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The New International, March 1938


W. Keller

Czechoslovakia and Its “Democracy”

From New International, Vol.4 No.3, March 1938, pp.84.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


TROTSKY ONCE called the Weimar Republic an ebb between two waves of revolution. If after the war the proletariat proved to be too weak to storm the fortress of capitalism, the prostrate German bourgeoisie for its part was incapable of leading its counter-revolutionary victory to its final conclusions. The “democratic” counter-revolution of Noske and Scheidemann, that characteristic method of the Central European bourgeoisie after the war (Masaryk called it “the struggle against Bolshevism through reforms”), was only a partial victory which threw the proletariat backwards but did not deprive it of its political existence. Thus it could be only a transitory stage, an ebb in the conflict between proletarian revolution and totalitarian counterrevolution.

The outcome of this struggle necessarily determined the decision as to war and peace. The victory of the German revolution would have made impossible the strangling fetters on the productive forces in Europe’s Balkanized state boundaries, and the national lacerations within. The scrofulous peace of Versailles was nourished not only by the collapse of the Central powers and their humiliation at the hands of the competing imperialist camp, but also by the series of defeats of the European revolution. The ebb between two revolutions was also an ebb between two imperialist wars. And the victory of the totalitarian counter-revolution over the German working class could not but present Europe with the alternative of a new world war.

In this situation, as in 1914, “democracy” again became the great slogan for the Versailles imperialist camp and its vassals. They are looking for a new Belgium, whose protection would justify their holy war for the defense of human rights. And it seems that this time the Czechoslovakian republic, that buffer state of French imperialism, is destined to kindle the fire of the democratic crusaders.

It is therefore worth our while to look more closely at this episodic state between two great chapters of war and revolution.

The little Czech nation, deprived of its political independence since the Thirty Years’ War, limped through the senile revolution of ‘48 far behind the Austrian and Hungarian bourgeoisies. In the main a people of artisans, peasants and provincial intellectuals, with no roots in modern capitalist relations of production, it became, in its petty-bourgeois national romanticism, an instrument of Habsburg reaction. Marx and Engels heaped their searing sarcasm upon these reliable gendarmes of the monarchy.

Wilson’s proclamation of the right of “self-determination” of the peoples gave political freedom to the Czech bourgeoisie, which in the interim had succeeded in creating a kind of national capitalism through the tenacious two-penny accumulation of petty men, making it at the same time satrap over five other gagged nations.

This bourgeoisie, disregarded by history over three centuries, attained, mainly through colonial exploitation of its national minorities, a belated flowering, interrupted spasmodically by crises and war danger. We say “belated”, for it is the tragedy of the Czech capitalist stragglers that they knew their rise when proletarian revolution, capitalist decay, imperialist war, daily call their social and national existence into question.

The warrant of state independence by the Entente could not at all secure the class domination of the Czech bourgeoisie. The Czech workers who, under the monarchy, had suffered under the double pressure of economic exploitation and national oppression, belonged to the radical wing of the Austrian labor movement. The first blows from the homecomers after the war, many of them influenced by the Russian revolution, were directed, understandably enough, against Vienna and the remnants of its power. Without a Marxian leadership, which would have tied up the bourgeois and the socialist tasks of the revolution, the Czech proletariat was harnessed to its national bourgeoisie. But soon the struggle for the distribution of the fruits of victory was to begin. In mighty battles the workers tried, from 1919 to 1921, to reconquer their lost positions. A communist party embracing half a million members but lacking a communist leadership, fights out the dramatic “July days” of the Czech proletariat in bloody local insurrections.

In these years Czech finance capital, trembling for its life, creates the myth of the “Father of Victory”. Indeed, Masaryk’s imperishable merit consists not so much in having wheedled the Czech puppet state in the anti-chambers of the Entente chancelleries, as in becoming the father of a democratic revolution in the post-war years. Nobody was better fit for this role than this “man of the people” who surrounded himself with a nimbus of impartiality. The new president came down among the people. In factories and mines he painted for the workers the rosy picture of radical but peaceful social reforms, while outside the Czech Noskes carried out their bloody work.

A broad land reform at the expense of the Austrian-Hungarian nobles (giving soil to 600,000 peasants), sinecures in the new state apparatus for thousands of legionnaires from the ranks of the workers and the middle classes, the creation of a Czech workers’ aristocracy – this was the social basis of operation for the crushing of the revolutionary proletarian offensive. Having managed the affairs of feudalism in 1848, the national bourgeoisie and its reformist lackeys now carried out their counter-revolutionary handiwork for their own sake.

This was not the only puzzle which history presented to this lagging bourgeoisie. As against six million Czechs, there were in the new state 2¼ million Slovaks, 500,000 Ruthenians, 80,000 Poles, 700,000 Hungarians, 3½ million Germans, over whom the Czech bourgeoisie had to wield state supremacy in the name of the Wilsonian rights of the people. It approached its tasks with a combination of Machiavellian trickery and brutal violence. The case of the Germans and Hungarians was simple: these former usufructs of the monarchy, now defenseless after the war defeat, were, in the spirit of Versailles, forced to the same level of pariahs which had aroused the wild hatred of the Czechs in old Austria.

Thus it remained to regulate the relations with the “Slovak brothers”. Slovaks and Ruthenians had been separated by a thousand years of slavery under the Hungarian feudal yoke from the Czechs thrown in the Western zone. The secular misery and dark illiteracy of these two primitive peasant peoples were poor soil for a real movement of national independence. This movement originated mainly among the Slovakian and Ruthenian emigrants who had found wealth in the United States and were received with open arms as unexpected allies by Masaryk’s Mafia. The Pittsburg treaty of May 1918, drawn up by Masaryk, guaranteed to the Slovaks full language and administrative autonomy in the new state. But these federative dreams of the first enthusiastic hours soon vanished before the sober necessity for the Czech bourgeois minority to assure its hegemony in the new state. Benes found the philosopher’s stone. On the basis of his “scientifically” documented memorandum, the peace treaty of St. Germain declared Czechs and Slovaks to be a “Czechoslovakian” national unit, thus confirming the “democratic” claims of Czech imperialism to state rule. The protests of the duped Slovaks against Masaryk’s open treachery met with dignified silence from the ethical humanist.

The peace treaty gave the right of autonomy to the Ruthenians. To incorporate this far off Ukrainian population into the “state-nation” would have been too crude. As a sort of convict settlement for the rubbish of the Czech official staff, this Siberia of Prague lives under the knout of a governor named by the Czech center, with a régime of enlightened absolutism indulgently called “gradual autonomy”.

An army of Czech functionaries, grocers, business-man, manufacturers, land-owners and worker-aristocrats flooded the non-Czech regions, making its way with robust elbow thrusts. The pomposity and greediness of these nouveaux riches could not but furnish constant impetus to the national chauvinism of the Irredenta (separatists), especially since there was no revolutionary force to guide it into the stream of class struggle.

Social and national tensions were heightened by the inevitable economic disproportions within this artificial state formation. Here (above all in the German districts), the main industry of the monarchy was concentrated. Here were located its richest granaries, next to those in Hungary. Against a background of declining capitalist economy, Czech protectionism, caught in the scissors of chronic industrial and agricultural over-production, fought a life-and-death struggle with German export industry and Slovak agriculture. Attempts of parts of the non-Czech bourgeoisie (and, naturally, their inevitable social-democratic servants) to find relief through participation in the government, brought political profit to the Czech bourgeoisie but only meager advantages to themselves.

Thus this offspring of Versailles has in its bones all the hereditary diseases of the Habsburg nationality-state, augmented by the contradictions of modern imperialism. The abolition of national oppression, the Slovak and Ruthenian agrarian revolution against the new Czech gentry, continue to raise themselves as the urgent tasks of the proletarian revolution. Its failure has led to the epidemic spread of Henlein’s Sudetic German National Socalism and to the rise of semi-fascist clerical nationalism in the Eastern provinces.

To this abundance of inner contradictions there was added from the very beginning the constant insecurity of foreign relations. Even during the height of French predominance on the Continent, Prague lived under the constant shadow of death, threatened by the Hungarian restoration (which gave rise to the languishing Little Entente), surrounded by expansion-seeking Poland (courted by the Slovak autonomists) and a Germany preparing for ruthless revenge. There was no need for her present hopeless isolation to goad this vassal of French imperialism into maintaining an army far exceeding the resources of the country, in which an arch-reactionary officers’ corps, hunting for the heretical ghost of the good Soldier Schweik, wrestles to keep together the exploited of six centrifugal nations.

The regeneration of German imperialism has pushed the barbarism of Czech “national liberation” in the Versailles style to its extreme point. In a mighty hostile encirclement, the Czech bourgeoisie desperately prepares for an unequal fight to preserve its short-lived imperialist hegemony, thus exhausting the last reserves of the country and even now installing a régime of military dictatorship in the non-Czech regions. Even the dutiful Stalinists did not dare to vote for the last fantastic armament program. They confined themselves to the symbolic gesture of voting for the budgetary appropriations for the President of the Republic.

One would think that this labyrinth of contradictions cries out for mastery by a totalitarian dictatorship. As a matter of fact, fascism has not only blossomed forth in varicolored species among the national Irredenta, but has also made repeated advances in the Czech camp. As the result of a long year of moulting, there has surged forward the fascist “National Union”, a bloc between the adventurer-general of the Czech legions in Russia, Gayda, a former party comrade of Benes, Stribrny, owner of a powerful chain of tabloids and expert in social demagogy, and Kramarsch, industrial magnate and desperate rival of Masaryk. This group has unofficial but strong support in the influential right wing of the leading governmental party, the Czech Agrarians, which seeks to eliminate the overhead expenses of the bourgeois-socialist coalition existing since 1929 through a transition to a “moderate” corporative ideology in the spirit of the Austrian Christian Socialists.

Nevertheless Czech fascism up to the present has not passed the stage of molecular growth. The reason lies not only in the still-existing privileges of the Czech middle classes. What is more important, the Czech bourgeoisie understands very well that the fascist surgical knife can not cut through a single one of the intertwined social, national, economic and foreign contradictions without tearing all the others more cruelly.

A corporative coup d’état against the labor movement would deprive the bourgeoisie of the precious patriotic services of reformism (and Stalinism) – whether in the government or in loyal opposition – in the maintenance of its imperial hegemony.

An alliance, for example, with Slovak reaction or even with Henlein for the establishment of a totalitarian dictatorship would be wrecked by the irreconcilable demands for autonomy. Autonomy, if ever granted, would rather be the last “trump” of the Czech bourgeoisie to be played in wartime under the unifying saber of military dictatorship.

Too weak as a class and as a nation to carry out its domination with undisguised totalitarianism, the bourgeoisie is at the same time incapable of conceding to its oppositions the rules of the democratic game. Kept in tension by the constant wavering of its destiny between the Scylla of the revolution and the Charybdis of war for revenge, torn from within by uninterrupted struggles for the division of the new power, it had recourse from its first days to the preventive method of Bonapartism with a parliamentary mask.

A “Law for the Protection of the Republic” turns over the actual distribution of democratic rights to the state bureaucracy: freedom of speech, assembly and organization is regulated through preventive press censorship, authorization or prohibition of newspapers, meetings and demonstrations, censorship of speeches, bloody limitation of strikes and picketing, etc., accompanied by Draconic political trials. In the critical years of 1921 and 1926, the government was taken over by the “impartial” bureaucracy. The economic crisis and the war danger were accompanied by a substantial enlargement of the full powers of the bureaucracy. In 1931 the government was granted almost exclusive legislative power to rule by decree, thus making the plebiscitary character of the parliamentary majority all the more manifest. Each year since 1933, the same majority gives the government and the state bureaucracy full authority to padlock by simple decree any organization which it considers “hostile to the state”, to confiscate its property, to sentence its members by ordinary police jurisdiction, and even to create political concentration camps. By mere decree it also can invalidate the parliamentary mandates of such organizations, thereby assuring, if necessary, its endangered parliamentary majority.

This threat to “defend democracy by dictatorship”, as Masaryk described the law, characterizes in the crudest possible fashion the Bonapartist mechanics of power of the Czech “disciplined democracy”. It maintains the forms of the parliamentary constitution while progressively hollowing them of their democratic content.

In passing, we may note that a supplementary law of full power for national defense has allowed the government to declare in the vast non-Czech districts, especially near its lengthy borders, an actual state of emergency under military rule, thus giving the peoples an advance taste of its way of defending democracy.

Thus the Czech bourgeoisie has put forward as a tamer of the toiling masses and an arbiter for its own inner frictions an impersonal Bonaparte in the form of an almighty state, police and military bureaucracy, an immobile pole in the flux of coalition governments and, at the same time, in itself an object of the perpetual struggle for power among the government parties. Indeed, the Agrarian Party, maintaining two million peasant-electors in economic dependency through monopolistically controlled cooperatives, and thus having become the unchanging axis of every government, has succeeded in merging almost completely with the state apparatus. For this support of the Bonapartist machinery by a relatively stable political following, the Agrarians are paid by the other bourgeois factions, especially by the industrialists, with heavy economic concessions, which in turn enlarge their “mass base”. In this strictly political sense one might speak of a Czech “agrarian-Bonapartism”, which – composed in large measure of repressed fascists – strives to grind out the maximum of totalitarianism under the guise of parliamentary rule. It is complemented by the purely representative “left” Masaryk-Benes presidential top, which has to provide it with a democratic halo and restrain excesses toward the right.

The need for maintaining as long as possible the parliamentary variant of Bonapartism is further emphasized by the approaching war catastrophe. The split of the German camp into Nazis and anti-fascists (similar processes are also at work among the other nationalities) allows the Czech bourgeoisie to put on the airs of a champion of liberty and tolerance for both in’ternal and external admiration. As a matter of fact this posing is only a means of transforming the liberals, reformists and Stalinists into voluntary police troops of Czech imperialism. While pushing the toiling masses further and further into the hands of the fascists, these groups still provisionally strengthen Prague’s Bonapartist equilibrium.

We have also mentioned the Stalinists. To be exact, we must say that the Czech bourgeoisie uses them only indirectly. Through the political stability of its agrarian basis and the rehabilitation of reformism thanks to Stalin’s Third and People’s Front Periods, the Bonapartist régime can dispense with the direct support of the Stalinists. This policy is followed all the more willingly because the bourgeoisie – including Benes – keeps in reserve the coup de theatre of an agreement with Germany at the expense of Russia. Strong and courageous only with the weak, its whole policy is directed toward siding with the most favored imperialist alignment. Should England give Germany a free hand in the East (and her recent sacrifice of Austria to Hitler shows her readiness in this respect), should Poland (as well as Rumania and Yugoslavia) turn her back to France, no one need be surprised to see the Czech bourgeoisie, faithful to its counter-revolutionary traditions, become the sword-bearer of the German super-Wrangel.

Whatever may be the position of this Versailles parasite in the next war, the Bolshevik-Leninists refuse to link their fate with it. Under the dictatorship of the Czech satraps or under the military heel of the Third Reich, they will fight relentlessly for a free, United States of Europe.

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