January 1968 – fifty years on

by Miroslav Kusý

Prague spring

Prague Spring 1968. Image: John W. Schulze via Flickr

This article is the first in a special series connected with the Cambridge Central European Conference: Prague Spring and Its legacies on Saturday 28 April 2018.

Leafing through memories of 1968, what repeatedly comes to mind is January, or more correctly, ‘The January’ – a special notion marking an exceptional event in our history. This is how we saw it then, how we remembered it officially and in public even a year later, and for several years thereafter secretly and in samizdat. In the end, it fell into oblivion as if it were not worth remembering. And if it was remembered at all, it was only as a putsch in which the communists fought each other and the people were not involved.

I strongly believe that The January 1968 will remain a turning point in our history, not only our common Czechoslovak history but also, specifically, Slovak history. Petr Pithart wrote in this context that it was not just ‘the Prague Spring, but also the Bratislava Spring’ and this spring had a ‘Slovak beginning’. It was an open conflict between the Slovak portion of the Communist Party leadership led by Alexander Dubček and, at that time, the most influential man in the party and the state, Antonín Novotný. It represented the disparagement of specific Slovak interests by ‘Prague centralism’.

The conflict was seemingly instigated by the arrogant attitude of Novotný towards the Slovak representation at the festivities of Matica slovenská in August 1967. The solution to this problem, the defeat of Antonín Novotný and the election of Dubček as First Secretary of the party at the start of January 1968, initiated a revitalisation process in Czechoslovakia as a whole and an emancipatory process in Slovakia itself. So, ‘the Slovak question became the last fuse which, after exploding, opened a way to the “Prague Spring”’, wrote the Czech historian Jan Moravec (Československo, 1968).

Thus, this domestic conflict was from the beginning perceived as an expression of the social crisis caused by the longstanding oppression of democratic freedom, and human and national rights in the country. Citizens’ dissatisfaction with these conditions was already strong at the beginning of the revitalisation process in 1968 and was waiting for the first opportunity for mass dissemination. In this sense, Václav Havel rightfully acknowledged in his essay ‘The Power of the Powerless’ that ‘the attempt at a political reformation did not cause an awakening of the society, it was merely a result of it’.

The revitalisation indeed ‘started in the Communist Party … It must also be added, of course, that the process could have started nowhere else. For after twenty years the communists were the only ones able to conduct some sort of political activity’, to quote Ludvik Vaculík in his historic manifesto, ‘Two Thousand Words.

It is not important how the top management of the party, either on the progressive or conservative side, imagined, firstly, the solution to these intra-party problems, or secondly, the pacification of the social unrest. In both cases, this would have definitely been limited by Marxist teachings, which portray a state as the organised violence of the class currently in power, and by communist doctrine concerning the leading position of a political party. What is important is that the initiative of establishing the purpose and the goals of the revitalisation process was quickly taken by the radicalising masses, comprising communists and non-communists. They refused to keep on playing the role of tools in the hands of professional members of the Communist Party, their opinions and priorities were soon enough formulated by their own spokesmen. This crucial opinion-making role was taken on by groups of intellectuals, writers, university professors and students, who led a discussion throughout society on the current goals of the revitalisation process.

It was they who gave it a name that accurately expressed its essence. While western journalists referred to it poetically as the ‘Prague Spring’, communist leaders gave it the restrained title, ‘the revitalisation of the communist party’, to which they later added reluctantly ‘and society’. However, the mass spokespersons called for democratisation and, in the Slovak Republic, for the federalisation of society as well. If it needs to be a socialist society – as only people with great imagination were able to imagine affiliations of our society other than the socialist one – it should at least be ‘socialism with human face’, they added.

The democratisation of socialism, or democratic socialism, were in direct contrast to the socialism understood as a dictatorship; socialism with a human face referred to so-called bourgeois humanism, that is, to those human rights and freedoms that until then were considered by the communist ideologists to be a capitalistic defrauding of the working class.

This revitalisation process presented a radical demand by the Czechoslovak public, going beyond the renewal of the existing regime. Under pressure of this demand, the Communist Party introduced the Action Program.

The public was not satisfied with the promises of future reforms. The real success of their pressure for immediate democratisation steps was the halting of the activity of the Censorship Office in February 1968 and, thus, the reintroduction of full freedom of speech and the press in the country. Citizens were not inclined to passively wait for democratisation sent from above, and started to form various pressure groups. Those groups that already existed were emancipated from the communist setting and a whole range of new ones – civic as well as professional – were formed. Among many others were KAN (Klub angažovaných nestraníkov – the Club of Committed Non-Party Members) and K231 (the Association of Former Political Prisoners). The activated public re-discovered self-government as a key factor of an emerging civic society that strove for independence from the existing socialist state and sought to construct partnership relations with it.

The newly established Society for Human Rights (The Society) played an important role in the effort to restore and develop human and civic rights. It fought to recover respect for the law and the independence of constitutional and civil courts; to cancel the death penalty; and install a just election law. Further, it fought to improve public life by getting rid of those deforming it – those participating in political crimes and crimes against humanity. The Society tried to insert the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and both consecutive covenants on human rights into the Czechoslovak legal system. Thanks to the activities of The Society these, as well as other, human rights documents were published for the first time in our country.

Today, we know how this democratisation process in Czechoslovakia 50 years ago ended. It was restricted by the iron bars of the non-democratic, Stalinist and Breznevist socialist system. Even though democratisation in our country had started and looked promising, democratic socialism was not implemented. Despite that, today we can say that this democratisation process, taking place for eight months in 1968, played an immense self-awareness raising role in the history of the Czech and Slovak nations. We learned that possibilities arise from the activation of civic society. Through its successes, we found out that high-level politics can be effectively influenced from below, even in totalitarian circumstances.

Exactly these experiences were capitalised on in November 1989. Then, as well as 50 years ago, the time was right for tackling the chronic ‘normalisation’ crisis of an expiring socialistic society. Also, as before, the discontented civic society awaited its first opportunity. In the hope of success in 1989, I sent out a New Year’s greeting card to my friends with a big 68 on it and an instruction to turn it upside down – turning it into 89. I was right: the road from 1968 led directly to 1989.


Václav Havel embraces Alexander Dubček at a meeting in the Laterna Magika theatre in Prague, 24 November 1989, the night the whole leadership of the Czechoslovak Communist Party resigned. Image: Jaroslav Kučera via Wikimedia Commons


Watch our latest Cambridge Minute: 50 years from Prague Spring: Jana Howlett on what we must remember

About the author

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Miroslav Kusý is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Comenius University, Bratislava. In 1968, he was appointed Head of the Ideological Department of the Supreme Committee of the Communist Party in Slovakia and involved in the final stage of Prague Spring. He was expelled from the party and the university for the next 20 years, during which he was employed as a manual worker and detained on several occasions. After the revolution in 1989, he became a member of parliament, chief of Václav Havel’s Bratislava office and President of Comenius University.
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