The forgotten workers’ control movement of Prague Spring

At the time of the [August 1968] Soviet invasion [of Czechoslovakia], two months after the first workers’ councils were formed, there were perhaps fewer than two dozen of them, although these were concentrated in the largest enterprises and therefore represented a large number of employees. But the movement took off, and by January 1969 there were councils in about 120 enterprises, representing more than 800,000 employees, or about one-sixth of the country’s workers. This occurred despite a new mood of discouragement from the government from October 1968.

From the beginning, this was a grassroots movement from below that forced party, government, and enterprise managements to react. The councils designed their own statutes and implemented them from the start. The draft statutes for the Wilhelm Pieck Factory in Prague (one of the first, created in June 1968) provide a good example. “The workers of the W. Pieck factory (CKD Prague) wish to fulfill one of the fundamental rights of socialist democracy, namely the right of the workers to manage their own factory,” the introduction to the statutes stated. “They also desire a closer bond between the interests of the whole society and the interests of each individual. To this end, they have decided to establish workers’ self-management.”

Prague (photo by Beentree)

Prague (photo by Beentree)

All employees working for at least three months, except the director, were eligible to participate, and the employees as a whole, called the “workers’ assembly,” was the highest body and would make all fundamental decisions. In turn, the assembly would elect the workers’ council to carry out the decisions of the whole, manage the plant and hire the director. Council members would serve in staggered terms, be elected in secret balloting and be recallable. The director was to be chosen after an examination of each candidate conducted by a body composed of a majority of employees and a minority from outside organizations.

A director is the top manager, equivalent to the chief executive officer of a capitalist corporation. The workers’ council would be the equivalent of a board of directors in a capitalist corporation that has shares traded on a stock market. This supervisory role, however, would be radically different: The workers’ council would be made up of workers acting in the interest of their fellow workers and, in theory, with the greater good of society in mind as well.

By contrast, in a capitalist corporation listed on a stock market, the board of directors is made up of top executives of the company, the chief executive officer’s cronies, executives from other corporations in which there is an alignment of interests, and perhaps a celebrity or two, and the board of directors has a duty only to the holders of the corporation’s stock. Although this duty to stockholders is strong enough in some countries to be written into legal statutes, the ownership of the stock is spread among so many that the board will often act in the interest of that top management, which translates to the least possible unencumbered transfer of wealth upward. But in cases where the board of directors does uphold its legal duty and governs in the interest of the holders of the stock, this duty simply means maximizing the price of the stock by any means necessary, not excepting mass layoffs, wage reductions and the taking away of employee benefits. Either way, the capitalist company is governed against the interests of its workforce (whose collective efforts are the source of the profits), and by law must be.

National meeting sought to codify statutes

The Wilhelm Pieck Factory statutes were similar to statutes produced in other enterprises that were creating workers’ councils. It was only logical for a national federation of councils to be formed to coordinate their work and for economic activity to have a relation to the larger societal interest. Ahead of a government deadline to produce national legislation codifying the councils, a general meeting of workers’ councils took place on 9 and 10 January 1969 in Plzeň, one of the most important industrial cities in Czechoslovakia (perhaps best known internationally for its famous beers). A 104-page report left behind a good record of the meeting (it was also tape-recorded); representatives from across the Czech Lands and Slovakia convened to provide the views of the councils to assist in the preparation of the national law.

Trade union leaders were among the participants in the meeting, and backed the complementary roles of the unions and the councils. (Trade unions, as noted earlier, convened two-thirds of the councils.) One of the first speakers, an engineer who was the chair of his trade union local in Plzeň, said a division of tasks was a natural development: “For us, the establishment of workers’ councils implies that we will be able to achieve a status of relative independence for the enterprise, that the decision-making power will be separated from executive powers, that the trade unions will have a free hand to carry out their own specific policies, that progress is made towards a solution of the problem of the producers’ relationship to their production, i.e., we are beginning to solve the problem of alienation.”

Some 190 enterprises were represented at this meeting, including 101 workers’ councils and 61 preparatory committees for the creation of councils; the remainder were trade union or other types of committees. The meeting concluded with the unanimous passage of a six-point resolution, including “the right to self-management as an inalienable right of the socialist producer.”

The resolution declared,

“We are convinced that workers’ councils can help to humanize both the work and relationships within the enterprise, and give to each producer a proper feeling that he is not just an employee, a mere working element in the production process, but also the organizer and joint creator of this process. This is why we wish to re-emphasize here and now that the councils must always preserve their democratic character and their vital links with their electors, thus preventing a special caste of ‘professional self-management executives’ from forming.”

It's Not Over coverThat democratic character, and the popularity of the concept, is demonstrated in the mass participation—a survey of 95 councils found that 83 percent of employees had participated in council elections. A considerable study was undertaken of these 95 councils, representing manufacturing and other sectors, and an interesting trend emerged from the data in the high level of experience embodied in elected council members. About three-quarters of those elected to councils had been in their workplaces for more than ten years, and mostly more than 15 years. More than 70 percent of council members were technicians or engineers, about one-quarter were manual workers and only 5 percent were from administrative staffs. These results represent a strong degree of voting for the perceived best candidates rather than employees simply voting for their friends or for candidates like themselves—because the council movement was particularly strong in manufacturing sectors, most of those voting for council members were manual workers.

These results demonstrated a high level of political maturity on the part of Czechoslovak workers. Another clue to this seriousness is that 29 percent of those elected to councils had a university education, possibly a higher average level of education than was then possessed by directors. Many directors in the past had been put into their positions through political connections, and a desire to revolt against sometimes amateurish management played a part in the council movement. Interesting, too, is that about half the council members were also Communist Party members. Czechoslovak workers continued to believe in socialism while rejecting the imposed Soviet-style system.

Government sought to water down workers’ control

The government did write a legislative bill, copies of which circulated in January 1969, but the bill was never introduced as Soviet pressure on the Czechoslovak party leadership intensified and hard-liners began to assert themselves. The bill would have changed the name of workers’ councils to enterprise councils and watered down some of the statutes that had been codified by the councils themselves. These pullbacks included a proposed state veto on the selection of enterprise directors, that one-fifth of enterprise councils be made up of unelected outside specialists, and that the councils of what the bill refers to as “state enterprises” (banks, railroads and other entities that would remain directly controlled by the government) could have only a minority of members elected by employees and allow a government veto of council decisions.

This proposed backtracking was met with opposition. The trade union daily newspaper, Práce, in a February commentary, and a federal trade union congress, in March, both called the government bill “the minimum acceptable.” In a Práce commentary, an engineer and council activist, Rudolf Slánský Jr. (son of the executed party leader), put the council movement in the context of the question of enterprise ownership.

“The management of our nation’s economy is one of the crucial problems,” Slánský wrote.

“The basic economic principle on which the bureaucratic-centralist management mechanism rests is the direct exercise of the ownership functions of nationalized industry. The state, or more precisely various central organs of the state, assume this task. It is almost unnecessary to remind the reader of one of the principal lessons of Marxism, namely he who has property has power…The only possible method of transforming the bureaucratic-administrative model of our socialist society into a democratic model is to abolish the monopoly of the state administration over the exercise of ownership functions, and to decentralize it towards those whose interest lies in the functioning of the socialist enterprise, i.e. the collectives of enterprise workers.”

Addressing bureaucrats who objected to a lessening of central control, Slánský wrote,

“[T]hese people like to confuse certain concepts. They say, for example, that this law would mean transforming social property as a whole into group property, even though it is clearly not a question of property, but rather one of knowing who is exercising property rights in the name of the whole society, whether it is the state apparatus or the socialist producers directly, i.e. the enterprise collectives.”

Nonetheless, there is tension between the tasks of oversight and of day-to-day management. A different commentator, a law professor, declared,

“We must not…set up democracy and technical competence as opposites, but search for a harmonious balance between these two components…It would perhaps be better not to talk of a transfer of functions but rather a transfer of tasks. It will then be necessary for the appropriate transfer to be dictated by needs, rather than by reasons of dogma or prestige.”

These discussions had no opportunity to develop. In April 1969, Alexander Dubček was forced out as party first secretary, replaced by Gustáv Husák, who wasted little time before inaugurating repression. The legislative bill was shelved in May, and government and party officials began a campaign against councils. The government formally banned workers’ councils in July 1970, but by then they were already disappearing.

This is an excerpt from It’s Not Over: Learning From the Socialist Experiment, officially published February 26 by Zero Books. Citations omitted. The omitted sources cited in this excerpt are: Robert Vitak, “Workers Control: The Czechoslovak Experience,” Socialist Register, 1971; Oldřich Kyn, “The Rise and Fall of the Economic Reform in Czechoslovakia,” American Economic Review, May 1970; and several articles anthologized in Vladimir Fišera, Workers’ Councils in Czechoslovakia: Documents and Essays 1968-69 [St. Martin’s Press, 1978]

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22 comments on “The forgotten workers’ control movement of Prague Spring

  1. newtonfinn says:

    The right to a decent job with decent pay, AND the right of the employee to have significant input in determining the policies and operations of her or his employer, are the FUNDAMENTAL rights upon which all other issues of social and economic justice depend. Recognize those rights, and the trajectory of society is forever changed. Fail to recognize them, and we are left, at best, with only endless ad hoc damage control.

    The heavy hand of communist bureaucracy was as lethal to these fundamental rights as the invisible hand (job) of the so-called free market. Thanks for continuing to hammer on the basics, while so many on the left are preoccupied with important but piecemeal issues of personal liberation.

    • “Democratic socialism” is a redundancy. If it isn’t democratic, it isn’t socialist. The world was robbed of what would have been a fascinating experiment in the democratization of the economy, without which there is no political democracy.

  2. Very informative. Mark Kurlansky covers the Prague Spring extensively in 1968, but he makes no mention of workers councils. This would seem a significant oversight.

    • It’s an oversight committed by just about every history of 1968, or even of the Prague Spring, I have ever read. It took me a lot of work, and tracking down two very obscure books (literally the one copy of each I could find through online searches) to learn about it.

      I enjoyed reading Kurlansky’s The Basque History of the World. He’s a fine writer and he didn’t hold back on the fascist assault on the Basque people, or the Basques’ resistance to Franco. So I’m inclined to think his omission wasn’t intentional or political, but that he very likely did not know of it. Very few people do, I’ve found.

  3. lidia says:

    “It’s an oversight committed by just about every history of 1968, or even of the Prague Spring, I have ever read”
    Because, just like with Poland, these “springs” were not about workers’ right and consuls, but about capitalism’s restoration. Do you believe that Western imperialism supported such “springs” to let workers have these consuls?

    • That’s a good question, Lidia. Western imperialism most definitely sought to intervene and restore capitalism, throughout the history of the Soviet bloc. In 1968, U.S. intelligence agencies followed developments closely and hoped for a capitalist restoration. But the Warsaw Pact was too strong, so there was no possibility of Western intervention. But we should remember that uprisings in Poland in 1956 and 1970, and the Prague Spring in 1968, were movements from below.

      Even in 1989, when the Soviet Bloc did crumble, Poles, Czechs and Slovaks wanted to be rid of their party dictatorships but did not want capitalism restored. In my book, I quote a survey taken in Czechoslovakia in 1989 that showed only three percent favored capitalism, with 90 percent of respondents split between the choices of a state-controlled economy or a mixed economy. Nor was there much popular support for a capitalist restoration in Poland. Capitalism was imposed on these countries. I reviewed the book From Solidarity to Sellout by Tadeusz Kowalik, an excellent source of material on this topic; interested readers can read it at this link.

  4. tubularsock says:

    SD, once again an excellent post. Tubularsock has always found that capitalism seems to use insidious means over a long time frame to implant its objectives. So the clock is still ticking.

    Maybe it’s Tubularsock’s conspiracy mentality but as significant as the information in your research has shown it seem “odd” to have so many others “miss” it completely without some intent.

    All of these “springs” seem to have thrown off the weather pattern over the years and the attempt at destabilization as the orchestrated direction seem to be the preferred “summer”!

    Thanks again for an interesting read.

    • Although not all have intentionally missed it, many surely have. Workers taking control of their workplaces and putting the economy on a democratic footing without bosses? Capitalists would not like that example to be known, no doubt. Having said that, I find that even among Left activists, the grassroots workers’ control movement is generally unknown.

      Unfortunately, there are those on the Left, in sectarian groups, who take an overly mechanical view and see Prague Spring as some sort of Western project to re-instate capitalism, as if any change from the imposed Soviet model is tantamount to overthrowing capitalism. And what happened two decades later? Those imposing that very rigid, overly centralized Soviet model presided over a wholesale transfer to shock-therapy capitalism.

      Surely we can devise something other than the schemes of Leonid Brezhnev or Milton Friedman.

      • tubularsock says:

        Those two clowns have certainly raised havoc with the circus and both their tents should burned down! Tubularsock has the matches and will share equally with all.

      • Prole Center says:

        The “Prague Spring,” like the “Arab Spring,” was a CIA covert operation. Even the silly name is propaganda; Spring obviously implies a renewal and rebirth – a fresh start.

        Of course there was discontent and genuine grievances, but that will always be the case. Also, some of that discontent was a result of Voice of America propaganda.

        The Communist Parties of the USSR and Eastern Europe were paranoid and at times heavy-handed, but when you fully understand the forces they were going up against you can begin to see why.

        • We really need to drop the specious idea that not so much as a leaf moves in the world without the CIA being behind it. The CIA is not composed of supermen; just people with an unlimited budget. Your line is the mirror image of anti-communists who insist that no popular movement in the West could possibly be organic and always see them as communist plots.

          Czechs and Slovaks did not want a return to capitalism but rather wanted socialism or a mixed economy without the one-party dictatorship. And when we see the grassroots movement that was intent on creating a true socialism — one with actual workers’ control and community responsibility — it makes a mockery of the idea that people were simply manipulated by Voice of America or other Western propaganda. And, remember, the Dubček government was firm in its insistence that needed to remain part of the Warsaw Pact and Soviet bloc in order to see through its transition to socialism.

          The complexity of actual history is so much interesting than sweeping pronouncements that seek to flatten reality into simple categories of good and evil, and it is insulting to working people animated the ideals of socialism to unfairly denigrate them as dupes instead of active participants seeking to shape their world for the better.

          • Prole Center says:

            Just people with an unlimited budget? And all the expertise, technology and bribery that money can buy. That’s a pretty powerful advantage!

            Like I said, there may have been legitimate grievances and a sincere effort to improve socialism in Czechoslovakia in 1968, but the CIA, even if it didn’t plan the movement as a grand scheme, will seize on the opportunity to penetrate such a movement in order to manipulate it. Also, it can use such discontent to score propaganda points. The Soviet Union and the rest of the Warsaw Pact may have overreacted, but they had to do something.

            Andre Vltchek wrote an interesting article on CounterPunch describing his experience growing up in Czechoslovakia and also talked about the “Prague Spring”:

            http://www.counterpunch.org/2015/03/27/the-czech-republic-and-the-fine-art-of-collaboration/

            • As I wrote in my book in the Prague Spring chapter, the CIA and other Western intelligence agencies might well have wished to have intervened, but couldn’t.

              Reading de-classified CIA telegrams show clearly that the agency had a very superficial understanding of what was happening. That Czech and Slovak workers were busy working out a system of workers’ control in an economy that was to have remained in state hands demonstrates quite clearly that Western propaganda had no effect on them. Once again, let us not fall into the mistake of under-estimating working people’s ability to understand their world and to act upon it.

              Czech and Slovak workers had a highly sophisticated understanding, and I say again it was a high crime that what would have been a most valuable experiment was crushed. If it isn’t democratic, then it isn’t socialist. That is the critical correction that the Prague Spring attempted. Do you think for one moment Western capital (and thus the intelligence agencies that promote those interests) would have tolerated such a thing? That the movement went into a far different direction ought to speak for itself.

              • Prole Center says:

                Sorry to be a bother. This will be my last comment on the matter. I have a few questions.

                1) Did you consider the other side of the story? What did the Soviets have to say about the events of 1968 as well as the point of view of the Czechoslovakian communist “hard-liners”?

                2) What ideology did the workers in this “grassroots” movement espouse?

                3) What precisely is your ideology?

                4) What are your sources for this workers’ council movement? Just the three listed at the end of this article? I’d like to try to take a look at them.

                5) In your opinion, which nation was / is worse? The USA or the USSR? Forced to pick a side, which one would you go with?

                6) Are you aware that the CIA (and FBI) has a long history of infiltrating left-wing movements and even funding and manipulating pseudo-socialist or center-left political parties?

              • A quiz, eh? Here goes:

                1) Yes. And quoted at length.

                2) Socialism.

                3) I avoid rigidity. Influences include Marxism, World Systems Theory, Institutionalism.

                4) The chapter has 215 footnotes covering dozens of sources. Too many to list here.

                5) Our duty to stay and fight where we are, an accident of birth.

                6) Why don’t you ask me if I am aware the Sun rises in the east?

  5. DemolishingBS says:

    Your book is fantastic, Im still reading it (in a non-linear fashion, jumping from chapter to chapter) ever since I discovered it from RD Wolff, and bought it right after, and I gotta say, you not only explain socialism and Marxist theory to justify it very well to newcomers, but your analyses of the socialist experiments is just eye-opening, I honestly didn’t know about most of these events and governments and movements you covered. As a Hungarian, it was great to read about the 1956 uprising, but depressing as well given the outcome. I do have a question though, why did you not cover Yugoslavia’s “socialist” government, I would think that would be one you’d want to include in the book. It’s also practically forgotten outside some radical left and academic circles, at least it is here in the USA.

    • Thank you for such kind comments — the experience you have described is just what my intention was when writing it. I am an activist writing for fellow activists and for people with an open mind about history and socialism.

      As to Yugoslavia, your critique is entirely justified. I had originally intended to have an additional chapter on Yugoslavia and its system of worker management, discussing a unique experiment that remains unknown. I truly wished I had written that chapter, but as the book was getting very long, I decided to not go ahead with it (and also cut a couple of sections out of the first chapter).

      Having not done the research necessary, I am in no position to make any judgment on Yugoslavia nor even the competence to explain how its system worked. That, too, is history that needs to be resurrected and analyzed. A future project, perhaps.

      • DemolishingBS says:

        Thanks very much for the continued writing and research! As for Yugoslavia, I only put socialism in quotations because despite more economic democracy than the Soviet Union or China or Cuba, political democracy was non-existent and was used to subdue the limited economic democracy that existed, and ended up with similar results once the “socialist bloc” faced crisis in the 1980s, namely the breakup of Yugoslavia due to “shock therapy” and capitalist loan payments, etc thrusted on the population by their oh so “socialist” leaders, though the results were far worse given the savage violence and ethnic cleansing that occurred. Despite that, it’s a fascinating experiment in socialism and economic democracy that def. warrants your treatment. Maybe you should write a sequel that covers China, Cuba, Yugoslavia, Venezuala and such?

        What did you edit out of the first chapter if I may ask?

        • Some of the details on the various socialist-inspired uprising across Europe following World War I and overall trimming. Doing so made it somewhat faster reading, although the first chapter is still the longest. The critical point is that the Russian Revolution can’t be understood outside the context of its international isolation.

  6. […] Pete Dolack, «The forgotten workers’ control movement of Prague Spring», Systemic Disorder, 9Μαρτίου […]

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