The Prague Spring 1968: A National Security Archive Documents Reader

By JaromÍr NavrÁtil | Go to book overview
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On January 6,1968, the Czechoslovak public learned that, the day before, Alexander Dubček had been named first secretary of the CPCz Central Committee. A brief notification in the official press provided the first hint of a shake-up in the communist party leadership. "January," as this session of the CPCz Central Committee came to be called, launched the Czechoslovak reform experiment.

This lengthy meeting, which followed the CPCz CC session in October, actually spanned the months of December and January. After addressing the officially set agenda—including an indispensable evaluation of economic and political developments—the Committee's discussion, according to the Plenum resolution, "assessed the present situation within the party and highlighted existing shortcomings in the methods and style of work, in internal party management, and in the practical application of the principles of democratic centralism and intra-party democracy" (Document No. 6).

The discussion focused primarily on the separation of the top communist party and state posts. Excessive power was concentrated in the hands of Antonín Novotný: he held the titles of president, supreme commander of the army, chairman of the Central Committee of the National Front of the ČSSR and, first and foremost, the omnipotent first secretary of the CPCz Central Committee. After a lengthy and confrontational debate, dominated by criticism from the Slovak representatives, the Central Committee concluded that decentralizing the authority of the CPCz leadership structure as a whole was fundamental to reviving the party apparatus. The top posts would now be divided; Novotný would retain only the title of president—at that time a more or less decorative function. After a series of behind-the-scenes talks, including consultation with the Kremlin, the choice for the key post of the first secretary of the CPCz Central Committee went to Dubček, the head of the Slovak Communist Party.

January Plenum—The Road to Change

"January" inspired the entire subsequent development of Czechoslovak reform. Its importance, however, must not be overrated. To be sure, strong criticism of the untenable state of affairs was spreading throughout society, and the January session offered an invaluable debate over the methods of addressing and resolving the crisis. In the political area, nevertheless, the outcome of the Central Committee meeting reflected both the combination, and conflict, of the two poles of power within the party. The progressive trend, represented by Dubček, intended to introduce an element of reform and democracy into its party base. Subsequent developments demonstrated those intentions.

The progressive forces within the party based their efforts on elaborating an Action Program pushed by Dubček at the plenary session. On January 5, the Central Committee Plenum adopted a resolution directed exclusively at elite party members; the document was kept from the public at large (Document No. 6). Although the resolution did not specify the conflict within the party, it did call for "far greater encouragement of an open exchange of views," and characterized the


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