Salient: Victoria University of Wellington Students' Newspaper. Volume 31 Number 19 August 6, 1968
Anton Novotny's Czech Communist regime was dictatorial—but mild.
One of the few East European governments which did not experience a sweeping change of rulers after Stalin's death, Czechoslovakia had been governed by Novotny for so long because Novotny was, for a virtual dictator, unusually shrewd and flexible. Czechoslovakia enjoyed prosperity and relative freedom even before Dubcek.
Dubcek's climb to power would have been inconceivable except in the context of the particular political phobias that constituted the Czech version of Stalinism.
Slovak regionalism had always been a target for Stalinist denunciations of 'pettybourgeois ideology' : it was, after all, a distinct current of political thought that lay completely outside the categories of Marxism The kind of holding operation Novotny was attempting could not hold back the delayed impact of de-Stalinisation. A governing party essentially closed and bureaucratic, whose leaders' raison d'être was their loyalty to the Soviet Union, could not survive indefinitely when political change had affected every other East European government except the East German. The party structure could not stop itself rotting from within; when change came in Poland in 1955, it came from long-standing party members.
In every sense the coalition was Leninism-Stalinism and, moreover, an idea, having dangerous affinities with potentially anti-Russian nationalism. A wiser or more 'liberal' Communist Party might have made concessions to, or even endorsed, Slovak regionalism as a device to weaken national or anti-Soviet feeling in Czechoslovakia by forcing any opposition into separate 'Slovak' and Czech divisions. Such a course would have demanded more sophistication and less rigid ideology than the Czechoslovak leadership could muster. As it was. the drive against Slovak regional feeling, as the only heterogeneous ideology in Czechoslovakia whose official belief system was a degenerated and vulgarised Marxism, led the Slovaks in pure self-defence to become the principal opponents of this Marxism They were reinforced by the economic rationalisers, the economists who looked to such experimenters as Liberman in the Soviet Union who proposed remedies for some of the more obvious defects in Czech central planning, and again were in danger from heresy hunts from Party theorists for whom the word of Lenin and Stalin had been made flesh in the Czech economy. Then there were those perpetual heretics, the students, affected by the wave of "student power" almost but not quite revolutions in both Western and Eastern Europe who had been told by Rudi Dutschke before the attempt on his life that "in Czechoslovakia there is one great subject: to find new ways to combine socialism, real individual freedom and democracy—not in the bourgeois sense, but in the real, social revolutionary sense" (Los Angeles Free Press, June 28). These groups had also, it appears, support from the army under the now dismissed General Prehik.
This was a rather different coalition from that ranged against the Hungarian government in 1956, and it was of course opposing a considerably different regime. Whatever might be said against Novotny, he was not a second. Rakosi The difference is between those who have taken the initiative, fought out with the institutional structure of he Communist Party and those who fought in what was Hungary's real post-war political revolution. Behind the reform coalition in the Party—and the activities of the students outside the party which can never be entirely ignored—is a broad consensus on the need for greater democracy in Czechoslovakia. What 'greater democracy' means is not vague. It was spelt out in the answers to a questionnaire published in the official Czech Communist Party paper Rude Pravo in July. Ninety per cent of the replies to this questionnaire favoured the creation of opposition parties alongside the Communist Party. A second question asked "Can you speak of democracy as being socialist when the leading role is held only by the Community Party?" Three out of four non-Communist respondents answered "no" to this question, as did between a quarter and a third of the Communist Party members who replied. It is clear that the Dubcek government has a clear mandate to go much further than it has so far chosen to go.
The existence of this broadly-based support for a multi-party system clearly disturbs the Soviet government which has made it clear it views the single party system and socialism as synonymous—after all even Yugoslavia, for so long the archtype of" 'liberal' communism has imprisoned Party members who called for an end to the Communist Party's political monopoly; Obviously, too, it disturbs many people in the Czech Communist Party which, if the questionnaire is any guide, does reflect public opinion but as yet only imperfectly. Naturally, so long as Communist Party membership is a passport to the exercise of power, those people who owe their positions to their Party membership will oppose any attenuation of the Communist Party's power. Czechoslovakia seems to be the arena where the most dramatic conflict about communism and democracy since 1927 will be fought out: the conflict, which last made a brief appearance as part of Leon Trotsky's oppositional programme, over whether there can be more than one political party in a Socialist State. It is significant that this conflict is taking place not in the least but probably the most affluent Communist nation. What is being decided is whether communism can be modified to suit a democratic western-type society.
Though no step toward a multi-party system has so far been taken on a Government level—though a new constitution, which could provide for such a system has been promised, the advance toward democratisation that has been taken, and which the Soviet Union would obviously like retracted, is the lifting of preliminary censorship on the television, radio and the newspapers. This has enabled popular opposition to for example Soviet troop manoeuvres to be voiced at times when, out of diplomacy or cowardice, the Government has found silence the best way of expressing its feelings, The powers of the Security Police have been delimited and reduced—the Police have now power only to deal with hostile acts from enemies abroad.
Where, in Poland in 1955 and Hungary in 1956 the first step away from Stalinism was the formation of workers' councils in factories, such a step has so far not been taken in Czechoslovakia, and the result of this has been that some working-class organisation, nolably the so-called "Workers Militia' have taken a strong position against the projected reforms. The samplings of opinion quoted above suggest that these organisations are almost certainly unrepresentative, but it is true that the weakest element in the Dubcek programme by far is the absence of any proposals for radicalising labour-management relationships, and this default is being exploited by Novotny's supporters.
Criticism here, however, can be too sharp. Workers councils in both Poland and Hungary can be described, as virtually being of military rather than economic significance— expressions of opposition to Soviet domination at factory level, rather than organs of long-term economic management. It is only in Yugoslavia that workers councils have had considerable economic significance and here they have made no major contribution to national economic planning but have rather contributed to the too great autonomy of individual enterprise units. It may well turn out that the most effective expression of workers' interests in the planning of a socialist state can be made by a trade union rather than a workers council, Be that as it may—a purely empirical, question—it remains true that the New Economic Model proposed for the Czech economy has more technocratic than democratic elements.
The new Czech planning represents the first major victory in the Communist bloc for the economic innovators. It is a delibera'e effort to remake the fundamentals of Socialist planning so as to enable it to cope with the problems of an affluent society. As one Czech economist has written:
"Industralisation in the socialist countries was attended by a shortage of means which made it difficult if not impossible, to ensure a rapid growth of both production and mass consumption. The scientific and technical revolution does away with the dilemma. At a certain Stage in the development of the productive forces, as the economy goes over to intensive growth, rising consumption is not only compalible with growth of production, it is a much a prerequisite of this growth as was the restricted consumption during the earlier industrialisation." (The Scientific Technical Revolution and Marxism' in Czechoslovak Life, February 1968.)
This is a truly radical break with the norms of Stalinist planning.
Czech economists see the reforms they are projecting as an attempt to change the structure of their economy to the emergence of a new technology resulting from the postwar scientific technical revolution, and to handle the problems arising from the "intellectualisation" of the labour force in an increasingly automated society demanding more expertise and skill of the labour force. This involves a policy of apparent "decentralisation"— though what this means, in Czechoslovakia as elsewhere, is simply effective delegation of economic authority from the centre which should increase rather lhan diminish the centre's power—and a policy of wage differentials to encourage workers to acquire new skills. It is clear that labour support for Dubcek will depend on how this last. policy is administered, but if we assume that the composition of the Czech working class is changing in the way economists suggest. important sections of the working class will benefit and only the unskilled workers, whose numbers are undoubtedly decreasing, will lag behind.
"The development of capitalist industry'' wrote Ridovan Richta in the article we have already quoted "deepened the gulf between the imperialist countries and that vast section of humanity which lies in perpetual want in practically a state of natural economy."
Theoretical reflections concerning the future of the third world lead to the conclusion that the economic problems of the developing countries cannot be solved unless the scientific and technological revolution drawn on to reduce to the minimum the pains of initial industrialisation and unless the influence of the socialist forces accelerates the search for ways of doing away with the yawning gap between the haves and have-nots in modern civilisation."
This is a major aim for socialist planning to set itself, but at least one cannot say that Czech planners are setting up undemanding criteria by which their success can be judged.
In the short term, though, how effective such political planning will be depends on the political viability of the Government implementing it—and of course its ability to resist Soviet pressure. The alliance between the planners and Slovak regionalism is of dubious strength—regional growth is not always compatible with effective planning, New Zealanders know-while the third element in the coalition, students, have stated that the regime's maximum programme their minimum one. Soviet pressure on this unstable coalition can only accentuate its instability; the regime's political and economic programme, which already goes far beyond that of Yugoslavia or Poland, is still regarded widely as inadequate; probably only a worker-student coalition, as in 1956 Hungary, would have the determination to press through to the end the changes now proposed and the tenacity to disregard external pressure for 'moderation'. This group has every interest in common with the middle levels of the bureaucracy which found itself in total opposition to the Novotny regime and which in various degrees gives the planners and Slovak regionalists their support outside the Communist Party. What started as a coup d'état inside the Party apparatus, though, must become a major social movement outside a discredited and unrepresentative party; the alliance between various social groups which would automatically constitute itself if the Soviet Union were to invade Czechoslovakia as it did Hungary must be formed now if such an invasion is to he effectively deterred. Not only the Rakosis but the Imre Nagys must be purged from the State apparatus if the lesson of 1956 is to be learnt: "democratisation" the bringing about of democracy, must become "democracy". These objectives must be achieved by the "strikes, boycotts and demonstrations" called for in the July Manifesto of 70 denounced by Dubcek as a threat to the "democratisation" process. This is all the more urgent as Soviet manoeuvres become more threatening and Dubcek's Politburo meets with the Russians in an atmosphere where concession and capitulation may appear the lesser evil. "The fate of the Czechoslovak revolution remains to be decided." said Petr Pithart on Prague Radio in May "More than one important battle remains to be fought. But for God's sake. let us not even have even a suggestion of the tragic history of Yugoslavia or of Budapest in 1956, I ask our genuine friends abroad—please do not let us be forced to choose again between these possibilities."