How Czechoslovakia Became Communist

In understanding the transformation of Czechoslovakia into a workers state, it is necessary to start with Edvard Benes, the left social democrat who was ousted by the Communists in 1948. Benes can best be described as a “friend of the Soviet Union” who held Stalin in high regard.

In a 1943 visit to the USSR, Benes became convinced of Stalin’s trustworthiness and found himself “amazed at the tremendous progress that he found and saw in it confirmation of his belief that the Soviet system, having successfully withstood the difficult test of a massive invasion, was now passing through a gradual transformation to a liberalized form of socialism.” In a nutshell, Benes can be compared politically to fellow travelers of the USSR found in the USA during the New Deal. So if Chris Harman questions whether the Communists introduced anything fundamentally new after 1948, it is useful to understand that in a very real sense the Communists represented a more ruthless adoption of the social and economic program that Benes already was committed to, at least on a verbal level.

Although Benes was committed to socialism, he was repelled by the Stalinist model. It was the promise of the USSR, rather than its current reality that interested him. He viewed the Stalinists as allies in a project that he would have final control over. Stalin seemed agreeable to this, stating on July 8, 1941 that “The Soviet government will not intervene in the internal affairs of Czechoslovakia and that its internal regime and structure will be decided by the Czechoslovak people alone.”

When a treaty to this effect was drafted by Benes and Stalin, the British imperialists grew alarmed and in an act that foreshadowed the cold war warned the Czechs were jeopardizing their friendship with London. Since Great Britain had lots of experience stabbing the Czechs in the back, Benes had every reason to worry. In retribution for the Chamberlain “peace in our time” betrayal, Benes planned to take it out on the hides of the Sudeten Germans, whose cause Hitler had demagogically championed. Benes told Stalin that he sought the removal of up to two million Germans from Czechoslovakia back to Germany after the defeat of Hitler.

Key to the analysis of Czechoslovakia’s economic trajectory after 1945 was Benes’ commitment to integrating “the Czechoslovak production plan to the state plan of the USSR” according to a December 16, 1943 memo. These plans were hammered out in long sessions with top Czech Communist officials living in exile in the USSR, including Klement Gottwald, Rudolf Slansky, Jan Sverma and Vaclav Kopecky. Basically, they envisioned a bloc of social democrats and Communists to carry out the transformation of Czech society. In many respects, this was consistent with the demand for a workers government proposed by the Comintern in the early 1920s.

Tensions began to mount between Benes and Stalin over two issues. Stalin demanded that the province of Ruthenia be ceded to the USSR. Also, in the collapse of the quisling state body, the local “people’s committees” that replaced them became dominated by Communists. This was natural since they received protection by the Red Army which was omnipresent. It was in fact just this kind of transformation begun in 1944 that was the seed of the 1948 Communist seizure of power. It was a process that Edward Taborsky described in the following terms:

“By seizing control of the people’s committees, the communists gained tremendous political leverage. In the absence of an effective central government during the initial months of the liberation, the communist-controlled people’s committees emerged as incontestable masters in their respective areas…”

While this does not satisfy the Cliffite criterion of “smashing the state”, it certainly will do for those of us with a dialectical bent. It might lack the popular democracy of the Paris Commune, but it certainly does address the question of who rules. If the hostility of Czech Communists to private property was not matched by a commitment to democracy, Marxists should back them on the former while pressing for the latter. In any case, to assume that they were embarking on the building of capitalism in Czechoslovakia because they bullied political opponents would be stupidity of the highest order. One thing has nothing to do with the other.

Eventually Benes and the Stalinists had a falling out. The straw that broke the camel’s back was the liquidation of the Slovak social democratic party into the CP. Benes felt that the branch he was sitting on was being sawed off from beneath him. Although Benes resented the CP and Moscow, he knew that he couldn’t rule without their support. In a bid to maintain a partnership by mollifying them, he formed a cabinet that included leading CP’ers. Thus, the national government would be consonant with the “people’s committees” at the grass roots level. The foundation stones for a Czech workers state were being laid. The CP’ers landed key government posts that could furnish the armed might to defend the new arrangement. Among them was the assignment of General Ludvik Svoboda, a CP fellow traveler, to Minister of Defense. The presence of the Red Army throughout Czechoslovakia provided the muscle to make these posts possible. Of course, since the Cliffites regard the Red Army of 1945 to be a capitalist institution, much of this is moot. For those of us living on the planet Earth, another set of political assumptions prevail.

After Benes became disillusioned with the Stalinists, he reoriented to the imperialists. When he heard on April 17, 1945 that Patton had crossed over from Bavaria into Czechoslovakia, he responded “Thank God, Thank God.” To prevent the Communists from challenging his rule, Benes tried to whittle away at their social base by moving to the left, particularly on economic questions. Although he was ideologically committed to a socialist Czechoslovakia, there is little doubt that the need to outflank the CP was a primary factor in nationalizing industry. In a message sent to social democrats in the Czech underground, Benes spelled out his thinking: “The aim of this program is to prevent any attempt to force a unilateral internal revolution and civil war upon our people when the very existence of the state and the nation will be at danger…”

While signing a decree to nationalize land and factories, Benes also sought to placate the west as a buttress against Soviet power. He didn’t understand that a rising anticommunist mood in Washington would effectively preclude this. Benes was perceived as being too friendly to the USSR and too radical. Hence the decision by Secretary of State James Byrnes to annul a $50 million credit to Czechoslovakia in 1945. Even after a poor harvest in 1947, the US Embassy in Prague maintained a policy of “no food and no loans” to Czechoslovakia. In essence, the country would either have to align itself with the United States or the Soviet Union. The Cliffite analysis fails to recognize the stark class choices put before the Czech people in 1945. For them it all blends together in a seamless “capitalist” tapestry. With this kind of analysis, the Cold War makes no sense.

The cause of the 1948 overthrow of the Benes regime was the determination of the noncommunist parties to stop the CP from consolidating its power over the police. Surely this conflict has something to do with the subject matter of “State and Revolution” since it goes to the heart of “bodies of armed men”. For those of a metaphysical disposition, it is immaterial as might be expected. To back up the appointment of Communists to the police department, the party called strikes, held mass rallies and demonstrations, and organized “action committees” in all the major government agencies. Since the CP’s social base was in the industrial working class, one might logically assume that this had the character of a class struggle. Unless one has on ideological blinders.

Finally, Benes yielded to Communist demands and the country became part of the Soviet bloc. For the duration of Stalinist rule, there were many social gains despite the lack of democracy. Now that the country has been restored to capitalist property relations, some people are prospering and others are suffering. Undoubtedly none of this matters to those who subscribe to the “state capitalism” metaphysic, but for the rest of us these are serious life-and-death questions. We advocate a return to the social and economic foundations of post-1948 Czechoslovakia but with full workers democracy. But to not comprehend the radical changes that took place in the 1945 to 1948 period is to not recognize reality.