The Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, also referred to as the KSC (Komunisticka strana Ceskoslovenska), had existed as early as 1921, but it was constantly competing within the democratic framework of the Czechoslovak Republic. It never gained sufficient strength to be included in the First Republic, but this ceased to be true after 1945. In fact, the political and economic organization of post-war Czechoslovakia was largely the result of negotiations between KSC exiles who had sought refuge in the Soviet Union during the war and the country’s president, Edward Benes. Consequently, after the end of World War II, Czechoslovakia found itself within the Soviet sphere of influence.
Prior to the February 1948 coup, in the elections of 1946, the Communist Party gained 37.9% of the vote—the largest share obtained by any party (Ramet 37). At the time, Czechoslovaks entertained the prospect of a socialist system because they looked at the Soviets as their liberators. This was particularly true among the intelligentsia. In contrast to the situation in Hungary and Poland, where there were strong anticommunist traditions among intellectuals, in Czechoslovakia many intellectuals were favorably disposed to the party at the outset of communist rule (Ramet 41). In addition, President Benes had already resorted to communist solutions to solve his country’s problems. He had begun the transition towards communism and there was absolutely no turning back once he did so. In fact, as will be discussed later, the Stalinist system in Czechoslovakia outlived both the death of Stalin in 1953 and the process of de-Stalinization that took place in the Soviet Union after 1956.
The foundation for the implementation of Soviet-type communism in Czechoslovakia lies in two important events. The first was the offer of aid that the United States made in the form of the Marshall Plan. The plan was to provide financial aid to all European countries in order to assist with reconstruction efforts after the end of the war. Czechoslovak cabinet members saw the offer as a key role in their country’s economic rebound, while the government saw it as a way of maintaining good relations with the U.S. and the west without compromising its loyalty to the Soviets. However, Stalin viewed the Marshall Plan as an attempt by the U.S. to “impose its capitalist ideology upon the communist states” (www3.edgenet.net). He went on to inform all the Eastern European countries under his influence, including Czechoslovakia, that by accepting aid from the U.S. they would be jeopardizing their friendship with the Soviets. Furthermore, the boundaries of the resulting Cold War were forcing Czechoslovakia to choose a side. They decided to reject America’s offer of generosity in favor of maintaining friendly relations with the Soviet Union.
The second event occurred during the poor harvest of 1947. Czechoslovakia, who had rejected aid that would have solved their economic problems, was faced with famine. It was Klement Gottwald who appealed to the Soviet Union for assistance, on behalf of the Czechoslovak Communist party. During the following months, "60 tons of grain were delivered by the Soviets to Czechoslovakia” (www.edgenet.net). By taking the initiative, Gottwald had firmly secured his place in the spotlight of Czechoslovakia’s future.
The new constitution also declared the government’s intention to collectivize agriculture. Consequently, in February 1949, the National Assembly adopted the Unified Agricultural Cooperatives Act. Cooperatives were to be founded on a voluntary basis and formal title to land was left vested in the original owners. The imposition of high compulsory quotas, however, forced peasants to collectivize in order to increase efficiency and facilitate mechanization. Collectivization was near completion by 1960, and by then, sixteen percent of all farmland had been turned into state farms. This, combined with the nationalization of the economy, virtually eliminated all private ownership of economic assets.
The Five Year Plans
The real Soviet influence began to show with the adoption of the Five-Year Plan. The objective of this program was “to nationalize and reconstruct the Czechoslovak economy by promoting heavy industries, like iron and steel, while simultaneously doing away with lesser, but traditionally well-developed branches of light industry” (www.edgenet.net). It must be noted, however, that these goals were adopted partly in response to the Korean War. Nonetheless, Czechoslovakia quickly realized that Stalin’s policy of encouraging Central and East European communist leaders to find their own path to socialism was replaced by an insistence on conformity in domestic institutions and policies and support for Soviet objectives. Thus, Gottwald and his country were converted into a slave of the Soviet Union.
During the First Five-Year Plan (1949-53), the industrial sector was reorganized with an emphasis on metallurgy, heavy machinery and coal mining. Czechoslovakia became an important supplier of machinery and arms to other communist countries. Foreign trade with noncommunist countries dropped sharply, while trade with communist countries increased from 40% of the country’s total in 1948 to 70% a decade later (www.lcweb2.loc.gov). Although investment and growth were high, the economy failed to reach the ambitious goals of the first plan. In fact, by the end of the plan period, serious inflationary pressures and other imbalances had developed, requiring a currency conversion in 1953 that wiped out many people’s savings and provoked outbreaks of civil disorder.
The years 1954 and 1955 were covered by yearly plans only. The members of Comecon (Council for Mutual Economic Assistance) decided to use common planning periods in an effort to correlate and integrate their planning. The Second Five-Year Plan (1956-60) made some changes because economic leaders noted that investment efforts were yielding diminishing returns. In response to this troubling situation, the government made several minor adjustments in the functioning of the organizations and prices—the first of the country’s economic reforms (1958-59). The reforms involved some limited decentralization of authority, most notably giving enterprises more autonomy in handling investment funds (www.lcweb2.loc.gov). However, the reforms did not improve economic performance and in 1962 the planners scrapped the entire reform program.
The 1960’s were a particularly dismal time for the Czechoslovak economy. Industrial production stagnated and the agricultural sector was doing poorly as well. The targets set for the national economy in the Third Five-Year Plan (1961-65) proved to be overly ambitious and the plan was dropped after a recession in 1962. By this time, it was becoming clear that there were serious defects in the Soviet model. Economists and others argued that it was inappropriate to apply the Soviet model to Czechoslovakia in a dogmatic manner. Several Czechoslovak economists had analyzed these problems, the most notable being Ota Sik. It was his remedy that led to the adoption of the New Economic Model in 1966.
Unfortunately, the reform program was dismantled when the process of “normalization” began under Gustav Husak. Naturally, other Five-Year Plans followed within the next several decades. It would be tiresome and redundant to mention all of them in detail, but some highlights are worth consideration. The Fourth and Fifth Five-Year Plans (1966-70 and 1971-75) saw some modest growth with net material product growing at a rate that well exceeded the planned yearly increase (www.lcweb2.loc.gov). By 1975, the agricultural sector was almost self-sufficient in animal production and self-sufficiency in crop production appeared to be an attainable goal as well.
The Sixth Five-Year Plan (1976-80), by contrast, produced far less satisfactory results. Slowdown in economic growth became especially noticeable and both agriculture and industry failed to meet planned growth targets. Similarly, the Seventh Five-Year Plan saw a serious slump in the economy. During 1981 and 1982 personal consumption actually declined and the cost of living rose more rapidly than wages. The poor performance of the economy in the early 1980’s persuaded party leaders that some changes were needed. Therefore, in conjunction with the Seventh Five-Year Plan, the government introduced a series of limited reforms called the Set of Measures to Improve the System of Planned National Economic Management after 1980 for industry, and a similar program for agriculture in 1982. However, the reform left the centralized system fundamentally unchanged.
In all fairness, it must be noted that when the Czechoslovaks embraced socialism, they did not know what the future had in store for them. Even Klement Gottwald was deceived by Stalin into thinking that he was creating a better political system for his country, when in fact he had put the country’s future in the hands of a nation that was interested in nothing but its own advancement. Perhaps certain events, such as the Soviet intervention during the Prague Spring in 1968, should have served as adequate warning to the Czechoslovakian people that the Soviet Union would not tolerate social change or aspirations towards increased freedom and liberal reforms, but it did not. Although it took another 20 years to free themselves from the grip of the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia finally accomplished the feat. Along with the other former East European communist nations, it proved that the Soviet-type system had failed miserably.