On Saturday (3 September), between 70,000 and 100,000 people gathered in Wenceslas Square in Prague, calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Petr Fiala’s right-wing coalition government; among other demands opposing the cost of living crisis and Czech involvement in NATO’s proxy war with Russia.
The massive scale of this demonstration, involving people from all backgrounds (including reactionary elements), surprised everyone: the government, all the opposition parties, the trade union bureaucrats – even the organisers themselves! This was an uncontrolled outpouring of rage, boiling up from the depths of Czech society. It is a warning sign about the wave of struggle and insurrection that is preparing to sweep the European continent.
The impact of the energy crisis has been particularly devastating in the Czech Republic, which previously relied on Russia for a whopping 98 percent of its natural gas, and 50 percent of its oil supplies. Nevertheless, Fiala is a staunch supporter of the US-led war against Russia in Ukraine, sending large amounts of military aid and committing to EU-wide sanctions on Russian gas and oil imports. Despite the Czech government and energy company ČEZ attempting to reduce reliance on Russian energy by securing a liquified natural gas terminal in the Netherlands, the reserves it has built up are expected to run out in March 2023. And in the meantime, the Czech masses face the highest energy prices in Europe when adjusted for purchasing power parity, at 52.15 cents per kilowatt-hour for an average Prague resident.
As to be expected, with a cold winter on the horizon, we are beginning to see waning enthusiasm for Czech participation in this NATO-sponsored conflict. After the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February, the government whipped up a frenzy of war hysteria and national chauvinism. In April, polls found the highest levels of support for NATO since 1994, at 78 percent; while 80 percent supported economic sanctions against Russia. But a poll in August revealed an important shift in the attitude towards the war. It found that 45 percent of Czechs surveyed either opposed or strongly opposed the government’s measures to support Ukraine. Another survey conducted that month found that 79 percent considered the most important task of the rotating EU presidency (which has passed to the Czech Republic) to be “solving the social impacts of the energy crisis”, compared to about a third who said it was supporting Ukraine.
Amidst the changing mood, the Fiala government has cynically scaled back support for Ukrainian refugees. So much for European unity!
Bolt from the blue
The coalition survived a no-confidence vote on Friday 2 September, called by opposition parties, who accuse the government of not doing enough to tackle the energy crisis. Following this pathetic flop, and given an utter lack of direction from the trade union and Communist Party (KSČM) leadership, the frustration generated by this intolerable situation sought any form of outlet.
A small, reactionary nationalist grouping, organised under the banner ‘Czech Republic First’, called a demonstration on Saturday, with their main demand being the immediate resignation of the government. The organisers also called for the Czech Republic to exit NATO, end all support for Ukraine, stop sanctions on and strike a deal with Russia over gas exports, provide 3MW/h of free electricity to every citizen annually, end speculation on the energy market, protect free speech (it is currently illegal to openly support Russia), and “stop national mixing” with Ukrainian refugees. 400,000 currently reside in the Czech Republic, and the demo organisers want them sent back to Ukraine “as soon as the situation allows for it.”
Despite the openly reactionary character of the organisers behind the demonstration, some of their anti-government demands targeting the energy crisis and war in Ukraine struck a chord with the Czech masses. The organisers previously held several anti-vaccine demonstrations during the pandemic, billed as “national uprisings”, which seldom gathered more than a few hundred. While there was something of a social media buzz around Saturday’s demonstration, nobody expected more than a few thousand to show up.
As it became clear that the turnout might be significantly larger than anything we had seen before, KSČM hastily organised a small bloc, meaning some red flags were mixed in amongst the Czech national flags. The far-right Freedom and Direct Democracy (SPD) party also intervened, hoping to profit demagogically from anger at the Civic Democratic Party (ODS). Meanwhile, a tiny counter-protest of 50-100 liberals gathered to ‘defend the Ukrainian flag’ hanging outside the national museum.
The actual turnout took everybody by surprise, with vast crowds striking the streets of Prague like a meteorite. The crowds were so dense that people were unable to move, with some fainting from exhaustion and dehydration. The class and political character of the demonstration was very heterogeneous. But despite the presence of nationalist, petty-bourgeois, pro-Putin and even fascist elements, they did not play a decisive role. Indeed, no one political grouping could be said to have controlled the demonstration, which drew from all layers of Czech society, reflecting the popular anger bubbling up from below.
Betrayal of labour leaders
Not even a year has passed since the last elections, and Fiala and his goons have proved their utter disdain for the working class and its worsening conditions. Amidst 17.5 percent inflation and soaring energy costs, the only advice they have offered to Czech workers is that they should wear extra sweaters to keep warm at home. They also called on Czechs to endure their “peaceful suffering” for the Ukrainian cause, in addition to prosecuting individuals and media outlets accused of having opinions they consider “too-pro-Russian”.
Naturally, the suffering they speak of does not apply much to them and their allies in big business. While ordinary people are being told to shiver and starve, the government is seeking to increase MPs’ pay, and cover up to 70 percent of the energy costs of private companies from the public budget. Meanwhile, the bosses are eagerly exploiting Ukrainian refugees as cheap labour. All of this hypocrisy and injustice has resulted in a massive accumulation of resentment.
Until this demonstration, the working class was mostly quiet, silenced by the scandalous tricks of the union bureaucracy. But the mass participation of enraged working people in this protest has shocked the government and its lackeys. They fear it is a spark that will trigger a conflagration.
After both the Communist Party (KSČM) and Social Democratic Party (ČSSD) were wiped out of parliament in the elections last Autumn, ignorant political commentators, academic ‘experts’, liberals and even some so-called leftists claimed the Czech Republic had entered into a ‘new era’. They said the ‘post-communist era’ had come to an end, and now people were finally ‘clever enough’ to put their trust in bourgeois order and pro-capitalist parties. In fact, the exact opposite has occurred.
Firstly, we should say that both the KSČM and ČSSD deserved their defeat. Since the 2013 elections, ČSSD lost 75 percent of their voters and KSČM 80 percent. The main reason for this was their criminal collaboration with the capitalist oligarchy. From 2013 to 2021, the ČSSD was in government with the oligarch party ANO, owned by the second-richest Czech at that time, Andrej Babiš, who served as Finance Minister, and then prime minister from 2017.
During this whole period, Babiš used his position in government to control and subsidise his own businesses through criminal methods. For example, he faked the ownership structure of his own companies, in order to extract subsidies from the European Union intended for small businesses. One of the owners of his farm Čapí Hnízdo was his son, who was later declared mentally ill by a psychiatrist connected with the Babiš government, meaning he was exempt from speaking in front of the court.
In 2018, Andrej Babiš junior even sent an email to the Czech police, claiming that his father let him be abducted to Crimea, to get him out of the way. Babiš is also named in the Pandora Papers in numerous cases of tax evasion.
But despite this storm of scandals, the ČSSD and KSČM remained Babiš’ active defenders. It was only because of them that his government survived for so long. From the beginning, Babiš presented himself as a defender of the people and a skilled manager that would settle scores with the right-wingers who were in government before him. The so-called left parties played a lamentable role in building up these illusions, which meant they were justly punished by the Czech people.
The trade union bureaucracy, under Josef Středula, chair of the Czech Trade Union Confederation (ČMKOS) – who is now a presidential candidate in the upcoming elections – made a huge effort to keep the masses under control. During the whole period of the COVID-19 pandemic, Středula was the main supporter of so-called kurzarbeit – in which the state paid wages to workers, while private owners kept their profits. Whenever unrest broke out, like in the Liberty Ostrava mines in 2021, the union bureaucrats served as a firebreak for the bourgeois: diverting working class anger into the impotent channels of demonstrations rather than strikes.
Now, the ČMKOS’ main slogan is: “social peace”. We witness the unedifying spectacle of a union bureaucracy fighting to keep ‘social peace’ in a situation of 17.5 percent inflation eroding workers’ wages, and a brutal energy crisis! Not so long ago, during his campaign to be reelected as ČMKOS chairman, Středula even personally visited the ruling ODS party congress, where he congratulated its leader and prime minister Fiala, and said he hoped for the continuation of their cooperation!
The total capitulation of the leadership of the workers’ organisations did not create a lasting climate of social peace. But it did lead to the working class losing any trust in, not only the so-called left parties, but all parties, parliament, and all other bourgeois institutions. The Babiš government collapsed last year and was replaced by the old right-wingers from ODS, the same party that subjected the country to a catastrophic wave of privatisation in the 1990s. People did not vote for ODS and their coalition SPOLU because they trusted them, but because many people thought that anything would be better than Babiš. For the same reason, many people voted for the far-right, nationalist demagogues of Freedom and Direct Democracy (SPD), and younger people for the Pirate Party.
Some more-intelligent layers of the bourgeois can see that this situation is dangerous. Immediately after the 2021 elections, the current Minister of interior Rakušan said he hoped that social democracy would come back to parliament. The bourgeois are in desperate need of ‘reasonable’ workers' parties they can use to put a ‘human face’ on their savage capitalist rule, and serve as a brake on the working class.
Since the 2021 autumn elections, it seemed on the surface that the new government had the situation firmly in hand, despite the war in Ukraine. No strikes or serious protests occurred and the left parties were wiped out from mainstream politics. With workers’ conditions sharply worsening, the union bureaucracy considered calling some autumn demonstrations to let off some steam, but given the depth of the crisis it was worried that it could rapidly lose control over events. There is a rising pressure on them from below to really fight for workers’ rights, and there is a growing desire among some layers for a general strike and even a revolutionary struggle against the Fiala government.
For now, the only thing that ČMKOS has been able to muster is a rally on Monday 5 September, behind the walls of Karlín Forum, where only union members are allowed. Given the utter lack of initiative from the workers’ leaders, it is little wonder that the mass anger in Czech society has expressed itself in an accidental, confused form.
A fascist demonstration?
In the past, the forces currently in government held even-bigger demonstrations to demand Babiš’ resignation. They presented themselves at that time as a ‘democratic bloc’ against Babiš’ ‘totalitarianism’. Now people have zero trust in this so-called democratic bloc, nor any in Babiš, and are increasingly rejecting the whole system. What especially worries the ruling class is the masses on the streets on Saturday were not under the control of any bourgeois faction, like they used to be to a large extent on the anti-Babiš demos held in the previous period.
Bourgeois commentators across the globe are speaking about fascist goons and Russian agents gathering in Prague. Noted British ‘Marxist’ academic-turned-liberal-
The KSČM were the only party on the left that did not dismiss the demonstration as some kind of ‘fascist gathering’. Aside from organising a bloc, they have planned their own follow-up demonstration at the same location on 17 September. This is in part an attempt to regain some of their lost trust from the working class in advance of the municipal elections at the end of the month. They probably hope that latching onto a large movement will make it harder for the Czech state to outlaw them, as has been the case in some other Eastern European countries. But if they hope to become any sort of pole of attraction and guarantee their survival, the KSČM would also need to adopt a genuine communist programme, strategy and structures to answer the burning questions of the working class. Up until now, they have propped up bourgeois parties, while their position on the Ukraine war impotently calls for ‘diplomacy’.
Unlike the hysterical bourgeois and liberal commentators, Marxists understand this demonstration was neither a fascist irruption, nor a Russian psyop, but a spontaneous wave of anger, arising from the severe conditions inflicted on millions of ordinary people by the capitalist crisis. The fact that this found its expression on the streets of Prague, following a call to protest by a handful of petty-bourgeois cranks, is rather a reflection of the lack of leadership from the left and labour movement. In these conditions, the desperation of the masses to find a way out will lead them down all sorts of peculiar paths. This is only the beginning.
The approaching autumn will be very hot in Czech Republic, accelerated by the imminent elections. This leaderless and confused protest movement could move in any number of directions, left and right. It could also fizzle out altogether. However, the potential for an explosion of the class struggle in the throes of the present crisis cannot be easily ruled out by manoeuvres. It would be only a temporary reprieve for the ruling class, as the pressure of the crisis will provoke more and more explosions in short order. The political establishment is collapsing before our eyes, the workers are losing their faith in all the traditional parties and institutions, which opens the way for revolutionary developments in the future.
Obviously, the reactionary rabble who made the original call to protest on Saturday have no answers for the working class, and neither do the chauvinist nationalists of SPD. What is currently lacking is serious, proletarian leadership that can direct the working class in struggle against the real enemy: the Czech capitalist class and their warmongering, imperialist masters.
For this, the Czech workers need to cast off their rotten leaders, and fight to transform their organisations of struggle from top to bottom. The Czech working class, in spite of the present leadership, will eventually find a way to draw from its revolutionary traditions. The formation and growth of a genuinely revolutionary Bolshevik organisation with a radical, internationalist programme of breaking with capitalism and building socialism will be a necessary step in this process. Only the revolutionary surge of the working class against capitalist exploitation can offer a future of hope and dignity to the people of the Czech Republic, becoming a beacon to workers of Eastern Europe and the world.