The Memory of 1968 as a Work of Mourning for the European Left


My aim is to contribute in a modest way to the debate on the significance of the Prague Spring for both Czech and European memory. Particularly, I am interested in the importance of the defeat of the Prague Spring, and of 1968 in general, for the gradual disintegration of the European Left – first in its communist and later in its socialist form. Did the defeat, by allegedly expelling any genuinely democratic socialism in the realm of utopia, contribute to the neoliberal paradigm of the end of ideology? I want to propose the argument that more important than the defeat of 1968 itself was the incapacity of the European Left to come to terms with the defeat. Petr Pithart touched upon this question by reminding us that the way a society or a movement deals with its defeats is of vital significance for the democratic self-understanding in the future.

To understand the way the Left has dealt with its defeat I want to draw on the well-known distinction of Sigmund Freud between the work of mourning (Trauerarbeit, travail de deuil) and melancholy. In the early 1990s, intellectual historian Martin Jay (who is known for his work on the Frankfurt school) spoke in the 1990s about ‘an inability of the Left to mourn’ (Unfähigkeit zu trauern), about the incapacity to move beyond melancholy to true mourning. There has been since then a continuous debate about the crises of the Left in the aftermath of 1989. I also want to mention in this context two recent French works that take up this debate and relate it to the current crises of the Left: Enzo Traverzo’s Mélancolie de gauche and André Burguière’s La gauche va-t-elle disparaître? They both look back at the various defeats for the Left in the 20th and 21st centuries and speak of, in Traverso’s words, a ‘culture of defeat’.

Martin Jay’s argument is that genuine mourning is slow and painful and ‘conscious of the love-object it has lost.’ Mourning means learning the ability to cope with the disappearance of the object, in our case the socialist utopia. Only this enables a search for a new meaning in the future. Mourning by no means equals forgetting. ‘The love object remains in memory,’ writes Jay, ‘it is not obliterated, but it is no longer the target of the same type of emotional investment as before.’ In contrast, melancholia hampers this withdrawal of the emotional investment in the lost object, which leads to a narcissistic identification with the lost object and to the desire to return, to pure repetition, to nostalgia and finally to despair. Jay calls it ‘debilitating melancholia on the Left’.  Unlike melancholia, proper mourning implies a direct and harrowing confrontation with the defeat rather than the ‘easier path of denial and forgetting’.

I want to raise the question – to which I have no answer at the moment – whether Jay’s melancholia diagnosis applies also to the memory of the Prague Spring. I see two basic representations of the Prague Spring in the Czech and European context. The first is the debilitating melancholia conducted after 1989 by some protagonists of 1968. It massively overshadowed the critical potential of mournful reconstruction. What we gain from some of these memories of the Prague Spring is an uncritical narcissistic identification.

The other form of memory is denial. Again, it was discussed yesterday: the Prague Spring is often used as an offensive word, almost an insult, downgraded to an unrealistic utopia, an illusion, or a mere power struggle within the party, which had no impact on society. I want to suggest that this denial was prepared already during the 1960s through what I call the discourse of illusion and disillusion. The concept of illusion was a crucial factor in dissolving the socialist project in whatever form.

The history of communism has often been written after 1989 as a gradual process of disillusionment (we think firstly of course of Francois Furet’s Le Passé d’une illusion). This semantic of disillusion originated in 1956 as a critique of the illusions of Stalinism. The entire 1960s are laced with illusion as a central concept. Let me give just a couple of examples.

Philosopher Karel Kosik in 1968 was obsessed with exorcising illusions. One of his essays is titled Illusion and Realism, where he says for instance: ‘Ideological illusion is the reason that Czech politics is losing its battle with time.’ His most celebrated text from 1968, Our Current Crisis, is littered with critique of various illusions. The same applies to the reform economists around Ota Sik: Zdislav Sulc, for instance, published in May 1968 a booklet titled Ideals, Illusions and Reality in which he maintained that the history of socialism is a cyclical process of illusions and disillusionments. Even the reform communist psychologists combated illusions on two fronts, against both the Stalinist and bourgeois illusions regarding modern personality, as a brochure titled Illusion of Privacy in Modern Society from 1969 suggests. Finally, in the debate on ‘Czech destiny’ (Cesky udel) from winter 1968-69 Kundera described the Prague Spring as an expression of criticism, which unmasked pseudo-patriotic illusions. Havel, in turn, blamed Kundera for conducting a ‘turgid illusion’ (nabubrela iluze).

The memoir literature, too, has often been written in this illusionist mode. Sik titled his memoir Illusion and Reality, and wrote that he ‘transformed from a convinced communist of the construction years into a critical and realistic scientist.’ The Prague Spring’s foreign minister Jiri Hajek demanded that ‘under the current circumstances, however, this society needs extraordinarily sober and matter-of-fact (sachlich) ideas about the present world, free of illusions and emotions.’
At the same time, ‘illusion’ also became a widespread notion in the western Left. For instance, an obituary of Theodor Adorno penned by Iring Fetscher in 1969 was titled Ein Kämpfer ohne Illusionen – a fighter without illusions. This actually comes as a surprise since Fetscher depicts Adorno certainly as a thinker of disappointment but not as one without some idealistic hopefulness. To cite one more example: In an interview from 1985, Kundera praised the twentieth century central European novelists Kafka, Musil and Gombrowicz as his role models. They were ‘distrustful of the illusions concerning progress, distrustful of the kitsch of hope. I share their sorrow about the Western twilight. Not a sentimental sorrow. An ironic one.’ This not only mirrors the rather gloomy atmosphere of the 1980s, but also reflects something ‘typically’ central European – as if there could be only either sentimental or ironical sorrow. Why not simply a sorrowful sorrow, sorrow as such?

After 1989 the language of illusion reached its summit, particularly with Francois Furet’s book Le Passé d’une illusion: ‘We are condemned to live in a world as it is,’ Furet wrote.  However, he was at the same time one of the first to historicise the concept. Illusion for him was not unawareness of what the communists were doing in the past. Rather, it was a set of orthodox beliefs that were never called into question, especially the belief in the scientific foundation of politics and conformity to historical reason. Illusion is not a mistake of judgement, but a religious faith. However historically problematic, Furet’s reading differed from most other views, which equated illusion with a distorted image of reality, a chimera. In doing so, Furet resumed the creative meaning of illusion as conveyed by Sigmund Freud. For Freud, illusion is not simply a mistake but something that is driven forward by men’s wishes. In his The Future of an Illusion, Freud writes: ‘It was an illusion on the part of Columbus that he had discovered a new sea-route to India. (…) A poor girl may have an illusion that a prince will come and fetch her home. But it is possible; some cases have occurred.’ What I want to suggest is that it is striking how powerfully the notion of illusion was able to displace utopian imagination of any kind. It helped establish the essentialistic distinction between right and wrong while ousting that between right and left.

Let us conclude with the question of how to mourn for the Prague Spring. Enzo Traverso argues that mourning has always been an indispensable resource of socialist imaginary. In the past, the Paris Commune, Rosa Luxemburg or Salvador Allende, for instance, played this role. But what about the Prague Spring? Can we mourn for it? It is interesting to note that the Prague Spring itself did not develop an alternative socialist Trauerkultur, one that would replace the embalmed Stalinist funerals with authentic popular emotion, as was the case with Togliatti in 1964 or Tito in 1980. The Prague Spring was too short lived to produce a genuine mourning culture. There were too few important deaths, the exception being the passing of Juri Gagarin in April 1968 (by the way, what a symbolic, deadly blow to the communist utopia!). The mourning for Jan Palach, who died in January 1969, perhaps the only moment of genuine collective sorrow in Czech history after 1948, came too late. But it was not only a matter of time: the post-1989 period has also failed to develop a proper Trauerkultur vis-à-vis the tragedies of the twentieth century. Indeed, the post-socialist Czech society seems to be incapable of mourning genuinely: it commemorates its historical defeats either with exaggerated pathos, which is comical, or with cynicism, which is tragic.

I have no systematic conception of how to capture empirically the productive dimension of socialist disillusionments and defeats, including the Prague Spring. Therefore, I will sketch out only two areas in which the withdrawal of socialist ideas occurred.

The first suggestion is the defeat of women’s emancipation as an indispensable part of the socialist project. The liberalisation of the 1960s paradoxically reversed the progressive women’s and family policy from the 1950s, which resulted in the restoration of some elements of the bourgeois gender order. In this respect, the Prague Spring was rather a conservative turn. The current anti-feminist hegemony in Czech society is perhaps the greatest historical defeat of the Left. How and why did that happen?

My second proposal is the loss of the authentic working class and its party. From the late 1950s onwards many communists mourned for the non-bureaucratised party, for the workerist ideals of genuine solidarity and comradeship. But do the images we have of the working class around 1968 correspond rather to Jay’s debilitating melancholia or to critical mourning? On the global scale, it was in the late sixties that the working class ceased to play its historical role as the most effective promoter of democratisation. The specific subculture that fostered socialist values dissipated because of the transformation of the working class itself. In Eastern Europe, the working class continued to matter but its composition and self-understanding changed. The workers’ identity was eroded by wider social changes, by privatisation and the individualisation of consumption. In Czechoslovakia, where the workers’ honour was based on the sense of a high-quality work, the working-class identity was heavily damaged by its decreasing social recognition. Again, we should explore how this decline occurred and what came next.

So, we are left with the question whether the Prague Spring should finally be thrown onto the trash heap of history (to use Trotsky’s famous metaphor). But it depends on what history we mean: it might be a trash heap, with historians rummaging on it like rats, but it also might be a vast resource for rethinking the present. A critical analysis of the contradictions of the Prague Spring, of its nature as a laboratory of illusions, is a necessary precondition for such an undertaking. After all, Trotsky also said that history is a ‘wicked stepmother’ – you never know what might happen.

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