C.L.R. James

The Gathering Forces

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III. What Is Socialism?

The Hungarian Revolution

Revolution in 1956 in Hungary is to the Western World what Cuba is to the Third World. The vindication of socialised man, the actual producers bringing production under their common control and conducting it “under conditions most adequate to their human nature and most worthy of it” is the triumph, amidst bloody defeat, of the Hungarian Revolution of October–November 1956.

No vanguard party, no plan, no group of organisers could bring into the world the new creation of the people of what was considered a mere East European satellite of the Russian empire. What was once a satellite became the brightest North Star of proletarian hopes and actualities since the original October of 1917. Only the Russian tanks could smash this new October. Hungary is proof that the European mass is maturing towards a new continental October.

In that same year, 1956, Polish spokesmen told Khrushchev and other Russian emissaries that if Russian tanks would ring Warsaw the workers would pour out armed from the plants to initiate the East European uprising that would smash the iron hand of Russian military control. Khrushchev retreated. Not only the Poles but the Hungarians took heart. Fifty thousand people in Budapest gathered around the statue of a Polish general who had helped the Hungarians in 1848 in the war against another empire, the Austrian. Demands were put forward. In the very centre was imbedded “The running of the factories by the workers and specialists.”

The demonstration at the historical statue moved to the parliament building. A newspaper lighted up was used as a torch, newspapers flared up all over the square. Voices were raised urging a movement towards the Budapest radio station. A few started off, followed by 100,000 people. From the historic statue of a regional hero to parliament, and then the surge to the radio station. That is modern revolution. No party or cadre could invent that, let alone lead it. At the radio station they were confronted by the secret political police and fired upon. That was the beginning of the Hungarian Revolution.

Russian tanks were in the streets of Budapest and unarmed men on the street were conversing with the Russian tank corpsmen. Fire rained down from the roofs surrounding the streets. The terror of the revolutionary mass was unloosed in the main only on the barracks of the secret police. The Communist Party and its large apparatus simply disintegrated. What took their place was the working population: the peasants, the students, the rank-and-file soldiers, the workers. What was once considered as the mere base of society, over whose backs bureaucrats climbed to power, the labouring population, proved itself as the directive and creative power of modern society.

The world as a whole has received from the Hungarian Revolution some refugees and some myth about Freedom Fighters. But the worldwide actualisation of the Hungarian Revolution is in the proficiency, the orderliness, the decision-making, the intensity of feeling and extensiveness of action of the creation of the Hungarian workers: the workers’ councils.

Lenin from 1917 until his death struggled against the inevitable deformations of the one-party nation-state From the first day of its existence the Hungarian Revolution simply abolished it as if the people of Hungary had been preparing themselves for nothing else. The workers’ councils, numbered in the hundreds, took over. While Radio Budapest still enunciated the Moscow line in various provinces, workers had taken over the radio stations where they broadcast a whole variety of demands. Wages and pensions were never first on the list. Even the parliamentary democracy spoken about was the type only defensible by a whole people in arms. By their very practical authority what was being formed in Hungary was a Republic of Councils.

The political figurehead, Imre Nagy, tried to talk down 200,000 massed people at a Budapest meeting. On October 24th, he invoked the Warsaw Pact, which authorised Russian tanks on the streets of Budapest. On November 1st, he revoked it. Vital decision-making lay elsewhere.

Peasants had begun a redistribution of the land and made every effort to provision the revolutionary mass in the cities. Workers in factories turned their attention to the making of weaponry. Disputation in the provinces centred on whether to send armed forces to support the rising in Budapest or concentrate on the sending of food lorries to the workers. It took only one week to arrive at a high pitch of an attempted federation of national workers’ councils. The workers’ councils were the force of national unity. Class emancipation elevates national feeling; everything else degrades it. But more: the working class thrust is towards fraternal embracing of a kind that transgresses nation-state boundaries. The final return of Russian tanks to Budapest was led by soldiers from far-off Mongolia, the end of another continent. Trust of the Hungarian people in its workers’ councils guaranteed – and so it appeared to the Russian bureaucracy – that the ordinary Russian soldier even in his armoured tank could be won over by the new internationalism of a working people fighting for its life.

Nagy fled ton Yugoslav embassy. The Hungarian workers, in the face of the return of 6,000 Russian tanks, returned to the factories for a general strike lasting for weeks. The government headed now by Janos Kadar, who had himself recently been let out of prison, concentrated on the destruction of the workers’ councils . Despite the Budapest Radio’s cries about “Western agents” and the Western world’s hysteria about “freedom fighters”, Kadar at least for certain knew what had to be destroyed. Months after the fighting had died in the streets, the arrests continued of leaders from the shop floor of plants which had been the meeting ground of a new social order, a new economy, ordered by workers, endorsed by the population in motion and stamped with the dominant politics of decisive social change.

Last updated on 18 October 2020