Ernest Mandel

The rationale
of the Czech tragedy

(November 1968)

International, Vol. 1 No. 7, November 1969, pp. 8–10.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Tremendous confusion exists in relation to the social and economic conflicts which arose during the last fifteen years in the countries where capitalism has been abolished. Does “liberalisation” mean a return to capitalism? Is democratisation of political and social life identical with rehabilitation of the “profit motive”? Are “economic reforms” of the Liberman type opening the road to a bourgeois type of Western democracy or to “economic nationalism?”

The Czech tragedy has stressed this confusion. It has shown that all those political forces which try to approach these problems with essentially subjective criteria can only embroil themselves in inextricable contradictions. For the Russian leaders and their apologists, there was a danger of restoration of capitalism in Czechoslovakia, but this was NOT linked with the restoration of private property of the means of production or the reappearance of a capitalist class; on the contrary, these apologists explicitly refer to “state capitalism” which was on the point of arising in Czechoslovakia.

For the Chinese, capitalism has been restored in the same way both in the Soviet Union and in Czechoslovakia. It is linked, it would appear, with the reappearance of “profit” in the economic mechanism. But in Rumania, where “material incentives” and “profit” have been introduced at least to the same extent as in the Soviet Union, socialist Rumania will be fully supported by People’s China ...

One has the impression that all these vulgar marxists are true pupils of Stalin at least in one respect: in liberally throwing around labels of “counter-revolution”, “capitalism” and oven “fascism” completely divorced from objective Marxist criteria. A “capitalist” is not any more a representative of a given social class, defined by private ownership of the means of production and the laws of motion which Marx laid bare in Das Kapital. No, anybody who happens to disagree factionally with the given ruling circle of one’s own country, and who dares voice publicly these disagreements becomes an archetypical.

Haven’t we witnessed before the sad spectacle of the same Tito and the same Yugoslav communists being thrice rebaptized within ten years time: First heroes of socialist construction, then fascist capitalists, then again socialist leaders? Perhaps now they will again become lackeys of world imperialism? How can anybody pay the slightest credit to this kind of name-calling?

Four Key Problems

The countries which have overthrown capitalism and which start upon the road of building a socialist society under unfavourable objective conditions – isolation in a part of the world characterised by too low a level of development of productive forces – are confronted with four key problems around which political tendencies have been differentiating themselves to a growing extent during the last years in nearly all of them: the problem of relations with imperialism and with an expanding international revolution; the problem of economic management; the problem of social inequality; and the problem of socialist democracy on the political field. To understand what is happening to-day in the so-called “socialist” world, one has to start from the basic fact that these differentiations have not been coherent or convergent, but on the contrary contradictory and divergent.

A few examples will show what we mean. In Yugoslavia, tremendous steps forward have certainly been realised on the questions of workers management and there exists a degree of political freedom for the working class which is certainly greater than in all other socialist countries (although it is still far from being sufficient). On the contrary, its attitude to the expanding international revolution is frigid and opportunist to the roots (viz. its attitude towards the Cuban revolution, its relations with the pro-imperialist regimes in Latin America etc.) and there has been undoubtedly growing social inequality.

In China, the “cultural revolution” has implied a much more healthy attitude in favour of social equality and much more fervour for international revolution than in any other socialist country (viz. its attitude towards the French May 1960 events). But no step has been made towards workers management of industry, and there has been regression and not progress as for socialist democracy within the communist party and the working class.

This combination of “progressive” and “regressive” trends in practically every single socialist country during the last twelve years makes global judgment by simplified formulae impossible, except at the price of deliberate suppression of part of the truth.

If political and diplomatic concessions to imperialism mean a return to capitalism, what about Rumania which has gone farther on that road than even Czechoslovakia? What about the Soviet Union itself during the Yalta-Potsdam honeymoon, and under the leadership of Stalin? If on the contrary, only the internal evolution is decisive, how can one explain that the Communist leader – Gomulka – successively was in prison under Stalin, as a “revisionist”, approved of strikes under socialism when coming to power in October 1956, condemned the same strikes as “counter revolutionary” starting with 1959, ended by condemning as a “revisionist traitor” (i.e. implicitly justifying imprisonment if not worse) of another communist party leader, Alexander Dubcek in Czechoslovakia? Any global oversimplification can only lead to bewilderment under these circumstances.

The four questions which we have enumerated are not the result of arbitrary selection or our part; they all result from objective contradictions which face those societies in transition from capitalism to socialism which exist in today’s world. The forces tending to overthrow imperialism and capitalism on an international scale exist and develop independently from the wishes of the leaders of this or that socialist country. The problem whether to misuse them or to try and suppress them for diplomatic purposes and power politics with imperialism, or whether to genuinely subordinate the interests of any single socialist country to the overall interests of world revolution, is an objective problem posed by Lenin as early as 1918.

The bureaucratic deformation of the workers state – also noted by Lenin during the first years of the Russian revolution – in the last analysis a result of the economic, social and cultural immaturity of conditions in relatively backward countries, can crystallise and ossify into new structures which prevent the mass of the workers from actually managing the economy of their countries (under all kinds of pretexts: necessary “centralisation”; necessary “one-man-leadership of the productive process”; lack of specialised “knowledge”, etc.) But the more complex becomes the economy, the more numerous the working class and the higher its skill and cultural level, and the more bureaucratic management shows itself inefficient and leads to periodic declines in the rate of growth of the economy.

The contradiction between the socialised mode of production and the survivals of bourgeois norms of distribution (of bourgeois law, as Marx called it and Lenin repeated) is the main contradiction of the transition period between capitalism and socialism. And from this contradiction flows that the survival and strengthening of phenomena of market economy and money economy cannot but increase social inequality and lead to growing contradictions on the road of building socialism. Finally, the system of one-party dictatorship, which has never been codified by Lenin – not to speak of Marx or Engels – as the rule for the dictatorship of the proletariat, only makes apparent sense (in a monstrous way, it is true), if one postulates omniscience of that party leadership or of the wise general secretary. Once one admits that the majority of the leading body of a Communist Party can be wrong, as historical experience has confirmed beyond all doubt, and as Mao Tse-tung himself explicitly recognises, then any political monopoly in the hands of a single restricted group of workers or workers’ representatives becomes an objective sources of inefficiency and irrationality in a country building socialism, an obstacle for rapidly overcoming inevitable errors and for rapidly correcting inevitable mistakes.

In the classic body of marxist thought – included in the body of leninism – these truths would have been considered as self-evident. But the communist leaders of the socialist countries of today are not products of that body of thought. They are products, all of them to various degrees of the stalinist deformation and falsification of marxism, however much some of them try to reject their heritage.

What is involved here is not a simple question of ideological filiation. We are confronted with a social problem.

Marxism is the reflection of the historical interests of the working class. But the working class does not exercise direct power in any of the socialist countries (i.e. through democratically elected workers’ councils – soviets – as described by Lenin’s State and Revolution). Power is in the hands of leading strata, more or less materially privileged as a result of its political monopoly of power. And all the spokesmen of the various tendencies which have arisen from the decomposition of international Stalinism retain a similar fear of letting the working class directly exercise political power (for the most naive and the most cynical of them, such workers’ power would probably be a perfect proof of ... the restoration of capitalism!).

Pressurised by the growing objective social and economic contradictions of their society; submitted to conflicting influences of conflicting social layers, they oscillate from one “reform” to another, combining “liberalism” here with “left-wing deviations” and “adventurism” there. As long as the umbilical cord is not cut with the bureaucratic privileges, both of political power and of material income, re-identification with the working class is impossible, and a convergent solution of the above-named contradictions in a marxist sense likewise unattainable.

The Rationale of the Czech Tragedy

It is in the framework of these elements that one can understand the basic traits of the Czech tragedy.

Of all the socialist countries, Czechoslovakia is the most developed industrially, with the possible exception of the German Democratic Republic – its working class has overwhelming social weight, its Communist Party real historical roots in that working class. Under the Novotny regime, all contradictions were stretched to the breaking point. The economy was in an impasse; production stagnated and even started to decline. Technology, once among the most advanced, became increasingly backward. Discontent was nearly universal. CP leaders became divorced from the nation.

Under pressure of these contradictions, a movement of economic reforms started. It imitated essentially a similar movement initiated in the Soviet Union, Hungary and Poland; growing autonomy of the enterprises; partial rehabilitation of the “profit motive”; growing exchanges with the Western countries (on that field, Rumania, not to speak of Yugoslavia, have gone much further than Dubcek’s Czechoslovakia). The Russian loaders did not fear that movement, because they had given the example themselves. As for diplomatic compromises with imperialism, surely Khrushchov and Tito had gone much further than Dubcek.

Given the social structure of Czechoslovakia, this reform movement in the beginning was not very popular. The workers feared the technocrats as much as they had despised the “political” bureaucrats. They didn’t like the prospect of increasing inequality. They were worried shout the risks of unemployment and rising prices.

But economic “liberalisation” is inconceivable without a certain amount of freedom of discussion And here the social reality of Czechoslovakia came back upon the new CP leaders, and especially upon the Russians, with a vengeance! It was not uninformed and crude products of neo-Stalinism who started to discuss. Thousands of old communists, who had gone through the school of classical marxism-leninism, participated in that discussion. Classical forms of socialist democracy were rediscovered, proposed, fought for. The struggle to abolish censorship and to realise inner-party democracy in leninist terms was launched. This movement slowly percolated towards the factories. The working class became politically interacted and more active. And when the Russian pressure became stronger, it rallied massively around the issue of national self-determination, and the struggle to defend its right to determine its own road towards socialism.

Of these developments, the Russian, Polish, East-German leaders were mortally afraid. Not because they thought this would lead towards a “restoration of capitalism” – –in fact, in no other Eastern European country the popular support for socialism was so large as it was in Czechoslovakia since January 1968. But because they feared that these examples might trigger off movements questioning the bureaucratic monopoly of power in their own countries. What is involved in the Czech tragedy is not the question of defending or threatening the socialised infrastructure of society. What is involved here is the threat to the political monopoly of the bureaucracy, the threat to the specific superstructure which these societies still show in varying degrees. The crude subjectivism of the argumentation is only a faithful reflection of the crude particularism of the social interests defended.

Last updated on 8 December 2020