Vol 0, No 20
8 February 1999
B E T W E E N T H E L I N E S:
A Touch of Evil?
An interesting headline caught my eye over the breakfast table last weekend: 'Czech Communists Move Out of Isolation' reported Lidove noviny, the Czech Republic's leading centre-right, quality daily. The apparent success of the much reviled, unreconstructed Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (KSCM) in winning a degree of political acceptability is one of the more interesting current developments in Czech politics. Communist leaders even predict that within the next ten years they will be in a future government of the left. Many informed observers would agree with them. I settled back with my coffee in the hope of reading a thoughtful, if critical analysis by Adam Drda, the paper's political correspondent. My hopes were quickly disappointed.
Mr Drda kicked off his article by telling his readers that 'it is pointless to consider whether the Communists really represent an evil - that is absolutely certain, a moral axiom. Discussion should concern why this evil has become stronger...and what can be done against it'. Even by the often low standards of Czech journalism - chronically weak on fact and analysis but generously endowed with pompous editorial comment - this was quite something. It was downhill all the way after that.
Deftly avoiding any hard information, the article then goes on to lambaste in turn the Social Democrats, President Havel and the Christian Democrats for their alleged softness in the face of Communist evil. Pausing only to vent some spleen on the Communist voters as 'people who need an extreme', it finished up by sounding some dark warnings about the prospect of Communists and Social Democrats gaining a majority in Parliament.
Readers of the country's premier right-wing intellectual daily would, you might think, have some fairly clear opinions of their own about the Communist Party without the benefit of Mr Drda's advice. However, even those who do appreciate such polemics will, I suspect, not be packing their suitcases or stockpiling weapons at the bottom of the vegetable patch in anticipation of a Communist putsch. The Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia, may be the only former ruling party in East Central Europe, which has failed to reinvent itself as a post-Communist, social-democratic force, but is after all a small, isolated party with an ageing electorate of 10% which no longer has the Soviet Union to back up any dictatorial ambitions it might have.
But does it in fact have any? And are the Czech Communists a source of political evil, the very thought of whom should send shivers down the spine? The answer is, I think, in both cases no. The Communist Party of Czechoslovakia's sudden conversion to the virtues of democracy, pluralism, the market and the rule of law in December 1989 was rightly a cause for cynicism at the time. But there can be little doubt that when the leaders of its Czech successor the KSCM say they want no return to the old regime, but a transition to 'modern socialism' with democracy, private property and civil rights guaranteed, they mean it seriously.
Opinion polls have repeatedly shown that only a small minority of Communist supporters want a return to central planning and the one-party state. What the 'neo-Communist' KSCM in fact envisages is an etatistic economy with a large nationalised sector, extensive co-operative and public ownership, a powerful strategic role for the state with multi-party parliamentary democracy with strong elements of corporatism, employee participation and 'self-management' thrown in. The party also rejects the Czech membership of NATO and prefers links with Russia and China and association with the EU to full entry. (Interested readers can find full details in English on the party's website at http://www.kscm.cz).
There is, of course, a less acceptable side to the party's beliefs: it sees the 1948-89 period of Communist rule as one of development and tranquillity and its attitude to the past is deeply ambiguous. It generally ducks the issue of the repression of the 1950s, conceding that there were 'excesses' and 'mistakes'. It condemns the 1968 Soviet-led invasion as politically maladroit and unnecessary, but does not say that it was actually wrong. While advocating a vision of socialism virtually identical to that of 1960s reform Communist, KSCM still sticks to the old party line that the Prague Spring was a potential 'counter-revolution'.
All this leaves a bad taste in the mouth. KSCM's 'neo-Communism' does little impress those outside its loyal core of supporters in the wartime and post-war generation for whom the Communist Party and the building of socialism represented a powerful and politically formative experience. KSCM's 'modern socialism' is in reality an ideological hotchpotch of old official ideology, resuscitated reform communism and 1970s Swedish social democracy dashed with references to the post-industrial society; its etatistic nostrums belong to another age and its nostalgia for 'real socialism' is based more on evasiveness and hypocrisy, than serious argument.
But is this deeply unattractive, but internally democratic political party, which is representing approximately one in ten Czech voters and (uniquely in Czech politics) so far untainted by any corruption scandal truly 'evil'?
Should it inspire us with the same bafflement and horror as Pol Pot, Stalin's genocidal purges or the judicial murders and savage repression unleashed by the Communists in Czechoslovakia in the 1950s. Many moral philosophers and thinkers, including former East European dissidents such as Vaclav Havel or Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, have reflected long and hard on the nature of evil and its many and subtle gradations. I would not venture to disagree with Havel or Solzhenitsyn that political systems can work great evil, that, morally speaking, evil can assume banal, petty everyday forms or that there is a line of good and evil running through us all.
But in politics and in the case of the Czech Communists some distinctions must be made. Such distinctions best illustrated by comparing the current Chairman of KSCM, Miroslav Grebenicek and his father Alois, also a life-long Communist. Grebenicek Senior is a former interrogator in the Communist security police during the 1950s, who is currently on trial for his involvement in one of the most notorious cases of torture of political prisoners in the period.
His son, the current KSCM leader, by contrast, was merely a hack Communist academic lecturing in Marxism-Lenininism during the 'Normalisation', whose worst crime was to inform on a fellow conscript for making anti-Communist comments during his military service.
Morally reprehensible? Yes. Lacking in human decency? Certainly. Politically repugnant? I think so. But the coming in from the political cold of Grebenicek and his party is hardly a source of moral evil.
The Czech Communists may never reform themselves into a post-Communist formation. They may indeed get a few ministries in some future coalition government of the centre-left and get to enjoy being hamstrung by the realities of office and belaboured by corruption scandals like any normal Czech party. But, unless you enjoy indulging in anti-Communist moral panics over your breakfast, I would not worry about the encroachment of evil. The Czech Communists have already made the happy transition from being truly evil to being merely truly awful.
Sean Hanley, 8 February 1999
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