Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 20, 2011

Vaclav Havel and the struggle for socialism in Czechoslovakia

Filed under: Czechoslovakia,democracy,Stalinism — louisproyect @ 5:12 pm

Somehow I find the unctuous outpouring over Vaclav Havel far more off-putting than anything said about Christopher Hitchens. With Hitchens, you at least got the impression that he enjoyed being a prick. With Havel, you got the same kind of overpowering sanctimoniousness you get with religious figures. Keeping that in mind, it should come as no surprise that Havel was close to the Dalai Lama, another snake-oil salesman.

To understand Havel, you have to go back to the beginning of Czech socialism that is a bit more complicated than is usually portrayed in the bourgeois press. While the general consensus among the anti-Stalinist left is that Eastern Europe was turned into “satellite states” of the USSR after WWII, Czech reality is far more complex.

After British imperialism decided to sell out Czechoslovakia through Neville Chamberlain’s infamous deal, respect for the Western “democracies” declined precipitously and admiration for the USSR grew rapidly. Under Nazi occupation, the CP underground fought heroically as well. Unlike the situation in France, this occupation was unimaginably brutal resulting in the death of up to 55,000 Czechs in concentration camps or through execution. Last August I reviewed Protektor, a very good film dramatizing the assassination of Reinhold Heydrich and the repression that followed. Now available from Netflix, the film captures the period well.

So it is no surprise that Edvard Benes, the left social democrat Prime Minister who was ousted by the Communists in 1948, amounted to a “friend of the Soviet Union”. In a 1943 visit to the USSR, Benes found himself “amazed at the tremendous progress that he found and saw in it confirmation of his belief that the Soviet system, having successfully withstood the difficult test of a massive invasion, was now passing through a gradual transformation to a liberalized form of socialism.” In a nutshell, Benes can be compared politically to fellow travelers of the USSR found in the USA during the New Deal.

Additionally, Czechoslovakia had the largest indigenous Communist movement anywhere in Europe before WWII. In free parliamentary elections held on May 26, 1946, the CP won 38 percent of the vote nationwide and the Social Democrats received an additional 13 percent. So we are not exactly talking about socialism imposed at the point of a bayonet.

While signing a decree to nationalize land and factories, Benes also sought to placate the west as a buttress against Soviet power. He didn’t understand that a rising anticommunist mood in Washington would effectively preclude this. Benes was perceived as being too friendly to the USSR and too radical. Hence the decision by Secretary of State James Byrnes to annul a $50 million credit to Czechoslovakia in 1945. Even after a poor harvest in 1947, the US Embassy in Prague maintained a policy of “no food and no loans” to Czechoslovakia. In essence, the country would either have to align itself with the United States or the Soviet Union.

The model of a restive population seeking to break the chains of socialism and opening the doors to multinational corporations has little to do with Czech realities. In fact, the first open revolt against the Stalinist bureaucracy was mounted in the name of “socialism with a human face”.

In the late 60s, the opposition to Soviet-style repression was not inspired by Hayek or Ayn Rand. The students and intellectuals who provided an informal vanguard were more likely to be readers of Ernest Mandel or Herbert Marcuse. In Yugoslavia, students occupied the universities raising the banner of “For a Red University”. In Czechoslovakia, the slogan was not quite so bold but it certainly expressed a desire to create a system that retained popular control over the economy.

Under Alexander Dubcek, there was a Prague Spring in 1968 that was very much in sync with the student movements of the West. In 1967 a group of writers, including Milan Kundera, threw their support behind members of the Communist Party who were ready to challenge the old way of doing things. In April of 1968, Dubcek announced an Action Programme that would have transformed the country. Politically, it stressed democratic rights of the sort that were once understood as consistent with socialism. Economically, it advocated a more market-driven approach not that different from what existed during the NEP.

Ironically, when Fidel Castro made his speech in 1968 describing Russian intervention as a necessary evil to stamp out an imperialist plot, the very “liberal” measures he was condemning in Czechoslovakia were exactly the same that he and his brother would be pursuing today.

Despite widespread support for socialism early on, the ruling CP did everything it could to dampen the people’s spirit. Even when other Eastern European CP’s were loosening their grip after Stalin’s death, the Czechoslovak CP stuck to its hidebound ways. It was committed economically and culturally to the worst abuses of the Stalin era. As is usually the case, the intelligentsia was the first segment of the population to grow restive.

Another film is useful in understanding the vise-like grip with which the CP held society captive, namely Costa-Gravas’s “The Confession” which dramatizes the Slansky trial of 1952. Rudolf Slansky was a Jewish CP’er who was put on trial for thought crimes in the same manner as the Moscow trials of the 1930s. Charged as “Trotskyist-Zionist-Titoist-bourgeois nationalist traitors, spies, and saboteurs, enemies of the Czechoslovak nation, of its People’s Democratic order, and of Socialism”, Slansky and other victims of Stalinist injustice were executed.

The purpose of these trials was exactly the same as it was under Stalin, to cower the population into silence. Even the intelligentsia, especially the writers who would later on rebel against such madness, was pressured into supporting the regime. Dusan Hamsik, a leader of of Writer’s Union that was in the vanguard of the Prague Spring, wrote: “In those days it was the writers themselves who were their own best censors; the few who thought differently never offered their words for publication — indeed never committed them to paper in most cases. For it was unthinkable that any discordant voice should raise itself.”

A bit of a thaw took place in 1962, largely as a result of economic difficulties. As is so often the case, when a Stalinist government finds it difficult to deliver the goods, it will ease up a bit in order to allow the population to blow off steam. But to make sure that his subjects did not go too far, the dictator Novotny warned:

We will not allow this decadent capitalist culture to be propagated in our society, and we will not allow the socialist system, won in hard struggles, to be attacked in various ambiguous terms in the television and often also in the theatre … we need criticism … but let no one dare touch our Communist Party, its program, or our socialist system. This must be sacred, and it must stay sacred for all … the Party maintains the right to direct cultural activity, the same as it directs and manages the entire life of the country.

Novotny was also deeply concerned about the decadent cultural influences that the West was having on Czechoslovak youth, sounding very much like the preachers denouncing Elvis in the USA: “all right, let them dance, but we will not permit these modern dances to degenerate into vulgarisms and thus actually cultivate dark lusts in our people.”

Unlike any other country in Eastern Europe, the Czech intelligentsia was disproportionately represented in the CP. This meant that when the reform-oriented faction in the party led by Dubcek sought to renovate the system, the program was a mixture of political liberalization that everybody could support and economic measures geared to the market. The working class embraced the former and held an open mind about the latter.

In December 2008, Andy Kilmister wrote an article for International Viewpoint, the magazine of the Mandelista Fourth International, titled “The `Prague Spring’ and the `Prague Autumn’” that is a must-read for understanding what happened.  It reveals that although the workers might have been sitting on the fence in the economic debate between Novotny supporters and the new government, they swung sharply against the Soviet invasion in a revolutionary manner:

Between 1 October and the end of 1968, 260 further workers councils were created, with the trade unions playing a leading role in initiating this development 17. In January 1969 a national meeting in Plzeň of councils and preparatory committees representing 890,000 employees (over a sixth of the workers in the country) took place and `thereafter, the workers’ movement sheltered the political left as the ČKD-Vysočany plant had sheltered the secret August congress’.

The agreement with the metal workers on 19 December was followed by agreements in January 1969 between the students and construction workers, mineralogical, geological and gas workers and print workers and later by collaboration with power-station workers, designer and civil engineers, lumber workers and railway workers. Galia Golan reports that `by and large these alliances held throughout 1968-9 though they were much criticized (and feared) by the conservatives in the regime. In concrete terms, they led to the formation of worker-student action committees which coordinated efforts designed to salvage what was possible of the post-January policies’. Petr Cerny describes `Prague radicals who, for a brief moment, achieved what the western left had only dreamed of in 1968: a worker-student alliance’.

While the most famous Czechoslovak writers were solidly behind the Dubcek initiatives, including Milan Kundera and Jeri Pelikan, one decided that he had no interest in reforming socialism. The whole system had to go as the NY Times obituary on Vaclav Havel makes clear:

Mr. Havel, a child of bourgeois privilege whose family lost its wealth when the Communists came to power in 1948, first became active in the Writers Union in Czechoslovakia in the mid-1960s, when his chief target was not Communism so much as it was the “reform Communism” that many were seeking.

During the Prague Spring of 1968, the brief period when reform Communists, led by Mr. Dubcek, believed that “socialism with a human face” was possible, Mr. Havel argued that Communism could never be tamed.

Moving ahead to 1989, when Stalinism entered its death-knell, Czechoslovakia was given the opportunity to pick up where the Prague Spring had left off, not having to worry about Soviet tanks. Among the politicians deemed suitable for leading a new society, Dubcek and Havel stood out—representing two different solutions to the problems that had faced for decades.

In a review of John Keane’s critical biography of Vaclav Havel, a biography that Slavoj Zizek used as a peg to attack Havel’s legacy in the London Review, Laura Secor wrote:

In 1989, five years after Havel’s release, popular demonstrations brought down the Czechoslovak government. Dubcek, Keane contends, was the obvious choice for the country’s transitional presidency — but Havel manipulated Dubcek into stepping aside, by promising to support him in the upcoming free elections. According to Keane, Havel broke that promise, betraying Dubcek and retaining the presidency for himself. Not long afterward, Czechoslovakia split.

Once in power, Havel set about the task to dismantle Czech socialism and create a new state according to the formulas established in George Soros’s Open Society Foundation and elsewhere. A section from Michael Parenti’s “Blackshirts and Reds” has been circulating widely on the Internet, including my posting to the Marxism mailing list. Written not long after the Velvet Revolution of 1989, it knocks Havel off his pedestal rather deftly:

Havel called for efforts to preserve the Christian family in the Christian nation. Presenting himself as a man of peace and stating that he would never sell arms to oppressive regimes, he sold weapons to the Philippines and the fascist regime in Thailand. In June 1994, General Pinochet, the man who butchered Chilean democracy, was reported to be arms shopping in Czechoslovakia–with no audible objections from Havel.

Havel joined wholeheartedly in George Bush’s Gulf War, an enterprise that killed over 100,000 Iraqi civilians. In 1991, along with other Eastern European pro-capitalist leaders, Havel voted with the United States to condemn human rights violations in Cuba. But he has never uttered a word of condemnation of rights violations in El Salvador, Colombia, Indonesia, or any other U.S. client state.

In 1992, while president of Czechoslovakia, Havel, the great democrat, demanded that parliament be suspended and he be allowed to rule by edict, the better to ram through free-market “reforms.” That same year, he signed a law that made the advocacy of communism a felony with a penalty of up to eight years imprisonment. He claimed the Czech constitution required him to sign it. In fact, as he knew, the law violated the Charter of Human Rights which is incorporated into the Czech constitution. In any case, it did not require his signature to become law. In 1995, he supported and signed another undemocratic law barring communists and former communists from employment in public agencies.

Now I have no way of knowing what Parenti would have been saying about the Prague Spring in 1968, but I strongly suspect that he would have agreed with Fidel Castro. For the section of the left that believes that the Soviet intervention was a “necessary evil”, there’s actually a strong affinity with liberals who have urged a vote for Gore, Kerry and Obama in recent elections. If the choice is between someone like Obama and Newt Gingrich, you have to vote for Obama. Along the same lines, a Czechoslovakia under Dubcek might have led down the slippery road to what it would become under Havel so it was necessary to back the Soviet invasion.

The possibility that an alternative to both liberalizing technocrats and open supporters of Western imperialism does not really exist in the mind of someone like a Michael Parenti or many who think this way, like Alexander Cockburn or Michel Chossudovsky. The drama in a place like Iran or Libya is always between two players, and no possibility exists for the masses to make history on their own terms.

This is the terrible political legacy that 70 years of Stalinism has left us. After WWII, a powerful constellation of nominally socialist states existed around the world, either conforming to the Soviet model or to some Bonapartist variant best expressed by Nasser’s Egypt. In such states, the authoritarianism was necessary—we were led to understand—because political freedoms would open the door to CIA subversion. It was never considered that such repression was mainly designed to enforce class distinctions that were the same in spirit or in substance like those in capitalist societies.

Social inequalities and repression of the sort symbolized by Novotny or Qaddafi’s show trials were rationalized as blemishes in a system that was historically “progressive”. When the disgruntled masses took it upon themselves to resist their rulers, the “anti-imperialist” left took the side of the rulers if there was the slightest hint of Western support. Given the realities of geopolitics, it was almost impossible to find a situation in which the CIA was not intervening. In Egypt, the contradictions were most acute as the West backed the Tahrir Square protesters and the Mubarak regime simultaneously.

If there was ever a time to break with this “lesser evil” mentality, it is now. With the deepening crisis of world capitalism, an urgent task confronts us. A revolutionary movement has to be built worldwide that makes no concessions to the paternal rule of a Qaddafi or a Novotny. There will always be the possibility that in a revolt against such rulers, things might not follow a straight and narrow path toward socialist victory but deferring to the status quo in the name of “anti-imperialism” is unacceptable.

Arise ye pris’ners of starvation
Arise ye wretched of the earth
For justice thunders condemnation
A better world’s in birth!
No more tradition’s chains shall bind us
Arise, ye slaves, no more in thrall;
The earth shall rise on new foundations
We have been naught we shall be all.

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