The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

50 Years Ago:
The Russian Bureaucracy Crushed the Prague Spring

Sep 3, 2018

On the night of August 20, 1968, the Soviet army invaded Czechoslovakia. The Soviet (USSR) government claimed that this was to give “fraternal aid to the Communist Party and the Czechoslovak people.” Against what threat? The Kremlin saw a threat in the democratization, however timid, of an allied regime.

At the end of World War II, the U.S. and the Soviet Union had been the victorious powers. But each, for their own reasons, feared that a wave of working-class revolutions might break out in Europe, like the wave of revolutions after World War I. The U.S., Soviet and British leaders – Roosevelt, Stalin, and Churchill – agreed to divide Europe into “spheres of influence,” within which, each power would keep order. Thus, the Soviet army, that first liberated the Eastern Europe countries from Nazi rule, was then to be set against those same peoples.

This “holy alliance” suppressed the possibility of workers contending for power in Western Europe, which the U.S. and Britain occupied. The U.S. and Britain then opened the “Cold War” to undermine the USSR’s influence. Stalin, heading the Soviet bureaucracy, moved to put all of his zone’s levers of command into the hands of governing state parties, called Communist, loyal to Stalin. The “People’s Democracies” of Eastern Europe were born.

But the regimes were neither democracies nor in the interests of the people. The working class played no role whatsoever in building those states, which essentially maintained continuity with the pre-war states – bourgeois, usually dictatorial. But now the states were overseen, and protected, by Stalin and by the surveillance of a secret police.

In 1953, Stalin died, and the working class tried to use this opening. There was an uprising in East Berlin in 1953. Then others in 1956, first in Poland, then in Hungary where Kremlin tanks were sent to drown the Hungarian workers’ revolution in blood.

Thereafter, the heads of Poland and Hungary had enough reason to appear as if they agreed with everything Moscow wanted. They had to assure social peace, if “big brother” in Moscow was to give them any sort of elbow room. But in Czechoslovakia, except for a workers’ revolt in 1953 in Plzen, the regime had not had to repress its population in the same way, and it seemed stable.

It wasn’t until agitation began among student youth in 1967 that the Prague regime became unsettled. The leader Novotny was blamed for economic stagnation and was replaced by others who called themselves “reformers.” Their figurehead, Alexander Dubcek, said he wanted “socialism with a human face.” But, like its Eastern European brothers, this bureaucracy wanted to conceal and whitewash the level of control actually exercised over it by Moscow.

So while the Czech “reformers” largely supported the widespread desire for more freedom, they also at the same time sought to prove that they were still useful to the Kremlin. They tried to reassure Moscow that they had the situation well in hand, that their Party could be depended upon, and they would not break ranks from the Warsaw Pact (the Soviet Union’s military alliance).

The “reformers” introduced little bits of the market into the economy, and abolished press censorship. Freed to take voice, many groups contested the right of Dubcek’s party to run society. Popular sentiment soon seemed to be near or at a boil. To intimidate the population, Moscow organized military maneuvers during the summer.

Brezhnev, now heading the USSR, demanded that the “reformers” certify their attachment to Brezhnev’s version of “real socialism.” But even though they gave in to him, they did not convince him that they could actually keep control of their population. Nor were the leaders of the other People’s Democracies convinced; they worried that their own youth might take fire from the newly rebellious youth of Prague.

On August 21, 1968, Czechoslovakia was occupied by 6,000 tanks and 200,000 troops from the Warsaw Pact. Dubcek and his “reformers” denounced the occupation, but called on the people not to resist. Here and there killings and strikes occurred, but in general the population could do nothing but shake their fists and refuse to help the invaders.

Dubcek was taken to the Soviet Union. Later, he was re-installed at the head of the Czechoslovak Communist Party, agreeing to use his reputation to provide cover for the regime and to justify the “temporary” occupation. The small “reforms” were annulled.

A lead blanket fell on the population for 20 years. Repression by the Russian bureaucracy added to hopes that people in Eastern Europe had about the capitalist West.

The Western powers protested, in words, as was their habit. But the U.S., mired in its war in Viet Nam, preferred to let the Kremlin keep order in its zone of influence. Besides, it was useful to the U.S. to be able to accuse Moscow of repressing popular aspirations, just when the overwhelming military firepower of the U.S. was being unleashed against the Vietnamese people and their fight for independence.