Feedback on Czechoslovakia

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Dec 12 16:50:29 MST 2001


(Comrades should be aware that I don't just go gunning for big-time 
academics like Leo Panitch. I am what they call an equal-opportunity 
offender. Right now I am engaged in one of my periodic battles with 
the "state capitalists" over on the wild and woolly 
alt.politics.socialism.trotsky newsgroup. As virtually all usenet 
groups are unmoderated, they cannot give me the boot like Leo did. I 
just posted an article there on how Czechoslovakia became capitalist 
that prompted this *very* interesting private reply that I would like 
to share with you.)

Louis:

I lurk on APST and typically enjoy your posts. I thought I would 
email you about this one, as I have something of a personal interest 
in the subject at hand. So if you don't mind me indulging in some 
personal history...Edvard Benes was my grandmother's uncle, her 
father being Vojta Benes, his older brother. Benes was always 
something of a "family hero" (my middle name is Benes), and pictures 
of him decorated the house. Unfortunately, my grandmother died before 
I became "politically conscious", but I do recall her references to 
Edvard as "democratic socialist", and her allusions to what happened 
in 48. She once mentioned a book called "Benes' Democracy" 
(apparently in English), which I have been unable to find. Her father 
(Vojta) was farther to the right than Edvard, and when Edvard 
resigned and Jan Masaryk was killed (or suicide? What is the verdict 
from the left on this?) my grandmother lobbied the State Department 
to bring him and his wife here. He eventually joined them in Indiana, 
where he died in 1951. My great-uncle Vaclav came soon after, and was 
for years a professor at Indiana University in Bloomington. After 
1948 my family was rather anti-communist, though from what I have 
learned this probably had more to do with Christianity and opposition 
to "Great Russian Chauvinism" than specific opposition to Marxism. My 
grandparents remained lifelong Democrat Liberals, and my grandfather 
(who was the son of Czech immigrants) was apparently a "new deal" 
democrat with socialist leanings, and had been a CP fellow-traveler 
in Chicago in the 30s.

The family has a wealth of documents, letters, photographs, 
publications, etc. etc. from these periods, that I would love to get 
my hands on. Alas, it is all currently inaccesible to me.

I was in the Czech Republic in 1994, when Klaus and Havel were still 
riding high, as I recall. I was only 13, but I noticed the 
penetration of American companies, and several Czechs I met were 
lamenting the demise of the local ice cream stands at the hands of 
McDonalds. My family remaining there was mostly older, and 
pensioners, and things were obviously hard for them. Can you 
recommend any books or articles on this period (postwar 
Czechoslovakia)? In any case, thanks as always for the excellent 
posts, and for keeping the "State-Capitalism" advocates on the run.

Best regards, 

===

Here's the article that prompted this:

In understanding the transformation of Czechoslovakia into a workers 
state, it is necessary to start with Edvard Benes, the left social 
democrat who was ousted by the Communists in 1948. Benes can best be 
described as a "friend of the Soviet Union" who held Stalin in high 
regard.

In a 1943 visit to the USSR, Benes became convinced of Stalin's 
trustworthiness and found himself "amazed at the tremendous progress 
that he found and saw in it confirmation of his belief that the 
Soviet system, having successfully withstood the difficult test of a 
massive invasion, was now passing through a gradual transformation to 
a liberalized form of socialism." In a nutshell, Benes can be 
compared politically to fellow travelers of the USSR found in the USA 
during the New Deal. So if Chris Harman questions whether the 
Communists introduced anything fundamentally new after 1948, it is 
useful to understand that in a very real sense the Communists 
represented a more ruthless adoption of the social and economic 
program that Benes already was committed to, at least on a verbal 
level.

Although Benes was committed to socialism, he was repelled by the 
Stalinist model. It was the promise of the USSR, rather than its 
current reality that interested him. He viewed the Stalinists as 
allies in a project that he would have final control over. Stalin 
seemed agreeable to this, stating on July 8, 1941 that "The Soviet 
government will not intervene in the internal affairs of 
Czechoslovakia and that its internal regime and structure will be 
decided by the Czechoslovak people alone."

When a treaty to this effect was drafted by Benes and Stalin, the 
British imperialists grew alarmed and in an act that foreshadowed the 
cold war warned the Czechs were jeopardizing their friendship with 
London. Since Great Britain had lots of experience stabbing the 
Czechs in the back, Benes had every reason to worry. In retribution 
for the Chamberlain "peace in our time" betrayal, Benes planned to 
take it out on the hides of the Sudeten Germans, whose cause Hitler 
had demagogically championed. Benes told Stalin that he sought the 
removal of up to two million Germans from Czechoslovakia back to 
Germany after the defeat of Hitler.

Key to the analysis of Czechoslovakia's economic trajectory after 
1945 was Benes' commitment to integrating "the Czechoslovak 
production plan to the state plan of the USSR" according to a 
December 16, 1943 memo. These plans were hammered out in long 
sessions with top Czech Communist officials living in exile in the 
USSR, including Klement Gottwald, Rudolf Slansky, Jan Sverma and 
Vaclav Kopecky. Basically, they envisioned a bloc of social democrats 
and Communists to carry out the transformation of Czech society. In 
many respects, this was consistent with the demand for a workers 
government proposed by the Comintern in the early 1920s.

Tensions began to mount between Benes and Stalin over two issues. 
Stalin demanded that the province of Ruthenia be ceded to the USSR. 
Also, in the collapse of the quisling state body, the local "people's 
committees" that replaced them became dominated by Communists. This 
was natural since they received protection by the Red Army which was 
omnipresent. It was in fact just this kind of transformation begun in 
1944 that was the seed of the 1948 Communist seizure of power. It was 
a process that Edward Taborsky described in the following terms:

"By seizing control of the people's committees, the communists gained 
tremendous political leverage. In the absence of an effective central 
government during the initial months of the liberation, the 
communist-controlled people's committees emerged as incontestable 
masters in their respective areas
"

While this does not satisfy the Cliffite criterion of "smashing the 
state", it certainly will do for those of us with a dialectical bent. 
It might lack the popular democracy of the Paris Commune, but it 
certainly does address the question of who rules. If the hostility of 
Czech Communists to private property was not matched by a commitment 
to democracy, Marxists should back them on the former while pressing 
for the latter. In any case, to assume that they were embarking on 
the building of capitalism in Czechoslovakia because they bullied 
political opponents would be stupidity of the highest order. One 
thing has nothing to do with the other.

Eventually Benes and the Stalinists had a falling out. The straw that 
broke the camel's back was the liquidation of the Slovak social 
democratic party into the CP. Benes felt that the branch he was 
sitting on was being sawed off from beneath him. Although Benes 
resented the CP and Moscow, he knew that he couldn't rule without 
their support. In a bid to maintain a partnership by mollifying them, 
he formed a cabinet that included leading CP'ers. Thus, the national 
government would be consonant with the "people's committees" at the 
grass roots level. The foundation stones for a Czech workers state 
were being laid. The CP'ers landed key government posts that could 
furnish the armed might to defend the new arrangement. Among them was 
the assignment of General Ludvik Svoboda, a CP fellow traveler, to 
Minister of Defense. The presence of the Red Army throughout 
Czechoslovakia provided the muscle to make these posts possible. Of 
course, since the Cliffites regard the Red Army of 1945 to be a 
capitalist institution, much of this is moot. For those of us living 
on the planet Earth, another set of political assumptions prevail. 

After Benes became disillusioned with the Stalinists, he reoriented 
to the imperialists. When he heard on April 17, 1945 that Patton had 
crossed over from Bavaria into Czechoslovakia, he responded "Thank 
God, Thank God." To prevent the Communists from challenging his rule, 
Benes tried to whittle away at their social base by moving to the 
left, particularly on economic questions. Although he was 
ideologically committed to a socialist Czechoslovakia, there is 
little doubt that the need to outflank the CP was a primary factor in 
nationalizing industry. In a message sent to social democrats in the 
Czech underground, Benes spelled out his thinking: "The aim of this 
program is to prevent any attempt to force a unilateral internal 
revolution and civil war upon our people when the very existence of 
the state and the nation will be at danger
"

While signing a decree to nationalize land and factories, Benes also 
sought to placate the west as a buttress against Soviet power. He 
didn't understand that a rising anticommunist mood in Washington 
would effectively preclude this. Benes was perceived as being too 
friendly to the USSR and too radical. Hence the decision by Secretary 
of State James Byrnes to annul a $50 million credit to Czechoslovakia 
in 1945. Even after a poor harvest in 1947, the US Embassy in Prague 
maintained a policy of "no food and no loans" to Czechoslovakia. In 
essence, the country would either have to align itself with the 
United States or the Soviet Union. The Cliffite analysis fails to 
recognize the stark class choices put before the Czech people in 
1945. For them it all blends together in a seamless "capitalist" 
tapestry. With this kind of analysis, the Cold War makes no sense.

The cause of the 1948 overthrow of the Benes regime was the 
determination of the noncommunist parties to stop the CP from 
consolidating its power over the police. Surely this conflict has 
something to do with the subject matter of "State and Revolution" 
since it goes to the heart of "bodies of armed men". For those of a 
metaphysical disposition, it is immaterial as might be expected. To 
back up the appointment of Communists to the police department, the 
party called strikes, held mass rallies and demonstrations, and 
organized "action committees" in all the major government agencies. 
Since the CP's social base was in the industrial working class, one 
might logically assume that this had the character of a class 
struggle. Unless one has on ideological blinders.

Finally, Benes yielded to Communist demands and the country became 
part of the Soviet bloc. For the duration of Stalinist rule, there 
were many social gains despite the lack of democracy. Now that the 
country has been restored to capitalist property relations, some 
people are prospering and others are suffering. Undoubtedly none of 
this matters to those who subscribe to the "state capitalism" 
metaphysic, but for the rest of us these are serious life-and-death 
questions. We advocate a return to the social and economic 
foundations of post-1948 Czechoslovakia but with full workers 
democracy. But to not comprehend the radical changes that took place 
in the 1945 to 1948 period is to not recognize reality. 


-- 
Louis Proyect, lnp3 at panix.com on 12/12/2001

Marxism list: http://www.marxmail.org



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