Fighting Words

The Verbal Revolution

How the Prague Spring broke world communism’s main spring.

See a Magnum Photos gallery on the Prague Spring. 

Forty years ago this week, the greatest English-language poet of the 20th century sat down and wrote an eight-line verse:

The Ogre does what ogres can,
Deeds quite impossible for Man,
But one prize is beyond his reach,
The Ogre cannot master Speech.
About a subjugated plain,
Among its desperate and slain,
The Ogre stalks with hands on hips
While drivel gushes from his lips.

W.H. Auden did not give this telling piece of brilliant doggerel a grandiose name. (He had, after all, called his finest poem “September 1, 1939,” simply after the day on which it was composed.) But just as anyone with a sense of history will know what is intended by that date, so it is that those eight lines, titled “August 1968,” evoke all the drama and tragedy of the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia.

The Warsaw Pact no longer exists. Czechoslovakia no longer exists. The Soviet Union, which tried by force to keep the second entity as a part of the first one, likewise no longer exists. Yet few events in memory can be as real and “concrete”—to borrow a favorite term of Marxist propaganda—as the struggle that once took place in these far-from-ethereal regions of Central and Eastern Europe.

Prague residents protest a Soviet-led invasion in 1968

On that day, I was in Cuba at a leftist student summer camp. The news, which wasn’t a complete surprise, came to the island very early in the morning. The Cuban Communist Party had been officially neutral regarding the Russian and Czechoslovak parties, so there was no “line.” It was announced that Fidel Castro would therefore produce a line in a speech to be delivered that night. Thus one could spend a whole day in a Communist state that had no official position on the main news item. Most Cubans were, one found, instinctively pro-Czech and anti-superpower. At noon came the information, which altered some people’s opinion, that Ho Chi Minh had endorsed the Russian action. The Chinese Communists, on the other hand, denounced it as analogous to Hitler’s intervention in Prague in 1939. Over the next few days, the world’s Communist leaderships gave their verdicts. The Italian Communists: against. The Greeks (languishing under fascist dictatorship): split. The Portuguese (likewise languishing): in favor. The South Africans: strongly in favor. (That hurt.) The Spanish: quite strongly against. The American Communists: Why even ask? In favor, as usual, and of everything. And so it went on. What became clear, however, was that there was no longer something that could be called the world Communist movement. It was utterly, irretrievably, hopelessly split. The main spring had broken. And the Prague Spring had broken it.

The genius of Auden was to have realized this at once. Just as the monster Grendel in Beowulf is unable to communicate in speech—or so I surmise from Auden’s known fondness for that poetic tradition—so the Soviet system was self-indicted by its own putrid and paralyzing and unintelligible jargon. The invasion of Czechoslovakia was a “fraternal and peace-loving” action, aimed at “normalization” and “the restoration of order.” Peaceful resistance by citizens in Prague was a “provocation.” Protests from other democratic countries were no more than “heating up the Cold War.” And behind this shabby, lifeless, wooden rhetoric was an arsenal of lies. Polish and Hungarian soldiers, rushed across the border under Red Army orders, were told that Czechoslovakia had been invaded by West German aggressors who had to be repelled. The only German soldiers they found were from East Germany, a state founded on the premise that no further invasions would ever be launched from German soil. In a very short and intense space of time, every slogan ever uttered by the Communist system had been exposed as the sort of scabrous lie in which only a fool could believe.

In a rather beautiful recollection of these events in Sunday’s New York Times, Vaclav Havel’s former adviser Jiri Pehe, who was 13 during the Prague Spring, commits an interesting anachronism. He says that “the Kremlin’s decision to use brutal force to destroy the experiment had a devastating effect on the Euro-Communist movement.” This is to place the cart slightly before the horse. The definition of Euro-communism is those parties that after 1968 sought to preserve themselves by taking a distance from Moscow. The tactic “worked” for a while, but not for very long. In this same interval, between 1968 and the end of communism in 1989, the shoots of glasnost and perestroika were also being planted farther east, often by veterans of the 1968 events. One of the most intriguing of these was the late Zdenek Mlynar, author of the brilliant memoir of the 1968 invasion Night Frost in Prague and at the time the head of Alexander Dubcek’s party apparatus. Mlynar lived long enough to recognize the young Russian comrade he had once befriended at the cadre school in Moscow in the closing years of the Stalin regime: a liberal-minded and courageous individual named Mikhail Sergeyevitch Gorbachev.

Auden lived only another five years after 1968, and the occupation regime imposed by Russia in Prague lasted for another 21 years, but when that regime fell, it did so in such a way as to vindicate his poem. Not a shot was fired, and not a skull was broken, but the system farcically evaporated in the face of a wave of literate and humorous and ironic and defiant words, uttered by novelists like Milan Kundera, playwrights like Vaclav Havel, and singers like the Plastic People of the Universe. Velvet has always struck me as a vapid word for this cultural revolution. If we must have a V, then verbal would be preferable.

Now, overt Russian imperialism is back, after a very short absence from the scene, and it is no more amiable or benign from the many toxic resentments it acquired during its period of decline and impotence and eclipse. Its propaganda is no longer bureaucratic and collectivist and prosaic; it has been thickened and enriched by patriotic songs, old poems and ballads, and the hymns and incantations of priests. It is now we, sunk in the banalities of democratic discourse, who stammer to find an apt form of words in which to defend and justify ourselves and our once-again menaced friends to the east.