ISBN of original printed version: 09523810 9 5
A few minutes after 3 a.m. on August 21 1968 the telephone rang in Bert Ramelson’s South London flat. The caller, a Soviet diplomat, urged him to come immediately to the Soviet Embassy to receive a message for the British Communist Party from the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. He added that a car was ready to bring him to the Embassy.
The message read by the Ambassador Joseph Smirnovsky, who was accompanied by Biryukov, the diplomat responsible for maintaining contact with the British Party, was stark – leaders of the Czechoslovak Communist Party and government had asked the Soviet Union and other Warsaw Pact countries for assistance in overcoming counter-revolutionary imperialist-backed forces threatening socialism. The Soviet government together with the governments of Poland, Hungary, the German Democratic Republic and Bulgaria had responded and their troops were already in Prague “defending” socialism.
Bert Ramelson asked for the names of the leaders who had requested “aid”. Smirnovsky replied that five leaders had made the request but would give no names. It is not improbable that Smirnovsky was unaware of the names himself. In the heated exchange which followed Bert challenged the truth of the claim that the Czechoslovak Party leadership had invited the Warsaw Pact troops in and warned that the British Communist Party would not accept so blatant an intrusion into the affairs of a fraternal party and another socialist country. (1)
A few hours later Bert was reporting his nocturnal encounter to a hastily convened meeting of the Political Committee which unanimously adopted a statement condemning the Soviet action. (For all practical purposes it was a Soviet action.)
What happened that night plunged the world communist movement into crisis. Several parties, for the first time in their history, publicly criticised the Soviet Union. Among them were the strongest and most influential parties in the capitalist world. Their relations with the Soviet Party and its supporters became very strained, and in the British Party there opened a wide rift between critics of Soviet policy and its supporters who became known as “hard liners”, “Stalinists” or “Tankies”.
In 1956 thousands of Party members, refusing to accept the leadership’s support for the Soviet military actions in Hungary had left the Party. In 1968 the dissentients retained their membership and fought to defeat the leadership. A long drawn out bitter, no-holds-barred, struggle followed.
Both sides believed fundamental principles were at stake. On one side the right of each party to determine its own policy and socialist democracy – on the other loyalty to the Soviet Union and “proletarian internationalism”. The wounds inflicted on the Party were deep and never completely healed.
My object is to recount what happened in the Communist Party of Great Britain in that period. My credentials for doing this are that from January 1968 I was the Assistant Secretary of the Party and at the centre of all the happenings. I took part in many discussions on Czechoslovakia with leading members of other Communist parties, and in the crucial days preceding and following August 20th, with John Gollan on holiday, I was in charge at the Party Centre.
I make no attempt to describe or analyse events in Czechoslovakia, that is a task beyond my capabilities and resources. They are referred to merely to assist in locating the process within the British Party. Neither do I make any pretence of impartiality. I voted, spoke, wrote and argued for the policy of the leadership of which I was a member but I have attempted a full and accurate version of events.
On January 6th 1968 I was lying in a hospital bed recovering from an operation for detached retina on my right eye when I heard a news broadcaster announce that Alexander Dubcek had replaced Anton Novotny as leader of the Czechoslovak Communist Party. More than a quarter of a century later I cannot pretend to recall my thoughts when I heard the news. I certainly did not foresee its consequences; an international crisis and the deepest divisions in the international communist movement during its half-a-century existence. Perhaps I was not alone in failing to grasp the significance of the change in the Czechoslovak Party leadership. The Morning Star relegated the news to six paragraphs towards the bottom of the front page quoting the Czechoslovak news agency’s reference to “shortcomings in the direction of the Party and application of the principles of democratic centralism” and going on to refer to Dubcek’s long membership of the Communist Party and his record in the wartime resistance movement and uprising. (2)
Czechoslovakia was perhaps the East European country with which British communists had the greatest affinity. This was especially true of my generation in whose minds the Munich betrayal was indelibly imprinted. A large number of Czechoslovak anti-fascists, including many communists, had taken refuge in Britain from the Nazi terror. In Leeds, the headquarters of the Yorkshire District of the Communist Party of which I was secretary during the war years, there was a Czechoslovak club serving appetising meals at low prices. Many friendships developed over the luncheon tables.
A few days after VE Day we said goodbye to our friends who were returning home to help rebuild their country. We shared their optimism of a socialist society in the near future. Czechoslovakia was after all the most industrially developed of the central and east European countries. In pre-Hitler days it had a strong labour movement and Communist Party which had played the leading role in the resistance to the Nazi occupation.
The Khrushchev revelations at the 1956 Soviet party congress started a process of rethinking among many communists. Whilst many of us in the British party began to look more closely at Soviet policies and were less ready to fall in line with its switches, we remained what could justly be called a “pro-Soviet” party. During the bitter and protracted Soviet-China division we tried to establish our own independent position. The defence of peace and the various roads to socialism were not purely Soviet or Chinese affairs. When Khrushchev sought backing for a conference of Communist and Workers’ Parties which would banish the Communist Party of China from the international movement we did not fall into line. When in 1964 he was replaced by Brezhnev on grounds of ill-health we did not accept the explanation and said so publicly.
In the following years we publicly criticised the imprisonment of two Soviet writers, Daniel and Sinyavsky. We also expressed disapproval of the Moscow authorities’ refusal to allow the Jewish community facilities for baking matzos for the Passover festival, and the manufacture of the accoutrements required for the practice of their religion. However these issues, while important, were secondary. We were criticising the consequences of the system of rule not the system itself. The differences which were to come struck at the heart of Soviet policies; their concept of socialism, their relationships with other socialist states and their expectation of full and uncritical support from all other communist parties.
When I returned to work in mid-February the changes in the Czechoslovak Party leadership were being discussed in many sections of our Party. Information was scanty and speculation was rife. I doubt whether half a dozen British communists had heard of Dubcek. We knew that under Novotny’s leadership the Czechoslovak CP had done little to implement reforms following 1956 and the victims of the 1950s’ framed trials had not been rehabilitated. Manifestations of discontent by workers, intellectuals and students during 1967 had not been reported in our press. Fleet Street reports were of course dismissed as “enemy propaganda”. That we should have been better informed is unquestionable. Several British communists worked in the headquarters of international organisations based in Prague and on the Czechoslovak radio. But we looked for information through the normal channels, the Czechoslovak embassy. In the early months of 1968 information from that source was scanty.
Rude Pravo, the official paper of the Czechoslovak CP and other sections of the Czechoslovak media were publishing articles criticising the state of affairs in the country and urging change. These were reported in the Morning Star and quickened interest in the Party and the general public.
All of us on the Political Committee followed the developments closely but we were cautious. We knew little of Dubcek. True, on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the 1948 takeover of power he had promised “the widest democratisation of the entire socio-political system”. But we had seen false dawns before and were reluctant to reach hasty conclusions. Anyway Novotny was still president and the new leaders had yet to produce a programme. Leadership changes in the countries of the socialist bloc did not take place without Moscow’s approval and there was no indication of how the changes were viewed in that quarter. (3)
Our doubts were dispelled and reservations swept aside when at the beginning of April the Action Programme was published. (4) The first chapter – “The Czechoslovak Road to Socialism” – was a powerful criticism of past methods of rule, condemning “bureaucracy [which] became an impediment to progress in all spheres of life” and “dogmatic approaches” in which were the causes of the “profound social crisis”.
The most significant chapter was headed “For the Development of Socialist Democracy, for a new system of Management of Socialist Society”. It promised “the harmful characteristics of centralised decision-making and management” were to be replaced by “broad democracy …. giving room for the activity of every individual, every collective”. It went on, “political parties …. cannot exclude common interest organisations of the workers and other working people from directly influencing state policy” and added the hitherto heretical statement – “socialist state power cannot be monopolised by a single political party or a coalition of parties” and “the National Front as a whole and all its component parts must be allowed independent rights and their own responsibility for the management of our country and society”. It promised a “wide democratic conception of the political and personal rights of citizens” and with regard to those who had been unlawfully condemned “it (the Party) will do its best to remove any shadow of distrust and humiliation to which the families and relatives of those who are affected are often subjected”.
Adding that the security system should not be directed to solving internal political questions, it promised a legal system “based on rights and proceedings in courts which are independent of political factors and bound only by law”. On the economy and enterprises it promised greater freedom of decision-making to management and improvements in workers’ rights.
The programme was widely reported in the national press and aroused great interest. The Morning Star published extensive extracts from it and it was welcomed with enthusiasm by most Party members. Branches were by now organising meetings to discuss what was happening in Czechoslovakia and comrades who had worked there or had a special knowledge of events and their background were in demand as speakers.
I cannot recall any voices being raised in the Party calling the Action Programme “a departure from Marxism-Leninism” or a “threat to socialist society”. Those who were later to support the Soviet intervention kept their counsel. There were no smoke signals from Moscow to guide them.
Enthusiasm for the Action Programme was shared by all of us in the leadership. Yet strangely we had no specific discussion on it or the events preceding and following it. In the discussions at the weekly meetings of the Political Committee there would be references to the latest news from Prague but Czechoslovakia never figured as an item on the agenda. Jack Woddis, the energetic head of our International Department, ever ready to ask for a discussion on developments in other countries, did not suggest that we devote part of a meeting to Czechoslovakia.
A few minutes before the conclusion of the Executive Committee meeting of May 11/12, under the item “Other Business”, Max Morris asked “when are we going to discuss Czechoslovakia? It is being discussed everywhere except in the place where above all, it should be discussed, this Executive!” The matter was hastily referred to the Political Committee which, three days later, decided to make it a major item at the July Executive Committee (EC) meeting and instructed Jack Woddis to draft an opening statement. Jack did not ask for any direction on the lines of his report; he knew all the members of the PC fully supported the changes taking place in Czechoslovakia.
It was around this time that we began to receive letters from the Communist Party of the Soviet Union expressing anxieties about what was happening in Czechoslovakia. The “letters” did not arrive in the normal way, posted in Moscow and delivered to 16, King Street, London WC2. A member of the staff of the Soviet Embassy would come to the Party Headquarters with a message requesting us to send a representative to the Embassy to receive a letter.
Protocol demanded the General Secretary, John Gollan, attend to receive the letter. Gollan however had other ideas. During the protracted Soviet-China polemics letters between the two contending parties had flown thickly and frequently. Both were anxious to keep fraternal parties fully informed and Gollan had decided that other members of the leadership should make the journey to 13 Kensington Palace Gardens or wherever. So, in 1968, I was the “medium” for the messages.
On arrival at the Embassy I would be led to a pleasant modestly furnished room and received by the Ambassador Joseph Smirnovsky and Biryukov, the counsellor responsible for contact with us. The Ambassador was a friendly, quietly-spoken man who always showed a sympathetic understanding of the difficulties confronting the British Party. Biryukov was a dour character who, a couple of years later, along with more than a hundred other Soviet staff members, was expelled by the Tory Foreign Minister, Lord Home, accused of being KGB agents.
After the exchange of greetings, tea or coffee would be brought in and Biryukov would produce and read the letter. I was never permitted to see the letters, much less take them away. I cannot say whether he was reading the original Russian version or a translation. His English was very fluent but he occasionally stumbled. The letters repeated the concerns being expressed in Pravda and other Soviet publications. There were growing “expressions of anti-Sovietism in Czechoslovakia”, elements “hostile to socialism were making outspoken attacks upon the close fraternal relationships between the two countries”, “counter-revolutionary forces were increasing their activity”, and “the Party and its leadership were in danger of losing their grip of the situation”.
As the letters were read I would make notes to report to the Political Committee (PC). At their conclusion the Ambassador would seek my response which, to put it briefly, was that we did not share the views of the leadership of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU). This, I had no doubt, would be immediately reported to Moscow.
The reports of my visits to the Embassy were merely noted by the PC with little or no comment. The Ambassador was carrying out his instructions; there was no point in making representations to him. We were considering putting our views directly to Moscow. Smirnovsky never sought to push the argument. But on one occasion he complained bitterly about the removal from office of a Czechoslovak friend with whom he had worked closely at some time in the past.
Waldeck Rochet, the General Secretary of the Communist Party of France, had proposed a conference of European Communist Parties to consider the Czechoslovak situation. This was given a speedy thumbs down by the Soviet Party.
We decided that John Gollan should go to Paris and Rome to discuss the possibility of a joint approach by a number of Communist Parties. In Paris he met Waldeck Rochet who had already been to Moscow and after a lengthy wait in an ante-room had had a fruitless meeting with Brezhnev. Rochet was very pessimistic. Brezhnev had been emphatic, the Soviet Union would not tolerate anything it deemed a threat to Czechoslovak socialism or any of the interests of the Warsaw Pact Powers. Rochet saw no point in further representations.
John Gollan went to Rome where he met Giancarlo Pajetta, head of the Italian party’s International Department. Pajetta, who had an impressive record both in the anti-fascist resistance and in the politics of the International Communist Movement had also been to Moscow. Not being the General Secretary, protocol denied him an audience with Brezhnev. Instead he met Mikhail Suslov, member of the Politburo and in overall control of relations with the other communist and workers’ parties. Suslov, who was reputed to have been the kingmaker when Khrushchev had been replaced by Brezhnev, was even more obdurate than the Soviet President, and Pajetta was even more pessimistic than Rochet.
The Soviet Union wanted a meeting of the Warsaw Pact countries to discuss the situation in Czechoslovakia. The Czechosiovak government and party leadership saw no reason for the meeting. But the Soviet Union went ahead and met with representatives of Poland, Bulgaria, Hungary and the German Democratic Republic in Warsaw. Czechoslovakia, which was not present, claimed that it had only learned of the meeting through press agency reports when the representatives were already on their way to Warsaw. From the meeting a letter criticising the reforms was sent to the Central Committee of the Czechoslovak CP, whose Presidium rebutted the charges. Despite pressures from their allies Dubcek and his colleagues pressed ahead with the reforms which they argued threatened neither Czechoslovak socialism nor the wider interests of the socialist bloc.
Coincidentally there was a sharp division over the presence of Soviet and other Warsaw Pact troops in Czechoslovakia. Aleksei Kosygin, Soviet Prime Minister, and Minister of Defence Andrei Grechkov had reached agreement with Prague to hold Warsaw Pact manoeuvres on Czechoslovak territory. The manoeuvres had been completed but the troops remained.
It was during this tense period that our EC met on 13/14 July. Jack Woddis opened his report by declaring our solidarity with the Czechoslovak CP. Drawing on the Action Programme he dealt with the deformations and errors of the past years, the bureaucratic and dictatorial methods of government, the injustices and economic mismanagement whose roots lay in political error. On the fears expressed by the Soviet Union he said “With the Czechoslovak leaders’ warnings of anti-Sovietism, it should not be surprising that the Soviet leaders express their grave concern about some of the developments, and have grave misgivings about anti-socialist and revisionist tendencies which are showing themselves.” While recognising the right of parties to show their concern he said “This should not be done in a way which gives the appearance of intervention in the internal affairs of Czechoslovakia…. actual intervention would only play into the hands of anti-socialist and anti-Soviet forces …. and give them the opportunity to play on national feelings and stir up opposition to the leadership of the Czechoslovak Party and the Soviet Union.” He concluded by hoping that the differences on the withdrawal of troops would be speedily resolved.
The report was adopted unanimously and published in the Morning Star the following day accompanied by a supporting editorial and a feature article by Stanley Harrison, a member of the editorial staff. Meanwhile the EC received a letter from Alexander Dubcek inviting us to send a fraternal delegate to the Czechoslovak CP’s 14th Congress in September. An indication of our appreciation of the importance of this Congress was the appointment of John Gollan as our representative.
Hopes and fears
Jack Woddis’s report was well received in the party. I cannot recall receiving any letters from branches or members questioning it. Perhaps those who a few weeks later applauded the Soviet intervention believed the Czechoslovak leadership would yield to the pressure of their allies.
Almost daily attacks on the Czechoslovak reforms came from the media in the Soviet Union and other East European socialist countries. We were very pessimistic. Any comment from the East with a less threatening tone was seized upon as offering a ray of hope.
A “Letter of 2000 Words” by a group of Czechoslovak intellectuals demanding more far-reaching reforms and criticising the Soviet Union was published in the now uncensored Prague press. In Moscow Literatumaya gazeta described it as “a watershed in Czechoslovakia between healthy forces supporting realism and friendship with the Soviet Union and the anti-socialist, in essence counter-revolutionary”.
At the end of July there was a glimmer of hope. The Soviet Politbureau met with the Presidium of the Czechoslovak party at the railway town of Cierna on the Slovak-Ukrainian border. The meeting resulted in agreement to hold an immediate conference of the six Warsaw Pact Parties in Bratislava. Romania which had refused to attend an earlier meeting which had discussed the Czechoslovak situation was excluded.
Our spirits began to rise. While the talks proceeded the almost daily broadsides against the Czechoslovak reformers were halted. On August 1st, the Morning Star front page headline read “SOVIET-CZECH SUMMIT”. The following day’s headline was even more cheerful – “RUSSIANS TO BACK REFORMS – Svoboda on meeting in Bratislava” and on August 3, “WE ARE SATISFIED WITH RESULTS – DUBCEK”.
The Bratislava Declaration contained among the customary jargon such hopeful phrases as “each Communist Party would creatively solve the problems of further socialist development” and it restated the principle of “equality, preservation of sovereignty, national independence and territorial inviolability”. The Soviet Politbureau issued a statement “applauding the activities of its representatives at Bratislava …. strengthening the position of socialism and rebuffing the machinations of imperialism.”
Around this time John Gollan left for a holiday in the Highlands and Jack Woddis left for his holiday in Moldavia: he had accepted an invitation from the Romanian Communist Party. Despite the Bratislava Declaration and the statements of the Czechoslovak leaders Gollan was not sanguine. He did not believe the Soviet leaders had experienced a miraculous conversion on the road from Cierna to Bratislava.
Our optimism did not last long. On August 19 Pravda resumed the offensive declaring “anti-socialist forces were stepping up their subversive activities”. On the following day it complained the “anti-socialist forces were not meeting with the necessary rebuff”.
By the time I read this in the Morning Star the troops and tanks of the five Warsaw Pact countries were in Prague and other major Czechoslovak cities delivering the “rebuff” – allegedly at the behest of the “healthy forces” in the Czechoslovak Party leadership. Dubcek and other leaders who did not respond to Pravda’s call were brutally manhandled, arrested and taken by force to Moscow.
August 21st – day of decision
Hearing the news of the Soviet action on the radio at 7 o’clock I immediately contacted the other members of the Political Committee. By 9 a.m. seven had gathered at King Street. I had expected to find a message from John Gollan, but there was no word from him. I called the number he had left, the village shop/post office near the croft where he was staying with his wife Elsie and their friends the Wilsons, leaving a message for him to contact us immediately. I rang Jimmy Reid, then the Scottish Secretary, asking him to come to London on the next available plane. Cyril Morton, a shop steward at Shardlow’s in Sheffield was at work. The other three members of the Political Committee were on holiday. Present were Nora Jeffery, Gordon McLennan, George Matthews, Bert Ramelson, Frank Stanley the London Secretary, and Bill Wainwright. In Gollan’s absence I took the chair.
We listened to Bert Ramelson’s account of his visit to the Soviet Embassy in the early hours. His exchanges with the Ambassador had been heated. Bert was angry – the Soviets had violated the principles governing relations between Communist Parties and socialist states to say nothing of International Law. They had lied to us and, as we were later to discover, to other parties as well. The Czechoslovak Party leadership had not asked for assistance – a minority opposed to the reforms had conspired with the Soviet leadership to overthrow the legal government and Communist Party leadership. We did not then know of the arrests.
Apart from the days immediately following the Bratislava declaration we had had little hope of a mutual agreement between the Czechoslovaks and their allies. Yet even the most sceptical of us was shocked by the suddenness and brutality of the intervention. We had no doubt about what we should do. This was a historic moment. The decision of the July EC had been clear and unambiguous. It was our responsibility to declare publicly our total opposition to the Soviet-led intervention.
We knew that in addition to its effect on our future relations with the CPSU here would be big problems in our own ranks. We were confident of the support of the majority. But we were not deceived by the apparent lack of opposition to the decisions of the July EC. There were many who believed it our duty to endorse the Soviet action. Besides these intractable elements there were others who, while being unhappy at the Soviet action, would be reluctant about any public criticism of it, wanting instead private representations to the Soviet leadership – an exercise we knew to be futile. But we wanted to win this section so while our statement had to be forthright and unequivocal its tone was important.
As we talked over how to respond to the previous night’s events, venting our anger at the destruction of hopes of a renewal of socialism and the harm done to our cause, George Matthews began drafting a statement for publication. We discussed it carefully, sentence by sentence. A proposal that we describe the action as an “invasion” was rejected on the grounds that it might make it more difficult to win the waverers. Whether or not it would upset the Soviet Communist Party was not a consideration; we knew nothing less than one hundred per cent approval would satisfy them. By mid-morning we had finalised our statement but decided to delay the issue in the hope that John Gollan would contact us.
While we were waiting the staff member of the Czechoslovak Embassy responsible for contact with us arrived. An ardent supporter of Dubcek, he was understandably very agitated but delighted with our statement and did not cavil at the use of “intervention”. He made further visits during the day bringing what sparse news the Embassy had received from Prague. Needless to say none of it was good.
By now newspeople were around the building and our switchboard was besieged by callers from the press, party members, and the public wanting to know our attitude. In the late morning George Matthews and Bill Wainwright left for the Morning Star to prepare the following day’s issue leaving it to the national officers to decide when to release the statement.
Soon after 1 pm I was able to reach Cyril Morton at work. I read the statement over to him and told him we had also decided to call an emergency meeting of the Executive Committee on the following Saturday. Cyril gave immediate assent. At 2 p.m. Jimmy Reid rang from Heathrow and after listening to the statement agreed to its immediate release enabling us to catch the evening newspapers and early news bulletins.
Nora Jeffery and I took copies of the statement to the entrance of our building which was surrounded by reporters. As the copies were being handed out microphones were being thrust into my face. We received many column inches of space and minutes of broadcasting that day and the following morning. Gordon McLennan was interviewed by ITN News and I was interviewed by the BBC 10 o’clock radio news and the World Service. I could not help but think of the empty seats at press conferences we had called when we had something important to say about our own country.
While we had managed to delay issuing a public statement in the hope that John Gollan would get in touch, party members were making up their own minds and having to give their opinions publicly. District offices outside London were being pressed for statements by the local media. Annie Powell, later to become Mayor of Rhondda, appeared on Welsh TV, John Peck, now a Nottingham Green Party councillor, and Neville Carey in Bristol made statements which were featured prominently in local evening newspapers.
Communists active in workplaces could not wait until they read the PC statement the following morning. Their workmates wanted to know right away what communists thought about the Soviet action. One Nottingham miner learned of it coming off night shift and immediately telephoned John Peck to demand that the Party oppose it. Some members called at the office to air their views. Only two urged us to back the Soviet Union – two lecturers at a London college – both living in Surrey.
Still no word from John Gollan. Shortly after six o’clock, as I was about to leave for Broadcasting House, my ‘phone rang. Picking it up I heard the voice of a man not best pleased at having his holiday interrupted say “What is it, Reuben?” I gasped – he did not know what had happened! The Gollans and their friends, Bea and Robbie Wilson, had set off early that morning for an arduous hill climb before the radio news broadcasts and had picked up my message on their way back to the croft. Hastily I put him in the picture. He approved of all our decisions and said that he would go immediately to Edinburgh for a flight to London.
When I arrived at the office the following morning he was already at work after having spent a sleepless night. Later that day Jack and Margaret Woddis returned from Romania having cut short their holiday. We spent two hectic days discussing the draft of John Gollan’s statement to the EC and the resolution to put before it, amending and re-drafting; and dealing with ‘phone calls from members congratulating or denouncing us.
When more than thirty members of the EC met on Saturday morning the atmosphere was electric. By this time we all were fully informed of the brutality with which the Soviet Union and its allies had overthrown the Czechoslovak government and Party leadership. John Gollan introduced the resolution which was an expanded version of the statement issued by the Political Committee three days earlier. After dealing with the decisions of our July EC and the meetings at Ciema and Bratislava he asked “What had changed in the twelve days preceding August 20th? Pravda had said a minority of the Czechoslovak leadership had opposed Bratislava, if this were so why had the views of the majority not prevailed?”
In the lengthy discussion which followed there was only one dissentient voice. Charlie Job, a director of one of the largest co-operative societies in Britain, defended the intervention. He was listened to with respect, but received no support.
There were a number of amendments to the resolution which endorsed the PC statement and added “the intervention had no support from any leading body in the Government or Party and was aimed at preventing the leadership carrying out their duties.” It asked “Why, if the parties taking part in the Bratislava meeting were not satisfied with the steps taken by the Czechoslovak Party or saw new dangers arising, could there not have been further discussion and not military intervention?” It concluded “It is absolutely essential that agreement is reached for the immediate withdrawal of troops from Czechoslovakia and we call on the five governments concerned to act at once to ensure this is done.” The resolution was passed with one vote against and all Party branches and district committees were called upon to discuss and vote on it. The national officials were instructed to deliver copies to the embassies of the five countries and seek discussion with members of the diplomatic staff. In only a couple of cases was this achieved. I visited the Polish Embassy and scarcely got past the door.
Czechoslovak Communist leaders – Moscow’s prisoners
While we were meeting, the centre of the drama had shifted to Moscow. The Morning Star headline on August 23 read “Czech Leaders Mystery”. By the end of the day the mystery was solved and the August 24th headline was “Svoboda In Talks In Moscow”. During August 21 Dubcek, Cernik, and Spacek – all leading members of the reform group – had been kidnapped and taken to Moscow. On August 23 Svoboda and several other leaders of the Party and the Government had flown to Moscow. This group included some of those who had betrayed their Party and their country – Bilak, Indra and Lennart – as well as Husak, then Deputy Prime Minister.
The Soviet leaders put relentless pressure on the Czechoslovaks to sign a document undertaking to declare void the 14th congress held immediately following the intervention and attended by several hundred delegates, a majority of those holding mandates, who had elected a new Central Committee as well as denouncing the intervention and reaffirming the Action Programme. The document also compelled them to withdraw the item on the Czechoslovak Question from the agenda of the UN Security Council, re-introduce censorship in the press, television and radio and make changes in the Government and Party leadership. It said the troops would not interfere in the internal affairs of the country and would be withdrawn once the threat to socialism had ended. These phrases, combined with fear of bloodshed and divisions in their own ranks, led the group deciding by a majority vote to sign the Protocol. Only one of the group of Czechoslovak leaders, Kriegel, who had been kept apart from the others, refused to sign the document. When the Czechoslovaks left on the early morning of August 26 for the 3 a.m. flight to Prague he was not with them and they refused to board the plane until they were certain that he was on it.
On August 27 Svodoba declared “We will continue on our road”. We issued a statement welcoming the “agreement”. We knew the reality – the troops were there to accomplish what Bilak and his fellow-conspirators had failed to do – put an end to the reforms of the Action Programme. But we felt that to do anything else would not be helpful to the Czechoslovak comrades. Doubtless the Italian Party which also welcomed the document had similar feelings.
Divisions between communist parties
Communist and Workers’ parties around the world were declaring their attitudes. The Italian party expressed its disapproval and the French party “deplored the military intervention” In Belgrade President Tito said “he Soviet Union had acted without thought of the consequences”. The Peking Press Agency declared “The Soviet Union had committed a monstrous error,” but went on to accuse Dubcek of “accelerating the restoration of capitalism.” The Japanese Communist Party protested at “the unjustifiable interference into the affairs of another party” and the Romanian party called for the “complete withdrawal of troops.” The Communist Parties of Sweden, Norway, Spain, Australia and Holland also condemned the Soviet action. Playing it both ways, Fidel Castro described the action as “a flagrant violation of sovereignty justified by Prague’s march towards capitalism”.
But support for the Soviet version of events was not long in coming. Gus Hall, chair of the Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA) said “We do not have the full facts necessary to make clear whether or not there was any alternative to the action taken.” Lack of information did not deter him from asserting there was “an upsurge of anti-Soviet elements supported by the forces of subversion of US and West Germany” and that the “CPSU had taken steps in the spirit of proletarian internationalism”.
The Communist Party of South Africa stated “we understand a majority of the members of the Presidium of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia appealed to the Soviet Union and its neighbours to render them aid”. Who gave them to “understand” and where it was given was not revealed. Had there been another early morning Embassy assignation? In the capitalist world support for the Soviet action came from parties in West Germany, Israel, Syria, Chile, Cyprus (AKEL) and Portugal.
Schisms in the Party
After the August 24th EC meeting, the battle in the Party raged. Almost every committee, branch and group was divided, The division was not working class comrades and trade union activists on one side and professional and middle class on the other – everywhere there were opponents and supporters of the action taken by the five Warsaw Pact countries.
Miners’ leaders Bill Paynter and Mick McGahey, shop stewards’ conveners of large car factories, Dick Etheridge and Bill Warman and prominent Clydeside shipyard stewards supported the EC. Among Trade Union leaders against were George Guy, Sheetmetal Workers’ Union official and later member of the TUC General Council, Bert Papworth, a former busworkers’ leader who had been on the General Council and Abe Moffat, former President of the Scottish Mineworkers. G C T Giles, the first Communist to become President of the National Union of Teachers, and Max Morris who later held that office, opposed the Soviet action but a vocal minority of teachers and lecturers supported it. Maurice Dobb, eminent Cambridge economist, Eric Hobsbawm the historian and Maurice Cornforth, a prominent Marxist philosopher, supported the EC but Alan Bush, the internationally renowned composer, and historian John Foster were among the artists and intellectuals opposed.
The lawyers’ group, too, was divided. Its chairman Barry Amiel and many others gave wholehearted support to the EC resolution. But senior partners in two legal firms who had for decades given invaluable service to the Party were strong supporters of the intervention.
Neither was the division old versus young. 91 year old Bob Stewart, for many years a leading worker in the Comintern and Isobel Brown, who led the international campaign for Dimitrov’s release and later the “Aid for Spain” funds campaign, firmly backed the EC. By no means were all the youth disenchanted by the Soviet action. The majority of the YCL leadership were with the Party’s EC but at leadership and branch level, there were many who admired the ruthlessness with which Dubcek and his colleagues had been disposed of. In the student branches the battle between the two sides was fought with almost unprecedented venom.
Only twelve of the Central Committee elected by the 15th Congress in 1938 were still living and in the Party. Ten were with the EC, among them Peter Kerrigan, JR Campbell and Emile Burns. R Palme Dutt, (of whom more later) and one other were against. Only two or three of the full-time workers at the Party Centre opposed the EC but at the Morning Star the News Editor, Parliamentary Correspondent and Women’s Editor were among those backing the Soviet Union. For the Editors the task of producing an underfunded, under-resourced daily paper was made much more difficult by the division among the staff.
One of the most intriguing, at times baffling, divisions was among Jewish communists. In 1956 revelations of anti-semitism in the Soviet Union during the Stalin years, when many leaders of Jewish cultural life had been unjustly executed, had profoundly shaken Jewish comrades and many left the Party. In East London, Hendon and other areas where there was a substantial Jewish membership the ranks were depleted if not decimated, as was the Commercial Branch, a group of businessmen, mainly Jewish, which raised very substantial amounts of money for the Party and the Daily Worker. Of those Jews who retained their Party membership many were bitterly critical of the leadership for not adopting a sharper attitude to the Soviet Union, accusing it of attempting to gloss over the extent of the Stalinist crimes.
In 1968 by contrast some of the staunchest support for the intervention came from Jewish communist working class, businessmen and professionals in London and Manchester. Some who had been among the sharpest critics of the EC in 1956 were now accusing it of anti-Sovietism and ignoring the dangers of renewed West German aggression. I recollect John Gollan addressing a meeting of Hackney members which included a number of Jewish comrades and receiving a less-than-friendly reception. He said to me “I suppose a Jew who stayed in the party after the 1956 revelations will put up with almost anything the Soviet Union does.” Needless to say I thanked him for the compliment.
Finally not a few families were divided, parents and siblings and sometimes spouses, taking different sides. Even those who had fought for democracy in Spain with the International Brigade were divided. The Party was truly in a state of civil war. It was thus impossible to categorise the adversaries by age, sex, occupation, social origin, political experiences or length of party membership.
Morning Star readers divided
We were determined to win by political argument. All members would have the right to put their views in our press and at meetings. There would be no administrative measures.
Letters poured in to the Morning Star. John Hughes of Fleetwood wrote “The Soviet Union would not have taken such a step unless it had good reason to believe the situation was dangerous …. and counter-revolution imminent .. evidence for this can be found in the support given by the capitalist press to Czechoslovak reformers.” He complained the press published no pictures of Czechoslovaks supporting the Soviet Union. How could they when those who had issued the “invitation” would not reveal their names? Ken Livings of London called for “reliance on those best placed to take the action needed to defend socialism.” Another correspondent wrote “The Russians have facilities to know the capitalists’ plans.” Yet another urged “readers to think twice, nay three times before condemning or underestimating infiltration of a group of provocateurs into the movement.”
Correspondents who had worked in or visited Prague regularly had different views. Hymie Fagan wrote “I have been a frequent visitor to Czechoslovakia during the last few years. When I flew in in early May the country was alive. The entire country, with obvious exceptions, had rallied behind the new leadership”. (5) Mike Gray who had worked in Czechoslovakia for five years said “since February the CP has been winning support from people who had given up hope of seeing humanitarian democratic socialism. After the arrival of the tanks thousands of people filled Wenceslas Square shouting support for Svoboda and Dubcek.” Roy Gore, a prominent London Communist and frequent visitor to Czechoslovakia during the post January 1968 period added his voice to those challenging Soviet claims of a threat to socialism. (6) One reader said bitterly that he “had been an unwilling witness to the unforgivable actions of the Warsaw troops”.
Finally John Williamson, a former National Organiser of the Communist Party of the USA, who had been deported after serving five years in prison under the Smith Act, wrote “Hard as I have tried I cannot support the action of a group of socialist states against another socialist country”.
Labour Monthly provided an intriguing discussion, rare for its columns. Edited since its establishment in 1921 by R Palme Dutt, proclaimed by many to be the Communist Party’s leading theoretician, its “Notes of the Month” written by the editor had been the guiding light for many on the left, non-communist as well as communist. Dutt had a powerful intellect and was capable of providing a deep analysis of politics and in particular an ability to provide an interpretation of the twists and turns of Soviet policies. He had retired from the Communist Party leadership but still enjoyed the faithful support of the dwindling and ageing readers of the magazine. For many his judgments were the equivalent of papal pronouncements to the faithful. Labour Monthly was Dutt’s personal fiefdom. Although the Party card urged members to read it as well as the Daily Worker/Morning Star and other Party publications it was not under the Party’s direction and I cannot recall it being discussed at any of the hundreds of Executive and Political Committee meetings that I attended. (7)
Dutt was fond of describing Labour Monthly as “a magazine of international Labour” and his “Notes of the Month” frequently provided a global political survey. Yet in the six issues from February to July 1968 there were articles on Greece, India, Germany, Vietnam, France, Australia the USA and other countries but not one on Czechoslovakia. Dutt spent July resting in a sanatorium near Moscow and the August “Notes” were written by Andrew Rothstein. On his return he devoted his “Notes” for the September issue to the Centenary TUC which was to be held at Blackpool. Under pressure from his editorial colleagues he added a postscript CZECHOSLOVAKIA, THE SOVIET UNION AND THE COLD WAR GHOULS.
Beginning “It is time to look at the genuine problems …. with a little balance and understanding”, he asserted that at Cierna and Bratislava the six parties and countries concerned had reached agreement on the basis of common interests. After dealing at some length with the Munich betrayal and February 1948 takeover he returned to the press speculation of a breach between the socialist countries. “The most glaring falsification of the whole present issue concerning Czechoslovakia in the current Western treatment has been to present it as a battle between the right of the Czechoslovak Government and people to settle their own internal affairs and an attempt at ‘Russian dictation’ of Czechoslovak internal policy. Hence the Bratislava declaration reaffirming the familiar principle of equality, respect for sovereignty and national independence in the relations between socialist states has been trumpeted abroad as a Czechoslovak victory.”
The thrust of Dutt’s argument continued to be that the differences would be settled on the basis of principles agreed to at international meetings of communist and workers’ parties in 1957 and 1961 and he wound up “Only a person bereft of reason could believe one socialist country could invade another.” The additional “Notes” were sent to the printer, set in type and the galleys returned to the magazine’s office for proof reading. On August 21 they were withdrawn by Dutt. (8)
The October “Notes of the Month”, devoted entirely to Czechoslovakia, occupied twenty five of the magazine’s forty-eight pages. Dutt began with a quote from the Action Programme, torn out of context, and capped it with three quotes from Lenin. Quoting a leaflet written by a Prague student who had believed “socialism and democracy can live side by side” he remarked “bless her virgin innocence” and for good measure provided a further quote from Lenin. Covering himself against a repetition of the previous month’s fiasco, he wrote “unexpected development … could make these comments outdated before they appear” and warning “critics who
are prepared to lecture on how to run the revolution, but have not yet had the opportunity to prove in practice their own capacity to carry through and maintain a socialist revolution” he dealt with the history of the Russian revolution. He then belaboured the Czechoslovak bourgeoisie for its anti-communist past and accused Benes of complicity in the 1938 betrayal.
With only a passing reference to the deformities and crimes of the pre-Dubcek regime he criticised some formulations in the Action Programme and linked these “errors” to the growth of the anti-socialist forces in Czechoslovakia who were “linked to Western Imperialism.” Admitting that the Czechoslovak leadership had condemned the activities of anti-Soviet elements and had appealed to editors to exercise voluntary restraint while they prepared new press laws, he defended the intervention of August 20th and the taking of the Czechoslovak leaders to Moscow by force.
The outcome of the Moscow meeting to which the Czechoslovak leaders had been taken in captivity, had provided the path to a political solution “uniting the general body of the [Czechoslovak] people, and all sections of the Party behind the leaders.” While Dutt did not openly declare his support for the intervention there was no mistaking what he was saying. Supporters of the Soviet action were jubilant; they had no doubt that Dutt was on their side. The Soviet critics’ views received nineteen lines. They were advised “In these differences between communist parties there is no umpire. Only the historical outcome, the test of practice, is the final arbiter.”
The November issue carried letters from readers infuriated by Dutt’s sheer effrontery. There were other letters applauding him, some written in effusively obsequious sycophantic words.
The magazine’s art editor, Stewart Douglas, resigned and a former member of the editorial board, Margot Heinemann, wrote scornfully “I would not try to cap Lenin quotations since they refer to a different period …. in any case I have from time to time read some Lenin and my impression is that he would be turning in his grave at being quoted in support of carting off leaders of a fraternal Party by force to Moscow, and preventing the holding of a Party Congress.” Daphne Simon protested that in “justifying the invasion” Dutt had denigrated the Action Programme. Margaret Cohen wrote “In the guise of impartiality, with the air of being above the battle, you devote the greater part of your long article to arguments which justify the Soviet attitude and action… in spite of any appearance of objectivity, the article as a whole will be taken, as you must be well aware, as a defence of the Soviet position”. Dennis Ogden, for many years Daily Worker correspondent in Moscow, said the article amounted to “veiled justification of the invasion” and he challenged the many parallels Dutt had drawn with Munich, Kronstadt, the Finnish war and Hungary in 1956. Monty Johnstone questioned the assumption that the Soviet leaders’ experience enabled them to “understand the most simple realities of the Czechoslovak situation. …. May it not be that the experience of the Western Communist Parties is perhaps of greater relevance in understanding the position in Czechoslovakia than that of the Soviet leaders?” E P Lupton expressed his “dismay at reading the current Notes, which to my mind, totally misdirect the discussion of Czechoslovakia …. we are given dead formulae, as for example, ‘only the historical outcome the test of practice, is the final arbiter.’ Put in another form, ‘time will tell’ (that the Soviet Union is right, as ever) – is this a Marxist analysis?” Dave Bowman, a member of the EC of the Communist Party, who later became President of the National Union of Railwaymen, wrote that “if counter-revolutionary forces, peaceful or otherwise, were becoming a political force in Czechoslovak life, if the trade unions and working class were passive and open to counter-revolutionary ideas, then such allegations must be substantiated by proof. A proof which has never been forthcoming, presumably because it does not exist.”
Support for Dutt came from the novelist James Aldridge who wrote “It would have been a pretty bleak outlook if the Notes had not given us the sound analysis that we have always come to expect.” Alan Bush described the Notes as a “complete reasoned and objective statement”, adding “The views of most members of the intelligentsia in situations such as this are particularly unreliable.” Brian Bunting, a prominent member of the South African CP, resident in Britain, gave “thanks for giving us the best Marxist analysis I have yet read on the Czechoslovak situation.” E S Sachs extended “Hearty congratulations to R P Dutt for his brilliant analysis” adding “No one challenges the right of the Czechoslovak people to build socialism in their own way, or to inaugurate political and economic reforms. The sole question is whether under the guise of liberalising the national life of the country subversion should be allowed and even facilitated”. Mikki Doyle, editor of the Morning Star‘s Women’s page, also congratulated Dutt on his excellent analysis, which, as Gordon Norris, a leading activist in the Seamen’s Union, wrote, “hoists high and clear the fundamental class issues, imperialism versus socialism, showing at all times socialist states must be vigilant.”
There is no reason to doubt Dutt’s claim that three-quarters of the letters expressed appreciation of the survey as “helpful for consideration of the issues.”
A further source of support for the champions of Soviet policies was the propaganda issued by the press departments of the Warsaw Pact’s five London embassies. The Soviet Press Department published a weekly illustrated paper, Soviet Weekly, officially for sale at a very low cover price, but the majority distributed free. They also produced a bi-weekly Soviet News posted to a large number of people in political life. These reported the speeches of Soviet leaders and articles from Pravda repeating the justifications for the intervention. The other embassies contented themselves with an occasional publication sent, usually by post, to a list of communists and others which had clearly been compiled with the assistance of our “hard liners”.
The Soviet Union was very anxious to secure the endorsement of parties in the capitalist world for the intervention. Initially it seemed a majority would oppose. But under pressure more parties backed them. I received a visit from an Austrian comrade who had been an anti-fascist refugee in London. He had worked on the editorial board of the Austrian CP’s paper but when his party had switched to support for the intervention he had been sacked for refusing to toe the line. A few days after the intervention I had a visit from the leader of a party who had been on holiday in the Soviet Union and was passing through London on his way home. In his absence his party had condemned the intervention. He said to me “I never thought I would be ashamed of my own party for taking an anti-Soviet line.” While his party did not openly change their line the absence of any future criticism of the Soviet union was very noticeable. From observing the press of foreign parties and information gleaned at various international gatherings I am sure that these occurrences were not uncommon.
We were not exempt from Soviet pressure. The Soviet Union purchased more than ten thousand copies of the Morning Star which was the only English newspaper on sale in that country. Towards the end of 1968 the order was cancelled. The motive was twofold: Soviet citizens able to read English would no longer have the opportunity of seeing a critique of their government’s policies and it put financial pressure on the cash-strapped Morning Star. The EC made a formal protest to the CPSU but we made it clear that our policy would not be in any way influenced by the loss of the Soviet order. In a very short time the order was restored.
As the British party’s voice the Morning Star was an obvious target for Soviet displeasure. This included its journalists. Sam Russell, the paper’s foreign editor, had been reporting in Prague. His dispatches had been picked up by Radio Free Europe and broadcast throughout Eastern Europe. The Russians were not pleased with Sam who years earlier had been the Daily Worker correspondent in Moscow. He was not invited to the November 7 celebration of the Russian Revolution, an invitation invariably sent to the foreign editor. A hint that others on the paper and party leadership might boycott the event resulted in a messenger being hastily despatched to the Morning Star office with an invitation for Sam.
Our policy statements were being closely studied by other communist parties. I had travelled to Liege to attend the funeral of the chairman of the Belgian party, a veteran comrade who had not hesitated to challenge the Soviet representatives at international gatherings. In the conversations prior to the funeral ceremony, the Belgian comrades praised us warmly. When I said that I could see no difference between our respective policies they replied “You are much more outspoken.”
Earlier we had received an unexpected visit from Giancarlo Pajetta. John Gollan had resumed his interrupted holiday but I was able to gather a few members of the PC and with the assistance of James Klugmann we had a useful couple of hours discussion. We suggested that a group of West European parties make a joint approach to the Soviet Union. Pajetta did not consider it a practical proposition and counselled “patience”. Obviously he did not think Brezhnev would listen to us. I had the feeling that he thought that as a government-in-waiting the reputation of the Italian CP would not be enhanced by involvement in an unwinnable conflict with the Soviet Union.
The Surrey Congress
The argument in our Party continued to be passionate and vehement. Both sides believed principles were at stake. On one side socialist democracy and the right of each Party to decide its own road – on the other the “proletarian internationalism” and the duty to support the Soviet Union. Between the two there was little room for compromise.
Only two of the eighteen district committees voted against the EC resolution – Surrey, and Hants and Dorset. In some the vote for the EC was overwhelming: in London it was 28-5. These votes were important because the committees included a large proportion of comrades with high standing in the workplaces and localities. By definition these members were close to the people. A large majority of the branches also voted for the EC resolution. Even in the East Midlands, which later fell into the hands of the “hard liners”, only three of two dozen branches voted against. But at this level the percentage voting against was somewhat higher.
The next stage was the district congresses which had been instructed by the EC to debate and vote on its resolution of 24 August. Fifteen congresses supported the EC; three – Surrey, North-East England, and Hants & Dorset – voted against. Of the 1400-plus delegates, 64% supported the EC, 34% opposed and 2%, unable to make up their minds, abstained. The voting in Yorkshire of 64-20-6, in Wales 43-6-4, and Midlands 62-19-2 was very satisfactory, Scotland 126-54 a little less so and North West (Lancs and Merseyside) 69-47-3 disappointing. We had expected to lose in Hants & Dorset and Surrey but were surprised to lose the North
East by 25-29-1.
At each congress an EC member attended to move the resolution and reply to the discussion. It was my responsibility to arrange this and I thought it was important that we be represented at the Surrey Congress by a comrade from the central group of the leadership. But all those whom I approached already had engagements for that weekend – so it fell to me.
Readers may understandably be puzzled that Surrey, a district of lesser importance, with little more than 2% of the CPGB’s total membership should have been the main centre of opposition and that Sid French, the District Secretary, should become, apart from Palme Dutt, the most prominent individual opponent. A little background might be helpful. The Surrey district was established in the early 1950s and included the boroughs of Croydon, Kingston, Merton, Richmond and Sutton, now in Greater London. It had comparatively little industry and very few large workplaces. A large part of its working population packed the Southern Region trains daily, commuting to Central London. The county’s outer areas were traditional “stockbroker belt.” The Tories held all the Parliamentary seats, many with massive majorities, dominated the County Council and controlled all the local Councils. The Labour movement was not strong. Altogether Surrey did not offer fertile ground for the growth of communist politics.
Sid French had been the secretary since the district was established. He came from a party family and was fond of telling of his father cycling around Mitcham delivering the Daily Worker. He was an energetic organiser and a strong speaker; usually the decibels had more power than reasoning. He made no secret of the fact that he was worthy of a place in the leadership. He began full-time work in the London District after the war and was in almost constant conflict with John Mahon, the London Secretary, and had for years been a vociferous critic of the EC which he believed lacked revolutionary zeal and was weak on “Leninism”.
In his view, if the Party was not advancing, the fault lay with the EC which pursued “reformist” policies and gave only lukewarm support to the Soviet Union. French flogged these views day in and day out among the Surrey members and it was music to the ears of many who were frustrated by years of effort with little result. He undoubtedly had the support of most of the activists. Some of the minority finding the atmosphere uncongenial ceased attending local meetings and found other outlets for political work. One, whom I tried to persuade to stay on the District Committee and fight, spoke scornfully of French “strutting around like the Stalin of Suburbia”.
On the first morning of the Congress French made a report on the work of the retiring District Committee, which, bearing in mind what I have said about Surrey, was praiseworthy. He took good care not to use this platform to voice his opposition to the EC, but the delegates had no such inhibitions and the discussion was a catalogue of complaints of the leadership’s sins. I did not intervene in this discussion which was obviously setting the scene for the debate on Czechoslovakia the following day. At the end of the day the chairman, a close associate of French, remarked to me “you can see what the feeling is like down here.” The following morning I moved the EC resolution. Of the dozen or so speakers only two supported the EC, a young student with little experience of speaking, especially to hostile audiences, and a woman from Richmond who made a powerful and reasoned speech. The other speakers reiterated the arguments used in all the previous discussions. One who had attended a youth festival in Sofia the previous year complained of the behaviour of some of the Czechoslovak student contingents, instancing it as proof of the dangers of counterrevolution. A “Fleet Street supports Dubcek…” theme ran through many speeches.
French’s contribution dealt mostly with the Soviet Union where, he said, “workers owned the factories and there is no Stock Exchange.” He failed to explain what this had to do with post-January Czechoslovak events nor did he deny that Czechoslovak workers owned the factories as much, or as little, as the Soviet workers.
The vote of 11-53 was a foregone conclusion. I came away feeling sad at the atmosphere in which the debate had been conducted and sorry for the small courageous band who had tried to introduce reality into it. They had to spend all their political life in this atmosphere; I was returning to the cosy warm comradeship of 16 King Street.
Censored in Warsaw
In November the Polish United Workers’ Party held its Congress. Bert Ramelson who attended as our fraternal delegate decided to include a brief reference to our position on the intervention in his address to the Congress. Shortly after he handed his speech in for translation, an official of the Polish party handed it to him asking for the deletion of the reference to Czechoslovakia saying, “it is for us and not for fraternal delegates of other parties to discuss contentious matters at our Congress.” Bert thought this reasonable and deleted that part of his address. Brezhnev then delivered a lengthy address in which he advanced the concept of “limited sovereignty”, – a theory put forward earlier by Pravda to justify the intervention. Believing that what was “sauce for the goose was sauce for the gander”, Bert retrieved his speech and reinserted the reference to the intervention. There followed lengthy arguments between Bert and the Polish party officials who went to the length of involving Waiter Ulbricht, the leader of the GDR’s Socialist Unity Party.
During a coffee break, Ulbricht buttonholed Bert and gave him an account of the extent of the Western powers’ preparations for invading Czechoslovakia through West Germany the previous August, and the central role of the anti-Soviet elements in their plans. He alleged that the Bonn authorities had already printed and minted new notes and coins bearing the head of the Czechoslovaks’ first president, Thomas Masaryk. Bert, too old a hand to fall for that story, continued in his refusal to remove the “offending” remarks. Finally he was told that he would not be allowed to address the Congress. Under pressure he agreed to telephone John Gollan for guidance. Gollan’s retort was: “If you drop it from your speech, don’t come back.” The following day Bert came home, leaving behind the representatives of the Italian, French and other European parties.
The noose tightens
In Czechoslovakia the Soviet stranglehold was inexorably tightening. The post-January gains were being eroded and former adherents of Novotny were restored to leading positions in the Government and party. By April 1969 they were strong enough to force Dubcek to resign. He was appointed chairman of the Federal Parliament but remained on the party Presidium. The Soviet party was claiming that it had the support of the majority of communist and workers’ parties. While there was no factual basis for this claim a number of parties had eventually declared support for the intervention. Whether there was any discussion on Czechoslovak events in those parties is questionable. In March 1969 I was a fraternal delegate to the Congress of AKEL in Nicosia. General Secretary Ezekias Papaoiannou, who, when resident in Britain, had been a member of the London District Committee, made a four-hour report covering relations between the big powers as well as the internal questions without a mention of Czechoslovakia. Neither was the matter referred to by any of the 15 speakers in the discussion.
In the American Party things were no different. Peggy Dennis, widow of the former Party leader Eugene Dennis, wrote: “in no other party in the Western World were the facts so deliberately misrepresented as in our country. And nowhere else was discussion of this event so deliberately falsified and restricted.” (See P Dennis, Autobiography of an American Communist, p. 278.)
In Britain discussion of Czechoslovak events was not restricted to communists. The East European countries had established “friendship societies” whose job it was to trumpet the achievements of the respective regimes. These had enlisted a number of people prominent in public life, the arts and trade unions, who were regularly included in delegations visiting the socialist world. Many came out in support of the intervention and their views were thrown at us as proof that even non-communists understood the danger of counter-revolution that had existed in Czechoslovakia.
The Labour Movement was of course overwhelmingly opposed to the Warsaw Pact action. A group of communists, Labour Party members, people from the New Left and some students established a “Committee to Defend Czechoslovak Socialists” which conducted a number of activities. It planned a rally in Hyde Park to mark the first anniversary of the intervention and invited us to send a speaker. After very careful consideration we voted 6-5 not to accept the invitation but instead to send a copy of our resolution of the previous August and request that it be read to the meeting.
The Political Committee division on whether or not to send a speaker did not reflect any weakening of opposition to the occupation of Czechoslovakia. Some of the members were concerned that in the pre-Congress discussion which would commence shortly, it would be a diversion which might lead to divisions among those who had supported us. The vote could not have been closer; indeed had there been a full attendance it might well have gone the other way. The Hyde Park rally, at which Monty Johnstone and other communists spoke, went peacefully. Not so the demonstrations in Prague, Bratislava, Brno and other Czechoslovak cities where the government marshalled thousands of soldiers and police. In the bloody battles which followed many lives were lost.
To deter future demonstrations of opposition draconian laws were introduced, the party Presidium removed Dubcek from the chair of the Federal Assembly and expelled him from the Presidium. Smrkovsky and several other reformers were removed from office. The Prague Spring was dead. “Normalisation”, first mentioned in the Moscow dictum had been established and was to reign for twenty years.
CPGB 31st Congress
A majority of our members, branches and district committees were opposed to the intervention. But to establish our position beyond doubt it was necessary for the matter to be debated and voted on by the highest authority in the party – the National Congress due in November 1969. This was preceded in the summer by an international meeting of communist and workers’ parties in Moscow. This was not called to discuss the Czechoslovak question and it took no decisions binding upon those attending, but the intervention could not be excluded from its proceedings. The CPSU agreed that Pravda would print the speeches unedited and uncut. John Gollan was one of the several party leaders who took the opportunity of stating their party’s opposition to the intervention.
In August we commenced our customary pre-Congress discussion. From August 30 to mid-November our weekly journal Comment published more than one hundred letters; nearly all dealt with the Czechoslovak question and many dealt with it exclusively.
Palme Dutt was an early contributor. Carefully distancing himself from the sectarian opponents of the entire party strategy he said that he entered “the discussion reluctantly” and thought “it unwise to endorse today resolutions which were adopted prior to the fuller knowledge available and their endorsement in the present circumstances would be an expression of opposition to the Czechoslovak CP and give encouragement to anti-Party forces.” Dutt gave the readers no enlightenment on the “fuller knowledge” he spoke of. Presumably the “anti-Party forces” who were receiving “encouragement” from our resolution included Dubcek and those of his colleagues who had been removed from office or expelled from the party. He rounded off his argument with the mandatory quote from Lenin who in an article “God in Heaven” written during a polemic with Karl Kautsky said “The final judgement, justification or otherwise, can only be the judgement of the class-conscious workers of all countries.” Neither Lenin nor Dutt provided any guidance on how to decide which workers were class-conscious and which were not.
Sam Russell, who had been in Prague during the heady days of the 1968 summer took up the cudgels saying that he too “was reluctant to enter the discussion”, but in 1968 the Czechoslovak workers “refused to accept any counter-revolution or danger of counter-revolution which warranted military intervention …. they were confident that the Party would be able to deal with any threat thanks to the new-found strength of the Party following the changes made in January 1968.”
Sid French, taking his cue from Dutt and competing with him for “chutzpah,” asked: “Why, when the Czechoslovak Party is expressing its gratitude to the Warsaw Pact action, should leading members of our Party be demanding the names of those who invited them in?” John Tarver of Oxford, accused the Morning Star of “condensation of the Action Programme leaving out economic planning and inserting everything calculated to reinforce belief about an easy path to socialism via a multi-party system.” In fact the Action Programme went no further than advocating greater independence for the parties in the National Front and insisted that “with the victory of socialism that it [the CP] becomes the vanguard of the entire socialist society”. Andrew Rothstein, veteran authority on the Soviet Union and long-standing associate of Dutt’s, and Charlie Doyle, who like John Williamson had been imprisoned under the Smith Act and expelled from the USA, added their support to the Soviet Union. The historian A L Morton and Monty Johnstone were among the many contributors arguing against the Warsaw Pact action.
But the main battle was fought out in the branch and membership meetings which elected congress delegates. Both sides went to considerable lengths to marshal their forces for these meetings. If the Party rules were not broken, they were at least stretched on more than one occasion.
Ten days before the Congress John Gollan received a request from the Soviet Ambassador to come to the Embassy. Under the impression that the purpose of the request was to receive the usual message of greetings from the CPSU to the Congress, he went along. To his astonishment the message was a request from the CPSU to remove the item on Czechoslovakia from the Congress agenda. Stunned and angered by such blatant interference in our affairs he refused to discuss the message and immediately left the Embassy.
We did not report this to the Congress. I doubt whether it would have made any difference to the vote. Opponents of the intervention would have been enraged and indignant – supporters would surely not have cavilled at “peaceful” intervention.
During the first day and a half of the proceedings when delegates debated the omnibus resolution covering international and domestic problems, the atmosphere was tense. A minority, supporters of the intervention, attempted to attribute all the Party’s failings to its refusal to go along with Soviet policies and accused the leadership of giving in to “bourgeois ideology and propaganda”.
On the afternoon of the second day, when Jack Woddis got to his feet to move the EC resolution, the atmosphere in the hall was charged with electricity. He covered the by-now-familiar ground: breach of sovereignty, interference in the internal affairs of a fraternal party, etc. He poured scorn on the claims of counterrevolutionary danger, saying, “seeking evidence they [the Warsaw Pact troops] had searched the premises of the Government, the Communist Party, Rude Pravo [but] they did not produce or arrest a single counter-revolutionary. But they arrested the First Secretary of the Communist Party, the Prime Minister, the Chairman of the National Assembly, the Chairman of the National Front and the Secretary of the Prague City Committee of the Party.” He concluded by expressing the greetings of the Congress to the Czechoslovak CP and “the sincere hope that, in the full enjoyment of their socialist sovereignty and in conditions of expanding socialist democracy, they will be able to overcome their difficulties and give a new and powerful impetus to socialist construction.”
The delegates had accepted a proposal from the arrangements committee that there be five speakers for the resolution and five against. Palme Dutt was given a sympathetic round of applause as he walked to the platform. He began by saying that this was the last time he would address the Party Congress (it was). Deriding the Kremlinologists’ dreams of a split as “illusory”, he argued that “the Executive had made a mistake, the Warsaw Pact countries had been right”, and he called on the Party to look at the issues in class terms and reject the position of “classless liberalism”. Summing up he appealed – “Use your strength to wipe out this stain from the record and restore the Party to its rightful place in the International Communist Movement.” Charlie Doyle, employed at the Battersea Power Station, said “the Executive’s decision, conceived in ignorance, and vanity, prevented them from admitting their mistake”. Ken Hattersley (Yorkshire) said that he was “shocked that the situation had been allowed to deteriorate so that the Warsaw Pact countries had been forced to intervene.” Sid French asked whether they “were prepared to implement international solidarity by supporting the Czechoslovak Party which had expressed gratitude to the Soviet Union and other Warsaw Pact countries …. are you saying the present Czechoslovak leaders are stooges of some other parties?” Ida Hackett (Mansfield) said she “had changed her mind since August 1968”. She now opposed the EC resolution and said that there were “many opportunists doing the work of the arch reactionaries in Czechoslovakia.” Peter Samson (South Essex) asked delegates if they could vote against anti-trade union legislation while supporting emergency laws in Czechoslovakia under which a worker expressing critical views could be sacked. Peter Kerrigan, a veteran former Party leader who had fought in the International Brigade, said “it was not the British Party which was giving ammunition to the capitalist press, it was the Soviet action in 1968 …. it was untrue that they had been invited in.” Monty Johnstone (North Lewisham) spoke of “the revival of hope in Czechoslovakia during the spring of 1968”. He attacked “the anti-democratic developments following the intervention – the postponement of elections and the failure to fix a date for a new party congress”. David McDowell (East Kilbride) said “In Czechoslovakia they had a history of democratic life which enabled the Czechoslovak working class to exercise freedom in a responsible fashion. This was what the Warsaw Pact comrades had failed to appreciate.” Councillor Solly Kaye (Tower Hamlets) said it had been alleged that the party leadership was taking the easy way out and forgetting principles. “But if we were not concerned with principles we could win a dozen seats in Stepney by supporting Israeli aggression. We are concerned with principles.”
At the conclusion the Executive Committee resolution was carried by 292 – 118. Fewer than half of those who opposed the resolution could be categorised as Stalinists. A resolution on the June meeting of World Communist Parties which accepted the main document with reservations and called for the restoration of the unity of the world movement on the basis of the sovereignty of all Communist Parties was carried with only 52 votes against and 6 abstentions. This was close to the figure of sixty votes that Sid French secured in the ballot for the EC. Charlie Job, the sole dissentient in August 1968, was re-elected with the backing of the retiring EC. After fifteen months of hard-hitting, no-holds-barred discussion, the issue was settled. The intractable dogmatic minority was isolated. The overwhelming majority of members were united behind the party’s strategy and in the day-to-day fight for it.
The Czechoslovak Communist Party’s 14th Congress
In 1971 the Czechoslovak party invited us to send a delegate to the 14th Congress. As earlier mentioned, this was to have taken place in September 1968, and the gathering of delegates in a Prague factory a few days after the military intervention had later been repudiated. There was no question but that this congress would be dominated by placemen loyal to the Husak leadership. The invitation presented us with a problem. The practice was for fraternal delegates to speak for 8-10 minutes (usually longer for the Soviet delegate), bringing greetings, congratulating the host party on its triumphs or sympathising with its tribulations, make a few remarks about the common enemy, – US, West German, imperialist aggressors and then say something about their own party’s position.
It was impossible for us to conform to this pattern. To have done so would rightly have angered the majority of our members and been regarded as a betrayal of the decisions taken by the 1969 Congress. On the other hand we did not want a repetition of the 1968 Polish Congress when Bert Ramelson left after a couple of days when he was forbidden to express our position on the intervention.
We decided to accept the invitation and to inform the Czechoslovak CP, in advance, of our representative’s speech. There was much speculation as to who we should send. Prague was a beautiful city and its people renowned for their hospitality, but nobody on the Political Committee showed any enthusiasm at the prospect of enjoying it. One day John Gollan walked into my office, sat down and said “the opinion appears to be that you should go to the Czech Congress”.
Jack Woddis and I drafted a speech of about nine hundred words which included one paragraph stating our view on the intervention, the remainder conformed to pattern. We put this speech to the EC who endorsed both it and the proposal that I should be our representative. The following day I took it to the Czechoslovak Ambassador along with my passport for the visa to be provided. I explained to him that the speech had the endorsement of the EC. He began reading it, and when he came to the reference to the 1968 events he became scarlet and spluttered “You will not be allowed to say this.” We then had a lengthy argument during which I did my best to make it clear that there was no way that I could say anything but what was before him.
The Ambassador could not understand that we, the national officers, had no power to overturn a decision of the Executive Committee. So we argued, and eventually he said he would inform Prague of the contents of the speech. In the following days I was going backwards and forwards between King Street and the Embassy. Prague pleaded with us to remove the reference to the intervention.
“Then come, but don’t speak.”
Clearly they thought that our presence, small as we were, was important for giving the impression of foreign communist acceptance of “normalisation”. But this was also impossible.
Dubcek and his supporters had been expelled from the Communist Party, he was working as a mechanic for the Forestry Administration, the delegates would legitimise “normalisation” and crown Husak as Party Leader. I could not sit dumbly on the platform witnessing that. So in the end we were not represented at the Congress. The Italian, French and some other European parties which had come out against the intervention had no scruples about going. That was their affair. We knew that the majority of our members would applaud our decision.
The Czechoslovak issue never really went away. Surrey saw that it was raised at every national congress. Not that they had any hope of winning, but it was part of their ritual of “proletarian internationalism”.
From time to time events would compel us to speak out, One such occasion was the publication in the Czechoslovak press of an article attacking Zionism which had very marked anti-semitic undertones. It was clearly directed against Franz Kriegel, the Czechoslovak communist leader of Jewish origin whose refusal to sign the August 1968 Moscow edict had angered the Soviet supporters. Our EC instructed me to make a statement protesting against the article. A few weeks later I received a letter of thanks from Kriegel. It was gratifying to know that the censorship had been penetrated. When, in 1977, Charter 77 was established, we immediately announced our support for it.
Our relations with the Czechoslovak Party remained cool, limited to the exchange of messages on ceremonial occasions. Invitations to receptions at the Embassy were sent, but some of us, politely, declined them. I did visit the Embassy twice after 1971. The Ambassador invited John Gollan to lunch and he took me along as a witness – a wise precaution as I was later to learn. (9) The other occasion was to register a protest against the refusal to issue a visa to an elderly Czechoslovak woman, a lifelong communist, who wanted to visit her married daughter who was living in England.
Our relations with the socialist countries were never the same. We had no hesitation in publicly criticising Soviet methods of handling political dissent and had more than one set-to with a representative of the German Democratic Republic. In December 1971, accompanied by Martin Jacques, I attended the Congress of the Polish United Workers’ Party. This was a year after the riots which led to the fall of Gomulka, and Gierek becoming leader. Under instruction from the Political Committee we protested at the Polish Government supplying the Franco regime with cheap coal. This protest was greatly appreciated by Dolores Ibarurri who was
leader of the Spanish delegation.
Within the British party the Surrey leaders and their allies became a kind of permanent opposition. In 1977 French and a handful of others broke away to form a rump New Communist Party. Other “Stalinists” were more astute. Operating under cover of a publication whose ownership and control were concealed, they organised opposition to the new draft of the British Road to Socialism objecting in particular to its commitment to a socialist society guaranteeing freedom of speech and the press, the protection of civil rights and the rights of non-socialists to organise, contest elections and, in the event of victory, become the government. Defeated at the 35th Congress in November 1977 they carried on, and in the mid-1980s were backers of the Chater/Rosser axis in the battle for the control of the Morning Star.
Could Dubcek’s plan for “socialism with a human face” have succeeded if it had not been cut short so brutally? Had it succeeded what would have been its impact on the politics of the existing European socialist countries? And, perhaps more pertinent, would it have increased support for socialism among the working classes of the developed capitalist countries? These are but a few of the speculative questions which alas will never be answered. I shall therefore close by saying that whatever its sins and errors of the past – 1939, 1956 etc, in August 1968 the Communist Party of Great Britain did get it right.
1. The Embassy would undoubtedly, first, have tried to contact John Gollan but he was on holiday. They may then have tried to contact Jack Woddis, the head of the International Department, but he was also on holiday.
2. Morning Star 8 January 1968.
3. In his autobiography Hope Dies Last, Dubcek gives an account of Brezhnev’s brief visit to Prague in December 1967 when the Party Presidium and Central Committee were locked in bitter fighting over the leadership. He reports Brezhnev as saying, on his departure, “It’s your affair”.
4. Quotations are from the facsimile of translation by Czechoslovak translators in Prague reproduced in Dubcek’s Blueprint for Freedom. (pp. 123 – 211), William Kimber, London, 1969.
5. Hymie Fagan was at that time engaged in work for World Marxist Review, the magazine of the world communist parties which was edited in Prague.
6. Roy Gore was carrying out research on changes in population in the Czechoslovak borderlands from May to August 1968 when access to the relevant areas was no longer possible.
7. In 1971 I was instructed by the Political Committee to take up with Dutt references in his “Notes” to a meeting between himself, his wife Salme, Harry Pollitt and William Gallacher that he alleged took place behind the platform at Birmingham Town Hall during the National Congress in September 1938. During the conversation Dutt told me that Labour Monthly had been established with Lenin’s approval as an independent magazine promoting communist policies.
8. The galley proofs of the “Notes” are among Dutt’s papers in the Communist Party Archives. The final paragraph has been cut off, but the whole thrust of Dutt’s argument is to dismiss scornfully any suggestion that the Soviet Union would consider using force to impose its authority. My source of information on this paragraph is Roger Woddis, then the managing editor of Labour Monthly, and my wife Helen who was employed as the bookkeeper. They read the proofs jointly before returning them to the printer.
9. This refers to an occasion in 1975 when I took to the Soviet Embassy a protest against a trial and imprisonment of a dissident. In reporting to Moscow, Ambassador Lunkov alleged that I had made anti-Soviet remarks during the argument which ensued. The only other person present was the Counsellor responsible for contact with us. I had no witness to back my denial of the allegation.
Peggy Dennis, Autobiography of an American Communist.
Alexander Dubcek, Hope Dies Last: the autobiography of Alexander Dubcek, Kodansha, Tokyo & New York, 1993
Alexander Dubcek, Blueprint for Freedom, William Kimber, London, 1969.