October 23 sees the anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. That movement of the Hungarian masses signified the culmination of the growing discontent evident in Eastern Europe at the time.
We are republishing this article on the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, first published on the 40th anniversary in Socialist Appeal
Eastern Europe has seen turbulence in its history for centuries, our present epoch being no exception. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the attempt to reestablish capitalism in the region, millions are coming to ask the crucial question of our time: if Stalinism was a hated and bankrupt system but the move towards capitalism leaves thousands in poverty, unemployment, and hopelessness, is there a social system that can provide a job, a house, and hope for the future—and if there is one, how can we achieve it?
The masses of Eastern Europe—and Hungarians in particular—could do no better than look at what happened in 1956 in giving them the ideas and a direction to follow. To quote Leslie Bain, a journalist and eyewitness of the events of 1956: “No event in recent history has been so much lied about, distorted, and besmirched as the Hungarian Revolution.”
It seems that it was expedient not to tell the truth about a small nation that rose, fought, and lost. As far as the capitalist commentators were concerned this was simply a move to shake off Russian repression and a communist dictatorship, while the Stalinists called it a fascist counterrevolution aided and abetted by the CIA in order to defeat “socialism.” It was true that the demand for the withdrawal of Russian troops from Hungarian territory was a major item in all declarations made by the people and the hatred of the Stalinist regime was the main fuel of the revolutionary express. However, this uprising had very quickly moved on from basic demands like that and became what Bill Lomax says in his book Hungary 1956, “a social revolution aimed not at restoring a previous regime but at creating a radically new social order, one that would be both more democratic than the capitalist West and more socialist than the communist East.”
Lomax was one of very few chroniclers of the revolution who understood that the uniqueness of 1956 was in its finally clear-cut movement towards establishing workers’ democracy, with workers’ councils, a workers’ militia, and the sort of true democratic freedom that Lomax felt was a brand new system, but which Marxists know as the reestablishment of the ideas and practice of Lenin and the early days of the young Soviet regime after the Russian Revolution. 1956 in Hungary was Trotsky’s political revolution in practice, which is why it was drowned in blood the way it was.
So, how did it come about, and what can today’s socialists learn from its events? The seeds of discontent in the whole region of Eastern Europe were sown after the Second World War and in the forced establishment of so-called “socialist” regimes in the image of the Stalinist Soviet Union. While the first Hungarian parliamentary election in 1946 was fought between a variety of parties, it did not take long before the totalitarian, one-party system was established, backed up by the only true representatives of state power at the time, the Red Army. Repression and persecution of all and any dissenters from the party line were rigorously pursued, creating and fuelling the underlying hatred for the regime. Show trials in the grand old tradition of the 1930s were staged and several long-standing communists, who survived the underground years, were now denounced as agents of Western imperialism or friends of “that dog,” Tito, and executed.
In the countryside forced collectivization of the land was put through, creating poverty and discontent. In the factories, while the workers were told that the factory belonged to them, ever increasing speedups and high crippling production norms made them feel like slaves and possibly worse off than under the pre-war capitalist regime. Then, at least, they had their independent trade unions; now those, too, became part of the state machinery with fat cat bureaucrats in both the unions and the party living well on the sweat and toil of the masses. Due to the norm system, the compulsory purchase of “peace bonds,” and the gross misappropriation of a large proportion of the national product by the bureaucracy, living standards were considerably lower by the early 1950s than immediately after the war. The new cast of bureaucrats, officials, their staffs, and all manner of spies and hacks numbered close on a million in a country of only 9 million people, of whom only 3 and a half million worked productively.
It was Stalin’s death in 1953 that signalled a most welcome thaw and a move towards a partial relaxing of the extreme harshness of the Hungarian regime. Discontent both in Hungary and in other parts of the region, in East Germany especially, has also underlined the need for reforms, if only to forestall a movement from below. In fact, the Hungarian workers had already fired several shots across the bow of the Stalinist regime by organizing strikes in the Matyas Rakosi iron and steel works in Budapest’s industrial suburb on Csepel Island as well as at Ozd and Diosgyor in Eastern Hungary. The protest was against low wages, the system of work norms, and food shortages. The strikers in Csepel only stayed out for 48 hours and got a considerable pay raise, so anxious was the regime to hush it up.
Imre Nagy became Prime Minister and introduced his “New Course.” This meant an amnesty for political prisoners, the abolition of internment camps, a move towards increasing the availability of consumer goods, and the relaxation of the iron grip of the censor in publishing and broadcasting. The “New Course” was nothing revolutionary, but a reflection of the brewing discontent in the masses and one of the solutions to it by one strata of the bureaucracy. This, however, did not stop many layers in society beginning to breathe more freely and reflecting more and more openly the desire for more democracy.
The first stirrings came from a group of journalists round the party daily paper Szabad Nep. As it is often said, “In stormy times the tops of the trees move first.” The intelligentsia had an independent tradition in Hungary which raised its head time and time again, and this period was no exception. However, very soon the line from Moscow changed, and the worry over the possibility of a movement which the bureaucracy might not be able to control produced a clampdown. Imre Nagy was removed from all his party posts and the “New Course” was abandoned. The next to move was the Writers Association, whose presidium resigned en bloc and drew up a memorandum opposing censorship and demanding greater freedom of expression. This resulted in further disciplining of the writers, but led to the establishment of the Petofi Circle, which planned a series of public debates.
The real push in the open expression of discontent, at least among the intelligentsia and the more reform-minded party leaders, came after the XXth Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, during which Khrushchev delivered his “secret speech” denouncing the crimes of Stalin. This was in February 1956, and an explosion of political debate followed. The Petofi Circle started organizing public debates, first about how the decisions of the XXth Congress applied to Hungary, later on a variety of topics ranging from the freedom of the press, through economics, history, and education, to philosophy. The schools and Universities were a hive of activity, until, according to one account of those days, all and everybody was talking politics most of the time.
The level of discontent and frustration has also represented itself with open expression of hatred towards party bureaucrats and their lackeys. People spat on their cars until they were scared stiff even to walk the streets alone. Bolder and bolder articles and poetry appearing in literary and political magazines were published and tolerated by the regime, that was beginning to feel beleaguered. Dora Scarlett, an English communist, who has been living and working in Hungary since 1953 wrote, “It would be wrong to think that there was any such organization as ‘The Party’ any longer, with a unified control. It was breaking up into its component parts—the tiny, rigid core surrounding Erno Gero, and the mass of members who were in varying degrees drawn into the tide of opposition, criticism, and independent action.”
Marxism teaches us that the first condition for revolution is a split or crisis in the ruling class or strata. By the summer of 1956 the situation was beginning to look critical for the Hungarian regime. Its reform wing was demanding the return of Imre Nagy, the intelligentsia was getting bolder and bolder in open defiance through articles, poems, and even outright demands for artistic freedom, the Universities were seething with debate, and the Petofi Circle picked more and more contentious topics to needle the regime with.
In June 1956 the working class has yet again added its own voice to the general discontent when in the wake of the brutal repression of the striking workers of Poznan in Poland, a new strike wave and several disturbances demonstrated their solidarity with their Polish brothers. In July, finally, the much-hated Matyas Rakosi was replaced as Party Secretary, but the party was not offering anything new that would placate the discontent. Finally, it was on October 6, 1956 that it dawned on the masses that their potential power to organize was in their grasp. This was the date proposed for the reburial of Laszlo Rajk, one of the victims of the 1940s purge trials, which the party leadership had eventually conceded. They hoped to carry it out quietly with no fuss, but after much pressure agreed to provide some party speakers and publicity. However, nobody, not even the people themselves, expected the estimated 200,000 that turned out for the funeral. It was at the end of the day that a group of 200–300 students marched off under both the Hungarian and red flag towards the city center, singing revolutionary songs, shouting, “We won’t stop halfway, Stalinism must be destroyed!”
The students had been in ferment for several months by then. At the beginning of the autumn term they demanded that a panel of Central Committee members come to the university and answer their questions about the Sovietization of Hungarian culture, the Soviet troops in Hungary, the norm system in the factories, and the privileges of the party elite. Ten days after the Rajk funeral in the provincial city of Szeged, its university students demanded an end to the compulsory study of Russian and called for a strike in support of their demand. At the end of this meeting they decided to set up an independent student organization and send representatives to other universities to ask for support.
Finally, on October 22, in an all-day and all-night session, the students of the Budapest Technological University worked out a set of 16 demands and called for a demonstration on the following day to show solidarity with their Polish brothers and put their demands forward. The day started in a disorganized fashion. There was a common meeting place, but no clear plan of action, and a certain reluctance on the part of politicians, intellectuals, and even some of the student leaders to head the march. It was as if the enormity of the events to come was already weighing heavily on those who knew full well that once the masses rise up it is very difficult to stop them.
The demonstration was, on the whole, very peaceful; only the law students turned up with placards and some duplicated lists of demands. As the day went on, more and more people joined the students, some out of curiosity, others fully agreeing with their demands and aims. First among them stood the immediate withdrawal of all Russian troops, the demands for a free and independent students’ organization, together with many others that showed the students’ awareness of the needs of workers, intellectuals, and all strata in society. They demanded putting the Hungarian economy on a new basis, the opening of all the books on international agreements, the revision of crippling production norms, a freeing of political prisoners, a plurality of parties, and free and secret ballots in elections. Later, as the morning factory shift finished, industrial workers joined in, adding to the numbers and to the social weight of the crowd.
It was a speech by Erno Gero, the First Secretary of the Communist Party, broadcast on the radio, that inflamed the situation and quickly changed the mood of the people. He denounced the demonstrators as enemies of the people, and would not even consider any of their demands, threatening them with arrest unless they immediately dispersed. By this time the demonstration had split up into several different ones. One of them approached the Parliament Building, asking for Imre Nagy to come and address them, while another group moved to the Hungarian Radio Building, requesting air time to broadcast their demands. It was here that the first battle of the revolution followed, ending up with the insurgents’ taking the building, but losing many in the fighting.
Under the pressure of events, this was the time when the ruling bureaucracy started its maneuvering, first conceding that Imre Nagy should take over as Prime Minister, then promising to disband the AVH (the Hungarian equivalent of the KGB), opening negotiations with the Russians for troop withdrawals, and finally, abolishing the Party and reestablishing it under a new name. While the masses were first inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt, these measures were overtaken by what was happening on the streets and in the factories as the revolution itself unfolded in all its complexity. The variety of views, opinions, and groups holding them (who both before and during these events tried to reform the old system) became a total irrelevancy in the face of the might of the people. A movement that started with simple, sometimes basic patriotic demands, through the fighting, debating, and organization of its forces entered a much higher stage. It not only became a movement of self-defense, but that of an armed uprising to establish a new society.
When the Russian tanks were called in to put down the uprising, they soon found that they were faced with a well-organized, fearless populace, which improvised with amazing bravery and was not going to be easy to subdue. There were also cases of fraternization between the Russian soldiers, who had been lied to when sent in to shoot at Hungarian workers. They were told that there was a fascist insurrection in Budapest, but as many of them were already stationed in Hungary and spoke Hungarian, they could talk to people, and stopped fighting as soon as they realized what was happening.
One of the most infamous atrocities of the revolution was a massacre of unarmed civilians in front the of the Parliament building on October 25. While it was blamed on Russian tanks at the time, it was much more likely to have happened precisely to stop this fraternization. There are many conflicting accounts of this event, but it is no accident that the machine guns situated on rooftops around Parliament Square started shooting first, as two Russian tanks, clad in Hungarian flags, drove into view, carrying many freedom fighters.
Very quickly, several fighting groups emerged at strategic points in the city. Most, if not all, of these were in working class districts and at major intersections and mostly, the fighters were workers, including the most lumpen elements, who were considered criminals under the Stalinist regime. When one of these youngsters was asked why he was fighting, he answered, “Why not? I have nothing to lose! Would you like to live on 600 Forints (less than $13) a month?” In fact, a large proportion of the fighters were very young, some only 10 or 12 years old.
In the meantime a general strike was declared and workers’ councils started being set up in the factories. At this stage these councils were in their embryonic stages, their members mostly fighting, but already the ideas on how the working class can organize production and run all aspects of life in the working class districts were coming to the fore.
The fighting continued, but as a result of several Hungarian army units either coming over to the side of the revolution or at least staying neutral, as well as the obvious tactical need for the Red Army to regroup and change the compromised troops for some fresh ones who didn’t speak Hungarian, an agreement was made for the Russian troops to start withdrawing from Budapest on October 29.
The following week saw a blossoming of freedom in the factories, other workplaces, theaters, writers’ clubs, and in all aspects of industrial, political, and artistic life. The workers’ councils and revolutionary committees very quickly became the only organs of both decision-making and executive power that Hungarians recognized. Even during the fighting, but especially after it died down, ordinary people started taking the running of society into their own hands. All strata of society set about putting the new world into effect: the Army elected the Hungarian People’s Army Revolutionary Committee, which became part of the new Revolutionary National Defense Committee—i.e., an armed people, not a standing army. Writers, students, actors, musicians, school students, housewives all joined in setting up their own organizations in the atmosphere of revolutionary freedom and enthusiasm.
The revolution spread to provincial towns and villages, especially to the areas of heavy industry and mining, where workers’ councils and revolutionary committees were set up and representatives sent to Budapest. The new government under Imre Nagy set about the tasks of involving some non-communist politicians in its ranks, declared withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact, and carried on implementing its reform program. Negotiations with the workers had even gone so far that a call to return to work on Monday, November 5 was agreed.
However, some of the workers’ organizations in the provinces had been sending warning messages to Budapest about new Russian troop movements, and on the morning of November 4, a second assault began not only against Budapest, but nationwide. This time the tactics were different. Eyewitness accounts confirm that no Russian soldier got out of his tank this time round. The fighting was not only against the barricades and actual units, but included deliberate intimidation of the population of Budapest. On a major road several tanks would slowly go down and systematically shoot at and destroy every other floor of every block with their cannon. These troops were from Central Asia, this time obviously believing that they were putting down a fascist uprising.
Instantly the working class moved into action. The general strike continued and the fighting was brilliantly organized. In the face of overwhelming odds, with minimal arms and a lot of initiative, the tanks were resisted. One popular trick that seemed to work was to break off the handle of a frying pan and place it upside down in the middle of a main road. This tended either to stop the tanks, the tank crew thinking they were mines, or got the soldiers out of their tanks investigating, thus becoming vulnerable to small arms fire. It was in the working class strongholds of Csepel (pronounced Tcheppel), Ujpest, Kelenfold, Angyalfold, Zuglo, and several other industrial districts where resistance held out longest. One fighter, Mark Molnar, who under the Rakosi regime was stripped of his military rank and became a coalman, said of fighting in Csepel, “The routine was simple. Each man spent eight hours fighting, eight hours working in the factories manufacturing shells and guns, eight hours sleeping at home. From the very first moment I arrived, I was allotted volunteer medical students and I knew just where to put my casualties.” The organization, he felt, “was far better than it had been on the Hungarian general staff, I had nothing to do but fight.”
Eventually, however, even Csepel fell and the armed resistance ceased. It was at this juncture that the workers’ councils came into their own. The de facto power was in the hands of the Red Army. They occupied the factories, and working hand-in-hand with the puppet government of Janos Kadar, which they had set up on November 4, tried to reestablish their totalitarian rule. However, the general strike was solid nationally, and the workers’ councils began to flex their muscles. They knew that, as armed resistance now was not possible, the only power they had left was the strike weapon.
With the bitter Hungarian winter approaching, the government was desperate to get production going, coal mined, electricity generated, and most of all get the workers back into the factories under armed guards. This they would not do. Moreover, they kept pressing their demands, meeting first in factories, then gradually widening out into district revolutionary committees, and finally into the Central Workers’ Council of Greater Budapest. They were not going back to work until their demands had been met. Intimidation continued, and slowly but surely arrests, beatings, torture, and executions threatened them. The workers responded by organizing their own press, militia, and meetings, which increasingly had to be held illegally.
The workers’ councils set out their demands for workers’ democracy at the point of production. These included:
1. The factory belongs to the workers.
2. The workers’ council is the supreme controlling body of the factory and is democratically elected by the workers.
3. The workers’ council elects it own executive committee composed of 3–9 members, which acts as the executive body, carrying out the decisions and tasks laid down by it.
4. The director is employed by the factory. The director and the highest employees are to be elected by the workers’ council. This election will take place after a public general meeting called by the executive committee.
5. The director is responsible to the workers’ council in every matter which concerns the factory.
The work of these councils was conducted with the highest level of democracy. All officials and representatives were subject to instant recall, and several councils frequently replaced their chair and/or secretary and delegates to other bodies during these months. Many felt that as soon as the leaders became unrepresentative of the masses that appointed them, they had to be replaced. In revolutionary times events move so fast that leaders are tested hourly, and all those not up to it were replaced with those that were. One can also look at this from a different standpoint: many leading figures also felt that when they came to vital turning points in events, they made no moves until their organization confirmed them with secret ballots, so they were confident that they still carried their original mandate. After his election as President of the Greater Budapest Workers’ Council, Sandor Racz, a toolmaker from the Beloiannis factory, did this several times, thus lifting workers’ democracy to a level of refinement not seen since the October Revolution of 1917. This living, breathing, direct system of workers’ democracy continued even after renewed fighting, the workers always finding time and opportunity to exercise direct control over their representatives.
While many of these workers’ councils were only set up to organize production and defend workers, it was inevitable, especially at a time of escalating persecution, that they would start cooperating and eventually linking up with each other.
The Greater Budapest Workers’ Council was set up in the face of intimidation from both Russian tanks and the regrouping Hungarian state security only 10 days after the second Russian intervention. The clearly political nature of this body can be seen from some of their demands:
1. The withdrawal of Soviet troops from Budapest and the whole country.
2. Free elections in a multiparty system. Socialist ownership of the industries.
3. The maintenance of workers’ councils and the restoration of free trade unions.
4. The right to strike and to assembly, freedom of the press and religion, etc.
Moreover, the debate over their role in society was started, partially introduced by the intellectuals present, but frequently spontaneously erupting amongst the workers’ representatives. The age, experience, background, and understanding of these workers’ leaders varied enormously. Many were in their 40s, veterans of the pre-war communist underground and militant trade union struggles. Others were very young, bringing the brave and uncompromising spirit of youth into the discussions. Some believed that the workers’ councils must not take up a political role, as this might lead down the road to what had gone wrong in the past—i.e., the party substituting itself for the workers. They believed that the workers’ councils should organize the economic life of the country, free and independent trade unions should represent the workers’ interests, and the parties (of which there would now be many) should run the political life of the country.
There were others, who were clearly advocating the idea of the creation of district, city-wide, and ultimately nationwide revolutionary workers’ councils as the only way to safeguard and ultimately develop further the achievements of the revolution. Whichever set of views was gaining the upper hand, reality created a clear case of dual power in Hungary during November/December 1956, and those who realized this could not fail to see its relevance to the political as well as the economic life of the country. In fact, as early as November 4, the Borsod County Workers’ Council sent a delegation of 28 to meet with Imre Nagy in Budapest. In the program presented by them they included a demand for Parliament to be replaced by a National Assembly made up of delegates from the workers’ councils.
Admittedly, in an atmosphere of being pushed further and further underground, arrests happening every day, and all organization having to go on under the watchful eyes of the Russian forces and the reconstituted AVH, the clear-cut development of workers’ democracy was not easy. It was the preparations for the setting up of a National Workers’ Council, called for December 11, that pushed the Kadar regime to speed up its repressive measures, firstly trying to limit the rights of workers’ councils to operate at purely factory level, then making all other councils illegal. On December 11 came the wholesale arrest of the leaders of the Greater Budapest Workers’ Council, which resulted in a 48-hour general strike to protest against the arrests and to further press the councils’ demands. Strikes and sporadic resistance continued well into 1957, until the last workers’ council was abolished 10 months later. The summary jurisdiction of the so-called “Peoples’ Courts” gave legitimacy to wide ranging powers of arrest, detention, and torture that was exercised most harshly against the workers, and especially the workers’ leaders.
It is against a background of oppression on this scale that the achievements of the Central Workers’ Council of Greater Budapest, in organizing and maintaining two rock-solid, massive general strikes and very nearly setting up the National Workers’ Council with a clear program of workers’ democracy, will go down in history as one of the greatest events of the world working class movement. The example of the Hungarian workers’ bravery, initiative, and ability to rise to the task set by history is all the more amazing as the broad mass movement during the revolution produced leaders, programs, and a fighting force that rose spontaneously, without a revolutionary party, and their struggle was fought out to the end.
Over the centuries history has been written by the victors. The dispossessed masses have very rarely had chroniclers of their own, so subsequent generations tend to look at past events through the eyes of the ruling class or strata. However, it is the 20th century that has achieved the greatest levels of falsification of history, which was also attempted by the Stalinist leaders of Hungary after 1956. The greatest slander that has ever been uttered against a heroic fighting working class is the one that has been perpetrated against the Hungarian workers of 1956. The consolidated Stalinist regime of Janos Kadar, having tortured, murdered, imprisoned, or just simply beaten to death the flower of the Hungarian working class and youth dared to peddle the myth that this was a counterrevolution which aimed to restore capitalism.
A large number of socialists, survivors of the fighting and others, spent many years refuting this claim all over the world. In Hungary you did not have to; people had eyes and ears and they knew what had happened. It is really heart warming to read the black humor that also developed, which is a characteristic of the Hungarian spirit, as hardship is so much easier to bear when you make fun of it. To this day there is a saying circulating in the provincial town of Salgotarjan, in response to the slander that the workers’ and miners’ demonstration, which had been brutally put down by the AVH, was actually carried out by fascists and reactionaries. It goes as follows: “While peacefully shooting in the center of Salgotarjan, local security forces were subjected to a vicious, unprovoked attack by fascist miners hurling loaves of bread at them!”
For the rest of the world there is ample documentary evidence that provides testimony against this Goebbelsian lie. No organization that had ever gained any prominence (not even those one might have expected to), raised any call for the return to capitalism; in fact all of them made absolutely sure that no such call was included in their demands. One organization that called itself the Hungarian Democratic Independence Movement, and which mostly represented the ideas of intellectuals and revisionist reform communists of the pre-1956 era, issued a summary of its program in a publication called October 23, on December 6, in the following terms:
1. Complete and unconditional independence
2. Political democracy on the basis of the free activities of the workers’ councils, revolutionary committees, and political parties
3. The maintenance of the land reform and the social ownership of the factories, mines, and banks.
What the movement in Hungary in 1956 lacked was a clear, conscious leadership based on an understanding of Trotsky’s analysis of the degeneration of the Russian Revolution and the need for the political revolution to restore the power into the hands of the working class. Had it had such a leadership, events might have been different. However, the lessons are clear for today. Even without such a leadership the Hungarian workers created a program for workers’ democracy clearly along the lines of Lenin’s four points for a healthy workers’ state. The Hungarian Workers’ Councils of 1956 were, in effect, soviets, and Lenin’s four points about the election of all officials, a rotation of duties, all officials subject to recall, and an armed people, while not expressed exactly in those terms, were established in practice. The Hungarian workers also added one more demand, arising from their own experience, which was the call for a plurality of parties, as long as they accept the common ownership of the means of production, i.e., the gains of socialism, as they put it.
Has history now come full circle by posing a seemingly intractable question to the working class of Eastern Europe, Russia, and all other ex-Stalinist states? What is the way out? The Stalinist regime of Janos Kadar fell to pieces and disappeared under its own contradictions, economic chaos, and the hatred of its own people. What it was replaced by generated a thousand false hopes, only to be dashed as capitalism also was found wanting.
The Hungarian working class has glorious traditions, which produced the heroes of 1956, but whose experience will have to be rediscovered and a new tradition created. The only route to peace, jobs, houses, economic and political freedom lies through another 1956. Take any program or demand from 1956, like the election of factory directors by the workers, the students’ demand for free association, or the writers’ demands for artistic freedom—they can all be achieved through finishing what the Russian troops and Kadar’s henchmen cut across in November 1956. The route to that society is through workers’ democracy, as dreamt of and fought for by the thousands of freedom fighters who gave their lives for it.
It is the destiny of this generation of Hungarian workers to make it real. We and they can celebrate the 40th anniversary of the 1956 revolution no better than by working towards that goal.
For further reading we recommend Peter Fryer’s book Hungarian Tragedy.