1968 Prague Spring at 50


Fifty years after the Prague Spring of 1968 one can notice an interesting contrast between the acommemoration of the hopes of the Spring in the West and the priority given to the commemoration of the August 1968 invasion which crushed the project known as ‘socialism with human face’. This may be revealing not just of different experiences with 1968 in both parts of then divided Europe as much as of the post-1989 politics of memory in the Czech lands.
Looking back fifty years on we note that there is no urgent need of a new history of 1968 Czechoslovak experiment (the archives have been opened and a lot has been published) but there may be a case for revisiting the ideas associated with 1968 and their resonance in the country itself as in a broader European context.

Three aspects deserve to be mentioned in this respect:

1.The Prague Spring revived the debate about Czech democratic exceptionalism in the context of European socialism.
2. It was often interpreted as part of an international generational revolt against the establishments, East and West.
3. Finally, the most far-reaching reform within the Soviet sphere provided twenty years on a belated (and thus doomed) inspiration for Gorbachev’s attempt to save the system.

The Prague Spring was not what you read about in school textbooks: starting with the election of Alexander Dubcek as Party leader on January 5th 1968 and concluded with the Soviet-led invasion of August 21st. Rather it should be understood as a process starting in the early 1960’s with converging pressures for economic reforms identified with the name of Ota Sik, Slovak resentment of Prague centralism (hence Dubcek) and the gradual autonomisation of the cultural sphere from the stronghold of ideological censorship which account for the golden age of Czech cinema, theatre and literature which made a significant and lasting impact throughout Europe. The culmination of the three-pronged process brought about political change starting the abolition of censorship and the separation of Party and state. In other words, 1968 was not just a parlour game for reform-minded party bureaucrats, it was in Vaclav Havel’s words “above all a civic renewal, a restoration of human dignity, the trust in the capacities and possibilities of citizens to change society”1.

The interpretations of the democratisation process revived several versions of Czech exceptionalism. The first could be summed up as the triumph of Czech and Slovak culture over the communist structure. The emancipation of the cultural sphere from the diktat of censorship without being subjected to that of the market produced a powerful 60’s cultural background to the political and societal changes associated with 1968. A related version of the argument concerns the enduring democratic character of Czech political culture. Authors, like Gordon Skilling in his monumental study of the Prague Spring, have argued that the legacies of the pre-war democracy, followed between 1945 and 1948 by a ‘democratic interlude, have left in the society (even in large parts of the KSC membership) values and beliefs, a political culture, which were in conflict with the Stalinist regime, eventually came to the surface in the 1960’s and helped to bring about fundamental change which represented a break with Soviet-type communism2.

The third and possibly most interesting debate about the meaning of 1968 opposed two leading Czech intellectuals Milan Kundera and Vaclav Havel which is worth re-reading half a century later3. Not for the post-invasion assessment. Kundera’s overstatement “the significance of the Czechoslovak Fall goes beyond that of the Spring itself” and the hope that the reformist project could survive the invasion was mercilessly dismissed by Havel as sheer delusion. But it is the meaning of the Spring of 1968 which is worth revisiting. Following on Gordon Schauer’s provocative 19th century question about what ultimately justifies the efforts put into producing a culture in the Czech language, Kundera makes a plea for the contribution of small nations to universal values and ideas.

« Malý národ naproti tomu, má-li ve svě tě  ně jaký  vý znam, musí ho denně  a ustavič ně  znovu vytvář et. Ve chvíli, kdy přestane tvořit hodnoty, ztratí oprávnění existovat a nakonec pak snad i existovat přestane, protože je křehký  a znicitelný . Tvorba hodnot je u ně ho spjata s otázkou samého bytí… »

For Kundera the Prague Spring was of significance to Europe as a whole was because, beyond Eastern stalinism and Western capitalism, it tried to combine socialism with democracy. Not a mere remake of the “third way” nor a blueprint for a radiant future, the Czechoslovak heresy was crushed but the far-reaching significance of the project for the future of the European Left remains. Havel’s take, in contrast, was more sober and realistic: restoring basic freedoms was no doubt wonderful, the last time we had them was thirty years ago and indeed this is considered ‘normal’ in most civilized European countries

« budeme-li si namlouvat, že země , která chtěla zavést svobodu slova – cosi, co je ve většině civilizovaného svě ta samozřejmostí – a která chtě la zabránit zvů li tajné policie, stanula kvů li tomu ve stř edu svě tový ch dě jin, nestaneme se váž ně  nič ím jiný m, než  samolibý mi š moky, směš ný mi se svý m provinciálním mesianismem! Svoboda a zákonnost jsou prvními př edpoklady normálně  a zdravě  fungujícího společenského organismu, a pakliže se nějaký  stát pokouš í po letech absence je obnovit, nedě lá nic historicky nedozírného, ale snaží se prostě odstranit své vlastní nenormálnosti ».

For some thirty years it seemed that Kundera’s somewhat messianic vision vs Havels lucid realism seemed fairly obvious to most Czechs. Yet today, half a century later, communism is long dead and Western ‘normalcy’ is in crisis, Kundera’s plea for the « Czechoslovak possibility » (Ceskoslovenska moznost) acquires perhaps a new resonance.

Another way to highlight the European dimension of the Prague Spring is to interpret it through the prism of the rebellions which in 1968 shook the political establishments throughout the continent. There was May 68 in France, the Polish events of March 1968, Berlin, Belgrade…The common denominator of these movements was the search for alternative models of society with contrasting, confusing and often contradictory references to socialism: from self-management in the workplace to the Christian-Marxist dialogue or to discussions a about the impact of sciences and technology on the evolution of modern societies East and West. And there were not insignificant Czech contributions to all of the above. Karel Kosik’s Marxist humanism (influenced by Patocka’s phenomenology) and a civilizational pessimism related precisely to the to the dehumanising role of science and technology; or on the contrary, Radovan Richta’s civilizational optimism based on the “scientific and technical revolution”4. The former proved incompatible with the ‘normalization’ Gleichschaltung of the 1970’s, the latter’s technocratic faith in the progress of sciences rather easily blended in. Both were the most influential Czech thinkers of the late sixties in Europe and both were thus part of what Jan Patocka had in mind in attempting to frame the Prague Spring reforms in a European context and calling for a dialogue between intellectuals East and West. Patocka’s contribution was a piece entitled “Inteligence a opozice” and a lecture given during the Spring in Germany where he states that “the position of intellectuals in the East is better because “they do not consider the basic democratic rights as a mere means towards an end but an end in itself”5. « Postaveni vychodnich intelektualu je vyhodnejsi v tom, ze “nepovazuji zakladni demokraticka prava za pouhy prostredek k ucelu, nybrz za vlastni ucel o sobe ».

And that indeed this proved to be the main contrast between 1968 in Prague (or Warsaw) and Paris (or Berlin). To be sure, there is a whole aspect of 1968 which can be interpreted mainly in terms of generations. There is now even a term for that, “Youthquake”, declared in 2017 Word of the Year by the experts at Oxford Dictionaries.  It is defined as “significant cultural, political, or social change arising from the actions or influence of young people.” The interesting thing about the Prague Spring was that it had indeed youth, particularly the student movement was its radical wing, but that its driving force was the previous generation, that which experienced (supported or was at the receiving end of) 1945/ 1948 and its aftermath. A.J. Liehm elaborated on this concept of political generations precisely in 1968 in the introduction to a splendid volume of his interviews with the leading intellectual figures of 1968 (from Vaculik to Skvorecky, from Goldstücker to Havel to mention only a few), among best guides to the politics of culture of the Prague Spring6. Many –by no means all- among those who were twenty after the war and had backed the Communist takeover in 1948 found themselves frustrated and disappointed with a revolution from above helped in the 1960’s to bring about a revolution from below which culminated in 19687.

The generational aspect as much as the political context account for the contrasts and misunderstandings of 1968 between East and West, Prague and Paris. The driving force of the Prague Spring was the aspiration of freedom, whereas in Paris the moment of emancipation combined with the myth of revolution. Milan Kundera described the contrast as follows:
“Paris’s May ’68 was an explosion of revolutionary lyricism. The Prague Spring was the explosion of post-revolutionary scepticism...May ’68 was a radical uprising whereas what had, for many a long year, been leading towards the explosion of the Prague Spring was a popular revolt by moderates"8.

While Western radicals looked to the Third World, European identity was part of ’68 in Prague. Again, in Kundera words: “Paris in May ’68 challenged the basis of what is called European culture and its traditional values. The Prague Spring was a passionate defence of the European cultural tradition in the widest and most tolerant sense of the term (a defence of Christianity just as much as of modern art – both rejected by those in power). We all struggled for the right to maintain that tradition that had been threatened by the anti-western messianism of Russian totalitarianism.”
However, the contrast highlighted here should not make us forget the intellectually and politically important convergence between the Western 68ers who in the following decade abandoned Marxism and became antitotalitarian liberals of different shades and the post-68 Czech dissidents around common issues concerning human rights, civil society and the overcoming of the partition of Europe.

Finally, there is another dimension of the Spring of 1968 as the “supreme stage” of reformism in the Soviet bloc and its implications for the divided Europe. Zdenek Mlynar, one of the architects of the political reforms and 1968 youngest member of politburo described, the way Brezhnev and the Soviet leadership described to Dubcek and his colleagues the reasons for the invasion: “Precisely because the territorial results of the last war are untouchable to us we had to intervene in Czechoslovakia”. The West will not move, so, “what do you think will be done on your behalf? Comrades Tito, Ceausescu, Berlinguer, will make speeches. Well, and what of it? You are counting on the Communist movement in Western Europe? But that has remained insignificant for the last 50 years”9.

That part is familiar enough. Indeed, Tito and the Eurocommunists in the West protested and claimed for their benefit to continue the legacy of the Prague Spring as a way to enhance their democratic credentials. However, the real legacy came back with a vengeance twenty years on. Gorbachev, Mlynar’s friend and roommate from the student days, became leader of the Soviet Communist Party and sought inspiration for his perestroika in the Prague Spring of 1968. Asked what was the difference between his reforms and those of Dubcek, the spokesman for Gorbachev replied simply: “19 years”. That certainly was not good enough to rehabilitate “socialism with a human face” in the eyes of sceptical Czechs and Slovaks twenty years on. It is not easy to identify with a defeated project with a price tag in the form of another twenty years in a post-totalitarian dictatorship. But it did matter for what was unfolding in Moscow and its relationship to its dependencies. Jiri Dienstbier, a prominent Czech journalist from 1968, dissident turned prisoner turned stoker, became minister of foreign affairs in December of 1989. On his first meeting with Gorbachev he referred to the 1968 hopes crushed by Moscow to which Gorbachev replied: “We thought that we had strangled the Prague Spring while in reality we had strangled ourselves”10

The Prague Spring seen as the chance to save the system. Its crushing thus prevented reform at the very center and accounts for its intractable crisis. In other words: the 1968 invasion preventing reform in Czechoslovakia prepared the ground for the unravelling of the Soviet system. To be sure, there is tough competition for the title of “who contributed most to the demise of the Soviet empire”. The Hungarians point to the revolution of 1956, the Poles see Solidarnosc in 1980 as the last nail in the coffin of communism. The contribution of the Prague Spring, even crushed violently, should not be underestimated.

The ‘Velvet revolution’ of 1989 was obviously understood as the undoing of the legacy of “real socialism” of the Husak era, it was not framed as a continuation of the ‘interrupted revolution’ of 1968. To be sure, some side-lined 68ers and a number of Western observers were inclined to point to that continuity with the aspirations of the Prague Spring. But the main protagonists of 1989 in Prague were eager to distance themselves from the “illusions of 1968”. The aim was no longer the democratisation of socialism but simply democracy. Instead of searching for a “Third way” between capitalism and Soviet-style socialism the goal was the introduction of markets without adjectives: “the third way leads to the Third World” said Vaclav Klaus, the promoter of radical free market economic reforms. And the “return to Europe” translated in foreign policy terms was no longer about extending the margins of manoeuvre in Central Europe between East and West, but to join Western (“Euro-Atlantic”) institutions as quickly as possible. Vaclav Havel rather than Alexander Dubcek became president and the embodiment of these goals.
The reasons are understandable: it was not easy in 1989 to identify with a project that crashed tragically and was followed by twenty years of relentless ‘normalization’. All one can add is that 1968 was the last Czech attempt to propose not a blueprint but a vision (deemed utopian or inconsistent afterwards) which transcended the country and concerned Europe as a whole. In contrast, 1989 was the first revolution not to propose a new social project. A revolution without violence and utopias, but also without a strong new idea. It was indeed, as historian François Furet called it a “revolution-restoration” or, as Jürgen Habermas called it “Nachholende Revolution”. The aim was to restore national and popular sovereignty, the rule of law, private property and imitate the Western model. For that reason, the “Velvet revolution” of 1989 has been considered in Prague since the 1990’s as an “anti-1968” and today the commemorations concern the tragedy of the invasion of August 1968 rather than the hopes and aspirations of the Spring.

The distancing from the ideas and illusions of 1968 may be understandable. It has, however two snags. First, if your aim is to imitate Western economic and political models you cease to be interesting for the West. And, more importantly: what if you are imitating a model in crisis? In thinking that one through you may be forgiven to stumble upon alternative ideas, projects, utopias associated with the Prague Spring of 1968.

  • 1. Vaclav Havel, « La citoyenneté retrouvée », introduction to J. Rupnik and F.Fejtö (eds), Le printemps tchécoslovaque 1968, Bruxelles, Editions Complexe, 1999.
  • 2. Gordon Skilling, Czechoslovakia’s Interrupted Revolution, Princeton University Press, 1976, A. Brown and G. Wightman, Czechoslovakia Revival and Retreat » in A. Brown and J. Gray, Political culture and political change in communist states, London, Macmillan, 1977, pp 159-196.
  • 3. Milan Kundera « Cesky udel » Literarni Listy, 19.12.1968, Vaclav Havel « Cesky udel ?», Tvar 4/1969, The three articles (with Kundera’s reply to Havel) reprinted in Literarni Noviny 27.12.2007.
  • 4. 1968 was the year Karel Kosik’s Dialectic of the Concrete (Dialektika konkrétniho) and Radovan Richta’s Civilization at the Crossroads (Civilizace na rozcesti) were translated in Western Europe.
  • 5. Jan Patocka, Sebrané Spisy, Vol. 12, pp 241-243.
  • 6. Antonin J. Liehm, « Generace znamena v cestine singular i plural » introduction to Generace, Praha, Ceskoslovensky Spisovatel, 1969 (banned before distribution) and 1990. The book was translated in several language with an afterword by Jean-Paul Sartre, “ the socialism that came in from the cold “. The Politics of Culture, New York, Grove Press, 1971.
  • 7. Their radicalism in undoing what they had helped to bring about two decades earlier perplexed the non-communist and particularly those belonging to an in-between generational group: cf. the samizdat volume Zivot je vsude, Almanach roku 1956, Praha, Paseka, 2005 with contributions of Skvorecky, Hrabal, Julis, Kolar, Hirsal, Zabrana, Kubena and a certain Vaclav Havel.
  • 8. Milan Kundera, Preface to the French edition of Josef Skvorecky's novel, Mirakl [Miracle en Bohème], Paris, Gallimard, 1978.
  • 9. Zdenek Mlynar, Mraz prichazi z Kremlu, Köln, Index, 1978 ; pp 306-307 (Nightfrost in Prague, London, 1980).
  • 10. J. Dienstbier, quoted in G.E. Castellano and D. Jun, « The Awkward Revolution », New Presence (Prague), Winter 2008.
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