50 years after the Prague events of 21 August 1968

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A Guardian interview with Josef Skala, leader of the KSCM leninist wing

Josef Skala, a leading exponent of the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia, sends us the text of his interviews to the London newspaper The Guardian, which has published only a few extracts. We gladly publish it as a contribution to a very problematic discussion, which remains open in the international communist movement.

Josef Skala, born in 1952 in socialist Czechoslovakia, graduated in 1975 at the faculty of journalism, author of numerous books and essays of historical-political nature, enrolled in the Czechoslovak Communist Party (KSC) since 1970, member of the presidency of the World Peace Council, and president of the World Student Union in the years 1987-1990, after the separation of Czechoslovakia in two States, he was vice-president of the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (KSCM) in the years 2009-2011 and 2016-2018.

In the 9th KSCM congress (2016) he was a candidate for the party's leadership from the Leninist wing of the party as an alternative to outgoing president Vojtěch Filip (a supporter of a line closer to the European Left). The latter prevailed, in the voting of the delegates, with 203 votes to 155. Skala was reconfirmed vice-president.

The same scenario was repeated at the 10th (extraordinary) congress of April 2018, which took place after the beating of the last parliamentary elections (2017), where the party dropped to 7.8%: a historical minimum compared to a previous consistency which ranged between 10-15% in the general elections (with peaks of 20% in the regional).

In this extraordinary congress Filip's candidacy prevailed with an even smaller margin (165 to 143). But despite the continuing internal divisions and the resounding electoral collapse of the party, the new Filip presidency has ruled out any internal unitary agreement and Skala has been excluded from any party position. The discussion continues.

How do you see the events of 21 August, 1968 - as an invasion or as a liberation from counter-revolution that was essential at the time?

The key goal was of a military nature – to counter-balance boosting military capacities of NATO to the west from our territory. Moscow was repeatedly asking Prague to enable a Soviet military presence in Czechoslovakia since the beginning of the 60s. Antonin Novotny, the that time President of Czechoslovakia and First Secretary of the Party, was withstanding the demand and explaining  already Chrushchev, and then Brezhnev that to agree upon would eliminate the political capital of our liberation by the Red Army in 1945. Dubcek, replacing Novotny, was a Moscow’s choice, too. Novotny was, on the contrary, sacrificied as a „scape-goat“.   

When Gorbachov was asked by a journalist in 1988, what was a difference among him and Dubcek, he replied: „Only those twenty years in between.“ Would Prague Spring lead, at the end, to a similar disaster like „perestrojka“? Who can offer a clear-cut response, which would not be hijacked by a wishful thinking? Czechoslovakia, the most industrially advanced country of the Eastern bloc – and almost an exclusive one with a liberal democratic tradition (though only for two decades before the WWII) - was facing the challenges of further modernization sooner and in a more acute manner than most of its allies. Such a change in both political and economic framework and methods, demanded, however, a scenario and power, strong enough to prevent any unintentional outcomes. When Zdeněk Mlynář, perhaps the most educated „Man of Prague Spring“ (and Gorbachov´s classmate in the Moscow State University at the beginning of the 50s) was asked, after his return to Czechoslovakia in the 90s, whether the Party and state leadership in 1968 had been in a capacity to guarantee preventing restoration of  capitalism, he was repeatedly answering „I don’t know.“

August, 21, 1968 belongs to a period of a bipolar world, when military power was used for promoting the interests of both its poles. For the death of 71 people related to the Warsaw Treaty armies invasion, a sincere sorrow has been expressed countless times during the subsequent period. Most of them had died as result of accidents, and not any intentional atrocities. During the U. S. aggression in Indochina in the same period, such a number of victims had been a score of every 2 hours during the whole decade. Most of these people were killed intentionally – through carpet air-raids, napalm, Agent Orange and even like in My Lai (almost 500 victims only in this case as one of much more numerous ones). Twice more dead people, than in August, 1968,  are a result of only the last Israeli response to Palestinian resistance. The U.S. and other NATO countries´ aggression for a „régime change“ murdered millions of human beings solely in the 21st century. Have you heard a single excuse?  

Do you think communists have anything to be ashamed of or to apologise for in that time?

First of all for two incapabilities - to promote modernization policies in a way, preventing August, 21, and to lead the country afterwords in a way, which would avoid restoring capitalism.  

Was Dubcek’s “socialism with a human face” movement that gave rise to the Prague Spring a positive development or was it, on the contrary, a dangerous heresy that posed a genuine danger to the system, as many of the allied countries’ party leaders believed?

Its agenda, as already underlined, was legitimite. Whoever launches, however, a similar change, should be capable to hold a respective political iniative, blocking the attempts to restore the system of social injustice. Have a look the the western „mainstream“ media from summer 1968. Weren´t they full of hopes to reach in my country the goals, unattainable even through the military pressures, economic blockade and dirty tricks of the Cold War against socialism? Why wouldn´t you find anything similar related to reforms promoted by Kadar – or the GDR leadership since Walter Ulbricht´s period? 

How do you view Dubcek himself - was he a naive dreamer or a class traitor to the party’s cause and ideals? 

Among the Prague Spring leaders, there were undoubtedly educated and skillful people, too. The decisive power was, however, in the hands of those not complying with the key demands. Several days ago, an interview was published with a retired Army Colonel, belonging to the top military structures in 1968, who was fired a year later. He was insisting, in the above interview, that for almost all the members of the Party and state leadership, the August, 21 invasion was not any surprise, but an option they were aware of before –while Dubcek as if represented a naive exception. How to evaluate politicians ready to go on a way, leading to such ends? To provoke hopes of millions and play with them while counting on a step, causing massive frustrations? If a genuine statesman had been No. 1 that time – e. g. Gustav Husak – he would run both the reforms and relations with Moscow and Warsaw Treaty  allies in a way, avoiding military invasion.

Did he and his cohorts deserve the humiliation of being arrested at gun point and put on a military plane and forcibly taken to Moscow?

The summer of 1968 released a chain reaction of things, which caused - to socialism and other anti-capitalist forces - a hell of troubles and political losses. A Czech youngster, killed by a Soviet young driver of a lorry or a tank who didn’t succeed to brake in time, is for me a much bigger tragedy than the „martyrdom“ of Dubcek and „his cohorts“ in the Moscow governmental villas. Genuine statesmen would either take a needed initiative at least at this moment, or resign and apologize. Most tops of Prague Spring were instead playing „martyrs“ in a way, keeping the public in blind illusions even during subsequent months.  

Dubcek (and many others) were later expelled from the party. Was this fair? And was Dubcek’s treatment - being sent first as ambassador to Turkey and then reduced to being a forestry official (about which he complained) just?

Was Dubcek defending thousands members of his own Party, who became a target of a „which hunt“ since early spring 1968? Did he express a public sorrow upon suicides, to which this pressure lead some of them? The personal dramas and losses had two stages. The purges since the mid 1969 was the second, and not the first one. The key lesson consists in what I have been friendly discussing even with some of those who later signed the Charter 77 appeal, while now we do belong to a joint „dissent“ confronting the U.S. and NATO military aggressions, fabricating „enemy images“ and other dirty steps of the War Party. People whose political activities don't seek for careers and money at any cost, should not allow their clashes reach a mutual hostility, like in 1968 or 1989. Whenever it happens, both poles are easily defeated by „pragmatics“ who care only their personal benefits. Exactly such „characters“ were playing a big role in both purges around Prague Spring. Quite many succeeded to benefit out of the first as well as the second one. The more disgusting implications it had within a broad public.    

Do you have any particular personal recollections of the events surrounding the invasion and what you did then? (I appreciate that you were very young at the time).

The Prague Spring started during the first year of my secondary school. The key lesson, which it enriched me with, was to judge upon people based on their deeds, and not elevated words. Quite often, it lead to quite sad findings – likewise during subsequent crossroads of our history. The more I feel happy that whenever we meet with the gymnasium classmates, we do keep a sincere friendship – and genuine respect to differing world views of each of us, well-known  already 50 years ago. 

What is your message to the Czechs of today about the invasion and the controversial “normalisation’ period that followed it? How should they see it?

History is interpreted by winners, as a famous saying reads. Which of them refrained from a subjective approach, subordinated to his own goals? „Rewriting history“ has, however, never reached the extent and forms as we do witness at the stage, self-deceiving itself by a funny „End of History“ rhetorics. The Austro-Hungarian Empire, oppressing our freedom for three centuries, is guilty for hundreds of thousands Czech lives. In which „communist textbook“ will you find its demonization as a „criminal“ one and a „mass murderer“? The 40 years of our socialist period has been slandered by such and more hysterical vocabulary even three decades after it left the scene in the unprecedentedly peaceful and civilized manner. 

We, communists, are the only influential political force, capable to self-critically review all those elements of our history, we don’t have a reason to be proud of. Would you find at least one per cent of such an honest self-reflection from the side of conservatives, liberals, clericals, or „reform“ socialists? Which of them is capable to apologize for the rivers of innocent blood and humanitarian disasters caused by their policies recently, and not entire generations ago? 

Whoever feels strong enough, in terms of a public support, wouldn’t waste time and efforts through demonizing the previous system. Nowadays it is, however, „protest votes“ which have been even  repeatedly winning elections. This is the key reason of horrors, into which the post-war period of our history has been converted. Capitalism restored has re-introduced existential stresses and social patologies, completely eradicated already during first decades of socialist transformation. The period among the second half of the 40s and the end of the 80s was the most successful era of our history, in terms of economic growth and social emancipation, sovereign development of our economic power, its independent role on the international markets, producing, selling and repatriating a high value added by Czech hands and brains, and distributing it for the benefits of all our population. This may be proven by hard facts and statistical data, which the present politics and media keep under a coward embargo. The Czech GDP of the late 80s was reached again only around 2003. Annual consumption of meat per capita is still 20 kgs lower than before the „velvet“ Big Bang. How many similar facts would you be ready to channel to a British audience?  

Coming back to 1968 and the subsequent two decades, two conclusions are more than clear. Were the Prague Spring lead by statesmen, complying with objective requirements, socialism would get even much stronger, and not only in Czechoslovakia. The less they were such statesmen, the more the whole package of modernization changes got slowed down, if not blocked at all. Had Andropov a health, enabling him to lead the CPSU and USSR at least a decade – or were it e. g. Romanov, and not Gorbachov, whose turn came in the mid od the 80s –  the idea of „post-communism“ would have remained a proof of a ridiculous mental disease. We, Czechs, would not have been punched to knees of a foreign colony, but would have lived in a way richer and more just country. The Big Brother and his satellites would not have dared to attack Yugoslavia and all the subsequent targets of „post-communist“ aggressions. Europe would not be facing migration tsunami and explosion of terrorism. And whoever would have dared to voice the present dominating mantra of social darwinism, would be be silenced and isolated by the „political elites“ of the western powers themselves. This would have, by the way, prevented a comeback of any Great Recession, too. Today, its second and even much more destructive round represents a guaranteed option.                        

Half-a-century on, does communism have a future in the Czech Republic and beyond?

"Post-communism“ is a champion of all the political illusions, registered throughout the entire history of humankind. The list of problems, which capitalism proves an impotence to solve, has been quickly growing. We do move to an unprecedented civilization crossroads. Its key challenges have a viable, civilized and sustainable solution only beyond the horizon of the system „tunelling“ the labour of an evert bigger majority of a global community. This is the reason why the force, moving to a better future, is both slandered and intoxicated by concepts aiming at its disarmament and conversion into „useful idiots“. To withstand this pressure, and refresh our emancipation potential is a goal, deserving all the efforts and invention of anybody who is not ready to give up. We do face a hectical „race with time“ again. After the bitter lessons of the previous ones, it must not be left to characters, whose brains and ethics do not comply with the acute needs.