The Downside of Imperial Collapse
When Empires or Great Powers Fall, Chaos and War Rise
THE COMMUNIST seizure of power in February 1948 in the country created by Masaryk and Beneš provoked a revulsion of feeling throughout the western world not far short of what was felt when Hitler violated Czechoslovakia a decade earlier. Even before the new Communist-dictated Government of Czechoslovakia had been sworn in, the United States, Great Britain and France declared in a joint statement that "the events which have just taken place in Czechoslovakia place in jeopardy the very existence of the principles of liberty to which all democratic nations are attached." Only a veto of the Soviet Union prevented the Security Council of the United Nations from adopting a resolution, offered by Chile, to set up a subcommittee to hear witnesses and obtain information about the coup d'état.
The impact of the coup was intensified by its unexpectedness. In the opinion of political observers with no particular axe to grind, no less than of those who favored collaboration with Communism, the Czechoslovak experiment of combining political democracy with a large degree of Socialism had seemed to be succeeding almost to the moment when it collapsed. In explanation it is sometimes now said that the country simply fell victim to deteriorating East-West relations, or that the coup was ordered by Moscow to prevent the spread of Titoism, already virulent in Jugoslavia. Neither of these contentions appears plausible. International developments might have affected the timing of the Communist seizure, but even this is doubtful.
The immediate factor which determined Communist actions was the general election scheduled in Czechoslovakia for the spring of 1948. The Communist Party had always hoped to attain a parliamentary majority, in order to proclaim a one-party rule by "democratic means." But by the beginning of 1948 it was apparent that the Party was losing ground. It could no longer count on the Social Democrats to maintain the coalition by which the Communists controlled the National Assembly and the Cabinet, and the other non-Communist parties--the National Socialist, the Slovak Democratic and the People's Party--had at last managed to close ranks on a number of basic issues. Negotiations regarding a new constitution had reached an impasse, and with only about four months remaining before the term of the Constituent Assembly expired, agreement on a new organic law was out of the question. Finally, the results of a preliminary secret poll which is said to have been taken indicated that Communist electoral support was decreasing.[i] An electoral loss would have seriously impaired the chances of the Communists for completing the revolution at which they aimed. The choice lay between risking this setback and taking extra-legal action.
The possibility of physical struggle had not been overlooked by the Communists. "The crucial question in every revolution is the question of power," said Gottwald, quoting Lenin, shortly after returning to Prague in 1945. The Communists accordingly made their choice and struck. The decisive elements of power--the police, the armed workers' militia, the trade unions and the communication facilities--had already been taken over. The Czechoslovak army, not a reliable Communist instrument, was neutralized. And to impress recalcitrant Czechoslovaks with the folly of resistance, the possibility of intervention by the armed forces of the U.S.S.R. was constantly suggested. Open violence was limited to one shooting incident in Prague. Indeed, the coup itself was in many respects an anticlimax, for the decisive phase of the struggle had taken place earlier.
The outlines of the Communist blueprint for the conquest of Czechoslovakia took shape during the last stages of World War II. In the early period of the war, when the U.S.S.R. was bound to Germany by a nonaggression pact, Czechoslovak Communists had refused to coöperate with the anti-Nazi opposition at home or abroad, had agitated against the Czechoslovak Government-in-Exile, and had roundly condemned President Beneš. He was called one of the "guilty men of Czechoslovakia," in a pamphlet of that title published in London, and the illegal central committee of the Communist Party in Bohemia issued a proclamation on December 15, 1940, attacking him and his "urban-bourgeois collaborators" for the rôle they played in "the imperialist war of the West"--in plain words, for opposition to the Nazis. Even after the German attack on the Soviet Union the Communists hesitated to support Beneš and his Government, and pursued an independent line aimed at incorporating the nation into the U.S.S.R. Their attitude finally changed when the Czechoslovak Government-in-Exile and the Soviet Union established diplomatic relations and concluded a friendship treaty.
In 1942 five Communists--Vaclav Nosek (the present Minister of the Interior), Josef Valo, Karl Kreibich, Anežka Hodinova and Ivan Petruščak--had been appointed by Beneš to the State Council of the Czechoslovak Government-in-Exile. Other Communists, such as Vlado Clementis, later the Foreign Minister of the Communist Government and a victim of the current purge of "Titoist" elements, Ludvik Frejka (then going under the name of Freund), the Party's leading economist, and Josef Goldman, another economist, found positions in the various Czechoslovak administrative organs in London.
The top command of the Czechoslovak Communist Party had found refuge in Moscow. It maintained political contact with the London Government but steadfastly refused to permit any of its members to enter the Cabinet, on the ground that they could not participate in a Cabinet in which "collaborationist" elements --meaning the Agrarian Party--were represented. The Communists were taking care to avoid commitments in regard to the future composition of the Cabinet.
The Communist concept of the future Czechoslovak state was first revealed in political discussions between Beneš and the Czechoslovak Communist leaders in Moscow in 1943. Here the Communists emphasized the necessity of creating national ("people's") committees as permanent organs of the state administration. Beneš acquiesced in this. He recognized the necessity of reforming the Czechoslovak governmental machinery, and looked upon such committees, of whose historic existence in western democracies he reminded the Communists, essentially as democratic organs of public administration. Gottwald also advanced the concept of a national front--Communists, Social Democrats, National Socialists and one non-Socialist group, the Catholic People's Party--committed to a common program for the post-liberation period. The Communists expected a tremendous leftward shift in political sentiment in the country, and demanded that Communists receive the key posts in the government and that a member of the Left be appointed prime minister.
Following their conference with Beneš, the Communists printed their program in Č eskoslovenske Listy, a Czech language journal which they began to publish in Moscow in January 1944. The national committees were defined as elected, revolutionary organs of popular government operating on the local, district, regional and provincial level, and charged with the performance of executive, legislative, administrative and even judicial functions.[ii] They were, in fact, not organs of state administration, but replicas of the much-exalted communes of Marx--the soviets of Lenin--and they embodied a fundamental tenet of Marx's revolutionary theory--that "the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery and wield it for its own purposes," but has to smash the bureaucratic-military state machinery.[iii] The need for the unification of trade unions into a mighty organization "serving the working class as a whole" was also propounded in detail. Here too were recorded the origins of the infamous collaboration between Zdenek Fierlinger, erstwhile Social Democrat, and the Communists, a partnership which played a vital rôle in bringing Czechoslovakia into the Communist fold. A new Social Democratic policy proclaiming the bankruptcy of the party's pre-Munich policy, and pledging support for the unity of the workers' movement and for close coöperation in the bloc of workers' parties, was enunciated by Vilem Bernard. Fierlinger, who at the time served as Czechoslovak Ambassador in Moscow, could not yet reveal that he was a Communist tool. The connection between Bernard and Fierlinger, however, is beyond dispute, and in 1945, when Fierlinger became prime minister, Bernard became his chef du cabinet. He has since fled the country.
The program thus outlined by Gottwald and his associates became, with some elaboration, the official program of the government that returned to Czechoslovakia. Gottwald did not boast when he told an assembly of Communist district and regional functionaries on July 9, 1945, that:
. . . if we examine the program of the present Czechoslovak Government, the program which was formulated in Moscow in the spring of this year, and if we recall our first negotiations with President Beneš in the fall of 1943, we see that every major, basic, and fundamental point contained in the government program was formulated and suggested by us already in these meetings with the President in the fall of 1943.
Obviously, only a Communist-controlled government would carry out such a program. The formation and composition of a new Czechoslovak government therefore became a hotly-disputed issue between the Communists and the London Government. The Communists insisted that it should be formed before the cessation of hostilities. Beneš and the London group wanted to wait until after the liberation of the country, and preferred to include in the new government representatives of the underground as well as of the exile movement. This would have put the Communists at a tactical disadvantage, for it would have robbed them of the prestige of entering the country as full-fledged members of the government. Moreover, they were not sure what the mood of the population would be. It was safer for them to set up the government under the protective wing of the Kremlin, before the country was liberated. The Communist view prevailed. The composition of the government was determined in negotiations between Beneš and his entourage, and the Communists, in Moscow. Not one member of the Czech underground received a post.
In the government which directed Czechoslovakia's affairs through the crucial months of reconstruction, the Communists held eight out of 25 posts, including the Ministries of Interior, Information, Education, Agriculture, Social Welfare, and two posts in the Council of Vice-Premiers. One of their members was Under Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs. Ludvik Svoboda, a General with pro-Soviet leanings who later became a member of the Communist Party and has even been elected to its Central Committee, held the portfolio of National Defense. Zdenek Fierlinger was made Premier. Control of key ministries gave the Communists a monopoly on the police power in the state, and the propaganda apparatus. Possession of the Ministry of Agriculture assured them control of patronage in the distribution of land and real estate. Between 1918 and 1938, the Ministry of Agriculture was an exclusive domain of the Agrarian Party, the largest and most influential Czech party, and the Ministry's rôle in the distribution of farm machinery, fixing of grain prices, purchasing of grain, and lending money through the Peasant Bank contributed in no small measure to Agrarian electoral strength.
In 1945 the Communists skillfully exploited the hostility of the non-Communist parties--especially the National Socialists-- toward the Agrarians and managed to have that party outlawed on the basis of its collaborationist record. The Communists also had the presence of mind to take over the Agrarian Party's perquisites, apparently without opposition.
The 1945 land reform legislation which confiscated the property of Germans, Hungarians and collaborationists was passed under the auspices of the Communist Minister. Two reliable Communists, Jiri Kotatko, who had been in Moscow during the war, and Josef Smrkovsky, a young, able leader who was a member of the party's last illegal Central Committee in 1944 and 1945, were in charge of the land reform and national land fund sections of the Ministry. They controlled the confiscation and redistribution of land. By the spring of 1946, 110,000 families had obtained land in the border areas from which Germans had been evacuated, and an additional 80,000 so-called "national administrators" had been appointed to take care of abandoned real estate, shops, small factories and the like.
The Communists were clever enough to assume full credit for the distribution of the loot, but at the same time made sure that no permanent titles to property were assigned. The effects of this policy were reflected in the 1946 election returns. In the border districts of Karlovy Vary (Karlsbad), Usti nad Labem (Bodenbach) and Liberec (Reichenberg) where the most settlement took place, the Communists received 52.2, 56.4 and 48.3 percent of the votes respectively. This by far exceeded their average strength in Bohemia (43.3 percent), and their national average of 38 percent. Only in one district, Kladno, a mining center where Communism had always been strong, did the Party receive an equally high percentage (53.6) of the votes.
Thus the liberation of Czechoslovakia found the Communists with a carefully worked out revolutionary program, and with a secure hold on the main instruments for implementing it. Gottwald's statement of 1945 outlining the steps to be taken in order to crush parliamentary government in Czechoslovakia is worth noting in some detail:
. . . We are now at the beginning of a new phase . . . it is extremely important that we know where we stand and what the prospects for the future are . . . . The basic, the most important fact is the total defeat of Hitlerite Germany. The second resides in the fact that the Soviet Union is primarily responsible for the defeat of Hitlerite Germany. The third, and no less important fact is that . . . along with Hitler's defeat the Czech and Slovak reaction, the Czech and Slovak big bourgeoisie and its former political exponents are politically and morally compromised.
. . . We [now] find ourselves . . . [in] the period of national and democratic revolution . . . We have a National Front government . . . the political influence of the working class is considerable . . . We are building a democratic régime of a new type . . . Our régime is not one of formal parliamentary democracy but a régime of popular democracy, which expresses itself in the fact that the people's elected deputies not only vote for laws but that the execution of laws is also in [their] hands . . . . But still it is necessary to remember that we are now, in this phase, proceeding along the line of national and democratic revolution, not along the line of the Socialist revolution . . . the possibilities of our national and democratic revolution have not been exhausted by far . . . .
Our first task is to secure and anchor the system of national committees . . . .
[Second] . . . the party must pay particular attention to the building of a really popular, national security apparatus that could never again be used against the working class, against the people. The third important task is to create a really popular, democratic army that is united with the people. You know that next to the civilian security apparatus the army is the instrument of political power.
The fourth task is . . . to occupy the salient positions in the national economy by confiscation of German and Hungarian property and by introducing a system of national administrations in positions formerly occupied by traitors and collaborators.
. . . Further, comrades, we must build, and consolidate, the united organizations of the working people of town and country, primarily the trade unions, coöperatives, youth organizations and the United Federation of Czech Farmers . . . .
In the wake of the liberating Red Army, national committees mushroomed throughout the country. Communists predominated in them, and under the protection of the Red Army they quickly consolidated their power. The committees became permanent institutions of the state administration, and though the distribution of power within them was somewhat adjusted as conditions changed, no local elections were held after the war, and the Communists maintained the supremacy which they had won during the first few months.
During the initial period of revolutionary fervor, the Communists moved to centralize the trade unions, farm, youth and sport groups under their control. They succeeded most patently with the trade unions. Among the 40 members of the Central Committee of the Trade Unions there were only three National Socialists, and one representative of the People's Party; the rest of the posts were occupied by Communists and left-wing Social Democrats. The unification of youth and sport organization was less successful. The Sokol, largest and most influential of the gymnastic organizations, remained a bulwark of anti-Communist opposition until well after the coup. The Czech youth, especially high school and university students, remained cool to Communist approaches. Unfortunately, however, the Communists had in the trade unions the most formidable weapon for revolution in the country.
The Socialist bloc included the Communist, Social Democratic and National Socialist Parties. The National Socialists, sensing the fate of this bloc, strenuously objected to its formation, but they bowed to the will of the other two Socialist Parties. At that time the Social Democrats wholeheartedly agreed to a policy of "unity" with the Communists, and from the pen of Bohumil Laušman, one of their top leaders, came the menacing overtones of fusion. Writing in Pravo Lidu, the central organ of the Party, on May 12, 1945, Laušman said: "All three Socialist parties in the Czech lands for the time being retain their independence . . . but they will devise a common policy through the medium of their coördinating committees. The Social Democrats, however, consider this only a transitional phase in which the participating parties must achieve ideological rapprochement, in order that in the second phase they may fuse organizationally into one party."
In practice the Socialist bloc turned out to be a mere instrument of pressure on the National Socialists. Policy was dictated by the Communists, who would first secure the consent of the Social Democrats. They would then confront the National Socialists with a majority decision to which the National Socialists would have to accede. Once a "unanimous" decision of the bloc was reached, it would be presented to the National Front-- the coalition of all parties--where its acceptance would be forced on the non-Socialist parties with the argument that it represented the will of a majority of the voters.
In this manner the National Front became a government outside the government--an organization superimposed upon the parties, which dictated to all of them a policy to be pursued in the Cabinet and the National Assembly. It was a peculiarity of Czechoslovak political life from 1945 until the coup that, although the same parties were represented in government and the National Front, problems on which no agreement could be reached in the government were referred to the National Front, and very often found solution there. Thus the Communists manipulated the Front to their own ends.
If the National Front and the bloc of Socialist parties served as an instrument of Communist political control, nationalization provided the economic levers in the struggle for supremacy. The nationalization of key industries and of the country's mineral wealth had been generally favored by all parties. The program which the Communists and Social Democrats pushed through was far more inclusive, but effective opposition was not possible. The decrees were ramrodded through the government at the height of revolutionary excitement in the country, at a time when the Red Army was still within the borders of Czechoslovakia, and when not even a provisional assembly functioned. It was the crowning act of the first phase of the revolution.
In the general elections held in May 1946, the Communists won a sizable plurality, polling 38 percent of the votes. The Communists and Social Democrats together had 153 deputies in the Assembly against 147 for the other parties. This was a slim majority --51 percent--but according to the words of a high official of the Soviet Embassy in Prague, it "sufficed to govern entirely democratically against the other parties."[iv] At this juncture perhaps more than at any other time the existence of a separate Social Democratic Party was invaluable for the Soviets. It was simply a Communist appanage; its leadership was Social Democratic in name only and its program was indistinguishable from the Communist. But many voters--in Czechoslovakia as elsewhere--vote for a party label as much as for a particular program, and Communist tactics were shrewdly designed to take advantage of this weakness. Moreover, given the Czechoslovak system of intraparty controls, the voter's influence on party policy was nil. The leadership ruled in a dictatorial manner, determining policy and holding its parliamentary deputies in total subjugation. One of the less desirable features of Czechoslovak political life before 1938 was the power granted all political parties to dismiss any deputy for the smallest infraction or misdemeanor.[v] The result was the domination of every party by a small clique, and this of course was exactly suited to the purposes of the hand-picked gang of pro-Communist Social Democrats who were put in power in that party after 1945.
Shortly after the election in 1946, the Communists mobilized the trade unions in an effort to thwart the non-Communist parties in their attempt to elect non-Communist mayors in Plzen and Olomouc, two towns in which the Communists obtained a plurality but not a majority. And in the summer of the same year the trade unions and associations of partisans lent their support to the Communist Party in whipping up public sentiment against the verdict of the State Court which gave relatively light sentences to the Czech ministers who served in the puppet Protectorate Government. The Ministry of Justice was in the hands of the National Socialist Party, and the staunch opposition of the Minister, Prokop Drtina, a man of great integrity, prevented the Communists from stampeding the court into a reversal of its decision. Mr. Drtina, who made an unsuccessful attempt at suicide immediately after the coup, is still a captive of the régime in a prison hospital.
In the winter of 1946 the Communists prepared the drafts of six agricultural decrees, by which they intended to extend their control over the farmers and pave the way for collectivization of the land. The Minister of Agriculture, expecting opposition from the non-Communist parties, distributed the drafts to local Communist-controlled branches of the Farmers' Association before formally introducing them in the National Assembly. At that time, however, the Assembly was still powerful enough to defy such tactics, and its Agricultural Committee by a vote of 17 to 9 (the nine being the Communist members) refused to consider the decrees and adopted a resolution censuring the Minister for unconstitutional action. Thereupon, at the Ministry's instigation, a throng of peasants invaded the corridors of the Assembly in an effort to impose "the popular will" on its recalcitrant members. The decrees, however, were not passed until after the Communists seized power.
Furious battles also raged over the Communist design to perpetuate the workers' militia, which had been formed immediately after the German defeat. The non-Communist parties argued vehemently that industrial installations no longer needed such protection, since dispossessed factory owners were hardly in a position to reclaim their former property by arms. But the workers' militia was not disbanded. It became the core of the Communist military striking force.
In the meantime the Party devoted increasing attention to Slovakia, where it had received only 30 percent of the vote and ran a poor second to the Democratic Party which polled 60 percent. In 1945, an arbitrary 50-50 division of posts in the administrative apparatus of the province between Communists and non-Communists had been agreed on. After the election, the Communists had had to give up some of them. Communists do not take kindly to giving up anything they have once held, and Klement Gottwald himself launched a series of attacks against the Democratic Party in the spring of 1947, followed by charges from the trade unions and the Slovak Partisans' Association. (The leader of this Association, Karol Šmidke, was also vice chairman of the Slovak Communist Party.) The attacks against the Democratic Party continued through the summer, and finally, in September, the convenient discovery of an alleged armed plot against the Republic in which members of the Democratic Party were implicated served as a pretext for the arrest of several of its high-ranking officers. Two of its secretaries-general were charged with complicity in the plot, and after some debate were deprived of their parliamentary immunity and handed over to the authorities. The two secretaries represented the Catholic element in the party; the Communists were striving to drive a wedge between Catholic and Protestant Democrats. In November 1947, the Communists forced a reorganization of the Slovak Board of Commissioners--the highest executive authority in Slovakia--but nevertheless did not succeed in depriving the Democrats of a small working majority.
While battling with the Democrats in Slovakia, the Communists also took on their non-Communist opponents in the Czech lands. On September 2, 1947, following a summer recess during which the Government had been strongly rebuked by the Kremlin for its attempted participation in Marshall Plan discussions, the Communist Party made an ill-disguised attempt to undermine private property holdings and individual savings by proposing a special tax levy against "millionaires." The proceeds of the levy would have been used to subsidize farmers who had been severely hit by a disastrous drought. The Communist definition of a "millionaire," however, was so vague, and the manœuvre so transparent, that all the other parties combined to defeat it. In answer, the Communists signed an agreement with the Social Democrats reaffirming the united policy of the two parties, and committing them to coöperation in the solution of outstanding problems. The agreement was signed without the prior consultation of the Social Democratic executive or membership. It was negotiated with Zdenek Fierlinger. Blažej Vilim, the Party's secretary-general, and František Tymeš also signed the agreement. Threats of Soviet intervention were allegedly invoked to get Tymeš and Vilim to affix their signatures.
Hopes that the agreement with the Social Democrats would restore unchallenged Communist hegemony in the government were shattered in November, when the Socialists, in one of their few courageous moves, ousted their leftist, pro-Communist leadership, and elected an executive headed by Bohumil Laušman, who if not a rightist was at least committed to the pursuit of independent policies in questions involving human freedom and democratic political practices.
The Social Democrats' defection (in the Communist vocabulary, this was "treason") was the last thing the Communists could swallow. For the reasons noted above, an overthrow of the party leadership, so hard to accomplish in any Czechoslovak party, was a particularly significant warning that the mood of the electorate was changing. The warning was not lost on the Communists. They had suffered a reverse in Slovakia, their attempt to strengthen their hand in the National Front through the admission of Communist-dominated non-party groups, such as the trade unions, partisans, youth and farmers' associations had met with resolute opposition, and a bomb plot contrived by several of their members against Jan Masaryk, Petr Zenkl and Prokop Drtina had gone awry. The "plot" was patently designed to serve as a pretext for moving in on the "reaction." By November the Ministry of Justice had gathered conclusive evidence linking a Communist deputy, and Alexej Č epička, a rising young leader, with the plot. Č epička was shortly thereafter elevated to a Cabinet post, and after the coup he became Communist Minister of Justice. He is now Defense Minister.
The Communist response came at the regular trimestrial meeting of the Central Committee on November 27 and 28. Gottwald deplored the situation which he said prevailed in the National Front, and ascribed it to the "existence of strong reactionary influences in certain political parties." He accused the National Socialists, in particular, of obstructing the Government's program, and accused the "reaction"--which, according to him, had by then penetrated all non-Communist parties--of "wanting to create at the right moment a government crisis and to attempt to form a government of experts." Politically, he said, such a move would have to be considered an attempt to stage a coup: "To this it would be necessary to give the proper answer, smashing the reaction completely. . . ."[vi]
Following Gottwald's diatribe the Communists launched new assaults. This is how Gottwald himself, long after the coup, characterized their actions:
Since the general elections in 1946 we noticed more and more that the reactionary elements in the government were joining forces with reactionary elements outside the government . . . at the same time the reaction attempted to upset the balance of power before the parliamentary elections by destroying the National Front and isolating the Communists.
Our Party, however, was not asleep. Shortly before February we outlined new demands concerning nationalization and new agricultural demands which went beyond the framework of the government program and which we presented as our electoral program. On this basis we called a Congress of the Works' Councils for February 22 and of the Farmers' Commissions for February 29. These demands served as some sort of signal for the reaction that the crucial time was approaching, they alarmed it, speeded up its activities and thus also contributed to its mistakes.[vii]
On February 17, 1948, as the crisis in the Government hurtled to a climax, the Central Committee of the Communist Party issued a proclamation charging that "the deliberate attitude of the leaders of some political parties is motivated by the aim of establishing by anti-democratic and anti-constitutional means a nonparliamentary government of technicians [experts], which would attempt to wrest the power from the people, and in the service of the reaction, in an atmosphere of political and economic chaos, prepare anti-democratic elections."[viii]
To the trained mind of the Communist functionaries throughout the country this was the call to arms. No other order, no other signal was needed. On the 20th, when 12 non-Communist ministers resigned, the Communist Party was ready. Its vast machinery went into motion, its regimented masses flowed through the streets. Demands on the Government, speeches, political and economic reforms were presented by Communist spokesmen in a manner unmistakably betraying careful advance preparation. Perhaps the most telling proof of advance planning was supplied by the eager local Communist of Hradec Kralove, who "spontaneously" formed a revolutionary action committee on Saturday, February 21, only one day after the ministers resigned, and 24 hours ahead of Gottwald's call for the formation of such committees to safeguard the nation against "the reaction" in the towns, the factories, the shops and offices.[ix]
The coup was but a logical conclusion of the venture on which the Communists embarked in 1942. Coup or electoral victory, the result would have been the same--dictatorship of the Communist Party. That the Communists preferred the latter method and did not seize power sooner, for example in 1945, was due to their belief that conditions in Czechoslovakia were favorable for a peaceful conquest of the country. In Czechoslovakia, unlike other parts of Eastern Europe, the Communists had an experienced party and a good nation-wide organization. The party had legally operated from 1921 to 1938 and in the elections held during that period had consistently attracted over three-quarters of a million sympathizers. Moreover, the general mood of the Czech and Slovak people favored far-reaching political and economic reforms. A spirit of genuine friendship toward the U.S.S.R. existed and the aims of the non-Communist parties coincided at least formally with the avowed aims of the Communists. The Communists looked on coalition, however, as a one-way passage to Socialism of the Stalinist type. Antonin Zapotocky, one of the founding members of the Party, said in Parliament:
In order that we be understood, we emphasize clearly: the significance of the agreement [for cooperation between Communist and non-Communist Parties] rested in its aim to avoid further struggles, not in avoiding Socialism. Today we do not yet have a Socialist republic! We want to [have it], however, and all of us have committed ourselves and have promised to work toward this goal.[x]
The non-Communist parties, of course, had an entirely different concept of coalition. While they genuinely favored political, economic and social reforms, they could not condone the total overthrow of society. By 1948 they had been pushed far beyond the limits of their revolutionary aims. They had outlived their usefulness for the Communists, and became an obstruction in the path to "Socialism." In the Communist book of rules the allies of one day are the enemies of the next. Where the progressive forces have served their purpose they will be discarded and trampled on.
This is one of the lessons to be learned from the Czechoslovak case. It is a simple lesson, but there are some Socialists who have not yet brought themselves to admit it. For the non-Communists of Czechoslovakia--the majority of the country--it was learned at the price of terrible tragedy. The sincere democrats did not correctly appraise the circumstances within which they operated. Their final act of resistance--the resignation from the Cabinet-- was a move of desperation. By resigning they attempted to force the Communists to submit to new elections, and thus to forestall a coup; the assumption that the rules of parliamentary practice still applied and would be obeyed merely provided the excuse for the act of violence which had been carefully prepared by the enemies of Czechoslovak liberty.
The free world may well take a long look at Czechoslovakia. To be sure, the tactics in Czechoslovakia differed from those employed in other parts of Eastern Europe; and the Communists elsewhere may not be so obliging as to give a repeat performance of the February coup. But the basic Soviet design remains.
This is how Marx outlined the Communist revolutionary design a hundred years ago:
The democratic petty bourgeois, far from desiring to revolutionize all society for the revolutionary proletarians, strive for a change in social conditions by means of which existing society will be made as tolerable and comfortable as possible for them . . . . While the democratic petty bourgeois wish to bring the revolution to a conclusion as quickly as possible . . . it is our interest and our task to make the revolution permanent, until all more or less possessing classes have been displaced from domination, until the proletariat has conquered state power . . . and at least the decisive productive forces are concentrated in the hands of the proletarians.
For us the issue cannot be the alteration of private property but only its abolition, not the smoothing over of class antagonisms but abolition of classes, not the improvement of existing society but the foundation of a new one.
The Czechoslovak coup d'état is an outstanding instance of the application of Marx's dictum.
[i] Hubert Ripka, "Le Coup de Prague." Paris: Plon, 1949, p. 190.
[ii] Klement Gottwald in Č eskoslovenske Listy, No. 9, May 15, 1944.
[iii] K. Marx, "The Civil War in France," Selected Works, Vol. II, p. 494; also V. I. Lenin, "The State and Revolution," p. 41-42.
[iv] H. Ripka, op. cit., p. 39.
[v] See Eduard Taborsky, "Czechoslovak Democracy at Work." London: Allen and Unwin, 1945.
[vi]Rude Pravo, November 30, 1947.
[vii]Rude Pravo, November 19, 1948.
[viii]Rude Pravo, February 18, 1948.
[ix] Jaroslav Ondraček, Hovoři Parlamentni Zpravodaj Č eskoslovenskeho Rozhlasu ("The Parliamentary Reporter of the Czechoslovak Radio Speaks"), Czechoslovak Ministry of Information, Prague, 1948, p. 51.
[x] L. Frejka, 26. Unor 1948 v Č eskoslovenskem Hospodařstvi ("The Meaning of February 26, 1948, for the Czechoslovak Economy"), Prague, 1948, p. 12.