NEXT May Prague will celebrate the twentieth anniversary of its “liberation” by the Red Army. There will be parades and the usual ringing speeches on Wenceslas Square; and the local papers, led by Rudé Právo (Red Justice), will be full of glib talk about Czechoslovakia’s victorious entry into what is euphemistically termed “the advanced stage of socialism.” But none of the tub-thumping can conceal the fact that Czechoslovakia is in the throes of a profound ideological crisis and that seventeen years of Communist rule have brought serious economic difficulties.
The crisis which Czechoslovakia is now going through is part of the general crisis which is currently shaking the entire Soviet bloc. The crisis has been long coming, largely owing to the obstinate rearguard action fought by the Stalinists who control the local Party apparatus. Their leader is Czechoslovakia’s President and Party boss, Antonín Novotný, who has held his position as chief of state since 1957 —longer than either of his two predecessors (Klement Gottwald, 1949— 1953; Antonín Zápotocky, 1953—1957).
Unlike Zápotocky, a former union worker who could talk to workers in their own language and instill an occasional spark of enthusiasm into an apathetic party, Novotný is as dull and colorless as the regime he heads. Not until he disappears from the scene will it be possible to say that Czechoslovakia has been completely destabilized. As it is, the destalinization process has tended to move at a snail’s pace.
It was not until December of 1962 that the Czechoslovak Communist Party actually got around to deciding that the Stalinist purge trials of the early fifties needed to be reviewed, and not until eight months after that, in August, 1963, were some eighty survivors of this judicial farce officially absolved.
News of the projected rehabilitation unleashed a wave of critical rebelliousness which the regime has found difficult to curb. Young intellectuals broke into print with a new outspokenness in two Prague literary journals, the weekly Literární Noviny (Literary News) and the monthly Plamen (Flame), and in the Bratislava weekly, Kultúrny Zivot (Cultural Life). One of the editors of this publication, the poet Ladislav Novomeský, had been a victim of the purge unleashed in 1949 against the then Minister of the Interior, Rudolf Slánský; Novomeský’s crime was not that he was a Jew, which he is not, but a “Slovak bourgeois nationalist,” a trumped-up charge designed to damn all the local opposition.
The Slovak minority
The four million Slovaks inhabiting the eastern part of the country form a minority vis-à-vis the ten million Czechs inhabiting the western and central regions of Bohemia and Moravia. They speak a slightly different language, have different traditions linking them more closely to Hungary than to Austria, and they are far more staunchly Catholic than the Czechs. These differences were respected under the First Republic, which the elder Jan Masaryk set up in 1918, and Slovakia was allowed to have its own provincial parliament in Bratislava. This parliament still exists under the name Slovak National Council; it has ninety members, compared with the three hundred members of the National Assembly in Prague. Today both are rubber-stamp organizations, in which set speeches are delivered for the sole purpose of endorsing pre-established programs.
Bohemia and Moravia were formally incorporated into Hitler’s Reich as a “protectorate,” while Slovakia was cut adrift as a nominal “republic” presided over by a Catholic Monsignor. For several years the clandestine Communist movement in Slovakia functioned quite independently of the Communist underground in the “protectorate,” and even after the rift was patched up in 1945, the centrifugal tendencies of the Slovaks continued to clash with the wishes of the centralists, who wanted all power concentrated in Prague.
The clash came to a head in 1949 and 1950 when Vlado CLementis, who had succeeded Jan Masaryk as Foreign Minister, was arrested, tried, and executed as a “Slovak bourgeois nationalist” at the instigation of the chief centralist, Viliam Široký, who, after stepping into Clementis’ shoes at the Foreign Ministry, went on to become Prime Minister.
Once it was clear that “Slovak bourgeois nationalism” was no longer a crime against the state but simply a traumatic hangover from the nightmarish excesses of Stalinism, all the pent-up resentments and discontents of the Slovaks came boiling to the surface.
In April, 1963, to appease the Slovaks, a rabid centralist, Karol Bacílek, was removed from his post as First Secretary of the Slovak Communist Party. The Slovaks still refused to be appeased, and in May the normally subservient Bratislava daily, Pravda (Truth), published a bold attack on Prime Minister Viliam Široký by the Slovak poet Mieroslav Hysko.
The attack created a minor uproar, but though Novotný himself intervened, reprimanding Hysko for washing the Party’s dirty linen in public, he was later forced to make further concessions to the embattled Slovaks. The following September two of the chief centralists — Prime Minister Viliam Široký and Finance Minister Julius Duris-were ousted from their posts by a decision of the Party’s ninety-six-man Central Committee. Široký’s successor, Josef Lenart, though a Party worker with Moscow training, is a Slovak who has a certain popularity among his own countrymen.
Cracking the whip
Even this, however, failed to stem the critical ferment, and last December the Central Committee was obliged to convene a two-day ideological conference intended to bring erring editors and writers back into line. The main speaker at this meeting was Vladimír Koucký, recently named head of a new ideological commission and now generally regarded as the number three man in the Party. He bluntly informed the assembled Party members that economic coexistence with the West could not possibly be construed to mean ideological coexistence (for example, a free interchange and comparison of ideas), and that in a new socialist society continually threatened by bourgeois counterrevolutionaries and capitalist conspirators the Party would have to exercise greater vigilance than ever over press, radio, and television. For all its apparent toughness, Koucký’s speech eloquently reflected the regime’s deep-seated embarrassment. Officially, at any rate, the Stalinist “cult of personality” —the Communist euphemism for rule by terror — is dead and buried; in practice, editors and writers can only be cowed into meek subservience by the old whip-cracking methods.
In Czechoslovakia the skirmishing between “liberals” and “Stalinists” has continued indecisively up to the present. Last summer the heads of the Czech and Slovak writers’ unions were shuffled, as were the editors in chief of Literární Noviny and Kultúrny “ivot. Just who came out on top was anything but clear; but to remind everyone of who ultimately wields the whip, the regime issued a oneyear jail sentence to a young writer who had been expressing his convictions a little too forcefully.
This ideological crisis coincided most embarrassingly with an even graver crisis in the field of economics. Prior to the war the Czechs enjoyed a living standard which compared favorably with that of the Austrians and the Germans. They were the most industrialized people in Eastern Europe, and the huge Škoda works in Pilsen formed one of the largest industrial complexes between the Ruhr and the Donets Basin. The country’s economy was essentially geared to the production of consumer goods. Under the Hapsburgs, Czechoslovakia supplied an empire of more than fifty million consumers with practically all of their porcelain, 90 percent of their glassware, 80 percent of their leather goods, 75 percent of their chemicals, cotton goods, and woolens, and about 60 percent of their metals.
The erection of tariff barriers hit the Czech consumer goods industry hard in the interwar years, but it was not until 1947, when Stalin personally intervened to keep President Eduard Beneš from signing up tor Marshall Plan aid, that the traditional trade links with Austria and Germany and other Western countries began to disintegrate. The expulsion of some three million Sudeten Germans, including a fair number of highly skilled artisans, brought on a decline in both the quantity and quality output of glass, porcelain, and ceramics.
To make matters worse, the Czech economy, in keeping with the Soviet emphasis on building up heavy industry, was geared to the production of machine tools and engineering equipment. Light industry was deliberately starved of investment funds, with the result that today, just when it must face the challenge of an ever more dynamic European Common Market, Czech equipment is hopelessly antiquated and run down, and production costs are exorbitantly high. The export of consumer goods, which had amounted to more than a third of all Czech exports in 1937, was down to 12 percent by 1953. Despite subsequent efforts to export at almost any price, the percentage since then has never gone above 20 percent.
This unfavorable situation was aggravated by the simultaneous decline in agricultural output. The Party’s insistence on collectivization — 90 percent of Czech agriculture is now collectivized-resulted in a mass exodus of rural workers, particularly among the young, attracted by the less onerous eight-hour schedule of factory work in the cities. Czechoslovakia’s farming population, which numbered 3.3 million before the war, has sunk to 1.3 million today, and the average age of farmers is now up to fifty years. Close to one half of this population, furthermore, are women. To get the harvest in at all, the regime now regularly has to rely on specially recruited “summer brigades,” made up of young people persuaded to “volunteer” for a twoor three-month stint in the country.
According to the third Five-Year Plan, which was announced in January, 1961, only to be scrapped a year and a half later, agricultural output was to have risen by an average of 4.4 percent a year. Instead it rose by only 2 percent in 1960, failed to show any increase at all in 1961, and fell by 6 percent in 1962. Present agricultural production is roughly the same as it was in 1936. In the autumn of 1962 food shortages began to appear, and the regime was forced to introduce meatless Thursdays. Only Grade A hotels serve meat on Thursdays, to conceal the gravity of the food crisis from foreign tourists.
Probably few foreign visitors realize that half the rolls in Czechoslovakia are baked from Russian grain, and this at a time when the country’s export capacities are already strained to the limit. Here again the Czechs, by their lopsided concentration on heavy industry, get the short end of the stick, simply because the terms of trade are against them. Half of Czech steel production, for example, is dependent on imports of Russian iron ore, greatly reducing the foreign-exchange value of the finished products manufactured from it. The great advantage offered by Czechoslovakia’s traditional consumer goods industries was that with the single exception of textiles, they could be manufactured from domestic raw materials.
The need to export heavy equipment has been carried to such lengths that for years Czechoslovakia’s entire annual output of diesel locomotives has been absorbed by the Soviet Union at a time when the Czech railroads are on the verge of collapse from the extended use of antiquated equipment.
To meet the crisis developing from this convergence of separate bottlenecks, the Party’s orthodox economists resorted to a series of ineffective gimmicks. Imports of badly needed raw materials were curbed in order to save foreign exchange; it was simultaneously hoped that by some miracle of paper planning, a substantial theoretical increase in “labor productivity” would result in an overall increase in output. The results quickly belied these assumptions. By the end of 1962 about one fourth of the capacity of the machine-building industry was unutilized for lack of raw materials. Labor productivity, instead of bounding forward at the rate of 7 percent per annum as projected in the third Five-Year Plan, actually fell by 1.5 percent in the first nine months of 1963. Gross national output for that year was actually lower than in 1962.
The entire mythology surrounding state planning was subjected to a devastating critique in February of last year by a young Leningradtrained economist named Radoslav Selucký, who, in denouncing the “cult of the plan,” advocated greater flexibility and personal initiative. Though he immediately came under fierce attack from President Novotný himself, among others, Selucký received strong support from other Czech economists.
At a meeting of economists held in Prague last November it was generally agreed that if economic problems could be freely and openly debated in an atmosphere of unfettered criticism, not one of the traditional laws of socialist political economy would survive. There was also consensus in holding that the law of supply and demand should govern not just the sector of consumer goods, but the entire economy, a conclusion which was tantamount to abandoning Marxist-Leninist economic “science.”
The regime’s response to this dual crisis has been both fumbling and equivocal. It continues to denounce revisionism —that is to say, the slightly more empirical approach to economics adopted by the Yugoslavs and the Poles — and to uphold Leninist steadfastness at a time when events have reduced these shopworn formulas to a hollow incantation. The economic setbacks in one Iron Curtain country after the other, contrasted with the successes of the European Common Market, which orthodox Marxist economists have vainly been trying to bury for years, have shown the entire structure of Soviet economics to be a mass of superstition.
With shortsighted extravagance Czechoslovakia has doled out more than $330 million in credit aid to foreign lands, particularly to Cuba and other Latin-American countries, from which it can expect no immediate returns. Conversely, the regime’s meek insistence on echoing the Russian line on China has resulted in an almost total cessation of trade with Red China, which prior to 1961 absorbed almost 6 percent of Czech exports.
In the short space of three years a normally favorable trade balance of some $60 million a year with the West has been turned into an annual deficit of over $20 million. For trade purposes the Czech crown, still officially listed at 7 to the dollar, has had to be pegged at 35 to the dollar. Increasingly hard put to compete in the international market with the more dynamic and efficient enterprises of the West, Czechoslovakia has had to fall back on one of its last remaining assets — its wooded landscape and Bohemian castles, the Tatra Mountains of Slovakia, and the baroque beauties of Bratislava and Prague.
Tourists: a mixed blessing
But foreign tourists, vital as they may be economically, are inevitably a mixed blessing to an authoritarian state which has for years kept its own subjects on a tight rein. The hundreds of Volkswagens, Mercedes Benzes, and Opels which now pour into Prague and Bratislava from Austria and West Germany every weekend are a painful reminder to the Czechs of how poor they have been forced to remain, with an annual car production of a mere sixty thousand cars, most of which are earmarked for export. No Czech, no matter how fanatic a Communist he may be, can derive much satisfaction from the realization that in his own highly industrialized country there is still only one car for every fifty inhabitants, compared with one for every eight in Germany, one for every six in France, and one for every three in the United States.
The influx of foreigners has, furthermore, aroused a corresponding appetite in the Czechs to travel abroad. Only a tiny handful have so far been allowed to leave the country even for brief visits to the West, and there seems no likelihood that this restriction wall soon be lifted.
The importation of all forms of foreign literature continues to be severely censured, and only Communist newspapers are obtainable at the kiosks, though limited supplies of non-Communist newspapers from Austria, Germany, Italy, France, Britain, and the United States are now being offered to tourists at some of the leading hotels. Broadcasts from Radio Free Europe in Munich are regularly jammed (whereas they now go through freely to Poland and Romania), but there is no way of keeping out a basic flow of free news, which seeps in by way of Vienna, Cologne, and the BBC in London.
Oriented toward the West
Culturally, Czechoslovakia is now oriented completely toward the West, and the authorities seem powerless to stop this. Russian plays have virtually disappeared from Prague’s twenty-five theaters, whereas Western plays and films are mobbed. Plays by Bertolt Brecht have had to give way to operettas. Books by Western authors, when they appear in translation, often sell out in twenty-four hours. The ban on jazz, officially in force half a dozen years ago, is now completely forgotten. The Twist and the Madison have become the rage for young people, who more often than not have only a hazy idea how they should be danced. There are at least forty Big Beat clubs in Prague which offer the restless young people of the capital a way of letting off steam and a momentary illusion of emancipation.
Enthusiasm for things American — everything from blue jeans to beatnik poetry-is astounding. When an American ice skater appears before a crowded grandstand, there is practically no applause for anyone else. When President Kennedy died last November, more than ten thousand young Czechs tramped up the hillside of the Malá Strana, the old baroque quarter of Prague where the American Embassy is located, to sign their names in the registry. No one asked them to do so; they did it spontaneously. It was, indeed, the only thing remotely resembling a genuine plebiscite that the country has seen in the last dozen years.