Revolution and counterrevolution in Czechoslovakia

By Sam Marcy (Dec. 7, 1989)

The capitalist press has published millions of jubilant words in articles, columns and headlines on the events in Eastern Europe, particularly in Czechoslovakia. Of special interest to us, however, is what has been left out or mentioned only inadvertently.

The New York Times of Nov. 28, writing about a demonstration the previous day, said that "Millions of Czechs and Slovaks walked off their jobs and into the streets at midday today, bringing Prague and the rest of the country to a standstill. It was a powerful demonstration of national solidarity in support of free elections and opposition to Communist domination.

"Rivers of people flowed down boulevards and into main squares," said the Times, in a "meticulously organized and non-violent general strike, which lasted from noon to 2 p.m."

But then, as though accidentally or inadvertently, the Times article adds, "It was the largest outpouring of the sentiment of this country of 15 million people since February 1948 [our emphasis--S.M.], when demonstrations organized by the Communists" toppled the bourgeois Benes government.

How interesting! The demonstrations on Nov. 27 during a two-hour general strike that seem so utterly unprecedented were smaller, not larger, than the revolutionary working class demonstrations of 1948.

1948 general strike

In 1948 millions of workers came out onto the streets at the call of the Communist Party, then the largest single political party in Czechoslovakia. They were non-violent demonstrations. Not a single shot was fired.

What were the demands of the demonstrators, demands which in effect they were already carrying out themselves by occupying the factories, mines, mills and offices during and after the demonstration? They were demanding the nationalization of industry and the expropriation of the bankers and the bosses, a great many of whom had left the country during the long and bitter struggle against the Nazis, becoming absentee landlords and industrialists.

In effect, this was the beginning of a great revolutionary socialist transformation. In the popular election of 1947, the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia had emerged as the strongest party. The general strike forced out the group of bourgeois politicians with whom the CP had been collaborating, but who showed no inclination to listen to the voice of the masses for revolutionary change.

The revolution was not imposed by the Soviet Red Army. It is true that in 1943 and '44 the Red Army assisted the revolutionary uprisings against fascism which took place in Czechoslovakia, and it is beyond doubt that the Red Army's intervention in all of Eastern Europe was a cardinal fact in the defeat of Nazism and the overthrow of the bourgeois governments.

No Soviet troops

By 1945, however, the Red Army withdrew from Czechoslovakia, as did the U.S. military. It didn't return until 1968. So the 1948 socialist outpouring of millions of workers, the seizure of the plants, communications and transportation in an act of mass revolutionary transformation, was truly an internal development.

The bourgeois head of state, Eduard Benes, resigned. Why? Because he had been asked to sign a new constitution which proclaimed socialism to be the objective of Czechoslovakia. Had private ownership of the means of production been enshrined in the constitution, this would have gone over big with the imperialist bourgeoisie. But this constitution, which made socialism the perspective and called for the means of production to be the property of the state, terrified the bourgeoisie; it became a factor in the subsequent construction of NATO and the war psychosis which followed from it.

Those who idealize the non-violence and popular character of the demonstrations in Czechoslovakia today, if they are without ulterior motive, should acknowledge that the demonstrations of 1948 were even more so, and transcended in numbers what is supposedly taking place now in Czechoslovakia. Why is there such a loss of memory about this in the capitalist press? Why is it that the magnificent intervention of the workers and the peasants in 1948 has been brought up only in passing? Because the bourgeoisie's version of events, which treats that great social transformation as though it were a mere putsch, cannot stand up to close examination.

It is a caricature and a fraud to pretend that today's demonstrations are completely spontaneous while those in 1948 were "staged" by the communists. Those of 1948 were driven by the millions in the working class. The current protests are driven by imperialism, and by bourgeois reformers in Czechoslovakia who get their inspiration and guidance, if not their instructions, from the Gorbachev administration. The social components of the contrasting actions are irreconcilable.

Imperialist threats of military intervention

What has happened to obscure those stirring days of February and March 1948? The entire imperialist ruling class closed ranks and began the kind of anti-communist crusade which continues to this very day, notwithstanding all the honeyed words coming from the West about coexistence and peace between capitalist imperialism and the socialist countries.

This uprising of the Czech masses brought constant threats of military intervention, not just in words but in deeds. Nikita Khrushchev recalls on page 362 of his book, Khrushchev Remembers, that "not a single day went by when American planes didn't violate Czechoslovak air space." In the Soviet Union, there was alarm that the U.S. might send its troops into Czechoslovakia and try to restore the Benes governing group. The Cold War was on, and all Eastern Europe and the USSR had to live with the threat of the atomic bomb, which was still a U.S. monopoly.

At the same time, it cannot be forgotten that what happened in Czechoslovakia was part and parcel of a worldwide revolutionary upheaval that included Western Europe. The Communist parties of Italy and France came within an ace of taking power themselves, as both had significant armed support in the anti-fascist resistance movement. The Chinese Red Army was piling up victories against Chiang Kai-shek. Imperialism grew more belligerent.

Khrushchev, who certainly was no apologist for Stalin, recalls that Stalin was constantly upset by the fear that the U.S. would use the atomic bomb. While this can't be confirmed by present sources, it is entirely understandable that any human being would be fearful in light of the devastation the U.S. caused in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

So violent was the response of the U.S. ruling class to events in Czechoslovakia that elements of the military establishment, like General Grow, a U.S. military attache to the USSR, were openly calling for using the atomic bomb. Former Navy Secretary James Forrestal became so obsessed with the danger of communism that he landed in a mental hospital.

To understand the fundamental change in imperialist outlook once the new Czech government took over, one has to review the organizational and political steps taken by the imperialist bourgeoisie soon after Benes and some of his bourgeois cohorts resigned.

Czech revolution spurred NATO pact

Shortly after the working class takeover in Czechoslovakia came the Brussels Treaty, a military pact which laid the organizational nucleus for the development of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The 17 months between the Brussels Treaty and the formation of NATO were consumed by corralling and bribing all of the capitalist countries in Europe to join in a holy imperialist alliance to throttle the socialist countries.

To properly analyze what ultimately led to the present setbacks of the working class in Eastern Europe, one has first of all to take into account the external forces of imperialism, which we have tried to do. In order to make the analysis complete, however, one must bring into focus some of the characteristics of the East European revolutionary transformations following the Second World War.

None of these transformations carried out the socialist revolution to its end, nor was the working class put in a position of exclusive political power where it could act on behalf of a thoroughgoing socialist perspective. Why?

The Paris Commune and Czechoslovakia

A most important factor lay in the theoretical conceptions concerning social transformation held by the leadership in Eastern Europe, and, more particularly, in the Soviet Union. The doctrine of proletarian revolution and the seizure of power that Marx elucidated in his analysis of the Paris Commune observed that "the proletariat cannot merely lay hold of the state machinery" and use it for its own purposes, but had to, in Marx's words, "break it up." This became the cardinal point of Lenin's exposition of Marxist strategy and tactics in The State and Revolution.

The state machinery in most of Eastern Europe was seized, but not broken up. Therein lies an important deviation from the Leninist approach to the bourgeois state.

Instead of breaking up the old state machine, cooptation and purging were the instruments most frequently used. The purges that took place were not a substitute for breaking up the old regime. The bourgeoisie, except for those who ran for cover to the West, became most ingratiating and cooperative in the presence of the Red Army and of a revolutionary upsurge of the working class.

Those who study the great historical class struggles know that a defeated class enemy becomes exceedingly cooperative and indeed ingratiating and obsequious. That has happened in all the revolutions.

A second factor of importance was that the initial victory in Eastern Europe over the old regimes was won with the considerable if not preponderant aid of the Soviet Red Army. In this respect, the revolutionary transformations in Eastern Europe differed fundamentally from revolutions in Cuba or China, for instance, and of course from the Bolshevik revolution.

Harmful effects of CP-SP merger

There is a third characteristic feature of the Eastern Europe revolutionary transformations which impeded a full-scale transfer of power to the working class in a way that would have guaranteed its ultimate victory. And this is what probably should go down in history as the subjective factor.

For instance, the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, the strongest in Eastern Europe, and numerically the largest party in Czechoslovakia, literally had power in its own hands by virtue of the support it received from the millions of workers in the Feb. 24, 1948, general strike. Even according to the standards of bourgeois parliamentarism, the CP should have become the ruling party, as did the British Labor Party when it took over in England in 1945. The British Laborites won only an electoral victory; the Czechoslovak CP won a transfer of power from one class to another, with the bourgeoisie running for its life.

Fearful of the consequences flowing from this revolutionary transfer of power, fearful of imperialism in general and of U.S. imperialism in particular, the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia thereafter began a process which ultimately undid it. It sought out a coalition with bourgeois groupings. If these groupings had followed a revolutionary line set out by the Party, such a development could have been manageable and tolerable. But the Communist Party followed the lines pursued in Poland and in Hungary and merged with the Social Democratic Party. The mistakes of the Communist Party in Czechoslovakia arose from this unfortunate merger that it undertook shortly after the new government took power.

What followed from that?

One, this move diluted the revolutionary class essence of the CP as the vanguard party. Two, the entry of the Social Democrats into the Communist Party as full-fledged members immediately strengthened the more conservative wing of the Party and changed the internal relationship of forces. Moreover, many bourgeois elements who had earlier belonged to other parties had just joined the Social Democratic Party, thereby puffing up its membership.

How the bourgeoisie functions in a socialist country

The Social Democrats who were so obsequious in the early days of the merger became more arrogant as time went on, gaining more and more official positions in the CP and strengthening the right wing, so that when Alexander Dubcek, a bourgeois reformer, took over the Party leadership in 1968, this did not at all appear to be an accidental factor.

These internal developments, however, can in no way be divorced from the realities of the class situation in Czechoslovakia. The kind of a struggle which definitively destroys the class enemy politically did not take place in Czechoslovakia.

Those who were expropriated and fled constituted only one element of the bourgeoisie. The bourgeois elements who remained reorganized themselves. Conscious of the fact that state power rested in the hands of the workers, the bourgeoisie knew how to make themselves exceptionally accommodating when it came to winning official positions in government, industry and transport.

For an example of how the bourgeoisie functions in a socialist country under these conditions, take a look at China. An illuminating article in the New York Times Magazine on Sunday, Nov. 26, described how those who had openly supported the so-called "Democracy Movement" (in reality the counterrevolutionaries) now participate in group discussions where they "flagellate" themselves for their previous actions "so enthusiastically that it becomes a joke." "We all learn to lie," said one young businessman, "and to enjoy it."

These bourgeois elements will do whatever is necessary to preserve themselves while they await the day when they can openly challenge a party which, through its errors and through severe external and internal pressures, undoes itself.

Gorbachev opened doors to counterrevolution

Notwithstanding the errors made by the Czechoslovak CP, the key factor in the current situation is the encouragement and support the Gorbachev administration has given to the rightwing. What is happening in Czechoslovakia at this moment might have been avoided had it not been for the intervention of the Gorbachev regime, which opened wide the gates of counterrevolution in Poland and Hungary. This has now enveloped, to what extent we cannot tell at the moment, all the other socialist countries in Eastern Europe.

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