Prague Spring: 50 Years Later

with Pete Dolack

Histories of the 1968 Prague Spring tend to focus exclusively on the drama inside the leadership of the Czechoslovak Communist Party and the personality of reformer Alexander Dubček. The fuller story of the Prague Spring is the grassroots movement for workers’ control of industry and economic democracy.

Although reformers within the Communist Party sought significant reforms to the overly centralized system copied from the Soviet Union, including advocacy of workers’ councils, there were significant differences between the more modest reforms put forth by Czechoslovak economists and the more thorough-going concepts of activists and workers themselves.

This was a true grassroots effort, mostly organized by trade union officials and rank-and-file Communist Party members. One interesting wrinkle is that unions, representing members as individuals and freed from state control, would continue to exist alongside the workers’ councils. All this was to happen in a socialized economy in which formal ownership would continue to reside with the state but in which state and party control would be drastically curtailed.

In this conception, which began to be implemented in some of the country’s biggest enterprises, the workforce as a whole would meet in assemblies to decide broad policies and freely elect a council from their ranks that would coordinate management. Each worker would be a part of the enterprise assembly and be members of independent unions that would represent workers as individuals in disputes with the collective or with higher administrative bodies. Thus each half of the duality would be represented through separate institutions.

Statutes had been developed in several factories across the country, and a national conference that sought to codify a system of workers’ control took place in which approximately one-sixth of the country’s workers were represented, before the experiment began to be shut down. Naturally, such a well-developed movement did not spring into being spontaneously, but rather was the product of earlier experiments, years of debate, and memories of councils established in the 1940s. In part, it was also an attempt at reversing several years of economic stagnation, a stagnation that signaled that the model imposed by the Soviet Union had reached its limits.

Pete Dolack is the author of It’s Not Over: Learning From the Socialist Experiment, a study of the 20th century’s attempts to transcend capitalism that includes a chapter analyzing the Prague Spring and the workers’ control movement. He is at work on his second book, focused on economic democracy, and writes the Systemic Disorder blog, which discusses the ongoing economic crisis of capitalism and the environmental and political issues connected to it. His writings also appear in popular outlets including CounterPunch and ZNet.

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Political Writings of Marx and Engels

Lessons for Today’s Politics
A reading group convened by Lisa Maya Knauer
Saturdays from 3:30-5:30 p.m.
October 7-December 9 (no meeting November 25)
9 Session class

“It was the first time that the bourgeoisie showed to what insane cruelties of revenge it will be goaded the moment the proletariat dares to take its stand against them as a separate class, with its own interests and demands.”

This sentence was written by Karl Marx in 1871, just weeks after the French bourgeoisie crushed the Paris Commune, but it is just as applicable to today’s political situation in the U.S. and elsewhere. This reading group will delve into a selection of Marx and Engels’ political writings to gain both a better understanding of the history of working-class and socialist struggles of their times, and explore lessons for our political organizing now. This tasks takes on a special urgency in light of the events in Charlottesville and the increased visibility of racist, anti-Semitic and white supremacist ideologies.

The reading group offers a very accessible entry-point into the works of Marx and Engels, so no previous study of Marxism is necessary. But it is also a good complement to the study of Capital and other more complex theoretical works.

We will start with Marx and Engels’ writings about the Paris Commune and its aftermath, and collectively decide which other works to explore in our 10-week session.

Lisa Maya Knauer has been involved with Marxist education in New York for her entire adult life, and has taught a variety of classes at the MEP and its predecessors. Her current activist work focuses on immigrant workers’ rights and indigenous struggles for land and water. In her day job, she is a tenured radical at a public university.

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