An Open Letter to Angela Davis - Jiri Pelikan

Czechoslovak dissident and former member of the Communist party Jiri Pelikan wrote this open letter to Angela Davis requesting her support for Czechoslovak political prisoners. She declined.

Submitted by Reddebrek on July 17, 2018

You will perhaps be surprised that a Czechoslovak political exile should feel the need to write to you. You must have had many messages from Czechoslovakia, but you missed those from the people who would have liked to express their solidarity but could not do so because their voices are stifled, because they are in prison, condemned or awaiting trial.

I am sending you this letter in their names. I can speak and write because I have chosen, like many of my compatriots, to continue the struggle in exile. But I'm also writing to you because, in spite of our different experiences, we have a lot in common and I think that you will understand me. You say that you became a communist because after seeing the people suffer you understood that society must be changed. So did I. I joined the Communist Party in September, 1939. I was a student and I had seen my country occupied by the German Nazis. I wanted to fight for freedom and to change a system which produces wars and oppression. You have lived through the painful experience of prison. So have I. While the Gestapo hunted me, my parents were taken as hostages: and my mother never came back from prison. I know as. well as you what is meant by repression, discrimination, and suffering. Like you, I went into the revolutionary movement convinced that socialism can create a more just society for the majority of men.

THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN US consists only in the fact that after thirty years as a militant, in October, 1969, I was expelled from the party along with some half million Czech and Slovak communists simply because we refused to consider the occupation of our small socialist country by a foreign power, itself "socialist," as "fraternal aid." You may say that there is a big difference between American military aggression in Vietnam and the Soviet intervention in Czechoslovakia. I agree, and that is why our people did not defend itself in arms. But the substance of the two interventions is the same: to prevent people from deciding their own destiny. You are for the immediate withdrawal of American troops from Vietnam. So am I. But why, four years after the intervention, are there still 80,000 Soviet soldiers in Czechoslovakia, in spite of the agreements between Bonn and Moscow and Warsaw, in spite of the "consolidation" many times proclaimed by Husak and Brezhnev? I was delighted to read that after your release you said you would fight for the freedom of all the political prisoners in the world. I hope you will do so for political prisoners in capitalist countries, but also in East European countries, especially Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union.1 You may object that here too there is a difference: that in the United States and other Western countries it is "progressives" who are persecuted, whereas in the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia it is mainly "antisocialist" elements, to use the language of official propaganda. But Angela, ask for the list of political prisoners in Czechoslovakia and read their biographies: you'll find the overwhelming majority of them are communists or socialists.

I SHOULD LIKE TO RECALL a few, mostly veteran communists: Milan Hiibl, rector of the party university and member of the Central Committee; Jaroslav Sabata, psychologist and member of the Central Committee; Alfred Cerny, worker, regional party secretary in Brno and member of the Central Committee; Jaroslav Litera, worker and secretary of the Prague city party committee; General Vaclav Prchlik, member of the Central Committee and of Parliament; Karel Bartosek, historian; Petr Uhl, teacher; Jifi Lederer and Vladimir Nepras, journalists; Ota Krizanovski, teacher in the party school; and hundreds of lesser-known namesintellectuals, students, workers, priests, and trade unionists. Among the prisoners are two communist journalists who worked for a long time as correspondents in your country: Karel Kyncl for the radio and Jiri Hochman for the party daily Rude Prdvo. From them we learned to know and to support the struggle of the American progressives against racism, McCarthyism, and the Vietnam war. Today they have both been in prison for six months, and both are ill: Hochman with a serious form of tuberculosis and Kyncl with an ulcer. They have no contact with the outside world, inadequate medical care, no chance to choose or to consult their lawyers, no knowledge of when they will be tried. Their families, like those of most other political prisoners, are in a particularly difficult situation because their wives are prevented from working. Moreover, to collect money for the families of prisoners is considered "approval of criminal acts" and is therefore punishable by imprisonment. Do you, Angela, consider this situation normal in a country that calls itself "socialist"? I have read about and seen on television the many messages of solidarity you received in prison and after your release. I was proud to think that there were people who were not indifferent to the fate of others; at the same time I had to think with sadness and bitterness about my friends imprisoned in Prague who cannot receive expressions of solidarity and are deprived of moral encouragement.

But, Angela, you above all have the moral right to demand of the Czech authorities what has been until now denied to all journalistspermission to visit the Ruzyn Prison in Prague and to interview Karel Kyncl and Jiri Hochman, both of whom speak English. Listen to them and draw your own conclusions; but above all try to help them so they can defend themselves against their accusers as you have been able to do in your own country.

BUT AMONG THE CZECH POLITICAL prisoners there are also noncommunists; you will find Catholics, Evangelists, Jews, and also those opposed to socialism. This must not be a pretext for indifference to their fate. In Czechoslovakia we have paid dearly for our failure to understand that liberty is not divisible and that injustice toward opponents will in the end turn itself back on those who commit injustice. If liberty is taken away from some of the people it will soon die for the rest.

But prison is not the only or the main form of repression in Czechoslovakia. Tens of thousands of communists and other citizens have nothing to live on, being deprived of work for their political convictions. The best writers are condemned to silence, theaters that disobey are closed, the directors who made the fame of the new Czechoslovak cinema are out of work or are forced to leave the country. The theaters do not know what to put on apart from the classics and escapist comedies; the Ministry of Culture does not recommend antifascist works because the public might find "dangerous parallels" which would lead to "provocative applause." Hundreds of thousands of citizens have been eliminated from public life. For the "sins" of their parents children may no longer study, and parents are punished for the negative attitudes of their children. Investigations are carried out as far as three generations back, to encourage denunciations.

Some people are overcome by fear and resignation. Not all have the will and the courage to defend themselves as you have done. But we too have many Angela Davises and Soledad brothers, though they remain unknown. The best Czech writers have refused to serve the regime; after they were forbidden to publish their books in Czechoslovakia they published abroad. Now the government has applied to them taxes and regulations that allow them only 5 percent of their royalties—less than is sufficient to live on for a month. The regime hopes that they will stop writing, become tired, give in. And if a writer tells a foreign journalist %vhat is happening he can be condemned to three years in prison for spreading information abroad that is "damaging to the interests of the State"!

THE GOVERNMENT STATEMENT ANNOUNCING these measures makes it clear that they are directed against such writers as Ludvik Vaculik,2 Milan Kundera, Pavel Kohout, Vaclav Havel, and Ivan Klima, against the Marxist philosopher Karel Kosik (with whom you would, I think, quickly arrive at mutual understanding), against the historian Robert Kalivoda, and even against Jean Prochaka, a writer now dead. We are one of the special countries in which writers cannot join the Union of Writers and all literary journals have been suppressed. And what a rich and progressive literature we once had!

Hundreds of professors and teaching assistants have been fired from the University because of their political attitudes and today are working as laborers, taxi drivers, porters. Eighteen hundred journalists have been excluded from their union and prevented from working as journalists. The Student Union has been dissolved and most of its leaders condemned or forbidden to carry on studies. And most of them, Angela, are, like you, communists.

It is not only a revolt of intellectuals or young people, as is sometimes asserted by Western left-wingers to justify their silence or hesitation. Four weeks ago in Prague the congress of the "normalized" trade unions (purged of more than 50,000 cadres since 1969) annulled the decisions of the preceding congress, including the right to strike. The workers are not allowed to have independent trade unions or to fight for their demands or to protest against the dismissal of comrades, against production schedules and bad working conditions. The Workers' Councils, formed in 1968 and dissolved in 1969, have been defined by the party leadership as "instruments of conterrevolution." Isn't that absurd for a so-called "working-class" state?

When I describe all that, without the slightest pleasure but with shame and sorrow, to my Western friends, they reply that of course it's a disagreeable situation but that one mustn't say so too openly so as not to "play into the hands of socialism's enemies," and that one must start from "a class position." But what "class" can benefit if people are arrested without trial, if trade unions are enslaved, if all free discussion is suppressed, if socialist countries accuse each other of imperialism, betrayal, revisionism, and invade each other by turn?

If they mean the working class, then that of Czechoslovakia has made it clear that it does not consider the present regime socialist.

THAT IS PRECISELY WHY YOU, Angela, and the millions of people who supported you and believe in a more just socialist society with more freedom, can no longer be silent about the violation of human rights in the countries that call themselves "socialist" and by their behavior discredit socialism more than any reactionary propaganda.

That is why I suggest to you and to those who supported you sincerely, not just for easy demagogic propaganda:
1) demand the release of all political prisonres in the world, in Greece, Spain, Portugal, Brazil, Iran, the United States, and also in Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union;
2) protest against the violation of human rights—especially the right to freedom of expression and organization, to strike, to emigrate, to work and to study without discrimination—throughout the world;
3) demand the immediate withdrawal of American troops from Vietnam and of Soviet troops from Czechoslovakia. I assure you, Angela, that not only I but many other people are waiting for a reply, or better still for you to act. I don't say that on it depends the fate of our imprisoned comrades and the struggle for the freedom and independence of our people. We learned in 1938 that at the moment of foreign aggression we are always alone and must count above all on our own strength. But we should be happy to have you with us, as we have been with you.

The only response from Angela Davis to Jiri Pelikan's moving appeal that we are aware of was reported in the London Times where Mr. Pelikan's Open Letter had also appeared. According to The Times, Charlene Mitchell, a close friend of Angela Davis, who claimed that she spoke in her behalf, said that Angela Davis held the view that those who were jailed in Eastern Europe were trying to undermine their governments and that those who went into political exile were attacking their own countries and therefore undeserving of her support. The Editor.

An Open Letter to Angela Davis appeared in The New York Review, August 31, 1972.

1 A collection of documents on repression in Czechoslovakia appears in the Winter 1972 issue of New Politics.—The Editors.
2 For a review of Ludvik Vaculik's novels, see "After the Earthquake" by Neal Ascherson, The New York Review, August 10, 1972.