Written by Vladimir Moss



     The French had always had a snobbish attitude towards American Hollywood and Coca-Cola “culture” (although their film-makers admired Hitchcock), and a none-too-grateful attitude to the nation that had not only liberated them from the Nazis in the Second World War, but had also lifted the whole of Western Europe off its economic feet and created a wall of steel against the Soviet threat at very little cost to the Europeans themselves. In a sixties book called Le Défi américain Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber elaborated on various threats supposedly posed by the Americans, but, as Norman Stone points out, “failed to notice that French industry, far from languishing, was doing better than it had done since the 1890s, when the arrival of electrical energy had enabled it to bypass the coal in which France was poor. Quite soon France was going to overtake England, for the first time since the French Revolution itself.


     “All of this allowed de Gaulle to appear as a world statesman, to put France back on the map. Now, he, many Frenchmen and many Europeans in general resented the American domination. There was not just the unreliability, the way in which the USA, every four years, became paralysed by a prospective presidential election. France’s defence was largely dependent upon the USA, and, here, there were fears in Paris and Bonn. They did not find Washington easy. The more the Americans became bogged down in Vietnam, the more there was head-shaking in Europe. They alone had the nuclear capacity to stop a Russian advance, but the Berlin crisis had already shown that the Americans’ willingness to come to Germany’s defence was quite limited, and they had not even stood up for their own treaty rights. Now, in 1964, they were involved in a guerrilla war in south-east Asia and were demonstrably making mess of it: would Europe have any priority? Perhaps, if West Germany had been allowed to have nuclear weapons, the Europeans could have built up a real deterrent of their own, but that was hardly in anyone’s mind. The bomb was to be Anglo-American.  

     “At the turn of 1962-3 the British Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, had met Kennedy (at Nassau) and agreed to depend upon a little American technology [Polaris nuclear missiles] on condition that the French got even less. There would be no Franco-British nuclear link and as far as de Gaulle was concerned, France would have to make her own way forward. He got his own back. The Americans were trying to manoeuvre Great Britain into the EEC, and, conscious now of their comparative decline, the British reluctantly agreed to be manoeuvred. At a press conference in January 1963, de Gaulle showed them the door. Europe was to be a Franco-German affair, and de Gaulle was its leader. France could not go it alone. If she had seriously to offer a way forward between the world powers, she had to have allies, and Germany was the obvious candidate. Adenauer, too, needed the votes of what, in a more robust age, had been called ‘the brutal rurals’, and the Common Agricultural Policy bribed them. In return for protection and price support, they would vote for Adenauer, even if they only had some small plot that they worked at weekends.

     “France, with a seat on the Security Council and the capacity to make trouble for the USA with the dollar and much else, mattered; the Communists were a useful tool, and they were told not to destabilize de Gaulle. He was being helpful to Moscow. In the first instance, starting in 1964, the French had made problems as regards support for the dollar. They built up gold reserves, and then sold dollars for more gold, on the grounds that the dollar was just paper, and inflationary paper at that. There was of course more to it, in that there was no financial centre in France to rival that of London, and the French lost because they had to use London for financial transactions; by 1966 they were formally refusing to support the dollar any more, and this (an equivalent of French behavior in the early stages of the great Slump of 1929-32) was a pillar knocked from under the entire Atlantic financial system.

     “De Gaulle had persuaded himself that the Sino-Soviet split would make the USSR more amenable, that it might even become once more France’s ideal eastern partner. There were also signs, he could see, of a new independence in eastern Europe. The new Romanian leader, Ceaușescu, looked with envy on next-door neighbour Tito, cultivated and admired by everybody. Romania had been set up by France a century before, and French had been the second, or even, for the upper classes, the first language until recently. Now, de Gaulle took up links with her, and also revisited a Poland that he had not seen since 1920, as a young officer. In March 1966 he announced that France would leave the NATO joint command structure, and the body’s headquarters were shifted to Brussels, among much irritation at French ingratitude. In June the General visited the USSR itself, and unfolded his schemes to Brezhnev: there should be a new European security system, a nuclear France and a nuclear USSR in partnership, the Americans removed, and a French-dominated Europe balancing between the two sides. He had already made sure of Europe’s not having an American component, in that he had vetoed British membership of the Community. Now he would try to persuade Brezhnev that the time had come to get rid of East Germany, to loosen the iron bonds that kept the satellite countries tied to Moscow, and to prepare for serious change in the post-war arrangements. Brezhnev was not particularly interested, and certainly not in the disappearance of East Germany; in any case, although France was unquestionably of interest, it was West Germany that chiefly concerned Moscow, and there were constant problesm over Berlin. De Gaulle was useful because, as Brezhnev said, ‘thanks to him we have made a breach, without the slightest risk, in American capitalism. De Gaulle is of course an enemy, we know, and the French Party, narrow-minded and seeing only its own interests, has been trying to work us up against him. But look at what we have achieved: the American position in Europe has been weakened, and we have not finished yet.’”[1] 

     France had indeed acted ungratefully and treacherously, and a serious breach in the Western alliance could well have emerged. But her behavior was more the result of De Gaulle’s ever-prickly personality and national pride than any deeper shift in interests; Brezhnev was right to see in him more a useful, but still essentially Capitalist idiot than a real convert to the Communist International. In any case, hubris was soon to be followed by humiliation…

     For, as Stone continues, in 1968 “de Gaulle received, out of the blue, a vast humiliation. In a moment that summed up the sixties, the students of Paris rebelled against him, and would have brought him down if the Communist Party had not, for Moscow’s sake, saved him. The episode in itself was farcical, but it was a farce with a sinister side, edging into terrorism; it also did great damage to education in general, and particularly in European universities, which since then have declined…”[2] 

     “It is worth insisting,” writes Tony Judt, “upon the parochial and distinctly self-regarding issues that sparked the May Events, lest the ideologically charged language and ambitious programs of the following weeks mislead us. The student occupation of the Sorbonne and subsequent street barricades and clashes with the police, notably on the nights of May 10th-11th and May 24th-25th, were led by representatives of the (Trotskyist) Jeunesse Communiste Révolutionnaire, as well as officials from established student and junior lecturer unions. But the accompanying Marxist rhetoric, while familiar enough, masked an essentially anarchist spirit whose immediate objective was the removal and humiliation of authority.

     “In this sense, as the disdainful French Communist Party leadership rightly insisted, this was a party, not a revolution. It had all the symbolism of a traditional French revolt – armed demonstrators, street barricades, the occupation of strategic buildings and intersections, political demands and counter-demands – but none of the substance. The young men and women in the student crowds were overwhelmingly middle-class – indeed, many of them were from the Parisian bourgeoisie itself: ‘fils à papa’ (‘daddy’s boys’), as the PCF leader Georges Marchais derisively called them. It was their own parents, aunts and grandmothers who looked down upon them from the windows of comfortable bourgeois apartment buildings as they lined up in the streets to challenge the armed power of the French state.

     “Georges Pompidou, the Gaullist Prime Minister, rapidly took the measure of the troubles. After the initial confrontations he withdrew the police, despite criticism from within his own party and government, leaving the students of Paris in de facto control of their university and the surrounding quartier Pompidou – and his President, De Gaulle – were embarrassed by the well-publicized activities of the students. But, except very briefly at the outset when they were taken by surprise, they did not feel threatened by them. When the time came the police, especially the riot police – recruited from the sons of poor provincial peasants and never reluctant to crack the heads of privileged Parisian youth – could be counted on to restore order. What troubled Pompidou was something far more serious.

     “The student riots and occupations had set the spark to a nationwide series of strikes and workplace occupations that brought France to a near-standstill by the end of May. Some of the first protests – by reporters at French Television and Radio, for example – were directed at their political chiefs for censoring coverage of the student movement and, in particular, the excessive brutality of some riot policemen. But as the general strike spread, through the aircraft manufacturing plants of Toulouse and the electricity and petro-chemical industries and, most ominously, to the huge Renault factories on the edge of Paris itself, it became clear that something more than a few thousand agitated students was at stake.

     “The strikes, sit-ins, office occupations and accompanying demonstrations and marches were the greatest movement of social protest in modern France, far more extensive than those of June 1936. Even in retrospect it is difficult to say with confidence exactly what they were about. The Communist-led trade union organization, the Confédération du Travail (CGT) was at first at a loss: when union agreement reached between government, unions and employers was decisively rejected by the Renault workers, despite its promise of improved wages, shorter hours and more consultation.

     “The millions of men and women who had stopped work had one thing at least in common with the students. Whatever their particular local grievances, they were above all frustrated with their conditions of existence. They did not so much want to get a better deal at work as to change something about their way of life; pamphlets and manifestos and speeches explicitly said as much. This was good news for the public authorities in that it diluted the mood of the strikers and directed their attention away from political targets; but it suggested a general malaise that would be hard to address 

     “France was prosperous and secure and some conservative commentators concluded that the wave of protests was thus driven not by discontent but by simple boredom…”[3]

     Boredom, anomie, frustration with nobody knew exactly what – this was the existential crisis of comfortable Western Social Democracy in the 1960s. It suggested that the West’s problems were not primarily political or economic, but “existential” - the result of the expulsion of religion from the Social Democratic project. The young perhaps felt it most acutely, but they were simply expressing a general malaise that went deeper as one went further down the scale of class and up the ladder of age. The very frivolity and sheer ignorance of their attachments – their passion for Mao and Che Guevara, for example, without knowing anything about the mind-boggling evil that such men were accomplishing, or their mindless slogan, ‘It is forbidden to forbid’ – paradoxically highlighted the seriousness of the malaise.

     Alexander Woolfson writes: ‘[Richard] Vinen provides a useful overview [of ‘the Long 68’]: ‘It had several components: general rebellion of the young against the old, political rebellion against militarism, capitalism and the political power of the United States… These rebellions sometimes intersected, but they did not always do so.’

     “The year 1968 was an important milestone, the moment that the ‘New Left’ departed from Marxist orthodoxy. By that point the contradictions of Marxism could no longer be ignored, not just in terms of repressive brutality behind the Iron Curtain but also the failure of the working class to fulfil Marxist theory in the form of revolution. Indeed, 1968 was largely a middle-class affair, seizing upon the cultural criticisms that the ‘Frankfurt School’ directed both at capitalism and Soviet socialism.

     “In the US, 1968 was largely about opposition to America’s involvement in the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement. In France it was part student revolt, part disillusionment with contemporary life and part street party. The point is that the events of the ‘long 68’ were chaotic, even deliberately evasive of concrete definition.

     “The multitude of ideas and organisations produced no unified body of political thought. This makes understanding what the demonstrators wanted hard to discern. Much of the discourse of 1968 was concerned with the idea of self-management. Implicit in this was a rejection of the norms of classical ideology and the rejection of the role of intellectuals in forming that framework – perhaps best summarized as ‘we don’t believe the experts’. Ultimately it was a politics of refusal and individualism that remains most easily defined by what the 68ers were opposed to rather than a concrete programme of chang. The result was, in the words of the political theorist Simon Tormey, ‘political paganism, a politics of the faithless, of those who move from one campaign against injustice to another’.

     “It is easy to dismiss the legacy of 1968. Despite important civil rights victories in the US, which should rightly be seen as an historic triumph, n the short term the protests were largely unsuccessful in fostering the sort of revolution many wanted. There was far greatermobilisation across Europe and the US in favour of the established order. Richard Nixon’s electoral triumph at the end of the year came from appealing to the ‘silent majority’ about the breakdown in law and order that the demonstrations had symbolized. In France too, de Gaulle achieved electoral victory…”[4]


     The Prague Spring – the brief but highly significant semi-democratization of Czechoslovakia - came to a country that had suffered more than other East European nations from post-war Soviet repression 

     “As late as 1954,” writes Norman Stone, “several months after the USSR had started to release Stalin’s victims, there was a minor purge trial, and a commission in 1957 even reaffirmed the guilt of the 1950-51 victims, though some were released. A huge Stalin statue even went up in 1955, demolished only when Khrushchev insisted, along with the removal of Klement Gottwald from his mausoleum. In an obscure place, much later, there was still a little ‘Stalin Square’. In Czechoslovakia there was nothing like the Polish peasantry, stubbornly stuck in subsistence agriculture; nor was there anything like the Polish Church, the Czechs having inherited a powerful anti-clerical tradition. Opposition to the Communists was enfeebled from the outset because it was itself largely Communist.

     “Still, there were signs of trouble in the woodwork, and a Party congress was postponed for several months in 1962. The 1951 purge trials continued to be a cause of unease, and there was a new commission to investigate them. In 1963 it pinned the blame on Gottwald, and by implication his close colleagues, still in high places. A Slovak journalist – Miroslav Hysko – publicly denounced them, and was not himself arrested: the old trial verdicts were, instead, cancelled. All of this was evidence of much deeper currents. Further evidence came when a report late in 1963 stated that the campaign against Slovak nationalism in 1951 had been unjustified…”[5 

     The calls of Slovak Communists for federalization of the country was an important stimulus to what followed. Another was a student demonstration for “More Light!” (both physical and spiritual) in the Strahov district of Prague. But the critical event was the election, on January 5, 1968, of a new First Secretary of the Party after Novotný, Alexander Dubček.

     “The new man,” writes Judt, “was young (at 47 he was sixteen years Novotný’s junior), from the reform wing of the Party and, above all, a Slovak. As leader of the Slovak Communist Party for the past three years he appeared to many to be a credible compromise candidate: a longstanding Communist apparatchik who would nevertheless support reforms and appease Slovak resentments. Dubček’s early moves seemed to confirm this reading: a month after his appointment the Party leadership gave its unstinting approval to the stalled economic reform program. Dubček’s rather artless manner appealed to the young in particular, while his indisputable loyalty to the Party and to ‘Socialism’ reassured for the time being the Kremlin and other foreign Communist leaders looking anxiously on.

     “If Dubček’s intentions were obscure to observers, this is probably because he himself was far from sure just where to go. At first this ambiguity worked in his favour, as different factions competed for his support and offered to strengthen his hand. Public rallies in Prague in the weeks following his election demanded an end to censorship, greater press freedom and a genuine inquiry into the purges of the fifties and the responsibilities of the old guard around Novotný (who remained President of the country even after being ousted from the Party leadership). Carried on this wave of popular enthusiasm, Dubček endorsed the call for a relaxation of censorship and initiated a purge of Novotnýites from the Party and from the Czech army.

     “In March 22nd Novotný reluctantly resigned the presidency and was replaced a week later by General Ludvík Svoboda. Five days after that, the Central Committee adopted an ‘Action Program’ calling for equal status and autonomy for Slovakia, the rehabilitation of past victims and ‘democratisation’ of the political and economic system. The Party was now officially endorsing what the Program called ‘a unique experiment in democratic Communism’: ‘Socialism with a human face’ as it became colloquially known. Over a period of time (the document spoke of a ten-year transition) the Czechoslovak Communist Party would allow the emergence of other parties with whom it would compete in genuine elections. These were hardly original ideas, but publicly pronounced from the official organs of a ruling Communist Party they triggered a political earthquake. The Prague Spring had begun.

     “The events of the spring and summer of 1968 in Czechoslovakia hinged on three contemporary illusions. The first, widespread in the country after Dubček’s rise and especially following publication of the Action Program, was that the freedoms and reforms now being discussed could be folded into the ‘Socialist’ (i.e. Communist) project. It would be wrong to suppose, in retrospect, that what the students and writers and Party reformers of 1968 were ‘really’ seeking was to replace Communism with liberal capitalism or that their enthusiasm for ‘Socialism with a human face’ was mere rhetorical compromise or habit. On the contrary: the idea that there existed a ‘third way’, a Democratic Socialism compatible with free institutions, respecting individual freedoms and collective goals, had captured the imagination of Czech students no less than Hungarian economists.

     “The distinction that was now drawn between the discredited Stalinism of Novotný’s generation and the renewed idealism of the Dubček era, was widely accepted – even, indeed especially, by Party members. As Jiří Pelikán asserted, in his preface to yet a third report on the Czech political trials (commissioned in 1968 by Dubček but suppressed after his fall) ‘the Communist Party had won tremendous popularity and prestige, the people had spontaneously declared themselves for socialism’. That is perhaps a little hyperbolic, but it was not wildly out of line with contemporary opinion. And this, in turn, nourished a second illusion.

     “If the people believed the Party could save Socialism from its history, so the Party leadership came to suppose that they could manage this without losing control of the country. A new government headed by Oldřich Černík was installed on April 18th and, encouraged by huge public demonstrations of affection and support (notably in the traditionally May Day celebrations), it relaxed virtually all formal controls on public expressions of opinion. On June 26th censorship of press and media was formally abolished. The same day it was announced that Czechoslovakia was to become a genuine federal state, comprising a Czech Socialist republic and a Slovak Socialist republic (that was the only one of Dubček’s reforms to survive the subsequent repression, becoming law on October 28th 1968).

     “But having relaxed all control on opinion, the Communist leadership was now pressed from every side to pursue the logic of its actions. Why wait ten years for free and open elections? Now that censorship had been abolished, why retain formal control and ownership of the media? On June 27th Literárny Listy and other Czech publications carried a manifesto by Ludvik Vaculík, ‘Two Thousand Words’, addressed to ‘workers, farmers, officials, artists, scholars, scientists and technicians’. It called for the re-establishment of political parties, the formation of citizens’ committees to defend and advance the cause of reform, and other proposals to take the initiative for further change out of the control of the Party. The battle was not yet won, Vaculík warned: the reactionaries in the Party would fight to preserve their privileges and there was even talk of ‘foreign forces intervening in our development’. The people needed to strengthen the arm of the Communists’ own reformers by pressing them to move forward even faster.

     “Dubček rejected Vaculík’s manifesto and its implication that the Communists should abandon their monopoly of power. As a lifelong Communist he would not countenance this crucial qualitative shift (‘bourgeois pluralism’) and anyway saw no need to do so. For Dubček the Prty itself was the only appropriate vehicle for radical change if the vital attributes of a Socialist system were to be preserved. But as Vaculík’s manifesto made cruelly clear, the Party’s popularity and its credibility would increasingly rest upon its willingness to pursue changes that might ultimately drive it from power. The fault line between a Communist state and an open society was now fully exposed.

     “And this, in turn, directed national attention in the summer of 1968 to the third illusion, the most dangerous of all: Dubček’s conviction that he could keep Moscow at bay, that he would succeed in assuring his Soviet comrades that they had nothing to fear from events in Czechoslovakia – indeed, that they had everything to gain from the newfound popularity of the Czechoslovak Communist Party and the renewed faith in a rejuvenated socialist project. If Dubček made this mortal miscalculation it was above all because the Czech reformers had crucially misinterpreted the lesson of 1956. Imre Nagy’s mistake, they thought, had been his departure from the Warsaw Pact and declaration of Hungarian neutrality. So long as Czechoslovakia stayed firmly in the Pact and unambiguously allied to Moscow, Leonid Brezhnev and his colleagues would surely leave them alone.

     “But by 1968, the Soviet Union was worried less about military security than the Party’s loss of monopoly control…”[6]

     Brezhnev hesitated, knowing the unpopularity this would bring to his regime. Finally, however, on August 21, Soviet tanks invaded the country, restoring “normality” – that is, unreformed Communism - at the barrel of a gun. And yet after 1968 in Paris and Prague, nothing was “normal” again: both Western liberalism and Soviet socialism had reached their peaks and were on the cusp of a long descent into the new reality of the post-Cold War world…

     “The Kremlin had made its point – that fraternal socialist states had only limited sovereignty and that any lapse in the Party’s monopoly of power might trigger military intervention. Unpopularity at home or abroad was a small price to pay for the stability that this would henceforth ensure. After 1968, the security of the Soviet zone was firmly underwritten by a renewed appreciation of Moscow’s willingness to resort to force if necessary. But never again – and this was the true lesson of 1968, first for the Czechs but in due course for everyone else – never again would it be possible to maintain that Communism rested on popular consent, or the legitimacy of a reformed Party, or even the lessons of history…

     “The illusion that Communism was reformable, that Stalinism had been a wrong turning, a mistake that could still be corrected, that the core ideals of democratic pluralism might somehow still be compatible with the structures of Marxist collectivism, that illusion was crushed under the tanks on August 21st 1968 and it never recovered. Alexander Dubček and his Action Program were not a beginning but an end. Never again would radicals or reformers look to the ruling Party to carry their aspirations or adopt their projects. Communism in Eastern Europe staggered on, sustained by an unlikely alliance of foreign loans and Russian bayonets: the rotting carcass was finally carried away only in 1989. But the soul of Communism had died twenty years before: in Prague, in August 1968…”[7]

     “The Soviet tanks rolling into Czechoslovakia,” writes Jean-François Revel, “failed to open De Gaulle’s eyes to the nature of communism and the Soviet system. He attributed that ‘accident en route’ to the ‘policy of blocs’ and the damage done by the ‘Yalta agreements’, thus again displaying his ignorance of just what those agreements were, since the Czech question was not touched on at Yalta. His dream of a Europe in harmony ‘from the Atlantic to the Urals’ seemed no more unlikely to him after the Red Army occupied Prague than it had before. ‘Let us guard against excessive language,’ the general said at a French cabinet meeting on August 24. ‘Sooner or later, Russian will return [to its old ways]…. We must build Europe. We can construct something with the Six [of the original Common Market], even build a political organization. We cannot build Europe without Warsaw, without Budapest, and without Moscow.’

     “All the future illusions and surrenders in détente are contained in that statement: De Gaulle’s acceptance of Moscow’s fait accompli, his unwillingness to consider sanctions to punish a crime against freedom, his de facto alliance with Soviet imperialism, which he forgave all sins. Add to this his lack of understanding of Communist reality, in short, his incompetence and his blind trust in the Soviet Government’s desire and ability to become part of a harmonious and homogeneous Europe – which, be it noted, General de Gaulle thought Britain had no right to join!”[8]

     De Gaulle died in 1970. He had built his career on rudeness and treachery to Anglo-Saxons who had helped him, and friendship to Soviets who wanted to destroy his nation. In the end he had no answer to the Maoist youth who humiliated him, or to the tanks that rolled into Prague for the second time in thirty years...


April 21  May 3, 2018.




[1] Stone, The Atlantic and its Enemies, London: Penguin, 2011, pp. 249-251.

[2] Stone, op. cit., p. 271.

[3] Judt, Postwar: A History of Europe since 1945, London: Pimlico, 2007, pp. 409-411.

[4] Woolfson, “Belated Revenge of the 1968 Generation”, Standpoint, May, 2018, p. 30.

[5] Stone, op. cit., pp. 359-360.

[6] Judt, Postwar, pp. 440-442.

[7] Judt, Postwar, pp. 446, 447.

[8] Revel, How Democracies Perish, London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1985, pp. 262-263.

‹‹ Back to All Articles
Site Created by The Marvellous Media Company