Chris Harman


Russian bosses fear Czech lead
will sweep east Europe

(August 1968)

From Socialist Worker, No. 86, August 1968, pp. 1 & 4.
Reprinted in Socialist Worker &ndash Czech Crisis Special Issue, p. 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

TWELVE YEARS after 15 armoured divisions of Russian troops put down the popular uprising in Hungary, the rulers of Russia have proved that their power still rests on the same resort to force.

They have shown that they still fear popular discussion and debate. In order to subdue the Czech population they have massed huge concentrations of troops along the Czech borders.

Their armed forces have been engaged in the largest “exercises” in their history. With scarcely veiled threats they have offered Prague the same treatment as Budapest in 1956.


Once again the bosses of the Kremlin have shown how little they have in common with the socialism they profess.

The immediate pretext for the actions of the last month was a manifesto signed by 70 Czech intellectuals called 2000 Words that appeared at the end of June. This was denounced by the Russians and their supporters as a “counter-revolutionary pamphlet,” as outlining “the tactics to be used in the next stage of counter-revolution ...” (Neues Deutschland, 30.7.68)

In fact the passage which provoked this outcry called on people at all levels of Czech society to “establish committees for the defence of freedom of expression” and to hold meetings to “demand the resignation of people who have misused their power, who have harmed the public property or who have behaved dishonestly or brutally.” It called for “public criticism, resolutions, demonstrations ... strikes and boycotts ...” where necessary.

This tentative and hesitant call to the people to begin to take control of society into their own hands was immediately disowned in moderate terms by the Czech government and Communist Party leaders.


But the mere suggestion of this sent a shudder of fear through the rulers of Russia, East Germany and Poland. Meeting in Warsaw they demanded that the Czech leaders damp down on such activities and reimpose censorship. Brutal repression is the only answer they know to any questioning of their rule.

But it is not enough just to condemn Russian intimidation. We need to be clear about what exactly is happening in Czechoslovakia, and why it worries the Russians.

For nearly 20 years – from February 1948 until recently – Czechoslovakia was a monolithic and bureaucratically organised society, run according to orders issued from the top. All power over the state and industry lay with the Communist Party, which in turn was completely subordinate to those power not through any popular upheaval but by means of police power to destroy all other political organisations, both of workers and of old bourgeois elements, combined with threats of Russian invasion.

Within the Communist Party itself no questioning of decisions was permitted. To ensure compliance, the political police and the terror it practised was directed inside the party as well as outside.

The constant threat of terror and fear it gave rise to had its effect on those involved in the economy. The managers obeyed without question directives from above by bullying the foremen below them. They in turn used crude threats to speed up the pace of work, stop absenteeism, prevent workers demanding wage increases.


In this period, both the rulers of the Czechoslovak bureaucracy and the Russian leaders upon whom they depended wanted only one thing: to continually increase the level of production of Czechoslovak industry.

For the Russians this was important because it meant an ever increasing supply for them of the products of Czech industry. They could buy these on the cheap because the Czechs had no choice about whom they should trade with.

In the early 1960s all this changed. After 13 years of building up their industries the other countries of Eastern Europe no longer needed to import large quantities of machines and engineering products. They could make equipment of the same quality as the Czechs.

The breakdown of the cold war made it possible for them to buy plant from the west. Suddenly the Czech bureaucracy faced the classic problem of any capitalist – finding a market for its goods. The impact on the economy was immediate: in 1963, instead of economic growth there was a reduction in the national income by 3.7 per cent.

The bureaucratic ruling class began to split down the middle. Some, at first a minority, saw that unless there were major changes in the organisation of industry the whole basis of their rule would be undermined.

They demanded that inefficient industries should be closed down. Like Harold Wilson, their spokesman, Professor Otta Sik, spoke of “redeployment” and like him meant unemployment of the order of 400,000. Other industries, they argued, could not become efficient until the crude methods of making workers produce based on the “stick” were replaced by ones based on the “carrot.”

The reforming group countered their physical weakness with talk about “democracy” and “freedom of speech.” They demanded these in order to organise within the bureaucracy without fear of police action.

They were useful slogans for mobilising other groups in society to countermand the formal strength of their opponents.

At the key moment in the struggle against the former president, Novotny, the reformers took over newspapers, abolished censorship, and aligned themselves with a student opposition that had been developing in the universities for three years. They had no choice if they were not to allow the old guard to regroup and retain power.

This does not mean that the reformers are really committed to democracy or free speech. After all, many of them held positions of prominence without too much difficulty under the old regime. Dubcek lived quite happily in the Soviet Union during some of the worst years of Stalin’s reign.

But it does mean they could not come to power without first dismantling those structures that had kept the rest of society in chains for so long. And once such a process had begun, it was not easily kept in check.

It allowed other groups to organise. This is what worries the Russians.


The internal convulsions in Czechoslovakia could give rise to a rash of working-class self-activity that would sweep all the regimes of eastern Europe away.

The reaction of Russia is the same as that of the US to the threat to her dominoes in South East Asia.

The economy is not yet picking up. Before it can do so, Dubcek has to accomplish two opposed sets of tasks. He has to remove the thousands of old style bureaucrats that remain, which means allowing the present “democratisation” to continue.

But he has also to begin cutting wages, increasing wage differentials, closing down plants – all of which will give rise to tremendous working-class opposition if there is not a clamp down on free discussion.

In 1956 Gomulka of Poland led the reforming wing of his bureaucracy to power. He was also hailed in the western press as a “democratic socialist” hero.

He used the threat of Russian intervention to keep the movement among the workers and students “moderate” and he used, too, the threat of the workers to gain a nominal independence from the Russians. This gave him time to re-establish complete control by the bureaucracy, so that today Poland is one of the least “liberal” of the state capitalist countries.

This is what Dubcek would like to do. Although the independent workers movement has not yet developed in Czechoslovakia as far as it did in Poland in 1956 (there was a virtual insurrection in Poznan) the economic crisis seems to leave Dubcek less room to manoeuvre.

We must hope that the Czech workers will develop their own organisations, such as workers’ councils, independent of all bureaucratic groups. Meanwhile our first duty is to oppose any Russian interference aimed at preventing such a development.

Last updated on 24 December 2020