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

VI: The Lessons of the Revolution

I call revolution the conversion of all hearts and the raising of all hands in behalf of the honour of man. – Karl Marx

There is a picture taken during the Hungarian revolution that no one who really wants to get the truth should fail to study. It can be seen in the book published for the Congress for Cultural Freedom entitled The Hungarian Revolution. It shows a group of Soviet soldiers and officers, and the figure to which the eye at once jumps is that of a short, somewhat porcine-faced officer, advancing on the cameraman with a snarl, his hand reaching for his revolver. This was the answer that the ‘workers’ fatherland’ gave to the Hungarian people’s cry for justice.

The Russian government and its apologists have given the classic answer of all whose tyrannical rule is threatened by revolt. Throughout history it has always been the same: foreign agents and a handful of malcontents inciting the misguided masses. It is as lacking in originality as it is in truth.

This excuse has always been peddled on such occasions by the reactionaries. They cannot admit that the responsibility is theirs. The Russian leaders are no exception to the rule. By their ruthless bloody suppression of the Hungarian revolution they have shown that Russia continues to merit the label attached to her by Marx – ‘the gendarme of reaction in Europe’.

But can there really be any cause for surprise at this? Did not the Russian action in Hungary arise logically and perfectly naturally from her leaders’ political doctrine? ‘I grew up under Stalin’, said Khrushchev. ‘When it comes to fighting the imperialists, we are all Stalinists.’ And at the Twentieth Russian Party Congress he said enough to let the world know what Stalinism is. Not the whole truth was revealed; only just as much as he felt the domestic circumstances compelled, as much as he considered necessary to damp down the fires of popular opposition and to serve his struggle for power against his rivals – but it was enough to show that Stalinism has nothing in common with socialism or democracy and everything in common with that picture of the Russian commander, reaching for his revolver. No, one cannot be surprised at the Russian action in Hungary.

Yet the question arises, how did it happen, this appalling political and moral degeneration in Russia? How did that country which once gave such high hopes to the workers of the world, that once appeared to be leading them at last to the Golden Age of man, so change that it could send its troops, tanks, artillery and machine-guns to slaughter the working people of Hungary?

Volumes have been written and will be written on this question. Yet the heart of the matter lies in the following sentence:

Where it is a question of a complete transformation of the social organisation, the masses themselves must also be in it, must themselves have grasped what is at stake, what they are going in for body and soul.

Those words were written by Engels, whose disciples the Communists still proclaim themselves. Engels was at that time arguing the over-riding importance to the workers of the vote and electoral campaigns, and relegating to the background, although not entirely rejecting, the civil war tactic. ‘The time of surprise attacks, of revolutions carried through by small conscious minorities at the head of unconscious masses is past’, he asserted in 1895. Yet it would seem that here he was mistaken, for in the seizure of power by the Bolsheviks in 1917 we had an example of precisely this surprise attack. However, Engels had in mind the achievement of a socialist transformation of society. Subsequent events in the USSR have confirmed completely the correctness of his view that this could not be achieved without the active, full participation of the mass of the people. Without such participation, which could only be achieved if the masses ‘grasped what was at stake’, that is, if they were ready to accept the transformation and fight and work for it ‘body and soul’, the power seized by a minority could only be maintained by methods of dictatorship and terror directed against the majority.

It would be not only historically false, but also unfair to say that the early Bolsheviks were not for the most part men of high ideals, to assert that they were self-seeking careerists and not men devoted to the cause of social progress. But it remains true that Stalinism grew inevitably out of the attempt of a minority to force Russia into the strait-jacket of a false theory. Many of the Bolsheviks eventually recognised that, but it was already too late: Stalin had won the day; behind him a new army of self-seekers and place-men. And Stalin, and those who, like Khrushchev, had grown up under Stalin, pursued in the satellites the same policy of trying to impose their will by force and terror. Hungary was neither economically nor politically ripe for the accelerated pace of industrialisation and the collectivisation of agriculture that the Russians leaders sought to impose on her. Moreover, here they were alien conquerors, served by native Quislings, and considerations of Russian imperial strategy and Russian aggrandisement dominated. To the demands for wealth and privilege of the native Hungarian Quislings were added the Russians conquerors’ demands for booty. The Hungarian economy had to conform to Russian ideas and Russian needs. All aspects of Hungarian life had to be patterned on the Russian, and the people were made to understand at every step that they were under the domination of a foreign power, whose troops stood behind their puppet government. It was this combination of outraged national sentiment and economic misery that unified the spirit of an entire people and finally caused them to rise in a hopeless attempt to throw off the yoke of their native and foreign exploiters and oppressors.

We said ‘hopeless attempt’. But nonetheless inevitable, nonetheless one for which all who love freedom must be eternally grateful, nonetheless one whose defeat advances mankind far forward on the road to ultimate victory.

The truly amazing and inspiring aspect of the Hungarian revolution is that it demonstrates the power of the people even against totalitarian tyranny. After this event not all the efforts to restore the former state of affairs can be more than temporarily successful.

In 1847, in a text that is little known, Engels declared: ‘We are not Communists who want to destroy personal freedom and transform the world into one great barracks or one great sweatshop.’ And he added:

As a matter of fact there are Communists who do not care for, deny and want to suppress personal freedom, which, in their opinion, bars the way to harmony; but we, we do not want to buy equality at the expense of personal freedom. (Kommunistische Zeitschrift, September 1847)

The social system consolidated by Stalin and now defended by Khrushchev and his colleagues, however, has indeed transformed Russia into one great sweatshop, and this system has been exported by force of arms to Eastern Europe. And it is a ‘sweatshop’ that has not even brought ‘equality’, for it exists in the service of a gang of unscrupulous, self-seeking politicians and their hangers-on.

Each of the two phases of the Hungarian revolution that sought to destroy this state of affairs has its peculiar lesson. The first we have noted: on 23 October the wrath of an aroused people scattered the apparatus of repression like chaff before the tempest. The moral influence exerted by the movement of the masses neutralised some sections of the army and induced the active support of others. The security police, whose firing on the unarmed demonstration before the Radio Building on the evening of the 23rd put the match to the blaze, were utterly powerless in the face of the fury of the populace. From the first hours the state apparatus collapsed. The five days fighting that followed was, apart from winkling out of ÁVH men, fighting against Russian tanks. ‘There was no single instance on record of Hungarian troops fighting on the Soviet side against their fellow countrymen’, stated the UN Committee Report. At the end of that five days a cease-fire was effected and the fighting stopped, ‘largely on the insurgents’ terms’. (Hungarian army units, under Colonel Pál Maléter, successfully defended the Kilian Barracks against continuous Russians attacks.) The freedom fighters, most of whom were workers, with a proportion of students in small groups. [2]

The second lesson. We recall Engels’ words:

Let us have no illusions about it: a real victory of an insurrection over the military in street fighting, a victory as between two armies, is one of the rarest exceptions. But the insurgents, also, counted on it just as rarely. For them it was solely a question of making the troops yield to moral influences, which, in a fight between the armies of two warring countries do not come into play at all, or do so to a much less degree. If they succeed in this, then the troops fail to act, or the commanding officers lose their heads, and the revolution wins. If they do not succeed in this, then, even where the military are in a minority, the superiority of better equipment and training, of unified leadership, of the planned employment of military forces and of discipline makes itself felt.

This problem of moral influence was seen in both phases of the revolution. In the first it would seem that there was a certain amount of dissatisfaction among the Russian troops. ‘There was evidence that some of the Russian soldiers disliked the task assigned to them... There were a number of cases of fraternisation with the Hungarians.’ (UN Report) There have been reports in newspapers that several hundreds, if not thousands of Russian troops went over to the insurgents. The extent of this fraternisation may well have been exaggerated, but that there was some cannot be questioned. The UN Report further states that:

All the evidence shows that the Soviet troops fought alone against the Hungarians. With the exception of former members of the ÁVH and a small number of former party officials, no Hungarians, whether organised or unorganised, fought on the Russian side. Many of the new Soviet troops brought into Hungary for the second intervention came from distant regions of Central Asia. Many believed that they were in Egypt, with the mission of fighting the Anglo-French ‘imperialists’. It would seem that the Soviet authorities had more confidence in troops who had had no opportunity to be affected by European associations and who might be counted upon to behave with indifference to the attitude of the Hungarian people.

The second phase of the revolution emphasised the vital significance of the moral influence that can be exercised by the revolutionaries on the rank-and-file of the opposing military forces. The second lesson of the Hungarian revolution is thus clear: it is the supreme importance of socialist propaganda among the Russian occupying forces and the Russian people. That the soil is ripe does not need to be proved. In this connection may be recalled the reaction of a young Russian girl who, one of the delegates to the Moscow Youth Festival reported, burst into tears when she was finally convinced that Russian troops had shot down Hungarian workers.

The Hungarian revolution had also the elements of a war between two countries. In any attempt in the satellites to overthrow the regime the revolutionary attempt must also take into account the possibility of Russian intervention, which must, as in Hungary, prove decisive, if the moral influence of which Engels spoke is not sufficiently strong. If every opportunity to exert this moral influence is seized to the full – everywhere – then the Russian ruling class, already severely shaken, will be confronted with a problem to which it will be able to find no ultimate solution.

We are waging a battle of ideas. Hungary has demonstrated that nearly ten years of Stalinist indoctrination failed to win over the youth. The youth of Russia and of every one of her satellites is today in ferment. No occasion should be missed to add to that ferment, to give it purpose and direction. Modern military means of destruction have rendered war between the two great power blocs mutually suicidal. It is this inescapable fact which made Western intervention in Hungary impossible. But it is not by war that the regime perfected by Stalin and his followers, already crumbling, will be finally overthrown, but by internal revolt. Hungary has shown us that this revolt is possible. Hungary has also helped to make it inevitable, and to bring it nearer, much nearer.


2. Sic: the final sentence of this paragraph appears to be incomplete – MIA.