Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 9 No. 4


Free Hungary

Julien Papp
La Hongrie libérée; Etat, pouvoir et société après la défaite du nazisme (Septembre 1944–Septembre 1947)
Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2006, pp. 363

READING this book gave me many intense pleasures. And so too does the opportunity to present it to a wider readership. For one thing, the author is a friend, a former optical technician and Hungarian exile who by sheer courage and determination completed a long and difficult course of university study as an external student to become a French secondary school history teacher and a talented historian. For another, he has taken on the not inconsiderable difficulties and complexities of the immediate post-war period in a country previously dominated by an archaic social system, Hitler’s last satellite.

My personal satisfaction is all the greater in that I myself lived through those times. Young as I was, I participated actively in the struggles described in this book. My knowledge of them is intimate, however circumscribed its scope. Moreover, I read this book with the feelings and fervour of a committed contemporary.

The book’s first and most obvious merit is that it exists at all. It has immediately assumed an important place among the wealth of Hungarian historiography devoted to the problems of the birth and early years of the new regime and of democracy. It is one of those rare works which attempts to summarise and synthesise the overall history of that period in a monograph. But it is also distinguished – advantageously in my view – by its concentration on a few short but decisive years in the formation of the new regime. The very few other monographic works that exist cover a much longer period of several decades, within which the short period which concerns us is necessarily proportionately reduced. Our author, on the other hand, considers the period concerned to be essential. By concentrating on a few brief years, Papp’s study is able not only to focus on a number of different topics in minute detail but also systematically to study historical development in its various components.

It is this very globality of investigations, embracing the wide variety of different subjects that go to make up the structure of historical development, which marks Papp’s book out from the majority of other Hungarian historical studies. Most, if not all, of the great wealth of historical writing devoted to the period in question tackles a number of different topics, events or developments taken in isolation.

The monograpic character of Papp’s study of the whole range of historical development as well as its concentration and focus on two or three essential years give this book an intrinsic value which marks it out favourably from almost everything that has been produced in the way of Hungarian history. These qualities place the work in the front rank amongst them.

What makes it particularly valuable is that it was published, not in Hungarian, an isolated language and one not easily accessible to non-speakers, i.e. to the vast majority of historians and political activists interested in history, but in French. It thus fills a significant gap in our knowledge (or rather quasi-ignorance) of the history of that part of Europe.

And there is much more. Most, if not all, the Hungarian historians who have tackled this subject in one way or another have been subjected to considerable influences, first and foremost those of the Stalinists in power, at least in the modified form of Janos Kadar. Others – very often the same people – have been ensnared by the mirage of the various kinds of historical writing guided by newer political modes and imperatives. Consequently the independent role of the popular masses and their organs, however present and visible they were, has been unceremoniously downplayed, not to say entirely suppressed. To say the least it has been obscured and distorted. In this, Stalinist state power under Rakosi and then Kadar as well as the democratic regime which followed have inspired exactly the same attitude amongst a range of different authors.

As far as I know, apart from one or two notable but very isolated exceptions, only Papp’s work has restored them their rightful pre-eminent role and function in the country’s quasi-revolutionary transformation from fascist dictatorship to democracy. Moreover, he is the only one to have clearly and unequivocally pointed out how prominent they were in these decisive developments. Workers, peasants, the popular masses as a whole in their spontaneously-formed committees, occupy a primordial place here in the whole historical development.

The author not only presents their birth, their composition and their activity in detail – he devotes more than a third of the book to this! – but also considers them to be the principal actors, the axis and pivot of democratic transformation. As he says in the Introduction:

My approach aims to restore the workers, peasants and other ‘little people’ of Hungary to their true place as protagonists, which dominant memories have never ceased to distort and efface since the Stalinist turn of September 1947. (p. 10)

As he sums up in his Conclusions: “It was the minorities most interested in social transformation” (actually the great majority – B.N.) “who were led to take in hand the cause of bourgeois democracy …” (p. 305) And Papp has no hesitation in seeing in this “in a sense the delayed action of the Russian revolution, its social ‘momentum’!” (p. 304)

Here lies the book’s fundamental interest and its main merit. The author provides a detailed account of the struggles of workers and peasants who gathered together spontaneously. They organised committees which arose as the the whole socio-political system of the old regime and its state collapsed. More than that: he puts the whole activity of these committees at the centre of his book and his analyses, without, however, betraying his commitment as a historian or, indeed, forgetting other aspects of the country’s life and the unfolding of its history.

Precisely because they set out to establish and organise a new democratic regime. Papp explains, the people in action and their spontaneous organs collided with the installation and re-inforcement of the new state power: not only with reactionary forces from the past – strong remnants of the fascist administration as well as exponants and defenders of bourgeois social relations, mixed with living relics of feudalism – but also no less violently with the organisations and representatives of the new rulers, above all the Stalinists.

The author shows and fully documents how the latter did everything they could to maintain the old social relations and keep bourgeois political forces – however modified – in a coalition of parties representing the new democracy and its state. In doing so, the coalition of parties faithfully reflected the wartime allied powers. Apart from drawing spheres of influence, none of these powers – including and above all the Soviet Union – had any plan prepared for the social order in Hungary or, indeed, the general shape of the new democracy born of the outcome of the war. The author demonstrates that, by common agreement, these powers tried to preserve the preceding bourgeois order in broad outline, including its state administration, virtually intact.

In their role of occupiers, the allied powers forcibly imposed this policy, the USSR well to the fore and playing a particular role. The author lays bare their arrogance and their insistance on making the country pay not only excessive war reparations but also the daily costs of the occupation and its various bodies. One reads with amazement how the politico-military and diplomatic bodies (and not just those of the USSR) made a Hungary bled white by war pay not only onerous reparations but also for their occupiers’ personal luxuriess, such as flowers! Presenting the enormous financial burden imposed on the country in detail, the author makes no bones about saying that “… the cost of the upkeep of the ACC (Allied Control Commission) and the (Soviet) army of occupation took Hungary to the very limit of what she could manage”. (p. 73)

But the author affirms that the main grievance against the the allied occupation forces was political. And he presents in minute detail their continual and daily interference in political life in order to shore up the coalition against the concrete and permanent threat presented by the committees. In particular Papp shows the Soviet Commission’s systematic efforts as the main occupation force led by Marshal Voroshilov to channel the country in that direction – both as the main occupying army but also through its local agents, the Hungarian Communist Party.

The non-communist parties in the coalition constantly appealed to the Allied Control Commission – and especially it main Soviet component – to intervene in order to “regularise” the situation by restraining the committees’ revolutionary zeal.

The committees did indeed show impressive power and energy. The author presents the three different forms which they took: factory committees, land committees and finally national committees. The first took direct charge of the factories at the end of the war, when the majority of the owners fled or were scared. These spontaneous workers’ organs took complete control of the factories. In fact what they wanted was not ownership of the plant but a share in the way they were managed. Papp shows that in this way they achieved genuine workers’ control. The Hungarian Communist Party worked up a hysterical campaign and a constant struggle against them, resolutely siding with the bourgeois owners and their organisations which, although still weak, grew ever stronger bolder thanks to that support. This was despite the fact that the great majority of committees were communist or social democrat, and that “all” they wanted was workers’ control. Even so, they represented an enormous threat to class collaboration. Not for nothing was the Communist Party’s main and permanent propaganda and political campaign – how vividly I still remember it to this day – directed against the “men of 1919”, referring to the short-lived Hungarian soviet republic of 1919! The workers really did not understand the class-collaboration with the bourgeoisie forced on the masses by those in power. And the author describes those years as a period of “latent civil war”. (p. 58)

In parallel with this development and immediately after the cessation of hostilities, there began the occupation and expropriation of the land on quite a large scale and the appearance of committees of – landless – peasants. Although it was a less important phenomenon than the factory committees, it was nevertheless very widespread and general. In any case the serious pressure they exerted forced a radical distribution of the land, a quasi-revolutionary act which quickly and officially did away with the great agricultural estates. Despite any difficulties it may have caused them, all the coalition partners quickly agreed the radical terms of the land reform in order to avoid a major social upheaval.

As for the national committees, they arose to replace the state administration, which had completely collapsed and fragmented and a large part of whose members had fled abroad. A network of these committees covered the entire country and took over local government. They replaced the missing state administration and like the other committees, with the participation of rank-and-file members of various parties, particularly workers’ parties, they took control locally, just as the soviets did in their day.

This veritable network of committees, which in reality was council rule in embryo, also very quickly collided with attempts by the coalition government to reorganise a central state power. The Communist Party appeared to defend these committees, but only as organs of the coalition of parties. At the same time it stated openly that they “could not constitute a second organ of power side by side with the government authorities.” (p. 190) The author quotes Rakosi’s own memoirs to show how frequent the conflicts were between the Budapest committee and the government: “… from the simple fact that the government was far to the right of the national committee which was under the influence of the (Buda) Pest workers.” (p. 188)

One way to neutralise the committees as a whole (factory committees, land committees and the local committees) was quickly and artificially to centralise them under the almost total domination of the Communist Party. Papp writes: “… the party only embraced the movement in order all the better to strangle it”. (p. 177) Thus centralising them on a national level was only a prelude to their early death, since it was essentially designed and carried out by the Communist Party.

To convey the character of the permanent conflict between the coalition’s emerging central power and the committees, the author quotes a speech made decades later by Ferenc Donáth (under secretary to the minister of agriculture, Imre Nagy’s assistant in 1945). He said: “Nothing demonstrates better the strength and social significance of the popular desire to exercise public authority than the attitude of the new central power, which opposed it in practice from the very first moment of its existence and which did everything it could to stifle it … In this respect, there was no difference between left and right in the coalition … the strength of the popular movement shattered against the massive and unyielding wall of the coalition.” (p. 194) This same Donáth wrote, of the factory councils: “All of us who participated in the leadership at the time … did what we could to limit and, as soon as we could, suppress democracy in the factories, the institution of factory councils.” (p. 195)

How clear and eloquent. I must say that, alongside Imre Nagy, Donáth became one of the leaders of the communist opposition and then of the revolution of 1956. But he was not the only one. In his book Papp also quotes the opinion of István Bibó who, as a prominent member of (as it happens) the peasant party in 1944–1947 stated his fervent support for the committees. Or one could mention István Márkus, a young sociologist who wrote important studies devoted to the committees.

In fact – although the author doesn’t say a word about this – I can personally state that between 1944 and 1947 Hungary saw the unfolding and then the rapid stifling of the permanent revolution as worked out by Trotsky. In his view, the bourgeois democratic revolution in a backward country can, in our epoch, only be brought about under the leadership of the proletariat. And so in Hungary – as the author actually tells us – all the demands of bourgeois democracy were achieved under constant pressure from the working class and the peasantry, including the radical and revolutionary land distribution. All the Communist Party itself could do was at best to follow a movement which went far beyond what it wanted. In doing so, it took great care to strangle the autonomous organs of that revolution.

Prospects for and limitations upon the Political and Social Revolution is the title the author gives to one section of the book – the longest one, and the backbone of the whole work. His great merit is to show us this permanent revolution in progress, channelled and finally strangled by the USSR and the Stalinist Communist Party. Although the author never uses the adjective “permanent” in relation to the revolution then underway, and does not use Trotsky’s name, his book talks constantly about the direct democracy of the masses and does involuntary hommage to the theoretician of permanent revolution.

Papp’s main thesis, which he develops and documents very well, is that although the revolution was stifled, channelled and deformed, it largely, not to say decisively, dictated the political path the international protagonists finally followed. The USSR and the Hungarian Communist Party were obliged to go much further than they wanted to in bringing about and establishing a “socialism” which, it is true, was in their image and shaped in their very largely deformed and falsified way. But they had to do it despite their initial intentions. After all, the bourgeois western Allies, in line with their agreements with the USSR at Yalta and Potsdam, had given Moscow a free hand to sort out the threatening revolution – while of course maintaining the appearance of being “defenders of democracy”.

Papp uses the tools of historical science to prove that, in the course of this process, the USSR and the Hungarian Communist Party were obliged to change their initial programme. Instead of participating in the peaceful formation of a bourgeois democracy, as they planned in advance, they were confronted with the birth and superabundant activity of the popular masses’ direct democracy. Even though they were able to withstand them and ultimately suppress their organs, they nevertheless had, while establishing their own anti-popular dictatorship, to expropriate the bourgeoisie and introduce essential reforms, all, of course, in their own repulsive and fundamentally anti-democratic image. Of course the author says nothing about this poisoned fruit of the conflict between the committees and the authorities in those years. But his book enables us to understand how the path to it was traced by the struggle the Hungarian Communist Party and the USSR waged against the committees.

The author also says nothing about the revolution of 1956. However, reading his book, one inevitably thinks of the rapid and widespread formation of workers’ councils and other popular committees in which the revolutionary people spontaneously and very quickly found the logical and obvious successors to its post-war committees. The Hungarian workers were inspired not only by their fathers’ struggle for the Hungarian soviet republic in 1919, not only by the Russian Revolution, but also and to a great extent by their own struggles in 1944–1947. In the speed with which their councils appeared and the vigour which they displayed, should we not see the living inspiration provided by these post-war committees? I certainly think so. It is no accident that all the prominent politicians whom Papp quotes as acknowledging the fundamental role the committees played in those years themselves participated actively in events and later played an leading and important role in 1956; men like Donáth, Bibó and Márkus.

I must mention that this author is a historian and not an ideologue. He examines all the components and aspects of historical development in detail, from the profound devastation of the war, through the persecution and massive and atrocious extermination of the Jews and the role of abject anti-Semitism, the inhuman population transfers and the establishment and role of military and diplomatic occupation, to the re-constitution of a central power, the state and its organs. It is a vast overall picture that Papp presents which even a reader familiar with the subject can study with interest and also pleasure. The very occasional omissions or mistakes easily recede in the face of this book’s many merits and virtues.

Not the least among them is the impressive apparatus at the end supporting the book. The footnotes and references on each page alone provide a rich and varied documentation to accompany the text. The author enumerates in an extensive summary the archives and materials consulted and the many books and articles referred to. They are presented in an impressive way and moreover introduce the reader to a mass of original sources and a rich and varied literature on the subject. A short biographical resumé of the main actors and events and an index of names and places usefully completes the book.

To summarise: a significant and precious contribution which enriches the historiography of contemporary Europe. A translation into English would fill a significant gap in the historical material available to the English reader.

Balazs Nagy

Translated by Bob Archer

Updated by ETOL: 31.10.2011