21 August 1968 I was in the Adriatic island city of Korcula, since 1962 the site of a summer conference organized by the Croatian philosophers of the group which edited “Praxis”. The meetings attracted academics, journalists, writers and very occasionally political figures from both geopolitical blocs. In 1968 a number of engaged students from western Europe and Yugoslavia were present. There had been no participation from the Soviet Union since the founding year. In 1962 Ernst Bloch, Thomas Bottomore, Iring Fetscher, Juergen Habermas, Agnes Heller, Herbert Marcuse, Heinz Maus were present, as well as Gajo Petrovich and Rudi Supek of the Praxis group (and their Serbian colleagues Markovic and Stoianovich).
The Czech intellectuals were obviously busy at home, although there were Czech tourists on the island and some came to the conference sessions, which were public.
I had completed my fourteen year educational journey in Europe (a year in Germany, eleven in Great Britain, and two in France) and had spent the academic years 1966-68 teaching at the Graduate Faculty of the New School for Social Research in New York and was writing for the American periodicals Change, Commentary, The Nation and Partisan Review. I was anticipating moving to Massachusetts as faculty at Amherst College. I was accompanied by my daughters Anna and Antonia, aged ten and eight and very acute judges of human foibles.
The papers and discussions at the conference centred on the implications of the protest movements of 1968. Would the students sooner or later succumb to routine, and abandon one major unifying theme of disparate national protests, of a transformed intellectual elite dedicated to the service of the citizenry in a democracy wrought by a continuous process of education? I remember no very large references to the Czech experiment of a humanistic socialism. Some of us had been profoundly impressed by the 1966 report of the Czech Academy of Sciences, edited by Radovan Richta, on the moral and political possibilities of a society in which scientists and technologists addressed the public directly (not quite said but very clear was the conclusion that a central or rather dominant role for a party would be rendered superfluous by new modes of political participation). With regard to the actual situation in Czechoslovakia, many of the Korcula participants were planning visits in the fall, I can recall none who had been there during the Dubcek months.
(I had visited Prague in December of 1966 as guest of the Czech Academy of Sciences, met some of the persons who figure in the Dubcek reforms, but did not depart with the impression of an imminent leap forward – rather of a somewhat resigned and very general hope that the future would bring something better than the institutions and leaders of which my hosts complained. One of the colleagues I met was a very outspoken woman insistent on a dialogue with Christians, Kadlecova, and she was Dubcek’s Minister for religious affairs. I was often well received in the Soviet bloc by those who identified me along with many others as an American dissident. The group in Prague was no exception, but they were quite explicit in warning that for the indefinite future, no large changes could be expected.)
On 21 August we came down for breakfast in the beach hotel, The Park, where the participants were housed. Iring Fetscher was grim. “You will have no appetite, Norman – the Soviet Army is in Prague.” The conference was in its final days. A pall of depression, an angry feeling of helplessness descended on us. More truthfully, perhaps, we suffered attacks of self-reproach. What use our refined exercises in a secular theology of liberation, when Brzeshnev could employ his tanks? We could take some consolation a few days later from reports of Czech citizens arguing with the Soviet soldiers who had been told that they were protecting the Czechs from “fascism.” That was indeed some consolation, but not very much.
The brutality and stupidity of Stalinism, it was clear, were still with us. The invasion served its major end—to kill hope. The Dubcek project could hardly survive in one Soviet bloc country and might well have spread, opening the way for an early end to the Cold War. The occupation of Czechoslovakia and the installation of a servile government was a living reminder of the human baseness and mediocrity of the fifties and much of the sixties. Richta took refuge in Poland. The economist Mylnar (Gorbashov’s roommate at Moscow State University) went to Vienna. I had the good fortune to meet him later in Germany, as he collaborated with Guenter Grass and Johano Strasser in the editing of the journal “Literatur 80”. A pronounced hero of the tragedy was the brilliant and productive philosopher Karel Kosik. Told by the new regime to obtain a teaching post in Berlin, Paris, or New York he refused. The intellectuals had induced the nation to join in the Dubcek experiment and it was their moral obligation to share the nation’s fate. Until 1989, he worked as a bus driver. Returned to his chair at the University of Prague, he had to endure the hostility of colleagues newly converted to what they thought of as “liberalism” on account of his persistence in pursuing a libertarian Marxism.
I am writing entirely from memory, and may be in error, but I am struck with the rapidity with which the episode sank beneath the histortical horizon in the western nations. The US in 1968 was consumed by the Civil Rights movement and the opposition to the Vietnam war, the murders of King and Robert Kennedy, the election which brought Nixon to the White House. Nixon hardly required lessons from his Soviet colleagues in the uses of falsehood and repression; in any event, he had Kissinger at his side. Western Europe had its own preoccupations, although I note the advent of the reformer (and Catholic) Berlinguer to the leadership of the Italian Communist Party. I have the impression of more profound traces in the Soviet bloc nations, not least the German Democratic Republic, whose army joined the invasion but as quickly withdrawn on account of the mutinous response of the conscripts.
Norman Birnbaum, University Professor Emeritus at Georgetown University Law Center, has just published a memoir: “From The Bronx To Oxford and Not Quite Back”, dealing with the first seventy-five of his ninety two years.