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.