‘Revolution is the act of an enormous majority of society directed against
the rule of a minority. It is accompanied by a crisis of political power and
by a weakening of the apparatus of coercion. That is why it does not have
to be carried out by force of arms’.
Jacek Kuroń and Karel Modzelewski, Open Letter to the Party (March 1965)
‘Each Communist party is free to apply the principles of Marxism-
Leninism and socialism in its own country, but it is not free to deviate
from these principles if it is to remain a Communist party’.
Leonid Brezhnev (August 3rd 1968)
‘It was only after the Prague Spring of 1968 that one began to see who was
‘Yesterday came suddenly’.
The Sixties in the Soviet bloc were of necessity experienced very differently from the West. De-Stalinization after 1956 stimulated demands for change much as decolonization and the Suez débâcle did in the West, but the destruction of the Hungarian revolt made it clear from the outset that reforms would come only under the auspices of the Party. This in turn served as a reminder that the mainspring of Communism was the authority of Moscow; it was the mood and policies of the Soviet leadership that counted. Until his overthrow in 1964, it was Nikita Khrushchev who determined the history of Europe’s eastern half.
Khrushchev’s generation of Soviet leaders still believed in the international class struggle. Indeed, it was Khrushchev’s romanticized projection of Soviet revolutionary memories onto Latin American uprisings that led him to make the missteps that produced the Cuba crisis of 1962 and his own downfall. The struggle with China that emerged into the open in 1960, and afforded Moscow’s leftist critics a ‘Maoist’ alternative to the Soviet model, was not merely a struggle for geopolitical primacy; it was also in part a genuine conflict for the soul of ‘world revolution’. In this guise, the competition with Beijing placed Moscow’s post-Stalinist rulers in a contradictory position. As the homeland of anti-capitalist revolution they continued to advertise their seditious ambitions and insist upon the undiminished authority of the Party, in the USSR and in its satellites. On the other hand the Kremlin continued to favour co-existence with the Western powers—and with its own citizens.
The Khrushchev years did see real improvements. From 1959, Stalin’s ‘Short Course’ was no longer the authoritative source of Soviet history and Marxist theory. 173 The reign of terror abated, though not the institutions and practices to which it had given rise: the Gulag was still in place, and tens of thousands of political prisoners still languished in camps and in exile—half of them Ukrainians. Under Khrushchev, Stalin-era laws restricting job mobility were abandoned, the official workday was shortened, minimum wages were established and a system of maternity leave introduced, along with a national pension scheme (extended to collective farmers after 1965). In short, the Soviet Union—and its more advanced satellite states—became embryonic welfare states, at least in form.
However, Khrushchev’s more ambitious reforms failed to produce the promised food surpluses (another reason why his colleagues were to dump him in October 1964). The cultivation of hitherto ‘virgin’ lands in Kazakhstan and southern Siberia was especially disastrous: half a million tons of topsoil washed away each year from land that was wholly unsuited to forced grain planting, and what harvest there was frequently arrived infested with weeds. In a tragic-comic blend of centralized planning and local corruption, Communist bosses in Kyrgyzstan urged collective farmers to meet official farm delivery quotas by buying up supplies in local shops. There were food riots in provincial cities (notably in Novocherkassk in June 1962). By January 1964, following the disastrous 1963 harvest, the USSR was reduced to importing grain from the West.
At the same time, the private micro-farms that Khrushchev had sporadically encouraged were almost embarrassingly successful: by the early sixties, the 3 percent of cultivated soil in private hands was yielding over a third of the Soviet Union’s agricultural output. By 1965, two thirds of the potatoes consumed in the USSR and three quarters of the eggs came from private farmers. In the Soviet Union as in Poland or Hungary, ‘Socialism’ depended for its survival upon the illicit ‘capitalist’ economy within, to whose existence it turned a blind eye.174
The economic reforms of the fifties and sixties were from the start a fitful attempt to patch up a structurally dysfunctional system. To the extent that they implied a half-hearted willingness to decentralize economic decisions or authorize de facto private production, they were offensive to hardliners among the old guard. But otherwise the liberalizations undertaken by Khrushchev, and after him Brezhnev, presented no immediate threat to the network of power and patronage on which the Soviet system depended. Indeed, it was just because economic improvements in the Soviet bloc were always subordinate to political priorities that they achieved so very little.
Cultural reform was another matter. Lenin had always worried more about his critics than his principles; his heirs were no different. Intellectual opposition, whether or not it was likely to find a wider echo in the party or outside, was something to which Communist leaders, Khrushchev included, were intensely sensitive. Following his first denunciations of Stalin in 1956 there was widespread optimism, in the Soviet Union as elsewhere, that censorship would relax and a space would open up for cautious dissent and criticism (that same year Boris Pasternak unsuccessfully submitted the manuscript of his novel Dr Zhivago to the literary periodical Novy Mir). But the Kremlin was soon worried by what it saw as the rise of cultural permissiveness; within three years of the Twentieth Party Congress Khrushchev was making aggressive public speeches defending official Socialist Realism in the arts and threatening its critics with serious consequences if they continued to disparage it, even in retrospect. At the same time, in 1959, the authorities clamped down on Orthodox priests and Baptists, a form of cultural dissidence that had been allowed a certain freedom since Stalin’s fall.
However, Khrushchev himself, if not his colleagues, was reliably unpredictable. The 22nd Congress of the CPSU, in October 1961, revealed the extent of the schism between China and the USSR (the following month the Soviets closed their embassy in Albania, Beijing’s European locum), and in the competition for global influence Moscow set out to present a new face to its confused and vacillating foreign constituency. In 1962 an obscure provincial schoolteacher, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, was allowed to publish his pessimistic and implicitly subversive novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch in Novy Mir—the same journal that had rejected Pasternak not six years before.
The relative tolerance of Khrushchev’s last years did not extend to direct criticism of the Soviet leadership: Solzhenitsyn’s later work would certainly never have been allowed into print even at the height of the ‘thaw’. But in comparison with what had gone before, the early Sixties were a time of literary freedom and cautious cultural experimentation. With the Kremlin coup of October 1964, however, everything changed. The plotters against Khrushchev were irritated at his policy failures and his autocratic style; but above all it was his inconsistencies that made them uneasy. The First Secretary himself might know exactly what was permissible and what was not, but others could be tempted to misunderstand his apparent tolerance. Mistakes might be made.
Within months of taking control, the new Kremlin leadership began to press down upon the intelligentsia. In September 1965 two young writers, Andrei Sinyavsky and Yuli Daniel, were arrested. Under the pseudonyms Abram Tertz and Nikolay Arzhak they had smuggled out for publication in the West various works of fiction. Tertz-Sinyavsky had also published—abroad—a short, critical essay on modern Soviet literature, On Socialist Realism. In February 1966 the two men were put on trial. Since no law in the Soviet Union prohibited the publication of works abroad, the authorities claimed that the content of their works was itself evidence of the crime of anti-Soviet activity. The two men were found guilty and sentenced to labor camps: Sinyavsky for seven years (though he was released after six) and Daniel for five.
The Sinyavsky-Daniel trial was held in camera, although a press campaign vilifying the two writers had drawn public attention to their fate. But the trial proceedings were secretly recorded and transcribed by several people admitted to the courtroom and they were published both in Russian and English a year later, generating international petitions and demands for the men’s release.175 The unusual aspect of the affair was that for all the brutality of the Stalin decades, no-one had hitherto been arrested and imprisonedsolely on the basis of the content of their (fictional) writings. Even if material evidence had been freely invented for the purpose, intellectuals in the past had always been accused of deeds, not merely words.
Contrasting as it did with the comparative laxity of the Khrushchev years, the treatment of Sinyavsky and Daniel aroused unprecedented protests within the Soviet Union itself. The dissident movement of the last decades of the Soviet Union dates from this moment: underground ‘samizdat’ (‘self-publication’) began in the year of the arrests and because of them, and many of the most consequential figures in Soviet dissident circles of the seventies and eighties made their first appearance as protesters against the treatment of Sinyavsky and Daniel. Vladimir Bukovsky, then a 25-year-old student, was arrested in 1967 for organizing a demonstration in Pushkin Square in defense of civil rights and freedom of expression. Already in 1963 he had been arrested by the KGB, charged with possession of anti-Soviet literature and committed to a psychiatric hospital for compulsory treatment. Now he was sentenced to three years in labor camp for ‘anti-Soviet activities’.
The Sinyavsky-Daniel affair and the response it aroused seemed to mark out very clearly the situation in the Soviet Union: what had changed and what had not. By any standards save those of its own history, the regime was immovable, repressive and inflexible. The mirage of 1956 had faded. The prospects for truth telling about the past, and reform in the future, seemed to have receded. The illusions of the Khrushchev era were shattered. Whatever face it presented to the Western powers, the Soviet regime at home was settling in for an indefinite twilight of economic stagnation and moral decay.
In the satellite states of the Soviet bloc in Eastern Europe, however, the prospects for change seemed distinctly more propitious. On the face of it, this is a paradox. After all, if the citizens of the Soviet Union were powerless in the face of the post-Stalinist dictatorship, then the inhabitants of Hungary or Czechoslovakia and their neighbors were doubly helpless: not only did they live under a repressive regime, but their own rulers were themselves in thrall to the real authority in the imperial capital. The principles of the Soviet imperium had been handily illustrated in Budapest in November 1956. Moreover, in Czechoslovakia and Romania some of the surviving victims of the show trials of earlier years were still languishing in prison a decade later.
And yet, Eastern Europe was different—in part, of course, just because it was a recent colonial extension of Communist rule. By the 1960s, Communism was the only form of rule most inhabitants of the Soviet Union had ever known; in the shadow of the Great Patriotic War it had even acquired a certain legitimacy. But further West the memory of Soviet occupation and the enforced Soviet take-over was still fresh. The mere fact that they were Moscow’s puppets and thus lacked local credibility made the Party leaders of the satellite states more sensitive to the benefits of accommodating local sentiment.
This seemed the more possible because domestic critics of the Party regimes in Eastern Europe between 1956 and 1968 were by no means anti-Communist. Responding to Sartre’s assertion in 1956 that Hungary’s revolution had been marked by a ‘rightist spirit’, the Hungarian refugee scholar François Fejtö had replied that it was the Stalinists who stood on the Right. They were the ‘Versaillais’. ‘We remain men of the Left, faithful to our ideas, our ideals and our traditions.’ Fejtö’s insistence on the credibility of an anti-Stalinist Left catches the tone of east European intellectual opposition for the following twelve years. The point was not to condemn Communism, much less overthrow it; the goal, rather, was to think through what had gone so horribly wrong and propose an alternative within the terms of Communism itself.
This was ‘revisionism’: a term first used in this context by Poland’s leader Władislaw Gomułka at a May 1957 meeting of the Central Committee of the Polish United Workers’ Party, to describe his intellectual critics. These ‘revisionists’—in Poland the best known was the young Marxist philosopher Leszek Kołakowski—had in many cases been orthodox Marxists until 1956. They did not overnight foreswear this allegiance. Instead they spent the next twelve years, in the words of the Slovak writer Milan Šimečka, ‘trying to find the fault in the blueprint.’ Like most contemporary Western Marxists they were wedded to the notion that it was possible to distinguish clearly between the credibility of Marxism and the crimes of Stalin.
For many Eastern European Marxists, Stalinism was a tragic parody of Marxist doctrine and the Soviet Union a permanent challenge to the credibility of the project of Socialist transformation. But unlike the New Left in the West, the intellectual revisionists of the East continued to work with, and often within, the Communist Party. This was partly from necessity, of course; but partly too from sincere conviction. In the longer run this affiliation would isolate and even discredit the reform Communists of these years, notably in the eyes of a rising generation increasingly attuned to the mood of their Western peers and whose point of reference was not the Stalinist past but the capitalist present. But from 1956 to 1968, the revisionist moment in Eastern Europe afforded writers, filmmakers, economists, journalists and others a brief window of optimism about an alternative Socialist future.
In Poland the most important critical space was that afforded by the Catholic Church and the protection it could offer those working under its auspices—notably at the Catholic University of Lublin and on the journals Znak and Tygodnik Powszechny. It was a peculiarity of Poland in the Gomułka years that Marxist philosophers and Catholic theologians could find some common ground in their defense of free speech and civil liberties—an embryonic anticipation of the alliances that would be forged in the Seventies. Elsewhere, however, the Communist Party itself was the only forum in which such criticisms could safely be voiced. The most propitious terrain for ‘helpful’ criticism was the Communist management of the economy.
One reason for this was that conventional Marxism was purportedly grounded in political economy, so that economic policy (once liberated from the dead hand of Stalin) was a permissible arena of intellectual dissent. Another reason was that many east European intellectuals of the time still took Marxism very seriously and treated the problem of Communist economics as a vital theoretical starting point for serious reforms. But the main explanation was simply that, by the early Sixties, the economies of Europe’s Communist states were showing the first intimations of serious disrepair.
The failings of Communist economies were hardly a secret. They were only just able to furnish their citizens with sufficient food (in the Soviet Union they often failed to manage even this). They were committed to the mass production of redundant primary industrial goods. The commodities—consumer goods above all—for which there was a growing demand were not produced, or else not in sufficient quantity, or of the necessary quality. And the system of distribution and sale of such goods as were available was so badly managed that genuine shortages were exacerbated by artificially induced scarcity: bottlenecks, skimming, corruption, and—in the case of food and other perishables—high levels of wastage.
The peculiar inefficiencies of Communism had been partly camouflaged in the first post-war decade by the demands of post-war reconstruction. But by the early Sixties, following Khrushchev’s boast that Communism would ‘overtake’ the West and official proclamations about the now completed transition to Socialism, the gap between Party rhetoric and daily penury could no longer be bridged by exhortations to repair war damage or produce more. And the charge that it was saboteurs—kulaks, capitalists, Jews, spies or Western ‘interests’—who were responsible for impeding Communism’s forward march, though still heard in certain quarters, was now associated with the time of terror: a time that most Communist leaders, following Khrushchev, were anxious to put behind them. The problems, it was increasingly conceded, must lie in the Communist economic system itself.
Self-styled ‘reform economists’ (‘revisionist’ carried pejorative connotations) were thickest on the ground in Hungary. In 1961 János Kádár had let it be known that the Party-State would assume henceforth that anyone not actively opposing it was for it; and it was thus under the auspices of the Kádárist regime that critics of Communist economic practice first felt safe to speak.176 Reform economists acknowledged that the land collectivization of the forties and fifties had been a mistake. They also recognized, though more cautiously, that the Soviet obsession with the large-scale extraction and production of primary industrial goods was an impediment to growth. In short, they conceded—though not in so many words—that the blanket application to eastern Europe of the Soviet Union’s own forced industrialization and destruction of private property had been a disaster. And even more radically, they began to seek ways in which Communist economies might incorporate price signals and other market incentives into a collectivist system of property and production.
The Sixties debates on economic reform in eastern Europe had to walk a fine line. Some Party leaders were sufficiently pragmatic (or worried) to acknowledge the technical mistakes of the past—even the neo-Stalinist Czech leadership abandoned the emphasis on heavy industry in 1961, halfway through its disastrous Third Five-Year Plan. But admitting the failure of central planning or collective property was another matter. Reform economists like Ota Sik or the Hungarian János Kornai sought instead to define a ‘third way’: a mixed economy in which the non-negotiable fact of common ownership and central planning would be mitigated by increased local autonomy, some price signals and the relaxation of controls. The economic arguments, after all, were incontrovertible: without such reforms, the Communist system would degenerate into stagnation and poverty—‘reproducing shortage’, as Kornai put it in a famous paper.
In Hungary alone, Kádár did respond to his critics by allowing a measure of genuine reform: the New Economic Mechanism inaugurated in 1968. Collective farms were granted substantial autonomy and not just permitted but actively encouraged to support private plots on the side. Some monopolies were broken up. Certain commodity prices were tied to the world market and allowed to fluctuate via multiple exchange rates. Private retail outlets were authorized. The point of the exercise was not so much to construct a working middle way between two incompatible economic systems, but rather to introduce the maximum of market activity (and thus, it was hoped, contentment-inducing consumer prosperity) compatible with undiluted political control of the commanding heights of the economy.
In retrospect it is clear that the reformers were deluding themselves if they supposed that a ‘third way’ between Communism and capitalism was ever realistic. But this was not because of any formal shortcoming in their economic analysis. Their true error lay in a curiously naïve misreading of the system under which they lived. What mattered to the Communist leadership was not economics but politics. The ineluctable implication of the economic reformers’ theories was that the central authority of the Party-State would need to be weakened if normal economic life was to be resumed. But faced with that choice the Communist Party-States would always opt for economic abnormality.
In the meantime, however, the regimes were interested above all in stability. For this there were three emerging models. The first, ‘Kádárism’, was not readily exportable—and it was very much part of the Hungarian leader’s own strategy to assure the Kremlin authorities that there was no Hungarian ‘model’, merely a limited practical solution to local difficulties. Hungary’s situation was indeed unique, with Kádár cynically dangling access to the prosperous West before his travel-starved fellow Hungarians as a sort of reward for good behaviour—a tacit confession of Communism’s own failure. The country was now run by and for the ‘New Class’, as the Yugoslav dissident Milovan Djilas had called it in an influential 1957 book: an educated technocracy of bureaucrats and professionals, pragmatically concerned above all with feathering its nest and ensuring its own survival. Genuine liberation was unthinkable, but a reversion to repression highly unlikely.
Kádár’s Hungary—‘the best barracks in the laager’—was much envied, though only fitfully emulated. The second model, Tito’s Yugoslavia, was even more obviously sui generis. This was not because Yugoslavia had managed to avoid the problems of its neighbors. Many of the economic dysfunctions of the Soviet satellites were just as familiar to Yugoslavs, a reminder that their country’s suspended animation between East and West was a product of historical chance rather than ideological choice. But in the course of the Fifties and Sixties Tito had introduced some decentralization in decision-making and allowed experiments with factory and worker ‘autonomy’.
These innovations were born of ethnic and geographical divisions as well as economic necessity. In a federal state whose constituent republics and peoples shared little beyond unhappy and mutually antagonistic memories, the imposition of uniform instructions from Belgrade looked a lot like a return to pre-war practices. The difficult topography of the region favored local initiative; and thanks to the break with Stalin, Tito’s own version of proletarian dictatorship was no longer under pressure to replicate in detail every error of the Soviet Union’s own path to industrial modernity. It was these considerations—rather than the creative, alternative Socialist blueprint with which his Western admirers wishfully credited Tito in these years—that shaped the Yugoslav model.
But Yugoslavia was different all the same: not necessarily kinder to its critics, as Djilas and others found to their cost when dissenting from Titoist orthodoxy,177 but more flexible in handling the needs and wants of the population at large (not least thanks to Western aid). When the Yugoslav essayist Dubravka Ugrešić writes of her nostalgia for the lost Yugoslavia of her youth, what comes to mind are ‘real “winkle-pickers”, plastic macs, the first nylon underwear . . . the first trip to Trieste.’ Such a checklist of cheap consumer goods would have been much less to the fore in Bulgarian or Romanian memory, for example—and the ‘first trip to Trieste’ would have been quite out of the question. Yugoslavs were not prosperous and they were not free; but nor were they imprisoned in a hermetic system. ‘Titoism’ was oppressive rather than repressive. At the time this distinction mattered.
A third route to stability was ‘national Stalinism’, This was the Albanian option—a closed, impoverished society under the absolute rule of a local Party autocrat, paranoid and all-powerful. But it was also, increasingly, the Romanian model too. Nikita Khrushchev, who actively disliked Romania (a sentiment widespread in his generation of Russians), had sought to assign it a uniquely agricultural role in the international Communist distribution of labor. But the Bucharest Party leaders had no intention of being reduced to supplying raw materials and food to more prosperous and advanced Communist economies.
Having played an accommodating role in the imprisonment and suppression of the Hungarian revolt, the Romanians secured the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Romanian territory in 1958 and took an increasingly independent path. Under Dej and (from 1965) Ceauşescu, Romania declined to get involved in Moscow’s quarrels with China and even refused to allow Warsaw Pact maneuvers on its territory. The Romanian leaders made overtures to Tito (whose own relations with the Warsaw Pact were formal rather than friendly), Dej even addressing the Yugoslav National Assembly in 1963; and they underwrote Romania’s neo-Stalinist industrialization with money and machinery obtained from Western Europe. Romania’s dealings with the West steadily increased; while trade with Comecon countries fell—from 70 percent of Romania’s overall foreign trade at the start of the 1960s to 45 percent ten years later.
This much trumpeted ‘Romania-first’ strategy was not unpopular at home—indeed, one of the ways Romania’s Communist Party had compensated in office for its distinctly un-Romanian origins was to wrap itself in the mantle of nationalism. Dej began this, and Ceauşescu merely went further still. But the strategy was even more successful abroad. Whereas Albania, China’s European surrogate, held no attraction for anyone save nostalgic Stalinists and ultra-besotted Maoists, the international image of Communist Romania was curiously positive. Simply by distancing themselves from Moscow, the men in Bucharest gleaned a host of unlikely Western admirers. The Economist, in August 1966, called Ceauşescu ‘the De Gaulle of Eastern Europe.’
As for De Gaulle himself, on a visit to Bucharest in May 1968 he observed that while Ceauşescu’s Communism would not be appropriate for the West, it was probably well suited to Romania: “Chez vous un tel régime est utile, car il fait marcher les gens et fait avancer les choses.” (“For you such a regime is useful, it gets people moving and gets things done.”). De Gaulle was doubtless right that Romanian Communism would not have been appropriate for the West. Communism in Romania was peculiarly vicious and repressive: by distancing themselves from the Soviet Union after 1958 Dej and Ceauşescu were also freeing themselves of any need to echo the de-Stalinization and reforms associated with the Khrushchev era. In contrast to other satellite states Romania allowed no space for any internal opposition—Bucharest intellectuals in the Sixties, cut off from their own society, played no part in domestic debates (there were none) and had to be satisfied with reading the latest nouveaux romans from Paris and participating vicariously in a cosmopolitan French culture for which educated Romanians had always claimed a special affinity.
But far from condemning the Romanian dictators, Western governments gave them every encouragement, After Romania breached the Soviet veto and formally recognized West Germany in January 1967, relations grew warmer still: Richard Nixon became the first US President to visit a Communist state when he went to Bucharest in August 1969. National Communism—‘He may be a Commie but he’s our Commie’—paid off for Ceauşescu: in due course Romania was the first Warsaw Pact state to enter GATT (in 1971), the World Bank and the IMF (1972), to receive European Community trading preferences (1973) and US Most-Favored-Nation status (1975).178
What Western diplomats thought they saw in Bucharest’s anti-Russian autocrats were the germs of a new Tito: stable, biddable and more interested in local power than international disruption. In one sense, at least, they were correct. Tito and Ceauşescu, like Kádár and the neo-Stalinist leadership in the GDR, successfully negotiated the shoals of the Sixties. Each in his own way, they assured their authority and control at home while maintaining at least a modus vivendi with Moscow. The Communist leaders in Warsaw and Prague had no such success.
The peaceful outcome to the Polish uprisings of 1956 had been achieved at a price. While Catholic institutions and writers were permitted in Gomułka’s Poland, opposition within the Party itself was severely constrained. The Polish United Workers’ Party remained deeply conservative, even though it had successfully avoided violent purges in the Stalin years. Nervous at the prospect of a re-run of the disturbances of 1956, the Party leadership treated any criticism of its policies as a direct threat to its political monopoly. The result was deep frustration among ‘revisionist’ intellectuals, not just at the regime in general but at the lost opportunity for a new direction, the unfinished business of the Polish October.
In the summer of 1964, two graduate students at Warsaw University, Jacek Kuroń and Karel Modzelewski, drafted an academic critique of the political and economic system of People’s Poland. Their dissertation was unimpeachably Marxist in tone and content, but that did not stop them being expelled from the Party and the Union of Socialist Youth and being denounced in official circles for spreading anti-Party propaganda. Their response was to publish an Open Letter to the Party, submitted to the Warsaw University Party branch in March 1965. In the Letter the authors depicted a bureaucratic, autocratic regime, deaf to the interests of all but the ruling elite that it served, ruling incompetently over an impoverished working population and censoring all commentary and criticism. Poland’s only hope, Kuroń and Modzelewski concluded, was a genuine revolution, based on workers’ councils, freedom of the press and the abolition of the political police.
The day after presenting their Letter the two men were arrested and charged with advocating the overthrow of the state. On July 19th 1965 they were sentenced to prison terms of three and three and a half years respectively. The authorities were particularly sensitive to the impeccably Marxist terms of their critique, its effective use of social data to point up the regime’s shabby economic performance, and its call for a workers’ revolution to replace the current bureaucratic dictatorship (a neo-Trotskyist touch that did not help the authors’ case179). Above all, perhaps, the Party was determined to head off precisely the combination of intellectual diagnosis and proletarian action for which the Kuroń-Modzelewski letter called.
The Kuroń-Modzelewski Affair sparked a heartfelt response in the university. The secret trial of the two students came as a shock, and there were demands not merely for their release but for their Letter and earlier research paper to be made public. Senior scholars took up their case. Leszek Kołakowski, professor of philosophy at Warsaw University, addressed students of the History Institute the following year, on the 10th anniversary of the Polish Party’s plenary session of October 1956. The Polish October was a missed opportunity, he explained. Ten years later Poland was a land of privilege, inefficiency and censorship. The Communists had lost touch with the nation, and the repression of Kuroń, Modzelewski and the criticisms they espoused was a sign of the Party’s—and the country’s—decline.
Kołakowski was duly expelled from the Party as a ‘bourgeois-liberal’, though his colleagues at Warsaw University valiantly asserted his internationally recognized Marxist credentials. Twenty-two prominent Polish Communist writers and intellectuals then wrote to the Central Committee defending ‘Comrade Kołakowski’ as the spokesman of a ‘free and authentic socialist culture and democracy.’ They in turn were expelled from the Party. By the spring of 1967 the clumsy Polish leadership, enraged by criticism from its Left, had succeeded in forging a genuine intellectual opposition; and Warsaw University had become a center of student revolt—in the name of free speech and in defense, among other things, of their persecuted professors.
The issue of free speech at Warsaw University took an additional twist in January 1968. Since late November 1967 the University theatre had been running a production of Forefathers’ Eve, a play by Adam Mickiewicz, Poland’s national poet. Written in 1832 but dangerously contemporary in its portrayal of nineteenth-century rebels struggling against oppression, the play had attracted lively and distinctly engaged audiences. In late January the Communist authorities announced that the play would have to be cancelled. Following the last performance, hundreds of students marched to the Mickiewicz monument in the Polish capital denouncing censorship and demanding ‘free theater’. Two of the students, Henryk Szlajfer and Adam Michnik, described the situation to Le Monde’s Warsaw correspondent, whose report was then carried on Radio Free Europe: Michnik and his colleague were duly expelled from the University.
The response was a wave of student-organized petitions to the Polish Parliament, sympathetic resolutions at the Warsaw branch of the Polish Writers’ Association and speeches by Kołakowski and other prominent professors and writers in defense of the students. One writer publicly denounced the Communists’ treatment of culture as ‘the dictatorship of the dumb’. On March 8th a meeting of students in Warsaw University to protest the expulsion of Michnik and Szlajfer was violently broken up by police. There followed nationwide student demonstrations three days later and a strike at Warsaw University itself. Neo-Stalinist circles within the Party began to speak ominously of the Party’s loss of control, some of them even alerting Moscow to the dangers of Czechoslovak-style ‘revisionism’.
The Gomułka regime struck back decisively. The strike and ensuing protests were crushed with considerable violence—enough to provoke one Politburo member and two senior cabinet ministers to resign in protest. Thirty-four more students and six professors (including Kołakowski) were dismissed from Warsaw University. Then, following the crushing of the Prague Spring in neighboring Czechoslovakia (see below), the authorities arrested the organizers of protests and petitions against the Soviet invasion and brought them to trial. In a long series of trials held between September 1968 and May 1969, students and other intellectuals from Warsaw, Wrocław, Cracow and Łodz were sentenced to terms ranging from six months to three years for ‘participation in secret organizations’, ‘distribution of anti-State publications’ and other crimes. The harshest sentences were handed out to those like Adam Michnik, Jan Litynski and Barbara Toruńczyk who had also been active in the initial student protests.
A disproportionate number of the students and professors arrested, expelled and imprisoned in Poland in the years 1967-69 were of Jewish origin, and this was not a coincidence. Ever since Gomułka’s return to power in 1956, the conservative (neo-Stalinist) wing of the Polish Party had been seeking an occasion to undo even the limited liberalizations he had introduced. Under the direction of Mieczysław Moczar, the Interior Minister, this inner-party opposition had coalesced around the cause of anti-Semitism.
From Stalin’s death until 1967, anti-Semitism—though endemic in eastern Europe and the Soviet Union itself—was kept out of official Communist rhetoric. After the war most of Eastern Europe’s surviving Jews had gone west, or to Israel. Of those who remained, many fled, if they could, in the course of the persecutions of Stalin’s last years. There were still substantial communities of Jews remaining, in Poland and (especially) Hungary; but most of these were not practicing Jews and typically did not think of themselves as Jewish at all. In the case of those born after the war, they often did not even know that they were—their parents had thought it prudent to keep quiet.180
In Poland especially, the still considerable numbers of Jewish Communists—some of them holding political office, others in universities and the professions—were mostly indifferent to their Jewish background, some of them naïve enough to suppose that their indifference was shared by Poles at large. But they offered an irresistible target for anyone seeking a route to power within the Party and demagogic popularity in the country at large.181 All that was lacking was the opportunity, and the Six Day War between Israel and its Arab neighbors duly afforded this in June 1967. Soviet support for the Arab cause legitimized vocal criticism of Israel, Zionism—and Jews.
Thus in a speech on June 19th 1967, condemning those who had backed Israel in the recent conflict, Gomułka brazenly conflated his Jewish critics and the Zionist state: ‘I wish to announce that we shall not prevent Polish citizens of Jewish nationality from returning [sic] to Israel if they wish to do so. Our position is that every Polish citizen should have one country: the People’s Poland . . . Let those who feel that these words are addressed to them, irrespective of their nationality, draw the proper conclusion. We do not want a Fifth Column in our country.’ The reference to Jews as Poland’s Fifth Column was carried on radio and television and heard by millions of Poles. Its message was unambiguous.
Whether Gomułka was expressing his own views; was seeking scapegoats for the policy failures of the past decade; or was merely anticipating Moczar’s efforts to unseat him and had decided to outflank his Stalinist opponents, was never clear. But the consequences of his decision were dramatic. The Polish authorities unleashed a flood of prejudice against Jews: throughout Poland, but especially in the Party and in academic institutions. Party apparatchiks spread suggestions that the economic shortages and other problems were the work of Jewish Communists. Distinctions were openly drawn between ‘good’ Communists, with national Polish interests at heart, and others (Jews) whose true affiliation lay elsewhere.
In 1968, the parents and other relatives of Jewish students arrested or expelled were themselves sacked from official positions and academic posts. Prosecutors paid special attention to the names and origins of students and professors who appeared in court—familiar from the Slánský and other trials of the Fifties but a first for Communist Poland. At the height of the anti-Semitic frenzy, newspapers were defining Jews by criteria derived directly from the Nuremberg Laws—unsurprising, perhaps, in view of the presence of recycled Polish fascists among the Stalinist wing of the ruling Party.
Jews were now invited to leave the country. Many did so, under humiliating conditions and at great personal cost. Of Poland’s remaining 30,000 Jews some 20,000 departed in the course of 1968-69, leaving only a few thousand behind, mostly the elderly and the young—including Michnik and his fellow students, now serving terms in prison. Among the beneficiaries of this upheaval were Moczar and his supporters who took over the Party and government posts vacated by their Jewish occupants. The losers, beyond Poland’s Jews, were the country’s educational institutions (which lost many of their finest scholars and teachers, including Kolakowski—not himself a Jew but married to one); Gomułka, who realized too late what he had unleashed and was himself removed two years later; and Poland itself, its international reputation once again—and for many years to come—inextricably associated with the victimization of its Jewish minority.
The relative ease with which Poland’s rulers were able to isolate and destroy the student protesters derived from their success in separating the intellectuals and their discontents from the rest of the nation—a strategy in which anti-Semitism naturally played a useful role. The students themselves had some responsibility for this, perhaps: at Warsaw University especially it was the privileged sons and daughters of Poland’s Communist nomenklatura who took the most prominent roles in the protests and demonstrations, and their concerns were focused on issues of free speech and political rights above all. As their neo-Stalinist enemies were quick to point out, Warsaw’s dissident intelligentsia paid little attention to the bread and butter concerns of the working population. In return, the mass of the Polish people was studiously indifferent to the persecution of Jews and students alike, and Jewish students especially.
Two years later, in 1970, when the government raised food prices by 30 percent and the shipyard workers of Gdansk struck in protest, the compliment was tragically if unintentionally returned: there was no one to take up the cause. But the lesson of these years—that if Poland’s workers and intellectuals wanted to challenge the Party they would need to bridge their mutual indifference and forge a political alliance—would in due course be well-learned and applied with historic effect, above all by Adam Michnik and Jacek Kuroń themselves. In this respect, at least, 1968 in Poland had one positive outcome, albeit deferred. The same could not be said of neighbouring Czechoslovakia.
Czechoslovakia in the early Sixties was a hybrid, caught in an uncomfortable transition from national Stalinism to reform Communism. The show trials and purges of the 1950s had come late to Prague and their impact had been both greater and more enduring than elsewhere. There was no rotation of the old Stalinist elite, no Czech Gomułka or Kádár. The old guard of the regime remained in place. Two investigating Commissions were established to inquire into the Slánský and other trials: the first sat from 1955-57, the second from 1962-63. The purpose behind both commissions was somehow to acknowledge the regime’s recent criminal past without loosening any control of the present.
In the short run this goal was achieved. Victims of the Stalinist trials were released and rehabilitated—in many instances at the behest of the same politicians, judges, prosecutors and interrogators who had condemned them in the first place. The ex-prisoners received back their Party membership card, some money, coupons (e.g. for a car) and in certain cases even their apartments. Their wives and children could once again find work and attend school. But despite this de facto acknowledgement of past injustices, the Party and its Stalin-era leadership remained intact and in office.
Like the French Communist leader Maurice Thorez, First Secretary Antonin Novotný waited many years to be sure which way the wind was blowing before following Khrushchev’s example and denouncing the Soviet dictator. The Czech experience of high Stalinist terror was so recent and so extreme that the Party leaders were reluctant to risk any admission of ‘error’—lest the consequences of doing so dwarf the ’56 upheavals in Poland or even Hungary. De-Stalinization in Czechoslovakia was thus deliberately delayed as long as possible—even the monumental statue of Stalin on the heights overlooking Prague, like the rather smaller copy in the Slovak capital Bratislava, was left untouched until October 1962.182
The consequences of the Communist social revolution had been felt more dramatically in Czechoslovakia than elsewhere, in large part precisely because, as we have seen, it really was a developed, bourgeois society—in contrast with every other country subjected to Soviet rule. The leading victims of Stalinist terror in Czechoslovakia had all been intellectuals, usually of middle-class origin, many of them Jews. Other classes of Czechoslovak society had not suffered as much. Upward social mobility for workers—or, more precisely, downward social mobility for everyone else—was a distinguishing feature of the 1950s in the Czech and Slovak lands. The percentage of working-class children in non-vocational higher education in Czechoslovakia rose from under 10 percent in 1938 to 31 percent by 1956, nearly 40 percent in 1963. Income distribution in Czechoslovakia by the early Sixties was the most egalitarian in Soviet Europe.
The Communist leadership had thus indeed advanced Czechoslovakia to ‘full Socialism’, as the new Constitution of 1960 proclaimed. However, this achievement had been accomplished at the price of a level of stagnation that was unacceptable even by Soviet standards. Hence the decision of the Party authorities, at the 12th Party Congress in December 1962, to ‘adapt the national economy’ to the country’s advanced stage of socialist development—i.e. to accept the inevitable and allow a minimum of non-socialist reforms in order to invigorate the stagnant economy. However, the changes proposed by Ota Sik and other Party reform economists—such as linking worker incentives to a share of factory profits rather than the fulfillment of official Plans or norms—were not popular with Party hardliners and were only finally endorsed at the 13th Congress four years later.
By then, as the leadership had feared all along, the combination of public rehabilitations, cautious acknowledgement of Stalin’s faults, and the prospect of even mild economic reforms had opened the way to much more serious questioning of the Party’s stranglehold on public life. The economic reforms begun in 1963 might not be universally welcomed by shop-floor employees; but among writers, teachers, filmmakers and philosophers the prospect of a loosening of the Stalinist shackles released an avalanche of criticisms, hopes and expectations.
Thus a writers’ conference in Liblice in 1963 was devoted to Franz Kafka. Hitherto this was a taboo subject: in part because Kafka had been a Prague Jew writing in German, and thus a reminder of Bohemia’s lost history; but mostly because of the embarrassingly penetrating anticipation in many of Kafka’s writings of the logic of totalitarian rule. And thus the authorization to discuss Kafka appeared to presage a much broader liberalization of public debate: from the discussion of forbidden writers to the mention of murdered leaders was a small step. In April 1963, Ladislav Novomeský, a rehabilitated Slovak writer, made open and admiring mention at the Slovak Writers’ Congress of his ‘comrade and friend’ Clementis, a Slánský trial victim. The desire to speak—to talk about the past—was now taking center stage, albeit still couched in carefully ‘revisionist’ language: when the young novelist Milan Kundera contributed an article to the Prague cultural periodical Literární Noviny in June 1963, his criticisms were cautiously confined to the Stalinist ‘deviation’ in Czech literature and the need to tell the truth about it.
The relatively liberal mood of these years was a belated Czech echo of the Khrushchev thaw. Despite the changed tone in Moscow following Brezhnev’s coup, the artistic renaissance in Czechoslovakia continued to unfold, impeded only by sporadic censorship and pressure. To foreigners, the best-known symptom was a rash of new films, cautiously addressing subjects that would have been forbidden a few years before—Jiří Menzel’s Closely Observed Trains (1966), gently debunking the core Communist myth of wartime anti-Nazi resistance, was co-written by Josef Škvorecký (author of The Cowards, a novel whose similar theme, gingerly adumbrated, had established his reputation a few years before). But playwrights, poets and novelists—many of whom, Kundera included, doubled as screenwriters in these years—played an even more important role.
In 1966 Ludvík Vaculík published The Axe, a fictional account drawing on his own father’s Communist ideals—and the son’s subsequent disillusionment. In 1967 another writer, Ladislas Mňačko, published a biting critique of Novotný and the Partynomenklatura, loosely disguised in novel form, under the transparent title The Taste of Power. In the same year Kundera himself published The Joke, a neo-existentialist and avowedly autobiographical novel of the Stalinist generation in Czechoslovakia. Those years, ‘the era of building socialism’ as they were officially known, were now fair game for intellectual condemnation, and at the Fourth Czechoslovak Writers’ Congress in the summer of 1967 Kundera, Vaculík, the poet and playwright Pavel Kohout and the young playwright Václav Havel attacked the Communist leadership of the time for the material and moral devastation it had wrought. They called for a return to the literary and cultural heritage of Czechoslovakia and for the country to take up once again its ‘normal’ place in the center of a free Europe.
The implied attack on Czechoslovakia’s current leadership was obvious to all—certainly, as we now know, the Kremlin leadership was already watching the situation in Prague with some misgivings: Brezhnev had long regarded Czechoslovakia as the least ideologically reliable element in the Warsaw Pact. It was because they knew this that the aging Stalinists in Prague Castle had tried for so long to hold the line. If they did not clamp down firmly on the intellectual opposition emerging in 1967 it was not for want of trying. But they were held back by two constraints: the need to pursue the recently implemented economic reforms, which implied a degree of openness and tolerance of dissenting opinion along Hungarian lines; and the emerging difficulties in Slovakia.
Czecho-Slovakia (as it was initially known) had always been an uneasy and unbalanced state. The Slovak minority in the south and east of the country was poorer and more rural than the Czechs to the northwest. Released from Hungarian rule in 1918, Slovaks were the poor relations in multi-ethnic inter-war Czechoslovakia and were not always treated well by Prague. Many Slovak political leaders had thus welcomed the breakup of the country in 1939 and the Nazi-sponsored appearance of an ‘independent’ puppet state with its capital in Bratislava. Conversely it was the urban and heavily Social Democratic Czechs of Bohemia and Moravia who had backed Communist candidates in the post-war elections, while the Catholic Slovaks remained indifferent or opposed.
All the same, Slovakia had not done badly under Communism. Slovak intellectuals fell victim to Communist purges, accused of bourgeois nationalism or antiCommunist plotting (or both). And the small number of surviving Slovak Jews suffered along with their Czech confrères. But ‘bourgeois nationalists’, Communists, Jews and intellectuals were fewer in number in Slovakia and much more isolated from the rest of society. Most Slovaks were poor and worked in the countryside. For them the rapid urbanization and industrialization of the first post-war decade carried real benefits. In contrast to Czechs, they were by no means displeased with their lot.
The mood in the Slovak region of the country changed sharply after 1960, however. The new ‘Socialist’ Constitution made even fewer concessions to local initiative or opinion than its predecessor and such autonomy as had been accorded Slovakia in the post-war reconstruction of the country was now taken back. Of more immediate consequence for most Slovaks, however, was the stagnation of the economy (by 1964 Czechoslovakia’s rate of growth was the slowest in the bloc), which hit the heavy industry of central Slovakia harder than anywhere else.
In January 1967 Novotný had been due to begin implementing the overdue economic reforms recommended by his own Party experts. The reform economists’ proposals for decentralization of decision-making and increased local autonomy had been welcomed in Bratislava—though some of the reforms, such as profit-related wage incentives, were hardly calculated to appeal to the unskilled workers in Slovakia’s inefficient industrial plants. But all Novotný’s instincts told him to resist such loosening of Party control, and instead he encouraged amendments to the proposed changes, with the goal of shoring up the institutions of central planning. This not only sabotaged the proposals of Sik and other Party economists; it further alienated Slovak opinion. Slovak Communists themselves now began to talk of the need for federalization and of the difficulties of collaborating with the aging Communist apparatchiks in Prague. Echoing a longstanding complaint of Slovak cleaners, building workers, teachers and shop assistants, they felt slighted and ignored by the Czech majority. There was talk of long-forgotten pre-war indignities, as well as the Stalinist purges of Slovak Communists.
Meanwhile, and for the first time in years, there was a hint of troubles of yet another order. On October 31st 1967, a group of students from Prague’s Technical University organized a street demonstration in the district of Strahov to protest electricity cuts at their dormitories: however, their calls for ‘More light!’ were rightly interpreted as extending beyond local housekeeping difficulties. The ‘Strahov Events’, as they were later dubbed, were efficiently and violently suppressed by the police; but they added to the charged atmosphere of the moment, all the more so because they seemed to suggest that a Communist state might not be immune to the student mood in the West.
Novotný , like Gomułka in Poland, was uncertain how to respond to such challenges. Lacking the anti-Semitic option, he turned to Brezhnev for help in dealing with his local critics. But when the Soviet leader arrived in Prague in December 1967 he offered only the rather obscure recommendation that the Czechoslovak President do as he saw fit: ‘It’s your business.’ Novotný’s colleagues seized the opportunity: on January 5th 1968 the Central Committee of the Czechoslovak Communist Party elected a new First Secretary, Alexander Dubček.
The new man was young (at 47 he was sixteen years Novotný’s junior), from the reform wing of the Party and, above all, a Slovak. As leader of the Slovak Communist Party for the past three years he appeared to many to be a credible compromise candidate: a longstanding Communistapparatchik who would nevertheless support reforms and appease Slovak resentments. Dubček’s early moves seemed to confirm this reading: a month after his appointment the Party leadership gave its unstinting approval to the stalled economic reform program. Dubček’s rather artless manner appealed to the young in particular, while his indisputable loyalty to the Party and to ‘Socialism’ reassured for the time being the Kremlin and other foreign Communist leaders looking anxiously on.
If Dubček’s intentions were obscure to observers, this is probably because he himself was far from sure just where to go. At first this ambiguity worked in his favor, as different factions competed for his support and offered to strengthen his hand. Public rallies in Prague in the weeks following his election demanded an end to censorship, greater press freedom and a genuine inquiry into the purges of the fifties and the responsibilities of the old guard around Novotný (who remained President of the country even after being ousted from the Party leadership). Carried on this wave of popular enthusiasm, Dubček endorsed the call for a relaxation of censorship and initiated a purge of Novotnýites from the Party and from the Czech army.
On March 22nd Novotný reluctantly resigned the presidency and was replaced a week later by General Ludvík Svoboda. Five days after that, the Central Committee adopted an ‘Action Program’ calling for equal status and autonomy for Slovakia, the rehabilitation of past victims and ‘democratization’ of the political and economic system. The Party was now officially endorsing what the Program called ‘a unique experiment in democratic Communism’: ‘Socialism with a human face’ as it became colloquially known. Over a period of time (the document spoke of a ten-year transition) the Czechoslovak Communist Party would allow the emergence of other parties with whom it would compete in genuine elections. These were hardly original ideas, but publicly pronounced from the official organs of a ruling Communist Party they triggered a political earthquake. The Prague Spring had begun.
The events of the spring and summer of 1968 in Czechoslovakia hinged on three contemporary illusions. The first, widespread in the country after Dubček’s rise and especially following publication of the Action Program, was that the freedoms and reforms now being discussed could be folded into the ‘Socialist’ (i.e. Communist) project. It would be wrong to suppose, in retrospect, that what the students and writers and Party reformers of 1968 were ‘really’ seeking was to replace Communism with liberal capitalism or that their enthusiasm for ‘Socialism with a human face’ was mere rhetorical compromise or habit. On the contrary: the idea that there existed a ‘third way’, a Democratic Socialism compatible with free institutions, respecting individual freedoms and collective goals, had captured the imagination of Czech students no less than Hungarian economists.
The distinction that was now drawn between the discredited Stalinism of Novotný’s generation and the renewed idealism of the Dubček era, was widely accepted—even, indeed especially, by Party members.183 As Jiří Pelikán asserted, in his preface to yet a third report on the Czech political trials (commissioned in 1968 by Dubček but suppressed after his fall) ‘the Communist Party had won tremendous popularity and prestige, the people had spontaneously declared themselves for socialism’.184 That is perhaps a little hyperbolic, but it was not wildly out of line with contemporary opinion. And this, in turn, nourished a second illusion.
If the people believed the Party could save Socialism from its history, so the Party leadership came to suppose that they could manage this without losing control of the country. A new government headed by Oldřich Černík was installed on April 18th and, encouraged by huge public demonstrations of affection and support (notably in the traditional May Day celebrations), it relaxed virtually all formal controls on public expressions of opinion. On June 26th censorship of press and media was formally abolished. The same day it was announced that Czechoslovakia was to become a genuinely federal state, comprising a Czech Socialist republic and a Slovak Socialist republic (this was the only one of Dubček’s reforms to survive the subsequent repression, becoming law on October 28th 1968).
But having relaxed all controls on opinion, the Communist leadership was now pressed from every side to pursue the logic of its actions. Why wait ten years for free and open elections? Now that censorship had been abolished, why retain formal control and ownership of the media? On June 27th Literárny Listy and other Czech publications carried a manifesto by Ludvík Vaculík, ‘Two Thousand Words’, addressed to ‘workers, farmers, officials, artists, scholars, scientists and technicians.’ It called for the re-establishment of political parties, the formation of citizens’ committees to defend and advance the cause of reform, and other proposals to take the initiative for further change out of the control of the Party. The battle was not yet won, Vaculík warned: the reactionaries in the Party would fight to preserve their privileges and there was even talk of ‘foreign forces intervening in our development’. The people needed to strengthen the arm of the Communists’ own reformers by pressing them to move forward even faster.
Dubček rejected Vaculík’s manifesto and its implication that the Communists should abandon their monopoly of power. As a lifelong Communist he would not countenance this crucial qualitative shift (‘bourgeois pluralism’) and anyway saw no need to do so. For Dubček the Party itself was the only appropriate vehicle for radical change if the vital attributes of a Socialist system were to be preserved. The more popular the Party, the more changes it could safely institute. But as Vaculík’s manifesto made cruelly clear, the Party’s popularity and its credibility would increasingly rest upon its willingness to pursue changes that might ultimately drive it from power. The fault line between a Communist state and an open society was now fully exposed.
And this, in turn, directed national attention in the summer of 1968 to the third illusion, the most dangerous of all: Dubček’s conviction that he could keep Moscow at bay, that he would succeed in assuring his Soviet comrades that they had nothing to fear from events in Czechoslovakia—indeed, that they had everything to gain from the newfound popularity of the Czechoslovak Communist Party and the renewed faith in a rejuvenated socialist project. If Dubček made this mortal miscalculation it was above all because the Czech reformers had crucially misinterpreted the lesson of 1956. Imre Nagy’s mistake, they thought, had been his departure from the Warsaw Pact and declaration of Hungarian neutrality. So long as Czechoslovakia stayed firmly in the Pact and unambiguously allied to Moscow, Leonid Brezhnev and his colleagues would surely leave them alone.
But by 1968, the Soviet Union was worried less about military security than the Party’s loss of monopoly control. As early as March 21st, at a meeting of the Soviet Politburo, Ukrainian Party leader Petro Shelest was complaining of contamination from the Czechoslovak example: rumors from Prague were having an adverse impact on the mood among young Ukrainians, he reported. Polish and East German leaders made similar remonstrations to their Soviet colleagues at a meeting in Dresden the same month (Gomułka, with his own troubles at home, was especially angered by public criticism in Prague at Poland’s turn to anti-Semitism). Unbeknownst to Prague, the KGB chief Yuri Andropov was already speaking of a possible need for ‘concrete military measures’; and in April Soviet Defense Minister Andrei Grechko was quietly authorized to draw up a contingent plan for military operations in Czechoslovakia—a first draft of what would become ‘Operation Danube’.
With every liberalizing step in Prague, Moscow grew ever more uneasy. Dubček must have been aware of this: on May 4th-5th he and other Czech Communists visited Moscow and were presented by Eastern bloc leaders with a menu of complaints about developments in their country. But while Dubček continued to insist that the Party had everything under control, and that however free Czech speech became there was no question of the country breaking with its fraternal obligations, the reliability of the Czech army was now coming into question, and the uncensored Czech press was publishing Soviet dissidents. Russian students visiting Prague could now read and hear people and opinions long since banned at home. Prague was becoming a window into the West.
By July 1968, Moscow had come to the conclusion that events in Prague were spinning out of the Party’s control—and so, indeed, they may have been. At a meeting in Moscow on July 14th of Party leaders from the USSR, Poland, East Germany, Bulgaria and Hungary—but not the Czechs themselves—it was agreed to send a fraternal Letter to the Czechoslovak Party warning it of the risk of counter-revolution and listing measures that needed to be taken: ‘The situation in Czechoslovakia jeopardizes the common vital interests of other socialist countries.’ Two weeks later the Soviet and Czech leaders met on the Czechoslovak-Soviet frontier, at Čierna nad Tisou, and Dubček tried once again to convince Brezhnev that the Communist Party was not jeopardizing its position by enacting reforms, but was actually strengthening its public support.
The Soviet leader was not merely unconvinced; he came away increasingly skeptical of Dubček’s prospects. The Warsaw Pact announced forthcoming maneuvers near the Czech border. At a Warsaw Pact meeting in Bratislava on August 3rd (which Romania’s Ceauşescu declined to attend), Brezhnev propounded the Doctrine that would henceforth be associated with his name: ‘Each Communist party is free to apply the principles of Marxism-Leninism and socialism in its own country, but it is not free to deviate from these principles if it is to remain a Communist party . . . The weakening of any of the links in the world system of socialism directly affects all the socialist countries, and they cannot look indifferently upon this.’
This pronouncement, a lightly veiled assertion of the Kremlin’s right to act preventively to head off a threat to socialism in any socialist country, may well have given Dubček pause. But there was little he could do, and so he continued to insist that his domestic reforms posed no threat to the socialist system. On August 13th, in a telephone conversation with a mistrustful Brezhnev, Dubček painstakingly explained that he was trying to suppress popular criticisms of the Soviet Union but that ‘this issue cannot just be solved by a directive from above.’ Had he known that five of his colleagues on the Czechoslovak Praesidium had secretly handed the Russians a letter on August 3rd, describing an imminent threat to Communist order in Czechoslovakia and requesting military intervention, he might have felt differently.185
The Soviet decision to invade Czechoslovakia was not formally taken until August 18th. Brezhnev seems to have been reluctant—intuitively sensing that however easy the victory, its aftershocks might prove troublesome—but it had become all but inevitable well before then. The Soviet leaders anticipated that the forthcoming 14th Czechoslovak Communist Party Congress might see a definitive take-over by the Party’s reformist wing, and they were by now truly frightened of the infectious impact of the Czech example upon its neighbors. As Grechko put it when informing the assembled Soviet military leaders of the decision to invade: ‘The invasion will take place even if it leads to a third world war.’ But the Soviet leaders knew perfectly well that there was no such risk, and not just because Washington had its hands full in Vietnam. Just five weeks earlier, Washington and Moscow had co-signed a Treaty of Nuclear Non-proliferation; the US was not about to jeopardize such gains for the sake of a few million misguided Czechs. And so, on August 21st 1968, 500,000 Warsaw Pact troops from Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, the DDR and the Soviet Union marched into Czechoslovakia.186
The invasion met some passive resistance and quite a lot of street protests, especially in Prague; but at the urgent behest of the Czech government it was otherwise unopposed. The unfriendly reception was a source of some surprise to the Soviet leadership, who had been led to expect that their tanks would encounter widespread support. Having at first arrested Dubček and his leading colleagues, flown them to Moscow and obliged them to sign a paper renouncing parts of their program and agreeing to the Soviet occupation of their country, the Kremlin was now perforce obliged to accept that the reformers had the support of the Czech and Slovak people and allow them to retain formal charge of their country, at least for the moment. It was clearly imprudent to do otherwise.
Nevertheless, the repression of the Prague reforms—‘normalization’, as it became known—began almost immediately. The forthcoming Party Congress was cancelled, censorship was re-introduced and all talk of implementing the Action Program ended. Among the Soviet leaders there was considerable support for the imposition on Prague of a military dictatorship. This was the preference not only of Andropov and Shelest but also—revealingly—of the GDR’s Walter Ulbricht, Bulgaria’s Todor Zhivkov and Poland’s Gomułka. But Brezhnev chose instead to let Dubček stay in office a few months longer, pursue the federalization of the country (with the aim of splitting Slovaks, their chief demand now conceded, from the more radical Czechs) and see how events unfolded—while retaining a Warsaw Pact presence just in case.
There were occasional student demonstrations in defense of the reforms, and in the industrial towns of Bohemia and Moravia there emerged, briefly, a network of workers’ councils on the model of 1956 in Hungary (at their peak, in January 1969, these councils claimed to represent one in six of the national workforce, though they were very weak in Slovakia). And there was the suicide of Jan Palach, a 20-year-old student at Charles University who set fire to himself on the steps of the National Museum in Prague’s Wenceslas Square in protest against the Soviet invasion and its aftermath. Palach lived for three days before dying of his burns on January 19th 1969. His funeral, on January 25th, was an occasion for national mourning: for Palach and for Czechoslovakia’s lost democracy.
The next time pro-democracy demonstrators took to the streets (following Czechoslovakia’s victory over the USSR in a game of ice hockey), the Kremlin exploited the occasion to remove Dubček and replace him, on April 17th 1969, with one of his erstwhile colleagues, Gustav Husák. As a Slovak and former trial victim (he had been imprisoned in the Stalin years for ‘nationalism’), Husák was the ideal candidate to purge the land of the reformist heresy without prompting accusations of a return to Stalinism. The repression that followed was less obtrusive than in the past, but highly effective. Public trials were eschewed, but in the course of the next two years the Czechoslovak Communist Party was purged of all its ‘unreliable’ elements (nine out of ten of those expelled were Czechs). Men and women who had been active or prominent in the Prague Spring were ‘interviewed’ and asked to sign statements renouncing their actions and rejecting the Dubcek reforms. Most signed. Those who refused lost their jobs and, along with their relatives and children, became social pariahs. By far the largest group of victims was those, whether in or out of the Party, who had played a visible role in recent years: journalists, television announcers, essayists, novelists, playwrights, film directors or student leaders.187
The ‘screening’ and purging of these intellectuals was carried out by lower ranking bureaucrats, policemen and party officials—more often than not the victims’ own colleagues. Their goal was to extract petty confessions—not so much in order to incriminate their victims but rather to humiliate them and thus secure their collaborationin the self-subjugation of a troublesome society. The message went out that the country had passed through a mass psychosis in 1968, that false prophets had exploited the ensuing ‘hysteria’, and that the nation needed to be directed firmly back to the correct path: induced by the carrot of consumer goods and the stick of omnipresent surveillance.
The threat of violence was of course always implicit, but the fact that it was rarely invoked merely added to the collective humiliation. Once again, as in 1938 and again in 1948, Czechoslovakia was being made complicit in its own defeat. By 1972—with poets and playwrights forced to clean boilers and wash windows; university lecturers stacking bricks, and their more troublesome students expelled; the police files full of useful ‘confessions’; and reform Communists cowed or else in exile—‘order’, in the words of a brilliant, bitter essay by one of normalization’s victims, had been ‘restored’.188
There were ripples of protest throughout the Communist bloc. On August 25th 1968 demonstrators in Red Square protesting the occupation of Czechoslovakia included Pavel Litvinov (grandson of Stalin’s foreign minister) and Larissa Daniel (wife of the imprisoned Soviet novelist). East European army units engaged in the invasion of Czechoslovakia had been led to believe that they were defending the country against West German or American invaders, and some of them had later to be quietly withdrawn, their reliability—notably that of Hungarian units occupying Slovakia—seriously in question. In Poland, as we have seen, the repression in Prague both stimulated student protests and strengthened the hand of the authorities in stamping them down. In April 1969 in the Latvian capital Riga, a Jewish student, Ilia Rips, set herself on fire to draw attention to the Soviet treatment of Dubček. The attitude of Czechs and Slovaks themselves, hitherto among the most pro-Russian nations in the Soviet bloc, now shifted irrevocably to a stance of sullen acquiescence.
But all this was easily contained. The Kremlin had made its point—that fraternal socialist states had only limited sovereignty and that any lapse in the Party’s monopoly of power might trigger military intervention. Unpopularity at home or abroad was a small price to pay for the stability that this would henceforth ensure. After 1968, the security of the Soviet zone was firmly underwritten by a renewed appreciation of Moscow’s willingness to resort to force if necessary. But never again—and this was the true lesson of 1968, first for the Czechs but in due course for everyone else—never again would it be possible to maintain that Communism rested on popular consent, or the legitimacy of a reformed Party, or even the lessons of History.
In Prague, the evisceration of the reform movement left an especially bitter taste. Many of the most enthusiastic purgers had been among the loudest enthusiastsfor Dubček just a few months before—‘it was only after the Prague Spring of 1968’, wrote Zdeněk Mlynář, one of the Communist Party’s leading reformers, ‘that one began to see who was who.’ The apparent ease with which first Dubček, then the Party, and finally the whole society seemed to cave before the Soviet overlords and their local hirelings was not merely humiliating (unflattering comparisons were made with Hungary twelve years before); it cast a retroactively skeptical light upon the ideals and hopes of the reform era itself.
Reflecting in later years upon his memories of August 21st 1968, when Red Army troops burst into a meeting of Czech party leaders and a soldier lined up behind each Politburo member, Mlynář recalled that ‘at such a moment one’s concept of socialism moves to last place. But at the same time you know that it has a direct connection of some sort with the automatic weapon pointing at your back.’ It is that connection which marked the definitive turning point in the history of Communism, more even than the Hungarian tragedy of 1956.
The illusion that Communism was reformable, that Stalinism had been a wrong turning, a mistake that could still be corrected, that the core ideals of democratic pluralism might somehow still be compatible with the structures of Marxist collectivism: that illusion was crushed under the tanks on August 21st 1968 and it never recovered. Alexander Dubček and his Action Program were not a beginning but an end. Never again would radicals or reformers look to the ruling Party to carry their aspirations or adopt their projects. Communism in Eastern Europe staggered on, sustained by an unlikely alliance of foreign loans and Russian bayonets: the rotting carcass was finally carried away only in 1989. But the soul of Communism had died twenty years before: in Prague, in August 1968.
The Sixties ended badly everywhere. The closing of the long post-war cycle of growth and prosperity dispelled the rhetoric and the projects of the New Left; the optimistic emphasis on post-industrial alienation and the soulless quality of modern life would soon be displaced by a renewed attention to jobs and wages.189 In the East the message of the Sixties was that you could no longer work within ‘the system’; in the West there appeared no better choice. On both sides of the Iron Curtain illusions were swept aside. Only the truly radical stuck with their determination to remain outside the political consensus—a commitment which in Germany and Italy, as in the US and Latin America, led them into clandestinity, violence and crime.
In the short run, the practical achievements of the Sixties seemed rather thin. Eighteen-year-olds got the vote: first in Britain, then elsewhere. Universities tried, with mixed success, to upgrade their facilities and courses and render themselves more open to student demands. In the course of the next decade access to divorce, abortion and contraception was facilitated almost everywhere, and restrictions upon sexual behavior—whether as depicted or practiced—largely disappeared. In the Statuto dei Lavoratori of May 1970, Italian workers won the right to protection against unfair dismissal. Taken all in all, such changes constitute an underlying cultural transformation of European society; but they were hardly the ‘revolution’ envisaged in the slogans and actions of the generation of 1968.190
Indeed, that revolution had from the start been self-defeating. The same movements that purported to despise and abhor ‘consumer culture’ were from the outset an object of cultural consumption, reflecting a widespread disjunction between rhetoric and practice. Those in Paris or Berlin who aggressively declared their intention to ‘change the world’ were often the people most devoted to parochial and even bodily obsessions—anticipating the solipsistic ‘me’ politics of the decade to follow—and absorbed in the contemplation of their own impact. ‘The Sixties’ were a cult object even before the decade had passed.
But if the Sixties seemed at last to pass un-mourned and with few enduring monuments, this was perhaps because the changes that they did bring about were so all-embracing as to seem natural and, by the early Seventies, wholly normal. At the start of the decade Europe was run by and—as it seemed—for old men. Authority, whether in the bedroom, the home, the streets, educational establishments, workplaces, the media or politics, passed unquestioned. Yet within ten years the old men (Churchill, Adenauer, De Gaulle) were dead. Authority had either been withdrawn from most spheres of social life, or else was acknowledged only in the breach. In some places—France, Italy—the transition had been quite dramatic. Elsewhere—Britain, perhaps—the transition was spread over a period of years and its dimensions could only be fully appreciated in retrospect.191
It was one of the self-delusions of the age that the Sixties were an era of heightened political consciousness. ‘Everyone’ (or at least everyone under twenty-five attending an educational establishment and drawn to radical ideas) was in the streets and mobilized for a cause. The deflation of the causes—and the demobilization of the coming decades—thus confers in retrospect an air of failure upon a decade of frenetic political activity. But in certain important respects the Sixties were actually a vital decade for the opposite reason: they were the moment when Europeans in both halves of the continent began their definitive turn away from ideological politics.
Thus the slogans and projects of the Sixties’ generation, far from re-awakening a revolutionary tradition whose language and symbols they so energetically sought to reinvigorate, can be seen in hindsight to have served as its swansong. In Eastern Europe, the ‘revisionist’ interlude and its tragic dénouement saw off the last illusions of Marxism as a practice. In the West, Marxist and para-Marxist theories soared clear of any relationship to local reality, disqualifying themselves from any future role in serious public debate. In 1945 the radical Right had discredited itself as a legitimate vehicle for political expression. By 1970, the radical Left was set fair to emulate it. A 180-year cycle of ideological politics in Europe was drawing to a close.