Ellis Garvey writes about the complex past of Czechia and Slovakia
The Czechoslovak Socialist Republic, the country which coined the term loved by western liberals and neoconservatives: The Velvet Revolution. But we must ask, what was lifelike in Czechoslovakia, what did they achieve and what was their mistakes?
From the beginning, the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia (CSK) under Klement Gottwald managed to mobilise the population against the fascist regime to then go onto win a great electoral victory in 1948, making one of the most advanced countries in Europe fall under the red banner proving it is possible for Communist Parties to win in such conditions. In 1948, the Communist Party was elected to government and rallied the working-class, using trade unions. Following a degree of revolutionary activity, Czechoslovakia would become a Peoples Democracy. The dictatorship of the proletariat was soon established and using people’s democracy, the anti-fascist National Front was set up to represent the various interests and cross sections of Czechoslovakian society. In the transformation, the National Front was used with the CSK vanguard at its head to prevent anti-democratic influences coming back following the elections. The elections saw a victory of 89.2% giving them an outstanding mandate to govern.
The CSK gained heavy influence in the trade unions and the National Front was used to divide the enemies of the Democratic Revolution at first liquidating a left-deviationist line and then gradually working to remove right deviationist reformist tendencies. In 1948 the Communists seized power by utilising trade unions and workers delegations as its support base to overcome the ‘liberal government’. This forced the government to give in to the demands of the National Front to purge the political mechanisms of anti-democratic and anti-communist influences. Eventually this made way to the formation of a people’s democracy, an action which was condemned in the west as amounting to a ‘coup’. Antonin Novotney would later lead the Communist Party following the death of Gottwald and President Antonín Zápotocký. Establishing Czechoslovakia as a Socialist Republic, Novotney introduced a planned economy and working-class political organs.
With a Peoples Democracy, the Communist Party with the National Front embarked on an economic policy which saw an overall growth of 233% between 1948–59 and employment in industry increase by a total of 44%. This growth of industry far outstripped many western European countries and Japan. A policy of collectivisation was implemented on a voluntary basis, encouraging the forming of cooperatives which greatly saw an increase in the agricultural output of Czechoslovakia. By 1960, the constitution reflected this change and officially turned Czechoslovakia into a socialist republic, the right to work, social, healthcare and education was enshrined into the socialist system.
Internally following the thaw, the KSC saw internal divisions. However, after veering from disagreement to acceptance on the issue for several years, several reforminsts (many of which would fill the ranks of the social democrats years later) attained high positions due to the lacklustre response to ‘destalinisation’. As a result, they seized power and force the resignation of Antonin Novotny following a series of compromises. Subsequently, market mechanisms were introduced and broad autonomy was given to industustry managers. On top of this federalisation split the country between Czechs and Slovaks. Significantly undermining the system in place, Dubcek successfully managed to implement these reforms which ultimately led to the Prague Spring. Without the socialist system being fully engrained, this caused many issues for the KSC. The rhetoric of ‘following the national democratic traditions of Czechoslovakia’ became criticized for its anti-Marxist-Leninist undertones which threatened the notion of the dictatorship of the proletariat.
Not wishing to take risks, the USSR and the rest of the Warsaw Pact intervened using military force after being asked for assistance from anti-Dubcek groupings in the KSC. This was a blow to the USSR’s reputation internationally and the replacement of Dubcek with Husak (a moderate initially worked with Dubcek but a critic) was heavily criticized by China, Albania, Yugoslavia, and Romania. Following on from this, there was a period of ‘normalisation’ under the new First Secretary Gustav Husak would immediately dismiss the reformers responsible for the policies of the ‘Spring’. The policies of this period would be reversed mostly however many went ignored such as the question of federalisation. Resulting from this however was a massive increase in the living standards, consumer goods and an overall growth of the national economy.
With the ascendency of the ‘reform faction’ in the CPSU, the social democratic wing of the KSC gained more power, recruiting celebrities such as the anti-communist and pro-US Vaclav Havel. Due to Husak’s more conservative style leadership, western secret services were able to fund and support opposition groups. Anti-social behaviour increased as did the crime rate which made things difficult in maintaining the high efficiency of the economy. It was not long before an economic downturn occurred, spurred on by globalisation, making the once famed consumer goods in the West (such as cars, clocks and other goods) completely uncompetitive. With the failure of Perestroika to address the Soviet economic problems, the export market suffered. This caused a major economic problem and made it more difficult for Czechoslovakia to maintain its once thriving economy.
Following the collapse of neighbouring countries by the hands of foreign interference, it was not long until the time was right for the opposition to launch an all-out attack against the government on the memory of the Prague Spring. The social democratic wing openly came out in support of these protests utilising a hoax spread by Radio Free Europe that the authorities had supposedly shot dead a student, using this an atmosphere of disgust was ready for the West to use. Gustav Husak ended up completely capitulating to these interests by giving up power and deleting the constitutional provision that backed up the dictatorship of the proletariat. As a result, the entire government resigned. What followed was a period of protests exacerbated by western influences, anti-communists, and the Church.
What was the result of this ‘Velvet Revolution’?
The effective coup led by Vaclav Havel saw the Communist Party criminalized under a series of new anti-communist laws designed to make it impossible for any successor to gain any large degree of popularity. The country fractured into two on a tide of apathy breaking apart yet another nation. Using anti-communist contacts, Vaclav was key in integrating the country in the EU which saw the mass privatisation of Czechoslovakia’s economy and integration into the European Market. Unlike the vast majority of the Eastern Bloc, Czech’s were largely ‘lucky’ to have avoided harsh austerity policies. However, many social questions have arisen again as the political right have gained control, removing much of the progress made by socialism. Much of Czechoslovakia’s industry was sold off and the once famous Czech industries have all but vanished, being taken over or offshored. Workers rights have significantly been curtailed as trade unions are more and more disempowered and workers become little more than pawns for the big multinational industries that set harsh and unreasonable demands for it’s workers and seek to dominate their lives.
I have interviewed Ivan Vladislav, a Slovak communist about the situation in his half of the former unified socialist republic:
Ellis: What would you say we have to learn from the experiences of socialism in Czechoslovakia, particularly in your part of that country?
Ivan: Within society itself under socialism there was a lot more order, structure, and discipline. For example, all of the streets were extremely clean, there was never any trash whatsoever and the trash system was regulated perfectly, nowadays you can see trash laying around and also the streets in general are less clean. You also see graffiti nowadays which never used to be there, vandalism increased under capitalism because of lack of discipline and order. Also, under socialism there was no homelessness whatsoever and no unemployment since all people got a job and a house. Nowadays under capitalism you can see many homeless people on the streets. The positive changes are that now under capitalism traveling abroad is much easier, and also there are giant shopping malls which can be fun because of many brands etc. But that’s about it for positives.
Ellis: Is there anything specific of the tactics used by the KSC to attain power we can learn from today?
Ivan: I would mainly say that a political system with too many parties is vastly ineffective and inefficient. Therefore, a one party system is the superior model of government.
Ellis: What is your view of the so called ‘Prague Spring’?
Ivan: I think concerning the people who participated in the Prague spring were youngsters, it was a ‘trend’ to participate in for many of them. It is very comparable to the utilisation of BLM protests nowadays by liberals, it’s almost a ‘trend’ for young people to participate, without actually knowing much about the system itself. A lot of younger people in Czechoslovakia got sucked into it because it was trendy to oppose the order of the day.
Ellis: What was the worst affects you remember during the so called ‘Velvet Revolution’ how did the transition to free market capitalism and neoliberalism affect your family?
Ivan: The Velvet revolution, [was] once again mainly a trend, it’s really people protesting who have no real knowledge of state or political systems and their differences. My family was affected in the way that basically everything around you, what you were used to change, and we mostly experienced the changes to free market capitalism negatively.