Wishful thinking Czech style

Predictions Revisited

Wishful thinking, Czech style

Every since Thomas More invented the term, utopias have cast futures in a “normative” manner, saying here’s how the world ought to be. Such wishful thinking is political. The Marxist vision of a better world of true Communism, “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs,” led huge sections of the human species into the long dark tunnels of Stalinism and Maoism, where utopia was deferred indefinitely.

A memorable episode more than 40 years ago was an attempt in Czechoslovakia to outwit the thought police and modernize Communism by highly organized speculations about the future. Unusually for a science writer I found myself on the inside track of political news, when routeing myself home from Moscow via Prague. It was Christmastime in Wenceslas Square – just three weeks before Alexander Dubček came to power and began trying to throw off Soviet shackles in the “Prague Spring”.

The mathematician Jaroslav Kozešnik, vice-president of the Academy of Sciences, briefed me about what was in the wind. And in August 1968, when the Soviet bloc was closing in on its dissident member, I wrote about it in the London magazine New Statesman, as follows.

Czech Crisis: The Czechnocrats’ Key Role

If the writers were the shock troops of the movement that overthrew the residual Stalinists in Czechoslovakia, the heavy armour was provided by the Academy of Sciences. Ideas emanating from years of officially-sponsored reformist studies are much less stoppable than Soviet tanks. Even if they were to be extinguished or compromised by present events, they would reappear elsewhere. Nor do I mean only in Moscow or Warsaw; in London and Paris, New York and New Delhi, we all have a lot to learn from the Czechs. Starting from a higher political level they have thought more deeply than any other nation about the impact of current science and technology on everyday life. They have sought to re-invent democracy in modern form.

The background was a strong involvement of scientists in the Czech government, even in the Novotny era. with František Sörm, president of the Academy of Sciences, acting as de facto minister of science. From the early 1960s, government long-term plans were submitted to the scientists for comment; similarly, the scientists’ long-term plans went to the government, with the explicit aim of matching the suppositions of politics and the visions of science. The Academy’s Institute of Science Planning was charged with collating forecasts of scientific and technological change on a 20-year time scale. By the 1980s, industrial and social conditions would be quite different and so, projected into the future, would politics also be.

The Czechs exploited the broad, continental definition of ‘science’. The natural scientists and technologists were able to lend some of their authority and immunity to the social scientists and philosophers within the Academy, and at the same time engaged their interest in the social results of technological change. In this environment, two studies of exceptional importance began. Ota Sik, in the Academy’s Institute of Economics, set out to rethink socialist economic planning in the light of the theoretical and bureaucratic errors that were laming the nation’s industry. His proposals for decentralised decision-making and the use of market relationships were already being adopted in practice by the time the English version of his book, Plan and Market under Socialism, appeared in Prague last year. Sik became Deputy Prime Minister in the new regime.

Work of even greater interest was led by Radovan Richta and Ota Klein of the Academy’s Institute of Philosophy. (It was reported in Czech in a special issue of Sociologický časopis in 1966, and in an English text. Civilisation at the Crossroads, in 1967.) Richta and Klein had marshalled a 45-man interdisciplinary team to consider the transformation of society resulting from the technological revolution. As the Academy’s president, Sörm, has testified:

The project was discussed in the Academy of Sciences and at top political levels. It was ultimately decided to utilise it in developing the theoretical and practical aspects of social advance and in preparing long-term guidelines for a country which, having set out on the difficult and in many respects untrodden path of building socialism and communism, is searching for new, humanist variants of a technologically advanced civilisation.

The first conclusions were far reaching and can be summarised only imperfectly. They ranged from the potential of teaching machines for individualised, life-long education to the need for strong and appealing art to counter ‘technical one-sidedness’. The centrally important idea – the re-invention of democracy – is that the technocrats are to be brought under social control by recognising the perfect right of the individual to say how he would like his future to be. With automation and wider education, the distinction will disappear between manager and worker, between the informed and the uninformed. As Richta’s group put it, the shaping of the future must be ‘a public long-term matter concerning the whole society, organised by means of continual discussions about various alternatives and possibilities, with a large participation of scientists, technicians, experts and all workers.’

There is no official analogue of such thinking in the West, if we except the British Minister of Technology’s [Anthony Wedgwood Benn’s] preliminary notions about a participating democracy, based on similar considerations. To regard the Czech struggle as a bid-for old-fashioned styles of democracy would therefore be smug and ignorant; in an age of overweening computers, trampled nature and alienated citizens, perhaps it is we who should feel like the pupils of this ‘Czechnocracy’. As for the outcome in the communist world, the key to the desperate state of Soviet officialdom is to be found in the Czech group’s acknowledgement of ‘subjectivity’ in creative science and of the correlation between science and democracy. The practical achievements of science and technology in the USSR are far less impressive than the Sputniks were to make us believe and the Western lead is growing, not diminishing. The Russians and the other East Europeans have to choose between liberalisation and technological eclipse. The Czechs have chosen already.

Forces from the Soviet Union, Bulgaria, Poland and Hungary, armed with tanks, entered Czechoslovakia to snuff out that choice. Moscow restored hard-line communist rule on the western front of the Warsaw Pact at the height of the Cold War. The Czechs and Slovaks had to wait two more decades for the Velvet Revolution of 1989, which brought Western-style democracy.

But don’t sentimentalize too much about the Prague Spring or the role of those wishful thinking philosophers and scientists. It was an attempt to re-furbish the Communist utopia, not to replace it. Gorbachev later tried something similar in Moscow, with no lasting success.


Nigel Calder, New Statesman, 30 August 1969

I wrote at greater length on the subject in my book Technopolis: Social Control of the Uses of Science, McGibbon and Kee, 1969

3 Responses to Wishful thinking Czech style

  1. Pointman says:

    Like they say, ‘you can’t polish a turd’. No amount of tinkering with Soviet Communism was going to save it in the end.


  2. Luboš Motl says:

    Dear Nigel, these are very interesting ideas. Of course, while we inevitably have some sentiments about 1968, it’s clear that none of these utopias could work.

    As long as the outcome is wished to be both positive and different from the natural outcome, there has to exist a mechanism that suppresses people in their natural desires and activities, that suppresses human rights.

    Days after the Velvet Revolution began in 1989, there was some debate whether we wanted to “just” return to the dreams of 1968. Of course, the winning answer was No.

    By the way, Ota Šik, who was from Pilsen just like myself, found a pair of a coal mine and a power plant near Ostrava. The mine produced the coal needed by the plant – and the plant produced as much electricity as the mine consumed. 😉

    Such things are inevitable if there is any distortion of the prices. This finding was the simplest example – a sick pair – but in reality, there can exist loops etc. that benefit out of the ill-definedness of prices. Such absence of prices is always counterproductive in the economy.

    But more generally, I do think that there have been pretty interesting ways to think about the future – among Czechoslovak intellectuals and also filmmakers. And most Czech people, with the exception of those who just mindlessly support some left-wing parties which are really low-brow in our context, have a pretty sophisticated, diverse, multi-angled perspective on the social phenomena. Skepticism has become a natural part of the Czech national character.

  3. calderup says:

    Many thanks for your comment, Luboš.

    Important ideas in Prague in 1968 have lasting value despite all that’s happened (and not happened) politically.

    At that time there was a general sense in the world of technological imperatives – if something could be done it should be done. The Cold War nurtured that way of thinking, with the H-bomb and the Space Race as obvious examples.

    For those who said, “Hold on, do we really want to do that?” the typical view in the West was that technocrats (well-informed officials), or private industry, or government ministers should make the decisions. What rang in my ears in Prague back then was the proposition that the uses of science and technology should be under some form of direct democratic control.


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