Jaroslav Šabata (Charter 77 leader), 1994

Jaroslav Šabata interview in Prague, 1994 (?)
Interviewer — Ctibor Latsina, on behalf of Metta Spencer

Ctibor Latsina: So you believe that the Prague Spring had really clear, evident influence on perestroika?

Jaroslav Sabata: I don’t even ask this question, it goes without saying. It’s so obvious that there cam be no doubt about it. The one who doubts it doubts the nose between his eyes [a Czech idiom].

CL: How can you support this thesis?

JS: Any only superficially learned Russian reformist will tell you that the main source of their thoughts was really the Prague Spring, the documents from the Prague Spring, the Action Programme from April 1968, which when you read it does not seem to be very revolutionary, does it? Nevertheless, at that time it was a revolution. So that it was a shock for the Soviet leadership, they were not able to accept it, simply. And understandably, the whole block of the advisers and others knew that, and intellectuals were grouped according to whether this way yes, or this way no. Whether this was some renewal of socialism, or whether it was its a sort of burial for the benefit of capitalism. Paradoxically, both the theses are right in a sense. That is, the renewal meant the burial of the old socialism, and in a sense the restoration of capitalism because it represented the restoration of market economy, of market mechanism, i.e. capitalist mechanism. But it created the conditions for the market mechanism to be outlined in terms of a democratic system which would guarantee its ideal regulation. We know after several years that the market alone does not solve everything, that the things depend on the political system, mechanism, the government together with all that belongs to it, for the market to develop successfully.

CL: Do you think that the socialism we aspired to in 1968 could be compared to the socialism the Swedes and the Austrians speak about? Because they also claim to have socialist, or semi-socialist economies . . .

JS: Yes, sure. Look, the whole reform was based on two indisputable principles: Pluralist democracy i.e. parliamentary system of competing parties having relatively equal conditions in the competition, and the renewal of market economy, i.e. the elimination of the central administration of economy — starting with the loosening, liberalization of prices, and other steps, privatization, and all the things we called market.
This is a general frame which can be accepted both by a supporter of humanist economy aiming beyond capitalism, and by a supporter of, I would say, “hard capitalism” who is convinced that the society cannot escape from the space where everyone fights with everybody, that this is simply in man’s nature.

CL: Which makes the basic difference between the two systems. Not between the two ideas of the systems but concretely what distinguishes the socialist, pluralist system from –

JS: I would remove the word “socialist” here because it is burdened with the ideological notion of the nationalized property.

CL: But the word is the matter here, because if there was no such word then we would speak about plurality and totality. But you say that in 1968 there were both here –

JS: – that both the theses are right. That the aim of the reform was not a restoration of capitalism, not even subjectively, subjectively not at all. No one of us could think of restoration of capitalism – which means to restore capitalism, to us to restore the law of the jungle – that is for us the definition of capitalism – but to restore the market relations and to preserve the maximum of democracy, and to optimize the democracy in order that the political class is under supervision, in order that what we call the corruptive power of capital do not expand to such an extent that it should control the government. It’s more than a clear problem, of course that it is an abstraction . . .

CL: So you equate capitalism with corruption here . . .

JS: No, no, I say the corruptive power of capital. Capital has enormous corruptive power, money corrupts, it is simply beyond question, very much can be bought for money, and there is very few incorruptible people. So I have to take into account this factor of the corruptive power of capital because it has a natural need – for its own benefit – to master, buy, corrupt the political sphere.

CL: And is there any way to prevent it?

JS: And this is the very question. From the capitalist standpoint it is totally undesirable and, ideologically, it is said to be impossible because that’s what man is like. And in contrast to it there is the conviction, belief that it is possible, which in fact is the maintenance of the classical religious values, which are secularized, however, which means that they are deprived of religious appearance, socialism is secularized Christianity, strictly. This is no discovery, it is simply triviality.

CL: This is what Gorbachev also said – that it was Christianity rather than socialism that he had had his mind on. But he may have said it in order to increase his popularity, not to defend socialism . . .

JS: I don’t think he pretended it. I could read it in him, and it was also our experience. If you will, I can show you one curiosity which can enable you to understand the ideas involved . . .
That’s what we are talking about — that political classes should not become the allies of bureaucracy but its supervisors. Because the Western system led to the fusion of the bureaucracy and the political class, to the retreat from control. The parties withdrew to themselves, they have everything divided, you must have 5 per cent, the small parties are eliminated, the big ones enter into a pact, and all of a sudden the citizen realizes that he is relatively impotent in spite of that the constitutions look excellent on the paper. This is the crisis of the modern democracy. Which of course has not developed right now, democracy is continually born in crisis, one might say.

CL: When did the article come out?

JS: It came out in Figaro originally, but this appeared in 100+1 sometime at the beginning of this year.

CL: And do you think that this Friedman speaks about the American democracy, or about democracy as such.

JS: Yes, he is American, he speaks about American democracy.

CL: I think this may be a rather specific problem because I follow the development in the States a bit, and I think they are just dealing with problems of social welfare, and others which were neglected for a long time because of the emphasis on the policy of the right . . .

JS: Yes, but the principle itself that the political class should not be an ally of bureaucracy, and that it should represent what it pretends to represent is beyond question. And that the political class betrays this mission that the way most of the MPs behave is incredible – they are primarily engaged in their businesses. They don’t care for being MPs. That’s just a side job for them. Their real interest is aimed in this direction because these people are mainly young people who got to the front all of a sudden, who since they are politically interesting are being corrupted – and we’ve got to the word we started with i.e. the corruptive power of capital. And as soon as you proceed from the phenomenon of the corruptive power of big money, and the class who has this money, than you can stand against only the labour who has no money, and whose interest is not to fall into a modern sort of slavery, into a dependence upon the capital. So here you have the old dialectics of the master and the thrall, the Hegelian idea of the emancipation of man which is progress continuously, and here it proceeds in the classical scheme where the labour confronts the capital – as actually in Marx.

CL: Could you say something about the journey of Mrs Ferencakova to Moscow, and about the paper she presented there?

[We tried] to reduce political tension, i.e. detente, with the emphasis on the detente from the bottom, that is the support of the reduction of tension, the overcoming of tension from the bottom, from the civic environment, in order that it wouldn’t end with that there would be no wars, but otherwise that there would be preserved the status quo. In the East it meant the totalitarian-imperial Soviet- Russian system. Our task was to introduce the idea of overcoming the division of the world into military blocks into the strategy of the reduction of the tension through extension of civic rights, through assertion in the public – I repeat again, detente from the bottom, Helsinki from the bottom – this was our watchword. And in the name of Helsinki from the bottom, there were meetings of Czech-Polish dissidents organized at the frontier, contacts with the Hungarians were sought, and of course increasingly with the Russians – the journey of Mrs Ferencakova occurred on this background because we found out from various texts that there were a lot of people around the institute of Bogomolov who thought the same way we did. Some of them were also coming here. With Gorbachev in power everything loosened to the extent that it wasn’t even suspicious too much. I did not keep it from the police that I wrote for example to Mr Ambartsumov. They knew it, naturally, but I didn’t consider it prosecutable; they were just able to prevent me from doing it, but they couldn’t arrest me for it.

CL: What was it about then, and when did you send the letter?

MS: I wrote to Ambartsumov sometime in spring 1985 when Gorbachev got to power, almost the same time. I had been considering it earlier on the basis of an extraordinarily curious experience. Before I was released from prison I read in New Times, it was a magazine appearing in several language versions, also in English, I had an English version to improve my English. They allowed me to read it after protracted arguments. And to my great surprise, I read an article there which simply came in handy absolutely, I remember the name of the writer – Mr Ambartsumov. When I came out of the prison I found out that he was from Bogomolov’s institute. I encountered him once more in a polemic about the interpretation of the Polish events some time in 1983 in the Tribuna ludu newspaper, with him being criticized by the Polish dogmatics. A Russian (!) was criticized by Polish communist dogmatics for liberal reform standpoints, which proved to me that this estimate of mine was right. On the basis of this experience with the Tribuna ludu I wrote to him later. The exchange of views didn’t take place; it was blocked by the secret police somehow. But I made this attempt. And the other steps, which were mediated mainly by Mient Jan Faber and Mary Kaldor, followed upon this prelude. Since I wrote an open letter to Thompson in 1985 about things I spoke about: About the release of tension, and the perspective of the release of tension so that it would be really an emancipative perspective, not just an improved slavery. This put me into contact with a great number of people from Holland, Great Britain, they had the possibility to go to Moscow; with Gorbachev there appeared a notable interest in this current of peace movement, which was criticized at the same time for criticizing the Soviet Union.

CL: Do you mean the Soviet Union as such, or the perestroika?

JS: No. For imperial policy. And perestroika was welcomed by this current as a promise that the Soviets would cope with the conception of repression – civic and national.

CL: But with that they could also criticize perestroika for being unable to solve certain problems . . .

JS: Of course they could do so, but they were no maximalists, they rather studied the situation and followed upon what emerged from it, and what restored, and everybody took it like that, what restored the ideas of the Prague Spring, i.e. the stream which had emerged in the Czechoslovak communist movement. As the accents were actually the same, so that what worked as an underground river appeared again on an undoubtedly broader platform and particularly in the Metropolis itself – where the frost had come from before.

CL: Can you give names of the people who welcomed it and were in contact with the later members of HCA? You spoke about people who were around Gorbachev . . .

JS: Closest to him was probably Shakhnazarov, whom I spoke to in May 1990. But I was directed to him quite a long time before November [1989] by Mient Jan Faber.

CL: And what was his position exactly?

JS: He was a chief advisor to Gorbachev.

CL: In what field?

JS: Generally political.

CL: Was he a politician, or an ideologist?

JS: I would say political scientist. This dialogue between us was very absorbing and it was a bit controversial. Not in the general direction, but in the part concerning the Baltic area because at that time, in May, the dispute around the Baltic states started. You have to realize that it was still before the unification of Germany, at the very beginning of the whole motion. I told him that we as a small nation will always support them, that is the Lithuanians – especially the Lithuanians were the matter at that time. I told him we would support them being disposed to it by our own history, and he said: “It will be painful for us.” But this only shows the ambivalence of the situation, at the same time, he welcomed these ideas. This is of course one man, as far as Ambartsumov is concerned, who later appeared in the circle of people whom I addressed with the text – I don’t know whether it is available, whether Dana Ferencakova has what she went to Moscow with then . . .

CL: No, she hasn’t. She told me she didn’t have the original. She’s just told me the main points she thought it was approximately about.

JS: Maybe I will find it when I go through the old boxes at my cottage . . . It was Ambartsumov, who had a certain paradigmatic value for me. Imagine that you are in prison, you read an inconspicuous article under an obscure title “Lenin’s Teachings in the Light of the Topic Questions . . .” or something like that, Lenin was in the title . . . it was also to Lenin’s anniversary in spring 1980 . . .

CL: Do you think it would be possible to trace back this article?

JS: Of course, this is no problem, it really is no problem. I will also tell you a personal curiosity: The article was in English and because I was learning English I memorized the article. And when I was manufacturing flowers – I worked in the jewellery in Jablonec upon Nisa, in a department which produced artificial flowers – so I, since I was interested in the text – it was a great encouragement for me in the prison, and also because of the English, so I memorized the article in English, it consisted of about seven columns.

CL: And when did it come out approximately.

JS: In April 1980.

CL: And what was the name of the English version of the magazine.

JS: New Times. Novoie Vremia. I would surely find the issue in the packet I mentioned.

CL: Maybe, if it was published in English, Metta Spencer could get it somewhere.

JS: Sure, she could find it. I think that only for the curious link between a Czech dissident who serves time in prison and reads an absolutely official as if laudatory article on Lenin, and all of a sudden he starts to stare, and he says to himself: Why, he thinks entirely in the same way we did!

CL: Was it about economy?

JS: No, economy and politics, the economic and political situation. But it was treated on a high level, it was really no cliche, the basic idea – a shift to democracy.

CL: Do you mean plurality, then?

JS: I can’t swear he used the term plurality; he didn’t, almost for sure. But if you say democracy without an attribute in such context, then it is something different than if there is a phrase of socialist democracy repeated ad nauseam.

CL: And Mr Ambartsumov is an economist?

JS: Yes, he is an economist, he worked in the institute of, in some academical institute, something like the Institute of Economy of the World Socialist System.

CL: And he was a director of a department. What department?

JS: I don’t know. I have no idea. I didnt’t even know from the article that he was from this institute, and that he has such a position. I only saw the name of the writer. But I found it worth remembering.

And you got the impression from that that there were the same ideas engaged as there were in the Prague Spring.

JS: That’s right. The formulation is not quite correct in relation to the phenomenon. I found there that the ideas we had followed were reemerging on a quite sophisticated level even in Moscow.

CL: But do you think that it could be just a coincidence. That, maybe, such ideas are eternal . . .

JS: It is in the logic of system criticism. As soon as you find out that the system is wrong that its not just a minor fault of the system but that the system is wrong, then this position in its logic leads to certain conclusions . . .

CL: Yes, and the conclusions were that – now I am really making the parallel with the Prague Spring and the perestroika – his conclusions were that the Prague Spring in its own sense was right . . .

JS: No, he didn’t speak about the Prague Spring. But he went back to Lenin’s idea of New Economic Policy, which he radicalized a lot, which means a categoric refusal of the principal of nationalization, the restoration of market relations; this was the main idea, which in our country had been presented by such figures like [Ota] Sik, with the condition that it also involves a deep political change in the democratic spirit. So there were two basic elements developed in the history of the Soviet Union with a reference to China, to the criticism of the Chinese dogmatism, and to disputes taking place on an international level. So that it had a rather different context.

CL: Okay, so there was no reference to the Prague Spring?

JS: Explicitly, of course no. Implicitly, this was a man who thought in this way, a graduated man, who must have adopted a certain attitude to the Prague Spring, as a phenomenon.

CL: He must have known the Prague Spring.

JS: He must have know it, i.e. he had to decide: Was it a counterrevolution, or is it a nonsense, and we shouldn’t have gone there at all? He must have solved this question internally, and it was clear that he had had to solve it in this sense that it was no counterrevolution, that it was an attempt to solve the contradictions of the system – an attempt which was not perfect, of course, there is no ideal solution to system crises. Every crisis goes through certain stadia . . .

CL: And you believe that the inspiration by the Prague Spring was evident, is it the way you would characterize it?

JS: I would say that his inspiration was the same as ours, which means that once Stalin’s crimes had been revealed and our doubts, already existing, could be manifested we started to think where the mistake was made. What part in it had Stalin? Where Lenin made the mistake, or where Lenin attempted to rectify the mistakes. Because the War Communism was a serious mistake, there was no way out of it, and it was the official standpoint.

CL: Yes, but this was known even in Khrushchev’s period.

JS: It was known even it Stalin’s period. The thing was to deduce a conclusion.

CL: But it was published even in Khrushchev’s period –

JS: That’s right, we followed upon the 20th Convention of CPSU, on Khrushchev, Lieberman and Soviet authors – it was a movement, it was no discovery of individual people it was, simply, a movement.

CL: Did Ambartsumov go further than Khrushchev then? Did he get to about the same point as we got in 1968.

JS: Exactly. He was not below the level of our 1968.

CL: But you say that the inspiration was not obvious, that it was actually logical, that there was no other way, that this was the logical outcome of the situation in the Soviet Union. So you don’t believe that there could have been some intellectual influence involved?

JS: The influence of the Prague Spring? On the contrary, I am convinced about that because look: Any really creative person confronted with a problem is limited by what he has been taught up to now, anyone always intuitively seeks some support: Who has been trying this? How has he succeeded? When someone has tried it before me, well, then I am not alone. That’s how a movement comes about. And of course that the criticism of Stalin in ’53, ’56, ’61, the Hungarian Revolution in 1956, the Prague Spring, the invasion, represented a period in 50’s, 60’s followed by an enormous stagnation. The feeling of stagnation was growing as a consequence of the repression of processes dynamizing the society, which represented hope, promise of change. The only problem then was to put the processes again into work, with that the official denouncement of the Czechoslovak counterrevolution was in effect, totally, so that the discussions took place on a rather theoretical level when the peak of the reform endeavour didn’t argue whether the Czechoslovak reform was a counterrevolution, or was not. They went simply to the essence – how Lenin thought about politics and economy. Did he think in a way which is inspiring for us today if we want to overcome the stagnation? Because Lenin was an authority and it was necessary to lean on an authority, as our Masaryk leaned on the authority of Palacky.

CL: And you say that Lenin already in the New Economic Policy –

JS: The New Economic Policy was the positive core of the restoration of market relations. He, in spite of all the limitation of the proletarian concept, didn’t lack the sense of reality.

CL: When he considered the restoration of economic relations, did he also have the restoration of private property in mind?

JS: Well, there are various possibilities how the economic subjects can behave. There can also be collective subjects. It does not have to be an individual owner. Cooperatives are collective subjects, shareholders are also a collective subject. It is nonsense to condemn state property as irreconcilable with market relation, as there are capitalist economics with a considerable share in the states property. The question is whether it is reasonable or not. The state health insurance in the United States relies upon a certain structure consuming 27 per cent of the financial sources acquired from the citizens. The private sector earns 36 per cent I believe. That’s what I was told by American doctors, and they are personally convinced that the private sector will be ousted from health service once. Because it profits from it to such an extent that it will become unacceptable to the society one day. The doctors called it socialism and they were afraid of the word. But this is something else.

CL: Do you think that there was some contact between the Soviet economists and Mr Sik? Can you provide some concrete facts about that?

JS: Yes, of course, at the meetings in 80’s there gathered Sik and people of these circles. I know about Budapest, it was about 1986 or ’87. Simply, after Gorbachev got to power, these contacts were renewed and, undoubtedly, the Soviet authors knew Sik, I can guarantee that. Besides, Sik was published in China, as you know.

CL: I didn’t know that. But I know that Sik was, earlier than in our country, engaged in Hungary, and after the revolution we didn’t follow upon him much . . .

JS: Yes, because the group of economists, pragmatics with Klaus at the head, decided for a substantially more Friedman- like, conservative concept.
. . . The necessity to discuss the German question was raised at a meeting by the Charta 77 spokesman in autumn ’85. Jiri Dienstbier thought in the same way then, although he was sceptical about our success in this direction. I suggested to treat this issue in a form of a letter to the Amsterdam congress of END (European Nuclear Disarmament), this was a sort of a roof organization of Western European pacifists who criticized Soviet policy. It was founded in the first half of 80’s, still before Gorbachev.
Well, so I suggested that we send a sort of greeting letter explaining our attitudes to the congress in Amsterdam which should take place at the end of the spring in ’85 about the necessity to change the European political structures, and this also presupposed the unification of Germany. If there is to be a united Europe, there will have to be a united Germany, so as to speak.
To this end I wrote, or even recorded a paper, rather long one, about 30 minutes long, for the conference about the 40 years of Yalta in February 85 in Berlin, still before Gorbachev accession. I still have the cassette somewhere because I wanted to refresh one idea of Kant, I quoted Kant’s Eternal Peace there. It is a kind of beautiful essay from 1795. Immensely relevant even today after 200 years. And a turbulent discussion broke out then in which the majority of the Germans were against my position. They divided and a slight superiority was on the side of those who said: “No unity of Germany. This is simply bad.” This was the position dominating the German leftist environment.

CL: And why, actually?

JS: Why, a sort of established fear of German imperialism, Pan-Germanism, expansionism. Generally, however, it was considered unrealistic, a vision having no practical political dimension, simply just an illusion. The problem reappeared in a discussion – that I already spoke about with Mrs Spencer – in 1987-88 when, on the basis of the Prague Appeal, which actually was the letter to the Amsterdam then (the letter to Amsterdam got the name “Prague Appeal”) we started to consider a network of cooperation between the East and the West, civic initiatives of any kind, everyone at the bottom who was unsatisfied with the status quo. And the first culmination of the process was the seminar Prague ’88 – in May, June. With that, just before this, there was a sort of international peace symposium in Benesov near Prague, in a building of the Interior Ministry where we infiltrated with Rudolf Batek, and where we spoke from the position of the dissidents, in fact for the first time at such a forum. This is recorded in some issue of Lidove noviny which started to appear as an illegal paper at that time. And there were also Russians at the meeting, by the way. And various representatives of the foreign peace movements This could be found out in the archives of the Peace Movement. Maybe Ivan Fiala could help. He introduced us there then, that’s how we met Ivan Fiala then, or more exactly, we were a sort of expelled from there but he succeeded in getting us there eventually. And a nice detail: When we talked about where we would eat, Ivan Fiala said they would find something even for the dissidents.
It was a bombshell then when such proscribed persons appeared in such circles. I spoke to a Russian there, I can’t remember the name unfortunately, and he was in fact more approachable than the Western peace activists, because the Western activists who took part in this gathering (but there was also Mient Jan Faber, I have to say, who helped us and others) were often very conformist towards the Soviet Union, whereas our markedly critical position towards the Soviet Union discouraged them. We seemed to them Reagan-like. As Reagan, “the Empire of Evil.” It was not our slogan, it is from 1983 when the Soviets shot down a Korean civil aircraft . . . so Reagan had a speech then in which this renowned term “the Empire of Evil” was used. So that was the way some of the pro-Soviet activists perceived us really: That we supported the anti-Soviet policy of Reagan. But the Russian felt that it was not like that . . .
Shortly after that, there was this gathering taking place from which those 33 foreign participants were expelled, mainly Germans, Britons, and Hollanders . . . So these are sort of inter-steps from the beginning of the 80’s. I returned from prison (from the second imprisonment) in December 1980. In 1981 the Polish events were under way. At the end of 1981 Jaruzelski carried out the coup in December 13. And now we started to think what to do next because it looked very hopeless from this moment. Jaruzelski himself argued in the German question – it was also one of the inspirations why to open the German question – that the division of Germany is a natural state of being, that on the contrary the unity of Germany was a temporary phenomenon that it lasted from the Prussian-French war (1870-71) until 1945, and that otherwise Germany was never united, and therefore there is no perspective of German unity considered, by which it was said at the same time that the division of Europe into East and West, into socialism and capitalism is –

CL: Natural?

JS: Not only natural but eternal. And because we knew that it was enormous suggestion which demobilized, which prevented people from imagining a change, and particularly from fighting for change – it wasn’t even thinkable. So we came to the conclusion – although in plural it was not much plural, it took us some time – that we have to open this topic. By the way, a part of the dissent refused it. The reform communists refused it, Milan Hybl and company refused it.

CL: And when did you come to this conclusion? After Jaruzelski’s coup?

JS: I came to it on the grounds of Jaruzelski’s coup. When I analyzed the situation and the internal development of the Polish thinking, especially after the coup, I read Tribuna ludu every day, I subscribed to it then, so I came, again and again, across the German motive, what joined the Polish and the Germans was the aversion to Germany because it was Soviets who guaranteed the frontier at the Odra and Nisa. So the national interest which had covered communist, socialist and other motives came noticeably to the fore, and it brought us to raising the question of new internationalism so as to speak, new internationalist perspectives of Europe, because this we considered to be a national perspective of its kind, without perspective: It was Russian-Polish-Czech nationalism. Germans.

CL: Germans regarded it as Russian-Polish-Czech nationalism?

JS: Dissidents that is – dissidents of my orientation, some of them thought as I did. So the German democrats had to feel it as well: Russian nationalism, chauvinism, imperialism. Now, the thing was to work our way to a new, anti-nationalist or universalist – not particularist but universalist perspective. And there the problem was always Germany.

CL: Did you speak with the German peace activists about the question of frontiers and the guarantee of frontiers?

JS: Yes, of course, it was emphasised – unity of Germany within existing frontiers, this was the formulation, with unchangeability of the frontiers, which was part of the Helsinki agreement. Helsinki guaranteed the unchangability of frontiers. But the abolition of frontiers between the East and the West Germany in a perspective, i.e. the transformation of the two German states to one basis, the refusal of the thesis that there were two German Nations: a Socialist Nation, and a Bourgeois Nation – nonsensical thesis, isn’t it, but it was the official ideology then.

CL: Still one more question: Were you in touch with the people working at “Problems of Peace and Socialism”?

JS: No, I wasn’t.

CL: And did you read the magazine?

JS: Yes, I did. My son even subscribed to it, and we read it because of course we looked for authors, for texts, ideas which symbolized some motion. And we knew that in the editorial office there were a number of people who preserved the reform orientation as it gained ground in 1968.

See also
Jaroslav Šabata (Czechoslovak HCA), 1992
Jaroslav Šabata (Czechoslovakia dissident), 1993

The Russian Quest for Peace and Democracy, by Metta Spencer, published by Lexington Books