Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Hungary. Hugo Dewar and Daniel Norman 1957

II: The Communists and the Revolution

... and how men fight and lose the battle, and the thing that they fought for comes about in spite of their defeat, and when it comes turns out to be not what they meant, and other men have to fight for what they meant under another name – William Morris, The Dream of John Ball

Duka Julius, special correspondent in Hungary of the Yugoslav government’s paper Politika, wrote after the suppression of the revolution that ‘an outburst of the accumulated dissatisfaction of the people, including the Communists themselves, with the country’s government had to take place sooner or later’. Yet, before the event, no one could have foretold that the outburst would be of such proportions. Demonstrations, minor disturbances, strikes, riots even. But a revolution sweeping the entire country and involving the entire people, a movement so powerful that ‘the entire structure of the state and party collapsed in only a few hours’ (Duka Julius) – who would have dreamed it possible in Hungary?

The first reaction of the Hungarian Communist Party to the revolution is exemplified in the radio speech of János Kádár on 24 October 1956, the day after the outbreak:

It is only with burning anger that we can speak of this attack by counter-revolutionary reactionary elements against the capital of our country, against our people’s democratic order and the power of the working class.

The Stalinists still did not think it possible that the mass of the people were in revolt. Even so, they had so little confidence in their own forces that they at once appealed to the Russians. And even the most politically conscious leaders of the revolution did not at first realise its strength, and, as always on these occasions, lagged behind the masses:

When news spread about the Soviet intervention, most of our older friends, particularly those with some political experience, were convinced that all resistance would be useless from now on. What could unarmed Hungarian students and workers do against Russian armed forces? (Dezsõ Kozák, Franc-Tireur, Paris, 18 December 1956)

This was undoubtedly also the attitude of the die-hard Communists. So much so that they continued for some time to lie even to themselves about the gravity of the situation. Even Imre Nagy and other non-Stalinist Communists were apparently unaware of the tremendous force and scope of the explosion. As the days went by, and still the workers – now the heart and body of the battle – refused stubbornly to lay down their arms, the Stalinist elements grew progressively less truculent, more uncertain of themselves, until finally they fell back in disorder. Then Nagy came forward to refute Kádár and the other Stalinists in a speech on 28 October, in which he said: ‘The government rejects the view that sees the present formidable popular movement as a counter-revolution.’ Undoubtedly individuals and reactionary, counter-revolutionary elements had attempted to take advantage of the situation for their own ends:

But it is also indisputable that in this movement, a great national and democratic movement, embracing and unifying all our people, unfolded itself with elemental force. This movement has the aim of guaranteeing our national independence and sovereignty, of advancing the democratisation of our social, economic and political life, for this alone can be the basis of socialism in our country.

The Hungarian revolution, in spite of its seeming defeat, has inflicted a wound that will never heal. But the death of a tyrant is not something that happens in a mechanical fashion, like the gradual wearing out of a machine. The hold exercised by the Communist myth even in the West over the minds of millions remains strong. But the lessons of the Hungarian revolution have done much to shake off its hold and can do more, if widely propagated.

It is, fortunately, not necessary for all of us to be subject to the iniquities of secret police terror and one-party rule in order to understand how evil is the Stalinist system. For the Hungarian people – we except the relative handful of privileged bureaucrats who lived fat under the regime, and who, after all, can hardly be classified as Hungarians – the living experience of Communism was decisive. It can, if we spread the truth, be equally decisive for the workers everywhere.

The Hungarian people expressed their opinion of Communism in a very unmistakable manner. And after that expression of opinion it would seem that no one in the West, least of all a member of the Western labour movement, could still retain illusions about Communism. Unfortunately, people tend to think through their emotions, and the emotional impact of the Hungarian revolution is not the same for all people. If it were, if the true meaning of that revolution were accepted by all, then there would be no Communist parties left in the West. It is thus of the utmost importance that we should strive not only to preserve the memory of that revolution, but to teach its lessons, not only to socialists and trade unionists, but to Communists, too. For Hungary has also shown that the Communists can learn lessons. It would be a sad mistake to assume that the Communists are all self-seeking careerists, thoroughly insincere people, social misfits, knaves, or, at best, fools. Certainly, there are among them plenty of all those. But the rank-and-file Communist and the Communist sympathiser, although intellectually not often very bright, is frequently sincere, devoted and self-sacrificing. And it is these who form the backbone of the Communist parties. It is therefore vitally important that every effort be made to counter the hypocritical and lying propaganda of the Russian government, and to gain acceptance by the rank-and-file Communist and Communist supporter of the true lessons of the Hungarian revolution.

In this connection, one of the most significant aspects of the revolution was the part played in it by the Hungarian anti-Stalinist Communists themselves. It is to be noted that many of the witnesses before the UN Committee were Communists or former Communists. As early as the autumn of 1955, as we have already mentioned, Communist writers in Hungary found the courage to voice protests against the shackling of creative thought by the bureaucracy. If you think that writers are, all said and done, queer people with a bent towards individualism, recall the words of Herzen, revolutionary writer and fighter against Tsarist autocracy:

Literature, with a people that does not possess political liberty, is the only tribune from which it can make its cry of indignation and its voice of conscience heard.

Herzen was writing of the country of his birth, Russia, about a hundred years ago, but his words apply equally well to the USSR and its satellites, to the Hungary of today.

Some writers were arrested, but the situation was such that the voice of protest could not be stilled. Instead, it strengthened and began to embrace more than the professional grievances of the intellectuals. In the summer of 1956 the official Communist Youth organisation, DISZ, sponsored the formation of the Petofi Club’, [1] which provided a centre of discussion critical of the regime attracting the bolder spirits among the young Communist intellectuals.

According to the journal of the Hungarian Writers Union Irodalmi Újság (Literary Gazette) of 24 August 1956, the Communist ruling clique in Hungary was ‘more aristocratic than the Habsburgs’ (the Austrian dynasty).

They do not shop with the workers, but have special well-stocked stores for themselves, and even on holiday at Lake Balaton they bathe behind barbed wire fences with police guards to keep the workers away.

On 24 November, that is, after the defeat of the insurrection, the party daily Népszabadság, in an effort to placate the workers, still stubbornly fighting its rearguard action of strikes and go-slow tactics, admitted that:

... one of the main reasons for the insurrection was the luxurious life of the party officials... [and that] it must be acknowledged that a new aristocracy was born in the ranks of the Communist movement, the bureaucrats. These aristocrats of the regime travelled in sumptuous cars while the workers were packed together in overcrowded trams. They had at their disposal secret shops, where they could buy goods not available in the ordinary shops. They surrounded themselves with guards, secretaries, and became unapproachable to the workers. These aristocrats spent their holidays in luxury spots, isolated from the common herd, and their children had become true brats of rich people, insolent and conceited.

It was the extreme contrast between the luxurious life of the privileged class and the miserable existence of the mass of the working people, even more than their own personal frustration, that induced in the Communist intellectuals a mood of rebellion. They suffered from the knowledge that their talents were being prostituted in the interests of the slaveholders, and the more sensitive and courageous among them could not remain silent. Of course, disillusionment in the regime did not come suddenly. Doubts arose, were pushed into the background, returned, were again banished, finally came back more strongly than ever, and as the situation progressively deteriorated, the doubts became certainty. But some, of course, were only driven beyond doubt by the revolution itself. The case of the former Stalinist writer, and Stalin prize winner, Gyula Háy, is here worth noting as an example of the process of awakening among the sincere Communists. In discussion with a Swiss journalist, François Bondy, he said at the beginning of November 1956:

For years I thought that our regime was a socialist regime – with deviations and errors. I no longer think so. I do not know what name the sociologists will give to the type of regime to which we have been subject, but I do know that in that system deviation was everything and socialism nothing...

Gyula Háy had spent some 12 years in Moscow. After the war he returned to Hungary and became one of the leading writers of the Rákosi regime. He woke up from the hypnotic dream in which he had lived for so long only after Stalin’s death.

Among the reasons he gave for his conversation to ‘truth and freedom’ were ‘the complete lack of taste in everything cultural’, the ‘many cases of injustice’, the ‘complete bankruptcy of the Hungarian economy’, resulting in the impoverishment of a potentially rich country. Even so, it is clear that these reasons were not decisive for Háy, for he must have seen and experienced something of these matters in the Soviet Union. And, indeed, he admitted to Bondy that he ‘did not choose freedom’, but was ‘driven to freedom by the pressure of the young people’. This remark about the pressure of the youth is very significant, and we shall come back to it later when we discuss the question of Communist indoctrination. For the moment it is sufficient to note that even Gyula Háy, who had spent twelve years in the ‘workers’ fatherland’ and was himself a member of the privileged class in Hungary, in the end yielded to the forces of life.

Another well-known novelist and party member, Tibor Déry, speaking at a meeting organised by the Petofi Club on 27 June 1956 attacked various leaders, asked: ‘What is the source of all our troubles?’ And gave the answer:

There is no freedom. I hope there will be no more police terror. I am optimistic, and I hope that we will be able to get rid of our present leaders. Let us bear in mind that we are allowed to discuss these things only with permission from above. They think it’s a good idea to let some steam off an overheated boiler. We want deeds and we want the opportunity to speak freely.

Others spoke in the same strain and with increasing vehemence. Alexander Fekete, journalist; Tibor Merai, novelist; Péter Kuczka, poet, who made a most daring attack on Rákosi; György Nemes, who gave the names of over 50 journalists persecuted or imprisoned by the regime, and pointed out that of 52 journalists who worked for Szabad Nép in 1951, only five had kept their jobs. The hall in which they met was jammed to capacity, the audience spilling out into the street, which gradually became blocked by thousands of people, to whom loudspeakers relayed the discussion inside. The meeting lasted from the afternoon all through the night till the early hours of the morning.

Just as among the Communist intellectuals, so among many of the party officials themselves did the grim gulf between myth and reality work to destroy confidence. They, too, became guilt-ridden, unsure of themselves; they, too, began to doubt. Among them only the most case-hardened, cynically self-seeking careerists could look without a qualm upon the crimes committed in the name of Communism; and those were the men who inevitably gravitated to the top, nationally and locally, like scum to the surface of the seething social pot. Yet who can say that even at the top there were not also men who, God knows how, shut their minds to lying, deceit, treachery, torture, hoping that there might be some way out of the nightmare world into which their self-righteous arrogance, their stupidity and their criminality had led them.

In the satellites the conflict of loyalties in the mind of the Communists must necessarily be more acute than in Russia: for to the conflict between loyalty to a doctrine and loyalty to the working people, whose interests they claim to represent, is added the conflict between loyalty to the ‘workers’ fatherland’ and the country of their birth. In Russia it is less difficult for Communists to believe that the gain is worth the cost, that however much the people may suffer, the country itself goes forward. In the satellites it is manifestly clear that neither the interests of the workers nor the interest of the country is served by the regime.

That such a conflict exists is evident from the large number of Communists who fell foul of the regime, and were hanged or imprisoned as a consequence. Peter Fryer, former member of the British Communist Party, who went to Hungary to report events for the Daily Worker, relates what one Hungarian Communist told him:

... by and large the party leaders were hated. The party itself was corrupt, and at least half of its 700 000 members were simply careerists. Communists who expressed dissenting views had either been put in positions where they could do no harm, or terrorised into silence, or imprisoned, or murdered.

In this connection the following statement from the United Nations Report is worth quoting:

Many of the witnesses had spent years in prison before 1945 on account of anti-Horthy or anti-Nazi activities. Some of these had spent more years in prison under the Communists. Among the witnesses were some who had been accused in the Rajk trial; all of these had undergone extreme torture, had been forced to sign confessions, and had been kept in prison or forced labour camps for many years without proper legal proceedings. Some of them had, later, after the fall of Rákosi in 1953, been released and reinstated in the Communist Party. One witness had been a stenographer for the security police.

It is clear that disillusioned Hungarian Communists played a not inconsiderable part in the revolution. In particular, those persecuted for dissenting opinions after their release from prison following the Russian ‘thaw’ must have greatly helped to stimulate the mood of revolt. These disillusioned Communists, both inside and outside the party, both workers and intellectuals, must have brought, as a result of their personal experiences at the hands of the ÁVH, a particularly uncompromising tone to the criticism of the regime; and this evidence of the decay of Communist faith undoubtedly served to hearten and stiffen all the opposition.

The Hungarian revolution therefore brings us this further lesson, that not only is no satellite Communist Party immune from the disintegrating force of ‘national’ Communism, but that this force is much stronger than appears on the surface. Who could have predicted, even the day before the revolution broke out, such a complete collapse of the Hungarian party? Is it not now absolutely certain that the Communist Parties of East Germany, of Rumania, of Bulgaria, and even of Czechoslovakia are riddled with ‘national’ Communists? Further, can the Russian party itself be free from the fever of dissent? The answer to these questions can now hardly be in doubt.


1. Petofi was the revolutionary poet who defended the 1848 revolution arms in hand and fell on the battlefield under the Tsar’s bullets at the age of 27. The 1848-49 revolution in Hungary (and Rumania) was also suppressed by Russian armies, called in by the Austrian Emperor in agreement – irony of history – with a pact signed in Warsaw.