MIA: Encyclopedia of Marxism: Glossary of Events



Prague Spring, 1968

The “Prague Spring” originated with attacks on the Czechoslovak President Antonin Novotny at the Writers Union Congress in June 1967. Escalating student demonstrations led in January 1968 to Khrushchev supporter Alexander Dubcek being appointed President. Dubcek’s reform program was adopted on 5 April but ended on 20-21 August when Soviet troops invaded.

Background: Following the suppression of the Hungarian Uprising in 1956 the political revolution in Europe had receded. Comprehensive health and social welfare systems were set up and rent and the price of basic commodities were kept low. The extreme hardships experienced before, during and after the war were gone, but the all-pervasive social and political control of the Stalinist apparatus made politics something in which one was ill-advised to take an interest.

The movement which became known as the Prague Spring originated with attacks on the Czechoslovak Stalinist President Antonin Novotny at the Writers Union Congress in June 1967. The initiative of the intelligentsia was followed by escalating student demonstrations. Novotny found no support in the Communist Party or the Army, and in January 1968 Novotny was replaced as First Secretary of Party by Alexander Dubcek, a Slovak with the reputation of being a supporter of Khrushchev’s policies. Dubcek’s reform program was adopted on 5 April, with an emphasis on increased political freedoms.

Over the next four months Dubcek worked hard to convince the Soviet Union that Czechoslovakia would remain within the Soviet bloc and that there would not be a return to capitalism. The rising enthusiasm for change in Czechoslovakia continued to alarm the Soviet leaders however, and on 20-21 August Soviet troops invaded. Dubcek called upon the people not to resist; he was arrested and taken to Moscow, but was not formally removed from office until April 1969, when he was replaced by Husak, another Czechoslovak CP leader who also had a reputation as a liberal. Dubcek was expelled from the Party in 1970.

In contrast to the Soviet invasion of Hungary 12 years earlier, the invasion of Czechoslovakia did not meet armed resistance. Dubcek told the masses to stay at home, and the Czech and Slovak working class watched more or less passively as the Russians straightened out Czechoslovakian affairs.

Dubcek’s experiment in ‘Communism with a human face’ came to an end after six months. Like the previous uprisings in Poland and Hungary, the Prague Spring found its leadership in ‘reformists’ within the ranks of the Communist Party and, at least nominally, declared its support for socialism. Dubcek himself was a creature of the Stalinist bureaucracy. He had spent his childhood and youth in the USSR and was a Party member since returning to Czechoslovakia in 1938. He was not a ‘dissident’. He was supported by the majority of his fellows in the bureaucracy.

In contrast to the uprisings of the mid-1950s however, which had been led by the urban working class and supported by the intelligentsia, the reform movement of 1968 was located in the intelligentsia, and received only passive support from the working class; its program, emphasising personal and intellectual freedom, reflected its class base. This same change was also reflected in an uprising in Poland in January 1968.