Contributed by Stefan Bollinger at the Prague EL seminar "21 August 1968 and the Left in Europe", Prague 16 August 2008
It is likewise difficult as important for a member of the party The Left that stands in the tradition of the communist SUPG, that 1968 actively fought against the Pragues reforms, to represent a position to these reforms today. The intervention of the Warsaw-Pact-troops more or less was an error, a mistake. But in any case was and is the intervention a crime against the Czechoslovak people and against the future of the socialist society and the socialist ideas.
Challenge of the Productive Force Science
We know the pictures of 1968: Students on the barricades in Paris and Soviet-tanks in Prague. Both part of a world-revolution (so called by Immanuel Wallerstein1) - but we have to look behind the scenes.2 For in the 1960s, East and West were confronting the challenges of a productive forces-revolution. In the GDR, in Berlin, philosophers spoke about a scientific-technical revolution and in Prague the Richta-Report recognized: The thesis of the full development of the scientific-technical revolution on the ground of socialism and communism has its "correctness … and at the same time the maturities of the socialist society in the practice (has to be) prove(d)", and this is "an extremely difficult task".3 In this situation other forms of science for practice, new forms of brainpower needed more flexibility, more economic mechanisms and possibilities of active democratic participation. Not only the intelligentsia hoped for an end of the alienation.
Both systems faced similar problems and their ideologies gave only few answers. That was more difficult for the descendants of Marx' than for the one´s of Adam Smith. The thesis of the convergence of the systems reflected the reality more concretely than many believed. It was the times when capitalist managers and economic-politicians cheated with plan-economists on the one hand and on other hand Communists discovered the market. Blind economic growth seemed to just as over as estimated egalitarianism. In the West the economic concepts of Keynes were preferred for a short period of time until a little bid later Friedmans Chicago-boys triumphed. In the East an administrative-centralist, a Stalinist economic and political model, socialism named, stood to disposition.
Against Conservatives in West and East
The status quo of the block-confrontation was clarified in August 1961 and in October 1962. A decision for war was impossible and deadly. In Eastern Europe a reform period started after the end of the open Stalinism and with it the search for more market and profit in a socialist economy. But only Czechoslovakia and the reformers in the KSČ comprehended, that these economic reforms had to be interconnected with more political rights and democracy. Only in that way could socialism work.
A west-dominated view on the year 1968 is misleading. Because the revolution of the productive forces and their consequences didn't know borders, as Western European students confirmed. Not only for Prague, the Richta-Team formulated a perception, which also had reached Ulbricht in Berlin: "Utilization and evaluation of science and technology on basis of the entire society in one extensive unit, development of an effective interest of all on the productivity-growth of the social work, purposeful use of modern technology, creation of conditions, that all human abilities originate and can come to the validity – that is the actual reserves and only guarantees for a victory of new social principles under the present-day civilization-conditions. With them stands and falls socialism and communism: All have to know, that the new society will have to go down unavoidably without the scientific-technical revolution – regardless of good wishes, solid wills and the best intents".4
The common west-viewing suggests, that the protest of the Prague students in November 1967 for "More Light" – was meant in a double sense: in view of energy-shortage in their hostels as well as in the society-changing meaning –, is to view as a reaction of the East on the protesting students in the West. In this manner also the small protests of young GDR-intellectuals get the character of a revolt. As well the unsatisfied workers, who refused the intervention and wanted more individual freedoms. Yes, all this happened too and was an expression of a climatic change in the political culture of the East.
But the reform-ideas in the East came – with different consequences – from the middle of the Communist parties as reforms from the top that supplemented itself with movements from below - or collided. Anyway, in East and West all processes were embedded into a confrontation of systems. In this way the revolts and reforms were heated, but they got too the arguments for its liquidation. The strongest argument for the hardliners in Moscow, Berlin or Warsaw against the Czechoslovak reforms was the fear of a defeat in the cold war and the wrench out of Prague from the Warsaw Treaty-Organization. Each reform in the state-socialism changed and weakened the power. But it was not immediately clear, if this reforms would secure the socialist choice.
The surprising western affection for a socialist reform – especially from West Germany –contributed to the unfortunate label of counter-revolution. A quick verdict by the allies was the result. Evening to evening the west-television reported from Prague where Czech politicians advised their GDR-comrades in what was to do for a better socialism, this was strengthening the mistrust of not only the political elite in Berlin or Moscow. Even if it may not always be easily to comprehend in retrospect, for many normal party members, the prior anti-Stalinist revolution in Hungary in 1956 was recalled through Lynch-law against Hungarian party members and security forces in particular.
Who compares the Warsaw Letter addressed to the Prague leadership in July to the speech of General de Gaulle at the 1968, May 30, is not surprised. The General evoked the ghost of a totalitarian Communist dictatorship; the Communist leaders evoked the Capitalist restoration. Really, the system-confrontation worked and incriminated the departure from the own camp out, made it even impossible.
Paradoxically the main-problem of the year 1968 actually rather lies in the years 1973 and 1989. In this years the hopes for a democratic way of socialism like that on a democratic renewal of socialism busted in the East as well as in the West – in a fascist military-coup d'etat in Chile and some years ago in the run of the neoliberalism and in the triumph of an aggressive-anti-social variant of capitalism. This one won the at first anti-Stalinist-, in the end anti-socialist revolution in Eastern Europe. And therefore today the political mainstream reminds only of the Soviet intervention in Prague and not of the socialist, anti-capitalistic ideas of the reforms.
Half and Whole Reforms
In Berlin, Moscow, Warsaw and Budapest the conservative party leaderships organised only "half reforms". They wanted reforms only in the economy. More democracy only meant danger to this political generation in the block-confrontation and also endangered their political power.
In the East a burden lay on the reforms. Firstly, the announced victory of socialism was only a political victory but not one of hegemony (in the viewing of Gramsci). Without mental and cultural hegemony, without an extensive democratic process of the conscious formation of society and economy through the masses, socialism is not yet carried out and durably anchored. The confrontations about the social alienation, demanding a "visa" for Kafka 1963 in Liblice nudged a wide intellectual discussion and lead to the realisation of the necessary social changes. In the GDR, this took place preferably in the film-genre, or precisely, the film-prohibitions of 19655 brought an end and moreover ended the cultural and intellectual departure after the building of the Wall in 1961.
Secondly this tossed up the question of changes of the system in which an omnipotent party was just counterproductive with its paternalist and patriarchal functioning democracy, with the truth-monopoly, that accepted only the way from top down. It is part of the irony of the history, that the GDR in 1968 gave itself a new constitution, which grasped essential and absolutely meaningful elements of a late-Stalinist order. This constitution established a moment of self-confidence contrary to the Federal republic. But it was also an instrument against the reforms in the Czechoslovakia. A change of the power-circumstances and power-structures was not to be received with it. Although the years of the GDR-reform New Economic System were not free from consider-assesses elements of the democracy-development in the GDR. That involved the wide discussion of important laws in the private and labour law, the introduction of social courts that were strengthened of continuous production-advices as potential basis-democracy-elements in the production. To that also counts the attempt of Ulbricht to weaken the omnipotence of the politburo with a system of strategic study groups and other state organs, also an upgraded state-council. However, in the practice all these new forms didn't stop the omnipotence and omniscience of the party and its leaders.
Thirdly the question evolved of how an economic system had to be orientated, with which goals, in order to secure the connection of the masses with their own order and to survive in the system-competition. The GDR and the Czechoslovakia were fields of experiments, because their economy had a good standing, their qualified workers and their comparatively narrow interconnection with the world economy was pushing early at the edges of the command-system.
The "half reform" of the New Economic System6 reduced a renewal of socialism to the economy. The democratization played no role and was not a recognized nor accepted question. The problem: Is to be realized economic-reforms as complex or as single process? It was and it is unthinkable to reform the real-socialism or to build up a new socialist society only on the field of the economics and the efficiency. The acceptance of economic laws, forces also the development of socialistic democracies and the relinquishment of omnipotence of the party. In addition, on the other hand, no modern socialism is conceivable, which does not know economic efficiency and achievement-oriented benefit, which confront plan and market again.
Not the SUPG (Socialist Unity Party of Germany) - but the reformers of the KSČ - recognized that economic mechanisms, that more money and profit could not help enough, if an inflexible, undemocratic power-system further exists. The socialism was to be changed in economics and in politics.
Without Reforms no Socialist Future
Despite sympathies under intellectuals and party-members, the SUPG-leadership turned quickly away from the reforms in Prague. The SUPG strengthened the Stalinist Fronde in the Czechoslovakia and the forces of the intervention. Sympathizers in the GDR and in the SUPG were disciplined. It was a short way of utilization Ota Siks book "Economics - interest - politics" as a textbook for students over the night-reading Ulbricht in the Richta-Report and the sympathy-expressions for the economic-reform after the january-plenum of the KSČ up to the verdict of the action-program of the KSČ as "anti-Leninist” and "counter-revolutionary". After the invasion, the few protests were suppressed, 2.883 party-members were disciplined, there were 223 exclusions. Reform-intellectuals were campaigned against.
The GDR-reform-project New Economic System was finished with the intervention, too. Permanently, the chance was gambled away of reform of the state-socialism. 1989 reformers were again to pull a duty but the pressure in direction of a German unification and capitalism, against new socialistic-democratic experiments was stronger.
The problem of 1968 were not the tanks of the GDR-National People's Army. The GDR-Army was part of a total-operation of the Warsaw-Treaty-Organization against the allied Czechoslovakia. But cleverness or caution prevented a new 1938 with German intruders - what nobody knew however. More crucial was, that the SUPG and its reform-head Ulbricht didn't comprehend that economic reforms for a more efficient socialism had to fail without a more democratic socialism. Of course, even a success of economic-reforms had to split causes between the increase of social tensions and the danger of a capitalistic restoration, like the partially additional successes of economy-reforms in Hungary, Poland, above all in the Perestroika-Soviet union and – exemplarily – in the People Republic of China it covered. The reformers would have been able to fail in 1968 in a way that would have unintentional opened the gates for the capitalist restoration. We don't know it, because the Soviet tanks in Prague and in the whole Eastern Bloc destroyed the chance for “socialism with a human face" and a socialist market economy. In 1968, it would have been the defeat in a storm on the ideal of the socialism. Reformers from top remained lonely in spite of the in huge politicization in the Czechoslovakia. Against tanks, concrete-heads and opportunists they had no chance.
Twenty years later, for the SUPG-reformers and the new PDS Perestroika and Prague Spring were synonyms for a last attempt of a democratic socialism. But now, the concrete-heads had expelled the rest of sympathies for the socialistic idea in their people - more in Prague as in Berlin. The reform-attempt came too late.
The last chance for a renewal of the socialism was probably buried in 1968. Although, because the bridging did not happen to the other revolts in the West and their questions. The year 1989 was not a remake of 1968. In the GDR, intellectuals discussed some revivals of NES-Ideas. The answers, that were generally accepted now, were that of a political adaptions, of the manipulation of more skilful and economically brutally calculating capitalism.
The Prague Spring is for a post-Stalinist a post-state-socialist left an experience of a modern socialism. And a modern, a democratic socialism has to connect democratic freedoms, practiced socialist ownerships and economic efficiency. Nevertheless, the Prague Spring was "laboratory for democratic socialism and becomes this ... in future in even big measurement, in fact for democratic socialism in an industrially developed country, like the Paris commune for the worker-movement on the start of the socialism movement".
Remark (jh) SUPG = SED