Michael Kidron

Czech workers’ spring is crushed by the Russian ice-pack

(21 September 1968)

From Socialist Worker, No. 89, 21 September 1968, pp. 2 & 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

THE HARD-CORE FACT IN RUSSIA’S INVASION of Czechoslovakia is that when the WORKERS moved the tanks rolled in.

For four years the Russians had quietly watched the economic reformers gathering strength. They had seen the Communist Party’s Central Committee fall into line in January 1965, then the 13th Congress two-and-a-half years later. They did not mind. They knew that something had to be done to inject efficiency into the so-called communist countries, or the stagnation that had hit them from the early 1960s would never lift.

They could see too that the proposals were not dangerous in themselves. Ulbricht had nearly dismantled the old planning system, yet East Germany remained the tight stalinist parish it had always been. Rumania had switched its foreign trade so sharply westwards since the late 1950s that less than half is now conducted with the East. Yet nobody could complain of unorthodox softness towards workers under Ceausescu. Even Yugoslavia, heretic half-member of the bloc, had clearly not turned into a workers’ paradise – otherwise why should half-a-million Yugoslavs work in West Germany?

The Russians could also see that the Czechoslovak reformers were promising nothing but austerity to their workers. Closures, which extinguished 35,000 jobs in 1964-65 were expected to cost another 60,000 by 1970 (R. Kostka, We Need Prospering Enterprises, Rude Pravo, 24 March 1966). One commentator even suggested that one in 10 enterprises would need to be shut (Bozena Kubinova, Radio Prague, 6 May 1966). Sackings from functioning enterprises also were bound to soar as managers shifted to a profits system in which they controlled labour costs and little else.

Meanwhile, no arrangements were being made for paying, retraining and rehousing the unemployed; nobody was suggesting that wages should keep up with the fast-rising prices – on the contrary, a key element of the reform was to keep most wages pegged (V. Klaus & T. Jesek, Fear of Inflation, Kulturni Tvorba, 15 December 1966); and state housing and welfare expenditure were being cut.

Cool about the reforms

It was obvious that the Czechoslovak workers were cool about the reforms. So the Russians, for their part, were not bothered. Nothing but good could come from the Czechoslovak experiment, so long as it was done on the workers’ backs.

But what if the workers moved? The example could be catching.

This is precisely what happened early this year. By then the reformists (and their Slovak allies) had fought the Novotny diehards to a draw.

Neither faction could dislodge the other without working-class support. Both toured the factories bidding for it, and the workers – after picking up a 10 per cent wage rise in the first quarter of the year, and promises of more later – came down in favour of reform.

As the reformers put it in May, “The main thing is not only ensuring political freedom for all but literally also a larger hunk of bread.”

They weren’t altogether right. The main thing was the new feeling among workers that they could act together and win. A hunk of bread now; more later; perhaps even the freedom that rests on political and economic control.

Significantly, just before the tanks moved in, a revolutionary left with a specifically working-class programme was forming in the universities and around the new magazine Informacni Materialy.

Then the Russians came.

What now? Only one thing is really clear, the Czechoslovak workers’ spring is over. It is germinating perhaps under the Russian ice-pack; but for the present it’s over. If the Czechoslovak middle-class looks for arbitration again, it won’t be from them, but from the Russians.

What of these Russians?

They seem to be in two minds, not knowing whether to fragment the local middle-class and settle in as the only stable conservative force; or to strengthen and solidify them, and withdraw.

Hard choice for Russians

Their encouragement of Husak and of Slovakian separatism points in the first direction; their talk of economic aid and resiting their troops points in the second.

It is a hard choice. If they stay, they will be inviting the Czechoslovak workers on to the scene once more, this time as the most united and coherent representative of their country’s nationalism. That could be suicidal.

If they go, they will have to pay heavily, by granting the hard-currency loan which Czechoslovakia’s flagging industries need for re-equipment (and which most other East European countries also need and will demand); or by jacking up their trade with Czechoslovakia (and Eastern Europe as a whole) even more, and so starving themselves and their partners of Western markets and products.

Or they might try to monopolise economic contact with the West for themselves while just sustaining an economically stagnant Czechoslovakia (and Eastern Europe) as a border economy.

That way too lies revolution, both social and national.

Last updated on 12 October 2020