Confidence from experience of the failed cause. Remembering Milan Neubert (1955-2021)

Last week Milan Neubert’s memory was honoured by a small gathering. The Czech communist, who died on 20 April, was a natural scientist, co-founder of the political education association Společnost pro evropský dialog (SPED) as well as the long-time chair of the Party of Democratic Socialism (Strana demokratického socjalismus, SDS).

Confidence, once planted in a person never completely leaves him. – Peter Hacks

Every school child there knows about the small town with the castle, but anyone who comes to the country from abroad needs a special reason to go to Lány. At the beginning of June 2006 in Prague, Sunday would normally be devoted to discussing and more thoroughly analysing the just held parliamentary elections, which traditionally take place on Friday and Saturday. The electoral result gave the parties a hard nut to crack – as would soon be evident. Instead of going to just any place, Milan Neubert spontaneously proposed going to Lány; he only casually said that I would understand why it was worth going the short distance of barely 40 kilometres west of the city. I tried to guess, privately expecting one of the tourist attractions which abounded in the area surrounding Prague. My surprise was all the greater when, in the small local cemetery, we stood at the grave of Tomáš G. Masaryk (1850-1937).

We soon began to talk about 1968, about the difficult period following it, the secret police who because of Masaryk repeatedly had to close off the place, and about much that had befallen the country and its people since 1989/90. In 1921 the Czechoslovak state acquired the castle to make it available to future presidents as a summer residence. Masaryk dealt masterfully with the game of satisfying the curiosity of the public: the wonderful park landscape belonging to the castle was made freely accessible. How different it was in socialist times, when other principles prevailed, among them the excessive security needs of the highest-ranking person in the state, which limited free access for the unauthorised or made it impossible. Václav Havel was the first to return, quickly, to the original regulation, that is, to public use of the large green areas behind the castle building.

The conversation then deepened, for the question of socialism and public life was suddenly in the air. Both of us were children of the defunct state socialism that was attempted, in both the GDR and the ČSSR, in the wake of the Second World War. We were both searching for a viable way out, staying the course of a democratic socialism – an oath to not simply give up everything that was actually achieved in the failed attempt to overcome capitalist relations or not allow them in the first place. But also the acknowledgement of how criminal the transgression in this attempt was against the three important achievements of bourgeois society: freedom of opinion, freedom of assembly, and freedom to organise. This look back also revealed how enormous the role of labour struggles was in establishing these principles which enforced the division of powers in the life of society. To have so recklessly given these up was among the sore spots in the socialism we grew up in.

Returning to Prague, the current electoral results captured our attention. The 200 seats in the Czech Chamber of Deputies were now so distributed that it was hard to constitute a majority. The Social Democrats and Communists together would take exactly 100 seats – the bourgeois side, from liberal to conservative, could chalk up the same number. But on this day we were less interested in the coming formation of the government, which was in fact to require several months, than in the question of the extraordinarily complicated relation between the Social Democrats and the Communists. A coalition of the two left forces at this level was still completely unthinkable – the past smarted, and it still separated them, and by contrast the future seemed to have all the time in the world. In Germany the party Die LINKE had just come together, which was at first able to build on the great successes up to that time of the democratic socialists in the area of the former GDR. In the federal state of Brandenburg there was even a state government made up of the Social Democrats and Die LINKE – but in Czechia, it seemed, not enough water had gone under the bridge. If we look back and consider the current polling numbers, the rapid decline is frightening, for Social Democrats and Communists together are only slightly under the 10% mark. In Germany too, another period has long since set in; here the tangible decline of electoral support for Die LINKE is striking and reminds one of the situation in Czechia. In our lively discussions at the time we both sensed little of the approaching future, which now is already our present. Perhaps the truth is that while the specific potential, arising from defunct state socialism, for left politics under present conditions has gradually been used up, that bridge to the continually more foreign-appearing shore nevertheless reliably bore up for more than 30 years. The coming years will soon show whether new forces will take root and grow here.

And another issue occupied us – the accession in 2004 of Czechia and other former socialist countries to the European Union. While the Social Democrats steered a clear ‘Europe’ course, the Communists’ attitude was unclear or negative. They considered the whole matter still far from being settled and evaluated the daring step to a federation of states with systematically enlarged sovereignty rights as actually risky, because the differences between the successful Western countries and the newly acceded members were extreme. Countries like Czechia or even Poland could accede to the EU at that time also because London appeared as a sought after or desired brake on the much too quickly turning axle between Paris and Berlin, under whose wheels many at the time in Prague or Warsaw thought they would be trampled. No one then could imagine the British would exit. From Czechia too, young people in search of better paid work somewhere else in the EU tended to think first of Britain; because neighbouring countries like Germany or Austria had for some time, out of an idiosyncratic sense of precaution, blocked access to their labour markets for the new arrivals from the former East. Such questions concerned us; moreover we could not know how long the newly elected Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel would stay in office.

Suddenly Milan asked me, the visitor from Warsaw, whether people in Poland were able to differentiate between Ukraine and Russia, between Ukrainians and Russians, for in Czechia they were always quickly put in the same boat. My answer, that this differentiation has never been difficult in Poland, surprised him a bit but not too much. We quickly came to the issue that was to increasingly shape the relation between the EU and its large Eastern neighbours. In June 2014 Milan, then chair of the small Party of Democratic Socialism (SDS), invited me to a talk in Prague, which addressed the situation in Ukraine, after the pro-Russian state president was overthrown, Crimea was annexed by Russia, and eastern Ukraine was firmly in the grip of separatist strivings. It was an open debate, in which I tended to take Kiev’s side and was thus decidedly against Russian annexation of Crimea or the hypocritical plans for a federalisation of Ukraine. But I quickly realised how different the mood in the hall was, even if my objective arguments were attentively followed. In one thing I and Milan were immediately in agreement: The dangerous situation – which would not have arisen without the past political mistakes of the West and thus also of the EU – should not be allowed to develop into a long-lasting conflict that would seriously compromise the relations between the EU and Russia, which we all considered very important, and usher in an ice age in that respect. In our last meeting in Prague in spring 2019 we spoke in greater depth and with much concern of the tense relationship between the EU and Russia, of the messy situation in Ukraine, and of possible solutions.

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