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Zdeněk Mlynář (Müller) (22 June 1930, Vysoké Mýto – 15 April 1997, Vienna) was secretary of Czech communist party in the years 1968–1970 and an intellectual who went against the grain during a critical time in the development of Eastern European political history. Mlynář wrote the noteworthy political manifesto “Towards a Democratic Political Organization of Society” which was released on 5 May 1968, at the height of the Prague Spring. He also wrote, while in exile in Vienna, an autobiographical account of the Prague Spring and the Warsaw Pact invasion that put an end to it in August, 1968. It was published in an English translation called Nightfrost in Prague: The End of Humane Socialism.
Mlynář's role in shaping the politics in Czechoslovakia
Mlynář had been a law student in the Soviet Union during the 1950s. He was known to have taken a detached approach to the developments in Czechoslovakia at the time. This bearing allowed him to exercise a critical analysis of the political and social developments taking place in Czechoslovakia and the rest of the region which under Soviet influence.
The early 1960s signaled a radical transformation in the Eastern European political and social landscape. Sweeping reforms and wide restructuring in various areas of daily life began to take place across the region. The first inklings of freedom of the press began to become apparent with the easing of censorship and the allowance for further debate on various social issues. A more permissive healthcare system gave patients the freedom to choose which doctors would provide for their treatment. Restrictions on religion became less constrained. In addition, the population began to be able to move about more freely as limitations on transportation were eased as well (Crampton 321–322).
It was during this period of positive social and political upheaval that Mlynář was assigned to the task of drafting policy recommendations for the Czechoslovakian communist party in 1967. These were to be used for the 13th Party Congress which was planned for 1970. Only three years prior in 1964, at a time when the national assembly of Czechoslovakia was “showing an uncharacteristic liveliness for a communist parliament” (322), Mlynář had made the argument that 'pressure groups' should be allowed to have their say concerning the state machinery. The electoral law had changed by 1967 in that it allowed for more freedom when nominating candidates. The changes also reflected an important advance in that it would be possible to nominate more candidate than there were places to be filled.
Mlynář and his colleagues who were assigned to the difficult task of crafting these new policies devoted their efforts to two main issues: the first was the nature of Czechoslovakia’s place in the socialist community. The second was the position of the communist party domestically. The increasing liberalization and gradual sweep of reforms allowed for these questions to be raised for further inquiry. The 1960 constitution had declared that Czechoslovakia had moved into the socialist stage of its development. The communist party's role as the 'instrument of dictatorship' (323) had been removed. What role was it meant to play in the future of Czechoslovak politics? In addition, what direction would the 'new, one-class society' take that had emerged with the removal of class differences?
Mlynář's article: "Towards a Democratic Political Organization of Society"
With these questions dogging the political leadership Mlynář wrote his piece entitled “Towards a Democratic Political Organization of Society.” In it, he arrives at the conclusion that a pluralist system is the best solution for Czechoslovakia. He states his key views regarding the development of politics in Czechoslovakia in the following section:
“Unless there is a change in the position of people in the political system, this state of affairs will not change; without an alteration in people’s economic relationships (which the new system should be trying to create), an efficient and dynamic socialist economy cannot be created… And only in this way will people begin to turn their initiative, activity, and talent away from advancing their own private affairs, toward the goal of the social whole, to the search for ways to satisfy their own needs and interests in harmony with the whole development of society… Of course, this is a thesis, a premise. But it is one which does hold some water. It is based on a concept of socialism as a social order which will preserve the active forces in European capitalist development … the necessary independence and subjectivity of the human individual. It is conflict with other conceptions of socialism which do not have this end in view and which are based on the historical conditions of the development of other civilizations, for instance of the East, as we can clearly see in the Chinese conception of socialism. In general, it has been suggested here that more than one kind of political organ must be created. The political system which is based on this principle is called a pluralist system, and it would therefore be true to say that an experiment is going on in Czechoslovakia to create a pluralist society for which there is at present no real analogy among the socialist states. A pluralist political system is quite often identified just with the existence of a large number of political parties. But I do not think this is really right, and all the less so for a socialist society. It is very easy to understand why this question is so much discussed at the moment in Czechoslovakia ("Towards a Democratic Political Organization of Society, quoted in Gail Stokes, p. 125)
At the time, Mlynář did not consider himself to be anything but a reform communist. The above passage, however, indicates that his concept of socialism closely resembles democratic pluralism, a very dangerous assertion to make, even in a time of reform. The fact of the matter is that Mlynář was very much in touch with the social and political landscape. In another work of his, entitled “Nightfrost in Prague: the end of humane socialism” Mlynář provides crucial testimony regarding the events of the Prague Spring. In addition, he provides a comprehensive account explaining the blind idealism that inspired many young Czechs and Slovaks to embrace Stalinism in 1945 and the acceptance of a global orthodox Communism during the Cold War.
In 1968, Mlynář was part of the inner circle around then-party head Alexander Dubček. As his writing indicates, he was trying to reconcile the concept of a socialist economy imbued with the ideology of a liberal democracy.
Unlike Dubček, Mlynář had few illusions regarding the real character of the Soviet occupation. Before he lost his position, he retreated to the confines of the National Museum, where he had also conducted insect research for over a decade. Mlynář may have been the only intellectual in the world who is known both for his socio-political accomplishments as well as for his research into insect life.
The Aftermath: Mlynář's exile
In the beginning of 1977, Mlynář became a signatory to Charter 77, a document signed by over a thousand Czechs and Slovaks as well as by many foreign intellectuals that called for all those concerned with human rights to do all they could to spur its development. As a result of this action, Mlynář was expelled from the regime and had to leave Czechoslovakia. The Austrian chancellor Bruno Kreisky allowed him to enter the country and appointed him to a position at the Austrian Institute for International Politics. Mlynář soon established a name for himself as an expert on the developmental tendencies of Soviet regimes.
He led an international research group that concerned itself with investigating what the prerequisites and necessary preconditions were in order to create basic change within these regimes. Some years later this would be termed “Transition Research”; it proved to be one of the most important topics of political science at the time. Mlynář became qualified to teach at the university level and was granted tenure from the University of Innsbruck’s department of political science in 1989.
Friendship with Mikhail Gorbachev
Mlynář’s past caught up with him when Mikhail Gorbachev became Secretary General of the Soviet Union’s Communist party. Mlynář had become a close friend of Gorbachev’s during his stint as a student in Moscow in the 1950s. It just so happened that he was the only person in the West to be personally acquainted with Gorbachev, who at the time was regarded with suspicion as an unknown Soviet party head. The friendship between the two resulted in a great deal of media attention for Mlynář, as well as a personal invitation to Washington.
Following his rise to power, Gorbachev cut off relations with Czechoslovakia and in November 1989 the Husák regime collapsed as a result of the Velvet Revolution. During the protests, several moderate elements in the StB, the Czechoslovak secret police, hoped to overthrow their masters and bring Mlynář back from exile to institute reforms. However, Mlynář had long since renounced Communism, and wanted nothing to do with the plot. His wife, Rita Klimova, was one of the leaders of Civic Forum, serving as the group's spokeswoman.
After the collapse of Communism, Mlynář saw opportunity to return home to Prague and continue the work that had been violently interrupted in 1968 with the events of the Prague Spring. Mlynář would encounter great disappointment when he finally discovered that his countrymen, or at least those who came to power, did not share in his aspirations for Czechoslovakia's future. The new era begun in 1989/1990 saw a call for pure capitalism; voices like Mlynář’s, calling for a more humanistic socialism, were silenced in the mass media. Individuals who had derived great personal benefit from the Husák regime were now displacing anticommunist dissidents of the former regime and were condemning reformers for what they considered to be their lack of moral judgment.
Embittered by the drama that was unfolding in Prague, Mlynář returned to Innsbruck where he devoted himself to his research on Eastern and Central Europe. He left a strong impression on all of his students as a great academic and gifted teacher. By the time of his premature departure from the university in 1993 due to ill health, he had established an enduring legacy based on the values of friendship, respect and knowledge.
- “From Prague to Moscow: August 1968”. Telos 41 (Fall 1979). New York: Telos Press.
- "Eastern Europe in the Twentieth Century – And After" By R.J. Crampton, 2nd Edition, Routledge 1997.
- "From Stalinism to Pluralism: A Documentary History of Eastern Europe since 1945." Edited by Gail Stokes, Oxford University Press 1996.