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Albert Gates

The Nature of the Czech Coup

Critique of the Erber-Garrett-Judd Resolution

(August 1948)


From The New International, Vol. XIV No. 6, August 1948, pp. 182–184.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).


The following discussion article refers to the resolution On the Czechoslovakian Coup – Theses on the Nature of the Stalinist Revolution, by Ernest Erber, Emanuel Garrett and Henry. Judd, published last month.Ed.

*

The resolution On the Czech Coup signed by Comrades Erber, Garrett and Judd is an oddity. It is, indeed, not a resolution at all if by that term we understand a document which endeavors to summarize a clear point of view as a guide for action.

Not only are its formulations unclear, imprecise, self-contradictory and one-sided, but (1) the authors have not even decided for themselves what are the questions they are trying to answer, and (2) insofar as they attempt to give answers to the unformulated questions in their minds, they patently present the picture of people who have lost any firm grip on their accustomed ideological mooring posts and have not yet found any other in the course of their groping.

What is odd is that they have written their gropings down in resolution form.

The kind of resolution that results is not unfamiliar to us from past experience: using rough figures, 50 per cent of the sentences they have written down we can agree with; another 35 per cent are such that one cannot quite disagree with them but would somehow never have written them down in just that way; and perhaps only 15 per cent are dead wrong. It is the second category which gives the resolution its tone, and the third which gives it whatever political tendency it bears.

*

At the outset (in Point 1) the resolution raises a key question:

“The evidence presented by the Czech events strengthens the view that under favorable international conditions, the Stalinists are capable of overthrowing a capitalist state (as Italy or France) and establishing their party dictatorship by means of an insurrection that bases itself upon the proletarian masses, in the same manner as fascism bases itself upon the petty-bourgeois masses.”

We do not exclude the possibility that Stalinism may employ that method in given conditions. But why did the February events in Czechoslovakia especially “strengthen” that view? Because, presumably, an “insurrection” based upon “the proletarian masses” took place only in Czechoslovakia according to “the evidence,” and not in Yugoslavia, Poland, Bulgaria, etc.

Yet, in Point 3, the same resolution tells us that, far from there having been an insurrection, there was not even a revolution in February: “In the February events in Czechoslovakia, the state power was not overthrown and replaced by a new one since the essentials of state power were already in the hands of the Stalinists.” And in the next point, the very same resolution adds:

“The real Stalinist revolution took place during the liberation of Czechoslovakia by the advancing Russian army and the uprising of the resistance in Prague. These events placed the Stalinists in control of the police and the army – the essence of state power.”

It is only in this last passage that any mention at all is made of the relation between the Czech coup and Russia. For the rest of the resolution this fact does not exist and plays no role, incredible as that seems. Erber’s own excellent review of The Stalinist Road to Power in Czechoslovakia (March NI) would seem to have been struck off in some distant time and place. In that respect, Hal Draper’s article (The Triangle of Forces, April NI), with which I generally concur, bore an intimate relationship to the factual basis of this discussion.
 

All-Pervading Contradiction

But if the Czech CP came to power – the essence of state power – as long ago as 1945, what earthly sense does Point 1 of the resolution make? What then invested the February events with such mind-shaking significance? As a matter of fact, the whole of Eastern Europe was already written off to the Stalinist empire by all responsible observers, and no one (certainly no one in our movement) considered Czechoslovakia as anything but a semi-Stalinist state completely subservient to the Kremlin prior to February. This was already evident when the feeble Benes regime tried to sneak under the Marshall Plan umbrella. One crack of Stalin’s whip brought them tottering into line again.

So, then, there was no revolution in February, and no one can imagine why the Stalinists needed an “insurrection” if they did not even need to make a revolution-possessing as they already did “the essence of state power.”

Riding roughshod – or rather groping blindly – in the teeth of this all-pervading contradiction, the resolution insists that the Stalinists could take power as they did because they had the total support of the masses, in particular the mass of the proletariat:

“The ability of the Stalinists to dominate the state apparatus after the Russian armies were withdrawn was made possible by their considerable mass base, predominantly composed of the industrial proletariat.”

But here again the resolution overlooks the more cogent reason it gave earlier for “the ability of the Stalinists to dominate the state apparatus”: the Russian army placed the CP in control of the police and the army (not to speak of the propaganda ministry and a host of other key posts), “the essence of state power.” Once given this, the Stalinists will bear on their way whether they have the support of the masses or no, with them or against them.

Are the authors claiming that the CP would have been incapable of maintaining state power if the great mass of workers had not been for them or had merely tolerated them? All evidence speaks against this notion. It would have been more interesting to see what might have happened in Czechoslovakia if the native Stalinists had not been kindly supplied with “the essence of state power” by the Russian army and GPU, and were forced to fight their way to power in equal competition with other parties and movements. On such a basis it is at least just as possible that the CP would have suffered a severe defeat.

At least, that is what the experience of Hungary indicates. Despite the physical presence of the Russian army there and their control of key government posts, the Stalinists were trounced in the Hungarian elections. Even in Czechoslovakia the CP had suffered a telling defeat within the Social-Democratic Party, and there too despite their control of “the essence of state power.”

One of the reasons why the Czech government parties forced the February coup by their resignations from the cabinet was that (rightly or wrongly) they were confident that the Stalinists would be defeated at the polls. The Stalinists themselves apparently were afraid of that too – else they would never have jumped so quickly to destroy even the miserable remnants of the former democratic state. But this singular fact which precipitated the Stalinist coup is not even mentioned in the resolution.

There is no dispute about the fact that the Stalinists had the support of large masses of people and perhaps the majority of the working class. Given the bankruptcy of capitalism, the pro-Russian orientation of the Czech bourgeoisie, the anti-capitalist character of the Stalinist movement, there is nothing surprising about this fact.

But the fact that the Stalinists had this support did not necessarily produce the coup! The Italian CP has an even greater proletarian mass support than the Czech CP and at one time wielded an even greater influence in the country at large. Yet it could not and did not even attempt a coup. Why? Because it did not have the police power in its hands and it did not have the favorable proximity to the Russian state-in addition to the international factors (possibility of U.S. intervention) which militated against such action.
 

Confusions and Tendencies

The resolution tries in other ways to perform the impossible feat of suggesting (on the one hand) that what took place was something like a proletarian insurrection while (on the other hand) admitting that there was no revolution at all. In Point 6 we read that:

“... the Stalinists brought the pressure of the masses to bear through techniques traditionally associated with the proletarian struggle for power-street demonstrations, workers’ militia, and extralegal seizure of key points by the Action Committees.” [1]

The key word here is “techniques”: three of the four techniques cited are characteristic generally, not of any specific proletarian methods, but of any class’s methods of seizing power – demonstrations, armed militia, seizure of key points; and the fourth (strikes) are possible pressure instruments for the Stalinists for the familiar reason that the Stalinists’ mass support is based on the working class. But it is one thing to say that the Stalinists’ mass support does as a matter of fact come from the working class, and quite a different thing to claim that the Stalinists’ road to power is based on their use of this mass support – especially when one has already conceded that they had “the essence of state power”!

In the next point, the resolution adds: “The fact that the masses participated in the events in a restrained, orderly and disciplined manner was the result, not of their disinterest or apathy [2], but of the absence of serious opposition.”

In the first place, it is to be doubted whether the authors have any grounds for claiming to know the subjective relations of the social groupings. In any case, the description contained in Erber’s account of the Stalinist road to power does not square with this view of the resolution. The working class evidently was quite passive. So were the organizations in which the workers were corralled by the Stalinist apparatus. The Stalinist gangs were active and mobile. And if anyone has had any experience with Stalinist-controlled organizations, he knows almost instinctively how such events are carried off.

In its effort to ride all horses in all directions, the resolution hastily adds:

“To see a ‘fear of the masses’ on the part of the Stalinists in the Czech events is to conceive of the revolutionary action of the proletariat in terms of spontaneity and to discard our traditional view on the role of the party. Especially is this true where the Stalinists lead the masses in a struggle against the bourgeoisie.”

Now no one (except the Cannonite Socialist Workers Party, and we assume the resolution is not directing itself against them) has argued that the Stalinists failed to unleash the “revolution” because of a “fear of the masses” – whom they obviously controlled by their police powers in any case. What the resolution is denying is that a mass revolution of the workers and other classes does have – in all previous historical experience has had – a spontaneous character.

To see the element of spontaneity in a mass revolutionary uprising that springs from the depths of proletarian class struggle is not to “discard our traditional view of the role of the party.” The authors are misguided in raising this point and are suffering from semantic inertia in trying to tie their “new” gropings to “our traditional view.”

The “traditional view of the role of the party” does not exclude the element of spontaneity in working-class struggles. On the contrary, it was in recognition of this element of spontaneity and its limitations that the conception of the revolutionary party was developed by Lenin. Our “traditional” conception is that, while the spontaneity of the masses is an active element of the mass revolutionary event, spontaneity alone cannot resolve the class struggle into a successful proletarian revolution. The polemic of the resolution makes no sense, unless it is arguing that the “orderly and restrained” rebellion was a mass proletarian revolution precisely because the element of spontaneity was completely lacking.

The authors of the resolution are too glib in dismissing what Trotsky once called Stalin’s “fear of the masses.” In the long-term sense of our historical struggle against Stalinism, the latter’s fear of the masses in its integral meaning will be one of the most important factors in our struggle for socialism. What the resolution does, as we shall see, is in reality to write off the working class as the decisive element in the struggle for socialism,while at the same time it pays a gratuitous compliment to it by saying that “the proletariat remains for us the only class which can overturn the rule of the bourgeoisie.” [3]

To lend a further air of credibility to its view that the Czech events were primarily the product of internal class-struggle conditions, the resolution says: “A majority of the industrial workers of Czechoslovakia have followed the Communist Party almost continuously since 1920.”

This is intended to indicate that the current size and power of the Czech Stalinist party is not closely connected with the fact that it has had “the essence of state power” since 1945. The claim, however, just happens not to be true!

The Czech CP, at its height in 1924. never had more than 140,000 members. From that point on, it declined steadily for almost fifteen years and reached a low point in 1939 with only 70,000 members. In all the years from 1920 on, the Social-Democracy was a vastly larger and more influential movement. Only after the war, as a result of the resistance struggle and the influence of the Russian army and GPU did the CP reach its present proportions.

Why, then, did the resolution find it necessary to make this erroneous observation? I believe that we begin to get closest to the political heart of the author’s thinking in the following passage:

“This experience once more underscores the fact that wherever Stalinism is a mass movement that is waging a struggle against capitalism, the proletariat, as such, is incapable of playing an independent role, except where there is a sizable anti-Stalinist, revolutionary socialist party to give the workers a program.” (Point 15)

Because of the qualification at the end, this sentence has an air of familiarity: we have always insisted that “except where there is a ... revolutionary socialist party” the proletariat cannot carry its class struggle to a victorious revolutionary conclusion. But this is precisely what the resolution does not say! Its view is that, in the circumstances described, the proletariat as such is incapable of playing an independent role. The difference is enormous. It is sufficient to ask: “If without a revolutionary socialist party the proletariat can play no independent role, then how will it ever be possible for a revolutionary socialist party to be built?”

This line of thought is reinforced by the preceding point:

“Had the relation of forces been less one-sided and had a mass struggle broken out, there is no reason whatsoever to believe that the Stalinists would not have utilized measures associated with revolutionary proletarian warfare to achieve their victory. The complete domination of the mass movement by the Stalinists under conditions of military conflict does not become less but greater as a consequence of military rule on both sides.”

The conclusion is inescapable: Given the running start that the Stalinists have in all countries, a revolutionary socialist defeat of Stalinism is impossible in the sequence of events. The working class is doomed to be sucked in by the anti-capitalist revolution of the Stalinists.

How then can Stalinism be defeated if (in the absence of a revolutionary socialist party where the Stalinists are waging an anti-capitalist struggle) the proletariat as such is incapable of playing an independent role? The resolution tells us in brief:

“Such a counter-offensive [against the Stalinists] can be successful only if (a) Western Europe experiences a period of economic revival which eases the most pressing problems of the masses and (b) a socialist regroupment takes place which produces strong anti-Stalinist, anti-reformist parties.” (Point 19.)

Now the authors of the resolution before us are the very same comrades who in the discussion on the Marshall Plan in Labor Action, have made clear their belief that in the above (b) depends on (a), and that both depend on the success of the Marshall Plan. In his own discussion article on the Marshall Plan which appeared in the June 14 issue of Labor Action, these views were put most directly by Erber. It is a pity then, that they were not incorporated in the resolution on the Czech coup, where one might come to grips with some concrete ideas rather than misty declarations.

The working class cannot play an independent role in the face of the Stalinists’ anti-capitalist struggle for their own power; the only hope for a defeat of Stalinism depends upon the camp of bourgeois imperialism, in particular American imperialism, which alone has the power to reverse this trend of doom ... If the resolution does not have this meaning, it has no meaning whatsoever.

*

I should like to summarize briefly what in my opinion the Czech events did show, in order to illustrate how different they appear in fact from the views presented by the Erber-Garrett-Judd resolution.

(1) The Stalinist coup in Czechoslovakia was the product of the deterioration of international relations, expressed principally in the struggle over Europe between the U.S. and Russia. Given Stalinist control of the police powers of the state, the Czech CP could have taken full power whenever it so desired.

Prior to the organization of the Western bloc under the Marshall Plan, the Stalinists required the “democratic façade” it had erected in Czechoslovakia under the Benes presidency. From the moment the Benes government made the mistake of seeking membership in the Marshall Plan club, the Kremlin decided to bring to an end the ambiguous political conditions it had created. Perhaps Stalin sensed the coming defeat in the Italian election. The situation in France was also not then favorable to him.

It was necessary, under these circumstances, to finish with the remnants of the old regime and take complete control of the country. Thus, the decision to take undivided power in Czechoslovakia was adopted by Stalin in the Kremlin and not by Gottwald in his Prague offices.

(2) The Stalinist coup was not the product of an intense and running national struggle between the classes. The country was in a general state of quiet for many months prior to February. What did happen is that the Stalinists deliberately created a state of hostility and tension. It put into motion its controlled organizations, its armed mercenaries and professional organizers, joined with the secret police and the reorganized armed forces.

Manipulating the mass organizations of the workers, it created the illusion of a mounting rebellion, although the working class was not actually in rebellious motion. Whatever the concrete methods employed, we did not see a working-class insurrection (as the resolution intimates) similar in character to the Russian Revolution of 1917. The distinction is important and has nothing to do with the question whether the Stalinists could or might employ such methods of taking power.

In any case it is abundantly clear from the events of the past several years that the primary factor in a Stalinist seizure of power is the manipulation of the mass movement with the aid of their mercenaries, thoroughly organized by Stalin’s trained agents.

Stalinism does not and cannot permit the mass movements to have the freedom of action and motion such as is characteristic of all mass rebellions. This remains true even when the Stalinists try to portray their coups as spontaneous and elemental class movements.

(3) The failure of any resistance to the Stalinist coup can be attributed to a variety of factors, but one of the principal ones was the pro-Russian orientation of the Czech bourgeoisie. It is evident that in this case their pacific course arose out of a feeling of hopelessness and their perspective of eventually returning to power after a military defeat of Russia by the Western bloc.

Benes and his government had considerable support in the country at large. But even though the Russian army was not physically on the country’s soil, a vigorous resistance to the Stalinist coup would have invited direct or indirect Russian intervention. If the geographic position of Czechoslovakia were closer to the Atlantic or within the Western orbit, this coup could not have taken place in the way it did.

(4) The resolution, however, views this advance of Stalinism as further evidence of its invincibility. That is why it poses the future struggle against Stalinism along non-socialist lines, since the proletariat is incapable of carrying out this necessary battle to any successful conclusion.

Naturally, we cannot claim that the authors state this in a clear-cut way, since we have already stressed that they state nothing – absolutely nothing – in clear-cut, unambiguous terms.

This is further evidenced in the way the resolution regards Stalinism as an invincible power, developing greater and greater strength without disruptive contradictions. We have already seen a few developments which give color to the view that Stalinism cannot expand into Europe without creating conditions for the growth of its internal contradictions and forcing into existence a new wave of national struggle by peoples under the heel of Stalinist imperialism.

In brief, the Erber-Garrett-Judd resolution projects a postponement of the struggle for socialism in favor of a “new” type of struggle against Stalinism based on the Western bourgeoisie, which alone is viewed as capable of defeating it.

Through the maze of its contradictions and ambiguities, this at least is the direction in which the authors are groping.


Footnotes

1. Incidentally, this flatly contradicts the later statement in Point 14 of the resolution which puts this idea in the future conditional tense: “... had a mass struggle broken out ... there is no reason whatsoever to believe that the Stalinists would not have utilized measures associated with revolutionary proletarian warfare to achieve their victory.” This implies that such measures were not actually utilized in February since they were not necessary, I do not think the authors know which of the two they mean.

2. The words “disinterest” and “apathy” are introduced by the authors as straw men. I (and Comrade Draper in his article) do not put forward the view that the Czech workers were either disinterested, uninterested or apathetic. We state that the facts show that the role of the Czech workers was essentially a passive one in the coup. The one is a subjective estimate of their state of mind, the other is an objective description of their behavior, to be explained by their political impasse and lack of an alternative to the CP.

3. Even when the authors seek to pay a compliment to the proletariat, they cannot get it straight. It is NOT true that “The proletariat remains for us the only class which can overturn the rule of the bourgeoisie.” This feat has already been performed in Poland and the other Russian satellites by an alien class, the Russian bureaucracy. What IS true is that the proletariat remains for us the only class that can bring about socialism. The resolution, in fact, carries this correct formulation in the very next sentence after the incorrect one, just as if the two were interchangeable. The observation is worth a footnote only to underline the unutterably confused character of the document.

 
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