Message-ID: <>
Date: Mon, 8 Jun 1998 13:21:20 -0400
Sender: Forum on Labor in the Global Economy <LABOR-L@YORKU.CA>
From: zachariah cameron <zcameron@YORKU.CA>
Subject: Re: World Federation of Trade Unions.

Prague 1958, 1968, 1998... Back to the Future

By Peter Waterman, 12 May 1998

I turn my face to the spring sunshine. Eat a long roll with salty butter and thick honey. Drink a Turkish coffee. See, from the restaurant balcony, the fin de siecle statues on the roof and a modernist insurance office. Listen to the muted sound of traffic from beyond the pedestrian precinct. Look at the normal European citizens, consumers and tourists, doing their normal citizen, consumer and tourist things, in front of shops selling sour rye bread, exotic teas, Supraphon CDs, oranges, foreign holidays. I ponder. Prague is worth a ponder or two…

1950s, 1960s, 1990s

I went there from London in 1955, as a Young Communist aged 19, to work for the International Union of Students. I went there again in 1966, as a Communist Party member aged 30, married with two little children, to work for the World Federation of Trade Unions. On the first occasion I echoed the murmur of hope that followed Khruschov's condemnation of Stalin in 1956. On the second we shared the anger and anguish as Soviet tanks crushed Prague's 1968. We sent photos and urgent letters of protest (usually ignored or unpublished) to the British CP and Morning Star.

When, in the 1970s or '80s, people asked why I didn't go back, I would say ‘I can't. I'm waiting for the Revolution’. This took place, in uniquely civilised style, in 1989. A cultured dissident became President. The federation separated without violence. The Czech Republic seemed the best exemplar of the peaceful transition from socialism to capitalism. But I still didn't go back. I had a little problem with Prague. I had seen both my idealistic adolescent hopes and my sceptical adult ones buried in Prague. And I shared a responsibility for what Communism had done to it.

So I only got here in the 1990s, as a grandfather, separated, with my feminist compaņera from Peru. The weather is generous to us and to Prague. It is spring. Prague Spring evokes both the music festival and the popular upsurge of 1968. But we are just here on a four-day holiday. Prague seems to be enjoying a longer one. The weather is generous to us and to Prague. We have only just begun to take holidays, Gina and I, rather than to make study-cum-political trips, so no appointments are made. Gina is on a tourist trip. I am on a trip too, but I am also reliving the Communist past of both myself and Prague

Yesterday there'll be dancing everywhere

The Communists had not, of course, destroyed Prague, even at the height of Stalinism in the 1950s. What they had done was to neglect it, gut it and, in some way, poison it.

The Stare Mesto (Old Town) and Mala Strana (Little Quarter) had been emptied of the petty-bourgeoisie, i.e. shopkeepers. These had been sent off to mines and mills, to offices and prisons. Every newspaper stall, tobacconist and plumber had become part of some immense Narodni Podnik (National Enterprise), probably with more bureaucrats than newspaper sellers, tobacconists or plumbers. A city which had had not a lick of paint under the Nazis had got none under the Communists either. On Vaclavske Namesti (Wenceslas Square)—possibly the grandest and most beautiful central square in the world—hung gross painted and illuminated signs: ‘Soviet Union Our Example’, and ‘With the Soviet Union to Better Times'. On Letna, a high plain on the banks of the Vltava, they had built the world's largest monument to Stalin. He stood there, backed by determined proletarians, peasants and soldiers, his hand inside his greatcoat, in true Napoleonic pose. (According to the Czechs, Stalin was reaching for his wallet but, when he heard how much the bill was, left it there). In 1957 daring parents permitted curious children to climb on the plinth. At that brief moment of hope they must have thought the oracle would speak to the innocents.

People in Prague were depressed, resigned, surly. They looked unattractive and smelled worse (bad food? no baths? no launderettes?). They wore olive-green outer garments—suitably military apparel. Away from work they wore teplaki (tracksuits) and kedsky (after Keds basketball boots)—suitably athletic apparel.

The Czech language sounds—as thriller writer Lionel Davidson once pointed out—like a continual gentle reproach or complaint. I did not take to either it or to the Czechs. Nor did I take to the hero of Prague in general—the Good Soldier Schweik. Nor to the hero of its intelligentsia in particular—the Neurotic Intellectual Kafka. This most unlikely pair of twins born to the new Republic, one moonfaced and eternally cheerful, the other thin, dark and brooding, expressed experiences and moods which Communism and Communists could hardly incorporate. Schweik was tolerated as folklore and found his allotted place in a brilliant Trnka puppet film. Kafka, the decadent Germanic Jew, was ignored, condemned or buried.

Official culture was marked by preservationism, and by an optimism infinitely more childish than that of Hasek's Schweik. Classical art was beautifully presented or performed, providing the cultured with a life-saving compensation for the spiritual poverty of Communism. Optimism reached its nadir in a certainly forgotten film about a Communist World Youth Festival, ‘Tomorrow There’ll be Dancing Everywhere’ (subtext: whether you want it or not). Proletarian brass bands and embroidered folk groups received massive subsidies. There was even state-approved satire, in the form of jolly Jan Werich, whose prewar partner, Voskovec, had departed for sunnier Californian shores.

Together with other fire-breathing young Communists from Japan, the Arab World, Western Europe and Central America, I lived in an adequate but grey pension, the former Hotel Skrivan. The concierge of this was an aged, squawking, gnome-like Slecna (Miss), dressed always in the same shiny black dress and down-at-heel slippers, who terrorised us (and our illegal Czech female overnight guests) with her rules and regulations. She was, reputedly, the daughter of the former owner.

Yet we still enjoyed ourselves in Prague. We could fall in love. We could have intense political discussions with students of the later-famous Film School. I could catch the tram downhill to the Vltava, pick up a half-kilo of cherries from a stall, meet Zuzana, my girlfriend, and still be back within the hour (I was a bearer of the Protestant/Communist work ethic). Both the Czechs and I could get away from Big Brother—who was watching us foreign Communists as well as them—by photographing Old Prague, going off to the countryside, taking a boat up the Vltava, or spending a weekend in the mountains. The beergardens, pubs and bars never closed. Cinemas showed the occasional Western movie, or those of the brilliant Pole Wajda.

It was impossible for Stalinism to wipe the slate clean in Prague. There were too many slates, bridges, palaces and statues, too many educated and sophisticated citizens, too few convinced, apocalyptical and fanatical Communists (though enough of the mean, lazy and careerist type). Prague had been the Paris of Central Europe. Czechoslovakia had, indeed, been more industrialised than France, with a higher standard of living and better social security. It had, moreover, had no colonies and no real militarist tradition. On the contrary, its equivalent of the anti-semitic Dreyfus trial was one in which the future President Masaryk had successfully defended such a case. At this time, indeed, Paris could have been seen as the Prague of the West. Such an advanced, industrialised, liberal democracy was an inhospitable terrain for the communism of primitive accumulation. And the Czechs were increasingly inhospitable toward it.

There was, at this time, a story about a US embassy car trying to get up Nerudova, the long street leading to Hradcany Castle. Its passage is deliberately blocked by a carter, sticking resolutely to the middle of the road. When, finally, the car can overtake, the American leans out and says, in perfect Czech, ‘You'll never develop the country in that way, my friend’. The carter looks round, spits out a stream of tobacco juice and says ‘Fuck off, Communist!’.

Now listen to this. It is not a story. It is a letter. It is not particularly funny. I got it from Zuzana a year or so after I had left Prague. She was briefly in Austria, as an interpreter during another of those World Youth Festivals. She was furious with me for sending her Communist propaganda letters from the West, about which she could not possibly complain from Prague. She said that in Vienna she felt normal for the first time in her life. I recall my immediate understanding of what she meant, and my equally immediate sense of shame.

From abnormal times to normalisation

By the mid-sixties things appeared much better in Prague. Restoration of the Castle, Stare Mesto and Mala Strana were well underway. Trams with automatic doors had replaced the wooden-seated bone-rattlers. Routes were being extended. One private blacksmith's shop existed in Stare Mesto, selling secondhand scales and fire-irons. It was never clear to me whether this was a test for wider denationalization or an exhibition of the quaintness of private enterprise. Tourists liked the shop as a backdrop for their photos. The kids were wearing long hair and jeans. The ideological profile of the regime had been lowered, the provocative slogans removed from Vaclavske.

One of the restored shops in Stare Mesto was the best—almost the only—ironware store in town. It was, of course, part of a Narodni Podnik. But above the door, in gracious and delicate jugendstil curlicues and colouring, was the name of the former owner, Rott. It was a large store, spread over several buildings and some four storeys. It was closed daily for lunch, this being the time that we office workers could most easily get to it. Every time I managed a visit, one or other department would be barred with a string. Once a month the whole place would be closed, during working time, for ‘inventory’. Occasional visitors to Prague would always ask us why we complained about the shops since they seemed to be full of goods and people. ‘They are,’ I would reply, ‘full of goods no one wants and with people looking for what they haven't got’. Rott's was a shining exemplar. One month it would be some kind of Month of the Hosepipe, another that of the 50 Litre Olive-Green Petrol Can. A whole wall would be covered with these. And in the meantime it would be impossible to find a nail of the right length—or a nail.

Here is the cruel follow-up. As another concession to private enterprise a covered foodmarket had been opened between Stare Mesto and Vaclavske Namesti, just five minutes from Rott's. One day my carrots were wrapped in a sheet of paper from an old catalogue. The name Rott caught my eye. This was page fifty-something. It displayed, in gracious and delicate lithograph illustration, dozens of types and sizes of screws. The back showed a similar variety of nails. I was beyond either laughter or tears.

It was some ten years later that an exiled Czech philosopher said to me that the one thing worse than the commodity fetishism of capitalism was the fetishism without commodities of socialism.

We lived in Zahradni Mesto Zapad (Garden Town West), almost on the edge of town, in a brand new—if tatty—estate, which eventually had its own schools, laundry and supermarket. The schools were run (so an elderly Viennese assured us) on the Austro-Hungarian model. Shortly after opening, the laundry broke down for ever. The two-storey supermarket plaza had a separate shop for meat so that you had to queue twice. In the shops neni (none) and nemame (we haven't any) were customary responses. When we complained about glass in the yoghurt or maggots in the flour, the assistant, or manager, would respond, ‘What's that got to do with us?’. Well, nothing, actually, since where there is no sense of rights there is also no sense of responsibility.

Ruthie, my wife, was giving lessons in Dutch and English. One of her students, who knew I was working for a Communist organisation, said, ‘What brought you to this sad country?’. Another one, talking of the capitalist period, used to refer to it, without a trace of irony, as ‘normal times⁽. You know, like, ‘in normal times you could get in Rott's any kind of screw or nail you needed’. I found these casual remarks more devastating than any other criticism of the regime.

My office was superbly placed, on a curve of the Vltava, directly opposite the space in the sky where Stalin wasn't. The statue had originally been built to outlast a Thousand Year Reich, or a pharaonic pyramid, and even to survive a nuclear war. It had had to be removed, some years after 1956, by explosives. Little bits of Stalin had regularly showered the Stalinist organisation for which I was to work for two and a half years.

Every day I could, however, look out of my office window on the banks of the Vltava and watch the weather change over a Castle that never had and never would. I spent a lot of time doing this, particularly after the Soviet invasion in 1968, when the WFTU was preoccupied with examining its ever-diminishing navel. And deciding how to get out of its Secretariat's unprecedentedly courageous—and then immediately and acutely embarrassing—condemnation of this event. (It took six months, actually, being not too difficult for a movement that regularly rewrote its own history, as well as that of anyone else).

Prague, which had sprung to life during the Prague Spring, died in the months and years following a Soviet invasion that had been reluctantly accepted by the Dubcek leadership. The death was even more painful for the half-year of increasing hope and freedom that had preceded it. The re-establishment of order was called ‘normalisation’, this meaning the restoration of abnormality. In the 20 years that followed we got regular reports from Czech emigrants visiting Prague. They said that outside the narrow circle of intellectual dissidents there was no resistance and that people simply accepted Communism like a curse or a force of nature. I never really accepted this. I found it unbearable to even think about it.

I did make one brief stopover in Prague, in 1973, but this was more like a postscript to the past than a preface to any kind of future. I was met at the airport by my old WFTU colleague, friend and comrade, Honza. He, who had suffered with his whole family under Stalinism, and who had thrown himself into the Prague Spring, was now in charge of normalisation in my office. Honza, who had always said ‘I have been used too much’, now said, ‘it's better that I do this than some Stalinist’. I stayed overnight with another pair of old friends, she being an American Jew who had lived there since around 1949. Joy and Jiri had been thinking of divorcing. He had refused to recant, had lost his job, and had been expelled from the Party, thus endangering the educational chances for their two children. She had never been a Party member, so had never been expelled, and they thought that her children might be safe. Joy survived the next 25 years by repeatedly finding socialist shoots under the Stalinist stones, signs invisible to her teenage son, who became a convinced anti-socialist. Jiri and Joy were non-smokers and non-drinkers. He was a jogger and climber. They both got cancer, from which he died, and which she survives without complaint, and with an unquenchable zest for life. Czechoslovakia has—thanks to Communism—an average lifespan seven years less than countries like Austria and Germany, and amongst the highest death rates from cardio-vascular disease in Europe.

Back to Bata

How can a city be so much the same and simultaneously so different? Well, I suppose, by a peaceful transition from industrial state socialism to post-industrial capitalism. There are two kinds of familiarity for me here. One is Old Prague—and my old Prague—the other is liberal-democratic European capitalism. I am at peace here and Prague seems at peace with itself.

We walk, then take a tram, then walk again, from the airline bus station to Vaclavske. The whole T-junction at the bottom of Vaclavske has become a superb pedestrian plaza. Kids graduating from school are costumed, part-singing folksongs, and collecting money (for graduation parties?). Shoe (National Enterprise), housed in a cubist 1930s structure on Vaclavske, bears once again the name of the company that built it, Bata. I had never thought of Nove Mesto (New Town) as beautiful. But Prague is, I now realise, the European capital of jugendstil or art nouveau. ‘Look,’ says Gina, who has a capacity for eternal wonder, ‘every statue, every detail, on every building, is different’. And, ‘there are so many corners’. And, ‘everything is different yet everything fits together’. And, finally, ‘Didn't you see how beautiful it was?’

No, Gina, I didn't. It was dirty, drab and dressed in Communist uniformity. What was pre-capitalist we found beautiful. What was capitalist we found simply old-fashioned and ugly. In the 1950s I didn't know what art nouveau was and had no place in my cultural pantheon for its romantic curls and soft colours. I went more for the modernist Bata building—or for his model town, Zlin, then called Gottwaldov, now presumably called Zlin again. Moreover, Gina, my eyes were focused on quite other things. These were either at ground level (screws, yoghurt without glass in it, international unionism), or on a grand and distant horizon, dwarfing even Hradcany, and visible only to those equipped with proletarian eyes and scientific-socialist telescopes.

I am embarrassed by Gina's interest in Prague's Jewish history. I knew about this in general but not in much particular. In the 1950s, I was as ambiguous about my Jewish background as about my middle-class one. Our utopia was for the Proletariat, or the People, rather than for anyone like, well, er, me. I know I visited the Old-New Synagogue and the Cemetery. But I am not sure whether I visited the many other sites and synagogues. So now I go as a tourist, with a paper skullcap, covered with Hebrew letters I cannot read. One journalist recently referred to this part of town as the Holocaust Theme Park. This is, indeed, what tourist capitalism (tourism is currently the world's largest industry) does to dead peoples. The interpenetration here of the crudely commercial, the merely banal and the historically tragic is emotionally disturbing. In the Old-New Synagogue they are painstakingly painting the names of—what is it—tens? hundreds? of thousands of Czech and Moravian Jews, with their deportation dates. No, actually, they are repainting them, since they were removed (accidentally?) during Communist restoration work. ‘But why did they always do this to the Jews? Why were they always persecuted?’ asks Gina. ‘Don't ask me, Gina,’ I respond, ‘I am a Jew. I don't understand it either. Ask a Christian’. Gina is moved by the cemetery, shaken by the walls of names, which continue room after room after room. She buys a book about the Jewish quarter and begins to read it. I guess thousands of normal tourists do this, one odd benefit to humankind of Prague's reincorporation into capitalism.

I have no idea how dependent the economy of the Czech Republic, or Prague, is on the tourist dollar and deutschmark. Apparently, millions of tourists come here every year. The Change Bureaus, bars and restaurants are so thickly spread that I begin to feel the whole town has been occupied. We abandon the Zlata Ulica (the Golden Street of the alchemists) at Hradcany just before claustrophobia overwhelms us. Something is going to have to be done about this. Michal, architect son of Joy and Jiri, who votes right of centre, nonetheless begins to feel nostalgic for pre-tourist Communist days. Could capitalism destroy Prague where Communism failed to do so? Maybe the pressure will ease off as Czech living standards—and therefore prices—rise to West European levels. If not, then the ecological movement will have to work out an ecotourist project for Prague. One or the other is what happens in normal times.

What on earth has happened to the WFTU building? I seem to recall that as WFTU influence shrank to the borders of Actually Existing Statism, it had compensated by moving into some major new office block at the top of Vaclavske. In Namesti Curieovych (Curie Square), the whole building that housed it has been replaced by the Hotel President. And the Yawning Heights on Letna have been filled by a tiny structure of such delicate proportion and colour that its form is barely visible. Poor Stalin, whose statue was unambiguous, to have been replaced by an abstraction on to which people can project a multiplicity of meanings and feelings! I strike an ironic postmodern pose for Gina's camera, with clenched fist, lowered head and invisible tear. This is how I honour an international union building that remained invisible to the Prague proletariat even in August 1968, the one postwar moment that both took spontaneous, autonomous and dramatic action. It is only later that I recall sitting on a bench on the embankment outside the WFTU—beyond the reach of imagined spies or microphones—to hear Hana's breathless report of the Extraordinary Congress of the Czechoslovak CP, held secretly in Prague's CKD factory, during the days following the invasion.

But the IUS building (though not the office) is still there, a grey edifice in a grey street, just up from the National Museum. So is our grubby pension, on Londynska, a couple of blocks away, now transformed into the plastic Hotel Lunik, with an English-speaking receptionist and the standard coloured brochure. Slecna's ghost must be up the faulty pre-Communist liftshaft, now permanently closed and replaced by a post-Communist one. I recall the Dairy (National Enterprise), where I took my cocoa, yoghurt and rolls with the other office-workers in the 1950s. Also the Grocery (National Enterprise), where you had to queue twice for everything, once to pay, once to collect (Soviet Union Their Example?). And the shop where I bought my first 35mm reflex camera, a massive and marvellous Exakta Varex from Eastern Germany. On the nearby square could also be found Communism's universal concession to capitalism, the dollar shop, here called Tuzex, where the New Class of Communism could, on showing both hard currency and legitimace, buy perfume and whisky. These shops have all gone, and the Hotel Krivan is closed, awaiting reconstruction or demolition. It was in the restaurant of the Krivan where we got heavy, greasy, unpalatable but subsidised meals, served to us by Dana, with the 1930's waitress dress and the bleached and permed hair.

We take tram 22 to Zahradni Mesto. Metro plus tram would have been faster, but the soulless Soviet-built metro doesn't fit into my idea of Prague. The tram takes a winding route, up, down and around Prague's hills, away from the restored and elegant capitalist centre, past apartment blocks and factories, to the wider suburbs. A motorway runs where previously there was only a railway bridge. We walk through the old Garden Town, an idyllic, resident-friendly, petty-bourgeois suburb designed by some enlightened urban planner of the 1930s. Owner occupiers have been restoring some properties and constructing garages beneath them. Our 1960s housing estate, beyond, looks good with its fully-grown trees and shrubs. Balconies, however, are rusted and the cement, iron and glasswork at the door, shabby when first built, has not improved with age. We walk ten blocks to the supermarket. This is in classical Goulash Communist—or Kruschovgrad—style, though with Western products visible through the dirty windows. It's Sunday and it's sunny. A clapped-out van sells beer and cigarettes, which men drink in its unprepossessing surroundings. We try to find our way to the bar and terrace upstairs. The main staircase is blocked off with broken chairs, old iron and fencing. The entrance is behind a black-painted door that looks distinctly shut and locked. This is the Bar of Broken Dreams. The toilet stinks of —what else?—piss. James Dean stands, frowning handsomely, behind the bar, waiting for an agent to discover him. A Roma woman is drinking, laughing and arguing with her companion, a man with crude non-capitalist tattoos all over his arms.

Back into town on Tram 22. In the Old Town Square an applauding, laughing crowd surrounds a young, thin, plain woman, who is doing a mime performance. She has made every attempt to make herself thinner and plainer. Her props, at this moment, consist of a large glove puppet and a real crutch with a foot on it, bandaged and a little too realistic for comfort. She makes magic for us, something which existed before, and will exist after and beyond, capitalism, socialism and anyotherism. The Czechs are good at this. They are prepared to give up many things for the tourists, but not their impossible Slavonic language. So, if they want to communicate with foreigners of many different tongues, they have to mime. This citizen of Prague is tragic, pathetic, funny and touching. In five minutes I am laughing and crying. I am reduced to childhood. I want to kiss her or give her a Nobel Prize for Something. Instead I give her money. This is how we show appreciation, pleasure, enjoyment and respect under capitalism.

Behind this woman is the monument of Jan Hus, done in Rodinesque style, around 1900 I guess. The great religious reformer is supposed to have said, ‘Truth will conquer’. Fifteen blocks away, just this side of Charles Bridge, a slogan has been written on a wall by an educated racist: ‘Gypsies Back to India’ (an uneducated one would have said Slovakia or Rumania). On other walls are posters for an anti-racist concert and protests against the imprisonment of a member of the Plastic People of the Universe, a dissident rock or pop group from the late-1980s. This has been put up by local anarchists. Early evening, on Narodni Trida, young prostitutes display their legs right up to the buttocks.

I no longer expect truth to conquer, at least in my lifetime, but I do have a lasting attachment to the idea. I don't like racists, even if they know where gypsies come from. But I would rather see them expressing themselves on walls than having their public racism repressed by an authoritarian—and racist—regime. I am not an anarchist, and I don't know why this Plastic Person is in prison, but I am glad to see someone drawing public attention to the matter. If we had had a chance (and the nerve) to speak to a prostitute, we could have told her of Amsterdam's Red Thread, which doesn't moralise about prostitution but organises these working women in their own medical, physical, economic and moral defence.

Shit, it's Monday! And I haven't yet been to Rott's. It's still there, of course, as my bones knew it would be. Which is why I didn't look for it earlier. It is, as my bones also knew, full of happy, smiling, consumer goods and people buying them. All departments are open. I see a counter at which people are requesting, and receiving, small accessories and spare parts. I don't need to check the variety of screws and nails. I know how capitalism works.

If and when we socialists have another go at capitalism I hope we will remember that you can neither keep it out, nor jump over it, nor build it in one country. I hope we will have learnt that the only way past capitalism is through capitalism. I hope we will also remember what the Hungarian sociologists Feher and Heller once said: socialism is for the world, not the world for socialism.

I am glad that the Czech Republic has rejoined the world of Actually-Existing Capitalism. I feel at home in Prague now as I never did when both it and I were Communist. I was arrested three times in the Czechoslovakia of the 1950s, and for reasons that were either ridiculous or reprehensible. (Could I possibly get to see the State Security records on the IUS and WFTU staff?) I tended to get into difficulty because I also tended to respond to the police and other authorities as if I was living in liberal-democratic England. From Prague under Communism, against Communism, I learned never to accept authority as authority—even today in liberal-democratic Holland, or own (ex-?)social-reformist institute. The little stoves of democracy have to be repeatedly tended and stoked. From the overthrow of Communism I have learned the possibility of soft revolutions, of the power of the powerless, of the necessity of living in truth, of the possibility of it winning space even in this life. Looking at Old Prague I understand, more than I ever did, history as future, the future as history.