50 years ago, USSR-backed tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia to crush the Prague Spring. But could the movement have been successful?
The Prague Spring was a movement with the potential to develop into a socialist political revolution against the Communist Party (CP) bureaucracy, possibly with far-reaching consequences. For this reason, over the last half century, the Prague Spring has been slandered by Stalinists, co-opted by liberals, and distorted by both.
It was a movement filled with contradictory tendencies and confused ideas. Now, fifty years after the invasion of Czechoslovakia by the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact in August 1968, we must look again at what really happened, why, and what we can learn from those events to help us in the fight for socialism today.
Hopes of revolutionary change were raised in Czechoslovakia and other countries after the Second World War as a result of the defeat of Nazism and the overthrow of capitalism, on the back of the advance of the Red Army. But these hopes were soon disappointed by the bureaucratic regimes established in the image of Stalinist Russia.
The revolutionary enthusiasm of the workers was never allowed to express itself in a genuine way through workers’ control and management over the new society. All power was soon concentrated in the hands of a privileged bureaucracy. After some initial successes the planned economy was soon hindered by the lack of real workers’ democracy.
After years of bureaucratic mismanagement, the early 1960s brought deep crisis for the Czechoslovak planned economy. The resulting discontent found its first expression in 1967 amongst the intellectuals and academics of the Writers’ Union, and later amongst the students.
The governing CP bureaucrats were split over how to deal with this situation. A power struggle in the dying months of 1967 led to the ousting of Antonín Novotný as First Secretary of the Party in January 1968. Alexander Dubček, the representative of the reform wing of the bureaucracy, took his place.
Dubček’s proposed economic, social, and political reforms were timid, but suggesting them was enough to set the masses into motion. The split in the bureaucracy and the proposals to reform opened the floodgates of political discussion and participation among a whole new layer in society.
Workers’ councils were set up; censorship collapsed; and resolutions from trade union and CP branches demanding workers’ democracy within the planned economy poured into Prague from all over the country. Dubček’s proposals began to take on a life of their own and the bureaucracy was rapidly losing control of the situation.
Meanwhile Moscow’s attitude went from wary suspicion to outright panic. Leonid Brezhnev, the Soviet leader, was afraid that if too many concessions were granted in Czechoslovakia this could inspire the masses in other Eastern European countries and create similar movements elsewhere, threatening the position of the bureaucracy. He also feared that this movement would destabilise the Warsaw Pact between Eastern European countries against NATO.
On the night of 20-21 August 1968, Warsaw Pact tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia. Dubček offered no resistance and instructed the masses not to resist. He was taken to Moscow, where he agreed to roll back his reforms.
By the spring of 1969 the process of ‘normalisation’ was underway. Dubček scrapped his proposed reforms and on 17 April 1969 was removed from office. He was replaced by Gustáv Husák who in 1970 purged the state and CP of around one third of all its officials, targeting anyone who had even the remotest sympathy for Dubček’s ideas. This completed the ‘normalisation’ process.
Why was the Czech economy in crisis?
Czechoslovakian society after the war was based upon a planned economy. But this wasn’t a healthy socialist planned economy. It had been established and was administered in the image of the USSR. The economy was planned in the interests of the CP bureaucracy, not the workers.
Despite this, in the 1950s the economy achieved growth rates of 6%. Through centralised planning investment was directed towards heavy industry and the under-developed region of Slovakia.
But the top-down approach to planning the economy was riddled with contradictions. The state bureaucrats were able to assert their own narrow interests over and above those of ordinary people. This meant that corruption was rampant.
Without democratic participation in economic planning, none of the state officials knew what could be produced or what was needed. Bureaucratic planning under such circumstances was impossible and caused enormous waste.
Without democratic workers’ control of the economy, society seized up and choked on the inefficiency and corruption it created. The growth rate in Czechoslovakia fell to 1% in 1962, and 0% in 1964.
As the bureaucracies throughout the Eastern Bloc crystallised after the Second World War, and the proletarian internationalism of October 1917 was swapped for the Stalinist policy of ‘Socialism in One Country’, each national bureaucratic clique began to assert its narrow national interests.
As a result, instead of developing an internationally planned economy throughout the Eastern Bloc, each national economy developed its own industry.
In Czechoslovakia, as elsewhere, this wasteful approach caused a huge imbalance in the economy, with far more investment going into heavy industry than into consumer goods. Due to the low levels of investment, those consumer goods that were being produced were of such poor quality that they couldn’t be sold on the world market. Thus, the rapid economic growth of the 1950s ground to a halt in the early 1960s.
To rectify the problem, some looked to the Yugoslav model of economic planning. There, nationalised industries competed against each other and were individually responsible for securing national and international orders for work. The idea was to give control of the economy to factory managers instead of CP officials – to swap one set of bureaucrats for another.
Such a change would have made little overall difference to the planned economy. Instead, it would have meant attacks on workers as every factory competed against all others. There would have been bankrupt factories and rising unemployment. The planned economy meant crisis for the workers, but the proposed reforms would have solved nothing.
Who was Dubček?
Dubček is sometimes presented as a progressive reformer who stood up to the Soviet bureaucracy. Some so-called Trotskyists even described Dubček as an ‘unconscious Trotskyist’ who was trying to lead a political revolution in Czechoslovakia in 1968. This is far from the truth.
The economic crisis forced the Czechoslovak leader, Novotný, to begin economic reforms in 1964. Movement towards reform in the Eastern Bloc had been progressing ever since Nikita Khrushchev’s denunciation of the personality cult around Stalin at the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1956. Reform of the economy was another step along that road.
Dubček, a career bureaucrat in the Czechoslovak CP, saw the pressure to reform as an opportunity for personal advancement. Dubček realised that Khrushchev’s de-Stalinisation campaign put Novotný in a difficult position. Novotný, following Stalin’s example, had engineered show trials, incarcerations, and executions to secure the position of the bureaucracy. Now Moscow expected Novotný to rehabilitate the very same people he had been mistreating for years.
At the 22nd Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1961, Dubček made a speech in support of Khrushchev’s reforms. Novotný, enraged, demoted him to secretary of the regional Slovak Communist Party, where he hoped Dubček’s scheming wouldn’t threaten him any longer.
But from his position as head of the Slovak Party, Dubček began stoking the flames of nationalism, fuelling Slovak grievances against the Czechs and directing the anger towards Novotný. He allowed the Slovak press to openly criticise Novotný and demand the rehabilitation of those politicians previously condemned as ‘Slovak bourgeois nationalists’.
When Novotný was forced into economic reform, Dubček deepened the split in the bureaucracy. By 1967 protests among the intellectuals and the students were picking up. Dubček leaned on this layer of society to manoeuvre against Novotný behind the scenes.
This reached a climax at a meeting of the Central Committee of the CP in October 1967, where Dubček used the student protests to openly challenge Novotný for the first time.
Dubček navigated to the top of the CP bureaucracy, basing himself an alliance of Slovak nationalists, intellectuals, and economic reformers. By January 1968 he stood at the head of the state machine.
Dubček wanted to preserve the position of the bureaucracy, preferably with himself in command of it. He calculated that economic reform was necessary if the bureaucracy was to survive. He was willing to lean on layers outside the Party bureaucracy, but only ever to further his own interests. Throughout the Prague Spring Dubček willingly worked to keep the movement within limits dictated by the needs of the Czechoslovak and Russian bureaucracies.
For example, Dubček was not in favour of workers’ democracy. But his manoeuvres against Novotný and his desire to win the support of factory managers against local Party officials meant that he supported establishing workers’ councils in each state-owned enterprise
But he worked hard to keep this demand within rigid limits. He never advocated that these councils have more than a consultative voice in the running of enterprises, and he offered them only a very limited input into the day-to-day operation of the workplaces.
In addition, having allowed intellectuals and journalists some freedom from censorship in his efforts to seize power, Dubček subsequently took measures to rein them back in. He repeatedly demanded that newspaper editors stop their criticisms of the USSR and the Czechoslovak CP. And he prepared camps to intern people accused of ‘preparing an uprising against the government’.
As the Warsaw Pact troops were invading, Dubček issued an appeal to the people not to resist. He ruled out mobilising the working class to stage a general strike to fight the invaders, and he refused to arm the working class, preferring instead to see the country occupied.
In Moscow he agreed to roll back his reforms and began the process of ‘normalisation’. He surrendered the reforms when his position and that of the Czechoslovak bureaucracy was threatened.
His commitment to reform was not one of conviction but of political expediency. Despite some liberals and even some ‘left-wingers’ trying to claim him as their own, Dubček was a creature of the Stalinist bureaucracy.
Was this a working class movement?
Despite Dubček’s efforts at keeping his reforms within strict limits, they captured the imagination of the masses.
When splits appear in any regime it provokes an eruption of political discussion. The more repressive the regime, the greater the eruption. And Czechoslovakia was one of the most repressive Stalinist states in Eastern Europe.
The impact of the 1967 split was seismic. As one taxi driver said, “nobody talks about football at my local [pub] any longer – now they only talk about politics”.
However, the cynical leadership of the movement, especially Dubček, gave the Prague Spring a confused and contradictory character. It was not a movement that took root amongst the working class in the way that the Hungarian events of 1956 had done. But the potential for the movement to develop in that direction was present.
The Prague Spring was sparked by intellectuals and students, demanding press freedom and civil liberties. These non-worker elements played a crucial role in sparking and fuelling the movement. But they also created ideological confusion.
For example, the students’ union convinced the metalworkers’ union and the teachers’ union to sign statements demanding that the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights be part of a new constitution. This sowed illusions in bourgeois institutions as protectors of working class interests. The demand should have been for the workers to rely on no-one but themselves.
The prominence of the intelligentsia meant that the workers did not participate in the struggle at first. This suited Dubček, who was so afraid of the working class that he granted considerable concessions to the intellectuals to keep the movement from spreading.
As 1968 wore on, however, the workers began to enter the arena of struggle, first with trade union demands and later with political ones.
The first strikes of 1968 were over wages and working conditions. Industrial action at power plants, glassworks, railways, plastics plants and the Ruzyne airport forced wage rises and the resignation of unpopular managers.
Soon the trade union bureaucracy, whose role had been to manage the workers’ movement for the CP bureaucracy, began to fracture. Half of all union officials were removed under pressure from below over a 12-month period, including the chairman of the trade union federation. At a trade union congress on 4 June 1968, thirty-seven unions demanded autonomy from the national federation.
The economic demands became political ones, especially after the invasion. The metalworkers’ congress, supported by the builders and the miners, threatened to strike if leading pro-reform politicians were removed from their posts during the normalisation. The printworkers refused to print newspapers that attacked the reforms. As late as March 1969, the 7th Congress of the RTUM (the trade union federation) stated its independence from the government and the occupying Warsaw Pact forces.
Throughout 1968 the question of economic reform put the issue of workers’ councils front and centre. The Czechoslovak working class, unlike the workers in some other Eastern European countries, had directly participated in the introduction of their planned economy. In 1948 the Stalinists needed to rely on armed demonstrations of workers to drive out the last remnants of the old ruling class.
Despite the subsequent rigged elections and disarming of the working class, 1948 represented, in some form, the idea of working-class control over the economy – an idea that was struggling to find expression twenty years later.
A demand to develop the workers’ councils as political organs of workers’ control over the economy and society could have been the basis for a socialist political revolution against the bureaucracy. Given the 1948 traditions and the developing consciousness of the working class in 1968, this is an idea that could have taken root amongst the workers more firmly than abstract talk of UN-backed human rights.
This demand could have had an enormous impact during and after the USSR-backed invasion. By September 1968 only 19 workers’ councils had been established, despite the idea having been raised in April. This was because Dubček had promoted the councils as nothing but a mild reform to create the illusion of participation without giving away control.
But the invasion politicised the issue of the councils, as people saw them as central to the reform programme that had provoked the invasion. As a result, between October and December, 260 more councils were created throughout the country, despite Dubček’s announcement on 24 October that the government no longer supported the idea. The workers’ council at the Slovnaft Bratislava factory even announced publicly that it had been established after the invasion as a political act as much as an economic one.
Unfortunately, however, the idea of linking the workers’ councils with a demand for working-class control of the economy and society was not clearly and consciously expressed by anyone in Czechoslovakia at the time. Ideas about the role of the councils remained confused, and they failed to bring the mass of the working class onto the stage of history.
The workers’ councils were very popular – only 4% of Czechs surveyed in June and July 1968 were opposed to them. But the majority of those surveyed saw the role of these councils as participatory, without any real control over their enterprise, and certainly not as an alternative political structure to the CP bureaucracy.
In addition, although the councils had a mass character – in the sense that over one million people participated in their elections, with an average turnout of 82%, – there was very low participation in the poor and underdeveloped region of Slovakia. Even where there was high participation, the councils tended to be composed of skilled workers – technicians and engineers – rather than the manual workers who made up the bulk of the working class.
For example, a workers’ council elected at the Fruta Canning Factory in September 1968 had seventeen members: seven technicians, five economists, and just five manual workers. While there were exceptions to this – such as the council at the frontier mine in Svatava whose majority was of manual workers – the overall trend is that 53% of those surveyed said they wouldn’t serve on a council, and those with no higher education were the most likely to refuse.
Given time, it is possible that the movement around workers’ councils would have developed in a revolutionary direction. Certainly this potential existed, but a Marxist leadership to give it conscious expression was not present.
What role did the national question play?
Ever since the formation of Czechoslovakia after the First World War there had been tension between Slovaks and Czechs. The state apparatus was dominated by the Czech ruling class while Slovakia remained economically underdeveloped.
After the Second World War Stalin’s chauvinist approach to the national oppression of dominated countries made the Slovak situation worse. The top-down centralisation of power meant that in 1948 the Slovak Communist Party was submerged into the Czech Party. And in the 1950s several Slovak Party officials were tried, imprisoned and executed on charges of ‘Slovak bourgeois nationalism’.
During the 1950s Slovak industry grew from 13% to 20% of the total industry in Czechoslovakia. While the economy was growing the national question remained in the background. But the economic crisis of the early sixties hit Slovakia hard; the national question reared its head, and Dubček (a Slovak) seized the opportunity to use it for his own advancement.
The Slovak bureaucrats adopted nationalist rhetoric as a method of deflecting anger away from themselves and towards those in Prague. This was also a lever for their own advancement, especially when combined with the arguments for economic reform through which they hoped to secure more investment in Slovak industry.
Partly thanks to his manipulation of the Slovak national question, Dubček was able to seize power in January 1968. He promptly began using similar methods to strengthen the hand of the Czechoslovak bureaucracy against the Russians.
This was nothing new. Stalin’s policy of ‘Socialism in One Country’ opened the possibility of an independent ‘road to socialism’ for each nation state within the Eastern Bloc. That national antagonisms could arise under a planned economy, fuelled by different national groups of bureaucrats fighting over the loot, shows just how far the Leninist idea of proletarian internationalism had degenerated under Stalin.
By 1968, Yugoslavia, China, Albania, Romania, and Poland had all asserted their independence from Moscow. Russia played an important role in establishing the planned economy in these countries, but leaders like Tito of Yugoslavia could act independently of Moscow by resting on a national workers’ movement that mobilised independently of the Red Army as it advanced through Europe at the end of the war. Dubček was also able to use past (1948) and present (1968) working-class mobilisations as a counterweight to the Moscow bureaucracy.
Dubček gave warm welcomes to Tito of Yugoslavia and Ceausescu of Romania, placing himself in their tradition of an ‘independent road to socialism’. He also gave tacit support to the Biafran secessionists in the Nigerian Civil War which was raging at the time. While the USSR was supporting the Lagos government with arms shipments, the Czech media supported the Biafrans and repeatedly defended the right of Biafra, a small and oppressed nation, to self-determination and independence.
One article that appeared in 1968 in one of the theoretical journals of the Czech Communist Party illustrated this growing trend of thought. The author linked the questions of Slovak oppression and the oppression of Czechoslovakia by Russia. He wrote:
“The Soviet type of Federation was founded with the Russian people dominating and with the interests of the RSFSR put first; moreover the decision on federation came from the top and not from the grassroots. Blind imitation of the Soviet model in Czechoslovakia theoretically appeared to justify the domination of the Czech nation within the framework of an integrated Czechoslovakian state.”
Dubček was able to stir up and manipulate nationalist sentiments thanks to Stalinist chauvinism, but he couldn’t resolve the national problem. To do so would have required a political revolution to sweep aside the bureaucracy. Dubček, an apparatchik of the bureaucracy, was organically incapable of leading such a revolution.
Without a Marxist force in Czechoslovak society capable of resolving the national question, it was open to being cynically manipulated. Dubček used the Slovak question to come to power, but during 1968 the Slovak bureaucrats turned against his reform programme and the entirety of the Prague Spring which was threatening their position and failing to deliver economic growth to Slovakia.
It was not by coincidence that the Slovak Party Congress at the end of August 1968 was used by Husák – who would become Dubček’s successor – as the first platform from which to attack the reform programme and demand ‘normalisation’. These Slovak bureaucrats were able to diffuse the movement in Slovakia by claiming that, since Slovaks were now in charge in Prague, things would improve without the need for a more fundamental change.
Why did the USSR decide to invade?
In 1956 a mass movement and a general strike developed in Poland, but the USSR did not invade. They allowed Władysław Gomułka to control the situation by diverting the movement into safe channels that would preserve the CP bureaucracy, albeit with more independence from Moscow.
They did, however, invade Hungary later that same year, drowning in blood the revolutionary attempt of the Hungarian workers to take control of their country and their economy.
The Hungarian revolution of 1956 had escalated into a fully-fledged proletarian political revolution, threatening the very foundations of the power of the bureaucracy in Moscow. Fears that the Czechoslovak movement 12 year later could similarly spiral out of control inevitably led to the decision to invade Czechoslovakia also.
Furthermore, the USSR had suffered several setbacks between 1956 and 1968. Relations with Yugoslavia had deteriorated once again, and numerous splits from Moscow along national lines had taken place, including the Polish experience.
In January 1968 the pro-Moscow wing of the Cuban Communist Party had been purged, and only 67 Communist Parties attended the 1968 international conference in Budapest, compared to 81 eight years earlier.
Moscow’s authority was in decline, and the Prague Spring threatened to strike another blow against the prestige of the bureaucracy.
After the invasion, the press group of Soviet journalists, a mouthpiece for the Kremlin, issued a pamphlet which stated that:
“Propaganda about so-called democratic socialism, the persistent use of nationalist sentiments to substantiate the need for a specific Czechoslovak ‘model of socialism’ was employed as one of the most important ideological arguments by the antisocialist reactionary forces in Czechoslovakia.”
Clearly an important factor in the calculations of Brezhnev, the Soviet leader, was the need to stem the tide of national splits away from the Soviet Union.
Czechoslovakia was particularly important from this point of view because it was a key member of the Warsaw Pact bordering the West. Dubček’s attitude to the Nigerian Civil War, for example, unnerved Brezhnev because it suggested that Czechoslovakia might develop an independent foreign policy which would undermine the Pact.
It was not only Brezhnev who was thinking about Czechoslovakia in this way. The 19th Century German chancellor Bismarck said that “he who controls Bohemia holds the key to Europe in his hands”, and this was on the minds of the US ruling class as the Prague Spring developed. The Wall Street Journal wrote:
“Logically, Europe is in the centre of interest of the United States abroad, and, if steps were actually taken there aimed at Eastern European self-determination this would be a prize for Washington and a blow for Moscow. This could change the balance of forces in Europe.”
The Russian bureaucracy couldn’t lose ground to the USA in the Cold War and therefore needed Czechoslovakia from a military and defensive point of view. Politically these bureaucrats were bankrupt, with little ability to appeal to the masses. So the only way Brezhnev could preserve the stability of the Warsaw Pact was through military intervention to crush the Prague Spring.
Above all, the bureaucrats throughout the Eastern Bloc were afraid of their own working class. A mass movement in Czechoslovakia tending towards socialist political revolution threatened to ignite similar movements everywhere. This would have been an existential threat to every national bureaucracy.
It was Dubček’s inability to control the movement that caused the Soviet Union bureaucrats to panic and order the invasion. At three separate meetings throughout 1968 – at Dresden in March, at Warsaw in July, and at Bratislava in early August – the USSR representatives insisted that Dubček get the movement under control. But despite his best efforts, he was unable to put the genie back in the bottle.
For example, in the spring of 1968 Dubček promised that pro-USSR hard-line agents would be nominated for and win positions as delegates to the Party congress scheduled for September, and that the more radical reforming elements would not. But by July it was clear that Dubček couldn’t deliver on this promise. The hard-liners had been nominated, but so had the radical reformers, along with 735 other names for just over 100 positions, meaning that the election of the hardliners was far from guaranteed.
Dubček couldn’t control the Prague Spring because he based himself on several different splits in society. He used the liberal-minded intelligentsia against the more backward layers of the working class; the Slovak bureaucrats against the Czech bureaucrats; and the factory managers against the local Party officials.
Into each of these splits poured ordinary people who wanted to discuss and participate in politics. Censorship, previously maintained by the oppressive weight of a united CP, broke down and the press became a vehicle through which to rally people to ‘subversive’ ideas. Dubček’s political base had turned into a seething mass of people, including workers who were rapidly gaining class consciousness.
Even the invading power didn’t realise just how far the movement had developed. They dragged Dubček to Moscow while casting around for new figures to lead a ‘normalising’ administration. But so great was the enthusiasm for Dubček’s reforms that Brezhnev had no choice but to force Dubček into a deal and return him to Czechoslovakia to control the movement, now with Warsaw Pact tanks at his back. The USSR bureaucrats weren’t strong enough to impose their will by themselves, they had to rely on Dubček.
In typical Stalinist fashion, the pro-Moscow hard-liners published all sorts of lies about the invasion. They claimed that the tanks had been invited in by Czechoslovak CP members, something to which no-one has ever admitted. The alleged discovery of a West German arms dump in Czechoslovakia, described as part of a plot for an uprising against the government, was announced in East Germany before it was announced in Czechoslovakia. And a letter published in Russia, claiming to be from workers at a Czechoslovak factory begging the Russians to invade, was declared by those same workers to be a forgery.
That these lies had no basis in fact was proved by the fact that the movement which started in the spring continued even after the invasion, although it was a rear-guard action after August. It took many months before Dubček was able to rein in the movement.
Dubček returned from Moscow and immediately declared the decision of an Extraordinary Congress of the Czechoslovak Communist Party on 22 August (the day after the invasion) – to continue the reform programme – to be null and void. On 24 October Dubček declared the ‘limited experiment’ of workers’ councils to be at an end. In March 1969, demonstrations to celebrate Czechoslovakia’s ice hockey victory over the USSR were brutally repressed, and on 17 April 1969 Dubček was replaced by Gustáv Husák.
Under Husák, at a meeting in September 1969, the Central Committee (CC) of the Czechoslovak Party legalised the occupation and overturned all previous reforming decisions of that exact same CC made just a few months earlier. On 11 November 1969 the workers’ council at the massive Skoda Plzen plant voted to dissolve itself, and by July the following year workers’ councils had been banned outright. Throughout 1970 Husák purged 500,000 people from the CP, either through expulsions or disillusion.
With a Marxist leadership of the Prague Spring, the USSR-backed invasion could have been fought with revolutionary methods. The working class could have been armed, and propaganda aimed at winning the invading soldiers over to the side of the workers could have been distributed.
Such methods had repelled the first invasion of Hungary by the Red Army in 1956. But Dubček had no intention of taking such steps. He instructed people not to resist the invading tanks and promoted nationalistic slogans like ‘Go Home Ivan!’, which alienated the Warsaw Pact troops from the Czechoslovak workers, instead of helping fraternisation of the invading troops with the mobilised population.
What can we learn from the Prague Spring?
Marxism is the memory of the working class, and there are many lessons to be learned from the events of the Prague Spring.
This episode teaches us that the fight for socialism must be a fight for democratic workers’ control of the economy and society, with the economy planned for the needs of workers, not bureaucrats.
This, in turn, means that the working class can rely only on its own strength to secure a socialist society. We can’t have any faith in manoeuvring bureaucrats, liberal intellectuals, or narrow-minded nationalists. Without a movement of the working class fighting for its own interests, the fight for socialism won’t be successful.
Above all, the Prague Spring shows the need for a Marxist leadership for this working class movement, made up of people who have learned the lessons from working class history.
All the ingredients were present for a socialist political revolution to develop in Czechoslovakia 50 years ago, but there was no-one consciously working for such a revolution.
Had there been an organised Marxist presence in Czechoslovakia in 1968, the history of that country, of the entire Eastern Bloc, and of the world, might be very different. Building that organised Marxist force in every country around the world is as important a task today as it was 50 years ago.