Czechoslovakia: The Crisis of Imagination

Against the Current, No. 44, May/June 1993

Peter Hudis

THE BREAKUP OF Czechoslovakia into two countries, which took effect on January 1, has helped bring into focus the nature of the economic, political, and ideological crisis afflicting not only that land, but Central and East Europe as a whole. As I was able to observe during a trip to a still-unified Czechoslovakia in Summer 1992, the breakup has its roots in the differing political, social, and cultural developments of the Czech and Slovak nations, which only became a single entity in 1918, but was sealed by the parliamentary elections of last June.

These confirmed the political ascendancy of Vaclav Klaus in the Czech, and Vladimir Meciar in the Slovakian parts of the country. It may appear on the surface that Klaus and Meciar represent diametrically opposed tendencies: Meciar, a former Communist, announced soon after the elections that Slovakia might declare itself sovereign if avowed “free-marketeer” Klaus proceeded with plans for “shock therapy.” With an already high unemployment rate and home to most of the country’s military production, Slovakia has more to lose from dosing or selling off state-run enterprises.

Klaus, however, stuck firm and called Meciar’s bluff, telling him he preferred Slovakian independence to any modification of his economic reform program. Thus the ensuing breakup of the country came as a result, not of any popular mandate or referendum, but solely from the deliberations among a handful of the political elite.

The way in which the conflict between Klaus and Meciar helped precipitate the breakup helped reinforce the image that the conflict between “free market” economic restructuring and the statist “command” economy is the fundamental contradiction afflicting the Czech and Slovak Republics. But the reality is not as simple as the image. Though Meciar favors a greater economic role for the government, he is also proceeding with privatization and other measures with which to “free” the Slovakian economy from state control He is also desperately trying to attract foreign capital, hardly a move conducive to maintaining strict governmental control over all areas of economic activity.

The conflict between Klaus and Meciar can in some respects be compared to that between former Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar and the “Civic Union” faction in Russia, whose differences over the timing and degree of economic reform conceal underlying similarities in their overall approach to economic issues.

The Socio-Economic Landscape

I arrived in Czechoslovakia just as the linchpin of Klaus’ effort to launch the country headlong into the “free market” was about to go into effect—the so-called couponization program. This consists of government-issued coupons for investing in companies undergoing privatization that every adult citizen can buy for 1000 crowns (about $36). Though the amount is small by U.S. standards, this amounts to one-fourth of an average monthly wage in the Czech and Slovak Republics. More than eight million (out of a population of 15 million) purchased the coupons, making Czechoslovakia the first East European country to involve all citizens in the privatization process.

The fact that the couponization program was introduced following the deregulation of prices in 1991 but before the full imposition of the kind of severe austerity measures that have become legion in such East European countries as Poland, has helped convey the illusion that the transition to the ‘free market’ will be relatively painless. Indeed, many view the couponization program as the road to instant wealth, as extravagant stories are being circulated by the new breed of businessmen concerning the anticipated rate of return.

No one, however, believes the couponization program will be able to provide the level of capital investment so thirsted for by the country’s rulers. One Czech economist told me that this kind of privatization never provides companies with more than thirty percent of their basic capital requirements. The bulk of the needed capital must be secured by opening the doors of the country to the influx of foreign capital, and by forcing out higher rates of production from the Czech and Slovak working class.

Though the influx of foreign capital has yet to reach the level that was widely expected, the notion that ‘free market’ restructuring is the only available option is widely accepted in both the Czech and Slovak Republics, differences over timing and degree notwithstanding. The fact that the economic reforms were administered by a largely popular regime (under the leadership of former dissidents such as Vaclav Havel), which introduced basic democratic liberties in the political sphere, has reinforced the widely-held impression that the transition to the “free market’ represents an improvement in living conditions.

Old Wine in New Bottles

As sudden as such changes have been since the 1989 “Velvet Revolution,” little appears to have changed at the fundamental level of class relations. There has been little or no alteration, in the basic conditions of labor in either the industrial or service sectors. The bosses of most enterprises are predominantly the Communist party bureaucrats of old, only now metamorphosed into advocates of “free market’ economics.

Many of the figures in the country’s educational and research institutes likewise obtained their positions under the Communist regime, leading a number of students to ask just how much has really changed since 1989. The major change has clearly been in the realm of ideology, as reflected in the number of works by Milton Friedman and F.A. von Hayek in now circulation.

As I was told by a number of longtime opponents of the Communist regime, the fact that the transformation in ideology has been so rapid and vast whereas that of class relations has been so nil, should not come as any great surprise. It did not take long for the former Communist “captains of industry” to realize they had to jettison the bankrupt “Marxist-Leninist’ ideology if they were to maintain themselves as “masters” over the process of production. It hardly requires a break from the elitist attitudes toward workers to move from administrating people through the mediation of the state toad-ministering people through the mediation of the market.

This conversion has not proved difficult for them to effect, precisely because there is no class difference between state-capitalism which covers itself with the label of “Communism” and private-capitalism.(1) It should also be noted that the present embrace of commodification, marketability and high-technology as the means to an instant improvement in the quality of life is not as distant from the now-discredited Communist ideology as may appear at first sight The former Communists, after all, placed enormous emphasis on “the economic factor” to the exclusion of any concern with the human dimension.

Instead of articulating a serious break with this, what has happened since l989, according to one long-time Czech activist, is that “The material took over–a part of the Communist heritage with its false insistence on ‘the material’ as the basis of life and society.”(2) Thus, despite the hopes generated by the mass upsurge of November 1989 which forced the hated Communist party from power, the “Velvet Revolution” did not project a concept of mass participation in society that breaks with the manipulation of people through the instrumentality of things.

This has left a void which is increasingly being filled by nationalist sentiment, some (but not all) of it of a rightist character. This, not the political conflict between Klaus and Meciar, truly lies at the heart of the breakup of the united Czechoslovakia. Indeed, it was widely reported in the Czech press prior to the parliamentary elections that Meciar entertained hopes of forging a political coalition with Klaus. The former Communist and present-day Reaganite share an overall conservative and administrative approach to political questions. Klaus, however, insisted on an immediate adoption of a full plunge into economic restructuring, something that Meciar, given the economic situation in Slovakia, could not swallow.

Thus, while it may appear that the conflict between the “free market” and “command economy’ sparked the final breakup of the country, the clash between these seeming opposites was not as fundamental as some have claimed. The Slovak quest for national self-identity and independence, so long denied them by their Czech brethren, proved the most important factor in the breakup of the country.

The Crisis of the Imagination

Nevertheless, what is most critical is the strength of the new ideology which has emerged since 1989, and which defines virtually all discourse in both the Czech and Slovak Republics—the notion that the only choice open to humanity is either statist or private capitalism. So overpowering has this ideological fetish proven itself to be, that it has become a deciding factor in the material life of both republics.

One of the central parts of this new ideology, by no means restricted to Czechoslovakia or East Europe, is the denial of history. This has a lethal effect in removing from view the effort to work out a genuine Marxism, opposed to both capitalism and Communism, which is so indigenous to East Europe as a whole and Czechoslovakia in particular. As Raya Dunayevskaya wrote in 1987:

“The East European revolts were continuous for the last forty years. They expressed themselves most luminously in one or another form of Marxist Humanism. In Poland, there appeared a work in 1957 called ‘Towards a Marxist Humanism’; in Yugoslavia, there was a tendency that called itself Marxist Humanist, and in 1968 in Czechoslovakia, there was a term ‘socialism with a human face’… these forms of struggle for new human relations to free us from the limited choice of East or West circled the globe.”(3)

The Prague Spring reform movement, and its subsequent crushing by the Russian invasion of August 1%8, remain the most critical event in modern Czech and Slovak history, and its ramifications continue to impact on today. Yet all-too many seem anxious to erase the memory of 1968 altogether.

One striking expression of this was a televised roundtable on the Prague Spring last year, which included a discussion with Eduard Goldstucker, a leading literary figure forced into exile in 1968.

Goldstucker chronicled the 1963 conference In Liblice on Franz Kafka, an event which helped spark a new stage of resistance to the regime. Since open dissent was impossible, Czech intellectuals used Kafka’s depiction of alienation and homelessness to articulate opposition to the existing society. It proved of critical importance in laying the ground for the “ferment of the mind” which broke into the open in the Spring of 1968.

This year, however, Goldstucker was sharply attacked during the televised discussion by those who argued the generation of 1968 made no contribution and should be forgotten.”

It should be noted that many who are now saying the legacy of 1968 should be forgotten are the very same ones who obtained their posts thanks to the Russian tanks which destroyed Prague Spring. The effort to erase historic memory, however, runs deeper than this.

Many of those associated with the Prague Spring movement were reformed Communists who believed it was possible to change the totalitarian system from within. By 1989, after twenty years of Russian occupation, however, the masses were totally fed up with existing Communism and rightly felt that a total break with the established ideology and s9cety was needed.

This has led to a certain wholesale rejection of the past, even though many involved in the events of 1968 stood for an alternative to all forms of existing society. As Goldstucker put it after the televised attack on him:

“The tremendous reaction to the horrors of the old regime is that the pendulum is swinging to the other extreme. Noble ideas should be looked upon with great suspicion, it is now believed; they say we must runaway from the ideals of the basic equality of man, in a society so traumatized by the past and so unstable. Such ideas are bringing about unsavory results.”

One of those “unsavory results” is the so-called “lustration” issue, derived from the Latin word for a vetting or sacrifice. It relates to the passage of a law in 1991 to ban employment in government or private managerial posts for five years to the estimated 140,000 Czechs and Slovaks who had collaborated with the Communist secret police. Some have begun to abuse this, however, by accusing their political rivals of being accomplices of the old regime without offering any kind of proof. For instance, when I was in Prague a right-wing daily, Telegraf, published the names of 376 journalists whom it alleged to have been Communist informers, a charge a number of them vigorously deny.

The lustration issue is clearly being used by the parties of the right to beguile the masses’ frustration with the present situation, in that the persistence of conditions prevailing prior to 1989 is blamed, not on the underlying similarities between state-capitalism that called itself “Communism” and private capitalism, but simply on the mere presence of individuals in positions of influence who are held (rightly or wrongly) to have had connections with the old regime.

The tendency to skip over the indigenous effort to work out a pathway to freedom independent of both capitalism and Communism dovetails with the second striking feature of the new ideology—the pull of immediacy, i.e. the notion that we must accept the limits of the given. This is most strikingly evident in those who argue that “free market” capitalism is the only option available to Czech and Slovak society; yet the notion of accepting these limits also affects those opposed to the “free market.”

One illustration of this is the position of Ivan Svitak, who was one of the most articulate activists and spokespersons of the Prague Spring movement. Forced into exile by the Russian invasion, Svitak wrote a number of critically important works on philosophy and social theory which promoted the development of an open and critical Marxism. He returned to Czechoslovakia after 1989, and remains a Marxist and fierce critic of “actually existing capitalism.” As recently as 1990 Svitak wrote of how “there is no hope that the Communist Party could provide leadership in the future.”(4)

In 1992, however, he ran for parliament (and won election) as a member of the Left Bloc, a grouping that consists overwhelmingly of the former Communist Party, an action he has explained on the grounds that the present ideological climate renders impractical any independent political stance.

New Opposition from Below

The present ideological pollution is so overwhelming that it would be no exaggeration to say that the “crisis of the mind” has replaced the “ferment of the mind.” Given this situation, it is not hard to see why discussion of independent Marxist and revolutionary thought is not easy to come by. Yet all the difficulties notwithstanding, the idea of revolution cannot be so easily subsumed as some might think. There are efforts underway to work out a revolutionary alternative from below, one that opposes both the old regime and the effort to recast it in “free market” clothing.

Though the masses are waiting to see what effects the privatization program will have on their standard of living, the working class is by no means totally quiescent, as indicated by some efforts to establish rank-and-file workers’ groups, especially in northern Bohemia. Dissident groups, mainly of intellectuals opposed to the fetish of the market, have also arisen, not only in Prague but also in Slovakia.

Though the emergence of right-wing nationalism is a threat there, it is generally overlooked that the Slovakian intelligentsia is characterized by a fierce independence of spirit that has led many to combat both the dangers of narrow nationalism as well as the “free market.” There are some efforts to work out new expressions of opposition by youth, as seen in the journal Budoucnost (Future).

I had a chance to get a sense of new opposition by youth at a May Day rally put on by several anarchist groupings in Prague (the only other May Day demonstration was put on by the Left Bloc, and was sparsely attended.) About 600 attended the May Day rally, and almost all were under twenty-five; indeed, the vast majority were teenagers (the handful of exceptions were several dissidents from the generation of 1968). Though the political content of the rally was diffuse, with as many “definitions” of anarchism as there were individuals professing it, it was clear that what drew many of the youth, especially the young women’s liberationists, to the gathering was a desire for a revolutionary alternative.

This is not to say, however, that interest in revolutionary ideas predominates among the youth. On the contrary, there is also a growing attraction to the far-right, not only in Slovakia, but in the Czech Republic as well. At one meeting I attended of the Left Bloc in Prague, I was struck at the age of almost all the participants—from the mid-fifties on. I noticed at the end of the meeting that there were a large number of people, mostly in their twenties, waiting for the room to be vacated so that they could hold their own meeting. It turned out they were members of the Czech Republican Party, modeled on its racist and anti-Semitic German counterpart.

Toward Philosophic New Beginnings

The contradictory situation in the Czech and Slovak Republics provides many grounds for questioning whether a renewal of a revolutionary movement can arise either from practice alone, or from reducing theory to deliberations on tactics and strategies. There is no question that the main ideological lever which has been used as a way to hold off opposition is the false amalgam of Marx’s Marxism and Communism, which the Stalinists perpetrated for decades. This false amalgam continues to be perpetrated by the new rulers, who use it to argue that since revolution “necessarily” leads to totalitarianism, humanity has no choice but to follow the dictates of the “market”?

Unless the “crisis of the mind” is directly combatted by issuing a serious challenge to this ideological pollution, the rebirth of a revolutionary movement can hardly be taken for granted. This makes especially important the work of Karel Kosik, the leading philosophic spokesperson of Marxist Humanism during Prague Spring. After the Russian invasion, he was barred from teaching and publishing for twenty years. He regained his teaching position at Charles University after 1989, and remains a sharp critic of existing society—so much so that he recently lost his teaching position at the University on the grounds it has no more funds for his position.(5)

In a recent interview, Kosik characterized the present situation as follows:

“I am afraid what is going on [in Czechoslovakia today] can become a third Munich because of its historical consequences. The second Munich was in 1968. The first consisted in the betrayal by our allies and for that reason we could have been occupied by Nazism [in 1938]. In 1968 both the occupier and the ally were identical. Of course, nothing can repeat itself in its entirety, but what I call the third Munich could be even more terrible in its consequences. Since that could be a capitulation of the historicity of the central European space to the anonymity and elimination of opposition (Gleichshaltung), both of which dominate contemporary Europe.(6)

 Kosik here also speaks of “what a genius Marx was. As far as the analysis of modern times is concerned he went so deep that people will have to bow forever,” because he showed that “modern times means marketability, greed, what is human is under the yoke of the inhuman.”

In the same interview Kosik puts his finger on what is revealed by the breakup of the united Czechoslovakia:

“There is a lack of imagination in Czech politicians. When in 1968 the Czech political representatives—with the exception of Frantisek Kriegel—signed the capitulation in Moscow they succumbed to the moment’s pressure.(7) Those people were not able to imagine the future in another way than it presented itself at the given moment. This is being repeated today as well.”

The Road Ahead

Why then is there such a crisis of the imagination, given the creativity of the opposition movements in Czechoslovakia which manifested themselves not only during Prague Spring 1968 but also in the 1971 launching of Charter 77? Developments within East Europe as a whole in the fifteen years since then may supply at least part of the answer.

An especially important development was the pull of the notion of a “self-limiting revolution,” first articulated in Poland in the early 1980s by the intellectual spokespersons of that creative form of workers’ self-organization, Solidarnosc. This influence upon Czechoslovakia was evident in November and December 1989, when Havel insisted that the transition to power be based on “self-restraint-and “moral suasion,” instead of moving toward any fundamental uprooting of social relations.

As important, however, as such developments proved to be in the emergence of the present ideological climate, what also cannot be discounted are developments in the West, such as the setbacks suffered in the 1980s by the opposition movements.

On many occasions during my trip I was reminded that had the Western left succeeded in projecting a concept of liberation that could serve as a pole of attraction for those opposed to both capitalism and Communism, it would have been that much harder for the leaders of the “Velvet Revolution” to argue that the “command economy” and “free market” represent our sole choices.

Precisely because of the depth of the present global crisis, it is high time to take seriously the compulsion to work out a new relation of theory to practice.

Though May 1968 is a long time ago, the challenge projected then by Karel Kosik at a rally of workers and students in Prague has become only more pressing with the passage of time:

“The difficulties of modern socialism in the twentieth century consist of the fact that thus far, it has been unable to theoretically and even less so, practically, to comprehend, harmonize and coordinate its role as a liberating historical alternative. The minimal steps to which we renounce political crimes must not obscure or postpone the pressing fundamental questions upon which we have not yet touched and without which socialism as revolutionary alternative for people of the twentieth century is unthinkable: We must ask anew, who is man and what is truth, what is being and what is time, what is the essence of technology and science, and what is the meaning of revolution.”(8)


  1. I have developed this point in detail in my Introduction to The Marxist-Humanist Theory of State-Capitalism: Selected Writings by Raya Dunayevskaya (Chicago: News and Letters, 1992.
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  3. “East Europe’s Revolutions Three Years, Later,” by Stephen Steiger, in News and Letters, November 1992
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  5. “A Post-World War II View of Marxist-Humanism: 1843-83; Marxist-Humanism in the 1950s and 1980s,” Raya Dunayevskaya, in Praxis International, 8 (3), October 1988, 361.
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  6. See Ivan Svitak, The Unbearable Burden of History, Vol. II, Prague Spring Revisited (Prague: Academia Praha, 1990), 153. Svitak’s earlier work is also available in English, see Man in His World (NY: Dell, 1970) and The Czechoslovak Experiment 1968/69 (NY: Columbia University Press, 1971).
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  7. Kosik’s thought can be explored in his pathbreaking work, Dialectics of the Concrete: A Study on Problems of Man and the World (Dordrecht: D. Reldel, 1976). For an account of Kosik’s role in Prague Spring, see Varieties of Marxist Humanism: Philosophical Revision in Postwar Eastern Europe by James A. Satterwhite (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1992).
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  8. “Philosopher Karel Kosik: Laughter will not save us from the fall, but it can change a hollow into a well,” interview in Lidove Noviny (Prague) August 29, 1992.
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  9. This refers to the Czechoslovak government’s acceptance, then under the leadership of the late Alexander Dubcek, of the political settlement forced upon them by Brezhnev after they were flown to Moscow following the Russian invasion. Kriegel, who refused to sign the accord, was later executed by the Russians.
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  10. “Our Present Crisis,” by Karel Kosik, in Telos 13, Fall 1972, 32-33.
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May-June 1993, ATC 44