The Reform Movement
De-Stalinization had a late start in Czechoslovakia. The KSC leadership virtually ignored the Soviet thaw announced by Nikita Khrushchev in 1956 at the Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. In Czechoslovakia that April, at the Second Writers' Congress, several authors criticized acts of political repression and attempted to gain control of the writers' congress. The writers' rebellion was suppressed, however, and the conservatives retained control. Students in Prague and Bratislava demonstrated on May Day of 1956, demanding freedom of speech and access to the Western press. The Novotny regime condemned these activities and introduced a policy of neo-Stalinism. The 1958 KSC Party congress formalized the continuation of Stalinism.
In the early 1960s, the Czechoslovak economy became severely stagnated. The industrial growth rate was the lowest in Eastern Europe. Food imports strained the balance of payments. Pressures both from Moscow and from within the party precipitated a reform movement. In 1963 reform-minded Communist intellectuals produced a proliferation of critical articles. Criticism of economic planning merged with more generalized protests against KSC bureaucratic control and ideological conformity. The KSC leadership responded. The purge trials of 1949-54 were reviewed, for example, and some of those purged were rehabilitated. Some hardliners were removed from top levels of government and replaced by younger, more liberal communists. Jozef Lenart replaced Prime Minister Vilam Siroky. The KSC organized committees to review economic policy.
In 1965 the party approved the New Economic Model, which had been drafted under the direction of economist and theoretician Ota Sik. The program called for a second, intensive stage of economic development, emphasizing technological and managerial improvements. Central planning would be limited to overall production and investment indexes as well as price and wage guidelines. Management personnel would be involved in decision making. Production would be market oriented and geared toward profitability. Prices would respond to supply and demand. Wage differentials would be introduced.
The KSC "Theses" of December 1965 presented the party response to the call for political reform. Democratic centralism was redefined, placing a stronger emphasis on democracy. The leading role of the KSC was reaffirmed but limited. In consequence, the National Assembly was promised increased legislative responsibility. The Slovak executive (Board of Commissioners) and legislature (Slovak National Council) were assured that they could assist the central government in program planning and assume responsibility for program implementation in Slovakia. The regional, district, and local national committees were to be permitted a degree of autonomy. The KSC agreed to refrain from superseding the authority of economic and social organizations. Party control in cultural policy, however, was reaffirmed.
January 1967 was the date for full implementation of the reform program. Novotny and his supporters hesitated, introducing amendments to reinforce central control. Pressure from the reformists was stepped up. Slovaks pressed for federalization. Economists called for complete enterprise autonomy and economic responsiveness to the market mechanism. The Fourth Writers' Congress adopted a resolution calling for rehabilitation of the Czechoslovak literary tradition and the establishment of free contact with Western culture. The Novotny regime responded with repressive measures.
At the October 30-31 meeting of the KSC Central Committee, Alexander Dubcek, a moderate reformer, challenged Novotny. As university students in Prague demonstrated in support of the liberals, Novotny appealed to Moscow for assistance. On December 8, Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev arrived in Prague but did not support Novotny. On January 5, 1968, the Central Committee elected Dubcek to replace Novotny as first secretary of the KSC. Novotny's fall from KSC leadership precipitated initiatives to oust Stalinists from all levels of government, from mass associations, e.g., the Revolutionary Trade Union Movement and the Czechoslovak Union Youth, and from local party organs. On March 22, 1968, Novotny resigned from the presidency and was succeeded by General Ludvik Svoboda.
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