THE UNIVERSITY OF HULL
DEPARTMENT OF POLITICS
The Politics of Eastern Europe
HOW SIGNIFICANT WAS ALEXANDER DUBCEK
IN THE DEVELOPMENT OF REFORMIST COMMUNISM?
March 17, 1995
The aim of this essay is to answer the question: “How significant was Alexander Dubcek in the development of reformist communism?” This question raises the other questions. Was Dubcek the inspirer of all the reforms which took place in Czechoslovakia in 1967-1969? How much did he himself influence all the reformist processes? How much he had achieved in implementing his ideas?
Dubcek became famous only in 1967. Before that he was almost unknown in the international politics. He was known only in the Czechoslovak Communist Party (CPCS), where he had almost no influence on the major decisions (until 1967, of course). His promotion after the returning from the Moscow where he was studying for three years in the advanced Party school attached to the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), was quite rapid. In 1960 he was elected to the Secretariat of the CPCS; in 1962 to the Presidium of the CPCS; in 1963 he became the First Secretary of the Slovak Communist Party; finally, on January 5, 1968 he replaced Antonin Novotny as the First Secretary of the CPCS. He was the youngest leader of ruling Communist Party (after Fidel Castro), and the first Slovak in such a high position. Though he stayed in this post relatively short - until April 17, 1969, when he was replaced by Gustav Husak, his name became known world-wide.
Why did the reforms begin?
The Czechoslovak crisis deepened in 1967, and showed itself in four spheres:
2. The economy;
3. The legal system;
4. Party and ideology.
Since the 1962 the Czechoslovak economy suddenly began to show signs of a critical decline. That happened inevitably, because in the Stalin years the expansion of heavy industry was pushed at the expense of development of all other productive sectors of the economy. The result of this was growing inefficiency of production, failure to modernise production technology, a decline in the quality of exports, a loss of markets, and a drop in the effectiveness of foreign trade. In August 1962 the Third-Five-Year Plan had to be abandoned before completion. In this situation the Slovaks began to act. Many of them realised that specific Slovak interests might best be served by destalinization and even liberalisation. The problem also was the rehabilitation of the victims of the purge trials of 1949-1954. Novotny himself and other leading members of his regime had personally participated in the preparation and conduct of the purge trials. So, the rehabilitation was perceived as the direct threat to the security and the survival of the regime. All these factors only decreased the level of CPCSs legitimacy.
The Development of Reforms.
The startpoint of the reforms was the session of the Central Committee of the CPCS on October 30-31, 1967. Dubcek raised an objection against Novotny and produced statistics suggesting that Slovakia was being continuously cheated in economic matters. This speech inspired discussion what was the unprecedented thing in the Central Committee.
The next session of the Central Committee started on December 19. Josef Smrkovsky proposed the separation of the posts of President and First Secretary: “It is unsatisfactory that an excessive number of duties should be piled upon one pair of shoulders.”
In both sessions the three issues were at stake. First, the implementation of the economic reforms, secondly, freedom of expression and, finally, effective autonomy for Slovakia.
Finally, at the Central Committee Plenum on January 5, 1968, Novotny was replaced at the post of the First Secretary by Dubcek. Also four new Presidium members were elected to strengthen Dubceks position - J.Spacek, J.Boruvka, E.Rigo, and J.Piller.
So, the Prague Spring started at the top levels of the CPCS. But soon, as we would see, the Party will loose its ability to control the developments. At the same time, the hot political debate started in the press, on radio and television. The main issues were the Communist Party, democracy, the autonomy of Slovakia, the collapsing economy, and the problem of justice and legality. On February 14, the first public political discussion took place in Prague.
The next changes in the leadership were Novotnys resignation from the Presidency on March 22 and General Ludvik Svobodas election on this post on March 30, Oldrich Cierniks appointment on the post of Prime Minister and the formation of the new cabinet on April 8, the election of the new Presidium of the CPCS, and the election of Josef Smrkovsky on the post of the Chairman of the National Assembly.
On April 9, the CPCS announced its Action Programme, officially known as Czechoslovakias Road to Socialism, as a basis for reforming communism in the country. In this document the CPCS promised: (1) new guarantees of freedom of speech, press, assembly and religious observance; (2) electoral laws to provide a broader choice of candidates, greater freedom for the four non-communist parties within the National Front; (3) upgrading of the parliament and the government with regard to the power of the CPCS apparatus; (4) broad economic reforms to give enterprises greater independence, to achieve a convertible currency, to revive a limited amount of private enterprise and to increase trade with Western countries; (5) an independent judiciary; (6) federal status for Slovakia on an independent basis and a new constitution to be drafted by the end of 1969. The Central Committee also pledged a “full and just rehabilitation of all persons” who had been unjustly persecuted during 1949 -1954.
But this programme promised less than the people actually wanted. The Action Programme remained outside the mainstream of the powerful social process which had been set in motion in January. The people expected more reforms, more freedom. But Dubcek and other reformats tried to be more moderate, to find the way for the gradual reforms. The Presidium of the CPCS prohibited the renovation of the Social Democratic Party and the Ministry of Interior announced that the formation of political parties would be considered illegal. But at the same time this Ministry sanctioned the activity of the Club of Engaged Non-Party Members (KAN), and recognised the legal statute of another big club - K-231.
Gradually the reformats found themselves in the position which will become vital for them all. They found themselves between two different forces. One force was the majority of the Czech and the Slovak nations who wanted more radical changes. The other force was represented by the Stalinists, by Moscow, and by the leadership of the other countries of the Warsaw Treaty Organisation (WTO).
One of the major reforms was the law of June 26, which abolished prepublication censorship. On the next day the famous manifesto, entitled 2,000 Words to Workers, Farmers, Scientists, Artists and Everyone appeared in Literarni listy. The manifesto gave assurances of complete support of Dubceks regime, “if necessary, even with arms.”
The leaders of the SU, Poland, Bulgaria, Hungary, and East Germany viewed the reforms taking place in Czechoslovakia as the threat for all the Communist Bloc. The first clearly expressed concern was so-called Warsaw Letter. It was sent on July 15, 1968, and addressed to the Central Committee of the CPCS. It proved the clear evidence of the WTO leaders lack of confidence in the leadership of the CPCS, and contained critical references to Czechoslovakias foreign policy.There was expressed warning that the Czechoslovak reform policy was completely unacceptable.The Presidium of the CPCS Central Committee on July 18 rejected as unfounded the accusations made in the Warsaw Letter and affirmed that the countrys new policies were aimed at strengthening socialism.
The clear signs of crisis in relations between Prague and Moscow appeared. On July 19 Moscow issued a summons to the CPCS Presidium, demanding that it meet July 22 or 23 with the Soviet Politburo in Moscow, Kiev or Lvov to discuss internal Czechoslovak developments. 9 full members of the CPSU Politburo and the entire CPCS Presidium met on July 29 in the Slovak village Cierna-nad-Tisou. Dubcek and the other reformats regarded the outcome of the Cierna talks as a Czechoslovak victory. It had brought the annulment of the Warsaw Letter; the departure of Soviet troops was guaranteed, and the countrys sovereignty had been defended.
The fact that the agreement was regarded as the victory shows that Dubcek and the other reformers were really driven by naïveté and idealism and hoped that they could create the socialism with the human face without the interference from the Moscow side. They real