Although a great deal has been written and spoken about the Prague Spring, it has tended to focus on politics in the narrow sense of the term (democratic freedoms, relations with the Soviet Union, flags, tanks and blood) rather than on what François Châtelet has called ‘the political’—that is to say, the underlying relations between social groups, and between economics and the governmental and ideological levels.footnote The Prague Spring was accordingly pronounced dead soon after the change of season heralded by the Soviet troops. In reality, however, the phenomenon was too deeply rooted to be crushed at once, and the dual process of disintegration of politics and recomposition of the social and political reached its culmination only some time after that fateful night of 21 August 1968. Initially, the military intervention had but little effect on the organic construction of a global alternative to the bureaucratic system: until the fall of Dubcek on 17 April 1969, it was able only to neutralize or freeze internal expressions of the process at the apex of the level of politics. But by thus blocking the course of institutional renewal, it ultimately gave broader scope to the activities of the social movement and its direct expression—rank-and-file politics. In this way, the workers’ councils, which had been quite rare before August, gained in strength between December 1968 and June 1969 under the more innocuous name of enterprise councils.

The workers’ councils started out as an idea propagated by economists reflecting the concerns of management, who saw no contradiction between the bureaucratic superstructure, an economic reform reintroducing financial levers and market mechanisms, and workers’ participation at enterprise level.footnote1 In order to understand this, it is necessary to recall briefly the economic situation then facing Czechoslovakia. Although the western part (Bohemia—Moravia) had already possessed an advanced economic structure by 1900 (industrialization, urbanization, strong national bourgeoisie and working-class movement), the country nevertheless developed according to the Soviet-type extensive model between 1950 and 1964. During the fifties, the growth rate reached the fairly high average of about 6 per cent—a fact which is explained by the reorientation of the economy (replacement of export-oriented light industry by heavy industry within the framework of Stalinist autarchy) and industrialization of the eastern part of the country: Slovakia. In the sixties, however, the central command system of planning seized up: growth rates sank to — 1 per cent in 1962,–3 per cent in 1963 and o per cent in 1965. In this territory of fourteen million inhabitants, where fewer than a million were engaged in agriculture and urban birth rates were declining, both labour reserves and possibilities of increasing the productivity of labour had been exhausted. The ever higher sums of capital required for investment in new enterprises and building-sites in order to maintain production levels could only be found at the expense of the means to modernize the existing productive apparatus and stimulate advanced technology industries. This resutted in saturation of the economy with unskilled labour and maintenance of the relative scarcity of consumer goods.footnote2 The state avoided an explosion by subsidizing ailing industries out of the fund of surplus labour, and by fixing wages and prices to consume a sizeable proportion of the surplus labour product.

In 1963, the régime embarked on an economic reform with the aim of introducing objective quality indicators into the economy. The main changes envisaged were a certain decentralization of production, involving greater autonomy of enterprise directors, and an attempt to make the economy more dynamic by means of a consumer goods market and a turn to the world market. However, the reform very quickly came to a standstill, owing to resistances within the ruling élite and to the impossibility of controlling a decentralized structure by directives. One section of the political and economic bureaucracy feared the test of economic efficiency which it did not have sufficient knowledge to hazard; while the younger generation technocrats became aware of the limits of the reform. The exercise of managerial autonomy demanded real captains of industry, but the country did not dispose of the 15,000 men required. The existing leaders had not been trained in the school of the market and industrial relations: their diplomas had in the main been awarded by the Institute of Higher Political Studies.footnote3

But the system had created rivals. First among these was the intelligentsia of a new type—rooted in scientific and technical development or in the social services—to which may be added that of the human and social sciences. This sizeable and highly qualified layer had acquired a global understanding of the socio-economic questions at issue; but although the bureaucrats needed its abilities, they had no wish to hand over any power to it.footnote4 The second rival force was a part of the apparatus and membership of the Communist Party itself. In fact, membership of the Party could not alone provide a means of entry into the élite for the 12 per cent of the population concerned; it had become rather a simple concomitant of the social success of those who reached the top of the ladder. For most of the rest, it guaranteed an average status very close to that of the mass of industrial and white-collar workers. Indeed, a detailed survey showed that Czechoslovakia at the end of the sixties was no longer a ‘land of the dictatorship of the proletariat’: level of education and complexity of tasks were rapidly becoming the main determinants of social status. By another route, the levelling of living standards in the fifties had also contributed to this process. The true under-privileged were now drawn from the ranks of agricultural labourers and unskilled workers in the productive services (transport, communications, energy and some branches of industry)—categories, moreover, which were larger in Slovakia than in Bohemia.footnote5 This relatively deprived stratum, which included working women (over 49 per cent of the population) and youth, was to remain largely external to the development of workers’ councils, as it had been on the outside of society before January 1968, and as it is again today.

Between 1966 and 1968, the reform began to be applied in earnest, and the rate of growth rose again (6 to 8 per cent). However, the economy continued to suffer from marked disorders. Both old ones—overconsumption of investments and raw materials, technological retardation and obsolescence—and new ones: import dependence; a trade deficit due in part to excessively high prices; an explosion of long repressed wage claims; stocks of unsaleable goods in shops and warehouses; consumers who preferred to save rather than be shoddily supplied; price inflation. It was then that workers’ participation was thought of.footnote6 For after all, how is it possible to carry out reforms from above without finding links at the base? Furthermore, a means had to be found to get round obstacles placed in the way of the process by incompetent élites.footnote7 Following the 13th Party Congress of summer 1966, a State Commission for Management and Organization was created. It envisaged a system of shared decision-making at enterprise level, organized around a council consisting of one third workers’ delegates, one third outside experts and one third founder’s (i.e. state) representatives.footnote8 Of course, this neither called into question the concept of state property, nor granted management rights to the workers. Nevertheless, the plan—which was not made public until April 1968—gave the workers food for thought when the first councils were set up in June of that year.footnote9 It seemed clear that if investments and reserves could not be rationally employed in the absence of a material stake in production, that stake itself could not exist without control over management.