By Dan Jakopovich
Fifty years have passed since the great uprising of the Hungarian people against the Stalinist dictatorship.
In order to fully understand the developments which led to the Revolution of 1956, it is necessary to take into account the defeat of the Hungarian Soviet Socialist Republic of 1919, followed by brutal repression and the proto-capitalist dictatorship of Miklos Horty*. Still others who managed to escape were killed in Stalin’s purges, including the leader of the Hungarian Communist Party Bela Kun. The minority that wasn’t physically exterminated was forced underground, leading a shadow existence, which would haunt the Hungarian socialist movement for the decades to come, but also, somewhat ironically, preserve the genuinely revolutionary ideas from their ideological appropriation by an aberant, bureaucratised mass party.
As defeat loomed for the Nazi Empire, towards the end World War Two, Moscow-controlled communist parties entered governments in coalitions with the bourgeois, anti-fascist peasant and social-democratic Central and Eastern European parties. With Russian help, the communist parties of the Soviet-occupied countries obtained key positions in the states– ministries of the interior and of defence. This enabled them to use state repression and terror against both the independent movements from below and their coalition partners — the peasant and social-democratic parties.
In Hungary, the nationalisation of 1947 marked the beginning of the full-fledged Stalinist control and exploitation and economic extraction to Russia. Hungary had been an ally of Hitler's Reich and the level of Hungary's reparations was enormous. Economic looting — dismantling of plant to be set up again in the USSR was a common feature of Russian imperialist rule, everywhere the "Red" Army went. In Hungary "reparations" consumed something like 90 per cent of the working capacity of the metal working and engineering industries in 1945; in 1948 reparations accounted for 25.4 per cent of budget expenditure, and in 1949 9.8 per cent.” (Chris Harman, Class Struggles in Eastern Europe). The government under Matyas Rakosi operated a regime of forced collectivisation and industrialisation. The purges of non-Stalinists continued relentlessly. After the break between Tito's Yugloslavia and Russian in mid-1948, dissident Communist Party members were persecuted as “titoists”, “fascist spies”, "Zionists" and “western agents”. In Hungary this reached the climax of the trial and execution of the foreign minister and veteran Communist Party member Laszlo Rajk.
Already in 1949 the rising levels of absenteeism, indicated a spontaneous working class passive resistance. Immediately after the death of Stalin in March 1953 and the Berlin revolt in the same year, under Russian pressure, a (reluctant) age of reform opened in Eastern Europe and Hungary too. As had frequently happened in history reforms from above stimulated revolt from below.
Imre Nagy, a Stalinist who had been jailed as a nationalist during the "anti-Tito" period replaced Rakosi as prime minister. He ended the intensive Stalinist police terror and brought to an end forced collectivisation. Reform from above brought a crisis of confidence for the Hungarian Stalinist ruling class. This ideological crisis, centred primarily on the more critical elements in the elite. Intellectuals, writers and students were the first to rebel. The students, assisted by the Writers’ Union, started the "Petöfi circles" (named after the famous Hungarian poet and revolutionary Sandor Petöfi). They organised a series of debates in which they more or less freely discussed the issues of the day and they produced propaganda. “Soon, the meetings of the Petöfi Circle were attracting thousands of people. These gatherings, already unanimous in their demands for intellectual liberty and truth, began to hear voices openly calling for political freedom.” (Andy Anderson, Hungary 56).
By 1955 the reform period seemed to be over and a reflux beginning. Not yet! Nagy had been sacked and Rakosi returned. Russian CP General Secretary Nikita Khruschev denounced Stalin and his legacy in a "secret" speech at the 20th Congress of the CPSU, in February 1956. It was petrol on the smouldering fires in Eastern Europe. Dissent intensified in Hungary and Poland.
At first Poland led the way towards anti-Stalinist revolution. Events in Poland were the immediate catalyst for the Hungarian revolution. In Budapest, in October 100 000 people marched in solidarity with the Polish people. The Declaration of the Writers’ Union presenting relatively moderate demands at the time was read out — for an Imre Nagy government, an independent national policy, greater pluralism in political life, a definitive end to forced collectivisation, free elections, and — most radically — that the factories be run by workers and specialists instead of by bureaucrats. This was the spark that ignited revolution. The secret police opened fire on the crowds, killing several demonstrators. Protesters quickly responded, forcing the secret police to hide in central points of the regime’s power structure, such as the Radio Budapest building. Meanwhile, parts of the police and the military joined the insurrection or declared themselves neutral. The rage and audacity of the people intensified. Many found guns and made petrol bombs. The Hungarians found sympathy for their cause among considerable number of the permanent Soviet garrisons.
Imre Nagy was quickly reinstalled as prime minister, adding to confusion and contradictory demands among the discontented population. But already it was too late. The Stalinist party-state establishment proposed more reforms within the boundaries of the old system. Simultaneously they introduced martial law. The rebels responded appropriately — formed workers’ militias, occupied factories and established Revolutionary Workers’ Councils, effectively "soviets", like those of Russia in 1917 — new democratic organs of working class power and parallel self-government.
The councils organised the running of the factories, the distribution of food, the publication of newspapers, transport and all the other day-to-day affairs. Effectively they replaced the old bureaucratic apparatus of the state.
Gradually, an idea of forming a Central National Council (named the Central Workers’ Council of Budapest to avoid repression) began to develop. All delegates were mandated, directly responsible to their base and subject to immediate recall, without special privileges. In the best libertarian socialist tradition, these directly democratic workers’ councils became the political form in which workers’ self-management, the right of all to participate in decision-making and public life, was finally realised.
While both the western mass media and the Russians for their different reasons, tried to portray the Hungarian uprising as aiming at capitalist restoration, the vast majority of Hungarians saw it as a struggle for democratic socialism, a pluralist democratic society, independence from the Russian grip, and generally better living conditions. Though they used "Hungary" for their own propaganda purposes, the western powers were not keen on helping the Hungarian revolutionaries. The French and the British were fighting their own war of imperialist re-conquest of the Suez Canal against Egypt which Britain, France and Israel invaded. The US administration remained neutral. The risks of intervention were too great. They did not want a democratic Hungarian Republic to come into existence. US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles publicly acknowledged that. Hungary was in the USSR's agreed "sphere of influence".
A new Soviet invasion, with fresh troops untouched by the revolutionary spirit of Hungary, followed after a short ceasefire in November. Russia launched air strikes, artillery bombardments, tank and infantry actions (primarily in urban, working class areas). The brave Hungarians fought back, using captured guns and petrol bombs against Russian tanks. Eventually the Hungarian revolutionaries were forced to call a ceasefire. A general strike (one of the longest in history) continued for some time. After Stalinist order was restored only in 1957.
Janos Kadar, Party Secretary who helped crush the revolution, became the new leader. Imre Nagy hid in the Yugoslav Embassy, only to fall prey to the Soviet authorities who promised he would be safe if he left the Embassy and went into exile. He was kidnapped and immediately killed by the Soviet military. They told the world 18 months later that he had been tried and hanged. It has been estimated that, in total, about 25-50,000 Hungarian insurgents and 7,000 Soviet troops were killed, thousands more were wounded, and nearly a quarter million left the country as refugees.
To pacify the population, new government provided increases in wages and other economic improvements. They bitterly opposed the self-management, which had taken the power out of their hands at the start of the revolt within. “In the minds of the party bureaucrats the workers’ councils were a nightmare which reminded them of everything they feared most.” (Chris Harman)
The Hungarian Revolution of 1956 revealed, once again, the savagery of the Soviet regime. It diminished its international reputation and its influence on the international working class movement. There was a widespread revulsion in the western CPs. Seven or eight thousand members of the 35,000 strong British CP left that organisation. The Hungarian soviets also embodied the working system of direct democracy, that had erupted in Russia in 1917. Its influence was felt in a number of later events from France (in 1968) to the Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia the same year.
* “A White Terror was let loose on Hungary by Horty’s foreign-assisted counter-revolution. The first fascist regime in Europe was set up. For the Hungarians, all former horrors were now surpassed. Thousands of Communists and Socialists were rounded up by fascist gangs, beaten, tortured, killed. The trade unions were violently suppressed. Those merely suspected of socialist sympathies were tortured and finally murdered. Thousands of people, quite unconnected with such ideas, suffered persecution and death.(…)Perhaps Horthy’s regime could best be called ‘rule by aristocratic fascists’. Whatever its name, its sickening bestiality, as far as the ordinary people were concerned, remains a scar on the body of humanity.” (Andy Anderson, Hungary ‘56, Active Distribution, AK Press & Phoenix Press, London, pp. 16-17)