Hungary 1956: Revolt against Stalinism

‘Hungary ’56’ was the most dramatic uprising against Stalinist dictatorship. Weeks of fearless street battles and countrywide general strike action temporarily broke the machinery of totalitarian rule. The heroism, combativity, resourcefulness and humanity of the students and workers matched those of the Paris Communards of 1871 – who, in Marx’s words, ‘stormed heaven’ – and of the Bolshevik workers and soldiers who carried through the socialist revolution of October 1917.

All the objective components of a political revolution against the parasitic, dictatorial regime had matured. Had it been carried through to a successful conclusion, the world today would be a completely different, and very socialist, place.

The crucial element of a workers’ party with a far-sighted revolutionary leadership was missing. Not even in the white heat of the events was such a party forged. The tide of history rolled back, drowning the aspirations of the long-suffering working class for another whole historical period…

Stalinism in practice

Life in the early 1950s had become unbearable. The tinder of revolt by workers and intellectuals was ready to ignite into a major conflagration. A similar picture had developed in all the major countries that were grouped within Comecon and the Warsaw Pact. As long as the Kremlin was occupied by Joseph Stalin, little of the seething opposition came to the surface.

His death in March 1953, however, raised the hopes of hundreds of millions that genuine democratisation of the workers’ states could be carried through. Workers moved to take things into their own hands in important parts of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. In East Germany, the most industrialised country in the Kremlin orbit, an uprising started by building workers in Berlin on 17 June saw general strike action spread like wildfire. In a foretaste of what was to come elsewhere, Russian troops stationed in the country were ordered to crush the movement. Up to 270 were killed and many hundreds injured and imprisoned.

Events like these and the pressure building up inside Hungarian society – with sporadic outbreaks of 24- and 48-hour strikes – finally forced the hand of Georgi Malenkov and his cronies in the Kremlin. They replaced the hard-line Rakosi with Imre Nagy. Reforms were introduced with the aim of heading off the threat of revolution…

Early in 1955, in the post-Stalin USSR, Malenkov was replaced by Nikita Khrushchev. Fearing that Nagy’s concessions would encourage an appetite for more, he insisted on Rakosi being reinstated. Yet Khrushchev’s dramatic speech against the ‘mistakes’ of Stalin made to the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in February 1956 acted as a green light for revolt across Eastern Europe. Most serious was the uprising in Poznan, Poland, which erupted on 28 June. Three days of an insurrectionary general strike, four days of armed confrontation ensued.

Hungary ignites

In Hungary, in April 1956, the Petofi Circle was set up to discuss freedom of expression and other democratic rights…The Hungarian Writers’ Association met in June. George Mikes writes in his book, The Hungarian Revolution: “All the writers who took part in the first revolt were good Communists, trusted and pampered sons of the regime”.

In the face of a growing crisis, the ruling layer split – the first condition of any revolution. Rakosi was replaced by Gero, another hardliner, instead of Nagy, the more popular leader. But even Gero was forced to make concessions. In July, Lazslo Rajk, a prominent communist who had been purged in 1949, was rehabilitated. Early in October, on the ceremonial occasion of his re-burial, more than 200,000 marched through the streets of Budapest in an act of mass protest against the regime. Inside Hungary’s factories, workers were now organising in pursuit of their demands – for genuine trade unions and workers’ control.

In Poland, the Kremlin had been unable to prevent the ‘reform communist’ Wladyslaw Gomulka from being reinstated, on 19 October, to head the ruling party. This and the revelations at the Poznan workers’ trial spurred the Petofi Circle to call a demonstration of international solidarity in western Budapest on 23 October. Hundreds of thousands joined the protest. Demands for an independent socialist Hungary were voiced by speakers from the students and writers. They declared their support for workers to run the factories.

As the demonstration moved across the Danube, more and more contingents of workers from the factories swelled its ranks until more than 300,000 people filled the streets around the national parliament. Some went to City Park, felled the gigantic metal statue of Stalin, and dragged the head through the streets.

The population of the capital had shed their fear. The revolution had begun. The middle layers of society had already shown whose side they were on. The workers in the factories began electing factory councils and revolutionary committees. Peasants’ committees were formed and drew up plans for pursuing their demands. Many set about the task of supplying food for the embattled workers in the big cities.

Workers

“Within two days, the main centres of the revolt were in the working class areas”, Peter Fryer writes in his vivid eyewitness account, Hungarian Tragedy. Sent to the country on behalf of the British ‘Communist’ paper, the Daily Worker, he saw for himself how the ‘insurrectionary committee’ of the northern city of Gyor functioned: total democracy and deep determination not to live as they had lived before. The working class of Hungary was moving onto the scene of history in an unforgettable manner.

The first reaction of the regime was, naturally, to take the road of repression. Gero went on state radio to condemn the 23 October demonstration and declare a state of emergency. This inflamed the situation. A delegation of students went immediately to the radio station to protest. When they failed to reappear, a Hungarian tank in the square moved forward. Once its commander was seen to side with the demonstrators, an unstoppable process began. The Hungarian state machine – the police and army – began to fracture. Whole sections joined the revolution, others remained neutral.

After a dramatic standoff at the Killian barracks between Hungarian workers and their brothers in the army, the famous tank commander, Pál Malétér, led them to the side of the revolution. Others followed. Revolutionary committees matching those in the factories and regions were elected in the army. The Revolutionary Military Council of the Army Command published a list of demands including the withdrawal of all Soviet troops from Hungarian soil. Soldiers shared out their weapons and ammunition with the ‘freedom fighters’.

Russian soldiers come over

Russian tank commanders angered by what they saw when AVO snipers on rooftops opened fire on unarmed demonstrators, killing men, women and children, turned their guns against AVO. This made them heroes. Many Russian soldiers responded gladly to appeals of workers pushed through the ‘loopholes’ of their tanks. Many Russian officers and men later faced the firing squad for siding with the working class. Others who decided there was no way back, were given refuge in Hungarian homes.

Russian tanks had been called in by Gero but they had proved unable to stem the revolutionary tide. After the first day of the uprising, Moscow moved to replace him with János Kádár, hoping to appease the movement. But the masses were making their own decisions and called on Nagy to take the lead.

A situation of dual power was rapidly developing. The workers across the country were forming revolutionary councils. But Nagy was not cut out for the role of a Lenin or Trotsky. Having been purged from the ruling party when he was last demoted, he now formed his own. But it was far from a combat party of revolution.

The question was starkly posed at the height of the insurrection of proceeding to establish a real democratic workers’ state and making an international appeal or sliding back under the heel of the Stalinist boot. Nagy wanted neither. He was doomed to play the role of a Hungarian Kerensky, if on a different class basis.

Festival of revolution

For a few heady days of real freedom, a festive air gripped the country. As in all revolutions there was a phase when people came onto the streets simply to look around, to promenade and to feel the taste of liberty in the air.

The parliament building “resembled the Smolny Palace in Petrograd, the Bolsheviks’ centre in 1917”, wrote Sandor Kopaksi, former Budapest police chief. In less than 48 hours from its start, he came over to the revolution, bringing with him the whole of the city’s police. Three days later he was elected second in command of the Patriotic Revolutionary Militia. Malétér was made defence minister in the new government set up by Nagy on 27 October.

Fryer describes the revolutionary committees, linked up countrywide as, “organs of insurrection – the coming together of delegates elected by factories and universities, mines and army units – and organs of popular self-government which the armed people trusted… Until the Soviet attack of November 4, the real power in the country lay in their hands”.

The ‘ruling’ Communist Party, numbering around 900,000, disintegrated. Creating the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party to take its place gave Kádár no more authority in the eyes of the working class. His government was suspended in mid-air.

Around him sprang up new or long-banned parties and trade unions, “no fewer than 25 daily newspapers”, wrote Fryer, “in place of the five sad, dreary, stereotyped sheets of recent years”. Flags flew everywhere, but with the emblem of Soviet power cut from the centre. Russian soldiers had been persuaded to take the star from their caps.

Troops withdraw

The enemy had all but disappeared. On 30 October, the withdrawal of the Russian troops was officially announced. Power was in the hands of the working class but, as so often in revolutionary situations, they failed to see it. The opportunity for sweeping aside the old politicians and their hated system of government came and went. The reins of power fell into the hands of other forces either unwilling or unable to lead the mighty workers’ struggle to a successful conclusion.

Nagy was just keeping open the gate for the Kremlin appointee, Kádár, to return. The latter would later set up a separate government in Eastern Hungary, on the instructions of the Kremlin’s Hungarian ambassador, Yuri Andropov.

As the general strike rolled across the country like a tidal wave, an independent workers’ party with a revolutionary leadership would have launched the slogan: ‘All power to the Central Council of the Revolutionary Committees’ and moved to arrest the Kremlin-backed government ministers. An appeal would have been made to their brothers and sisters in the neighbouring countries to do the same, to struggle for genuine workers’ and peasants’ governments. In different parts of Hungary workers were instinctively refusing to recognise the leadership of Nagy. But no alternative leader or leaders that they could trust came to the fore.

Programme for workers’ democracy

From the early days of the revolution, the demands of the movement looked identical to the principles outlined by Lenin and Trotsky for ensuring genuine workers’ democracy, a precursor to socialism. New leaders must be elected, they insisted. No trust in the old state; the people must be armed. Workers’ management and decision-making through elected councils must be applied everywhere. No privileges. Increased wages, pensions and family allowances. Basic democratic demands for press freedom, academic freedom, freedom of expression, the right to assemble and for parties to stand in elections. Freedom from all forms of national oppression meant the immediate and total withdrawal of Russian troops.

Everyone was behind this programme. If there had been a party and leaders like the Bolsheviks in Russia in 1917, the workers could have taken power. A revolutionary leadership would have outlined the likely march of events, drawn up a strategy and tactics for defeating the enemy, and drawn together the revolutionary committees into a body which could have established genuine workers’ and peasants’ rule. This would have represented a ‘classical’ political revolution against Stalinism as envisaged by Trotsky. But after long decades of dictatorship and national oppression, no such party had been developed…

The brave fighters of the Hungarian revolution were not laying down their lives for the programme of fascist counter-revolution! No commentator, even from bourgeois origins, could deny that the movement was unanimous in its socialist aims…

The hated men and women of the AVO (Secret Police) faced the wrath of the people in whose name they had murdered and maimed. Hundreds of them were killed. But revolutionary order reigned…

But a revolutionary situation, without the timely intervention of a revolutionary party, can end in disaster. Instead of a new society coming into being, a tragedy ensues.

Second invasion

In the first days of November 1956, the Kremlin bureaucracy, in league with Kádár, was preparing a very bloody revenge. Nagy…fled to the Yugoslav embassy on 3 November…On that fateful day, the valiant workers and youth of Budapest were left facing a second, more brutal ‘Soviet’ invasion.

These new fresh forces were brought in from distant republics of the Soviet Union. Many were not able to speak Russian, let alone Hungarian. They had been primed for battle with lies about being sent against fascists in Berlin or imperialists in Nasser’s Egypt. (The Danube, they were told, was the Suez Canal, now being seized by British and French troops!) Workers and youth, some in their teens and younger, hurled Molotov cocktails to try and stop them in their tracks. Barricades were thrown up and mown down. Thousands lost their lives. Thousands more were injured. Workers’ districts, seen as the most stubborn fortresses of resistance, were pounded by tank and aerial bombardment. Every major city in Hungary was strafed from the air and then occupied by these new divisions of the foreign oppressor.

Another nationwide general strike was called…‘until the last Russian soldier leaves Hungarian soil’…In places like Dunapentele and ‘Red Csepel’, workers maintained their strikes for another week. In the south, the Pecs miners held out for three weeks with their own militia force.

500 delegates of the Budapest workers’ council met on 13-14 November…The Russian overlords sent tanks to surround the meeting…Prominent workers’ leaders were rounded up and imprisoned…yet strikes and go-slows defiantly continued, in some cases for more than a year.

Consequences

The toll of the events was grim. More than 30,000 were counted dead, hundreds of thousands injured and homeless, 200,000 living as refugees in Austria and beyond, 26,000 arrested, imprisoned or deported. The CIA estimated that as many as 1,200 were executed. Malétér and Nagy were tricked out of the Yugoslav embassy, abducted and held in Romania. In early 1958 they were executed on the orders of the Kremlin. Kopaksi was imprisoned for life, only freed under the thaw of the early 1960s…

Most threatening for the ‘Soviet’ bureaucracy had been the possibility of the victory of the political revolution. Such a development, accompanied by a direct appeal to the workers of Eastern Europe to follow suit, would have seen the Stalinist regimes throughout the region including the USSR itself fall like a line of dominoes…

Why did ‘The West’ not move in on the side of ‘democracy’ in Hungary in 1956? It was not simply that the Suez crisis was distracting them. They knew the strength of the workers’ socialist convictions and the threat to capitalism worldwide if the workers took power…If support for market capitalism and outright counter-revolution had been stronger within the country, outside help or even clandestine internal help would have been forthcoming.

One of the biggest lies of the ‘Communist’ camp, the apologists for Stalinism, and even some ‘left’ intellectuals, was that Hungary’s October had to be crushed by tanks to protect the ‘workers’ state’ from reaction! There was no reaction to speak of. There was no involvement of capitalist powers. The most significant elements of a bureaucratically run workers’ state – state ownership and planning – were not being challenged, only the actual totalitarian management…

Without the clear strategy and tactics of a revolutionary leadership, however, the revolution could not have succeeded. A workers’ state of the hideously deformed kind that existed previously would be restored. This is what happened.

Afterwards

Nevertheless, nothing in Hungary would ever be the same. Kádár was forced to introduce reforms and an amnesty for prisoners and church leaders and increased rights for workers and farmers.

As the Prague Spring of Dubcek’s challenge to Moscow bloomed in 1968, Kádár was forced to lift living standards and, following the advice of Khrushchev on how to deal with discontented workers, ‘Stuff their mouths with goulash’!

Outside Hungary the use of tanks against the workers’ revolution led to demonstrations on the streets of Europe’s major cities and thousands of resignations from ‘Communist’ parties across Europe. They were shocked and disgusted to find Stalinism did not represent socialism.

The predecessors of the Socialist Party in Britain at the time posed the question to genuine communists:”Two general strikes and two insurrections in three weeks. Why? To restore capitalism and landlordism! What a dirty lie!”. Even in Czechoslovakia, more than a decade later, the aim was still not market capitalism but “socialism with a human face”.

Even as the trade union ‘Solidarity’ developed in Poland in the 1980s, some of its leaders retained a strong allegiance to the ideas of socialism. But the defeat of the movement in Poland dealt a big blow to the confidence of the Hungarian working class. By the 1980s it had become clear that in Hungary, as well as in the Soviet Union, the dead weight of totalitarian control – centralised or decentralised – had become an actual barrier to further economic growth.

As in other parts of the ‘Soviet’ bloc, the bureaucratic elites experimented with reforms to save the situation. Then they decided to abandon the state-owned planned economy. It could no longer assure even the bureaucrats themselves the income and lifestyle to which they had grown accustomed, let alone satisfy the needs of the long-suffering working class.

In Hungary, the end of Stalinism came relatively peacefully. Workers had lost hope that their struggling state-owned planned economy could be revived through their own action. With living standards falling steadily and the idea of market capitalism gaining ground, by the time of the collapse of the Berlin Wall, Imre Poszgay (Kádár’s successor) opted for a rapid transition to capitalism. What was once the monolithic ‘Communist’ Party simply changed its name and became an open party of capitalist restoration.

Capitalism has proved to be a hard school for the Hungarian working class. The heroes of 1956 have been proved right to have set their sights on state ownership and the plan but without the bureaucrats. The harsh programmes of today’s right-wing capitalist politicians demand a revival of the legendary fighting capacity of the Hungarian working class. The building of powerful workers’ organisations on the basis of a programme of socialist change represents the best way to honour the martyrs of ’56 and follow in the traditions of the fearless workers of Red Csepel and Ujpest, of Gyor and Dunapentele.