"http://www.w3.org/TR/xhtml1/DTD/xhtml1-transitional.dtd"> Chris Harman: Hungary 1956 (November 1966)


Chris Harman


Hungary 1956

(November 1966)

From Labour Worker, November 1966.
Transcribed by Tomáš Tengely-Evans.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

In October 1956 in Hungary one of the great revolutions of modern times took place. A despotic regime was overthrown. In its place, briefly, ruled the direct democracy of the masses themselves.

Workers controlled production in the factories. Administration ceased to be the responsibility of a remote and specialised bureaucracy. The degree of government that existed was dependent for its power on its ability to conform to the wishes of direct workers’ representatives.

The revolution began on 23 October in Budapest when a demonstration, mainly of students, had an attempt to broadcast their demands met by a shower of machine gun bullets from the political police. But to understand its course one has to go back to 1944.

In that year Russian troops drove the Germans out of Hungary, overthrowing the fascist regime of Admiral Worthy that had run Hungary since 1919. In its place, a coalition regime was established of various bourgeois parties, the social democrats and the Communist Party. In 1945 elections were held and the Communist Party received 17 percent of the vote.

After the wartime conference between the leaders of the Western capitalist powers and Stalin, it had been decided that Hungary, together with most of Eastern Europe, would lie within the Russian “sphere of influence” – regardless of what the Hungarians thought. Despite its low vote, the Communist Party was to have great influence in the government, provided it obeyed Russian dictates.

The Communists took control of the Ministry of the Interior and created within it a political apparatus for use against the other parties.

In the first five months of 1947 most of the leaders of the Smallholders Party were arrested. The social democrats had to merge with the Communist Party. Most industry, however, remained privately owned.

The Western powers had agreed that Hungary should pay Russia enormous reparations for the war. All German-owned industries, although the result of the labour of Hungarian workers, were to be given to the Russians. In addition, specific amounts of various goods were to be handed over. In 1945, these accounted for 94 percent of the produce of engineering and metal goods industries; in 1949, 25.4 percent of total government expenditure. Clearly one purpose of the Communist control was to ensure that reparations were paid.

When party control of the country was complete, this form of economic subjugation to Russia was replaced by another. In March 1948 all industry was nationalised. But this was not intended to benefit the workers or to increase their control over production.

It took place on a public holiday. When the worker returned to work the next day, they found a new set of bosses in charge. It was not the workers who felt dealt with any of the old owners that protested, but the Russian army and the political police. In this way “socialism” was introduced into Hungary from above.

The purpose of this “socialism” in Hungary, as in the rest of Eastern Europe, soon became clear.In 1949 trade with Russia was three times the level of 1948. This enforced monopoly of trade enabled the controllers of Russia’s economy to determine relative prices of Russian and Hungarian goods. At

the same time Russia continued to directly control sectors of Hungarian industry – the uranium mines for example.

The period of 1949–53 was in Hungary one of unimpeded one-party rule. Any opposition which objected to loss of economic independence was ruthlessly crushed. The subjugation to the Russian economy meant an extremely fast rate of industrialisation. This was to be accomplished by forcing peasants off the land, creating both a surplus of people to work in industry and a surplus of food to keep them. It was brought about by “collectivisation”, whereby the regime took from the peasants the land it had distributed among them after the war.

But it encouraged enormous resistance among the peasants. Although terror could overcome this to some extent it could not prevent the lack of cooperation of the peasants, causing cuts in production. This meant in turn shortages of food and discontent among urban workers.

In 1953, after the death of Stalin, the Russian leaders decided that the only way to overcome these problems was to reduce the rate of industrialisation in Hungary and to make concessions to the peasants. They ordered the party to elevate to the premiership one of the members who had been opposed to the existing policies for a long time – Imre Nagy. Unfortunately, the peasants accepted the talk about “concessions” too seriously and began taking their land back from the collectives and state farms. Only force prevented a general resurrection of private property in the countryside.

The established leaders of the Hungarian party, notably Rakosi, had objected to the loss of authority that Nagy’s appointment involved. By 1955 they had succeeded in removing him. But they could not restore the monolithic terror of the pre-1953 period.

Divisions within the party began to grow. Those who wanted to “liberalise” the regime – i.e. ensure its continued domination by making marginal concessions to the workers and peasants and reducing its subordination to Russia – were unable to win an out-right victory. But the old guard, who still believed terror, both inside and outside the party, to be the best means of safeguarding their power, were unable to eliminate them.

Neither the political crisis nor the economic crisis underlying it seemed capable of any easy solution. At the same time the Russian leadership, which might have overcome the political crisis by direct intervention, was itself divided over similar issues.

In the spring and summer of the 1956 the “liberalisers” in the party – many of whom were bitter about their imprisonment and even torture during the purges – began to organise openly against the established leadership. In particular, the intellectuals in their journals and the Young Communists at their meetings in the Petofi Circle began to castigate the regime in public.

Yet their criticism of the regime did not seem fundamental to them. They wanted merely to reform the existing structure, not to replace it with anything else. They were loath to do anything which might threaten it altogether.

It was to Nagy – put into power in 1953 by Russia – they wanted to return.

By the beginning of October 1956 not only party members but also large numbers of students were beginning to engage in the political discussion. They expressed far more wide-ranging concerns than the party members. They began in particular to question the domination by Russia.

But discussion was still restricted to relatively privileged sections of the population. It did not yet really touch upon the sources of frustration which impinged upon ordinary workers and peasants.

For them, the discussion was still one between those who controlled their lives on how best to keep them in order.

Then suddenly on 23 October the long drawn-out disagreements within the regime erupted into open warfare.

A demonstration, consisting largely of students, demanded the right to broadcast their demands at the radio station. When they began to move in to implement their demand the political police, the AVO, fired on them.

Immediately, for large numbers of workers who had been watching, the issue was clear, what was involved was not now a private quarrel within the regime, but the question of the right of political discussion in general, of who was to control the institutions of society – the Communist Party apparatus and Russia, or the mass of people. Immediately workers from arms factories ran off to get weapons to fight back with. The revolution had begun.

Within hours workers in different factories, peasants in different cooperatives and students had begun to elect their own organs of direct power, their own committees of delegates subject instant recall – what were called “soviets in the Russian Revolution – and were producing their own manifestos, pamphlets and newspapers.

Fighting was to continue more or less continuously for four days between Hungarian freedom fighters and Russian troops, although at least some Russian soldiers preferred to fraternise with the Hungarians and remain neutral.

The political situation was immediately transformed. The official government no longer had any support. The army and the ordinary police had either gone over to the uprising or at least taken a position of neutrality.

Only the Russian forces and AVO remained behind the government. In desperation, one demand of the insurgents was fulfilled. Nagy was made premier.

The first official act of the new government was to call upon Russian troops to restore order. This use of foreign troops was justified by reference to a non-existent clause in the Warsaw Pact.

After four days the Russian troops withdrew from Budapest. At first it seemed that against all the odds the revolution had been successful, as indeed it had in purely Hungarian terms. It transpired later that the withdrawal was only to wait for reinforcements with troops from across the Russian border.

In this period the full contours of the revolution began to reveal themselves. It was clearly not what it was to be labelled in Moscow – and by leaders of the Communist Party in this country – a “fascist” or even a pro-capitalist” counter-revolution.

Although no doubt fascist and pro-Western individuals tried to utilise the reactions of the mass of people against the horrors of Stalinism for their own ends, there is no evidence that they were at all successful. How could they be? For the forces involved in the revolution, in the cities at least, were those traditionally opposed to fascism and capitalism.

Until the Russian troops re-entered Budapest after four day on 4 November, power was shared between the government and the workers. The government of Nagy had initially invited the Russian in, but was now identified with the revolution, or at least its version of it.

The workers now controlled the factories, not the party bureaucrats. The peasants had seized the land. In political life the government, in order to sustain any support among the masses, had been forced to take in representatives of the various political parties of 1945.

The dilemma for the party opposition was that while it had wanted a system in which party members would be immune from terror, the revolution had destroyed the organs of terror completely. While the opposition had wanted concessions to the workers and peasants to keep them happy, the revolution had given the workers and peasants everything.

Faced with this outcome, the reaction of many members of the opposition was one of bemused horror.

The other power was composed of the workers’ councils and, to a lesser extent, the students’ councils. Although not centralised, or subject to overall strategy, the councils were increasingly to be the real focus of the revolution. They were responsible for what conscious planning there was behind the tactics of the revolution. It was in these [bodies] by democratic discussion that the policies later accepted, albeit reluctantly, by the government were arrived at.

These two sources of power could not have remained in agreement indefinitely. One was tending to pull towards radical working class democracy in all spheres, the other towards restored power for the managers, the police, the party. But for a period there could be a limited harmony between them. In their immediate task of eliminating the remnants of the terror apparatus and the Russia occupation there was substantial agreement.

The tension between these two social forces never had time to work itself out. On 4 November Russian tanks re-entered Budapest and began shelling.

Nagy fled to the Yugoslav embassy, from where he was later kidnapped and murdered. But another section of the party opposition, led by Kadar, decided the revolution had gone too far for its liking and formed a puppet government for the Russians.

Yet fighting continued for a week as Russian tanks physically destroyed one centre of resistance after another.

Increasingly, the working class basis of the revolution revealed itself. The worst damaged areas were the working class districts, the 8th, 9th, 20th and 21st, while the smart residential areas of the 12th district were hardly affected. Hospital statistics indicate that 80 to 90 percent of those injured were young workers, while students represented no more than 3 to 5 percent.

But by 10 or 12 November, it was clear that armed resistance was impossible. This did not mean that the Kadar government was in command of the city. The workers now held out against it with their last weapon – the general strike. Indeed, they were now organised on independent, class lines better than ever before. On 16 November a Central Workers’ Council representing Budapest factories was formed.

Kadar tried everything in his power to get the workers back to work. He offered them economic concessions, he negotiated with the workers’ councils, he threatened them. Even the presence in the factories of Russian soldiers ready to shoot could not raise output above 8 percent of its normal level.

For weeks the real power in the economic and administrative life of Budapest was the Central Workers’ Council. Kadar did not even dare declare this dissolved until 12 December.

With the overwhelming military force behind it, Kadar’s regime was bound to become consolidated eventually – but even then it was only able to achieve this by making numerous economic concessions to the workers. Between January 1956 and January 1957 average wages rose from 1,112 forints to 1,417, while the number of hours worked fell.

In other ways, too, the fear the government had of workers’ self-activity led to improving conditions. Consumer goods were produced in increasing numbers and many of the puritanical features of pre-1956 society done away with.

There are many important lessons to be learnt from Hungary. The first is the need to drop old beliefs about Russia and the “socialist world”. Both its treatment of Hungary and the other satellites after the war and its brutality in 1956 show that it is as willing to impose its great power interests on small nations as is any capitalist country. In both cases the motivation seems to be the same – desire to pump surplus value out of as many workers as possible. This must raise vital questions about the relation of the Russian leaders to their own workers.

Secondly, that despite talk both by professional pessimists and by apologists for the other side, the age of working class revolution is not yet dead. Although so suddenly cut off in mid-passage, the Hungarian Revolution exhibited all the features of the classic working class revolutions, the permanence of the revolution as its implications deepen and as new classes take it on where old ones leave it, the working class struggle funding its ultimate expression in democratic workers’ councils – soviets.

Finally, it demonstrates how hollow is the worn-out distinction between the struggles for reforms and the revolutionary struggle. One is just the carrying of the other to its logical conclusion.

By their revolutionary courage and initiative, the Hungarian workers, even in defeat, obtained more from their oppressors than the cleverest reformist is ever likely to.

Last updated on 12 October 2020