The Prague Spring – when workers stood up against Stalinism

On August 21, 1968, the Prague Spring was crushed beneath the tracks of Soviet tanks. On the occasion of this anniversary we publish a translated version of an article that was written for Xekinima a few years ago.

On August 21, 1968, Russian soldiers entered Prague with the “task” of saving the country from right-wing reactionary forces and fascists who, taking advantage of the political and economic crisis in Czechoslovakia, were trying to instigate a capitalist counter-revolution. But the Russian soldiers entering Prague faced barricades with thousands of workers and students behind them, fighting for freedom.

Czechoslovakia, as part of the Eastern Bloc, was the terrain in which the Stalinist bureaucracy had falsified almost all socialist principles. If anyone takes a look at the early programmes of the Bolshevik Party, written mainly by Lenin, they can see that most of its basic points are at odds with the reality in Czechoslovakia.

One of the most crucial points of the Bolshevik programme was for free and democratic elections, in which representatives of the workers and the people (being subject to recall at any time) had the right to participate. In Czechoslovakia no elections were held and any party other than the Communist party was declared illegal.

The various party leaders and cadres lived in luxury, while the majority of the people were often deprived of even the most basic goods. There was no rotation in administrative tasks. Instead, the bureaucracy was a closed circle with permanent, established positions. On the other hand, according to the Bolshevik approach, the permanent army structure should have been abolished and a workers’ militia established under the democratic control of the masses. In contrast in Czechoslovakia, a professional army continued to exist, the police were strengthened and the secret services grew to huge proportions, turning the country into a police state.

The major sectors of the economy were nationalised but the people were not involved in its planning and control. There was no unemployment, and education and healthcare were free but the standard of living was much lower than in the West. On average, workers received wages several times lower than workers in Western countries.

Matters were further exacerbated when the bureaucracy, with its essentially dictatorial planning of production and its corruption, soon led the economy to stagnation. Growth rates began to fall steadily, reaching zero in 1963. By 1967 the number of unemployed was 300,000 and about 400,000 people who could not find work in their own country were forced to emigrate to Western countries.

Initial reactions

In 1967 the Czech Writers’ Association made the first decisive move and rose up against the censorship and intellectual restrictions imposed by the bureaucracy, demanding that works that had been declared banned by the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia (CPC) be published.

It was in this atmosphere that the potential for public criticism developed, and by the end of 1967 public opinion had become increasingly critical of the regime.

The communist paper Literární noviny offered an important platform for public criticism. For this reason, it began to face escalating sanctions from the Central Committee. The editor-in-chief was replaced, but his successor failed to control the situation. At a congress of the Czechoslovak Writers’ Union in June 1967, three editors, representatives of the Literární noviny, for the first time directly criticised the Party leadership.

The President of Czechoslovakia and General Secretary of the Communist Party, Antonín Novotny, reacted with a public statement that portrayed the congress as part of a campaign orchestrated by the West.

The CPC ordered the replacement of the newspaper’s editors and banned a number of delegates, including Pavel Kohout and Vaclav Havel, some of the key figures of the Czechoslovak Writers’ Union, from standing in the Union’s elections. The three editors were expelled from the party, while others were given strict censure. These moves, however, revealed Novotny’s difficulties in enforcing the party line, and the sanctions provoked a broad wave of reactions from journalists, artists and writers.

The students take the lead

A few months later, students followed suit and started protesting, demanding better living conditions in student residences. The students’ battle against the state bureaucracy quickly took the form of a movement and entered the central political scene.

The students chanted “We want light”, a slogan that had a double meaning. On the one hand, the reason was practical as there was no electricity in their classrooms and on the other hand, because they were demanding freedom of knowledge and information.

At a demonstration of Polytechnic students in the town of Strahov, on October 31, 1967, the police repression was brutal. Under the orders of Antonin Novotny, the demonstrators were violently dispersed. After the demonstration and repression there were rallies that ended up demanding fundamental rights guaranteed by a democratic constitution, such as the right of assembly, freedom of the press, and freedom of movement in the country.

Prague, August 21st

The students demanded that the media published their resolutions, while the government responded with countless police raids on dormitories and threats to expel the leaders of the movement from the university.

Within a short period of time, the government declared a state of emergency. The police, the army and every state mechanism were put at the disposal of the party.

Attempts to connect with the working class

At the beginning of 1968, the form that the student movement had taken up to that point began to change. Until then, students had been gathering spontaneously after every demonstration. These structures were then transformed into permanent bodies that were tasked with organising the mobilisations and planning the next steps. For the first time, the Prague students attempted to link their struggles with the working class.

After March 14, the movement fully distanced itself from the bureaucratic structures of the youth wing of the Czechoslovak CP and addressed an open letter to all workers. It also formed delegations and propaganda groups that visited the factories to call on the workers to join the struggle.

The economic situation in which the workers found themselves and the restriction of their democratic rights, which were part of their daily life, left them no room to stay out of the battle.

The whole of Czechoslovakia was in turmoil.

Tremors within the Communist Party

At the beginning of 1968, at the so-called “January Plenum” of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, the chronic tensions among its members came to the surface and led to the creation of two poles. On one side were the “conservatives” who were in favour of an immediate repression of the rebellion and on the other the “progressives” who believed that the only way to overcome the crisis and calm the people was to institute some reforms.

The battle was eventually won by the so-called “progressives”, which led, on January 5, to the replacement of General Secretary Novotny by Aleksander Dubček, a Slovakian-born graduate of the party’s Moscow school, who was appointed First Secretary.

The change in leadership also marked a change in course for the ruling party in Czechoslovakia. At the beginning, Dubček attempted to prioritise an agenda of reforms.

In February 1968, Dubček lifted censorship of the press. Immediately there was a real explosion of information appearing in the media.

On April 5, 1968, the programmatic basis for reforms was presented with an “action programme”, which set as its objectives the restructuring of the economy, the establishment of freedom of opinion and information, the rethinking of the Stalinist past and the redefinition of the CP’s role in society.

“Socialism cannot mean only liberation of the working people from the domination of exploiting class relations, but must make more provisions for a fuller life of the personality than any bourgeois democracy.”

This official party policy was in many respects superseded by a public dialogue on the reforms needed. Anti-Soviet sentiments were expressed through the press and political initiatives began to form. The party’s attempt to “lead” the reforms was no longer meaningful. The “action programme” was accepted by the people without much enthusiasm as something that was now taken for granted.

The Czechoslovak masses did not intend to stop at these mild reforms. Instead, they took their demands one step further and went on to create independent “workers’ councils” with the aim of taking the management of the economy and the factories into their own hands.

These councils would pose the greatest danger to the Soviet leaders. This was why, after the troops invaded Prague, the councils would be the first thing they tried to dismantle. But their abolition would not go unchallenged.

Reactions in the West and the Soviet Union

While all these events were taking place in Czechoslovakia, politicians and intellectuals in the West were propagating that the Czechoslovaks had risen up against communism by demanding a return to capitalism and the market economy.

On the other hand, the USSR bureaucracy, under the leadership of Brezhnev, had initially given a green light to the replacement of Novotny by Dubček, in a move to control the situation. But when it became clear that the developments were getting out of hand, they reacted.

The CP of the Soviet Union was concerned that the insurrection would spread to other countries in its zone of influence. And indeed, the danger that other countries of the “Eastern Bloc” would follow the example of Czechoslovakia was real. This would practically mean the end of their influence in a number of countries and their role as a “superpower” of the time.

Calculating these risks, they summoned Dubček to Čierna nad Tisou, a town on the Slovakian border with the USSR. The soviet bureaucrats pressured him to freeze any reform measures he had promised. But the situation had become so acute that such a move alone could not be effective and the decision was taken to invade the country.

The invasion of Prague

Already by March of 1968, representatives of the Czechoslovak government had met in Dresden with representatives of the Soviet Union, Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland and East Germany, the five countries that were to carry out the invasion, known as the “Warsaw Five”. Subsequent meetings were held without the participation of Czechoslovakia.

Soviet pressure on the Czechoslovak government to freeze reforms intensified and soon the threat of military intervention was added.

Three days before the invasion, Brezhnev informed President Johnson about his plans to invade Prague. The American president replied that the United States recognized Moscow’s jurisdiction in its zone of influence in the Eastern Bloc countries, which included Czechoslovakia. The Soviet leaders proceeded with the invasion knowing that they would meet no resistance from the West.

On August 21, 1968, the advance of the troops of the Soviet Union, Poland, Hungary and Bulgaria into Czechoslovakia began. Soviet military planes began landing at Prague airport every minute, and 200,000 soldiers and more than 2,000 tanks invaded Czechoslovakia.

Within a few hours all the strategic points of the country were occupied by Soviet troops. In the battles that ensued, approximately 100 Czechoslovaks and 50 Warsaw Pact soldiers died.

The Czechoslovakian CP decided not to put up any resistance. President Svoboda called for restraint in his radio message. In the meantime, Dubček and other members of the government were arrested and taken to Moscow.

The press published an unsigned request by leading party and government officials from Czechoslovakia for “immediate assistance, including assistance with armed forces” to deal with the “immediate danger of counter-revolution”. Although it was then denied by the official leadership of the Czechoslovak party at the 14th party congress (held a few days after the invasion), in the early 1990s the Russian government gave Czech President Havel a copy of the letter.

Reactions in Czechoslovakia and the “normalisation” of the situation

The mood of public opinion was very unfavourable in the first days after the occupation. Although no armed resistance was organised, the people tried to circumvent the occupation of the country through civil disobedience and various other actions. There were many who began to point traffic signs in the wrong direction to mislead the Russian soldiers who did not know the area. The role of Czechoslovakia’s radio was also important as a mobile broadcasting station was set up to inform the populace.

On August 23, President Svoboda was invited to Moscow for official talks. On August 26, the Moscow Protocol was finally signed. The Czechoslovak side pledged to declare the 14th CPC Congress invalid, to reinstate censorship, to remove many advocates of reforms from party and state office and not to sanction pro-Soviet supporters of the invasion. But the protocol did not set any timetable for the withdrawal of foreign troops from the city.

Subsequently, almost all reform measures were frozen. After a few weeks, the last doubts that the Prague Spring was over on August 21 were dispelled. Dubček was finally removed from the position of First Secretary of the Party and his place was taken by Huzak.

After assuming the position, Huzak began the purges within the party by striking off almost half a million members.

This situation resulted in tens of thousands of people leaving the country, mainly skilled workers but also writers, teachers and directors. 96,000 people fled to Austria alone. However, the demonstrations continued, both by students and by Czechoslovak intellectuals.

On January 16, 1969, the young student Jan Palach set himself on fire in Wenceslas Square in protest at the invasion and the situation in the country.

A historical milestone

After the defeat of the uprising and the “normalisation” of the situation, politicians and intellectuals in the West “explained” that the victory of the Czechoslovaks was impossible, but identified the problem in the fact that the democratic and humane socialism they were claiming was nothing more than a utopia.

In reality, however, the visions and orientations of the insurgents were far from unrealistic. The revolutionary workers and youth had made it clear that they took the basic benefits of a nationalised economy for granted. They were fighting for a truly democratic way of managing this common property of the people. They were not willing to accept the replacement of the capitalists by appointed party bureaucrats who only cared about their privileges without being controlled or accountable to anyone.

The Prague Spring was a major milestone in the history of the struggle against Stalinism, leaving valuable lessons for today.

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