The SACP and Czechoslovakia 1968

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I have been in the Mayibuye Archives at the University of the Western Cape this week and found in the papers of Yusuf Dadoo a draft statement by the South African Communist Party on the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. The draft statement began by declaring:

The Central Committee of the South African Communist Party fully supports the action taken in fraternal Czechoslovakia by the Socialist countries united in the Warsaw Pact in response to an appeal for help by Communist and progressive forces…

Today the imperialists seek through guile and cunning to achieve a change in the balance of power in Europe which has always historically threatened world war. In the interests of the revolutionary gains of the Czechoslovak people; the international working class and of peace in the world, the Socialist countries could not stand aside and allow these grave developments. (SACP, ‘Imperialist Counter-Offensive Halted in Czechoslovakia’, n.d., 2.4.7, Yusuf Dadoo Collection, Mayibuye Archives, University of the Western Cape)

A look at the 4th issue of African Communist from 1968 shows that the SACP embellished upon this draft statement with a long editorial justifying the invasion (pp. 5-15) and the inclusion of several statements of the SACP on the Czechoslovak ‘crisis’ over the previous few months (pp. 94-96). The justification for the invasion for the SACP was that this measure was necessary in the era of imperialist aggression to protect the gains of the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic and to prevent Western forces from reaching the borders of the Soviet Union. The editorial stated that events of August 1968:

must be viewed, above all, in relation to the central and overriding clash of our era – that between aggressive international imperialism on the one hand and the forces of socialism and human liberation on the other. Any estimate of those events which minimises or overlooks this great central issue must be one-sided or false… We must remember the geographic and strategic position of this country as a key-point for the security of the heartlands of socialism – and we must be acutely conscious of the whole international situation of rampant imperialist aggression on a global scale (pp. 6-7).

Recent works on the SACP indicate that not everyone in the Party supported the Soviet invasion, in particular there was a significant dispute between Ruth First and Joe Slovo, but the public face of the SACP was outwardly pro-Soviet.  The stance taken by the SACP is interesting because it is in stark contrast to the position taken by the two other Communist Parties that I have been studying, the Communist Party of Great Britain and the Communist Party of Australia. As Keith Laybourn noted, the Executive Committee of the CPGB issued a statement in September 1968, ‘deploring the intervention of the Warsaw Pact troops into Czechoslovakia’ (p. 79). In the case of the CPA, Andy Blunden documents that the Party’s newspaper Tribune pronounced:

We cannot agree to the pre-emptive occupation of a country by another, on the alleged threat from outside, particularly when such action is taken without prior notification to the government and CP of Czechoslovakia. … It is hard to believe that [the Soviet leaders] realise the damage they cause to their own standing and the image of socialism throughout the world by acting in this way.

Looking at the parties that opposed the Soviet invasion (such as the CPGB and the CPA, as well as the French and Italian Communist Parties),  most of them were Western parties operating in a liberal democracy. The SACP noted the opposition by the CPGB, PCF and PCI, stating:

An indication of the exceptionally complicated and severe nature of the Czechoslovakian crisis is that this time the critics who have condemned the Soviet Union and her allies include even some of the leaderships of Communist Parties, especially in Western Europe, including Italy, France and Britain. We should make it clear at the outset, that we differ radically from the analysis made and the conclusions reached by the leaders of these Parties (p.6).

But the SACP seemed to argue that the Western European parties were arguing against the Soviet invasion from a privileged position:

If our comrades in Western Europe have discussed and made statements about this questions, so have our comrades in Vietnam, Korea, the United States, Cuba, the Middle East, Africa (p. 11).

I think this split between Communist Parties in Western liberal democracies and Communist Parties in less democratic conditions over the issue of Czechoslovakia may go back to the events of 1956 and the changes to the international communist movement. After the denunciation of the ‘crimes’ of the Stalin era by Khrushchev in 1956 and the Soviet invasion of Hungary in October 1956, Communist Parties across the world went into shock, with many suffering significant membership loss and debate spilling over into the public sphere. As I have written elsewhere on this blog, dissidents within the CPGB, such as E.P. Thompson, John Saville, Brian Pearce, Peter Fryer and Malcolm MacEwen (amongst others), sought channels outside the Party to denounce the actions of the Soviet Union, as well as the lack of internal debate within the Party. Rachel Calkin has shown that similar scenes occurred in the CPA. Although the leadership of both the CPGB and CPA supported the invasion of Hungary in October 1956, the backlash in these Parties fostered a much deeper debate about the role of the Soviet Union in the international communist movement. This debate bubbled away during the 1960s and mixed with the rise of the new social movements of the mid-to-late 1960s, I would argue that this created the conditions that allowed these Western Parties in 1968 to criticise the actions of the Soviets publicly.

On the other hand, the SACP had not undergone this public bloodletting in 1956 and a much more orthodox approach to the Soviet Union remained amongst the SACP leadership in 1968. I have been thinking that because the Communist Party of South Africa was banned in 1950 and the underground SACP was caught up in  a series of major struggles in the late 1950s, this caused those who chose to remain in the illegal Party to take a much more hardline (and orthodox Marxist-Leninist) outlook. Those in South Africa who probably would have formed the ‘new left’ and broke away from the CPSA were probably also unlikely to be involved in the underground SACP, which maintained a strict democratic centralist line. Under the Apartheid regime, it might be argued that the conditions were not available to develop a socialist humanist Marxism.

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Although we do know that there was some dissent within (and around) the SACP over Hungary. A look at the letters page of the New Age journal (a proxy publication of the SACP) from late 1956 shows that some were willing to criticise the Soviet invasion, but were quickly retorted by the pro-Soviet journal editors. Raising the issue of the Suez invasion as well as Hungary (and the right of countries to self-determination), someone wrote to New Age rhetorically asking:

Could this be that a ‘police-action’ by Western states is to be condemned, but a similar action by a Socialist state is to be supported?

The editors of the journal replied:

In the case of Hungary, was it the Soviet troops or the counter-revolutionaries who prevented the Hungarian people from exercising their right to self-determination? Would Hungary under a right-wing government , and with a capitalist economic system, dependent on Western support for its existence, have been more independent than she is now?

This attitude was still in place in the SACP in 1968, but had faded somewhat in many other Western Communist Parties. Did the fact that the SACP had to go underground reinforce a Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy within the Party? Has this had a negative effect on the SACP since the 1960s? Any thoughts would be much appreciated!

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Filed under 1956, 1968, Anti-apartheid, Archives, British far left, Communist Party of Australia, Communist Party of Great Britain, Communist Party of South Africa, Contemporary history, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, International communist movement, Joe Slovo, Marxism, Marxism-Leninism, Research, Ruth First, South Africa, South African Communist Party

2 responses to “The SACP and Czechoslovakia 1968

  1. The Communist Parties of Canada and the United States also supported the intervention.

    • So while you might be on to something by pointing out that the Western European CPs (and the Australians) who opposed it existed in liberal democracies, I don’t think that was the only factor.

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