czechoslovakia ’68: the workers’ councils

by petr cerny

before the invasion the workers were suspicious of the imposed workers’ councils. after the invasion they became symbolic of the advances made. the question of the councils also became mixed up with the defence of the leadership and its policies. at the same time, some workers began to realise that the councils could be changed from what officialdom wanted them to be into something more approaching organs of workers’ power. at this time there were 46 councils functioning. another 140 were in their preparatory stages. however, all of this was unfortunately clouded by the question of defending the dubcek leadership.

the behaviour of this leadership beautifully illustrates the process of ‘minimum’ retreat. in his address to the national assembly on september 13, the premier of the republic, cernik, announced the reintroduction of censorship. this was coupled with the promise that ‘we shall maintain the economic reforms and will revise the structural and institutional organisation of the economy… we shall introduce, as an experiment, workers’ councils’.

by October 24 the government announced that it had decided not to implement its plan for ‘workers’ management’. on October 25, dubcek announced that the party would have to move faster towards ‘normalisation’, ‘in order to create the conditions for a further advance in the creative activity of our nation’!

both individually and collectively workers protested about this backdown on the part of the leadership. the metal workers pushed their demands furthest. they criticised the official model of workers’ councils, asking for a greater proportion of workers to be on them. acting spontaneously, workers continued to elect councils in defiance of the government. the plzen skoda factory and the slovnaft chemical factory in bratislava even managed to stage worker elections to the post of plant director. on january 9 and 10, 1969 plzen skoda hosted a statewide meeting of workers’ council delegates from some 200 different plants. the meeting elected a coordinating committee which eventually set up an association of workers’ councils.

this pressure from below was reflected in the resolutions passed at the 7th trade union congress on march 4, 1969, which supported the (already accomplished) formation of workers’ councils. at the same congress dubcek made an appeal for moderation by the trade unions. the russians were sufficiently alarmed by even this mild appearance of councilist practice to launch a verbal attack. on march 4 pravda contained an article by one sergei titarenko, attacking the concept of workers’ councils. he traced the idea of councils to ‘anti-communist propaganda from the imperialist camp’. he warned that ‘the demand to hand over enterprises entirely to ownership-and-management collectives is particularly dangerous.’ ‘anarcho-syndicalism is a step towards corporatism and fractionalism, towards degeneration and capitalism in socialist society’. further it ‘would undermine the authority of the communist parties’.

from april 1969 on the onslaught became more and more savage. the workers gradually became demoralised. the movement fragmented. the edifice of ‘consumer communism’ was being erected to increase the material well-being of the workers while destroying their political consciousness. the sustained pressure was in the end successful. on may 31, 1969, cernik could announce that the workers’ councils were essentially ‘an interference with the existing power structures in czechoslovakia. the formation of councils would therefore now stop.’ stop indeed it did, as husak pursued ‘normalisation’ with increasing vigour.

the workers’ movement went through several characteristic phases in the post-invasion struggles. first a burst of militancy and some apparent victories; then a long defensive battle to maintain some of the positions gained, finally splits, demoralisation and apathy. political concessions were withdrawn and replaced by economic concessions. this splitting, fragmentation and final defeat of the workers went hand in hand with the party’s success in eliminating autonomous political activity and enforcing a retreat into private life. two years of stimulating private consumption, eliminating communal solidarity and burning up the country’s foreign currency reserves to provide material incentives, eventually resulted in ‘normalisation.’ however, it speaks volumes for the ability of the working class that a mere 6 months of comparative freedom gave them the strength to resist these pressures for nearly two years.

this disruption of working class spirit was mediated by the reformist leadership. whenever the working class had the desire to act, they were implored not to by the very leadership they were seeking to defend. i am not saying that given the correct leadership things would have been different. the working class had the correct leadership: itself. defeat only came when it chose to listen to a self-appointed leadership outside of itself.

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