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Getting Along in Czechoslovakia

In December 1977 and January 1978, Frantisek Pitor and Alena Klímová were on trial in Pilsen for tape-recording the text of Charter 1977 from a foreign broadcast and then making and distributing copies of it. The judge explained to the accused that under present conditions in Czechoslovakia, no person has cause for fear. The accused were obviously somewhat dense people, unable to grasp simple points, and to ensure that this idea penetrated their consciousness, and to give them time to meditate about it, the judge awarded Pitor a sentence of three years and his young female assistant one.

These are after all mild sentences: time passes quickly, and Pitor had already been given ten years under the pre-1968 regime (a. sentence terminated by an amnesty), so that he is used to it, as you might say, and three years will seem as nothing; he will also be able to reflect on how this much milder sentence indicates a softening and liberalization.

After all, as a recidivist Pitor might have expected something worse. That he used an army copying machine to disseminate an “anti-state incitement” suggested a bland Schweik-like impertinence; he was asking for it. The report of the case does not even suggest that two further assistants, who handled the machine, were ever prosecuted.

Before we laugh at the judge, we should note that what he said to the accused has an element of truth. Contemporary Czechoslovakia is not a country of fear and trembling. In the 1950s, the following joke circulated: in what way does the Czechoslovak republic resemble a Prague tram? Answer: some sit (sedí, which means both “sitting” and “being in jail”), while others stand and tremble. In the 1950s, Prague trams had not changed since pre-Munich days. They were rickety and it was indeed impossible to stand in them when they were in motion without shaking all over. This is no longer true. The rolling stock of the Prague tram lines has been renewed and it is now perfectly possible to stand in them and shake only occasionally. As for those who are ready to sit, for political reasons, critics of the regime point to the 1,000 names signed to Charter 77 but not to many more.

If one separates liberal from authoritarian societies by whether social order is maintained by the threat of force or by more subtle and devious means with force remaining discreetly in the background and emerging only as an occasional last resort, then contemporary Czechoslovakia is a liberal society, and Pitor’s judge, was right. (I know that one can think of more stringent or more refined criteria.) Conformity with the present social order is, at most times and for most citizens, ensured by subtler and more devious means.

There is perhaps a small minority who wholeheartedly believe in the present system (though it is difficult to find them), and there is another minority, perhaps smaller, which is wholeheartedly committed to defying and denouncing it. But neither represents the normal human condition in a social situation that may, alas, turn out to be the model of one of the options available to industrial society. Most citizens are to be found along a gray spectrum in the middle, neither fully endorsing the system nor, things being what they are, firmly repudiating it, but granting it a kind of quasi legitimacy, or should one say quasi illegitimacy? They make a compromise with reality, lest worse befall. How is this compliance secured?

In most cases, not by terror, although some people are harassed and jailed. The typical citizen who refrains from protest or dissent on any given occasion, or from solidarity with those who do openly dissent, does not do so because he anticipates that otherwise, early next morning, he would be departing for a labor camp. He refrains because he has a talented child whose application to a special school or university is pending; because he has a gentleman’s agreement with his superior at his office that he can get on with serious, nondoctrinaire work, on the understanding that he will not rock the boat publicly, and to break such an understanding would be uncivil, ungracious, and endanger others who are also similarly covered by an understanding boss; because he enjoys diverse privileges which he does not wish to put at risk; because…etc.

He is encouraged in such compromise and conformity by a variety of reflections: for one thing, practically everyone else is doing just the same. A single refusal will change nothing, and the penalty incurred will be pointless. At the same time, the system is neither monolithic nor rigid. Patronage networks, protekce, corruption if you like, are rife and pervasive, but there are many countervailing networks, and if your path is blocked one way there is generally some other way; dispensers of favors have to weigh the often imponderable, not to say unpredictable, forces of diverse pressures, and to protect themselves, for who knows what way things will go? If there is no one pure, there is also perhaps no one altogether dirty, without some saving grace which could be invoked if the Day of Judgment should turn out to be run under liberal auspices. Just as everyone has someone to the right of him who is dirtier and more compromised, so everyone also has some person to the left of him who is more in peril and to whom he has shown some kindness or given some support. (This can in current idiom be described as mít svýho Ceskýho Zida, to have one’s Czech Jew, someone more precarious than oneself whom one has sheltered a bit.)

Some cling to the idea that they are at least negatively pure, that they have never taken part in doing someone down. Such purity is perhaps possible, though it can hardly be given to anyone to claim that they have never remained silent while someone was being done down. Awareness of this leads even those who would wish not to be soiled to observe that they are no longer inclined to judge others and cast moral stones. This universal part-complicity, whatever the inner reservations, a complicity which the system ensures, and which in its way it also makes sensible by its own restraint and relative mildness, is a crucial part of this style of social control. Life is compromise. It is not given to us to live and remain pure. Living under a moderate socialist dictatorship is just like the human condition, only a bit more so.

The prevailing image of the police is one of stupidity rather than of brutality. There is a vogue of policeman jokes. (Example: Czechoslovakia is sending out its first manned space probe. The crew consists of a monkey and a policeman. They are sent out under sealed orders. In space, they open their instructions. The monkey’s orders read—at 0615 hours, press red button; at 0730 hours, focus camera; at 0815, move lever to left by exactly 45 degrees; etc. The policeman’s orders read: three times a day feed monkey, but otherwise under no circumstances touch anything.)

Social control works by a kind of persuasion. An ideologically erring intellectual may be visited by a very senior official who will open the conversation with a humble request that they may mutually tutoyer each other, and then spend hours amiably persuading him to be more sensible. Who would be so churlish as not to respond, at least a bit, just to show good will? Why undermine a superior who, after all, is also doing his best in difficult times? The compromise will earn him the contempt of some who are more-liberal-than-thou…. But once this harm is done, no more is at risk, in this direction, on the next occasion. C’est le premier pas qui coute. But the first step was justified as realism, which after all is a virtue of a kind, and of saving what could be saved.

And if there is a humiliating stick hidden somewhere in this bag of sanctions it is so obscured by a bunch of carrots that people may feel it more shaming to be bought off by them than to be afraid of the stick. Some may be seduced by crudely material things, but they are perhaps the eager rather than the reluctant participants, the least admirable or formidable. In an advanced industrial society which at the same time is relatively egalitarian, such crude inducements are perhaps least significant, and seduce only those least worth seducing. The most genuinely seductive privilege is probably access to education. (If in the West, de Maistre’s executioner has been replaced by the washing machine as the base of social order, so in this society he has been replaced by the educational entrance procedure, which from a humane viewpoint is also a gain, even if not quite so great a gain as the use of consumer goods.)

The present trend is toward a de facto school-leaving age of eighteen (with only a small minority leaving earlier for unskilled employment), with the large majority continuing their training in diverse fields, often technical and practical, but all ending with a nominally identical secondary school final examination. In a system in which there are highly diversified schools after fourteen (and in some measure, before that), access to education is, together with access to patronage networks, the most important resource—and the one depends on the other.

It is this resource above all which the system manipulates to ensure compliance. Children are the state’s hostages. This is not covert: official instructions for student assessment require that four or five criteria be taken into consideration, and scholastic aptitude is but one. The others include, in effect, civic virtue and family background…. The complexity and nebulousness of these criteria make their operation hard to check, and may help to make them work in all kinds of ways.

But this central monopoly of the crucial asset, education, also does not operate in any very total way, for a number of reasons. One is the variety of pressure groups: a headmaster may have to listen to pressures from more than one ministry or other influential agency. The system is not rigid, insensitive, or totally bloody-minded: when a dissident tract cited a list of school applicants who had been unfairly treated, the iniquities were remedied. (Similarly, it is not wholly unresponsive to protests from abroad.) Technical competence and qualification cannot be ignored altogether, in a technically sophisticated society within which efficiency is understood and cannot be wholly disregarded. This is perhaps the central contradiction of this kind of society: the conflict between a nebulous, partly unintelligible ideology which no one greatly respects, and the requirements of technical competence and efficient organization. The covert pluralism and corruption presumably have the valuable function of softening and deflecting what would otherwise be a head-on collision between these two.

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