Twenty-six years after Velvet Revolution, Czech Communists say history’s still in their favour

The leader of the Communist Party Vojtěch Filip, photo: Filip Jandourek

Since the fall of communism, the Czech Communist party has well established itself on the Czech political scene. It has a stable support base, and since 1990 has not been voted out of the lower house. What is the Communist Party’s appeal for Czech voters? What is its role in the country’s political system? And what are the outlooks for the Czech Communist movement?

The leader of the Communist Party Vojtěch Filip,  photo: Filip Jandourek
The end of one-party rule was one of the slogans frequently heard at public rallies during the Velvet Revolution 26 years ago. Indeed, the Czechoslovak Parliament changed the Constitution as early as November 29, cancelling Article 4 which maintained the Communist party was “the leading power in the society and the country.”

On that day, the Communist party lost its dominant position to become just one of many political groups in the newly formed democracy. But few would guess that 26 years later, its direct successor, the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia, would be a stable and influential force in the Czech political system. One of the organizers of that student march on November 17, 1989, which triggered the Velvet Revolution, was Pavel Žáček.

“The situation right after November 1989 was very special. There was a general consensus that the Communist party should not be outlawed. In the early 1990s, Václav Havel was one of those who believed that after several elections, the party will naturally disappear in the foreseeable future.

“That was one of the reasons why the party was not banned. As it has turned out, however, the party has survived. It was a very serious mistake that has had a lasting impact on all political processes to date.”

In the early 1990s, there was a general belief the Communist party would gradually diminish both in size and influence. But the group remains a power to be reckoned with on local, regional and national levels.

Josef Skála, an influential Communist politician from Prague, says he knew right from the start the time for the party would come again, despite the massive flight of its members at that time.

“There were many people who left the party in 1989 and 1990 because wanted to follow their careers and spat in their own faces. There were others who left the party because they were frustrated. But there were also those who understood this was not the end of history.

“They knew it was a moment in history which will weigh up all the elements to be reckoned with, and that this big change, let’s say, was inevitably heading towards a big crisis. That was my conviction, and I’m somewhat proud that later developments confirmed my views.”

As its members are quick to point out, the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia is formally a different entity than the totalitarian Communist Party of Czechoslovakia.

The group that exists today was officially established in March 1990, during the formative years of modern Czech democracy. For many of those who stayed on, the dawn of the new era was not a time they like to remember.

Communist MP Jan Klán, who comes from a small village in central Bohemia, was in first grade in 1989. I sat down with him in his lower house office and asked him what he recalled from the Velvet Revolution.

“The change was apparent in that for one, we stopped calling teachers comrades which is what I remember vividly. I also remember the change at the post of the president immediately after November 1989 and how the president’s portraits were replaced in the classrooms.

“Looking at the first years after 1990, my mother was the head of a local communist party group – she was the only member in fact after everyone else had quit the party – I remember some things that were not that nice. For instance, people would paint gallows in front of our house, and things like that.”

In 1989, right before the collapse of the totalitarian regime, the Communist party had 1.5 million members, an incredible 10 percent of Czechoslovakia’s total population.

During and after the Velvet Revolution, there was a massive flight, just like in the group in Mr Klán’s village. In 2004, the party had over 100,000 members and the number has since dropped by half. Josef Skála again.

“There were big fears in the early 1990s that the party could be banned. As you know, there were such attempts, with legislation prohibiting a certain category of people from any sort of public jobs, and so on.

“But in the early 2000s, we were successful at the polls both in the national and the European election where we won over 20 percent of the vote in 2004. This showed that today’s Czech president Miloš Zeman was wrong in his expectation the Communist party will disappear due to a generational change. He was wrong, we were alive and well and moving ahead.”

Do you think it was a good idea to keep the name of the party, which your members agreed on, and the party didn’t transform into one a new grouping as we saw in Slovakia, Poland and Hungary?

“I’ll be honest. In the 1992 inner-party referendum, I was proposing a different name because I understood that at that time, it would take away certain pressure. The referendum said what it said and we should respect it but today, the situation is different. I’m not sure that if we changed our name today, it would help.

“Also, the parties you mentioned in other countries – they are all gone. People had big expectations from them but were disappointed. So in this respect, it‘s them who lost, not us.”

Since 1990, the Communist party’s ideology has undergone major alterations. Addressing requests to disband the party on grounds of extremism, the Czech Interior Ministry has repeatedly ascertained the Communist party does not pose a threat to democracy.

The Communists still want to achieve socialism but unlike their predecessors, they say they want to arrive there via democratic and pluralistic means. Jan Klán joined the party in 2003, and has been a communist MP since 2010.

“We see the future in socialism, in a socially-just society. The 2008 crisis showed that capitalism is not working properly, so we are searching for a system that would replace it and end the plundering of the planet and the enormous social inequality. If that does not happen, we will face worse crises than the one in 2008.”

With time, these views, along with consistent criticism of the country’s post-communist transformation and apologetic attitudes towards the 40 years of totalitarianism, have paid off.

In the general election of 2002, which followed a four-year rule of a grand coalition, the Communist party scored its best result to date. It received more than 18.5 percent of the vote, coming in third and winning 41 seats in the 200-member lower house.

Another major success, and a more recent one, came ten years later in regional elections. The party did so well that it is now part of regional government coalitions in nine out of 14 of Czech regions, and has one post of the regional governor.

Pavel Žáček,  photo: Anna Duchková
Pavel Žáček in 1998 became the first head of the Czech Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes, a government agency researching documents from the Nazi and Communist regimes. He says the successes of the Communist party have had an adverse effect on the entire Czech political system.

“Since the 1990s until today, there has been no chance to form a left-wing coalition. So it’s not an issue of just one political party. It’s a problem for the entire political system.”

Compared with the 1990s, do you see a shift in how the Czechs view their communist past? In 2010, you were dismissed as the head of the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes in a big brawl over what it should do and how we should look at the past. Was that a symptom of the changing understanding of the past?

“It’s a symptom of a larger issue. There is a political as well as a moral point of view held by the people trying to redefine what communism was. This has to with a struggle against the post-1989 Czech establishment, and it looks like some part of our past is coming back.

“But I think it’s only temporary but we have to be active and keep explaining these issues, particularly to the young people who are a relevant force when it comes opposing today’s establishment of the Czech Republic.”

Another recurring theme in the Communist party ideology lies in the field of foreign policy. The party remains highly critical of the United States and the West in general, while being much more understanding of the policies of the Kremlin. I discussed their approach to international relations with MEP Miloslav Randsforf, the party’s shadow foreign minister.

“In Russia, there is a radical capitalist regime with many savage aspects. But demonizing Russia is also foolish. The US is not the good guy and Russia is not the bad guy. I think for instance that the [EU and US] sanctions against Russia are irrational and are directed against Europe which is losing more than the United States.

But they were imposed over the annexation of Crimea and the war in Ukraine.

“There is no war in Ukraine. This war was launched by the authorities in Kiev. Over the last year, I’ve been to Ukraine on a weekly basis and I have to say that without these new arrogant attitudes of the Kiev authorities, even Crimea would not make secession.”

Well, Crimea did not make secession; it was occupied by Russian troops.

“So if there would have been positive attitudes towards the decentralization of power on the side of Kiev, even Crimea would remain part of Ukraine. I’ve been to Crimea; nobody was prepared for the crisis and nobody was planning to secede. It was a coincidence of various factors.”

Miloslav Ransdorf,  photo: archive of Radio Prague
“But the situation in Ukraine is desperate because it’s economically mismanaged. The prices of gas have gone up seven times, the prices of water and electricity three times, the inflation rate is 60 percent. It’s irrational. The real power was handed over not to the people and democratic structures but to oligarchs, and the oligarchs are the ruling force in Ukraine.”

Following the 2008 global financial crisis, dissatisfaction with capitalism took solid roots in Greece, Spain and other countries in Europe and elsewhere. Is this an opportunity for the Czech Communists to position themselves as leader of these “liquid” movements and win over new supporters? Josef Skála is sceptical of groups such as Greece’s Syriza and Spain’s Podemos but is certain that in the future, the Communist party will grow.

“The season for the Communist party is yet to come. The crisis of overproduction and of capital, is converting into a permanent state. You see it on a number of issues – the Greek crisis, the Ukrainian crisis, the migration wave, or the TTIP story that is a big danger of Europe and is another desperate attempt by the US to somehow solve their debt trap.

“So the period of a deep crisis is coming and all the key items will again be on the agenda. The question is whether we can tolerate and follow developments moving to an ever deeper crisis, or if there will be a new attempt, a new scenario to overcome the crisis. And I’m deeply convinced, which is a topic for a deep philosophical discussion, that Marxism has many things to about this.”

The question is, however, why should Czechs trust the Communists once again given the fact their attempt at building up a socially just society after the Second World War ended in 40 years of totalitarianism. I asked MP Jan Klán what he would say to that.

“I would tell them that was a different party. KSČM was founded in 1990. Before 1989, the socialist idea was good but the elites also became disconnected from the people. I think that if they had been more flexible, nothing would have happened in 1989 and the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia would be here today.”

The lack of modernization has worked well for the Communist party, which has been capitalizing on disenchantment with democracy and nostalgia for the past. But will this be enough for the future, or does the party need to adapt itself to the era of grassroots movements and social media campaigns? Josef Skála says he has a vision to make the Communist party a relevant force.

“Personally, I’m not very happy about the party’s capability to address the new situation which originated after the 2008 financial crisis. It looks as if we are still frozen in the period of the 1990s when it was necessary to make concessions, to be softer, and so on.

“I think the train has moved along but we have not been able to cope. That’s problem which we’ll address at next year’s party congress.

Where, as I understand, you are going to run for the chair of the party?

“Yes, there are certain rumours of this kind, yes.”

Michel Perottino,  photo: archive of Charles University
While Communist officials are happy to share optimistic visions of their future, others are more sceptical. I discussed the party’s prospects with Michel Perottino, the head of the political science department at Charles University’s Faculty of Social Sciences and a co-author of Between Mass and Cartel Party, a study of recent developments in the Czech Communist and Social Democrat parties. I began by asking him what the Communist party really stood for.

“It is in a sense a party of the past. Trying to understand why this party still exists requires a look back in the history. It is one of the ‘real’ Communist parties in Central Europe in that it was not installed by the Soviets after 1945. So from this point of view, they do have a base in the society. On the other hand, in the 1990s it was mainly a party of losers of the transition, at least politically.”

How have they developed since then? What is their attraction now?

“Partly, it’s a continuum. There are people who were in the party and they don’t have any reasons not to support it now.

“But the party has of course adapted to the new conditions. As it has not been in power, they can for instance very criticize issues such as corruption, and present themselves as not corrupt, and as an alternative for the Czech Republic.”

They also present themselves as the only left-wing opposition. How would you describe the party’s values and policies?

“First of all, they claim they are only left-wing party in the Czech Republic. They consider the Social Democrats to be centrists.

“They are mainly conservative – socially, economically in the sense that they look back to the system before 1989 and they claim the system was very effective and very positive from many points of view.

They are very different from Western communist parties because they are not a genuine workers’ party, they are not linked to the lowest class of the society. Typically for the post-communist context, it is much more a party of former bureaucrats and pensioners. They might claim they are a workers’ party but the reality is quite different.”

How do you see the party’s attitude to Russia? For decades, they were vassals to the Soviet Communists and they seem to have a soft spot for Russian policies.

“Yes, that’s certainly true to a certain extent. They are one of the last pan-Slavic organizations, and they say that we have to fix the broken ties with the East. So they are active in this respect, although perhaps less towards the former Soviet Union than towards China, Vietnam, and so on. So they are pro-Russian, but not necessarily pro-Putin.

Communist Party headquarters in Prague,  photo: Anette Kraus
“And another point: although they say they are an internationalist party, they have developed very nationalist and self-centred policies.”

I was going to ask you about that because at school under communism, we heard quite a bit about ‘proletarian internationalism’. What happened to that?

“It’s quite typical for every Communist party, it’s not just the case of the Czechs. It’s also very typical for Communist parties in the West which have developed very nationalist attitudes and programmes, even though they might always claim they are internationalists.

“In the Czech case, it’s also due to the fact they have not been in government and they say they know how to run the country. We can see this on the example of the ongoing migration crisis. To some extent, we could expect the Communists would be positive towards the migrants, and say they are brothers and so on. But they also see them as ‘competitors’ for ‘our people’. So it’s quite difficult for them to cope with this issue.”

One thing that has changed very little since before 1989 is the Communist party’s attitude towards the US. Is that based on pragmatism or rather on their ideology?

“I think it’s mainly ideological that they position themselves against the United States and also against NATO. This is one of the most important themes of the Communist approach to international relations.”

Is this an issue that could drum up support from some of the Czech grassroots movements that in the past vocally opposed some US policies, such as the plan to station an US radar base in the Czech Republic? Are they in a position to bring these groups together?

“I’m not sure that some of those people would want to be drafted by the Communists. The situation is complicated and very heterogeneous. The opposition against the American radar base was formed by other groups, not just by the Communist movement, and the Communists were not very successful in acquiring new supporters.

“They are very conservative and turned inwards. Also, they to a certain degree fear the new movements.”

So you don’t think we will see a revival of the Communist party along the lines of what we see in Greece or Spain where new movements critical of capitalism have emerged?

“I don’t think there are such scenarios in the Czech society. The society is not that comparable to those in Greece and Spain, it is too post-communist to accept new forms of anti-capitalist movements.

“I think the main line here is held for instance by the ANO 2011 group which has a much more right-wing concept of the society.”

How do you see the future of the Communist party? When do you think it will return to power, maybe not in terms of years but of conditions that need to be here for them to be in government?

“Right now, they are in regional governments. On the national level, they are blocked by a 1995 provision of the Social Democrats not to cooperate with them on the national level. This could change but we should not at least two aspects here

“First, I’m not sure the Communists want to play this game because being in the opposition is much more practical and efficient for them. Also, we should expect that if the Communists join government, they will disappear. That is in fact the condition for them to disappear – that they come to power and show they are the same as the others.”