17 The Czechoslovak Revolutions

Vaclav Havel and protesters commemorate the struggle for Freedom and Democracy at Prague memorial during 1989 Velvet Revolution.
Havla 1989 by MD is licensed under CC BY SA 3.0

“You do not become a ”dissident” just because you decide one day to take up this most unusual career. You are thrown into it by your personal sense of responsibility, combined with a complex set of external circumstances. You are cast out of the existing structures and placed in a position of conflict with them. It begins as an attempt to do your work well and ends with being branded an enemy of society.”

― Vaclav Havel

The revolution in Czechoslovakia offers a unique case study for many reasons, one being that it was a revolution experienced in two stages. The first stage, the Prague Spring of 1968, ended when the Soviet Union sent Warsaw Pact troops to invade Czechoslovakia and take back control of the country. The second stage, the Velvet Revolution of 1989, resulted in a peaceful separation from the Communist Soviet Union. Although the Prague Spring may have ended in a “complete re-Sovietization” of the country, it should not be seen as a failure or as wholly separate from the Velvet Revolution (Schwartz, 1970). The efforts made by citizens and political leaders alike during the 1960s were essential to the success that the country reached in 1989. The earliest student-led protests set a precedent for the “relatively spontaneous and peaceful nature” that marked the revolution as a whole (Goodwin, 1995: p. 588). Although the protests played a major role in both parts of the revolution, the Prague Spring likely would not have come about without some support from prominent political leaders such as Alexander Dubček. Thus, the Prague Spring established another important factor that contributed to the country’s eventual revolution: the need for simultaneous top-down and bottom-up revolutionary efforts.

Although both stages of the revolution contributed to the country’s eventual success, it is important to examine them as separate revolutionary situations. Looking at each movement critically provides insight into what causes a revolutionary situation to result in a revolutionary outcome and what can cause it to stagnate. This chapter will apply two main theorists to guide our analysis of the revolution: Theda Skocpol and Chalmers Johnson. Skocpol’s theories on revolution examined the structural forces behind a revolution. Skocpol’s writing focused on “social revolutions;” this type of revolution must have “basic changes in social structure and political structure [occurring] together in a mutually reinforcing fashion.” (Skocpol, 1979: p. 5) Skocpol’s writings help to explain the nature of the Czechoslovakian revolution and how both movements played out. Chalmers Johnson wrote extensively on the “Communist World” and the stages commonly found within Communist regimes. Johnson’s process theory states that a revolution depends on three conditions: disequilibrium, intransient elite, and a contingency factor. This chapter will apply those conditions to the Prague Spring and Velvet Revolution to explain how the Communist regime affected Czechoslovakia and why it eventually fell in the country.

The Prague Spring

The Prague Spring began in 1968, but the Czechoslovak people had a growing frustration for the Soviet Communists in the years leading up to the revolutionary situation. The Soviet’s control over Czechoslovakia began in 1945 when they freed the country from Nazi occupation. In February of 1948, the Soviets formally seized control over the country when the Communist Party rose to power and forced all other coalitions out of office. The Czechoslovak people fought against the idea of Communists taking full control of the nation from the beginning; they turned to then-president Edvard Beneš “to stand firm against the ever-rising flood of Communist intimidation and terror,” but he could not stop them from seizing power (Lukes, 2011: p. 442). In the years following, the Communist Party implemented many policies that only exacerbated the Czechoslovak people’s distrust of and frustration with the party. The Communists’ planned economy played a crucial role in creating mass frustration within the country. By the 1960s, the system created a “deep crisis” in the nation that affected the country’s population on all levels (Gliniecki, 2018: p. 2). By 1967, the majority of Czechoslovak citizens, from the working class to the elite, were ready for a change in government.

In January of 1968, the Soviet Union appointed a new leader to Czechoslovakia: Alexander Dubček. While he may have been a Communist, he offered a more humanitarian approach to the ideology. Dubček believed in “socialism with a human face” and advocated for “both decentralization and liberalization” within Czechoslovakia (Goodwin, 1995: p. 593 and Bandow, 2020) Although he advocated for more human rights than previous Communist leaders did, he only pushed the government for “reforms within strict limits” (Gliniecki, 2018: p. 7). Although his efforts may have had little significance in terms of policy, his words created a symbolic change in the minds of the Czechoslovak people. Following his rise to power, “the free press flourished, artists and writers spoke their minds” (Santora, p. 2018). Students and other intellectuals played a major role in the rest of the Prague Spring. In the months leading up to the Soviet’s invasion, the country saw a steady rise in peaceful student-led protests, demanding the liberalization of their country. These protests became a greater threat to the Soviet Union as the months wore on and the students got increased support from disparate groups like workers unions and intellectual elites (Gliniecki, 2018: p. 8). By August of that year, the Soviet Union realized how dangerous these peaceful protests were. Knowing that if the protesters got their way and Czechoslovakia became a more liberal country, it would be a “threat to [the Soviet Union’s] regional power and could signal weakness on the world stage” (Kopsa, 2019). On August 20, 1968, the Soviet Union sent Warsaw Pact troops to invade Czechoslovakia, detain Dubček, and stifle the peaceful protests with force, ending the Prague Spring.

Although the Prague Spring may have ended in August of 1968, the efforts towards democratization continued throughout the 21-year period between the two revolutionary situations. On January 16, 1969, less than five months after the Warsaw Pact troops invaded, a Charles University student named Jan Palach set himself on fire in order to protest the “erosion of Czechoslovakia’s reforms” under Soviet rule (Amstutz, 1969). Palach died shortly after his self-immolation, but he remained as a symbol for Czechoslovakia’s freedom for decades after. Dissent continued throughout the 1970s and 1980s while Communism still reigned in the country, but it did not exist on a large scale until the start of the Velvet Revolution.

The Velvet Revolution

The Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia lasted from November to December 1989 and marked the beginning of a new democratic era for the people of the modern-day Czech Republic and Slovakia. The phrase “Velvet Revolution” is credited to Czech dissident Rita Klímová, and signifies the idea that the revolutionary outcome was obtained without the use of violence (Kopsa, 2019). Looking at it from a larger context, the Velvet Revolution occurred around the same time other Eastern European countries struggled towards freedom from communist rule. While Communist party factions negotiated themselves out of power over a period of several months in places like Poland and Hungary, the collapse of Communism in Czechoslovakia happened much faster – occurring over several weeks instead. As a result, the supporters and leaders of the Velvet Revolution had to take responsibility for the government almost immediately after Communism fell (Wolchik, 1990: p. 414). They were led by the longtime dissident and human rights activist Vaclav Havel, the first non-Communist government emerged in Czechoslovakia for the first time in 41 years.

In the late 1980s, Czech and Slovak citizens began to openly challenge the Communist system: dissident groups formed, the number of unauthorized protests and demonstrations increased, relationships were formed between longtime opposition figures and new activists, and citizens became radicalized to the oppositional cause (Wolchik, 1990: p. 414). In 1989, protests began, occurring as early as January, marking the 20th anniversary of the self-immolation of Jan The Czechoslovak Revolution 5 Palach. The turning point, however, came on November 17th with the largest protest in 20 years. On this first night of protests, thousands of students marched peacefully through Prague’s city center until they were stopped by riot police conducting a cordon of the area. The two sides came face-to-face, and though the protests were nonviolent, the police cracked down hard on the protesters by sealing off escape routes and attacking them physically (Steinzova, 2019). Word of the authorities’ brutality from the first night of protests spread, and rather than help to quell the demonstrations, it instead fueled their rapid growth and continuation. On November 21st, the fifth consecutive day of protests, crowds of demonstrators numbered around 200,000 people in Prague’s Wenceslas Square. On November 24th, the crowd grew to around 300,000 people. By November 26th, the protests had grown so large that they were forced to move to a larger space to accommodate the incredible numbers; about half a million people crowded together in Letna Park in Prague to hear addresses from Havel and other opposition leaders (Steinzova, 2019). On November 28th, after constant protests and workers’ strikes, the Communists announced they would cede their power. On December 29th, 1989, the revolutionary situation ultimately resulted in a revolutionary outcome when Havel was appointed as interim President of Czechoslovakia (Kopsa, 2019 and Steinzova, 2019).

Skocpol’s Theories on Revolution

Theda Skocpol’s theory of revolution aptly explains both the Prague Spring as well as the Velvet Revolution. Skocpol’s theory of revolutionary situations revolves around structural forces leading to revolutionary situations. She also presents the idea of a “social revolution.” A social revolution, as defined by Skocpol, is a change in social structure as well as government institutions led by a class-based revolt from below (Skocpol, 1979). To differentiate from a normal revolutionary situation, in a social revolution, it is important that the government The Czechoslovak Revolution 6 institutions are not the only things that change, it has to include the change in social structure as well. Skocpol also put forward two necessary conditions for a revolutionary situation: a crisis of state that the government cannot meet leading to a division in either the elites or the army, and patterns of class dominance that determine which social class will take advantage of the revolutionary situation to lead said situation. (Skocpol, 1979). International context is also important in Skocpol’s theory, as observation of the events in the international community serves as an important piece of revolutionary situations. Both the Prague Spring and Velvet Revolution exhibit the qualities Skocpol describes to be classified as social revolutions. It is important to note, however, that the outcome of the Prague Spring functioned more as a precursor to the Velvet Revolution than a normal revolutionary outcome as described by Skocpol. Understanding how and why both revolutionary situations came to be in Czechoslovakia and how they resolved is better understood when applying Skocpol’s theory to both.

Following World War II, the Soviet Union quickly took over control in Czechoslovakia. Although there were hopes within the country that leadership would come from within, a bureaucracy quickly formed taking control of the power, as well as the economy. The hopes for a worker-led economy were dashed by the lack of a worker-led democracy (Gliniecki, 2018). By establishing a distinct class of the wealthy bureaucracy led by Soviet rulers, the beginnings of a class struggle were in place. Quickly thereafter, some civil unrest began. The working class wanted control of this new society and wanted a democracy that the people were behind, but the Soviet bureaucracy stopped this from happening and, instead, implemented a planned economy. At the start of the 1960s, the Czech economy began to falter. Since their industrial sector failed to function well, the average member of the working class experienced a loss in quality of life, adding to the already established frustrations of lack of autonomy (Thompson & Llewellyn, 2020).

Thereafter in 1967, intellectuals and students began to express discontent with peaceful protests and attempted discussion with the local Communist party (Gliniecki, 2018). This, as well as observations of the fall of Poland, Hungary, and Eastern Germany serve as important international context for Skocpol’s theory since Czechoslovakia could observe other societies able to break free from the Soviet grip. Following Skocpol’s theory, there was international context and reasons to revolt, as well a pattern of class dominance which led to the workers becoming inspired to ask for social and institutional changes. This leads into Skocpol’s other necessary condition for a revolutionary situation since the local Communist party began to differ in action and belief from the Soviet Communist party. Dubček agreed to reforms within the country, and although they were meek, the bureaucracy was split (Gliniecki, 2018). Both of Skocpol’s necessary conditions for a revolutionary situation were met during the Prague Spring. The structural forces within the country began pushing for social and institutional reforms. The bureaucracy was not able to take immediate control of the situation, so the Czech workers were able to secure reforms to allow other parties to be a part of the government and economic change. This, by Skocpol’s definition, was a social revolution. The outcome was determined by the struggles the workers had in their revolt, since Warsaw Pact troops were sent into Czechoslovakia to push back said reforms. The working class were not able to secure complete autonomy, but they still succeeded in achieving social and political reform via a class-based movement from below. Skocpol’s theory lends itself well to understanding the proceedings of the Prague Spring, from the revolutionary situations to the revolutionary outcome.

The application of Skocpol’s theory for the onset of the Velvet revolution is rather similar to that of the Prague Spring. Similar to that time, the world context was permissive for a revolutionary situation. Gorbachev, the president of the Soviet Union at the time, was calling for reforms of the Communist party. On top of this, the Berlin wall fell merely 8 days before a particularly large protest within the Velvet Revolution. (Kopsa, 2019). The global context loaned itself to the ideology that the Czechoslovak people could fight against the bureaucracy and gain independence, on top of the partial success they had following the Prague Spring (Glenn, 1999). With the permissive global context already loaning itself to a revolutionary situation, both of Skocpol’s necessary conditions were on their way to being met. On November 17th, 1989, during a student demonstration for the 50th anniversary of a student’s death at the hands of the Nazi party, the military police intervened. The day after, an alleged report came out that a student had been killed during said intervention (Glenn, 1999). This led to a student group as well as many theatres calling for strikes, quickly leading into another call for reform from the government, as previously desired during the Prague Spring.

Mass protests against the state broke out through the end of 1988, with over 10,000 people in attendance (Luers, 1990). This fulfilled Skocpol’s other necessary condition, a crisis that the state could not control. Sure enough, it led to a dissonance between those in power. The state attempted to use the military to quell the rebellions, which led to the arrest of Havel, who was a spearhead for the revolutionary group. Havel’s arrest became a strong unifying factor for the Czech people. A petition to get him out of jail garnered support from not just the students and theatres leading the protests, but from other groups within the country as well. At the same time, draft bills were put forward in Parliament for social reform and change. On November 27th, following a relatively successful protest by the Civic Forum, that established themselves as the The Czechoslovak Revolution 9 revolutionary group, as well as the spokespeople for negotiations with the state. (Glenn, 1999). The establishment of the Civic Forum meets the criteria for another one of Skocpol’s necessary conditions of revolution. The pattern of the bureaucrats dominating over the working class gave rise, once again, to a class-based movement from below which took advantage of the situation and was a general displeasure with the Soviet bureaucrats and took control of the revolutionary situation.

On November 28th, the Communist party announced it would give up its control over Czechoslovakia. Following this, Havel became the Interim president of Czechoslovakia on December 29th, 1989 (Kopsa, 2019 and Steinzova, 2019). The revolutionary outcome observed in the aftermath of the Velvet Revolution would be expected, as per Skocpol’s theory. The people had support from the international community in securing a regime change, there was dissonance from the Communist party, and Dubček was willing to bow under pressure; all of these factors led to a social revolution. The Czechoslovak people were finally able to have their own economy controlled by their own as well as their own democracy, free from the rule of bureaucrats. The social system changed as well as the government institutions, and the revolutionary outcome of the social revolution that was the Velvet Revolution resulted in the people gaining freedom from Soviet control.

Chalmers Johnson and Changes in the Communist World

Chalmers Johnson expanded on actor-oriented, structural, and conjunction theories of revolution with his idea of process theories. As discussed in Chapter Eight, Johnson’s process theory requires disequilibrium, intransient elite, and a contingency factor. In the revolutionary situation of the Czechoslovakian revolution, the Prague Spring, the disequilibrium that led to mass protests and demonstrations for reforms was the planned economy. Under the Stalinist planned economy, the Communist bureaucrats in each state determined which industry they wanted to focus on. In Czechoslovakia, by focusing on heavy machinery, rather than consumer goods, the economic growth rate fell to 0% (Gliniecki, 2018). With the Communist regime refusing to reform the economy to limited capitalism, this equates to a disequilibrium that the state refuses to fix for the people. Even though Alexander Dubček was forced to roll back his plan for political, economic, and social reforms, the desire to fight disequilibrium followed the masses until the next revolutionary situation, the Velvet Revolution of 1989.

As for Johnson’s intransient elite condition, these were bureaucrats in the Communist party who either fought to keep Stalinism as the population began demonstrating for reforms, or bureaucrats who reinforced normalization policies after Warsaw troops rolled into Prague and Dubček repealed his reforms. Antonín Novotný, the First Secretary of the Communist Party in Czechoslovakia before Alexander Dubček was a hard-lined Stalinist. He and his supporters in the bureaucracy are the intransient elite in the first revolutionary situation. Once Dubček took Novotny’s place in office, he relaxed censorship of the media so they could openly criticize Novotny and his supporters in hopes of eliminating their ideas from the bureaucracy (Kalvoda, 1978: p. 356). Clearly this open criticism only lasted until the reforms were reversed and Dubček was taken out of office in 1969. Dubček was replaced by Gustáv Husák, reinitiating the intransient elite in the Czechoslovak bureaucracy. In order to buy the passivity of the population, the normalization process, initiated by Husák, allowed for slightly more availability to consumer goods (Pierce, 2009). While this intransient elite’s plan of normalization held off demonstrators for a few decades, they were not able to hold control forever as other elites within the party, intellectual elites, and artist elites began defecting.

Johnson’s final condition in his process theory is contingency, or something that ignites the public to attempt a revolutionary situation. Many contingency factors can be argued for both the Prague Spring and the Velvet Revolution, but only a few will be focused on in this chapter. As previously discussed, Dubček eliminated censorship of the press in hopes of having the masses criticize Novotny and his supporters. Journalists did this at first, but then began using their new freedom to criticize the whole Communist system (Kalvoda, 1978: p. 356). The removal of censorship is a contingency factor that allowed people to spread revolutionary ideas against the dysfunction of the state to the masses. Dubček coming into power can also be seen as a contingency factor. His reforms to the communist system sparked nationalist liberalization.

In terms of the Velvet Revolution, one of the most profound contingency factors was the “Sinatra” doctrine presented by Mikhail Gorbachev. In October 1989, Gorbachev announced that the Soviet Union, “had no right, moral or political right, to interfere in the events…” (Keller, 1989). Without fear of Soviet intervention, the people of Czechoslovakia felt safe to demonstrate, protest, and strike. Although it did not stop the police from cracking down on demonstrators during Jan Palach week, it did prevent large-scale military terror from the Soviet soldiers, which encouraged the masses to continue protesting for their rights.

Along with the process theory, Chalmers Johnson’s theory on changes in Totalitarian Communism also applies to the Czechoslovakia revolution. In 1966, a committee of scholars, the Planning Committee for Comparative Communist Studies, was appointed to discuss new models for explaining changes in Totalitarian Communist systems (Johnson, 1970: p.1). The ideas that came from these meetings were composed into a volume, Changes in Communist Systems, with Chalmers Johnson as the editor and writer of the first chapter. In his chapter, Johnson outlines four changes that are sometimes observed in Communist regimes. The first being changes in the political system, specifically from a one-party system to multi-party system (1970: p. 3). Second, when there is a change in the state dependence on terror to force a desired behavior from the public (1970: p. 3). Third, when there are changes in the economic structure. Last, when there is an externally imposed Communist regime, there can be changes in the freedoms of the formerly independent states (1970: p. 3). Johnson argues that when one of these changes occur, there is a domino effect in which the population now has expectations of change in other areas (1970: p. 3). These changes can lead to revolutionary situations in Communist regimes, unlike in other totalitarian regimes.

When the Communist revolutionary ideology is injected into new states, there are two components in the party’s strategy. The first is called “goal culture”, which is the ideology’s “image of the ultimate utopia, its idealized contrast to the present” (1970: p.7). The second component is called “transfer culture”, and it gives the steps to policy formation that will progress the society towards the goal culture (1970: p.7). In the case of Czechoslovakia, the goal culture of the Soviet Union and the Communist party was to have control over the industry, economy, and social affairs within the state. Under Soviet rule, Czechoslovakia added to the spread of Communist control, along with the neighboring Eastern European states. In order to obtain this goal culture, the Soviets used a transfer culture of coercion, threats of repression, forced industrialization, elimination of property sovereignty, and others to maintain their monopoly on Eastern European states. When the mobilization of the transfer culture is not supported by the people, they become alienated (1970: p.11). After the Red Army saved Czechoslovakia from Nazi occupation, they were forced into Stalin’s idea of a planned economy. This tactic of transfer culture made the Czech and Slovak people alienated from the Communist party because they were not prepared for, or informed of, drastic revolutionary changes both politically and economically. It can be argued that the persistence of transfer culture in Czechoslovakia, after the threat of Germany died down, became unnecessary in the eyes of the population.

Anything distracting from the overarching goal culture—in this case the goal mobilization was rapid industrialization of Czechoslovakia— is automatically condemned out of fear that the Communist regime could fall. Johnson explains that mobilizing only the economic sector leads the public to demand mobilization in other sectors, specifically the political and social sectors. This is why the reforms presented by Dubček made masses of the population so hopeful, with his policies of personal freedoms. In 1989, the main protest groups, including the Civic Forum were pushing to have negotiations with the Communist party. This negotiation went against the Communist goal culture, so during the Jan Palach demonstration week, the police cracked down on the protestors. The Communist party finally gave in to the Civic Forum. When Civic Forum was finally invited to negotiate with the Communist party, they were granted seats for representation alongside the Communists.

Moving to multi-party representation was Johnson’s first change in Totalitarian Communist regimes. Additionally, in November, after being attacked on the 17th by police forces, a mass strike was planned for the next day. During this strike, the police forces were told not to interfere (Kopsa, 2019). Giving up the use of terror is the second change in Johnson’s theory of Communist systems. The third change came along with the negotiations with the Communist party; they moved from a centralized economy to a more market focused economy. The final change embodies the whole revolution in Czechoslovakia. They were able to become an independent nation, apart from the Soviet Union.


The revolution of what is formerly known as Czechoslovakia is a rare case, but in this chapter, we used the theories of Theda Skocpol and Chalmers Johnson to better understand why the Prague Spring and Velvet Revolution occurred the way that they did. Defining the revolutionary situations as “social revolutions,” as according to Skocpol, explains why both movements came about. The political, economic, and social structures of Czechoslovakia made it possible for the revolutions to occur, but those structures were not weak enough to allow for a successful revolutionary outcome until 1989. Johnson’s writing examined many of the factors that were essential to a Communist regime’s success or defeat and why, after more than a 40-year period of control over Czechoslovakia, those conditions no longer made them successful in the country.

Works Cited

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