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International Socialist Review, Fall 1958


Theodore Edwards

Inside Report on Hungary


From International Socialist Review, Vol.19 No.4, Fall 1958, pp.158-159.
Transcription & mark-up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Behind the Rape of Hungary
by François Fejtö
Foreword by Jean-Paul Sartre
David McKay Company, Inc., New York. 1957. 335 pp. $5.50.

What makes this perhaps the most interesting work yet to appear on the 1956 Hungarian revolution is the fact that it presents an accurate measure of both the positive achievements and the shortcomings of the anti-Stalinist wing within the Hungarian Communist party. The recent execution of Imre Nagy, leading figure in the events, serves to heighten the interest.

The author, who is in exile in France where he became chief news commentator for Agence France-Presse, belonged to the Budapest intellectual circles that inspired the uprising. He appears to be well acquainted with the thinking of the various groupings inside the Hungarian Communist party prior to and during the uprising.

If the reader did not know it before, he will learn from this book that the Stalinist regime in Hungary against which the uprising was directed was patterned in all essentials after the totalitarian edifice in the Soviet Union. It was a regime of bureaucratic command, reinforced by the policeman’s club, the torture chamber and the hangman’s noose. At its head stood “The Stalin of Hungary,” Matyas Rakosi, who dealt with all opposition by the methods that Stalin used in the Soviet Union – frame-up trials and executions or secret murder in the cellar of a police building. The author makes this remarkable assertion: “Under the Stalinist regime of Rakosi more Communists were executed in Hungary than under the White terror of Admiral Horthy.” (p.21)

The economic policies of Rakosi and his police-state methods of rule brought on the uprising. Rakosi overemphasized heavy industry development, lowered living standards, forced the peasants to collectivize even though this meant reduced farm production – and united the whole population in opposition to his rule. Every party opposition that rose up against his ruinous policies was denounced, expelled, framed up as “Fascists” and “counter-revolutionaries” or, worse still, “Titoists.” All political and intellectual freedom was suppressed.

Nagy and his opposition grouping first came to prominence in 1953. The Stalinist myth of the “indestructible unity of the party with the working class” had just been demolished by workers’ insurrections in East Berlin, Pilsen, Brno, Halle and Jena, and by demonstrations staged by the workers of the “Matyas Rakosi” establishments in Budapest. These popular upsurges occurred during a period of wavering in top Soviet circles after Stalin’s death. Malenkov came to the top in the Soviet Union and Rakosi was forced to resign. Nagy became premier in July 1953.

Nagy inaugurated a liberalized regime that lasted until April 1955. Then, with the support of Khrushchev, who regarded Nagy as a protege of Malenkov, Rakosi took over again. Under Nagy, the powers of the police were reduced, internment camps were abolished, legality was restored, religious freedom reappeared, the labor code was overhauled, oppressive industrialization plans were modified, higher living standards were projected. Finally, the peasants were allowed to withdraw from the collectives into which they had been forced. All this explains the popularity of Nagy and the unanimity with which he was acclaimed head of the government established on October 23, 1956. But with Rakosi’s return to the top place of power, the old regime returned in all its oppressiveness.

The anti-Rakosi forces within the Communist party sought to counter the return to the old order by working within recognized party channels. It is here that Fejtö unravels the tangled skein of cross-currents inside the party and reveals the fatal weaknesses of the opposition. First of all there was Nagy, who had been expelled from the party. Says the author:

“There is no doubt about this – Nagy is anything but a revolutionist, a leader of men, a tribune of the people. His background, his temperament, his erudition fit him for the role of the servant of the state, not a wrecker or a founder. He would be perfect as an enlightened despot. But he was totally unprepared to lead an insurrection.” (p.149)


“... Nagy patiently awaited his readmission to the party, his appointment to the premiership ... he ... demonstrated an amazing lack of realism. Unlike Gomulka, who knew that he would be helpless unless he controlled a powerful party machine, Nagy behaved like a functionary waiting for his appointment to be entitled to start a revolution.” (p.148).

The author quotes from an anonymous document circulated among Hungarian intellectuals after the crushing of the insurrection in January 1957. This document raised as the principal criticism of the opposition grouping its failure

“to organize itself as an independent force. While the party continually stigmatized alleged anti-party factions, the opposition confined itself to debates. It debated the question whether or not it should form an independent group. It did nothing to establish contact with the people, nothing to gain a foothold among the workers ...”

In Poland it was different. Gomulka succeeded in rallying the lower and middle functionaries of the party and state apparatus by assuring them that the anti-Stalinist purge would extend only to the bigwigs. The opposition ignored the official ban on intra-party factions and organized to take over the party machine. Defeating the diehard Stalinists and allowing a partial mobilization of the masses, Gomulka and his partisans contained and channelized the mass discontent and staved off threatened Russian intervention. But in Hungary the anti-Stalinist Communists thought that “the party cannot be wrong,” that it was somehow endowed “with the ability to recognize its defects and to correct them.” The Nagyists stood paralyzed, divided, unorganized; and talked while the Rakosi faction drove ahead with policies of disaster.

October 6, 1956 saw the lightning flash that heralded the approaching revolutionary storm. An estimated 300,000 people took to the streets of Budapest in an orderly demonstration against the regime of Rakosi. The occasion was the funeral of Ladislas Rajk, held in prison for years, condemned in a frame-up trial, then executed. Rajk’s widow and the opposition wanted to make the funeral turn-out a demonstration of the people’s discontent – and, perhaps equally important, the ability of the opposition to control it. Notes the author:

“Foreign observers voiced their surprise that the ceremony had taken place with such complete lack of disturbance; according to them, Mrs. Rajk had had to utter only a single word to cause the collapse of the Stalinist party machine ... The fact ... that there was not a single jarring note in the ceremony proves that ... seventeen days before the outbreak of the insurrection, the appointment of Imre Nagy as premier would have enabled Hungary to solve her crisis as Gomulka solved it in Poland.” (pp.115-16).

Does Gomulka’s success in avoiding an open clash prove that peaceful reform of the Communist parties is possible? Subsequent events in Poland would seem to indicate that Gomulka, in spite of all the differences between the Polish and Hungarian situations, imitates Kadar in breaking pledges and taking back concessions.

A revolution, contrary to Fejtö’s assertion, is not “merely the penalty a government must pay for its failure to carry out indispensable reforms.” It represents the intervention of the masses into the affairs of state, intervention by the working people who are tired of being cajoled, manipulated, coerced, disciplined, exploited. A Gomulka in Hungary might have delayed the explosion. He could not have prevented it.

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