Czechoslovakia’s two-hour general strike

A general strike can be one of the most potent noncooperation methods in the repertoire of nonviolent resistance. It is a widespread cessation of labor in an effort to bring all economic activity to a total standstill. Although it is easy to broadcast the call for a general strike, it is exceedingly difficult to implement for the maximal impact that it potentially exerts. What’s more, a general strike must be called prudently, because it loses its effectiveness if weakly executed.

The Occupy movement’s calls for a general strike in the United States on May 1 make me think of an instance in which a general strike was brilliantly carried out and with great effect, in Czechoslovakia in 1989 — for only two hours.

For years beforehand, the sharing of subversive literature, drama and ideas against the communist regime had been occurring in Czechoslovakia, virtually unseen. In fact, historian Theodore Ziółkowski reminds us that “almost from the moment when the Soviet empire, after Yalta, swallowed up the nations of Eastern Europe, the fight against Communism began.” Thousands of clandestine samizdat (Russian for self-published) publications had been manually typed on onion skin with carbon paper, read, passed from hand to hand and circulated sub rosa. Incarcerated authors and dramatists worked intensively in contemplation and planning from their prison cells. While building strong networks among these civil society organizations in formation, Czechoslovaks considered how to withdraw their cooperation from the communist party-state, and thereby bend it to the popular will.

On November 17, 1989, in Czechoslovakia’s capital, Prague, police brutally interrupted a student demonstration. In response, the Czechoslovak people undertook what came to be known as the Ten Days, as I have recounted in more detail elsewhere. Events seemed to unfold instantaneously, but anyone who has studied nonviolent struggles knows otherwise. Aided by Radio Free Europe and labor unions, Prague’s theatrical circles would become catalytic in organizing a massive national resistance, including major demonstrations against the procedures of the regime. Citizens were emboldened by listening to Radio Free Europe and reading samizdat, and were thus aware of the popular national nonviolent mobilizations already underway in Poland, Hungary and East Germany. The Czechoslovaks also benefited from a more enlightened Soviet policy than during the crushing of the Prague Spring in 1968. These relative advantages, and the caliber of leadership emanating from the playwrights and thinkers in theatrical circles, meant that the Czechoslovaks would be able to bring about their 1989 Velvet Revolution with astounding haste and effectiveness, a key element of which was the breadth of participation in a general strike.

Overnight on November 17 — Day One — and into November 18, students became determined to go on strike. They spread word to Prague’s Charles University and other colleges and universities. Although students were the first to call for strikes, by Saturday afternoon the denizens of Prague’s famous theaters had declared their support and were proposing a national general strike for November 27. The students straight away endorsed the proposed general strike and for six weeks would persist in striking on their own, to a great extent backed up by similar noncooperation measures by actors and dramatists. As the students published releases announcing their strikes, the theatrical managers and actors circulated theirs, while Radio Free Europe broadcast texts transmitted by telephone. Official media, having long toed the government line, condemned the officials’ violence of November 17. Employees at television stations denounced biased coverage and disputed untruthful news reports. Broadcasts of the first photographic images of the Prague demonstrations proved to be critical because they disclosed to thousands what was happening in their own country.

On Day Three — Sunday, November 19 — a crowd of 200,000 gathered in Prague for a demonstration to protest the police brutality against the students. That night a citizens’ pro-democracy organization called the Civic Forum (Občanské Fórum) emerged, many of whose members had been persistent critics of the party-state. Over the following three days, throngs occupied Prague. Tens of thousands of young people and students took over Wenceslas Square, carrying flags and chanting slogans: “Freedom,” “Resign,” “Now’s the Time” and “This Is It.”

With playwright Václav Havel as the guiding light, Prague’s Magic Lantern Theater became the nerve center of the Civic Forum, in part because of its proximity to Wenceslas Square. Its wardrobes and changing rooms were assigned to committees, and Havel became the author and mediator for the Civic Forum’s statements and positions. Throughout the Velvet Revolution, the forum would act as the speaker for the Czechoslovak people, while coordinating the collective nonviolent actions of the broad opposition. The Civic Forum encompassed most perspectives and sentiments of opposition, and included some reform-minded communists. A Slovak group, Public Against Violence, acted as partner to the forum.

Prague’s theaters were perfect for hearty political debate. Instead of the curtain rising on productions, the actors would lead audiences in discussions of the situation. Signs instantly appeared in theaters across the country reading “We Strike” or “On Strike,” rousing unity because of the popular esteem for the dramatic arts. Theaters in Bratislava, Brno and Ostrava went on strike the next day. Wherever actors and dramatists gathered, they joined the noncooperation.

On Tuesday, November 21 — Day Five — the Civic Forum and student representatives met officially with Prime Minister Ladislav Adamec, who guaranteed that no violence would be administered against Czechoslovak citizens. The government announced that “socialism was not up for discussion,” but no one missed the meaning of such a meeting in the midst of mounting popular defiance. In Wenceslas Square in Prague and in Hviedoslav Square in Bratislava, mass demonstrations ratified calls for a general strike on November 27. Václav Havel addressed the multitude as the exemplar of the Civic Forum, his speech blunter and less courtly than usual. When he and the respected banned priest Václav Malý spoke, the crowd could hear every word, because rock groups had lent huge amplifiers. A message from the Roman Catholic František Cardinal Tomášek declared, “We cannot wait any more,” stressing that Czechoslovakia was surrounded by countries that “had broken the back of totalitarianism,” referring to Poland, Hungary, and East Germany. Bells rang. One journalist reported 200,000 sets of key rings unforgettably jangling. Throngs chanted “Today Prague, tomorrow the whole country!” and “Time’s up!” Striking students held sit-ins at institutions of higher learning throughout Prague.

On Wednesday, November 22 — Day Six — the Civic Forum formally announced a two-hour general strike for Monday, November 27. The forum and its partner, Public Against Violence, sought an incapacitating general strike with the participation of virtually every citizen to exert sufficient pressure on the government to accelerate a rapid, nonviolent transition of power. A general strike could reduce the threat of reprisals among large numbers of participants, yet many were ambivalent about hurting an already stagnating economy. By limiting the strike to two hours, the effect of a general strike would be wielded while minimizing harm to the economy.

Coal miners in northern Bohemia announced that they would join the work stoppage, but no one knew to what extent laborers in the country’s smokestack industries would join the growing noncooperation action. By Thursday, November 23 — Day Seven — Wenceslas Square saw more than 300,000 marching. The party-state started to split and divide. The ministry of defense that day announced that the Czechoslovak military forces would not be deployed against Czech and Slovak peoples. The Civic Forum issued a statement renewing commitment to a Czechoslovak tradition: “We are against violence and do not seek revenge.”

Striking students insistent on free elections and a change in government then sent hundreds of their numbers into the countryside to visit industrial plants and talk with workers, enlisting their involvement in the general strike. The government raised calamitous warnings of economic breakdown and tried in other ways to frighten the workforce not to join the general strike. Reporters who traveled to machinery works encountered busloads of communist militia members blocking the students from contacting the laborers and sharing handouts. The Reverend Václav Malý, now a spokesperson for the Civic Forum, proclaimed that workers at more than 500 enterprises had pledged to strike.

On Saturday, November 25 — Day Nine — the Civic Forum pronounced the upcoming national general strike as a “referendum” on communist rule. In Prague, 800,000 marched; in Bratislava 100,000 demonstrated. On national television, with Havel announcing that the planned November 27 national general strike would proceed, the forum had become the rudder for the nationwide preparations for the two-hour strike action. The forum encompassed virtually the entire Czechoslovak opposition to the party-state, served as the representative for the Czechoslovak public, coordinated the opposition’s civil resistance and had become a national voice. Comporting itself in a sensible, ethical and deliberately open manner — if a slightly chaotic one — the Civic Forum called its program “What We Want” and concentrated on civil and human rights, a free and independent judiciary, multiparty electoral democracy and political pluralism, economic and free-market reforms, and alterations to the nation’s environmental and foreign policies.

Roughly 6,000 strike committees were at work preparing to bring all economic activity to a halt. As midday approached on Monday, November 27, the population stopped functioning as church bells rang. Minutes before noon, a television broadcaster stated that he was joining the strike and would go off the air. Taxi drivers aligned themselves so as to block Prague’s ring road with a two-mile succession of cabs. This elegantly executed national noncooperation action lasted from noon until two o’clock — during lunchtime, so as not to endanger jobs. The colossal industrial strike reflected no divisions between classes, as laborers, workers of all skills, intellectuals, academicians, students, artist and theatrical personnel together orchestrated the nationwide general strike.

This countrywide, successful act of noncooperation brought the Civic Forum and the government into discussions that would soon lead to a peaceful democratic transition of power. The party-state began to yield. The Civic Forum and the government began discussions. The “leading role” of the communist party, protected in a constitutional clause, was formally rescinded. On December 29, 1989, the Federal Assembly, the communist-dominated national legislature, unanimously elected Havel as president.

The artists, playwrights, academicians, priests and activist intellectuals wanted genuinely revolutionary change that would transform Czechoslovakia permanently and construct a resilient democracy. Years of prudently building the strength of civil society had culminated in the ability to mount a memorable and effective national general strike. With the united voices of the Civic Forum and Public Against Violence, the people had brought about an expeditious transition of power. Czech educator Jan Urban explains the logic of those who were coordinating Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution: “[F]rom the first moment, we wanted to be aggressively nonviolent in our stance — to make a power of our lack of weapons.” He summarized, “In the course of one week, in November 1989, Winter blossomed into Spring in Czechoslovakia. A nonviolent mass movement … triumphed … in transition from the negation of the old to the building of the new.”

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