From International Socialism (1st series), No.34, Autumn 1968, pp.1-2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
The Russian occupation of Czechoslovakia dramatically illustrates the contradictory nature of the thaw in the Cold War of the ’fifties. For the détente between the United States and the Soviet Union – shaking hands with hooded eyes – will continue. Diplomatic and trading links will continue, much as they have continued despite American action at the Bay of Pigs, in the Dominican Republic and, most brutally, Vietnam. As always when the Western powers intend to do nothing, they have turned to the United Nations. For neither Moscow nor Washington minds a few corpses, provided they are on the right side of the fence.
The détente robbed the rest of the world of that healthy sense of fear which ensured proper respect for the two super-powers. France cocked snooks at Washington, and Roumania was equally rude to Moscow. China broke free of the system entirely. As NATO divided into a multitude of competing nation-States, so also the Warsaw Pact lost the ribs of terror which held it together. The result has been not just a resurgence of nationalisms, but also a resurgence of the forces of revolt within each nationalism – from the American negro to Polish students.
Vietnam is the American way of showing the flag, of demonstrating the power which lies behind the bland mask. And in Czechoslovakia, the Russians offered their version of the same lesson to impress those they consider their subjects. The target was not just the Czechs themselves, but also the impudent Roumanians, the Yugoslavs, the Polish students and workers, and so on: the forces of incipient nationalism and of internal revolt. No form of freedom is to be permitted except within the strict terms of reference laid down by one or other of the two major empires.
Thus, if Hungary – a genuine proletarian revolt – was one of the last spasms of the Cold War, Czechoslovakia is part of the coming world of competing nationalisms, domestic class struggle, and ‘police action’ by one of the two overlords. The alliance between a middle-class revolt and Slovak nationalism is not to be permitted to raise the slogan of freedom, lest this slogan seep outwards to the rest of Eastern Europe and downwards to the Czech workers.
By such brutal intervention in Czechoslovakia, Russia has eliminated all other alternatives but that of Dubcek. The Russian rulers have polarised the conflict between itself and the suddenly unified force of Czechoslovak nationalism. Without that intervention, the clash within Czechoslovakia would have become steadily fiercer – between the unified State and Slovak nationalism on the one hand, and between the State and the workers on the other (for the economic reforms designed to install a middle-class ‘meritocracy’ would almost certainly have cut into working-class living standards). The workers had hitherto been cast solely in a supporting role, but they would also have taken up the demand for freedom once Dubcek’s ‘freedom’ appeared only to be a manoeuvre to install his friends in power. For Russia, Dubcek was a Kerensky, shielding the forces of ‘extremism’ behind him, opening Pandora’s box. In 1956 Poland, Gomulka offered ‘freedom’ in order to secure power, and then used the threat of Russian intervention to whittle away that freedom once again. It worked, but it is a dangerous exercise as the Hungarian revolt demonstrated.
The cost of intervention is another matter. In the first phase, the armed might of the Soviet army was mocked by the massive solidarity of the Czech people, just as a rabble of ill-armed Vietnamese have ridiculed the US army. Once more, the impressive use of bayonets appears feeble in the face of popular power. But popular power must grow – it cannot be confined to one hour or fifteen minute general strikes. But Dubcek cannot let it grow without threatening his own position, without making himself irrelevant. If it does not grow, the Russian army will grow steadily more able to assume control of the country, the solidarity will crumble, bloodshed will increase and the Czech leaders will be drawn irresistibly towards a sell-out.
The political solution is still a tormented question-mark as we go to press, but the current confusion in Czechoslovakia is only the more immediate cost to Russia. In the wider Communist world, the Czech exercise is so expensive, it seems almost as if Samson might bring down the temple on his own head. The crumbling Polish government deserves all it gets for its support of force to crush the same kind of events which brought Gomulka to power. In East Germany, there is some welcome sign of popular support for the Czechs. The Russian troops, exposed to the demoralising experience of impotence in the face of massive popular hostility, will carry some virus home to Russia with them. The Western Communist Parties have yet again been treated as Soviet doormats; their criticism will not be heeded, but their failure to be loyal will open up new possibilities for free thought among their members before they creep back into the Moscow fold. Among the ‘revolutionary’ parties, Cuba and North Vietnam – with sugar in mind for the first, and Soviet arms for the second – have opted for Moscow, and China predictably against. The opportunism underlying these alignments should hold lessons for the more ardent of their foreign supporters. The disarray in the Eastern bloc is perhaps a temporary phenomenon, but it will speed the welcome erosion of a formerly massive obstacle to revolutionary developments.
The introduction of managerialism will not be impeded in Eastern Europe, for, despite the Western press, that is not what the essential struggle is about. East Germany, a bastion of opposition to Dubcek, has itself introduced wide ranging changes in a managerial direction. And in Russia itself managerial reforms have developed at the same time as the autocratic power of Moscow has increased. What is at stake is that in the transition from one group of Czechoslovak Communists to another, the yawning abyss of popular revolution opens. When the ruling class is divided, the way is opened to other classes – just as an echo in every bourgeois revolution was the possibility of a proletarian revolution. Others may take up the slogans of ‘Liberty, Equality and Fraternity’ and mean them. For socialists, there can be no discussion about our unconditional support for the national liberation front of Czechoslovakia against savage Russian invasion. In settling that issue, the question of socialism can also be raised – but socialism cannot be won until that issue is settled.
Last updated on 5.2.2008