Communist deputy chair Josef Skála: reforming the regime was the ambition of my generation

Twenty years after the fall of Czechoslovakia’s communist regime, the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia has retained both its communist label and much of its ideology. In this edition of One on One, our guest is Josef Skála, who recently became one of the party’s deputy leaders. He shares his views on the totalitarian regime of the past and the party’s prospects in the future.

In the late 1980s, Mr Skála was the head of the Prague-based International Union of Students, and on its behalf, he decorated the country’s last communist leader, Miloš Jakeš, just two days before a student demonstration on November 17 triggered the Velvet Revolution.

November 1989
“When Mr Jakeš came to the International Union of Students’ headquarters on November 15, we had very small lifts there, and only two people could take it at a time. So Mr Jakeš and I got on the lift without any bodyguards or anybody, and believe me or not, the debate I had with him from the ground floor to the sixth floor, was related to one issue: ‘can you guarantee that there will not be any kind of violent clashes or anything like that?’ He looked at me and said, ‘what do you think that we are, stupid? We are obviously doing our best to prevent things like that’.”

What do you think the communist leaders had in mind then, and in the months preceding the fall of communism? Did they care about the well-being of the people or only about keeping their grip on power?

“Any generalization like this is obviously too black and white. We should speak about individual people, if we had more time. But there are many books depicting the conflicts among the top echelons of power, and even the very peculiar scenario on Národní třída when a member of the secret police lay down and pretended to be dead – that indicates something. There were groups which were trying to cause a problem and use it for their very particular interests, which was a very stupid scenario. But coming back to you question – I know a number of people who were very honest, and even competent. But they did not get a chance to manifest it on the respective level of power. That was the tragedy of the 1980s.”

But today, when you’re elected to Parliament, or even become a minister, you rely on the support you gained in free elections. What did those people rely on back then? Do you think they thought about who supported them and where their power was grounded?

“This would need a very long reply because as you know, politics today in the Czech Republic… Would you say that there is a fair competition among political subjects or that it’s a matter of money and who is pumping money where? In a socialist [communist] society, there was no private capital to finance campaigns. Socialism [communism] should have developed an ever greater democratic face, even in terms of political mechanisms. And this was the ambition of my generation, yes.”

It seems that many members of the communist party changed their views on all kinds of issues, including private enterprise. In the 1970s and 1980s, your party condemned the exploitation of man by man. But after 1989, you started a business. When did you discover that exploitation can be fun?

“No, no, there is no contradiction in this because we still believe that people should not be exploited. This has been part of our party programme up to now, and will be forever, although forever is maybe too strong a word. But when you have to feed your family somehow in a new situation, and there is this lustration act [preventing collaborators with the communist secret police from holding certain public positions] and other measures that ousted people like myself, then you have to find a space, a niche in the new society. So we were forced to do it, it was not a free decision, it’s a quasi-free decision.”

Photo: archive of Radio Prague
Your party has apologized several times for the wrongs committed during the four decades of communist rule. But the communist party today still relies very much on what analysts call a “protest vote”, that is on people who are against the party currently in government. Do you think that the Communist Party has perhaps missed an opportunity to become a reformed left-wing force?

“Again, it’s a matter of criteria. I would formulate it in a different way. The communist party is a systemic opposition. There is no point in hiding it. We believe that the rights and interests of the people could be sufficiently materialized only beyond the horizon of capitalism. That’s our deep conviction. And I think that the present financial and economic crisis brings interesting evidence of that the happy ending of history, as it was called by certain western theoreticians, was more of a mystery than a realistic forecast. In terms of reforms, I can second what you said in a slightly different way. But there are a number of reasons which should be understood more deeply.”

“Is it easy to be a communist today at my age or for younger people? It’s not. Not when you are open about it, and don’t just go to meetings and things like that. You risk existential problems. And that’s why there are hundreds of thousands of people who vote for us but they have a problem with manifesting their beliefs more openly in everyday life. That’s clear. That has a multiplying ghetto effect. Those inside the party are pressured by various factors and that multiplies in them a lack of capability to reach beyond these limits and speak with people in a way that would be understandable for them and that would attract them. “

“This is a disease which I feel is a big problem and people like myself are doing out best to somehow overcome it.”

David Rath
In the Central Bohemian region, the communist party supports the social democrat government, and the governor, Social Democrat David Rath, said that such cooperation could work well on the national level, too. Can you see the Social Democrats and Communists in a coalition government after the next general elections in May 2010?

“I cannot give you any exact forecast but let’s follow the objective logic of Czech politics. The pendulum is moving back to the left. It’s a matter of the social situation of most people having worsened. Most of the optimistic forecasts channelled by certain media are a soap opera in my opinion because the genuine repercussions of the crisis are yet to come. “

“But let’s look at it from the Social Democrats’ point of view. If they really wish to form an alternative government rather than a hybrid with the Civic Democrats and other right wing forces, there is no other way than finding a modus vivendi with ourselves. Nobody insists on how many ministers we should have; we don’t seek anything like that.”

“The model which works in Central Bohemia is one of the options which can in my opinion be applied in the whole of the country. Nobody says we should be inside the government, provided there is a deal – not in a commercial way – but a genuine political agreement between two left-wing parties that would guarantee the people of this country much more viable, suitable and social-friendly policies. That’s perhaps the key goal.”