Prague Spring

(1968)
   Attempts in communist Czechoslovakia to implement liberal reforms and bring about Czech leader Alexander Dubcek’s vision of “socialism with a human face” were brought to an abrupt halt by the invasion of Soviet troops. The popular movement for reform was a reaction to economic and political disharmony throughout Czechoslovakia. Economic performance had been in decline throughout the decade, and this led many to believe that decentralization and increased free market involvement were necessary. Though this desire was acknowledged in the introduction of the “New Economic System” in 1967, for economic reformers such as Ota Sik the changes simply did not go far enough. Sik and his fellow agitators for economic change duly elected to join forces with the creative intelligentsia to call for political alteration. Together with schisms inside the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, campaigning by this group and other discontented factions led to the replacement of Antonin Novotny as party first secretary with the reformist Alexander Dubcek in January 1968. In April Dubcek set about putting into service his “Action Program” to decentralize planning and management, and bring about competition using a market mechanism. The program was a giant nod to Sik’s new economic model and set Czechoslovakia on the road to reform of economy and polity alike. Before perestroika these proposals were the most far-reaching and significant communist party-led blueprints aimed at bringing about a pluralist, democratic socialism anywhere in the Eastern Bloc.
   What Dubcek termed “socialism with a human face” began to emerge, with human rights now assured, the introduction of an independent judiciary heralded, public participation in politics encouraged and the system increasingly democratized. The Czech system was undergoing a complete makeover, with enormous public support for the democratic reconstruction of the federal Czechoslovakian state. In June Ludvik Vaculik’s Manifesto of 2000 Words embodied the spirit of the newly liberalized Prague, inspiring vast scholarly and creative outpourings and guaranteeing support for the government’s reforms among the intelligentsia. Public debate blossomed as the Czech people embraced new levels of freedom of opinion and speech, and the communist party itself became a forum for discussions between hard-liners and reformers. The creation of a westernized civil society appeared imminent.
   However, though reforms were enacted speedily, Dubcek still faced the opposition of conservative elements within the party attempting to bring a halt to reforms and a return to Soviet-style communism. In addition to resistance from inside, Dubcek’s reforms attracted the angry attention of Moscow, and the Czech leader faced repeated calls from Leonid Brezhnev to halt a slide toward democracy that threatened the existence of the “socialist camp” in Eastern and Central Europe. In August the Soviet Union finally lost patience with Czechoslovakia and instructed Warsaw Pact troops to invade. The forces brutally repressed the liberalized Czech people, and the Soviet occupation began.
   In April 1969 Dubcek was replaced as party leader by Gustav Husák, and with him went all the reformist gains of the Prague Spring. Husák’s “normalization” policy saw half a million Czechs flee abroad, brought about two decades of corruption, and extinguished any hope of party-led reform in the country. The region had lost its best chance yet for reform. The deepest irony for those who had campaigned so vehemently for change in 1968 came when Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev announced a policy of perestroika that contained many of the reforms they had initiated as part of the Prague Spring prior to the Red Army’s invasion. By the time the Czechoslovakian regime finally collapsed in 1989, such was the extent of disgruntlement with the communist system that the ethos of the Prague Spring was largely eschewed by a public deeply skeptical toward the idea of reformist Marxism.

Historical dictionary of Marxism. . 2014.

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