Dr Josef Skala - "private Marxist" with different view of life pre-1989

Dr Josef Skala

There's been a lot of talk in recent weeks of "coming to terms" with the legacy of the communist regime, as Czechs mark the 17th anniversary of the start of the Velvet Revolution. We've heard at length from organisations such as People in Need, which are running educational programmes about the communist period in Czech schools. But what about those who have a different point of view about what happened in this country between 1948 and 1989? Rob Cameron spoke to Dr Josef Skala, who stood as a candidate for the Communist Party at the last elections and advises the party on foreign policy.

When we first met, you gave me a business card which describes you as the chairman of the board of governors of an export company. Doesn't being a businessman clash with your communist beliefs?

"Why? Not at all. First of all everyone should have a job. And I cannot have the job which I had for decades - a teacher at university and some other interrelated jobs - because of my beliefs. As you know, it's practically impossible for me to get such a job now. So that's a way out for me personally. Secondly, I'm not looting anything in this country. When the lights were switched off, I did not take a single coin. So I think honest entrepreneurship is a way of life. There's no problem with it."

The basic tenet of communism is that the state must own the means of production. If the Communists came back tomorrow, would you be willing to give up your company?

"Look, if this is a part of the overall emancipation of the people, for sure. Because the biggest nonsense of today consists of the fact that on one hand we say that the right to own something is the number one right, but at the same time, society is depriving most people of this right. Society doesn't give them even the chance in any way to own what they produce by their joint work. So that's the problem."

How far back do you trace back your communist faith? Was there a conversion, a road to Damascus?

Photo: www.guk-prague.cz
(laughs) "No, I must admit that my family helped me to orientate myself. This is a deep tradition within my family. My great-grandfather was one of the founders of the Communist Party in 1921, as a leftist Social Democrat, as a man who had been a prisoner of war in Italy, so the whole story somehow helped me to get to such a position. But obviously I'm not a blind guy who follows what the others are saying. It's my deep, let's say sincere internal decision, because I'm convinced that that's the proper way."

You mentioned that you were a teacher before 1989. Did you play any other role in the Communist Party or its leadership?

"Yes, yes. I was in what was called today the 'professional background' behind the politicians, preparing analytical materials, attending different international fora and so on."

And how close is your relation to the party today?

"I'm a freelance advisor. From time to time I joke that I'm a 'private Marxist' (laughs). A man helping those of the same beliefs. But this is not my job."

I want to quote you some statistics gathered by the Office for the Documentation and Investigation of the Crimes of Communism. They say between 1948 and 1989, 241 political prisoners were executed, around 500 people were shot or electrocuted trying to flee the country, some 600 died after being interrogated by the secret police, 8,000 political prisoners died in mines, steelworks and prisons, 250,000 were convicted and imprisoned on trumped up charges and 400,000 either fled or were forced to leave the country. How can anyone reconcile themselves with an ideology that so thoroughly discredited itself during forty years in power?

Photo: archive of Radio Prague
"You've just carried out an air raid of numbers, and each of them would need a comment. Let me start with the first one. Two hundred and forty-one people executed people. First of all, 241 was the number of those who were sentenced, not executed. You should know it. I think 170-something were executed. The last person executed in any way related to politics was in 1960. For a murder, by the way. For a flagrant murder. You should also know that among those 170-something were also people who were sentenced and executed for crimes committed during the Second World War. Nobody says this but this is a matter of fact. I'm not proud of anything, and it's a moral trauma, a moral problem for me - even though I could not have participated in anything myself, in 1960 I was eight years old. Forever, this is a big lesson for the radical left not to make the same mistakes, but one should admit that these mistakes and tragedies were done in a big fight where the supremacy was on the other side, and all the methods were used. All the methods were used. The Cold War was not initiated by Stalin."

But this is nothing to do with the Cold War. The victims were not agents of the enemies of this country. They were just ordinary people who were victimised by the regime.

"How? Sorry, no. No. Let me stop at those 170-something. Most of these people were involved in a very active fight against the regime. Some of them were shooting. I'm not saying all of them. But please don't tell me that these 170-something were clean people who only had their beliefs and were doing nothing. It's not true. You should look at it case by case."

But what about people who were shot or who otherwise died simply for the crime of trying to leave their country?

"How many Mexicans are dying each year on the American border?"

Yes, but they're trying to get in, they're not trying to get out...

"Out of Mexico! which is actually a colony of the United States. Sorry. Sorry. One should see the problem as it is in reality. What's the system in Mexico? Is there socialism in Mexico? They are leaving a weaker capitalism for a country which is looting throughout the world. That's the logic for why they are leaving. You cannot compare it to Czechoslovakia."

But nonetheless I think we can agree that a great injustice was done to a great many people in this country. You may have a moral problem with it, but the party which shares the ideology which you subscribe to seems to have no dilemma at all. It refuses to condemn it.

"No, no, no. I think systematically one fact is ignored. Several times we gave a clear excuse for all these things, and let's admit one thing. Communists are not at all the champions in political crimes. If we had more time I would show you such crimes of liberals, conservatives, Christians and so on. We're not the winners in this competition, not at all."

Stories of Injustice
What about just talking about it? As I mentioned earlier, People in Need, currently running a programme called Stories of Injustice, bringing tales of injustices which happened during this era - which you freely admit did happen - to schoolchildren, bringing in people who suffered. Surely that's something to be commended?

"If it should be done in a genuinely democratic country, then both parts should come to the kids. And you would see, for instance, soldiers from the same border who were killed by different people and so on. It's not black and white, history. It's not."

The ultimate aim of communism as set down in the Communist Manifesto is to bring about a classless society. Do you still believe that can happen?

"I started our debate with this. Do you really believe that all of us should work and only some of us should benefit from the results? That's the concept of a classless society. I'm sorry. On one hand, bourgeois society claims that the right to own is the number one right. But the same society deprives most of the people the same right. So that should be solved, nothing else. And the method of how it should be solved, that's a big debate, I agree with you."