Liberty Is Fragile, We Must Not Forget 1968

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These days, we commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Warsaw Pact armies’ invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, an event that in many respects showed to the whole world the desperation of people struggling for self-determination under totalitarian regimes. We should not only remember this anniversary, we should take time to think about it.

Especially because we have been hearing admiring statements on the account of centralized bureaucratic control and strong political authority from politicians and commentators in these past years. The events of 1968 should be a red flag, a warning that toying with the idea of supporting absolute power is not only dangerous for the individual, but disastrous for the whole society.

As Lord Acton had said: “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”.

Anniversaries of various events fill the newspaper pages and create opportunities for television news. Although it is popular to return to individual unrepeatable events that have their specific dates, we should always remember the historical context. 

We must not forget that each individual key historical event influences the changes that follow and thus it sets the path for the whole society, even for several decades. The occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1968 changed the course of history and formed a political system (the period of normalization) with the consequences that still affect our society even today.

Learning from the Past

In order to be able to learn from the past, we must do more than just talk about these events in retrospect. We must track the connections these bear to the current institutional environment, so that we are able to reveal the threats our society is currently facing in time.

The topic of Russia and the extent of the threat regularly occur in debates about the dangers of the modern world. The opinions on this topic are very polarized.

As the problem of hybrid information war between the East and the West becomes the chief concern, the potential inner threat of latent conviction that the years 1968-1989 were peaceful and prosperous in our country gets drowned in the debate.

Yet, the existence of a kind of mentality that supported and was willing to collaborate with the occupants in 1968 is a grave threat for Czech society. The people welcoming the occupying troops were not irrational puppets of the regime; they were excited about the development of events, since they shared the values that the USSR represented. The same values of totalitarian absolutism are, unfortunately, present in the minds of many of our political representatives even today.

The communist leader Vojtěch Filip in an interview for The Guardian marginalized the events of August 1968, and thus clearly expressed the view held by communists until today. It is, therefore, important to ask in what direction are we heading towards with a government that had made publicly undisclosed agreements with the communists to secure their support.

By entering into secret agreements with the communists and by the rhetoric that accompanies this pact, the governmental parties in the Czech Republic reveal their preference of values corresponding more with the normalization practices than with a free society. We should definitely not take lightly the links between the twenty-year-long period of normalization that directly followed the events of 1968 and the fact that many of current political leaders who hold key positions are the product of education and indoctrination of this period.

The normalization was a dark age in Czechoslovak history that left deep wounds in the minds of the people who were for the duration of twenty years exposed to the never-ending socialist propaganda, insisting on absolute obedience of the citizens, and to the socialist education based on limiting critical thinking.

The proposals for tighter controls, regulation, and centralization, which we have been seeing in the last years, are contrary to the development that successfully started in our society in the 1990s. These proposals, however, bear similar characteristics to the tools of power of the normalization period.

In recent debate about Airbnb, political scientist Kateřina Smejkalová said in a TV programme that “indeed, the whole debate about meaningful regulation is being complicated by the fact that we consider private property as something, in fact, inviolable”. She goes on to point out some examples from advanced Western democracies, where infringing on private property and everyday regulation of the market relationships happens on a daily basis.

Even though we based our idea of the right institutional environment on the Western model in the period of economic transformation, it should be us who should nowadays be warning Europe about the danger of socialist experiments.

The anniversary of the events of 1968 should be a reminder of the horrors of totalitarian regimes of absolute control over human actions not only to post-communist countries, but also to the rest of Europe that had not experienced its affliction.

It is not surprising that voices appear in Czech society against private property and in favor of centralization of bureaucratic instruments of planning and regulation. Not only was the majority of Czech population indoctrinated by these notions in the communism era, but these notions are also contained in concentrated form in the idea of “managing the state as a firm”, which had won unprecedented political support for the current Prime Minister Andrej Babiš.

If the idea of state managed as a firm is widely applauded, we ought to be afraid. We ought to be afraid even more after we realize what many Czech political representatives imagine under managing a firm.

We should not forget Nobel laureate F. A. Hayek’s notion that a firm and a society are two distinctive types of order, and while a firm serves the purpose of fulfilling a predefined goal. A society needs institutional environment in which every citizen or firm may pursue ends of their own choosing.

A state that helps fulfill the ends of individuals and allows everyone to pursue their own happiness must be based on different principles than on normalization rules of obedience and conformity.

Despite the omnipresent GDP growth and unprecedented low unemployment rate in the Czech Republic, we are not sufficiently interested in the structure of our society’s development. We think more about our short-term consumption behavior than about the long-term robustness of political-economic system against the dictate of power.

If we ponder deeper over the substance of numerous everyday proposals heard with complete seriousness in the media, we shall find very similar arguments that are at the heart of the idea of limiting diversity and decentralization of society in an era in which people actively call for freedom.

It would be an exaggeration to compare today’s political scene with the times before November 1989. But if we continue to be indifferent to the processes in our society, we might soon find out that the institutions of private property, exchange based on consent, and adherence to contracts, on which the free society is based, are extremely fragile.

We should constantly bear in mind the strength of Adam Smith’s idea: “Little else is requisite to carry a state to the highest degree of opulence from the lowest barbarism, but peace, easy taxes, and a tolerable administration of justice; all the rest being brought about by the natural course of things. All governments which thwart this natural course, which force things into another channel, or which endeavour to arrest the progress of society at a particular point, are unnatural, and to support themselves are obliged to be oppressive and tyrannical”.

When else than on the 50th anniversary of the force and tyranny perpetuated by the USSR – and consequently many of our fellow citizens – should we realize that any departure from the values of classical liberalism is always the beginning of the road to serfdom?

Translation by Jan Mošovský

Jiri Nohejl
Liberalni Institute