Join the Socialist Party Join us today!

Printable version Printable version

Facebook   Twitter

Link to this page:

From The Socialist newspaper, 14 February 2018

Czechoslovakia 1968: 'Prague Spring' challenges Stalinism

Prague Spring 1968, photo John W Schulze/CC

Prague Spring 1968, photo John W Schulze/CC   (Click to enlarge)

Robin Clapp, Socialist Party national committee

The year 1968 was tumultuous with workers' accumulated frustrations igniting rebellion against capitalism and non-capitalist Stalinist regimes alike.

Brewing discontent in France spilled over into outright social revolution. Meanwhile in the US, growing outrage at both the futility of the unwinnable war in Vietnam and heightened repression against the rapidly developing civil rights movement created a tinder box atmosphere which haunted successive administrations.

The Stalinist states in eastern Europe were infected by the mood of revolt. In particular Czechoslovakia - today the two countries of the Czech Republic and Slovakia - which lay firmly in the orbit of the Soviet Union, as a result of the post-1945 carve-up of Europe into capitalist western and non-capitalist eastern spheres.

Though resting on a nationalised economy, the Czechoslovak regime was not modelled on the principles of workers' control and management established in the days after the 1917 Russian revolution led by Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky.

Instead it was a clone of the totalitarian state created by Stalin, representing a bureaucratic caste, resting and gorging upon the planned economy - while fearful of the working class and traditions of 1917 in whose name the bureaucracy nominally ruled.


By the mid-1960s the Czechoslovak economy was barely growing under the monolithic bureaucratism that penetrated every layer of official society.

There had been an attempt by the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia (KSC) leadership to experiment with a less centralised form of rule in 1965.

But tentative steps in that direction had whetted the appetites of the intelligentsia and working class alike for a loosening of the dead hand of political repression, so the regime hastily retreated.

These regimes were incapable of reforming themselves. The ruling elites were unwilling to relinquish their power and privileges, no matter how often they sought to resolve the riddle of why economic growth was slowing.

Commandism from above could not develop the productivity of labour in a relatively developed economy like Czechoslovakia when the task was not conscripting vast armies of industrial workers into building giant factories and dams.

The economy needed to move towards refinement of productive methods, increasing consumer goods and involving the working class at every level of producing, planning and distributing commodities.

By 1968 the lack of integration between the industrial and agricultural sectors was huge. Meanwhile consumer goods, as elsewhere in eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, were in chronically short supply.

It was this growing impasse, with the attendant dangers of a rising restiveness among Czechoslovak workers and youth, that led a section of the bureaucracy around KSC central committee member Alexander Dubcek to orchestrate the removal of his colleague, the hardline Stalinist president Antonín Novotný, on 5 January 1968.

Dubcek's main consideration was to avert political revolution from below through partial decentralisation and introducing elements of a tightly controlled market economy in certain light industrial spheres.

Dubcek acknowledged the yearning for reform. He announced the party would henceforth be less heavy-handed and seek to build "an advanced socialist society on sound economic foundations."

This was followed by an 'Action Programme': easing press restrictions, permitting freedom of speech and movement - and hinting at the possibility of an end to one-party, totalitarian rule.

Reform was to be unveiled - under the KSC's direction. But these announcements led to the opening of the floodgates. The 'Prague Spring', as these few months became known, saw an explosion of ferment.

Intellectuals rushed to produce independent publications, which caused disquiet and then outrage in satellite Stalinist states grouped in the 'Warsaw Pact' countries and taking their orders from Russian party leader Leonid Brezhnev.

Despite hopes that this was a break with Stalinist methods that might offer an alternative to both Stalinism and capitalism, Dubcek's "socialism with a human face" was not about creating genuine workers' democracy.

There were to be no free and democratic elections with the right of recall, no removal of the dizzying wage differential between party officials and ordinary workers, and no replacement of bureaucratic rule by democratic workers' control and management based on workers' councils.

All these safeguards against creeping bureaucracy had been included in the 1919 programme of the Bolshevik party as necessities in even the first stage of a workers' government. But to Dubcek and those around him, such measures would threaten extinction.

The Prague Spring was shattered when on 20-21 August Eastern Bloc armies from Russia, Bulgaria, Poland and Hungary invaded Czechoslovakia with the intent of reimposing hardline Stalinist rule. Czechoslovak forces were confined to barracks, while Dubcek urged no resistance.

Military invasion

Justification for the military incursion was provided by the 'Brezhnev Doctrine', which stated the Soviet Union had to intervene whenever an Eastern Bloc country was in danger of moving back towards capitalism.

This fraudulent claim had been used, too, against the incipient political revolution of the heroic Hungarian workers.

Twelve years before they had twice faced a Moscow-ordered invasion as they struggled to overthrow the Stalinist regime.

In Czechoslovakia, workers were not clear about the necessity of carrying through a political revolution and maintaining - but democratising - the state-owned, planned economy.

Nevertheless, the reality was that Moscow and other Stalinist rulers feared Dubcek would lose control of the situation and an anti-bureaucratic revolution unfold.

They had their own 'domino theory' - that an anti-totalitarian movement could spread to their own countries.

The May events that had shaken France a few months before the invasion meant the idea of revolution was in Europe's air.

Once order was restored - and not without sympathetic reverberations among sections of the invading forces, which had had to be hastily removed for fear of fraternization - Dubcek was hauled to Moscow, stripped of his post, expelled from the KSC and sent in disgrace to live out his days as a forestry official.

Into his place the Soviet Union inserted Stalinist hardliner Gustáv Husák, whose mission was to restore "normalisation."

Western imperialism hypocritically condemned the invasion, drawing a veil over its long and bloody history of military incursions and conquests.

In 1968 the Czechoslovak workers were unprepared and lacking a leadership to defeat the invasion. Nevertheless its echoes were to be heard again.

The later Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev unveiled a last desperate attempt to reboot the sclerotic Russian economy in 1987, through the introduction of 'Glasnost' (openness) and 'Perestroika' (economic 'restructuring' and decentralisation).

He was asked what the difference was between Dubcek's policies and his desperate throw of the dice. His spokesperson replied: "19 years."

By 1987 the crisis of Stalinism was much deeper. And while protest movements did develop under Gorbachev, they did not crystallise into a movement with an anti-bureaucratic and anti-capitalist programme.

This created a space for capitalists and would-be capitalists to seize the opportunity to begin the restoration of capitalism in those countries.

The eventual implosion of these regimes in the late 1980s and early 1990s was greeted with triumph by world capitalism.

Meanwhile many former bureaucrats effortlessly converted themselves into capitalists, ruthlessly pillaging the coffers of the deformed workers' states.

Trotsky wrote in his critique of Stalinism, 'The Revolution Betrayed', that "socialism could not be justified by the abolition of exploitation alone; it must guarantee to society a higher economy of time than is guaranteed by capitalism."

The restoration of capitalism, in its turn, has caused misery for the masses in the former Stalinist states.

In two years after the fall of the Soviet Union, the crash in production far outstripped that which occurred in the United States during the Great Depression of 1929 to 1933.

In 2014, 28% of Czechs said they were better off under 'Communism', while only 23% felt life is better now, according to the Czech polling agency SC&C.

The task of implementing the socialist revolution there and everywhere remains the most pressing struggle of the world working class.

Why not click here to join the Socialist Party, or click here to donate to the Socialist Party.

In The Socialist 14 February 2018:

Socialist Party news and analysis

We can win the fight for the NHS

Stop press: victory - campaign saves NHS rehab ward

McDonnell says Labour would put services 'irreversibly' in workers' hands

Tamil youth march for justice

Rent doubles in a decade: cap rents, build council homes!

What we saw: Tory-Blairite EU love-in

Oxfam scandal

Oxfam scandal: we need democratic aid and working class solidarity

Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition

How should TUSC approach the local elections and Brexit negotiations?

Socialist history

Czechoslovakia 1968: 'Prague Spring' challenges Stalinism

International socialist news and analysis

Cape Town drought

Brazil: Lula conviction confirmed

Big political strike against Finnish government's attack on unemployed

France: rallies in support of oppressed Kurdish people

Workplace news and analysis

UCU uni strike: coordinate public sector fightback

Sadiq Khan's bus drivers' London licence doesn't go far enough

Newham teachers strike again as anti-academy pressure mounts

Woolwich Crossrail walkouts to demand promised bonuses

Threat of action defeats pay cut at Surrey council

Socialist Party campaigns

Haringey protests HDV - but Labour fails to kill it off completely

Staines fire services saved

Carlisle debate - socialism or social democracy?

Enjoyable and successful Cardiff Refugee Rights gig


I'm now a 'manager' and I can barely manage!

In Windsor none of us want to see homeless people on the street


Home   |   The Socialist 14 February 2018   |   Join the Socialist Party

Subscribe   |   Donate   |   Audio  |   PDF  |   ebook

Related links:


triangleThe Socialist Inbox

triangleWell-deserved ridicule of Stalinism is impressive, funny but flawed

triangleRussia, October 1917: When workers took power

trianglePrecise, visceral account of working class heroism

triangleLessons of Russia 1917 for women's struggle today


triangleBernie's book shows need for workers' party

triangleBirmingham South East Socialist Party: The Iran 1979 revolution

triangleSalford Socialist Party: The Russian revolution betrayed

Eastern Europe:

triangleVictory against government's war on eastern European homeless

triangleA world in crisis, ripe for revolution

Historic events

Historic events



Czechoslovakia 1968: 'Prague Spring' challenges Stalinism


Vietnam war

Vietnam War: 50 years since the Tet Offensive



110 years ago: massacre at Santa Maria school in Chile - commemorate 21 December 1907


Russian revolution

Russia, October 1917: When workers took power


Che Guevara

Che Guevara 50 years on - revolutionary socialist and fighter



Mutinies and strikes: when Bolshevism threatened British bosses



Lewisham 1977: When socialists and workers defeated the far-right National Front



Marx's Capital at 150: an unequalled analysis and critique of capitalism


Russian revolution

Russia 1917: how art helped make the revolution


Russian revolution

July Days 1917: battles with counterrevolution



Lessons from the Russian revolution for LGBT+ struggle today



Liverpool's 1983-87 socialist council



The Pentrich uprising: revolution and counter-revolution in 19th century Britain


Russian revolution

June 1917: when workers in Britain first tried to form soviets


May Day

The real origins of May Day

triangleMore Historic events articles...

Join the Socialist Party
Subscribe to Socialist Party publications
Donate to the Socialist Party
Socialist Party Facebook page
Socialist Party on Twitter
Visit us on Youtube



Phone our national office on 020 8988 8777


Locate your nearest Socialist Party branch Text your name and postcode to 07761 818 206

Regional Socialist Party organisers:

Eastern: 0798 202 1969

East Mids: 0773 797 8057

London: 020 8988 8786

North East: 0191 421 6230

North West 07769 611 320

South East: 020 8988 8777

South West: 07759 796 478

Southern: 07833 681910

Wales: 07935 391 947

West Mids: 02476 555 620

Yorkshire: 0114 264 6551



Alphabetical listing

February 2018

January 2018