It is forty-five years since the publication of Ludvik Vaculik’s revolutionary pamphlet, The Two Thousand Words. In his look back at the work and its context, Ben Glover finds in it poignancy, prophesy, and modern resonances.
Once in a generation there is a rebellion that resonates across the globe. Whether it is a cultural or social revolution, every new generation grows tired of the hypocrisies and conventions of their elders; they desire to express themselves, to discover new freedoms and cast off the shackles of intuitive conservatism. Simply, most rebellions are born out of a generational urge to reshape the world in their likeness, with their values and characteristics. 1968 bore witness to one such generation attempting to find their voice and redefine the world on their terms. Given a craving not to let history repeat, either as tragedy or as farce, this post-war generation independently initiated a series of protests across the globe. From Prague to Washington, the message was ultimately the same – ‘we want to be free’.
The post-war generation was the first to be born with the scars of unadulterated knowledge of the human condition; never before had a generation witnessed, so completely, both the brilliance and utter depravity of mankind. Television and standardised education allowed this generation to have a common perspective of world events through shared experiences. This generation knew it was possible to send a man into space and to fly faster than the speed of sound; however they also knew that man was capable of the industrial annihilation of millions of other human beings. It was against this backdrop of youth rebellion, that the world witnessed a protest at the 1968 Summer Olympic Games that perfectly encapsulated the despair of a nation and the zeitgeist of the generation. With a simple, yet choreographed, bow of her head during two medal ceremonies, the Czechoslovakian gymnast, Vera Caslavska spoke of her own, and her country’s loss of hope.
The disparity between Caslavska’s impassive protests and the visceral revolutions that engulfed the globe could not have been greater. The French student riots of the summer of ’68 tore at the heart of a country; a nation so divided by recent radical change that it attempted cultural and social stagnation under the supervision of Charles de Gaulle. These events mirrored a larger student movement across the Western world: protests in London, Rio de Janeiro, Stockholm, Mexico City, West Berlin and Madrid highlighted a growing consciousness amongst students that they could potentially change universities, attitudes, and maybe even governments. In America the causes, and the manifestations, of the protests were as disparate as the country itself, from opposition to the Vietnam War to the escalation of the civil rights movement; the United States was anything but united. However, it would be disingenuous to suggest that these movements were solely established in 1968, they were not; they were the result of many decades, centuries even, of struggle and subjugation that found a confidence and maturity in each other, combined with specific flashpoints that compelled people to act, such as the fateful assassinations of Martin Luther King jnr. and Robert Kennedy. While the world was ready to rebel, Vera Caslavska stood stoically still and mourned an invasion that had her name upon it.
Potentially the most ambitious of all of the global movements in 1968 was the Prague Spring
Potentially the most ambitious of all of the global movements in 1968 was the Prague Spring: an attempt in Czechoslovakia to liberalize a stagnant economy, by introducing reforms based on an individual’s right to freedom of speech. Many progressives hoped these reforms would comprehensively restructure the entire nation and defy a Superpower. By the beginning of 1968, the Czechoslovakian economy, which had been robust during the post war period, had deep rooted structural deficiencies, and since the early 1960s had been in a severe recession. The underlying issue of a centrally planned industrialisation policy, designed and dictated by the Kremlin, fitted poorly in a developed nation such as Czechoslovakia. Further to this economic turmoil, the country was still under the control of the one of few remaining Stalinist dictators in the Eastern Bloc, Antonin Novotny. During his fifteen years as first secretary of the Party, supreme commander of the army and president of the country, Novotny amassed significant personal powers and attempted to control many, if not all, aspects of public life. However, by 1967, his dictatorial style began to agitate many of the establishment’s elite, including senior members of the Communist Party, not only in Prague but also in Moscow, to the extent that the some intellectuals, through the state-sanctioned Czechoslovak Writers’ Union, felt sufficiently emboldened to criticize the regime’s control of cultural life. As the dawn of a new year broke, the Czechoslovakian Communist Party resolved to reinvigorate a tired regime and a stagnant nation by introducing a new program of openness, with a new government administered by Alexander Dubcek.
To the Czechoslovakian people, this warm gust of optimism hailed the birth of a new spring; the long, dark days of an economic and cultural winter were diminishing, to be replaced by the bearable lightness of being. The green shoots of the Prague Spring were growing. Alexander Dubcek, like Imre Nagy before him and Mikhail Gorbachev after, truly believed in the promises of socialism; he articulated his idea of a fully democratised communist party that had popular legitimacy, which could efficiently fulfil the needs of the nation. It soon became evident to Dubcek than progress would be slow. Through bureaucratic resistance, many new policies were being delayed by ministries still loyal to Novotny and his apparatchiks. Many months passed before Dubcek began to implement his policies of openness, including banning media censorship, and the purging of Novotny’s allies. The breaking of the levies of public discourse brought forward many unintended consequences for the Party. In what Dubcek had hoped would be a rational conversation concerning future prosperity, (within the defined parameters of communism) the discussion evolved into a visceral outpouring of hatred for the Party, the USSR and the concept of communism. Amongst this unshackled, deafening clamour emerged Ludvik Vaculik, a progressive writer and journalist, who understood the precarious nature of the Prague Spring and attempted to secure a lasting resolution by publishing his manifesto known as The Two Thousand Words.
To the Czechoslovakian people, this warm gust of optimism hailed the birth of a new spring; the long, dark days of an economic and cultural winter were diminishing, to be replaced by the bearable lightness of being
From the very beginning of his manifesto, Vaculik is bold; the title itself speaks of the popular support needed to accomplish a revolution – “Two Thousand Words that belongs to Workers, Farmers, Officials, Scientists, Artists and Everybody.” However assuming the title is, the premise of Vaculik’s proposal was simple: a framework for a nation built on consensus through enfranchisement and individual rights. The boldness of Vaculik’s words do not arise from inflammatory statements that criticize and chastise authority figures in equal measures, but come from a pragmatic assertion that everybody is partly responsible for the malaise in Czechoslovakian public life, even though the communists, and Vaculik was a member, share more of the blame than most. The new found freedoms enjoyed by Vaculik, thanks to Dubcek’s reforms, clashed against the political structures of countries in the Eastern Bloc, which relied upon patronage and cronyism to exist, not the principles of Karl Marx and Leon Trotsky on which they were founded. Ludvik Vaculik could not afford such high ideals.
Whilst writing The Two Thousand Words, Vaculik chose not to describe a manifest destiny in which he promises to lead his people to a Czechoslovakian Camelot; instead his choice of discourse is grounded in the realism and precariousness of his nation’s stark situation. Furthermore Vaculik does not have any romantic preconceptions concerning the reforms already gained; he acknowledges that it was pragmatism that won these freedoms, not high-minded ideals. Vaculik honestly states that, “We shouldn’t fool ourselves that it is the power of truth which now makes such ideas victorious, their victory is due to the weakness of the old leaders, evidently already debilitated by twenty years of unchallenged rule.” It was ironic that he could not pronounce for a future utopia like Marx, with bold and grandiose statements claiming that there was a world to be won, since it was the corruption of the communist state, perverted from Marx’s original vision, which could ultimately silence his dissent. These precious freedoms, already won, were constantly under threat from numerous agents, both on a national and international level. At home Vaculik warns that opponents are already beginning to rally against any further change, and will not give themselves a moments rest until the Stalinist state is returned. He was correct to fear many organisations within Czechoslovakia; there were many people who had obligations to the conservative elements of the Communist Party and to the “old forces” which were being called upon to slow the rate of change, if not completely reverse it. Furthermore there was a significant concern that the USSR, which Vaculik politely described as “foreign forces”, were considering action against the new regime; already student protests in Poland had demonstrated the reach of these reforms, with many protesters carrying pictures of Alexander Dubcek and demanding similar concessions from their government. It was due to this dual threat that Vaculik realised that his treaties must be rooted in the expediency of realpolitiks.
After describing, with concise detail, the corruption of the state and the individual by those seeking power for personal enrichment, Vaculik then attempts to outline how he envisions the immediate future; a process of democratisation for the people of Czechoslovakia. He believes that through legitimate popular support a new ruling Central Committee could ensure the continuation of the reforms. In keeping with the pragmatic essence of his work, Vaculik identifies that the primary route for reform should be the existing frameworks of power, including using the internal structure, at all levels, of the Communist Party. The advantage of such an approach would be twofold: firstly, the continuity of the Communist Party, which has twenty years of experience at delivering services in Czechoslovakia, would be invaluable; and secondly, Vaculik feared that any further pronouncements concerning reforms would leave Brezhnev little option other than to intervene. Unusually for a radical manifesto, Vaculik cautions against people making rash decisions and demanding the unattainable from the central political departments, rather he suggests an approach of patience by allowing the new reforms time to prove their utility. However, he believes that more scrutiny is required at the regional level to democratise a corrupt system of patronage and bribery that has allowed a minority to prosper, whilst disenfranchising and demoralising the majority. To combat this dishonesty, Vaculik continues to argue that, vigilance of the masses is the most efficient reforming weapon. By challenging officials, freeing local newspapers, setting up delegations to ensure all official business is conducted openly and fairly, the people of Czechoslovakia would once again feel that a socialist state was administered by the people, for the people.
It was ironic that he could not pronounce for a future utopia like Marx, with bold and grandiose statements claiming that there was a world to be won, since it was the corruption of the communist state, perverted from Marx’s original vision, which could ultimately silence his dissent.
On initial review The Two Thousand Words may seem an unremarkable testimony to our eyes, an attestation better suited to a local action group rather than a document to inspire a nation. However, Ludvik Vaculik and the other seventy prominent signatories, including Vera Caslavska, placed their livelihoods and lives in danger by submitting it into public discourse. After its publication, on the 27th June 1968, it became clear that Alexander Dubcek was losing control of the reform process he had initiated, with many progressives in the lower ranks of the Communist Party supporting the manifesto. The reforms, and the subsequent public reaction to the reforms, worried many nations in the Warsaw Pact; they feared a domino effect of liberalization across the Eastern Bloc by the “forces that are hostile to socialism”. As support grew within Czechoslovakia, Vaculik’s insight concerning “foreign forces intervening in our development” was proved to be unerringly accurate, when on the night of the 20th August 1968, an invasion force of approximately 400,000 Soviet troops invaded Czechoslovakia and arrested many high ranking Communist Party officials. The consequence of the Soviet invasion for the progressive reforms in Czechoslovakia was immediate and predictable, with the reintroduction of a heavily censored state-controlled media, it became obvious that Vaculik was correct once again when he noted, “the spring is over and will never come back.”
It was with this epitaph for her nation that Vera Caslavska bowed her head in protest and reflected on the lost innocence of her generation.
Banner illustration by Dean Lewis