U.S. strategy against socialism: Czechoslovakia 1968, Hong Kong 2019

Mass protest of workers in Prague demands socialism, February 1948.

Since the start of the Hong Kong demonstrations, the corporate media have been united in their narrative that the demonstrators are fighting for democracy and are for independence from an oppressive Chinese regime. Upon closer examination, there are many reasons to question this narrative and the class interests behind it.

The survival and economic growth of the Chinese Revolution is a big problem for the global capitalist class. It threatens their dominance over global finance and trade. 

China is a powerhouse economically and has successfully forged relationships with many oppressed countries by offering trade terms more favorable than those offered by the imperialist countries. The Communist Party of China has weathered several attempts to undermine its leading role, while the state-run socialist sector of the economy provides an important cushion when the global capitalist economy is wracked by crisis.

Since the Russian Revolution in 1917 and the consequent founding of the Soviet Union, the United States and its allies have consistently sought to undermine workers’ states and place governments friendly to the wealthy and the corporate bosses in their place.

Decades of imperialist military threats, economic sabotage and internal subversion played a decisive part in the destruction of the Soviet Union and the Eastern European socialist camp in the late 1980s and early 1990s. China, Vietnam, Cuba and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea survived — something the U.S. ruling class has never reconciled itself to.

Media’s anti-communist spin 

The current discourse in the corporate media, including the New York Times, the Washington Post, CNN, etc., seems eerily similar to the strategies historically used against various socialist countries, particularly in Eastern Europe. 

There are several historical examples that can potentially shed light on the situation in Hong Kong and the general strategy of the imperialists to undermine socialist countries. 

For example, in 1968, there was an attempt to restore capitalism in Czechoslovakia, a country that had been a state controlled by the workers since 1948. Marxist writer and organizer Sam Marcy wrote an important pamphlet about these events: Czechoslovakia 1968: The Class Character of the Events.”

The U.S. and its Western imperialist allies saw an opportunity in Czechoslovakia to upend the workers’ state and reinstall a capitalist state, which would return the workers of that country to exploitation by the bosses. 

Further, Czechoslovakia had close geographic proximity to the Soviet Union. Having a forward operating center so close to the Soviet Union would have been greatly beneficial to the U.S. at the time, when the Cold War was in full swing.

The people and organizations leading this attempted counterrevolution named it a “democratic socialist revolution.” The movement had started when moderate forces came into power within the socialist government. This opened the door to an attempt at full counterrevolution and dissolution of the government of the workers.

Always ask: democracy for who?

Around this time, the Western media began to publish article after article pushing for U.S. economic and military intervention to ensure “democracy” in Czechoslovakia. 

At first glance, the call for democracy is one that is easy to get behind. Democracy is not inherently a bad thing. Many institutions and organizations strive for a more democratic framework — a framework that allows fair and equal representation in decision-making for all involved.

But it’s important to look beyond abstract calls for democracy to determine what class the “democratic” movement serves and would represent once its government is established. In terms of Czechoslovakia in 1968, demands for democracy in what was then a socialist state were not coming primarily from the working class. These demands were coming from the capitalists, the landlords and the international captains of industry.

So what would democracy have looked like when led by these groups? Would it be to advance the causes of social justice, liberation for the oppressed and equality for all workers? Or would it be to install a government that would silence the workers and elevate the wealthy classes? 

The policy demands of the democracy movement in socialist Czechoslovakia in 1968 may help shed some light on this. One of the central demands being made by this movement was for more open diplomatic relations with not only the U.S. but also West Germany.

This demand is an important clue to discovering the motives of the forces pushing the slogan of democracy. West Germany was an imperialist outpost and right-wing state that functioned as one of the front lines in the Cold War against the Soviet Union. 

While the socialist German Democratic Republic, commonly referred to as East Germany, had sought to build an explicitly anti-fascist country where the working class was no longer exploited and oppressed people attained social justice, West Germany, with the help of the U.S., had rebuilt on a capitalist basis after World War II. There, many fascists were rehabilitated and even elevated to high positions. West Germany’s foreign and economic policies were largely dictated by the U.S.

Role of Masaryk

The movement to bring so-called democratic reforms to Czechoslovakia put forward Thomas Masaryk as its face. Masaryk had been one of the core leaders of the original effort to liberate the country from the Austro-Hungarian empire in 1918. Once the initial independence effort was complete, Masaryk led the building of a bourgeois democratic republic whose purpose was to act on behalf of the U.S. against the USSR. 

Masaryk was not a champion of the workers, but of the bankers and politicians in the U.S. The founding conference of the republic was held in Pittsburgh and attended by many U.S. industrialists and corporate bosses.

Not only was Masaryk’s Czechoslovakia hostile to all workers, it was particularly hostile to those of oppressed nationalities. One of Masaryk’s first moves in power was to betray the Slovak people who had originally supported the new republic. 

At the founding conference, Masaryk, who was an ethnic Czech, promised the Slovaks some level of autonomy under the new republic. Once the republic was established, however, Masaryk denied Slovaks the right to build their own institutions or exercise any autonomy. The new government was run entirely by Czechs. 

In 1948, the workers tore down Masaryk’s government in favor of socialism. Regardless of this checkered history, the democratic reform movement in Czechoslovakia embraced Masaryk as the father of Czechoslovakian independence and democracy.

As 1968 progressed, the calls for “reform” and “economic freedom” increased. The global socialist community became convinced that this movement to bring liberal democracy to Czechoslovakia was actually an attempt at counterrevolution, with the hope of dissolving the socialist government. 

The Soviet Union and its allies ultimately decided, that to give the U.S. and West Germany a stronger economic and military foothold in Czechoslovakia would be a blow to the global struggle of the working class. For these reasons, the socialist military alliance, the Warsaw Pact, intervened to stop the advances of capitalism.

‘One country, two systems’

What does this history have to do with the events playing out in Hong Kong today? The situations do not compare exactly. There are distinctions and similarities and both should be analyzed. Through some examination of these, a clearer view of the U.S. strategies towards socialist countries may appear.

One distinction in particular looms large. Hong Kong is still operating under a capitalist economy, even though it is politically part of China. This arrangement, implemented when Britain was forced to return Hong Kong to China in 1997, is known as “One Country, Two Systems.” The idea is that by 2047, Hong Kong will be fully transitioned into China’s socialist system. 

In 1968, Czechoslovakia was a workers’ state. Economically, the country was fully integrated into the socialist bloc. Consequently, the goal of the imperialist countries and the capitalists in Czechoslovakia was to restore capitalism and destroy socialism. 

But whether the goal is to destroy an already existing socialist government, as in Czechoslovakia, or to prevent the integration of a territory formerly stolen by a colonial power–like Hong Kong–both benefit the global ruling class.

In 1968, the restoration of capitalism in Czechoslovakia would have given the U.S. and its allies a crucial military, political and economic foothold against the Soviet Union. And this is certainly true in the case of Hong Kong today as the U.S. seeks to escalate its economic, political and military power against China.

(Read more about the advances and problems of China’s socialist development in relation to Hong Kong in Fred Goldstein’s article, Hong Kong: Make colonialism great again.”)

Imperialist strategies

Now that we have examined the material differences, we can better understand the imperialist rationale behind certain strategies used against the global socialist movement. There are some striking similarities between the strategies implemented in the attempted capitalist restoration in 1968 Czechoslovakia and those currently being implemented to prevent the continued transition of Hong Kong toward full integration with China.

First, at the center of the movements in 1968 Czechoslovakia and present day Hong Kong were/are calls for democracy and independence. Earlier we asked: What sort of democracy? For which class? Who would it benefit? This is where the Czechoslovakian example can be illustrative. 

In 1968, the calls for democracy and independence were of a bourgeois (capitalist) class character. A capitalist Czechoslovakia would have only served to benefit the global ruling class — the same way a capitalist Hong Kong torn away from China would serve imperialism and be a blow to the global working class. Furthermore, both Czechoslovakia and Hong Kong have close geographic proximity to large industrial socialist powers: the Soviet Union and China. 

Consequently, the U.S. and the other imperialist countries turned to an old strategy: hide their real agenda behind vague but appealing language. 

Who can argue with democracy and independence? Well, in reality, the working class can — when the class character of such demands is to continue or heighten the exploitation of the workers and oppressed by the capitalist class.

Masaryk and Martin Lee

In the struggle to fully halt the process of China’s integration with Hong Kong, certain leaders have come to the forefront. Among the main leaders is Martin Lee, commonly called Hong Kong’s “Father of Democracy.” 

Lee fits the bill of a ruling-class pawn who is propped up as a hero of democracy by the imperial powers — much like Masaryk. 

He is a well-educated lawyer from a middle-class background. Lee has heavy connections to the National Endowment for Democracy, a CIA and State Department front organization. He has relationships with the American Bar Association and prominent U.S. politicians like Nancy Pelosi and Joe Biden, both of whom have consistently supported U.S. military and economic warfare abroad.

Based on this background, it would appear that Lee is not truly a hero for the workers of Hong Kong, but a tool of Washington and the big banks.

There seem to be parallels between not only the backgrounds of Lee and Masaryk, but also the rhetoric used to promote their leadership in the corporate media. Both are spoken of as independence heroes, and the fathers of their respective “liberation” movements. Both have significant ties to U.S. capitalists and politicians. Both have long histories of fighting against socialism.

The corporate media and capitalist politicians have engaged in the same game plan for over 50 years. When a socialist country like Czechoslovakia, or a previously colonized territory like Hong Kong, is deeply embedded with another larger and stronger socialist state, the imperialists may not opt for military intervention. They may opt for a campaign of disinformation and dishonesty, framing their bourgeois and petty bourgeois agents as the real progressive force.

To separate Hong Kong fully from China and stop the transition away from capitalism would be devastating for not only the workers in Hong Kong, but also for the Chinese Revolution. This is exactly why all progressives must call this strategy what it is: a farce meant to establish Hong Kong as a capitalist bulwark against socialist China, just as Czechoslovakia was meant to be against the USSR in 1968.