HOW SIGNIFICANT WAS ALEXANDER DUBCEK IN THE DEVELOPMENT OF REFORMIST COMMUNISM?
THE UNIVERSITY OF HULL
DEPARTMENT OF POLITICS
The Politics of Eastern Europe
HOW SIGNIFICANT WAS ALEXANDER DUBCEK
IN THE DEVELOPMENT OF REFORMIST COMMUNISM?
March 17, 1995
The aim of this essay is to answer the question: “How significant was
Alexander Dubcek in the development of reformist communism?” This question
raises the other questions. Was Dubcek the inspirer of all the reforms
which took place in Czechoslovakia in 1967-1969? How much did he himself
influence all the reformist processes? How much he had achieved in
implementing his ideas?
Dubcek became famous only in 1967. Before that he was almost unknown
in the international politics. He was known only in the Czechoslovak
Communist Party (CPCS), where he had almost no influence on the major
decisions (until 1967, of course). His promotion after the returning from
the Moscow where he was studying for three years in the advanced Party
school attached to the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the
Soviet Union (CPSU), was quite rapid. In 1960 he was elected to the
Secretariat of the CPCS; in 1962 to the Presidium of the CPCS; in 1963 he
became the First Secretary of the Slovak Communist Party; finally, on
January 5, 1968 he replaced Antonin Novotny as the First Secretary of the
CPCS. He was the youngest leader of ruling Communist Party (after Fidel
Castro), and the first Slovak in such a high position. Though he stayed in
this post relatively short - until April 17, 1969, when he was replaced by
Gustav Husak, his name became known world-wide.
Why did the reforms begin?
The Czechoslovak crisis deepened in 1967, and showed itself in four
2. The economy;
3. The legal system;
4. Party and ideology.
Since the 1962 the Czechoslovak economy suddenly began to show signs
of a critical decline. That happened inevitably, because in the Stalin
years the expansion of heavy industry was pushed at the expense of
development of all other productive sectors of the economy. The result of
this was growing inefficiency of production, failure to modernise
production technology, a decline in the quality of exports, a loss of
markets, and a drop in the effectiveness of foreign trade. In August
1962 the Third-Five-Year Plan had to be abandoned before completion. In
this situation the Slovaks began to act. Many of them realised that
specific Slovak interests might best be served by destalinization and even
liberalisation. The problem also was the rehabilitation of the victims
of the purge trials of 1949-1954. Novotny himself and other leading members
of his regime had personally participated in the preparation and conduct of
the purge trials. So, the rehabilitation was perceived as the direct threat
to the security and the survival of the regime. All these factors only
decreased the level of CPCS’s legitimacy.
The Development of Reforms.
The startpoint of the reforms was the session of the Central
Committee of the CPCS on October 30-31, 1967. Dubcek raised an objection
against Novotny and produced statistics suggesting that Slovakia was being
continuously cheated in economic matters. This speech inspired
discussion what was the unprecedented thing in the Central Committee.
The next session of the Central Committee started on December 19.
Josef Smrkovsky proposed the separation of the posts of President and First
Secretary: “It is unsatisfactory that an excessive number of duties should
be piled upon one pair of shoulders.”
In both sessions the three issues were at stake. First, the
implementation of the economic reforms, secondly, freedom of expression
and, finally, effective autonomy for Slovakia.
Finally, at the Central Committee Plenum on January 5, 1968, Novotny
was replaced at the post of the First Secretary by Dubcek. Also four new
Presidium members were elected to strengthen Dubcek’s position - J.Spacek,
J.Boruvka, E.Rigo, and J.Piller.
So, the Prague Spring started at the top levels of the CPCS. But
soon, as we would see, the Party will loose its ability to control the
developments. At the same time, the hot political debate started in the
press, on radio and television. The main issues were the Communist Party,
democracy, the autonomy of Slovakia, the collapsing economy, and the
problem of justice and legality. On February 14, the first public
political discussion took place in Prague.
The next changes in the leadership were Novotny’s resignation from
the Presidency on March 22 and General Ludvik Svoboda’s election on this
post on March 30, Oldrich Ciernik’s appointment on the post of Prime
Minister and the formation of the new cabinet on April 8, the election of
the new Presidium of the CPCS, and the election of Josef Smrkovsky on the
post of the Chairman of the National Assembly.
On April 9, the CPCS announced its ‘Action Programme’, officially
known as ‘Czechoslovakia’s Road to Socialism’, as a basis for reforming
communism in the country. In this document the CPCS promised: (1) new
guarantees of freedom of speech, press, assembly and religious observance;
(2) electoral laws to provide a broader choice of candidates, greater
freedom for the four non-communist parties within the National Front; (3)
upgrading of the parliament and the government with regard to the power of
the CPCS apparatus; (4) broad economic reforms to give enterprises greater
independence, to achieve a convertible currency, to revive a limited amount
of private enterprise and to increase trade with Western countries; (5) an
independent judiciary; (6) federal status for Slovakia on an independent
basis and a new constitution to be drafted by the end of 1969. The
Central Committee also pledged a “full and just rehabilitation of all
persons” who had been unjustly persecuted during 1949 -1954.
But this programme promised less than the people actually wanted. The
‘Action Programme’ remained outside the mainstream of the powerful social
process which had been set in motion in January. The people expected
more reforms, more freedom. But Dubcek and other reformats tried to be more
moderate, to find the way for the gradual reforms. The Presidium of the
CPCS prohibited the renovation of the Social Democratic Party and the
Ministry of Interior announced that the formation of political parties
would be considered illegal. But at the same time this Ministry sanctioned
the activity of the Club of Engaged Non-Party Members (KAN), and recognised
the legal statute of another big club - K-231.
Gradually the reformats found themselves in the position which will
become vital for them all. They found themselves between two different
forces. One force was the majority of the Czech and the Slovak nations who
wanted more radical changes. The other force was represented by the
Stalinists, by Moscow, and by the leadership of the other countries of the
Warsaw Treaty Organisation (WTO).
One of the major reforms was the law of June 26, which abolished
prepublication censorship. On the next day the famous manifesto, entitled
‘2,000 Words to Workers, Farmers, Scientists, Artists and Everyone’
appeared in Literarni listy. The manifesto gave assurances of complete
support of Dubcek’s regime, “if necessary, even with arms.”
The leaders of the SU, Poland, Bulgaria, Hungary, and East Germany
viewed the reforms taking place in Czechoslovakia as the threat for all the
Communist Bloc. The first clearly expressed concern was so-called Warsaw
Letter. It was sent on July 15, 1968, and addressed to the Central
Committee of the CPCS. It proved the clear evidence of the WTO leaders’
lack of confidence in the leadership of the CPCS, and contained critical
references to Czechoslovakia’s foreign policy.There was expressed
warning that the Czechoslovak reform policy was ‘completely
unacceptable’.The Presidium of the CPCS Central Committee on July 18
rejected as unfounded the accusations made in the Warsaw Letter and
affirmed that the country’s new policies were aimed at strengthening
The clear signs of crisis in relations between Prague and Moscow
appeared. On July 19 Moscow issued a summons to the CPCS Presidium,
demanding that it meet July 22 or 23 with the Soviet Politburo in Moscow,
Kiev or Lvov to discuss internal Czechoslovak developments. 9 full members
of the CPSU Politburo and the entire CPCS Presidium met on July 29 in the
Slovak village Cierna-nad-Tisou. Dubcek and the other reformats regarded
the outcome of the Cierna talks as a ‘Czechoslovak victory’. It had brought
the annulment of the Warsaw Letter; the departure of Soviet troops was
guaranteed, and the country’s sovereignty had been defended.
The fact that the agreement was regarded as the ‘victory’ shows that
Dubcek and the other reformers were really driven by naïveté and idealism
and hoped that they could create the socialism with the ‘human face’
without the interference from the Moscow side. They really underestimated
their own significance to the Soviets. Moscow regarded the reformats
developments in the Czechoslovakia as the real threat for the future of the
all Communist Bloc. A common view that the danger of a Czechoslovak
desertion from the socialist camp and a revision of foreign policy by the
Dubcek leadership hastened the Soviet decision to occupy the country
On August 16 the CPSU Politburo stated that “the CPCS was loosing its
leading role in the country.” This showed that the Soviet’s patience
reached the end.
“When Moscow’s nerve breaks, Soviet tanks usually start rolling.”
Armed forces of the SU, East Germany, Poland, Hungary, and Bulgaria invaded
Czechoslovakia in a swift military action during the night of August 20-21.
Dubcek and other Czech and Slovak leaders were arrested in the name of the
“revolutionary government of the workers and peasants.” The main force
of the initial invading units consisted of an estimated 200,000 troops. The
number of invaders continued to increase during the following week and
ultimately reached an estimated 650,000.Most of the members of the CPCS
Presidium were shocked by the invasion. This proves again that they did not
understand how serious the situation was before the invasion. From the
Moscow’s point of view the invasion was inevitable, because the further
development of the socialism with the ‘human face’ would lead only to
deeper escalation of tensions between the Czechoslovakia and the other WTO
countries, and probably, to an escape of the country from the Communist
But the reformats did not give up. On August 21, the CPCS Central
Committee declared the statement that the invasion was taking place
“without the knowledge” of the Czechoslovak leaders, and that they regarded
this act “as contrary not only to the fundamental principles of relations
between Socialist states but also as contrary to the principles of
international law.”Although there was no organised resistance to the
overwhelming occupation forces, Czechoslovak citizens, spearheaded by
students, resorted to a wide variety of means to hamper the invaders, and
several general strikes took place.
On August 23, President Svoboda flew to Moscow. His journey
represented an effort to find a way out of a situation: he was, in effect,
trying to help the Soviets find a solution for the Czechoslovak crisis
based on mutual political compromise.On August 26 the Moscow agreement
was concluded. The major outcomes were: (1) Dubcek was to carry on as the
First Secretary; (2) the invasion forces were to be gradually withdrawn;
(3) censorship was to be reintroduced; (4) the CPCS was to strengthen its
leading position in the state.One may assume that certain personnel
changes were also assumed in Moscow, since resignations followed in due
course. These changes included the removal of Dr. Kriegel from the CPCS
Presidium and the chairmanship of the National Front; of Ota Sik as Deputy
Premier; Josef Pavel as Minister of Interior; Jiri Hajek as Foreign
Minister; Zdenek Heizar as Director of Czechoslovak Radio; Jiri Pelikan as
Director of Czehoslovak Television.
The invasion led to the formulation of so-called Brezhnev Doctrine,
first formulated in a Pravda commentary on September 26, which amounts to
denying in principle the sovereignty of any “socialist” country accessible
to the SU. It asserts the region-wide right to intervention.
For both rulers and ruled, the invasion of Czechoslovakia proved once
again that the Soviets would use force to prevent developments they defined
as contrary to their vital interests. The line they drew in 1968 to define
their vital interests was the Leninist hegemony of the local Communist
But the Soviets did not achieved what they wanted at once. What
happened was that the invasion failed to achieve its primary purpose, which
clearly was to produce a counterregime a la Kadar.
The Situation After the Invasion.
The Dubcek leadership made great efforts after the invasion to
satisfy the Soviets while trying not to compromise itself in the eyes of
Probably the major reform after the invasion was the creation of the
Slovak Socialist Republic. On October 28, the National Assembly approved a
constitutional bill transforming the hitherto unitary state into a
federation of two national republics. On January 1, 1969, the Slovak
Socialist Republic came into being.
Another crisis emerged in January 1969. On January 7, the new
measures were taken designed to keep the press and the other media more
strictly under control. In some cases, pre-publication censorship was
The event which finally decided the fate of Dubcek is known as the
‘ice-hockey game affair.’ On March 28, the Czechoslovak ice-hockey team won
over the SU team in World Ice Hockey Championship Competition. The same
evening anti-Soviet demonstrations occurred throughout Czechoslovakia.
Aeroflot office was destroyed in Prague. On April 11 Gustav Husak declared
that it was ‘high time’ to take radical steps to introduce order.
Finally, on April 17 at the plenary session of the Central Committee
Dubcek was replaced by Gustav Husak (before that - the First Secretary of
the Slovak Communist Party).
At the same session the CPCS Presidium with its twenty-one members
and the Executive Committee with its eight members were replaced by an
eleven members Presidium of which Dubcek (but no longer Smrkovsky) was
still member. A few days later he was ‘elected’ Chairman of the Federal
Assembly with Smrkovsky as his deputy.
On January 28, 1970, the Central Committee plenum ‘accepted the
resignation’ of Dubcek from the Central Committee. And finally, on June 25,
1970 at the session of the Central Committee he was expelled from the CPCS.
This was the end of his political career. But only until the end of the
Communism regime in 1989. At the end of December 1989 he was elected
Chairman of the Czech parliament.
Conclusion: Was the Reformist Communism Ever Possible?
The primary goal of Dubcek’s reforms was the creation of the
socialism with a ‘human face’. Broadly speaking, the Czechoslovak reformers
sought an adjustment of the standard Soviet model of socialism to the
realities of what they considered an advanced industrialised socialist
country enjoying a tradition of democracy and humanitarianism.The
stated opinions of the reformers could be summed as follows: (1) the CPCS
should no longer maintain a monopoly of power and decision making; (2) it
should rather prove its goals through equal competition by permitting a
clash of ideas and interests; (3) the abandonment of this monopoly would in
effect mean a sharing of power and permit criticism, opposition, and even
control on the CPCS’s own exercise of power.Of course, Dubcek was
against the creation of the opposition parties, but he was for the
pluralism inside the National Front. The essence of his reform conception
was not the possibility of pluralism in the accepted sense but, rather, the
obligation upon the CPCS to prove that its program was the only valid one
It was very naive to consider that Moscow will remain indifferent to
such developments. Gradually the Soviets understood that the reformers are
not controlling the reforms, and this led to the invasion. The Soviet
interests were threatened almost exclusively by developments inside the
Czechoslovakia. In other words, precisely by that ‘human face’ which Dubcek
wanted to give Czechoslovak socialism.
There was one thing which Dubcek considered to be not important, but
in fact, this led to the end of the reforms. He underestimated the impact
of his own reforms upon Moscow. The Soviet reaction to the reforms was
quite logical and inevitable. The Communist power elite would never have
accepted conditions which would make the free play of political forces
possible. It would never given up the power.
So, was Dubcek significant in developing the reformist communism? In
the short term - yes, but in the long term the practical meaning of his
reforms was nil. All the things he reformed were returned back. The only
positive impact (in the long term) of the reforms was the psychological
impact of the attempt to improve the improvable thing. Communism can not be
reformed. The only way to change it is to overthrow it completely. There is
no way in the middle. The reformist communism is simply an utopia.
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17, No. 6, pp.38-49
2. Devlin, K., ‘The New Crisis in European Communism’, in Problems of
Communism, 1968, Vol. 17, No. 6, pp.57-68
3. Golan, G., ‘The Road to Reform’, in Problems of Communism, 1971, Vol.
20, No. 3, pp.11-21
4. Golan, G., ‘Innovations in the Model of the Socialism: Political Reforms
in Czechoslovakia, 1968’, in Shapiro, J.P. and Potichnyj, P.J. (eds.),
Change and Adaptation in Soviet and East European Politics (New York,
Washington, London: Praeger Publishers, 1976), pp.77-94
5. Lowenthal, R., ‘The Sparrow in the Cage’, in Problems of Communism,
1968, Vol. 17, No. 6, pp.2-28
6. Mastny, V., (ed.), Czechoslovakia: Crisis in World Communism (New York:
Facts on File, Inc., 1972)
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1969, Vol. 18, No. 4-5, pp.2-16
8. Sik, O., ‘The Economic Impact of Stalinism’, in Problems of Communism,
1971, Vol. 20, No. 3, pp.1-10
9. Simons, Th.W., Eastern Europe in the Postwar World, (2nd. ed., London:
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12. White, St., Batt, J. and Lewis, P.J. (eds.), Developments in East
European Politics (London: Macmillan, 1993)
Tigrid, P., Why Dubcek Fell (London: Macdonald, 1971), p.17
Sik, O., ‘The Economic Impact of Stalinism’, in Problems of Communism,
1971, Vol. 20, No. 3, p.5
Golan, G., ‘The Road to Reform’, in Problems of Communism, 1971, Vol.
20, No. 3, p.12
Tigrid, P., op.cit., p.19
Mastny, V., (ed.), Czechoslovakia: Crisis in World Communism (New York:
Facts on File, Inc., 1972), p.21
Tigrid, P., op.cit., p.48
Ames, K., ‘Reform and Reaction’, in Problems of Communism, 1968, Vol.
17, No. 6, p.48
Tigrid, P. op.cit., p.57
Mastny, V., op.cit., p.37
Tigrid, P., op.cit., p.89
Svitak, I., The Czechoslovak Experiment 1968-1969 (New York and London:
Columbia University Press, 1971), p.109
Mastny, V., op.cit., p.69
Provaznik, J., ‘The Politics of Retrenchment’, in Problems of
Communism, 1969, Vol. 18, No. 4-5, p.3
Svitak, I., op.cit., p.109
Provaznik, J., op.cit., p.4
Lowenthal, R., ‘The Sparrow in the Cage’, in Problems of Communism,
1968, Vol. 17, No. 6, p.24
Simons, Th.W., Eastern Europe in the Postwar World (2nd. ed., London:
Macmillan, 1993), p.124
Devlin, K., ‘The New Crisis in European Communism’, in Problems of
Communism, 1968, Vol.17, No. 6, p.61
Tigrid, P., op.cit., p.138
Golan, G., ‘Inovations in the Model of Socialism: Political Reforms in
Czechoslovakia, 1968’, in Shapiro, J.P. and Potichnyj, P.J. (eds.), Change
and Adaptation in Soviet and East European Politics (New York, Washington,
London: Praeger Publishers, 1976), p.78
Tigrid, P., op.cit., p.66