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The Prague Spring of 1968—50 years since the uprising that fought Stalinism

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Czechoslovakia had been one of Stalinist Russia’s most economically advanced and politically reliable satellite states. Then, in 1968, the monolith suddenly cracked open. Tomáš Tengely-Evans explains what happened
Issue 2617
Workers and students built barricades against the tanks. Many try arguing with Russian soldiers
Workers and students built barricades against the tanks. Many try arguing with Russian soldiers (Pic: Flickr/John W. Schulze)

Russian tanks poured across the Czechoslovakian border in the small hours of 21 August 1968. They had come to oust Communist Party leader Alexander Dubcek, who had begun a liberalising reform process known as the Prague Spring.

His reforms had opened up space for a movement of workers and students that threatened Russia’s rule.

But Russian boasts of “restoring order” in four days melted away within hours of the invasion. They had brought the upheavals of 1968, that year of global revolt against war, oppression—and capitalism—into the heart of officially “socialist” Eastern Europe.

Students took to the streets, fought tanks, and organised sit-ins at their universities. And to their surprise they quickly found that they had the support of workers as solidarity messages flooded in from workplaces across the country.

Jan Kavan, a leading student at Charles University in Prague, recalled how solidarity spread between campuses and workplaces. “The [student] occupation in November 1968 created fertile ground for student/worker agreements in defence of the Prague Spring,” he wrote.

“Students spoke daily in factories to thousands of workers. The defence agreements between the student union and all the Czech industrial trade unions were backed by the threat of a general strike.”

Across the country people tore down street signs—apart from some showing the way to Moscow—to confuse the troops.

Russia had sent tanks to oust Czechoslovakian Community Party boss Alexander Dubcek

Russia had sent tanks to oust Czechoslovakian Community Party boss Alexander Dubcek (Pic: Wikimedia/Creative Commons)

Czechoslovakia’s constitution at the time declared that “all power in the Czechoslovakian Socialist Republic is in the hands of working people”.

In reality, the working class had no more power than it did in the US, Britain or France. Stalinist Russia and its Eastern Bloc satellites were state capitalist societies with a ruling class—the state bureaucracy.

The Russian Revolution of 1917, led by Vladimir Lenin’s revolutionary Bolshevik party, was a genuine socialist revolution. Working class people seized political power and for a short period ran society through workers councils knows as soviets.

But the revolutionary wave that had spread across Europe didn’t break through. And the working class that had made the Russian Revolution was decimated by imperialist invasion in the Civil War of the 1920s.

While the soviets were hollowed out, the Bolsheviks remained in charge of a huge state bureaucracy.

The power of this bureaucracy grew—with Joseph Stalin increasingly at the helm—and it began to develop its own set of class interests.

After the Second World War Russia imposed its state capitalist system on Eastern European states, such as Czechoslovakia. The ruling bureaucracy acted in a similar way to capitalist bosses of firms in the West.

Under capitalism, firms exploit workers to produce profit. Rival firms search for new ways to maximise these profits. While there was practically no competition within state capitalism, it was subject to international military and economic competition.

“The [student] occupation in November 1968 created fertile ground for student/worker agreements in defence of the Prague Spring,” he wrote. “Students spoke daily in factories to thousands of workers. The defence agreements between the student union and all the Czech industrial trade unions were backed by the threat of a general strike.”

Jan Kavan, a leading student activist at Charles University in Prague 

A programme on Czechoslovakian TV in April 1968 showed how this worked. Three Communist managers of state-owned companies were brought on. The first scenes show a half-finished, near derelict building site.

The newsreader tells the audience, “We convinced ourselves that the reconstruction of shops on Na Mustku Street in Prague, which should be finished in one and a half years, has, in truth, a very loose tempo.

“We asked the CEO of the Prague construction company if it wouldn’t be finished sooner if a foreign firm joined the project.”

“Of course it’s true,” confessed manager J Stohanzl. “The difference lies in the supplies of materials. These [Western] firms have more money, shorter delivery dates, and a freer choice of building materials.”

And next up for criticism was a newly-opened motorway where there were frequent accidents because the asphalt was poor quality.

But the third manager explained how his collective farm was competing with Western capital. “It’s not difficult,” he proudly explains. “We had 390 workers, now we have 230, and we do more work—it’s called better productivity”.

As a state capitalist economy, crisis and class struggle were built into Czechoslovakian society just as much as into Western free market societies. These contradictions would lay the basis for the Prague Spring.

Czechoslovakia had been one of Russia’s most loyal states throughout the 1950s. All those who objected—including Communist Party members—faced brutal repression. But this stability was built by selling industrial products to more backward Eastern Bloc states. By the late 1950s its neighbours began to catch up and crisis hit the Czechoslovakian economy.

How would the bureaucracy and working class respond?

In 1960 Ladislav Mnacko published an explosive book called Delayed Reports. As editor of Slovak Communist Party daily Pravda, Mnacko had faithfully reported on the show trials and purges of the regime’s opponents in the 1950s.

Now he told the stories of the victims and slammed the “ugly underbelly” that had “degraded and devalued great ideas and aims”. It wasn’t just a sign of a guilty Stalinist conscience. The year Delayed Reports was published stagnation had turned to recession. He represented a growing faction in the bureaucracy that saw the need for economic reforms.

By introducing internal competition between state-owned enterprises, the reformers hoped to drive inefficient firms out of business and restore profitability.

First secretary of the Communist Party Antonin Novotny’s hardline Stalinist leadership resisted implementing reforms—and the reformers didn’t want to confront openly the conservatives. But two events outside of the bureaucracy pushed them into action.

During 20 years, not a single human question has been solved

Dissident novelist Ludvik Vaculik denounced the regime at the Writers Congress of 1967 in no uncertrain terms

Discontent was growing within the middle classes. At the 1967 Writers Union congress novelist Ludvik Vaculik denounced the regime in no uncertain terms. “During 20 years, not a single human question has been solved,” he said.

Novotny expelled Vaculik and three other of the most outspoken novelists and shut down their newspaper. Again the reformers wouldn’t move. But a few months later a power cut at the Strahov student halls in Prague lit the spark of student revolt.

Around 1,500 students marched from Strahov towards the city centre, chanting, “We want light, we want more light”. They were met by brutal repression from the police and their leaders were forced into the army.

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Novotny thought he could suppress the growing discontent through tried and tested Stalinist methods.

But the repression was too much even for loyal party members such as V Suchanek. “For me, an old Communist, it’s something awful, when the socialist public safety corps throws itself at a peaceful student demonstration and beats it like the capitalist police,” he said.

And, most dangerously for the regime, the reformers began looking to allies outside of the bureaucracy. First students and writers, then Dubcek allies began to tour the factories. This helped them outmanoeuvre Novotny and replace him with Dubcek in January 1968. But the reformers were forced to keep mobilising against their conservative opponents in the bureaucracy.

They organised thousands-strong student assemblies to force Novotny out of his remaining post as president.

One of the most outspoken reformers Josef Smrkovsky told students, “You have a right and a duty to be more revolutionary and radical than we, your fathers, are”. But he warned that their actions must be “responsible”.

The Dubcek leadership’s aim had always been to restore health to Czechoslovakia’s stagnant regime—while keeping the country’s rulers firmly in charge.

They had made good on some of their promises, such as abolishing censorship, but the movement took their democratic rhetoric at face value and wanted to go further. And the working class began to question the regime’s official socialist rhetoric and ask in whose interests it ruled.

The reformers increasingly resisted independent action from below. When Vaculik published the Manifesto of the 2000 Words, which called for people to purge conservatives, the Dubcek leadership denounced him.

The Russian rulers looked on in horror as the situation spiralled out of the reformers’ control—and sent in the tanks.

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The level of resistance from the workers’ and students’ movements meant the Russian rulers would have to bide their time and reimpose order slowly. Dubcek was allowed to hang on as first secretary until April 1969.

But the Dubcek leadership concluded that it would have to become a collaborationist government in order to stop its conservative opponents returning.

In an attempt to save its economic reforms, it signed up to the “Moscow Protocols” and jettisoned political reform.

This brought it into direct conflict with the workers’ and students’ movements. The Student magazine slammed the Moscow Protocols as “capitulation” and said they had “betrayed the republic”.

Trade union newspaper Prace noted, “Suddenly a new social movement surged forth…neither the journalists not the scientists started. The new wave…was the clear and unequivocal voices of the factories and the overwhelming majority of the working class.”

The unions became the main force opposing the invasion, but their leaders weren’t willing to assert demands independent of the ruling state bureaucracy.

A key turning point came when Dubcek dismissed leading reformer Smrkovsky.

Smrkovsky addressed the metal workers’ union which threatened a general strike if he was removed.

Dubcek stepped in and threatened to take measures that “could appear to be undemocratic, but they will be in the interests of democracy”. Smrkovsky buckled and distanced himself from the workers’ movement, and the unions withdrew their threats of strikes.

Sporadic strikes continued and 100,000 people came out in Prague in the face of tear gas and baton charges on the first anniversary of the invasion, but the mood was allowed to dissipate.

While the Prague Spring went down to defeat, the invasion sent shockwaves among socialists across the world. By exposing the sham of Stalinist Russia’s “really existing socialism”, it opened up the possibility of building a genuine socialist alternative.

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