Why the Kremlin invaded
The movement in Czechoslovakia was nowhere as highly developed as the movement in Hungary or Poland in 1956. There were no workers' councils, nor were the workers armed, as in Hungary, where the Russians intervened.
But even in Poland in 1956, there was a general strike and an insurrection in Poznan! Yet the Russians allowed Gomulka to control the situation by means of reforms in Poland in 1956, but could not allow Dubcek to do the same thing in Czechoslovakia in 1968. Why?
The answer is to be found, partly, in the changed international balance of class forces since 1956. The intervening period has seen the monolith of world Stalinism shattered into pieces by a series of splits along national lines. In a very striking manner, Trotsky's prognosis of 1923 has been confirmed in the 1960s: that the theory of "socialism in a single country", which substituted the narrow, national interests of the Russian bureaucracy for those of the international working class, would inevitably result in the nationalist degeneration of the Communist International.
Since the events of 1956, the Stalinist bloc has suffered the split-off of China, which has led, not to the creation of two Stalinist camps, but to the opening up of a whole spectrum of "national roads to socialism".
With the Sino-Soviet split, the policies of the Rumanian and Yugoslav bureaucracies, Gomulka's "Polish Road", etc. the stranglehold of the Russian bureaucracy over the other bureaucracies and also over the CPs of the West has greatly weakened. The extent of the degeneration can be gauged from the frantic attempts of the Russian bureaucracy to drum up support for a world meeting of CPs for the purpose of a solemn excommunication of China.
Compare this to the ease with which Stalin was able to expel Yugoslavia from Cominform and the difference is clear. Nowadays, even the Castro bureaucracy in Cuba, resting on the narrowest basis of any Stalinist state, can afford to assert its "own" road to "Socialism", as can be seen from the purge of the pro-Moscow wing of the Cuban CP in January of this year.
Even more significant was the Budapest Conference of CPs in March. Only 67 Parties even bothered to attend, as against 81 in 1960.
Cuba, Yugoslavia, N. Korea and N. Vietnam were absent. Rumania walked out; of the Asian Communist Parties only the pro-Moscow Indian Communist Party attended.
In the past decade, Stalinism has suffered a series of blows which have undermined its power and prestige internationally. No longer can the "Moscow Line" command the blind fanatical adherence it had before the war.
But far more important even than this fact have been the developments amongst the masses of Eastern Europe and Russia itself. The ferment among the Russian writers is only the tip of the iceberg as far as the discontent of the masses in Russia itself is concerned.
It is an amazing comment on the weakness of the bureaucratic regime in Russia that 50 years after the revolution a whole period of so-called "de-Stalinisation" and "Thaw", after all the promises about "building Communism in 20 years", it has to sentence writers to hard labour for the crime of demanding the implementation of the Soviet Constitution. But far more significant than the writers' trial earlier this year was the stream of protests by Soviet intellectuals that followed the sentences.
The grandson of the famous Soviet diplomat Litvinov issued an open letter condemning the trial, and signed his own name and address in open defiance of the secret police. The son of the Soviet general Yakir, murdered by Stalin in the infamous purges, issued a similar protest, in which he warned that Stalinism still existed and called for the re-habilitation of Leon Trotsky.
Yakir also signed his name and address. After the protests, the Bureaucracy clamped down hard in an attempt to gag the intelligentsia. The works of Alexander Solzhenitsyn who only a few years ago was hailed by the Soviet press as "a new Dostoevsky" have been banned. Solzhenitsyn had been leading the campaign against censorship and for freedom of the arts in Russia.
The developments in Czechoslovakia could not be tolerated because of the effect they would have upon the Soviet people, starting with the intelligentsia. The effect upon the Ukraine, which borders on Slovakia and which has been seething with discontent in the last eighteen months, would be particularly serious.
The abolition of the censorship in Czechoslovakia would leave the Russian bureaucracy without any grounds to resist the insistent clamour of a growing number of Soviet intellectuals to remove the dead hand of bureaucratic control from literature and the arts. But far more serious would be the effect on the working class itself.
The free airing of opinions in the press would provide a focal point for organised expressions of discontent, leading inevitably in the direction of a new programme and a new party. Already in Russia there are hundreds and thousands of underground study circles, where workers read and draw their own conclusions from the works of Lenin, which are still distributed in editions of hundreds of thousands in the Soviet Union.
The tragedy of Czechoslovakia was that the Czech people found themselves leaderless, disarmed and unprepared. The Dubcek clique preferred to see the country occupied rather than arm the working class. For all his brave words, Dubcek was prepared to eat dirt, rather than risk sparking off the spontaneous mass movement of the working class.
None of Lenin's safeguards remained
The glaring contrasts between Soviet reality and the ideas of Lenin is becoming clear to all. The 1919 Programme of the Bolshevik Party, drawn up mainly by Lenin, laid down the following basic pre-requisites for workers' power, not "under Socialism", not "under Communism"-but in the very first stages of Soviet power, in the period of transition from capitalism to socialism:
Free and democratic elections, with the right of recall
No official to receive a higher wage than a skilled worker
No standing army, but the armed people
No permanent bureaucracy: "Every cook should be able to be Prime Minister".
Of these elementary safeguards of workers' democracy, not one remains in force in Russia and Eastern Europe today. That is why the movement of the workers in the East inevitably takes up the demand for a return to Lenin, not back to capitalism, but for the purging of the Soviet state of bureaucrats, careerists and parasites, for a genuine socialist workers' democracy.
In Czechoslovakia, as in Hungary in 1956 (where the workers actually set up workers' councils to rule the country, Soviets in all but name) the working class would undoubtedly have moved in this direction. Already, in at least one Czech journal, the idea of Soviets (i.e. genuine, democratic organs of workers' power) had been put forward. In the course of events, the workers would have learned by their own experience the need to by-pass the limitations imposed on them by the Dubcek clique.
The Hungarian workers in 1956 came late on the scene, after the stage had been set by the movement of the students and intellectuals, but when they did intervene, they went farther than the "liberal" bureaucratic Nagy and Kadar had forseen. The movement transcended the "calm", "dignified", "constitutional" nonsense of the Nagys and Dubceks and became a genuine workers' revolution; not a social counter-revolution to overthrow the Socialist property relations, but a political revolution to oust the bureaucracy and establish a healthy democratic workers' state.
That movement of the Hungarian workers was only crushed by the tanks of the Russian bureaucracy at tremendous cost and effort. Now, in 1968, they were faced with an awkward choice: to intervene would mean yet another terrible blow to the power and prestige of world Stalinism; not to intervene would probably lead to an even more dangerous situation for the bureaucracy, and one which will not stop at the borders of Czechoslovakia.
The invasion bears all the hallmarks of a sudden, panic move. The behaviour of the Russian leaders over the past months has been inconsistent, vacillating, dilatory. There may even be some substance to the speculation of bourgeois commentators about a split in the bureaucracy.
At all events, the invasion of Czechoslovakia must not be seen as proof of the strength of the Russian bureaucracy but as a move dictated by fear, a move that demonstrates beyond doubt the extremely shaky basis upon which Russian and East European Stalinism exists.
On the face of it, the appearance of Russian tanks in the streets of Prague spelt immediate and inevitable defeat of the movement in Czechoslovakia. But such a conclusion is fundamentally false. Of course, if one approaches the question from a purely military angle, then all talk of resistance by the Czechs to the mighty army of Soviet Russia, with its overwhelming superiority of men and resources, would be ridiculous.
But for Marxists, military factors by themselves cannot be decisive in war. If that were the case, then the young Soviet republic, which at one stage was reduced to two provinces, around Moscow and Petrograd, would have been crushed by the twenty-one armies of intervention. But this did not happen.
Why were Lenin and the Bolsheviks able to emerge victorious from the Civil war against overwhelming odds? The answer lies in the clear internationalist position of the Bolsheviks and the class appeals that were made to the workers in uniform of the foreign armies of intervention. The result of the Bolshevik propaganda and fraternisation on the already demoralised troops led to mutinies in the armies of intervention which became "infected" with "Bolshevik influenza".
A genuine Leninist leadership would have prepared the Czech people for the eventuality of an invasion, both politically and militarily. The confrontation of the Red Army by an armed working class, organised in Soviets, would have had a tremendous effect on the Russian workers in uniform.
As it was, numerous eye-witness accounts told of the bewilderment and demoralisation of the Warsaw Fact troops, as the realisation dawned on them that they had been duped by their leaders. There were instances of Russian troops breaking down and weeping in the streets, protesting that they did not even knew they were in Czechoslovakia, that they did not wish to fight the Czech workers, etc. In such circumstances, fraternisation based on clear class, internationalist lines would undoubtedly have led to massive disaffection in the Red Army.
Even without this, it is a measure of the complete demoralisation of the troops that whole units had to be withdrawn after one week of occupation. But no army, no matter how demoralised, can be expected to mutiny unless a strong alternative is clearly posed.
The Czech workers and students showed their instinctive grasp of the need to fraternise. But mere passive resistance is not enough. The interventionist troops should have been made to feel the absolute determination of the Czech people to fight to the death if necessary to defend their gains. They should have been confronted with a force so implacable as to encourage them to disobey the officer with his pistol at their back. Without such a confrontation, the officer caste can always force the workers in uniform into line with the threat of the firing squad.
Also, in relation to the propaganda used by the Czechs, much of it was of a nationalist kind that would have no appeal to the Russian troops. Slogans like "Ivan go home", while undoubtedly having a demoralizing effect, would not be capable of winning the foreign workers in uniform as did the internationalist propaganda of Bolshevism.
The tragedy of Czechoslovakia was that, at the crucial moment, the Czech people found themselves leaderless, disarmed and unprepared. The perfidy and cowardice of the Dubcek clique which preferred to see the country occupied rather than arm the working class, is a clear indication of the real interests of this group. For all his brave words, Dubcek was prepared to eat dirt, rather than risk sparking off the spontaneous mass movement of the working class.
The workers will grasp the lessons of 1968
It is a measure of the cowardice of the Czech bureaucracy, and its fear of the workers, that even industrial action was ruled out, except for a one-hour stoppage. The French events demonstrated how quickly a "calm", "dignified" strike (i.e. a strike controlled and restricted from above) can develop into a revolutionary movement.
In the course of a general strike, workers' councils emerge, embryo organs of workers' rule, and that eventuality could not be allowed by the bureaucracy. It is characteristic of the 'liberal' bureaucracy that they used the only remaining weapons in their hands-the so-called "free" radio stations, as a means of appealing for "calm" and "dignity"-i.e. as a means of preventing all resistance to the invasion.
Undoubtedly the Soviet intervention is a defeat for the Czech working class and for the whole movement in the direction of political revolution in the East. The Russian bureaucracy clearly realises that it is impossible to put the clock back completely and restore the Novotny clique, and is prepared to permit the continuation of "liberalization"-from above, and strictly under control. Dubcek was dragged off, manacled to Moscow and grilled by his "fraternal Soviet comrades", who presented him with an alternative: do a deal or go to jail.
And Dubcek, that courageous 'liberal', who solemnly swore to his people that there was no question of going back on the gains that had been made, took the only 'honorable' solution-and returned to Prague! All talk of withdrawing Soviet troops is so much dust thrown in the eyes of the Czech workers. In fact, all that will happen is that troops will disappear from the public eye-perhaps from the cities altogether. But they must remain, as safeguard against the Czechoslovak workers.
Already there are reports of some 800 Russian agents operating in government offices in Czechoslovakia, as they did formerly under Stalin. A tight rein will be kept on Dubcek and friends, in case they give way to pressure from below once more. A number of "reformers" who have been compromised by their statements in recent months have been sacked.
Censorship has been restored. Ominously Pravda has called for the arrest of some 40,000 'young counter-revolutionary thugs'. Doubtless, the arrests and deportations have already begun. Crowds of intellectuals have fled the country. Unfortunately, the workers, as always, have no such easy escape routes; they must stay and suffer the consequences.
The immediate effect of the invasion on the Czech workers will clearly be one of demoralisation and disillusionment. With all the strategic points occupied, with all the levers of power in the hands of Soviet officer caste, no resistance is possible at this stage, although the series of provocations staged by the Russians may provoke clashes in which the Czech workers, leaderless and unorganised, will suffer a bloody defeat.
But in spite of the temporary demoralisation, the Czech workers will have learned important lessons from the present events. The experience of the reality of Dubcek's "reforms" will push the workers in the direction of a new alternative.
Already, during the invasion itself, slogans appeared such as "Lenin wake up, Brezhnev has gone mad". In one demonstration in Yugoslavia, two placards were carried, one of them with a portrait of Lenin and a caption: "He would never have done this", the other of Stalin, which read: "This is what he would have done".
Without doubt, certain sections among the workers and students of Czechoslovakia will already be groping forward to a new anti-bureaucratic programme, a programme which can only be based on the democratic ideas of Lenin and the Bolsheviks. The present mood of defeat will give way to a new movement on a higher level.
Even bourgeois commentators understand that the decisive force in Czechoslovakia has not yet had its say. A recent article in the Sunday Times (4 September) summed up the situation well: "Paradoxically intellectuals began the liberation movement with little worker support and now the workers are showing the strongest determination while the intellectuals run for the border with their prudently acquired exit visas. Maybe there will be a government in exile, but it will be less relevant than a campaign of resistance launched and conducted by the workers."
[To be continued ...]
- Czechoslovakia (1968): Stalinism rocked by crisis - Part One by Alan Woods (June 9, 2008)
- Czechoslovakia 1968: 'Lenin wake up, Brezhnev has gone mad' by Alan Woods (May 18, 2000)
- Dual power in France - A Militant leaflet, May 1968
- Revolutionary days - May 1968, a personal memoir by Alan Woods (May 13, 2008)
- The French Revolution of May 1968 – Part One by Alan Woods (May 1, 2008)
- The French Revolution of May 1968 – Part Two by Alan Woods (May 1, 2008)
- The French revolution has begun by Ted Grant (August 1968)
- [Audio] 1968 - Year of Revolution by Alan Woods (May 21, 2008)
- [Audio] Italy 1969: the Hot Autumn by Fred Weston (May 13, 2008)