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International Socialism, March 1977


Notes of the Month

Crisis in Eastern Europe


From International Socialism (1st series), No.96, March 1977, pp.4-5.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


THE PUBLICATION of Charter 77 in Prague on January 1 has shifted the focus of the crisis from Poland to Czechoslovakia. The Central Committee of the Polish United Workers Party has taken a series of measures designed to stave off the crisis analysed by Chris Harman in International Socialism 93-94. In November the proportion of national income to be devoted to investment in the next five year plan was cut from one third to one quarter. This should result in more consumer goods appearing in the shops. In December major concessions were made to small capitalists – the amount of their tax-free income was doubled and the allowance made before turnover tax comes into operation was increased six times. It is hoped that this will ease production bottlenecks and reduce dependence on Western imports. It will certainly stimulate corruption and the black market and lead to the creation of a class of small businessmen.

At the same time, political concessions have been made. At least 70 workers remain in prison. Organisation inside the factory is smashed and many militants have been sacked or re-employed at lower grades. But Gierek, the Polish party boss, has announced that it might be possible to envisage at some point – possibly May Day – an amnesty for imprisoned militants. Those still employed were praised in September and awarded big bonuses. The Workers Defence Committee in Warsaw has suffered the same cat-and-mouse treatment. They have been harassed, vilified and occasionally looted of funds, but some supporters have been allowed to travel to the west and back and no serious charges have yet been made. The regime has even publicly debated the Committee on points of law.

The crisis in Czechoslovakia is, at the moment, a political one. The publication of Charter 77 shows every sign of being a well planned political move. It coincides with the run up to a conference to be held in Belgrade in July which will review the 1975 ‘détente’ agreement on Human Rights signed at Helsinki, thus putting the Czech government, and to a lesser extent the Russians, in the hot seat. In one month the original 242 signatories have grown to over 400 and have had widespread support outside the country. 28 Hungarian intellectuals and eight Rumanians have publicly supported the Charter. Not only the capitalist press but also the bulk of the West European Communist Parties have publicised the Charter and the subsequent repression of the signatories.

The political impact of the Charter has been considerable because the original signatories include some who are fairly widely regarded as the authentic national leadership in the struggle against Russian domination. Among these are Jiri Hajek, Dubcek’s foreign minister from 1968, and two other members of the Central Committee from that period – Mlynar and Kriegel.

The response of the bureaucracy has been sharp. They cannot afford to concede to the men they replaced and they must follow the lead of the Russians who put them in office. On January 12 the official paper Rudé Právo published a vicious attack couched in the classic language of Stalinism. The signatories were attacked as acting ‘at the order of anti-Communist and Zionist centres’, whose main purpose was to ‘revive political corpses, both in the ranks of emigrants from the social countries, and among the remnants of the class enemies in these countries, renegades as well as various criminal and anti-social elements. The Charter speaks from cosmopolitan positions, from the class positions of the defeated reactionary bourgeoisie and rejects socialism as a social system.’ (Note: In Stalinist shorthand ‘cosmopolitan’ mean ‘Jewish’ – blatant anti-semitism is a typical feature of Stalinism).

The response of the Western Communist Parties has been to denounce the repression. On January 20 the British CP appealed: ‘to the leadership of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia to put an end to this situation (of repression), to release those arrested and to end the harassment of other signatories of Charter 77’. Denouncing such obvious crimes is a necessary part of presenting the CP as a good ‘democratic’ party and is right in line with the recent draft of the British Road to Socialism; it will, however, cause a great deal of heartsearching among th more uncritically Stalinist of the CP’s membership.

Despite the fuss, Charter 77 is not a particularly inflammatory document. It certainly does not ‘reject socialism as a social system.’ It is, in fact, an appeal for liberalisation. The bulk of it speaks to the concerns of bureaucrats and ex-bureaucrats who have lost their privileges since 1968. It is concerned above all with the restrictions placed on intellectuals and professional people. However, it does contain one vital paragraph:

The present situation also prevents workers and other employees from establishing, without restriction, trade union and other organisations to protect their economic and social interests and freely to exercise the right to strike.

No bureaucrat, in or out of power in Eastern Europe, wants to see independent working-class organisations. But as in 1968, the needs of the bureaucratic struggle lead one faction to use the working class as a support against another faction. To do that means concessions. It is these cracks which provide the opportunities for the sort of mobilisation which can sweep away both factions of bureaucrats.

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