Zdenek Mlynar

The Lessons of the Prague Spring

Source: Labour Focus on Eastern Europe, #34, Vol. 10, No. 2, September-December 1988, pp. 34-40.
Marked up: for marxists.org by Zdravko Saveski.
Online version: April 2022.

One of the chief architects of the reformist Action Programme of the Czechoslovak Communist Party in 1968, a member of Dubcek's Party Presidium and Central Committee Secretary, Zdenek Mlynar was expelled from the party in 1969 and, having played a key role in establishing Charter 77, forced to emigrate in 1977. He now lives in Vienna. Below, Mlynar draws a balance sheet of the Prague Spring against the backdrop of Gorbachev's current reforms in the Soviet Union.

The Prague Spring of 1968 has unquestionably become history, but by no means dead history simply to be buried in textbooks. Today, twenty years later, arguments about the true significance of the Prague Spring trigger off more political emotions and conflicting interests than only a few years ago. The reason is that they touch on several topical political problems in connection with the Soviet perestroika, and thus once again concern the interests of various groups, especially the ruling establishment in Czechoslovakia.

There is no doubt that one can argue about the significance of the Prague Spring as a whole, and about the individual phases of its development, about fundamental ideas as well as about the actions carried through at the time. An open and critical discussion about all this is necessary; without it the Prague Spring will remain a legend or a political nightmare. But an objective critical discussion is impossible today not only in Czechoslovakia; it has so far failed to materialise even within the framework of the new reform policy in the USSR. Isolated signs that a more open and new public discussion of this subject may be possible after all are apparent only in Hungary.

That is why such an indispensable discussion is all the more needed, at least within the West European Left. I believe that this is realistic for two reasons: firstly, the Prague Spring was an attempt at a specific development of socialism in a country with a strong, civilised, West European cultural and political tradition, and secondly, a critical discussion about developments in Czechoslovakia at that time could be worthwhile even in order to grasp certain problems which the Western Left is beginning to encounter in connection with Gorbachev's perestroika. This new Soviet policy needs the backing of the Left in the West. I believe that such a backing is possible but as critical solidarity which would not disguise potential differences.

One such difference is undoubtedly the varying evaluations of the Prague Spring. In Czechoslovakia there are those who are peddling over and over – and this year even with exceptional militancy – the allegation that the Prague Spring was a counter-revolutionary threat to socialism, and that only the military intervention in August 1968 saved socialism. The politically responsible representatives in the new Soviet leadership have so far failed to adopt a clear stand on this issue. On the other hand, the overwhelming majority of the West European Left has for many years held quite different opinions, and today it regards the Prague Spring as a historic harbinger of the Soviet perestroika. It is, therefore, quite befitting that at this seminar[*] we should openly discuss the balance sheet of the Prague Spring. The Western Left cannot tolerate attempts at obstructing such a discussion even within the framework of its intrinsic support of Gorbachev's policy. After all, anti-reform forces are backing such attempts even today. In my paper I am naturally not able to make an all-round analysis of the Prague Spring, and I shall therefore confine myself to a number of specific questions. I shall concentrate, above all, on the concepts, ideas and political steps taken as part of the reform-communist policy, i.e. the problem of reforming the system "from above", at the initiative of the ruling Communist Party. An analysis of the trends, of the orientation of values or social interests operating in Czechoslovak society at the time as "pressure from below" would go beyond the scope of this paper. Without such an analysis a review of the situation in Czechoslovakia inevitably remains rather over-simplified and one-sided.

The Prague Spring as a general trend in Soviet-type systems and as a specific Czechoslovak road

It is not possible to understand the Prague Spring without at least a very brief characterisation of the historic conditions in which it came forth. On the one hand, it was one of a number of attempts at changing the Soviet-type system after the Second World War. Yugoslavia's attempt at creating a new model of socialism after 1948, Nikita Krushchev's reforms in the USSR and their consequences in Poland in 1956, as well as Imre Nagy's attempts at reform in Hungary in 1953 and 1956 constitute, so to speak, the forerunners of the Prague Spring. The ideological concepts of the reform communists in Czechoslovakia in 1968 are virtually inconceivable without Krushchev's criticism of Stalin and without his CPSU Programme of 1961, even though the ultimate result – the political programme of the Prague Spring – goes far beyond Krushchev's policy.

But there is one thing that all these events have in common: the struggle to change the Stalin-type system. This system always plays the role of an antagonist – and that is what unites all these events. But under no circumstances can they be reduced to this common denominator because there are considerable differences between them. In this sense the Prague Spring was a unique event that cannot be repeated; it could occur only in Czechoslovakia in the 1960s.

It was no explosion of mass discontent, it was no revolt of the governed against those who governed them, with whom the people could no longer find a common language and who surrender only to the force of a potential uprising. Those were the features of developments in Poland and Hungary in 1956 (and later again in Poland in 1980-81), but certainly not of the Prague Spring. As distinct from Krushchev's reforms, the Prague Spring was no attempt at changes predominantly in the apparatus of power; it was at the same time something that set society, the mass of the population and indeed all social strata, in motion – it was a movement both "from above" and "from below".

Even though the concepts of the nature, of the sequence of events and the pace of essential changes were not identical "at the top" and "at the bottom", and there were several clashes of interest which could have turned into situations of conflict, mutual communication was in no way impaired. It was possible to find a common language and the necessary degree of mutual trust between the initiators of the reform "from above" and efforts to change the system "from below". Opinion polls in the middle of July 1968 provided the following picture: 51% expressed confidence in the policy of the Communist Party, 33% were neutral (neither trust nor distrust) and only 16% were distrustful of the party. For the sake of comparison, those questioned were asked whether they had trusted the Communist Party before 1968, and the reply was: 23% yes, 29% neutral, 48% no. I believe that under these internal political conditions the reform programme was quite realistic.

But these conditions were the result of very specific circumstances. The decisive role in public life was played by generations which could still remember other than Stalinist conditions – both in society and within the Communist Party. The reform process within the Communist Party was advocated to a decisive degree by people who had joined the party before 1948, that is to say, before the seizure of monopoly power. The political experience of this generation was strongly influenced by the years 1945-1948.

As distinct from other Soviet-bloc countries, the Communist Party was no insignificant sect before the Second World War but a strong political party, represented in Parliament. After the war, in 1946, the communists won almost 40% in free elections, competing with four other political parties. This political upsurge as well as socialisation measures took place without the presence of the Soviet army in the country; the Soviet army had arrived in the spring of 1945, welcomed by the population as a liberator, and left in December of the same year.

Large-scale socialisation had taken place before 1948, without intervention by the army and without the monopoly power of the Communist Party: at that time the state sector was responsible for 25%, and only 24.7% came from the capitalist sector. In the distribution of the national revenue for consumption 65% went to wage-earners, 15.7% to farmers, 9.5% to artisans and the free professions, 4% to white-collar workers and only 5.8% to capitalists and landowners. Only he who identifies the building of socialism with the introduction of a Stalin-type system can deny that a qualitative transformation had taken place during that period, and that capitalism had already been overcome. Socialism was able to consolidate and develop in Czechoslovakia after 1947 by methods entirely different from those which consisted of accepting the Soviet Stalinist system in the economy and in politics. True, Sovietisation did prevail in practice but this was the result of very specific historic conditions at that time, and it was not the only alternative in the development of socialism.

In 1968 all this was still very much alive in the memory both of society and of the Communist Party. In the minds of people any alternative to a Stalinist development was linked with concrete recollections of the time prior to 1948; it was anything but an abstract demand, linked in the minds of people with events they could no longer remember (as is the case in most Soviet-bloc countries today and, more particularly, in the USSR). The generation of reform communists in Czechoslovakia did not regard the basic democratic demands, especially the principle of democratic control of society in its relation to the Communist Party, as a "threat of counterrevolution". They knew from their own experience that in a democratic system the party could successfully vie for political leadership in society even without the presence of Soviet tanks, that democratic control by the people did not mean that the masses would start hanging communists on lamp posts.

But these were the very concepts which had prevailed in the minds of the leaders in countries where conditions were fundamentally different from those in Czechoslovakia – in Poland, the GDR, Bulgaria, and also in the Soviet Union. They were probably right as regards their own countries, but they were totally mistaken with reference to Czechoslovakia in 1968. It was only after the military intervention and after twenty years of so-called "normalisation" that conditions in Czechoslovakia were adapted to those prevailing in their respective countries.

The conceptual legacy of the reform communism of the Prague Spring period

Regardless of the power-political defeat of the Czechoslovak Communist Party's reform policy, the conceptual legacy of the Prague Spring programme remains highly topical today, at a time of a fresh attempt at changing the system in the USSR. Although official propaganda in Prague is repeating over and over that the reform programme of the Prague Spring had nothing in common with Gorbachev's perestroika concepts because the "revisionists" in the CPCz had wanted to weaken socialism whereas Gorbachev was consolidating it, every unbiased person can easily discern a congruence between many fundamental notions of the two reform concepts. But the programmatical concepts of the Czechoslovak reform communists contained many elements differing from the present Soviet concepts. I believe that it is worth concentrating on the kind of problems which, on closer analysis, reveal the congruences or differences in thinking. I shall mention two such problems which I consider to be particularly significant.

First: the acknowledgement that the existing Soviet-type economic and socio-political system is the result of specific historic conditions in the USSR of the 1930s and 1940s (i.e. the period of Stalin's rule) and not the embodiment of "general laws of socialism". This had been accepted in Prague as far back as the 1960s and was recognised by Mikhail Gorbachev in his speech at the CPSU Central Committee session in January 1987 as the point of departure for essential changes in the USSR.

Even leaving aside such natural and evident problems of the so-called "personality cult" as the vast political and police terror during Stalin's time, which Krushchev had already criticised after Stalin's death and attempted to eliminate step by step, as well as the dictatorial despotism and other phenomena, the Soviet system remains the main target of criticism, and its qualitative change the essential prerequisite for the further advance of society. This applied to Czechoslovakia in 1968 and it applies to the USSR in 1988.

What were the main points of departure for the criticism of this type of the Soviet system, (i.e. without the most brutal features of the Stalin period), by reform communists in Czechoslovakia in 1968? The fundamental point of departure was the humanistic interpretation of Marxism: no social system – including socialism and communism – must be understood as an end in itself but always as a means to achieving one's objective, namely the liberation of man. In accordance with Marx, the liberation of man does not mean his political and legal freedom only, but also freedom from the dictate of material conditions which are obstructing the optimum development of human abilities as well as the maximum satisfaction and cultivation of human needs.

Against this background the Soviet model of socialism must above all be critically seen as a particularly crude, often barbaric even, form of the dictate of elementary (extensive) industrialisation over people and their needs. It leads to the opposite of what Marxism considers to be its objective: to the subjugation of all human needs, their development and cultivation, to the interests of the rudimentary progress of industrialisation. Forms of dictating to people are used in order to achieve this, which originally emanated from the class struggle, but later changed into permanent instruments of a bureaucratic rule of society.

This model must be overcome in the interests of promoting the forces of production, in the interest of a change from extensive to intensive economic growth, in the interest of implementing the so-called scientific and technical revolution without which communism (even as set forth in the 1961 CPSU Programme) is unthinkable. But the purpose of this revolution is by no means merely the further growth of the forces of production. The scientific and technical revolution will have fundamental social and human consequences: it will facilitate a whole series of development processes which have hitherto appeared to be utopian ideas. It will change the character of human labour (in favour of qualified, creative intellectual work), it will facilitate the kind of reduction in working hours which will make Marx's vision of the freedom of man beyond the factory gate a realistic prospect.

The authors of this ideological concept (especially in the book by Radovan Richta and others: Civilisation at the Crossroads, various editions in 1966-1969) have no doubt committed a number of simplifications, and they frequently regarded the scientific and technical revolution as some sort of panacea against all kinds of ailments. They emphasised those effects of such a revolution which fitted into their overall optimistic reflections, while ignoring others, undesirable in their opinion – for example the entire ecological problem. Twenty years ago they already believed that the scientific and technical revolution would inevitably enforce a change of the Soviet-type system, whereas in reality this system simply delayed the scientific and technical revolution for entire decades.

But in spite of this there is a fundamental concurrence between their criticism and the present criticism based on the positions of perestroika: without a change of the Soviet system, emerging as it did from Stalin's days, the road leads into a blind alley of stagnation, and revolutionary progress of the scientific and technical revolution is unfeasible. However, in the present Soviet concept the problem of the human consequences of the scientific and technical revolution, the problem of liberating man from the dictate of industrial material conditions is pushed into the background, as distinct from the visions of the Prague Spring ideologues. Present Soviet reflections frequently understand the so-called "human factor" technocratically, i.e. as an instrument of scientific and technical progress which remains an end in itself.

There can be no doubt that an open discussion of these problems, based on publications issued during the Prague Spring, would be useful and would not fail to be significant also for the Western Left. The problem of social and human linkage – from the so-called structural unemployment to ecological problems – is extremely topical; not only for theory but also for political practice, in order to overcome the so-called "crisis of the Left".

The second major problem, where both similarities and dissimilarities as well as a different approach can be observed when examining the solutions proposed by the Czechoslovak reform communists in 1968 and by the Soviet reform policy today, is a whole set of questions relating to which attributes of the present system are to be removed, and which, on the contrary, the new system which is to replace the present, is to retain.

When seeking answers to these questions one discovers many a coincidence in the practical approach of the Prague Spring programme and the programmatic documents of perestroika. For example, there is agreement that the existing system of economic management must cease to issue directives and instructions to enterprises in the form of central planning indicators, valid for virtually all operations of enterprises; that enterprises are to be given independent authority and responsibility for their economic activity – enterprises are to be run by economic and not administrative methods. Basically speaking, the market mechanism and social planning are to be linked but in a way that is qualitatively different from the present system.

There is agreement, for example, that if economic reform is to ensure truly intensive economic growth it must be accompanied by political reform. Yet political reform must imply above all democratisation, i.e. a situation where society exercises effective control over bureaucratic apparatuses, and stimulates people to use their own initiative at work as well as in public life.

In general terms one can also notice a similar approach to the progress of democratisation. Firstly, criticism can be voiced and differing views can be stated in public, including in the press and the media in general. Secondly, there is the ongoing democratisation process within the ruling Communist Party, and efforts are being made to ensure that Party bodies (the apparatus) do not take on the tasks and authority of state and economic bodies and of other organisations. Thirdly, work collectives are recognised as a political subject; hence the need to introduce certain forms of self-management in socialist enterprises. Fourthly, there is the demand that the state acts and develops as a constitutional state with all this entails (the principles of the division and control of power, an independent judiciary, subordination of all apparatuses to the law, control of observance of laws, etc.).

Considerable differences are quite evident between the way these principles were implemented during the Prague Spring and the present reform in the USSR; they stem from the extremely different conditions and traditions (I shall come back to these differences in greater detail). But it cannot be denied that, generally speaking, there is a coincidence between all the development trends of the political system mentioned.

In the current discussion of the features needed by the new system, and of the causes of the malfunctioning and crisis produced by the old system, attempts are appearing in the USSR to determine the "obstructing mechanism" within the old system which must be totally overcome and eliminated. Such an "obstructing mechanism" is described in greater detail especially as it exists in the system of directive planning and management of the economy but not in the actual political system. The reform communist concept of changes in the political system during the Prague Spring, on the other hand, was based on the inference that such an "obstructing mechanism" – or, to be more accurate, defects resulting from the system – have a common denominator in the economic as well as in the political system.

In 1968 the Czechoslovak reform communists fully understood that the problem resided above all in the position of controlled (dominated) subjects who are prevented from behaving in an autonomous manner, i.e. to make independent assessments of various options of their own action and choose the one which a given social subject (a group or an individual) considers to be optimal. But to be able to do this the social subject must have adequate legal and organisational options (i.e. he must not be gagged by excessive centralisation) and must be given sufficient information about the situation, about himself, about various options of progress and the ensuing consequences (which means that such information must be neither concealed nor censored).

The Soviet-type system, with its roots in the Stalin era, was built in such a way that the target chosen by the centre (or just a small number of targets) had to be achieved come what may, no matter how high the price to be paid in other spheres of society. Everything not in accordance with the chosen target (with directives from the centre) was regarded as being an undesirable and disruptive phenomenon. This naturally applied also to the capacity of the most diverse social subjects to act autonomously: autonomy "down below" was an undesirable, disruptive factor and was therefore suppressed. It follows that in principle initiative and innovation-thinking were equally undesirable.

Under certain circumstances (in times of war, during the Soviet industrialisation drive, etc.) this could have been a functional advantage of the system. But this advantage became a shortcoming and inability of the system to seek optimal solutions among different alternatives, to react to new circumstances, to learn new methods under new conditions. To cope with such tasks, an economic and political system must be capable of the very opposite to what the Soviet system was capable of: it must be able to promote initiative and innovation, permit all social subjects (large social groups, collectives and individuals) to seek various solutions independently.

But how is such a necessary change of the entire system to be achieved in a situation with only one ruling party under whose leadership the old and inadequate system has developed? There is only one way out of this situation: not to expect that the ruling party will always be guided by the experience it has acquired, and that it will enable its social subjects, of its own free will, to behave autonomously; instead, it is necessary to carry out changes which in future will simply not tolerate present methods of government and control, which will prevent the ruling party from depriving its social subjects of their ability to act autonomously. This means that barriers must be erected to arbitrariness in the decision-making process which in practice could block decisions opposed by the majority of autonomous social subjects.

That was the common denominator of the planned economic and political reforms during the Prague Spring, summed up in the Action Programme of the CPCz. That was precisely why this programme had to be branded as a "revisionist" and "damaging" document when the so-called normalisation policy restored a post-Stalinist Soviet-type system in Czechoslovakia.

In the economy, a market mechanism was to act as a barrier against the recurrence of the old system, a mechanism by which economically fixed prices and sufficient competition would compel independently operating socialist economic enterprises to operate with maximum economic efficiency. Moreover, it would not permit the administrative apparatus to restrict the autonomy of enterprises. The state would have to regulate the economy, and social needs would be given priority exclusively by means of economic instruments (either by preferences or disadvantages) compatible with the autonomy of enterprises.

In political life such a barrier would be created by a system of institutionalised, legally anchored and organisationally formulated social interests or their bearers. Even with only one ruling party, an institutionalised system of a plurality of social interests would have to be capable of preventing the abuse of power where absolute power (total control) over society is being exercised by one single centre. I believe that a critical and objective analysis of the theoretical reflections and of the documents of the Prague Spring, referring to these problems, would have a positive significance for the further progress of discussions in the USSR. What Soviet discussions are still lacking is, among other things, a more specific determination of the common denominators of all necessary system changes – the ability of social subjects to act with autonomy and the establishment of effective practical barriers in various spheres of social life against the concentration of power in the hands of a single centre.

A discussion of this aspect of the Prague Spring is today topical also for the Western Left: in this context socialism and political democracy can be linked; this is a general problem beyond the limits of Soviet-type systems.

Problems of the practical implementation of the Prague Spring reform programme

We all know that the reform communist leadership, symbolised by Alexander Dubcek, did not succeed in implementing the programme of the Prague Spring. The fact that military intervention from outside was the decisive cause of this failure makes a critical analysis of the reasons for this political defeat extremely difficult. The discussion generally focuses on the question of whether or not it had been possible to influence the Soviet military intervention, whether it need have happened had certain aspects of developments in Czechoslovakia been different.

A reply to these types of questions can never be more than a hypothesis, a mere guess. I therefore do not think that we ought to give special attention to this question in our seminar. I personally believe that the chances of preventing the military intervention were minute – especially once a reform programme with provisions such as those contained in the CPCz Action Programme had been adopted and began to be translated into reality. In the situation as it existed in the USSR at the time – and more particularly also in Poland and the GDR – these countries could be expected to show tolerance at best with the type of reforms carried out by Kadar's Hungary.

In this connection one may, of course, wonder whether the Czechoslovak leadership had been acting in a responsible manner when it announced the Czechoslovak reform programme and attempted to carry it out. In theory it may be conceded that the reform programme could have been somewhat restricted, and certain of its substantial features could well have not been made public and could have remained in the phase of internal discussions for a time – we could have tried to release the individual reform concepts and practical steps in small "doses". But such a procedure would not have corresponded to the domestic situation or to the possibilities of Czechoslovak society or in the CPCz. As I pointed out earlier, in the specific Czechoslovak conditions this would have been entirely unsatisfactory, and such a procedure would have continued to arouse the kind of resistance that had been growing as far back as in 1963-1967.

In the course of the Prague Spring we can observe a rather paradox situation: precisely because internal conditions were conducive to a radical democratic reform, the attempt to translate this reform into practice led to a growing threat from outside, constituted by the decisive political forces in the majority of Soviet-bloc countries, which at that time were already consciously rejecting risky reform experiments and, instead, were striving to stabilise the status quo of the post-Stalinist system. The greater the democratic potential in Czechoslovakia and in the CPCz, the more acute the conflict became.

I believe that under these circumstances the reform communist leadership had only one possibility: to retain the maximum political initiative towards a democratisation in its own hands, to take the initiative in implementing speedy democratisation measures and, thereby, anticipate a situation where strong pressure was mounting "from below" while the necessary changes "from above" were being postponed or not carried out. In its attempt to retain the initiative the leadership had to look quickly for allies abroad who would, after all, be a factor which the Soviet leadership would have to take into consideration. In brief, I would say that in my opinion the special CPCz Congress should have been held as soon as possible, in May 1968. The Action Programme could have become the line of the Party congress, a new Central Committee could have been elected on the basis of such a political line, the conflicts in the political leadership could thus have been eliminated because its members would have felt that there was now long-term stability. Had the congress met in May it would have been possible to arrange a gathering of delegations from other parties present – and persuade at least a group of communist parties (Yugoslavia, Italy, France, and others) to come out in support of the Action Programme. This would have permitted the leadership of certain parties in the Warsaw Treaty countries to express their own standpoint (Hungary and, from a different angle, Romania). After such a move the military intervention would have been far more difficult (and an intervention would certainly not have taken place before May).

Parliamentary elections should also not have been put off, in my opinion. An early change of the electoral law would have ensured, if not an optimal democratisation of the voting procedure, at least a more democratic method of proposing candidates; it would also have ensured a genuine choice between more than one candidates – and once these innovations had been tried out the elections could have taken place in June 1968. This would have given tens of thousands of elected officials a greater feeling of stability. The promulgation of the law on the National Front should also not have been postponed because, politically, it was clear that a system of several political parties could not have developed during the next few years without a platform of political monopoly. This law could have eliminated the uncertainties on the nature of the proposed law on assembly and association in the sense that it would have been clear that the reform would not provide for political organisations outside the National Front.

To ensure that political initiative remained firmly in the hands of the leadership it was essential that this leadership should not have concealed certain uncomfortable facts such as the systematically growing criticism of the Prague Spring by most of the Warsaw Treaty countries. Instead, the danger of such a development should have been discussed quite openly; it should have been mentioned as a warning factor to which many practical aspects of the reform should have been subordinated. In this connection it was also wrong that the leadership failed to retain some kind of legal provision which would have allowed it to intervene in the activities of the mass media even, if necessary, by banning the publication of certain items of news or opinions. After all, this was also in conflict with the CPCz Action Programme which provided for the abolition of preliminary censorship but not for a state of affairs where the dissemination of certain standpoints or commentaries could be banned neither by a court decision or in any other way. I repeat that in saying this I do not claim that this would have been the way to preclude the military intervention. But as distinct from Alexander Dubcek in his interview with L'Unita I believe that twenty years later all the members of the then CPCz leadership have every reason for some self-critical reflections about their activities at the time. It simply is not true that in practice there never was an alternative to the one which was looming – this is never the case in history. Politics, as we know, is the "art of the possible", and the reform leadership of the Prague Spring did not always fully master this art. It remains an inarguable and sad fact that twenty years after the Prague Spring, conditions for a democratic change of the system in Czechoslovakia are worse than before, and that after the defeat of the Prague Spring the specifically democratic potential of the country has been systematically destroyed. Naturally, the blame lies with those who decided the military intervention and who, for the next twenty years, have been pursuing a policy of suppressing all reforms. But the question of the blame is not the only one that arises in this connection. I therefore believe that neither the authors nor the political leaders of the 1968 reform programme are justified in feeling that they are deeply hurt heroes, and that all this no longer concerns them.

Even though the Prague Spring was a very specific process which would have been impossible elsewhere, certain generalisations can nevertheless be derived from its practical programme, which are significant also for future attempts at reform in Soviet-type systems, not excluding Gorbachev's present attempt. Firstly, it is the lesson that as the reform is put into practice a situation inevitably arises where the old system of management no longer operates satisfactorily but the new one is still far from efficient. This applies in general terms as well as to individual sectors of social life, for example the economy, ideology, etc. Under such circumstances conflicts between potential extremes easily come to a head – for example, between the opponents of reform and their most radical champions. Both maintain that time is ripe for the implementation of their plans: the opponents try to prove that there is "chaos", while the radicals want to demonstrate that the infraction of the ability to function is the result of "half-hearted reforms".

The experience of the Prague Spring shows that provided we start from the premise that the system is to be reformed "from above" but also "from below", but is not to lead to eruption or a "revolution from below", everything must be done to ensure that such an "intermediary state of affairs': is of the shortest possible duration. In such a situation it is wrong to postpone planned measures towards change in the hope that they would be more perfect, more consistent if taken later, and so on. On the contrary, what is needed is swift action and a demonstration that the leadership is capable of acting – and that these acts provide scope for the advance of the reform. If the leadership is incapable of this, such scope will be imposed by pressure "from below", and the leadership will have to yield.

The second lesson of the Prague Spring is that wherever possible practical reforms of the existing system should take place simultaneously at all levels so that the system as a whole changes gradually: this avoids one sector of the system changing completely, while the others remain unchanged and, consequently, without an effective impact. This, I believe, is what happened during the Prague Spring with regard to freedom of expression and of the press. Since the easiest thing is to bring about a qualitative change in this sector – all that is needed is to abolish censorship and lift other restrictions – it was the first sector where a complete change occurred. But since changes in other sectors of the political system were constantly being put off the free press evidently became the only, one can even say the monopoly, sphere where democratisation was making an impact.

This, and certainly not freedom of expression or of the press, had been a political weakness. There were no correctives which in a functioning democratic pluralist system guarantee that the publication of certain views in the press is not identified with the actual process of decision-making. The press provides information and conveys various positions and opinions – but in the democratic structures of a system of power and administration, in the running of society, political decisions are made elsewhere. During the Prague Spring these were obsolete, unchanged, devoid of true authority: everyone knew that they would soon be replaced (the CPCz Central Committee after the congress, Parliament and national committees after elections, etc.). The press, freed of censorship, became not the "seventh super-power" but in some cases the only true force with authority among the democratically-thinking majority of society.

The third lesson of the course of the Prague Spring bears witness to the exceptional significance of unity (and, in the negative sense, of the rift) in the political leadership of the reform process. In reforms of Soviet-type systems the situation in the leadership appears to be of exceptional importance. As the reform advances different views clash, various groups and alliances are formed depending on the type of issue at stake. Arguments about the pace and about the more or less radical image of reforms are by and large inevitable. It seems that a situation where a united standpoint on crucial issues, albeit a compromise, can be achieved, would be optimal; and the policy which is actually being pursued must then submit to such a united (compromise) approach, or those who are not prepared to submit must be made to leave the leadership. Otherwise there will be a split, and one section of the leadership will be acting against the other, various groups would see in their opposite numbers enemies in the struggle for power positions, etc.

In Czechoslovakia this process – supported especially by the postponement of the Party congress – resulted in a section of the leadership teaming up with foreign forces and preparing the intervention against the reform policy. But the responsibility that developments reached such a state of affairs lay to a certain extent with the entire leadership at the time, more particularly with its top representatives.

If we compare these features of the practical policy during the Prague Spring with the reform policy in the USSR since 1985 we note that Gorbachev has so far fortunately managed to be more successful in all these aspects. From the very beginning he has attached primary significance to protecting his domestic reforms also internationally. He is introducing the reform programme step by step – from less demanding system themes (as far back as at the 27th Congress in 1986) to a radical democratisation policy (January 1987) and an attempt to introduce a programme of system changes (the All-Union CPSU Conference during the past few days). The Soviet leadership carried out certain important measures – the Party Congress in February 1986 and the Conference in June 1988 – and did not postpone them, even though there was no shortage of recommendations by the more radical supporters of reform to postpone them in order to be able to "advance further with greater consistency". The new version of the CPSU Programme adopted by the 1986 Congress no longer expresses the essence of the perestroika policy – yet it was important that the Congress took place when it did, and that perestroika was not being implemented in an interim atmosphere.

Similarly, the "glasnost" policy is not accompanied by the kind of shortcomings mentioned in connection with the freedom of the press during the Prague Spring. And as regards the situation within the party leadership, it appears that not even the clumsy demotion of Boris Yeltsin, done the "old way", nor the compromises with positions attributed mainly to Ligachev, have endangered the overall reform course – or led to a split within the leadership.

But this, of course, does not mean that there are no serious threats to the perestroika policy, though of a different type. It is not possible to deal with them at length in this paper. But they more or less coincide with the same hazards with which Krushchev had been unable to cope in his day. Yet we do not find the kind of political mistakes which we registered in Czechoslovakia in 1968.

I hope that from this critical analysis of the Prague Spring policy it follows quite unambiguously and unconditionally that even though I am in favour of a critical discussion of the Prague Spring I totally and firmly reject the concept that in 1968 socialism in Czechoslovakia had been threatened by a looming "counter-revolution". This concept is the result of the kind of thinking of those who decided to launch the military intervention against the Prague Spring. From subsequent developments it follows that these people identified socialism with a Soviet-type Stalinist system, and they presented any qualitative change as an attempt at "counter-revolution". Developments in Czechoslovakia in 1968 provided them with quite a few ostensible motives because, as I pointed out, they took place under the influence of Czechoslovakia's democratic experience prior to the imposition of the Stalinist model. Czechoslovakia as a country which has for centuries developed historically in the context of West European traditions, and consequently with the same political culture, will make any future major attempt at changing the existing system differently than the USSR. All the most significant guarantees of the domestic political success of the 1968 reform were at the same time the cause of serious difficulties, if Western political culture is seen as something hostile to socialism while the civilisation and political culture of Russia (i.e. often traditions of despotism) are regarded as something that is in keeping with socialism. Traditions of a parliamentary system, freedom of expression and association in the sense of a parliamentary pluralist democracy, the concept of the political party as a civic subject and not as a semi-clerical organisation, the principle of a constitutional state and civic rights as the guarantee of the independence of the bearers of these rights, even if such an autonomy is irksome to the state or the regime – all this is part of the political culture of the West and of Czechoslovakia as well. True, between 1948 and 1968, with the brief exception of the Prague Spring, this political culture had been suppressed by different methods. The past twenty years of the so-called normalisation policy have caused particular damage – entire young generations have been deprived of a situation which would correspond to this political culture.

It is only natural that the attempt at reform in 1968 aroused all these suppressed factors of political culture, inspired by the West European tradition. This complicated the possibility of a reform "from above", and it was difficult to stop the disintegration of the Soviet-type system taking place at a pace that was perhaps too fast, too radical and above all unbalanced. I believe, for example, that the one-sided role of the free press which I criticised is also connected with this cultural and political tradition. The fact that Russia does not possess such traditions on the one hand facilitates the situation for reform communists in the USSR (pressure "from below" often does not put forward demands which cannot be fulfilled) but at the same time makes true democratisation more difficult. As Gorbachev said, the entire society will first have to "learn democracy" in elementary situations.

A Final Remark

When reviewing the Prague Spring policy twenty years later one must also try to formulate prospects and expectations for the future. I believe that in an historical context where twenty years are virtually irrelevant, the Prague Spring has been designated as a positive projection of current endeavours for a qualitative transformation of the Soviet system. It is of no consequence what Mikhail Gorbachev wants to or is able to say about this: if he wraps himself in silence or says whatever he likes, this will not change historical facts by one iota.

I am not one of those who believe that the way out of the current profound crisis in Czechoslovakia – which is, above all, a political and moral crisis and has its roots in the total discredit of values traditionally linked with socialism – can be conceived as a repetition of the Prague Spring. I think that neither society nor the CPCz today possess the kind of crucial conditions which twenty years ago led to the Prague Spring. There is no need for those who represented the attempt at reform at that time to return to political offices. What is important is that those who crushed this attempt at the time and who for twenty years have been pursuing a policy of devastating Czechoslovakia's democratic potential at long last relinquish all decisive political positions. Without this the new and younger generation will not gain access to decisive political positions; it is a generation that is no longer in the grip of its own past to the extent of not being able to look for new paths of development. Only a political team which represents this generation can inaugurate a reform process "from above" – and this is the indispensable condition if endeavours for democratisation "from below", which never cease entirely, are to transform into a process where a new power-political alternative can emerge.

There can be no doubt that the badly needed changes to the system in Czechoslovakia will not be introduced from outside, by Gorbachev, but that they are possible only to the extent that domestic forces strive to introduce them. But this does not mean that the new Soviet leadership could not and should not do more than it has been doing so far to assist a necessary reform process in Czechoslovakia.

Czechoslovakia today is a typical example of how the words of the new Soviet leadership on the right of each country to an autonomous and specific road are changing into empty phrases because for forty years everything that could permit such an autonomous and specific road was suppressed by the ruling of Soviet leaderships. This, of course, applies not only to Czechoslovakia, but it is particularly pronounced there, since the effects of the 1968 invasion are still very much alive.

After this act of brute force Czechoslovakia – including its Communist Party where one third of the membership has been thrown out – is a crippled political subject, the result of Brezhnev's Soviet leadership. The offer by Brezhnev's heirs to grant crippled political subjects independence is, of course, not an act atoning for past brutality, but at best an empty phrase, at worst a manifestation of hypocrisy.

By sustaining its attitude to the events of 1968, especially to the military intervention against the Prague Spring, the new Soviet leadership not only maintains the status quo, since it is evidently afraid that a possible new radical turn might well escape its political control. By condoning Brezhnevism as a political atmosphere in Czechoslovakia, and by condoning the hackneyed lies about the Prague Spring, it is gradually and increasingly discrediting its own policy of perestroika in the eyes of Czechoslovak society – which had originally expected more than just verbose statements from this policy; it had hoped that this policy would offer real possibilities for its own, that is to say, for a democratic development in Czechoslovakia.

I believe that the attitude of the new Soviet leadership to the military intervention against the Prague Spring is of special significance for the West European Left. It will demonstrate whether, and to what extent, this leadership is capable of conducting a truly equal constructive dialogue with the Western Left. It appears that the new Soviet leadership does not even feel it worthwhile to take account of the fact that the great majority of the Western Left has a fundamentally different view about the Soviet military intervention and the Prague Spring; it seems reluctant to make an open statement on the subject. But there is also a second, no less important aspect which I have already mentioned indirectly. The evaluation of the Prague Spring as a process leading to counter-revolution is closely linked with the type of attitude one is prepared to adopt towards West European political culture, to its concept of socialism and democracy.

The Prague Spring can be brandished as "counter-revolutionary" only if the West European concept of socialism and democracy itself is seen as something anti-socialist. "Western" equals capitalist, anti-socialist – this monstrous reflection is at the bottom of such an approach. The struggle for the right to an open, critical discussion of the Prague Spring, the struggle for the possibility of such a discussion even in the Soviet-bloc countries, including Czechoslovakia, the demand for an unequivocal condemnation of the military intervention against the Prague Spring as a step which was the product of old, Brezhnevian, and not of Gorbachovian, political thinking – all this is in the very political interest of the entire Western Left. This Left is thus fighting for recognition of its own position in the world-wide endeavour for progress and socialism; it is fighting to ensure that the Soviet side should treat it as an equal political partner in future. And, vice versa, to tolerate continued public lies about the Prague Spring or, at best, to tolerate silence means that the Western Left accepts the infamous role of "useful idiot" who, if necessary, can act as a mere facade even, say, in the Kremlin, but whose views, if they prove to be inconvenient, are not taken seriously.


[*] This is a transcript of a talk given to a seminar on "The Prague Spring Twenty Years After" on 7-8 July 1988 at the Institute Gramsci Emilia-Romagna in Bologna, Italy. Translation into English supplied by the author and slightly edited.


Last updated on 18 April 2022