Colin Humphries


The Bounced Czech

(Autumn 1971)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.49, Autumn 1971, p.34.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

William Shawcross
Weidenfeld and Nicholson, £3.25

It was Kerensky’s historical misfortune to have been overthrown by the left and not the right. Had he been forced into exile by Kornilov’s attack in August 1917, there is no doubt that many of the left would even today regard him as a socialist hero.

Shawcross’ book is about the latest Kerensky-type figure. And because Dubcek was neither overthrown by the left, nor permitted to stay on to exercise power in a repressive manner, as say Gomulka did after 1956, the author can still treat him with a tone approaching adulation. There are times when one is reminded of the style of, say, the book about Harold Wilson that Michael Foot wrote in the early years of the Labour Government.

But Shawcross has the merit of presenting elsewhere a wad of material that completely contradicts his own estimate of the Czechoslovak leader. He shows Dubcek as a tame local bureaucrat in the 1950s, slowly working his way up the party hierarchy, adding his voice to the general clamour of lies and denunciations against those unfortunate enough to incur Stalin’s wrath. Speaking, for instance, of Slansky and the other dozen or so Communist ministers who were hanged in 1953 as not realising

‘how close was ... the great power of the never-dormant Communist watchfulness and patriotic vigilance which would wipe away their group of emissaries of imperialism’.

Again, despite all the author’s praise for Dubcek’s role in the early sixties he has difficulty in disguising the crude opportunism that led Dubcek to give faint support to mild dissent when it could improve his promotion chances in the Party. Shawcross even goes so far as to praise support for the ruling line as good politics, ‘... had Dubcek used his Hlas Ludu articles as even mild vehicles of dissent his career might have been ended at once’. The fact is, of course, that Dubcek never dissented from the monolithic line until it was clear that such disagreement might advance his career prospects and correspond to the real needs of the bureaucracy as a whole. Dubcek was forced to become the central protagonist of reform within the bureaucracy because, when he finally came to the top after the ousting of Novotny, the economic situation precluded any turning back.

However, he faced a major difficulty. The inner party struggle for the implementation of economic reforms left the machine of repression in ribbons. The machinery for censorship, for instance, fell apart. Dubcek was willing to use growing popular dissent to oust his own worst enemies within the bureaucracy. But he steadfastly refused to touch many other old Stalinists. Meanwhile he displayed little enthusiasm for the new freedoms of the masses.

‘Today we must admit that there is actually a need to restrict various manifestations of anarchy or some tendencies testifying to anarchist inclinations’.

Dubcek’s behaviour was that of a bureaucrat who needed reform, but who also feared any untrammelled involvement of the mass of the population in the reform process, lest it get out of hand. He was to reject such mass involvement at all time. When, for instance, military experts warned of the likelihood of a Russian invasion and the need to develop a strategy of armed defence, Dubcek refused to listen. He preferred to compromise, trying to prove to the Russians that he could pacify the country better than the old Stalinists.

Shawcross supports Dubcek’s strategy, regarding those writers who went further and published 2000 words as in ‘error’. Yet Dubcek’s approach was to lead to total defeat for the liberalising forces. After the invasion each compromise by the official reformers further strengthened the hand of the Russians and prepared for further compromises. In the end all the leaders of 1968, except Svoboda and Husak, were to be purged.

Despite these criticisms, however, the book contains much useful factual material.

Last updated on 16 November 2009