Pavel Kolář. Social History. Volume 37, Issue 4. November 2012.
“I belong to the young generation very strongly influenced by the works of Stalin. Whether we started with that historical and dialectic materialism, or with the Questions of Leninism and a host of other stuff when we analysed essays about the doings of Stalin. At times problems cropped up which we defended with all the energy we had. I think we got into that mess once before—and that was with that Slánský affair. At that time Comrade Gottwald said we must believe in the party. Our faith in the party as a whole and in the Central Committee had no ends.” ~ Comrade Filipi, member of the KSČ Committee of Ostrava, 3 April 1956
“Let us recall some historical facts.” ~ Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev, 25 February 1956
Introduction: History, Modernity, and Communist Identity
Modern European societies, shaped as they were during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, not only rested on specific ideas of order such as national sovereignty, territorial integrity or social cohesion, but European modernity has also been characterized by integrating these notions of order into a chronological narrative directed towards an imaginary end in the future. What was at stake was the very idea of history as a progression from ‘lower’, through ‘higher’ stages of development to a final goal of historical process.
The radical breaks of the twentieth century are often said to have brought these ‘grand narratives’ of modernity to an end. However, as the post-1989 history of Europe shows, historical and social imagination continues to rest on certain notions of ‘development’ and ‘final stages’, though without the utopian radicalness typical of classical modernity. Neo-liberal hegemony as established on a global scale after 1989, for example, is also underpinned by exclusive homogenizing narratives that link together the old capitalist world with the newly established post-socialist and post-colonial societies. The experience of post-socialism reveals that although grand narratives of modernity changed or even collapsed over time, they did not disappear altogether from the scene of history. For instance, one should wait to see the long-term outcomes of the current financial crisis for the contemporary social imagination in the post-socialist world: will the notion of ‘crisis’ challenge the dominant neo-liberal narrative, or will it be downgraded to a mere Betriebsstörung [breakdown or disturbance] and subsequently integrated into the optimistic logic of the development towards capitalism, as envisaged in the early 1990s?
Among the grand narratives of modernity, communism was without doubt the most radical one. Its uniqueness consisted in the idea of ‘lawful’ development towards a ‘scientifically’ verified goal of history to which both past and present were subordinated. To be communist in the twentieth century meant to believe that there was no other meaningful way of life but being communist, for the development towards communist society was assumed to be irreversible. In this understanding, human life made sense only as long as it evolved in concert with the objective course of history. Although the degree of militancy of this belief changed over time, the idea of being a part of a larger whole, to ‘march with the collective’, remained in force throughout the entire history of modern European communism. In his analysis of diary writing in the Stalinist Soviet Union, Jochen Hellbeck demonstrated that the desire of young communists to write their individual biographies into the ‘big story’ of Soviet revolution occupied a central place in the new Soviet subjectivity. Yet even under conditions of ‘actually existing socialism’, this sense of necessity to subject oneself to supra-personal forces of history continued to play a key role in the conceptual world of the communists. This was true despite the fact that the utopia of a ‘New Man’, endowed with an entirely new subjectivity, faded away during the post-Stalinist period.
Even though the composition of communist identity changed during the course of the twentieth century, three crucial elements continued to be present. First, it was based on a particular system of inclusion and exclusion, which divided the world between those who belong and those who do not belong. This aspect culminated in the Stalinist period with its Manichean cosmology, uncompromisingly splitting the world into the forces of good and the forces of evil. It never completely disappeared from the communist outlook, however, even after the demise of Stalinism. Second, communist identity relied on a specific understanding of history as irreversible, the working through of developmental laws. The most telling expression of this conception was the five-stage model of historical materialism, the notorious ‘pyatichlenka‘ according to which every society had to pass through the unalterable sequence of ‘societal orders’ from ‘primitive communism’ through ‘slavery’, ‘feudalism’ and ‘capitalism’ to the universal end of history, the classless communist society. Pyatichlenka became an effective tool of narrative hierarchization, enabling communist ideologues to distinguish ‘quicker’ and ‘progressive’ nations from ‘delayed’ and ‘backward’ ones. Finally, a third pillar of communist identity was the Leninist belief that the communist future could be achieved only under the guidance of a perfectly organized collective of the like-minded—the party, the vanguard of the working class and the avant-garde of history.
A perfect symbiosis of these three aspects—the system of exclusion, the notion of history as a lawful process, and the leading role of the revolutionary party—was represented in Stalin’s notorious Short Course of the History of the CPSU from 1938. It was not by chance that it was precisely a history textbook that was hailed as ‘the encyclopaedia of Marxism-Leninism’, reducing history to political catechism. The powerful spectre of the Short Course continued to haunt Marxist historiography even after its dismissal in 1956. Soviet historians had been preoccupied until the very demise of communist dictatorship with combating the ‘false schemes’ of the Short Course. As a result of the persistence and attractiveness of pyatichlenka, the influence of the Short Course paradigm remained significant until 1989, and even beyond.
The upsetting events of 1956 damaged the narrative harmony, as epitomized in the Short Course, beyond repair. The critique of the ‘cult of personality’ along with new slogans like ‘national road to socialism’ and ‘peaceful coexistence’ shook communist parties from top to bottom. Utopian belief in a communist future, based on the idea of the development of historical laws, was shattered to the core. Yet, at the same time, communist identity recovered and state socialism continued to exist, a fact that requires explanation. This article aims to tease out the transformation of communist identity after 1956, showing both moments of decline as well as attempts to reforge it. It explores how communist identity was negotiated and reshaped beyond the highest level of party leadership and prominent communist intellectuals, and how ordinary party members perceived this ideological turnabout. It seeks to demonstrate how the sense of belonging was articulated in the reflection of the party’s recent past by ordinary party members at the local level: functionaries, apparatchiks, propagandists and local party historians. In the aftermath of 1956, the sense of belonging of communist parties and the working class was seriously challenged by renewed national, ethnic, confessional or regional identities in a steady process of exclusion and inclusion. The reappearance of these particular identities in 1956 deeply disturbed the big utopian narrative of the communist future. Yet, on the other hand, the belief in communist rule did not diminish. As this article argues, an ersatz-utopia emerged, capable of integrating the particular identities into a larger sense of purpose that centred above all on the party as a national and local actor. This study describes this change as a shift from a programmatic to a processual form of utopia, understanding the latter as based on spatially decentred and temporally fragmented narratives.
With the political context of Soviet domination continuously in mind, I focus in particular on what was once called the ‘Northern Tier’, namely People’s Poland, Czechoslovakia and the German Democratic Republic (GDR). These three countries played a key role in Soviet European policy as bastions against the imperialist enemy. At the same time, all three national workers’ parties experienced the tumultuous year of 1956 and the period of ‘de-Stalinization’ in a significantly different manner.
1956: Reshaping the Internal Legitimacy of Communist Parties
François Furet characterized the year 1956 as the ‘beginning of the end’ of communism, conveying its interpretation as a ‘passing illusion’. Although this teleological view is inevitable to capture the historical demise of communism, I will suggest a different perspective on 1956, one that conceptualizes it not as a beginning of an end, but rather as a beginning of three ensuing decades of European communism. In the communist movement in western Europe, where the events in the eastern bloc were counterposed by the Suez crisis, 1956 introduced a break with the party among some younger communist militants. The popular support for major communist parties such as the French and Italian, however, remained strong. In the East, most of the post-1956 period showed remarkable stability. This was the case with the ‘middle People’s Poland’ [środkowy PRL] from 1956 to 1976, with Husák’s ‘consolidation’ in Czechoslovakia following the suppression of the Prague Spring, with a great deal of the Kádár era in Hungary, let alone Honecker’s version of ‘developed socialism’ [entwickelter Sozialismus] in East Germany. From a long-term perspective, the year 1956 can therefore be viewed as a ‘transition’ from one mode of legitimization to another. What was the nature of this transformation?
While the key component of the communist worldview under Stalinism was the irreconcilable conflict between friend and foe, after 1956 a new system of identity and difference was in the making. The idea of mortal combat between ‘us’ and ‘them’ was moderated and a more differentiated world conception established itself in the socio-political imagination of communists. New antitheses, such as socialist democracy versus bureaucracy, extended the principal antagonism between socialism and capitalism. The concept of ‘class enemy’ was abandoned. What is more, the previous Stalinist era itself advanced to a new ‘other’ within the reformulated communist identity. It was the ‘period of the cult of personality’ with which communists suddenly saw themselves confronted. This transformation had far-reaching consequences both for the idea of the ‘world communist movement’ (remember Togliatti’s notions of policentrismo and allargamento), as well as for the ideological orientation of the ruling communist parties in the eastern bloc.
Regardless of the ongoing domination of the Soviets in east central Europe, the national communist parties were compelled to come to terms with the destabilization of 1956 by searching for a new conception of communist identity that would offer an alternative to the rejected Stalinist model. Therefore, the post-1956 changes cannot be viewed simply as a transition from ‘utopian socialism’, as shaped by the Stalinist imperative of the quick arrival of communism, to ‘actually existing socialism’ that was allegedly confined to meeting the worldly needs of the population, leaving any utopian vision largely epiphenomenal. Moreover, ‘actually existing socialism’ had to rest on some form of communist identity, embedded in a larger historical narrative and endowed with utopian elements. As I will try to show, the gravitational centre of this new identity became the party itself, embodied in its history, disencumbered with the ballast of the cult of personality and renewing its nature as a collective carrier of human progress.
In other words: how did the actual communist dimension of communism, that is to say, the utopian mentality of the party militants, develop after 1956? How did these changes affect the legitimacy of party rule? For this purpose, I will employ the concept of the internal legitimacy of the party, by which I understand a system of representations and myths that fostered a sense of unity within the party as well as the belief in its legitimate claim to lead national societies. With this understanding of party legitimacy as continuously reproduced through everyday practices, I want to challenge the established notion of the party as ‘monolith’ that suggests—paradoxically in accord with the desires of communist propagandists—the idea of an ideologically homogenized party.
If the previous historiography admitted diversity within communist parties, it mostly did so in the sense of power voluntarism limited to the upper echelons of the party nomenclature. The party masses, contrarily, were mostly portrayed as a passive recipient of what came from above. In contrast, the notion of the party’s internal legitimacy requires an investigation into the social imagination and into the agency of rank-and-file party members that ranged from active support to open resistance, from grumbling to strategic adaptation. In this perspective ‘from below’, communist parties appear not as monoliths, but rather as highly incoherent structures, continuously oscillating between consent and conflict, as some first studies, particularly of the Socialist Unity Party of East Germany [Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands, SED], have shown. At the same time, this approach calls into question the dividing line between dictatorial rule (epitomized by the party) and society, stressing instead their mutual entanglement. As Thomas Lindenberger and other adherents of the history of everyday life [Alltagsgeschichte] have argued, dictatorial rule should not be viewed as entirely separated from society, as something beyond social practices. On the contrary: authority and domination are themselves products of social interaction between rulers and ruled and cannot be understood in opposition to society. The communist parties, heterogeneous as they were in terms of their social, generational, regional and ethnic composition, acted in differentiated social fields in which the contradiction between party and society, albeit very powerful, especially in moments of crisis, was not the only pattern of socio-political orientation in everyday life.
The processes of social reproduction of the communist parties’ authority can best be observed in the boundary spaces between party and society on a smaller scale, in the politics of regional, district, factory and local party organizations. It was here where consensus about both everyday affairs and fundamental ideological orientations was negotiated between party members and non-party members, between party functionaries and the rank-and-file, between party apparatus and state administration or company managers. As Peter Heumos argued, drawing on his research on labour conflicts in early socialist Czechoslovakia, rather than assuming opposite ‘fronts’ which struggled over the legitimacy of the socialist order as such, it is more accurate to speak of a negotiation about what he calls ‘flexible power structures’. In this bargaining process, the dividing lines were blurred across the actors involved such as trade union committees, factory party cells, company managements, district party committees and government representatives. Similar conclusions have also been drawn by the students of everyday life in the GDR, People’s Poland and socialist Bulgaria, as studies by Sandrine Kott, Małgorzata Mazurek and Ulf Brunnbauer have demonstrated. It is in this research context that we have to place the internal differentiation of the parties during and after the dramatic year of 1956 in order to understand how consensus was re-established after the previous loss of ideological orientation.
The events of 1956 not only brought an end to the Stalinist form of rule and broke up the unity of the world communist movement, it was also significant that the hitherto absolute control of the parties’ leadership over ideological issues crumbled, opening up room for various ‘deviations’ and ‘revisionisms’. Not even the attempts to return to ‘authentic Leninism’ as an old/new source of internal party coherence could reverse this process of ideological differentiation. Although the renewed accent on Leninism encompassed the concept of ‘party unity’, as formulated by Lenin in 1921, it conveyed, at the same time, destabilizing notions such as ‘internal party discussion’. The shift from Stalin to Lenin, in implying ideas such as ‘party democracy’, ‘Leninist principles of party life’ or ‘collective leadership’, soon turned out to be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it was supposed to create a new rhetoric and imagery capable of uniting the party lines, yet on the other hand, the idea of ‘return’ made room for further differentiation of political language. In his recent study of Marxist revisionism in east central Europe, Michal Kopeček has interpreted this ideological dissociation as a result of the dual nature of Marxist ideology, i.e. of the immanent conflict between the idea of lawful historical development and the voluntaristic theory of political action, a conflict which was laid bare during the upheavals of 1956. Although this understanding of the political differentiation within Marxist ideology seems plausible, it will be worth examining some specific historical fields of meaning and representation in which this dissolution evolved as a result of the everyday conduct of historical actors.
The Return of the Party—the Return of History
There was, however, one element that unified these diverse views and interpretations, as they developed during the critical year of 1956. Most of them highlighted the central significance of the party which was reappraised as a holder of ‘Leninist’ and ‘democratic’ traditions of the working-class movement. At the same time, the party was declared a ‘restorer’ of these democratic principles. In his famous ‘secret speech’ at the Twentieth Congress of the CPSU, Khrushchev portrayed the party as an opponent and, at the same time, as a victim of Stalin’s reign of terror. Indeed, the speech can be read as an attempt to relieve the party of the responsibility for previous developments. It created a representation of the party as a victim of corrupted state organs, of the ‘Beria gang’ and other villains, but above all of Stalin himself. Nevertheless, this effort to establish a story of the party as a martyr without illuminating the historical origins of the pernicious development failed completely, as we know from the reactions to the Twentieth Congress in the party organizations across the bloc. In most communist parties, tendencies developed which subjected the period of Stalinism to critical scrutiny.
Particularly in the Polish Workers’ United Party (PZPR), whose rank-and-file in contrast to the other communist parties was made familiar with the entire content of Khrushchev’s speech, stormy debates about the recent past exploded in the spring of 1956. A highly critical view of the Stalinist period advanced to become an official standpoint of the party after Władysław Gomułka, a Stalinism victim himself, had been elected First Secretary in autumn 1956. In his version of the party’s history, as presented in his major speech at the VIII Plenum of the PZPR in October 1956, Gomułka expanded the narrative division between ‘Stalinist distortions’ and ‘authentic party’ by introducing a chronological division in which he characterized Stalinism as ‘passed into the irrevocable past’.
This historicization of Stalinism and the ultimate rejection of the period as a whole, however, opened a Pandora’s box of debating ‘errors’, ‘distortions’ and ‘false developments’. These discussions went far beyond the originally intended limits of the critique of Stalin’s ‘personal errors’. Instead, they increasingly paid attention to ‘objective historical conditions of the formation of the cult of personality’, in other words, to the broader societal context of Stalinism. This transformation was caused by the obvious contradiction between the narrative nature of Khrushchev’s critique of the cult of personality and the lack of any systematic explanation of its origins. The effort to grasp the cult of personality exclusively in terms of Stalin’s individuality already seemed strikingly ‘non-Marxist’ to many contemporaries. François Furet, again, truthfully described Khrushchev’s speech as an attack on Stalin with the help of Stalinist vocabulary. In the PZPR and the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia (KSČ), in particular, critical voices grew strong, both among the intellectual elite and the rank-and-file, rejecting the Treitschkean mode of history as große Männer machen Geschichte. Instead, they demanded a genuinely Marxist scrutiny of Stalinism. For instance, Polish Marxist philosopher Adam Schaff, in his article ‘What we fight against and what we strive for when facing the cult of personality’, published in the party theoretical organ Nowe Drogi in April 1956, characterized the cult of personality as a ‘complicated theoretical problem’ and a ‘complex sociological phenomenon’ that could be explained only with the help of a profound sociological and historical analysis. According to Schaff, it was inevitable to examine the social structures from which the cult of personality originated, and its ‘mechanism and laws’. Although Schaff’s article was thoroughly commented on in the ‘brotherly’ theoretical organ of the KSČ Nová mysl, only a month later, in Czechoslovakia such open criticism of the cult of personality failed to appear. Instead, a cautious debate on ‘bureaucratic system’ and ‘subjectivism’ emerged in the immediate aftermath of the Twentieth Congress.
Although these demands to subject Stalinism to critical scrutiny were repudiated by the resolution of the Central Committee of the CPSU, ‘On overcoming the cult of personality and its consequences’ of 30 June 1956, and although their advocates were subsequently suppressed by disciplinary measures, it was no longer possible to tightly close the space once it had been opened to internal party criticism. As Roger D. Markwick put it, commenting on the demands of Soviet historians in 1956, ‘a half-open door on the past had been abruptly slammed shut in the faces of these “children of the Twentieth Congress”—but they continued to knock’. In the meantime, a fundamental change occurred in the nature of ideological discourse. The most striking expression of this transformation at the broad party level was the massive movement to ‘rewrite’ the history of communist parties and working-class movements that was launched after the Twentieth Congress across the entire bloc.
Given the central place party history occupied in the system of communist myths and beliefs, it was the historical representation of the party in the first place that was regarded as the most expressive embodiment of ‘ideological deformation’ under Stalinism. De-Stalinization, in this sense, can be understood as a ‘return of history’. The past was increasingly freeing itself from the yoke of the future, which had previously determined the Stalinist concept of history. Martin Sabrow has described this mode of historical narration as a dominance of futurity [Futurität] over historicity [Historizität] in which representations of the past were strictly subordinated to the ultimate utopian ‘end of history’. Thus history, be it of the world, of the nation or of the party, was narrowed to ‘progressive’ future-oriented historical forces while reducing the entire historical continuum to a mere prologue to the radiant future. As Reinhard Koselleck put it, in the communist vision of history, ‘experience was entirely swallowed by expectation’. In this respect, ‘de-Stalinization’ signified a cautious attempt at restoring the balance between all three components of history—past, present and future.
In contrast with the Short Course paradigm, in which history was downgraded to a fulfilment of the laws of historical materialism, the emphasis placed on ‘errors’ and ‘false conduct’ in Khrushchev’s revision opened up room for historical contingence, unexpected turns and irregular developments. Again, it was Khrushchev himself who gave the green light to this move as his very attack on Stalin fundamentally transformed the rules of communist historical narration. What is striking in his secret speech is the special emphasis on ‘facts’, including those which deviated from the prescribed ‘laws of historical development’, such as, for instance, crimes and errors within the party. With his laconic phrase ‘let us recall some historical facts’, with which he started his terrifying catalogue of Stalin’s crimes, as well as by means of continuously repeated phrases like ‘as many facts prove’, Khrushchev established a new narrative paradigm, which to a considerable degree helped emancipate the past from the yoke of the future. It can be argued that Khrushchev, in a similar vein to Leopold von Ranke more than a century before him, established a kind of ‘historical turn’ (or, more precisely, ‘factual turn’) of Marxist-Leninist historiography. Khrushchev’s ‘facts’, as derived from historical documents, seemed to repudiate Stalin’s ‘deeds’ as the decisive proof for a truthful history of the party. Although the basic teleological scheme, as designed by the Short Course, remained in force, the practical historiography that followed proved skilful in emptying the pyatichlenka of its deterministic nature, turning it increasingly into an empty signifier. In Czechoslovakia, the April editorial of Nová mysl called ‘Historical road of the KSČ’ confirmed Khrushchev’s factual turn by condemning ‘superficiality in examination of facts’ and by calling for ‘more truth in dealing with facts’.
In accordance with the historical turn to ‘authentic facts’, party history and party historians—whom Stalin famously despised as ‘archive rats’—were rehabilitated. The years that followed saw an unprecedented outburst of interest in party history, which stemmed from the desire to restore the authentic, non-Stalinist party of the past with its alleged democratic traditions. Although the initial enthusiasm faded away over time, in consequence of the renewed hard-line course and subsequent campaigns against revisionism, positivism and objectivism, the process of historicization, once set in train, could be reversed neither at central nor local level. Yet precisely this shift to the party’s history from ‘radiant future’ to ‘radiant past’ made a transformation of utopian energy possible which, after the collapse of the radical Stalinist vision, was suddenly unexploited.
There has been a substantial body of scholarship on the changes within academic historiography in the eastern bloc after 1956 so that no detailed account of it is required here. Generally speaking, in most eastern bloc countries the thaw opened up historical discourse to both narrative and topical innovation, despite some conservative throwbacks. As far as the renewed pursuit of party history is concerned, the propaganda departments and the newly founded (or revived) party history institutes of the central committees took the lead. They were supported by a dense network of organizations at the local level such as working-class history archives, museums and ‘party history committees’. Party history began to occupy a central place in party education [stranické školení, szkolenie partyjne, Parteischulung] and it became a duty for each member to study the party’s past within the ‘Year of Party Schooling’. Even if most of these institutions had been set up in the early 1950s, it was only after 1956 that they acquired a great significance for the party as a whole, as reflected in the increased political as well as financial support they received. In addition, central committee-controlled periodicals devoted to working-class history were called into being in this period and pursued both research and propaganda purposes. The sense of rupture was underlined by programmatic articles in ‘theoretical organs’ of those communist parties that dissociated themselves from the previous period by outlining ‘new roads’ of party history writing. It was the central committees and the politburos themselves that discussed matters of party history, adopting ‘resolutions’ on how to write party history. And the General Secretaries could even, as Walter Ulbricht famously did, become heads of notorious Autorenkollektive.
The massive support given to a new representation of party history enhanced the significance of the past in the composition of communist identity. Although the party history boom was decreed and initially controlled from above, its often unexpected consequences went far beyond the intentions of the parties’ central secretariats and elite academic institutions. This ‘history fever’ affected the parties as a whole. Immediately after 1956 a massive campaign was launched in all bloc countries for the development of ‘regional working-class movement history’ that included the establishment of local party history groups and local archives. In factories, workers founded historical circles to write down histories of their enterprises. Memories of old party members were assembled in order, as one Czechoslovak collection from 1962 stated, to ‘create out of these memories a coherent representation of events’ [souvislý obraz událostí]. It was reported about the ‘physical and mental vigour’ of old party members and about their ‘interest, zeal and enthusiasm’ for collaboration. One senior party member even set out on a bike ride to search for archive materials and his older comrades in the country.
These campaigns were modelled on the efforts to ‘institutionalize’ party memory in the 1920s in the Soviet Union. At that time, Soviet communists searched for the ‘authentic’ revolutionary party in everyday experiences and for the ‘struggles’ of ordinary Bolsheviks at the local level. They aimed at the construction of the October Revolution as the founding event of party history and the gravitational point of historical identity for party members. In other words, ordinary communists were no longer to be given their history and identity from above, but rather should adopt it themselves through self-narration. And it was through embedding one’s individual experience into the overall story of the party that the communist identity was to become more coherent. However, we should not understand such narrative construction of identity, as Bakhtin had already argued, as a linear process of the overcoming of differences and conflicts. Rather, it is a steady dialogue on the boundary between identity and difference. The situation of the communist parties after 1956 represents an eloquent example of this boundary constitution of identity: with the end of Stalinism the dominant system of identification disintegrated, opening a new space for a variety of possible identifications.
It is important to stress that the effort to reformulate party history was by no means confined to the delineated field of professional historical writing. In reality, historical narration, and with it the re-articulation of communist identity, was ubiquitous in the parties’ everyday life. Excited debates took place at countless party meetings about an ‘authentic Leninist party’, about ‘deformations of the previous period’ as well as about ‘democratic traditions’ which were now to be revived. In the long run, this ‘historical turn’ to an authentic party, which continued throughout the 1960s, increasingly caused difficulties for the parties’ attempts to create a homogenous narrative of their history. The liberation of ‘facts’ from the laws of historical development and the subsequent outburst of local debates about party history began to complicate the party’s historical self-image. It had considerable impact on the rank-and-file whose historical identity started to split along diverse political, national, regional, generational and confessional lines.
Talking about the party’s past thus became a matter of confusion. At the same time, however, these debates reveal to us that ‘ideology’ was not simply imposed from above, but was an integral part of a ‘whole way of life’ for millions of party members in the eastern bloc. This is not about depicting these plain communists as shallow ‘apparatchiks’, but rather giving them a human face. They did not throw away their communist belief altogether, but set out anew to engage in ‘party work’ on the thorny way of ‘lack of clarity’ in ideological matters. Therefore, criticism inside the parties in the aftermath of 1956 did not spill over into opposition but had, in the long run, rather a reinforcing effect, thus laying down the foundations for the upcoming decades of stability.
Several examples from the post-Stalinist period show the surprisingly stabilizing effect of ‘controversies’. For the GDR, Martin Sabrow analysed the ‘objectivism controversy’ around the economic historian Jürgen Kuczynski during the ‘ideological offensive’ of 1958. He pointed to the paradox that it was the combination of Kuczynski’s intellectual dissent with his ‘affirmative resistance’ that underpinned the ideological consensus within Marxist-Leninist historiography. Alexei Yurchak’s findings on the Brezhnev period show that rather than open opposition and ideological contest it was what he coined ‘suspension of the political’ in society and among the party cadres that made the collapse of the Soviet Union possible. In like manner, Michal Pullmann has argued recently for the Czechoslovak economic debates in the 1980s that discontent in practical matters secured political consensus in that it reinforced the validity of the existing order by criticizing it in its ownterms. At the same time, it was only the erosion of political language as a whole (both supporting and opposing the existing order) which paved the way for the system’s implosion.
The debates in the communist parties around 1956 had very much the same effect. Confusion in the interpretations of recent party history became commonplace. It came as rather a surprise that lively controversies over a new historical representation of the party broke out in the East German Socialist Unity Party, which might have appeared rather homogenous from a top-down perspective. For instance, the 1958 campaign to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the 1918 November Revolution with a mass production of historical narratives, exhibitions and festivities brought unexpected fruits at the local level. Numerous severe conflicts between local party cells and the central committee’s ‘Institute of Marxism-Leninism’ flared up, revealing the sheer diversity of historical imagination within the party. Indeed, party ideologues saw themselves confronted with serious challenges that seemed to question the historical identity of the party.
Yet, at the same time, it became obvious that party history mattered. There was a strong sense that massive support for a new party identity-building through history was essential, both in the centre as well as in local party cells. Corresponding with this was the shift from restrictive towards persuasive and educational measures in dealing with ‘incorrect views’ that often emerged at the local level after the Twentieth CPSU Congress. For instance, in the Thuringian town of Sömmerda, repeated ‘disciplinary actions’ were conducted against the local historian Erich Seidler in late 1956. The bone of contention was his writing on the history of the working-class movement for the local factory’s periodical Pulsschlag der Arbeit [Pulse of Work] that deviated considerably from the official narrative of party history. From the perspective of the central committee censors, Seidler’s articles ‘glorified the epoch of imperialism’ and ‘the capitalist mode of production’ in an unacceptable manner. We might deduce from the lament of the central committee collaborator, who was charged with resolving the affair, that the party was, in contrast to the previous period, rather reluctant to solve ideological issues with authoritarian force.
Comrade Seidler turned out a rather difficult comrade. He has been a Party member for forty-five years. Self-criticism is apparently an alien concept to him. Eventually we managed to quieten him by explaining that no penal trial was being conducted against him. We assured him that the only reason we were here was to show him how to write Party history in a proper way.
This and many other cases of ‘overcoming difficulties’—like those associated with the fortieth anniversary of the Polish Communist Party in 1958, as well as with the KSČ jubilee three years later—suggest that the parties ascribed a particular importance to the ‘struggle on the historical front’. What is more, they admitted differences and ‘difficulties’ within the party, yet were seeking to manage them with means of persuasion. It was thus the refurbished representation of the parties’ past where the new sense of plurality, complexity and incompleteness was articulated.
Society Strikes Back
Controversies over the interpretation of working-class history such as those that accompanied the jubilee celebrations in the late 1950s not only revealed the awakening of local historical identities. They also symbolized the comeback of social actors to the stage of history. Instead of invoking the ‘iron laws’ of historical development, local party activists and grass-roots party historians called for the reconstruction of the everyday, ‘natural’ world of the working class. It was not ‘social order’ as a whole in its historical development, or the anonymity of the abstract ‘big history’ that evolved beyond the reach of the masses and was therefore perceived as a catastrophe breaking through into the intimate world of everyday life. Now, concrete individuals with their human imperfections, weaknesses and impurities were to regain their status as active creators of history.
In June 1958, a heated debate flared up in the copper mine in Mansfeld in the district of Halle in the GDR, over a publication of memoirs of retired miners [Kumpel], edited by a young historian, Wolfgang Jonas. The book had been sharply criticized by the local SED cell for its alleged ‘revisionist views’, ‘ignoring of revolutionary traditions’, ‘betrayal of dialectic materialism’ and even ‘escape into the camp of idealism’.The thorn in the comrades’ side was the fact that Jonas let the Kumpel not only speak about their heroic revolutionary struggle against capitalist order; rather, by including the seemingly banal details of everyday life in the mines, the memoirs exposed facts that shed a negative light on the revolutionary canon of the proletariat. They gave accounts of drinking, absenteeism and compromise agreements with capitalist owners. Most irritating was the fact that Jonas skilfully conveyed a strong sense of authenticity. In contrast to previous party narratives and their artificial uniformity, the memories of the Mansfeld Kumpel were a lifelike representation of the party’s past that hit the critical tone of the times:
The worker is sitting opposite us and recounts. In the story of his life the life and struggle of his class will come alive again. And what he is recounting is life as it is, in its entire complexity [Kompliziertheit]. It is not about the razor sharp prejudice of a man—who has learnt everything from theory and thinks all questions of history can be answered with a wave of the hand. No, they tell of their needs and their suffering, of struggle and their political growth, of hate and fear, of sacrifice and despair, of clarity and confusion, of comradeship and betrayal, of love and joy, of defeat and how they all learnt it all up to their eyeballs.
Here we see an open commitment to the new notion of the party’s past and how it is constructed: the determined rejection of any final ‘theory’ that is purely deduced and separated from everyday life, the emphasis on the ambiguity of historical experience, and the hope of renewal provided the ‘masses’ are involved in this endeavour. Working-class history in Jonas’s interpretation appears as a continual interrogation of the past, orientated towards the restoration of subjectivity and towards a ‘real’ authentic history, not as a fixed object but as a reality that is constantly in a state of becoming. Correspondingly ambiguous was the outcome of the conflict as well. Although Jonas was forced to exercise ‘self-criticism’ in the party section in which he admitted ‘mistakes’, his book was not withdrawn from circulation. On the contrary, it helped Jonas in finding a prestigious position at the Berlin Academy of Sciences where he was protected by the economic historian Jürgen Kuczynski, who himself had been a target of a ‘disciplinary procedure’ one year earlier.
Thus, rather than threatening the party members’ communist identity, such moments of temporary uncertainty reinforced it. In the aftermath of 1956, first the aura of the ‘pure party’, in particular of its apparatus, had to be removed in order to restore its identity-building nature. It was achieved by pointing to the ‘petit bourgeois’ attitudes of party functionaries, by criticizing ‘party aristocracy’, nepotism, alcoholism or promiscuity. This line of criticism was particularly strong in those regions that boasted a strong tradition of working-class movements. Already, in the inter-war period, the rise of the ‘red aristocracy’ had been criticized by the comrades. Now the local communists again drew the opposition between ‘us’, ordinary party members, and ‘them’, which, this time, signified the bureaucratic party apparatus. As in the famous scene in George Orwell’s Animal Farm, the functionaries adopted the manners of the former bourgeoisie. The coalmining Ostrava district in Silesia, close to the Czechoslovak–Polish border, represented one of those regions rich in working-class tradition. In December 1956, the local party cell discussed the issue of the ‘red aristocracy’, criticizing it in moral categories:
We are cultivating the worker aristocracy not only out of miners and smelters … but from the intelligentsia—mainly of the artistic type. For them of course it’s not enough to have a car, and as well as a wife they keep two or three mistresses on the side. They don’t know how to spend their money. Our cadre policy [kádrová politika] enables them to have a bourgeois lifestyle, and it is these people who are in a position to upset the socialist morals of proletarian internationalism.
Apparently, the most frequent criticism of the ‘red aristocracy’ was the abuse of alcohol by party functionaries. Although similar criticism and anti-alcohol campaigns had been part of the Stalinist mobilization repertoire too, the post-Stalinist denunciations showed remarkable differences both in tone and argument. Often both local and central functionaries were accused of being drunkards, which signified that the party as a whole could find itself in a state of blatant imperfection. For instance, in a meeting of the Ostrava KSČ cell in April 1956 fierce criticism of alcohol abuse was raised about the Prague leadership. The attending politburo KSČ member explained the situation:
What’s more, I’d like to point out we should take care not to fall for that secondary sensationalism which distracts from the main and principal problems of the party and state. For example it’s said … that when a mere functionary has a moral failing [dělá špatnou morálku], he is punished, but that Comrades Zápotocký, Nejedlý and Kopecký are prone to drunkenness. It should be said that Comrade Zápotocký doesn’t drink, and, even if he wanted to, he can’t because his doctor has forbidden it. Comrade Nejedlý has never drunk and Comrade Kopecký as a matter of principle does not drink.
What is striking here is the sheer openness with which formerly taboo issues were dealt with in the party discussions. Whereas the attempt to marginalize the alcoholism question by pointing to its nature as a ‘secondary sensation’ apparently did not have the desired effect, the mere association of the party leaders with drinking underscored the process of disenchantment with the party, set in train in early 1956.
In the Polish context, the notion of chuligaństwo [hooliganism] served as an umbrella term for negative appearances among the party cadres. In the late 1950s, it covered absenteeism, drinking, promiscuity or theft. Throughout the 1960s, the regional control organs drew rather a gloomy picture of the party, employing besides chuligaństwo expressions such as ‘immoral behaviour’ and ‘demoralization’. It brought the party organs at the lower level to conceptualize what they called ‘prophylactic activity’ [działalność profylaktyczna]. An exemplary case is the debate of the control committee of the Wrocław party organization from 1966. The occurrences under ‘party criticism’ included ‘lack of confidence’, ‘suppression of criticism’, ‘mafia doings’, ‘alcoholism and brawling’, ‘fluctuation’, ‘economic criminality and wastage’ and ‘church attendance’. On the one hand, these efforts manifest a transformation of the party’s internal legitimacy in that the functionaries took these incidents seriously, developing genuine attempts to overcome them and stressing the process of the party’s improvement, or, to use contemporary language, the ‘systematic perfection’ [systematyczne doskonalenie]. The bringing to light of negative ‘facts’ did not go so far as to break up the party’s internal legitimacy altogether, but rather stimulated popular support within the party ranks. Meetings were usually terminated with appeals for ‘party growth’, ‘constant improvement of party guidance’, ‘reinforcement of the party’s influence’ or ‘improvement of the party’s social composition’. Later these credentials showed remarkable mobilizing effects, given the support the rank-and-file lent the PZPR leadership during the political conflict in Poland in the late 1960s.
The return of the party, as mirrored in more concrete historical representations that included negative traces and contradictions, implied what can be called a return of society as a historical subject. In the party narratives, both in written historical accounts and spoken reflections on the recent past, this shift expressed itself in the heterogeneity and the inner incongruities of historical actors who began to change the hitherto coherent image of the ‘invincible party’. Increasingly, expressions such as the ‘complexity of social developments’ were used in the parties’ everyday language, changing the older rhetoric that had previously underlined a straightforward advancement towards the communist future.
This rise of social actors with the emphasis on their varied and incongruent pasts also helped establish a new conception of time and progress. It can be called a plural regime of historical temporality. For instance, this new understanding of time shows itself in the narrative structure of historical accounts of local party history after 1956. In that the authors of historical brochures and museum exhibitions depicted colourful local settings of revolutionary actions, the stories often split into more narrative and temporal threads. The pace of narration slows down, while repetitions and overlaps frequently occur. This constituted a contrast to the Stalinist representations of history for which a single path of narration was characteristic.
The local party histories from the post-Stalinist period often displayed one signifying contradiction. On the one hand, they portrayed the party rather as a supra-temporal and monolithic body, particularly in introductions which did not deviate substantially from the Stalinist pattern. Yet, at the same time, the actual narration of historical developments that depicted the living conditions of the working class, the hardships of everyday life, strike actions and the contradictions of the anti-fascist struggle, unveiled rather contingency, complexity and the open-endedness of history. This narrative principle is thus circular: while in the introduction the party is taken for granted as a subject standing beyond historical process, later in the text developments are described that show the historical complexity, factual richness and open-endedness of local party history. Thus the accounts seem to tell of a formative process of something that is presented as already completed from the very outset. This resembles a similar development in the ideological discourse in late socialism as described by Yurchak. For instance, a party resolution posits a future task after first stating that the goal of the task has already been achieved.
Not surprisingly, the most prominent part in this decomposition process was played by representations of the most recent past; the period of the ‘cult of personality’. If admitted as a historical fact at all (which was only partially true in Czechoslovakia and even less so in the GDR), the ‘period of personality cult’ was excluded from the body of (national) working-class history. It thus assumed the role of a negative ‘other’ in a temporal sense. Particularly for Polish communists the ‘previous period’ [okres miniony] advanced to the synonym of all malign occurrences in the party’s past. This temporalization of personality cult, as introduced by Gomułka in his programmatic speech from October 1956, made possible a separation between the old and new socialism and thus determined a clear beginning of a proper ‘Polish’ socialism. From now on, Polish comrades found themselves in a new temporal horizon that was shaped by the distinction between ‘before the Eighth Plenum’ and ‘after the Eighth Plenum’.
Moreover, it was only Polish communists who, in contrast to their East German and Czechoslovak comrades, frequently used concepts such as ‘Stalinist period’ or ‘Stalinism’. In so doing, they added to the temporal dissociation from personality cult a spatial dimension: Polish ‘Stalinism’ was, more than in East Germany and Czechoslovakia, portrayed as a result of alien, non-national, mostly Soviet forces. The PZPR members ascribed the most characteristic feature of Stalinism—the breaking of ‘socialist legality’—to external elements. They often resorted to the concept of beriowszczyzna [the Beria regime]. For instance, the debate in the party cell of Wrocław Voivodeship during the heated March of 1956 reveals that although the violation of socialist legality within the PZPR was believed to be a widespread phenomenon, the causes of its formation were taken out of the Polish context. One of the functionaries admitted to having participated in these ‘errors’; however, he saw mysterious external elements as the actual agents:
We knew that it was an unpleasant situation that would do harm to the Party. We were inconsiderately arresting people. In this atmosphere a mechanism came to being, called beriowszczyzna, which worked automatically and thus reinforced this development.
By excluding ‘Stalinism’ and ‘beriowszczyzna‘ from the national context, these articulations created negative historical subjects alien to the ‘authentic traditions’ of the party. Yet it was obvious that sooner or later the question of individual responsibility would be brought up by the party members. The party basis began to enquire about those functionaries who had filled the Stalinist ‘machinery’ with life. The question of ‘who is Stalinist among us’ equated with the question of individual guilt, thus exposing the interconnection between ‘big history’ and individual fates. In the Wrocław party meeting of May 1956, the director of the local ‘Evening University of Marxism-Leninism’ straightforwardly expressed this sense of unease:
It was said here that all Stalinites [stalinowcy] must leave. And I ask the question: who here isn’t a Stalinite? We’ve been in the party a number of years. The whole issue can be addressed like this: because the whole party was Stalinite, it is necessary to disband it and drag out into the top positions those who were silent the whole time, or those who were only in the party because they found it difficult to leave it. But in my opinion that isn’t the party position.
Voices calling for criticism ad hominem were also raised in the KSČ immediately after the Twentieth Congress of the CPSU. Here the concept of the personality cult quickly spread from central to regional and local levels. In spring 1956, local party organizations seemed to be overflowing with ‘little Stalins’. As a consequence, a double dissociation of Stalinism from the ‘pure party’ was called into question. First, the conception of Stalinism as a result of external forces was qualified, be it in a territorial sense as coming from the ‘barbaric East’, or in a temporal sense as a ‘residue of bourgeois morality’. And second, a question mark was placed over the understanding of Stalinism as confined to the party leadership and isolated from the base. The idea of a creeping spread of the personality cult within the party pervaded the local meetings:
I think the personality cult couldn’t have arisen if it weren’t for the personal merits of that comrade and if it weren’t for the sycophants [pochlebníci] around him. The personality cult isn’t only at the top but is also deeply embedded in our life.
These representations of Stalinism as a wheelwork of supra-personal forces necessarily clashed with the demands for a historical explanation of its origin. Yet they did not question the popular idea of ‘pure party’ which allegedly fell victim to external destructive elements, both individual and collective. Even in the accounts of the crudest Stalinism, as well as when explaining the party members’ own ‘errors’, the party was portrayed as a secure haven. This ‘unlimited confidence in the party’ was often referred to, particularly by Czech communists. Here, the shock of the exposure of Stalinist crimes was especially powerful, stemming both from the violent nature of Czechoslovak Stalinism and its unlimited commitment to the Soviet model.
The overall consequence was that the utopian vision was forced away from the ‘alien’ Soviet model and put back on the track of national history. To speak with Thomas Kroll’s typology of communist belief, this return strengthened its temporal dimension in contrast to its ‘sacral dimension’: while the ‘sacral dimension’ aimed at the existing utopia in space at the present time (the Soviet Union), the temporal dimension referred to the future vision of its own national society. Yet, at the same time, this national future was in a manifold way obscured by the ambiguities of the recent national past. The trouble was that Stalinism, through its homogenizing national policies, had deeply obscured the relation between nation and class.
National Communism Revisited
The renewed resort to the category of nation was one of the most significant consequences of de-Stalinization for the ideological discourse of the communist parties. A lot has been written on ‘national roads to socialism’ and ‘national communism’ and it is difficult to bring any new insight in this debate. The founding moment of ‘national communism’ is to be seen in the ideological turnabout in 1930s Soviet Russia, as russocentric rhetoric and imagery replaced the stress on internationalism and class consciousness. Ethno-national calls were enormously appealing in east central European countries, particularly in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, as epitomized in the slogan of ‘national roads to socialism’ which was crucial for the ‘people’s democracies’. Although the Stalinism that followed in the late 1940s and early 1950s was regarded by its reformist critics as a brutal form of anti-national Sovietization, newer scholarship, particularly on Poland and Czechoslovakia, has drawn a somewhat more differentiated picture. The events of 1956 exposed the complex and reciprocal tension between national traditions and universal (Soviet) internationalism. This posed a key problem for all communist historical narratives which in fact sought to repudiate older ‘bourgeois nationalist’ historical accounts of national history. Yet even the Stalinist representations of national histories only seldom concentrated exclusively on ‘class’ or ‘class struggle’. The reason for this lay in the fact that overemphasizing class within national history pointed to internal conflicts and thus relativized the desirable unity.
Therefore class and party-oriented histories had to be inserted into the narrative composition of national history, by means both of the nationalization of class and communization of the nation. Class and party history always materialized as an extension, never as a replacement, of national history. Seen in this way, the relationship of working class to nation was mostly one of integration rather than emancipation. In all three national cases under scrutiny, after 1956 the discursive superiority of nation was reinforced within the representation of party history. For instance, new textbooks of party history and labour movement history from the post-Stalinist period were always national histories at the same time: Outline of the History of the German Working Class Movement (1965), History of thePolish Working Class Movement (1967), History of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia.
This symbiosis, however, was not entirely free of tensions. Although the discursive superiority of the nation remained continuously in force, from the early 1960s onwards some younger historians increasingly emphasized antagonisms both in national and working-class movements. In Polish historiography on the working-class movement, the stress on disunity within the movement became a commonplace as a result of the work of historians such as Feliks Tych. For instance, in his history of the Polish Socialist Party—Left [PPS—Lewica], that is the party which helped found the Polish Communist Party in 1918, he exposed the huge disparity in the Polish labour movement both between and within its individual components by employing concepts such as ‘disunity’, ‘defeats’ and ‘zigzags’. In Czechoslovak historiography of the working class from the early 1960s onwards, younger historians such as Jiří Kořalka stressed antagonisms and differentiations in both national and working-class movements. These historians constructed a more multifaceted picture of the relationship between the national and the class question in the context of the Bohemian lands and the Habsburg Monarchy.
Moreover, with regard to the colourful conceptual world of local party members, the popular notion of a smooth symbiosis between nation and class or party (‘national communism’) requires some qualification. In fact, the tension between the two categories never disappeared entirely from the communist representation of history. On the contrary, from the late 1950s onwards, many controversies over party history broke out at the local level, particularly in mixed regions where ethnic, social, political and even confessional identities intermingled. For instance, it proved very difficult to incorporate German communists into the Polish and Czechoslovak local party histories, especially when collections of veteran memories were to be edited.
As an example, the efforts of Czechoslovak communists in northern Bohemia can be mentioned to rescue the party members of German ethnicity from the condescension of posterity by integrating their fates into the main current of Bohemian/Czechoslovak working-class history. These activities were preceded by cautious attempts by some communist intellectuals (partly of German origin) in 1956 to reopen the question of the post-war ‘transfer’ of the Sudeten Germans and the ‘German question’ in east central Europe as such. Although the official interpretation was never abandoned, according to which the ‘transfer’ was an ‘objectively necessary’ outcome of the Second World War, certain difficulties were admitted in understanding the causes and conditions of the history of the German population in Czechoslovakia before the war. More importantly, it was also acknowledged that the party’s policy on nationality issues after 1945 was not always clear and unambiguous. For instance, Pavel Reiman, the Director of the Institute of Party History, discussed at length the question of Czechoslovak Germans at a seminar for local party lecturers on the ‘Clarification of Ideological Questions after the Twentieth Congress’ in April 1956. He overtly pointed to ‘unacceptable cases of discrimination’ of party members of German ethnicity after 1948.
Be that as it may, by prudently addressing the expulsion of Germans (‘transfer’—odsun), some first studies in local working-class history obfuscated the image of party history as a clear manifestation of both national emancipation and proletarian internationalism. Although the official narrative was firmly fixed that corroborated the idea of a ‘historically just’ transfer of the German population and pointed to ‘progressive Czechoslovak Germans’ who voluntarily left the country in order to construct the ‘first workers’ and peasants’ state on German soil’, the ‘German question’ posed some tricky problems for party history. The party was increasingly concerned about possible ‘ideological confusion’ among the remaining German communists in the KSČ who had contacts in East and West Germany, particularly as long as the sense of national belonging was at stake. Indeed, there was noticeable activity among Germans within the KSČ throughout the 1960s who eventually aimed to set up a party organization of Czechoslovak Germans during the Prague Spring. The party organs took these tendencies seriously, even considering setting up party schooling in the German language in order to face the revanchist propaganda of the expellee organizations in West Germany.
Further cases in which class and nation/ethnicity clashed in the post-Stalinist period were, for instance, the thorny Czech-Polish relationship in the Czechoslovak part of Silesia, with Polish KSČ members causing ‘ideological confusion’ in 1956, the struggle of PZPR members in Upper Silesia, with the strong legacy of the German Communist Party in the region, or the reassessment of the ‘Slovak National Uprising’ by Slovak communists that seriously challenged the unitary narrative of the Czechoslovak working-class movement. These ambivalences suggest that the reinforced resort to nationalism after 1956 did not function simply as a straightforward legitimization tool of the communists to stabilize their rule. In fact, the return of the nation was part of a broader process of making communist identity more plural, concrete and open-ended.
Conclusion: The Party as a Processual Utopia?
On the whole, we see such a huge variety of communist outlooks at the local level that a stable historical representation of the party after 1956 was impossible. It turned the creation of party histories into a long-term process of discussing, writing and rewriting. This continual process of rewriting became symptomatic of the renewed communist system of belief. The party was represented as a never-ending process of making and remaking. However, even if the party was portrayed as imperfect, with errors and contradictions, the belief never faded that its renewal and rewriting were possible. For the ‘internal legitimacy’ of communist parties, the idea of a permanent rebirth mattered more than the vision of a communist future itself, which gradually lost its narrative dynamics and thus paled into insignificance. There is no doubt that, even after 1956, above all as a consequence of new utopian impulses formulated by the Twenty-Second Congress of the CPSU in 1961, the vision of a communist future still mattered, associated as it was at this time with scientific revolution, economic growth and consumption. Seen from the bottom-up perspective, however, ideas of an irreversible, straightforward march towards a radiant future, as well as the unconditioned orientation towards the ‘existing utopia’ in the Soviet Union, were lost.
What remained was the ‘Party-Utopia’, materialized in the steadily rewritten and re-narrated ‘Party History’. It consisted of three main components. First, it was based on the concept of ‘historical fact’, which opened up room for the representations of individual historical experiences. This occurred in the history discussions of party ‘activities’, in local party history writings, in the collections of memories of party ‘veterans’ and in local history exhibitions. Second, the notion of ‘complex historical development’ was established after 1956, which mirrored the erosion of the idea of quick and straightforward progress towards the happy communist future. This slowdown of history paved the way for ‘actually existing socialism’ with its cyclical conception of time. Finally, the renewed resort to the category of nation underpinned, on the one hand, the claim of the parties to lead national societies, yet, at the same time, it contributed significantly to a more complex and more differentiated historical representation of the party.
This turn away from the communist future to the party and its complicated history cannot, however, be characterized simply as an overall demise of utopia. Rather, I suggest that this transformation marked a shift from a ‘programmatic’ to a ‘processual’ utopia. I borrow the latter concept from thinkers who were themselves highly influential in the post-1956 intellectual development in the eastern bloc, namely Ernst Bloch, Zygmunt Bauman and Mikhail Bakhtin. They understood utopia, to quote Bloch, as a permanent process of ‘envisioning of what is not yet’. Bakhtin conveyed the sense of utopia that rejects any specific blueprint of an alternative society, the features of which are recognizable at first sight. Rather, this ‘concrete utopia’ draws on indeterminacy and the open-endedness of human history, on historical ambiguity and contradictions. For ordinary communists after 1956, this processual, concrete utopia manifested itself in everyday engagement for the party and in the belief in a better future, which, however, was not to be achieved at any cost. More and more, the communist belief oscillated on the boundary between fantasy and praxis, between escape and return. Accordingly, the roots of the communist engagement after 1956 should be placed in this form of belief, which equated neither with ‘ideological fanaticism’ nor with ‘sheer opportunism’.
In this sense Czechoslovak reform socialism, culminating in the Prague Spring, can also be regarded as an expression of the processual ‘renewal utopia’, if we take into account its historical self-representation. For instance, the ‘Action Programme of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia’ from April 1968 was littered with references to ‘renewal’ and ‘rebirth’ in all spheres of life: be it democracy, economy or scholarly freedom. As was the case with Khrushchev and Gomułka twelve years earlier, the ‘Action Programme’ repeatedly called for a return to violated traditions. All these key texts of reform communism revolved around the question of how to rescue, exculpate and renew the party, while the communist project was designed rather against the background of the past ‘facts’ and thus assumed more and more of a cyclical character.
This ‘utopian shift’ had important political consequences. The struggle of communists to stabilize the party with the help of new legitimizing narratives such as that of new party history was set in train in 1956 and accompanied the communist systems until their fall in 1989. Despite their fragility, these narratives were capable of fostering a sense of belonging among party members. After 1956, the communists perhaps lost their belief in the achievability of the communist future. But they did not cease to believe in the right of the party to lead the people, in order to search for a non-defined alternative to both Stalinism and capitalism. In this regard, 1989 should also be viewed as a breakdown of this processual utopia of the party, in which the communists could integrate their critical attitudes in particular matters, while maintaining the belief of being a good party member. Precisely this internal legitimacy of the party crumbled, although a non-specified ‘socialism’ remained, especially in Czechoslovakia, an important ideal of popular politics during the 1989 revolution. While in 1956 it was still possible to mobilize among the rank-and-file certain layers of traditional semantics, above all with the help of cyclical concepts like ‘renewal’ and ‘return’—to Lenin, to party democracy, or to the national road to socialism—the semantic breakthrough of perestroika disturbed the internal legitimacy of the party and paved the way for the ultimate collapse of the communist system.