Chris Harman


Workers’ blow to Moscow

(January 1997)

From Socialist Review, No.204, January 1997.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive at
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The Hungarian Revolution of 1956
Ed: György Litvan
Longman £12.99

You still meet otherwise good socialists who are still worried by the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. They regard it as suspect, if not as outright counter- revolution. Yet anyone who sees film footage of the revolution – for instance, in the recent BBC programme Cry Hungary – is witness to scenes reminiscent of 1789, of 1848, of 1917 and of Barcelona in 1936.

This is the first history of the revolution to be produced in Hungary itself, using testimony of those involved in the rising and the official archives of those who put it down. It does not add much new to anyone who had read the accounts that came out in 1957-58 (on which the chapter in my own book Class Struggles in Eastern Europe was based) or Bill Lomax’s history that was produced in the late 1970s.

It does, however, confirm their essential accuracy – and not only on the course of the revolutionary events. More importantly, it endorses the essentially working class character of the revolution. The street fighters, it proves, were mainly young workers – ‘three quarters of the people sentenced to death for their participation in the rising were young workers around 20 years of age’ – while the various workers’ and popular councils were rooted in the large factories. By contrast. the peasantry played only a supportive role and the remnants of the old aristocracy none at all.

It also shows how little the American state department or the CIA were concerned about, let alone involved in, the rising. ‘The pact of Yalta’, it concludes, ‘was really written in 1956 when the Western powers indicated by their (in)action and their explicit diplomatic messages that Moscow’s tutelary position of the “people’s democracies” enjoyed international approval.’

The revolutionary forces did not want to establish Western style capitalism in Hungary, still less revert to a society run by the prewar large landowners.

‘The group that contributed the greatest number of those sentenced [to jail] consisted of the members of the workers’ councils and revolutionary committees. Most were workers or farmers ... From this group came the organisational talent that rose overnight to become the local leadership ... of the revolution. Equal to the demands of the extraordinary situation they were able to act within the direct democratic control obtaining in their sphere ... Most members of this group stood for socialist principles, their political views having been formed in the early postwar period in the workers’ parties.’

The intellectuals who fought and suffered alongside the workers were likewise from the left, not the right. Among those found ‘guilty’ for allegedly preparing the rising were historic figures from the left like the Communist writer Tibor Dery and the former collaborator of Bertolt Brecht, Julius Hay. The book tells how ‘most people nursed a solution, the so called “third road”, that promised to bypass both of the existing counterposed systems in favour of the building of a just society’. And the editors have no motive for exaggerating here, since they themselves regard that aim as ‘utopian’ and ignoring the importance of ‘a more or less free market’.

Hungary 1956 is a central part of our tradition. Those who spurn it are handing over to the other side something which even their historians cannot honestly claim.

Last updated on 22 December 2009