Learning Film Group: Vysočany Congress of the Czechoslovak Communist Party (August 1968)

Learning film group was formed by artists Nikolay Oleynikov (member of “Chto Delat”), arist Yevgeny Fiks, and artist, historian and activist Ilya Budraitskis in 2008.

The Secret Vysočany Congress of the Czechoslovak Communist Party took place in August 1968, just two days after Soviet tanks invaded Prague. For this re-enactment, the artists found the actual place (the ČKD Factory in Vysočany, a suburb of Prague) where the congress took place. They interviewed the organizers of the event, workers who are still employed at the plant, and they invited artists, critics, historians, and leftist activists in the present-day Czech Republic to discuss the congress, its meaning and its impact.

On 22nd August 1968, delegates of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia (Komunistická strana Československa (KSČ)) met in secret at a ČKD Vysočany factory and held an ‘extraordinary’ XIVth party congress. The congress was being held two days after the the invasion of Czechoslovakia by Warsaw Pact armies, under the direction of the ‘Brezhnev doctrine’. The Brezhnev Doctrine was being employed by the USSR due to discomfort on the part of the Kremlin regarding the reforms enshrined in the “Action Programme” (excerpts have been attached below) that had been introduced by the KSČ Central Committee in April, 1968 and served as a basic template for what has come to be known as Prague Spring. The Action Programme was an attempt to develop a “communism with a human face” whilst claiming that Czechoslovakia had achieved socialism and thus called for numerous reforms including the normalization of relations with the West, whilst continuing to maintain close ties to the USSR (a similar position been formerly been adopted by Josip Tito in Yugoslavia); the introduction of consumer goods; the protection of rights to free speech, movement and association; federalization; and multi-party democracy. The Programme also called for another Congress in September, but before that Congress could be called the Soviets invaded and thus the extraordinary congress had to be called. The extraordinary Congress was chaired by Zděnek Šilhán, who stood in place of Alexandr Dubček (Dubček was First Secretary of the KSČ and President of the country), as Dubček had been already captured by the Soviet troops. Although at the Congress all of the delegates made it clear that they had not invited the Soviets into the country evidence in recent years has proven that the conservative wing, who opposed the proposed reforms of the KSČ had indeed invited the Soviet forces into the country. The Congress demanded the release of State representatives that had been arrested, and condemned the invasion. They also called for popular resistance to the occupation through non-violent means and called for a general strike at noon the following day. The next day at noon, the streets and workplaces of Prague were silent as the strike came into effect. In the following week there were numerous spontaneous non-violent demonstrations by the Czech masses against the occupation.

Three Russian artists, the Learning Film Group, have produced an experimental documentary about the events that surrounded the Vysočany Congress and interview several of the workers that work at the particular ČKD factory that the congress took place in, some had even been young workers when the congress had taken place, and remembered vividly the events of Prague Spring itself. The artists also interview two members of the KSČ who had participated in the congress. The artists explore their own relationship to the events of August 21st, 1968 and try to locate Prague Spring within our contemporary conjuncture through examining some key theoretical problems that continue to face the Left. The documentary is a fascinating and compelling introduction to the Vysočany Congress and the Prague Spring experiment.

Excerpts from the CPCz CC Action Program, April 1968

Source: Navratil, Jaromir. “The Prague Spring 1968”.  Hungary: Central European Press, 1998, pp. 92-95

The role of the Party: A guarantee of Socialist Progress

At present it is most important that the party adopt a policy fully justifying its leading role in society. We believe this is a condition for the socialist development of the country.

/…/ In the past, the leading role of the party was usually conceived of as a monopolistic concentration of power in the hands of party organs. This concept corresponded with the false thesis that the party is the instrument of the dictatorship of the proletariat. ‘Mat harmful conception weakened the initiative and responsibility of state, economic, and social institutions, damaged the party’s authority, and prevented it from carrying out its real functions. The party’s goal is not to become a universal “caretaker” of society, bind all organisations, and watch every step taken in fulfillment of its directives. Its mission instead is primarily to inspire socialist initiative, to demonstrate communist perspectives, their modes, and to win over all workers by systematic persuasion and the personal examples of communists. This determines the conceptual side of party activity. Party organs should not deal with all problems; they should encourage others and suggest solutions to the most important difficulties. But at the same time the party cannot turn into an organisation that influences society by its ideas and program alone. It must develop through its members and bodies the practical organisational methods of a political force in society. /…/

/…/ As a representative of the most progressive section of society-and therefore the representative of the prospective aims of society-the party cannot represent the full range of social interests. The National Front, the political face of the manifold interests of society, expresses the unity of social strata, interest groups, and of nations and nationalities in this society. The party does not want to and will not take the place of social organisations; on the contrary, it must ensure that their initiative and political responsibility for the unity of society are revived and can flourish. The role of the party is to find a way of satisfying the various interests without jeopardising the interests of society as a whole, and promoting those interests and creating new progressive ones. The party’s policy must not lead non-communists to feel that their rights and freedom are limited by the role of the party. /…/

For the Development of Socialist Democracy and a New System of the Political Management of Society

/…/ We must reform the whole political system so that it will permit the dynamic development of social relations appropriate for socialism, combine broad democracy with scientific, highly qualified management, strengthen the social order, stabilise socialist relations, and maintain social discipline. The basic structure of the political system must, at the same time, provide firm guarantees against a return to the old methods of subjectivism and highhandedness. Party activity has not been directed systematically to that end and, in fact, obstacles have frequently been put in the way of such efforts. All these changes necessarily call for the commencement of work on a new Czechoslovak Constitution so that a draft may be thoroughly discussed by professionals and in public and submitted to the National Assembly shortly after the party congress. /…/

/…/ The entire National Front, the political parties that form it, and the social organisations will take part in the creation of state policy. The political parties of the National Front are partners whose political work is based on the joint political program of the National Front and is naturally bound by the Constitution of the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic. The National Front is based on the socialist character of social relations in our country. The Communist Party of Czechoslovakia considers the National Front to be a political platform that does not separate political parties into government and opposition factions. It does not create opposition to state policy-the policy of the entire National Front-or lead struggles for political power. Possible differences in the viewpoints of individual components of the National Front or divergent views regarding state policy are to be settled on the basis of the common socialist conception of National Front policy by way of political agreement and the unification of all components of the National Front. /…/

/…/ The implementation of the constitutional freedoms of assembly and association must be ensured this year so that the possibility of setting up voluntary organisations, special-interest associations, societies, and other such bodies is guaranteed by law, and so that the present interests and needs of various sections of our society are tended to without bureaucratic interference and free from a monopoly by any individual organisation. Any restrictions in this respect can be imposed only by law, and only the law can stipulate what is anti-social, forbidden, or punishable. Freedoms guaranteed by law and in compliance with the constitution also apply fully to citizens of various creeds and religious denominations. /…/

/…/ Legal standards must also set forth a more explicit guarantee of the freedom of speech for minority interests and opinions (again within the framework of socialist laws and following the principle that decisions are taken in accordance with the will of the majority). The constitutional freedom of movement, particularly that of travel abroad for our citizens, must be explicitly guaranteed by law. In particular, this means that a citizen should have the legal right to long-term or permanent sojourn abroad and that people should not be groundlessly placed in the position of emigrants. At the same time it is necessary to protect by law the interests of the state, for example, with regard to a possible drain of some specialists, etc.

Our entire legal code must gradually come to grips with the problem of how to protect, in a better and more consistent way, the personal rights and property of citizens, and we must certainly remove statutes that effectively put individual citizens at a disadvantage with the state and other institutions. In the future we must prevent various institutions from disregarding personal rights and the interests of individual citizens as far as personal ownership of family houses, gardens, and other items is concerned. It will be necessary to adopt, as soon as possible, the long-drafted law on compensation for any damage caused to any individual or to an organisation by an unlawful decision of a state organ.

It is troubling that up to now the rehabilitation of people, both communists and non-communists, who were the victims of legal transgressions in previous years, has not always been carried out in full, regarding political and civil consequences. /…/

/…/ In the interest of the development of our socialist society it is absolutely essential to strengthen the unity of the Czechoslovak people and their confidence in the policy of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, to effect a crucial change in the constitutional arrangement of the relations between Czechs and Slovaks, and to carry out the necessary constitutional modifications. It is equally essential to respect the advantage of a socialist federal arrangement as a recognised and well-tested form of the legal coexistence of two equal nations in a common socialist state.

Socialism Cannot Do without Enterprises

The democratisation program of the economy places special emphasis on ensuring the independence of enterprises and enterprise groupings and their relative independence from state bodies; the full implementation of the right of consumers to determine their consumption patterns and lifestyles; the right to choose jobs freely; and the right and opportunity of various groups of working people and different social groups to formulate and defend their economic interests in shaping economic policy. /…/

/…/ Decision-making about the plan and the economic policy of the state must be both a process of mutual confrontation and harmonization of different interests, that is, the interests of enterprises, consumers, employers, different social groups of the population, nations, and so forth. It also must manifest a suitable combination of the long-term development of the economy and its immediate prosperity. Effective measures protecting the consumer against the abuse of monopolies and economic power of production and trading enterprises must be considered a necessary part of the economic activity of the state. /…/

/…/ The drafting of the national economic plan and the national economic policy must be subject to the democratic control of the National Assembly and specialized control of academic institutions. The supreme body implementing the economic policy of the state is the government. /…/

/…/ The Central Committee believes it is essential to raise the authority and responsibility of enterprises in the concrete implementation of international economic relations. Production and trade enterprises must have the right to choose their export and import organisations. At the same time it is necessary to lay down conditions that would entitle enterprises to act independently on foreign markets. /…/

The International Status and Foreign Policy of the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic

We will be implementing the Action Program at a time when the international situation is complicated. The development of that situation will influence the fulfillment of certain key aspects of the program. On the other hand, the process of socialist renewal in Czechoslovakia will make it possible for our republic to influence this international situation more actively. We stand resolutely on the side of progress, democracy, and socialism in the struggle by socialist and democratic forces against the aggressive attempts of world imperialism. It is from this viewpoint that we determine our attitude toward the most acute international problems of the present and our role in the worldwide struggle against the forces of imperialist reaction. Taking, as a point of departure, the existing relationship of international forces and our awareness that Czechoslovakia is an active component of the revolutionary process in the world, the ČSSR will formulate its own position toward the fundamental problems of world politics.

The basic orientation of Czechoslovak foreign policy took root at the time of the struggle for national liberation and in the process of the social reconstruction of the country. It revolves around alliance and cooperation with the Soviet Union and the other socialist states. /…/

We will actively pursue a policy of peaceful coexistence vis-à-vis the advanced capitalist countries. Our geographical position, as well as the needs and capacities of an industrialized country, compel us to pursue a more active European policy aimed at the promotion of mutually advantageous relations with all states and with international organizations, and aimed at safeguarding the collective security of the European continent.

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