Chris Harman



(June 1969)

From Survey, International Socialism (1st series), No.37, June/July 1969, pp.9-11.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The Czech events have now revealed all the features of the classical crisis of bureaucratic state capitalism, as revealed in the events of Poland and Hungary in 1956. There have been differences of emphasis; time and national conditions have produced peculiarities of casting, but the mould has retained the same contours. The forces shaping history have been similar, following from the dynamics of the same system.

As with the convulsion of 1956 the Czechoslovak crisis had its origin in problems of the economy. But these in turn had their basis in the very nature of bureaucratic state capitalism: the contradictory combination of ruling class control of society through a bureaucratic machine backed up by a relentless terror apparatus that fixes social and political relations with a seemingly immutable rigidity, on the one hand, with the capitalist goals of that class – incessant development of productive forces through accumulation of the means of production – on the other.

For fifteen years Czechoslovakia had been among the most stable of the state-capitalist regimes. There was a local semi-insurrection in Pilsen in 1953, but otherwise the convulsions that swept the Stalinist bloc after Stalin’s death and the Twentieth Party Congress left it untouched. Czech industry grew. The industrialising regimes throughout the rest of Eastern Europe provided a seemingly insatiable demand for its products in the 1950’s without demanding any improvement in quality or technological development. Externally the Czech bureaucracy happily accepted a position of subordination to the Russians; internally deviationists and potential deviationists were eliminated without any weakening of the regime. Relatively crude methods were successfully employed to carry through a continual expansion of production. On the factory floor simple piece rate incentives on the one hand, physical threats on the other, led to the production of a large surplus. Crude physical threats could again be used to prevent lower level bureaucrats either diverting this surplus for their own use or succumbing to pressures from the working class below. Even government ministers could be threatened with arrest on trumped up charges, gaol, torture or execution. At all levels the political police successfully prevented any formulation of alternative policies and the self-organisation of any social stratum.

But such methods could only work to expand production while production techniques were relatively simple. They are not compatible with improved, sophisticated techniques. These demand greater initiative from the workers and do. not permit the same degree of police or managerial surveillance of production. Those on the shop floor can more easily engage in forms of passive resistance to the system without detection (producing shoddy products, increasing the wear and tear on machines, etc). Control through crude repression no longer guarantees increased production.

For a period this problem could be evaded by the bureaucracy. But given its need to survive in a world where the productive forces were continually growing, a point was bound to be reached where evasion was no longer possible. In the early 1960 s the contradiction between the forces of production and the relations of production revealed itself to the Czech bureaucracy in the classical capitalist form; through an inability to sell goods on the world market. As the other East European countries industrialised they became less dependent on Czech products. They reached the point where they could produce goods of a similar standard themselves. At the same time the decline in the Cold War enabled them to buy sophisticated products from the West that could not be efficiently made under Czech conditions. Whereas the Czech national income had risen by an average of 8.2 per cent between 1953 and 1963, in 1963 it fell 3.7 per cent and industrial production fell by 0.7 per cent.

The impact on the bureaucracy was immediate. It split down the middle. A section began to press, ever more vigorously, for fundamental changes in the organisation of industry in order to streamline production and recapture markets. Despite its talk of ‘socialism with a human face’ the aim of the ‘liberal bureaucracy’ was not to pass control and initiative to the base of society. Rather it argued for relaxation of certain sorts of bureaucratic controls over middle managers and their replacement by -market controls. In the long term Czech industry would compete on the world market not as one single unit but section by section. Reforms in managerial methods were not to give power to workers, but to increase their feeling of ‘participation.’ Workers would not ‘assume any managerial functions. These would rest with the management.’ [1]

After five years of bureaucratic infighting, the ‘liberals’, by forming alliances both with other sections of the bureaucracy – notably the Slovaks – and increasingly with extra-bureaucratic groups were able to neutralise the state forces at the disposal of the old guard and take over control last year. But this was only the beginning of the problems that faced them.

Throughout 1968 the Dubcek group had to fight a battle on two fronts. On the one hand it had to deal definitively with the remnants, at every level of the bureaucracy, of the Novotny regime; whole hosts of administrators attached to an antiquated organisation of production had to be eliminated. On the other hand it increasingly had to worry about forces it itself had unleashed; in the factories and universities independent and democratic mass organisations were appearing for the first time for twenty years. Trade Unions were being rebuilt on a democratic basis. Journalists and radio and television personnel who had been freed from censorship in order to criticise the Novotnyites were in danger of discussing the policies of the new rulers.

Even prior to the Russian invasion this flowering of free discussion was of some concern to the Dubcek group. Ministers began to refer to the dangers of ‘anarchy’ and of ‘anti-socialist’ forces.

The economic situation continued to deteriorate. The economic reforms (involving the closing down of numerous plants, wage cuts and ‘redeployment’) were incompatible both to the existence of whole strata of old style bureaucrats and the existence of independent workers’ organisations. Investment decisions continued to be irrational and to lead to the production of unwanted goods and increased stock piles. The workers used their new found strength to force wage increases. Continual inflation resulted.

All this time the state machine was becoming less and less effective as a means of imposing governmental decisions. The control of the Dubcek group above all rested on its ideological hegemony. Any attempt to impose the economic reforms in all their austerity might have undermined this.

A foreign hard currency loan could have eased these difficulties. It would have enabled the buying of machinery from the West to modernise industry. The obvious suppliers were the Russians. Not only had these been treating the Czechs in a typically imperialist manner for years (buying below market prices and selling above [2]) but they also had had a trade deficit with the Czechs for several years, which was paid for by crediting the Czechs with funds in the Comecon bank in Moscow amounting to several milliards of crowns. [3] The Russians however, refused to supply the Czechs with hard currencies and insisted that the Czech trade surplus be invested on a long term basis in Russian industry – as for instance with 500 million dollars, invested in 1966 in Siberian Oil which was not to be reimbursed for ten years. [4] All this served, even prior to the Russian invasion and even among sections of the bureaucracy, to focus attention upon relations with Russia.

The immediate effect of the Russian invasion in August was to stabilise the position of the reforming bureaucracy. The whole population united behind it. Even the conservative sections of the party did not dare form a puppet government for the Russians. Dubcek, balancing between the Russians and the mass of Czech people, seemed to be raised higher than either. Western journalists referred to an amazing triumph of ‘dignified non-violence’. Those aspects of Dubcek’s policy that might separate him off from the mass of Czech workers were cloaked by the Russian presence.

But over the months it became clear that there were huge differences between the demand of the Russians and those of the mass of Czechs that even Dubcek could not resolve. The more that Dubcek and the section of the bureaucracy behind him were bound to try to implement policies demanded by the Russians, the more the Czechoslovak population began to organise to take action independently of the Communist Party.

When the students occupied the universities at the end of the last year they found they had immense support from workers in the factories. The trade unions, in which government-appointed officials had been replaced by democratic elections, began to demand control over the factories by workers’ councils elected from the shop floor.

Above all there was the growth of intense hostility to the Russian occupation at the base of society. This found its fullest and most clear-cut expression in the half a million strong demonstrations that followed the defeat of the Russians in an ice hockey match. In every town people poured on to the streets. Every wall in Prague had the score scrawled on it. The Russians had invaded Czechoslovakia in order to curtail free debate. Yet that debate was now involving more people than ever before. One Russian newspaper complained that the situation was even worse than before the invasion.

As the two planks upon which it was resting moved further and further apart, the ‘progressive’ section of the bureaucracy around Dubcek became more and more unsure of itself. It had to ‘keep order’ for the Russians, but the moment it tried to do seriously it would lose its popularity with the Czechs. Meanwhile the forces of the state – particularly the army – were becoming more and more demoralised. At the top, a few generals were threatening a coup against the government. At the bottom, the rank and file shared the sentiments of the masses. For instance, when the soldiers were sent out to patrol the streets with the police, few seemed to take the task seriously.

The very basis of the independent existence of the Czech ruling bureaucracy was being undermined. In the factories the mass meetings of workers were a growing power. The trade unions increasingly operated like an opposition political party.

The ‘progressive’ bureaucrats continued to resent the Russian intrusion. But they also became more dependent on the Russian threats to preserve their own position. The continuing demoralisation of their own state machine and their urgent need to put into effect unpopular reforms made them fear ‘anarchy’ more than the embrace of the Russians. They might hate the Russian domination, but that road at least promised them a minimum of security for their class rule. Better to be a subordinate bureaucrat than no bureaucrat at all.

With the sacking of Dubcek, without serious bureaucrat opposition (even Dubcek does not seem to have seriously tried to oppose it) the Czech ruling class has jumped off the fence. It has shown it is prepared to put down the workers and students in the interests of the Russians. From now on the lines of the class struggle inside Czechoslovakia and of the national struggle against the Russians will be more and more identical.

This will have a two sided consequence. On the one hand an increasing bitterness against the bureaucracy as a whole among the masses of workers, students and other oppressed groups. On the other a continued articulation of this class consciousness in national terms that prevent it becoming fully self-conscious. A sort of ‘Sinn Fein’ stance can be expected which will identify class enemies, but never be fully clear why, nor of long term alternatives to them.

Distressing as it may be to western socialists (who still think it is better to be pro-Russian in the West than pro-American in the East) this class consciousness may well be masked by all sorts of pro-western ideologies. But the increased repression and censorship will make the organised articulation of genuinely revolutionary alternatives well nigh impossible.

For the time being the reconciliation between the Czech bureaucracy and the Russian imperialists will protect the rule of both. Although possibilities of some sort of spontaneous uprising cannot be ruled out – the bureaucracy with memories of the ice hockey match felt it prudent to abandon May Day celebrations – the threat of Russian intervention has reduced the political opposition to impotence. To this extent the ‘progressive’ bureaucracy has successfully followed the path of Kadar and Gomulka.

In the long term, however, its prospects are not nearly as optimistic. Gomulka was able to stay in power through a judicious combination of huge increases in living standards, Russian threats and a popular nationalist ideology. He only needed to employ physical force after nearly a year in power, with the banning of Po Prostu and the use of armed force against demonstrations. Kadar was put into power by Russian troops, but over time was at least able to build himself some sort of indigenous base by raising living standards and continuing certain aspects of the ‘liberalisation’. In both cases what was central was that there were economic resources available that could be utilised to improve the standard of life. This was because the economic crisis had been a crisis of growth, not of stagnation (in both cases the most intractable problems were not in industry but in agriculture).

The Czech bureaucracy has no such resources. It needs to depress living standards, not raise them. And even then its problems might not be capable of solution without a hard currency loan. After 1956 the Russians were willing to stabilise the Kadar regime by easing up on their exploitation of Hungary and giving some sort of aid to it. They seem much less willing to aid Husak and his friends. (After all, the Russian economy is not expanding at its old speed either.) Anyway, such a loan would not obviate the need to depress living standards. The Russian threats will have restored bureaucratic monolithism and have frozen existing relations of production. But they cannot do away with the opposition between this freezing and the needs of developing productive forces.

Looking at Czechoslovakia in isolation the picture can only be a pessimistic one. What seemed like spring was in fact an Indian summer. The ‘human face of socialism’ turned out to be a grimacing death mask. The crisis cannot, however, be confined to Czechoslovakia in the long run. In the other ‘advanced’ Eastern countries the same contradictions are there, albeit still latent. The Polish bureaucracy, with memories of ’56 and of the riots of last year dare not reform the economy because it dare not reform itself. There and elsewhere the greater economic growth is, the greater the irrationalities and distortions to it. The more they feel their internal limitation the more the different bureaucracies compose and jostle with each other internationally. Even those who participated in the invasion of Czechoslavakia can resent Moscow’s economic domination through Comecon. It is not only the Czechs who, for instance, object to complete dependence on Russian oil or to the Russian bureaucracy’s aim of being the major producer of technological goods in the bloc.

But it is in Moscow and Leningrad that the liberation of Czechoslovakia can really lie. For the Russian bureaucracy does not always sleep so easily. Declining growth rates have cut the overall resources at its command. It attempts to placate a massive working class by raising living standards. At the same time rt has to devote an even greater proportion of national resources than the Western powers to arms expenditure. The very repressiveness of its methods makes it difficult to raise labour productivity. For ten years or more the Russian bureaucracy has avoided coming to terms with the roots of its own economic problems. If it attempts to solve these it will have to undergo a ‘Czech development’ of its own. If it does not discontent that will develop at the base of society will eventually erupt. In either case there will be no foreign army to bale it out.


1. Professor Sik on 20th May 1968. Quoted in Economist Intelligence Unit, Quarterly Report, East Europe North, 1968, No.3.

2. The following facts about Czechoslovakia’s trade relations with the USSR were extracted from Vnechniaia Torgovlia SSSR za 1966 (Moscow 1967) by the Neue Zürcher Zeitung (6th October 1968). They were reproduced in Analyses et Documents (6th March 1969) The mean price of Czech exports to the USSR is 35 per cent below the mean price of the same articles exported to the USSR from the West. The prices of exports from the USSR to Czechoslovakia are almost always higher than those to the western countries. The weighted difference of price shows that Czechoslovakia buys from Russia goods that cost 13 per cent more than if they came from the West.

To Czechoslovakia

To the West



























USSR: Imports



the West

Electric transformers (Kva)



Calcium Carbonate (ton)



Woollen cloth (meter)



Estimated overall effect of trade distortions
for Czechoslovakia 1966

(in millions of DM)





At actual prices




At non-discriminatory prices




Commercial advantage to the USSR




In 1965 the Czechoslovak national income was 50.6 thousand million DM. Without the commercial practices of the USSR it would therefore have been 11 per cent higher.

But this is not all. Even at actual prices, the total value of Czech exports to the USSR is higher than the total value of imports.

Trade balance favourable
to Czechoslovakia

(in millions of DM)















In the seven years between 1960 and 1966 Czechoslovakia delivered to the USSR goods worth 500 million dollars more tha those she received as imports.

Over the years this difference in value has been bridged by a cumulation of Czech credits in the Comecon bank in Moscow; Being in roubles these are only of use to the Czechs for trade transactions with Russia. The total of such Czech investments in Eastern bloc countries is estimated at 14 billion crowns – equal to Czechoslovakia’s annual trade turnover. At the same time the Russians have been refusing the Czechs a hard currency loan’.

3. Declaration of Czech Minister of Finance, 19th April 1968

4. It is worth noting that the US would not consider a loan. ‘Washington, on the eve of a possible diplomatic rapprochement with Russia is unwilling to grant a loan that might be construed by Moscow as a massive economic and political intervention in Eastern Europe.’ Economist Intelligence Unit, op. cit.

Last updated on 16 November 2009