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New International, April 1948


Notes of the Month

Czech Coup as Test of Theory


From The New International, Vol. XIV No. 4, April 1948, p. 99–100.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The coup d’etat which the Stalinists carried out in Czechoslovakia in February will probably grow in significance as the passage of time permits an evaluation with greater historical retrospect.

The New International has presented an extensive treatment of the events themselves and their background. This presentation of factual data is a necessary preliminary to the discussion of the events for which these pages are now open. While this discussion will contribute answers to the more far-eaching implications of the Czech events: we need not await its verdict before analyzing the broad outline of the social and political events of which they were the culmination. Attempts at such analysis have been the occasion of a display of ignorance in the bourgeois press (not to speak of conscious attempts at perverting historical facts) and of endless confusion in the socialist press. Our analysis of Stalinism in general and its role in the satellite countries specifically (above all, our discussions of the Polish question) found us prepared to understand the main outline of what was happening in Czechoslovakia.

The key to an understanding of the Czech events, as is true of all other situations in which the Stalinists operate, is an understanding of the nature of the Russian state and its Communist Parties abroad. The prevalent concept in bourgeois circles, including those of bourgeois liberalism, is to see in Russia a continuation of the Soviet Republic of Lenin and in the Stalinist parties a continuation of the revolutionary mission of the Communist International. Insofar as radicals have not accepted this version or a variant of it, they have (as in the case of the self-styled orthodox Trotskyists) seen Stalinist Russia as a state on the verge of restoring capitalism internally and the Stalinist parties as reformist pa:ties adapting themselves to the bourgeoisie. Viewed from either of these points of view, the Czech events present an impenetrable enigma.

The bourgeois press was anxious to portray the Czech events as a repetition of the Russian October. They made detailed analogies between the “Action Committees,” the workers’ militia the mass demonstrations, etc., and comparable institutions and techniques in the Russian Revolution. Yet it never occurred to them to ask what state power was overthrown by this “revolution” in Czechoslovakia.

The head of the government was the faithful Stalinist servant, Klement Gottwald. The heads of the army, police and information departments were Gottwald’s party comrades. This “revolution” was proclaimed on the government-owned radio network and carried out with the assistance of the police. A fine comparison with the October Revolution! The latter began at a time when Lenin was in hiding from the police and official government information was denouncing the Bolsheviks as “agents of the Kaiser.” The October insurrection arrested Kerensky’s ministers, while Kerensky himself fled the country. The revolution proceeded to completely smash the old state apparatus in order to make way for the new institutions of the soviets and the people’s commissariats. If the term “revolution” has any commonly accepted meaning, it means the overthrow of the old state power. Nothing of the sort took place in Czechoslovakia.

If an historical analogy can be made to the Czech events, it is with the coup d’etat of the Nazis in March 1933. Hitler was called upon by Hindenburg, president of the republic, to become head of a coalition government of Nazis and conservative nationalists. His acceptance of power had the support of the Reichswehr generals. His appointment was the signal for huge demonstrations by the Nazi cohorts, and attacks upon the headquarters of the trade unions and all opposition parties by well-organized “action committees” of storm troopers. Goering became the head of the Prussian police and immediately legalized the storm-troop detachments by adding them to his force as auxiliaries. Similarly, the Stalinist coup in Czechoslovakia began with the decisive levers of state power firmly in their hands.

However, the similarity between the Czech events and the Nazi coup does not go beyond establishing that they were both coups d’etat in that the prevailing state power was not overthrown but utilized to destroy al1 political opposition, in the classic tradition of the coup d’etat of Louis Bonaparte. The Stalinist coup in Czechoslovakia was distinctly different from the Nazi coup in its social content.

The Nazi victory was made possible by the support of the German banks and trusts. The latter saw in the Nazi regime an instrument that would crush the labor movement and preserve private property. The mass basis of the Stalinists was among the workers and peasants, with the might of the Russian armed forces towering in the background. Unlike the Nazis, the Stalinists did not merely wipe out bourgeois democracy; they expropriated the remnants of the bourgeoisie itself. The latter was achieved through a renewed campaign of nationalization of the economy and through further agrarian reform. In short, the Nazis took total power in order to save private property, while the Stalinists took total power in order to end private property.

A social revolution – that is, the transfer of state power from one class to another – did take place in Czechoslovakia. However, it did not take place in February 1948 but in May 1945, when the Nazi Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia and the puppet government of Tiso in Slovakia were overthrown by the invading Russian army, assisted by the Stalinist-led resistance movement.

The provisional government which took power at that time was essentially a Stalinist government, for which Benes and Masaryk, in one role, and the Social-Democrat Fierlinger, in another role, served as fa├žade. After Benes had made his famous trip to Moscow to conclude the pact with Stalin which provided for a Russian orientation in post-war Czechoslovakian affairs, an English friend warned Benes that the road he had chosen would lead to a Stalinist-dominated government in Prague. Benes, confident of his ability to outsmart both Moscow and Washington-London, just smiled and said, “Wait until the government is formed and see who has the Ministry of Interior.” The government was formed and the Ministry of Interior – i.e., the police power – was given to the Stalinists. In addition, the post of premier was occupied by Fierlinger, a firm ally of the Stalinists from the Social-Democratic camp, while the army was in the hands of General Svoboda, whose close ties to the Russian general staff were known to all.

The program of. the government called for nationalization of the bulk of the economy, the division of landed estates and a “purge of public life,” to be conducted, of course, by the Stalinist-led police. From then on it was merely a matter of a step-by-step “coordination” of the country by the Stalinists to achieve their total power, the last step being taken in February of this year.

But if a social revolution took place that deprived the bourgeoisie of state power and, through the process of nationalization, of economic power, which class wielded this power?

It is at this point that endless confusion has reigned among political analysts in this country, both bourgeois and socialist. For the bourgeois press, which saw the Czech events in terms of the Russian October, it was a working-class revolution. The general strike called by the trade unions, the armed demonstration of the factory militia, the Prague conference of the factory-committee delegates, all seemed to bespeak the power of the workers. Yet the real power was in the hands of the Communist Party, an organization that is totalitarian, both in its political philosophy and in its internal life. Its membership of over a million, which embraces a substantial part of the industrial workers, has as much power in determining its policies as the millions of members of the Nazi party had in determining Nazi policies. Even the seemingly all-powerful heads of the Communist Party do not determine its basic policy but follow the line laid down from Moscow. The mass of the members know next to nothing about politics and absolutely nothing about the history of the Marxist movement. They are taught only one thing well: that is discipline, which is interpreted as unquestioning acceptance of orders from above. This type of party has controlled the trade unions and Works Councils for the last three years.

Through the control of these instruments, combined with its posts in the government, the party has controlled the nationalized economy. Through the vast number of bureaucratic jobs at its disposal, the party has created a solid layer of supporters among what has been called “the new bureaucratic aristocracy” in Czechoslovakia, i.e., administrators, managers, engineers, specialists, professionals, etc. The real political and economic power is, therefore, in the hands of the hardened Stalinist core of the Communist Party. But what kind of social grouping is this? This is the new bureaucratic-collectivist class in its embryonic form, the Czech counterpart of the class which rules in Russia.

The key to understanding what kind of social transformation has taken place in Czechoslovakia lies in understanding the nature of the Stalinist parties. The key to understanding the latter lies in understanding the kind of social system which has emerged in Russia. Russia is neither a workers’ state nor a bourgeois state. It is a bureaucratic-collectivist state, a new social formation produced by the degeneration of capitalism and the failure of the proletariat to replace it with socialism. The Stalinist parties are the agencies of a totalitarian state based on a social system which is anti-capitalist and anti-socialist. The Stalinist parties will, therefore, overthrow the bourgeoisie where they find it possible to do so, but only under circumstances that preclude their losing control of the masses to a revolutionary socialist party aiming at a genuine socialist reorganization of society. It is this understanding of the nature of the Russian social system and its Stalinist parties abroad that makes it possible to comprehend the events in Czechoslovakia and to destroy the bourgeois analysis which speaks of a Czech “October” revolution.

This same theoretical understanding of the Russian state and the Stalinist parties also serves to refute the views of the official Fourth Internationalists. These views, indeed, have become so absurd as to fly in the face of common sense. The Militant, organ of Cannon’s Socialist Workers Party, greeted the Czech events with a denunciation of the Stalinists for having made another compromise with the bourgeoisie! The steps which the Gottwald regime did take to extend nationalization and to outlaw the bourgeois parties were described as being taken reluctantly by the Stalinists under the revolutionary pressure of the masses. But the Stalinists did not go far enough! The workers wanted more severe measures taken against the bourgeoisie. The Stalinists betrayed the struggle and protected the bourgeoisie, etc., etc.

The line of these people has become so ridiculous that one hesitates to polemize against it for fear of giving it an undeserved dignity. Instead, let us ask how it is possible for people inhabiting a part of this globe to accept such conclusions. The answer is that they too realize that the key to understanding Stalinism is the nature of the Russian social order. But since they insist that Russia remains a workers’ state, no matter how degenerated, this “key” opens only doors to endless labyrinths of confusion.

Russia is still a workers’ state because the industry is state-owned, they contend. However, the state bureaucracy is anxiously seeking ways and means of restoring capitalism in Russia. It is therefore only natural that this bureaucracy, yearning for capitalism at home, will not seek to destroy capitalism abroad. The Stalinist parties abroad, therefore, play the well-known role of the reformist workers’ movement as props for capitalism. Yet, since they are workers’ parties according to this view, they are constantly subject to the revolutionary pressure of the workers. Therefore the post-war political drama of Europe is seen in terms of the masses rushing into the Stalinist movement in order to overthrow capitalism, constantly pressing forward toward their objective, but constantly being foiled by the Stalinist leadership which acts to preserve capitalism. In the world-wide choice being made by all disoriented elements between Washington and Moscow, the Cannonites have chosen to line up as “left-wing” and “critical” supporters of Stalinism. We have no more in common with this view than with that of the social-democrats who have become the “left-wing” and “critical” supporters of American imperialism’s drive to subordinate the world.

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