News | Party / Movement History - German / European History - Participation / Civil Rights - Democratic Socialism “I Have Not Changed My Political Views”

A conversation with Czech dissident and Prague Spring leader Jan Kavan


Czech students march in protest against the entrance of Soviet tanks into Prague, August 1968. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Over three decades after the collapse of the Eastern Bloc, much public memory of the opposition to what was then called “actually existing socialism” paints dissidents as pro-Western liberals, conservative nationalists, or a mixture of both. Rarely is attention given to left-wing and socialist dissidents. Yet in many Warsaw Pact countries, much of the opposition to those regimes was driven by convictions rooted in the ideals of socialism. Oppositionists sought a different, more democratic socialism rather than an emulation of the capitalist model being practiced on the other side of the Iron Curtain.

Jan Kavan was a student leader in Czechoslovakia in the late 1960s before being forced into exile. After 1989, he served as the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Czech Republic from 1998 to 2002 and was President of the United Nations General Assembly from 2002 to 2003.

These democratic socialist impulses were perhaps most evident in Czechoslovakia in 1968, when reform-minded leaders assumed the leader of the Communist Party and began implementing what they called “socialism with a human face”. The reforms aspired to move beyond the repression of the post-war period and permit the creation of an autonomous civil society.

One member of that civil society was student leader Jan Kavan, who was forced into exile after Soviet tanks crushed the Prague Spring in August 1968, and later went on to become a leading Czech diplomat. He spoke with Uwe Sonnenberg and Ingar Solty from the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation about his experiences in 1968, his political career, and what democratic socialism means to him today.

We’d like to start out by asking you if you could tell us a bit more about who you are your role during the Prague Spring and subsequent repression?

My name is Jan Kavan. I was born in 1946, and I am a former Czech Foreign Minister and Deputy Prime Minister as well as former President of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA).

In 1967, I was one of the main student leaders who organized protests against the then-Communist government. In autumn 1967, we closely cooperated with the Writers’ Union and were also in contact with the top Communist reformers who removed Antonín Novotný as the party’s General Secretary and replaced him with a Slovak reformist Alexander Dubček. The student movement was one of the catalysts that led to the Prague Spring.

During 1968, we attempted to create an independent student union called the Union of University Students of Bohemia and Moravia (SVS). We pressed for greater democracy, as opposed to the official democratization process, and supported the emergence of a civil society.

As a human rights activist, I attempted to meet the needs of all Czechoslovak opposition groups and other East European movements including Solidarność, but as a left-wing socialist I worked most closely with leftist groups in Czechoslovakia as well as in the West.

Following the invasion in August 1968, we organized a nationwide student strike in November 1968 that attracted support from many trade unions. Between December 1968 and March 1969, we concluded so-called “defence agreements” with the trade unions in support of at least the remnants of the Prague Spring reforms.

Following the self-immolation of student Jan Palach in January 1969, we organized nationwide protests. I was interrogated by the secret police, suspended from the university and later expelled, and at the end of May 1969 I was forced to emigrate to the United Kingdom.

How did the repression and its specific circumstances impact you and your political development and activism?

The student union where I was the head of the foreign policy section was banned and dissolved. In London, I set up a solidarity fund, which from January 1971 onwards financed and organized smuggling of literature and duplicators to the nascent Czechoslovak opposition. In 1975, I set up Palach Press in the West, which published books and articles by opposition leaders. From 1977 onwards, we became the main voice of the Charter 77 human rights movement in the West. Beginning in 1986, I helped to link up Czechoslovak, Polish, and Hungarian opposition groups and later also added opposition groups from East Germany and Slovenia.

What exactly was the focus of Charter 77?

Charter 77 was a Czechoslovak human rights group launched in January 1977 following the government’s signing of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. The two covenants became part of Czechoslovak legislation as law no.120/1976, but in practice, the government ignored their provisions. Charter 77 simply demanded that the government observe its own laws. Charter 77 signatories were persecuted, many lost their jobs, and a number of them were imprisoned.

Charter 77 established close cooperation with Solidarność in Poland, the Hungarian democratic opposition, and East German Protestant opposition groups. It also established contacts with the Helsinki Federation of Human Rights, Human Rights Watch, and other similar groups, but also entered into a dialogue, for example, with European Nuclear Disarmament (END) in the UK or the Campaign for Peace and Democracy/East and West in the US.

Who were your main cooperation partners during your work in the late 1970s and 1980s?

As a human rights activist, I attempted to meet the needs of all Czechoslovak opposition groups and other East European movements including Solidarność, but as a left-wing socialist I worked most closely with leftist groups in Czechoslovakia as well as in the West.

Throughout 1970s and 1980s, I also worked closely with the part of the Western peace movement that supported not only disarmament in the West but also democratization in the East, such as END — which, in 1980 under the leadership of E.P. Thompson broke away from the British Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) because they also wanted to criticize human rights violations in the East and were prepared to work with Eastern European opposition groups — or the Inter-Church Peace Council (IKV) in Holland.

Given my roots, I became a determined opponent of war, anti-Semitism, racism, and injustice.

I was instrumental in linking these groups with opposition in the East, primarily with Charter 77. For example, I helped to distribute the so-called Prague Appeal, which demanded the removal of the Iron Curtain and reunification of Germany. I worked most closely with the group of independent socialists in Czechoslovakia as well as with leading leftist leaders such as Petr Uhl (1941–2021), who described himself as a revolutionary Marxist. I also tried to help the Polish group Freedom and Peace.

In the UK, I attempted to obtain the support of left-wing Labour Party leaders for the left-leaning Charter 77 leaders. I also organized Western socialist support for Czechoslovak political prisoners.

What are your thoughts on socialism today? Do you still have positive feelings towards it?

I have not changed my political views since my student days when I spoke out in support of democratic socialism. Over the subsequent years, I read more about it, obtained more experience by working with left-wing activists and intellectuals, and thus deepened my socialist convictions. After all, my Jewish and Communist father was imprisoned in Stalinist Czechoslovakia and sentenced to 25 years imprisonment…

That means your father was accused during the Slánsky Trials of 1952?

Yes, my father was a forced witness in the main Slánsky Trial and then sentenced to 25 years as a part of a four-member group of Slánsky’s men in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. My father’s mother and other relatives died in Nazi concentration camps.

Given my roots, I became a determined opponent of war, anti-Semitism, racism, and injustice. I was given my first taste of social inequality in the 1950s in Czechoslovakia, which was later reinforced in the Thatcherite UK of 1970s and 80s. Given my aforementioned experience, I strongly oppose invasions, aggression, persecution, and discrimination, and am also a staunch defender of human and civil rights. I wholeheartedly embrace the principle of solidarity.

As President of the UN General Assembly, I did my very best to ensure that the US invasion of Iraq did not receive the mandate of the UN Security Council. At that time, I also worked with the former UK Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, who resigned from his positions as Lord President of the Council and leader of the House of Commons in 2003 in protest against the imminent Iraq War. I felt a great deal of sympathy for his vision of an ethical foreign policy that prioritized human rights and nuclear disarmament, although in practice it was often not successful.

I travelled extensively around the world. In Israel, I lost my initial strong sympathies for the beleaguered Jewish state, and in Palestine I made a number of friends. Understandably, I opposed the annexation and occupation of foreign lands and discrimination against the local population. In El Salvador, Indonesia, and a number of African and Asian countries, I saw great poverty and thus supported the UN Millennium Development Goals, but also Palestinian rights and the Resolution on the Responsibility to Protect to prevent genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity.

Understandably, today I condemn the invasion of Ukraine and I fully support demands for an immediate ceasefire and a negotiated peace agreement. I am convinced that there must be a diplomatic solution to the conflict, not a military one. As a socialist, I support measures against climate change and for the protection of the environment, as well as the protection of women as outlined, for example, in the Istanbul Declaration.

As a socialist, I also supported various attempts to set up workers’ councils to give workers greater control over the conditions they work in and over the fruits of their labour. For me, all the aforementioned principles are indivisible and all form an integral part of my socialist convictions.