August 21 has had special meaning for me since 1968. I was a student working a summer job on Michigan Avenue in Chicago. It was Wednesday, and in the conference room a radio was broadcasting the morning news. Suddenly it cut to street noise – people shouting, rumbling vehicles – and a reporter announcing from Prague that troops had occupied Czechoslovakia. The Warsaw Pact invasion.

My maternal grandmother was of Czech origin, and we were very close. Yet growing up, I had not been aware of any special connection with her country. When I heard that reporter and the roar of the street, I felt outrage, but it was mixed with personal sorrow. I began to realise that there was indeed a connection, and that I had simply not been conscious of it.

Years later, when I had begun learning the language and obtained a research grant, I lived in Prague during the final years of Communism and its downfall. One of my close friends there was born 21 August, and she told me that when she woke up that day in 1968, she thought at first that the commotion was connected somehow with celebrating her birthday. I cannot begin to imagine how the truth must have felt. Shortly after I heard that broadcast on the other side of the Atlantic, she was in the street distributing anti-invasion leaflets in Czech and Russian.

The Warsaw Pact invasion was a tragedy – national and human. The Canadian political scientist H. Gordon Skilling, who wrote the definitive Western book on the ‘Prague Spring’ and its brutal suppression, entitled it Czechoslovakia’s Interrupted Revolution. Czechs tended to see those events as the equally catastrophic destruction of a reform movement. (The political scientist Vladimír Kusin and the reform member of the Party’s Central Committee Zdenĕk Mlynář have argued for this interpretation in several books on 1968.) Whether reform or revolution, the Prague Spring captured the imagination of people everywhere with a genuine experiment in re-thinking society. It represented a people’s sincere desire to better its lot and realise its best potential: “socialism with a human face” for one bright moment.

Russian tanks in the Old Town Square

The earlier reforms that brought this about may be less compelling at first glance than the dramatic freedom of the press, of speech, music, of cultural, social and intellectual life, and the joy of it all. But the story of those first reforms, the way they unfolded and the way they held on has its own magic, and I think they still speak to us as well.

Way back before 1968, ten years back, a half-baked compromise to adjust the transmission belt economy of the Soviet model had failed. A serious economic recession followed between 1962 and 1965, and the five-year plan had to be scrapped. The Soviet model emphasized extensive industrialization, but the Czech economy was already highly industrialized. Besides, price control was influenced by political interests, and innovation was discouraged. Czech and Slovak economists began to develop proposals for regulated market socialism. As they did so, they realised, like Chinese reformers a decade and more later, that economic reform could easily invite political reform.

The most outspoken representative of market socialism was the Czech economist Ota Šik. He was appointed to head a team exploring enterprise management as early as 1963. Over the next four years, he was increasingly critical of sclerotic economic and political practices. In December 1967 at a meeting of the Central Committee, he directly challenged the Stalinist Antonín Novotný who had held both the highest government and Party positions for eleven years and used his power to maintain the top down system in economics and politics. Šik proposed that Novotný resign as Party General Secretary and that a successor be elected by secret ballot. All told, three internal Party confrontations contributed to his downfall. Hoping to enlist Soviet support, he invited Leonid Brezhnev, Secretary General of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, to Prague. But when Brezhnev saw the extent of the opposition to Novotný, he supported his removal from both posts.

Antonín Novotný in 1968

Ota Šik

Alexander Dubček in 1968

Two weeks later, 5 January 1968, Novotný was replaced by a compromise candidate, Alexander  Dubček. Within two months, censorship had practically vanished, and public discussion exploded in the media, in the streets and in organized meetings, some involving thousands of people. Individuals spontaneously formed new organisations, many for the defence of human rights.

From the spring on, Ota Šik lectured, published articles and appeared repeatedly on television to prepare for the reforms of market socialism. In blunt language consistent with the new freedom of speech, he painted a stark picture of conditions in the economy: obsolete machinery, poor management, wasteful investment, products inferior to the quality demanded on world markets. His comparisons between Czechoslovakia and West Germany shocked television audiences. The price of a transistor radio, for example, represented 12 hours of work for a West German blue collar employee; for a Czech, 117. A West German of the same class would work an hour and a half to pay for a kilogram of chocolate; a Czech, ten and a half. Subsequent opinion polls showed that his message had hit home. People now expressed  serious concern about the state of the country’s economy.

Ota Šik giving a televised analysis of Czechoslovakia’s economic problems

The proposals that followed were intended to dynamize and empower the enterprises. Some were standard features of a market economy, such as joint stock companies and labour unions acting in their members’ interests rather than the instruments of control and indoctrination they had been.

The most original project was elected working people’s councils which were to cooperate with directors in enterprise management. They were intended to give a real voice to employees in all kinds of companies whom two decades of Stalinism had terrorized into silence. This was a means of uniting technology and democracy and is an example of the creative thinking that the Prague Spring mobilised in so many ways. The government thought it wise to test and adapt a system of working people’s councils before passing legislation. In June, it published a 77-point document with guidelines suggesting the size and membership of the councils, their powers and limits in working with management, their relationships with the trade unions and other features.

These proposals were vigorously debated. Many members of the proletariat, courted by the Party for over two decades, at first resisted this and most other changes. But they gradually saw real benefit in such representation and spontaneously began to form councils. Unfortunately, the tanks rolled across Czechoslovakia’s borders before the laws could be passed.

Dubček signing photos at a Slovak factory just before Christmas, 1968

Ironically, the reforms of market socialism, which had taken something of a back seat to the more spectacular social and political reforms in the summer, surged after the Warsaw Pact invasion. Companies continued creating working people’s councils, even after the government announced a moratorium. In June 1969, there were still several hundred. Labour unions led stiff resistance to post-invasion efforts to renew censorship, and economic reforms continued to be discussed in the press.

Ota Šik was one of the reformers roundly condemned by the Soviet Union. He was removed from the Central Committee and ultimately emigrated to Switzerland. Alexander Dubček was forced to resign as First Secretary in April 1969 and was replaced by Gustav Husák who held on until the Velvet Revolution of 1989. But it took him, his fellow conservatives and the Soviet Union three and half years to erase the beginnings of socialism with a human face that had been created in just five and a half months. Ironically, economic growth into the 1970s, at 6.9% annually, was higher than the 4.1 to 4.4% projected by the Communist Party’s central plans. The greatest irony came twenty-one years, three and a half months later. The leaders of those countries who carried out the Warsaw Pact invasion declared it illegal. The political climate had changed. Perestroika, “restructuring”, or reform Communism had become the new order.

The spirit of freedom bursting open a totalitarian system, like a sapling splitting rock, still has tremendous meaning. But as we continue to struggle with the less human faces of big business and global capitalism, and the cynicism that goes with them, I also think of the respect for individual dignity and decision making coded in the 1968 economic reforms. If they had been allowed to develop, might they have offered an example of humanist restraints on management for profit that would have benefited those of us who have come after?