Isaac Deutscher 1958

Act Two of Hungary’s Tragedy

Source: The Reporter, 10 July 1958. Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.

The execution of Imre Nagy, Pál Maléter and some of their associates marks a further and severe setback to de-Stalinisation in all countries of the Communist bloc. The trend against de-Stalinisation, which began after the Hungarian rising in October 1956, and continued with the drive against ‘revisionism’ and the revival of the anti-Titoist campaign, has now reached a decisive point. Even now the Soviet bloc has not lapsed back into the full darkness of the Stalin era, but once again the phantom of the Stalinist terror and the threat of the purge haunt heretics from China to East Germany.

It was not the fear of a new upsurge of Hungarian anti-Communism or of a Nagy comeback that induced the Communist leadership to wreak vengeance on Nagy and his friends. Nor was it the fear of Tito and Titoism that inspired the new drive against revisionism. There is enough evidence to show that the execution of Nagy was decided in Peking and Moscow over the objections of János Kádár, Nagy’s successor in the leadership of the Hungarian Communist Party, and his colleagues. And the influence of Titoism had certainly not grown greatly in Eastern Europe before the new drive against revisionism started. If anything, it had declined.

The initiative to call this dramatic and bloody halt to de-Stalinisation has come from Peking – Mao Tse-tung has been the chief promoter of the drive against revisionism. Hesitantly and at first reluctantly, Khrushchev has toed Mao’s line.

Mao has performed an amazing somersault since the days when he proclaimed a new era of freedom of expression and criticism in China, the era in which a hundred flowers were to blossom and a hundred schools of thought were to contend. This slogan continued to resound from Peking for several months after the Hungarian uprising. The cause for Mao’s reversal of policy has therefore lain not so much in the repercussions of the Hungarian rising as in the domestic difficulties he has had to cope with.

Khrushchev too has been beset by troubles on his home front. At the same time, Peking and Moscow have been engaged in controversies over foreign policy and military strategy. The execution of Nagy is an outward sign of the critical stage these difficulties and controversies have reached.

Since Stalin’s death, attention has been focused primarily on de-Stalinisation and the conflict between the de-Stalinisers and the Stalinist die-hards. However, under the surface there have been other conflicts, more confused and perhaps much deeper. The de-Stalinisers themselves have increasingly split into a right wing and a left. The issues over which they have been divided have varied from Eastern Europe to the Soviet Union and again from the Soviet Union to China; but the division has run across the whole of the Communist world.

Communism’s Internal Triangle: In the main it has been a three-cornered struggle. Orthodox Stalinists, ‘de-Stalinisers of the Left’ and the anti-Stalinist Right have confronted one another in shifting and changing alignments. In addition, in Moscow all these groups had to face a ‘Bonapartist’ threat in Marshal Zhukov’s aspiration to leadership. It is impossible to summarise in a brief article the complex and confused controversy and its many crosscurrents. Suffice it to say that in China and Eastern Europe, where private farming still predominates or is not yet fully submerged, the programme of the anti-Stalinist Right has in all essentials been reminiscent of the policies for which Bukharin and his school of thought stood in Russia in the 1920s and early 1930s. In those countries the Right has been more or less opposed to the collectivisation of farming and the forcible development of heavy industry. It has stood for the expansion of consumer industries, for a market economy – that is, for recasting the exchange of goods between town and country on a commercial basis – and for raising standards of living by these methods.

Within the Soviet Union itself, the ‘rightists’ have advocated similar policies modified to suit the already highly developed heavy industrial base and the already collectivised farming. Throughout the whole of the Soviet bloc the Right has staked its hopes on an international détente and on an alliance between Communist and Socialist parties that was to be based on the recognition by the Communists of ‘the parliamentary road to socialism’ and their virtual renunciation of violent revolution in capitalist countries. The chief advocates of this programme appear to have been Malenkov, Chou En-lai, Tito, Nagy, Gomułka (until recently), and, outside the Soviet bloc, Togliatti – before he was called to order.

The de-Stalinisers of the Left have argued that it is impossible to secure a substantial and continuous rise in standards of living without the further planned priority promotion of heavy industry, and that the industrialisation of the underdeveloped Communist countries could hardly proceed on the basis of private farming. This attitude has often coincided with that of the Stalinist diehards. Against both the Stalinists and the anti-Stalinist Right, however, the Left has stressed the need for concessions to workers rather than to peasants and for a more equalitarian labour policy. Together with the Right, the Left has demanded greater freedom within the party and a relaxation of party controls over science, literature and the arts. Finally, unlike the Right and some of the Stalinists, the Left has viewed critically the prospects of an international détente and the idea of a renunciation of violent revolution in the capitalist countries.

The de-Stalinisers of the Left appear to have been far more strongly represented in the middle and lower ranks of the Communist parties and among young people than in the top leadership. In some respects Dmitri T Shepilov, the former Soviet foreign minister, appears to have been their spokesman within the Soviet Presidium until his demotion last July.

Khrushchev has held a centre position all the time, just as Stalin once held it in the controversies between Trotskyists and Bukharinists, building his ‘platform’ with planks borrowed from both Left and Right and struggling to keep both groups in check.

Mao’s ‘Coalition’: There can be no doubt that up to the Hungarian rising and even until the middle of last year, the Right was strongly in the ascendant. For a few months Mao appeared to be its champion, although the de-Stalinisers of the Left also drew inspiration from his hundred flowers and hundred schools. But recently right-wing revisionists have been speaking of Mao’s ‘betrayal’. Since last November – that is, since the conference of Communist leaders in Moscow, held during the fortieth anniversary of the Russian revolution – Mao has indeed led something like a broad coalition of de-Stalinisers of the Left and Stalinists against the Right.

The partners of this coalition have, of course, acted from mixed motives. The Stalinist diehards are primarily interested in arresting de-Stalinisation and reversing it as far as possible. The de-Stalinisers on the Left are above all anxious to stem the rightist tide, which at the moment they seem to fear even more than a relapse into Stalinism.

It seems all too likely that in this coalition the Stalinist diehards have the upper hand, even though their leaders, Molotov and Kaganovich, have suffered disgrace. However, both men have continued to exercise influence and instruct their followers – since the beginning of this year they have repeatedly appeared in Moscow. Khrushchev, despite all his triumphs over rivals in the Presidium, has found his freedom of action greatly restricted. He has had to contend with the right-wing revisionists, who have looked for inspiration to Malenkov; with the left-wing anti-Stalinists; with the orthodox Stalinists; and, finally, with the industrial managers, who have resented his decentralisation of the structure of Soviet industry. (That reform has run far less smoothly than is officially admitted.)

Khrushchev’s Two Faces: Khrushchev has therefore decided to calm part of the opposition and to appease Mao by agreeing to call a firm halt to de-Stalinisation in the satellite countries and to control it in the Soviet Union as well. At this price he hopes to be able to pursue de-Stalinisation in the field he is primarily interested in – the economic organisation of the Soviet Union itself. Just a few days after Nagy’s execution had been announced, the Soviet Central Committee accepted Khrushchev’s proposal that Soviet farmers should immediately be freed – for the first time in more than thirty years – from all compulsory deliveries of food to the government, and that the entire Soviet exchange of goods between town and country should be placed on a commercial basis. With this reform, one of the central elements of Stalinist economics has been swept away. At the height of the drive against revisionism, Khrushchev himself thus appears as the arch-revisionist. No one would have approved his latest reform more warmly than Nagy if he had lived to see it.

Last but not least, the execution of Nagy has an important bearing on Soviet foreign policy. Khrushchev has been under attack in both Moscow and Peking for the failures of his peace offensives. His critics have claimed that such overtures to the West as he has made have all met with rebuffs from Washington, have failed to reduce international tension, and have only served to ‘soften’ the Soviet bloc. He has now given way and has resolved to demonstrate that he is not pursuing the détente with too much zeal and that he would, in any case, not allow any softening within the Soviet bloc. (A revisionist told me recently: ‘Mr Dulles has been our most dangerous enemy, far more deadly than Mao, Khrushchev, or even the Stalinist diehards. He has been playing all the time into the hands of the Stalinists and of other adventurers.’)

In these circumstances the latest blood purge in Budapest may well be the signal for a tightening up through the whole of the Soviet bloc, for renewed ‘vigilance’ and discipline, and for a reinforcement of much of that isolationism in which the Communist world lived before the end of the Stalin era, during the years of the Rajk and Slánský trials. However, it remains to be seen to what extent that isolationism can be reinforced now and whether the present relapse into Stalinism is not going to provoke another explosion of anti-Stalinist revisionism later. By ordering Nagy’s execution, Mao and Khrushchev may well have placed a delayed-action bomb in the foundations of their power.