Saturday, June 24, 2017

Background to the Czech Crisis (1968)

From the September 1968 issue of the Socialist Standard

Democracy is vitally important to the working class. Socialists maintain that it is the experience of working men and women under capitalism which will drive them in the end to understand the need for socialism and, as we see it, this process is enhanced by the degree of democracy which workers have won for themselves. Recent developments in Czechoslovakia before the Russian invasion have a real interest for the working class and the question arises whether socialists should support Dubcek and the ‘liberal’ wing of the Czechoslovakian Communist Party against the conservative forces there and in the other state capitalist countries. But first, to understand what is taking place in Czechoslovakia, it is necessary to know something of the background to the recent reforms.

The Czechoslovakian economy has been in difficulties for some time. These first came to a head in August, 1962 when the five year plan (1961-65) had to be abandoned because of balance of payments difficulties and an all-round failure to increase productivity. As a stop-gap measure an interim plan was devised for 1963 but this resulted in another disaster, with both industrial output and gross national product slumping even further than they had done the year before. Faced with this situation the government was forced to postpone the new five year plan and instead the then President — Novotny — concentrated on exposing the failure of certain key industries to meet their production targets. Yet the .Czechoslovakian economy was in sufficient of an impasse to provoke a more radical approach from many quarters. It was pointed out that trade was heavily oriented towards the Comecon countries, especially Russia which had a virtual monopoly in supplying Czechoslovakia with many of its raw materials. In fact, some of the statistics quoted were quite staggering; Russia was the source of almost all Czechoslovakia’s oil, 80 per cent of its imported iron-ore, 63 per cent of its imports of synthetic rubber and so on. The clear implication was that this in itself was an unhealthy state of affairs and this view was reinforced when the prices paid by Czechoslovakia for some of these raw materials were pointedly compared with those paid by Western countries for the same commodities. Thus, while Italy was known to be getting its crude oil from Russia at 8 roubles/ton, Czechoslovakia was buying the same for 20.8 roubles/ton. There was also criticism of Czechoslovakia’s role within Comecon, since the supranational plans laid it down that Czechoslovakia would concentrate on heavy industry. In 1963, for example, this sphere was accounting for 28 per cent of total investments and this emphasis on heavy industry was said to be helping to produce a lop-sided economy.

These sort of arguments all led in a direction which, for political reasons, Novotny and his colleagues were not prepared to go. However indirectly it was argued, the pressure was for a loosening of Czechoslovakia’s dependence on Comecon and Russia and for an increase in trade with the West. Although the recent struggle in the Praesidium and in the Central Committee of the Czechoslovakian Communist Party has appeared to be focused on an organisational and ideological dispute, it is this clash over economic problems which has formed the real battleground for the upheaval and which led to Novotny being eased out of first the first-secretaryship of the Party and then out of the Presidency. This explains the fact—which has baffled many observers—that in the split in the Praesidium in January, 1968 when the two factions were equally balanced (5-5), the pro-Dubcek camp included such arch conservatives as Hendrych (chief of the Party’s ideological department, who was chiefly responsible for hounding the Czech writers in 1967) and Dolansky (now described as a “reformed Stalinist”) while several so-called liberals voted for Novotny.

The overriding importance which the new leadership attaches to the economic reforms was hinted at by Jaromir Balcar—the vice-president of the Czechoslovakian Chamber of Commerce—when he issued a statement that “the process of political demonstration must, as far as trade is concerned, run in close harmony with the economy of the country as a whole.” In fact, important adjustments to the economy have already been pushed through—such as a reduction of investments in heavy industry by over a third to 18 per cent of total investment. Despite political difficulties, the new Czechoslovak leadership has also been making encouraging noises towards Western powers for intensified economic relations. The Prime Minister, Cernik, has said that Czechoslovakia wants to cooperate with the Common Market and EFTA and there has been a lot of talk about working towards convertibility for the Czech crown. Coupled with this, there has been some forthright criticism of economic relations with Russia, a good example being that involving the $500 m. credit which the Czechoslovakian government originally agreed to advance for the development of the Tyumen oil fields in Siberia. The agreement here was for Czechoslovakia to advance the capital and for Russia to eventually pay it back with oil products from the new Siberian fields. But a controversy has developed over the quantity of oil which Czechoslovakia's $500 million entitles it to. As a commentator on Prague radio put it:
These are precisely the problems Where the interests of the individual Socialist countries clash.
This sort of evidence would seem to be fairly conclusive proof, then that the Czech-Soviet confrontation leading to invasion is rooted in the conflicting economic and strategic interests of the ruling classes of these two countries. This means that workers in Czechoslovakia and elsewhere have no direct stake in this continuing struggle, but it does not mean that they should adopt a completely passive role. Whichever faction in the Communist Party assumes eventual control, the class struggle in Czechoslovakia will continue and the Czech workers should take advantage of any embarrassments which the ruling class is subjected to by pressing ahead with their own demands. And they have done this remarkably well in some respects. Although Dubcek and his followers have found the liberalisation campaign a convenient weapon to hammer their opponents with, it is the working [class] (at least for a time) which has taken over the agitation for democracy and which has already pushed the demands much further than the most 'liberal’ apparatchniks would like to go. Whereas in countries like Russia and Poland recent opposition to the regime has tended to be focused on dissident members of the ruling class (Pavel Litvinov is the grandson of Stalin's foreign minister, for example; Karol Modzelewski is also the son of a late foreign minister) in Czechoslovakia discontent with present conditions has been actively expressed by millions of working men and women. While there is nothing reveloutionary about this—according to opinion polls in the newspapers, over 90 per cent of the Czech population imagines that capitalism has already been eliminated in that country—socialists do not belittle the reforms which workers in Czechoslovakia have been campaigning for. Moves for relaxing press censorship and for establishing something approaching free speech on the streets are important gains for the working class and in the end they will have to rely on nothing but their own efforts to maintain them.

But there are obvious weaknesses as well in this reform movement. The famous '2000 Words' manifesto has underlined these better than anything else. Here the problems confronting working men and women in Czechoslovakia are explained by the 'mistakes’ committed by the previous leadership:
   . . .  the reins of government did not fall into good hands. The incorrect line of the leadership transformed the Party, which had been a political and ideological force, into an organisation of power and it therefore attracted all types of would-be dictators, rogues and charlatans.
   Parliament disregarded parliamentary procedures, the government forgot how to govern and the leaders how to lead. 
Against this was opposed the need for a restyled communist party which would base itself “not on force but on popular support”.

Other workers have a much clearer grasp of the situation and some have been discussing the possibility of forming new political organisations, independent of the regime. Already an independent ‘Non-Party Club' is functioning in Prague and this trend is obviously causing a lot of uneasiness in official circles. This is a development which socialists consider of the greatest importance, for what is desperately needed in Czechoslovakia now is a group of socialist propagandists who can explain that political democracy is not enough, that the working class will only be free when there is common ownership and democratic control over the means of production. For this purpose the Communist Party is useless; it can no more be converted into a socialist workers' party than could the Conservative or Labour parties in Britain. In Czechoslovakia the Communist Party is the organ of the ruling class. Its programme is geared to the interests of state capitalism and inevitably this brings it into conflict with the workers.

This is what the majority of Czech workers have to learn about Dubcek and his party. At the moment his image is one of the humane and good-natured ruler, intent on building a just society in Czechoslovakia. But the problems which harried the working class in Novotny’s days are not going to be eliminated by the new leadership. Superficially the techniques of ruling might be different, but the aim of any capitalist government is always the same—to increase the exploitation of the working class. Novotny realised that the Czechoslovakian economy was in a bad way and sought to use traditional, Stalinist methods to extract more work from the labour force. Dubcek is being more successful with his more subtle approach. Inspired by the call for ‘national unity', employees at the engineering plant of Komorany have decided to create a ‘Fund for the Republic' and to work an extra day without pay in an effort to revive the economy. This move has been taken up elsewhere and at other plants workers have volunteered to give up 1 per cent of their monthly salaries. Already miners in Lezaky (Bohemia) have donated 1,950,000 crowns to the Fund.

The case against men like Alexander Dubcek and Josef Smrkovsky is the argument which socialists apply lo all reformists. However radical the reforms which the new leadership sponsors, they will never allow anything approaching common ownership of the mines, factories and other means of producing wealth. The initiative for this social revolution will have to come from the working class. No socialist, then, could think of supporting Dubcek. Socialists do not take sides in struggles between sections of the ruling class. Socialists in Czechoslovakia will have to form their own party, hostile to “all sections of the master class” and based on principles similar to those of the Bund Demokratischer Sozialisten across the border in Austria.
John Crump

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