Hungarian Uprising (1956)

The Hungarian Uprising began on 23 October 1956 when the working class took on and defeated the police and installed a new government, lasting 18 days before being crushed by Soviet tanks.

From the report by Peter Fryer, correspondent in Budapest for the British Communist Party’s Daily Worker:

‘It began with a students’ demonstration, partly to show the students’ sympathy for the people of Poland, who that weekend, through Gomulka and the Central Committee of the Polish United Workers Party, had resolutely rebuffed an attempt by an unprecedented delegation of Soviet leaders to get tough with them. ...

‘First Gero had gone on the wireless to make an address which, “poured oil on the flames”. He had called the demonstrators (now joined by workers from the factories, to which the students had sent delegations) counter-revolutionaries – “hostile elements” trying to disturb ‘the present political order in Hungary’...

‘Secondly, the crowds which had gathered outside the radio station to ask that students’ demands be broadcast were fired on by AVH men, 300 of whom were in the building. This was, without question, the spark that turned peaceful demonstrations into a revolution.

‘What had the students been demanding before the shooting at the radio station? First and foremost the replacement of Hegedus as Prime Minister by Imre Nagy. The election of a new Party leadership by a national congress. Friendship with the Soviet Union, but on the basis of equality. Withdrawal of Soviet troops from Hungary. Free elections. Freedom of the press. Academic freedom. The use of Hungary’s uranium stocks by Hungary herself’. [The Hungarian Tragedy, by Peter Fryer, 1956]

After arriving in Hungary Peter Fryer went to Magyarovar where a peaceful demonstration of 5,000, inspired by the events in Budapest, had marched to the AVH (political police) headquarters and demanded they remove the red star, symbol of the Soviet occupation. The AVH replied with a hail of machine gun fire, killing 80. The crowd went to the army barracks and demanded and received weapons and stormed and took the AVH headquarters.

Fryer was taken to meet the Revolutionary Committee in Magyarovar.

‘It had been set up after the events of the previous day, and was in continuous session, mainly organising food supplies and arranging contact with the similar committee at Gyor, the county town. The twenty members of the revolutionary committee were all local men; none could be called an emigré. Some were Communists, but rank-and-file Communists, not officials. What had happened to the officials? “The party secretary was a bully, but he was not a criminal. We told him to go home and stay there for a bit”.

‘Most of the committee members were former members of the Social-Democratic Party, who for one reason or another had dropped out of political activity since the Communist Party and the Social-Democratic Party were merged in the Hungarian Working People’s Party in June 1948. ...'

The revolution culminated in the creation of a genuine Soviet government, a coalition which placed at its head Imry Nagy. Nagy had been rehabilitated and made Prime Minister in 1953 after the death of Stalin. Instead of repressing the uprising, Nagy had joined it, and vainly attempted to dissuade the Soviet Union from intervening.

The uprising was brutally crushed by the intervention of Soviet tanks on November 4. 20,000 Hungarians and 3,500 Russians died in the fighting. Nagy was put on trial and executed, and replaced by Janos Kadar, a nonentity who had joined Nagy’s revolutionary government, but later reappeared behind the Soviet tanks.

From the initial uprising on October 23, the revolution lasted only 18 days. The great speed of events, combined with the Stalinist monopoly on the means of communication, and bourgeois misrepresentation, meant that it was all over before the working class of the world was able to respond to the call of the Hungarian workers. Although the movement was spontaneous, the political background of all those who held leading positions in the revolution was communist or socialist of one kind or another. The revolution did not have time to develop a program as such, but its political character was unambiguous and clear – it was the program of political revolution.

‘In Hungary, both factory workers’ councils and district-based workers’ or revolutionary councils sprang up during the first phase of the 1956 revolution. Their main task was to maintain the general strike. Their demands were closely similar: freedom for other political parties, withdrawal of Russian troops, Hungarian neutrality, the right to strike. ..

‘The most bitter fighting of all took place in the working-class districts of Budapest. When it died down, the general strike held throughout the country. The workers’ councils movement now became radicalised. At the suggestion of Miklos Krasso, one of the very few intellectuals involved, a central workers council for all Budapest was set up. Its main job was to negotiate with the Russians and the new Kadar regime they had installed, but its programme was one of democratic socialism. As weeks of vain political struggle passed, the workers began to organise a nation-wide political system based on the councils, centring on a national council with mandated, revocable delegates and advised by a ‘workers’ parliament;, a society based on the direct rule of the producers. ... Little could be achieved, however, against hopeless odds. The main strike leadership was arrested in early December, and the last workers’ councils dissolved themselves in January 1957’. [Neil Ascherson]

This uprising, its undoubtedly proletarian character, and the cynicism of its suppression, dealt a blow to Stalinism of international proportions with many resignations from the Communist Parties across the world, especially among the intelligentsia.

The repression of the Hungarian Uprising also sent a chilling message to workers across Eastern Europe, and drove the political revolution underground.

See Hungarian Revolution of 1956 Subject Section, for various analysis and eye-witness reports.