who combine to “compromise individual persons” and “create the illusion that writers can change presidents” (an allusion to the public campaign against Novotný).
There is something in these doubts. The press, aware of the mass of vengeful conservatives still in the Central Committee, was instantly suspicious of appeals for self-control; Smrkovský and even Dubcek were criticized for asking journalists to restrain themselves. The free press played a large role in Soviet assessments, and it was significant that, at the Moscow and Cierna meetings, Brezhnev came armed with files of (inaccurate) quotations from the Czech and Slovak press.
This is however a view that must be qualified. In the first place, it was less the content of articles and broadcasts that helped to persuade the Russians that the leading role of the Party was in danger than the relatively rare instances when journalists openly defied the appeals of their leaders to go easy. In general, there was remarkable self-restraint, and radio commentaries, for instance, were always carefully edited to remove things which “it is better not to say openly at present.” Much exposure journalism was done at the instigation of radicals in the Party leadership, who used press freedom for immediate political aims but were not necessarily in favor of a total absence of censorship for all time.
Secondly, forces were at play which make retrospective criticism of tactics seem a little irrelevant. The censorship dissolved as Czech journalists began to teach the people how to speak again. It is vain to say that this was unwise; this is what had to be done. But there was released a growing torrent of pent-up public frustration, whose strength and unanimity of direction perhaps nobody quite foresaw. The press did not manufacture this, and when it began to flow, the journalists tried to guide it into sensible channels rather than to pander to it. At least as much blame must attach to the political leadership, which failed to take the only possible course of restraint: to say squarely to journalists that the country was in peril of military attack. But then many of the leaders, Dubcek included, could not admit even to themselves that the situation was so grave.
The failings of leadership lead to Shawcross’s other question, to which his Dubcek does not really offer an answer. Did the Prague Spring have a chance on its own internal terms, if one puts aside the Soviet reaction? The Communist Party of Czechoslovakia undertook its experiment in socialist democracy with an enormous mortgage to the past in the form of public mistrust and its own autocratic and manipulative traditions. Could the Party, even led by “revisionists,” be trusted to create a more pluralist political system, to maintain freedom of expression, and to tolerate genuine parliamentary and perhaps electoral competition? This is the question that runs through the collection of lectures and articles by Ivan Sviták, which were composed in 1968 and 1969.
Sviták calls himself a Marxist but not a communist; between the Liberation and 1948 he was a left-wing Social Democrat. In 1968, he was one of the founders of “KAN,” the club of “engaged non-party people,” which acted as a pressure group for a pluralist parliamentary system. These pieces do not offer any coherent program; they are eloquent, emotional, and often contradictory responses to events (though Sviták omits the oddest of his advocacies, his support for the sinister figure of Rudolf Barák, once Minister of the Interior under Novotný).
But there are also very consistent elements. Sviták combines extremes of utopian aspiration with black pessimism. “Sovereignty of the people now! Let’s be realistic! Let’s want the impossible!” he writes just before the invasion. The Paris May and the Czechoslovak Spring seem to him proofs that a prerevolutionary situation exists throughout Europe which will eventually overcome “the current wave of conservatism and technocratism” in the superpowers. At the same time, he displays from the beginning a disbelief in the ability of the Party to democratize the nation. Even the Dubcek leadership is a “power elite,” and the Party’s influence remains, in the spring, still unlimited. After the invasion, Sviták’s suspicion intensifies. He proclaims the final failure of the Party, and even of the Czech experiment in communist revisionism which can never work because it neglects the power game of the superstates.
With hesitation and then with gathering conviction, he argues that Czechoslovakia should have fought the invaders: the policy of concessions was a “masterful fraud against human trust….”
In Sviták’s opinions one can trace—though he does not analyze it—the way in which the Czechoslovak experiment progressed from quantitative toward qualitative change, from reform toward revolution. At first he calls on the intellectuals to put pressure on the new leadership, then for an alliance of workers and intellectuals, and finally he proclaims that only the working class can liberate itself. In Czechoslovakia during 1968, a reform movement whose impetus came from intellectuals and the professional class gradually provoked into existence a genuine political movement of the working class itself, expressed through the workers’ councils and the independent agitation of the trades unions.
This is the fundamental movement in this episode, which neither Michel Salomon nor the anonymous Czech journalist “M” nor, in fact, William Shawcross adequately recognizes. M. Salomon’s book—he was a reporter for L’Express—is a lively and hasty summary of his own interviews and notes. It is informative, but weak on analysis (and a Freudian printer’s slip blames Jirí Hendrych, Novotný’s chief ideologist, for exterminating the Czech intelligentsia during the war. Heydrich is meant, and this is not the only garbled name: “Hausberg” for Auersperg and “Schneidarek” for Snejdarek are other examples).
M’s A Year Is Eight Months is a careful and restrained account of what took place during 1968, but suffers from having been written in 1968, too close to the events it describes—which were actually then still taking place—to make any very original or profound points.
A very much more ambitious and complete account is provided by Tad Szulc, who was New York Times correspondent in Prague until his expulsion in December, 1968. This is a long, full, factual book, which attempts to put the history of Czechoslovakia since 1945 into relevance with the tensions that developed elsewhere in Eastern Europe. It can serve as a good general account of relations between Moscow and other ruling Communist parties, especially in the first dozen years. His detailed account of the Slánský trials in Czechoslovakia, and his use of the records of earlier purges in neighboring countries to show the significance of the triple attack on “Titoists,” “Trotskyites,” and Spanish war veterans, is impressive.