In August 1968, the Warsaw Pact tanks and half a million-strong military killed the Prague Spring. It was not simply the end of a daring political experiment, but also a gigantic defeat for the dreams of reconciling communism and democracy. Marxist revisionism, the utopian endeavor to rediscover the presumably forgotten thesaurus of left-wing radicalism, suffered a terrible blow. In the words of a Polish dissident, “We then realized that there was no socialism with a human face, but only totalitarianism with broken teeth.”
Even Jean-Paul Sartre, the philosopher who in the 1950s had been silent (to put it mildly) about the Gulag, lambasted the invasion as “the socialism which came in from the cold.” It was the Leninist communism of barbed wire, fear, suspicion and lies. Stalin, as famous East European dissidents showed, was Lenin’s most faithful heir. He was also the most successful disciple. Post-Stalin Soviet leaders refused to allow for genuine democratization, remained faithful to the original one-party autocracy. A joke of those times captured this continuity: “What are Brezhnev eyebrows? Stalin’s mustache at a higher level.”
The leader of the Prague Spring was Alexander Dubcek, a Moscow-trained communist apparatchik with reformist propensities. Elected Communist Party leader in January 1968, he launched an ambitious renewal program. In a few months, many Stalinist institutions lost their power. Censorship was disbanded, intellectuals were excited, civil society returned. Warsaw Pact leaders, headed by the sclerotic Leonid Brezhnev, panicked. Romania’s Nicolae Ceausescu supported Dubcek not because of solidarity with the attempt to humanize socialism, but rather as a way to challenge Soviet imperialist claims.
Adopted in April 1968, the “Action Program” of the Czechoslovak communists pledged to put an end to repressive policies and engage the party in a genuine dialogue with the citizens. One its main authors, Zdenek Mlynar, had studied law in Moscow in the early 1950s. He shared a dormitory room with a young Soviet student, an arduous Komsomol militant named Mikhail Gorbachev. They became close friends. Years later, Gorbachev would resume the Prague Spring agenda hoping against hope that democratic communism could somehow be accomplished.
In June, writer Ludvik Vaculik issued a document that entered history as “The Two Thousand Words” manifesto. The Soviets and their allies went ballistic. The Manifesto was an unmitigated, outspoken, unambiguous call for political pluralism. Millions supported it expecting a multi-party system to emerge soon. As events unfolded in breathtaking speed, the neo-Stalinists East European despots acted pre-emptively and crushed the Prague Spring. Dubcek and his comrades were arrested, transported to Moscow and forced to sign a humiliating capitulation. A few months later, Dubcek was expelled from the communist party. A new freeze followed under the name “normalization.” It was the normalcy of jails, denunciations, terror. In the words of poet Luis Aragon, another repentant ex-Stalinist, the country had become “a Biafra of the spirit.” Opposition activists were harassed, besmirched, jailed. They acted heroically in spite of the most unpropitious circumstances. Among them, critical intellectuals like Vaclav Havel who argued in favor of the power of the powerless.
Then in March 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in Moscow. In his belief that communism included such a humanistic dimension and his insistence that Stalin had been a vicious traitor to the original Marxist and Leninist messages, Gorbachev was part of a long tradition within the communist chapels. Students of Marxism refer to the attempt to turn such beliefs into policy as revisionism.
Of course, Gorbachev was not the first celebrated revisionist. Before him, attempts had been made by others to reconcile socialism with democracy and to jettison the repressive features of the system as distortions of an intrinsically healthy order. Consider Imre Nagy, Hungary’s premier during the 1956 revolution, executed in 1958, and then Alexander Dubcek. Both Nagy and Dubcek failed because Soviet intervention crushed their experiments and dashed hopes of renovating socialism from within. But when Gorbachev came to power in March 1985 and announced his program of renewal, there was no foreign force to threaten the great shaker in the Kremlin. The seeds of the negation of the old order were planted in the empire’s innermost sanctum.
What have been the main illusions of Nagy, Dubcek, Gorbachev and other revisionists? First, that the Communist Party, as the initiator of reforms, should preserve a central role during their implementation. Second, that there was a middle way between the conservation of Stalinist structures and their complete disbandment. Third, that a compromise of sorts could be reached with the exponents of the old regime. And fourth, that the population at large was ready to enthusiastically espouse the revisionist program and endorse the new leaders in the frantic search for modernization. The revisionists naively believed in their popular mandate.
But this logic was basically flawed. The system could not tolerate structural changes and secreted antibodies. In the case of the Soviet Union, instead of foreign intervention, Gorbachev was faced with the morose inertia of the bureaucratic colossus. His exhortations increasingly fell on deaf ears, as economic performance failed to improve. The work ethos was plagued by apathy and indifference.
Were Dubcek and Gorbachev true believers? In a sense yes, because only a true believer would have engaged in such destructive action while hoping that there was enough loyalty to the system among its subjects to keep the regime alive. The crushing of the Prague Spring was justified as defense of socialist internationalism. In fact, Marxist internationalism was nothing but hollow, ludicrous rhetoric, a facade for Soviet imperialism, ethical dereliction, civic paralysis, and bureaucratic domination. It symbolized the breakdown of Marxist revisionism. It demonstrated a truth that East Europeans had been long familiar with: There is no communism with a human face.
Vladimir Tismaneanu is professor of politics at the University of Maryland (College Park) and author most recently of “The Devil in History: Communism, Fascism, and Some Lessons of the Twentieth Century” (University of California Press, 2012).