1968 and the Prague Spring

August 5, 2008

Alan Maass tells the story of Czechoslovakia's revolt against the tyranny of the Stalinist system.

FOR DECADES after the Second World War, the Cold War between the U.S. and the USSR loomed as the central fact of world politics--an international conflict between apparently polar opposite systems: The Western capitalist "democracies" on the one hand, and the bureaucratic tyrannies of the USSR and its satellite regimes in Eastern Europe on the other.

Yet like so many other certainties, the revolutionary year of 1968 shattered this image.

In August 1968, as antiwar protesters at the Democratic Party Convention in Chicago were brutalized by the forces of the state, television screens were filled with images of another occupying army--Russian tanks on the streets of Prague in Czechoslovakia.

In that moment, the connection of the struggle--East and West, North and South--for a different world, free from state repression, oppression and exploitation, was felt by millions.

CZECHOSLOVAKIA (WHICH today is two separate nations, the Czech Republic and Slovakia) became part of the supposedly socialist Eastern Bloc after the Second World War, as part of the postwar division of the world between the victorious U.S. and USSR.

Even after the invasion of Czechoslovakia, students and youth remained in the streets to argue with soldiers
Even after the invasion of Czechoslovakia, students and youth remained in the streets to argue with soldiers

Workers didn't for a moment take part in the establishment of the new "workers' state," in Czechoslovakia or any other Eastern European country. The new regime was built on the model of the bureaucratized state-run system that had arisen in Russia after Joseph Stalin came to power on the ruins of the 1917 revolution.

As in the USSR, the Czechoslovakian Communist Party became head of the state machine and state-run enterprises. And the USSR itself had the power--militarily, politically and economically--to call the shots in its Eastern European satellites.

For two decades after the war, Czechoslovakia was the most stable of the Stalinist regimes, mainly because its relatively advanced economy allowed it to achieve steady growth under the new state-directed system, not only for the elites but for ordinary workers. This changed in the early and mid-1960s as the new system reached its limits. The regular economic expansion came to a halt, and that crisis was the lightning rod for pent-up grievances.

As in other Eastern European regimes, the crisis initially expressed itself in a struggle within the ruling elite--inside the Communist Party, among the bureaucrats who presided over the state-run system.

At the start of 1968, a group of party officials calling for changes to reinvigorate the economy--and for a loosening of the police state to serve as an incentive to accomplish those changes--ousted the hard-liner Antonin Novotny as party secretary. His replacement was Alexander Dubcek, previously an undeviating fixture of the apparatus.

Like most ousted figures from an old order, Novotny didn't go quietly. He and his supporters in the bureaucracy and the military tried to appeal over the heads of their rivals, holding meetings at factories to try to build up worker support. Faced with this threat, Dubcek and the bureaucrats from the reform wing had to counter the hard-liners. They went further in loosening political and press restrictions to encourage criticism of the old order.

But soon, the lid was off Czechoslovakian society in a way that neither wing of the bureaucracy had envisioned.

The old methods of assuring party control over the press broke down--state censors at the central publications office in Prague published a resolution saying they wanted to resign. Journalists began to report on the world honestly. Members of the government, old and new, had to answer for their record in interviews.

One favorite radio program was called "Songs by Telephone." An announcer would call bureaucrats accused of crimes under the Novotny regime and demand that they justify what they had done--when they couldn't, a song chosen to ridicule them was played.

The image of the grey, monolithic society of Eastern Europe was shattered. Circulation of newspapers and magazines grew rapidly, limited only by paper supplies and the capacity of printing presses. Intellectuals openly debated questions of politics and society, and political and cultural groups arose outside the sanction of the party, holding meetings to discuss the issues of the day and the revelations about the country's past.

The new openness in the press spread to the working class. Factory workers began to demand the firing of discredited officials and the introduction of workplace democracy. By June, a wave of spontaneous strikes broke out, and instead of repressing them, as in the past, the bureaucrats hesitated, further emboldening workers.

The new confidence to dissent and struggle was called the Prague Spring, not only because of the time of year it began, but because it represented a flowering of political and cultural expression after long years of iron authority wielded by party leaders.

Czechoslovakia was experiencing an elemental rule of politics--any regime that sets out to reform itself faces a greater danger than before because it unleashes forces it can't control in the old ways.

The Dubcek wing of the bureaucracy faced a dilemma. The loosening of repression was necessary to its program for reinvigorating the economy, but dissent couldn't be allowed to go "too far." Thus, Dubcek announced that Czechoslovakia would construct "socialism with a human face"--but he regularly pleaded with editors and journalists to exercise "responsibility."

When the strikes began in the summer, Dubcek denounced them. "Democracy for Czechoslovakia," he wrote, "means realizing that some words and appeals for strikes or strikes themselves could lead to anarchy and disruption." But the floodgates had been opened, and Dubcek was powerless to stop the tide.

FOR RUSSIA, the example of the Prague Spring represented a threat to its Eastern European empire. The Moscow government issued an ultimatum, threatening intervention if "counterrevolutionary" forces weren't dealt with.

Dubcek was unable to comply, and so, on the night of August 20, Russian-led forces invaded Czechoslovakia to put down the Prague Spring. Dubcek and other government ministers were taken to Moscow as prisoners. As resistance to the invasion developed, around 100 Czech civilians were killed.

Images of the Russian invasion were broadcast around the world, revealing the truth about so-called "socialism" in the East, but also showing the connections of repression and rebellion, East and West. In Chicago, when antiwar protesters faced Mayor Daley's goons outside the Democratic convention, they carried signs reading "Welcome to Czechago."

As Chris Harman, author of Class Struggles in Eastern Europe, wrote, "August 1968 was to go down in history as the month in which the leaders of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union showed they would not tolerate experiments at 'communism with a human face,' and the leaders of the Democratic Party of the United States showed they would not tolerate experiments with democracy."

Dubcek and the other Czechoslovakian leaders returned from Moscow after having agreed--following "free and comradely discussions"--to reintroduce censorship and dissolve the unofficial organizations. Russian troops would remain in Czechoslovakia until "normalization."

But the popular movement was not so easily put down.

Even with Russian tanks taking over the streets of Prague, radio and television continued broadcasting illegally for a week, rallying resistance. Two days after the invasion, a secret party congress was held in a Prague factory under the occupiers' noses. Young people remained in the streets with placards and Czechoslovakian flags, arguing with the invading soldiers. A popular campaign developed to change street names, take down house numbers and remove road signs, hampering the occupiers.

By the end of October, mass spontaneous protests erupted against the occupation. Students organized a three-day strike in November. Workers continued to elect their own councils in the factories, and the main engineering union threatened a general strike after one of the most outspoken of the reform-oriented party leaders, Josef Smrkovsky, was forced out (typically, Smrkovsky himself asked the union not to take action).

In January 1969, a student, Jan Palach, set himself on fire to protest the Communist Party's abandonment of reforms, and tens of thousands of people came into the streets in an outpouring of solidarity.

The Russian-led forces and their allies in the bureaucracy seemed nearly powerless against this opposition.

Nevertheless, while the campaigns of non-cooperation hindered the Russian occupiers, it didn't drive them out of Czechoslovakia. Mass opposition prevented the bureaucracy from moving as quickly as it hoped to re-impose control, but it didn't displace the party leadership.

Despite their size and energy, the protests remained limited to supporting the shrinking ranks of the reform-oriented bureaucracy. No independent force arose among workers or students to pose a different alternative--defend the gains of the Prague Spring, propose further changes, and organize against any force, domestic or foreign, that threatened the struggle.

In those circumstances, it was a matter of time before "normalization" did take place. Dubcek was replaced in April 1969 by a hardliner, Gustav Husak, and on the anniversary of the Russian invasion in August, Czechoslovakian police were able to crush the protests without help from the occupying forces.

Nevertheless, the explosion of discontent in Czechoslovakia marked another in a succession of rebellions that set the stage for the toppling of the Stalinist system in 1989. And by showing that the struggle for freedom and democracy spanned the Iron Curtain, the Prague Spring wrote a critical chapter in the revolutionary year of 1968.

Further Reading

From the archives