Was the Czechoslovak economic reform successful? There is no simple answer to this seemingly simple question. The preceding section showed that in spite of many delays caused by opposing conservative forces, the reform movement succeeded in dismantling the command system in all important economic areas. It was also highly successful in convincing the Czechoslovak society - including the ruling elite - of the superiority of market socialism. In the years 1967-9 this idea was generally accepted and the first practical steps leading to the revival of the market were accomplished. It is, of course, possible that this process would not have continued smoothly and that the reform would have been reversed even without the invasion.
There are at least two reasons, however, for believing that such a development would have been very unlikely. First, the experience of Yugoslavia and Hungary shows that reform may continue uninterrupted in the absence of direct foreign interference. Secondly, the aversion to the Soviet-type command economy and the determination of Czechs and Slovaks to disassociate themselves from it were extremely strong. Even in the post-invasion political situation it took three years before the idea of reform was abandoned and the command system finally rebuilt. Judged purely by the internal situation, it is possible to say with a certain degree of confidence that the Czechoslovak economic reform would very likely have been successful in transforming command system into market socialism. How well the new system would have worked is another matter.
It is nevertheless true that in a broader sense both the economic and political reforms were unsuccessful. They failed because the Czechoslovak reformers went too far without recognizing the limits imposed on them by 'international realities' and consequently provoke invasion of the Warsaw Pact armies.
1. The Reform Strategy
One of the most important things for a successful economic reform is the choice of a correct strategy, i.e. timing, extent, speed, and the sequence in which individual reform measures, or groups of such measures are introduced. Even if the social and political conditions make economic reform feasible, the wrong strategy may prevent it from ever reaching completion.
The choice of the time in which reform is to be implemented may be essential for its success. Two apparent alternative strategies existed: either a very quick preparation of rough reform proposals and their immediate implementation, or a slow and detailed elaboration of proposals with very careful selection of proper time for implementation.
Janusz Zielinski argues that there is usually little time for preparation of reform on paper: "Design of reforms frequently encounters an interesting vicious circle. Without pressure, no extensive and far-reaching work on a new system is carried out. Under pressure, reforms must be initiated without waiting for a detailed blueprint." 52
While the actual implementation of the reform in Hungary apparently started with a more complete blueprint than in Czechoslovakia, the difference does not seem to be primarily in the amount of time available but rather in the fact that the opposition against the reform was less strong in Hungary than in Czechoslovakia. The work on the proposals for the Czechoslovak economic reform was initiated in the last quarter of 1963, and the really important changes started only in January 1967. Thus Czechoslovakia devoted approximately the same amount of time as the Hungarians to the preparation of the reform. In Czechoslovakia the views on the timing of reform were polarized. The conservatives resented any risky moves to 'unknown territory' and demanded therefore that no changes be made before it was theoretically proved beyond any doubt that every proposed change is workable, would improve the economy and would not contradict socialist principles. They also asserted that practical implementation may start only after all the details of a consistent blueprint are elaborated.
The reformers, or at least the more radical among them, clearly preferred the strategy of almost immediate implementation. They were afraid that too long a delay could well kill chances for reform. Favorable social and political conditions might disappear and the authorities might decide that the old system was still adequate and merely in need of partial improvement. This argument may have been correct. The economic stagnation of the early 1960s, which created a favorable atmosphere for reform, was strengthened by the rigidities and inefficiencies of the command system but in principle was a part of the economic cycle. In the middle 1960s the economy had resumed growth before any significant changes in the system were completed. Fortunately the old system was already so discredited and the ideas of the new system so generally accepted that the improvement in the economy did not hinder continuing efforts to reform it. Had the theoretical preparation for the reform taken one or two years longer, the probability of reform proposals being accepted by political bodies would have been considerably smaller.
The radical reformers also maintained that it was impossible to blueprint the whole economic system onto paper in its final and optimal form before actually putting it to work. It is therefore preferable to commence implementation prior to shaping a final blueprint and thereafter continuously make adjustments according to the experience obtained during each stage of the reform.
The main controversy about timing of implementation was related to the problem of inter-industry structure and allocation of investment. It was accepted by both sides that the disequilibria and inefficiency of the Czechoslovak economy were in a great degree a result of distorted industrial structure, which was in turn caused by misallocation o investments in the early 1950s. The restructuring of the Czechoslovak economy was held to be necessary for a smooth operation of the new economic system.
The radical reformers disagreed. They argued:
(iii) The determination of the optimal industrial structure under a command system is virtually impossible for the following reasons: (a) The command system, unlike the market system, does not generate the correct criteria for the allocation of investment. The misallocation of investment in the 1950s was, among other things, the result of the fact that prices lost their parametric function. (b) The specific pattern of investments from the 1950s, which included a preference for heavy industry, was to a certain degree a predictable result of the inner logic of the functioning of the command system. It would therefore be very difficult drastically to change the investment pattern without first changing the nature of the economic system itself.
The above arguments were so powerful that many economists, planners and politicians of a previously conservative leaning were persuaded and agreed that the reform should be implemented as soon as possible. This turning point occurred in 1966 and the Principles of Accelerated Implementation of the New System of Management were the result. It also led to the acceptance of the computerized method for the general revision of wholesale prices. It would have taken three or four years to recalculate all the wholesale prices by the traditional method of price calculations. With the help of computers this time was shortened to less than one year.