The Normalization regime in Czechoslovakia — as Václav Havel aptly illustrated in his widely read work, “The Power of the Powerless” — rested on a carefully constructed social contract. As long as Havel’s greengrocer was willing to put a sign amongst his goods displaying the “Workers of the world, unite!” slogan, he could reap all the materialistic benefits that the regime provided. The words on the sign, however, didn’t express the greengrocer’s deeply held belief; instead, they were a signal that he was willing to comply with what the regime asked.
But what about when people didn’t comply? The government could deploy certain punishments against the so-called “unreliable” individuals — demotions, blacklisting, the refusal of exit permits, even imprisonment — but one of its most important and effective methods of attack was through the propaganda machine. In the government-controlled media, like the Rudé Právo (Red Justice) newspaper, the regime could denounce the offenders in vicious terms, though their words weren’t intended merely to convey meaning. Again, they served an additional purpose — but this time, they acted as a warning.
In 1977, 242 people signed Charter 77, a document criticizing the regime for its failure to uphold the human rights requirements of documents like the 1960 Constitution of Czechoslovakia and the 1975 Helsinki Accords. The precipitating event for the Charter was the arrest of the members of the Plastic People of the Universe, a psychadelic rock band whose messaging didn’t align with the regime. The so-called “Chartists” then banded together to express their support for the band, because they saw the arrest as being in direct conflict with the regime’s commitments to human rights on paper. The regime reacted in numerous ways, but one of the most important of these was its attacks on the signatories in the press. On January 12, 1977, an article came out in Rudé Právo called “Zkroskotanci a samozvanci,” which translates to something like “Losers and Usurpers” or “Traitors and Renegades,” in which the government denounced the dissidents who had signed Charter 77.
The article begins with a description of the regime’s enemies: “imperialism,” “ the bourgeoisie,” and the “rule of capitalism,” which together have been “looking for new
forms and methods to mount anti-communist attacks, to disrupt the unity of the socialist countries.” This, the article claims, is what the good citizens of Czechoslovakia have to fear — and then it introduces Charter 77 as “the newest defamatory article,” which “a group of people from the failed Czechoslovak reactionary bourgeoisie and the failed organizers of the 1968 counterrevolution passed on to certain western agencies at the order of the anti-communist and zionist headquarters.”
Already, this description relies on a number of recognizable enemy forces purported to be at work in the article’s publishing. In the language of the communist regimes, the bourgeoisie was always the enemy of socialism and the people working to build it, and here too the concept repeatedly turns up. The article also refers to the Prague Spring as “the 1968 counterrevolution” — the period of liberalization that resulted in the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in an effort to “protect socialism” — and a “failure”, meant as both a derisive statement as well as a warning to anyone who might try something similar. In the Cold War context, which the article also acknowledges, the West was the main antagonist, connected to all of the enemies mentioned above. By pointing to “western agencies” as the force that spread the charter, the article set up the charter’s authors as connected to Czechoslovakia’s enemies, rather than Czechoslovakia itself.
In essence, this article’s introduction illustrates the characteristics of an antagonist — the “bourgeois world” — and then describes how exactly Charter 77 is working on behalf of that antagonist against the equality, progress, and peace that the socialist system offers. The harsh denunciation of the Charter and its authors, though, only makes up a relatively small section of the article. After calling the Charter an “anti-state, anti-socialist, anti-people, and demagogic lampoon,” and describing its authors as members of the bourgeois, cosmopolitan class attempting to break up the socialist government, it quickly moves on to describing socialism as a system that is more than prepared to deal with such attempts.
“Everything against socialism is good for it,” the article reads, referring to a document calling for reform published in the lead up to the Prague Spring as an example of the sort of “bourgeois print” that the regime had readily handled in the past, despite the best efforts of numerous western media outlets, which it names in particular as the BBC, The Guardian, Le Monde, and others. These and other attempts to “dirty and malign” the system never succeeded, however, as the system was always prepared for such flimsy attack jobs, as the article’s writers maintain: “Socialism nevertheless didn’t even recoil from atomic extortion, much less from hack writers of reactionary pamphlets done to seed fear.”
In conclusion, the article moves into a full-on celebration of socialism’s successes, emphasizing the unity of the socialist countries and their progress beyond the “imperialistic circles.” Charter 77, it says, is just part of the “stream of lies” that the “reactionary propaganda has unleashed into the world about us.” The socialist system and the people within it constitute, the article concludes,
a good, honest path that will steadily guide us to the communist goals. Everyone who works honestly and contributes to the common good will find for himself life security. No mendacious defamatory article can negate history’s truth.
Throughout the article, the authors rely on terms important not so much for their meaning in the dictionary, but for their broader meaning in the national and Eastern bloc-wide discourse. We’ve already discussed the terms used to mark the enemy — reactionary, bourgeois, imperialist, Western — but on the positive side, “Life security” is a good example — in the Czechoslovak case, this meant exactly what Havel’s greengrocer was after — a job, a second house in the countryside, access to passable schools for his children. Readers may not have believed everything that the article claimed, but they would have understood the threat lurking between the lines — this, readers, is the treatment that you can expect if you join the dissident movement.
To audiences today, on the other hand, “Losers and Usurpers” reads rather as a parody, extolling the virtues of a system that would fall less than two decades after the writing of this article and denouncing the people who would emerge, in the eyes of most, as heroes. The terms that held such meaning coming from the Czechoslovak communist leaders have lost that meaning today, deprived of the discourse surrounding them. This phenomenon, however, of government propaganda and at times even normal propaganda relying on fixed discursive elements that mean more than what it says in the dictionary, is far from relegated to the past. “Losers and Usurpers,” then, serves not only as a glimpse into the past, but also as a reminder that it’s always important to approach media, especially when it comes from someone with an agenda, with a critical and discerning eye.
Lani Seelinger is a PhD student at the University of Helsinki and a remote member of the Department of Education at the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes, Prague. She is also the co-creator and curator of Socialism Realised, an online learning environment aimed at forging a deeper understanding of the lives of the people in communist regimes, and a comparison of these experiences to the present. You can find Socialism Realised on Twitter at @SocialismR.