Luboš Švec, 12. 1. 1988, Washington, D.C., USA

Questions to the narrator


Location Washington, D.C., USA
Date 12. 1. 1988
Length 21:34

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In the 1940s and 1950s, was communism seen by ordinary party activists as a practical political system, or was it more than that? Was there almost an element of religious faith in it?

I think basically that it was seen as a system, because when you study Lenin’s writings and Marx and all that stuff, it was supposed to become a new type of society. It was supposed to be a productive society, to be sort of, as they said, better. They aspired to produce a better life for people, etc. It was a society where religion, I mean the religion of ideology, was certainly an important part. But as I say, it was supposed to be a reasonable system.

To what extent was the model of politics and economics adopted by Eastern European regimes in the 1940s and 1950s? Was that their own thinking and ideas, or was it a slavish imitation of the Soviet model?

I think at the very beginning it was a certain mixture. They tried to resolve the problems they were facing in accordance with what was prescribed by Lenin, Marx, and what was going on in the Soviet Union. But at the same time, each country was facing a specific situation. Czechs were in a different situation, and so were Poles or Hungarians. So at the very beginning there was a mixture. Only in later years, with the end of Stalin, did it become sort of monopolised, one view prevailed and everything was supposed to be alike.

To what extent was that directly imposed by the Soviet Union?

It’s obvious that it was imposed by Stalin, there is no secret about it, and those who didn’t march in step surely paid the price, history attests to that, really.

What is the essence of a totalitarian system? What distinguishes it from a simple dictatorship?

Probably in a communist-type system, at least at the very beginning, the idea was that everything would be controlled by the state and the party: the economy, culture, every aspect of life, and that is called totalitarianism. Unlike, for example, in a dictatorship, where you can have a private economy, people with influence in different spheres, and somewhere there’s the umbrella of dictatorship, but in communist countries everything was supposed to be directed.

To what extent is the totalitarian system also characterised, at least originally, by the party’s demand that you believed in it? You actually believed in it and you participated in it?

I think at the very beginning the party had an idea that members of the party would be true believers and the party was supposed to be the group of the best, the most convinced by the rightness of communism. The party was sort of like a mobilising force. Then later, and especially now, the party definitely becomes a group of people with very, very different views, with people who come to the party because they understand that there is only one party and if you want to be effective, you just join it for pragmatic reasons. So it’s a different situation now. But at the very beginning it was supposed to be a clear-cut monopoly on ideas inside the party.

Could you give some examples of the extent to which people, the mass of people outside the party, were involved, or the party tried to involve them, actively in manifesting their support for the new society?

It’s obvious that especially at the very beginning though, the party liked people going onto the streets to manifest their support on Mayday, or whenever. The people were cheering and saying something like – Look, we are happy, we really have supported a new beginning, a new dawn, and we are all mobilised for fulfilling what the party thinks is right. It was absolutely one of the essential parts of the system, to have people manifesting their support.

Where is policy making and control located in communist parties, and how concentrated and centralised is that?

Definitely, the control lies in the highest ranks of the party. That means in the Politburo and the Central Committee. Then in the regional party committees. And there, nevertheless, one has to see it historically as well: while in the past the Politburo and the Central Committee were very powerful, in later years the regional secretaries acquired a lot of power, especially under Brezhnev in the Soviet Union and during those years in many Eastern European countries. It was rather logical because the Central Committee and the Politburo were not always able to arrange things to the satisfaction of everybody, and some regions were unhappy. So, to share the blame, the Central Committee needed to share slightly more power. These things are developing, it is not forever.

But what numbers are we talking about, even in this more devolved system? How many people are actually making the key decisions in the communist party?

Formally, the very key decisions are made by the Politburo. The Central Committee more or less acquires what is decided by the Politburo. And the other echelons of the party are supposed to go on. But again, this is theory. In many ways the decisions, when they go down, are watered down and things are changed. The problem with communism today is essentially that what the Politburo decides, everybody agrees with but it is not implemented in many ways. This is how we should look at things today.

What is the function of the ordinary party member, both in the past and the present?

Originally, as conceived by Lenin, an ordinary party member was supposed to be rather influential. The thing is, the party statutes are sometimes forgotten. When you take those that were adopted at the Party Congress of the Soviet Union last year in February, or party statutes in other countries, the letter of those statutes permits every party member to criticise anybody in the party, including the Secretary General, and nobody can punish anybody for criticism because whoever tries to punish somebody for criticism can be punished himself. Wonderful! The problem with that is that there are no checks and balances. So the letter is nice, and the original idea was nice – you are party members so you participate, you are sort of an elite. But as it turned out, the lower you are in the party, the less influence you have, and if you try to just say that here are the statutes, I can do that, it simply comes to nothing.

Are the ordinary party members used usually in the communist parties mainly as sources of information, and also as transmission belts to convey party policies to the masses ?

Yes, but in many respects again, this was a theory. Here we have a lot of party members in different areas of economic activity in different regions and the party’s very well informed. The information goes up, and the influence from the Central Committee and from the Politburo goes down through the party members. But as things in many areas and in many ways don’t work as they should, the party members lower down are exposed to criticism from their fellow co-workers or fellow citizens, and on the one hand they are party members, on the other members of the collective, and they feel the heat. Nowadays they are not ready to fight for the party line if they understand that the party line is counter-productive or is definitely wrong, and that they would fight their co-workers is not the case nowadays. What happens rather often is that these people lower down simply say, look, you upstairs, you’d better do something because we feel the heat, and we are not willing to do it anymore. Then the party nowadays is not so disciplined in many countries and in many ways as it used to be, because of growing problems and various pressures. And as I say, the people are not willing to fight at every corner for everything that is decided somewhere upstairs.

Does it worry the Central Committee and the Politburo if lots of ordinary party members say, these policies are going to cause real problems?

It worries them, and in different countries they approach the situation differently. In some countries where central control is still rigid, like in Romania and some other countries, what they prefer is not to hear about it. They don’t like it when the Regional Secretary informs the leadership upstairs that the situation is bad and even our ordinary party members say that it is bad. They prefer that it is covered up so that everybody has a clear conscience, and the situation produces divided personalities, people behave differently though they know that there are problems. In some other countries, like in Poland, in Hungary, and I think that it will come in Czechoslovakia and even in the GDR later, in many ways it’s difficult not to learn, even upstairs, that some party members are nervous, becoming increasingly discontented themselves with the situation. Therefore, the feedback becomes stronger. The leadership becomes more nervous and, for instance in Poland, becomes more responsive to pressures from downstairs. In some countries, for example in Romania, the leadership still doesn’t want to know what’s going on down in the economy, down in the regions, and they prefer it when the regional secretaries bring up the good news, and the party leadership is happy and thinks how wisely they are running the country. In other countries like in Poland and in Hungary, I think increasingly in Czechoslovakia and probably even in the GDR, we are witnessing a trend where ordinary party members who are exposed to some problems, some pressures in factories in their regions, in the places where they live, are not willing to tolerate these pressures and take the heat upon themselves, they want it to be reported upstairs. And the Central Committee learns, the Politburo learns. So the feedback is growing, and it changes the whole game, so to say.

How does the Leninist party relate to state structure and to government in these countries?

I would essentially look at it from the point of view that the Leninist party is supposed to be the main guarantor of the policy line. It brings the policy to the state apparatus, and it is supposed to guarantee that it will be implemented. But in many ways it is the government that is supposed to take care of things, to put things in a workable way. When things work well, everything is OK with the party because the party takes pride in the success. When things don’t work, it is the government that is blamed. When there is a big difference between the words and the deeds, the government again is not willing to take all the blame, so it says – look, we probably would do better if the party did not interfere so often. So as problems grow in communist countries, in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, we see more and more tension between party and government as to who is to take the blame and who is to implement the policy.

How does the party actually parallel the organisation of the government?

Essentially it is like a shadow government. On every level, at every important step you have the party, you have the economic governmental sphere, they are present everywhere. But again, it has evolved over the years. The rules are sometimes blurred because in some areas the government’s force is relatively strong and established, especially if you have a strong personality leading it, and that personality is also a member of some party committee, regional party committee. Or the Prime Minister is a member of the Politburo. He can become a very strong voice. In some other countries, like in Romania, you have a dictator and all the other people are essentially irrelevant. This is a process and communism is evolving in that respect. I would even say that probably there is competition now between the party and the government and, like in China, we are already witnessing a situation where the government says, OK, we will produce results, but please don’t interfere at every step. And the party is somehow realising that there is merit in that.

Can I ask you to give a more mechanistic description of this, and an example of how the Central Committee Secretariat works parallel to government organisations?

OK, let’s start with the Politburo. The Prime Minister is a member of the Politburo, so whatever the policy of the communist party, and that is decided in the Politburo, is then agreed upon in the Central Committee. So the Politburo informs the Prime Minister that this is the policy, here you are, and as a member of the Politburo you should follow the line. So he goes to the government, says this is the policy line and I am entrusted with it, and you go with me. Then it is actually on every other level. If you are in any ministry, for instance, of heavy industry, in the Central Committee you have a department that is responsible for your area. So there is the head of the department, or the Secretary of the Central Committee, who informs the Minister that this is the party line, we are sort of supervising or leading you, and you do the thing. In factories in the regions, you have a Regional Secretary who gets the party line through his apparatus, and then he is just supposed to lead all these heads of factories so that they perform in a unified way. But as I said before, if things get more difficult, if things diversify, as life becomes more diversified, it is increasingly more difficult to have it somehow directed from the centre. And the directors from different regions, or ministers, etc., are more reluctant to take the orders, because they sometimes clash with what they are supposed to produce.

How omnipresent is the party throughout society, in organisations, factories, etc.?

It is omnipresent, but again, everywhere, in every factory, you have a party committee that is very influential. But you always have the director of the factory who is a member of that party committee. Over the years the situation has evolved in such a way that there is a forceful director and he knows how to manipulate people, how to sometimes bribe, offering certain advantages. So he may essentially become level with the party committee, or some of these directors get ahead so the party committee essentially sanctions what they want to do. This is how the situation is evolving in many countries, not in each of them, but it’s sort of a struggle for power that becomes more diversified and more multi-layered, and while the party is omnipresent, it is not necessarily omni-powerful.

What is the ‘nomenklatura’ and what role does it play in the communist system?

The nomenklatura is definitely one of the key elements of the communist system. These are the people that defend the system, upon whom the system stands, and they are the ones who essentially are supposed to implement the policies, supervise their implementation. They are rewarded for that.

But who are they exactly? Could you give us a definition?

Certainly. The nomenklatura are essentially the people who are put into positions by the high party committees. The Politburo puts certain people into positions, so does the Central Committee and Regional Party Committees. All the people who are put into important positions by the leading party bodies become the nomenklatura. They are, as I say, the skeleton of the system. What becomes new again as the system evolves: In the past the nomenklatura was clearly rewarded, the rewards were relatively high, the rules were relatively clear. So everything worked OK. But now, as the system faces more and more problems, the nomenklatura faces more and more pressures from different parts of society. And if the problems are not faced by the very top of the party leadership, of government, then the people lower down become restless, they are facing increased criticism, and the nomenklatura becomes somehow squeezed between the people and between those who put them into their positions. And sometimes simply the lower nomenklatura is not always willing to take all the heat. It tries to position itself in such a way that it can stay as the nomenklatura without paying the price for the mistakes. It becomes less obedient to the top. That’s why the top party leadership has to be more responsive to lower levels of the nomenklatura and that’s why, summing up, we see that communist societies are becoming more fluid.

What role does the secret police and army play in Leninist party rule now in communist Europe?

It differs, definitely, from country to country. As we recently witnessed in Romania, there is no hesitation at the smallest provocation to put police and soldiers onto the streets to fight the workers. In some other countries it’s not so easy, I don’t want to say that the army or the police is not ready to put things back in order. What is new here is that every regional party secretary, or even people in high positions, know that once you have workers on the streets in any part of your country, it means that with all likelihood at least the regional party secretary will be fired. Now the situation is that the people try to prevent things reaching the point where you have to have soldiers on the streets, and that is new, that the regional party secretaries simply will even not implement certain orders from the Central Committee or the Politburo if they are afraid that it will provoke unrest in the workers.

Are the parties of Eastern Europe more reluctant to use terror now?

Definitely, the parties in the Eastern European area are definitely much less inclined to use terror. Because to use terror means that somebody takes the responsibility if something goes wrong, then the leader might pay the price, the ultimate price, of being removed. So there is not such persuasion as in the past, we are on the right course, we are doing the right thing, so that everything is justified, even force. They are not so sure about the right course there, they are not so sure that they are doing the best thing possible. And there is not the will to use force.

Is it perhaps a problem for them that they aren’t prepared to use force more?

It is a problem, definitely, that’s why we are seeing that they try to meet the challenge by somehow diversifying the power, allowing the lower echelons of the party to have a greater voice somehow to compensate for that. The case is different in Romania as you see, but the result is, I mean, disastrous. The East and West alike are seeing that in Romania something is going on that is wrong.

To what extent is the party propaganda machine still very active? How saturated are these societies with party propaganda?

Propaganda is essential and always will be, and it is changing. In the past, propaganda was sort of monolithic, it repeated the canons of Marxism-Leninism, the basic truths that were supposed to take care of everything that was around, and as life took some different roads than the propaganda, tension grew in society, people say, look, repeating that stuff is too much when it differs from reality. And as the propaganda followed the old thinking, essentially the people became alienated by it, people stopped believing it. Am I saying that we cannot see a period when communist propaganda will become more effective, no, I am not. I think that they can have more effective propaganda, look at Russia. Soviet foreign policy propaganda that is aimed at sophisticated western audiences is more effective today. If you employ more clever people, and you admit certain mistakes, you say, we are not perfect, we did that wrongly, yes, but look there are other things. And if you put it in a very sophisticated way, you can renew your influence to a certain degree, on many people. (interruption)

Is there any real internal politics inside the party?

Definitely there is, and while in the past the politics inside the party was a lot of the time personal frictions, a struggle for power, and there were times when it was only a struggle for power, somebody wanted to prevail over somebody else, nowadays it is different. There is a struggle, but many times about policy lines. Because things, as we see, are becoming more complex, more difficult. Sometimes even the party doesn’t know how to resolve difficult problems. So approaches must be found. Some approaches might challenge the power of some group, or some group is reluctant to implement a certain line for other reasons. So the struggle becomes one for policy. And that I regard as a positive development, it is sort of more sophisticated, it demands more brain from party officials. And in the end it will probably lead to a further diversification of power, probably somehow involving more people in decision-making.

But how is it, inside a one- party system, that if there is a policy disagreement, how does one faction prevail over the other? What are the mechanics of that?

It is very complex. At the very beginning it depended solely on whether the leader of your group won over the other men, and everything was behind the scenes. Now with the problems like for example – sorry, I have to stop. What is it, environment, O.K.

How in practice does one party faction prevail over another party?

In the past, it was always dependant on whether your leader wins and the fight took place behind the scenes. Nowadays it’s more sophisticated. Problems like the environment are involved, many people respond to that. So if you are losing behind the scenes, you can slightly try to broaden the scale of the dispute by involving more people, more regional party officials, so the game becomes more sophisticated and at times it is played more openly. And that’s why, for many politicians in communist parties, life for them becomes more difficult.

Do they represent interest groups themselves, outside of the party?

Increasingly I would say that they represent interest groups, they represent different regions, for example, I know definitely that the leaders of Western Slovakia were fighting Prague when Prague wanted to give them more chemicals industry because they said, look, our area is polluted enough, we don’t want that. And there was a direct fight between the local leaders in Slovakia and the leaders in Prague. And these programmes are continually growing, and the groupings are inter-related, they change, and the problems are increasingly more complex.

Was there a liberal communist faction in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s in some of these countries?

Definitely there was. While in the past, though, those liberal factions thought that they had easy answers to growing problems, they are not necessarily so optimistic now, because some of those liberal approaches were tried and didn’t produce the expected results. Secondly, many of those early liberals lost in political infighting and they are out of the party. So all these things somehow influence the standing of the liberals nowadays. But there definitely are, I’d put it, more liberal wings.

So what are the limits to liberalism, to communist liberalism, to reform?

There are no permanent limits. You know, what was forbidden yesterday could be allowed tomorrow. As problems grow, the party itself understands that it will either resort to terror if it can, and it cannot, or it will try to accommodate them, or resolve the problems, and as the problems grow the party has to be more inventive. And if old methods don’t work, the party has to be more willing to listen to new ideas, and let’s actually look at Gorbachev, he’s willing to listen to unconventional ideas, so I don’t know where it will lead, but we are definitely on the way.

Is the move to a multi-party system the outer limit though of what the communist system could take?

Definitely. I think that the communist system simply is not ready, and I even doubt that it will ever voluntarily accept multi-party systems. What they will try to do, at the beginning, is that somehow they will say, OK, we are the leading party, we are the chief party, the main guarantor of everything, but we will give some power to some other groupings, to some other interest groups, to the church or whatever, in exchange for support for our line. What may happen though, and it is happening in Poland for example, is that these other groupings are not willing to take slightly more liberty in exchange for their big support, so they say, look, either you give us much more liberty and then  we will support you, but we are not going to take responsibility for your mistakes in exchange for just a bit of more freedom, that’s not a fair deal.

But do you think this strategy, giving more freedoms to certain areas, is going to be self-defeating for the communist system?

In a way, it will be self-defeating if we look at it in a static way, that there is a communist party that used to have a monopoly on power, a total monopoly on power everywhere. In that way, surely, it might go down a slippery slope to losing power, to gradually losing influence, and who knows where it might end? On the other hand, it might seem preferable to them than to face open uprising later because the problems were not resolved. So they are not doing it because they are becoming more sophisticated, they are doing it because there is a need and there is no other and no better and no easier way. It’s a risky way, but probably the only way.

Is economic reform and more liberalisation an inevitable development in Eastern Europe?

I think in a way it is, because what has been proven is that communist countries simply cannot compete with the West. They can provide a certain standard of living, they can provide certain guarantees, but they are increasingly less and less competitive with the West. So if they want to renew their competitiveness and become more effective, they have to reform. How? I don’t think anybody knows. Gorbachev is trying to reform the Soviet Union. Many of those reforms are contradictory. Many are simply not complex, like when he talks about self-financing of industrial enterprises while nobody knows what the real prices of produced goods are. But reforms are necessary, and I think that if we are talking about the next decade, we will see reform being passed as the alternative. What can emerge later, I don’t know.

Can the communist states have economic reform without further political reform?

In a way they can. They can simply introduce strict economic accountability if they know what their prices are, what they produce for – then they can simply reward those who produce, and then probably exclude from the economic process the losers, who are eating up what the others produce. And there you have enforced discipline by the sheer force of economic rules. It’s very tough, it’s rigid, but then it has a logic, nobody can protest too much because you say, look, we have to change, and this is the only reasonable language, the language of economy. You either play with the rules or you don’t. And you can have those reforms.

What has changed fundamentally in the nature of the Leninist one-party system in Eastern Europe, from the 1940s to the present day?

A lot has changed. There is not that self-confidence any more. When you don’t have that self-confidence any more, because of their past mistakes and the growing problems, you don’t have so much commitment on the part of ordinary communists. Even those less committed are less forcefully committed. When you have less commitment, you have less willingness to take responsibility for big things, big daring moves, you don’t even actually take daring moves. You have less willingness to resort to force, and you have more willingness, and we are gradually witnessing that in a number of countries, to try to somehow include other groups in the process, without losing your monopoly of power, of course. And to try to somehow go around the problems by enlisting the support of others. So things are definitely changing, but at the same time it doesn’t mean and it doesn’t get to the point that the communist party is losing the monopoly on power, but it’s changed.

What people are now going into the party?

Definitely there is a broader group of people that go into the communist party than in the past. In the past those people who joined the party were really those as Lenin envisaged. Devoted, persuaded into the idea of communism and fighters who wanted to implement the policy, the ideology and the ideals. Now because people realise that there is just one party that is effective, and if you want to be effective in political life, if you want to have a deep impact on policy, you have a much greater chance to achieve that from within the party, i.e., when you are in the party, than if you were outside the party. Many people decide to join the party for different reasons. They just want to have the impact, and also because of the lack of any effective alternative. So communist parties are now a conglomerate of divergent views, none of them is in the newspapers, none of them is visible, but putting it bluntly, I can perfectly envisage that for example in Poland, you could have devoted Christians who are members of the Communist Party, and somehow they think that they don’t conflict with each other. While Lenin could not envisage that you are devoted Christians and you are in the Communist Party. Things are changing. That’s why communists themselves from inside are becoming more open-minded. Some of them, not all. More open-minded to exploring different ways at a time when they face more complex problems. So from there the more liberal wing probably comes out there and this is where I look for probably more enlightened policies. I don’t know if they will succeed, but certain pre-conditions are there that were not in the past.

Will these communist states of Eastern Europe converge in the future, or diverge?

I personally think that they will diverge, we are actually witnessing it. First of all, Moscow doesn’t feel that it knows the answer to every problem. Actually, Gorbachev says that, he admits that yes, we are not the only wise ones. So here Eastern Europeans have to face their own problems that are different in many countries. They face specific problems, they have specific cultural traditions, they have a specific cultural heritage, historical heritage, and they have to approach it differently. So there is no way that they can converge. They are diverging and actually when you read the speeches by a number of our leaders in Eastern European countries, that divergence is official now.

Luboš Švec (?)

Luboš Švec