The crushing of the Prague spring: what Harman said at the time

August 21, 2008 at 4:04 pm (history, Jim D, left, Marxism, stalinism, SWP, trotskyism)

Czechoslovakia Invasion 1968 
Exactly forty years after the tanks and troops of the USSR and four other Warsaw Pact countries went into Czechoslovakia, crushing the democratic aspirations of the Czech people it’s worth reminding ourselves of how the non-Stalinist far left reacted at the time. You may recall from an earlier posting here, that Tariq Ali of the IMG led a protest against the Soviet State Symphony Orchestra at the Proms on August 21st 1968.

Here’s what Chris Harman of the International Socialists (forerunners of today’s SWP)  wrote in their magazine shortly afterwards (in June 1969, after Dubcek had been finally removed by the Kremlin) :

The Czech events have now revealed all the features of the classic crisis of bureaucratic state capitalism, as revealed in the events of Poland and Hungary in 1956. There have been differences of emphasis; time and national conditions have produced peculiarities of casting, but the mould has retained the same contours. The forces shaping history have been similar, following the dynamics of the same system…

“…Throughout 1968 the Dubcek group had to fight a battle on two fronts. On the one hand it had to deal definitively with the remnants, at every level of the bureacracy, of the Novotny (Dubcek’s predecessor as CPCz leader -JD) regime; whole hosts of administrators attached to an antiquated organisation of production had to be eleminated. On the other hand it increasingly had to worry about forces it itself had unleashed; in the factories and universities independent and democratic mass organisations were appearing for the first time for twenty years. Trade Unions were being rebuilt on a democratic basis. Journalists and radio and television personnel who had been freed from censorship in order to criticise the Novotnyites were in danger of discussing the policies of the new rulers.

“Even prior to the Russian invasion this flowering of free discussion was of some concern to the Dubcek group. Ministers began to refer to the dangers of ‘anarchy’ and of ‘anti-socialist’ forces…

“… With the sacking of Dubcek, without serious bureaucrat opposition (even Dubcek does not seem to have seriously tried to oppose it) the Czech ruling class has jumped off the fence. It has shown it is prepared to put down the workers and students in the interests of the Russians. From now on the lines of the class struggle inside Czechoslovakia and of the national struggle against the Russians will be more and more identical.

“This will have a two sided consequence. On the one hand an increasing bitterness against the bureaucracy as a whole among the mass of workers, students and other oppressed groups. On the other a continued articulation of this class consciousness in national terms that prevent it becoming fully self-conscious. A soert of ‘Sinn Fein’ stance can be expected which will identify class enemies, but never be fully clear why, nor of long-term alternatives to them.

“Distressing as it may be to western socialists (who still think it is better to be pro-Russian in the West than pro-American in the East) this class consciousness may well be masked by all sorts of pro-western ideologies. But the increased repression and censorship will make organised articulation of genuinely revolutionary alternatives well nigh impossible…”

Note how (in contrast to the SWP’s coverage of recent events in Georgia), Harman does not use the existance of “pro-western ideologies” to excuse or justify the Russian invasion. And note that his criticism of Dubcek and the indigenous Czech bureaucracy was because they were too willing to compromise with the Russians…

Disagreements over matters like the precise class nature of the Soviet Union aside, Harman’s take on matters was fairly typical of the non-Stalinist far left at the time.

NB: What I’ve quoted above are, of course, merely excepts from a much longer article that is not (as far as I know) available on the web. But the excepts are typical of the entire piece and in no way misrepresent Harman’s position.


  1. Brian said,

    Sorry? What?

  2. johng said,

    completely barking.

  3. johng said,

    check SW for actual veterans of the anti-stalinist movement talking about the present.

  4. Jim Denham said,

    Father John: *what* exactly do you think is “completely barking”? What Harman wrote?

  5. Voltaire's Priest said,

    Yes, you’ve lost me there as well, John. You think your group’s own mini-guru is barking?

  6. johng said,

    No I don’t understand the parrallel between the prague spring and the present. Whats the relevence of this aside from the fact that Russians are involved. In May ’68 the left was clear that you didn’t take sides in the confrontation between the superpowers. Today the AWL has taken to attacking socialists who mantain this position and refuse to reproduce the rhetoric of the ‘free west’. Why is that?

  7. johng said,

    oh and for some reason I’m not allowed to post links which explain the situation further. go to socialist worker and look at Ree’s latest article and follow the links underneath to an article by Czech socialists on why this is not May ’68, then to a Russian socialist discussing the limits of great power politics, then to Polish socialists and what they have to say: all of them people with considerably more experiance of confronting stalinism then you have. Your post has as much to do with reality as your disgusting comparisons of me with an anti-semite and fascist. What a disgrace to the class you people are.

  8. tim said,

    Why did you post Russian claims that thousands upon thousands of civilians had been killed by Georgian forces?

  9. johng said,

    Because all the evidence points to the fact that they have been Tim. The destroyed towns and villages. the tens of thousands of refugees. what those refugee’s actually say. the history of similar actions up to and including the patterns of violence which occured in this region before hand etc, etc. Its like saying one should not believe tales of ossttetian forces atrocities in Georgia. After all. It hasn’t been ‘confirmed’ by Russian journalists (that would of course be ridiculous. For precisely the same reasons. But no more ridiculous then your repulsive attempt to minimise atrocities before you even know what happened).

  10. tim said,

    I haven’t minimised anything.
    We don’t know yet.
    The most reliable evidence is HRW, which seems to point in the opposite direction.
    But I didn’t ak you what you thought was repulsive or whatever John.
    I asked you why you posted Russian propaganda as fact.


  11. johng said,

    No it doesn’t point in the opposite direction. That claim, made by the person responsible for the events, was explicitly repudiated by HRW. That you repeat this absurd and demented propaganda (that it was the Russians and not the Georgians who killed South Osttetians) is testimony to your own absurd biases noone elses. The destruction of the capital city and the exiled south osttetians are not ‘russian propaganda’. the one is a fact and the others are people, human beings just like you.

  12. tim said,

    What the hell are you talking about John?

    I.m just asking you why you repeated Russian propasganda as fact.

    Why John?

  13. modernityblog said,


    JohnG posts stuff cos he’s told to

    he’s a rather low level lackey in the SWP, he does what he’s told and he’s been told a certain line so JohnG will continue in that vain despite all evidence to the contrary

    and if, hypothetically speaking, the Russians came out with 6 foot high signs saying “we are to blame, we engineered the conflict to show our power and rein in our old satellites “ then JohnG would probably:
    1) misread it
    2) not fully understand it
    3) wait for instructions before commenting
    4) say that was what he thought all along

  14. johng said,

    any evidence whatsoever for these bizarre statements modernity? Or do you just enjoy recycled cold war rhetoric?

  15. tim said,

    One last chance.
    Why did you post Russian propaganda on casualty figures as fact?

  16. johng said,

    What I am talking about is the statement by the President of Georgia claiming that it was the Russians who destroyed the Ossttetian capital not the Goergians, and claiming that this was the statement of HRW. This was angrily repudiated by HRW. You stated that it looked ‘the other way around’ and I thought that this was what you were referring to. I am unaware that I reproduced any Russian propaganda incidently. I did refer to the bombing of the capital of Osstetia and the 30,000 refugees which you want to justify and excuse, and presumably just regard as ‘propaganda’, and I indeed referred to the estimate of 2000 casualties reported by Russian journalists. You have not demonstrated that this was ‘propaganda’ anymore then anyone has demonstrated that the stories about South Ostettian irregulars terrorising Georgian villagers has been proved as ‘propaganda’, despite the fact that it comes from a government which has repeatedly and demonstrably lied about the events in question. I suspect these claims are true.

  17. tim said,

    You did indeed refer to 2000 civilians dead (not casualties,dead)
    And “thousands and thousands” killed by Georgian forces.(again dead,not casualties)

    Reproducing russian propaganda all over the web.

    I suspect you know you made a fool of yourself, attempts to blur the issue by distraction just make you look sillier.

    I realise you (got?) hauled in a bit on monday,but by this time you’d shown yourself up.

  18. entdinglichung said,

    interesting, that Harman’s text always uses the term “Russian” … on the continent, it was as far as I know (also among anti-stalinist marxists) much more common on the left to use e.g. the term Soviet army … to talk of “Russians” was e.g in Germany, France or Scandinavia much more common among the right and especially the far right

  19. charliethechulo said,

    Father John: the important difference between Harman’s stance in 1968/9 and yours and the SWP’s today, is that he made it absolutely clear (as demonstarted in the article above) which side he was on, and made no effort to excuse Russian imperialism. Now do you understand how you’ve betrayed your own tradition? And become, in effect, Stalinists without the USSR?

  20. johng said,

    Well the difference with the Prague Spring is that there was someone’s side to be on: in this case the working class who were mobilised and on general strike. Whose ‘side’ should we be on in this conflict?

    I have responded to your baseless charges of propaganda, but Tim, how many Osstetians do you think died at the hands of Georgian forces? How many refugee’s do you think were created? Perhaps you think we should not talk about Georgian deaths or refugee’s until they are ‘confirmed’ by an independent authority? In which case its hard to know why your getting het up about a conflict which might not even have happened according to your own wierd Orwellian logic.

  21. charliethechulo said,

    Father John: there is, indeed, “no side to be on” (amazingly, I think we agree on that)…but the SWP sound and read as though they’re on *Russia*’s side. Don’t you see that? At least Harman in 1968/9 made it clear that he (and the IS as a whole) *opposed* the invasion and Russian imperialism. Do you lot presently do the same? Yes or no?

  22. johng said,

    I really don’t see how you can think this Jim. Please provide any textual evidence that this is the case. On the other hand your accusations against us suggest to me that you believe any mention of a major player in the great power rivalries (and indeed what looks set to become a new European arms race as a result) is forbidden: namely the US. Partly the problem is that your politics have become so infected by the right wingers whose main line is to argue that the left fails to defend ‘the west’ that its become rather hard to differentiate you from them. Is there a difference?

  23. Jim Denham said,

    Just read the SWP’s coverage, Father Coughlin. Note that Ms. German’s condemnation is solely of the US, not the invaders – Russia: I’ll give you a link, though I’m sure you’ve already read it:

    But the crucial point is that in 1968/9, the default postion of the ‘left”, like Harman, was to oppose the invasion and support democracy. The knee-jerk reaction of people like you and today’s SWP, is exactly the opposite; that tells us all we need to know about your commitment to democracy and workers’ power. Essentially, you and your organisation are Stalinist, without even the excuse of an actual, existing USSR to defend in the (mistaken) belief that it represents “socialism”.

  24. johng said,

    But Jim its not 1968, Russia is not the Soviet Union, Georgia is not czechoslavakia, and NATO is not behind the Iron Curtain and we do not live in a bi-polar global system. These little matters of historical detail do make a difference, pesky though they are. Its the first duty of socialists in this part of the world to stop the drive to war by the US on a global scale. Would you not agree? The enemy is at home and all that? The idea that this implies support for Russia is as silly as the idea that British socialists who opposed the first world war were supporters of the Kaiser.

  25. Jim Denham said,

    Father John G. Coughlin: it’s now ( in 2008 ) the first duty of socialists to support the democratic will of the people and to oppose illegal invasions: yes? So let’s be clear: you *oppose* the Russian invasion of Georgia? Yes?
    A simple “Yes” will do. Go on: do it! Then we can end this discussion, and I’ll say “OK Father: you’ve now clarified your position to my satisfaction”.

  26. modernityblog said,


    you won’t get a straight forward answer from JohnG, that’s out of character

    he’s probably on the phone to Harman asking for the line!

    JohnG: ‘do you *oppose* the Russian invasion of Georgia? Yes, No or Undecided ?’

  27. sackcloth and ashes said,

    If Father John had been alive in 1968, he’d be a tankie, and he’d be parroting Soviet propaganda. He’s that kind of man.

  28. chjh said,

    I’m confused – did Georgia not invade South Ossetia, then? Did it just never happen? Or did it happen, but it wasn’t really an invasion because Georgia was somehow allowed to kill South Ossetians?

  29. modernityblog said,


    monocausality is the bane of intelligent debate

    let’s suppose they did but let’s also assume that the Russia leadership engineered this conflict and made the most of it?

    further let’s suppose that there is an interaction between the players in this conflict and that it didn’t start a few weeks ago?

    what then?

  30. tim said,

    Russians to retain control of Georgian city of Poti

  31. johng said,

    “let’s suppose they did”

    Class there from Modernity. “suppose”. Christ this is laugh out loud stuff.

    Jim, the point is do you condemn the Georgian attack on South Osstetia. A simple yes or no will do it. (you can’t of course because, like modernity, your not clear it actually happened). I have been quite clear about opposing Russian troops in Georgia. I also oppose Georgian troops in South Ossttetia. And US missiles in Poland.

  32. sackcloth and ashes said,

    Some common sense on this subject, as opposed to swuppie rantings by a lapsed academic who can’t even spell ‘Ossetia’:

    Oh, and the majority of Poles support the missile defence deal. Popular opinion can be a real bugger can’t it. You should know John, because no one ever votes for your ridiculous excuse for a party:,,3576023,00.html?maca=en-AI-2414-html-box

  33. Jim Denham said,

    Father John, my answer is…(wait for it)…


    And I’m glad to hear that you, in turn, oppose the Russian invasion and continuing occupation of Georgia. This, you realise, puts you in a minority faction within the SWP. I trust you’ll execise your democratic rights within that organisation and form a faction?

  34. chjh said,

    Oh, yes, do let’s quote Radio Free Europe as an independent and impartial source on Russia – after all, the money they get from the CIA has no bearing at all on their editorial stance, does it?

    I have to confess to not understand ing modernity’s answer to my question. He seems to suggest that Russia was at fault because they had a plan about what to do if Georgia attacked. There’s an interesting pre-emptive reply to that here

  35. modernityblog said,

    “He seems to suggest that Russia was at fault because they had a plan about what to do if Georgia attacked.”

    I’m trying to get a bit beyond the blame game or seeing the players in this conflict as merely static and unthinking.

    It seems fairly clear that in the post Yeltsin phase that elements of the Russian ruling elite (primarily based around the security apparatus) decided that Russia needs to reassert itself as a regional power.

    And to assert itself that means having significant influence on its former Warsaw pact allies and those states previously incorporated into the USSR.

    In terms of evidence I suppose you could argue that Moscow is handing out of Russian passports freely gives it an opportunity to intervene on behalf of its “citizens” (an excuse which is being used many times before by the Americans and British), the speed of the Soviet response suggests they knew it was coming. Their continued occupation of parts of Georgia is a provocation and a deliberate one at that, etc.

    So I think looking broadly at the evidence, Georgia is culpable for the initial attack, but that does not detract from the background to this conflict or the Russian leader’s wider motives.

  36. sackcloth and ashes said,

    ‘Oh, yes, do let’s quote Radio Free Europe as an independent and impartial source on Russia – after all, the money they get from the CIA has no bearing at all on their editorial stance, does it?’

    The CIA stopped fundin RFE in the 1970s, you ignorant tool.

    Oh, and can you find any faults in the analysis of both the pieces I cited. Of course not. You couldn’t even be bothered to read them, you muppet.

    ‘He seems to suggest that Russia was at fault because they had a plan about what to do if Georgia attacked’.

    Er, no, that is yet another monumentally stupid comment on your part. The Russians after all arm and equip the South Ossetian ‘army’ (videoed in combat against the Georgians four days before the latter ‘attacked’ on 7th August). Eduard Kokoity is a mafia thug whose position as President depends on Moscow’s backing. So, what’s the betting that the Russians planned for an overwhelming military strike against Georgia, using their proxies in South Ossetia to bait the trap. And if the Russian invasion was all about protecting S.O., then why the simultaneous move into Abkhazia, and what are the Russian military doing digging in in Poti?

    You have to be a swuppie. Only the SWP would recruit someone as thick as you.

  37. sackcloth and ashes said,

    That should read ‘funding’, by the way. Unlike Father John, I try to get my spelling right.

  38. sackcloth and ashes said,

    More on this subject here:

    ‘To deny that Russian imperialism is shaping the events unfolding in the Caucasus is to ignore the public pronouncements of Russian leaders and the climate of nationalist hysteria that permeates the Russian media. Within hours of his arrival in Vladikavkaz last week, Vladimir Putin boasted that Russia “for centuries” played a “positive, stabilising role (as) a guarantor of the security, progress and co-operation” in the Caucasus and “would remain so in the future”.

    That confident affirmation of Russia’s imperial destiny is a tribute to the achievements of a decade of nationalist propaganda in the state-controlled media. No longer is public opinion agitated by the memory of Russia’s 19th-century conquest of the Caucasus, Stalin’s genocidal deportations, and the two brutal Chechen wars. As human rights activist Sergei Kovalev has lamented, the regime’s tribunes “have drummed the values of the imperial state into the social mind”.’

    Am I the only person who finds this disturbing?

  39. Neues aus den Archiven der radikalen Linken - eine Auswahl « Entdinglichung said,

    […] Chris Harman: Statement on crushing of the Prague Spring (1968, […]

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