Hal Draper


The Russian Invasion of Czechoslavakia

KPFA Commentary – August 22, 1968

The invasion of Czechoslovakia by Russia and its Communist alliance is the kind of landmark event that cuts right through all world politics; and as it does so, it shows up what everybody’s politics is made of. The repercussions have only started. This is only two or three days afterward, and we haven’t seen anything yet.

The first need is very simple: we need maximum manifestations of solidarity and support for the Czechoslovak people, against their foreign oppressors from. Moscow and Warsaw and East Berlin and the rest. The support that means something is not the scandalized outcries from the people in Washington who are busy doing more or less the same thing in Vietnam that the Russian allies are doing in Prague. We need, rather, support to Czechoslovak freedom by those Americans who have been fighting the dirty war in Vietnam right along, who have condemned American imperialism, and have been fighting for the withdrawal of American troops from that part of the world. Naturally, hawks like Johnson and Humphrey and Nixon and the rest of that crew are going to issue statements deploring, hand on heart, what the Russian hawks are doing in Prague; just as, naturally, the same Russians whose tanks are rolling over Czechoslovaks have been able to denounce the American interventionists in Vietnam. That much is standard operating procedure – the old pot-and-kettle act.

But it is different with those of you who have been fighting against the evil policy of Washington in Asia. We have a special duty to make our protest heard; and also, there is a special meaning for those who fail to do so. World protest is just getting underway, after the shock, and silence on this international crime is just as significant as silence on the American crime in Vietnam.

Yesterday we of the Independent Socialist Clubs initiated a hasty protest meeting on the Berkeley campus – only the first, I trust – open to all wishing to protest on a rock-bottom basis: support to the Czech people against the invasion by the anti-Vietnam War left. (We also invited the local Communist Party branch, but I must report they didn’t show up.)

As I said, the repercussions are only starting. American politics being what it is, the most prominent repercussions are about how the invasion is a blow against the peace movement. The newspaper and TV reports are filled with that kind of talk by so-called doves. All I can say is: which peace movement? Whose peace movement is being hurt? Not mine! Wednesday, James Reston explained in the N.Y. Times that the McCarthy and McGovern doves had suffered a setback because (he said) they had based their argument for a new policy in Vietnam on the idea that the Russian leaders were becoming more “reasonable”; and this argument was now being knocked on the head in Czechoslovakia. This is a splendid example of how the knife that cuts through all politics shows up what the politics of the doves amounts to, what a rickety basis it is on. What may have received a blow is the “negotiated deal” approach for Vietnam: that is, we agree to leave their backyard alone, they leave our backyard alone, and peaceful spheres of domination are left for everyone; that is, a peaceful accommodation of rival imperialisms. That approach may now be hurt; and a discreditable one it is, to begin with. But that approach has not been that of the radical left which has been fighting for the withdrawal of American power from Vietnam. We did not look to the reasonableness of the Russians. We said that the U.S. had to get out because it had no right to be there in the first place.

And this stand of the antiwar movement has not been touched. This stand can be hurt only by one thing: if anyone who claimed to be a principled opponent of imperialist intervention now keeps silent about the crime of intervention when it is perpetrated by the Russians and their allies, and fails to stand up for self-determination and the freedom of a small people when it is a question of Russian tanks in Prague rather than American napalm in Vietnam.

We now read, for example, that Hanoi has come out in support of the Moscow axis crushing Czechoslovakia. Doesn’t this throw a brilliant light on the pattern in Vietnam? Anyone who thought that the way to display his opposition to American intervention in Vietnam was to wave the colors of the Hanoi regime – such a person will now have to do some sudden thinking. But we Independent Socialists have had no illusions about Uncle Ho Chi Minh, and we have no rethinking to do on this. More people will now learn that in order to be principled enemies of American imperialist intervention, you don’t have to be an apologist for Communist oppression.

There will be other repercussions on the peace movement. This event, which cuts through all politics, will separate the sheep from the goats in many ways. Perhaps you know of the discussion, for example, that took place at the recent convention of the Peace and Freedom Party held in Richmond – on the demonstrations of the Polish students which were taking place at that moment. The convention adopted a resolution of support to the free-speech movement of the Polish students, but only over the virulent opposition of a minority who objected to any criticism of what they called, in their slang, the “socialist” countries. The Peace and Freedom Convention also wrote into its program a statement in passing of opposition to “Communist imperialism” as well as capitalist imperialism: against similar objections. I wonder if now these people would try to argue – as the Communists argued when Hungary was crushed by Russian tanks in 1956 – that the invasion of Czechoslovakia is justified in order to stop some mythical fascist-CIA takeover in Prague; or whether they would echo the Moscow lies about how they were invited into Prague by anonymous Czech leaders – so anonymous that now, two days or so afterward, the invaders have not yet been able to find a Czech leader to put up even as a figurehead in a quisling regime.

The repercussions, as expected, have already reached even the Communist Parties of the West. The leaderships of the French and Italian parties, the biggest in the West, have already condemned the invasion; there are reports that this is true also of the British and others. We must note that the leadership of the American Communist Party (or of what is left of this sad outfit) has, on the contrary, come out with a statement which must be interpreted as mealy-mouthed support for the Russians, though it was obviously engineered to give a more neutral impression. But what will individual Communist Party members have to say about this?

Even if you take the statements of condemnation issued by the French and Italian political bureaus: that hardly ends the question for them, or for the would-be revolutionary workers who make up part of the ranks of those parties. Is it just a matter of absolving one’s conscience with a formal protest? Can they stay in the same movement with the people who are driving the tanks over the Czechoslovak people? Can they discuss as comrades the rights and wrongs of this crime, as if it were a question of this or that party line? Many are bound to answer this No, that they cannot remain comrades with the tank-drivers. Whether there will be big splits in those Communist Parties is more than I can say without a crystal ball; but surely this will test to what extent the ranks of those parties are corrupted, rather than merely under illusions.

The same applies, in its own way, to those radicals outside the Communist Party who, in their disgust with the sins of capitalist imperialism, have become apologists for Maoism or Castroism. At this moment, neither Peking nor Havana has spoken up. In the case of the Mao regime, it doesn’t matter much what they decide to say now, because the fact is that it is the Maoists who have been denouncing Moscow for permitting the so-called revisionists in Czechoslovakia and elsewhere to go on up to now; it is they who have been calling for the iron fist. Castro, it would seem, has a freer hand at least to make a formal statement of dissociation from the crime in Czechoslovakia, if not something stronger; but it is still to be seen whether even that will be done.

Finally, and perhaps most important, there are bound to be repercussions in Eastern Europe itself. That this is certain is proved, as a matter of fact, by the very fact that the Russians felt they had to invade Czechoslovakia in the first place – in spite of the obvious high costs of doing so. Obviously the fire behind them was hotter than the fire in front of them!

What was the fire behind them that pushed them to this desperate step? To discuss this adequately, I would have to get into an analysis of what has been happening in Czechoslovakia, and I cannot do this right now – you can read it elsewhere. But I think the central point is more than clear. Essentially, the Dubcek regime in Czechoslovakia has been trying to do there what Gomulka had to do in Poland in 1956 and after, when a wave of revolt opened all Poland up to movements from below looking to real socialist democracy (and not mere “liberalization”). The Gomulka pattern in Poland was to roll back the situation – slowly and very gradually, step by step, and with utmost caution, by cutting down the left opposition slice by slice, until the cracked shell of totalitarianism had been actually restored in the course of time – to the point where this same Gomulka is now participating in this crushing of Czech freedom, even though in 1956 he was being hailed as the great democratizer in the same way as Dubcek was yesterday. At that time, in 1956-57, the Russians were persuaded by Gomulka to wait and let him work it out, let him roll things back; and he did indeed prove he could do it.

Now this is the illuminating thing: today in 1968, with a Moscow regime which is supposed to be more, not less, liberal than in 1956 – this Moscow regime cannot wait for Dubcek to do such a job. In 1956 the same hard fists that smashed Hungary with tanks felt they could afford to wait for Gomulka to do the job the cold way; in 1968 the Moscow rulers cannot wait for this road. I would tell you that there can be only one reason for the difference. It is this: today they have a greater fear of contagion in all East Europe. (With good reason, I hope.) Today, opening the door – or leaving the door open for a longer while – means leaving the door open for new forces of Revolution from Below to rush in. They are afraid that if they let Dubcek put Czechoslovakia on a long leash, the democratic Communist dissidents of Poland will be encouraged to start a new front there; that the left opposition in East Germany will take fire next; they are afraid too, perhaps, of giving fuel to the discontent in Russia itself, rumblings of which have been heard from time to time; and finally, they are afraid of finding out that all East Europe has become a powder keg. There is not the slightest evidence of pro-capitalist influence in these deep-down movements of dissent and aspirations for a genuine socialist democracy. What they are afraid of is the East European Revolution. If most of us have been surprised by the fact that the Russian and Polish bureaucracies and their allies chose this appalling course in spite of its high costs, the reason can only be that they calculate that the costs would be even higher if they had refrained.

This comes soon after the great struggles in France, where the Communist Party played a counterrevolutionary role in a different way, and after the symptomatic student struggles in a whole series of other countries of Western Europe. Thus, what this shows is that there are forces of revolution maturing bath east and west – against both capitalism and against bureaucratic-communism. As always, the invasion of Czechoslovakia puts everyone on the spot. It asks: which side are you on? Is it still possible for anyone to have the illusion that these criminal interventionists are to be called “socialist countries,” and that these iron-heeled invaders are some kind of socialist comrades? All over the world, in and out of the Communist Parties, these questions are going to have to be re-thought; and things are never going to look the same.



Last updated: 26.9.2004