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Review July 2023

Expert cultures in socialist Czechoslovakia and its contemporary echoes

Review by Maciej Górny
Vítězslav Sommer with Matěj Spurný and Jaromír Mrňka, 2019
ISBN 9788074226748
296 Pages
Published by: Nakladatelství Lidové noviny/Ústav pro soudobé dějiny AV ČR
Řídit socialismus jako firmu. Technokratické vládnutí v Československu, 1956-1989 Fortepan/Gergely Ötvös

There is some irony in writing about a collective monograph devoted to collectivized economics. Luckily, the small team of Czech scholars under the leadership of Vítězslav Sommer (also including Matěj Spurný and Jaromír Mrňka) has done much better than the Czechoslovak socialist economy that is the topic of their monograph. Within this broad theme they devote particular attention to expert cultures, central planning, socialist futurology, and management culture in both industry and collective farming, as well as urban planning in Czechoslovakia, between 1956 and the 1980s. While offering deep insights into these spheres, the authors also give broader context, both local (interwar Czechoslovakia) and international (Soviet Union). And, surprisingly, they also link the socialist past to Czechia’s current public debate on the condition of democracy and the surge of populism; perhaps not only Czechia’s.

There are at least four reasons for this book to be read beyond the narrow circle of economic historians. First, it contributes to our understanding of real socialism, as it was formed after Stalinism. Similarly to Pavel Kolář, Sommer and others refuse to see this period as a prolonged decline of a bankrupted ideology and they deliver many arguments in favor of their interpretation.1 Second, they undermine the pivotal role of 1968 in the history of Czechoslovakia by bringing to light many elements of continuity in crucial spheres of social life before and after the Warsaw Pact intervention during the Prague Spring. Third, they succeed in identifying trends in the economy and social life that transcended the Iron Curtain, thus placing Czechoslovakia in a broader context of civilizational changes of the second half of the 20th century. Fourth, they point to the inner dynamics of the socialist system that, again, defy the traditional image of the last declining decades of the people’s republics. The heritage preservation movement and environmental activism were parts of this dynamics.

So, what was Czechoslovak socialist management about? At the risk of gross simplification, one could describe it as a long-term intellectual trend with roots both in interwar Czechoslovakia and in the early Soviet Union that reappeared with vigor almost instantly after Stalin’s death. In the liberalizing atmosphere of the 1960s the idea of scientific management in the economy and social planning through expert institutions gained publicity among the country’s elites. It formed a parallel, at times competitive, stream of the Prague Spring, next to political democratization. After the suppression of “socialism with a human face” and thorough purges within the Communist party, the latter democratic elements were eliminated while the expert cultures of the 1960s developed further, contributing to the consolidation of the regime. The legacy of these cultures, both personal and mental, survived the collapse of communism in 1989 and mixed with the neoliberal ideology of the 1990s. 

To the reader not acquainted with the current Czech public debate the topic of this book may seem purely academic […]. This is, however, not the case.

This general timeline is amended by well-chosen case studies, admittedly mostly written in a heavily academic style. While scientific forecasting, epitomized by Czech philosopher Radovan Richta, who coined the term technological evolution, and the concept of the scientific-technological revolution has hardly been a neglected topic, chapters devoted to socialist technocratic management in industry and, especially, in collective farming offer new and interesting insight into the tensions between the party’s longing for the perfection of central planning (preferably with the help of advanced computing techniques) and a marked-oriented decentralization of economic decision making. Urban planning, the topic of the sixth and – for the most part – seventh chapters, enjoys a special status as – contrary to managerial skills of socialist technocrats – many potential readers of this book still dwell within the ambitious projects built in the 1970s and 1980s. Longer forays into the construction history of Czech Most, a town north-west of Prague, and Petržalka, the giant suburb of Bratislava, offer a particularly good read for every post-socialist city dweller. This is also where the links between real socialism and our own time become most obvious. Not only due to the sheer fact of shared space, but also the dynamics of selection and hierarchy of what should be destroyed and what ought to be spared. Public debate around the preservation (or lack thereof) of historic buildings is one such link.

To the reader not acquainted with the current Czech public debate the topic of this book may seem purely academic (unless interested in the modernist architecture of the time). This is, however, not the case. In fact, in the Czech “memory wars” the character of the post-1968 communist regime occupies the central place at least since the publication of historian, Michal Pullmann’s book on the last decade of the regime, in 2011.2 In 2020 a television show with Pullmann and the journalist Michal Klíma turned into a protracted row over the past, a debate that seems to turn even more political with time. Recent conflicts within and around the ÚSTR (Ústav pro studium totalitních režímů/Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes) suggest that the topic of Sommer’s, Spurný’s and Mrňka’s book will not cease to spur controversies anytime soon. Was the communist regime a dictatorship and nothing but a dictatorship? What were the attitudes of society and the elites? What is the degree of continuity between communism and post-communism? These and similar questions erode the comfortable image of a foreign power that ruled over the guiltless nation. In its place they offer a much more complicated panorama of various levels of participation in and, as an exception, resistance to the regime. The book by Sommer, Spurný and Mrňka is an important contribution to that debate. Their analysis of “normalized” Czechoslovakia shows a high degree of social participation in the practical shaping of the system. In the end the reader must ask him or herself the question: were they (socialist experts) so different from us?

More importantly the authors do not abstain from this association themselves. In the concluding remarks they warn their readers against the “technocratic populism” currently undermining liberal democracy with the help of expert institutions beyond democratic control. Technocracy (or a semblance thereof) can be dangerous when it serves the dictator. And so, a collective monograph devoted to obscure problems of socialist economy concludes with a calm but clear message from experts.     

Maciej Górny is the Deputy Director of the Tadeusz Manteuffel Institute of History Polish Academy of Sciences. Between 2014 and 2019 he was the editor-in-chief of Acta Poloniae Historica. Between 2006 and 2010 he was a research fellow at the Centrum Badań Historycznych PAN/Zentrum für Historische Forschung in Berlin. His research interests include East Central Europe in the 19th and 20th century, history of historiography, discourses on race and the First World War. His latest publications include Science Embattled: Eastern European Intellectuals and the Great War (Paderborn 2019) and Polska bez cudów. Historia dla dorosłych (Warsaw 2021).


1 Kolář, Pavel. Der Poststalinismus: Ideologie und Utopie einer Epoche. Zeithistorische Studien, Band 57. Köln: Böhlau Verlag, 2016.

2 Pullmann, Michal. Konec experimentu: přestavba a pád komunismu v Československu. Praha: Scriptorium, 2011.