Nineteen sixty-eight was an eventful year. It seemed as though the whole world was in revolt. Hope seemed to be extinguished with the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. Demoralised, President Lyndon Johnson declared he would not stand again. The unwinnable war in Vietnam played a part in this.
Hope was also extinguished in Czechoslovakia, as remarked in TCW yesterday, after a brief reignition. The country was a communist dictatorship. The practical application of Marxism on a population involved travel restrictions, secret police, detention without trial, prison camps for dissidents, censorship, and a government that was impossible to remove at elections. The outcome was an absence of wealth, safety and freedom for the many, but not the few who made up the ‘nomenklatura’.
It was in this atmosphere of popular discontent that Alexander Dubček mounted a Politburo coup. His opponent tried to use the surprise appearance of Leonid Brezhnev at a meeting to head off the plotters, but Brezhnev backed off, not wanting to be associated with the losing side in Prague and thus himself losing credibility in Moscow and possibly being toppled just as he had toppled his own predecessor, Khrushchev. So Dubček won.
Dubček initiated a series of reforms and relaxations of the Communist Party’s iron grip on power. For example, it became permissible to criticise the government. The ‘Prague Spring’ flourished.
It all ended in tears. Brezhnev sent in the tanks. Dubček was toppled. The freedoms were reversed. People died. Communists the world over quit their party in disgust, just as they had during the Soviet invasion of Hungary, and in the 1930s when Stalin’s crimes against humanity were exposed. The old communists that remain are unflinchingly aware of communism’s evil history.
But how did the Prague Spring come about under Dubček? He was three years old when his Slovak parents moved to the USSR, returning when he was 17. But by 1968 it is clear, that, despite all the indoctrination, immersion and personal advancement inside the communist system, he no longer believed in communism. He had lost his faith, if he actually had it in the first place.
It was Bernard Levin who picked up on this paradox in an article for The Times in 1977, when he accurately predicted how the USSR would fall, not in fire, but with the consent of a leadership that no longer believed in communism:
‘And if you tell me that no such figures exist in the Soviet Union, even more completely unknown outside (or for that matter inside) than the Czech heroes were, I shall tell you in return that it simply cannot be so. The odds against such an extraordinary aberration of the human spirit are so preposterously high that the chances can be ignored with impunity. They are there, all right, at this very moment, obeying orders, doing their duty, taking the official line against dissidents, not only in public but in private. They do not conspire, they are not in touch with Western intelligence agencies, they commit no sabotage. They are in every respect model Soviet functionaries. Or rather, in every respect but one: they have admitted the truth about their country to themselves, and have vowed, also to themselves, to do something about it.
‘That is how it will be done. There will be no gunfire in the streets, no barricades, no general strikes, no hanging of oppressors from lamp-posts, no sacking and burning of government offices, no seizure of radio stations or mass defections among the military. But one day soon, some new faces will appear in the Politburo—I am sure they have already appeared in municipal and even regional administrative authorities—and gradually, very gradually, other, similarly new, faces will join them. Until one day they will look at each other and realise that there is no longer any need for concealment of the truth in their hearts. And the match will be lit.’
Levin predicted the rise of Gorbachev. While the last Soviet leader genuinely believed in communism, he did not believe in the implementation of it that he inherited. His reforms forced communism to sink or swim. It promptly sank. No one in 1980s Russia actually wanted communism.
Gorbachev was the first of the generation of leaders who were not on the power ladder when Stalin was in office. His generation was feared by the Brezhnevites, which was why when Brezhnev died of old age he was succeeded by other dying old men. They knew that handing over the red torch to younger communists would lead to it being extinguished.
It is this antipathy to communism by career communists that stands in sharp relief to the surge in support for disguised communism in the UK by people who have never directly or indirectly experienced it. But this surge is also built on British communists ignoring and obscuring inconvenient truths. Much of their evolved ideology is based on attacking, ignoring, denying, or distorting history, including a form of Holocaust denial. Their ideology falls on the fertile ground of a generation who have no direct experience of a world where the USSR existed. They believe that information technology holds the key to the application of communism, not realising that their ideological forebears said the same thing about mass industrialisation 80 years ago.
The Prague Spring and its suppression reminds us that communism is actually a secular religion. Idealistic twentysomethings on the Left should look at Dubček and examine their own faith. If men brought up in the midst of communism stop believing that communism works, what is there to believe?