>Slovakia: Empty lionizing of Dubček suggests social democracy lacks roots

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A recent issue of Slovak daily Sme contains a report of a speech by Slovak PM Robert Fico (full text here) to mark the fifteenth anniversary of the death of Alexander Dubček, ill-fated leader of the Prague Spring and early figurehead of post-communist social democracy in Slovakia. As a man of the left, Fico, unsurprisingly has a positive take on Dubček whose thoughts he told his audience he and fellow leaders of SMER find alive and inspiring to this day and feel moral duty to continue them. Just what thoughts Dubček and his generation of Prague Spring reform communists more have to offer to contemporary Slovakia was, was however, left tantalizingly vague. Dubček, Fico told listeners, saw democracy as essentially an exercise in civilized dialogue. He was also a ‘leading figure in the European socialist movement’ and a humanist, aware of his responsibility for civilization, who believed in advancing knowledge through co-operation with scholars (s vedcami). Another speaker, Ivan Laluh, president of the Alexander Dubček Society , offered a similarly motherhood-and-apple-pie assessment of Dubček as standing for ‘humanism, social justice, decency and tolerance’ – which could apply to most European liberal, social democratic or (even) Christian Democratic politicians of any standing.
The awkward truth seems to be that, however sympathetically one might look at the tragedy of Czechoslovak reform communism – and it is something of a breath of fresh air to find more than the dismissal and amnesia characteristic of much Czech public debate on the period – it has little to say today. Dubček’s political inactivity during the ‘normalization’ period of the 1970s and 80s and short-lived political career after 1989 also amount to relatively little. So why the fuss? At one level, there is a simple a nationalist rationale. Slovaks Fico pointedly noted should ‘immerse ourselves more deeply in the thought of Slovak scholars and politicians, who have inscribed themselves on the consciousness of Europe’ even if – as in Dubček’s case – these are somewhat shallow waters. Dubček’s status in Slovakia is therefore understandably higher – Slovakia’s newest university in Trenčín was re-named Alexander Dubček University in 2002, an honour unlikely to be bestowed on any Czech leaders of the Prague Spring in their home republic.

Fico opponents might, however, detect a darker side in his comments that Dubček’s concept of democracy as civilized debate had not been attained in contemporary Slovakia as people were too intolerant and ‘too strongly intoxicated with freedom of speech’ which, translated, may mean there is too much criticism of his government in the media and society. Possibly, we should think back beyond the humanism and apple pie to remember the more authoritarian impulses during the 1960s of Dubček et al to regulate pluralism and debate so as to ensure they delivered social consensus around the ‘right’ result – something often overlooked in many accounts because the Prague Spring was progressive and democratically minded by the standards of communist one party rule in Eastern Europe. As Peter Siani-Davies’s excellent book on the Romanian Revolution reminds us the semi-authoritarian populism of the National Salvation Front in part had its roots in the technocratic authoritarianism and engineered dialogue to ensure Consensus of would-be communist reformers who opposed Ceausescu, as well as the country’s more obviously authoritarian and nationalist traditions.

In other ways, however, the vacuous lionizing of Dubček seem to underline the ideologically shallow roots of SMER and the Slovak centre-left. In the absence of a strong historic social democratic tradition, it has few models or historical figures to draw on not obviously compromised by association with the Stalinism of 1950s or the ‘normalization’ of the 1970s and 80s and ‘Europe’ no longer offers a comfortable template following SMER’s suspension from the Party of European Socialists. Moreover, as the current controversy over public remembrance of Andrej Hlinka awkwardly demonstrates, there are plenty of historic reference points for those of Catholic-populist-nationalist persuasion to fix on.

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4 responses to “>Slovakia: Empty lionizing of Dubček suggests social democracy lacks roots”

  1. Business says :

    >It’s all very well for Dr Sean to belittle Dubcek’s contribution to social democracy and to point to his relative inactivity in the years after 1968, but the main thing that Dubcek should be honoured for is acting as a catalyst for Gorbachev. Dr Sean also questions Fico’s positive comments about Dubeck, attributing them more to Slovak nationalism than genuine social democratic feeling. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with a small, young country like Slovakia expressing patriotism by pointing to role models such as Dubcek. Let’s not forget that living under the Brezhnev boot in the interests of the ordinary people of Slovakia and with the hope of future freedom is better than the brave but in the end tragic and foolish nationalism of countries such as Serbia, where in the end it is the ordinary people that pay the price. And when you say Slovakia lacks social democratic roots, let’s not forget that under the First Republic under Masaryk – the only genuine inter-war democracy in central and eastern Europe – most Slovaks lived in absolute poverty.

  2. Sean Hanley says :

    >I guess you’re right that nationalism and a figure like Dubcek are both things that Fico has to engage with. However, although an impressively successful and effective politician in many ways – as his obviously inccurate comments about Slovaks demonstrating for national independence in November 1989 – he lacks the finesse and skill with historical mythmaking of a like Klaus, or indeed a Milosevic. There is a link between perestroika and Czechoslovak reform communism, but it is more to do with ideas and the intellectual climate of 1960s than Dubcek, who was not really known for his reformist credential before becoming Communist party General Secretary. The personal link with Gorbachev more usually mentioned is that with Zdenek Mlynar, intellectual architect of the Prague Spring reforms and a fellow student of Gorby in Moscow in the 1950s. But, of course, he was a Czech.We should, of course, certainly be grateful to Gorbachev for inadvertantly destroying the Soviet Union.

  3. bryandunne says :

    >I wonder what was the reason for Dubcek's "political inactivity" during Normalizacie? He can hardly be blamed for not promoting his political ideas in the new CS of 1969 onwards. I think Dubcek did achieve a lot during his Spring…I am not an expert but I am sure that the "Action Program" contained plans for economic reform and more Worker Council control of individual factories. Perhaps a modern-day left-wing party in Slovakia might find the idea of more worker involvement in management of factories etc a good idea.The freeing of the Greek Catholic Churches was another major event.I think that when Dubcek emerged in 1989 after twenty years of enforced obscurity he was overawed by the experience. There are so many "what ifs" that one can raise if he had not died in the car crash. The major one being whether the Velvet Divorce would ever have taken place. For me Dubcek's early death deprived Czechoslovakia of a great unifying figure. Would Meciar have been able to pursue his own nationalist cause if Dubcek had been standing next to Havel? A major "what if" I agree.. It reminds me of the death of Stefanik deprived the country of another great Slovak politician. I am sure people in CS thought of Dubcek's death in similar terms.Another "!what if" is whether a post-Communist CSFR would have permitted Klaus to apply his economic shock therapy if Dubcek had been alive. I imagine he would have opposed a Thatcherite solution and this might have been enough to have prevented Klaus from acting as he did. These are just my long-held ideas arising for living in Slovakia for a year some time ago. Feel free to correct me if I am way off-beam in thse ideas.Thank you for your interesting article. Yours,Bryan Dunne

  4. Sean Hanley says :

    >Well, not being a it's hard to judge Dubcek's personal motivations, although it would be interesting to look at the autobiographical and bibliographical material on him to see if there any any clues: most of it is available or written in English. The problem with Dubcek politically, however, is that he was very much the architect of 'normalization' – some aspects of which were being prepated before the invasion – and that he signed the Moscow Protocols and in public went along with the early stages of normalization. His political judgement and skills are also open to question as he failed to see that the Russians – not trusting his abilities – really would invade.I certainly don't think he would have been much of a unifying figure after 1989 if he had stayed in politics (which wisely, he didn't try to). He would not have been popular with the increasingly anti-communist Czechs with who (then) wanted a figure symbolising a break with communism, whether reformed or otherwise, [ = Havel] and certainly not 'Sentimental Marxist Sasha' who had misjudged things in 1968.Workers control is these days so left-wing a policy that, ironically, only the hardline Czech Communists advocate anything like and they obviously would rather avoid the whole subject of 1968… Generally today's Social Democrats in both Slovakia and the CR rather awkwardly find the Action Programme inspirational but that can't actually say why…There were plenty of people who opposed Klaus's "shock therapy" (actually not very shocking except in the corruption it gave rise to) – no real need for Dubcek – it got through because more people (at least in the CR) supported him… Keeping the federal state together in 1992 would probably have produced a more left-wing if chaotic outcome, but that didn't really suit any of the politicians, so they quickly (but probably sensibly) split the country in two…Had he lived I suppose Dubcek would have been a natural candidate for President of Slovakia, but that would have entailed tusslign with malign Vladimir Meciar, which is perhaps another interesting what it

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