On 23rd October 1956, political revolution against Stalinist dictatorship lept from the pages of Leon Trotsky’s writings and roared into life in Hungary.
The Hungarian regime was socialist in name, but bureaucratic in essence, modelled on the USSR under strict control by Moscow. This lifeless government, which was bureaucratically deformed from its birth in 1949, was rocked in 1956 by a living movement for workers’ democracy and against Stalinist repression. Contrary to Stalinist slanders at the time, this was never a movement for the restoration of capitalism. It was an attempt by working class Hungarians to take control over their own lives and establish a healthy socialist society.
The revolution was ultimately crushed with an iron fist and Russian tanks. The scale of the threat posed to the Soviet bureaucracy by this movement can be measured in the lives that were lost. Tens of thousands of Hungarian workers were killed and countless more injured.
Turbulence and instability
The end of the First World War brought about enormous social and economic turbulence. The fragile 1918 bourgeois liberal regime in Hungary was overthrown by a revolutionary movement in 1919 which put the young Hungarian Communist Party into power. Mistakes by the Hungarian Communists and invasion by imperialist-backed Romanian troops meant that the young socialist republic was unable to consolidate itself properly before it was overthrown by outside invasion.
By the end of 1919 the conditions had been prepared for fascist counter-revolution, which was led by a former Imperial Admiral: Horthy. He unleashed a bloody wave of White Terror and was an ally of Hitler during WWII, participating in the Holocaust and the invasion of the Soviet Union. Horthy’s regime - the first example of fascism in Europe - was all that Hungarian capitalism had to offer. The memory of this experience partly explains why a restoration of capitalism and Horthyism was never seriously on the agenda during the revolution of 1956.
In 1945 the Red Army marched into Hungary. But Stalin had no interest in establishing healthy workers’ states in Eastern Europe, which would have acted as inspiration for the Russian workers to re-establish the traditions of Lenin and Trotsky in a political revolution against the Stalin clique. In fact, the Stalinists at first aimed at no more than keeping Hungary within the USSR’s sphere of influence, without touching capitalism. The Communists even kept up the pretence of a coalition government with a capitalist Party for the first few years after the war.
Eventually the façade of capitalism in Hungary collapsed and the Stalinists moved to turn Hungary into a miniature version of the USSR, lacking workers’ democracy but complete with stifling bureaucracy and brutal secret police.
This meant that when the expropriations, nationalisations and economic planning took place, they were done without the conscious participation of the mass of the workers. Socialism was introduced into Hungary via bureaucratic means.
Stalinist control meant bureaucratic inefficiency and the systematic pillaging of Eastern Bloc industry by the Soviet Union so that it could build up its industrial base. The production of consumer goods was sacrificed for the development of heavy industry. Nevertheless, it’s also true that education, culture and public health were improved and advances were made for women, mainly in the form of equal pay and some socialised child care.
At the same time the bureaucracy was accumulating massive privileges for itself, in the form of luxury holiday homes, limousines, better food, clothing and housing. As long as the economy was growing people were able to put up with these double standards, but this contradiction could not remain beneath the surface forever.
In 1953 Stalin died and there were soon signs of a “thaw” in the policies coming out of Moscow and, correspondingly, Budapest also. Stalin’s successor, N. Khrushchev made some moves towards reform of the Soviet system, not because he was opposed to a privileged bureaucratic dictatorship, but because he could see dangerous levels of discontent accumulating below the surface in Soviet society and hoped reform from above would stave off revolution from below.
Khrushchev had good reason to be worried. In 1953 there was a massive strike wave and street fighting in East Germany. In Czechoslovakia there were riots in major cities. There were even strikes and protests in the Soviet Union itself.
In Hungary the bureaucracy responded by replacing the hardline Stalinist Rakosi as head of the government with Imre Nagy who was seen as a ‘liberaliser’. But, like Khrushchev, Nagy was still very much part of the bureaucracy and his ‘liberalising’ agenda was extremely limited, proved by the fact that during his premiership thousands of political prisoners remained locked up by the hated AVH secret police.
By 1955 the Hungarian economy was in crisis thanks to the bureaucratic blunders that are inevitable in a planned economy without workers’ democracy. Oil fields were flooded due to a too rapid rise in the rate of production; buildings were built that deliberately fell short of required standards just so that production targets could be met; consignments of goods had to be sent on time, even if 40% of those goods were defective.
Appetite for change
Following a savage struggle behind the scenes in Moscow, Khrushchev changed course in 1955. He became afraid that giving the masses a taste of reform would make them hungry for more, especially under conditions of economic crisis.
Nagy was therefore removed and expelled from the Communist Party in April 1955 and the hardliner Rakosi was brought back to turn back the clock on the new policies of the previous two years. Moscow’s transparent exercise of total control over the Hungarian government and the zig-zags of the bureaucracy served only to arouse the indignation of the workers of Hungary, who had never yet been given a real chance to control their own lives, society and economy.
In February 1956 Khrushchev took a big gamble when he denounced Stalin’s crimes in a speech at a closed session of the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. He hoped that by shifting all the blame for past problems onto the figure of Stalin this would put a lid on the developing crisis of the bureaucratic Soviet regime. But this is not a Marxist method - an individual in power represents more than just himself; he represents a class or stratum in society. Khrushchev’s speech was not meant to reach beyond the party’s apparatus but was soon leaked into the public domain and caused people to question the entire Stalinist bureaucracy.
In Hungary the whole country began to bubble with discussion and debate. A group of intellectuals known as the Petofi circle began to meet and discuss the idea of reform in a semi-open way. The secret police infiltrated this circle but, to the horror of their commanders, the police spies would come back from the meetings convinced of the need for reform and in solidarity with those arguing for change.
Events across the Eastern Bloc began to accelerate after Khrushchev’s speech. In May 1956 Russian tanks and troops were sent into Georgia to crush an uprising sparked by austerity measures. In June 1956 the workers in Poznan, Poland began a strike and protest movement which rapidly spread across the country.
Splits in the bureaucracy
As in every developing revolutionary situation, the bureaucracy was split over how to deal with the rising tide of discontent. Some favoured reform to re-establish the credibility of the Communist Party so that it would be able to control the movement. Others favoured a hardline approach of crushing the ferment. A similar dilemma faced every ruling clique in the Eastern Bloc throughout the decline and fall of the USSR, and it is the same problem faced by every ruling class throughout history when they are brought face to face with a revolutionary movement of the masses.
The bureaucracy weren’t able to decide which course to pursue in relation to Hungary, because whatever they did would have been wrong. In the end Rakosi was removed in July 1956 because he was so hated by the masses, but he was replaced with an equally vicious hardliner - Kadar. Nagy meanwhile was demoted still further. The Communist Party’s credibility was rapidly approaching rock bottom.
The stage was set for revolution. The combustible material had been built up over the summer of 1956 and all that was required was a spark to set it off.
On 23rd October a protest took place in Budapest, called by students but incorporating wide political demands. These included the rehabilitation of Nagy as Prime Minister; the election of a new Party leadership by a national congress; friendship with the USSR on the basis of equality; the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Hungary; free elections; freedom of the press; academic freedom and the use of Hungary’s uranium stocks by Hungary itself. Added to this was solidarity with the workers of Poland. The peaceful protest was attended by tens of thousands of unarmed men, women and children.
What happened next has strong echoes of Bloody Sunday in St Petersburg in 1905. The AVH secret police officers panicked and opened fire on the demonstration. The protesters immediately approached ordinary police officers who, when they heard what had happened, handed over their weapons to the crowd. Within a few minutes the workers of Budapest had armed themselves with rifles and machine guns and a monstrous repressive state apparatus was melting into thin air in the face of an armed movement of the masses.
In any revolutionary situation events move at lightning speed. The protesters demanded that a government minister come out and explain what measures would be taken to satisfy the demands of the demonstration. By the time a minister arrived an hour later the crowd had turned entirely against the government and heckled him off the platform.
As the consciousness of the masses developed rapidly, so too did the panic of the Soviet authorities. On the night of 23rd-24th October the USSR invaded Hungary to put down the revolution. The resistance of the Hungarian workers and youth was ferocious. They poured into the streets and fought the Soviet soldiers with everything and anything at their disposal. Thirteen year old children hurled home-made Molotov cocktails at the advancing troops.
The Soviet soldiers, some of whom had been told they were being sent to put down a fascist rebellion, quickly realised that this popular resistance told a different story. After fraternisation, the soldiers began leaving their tanks and joining the demonstrations. As the AVH continued to fire on the demonstrators the Soviet troops moved in to protect the crowds.
The bureaucracy could feel the ground falling away beneath its feet and was forced to withdraw the troops.
By this time the main demands of the mass demonstrations had crystallised into two: the withdrawal of Soviet troops and the abolition of the AVH. At the same time, under the pressure of a developing revolutionary situation, the workers and peasants began instinctively to move towards workers’ control and democracy throughout the country. Committees of workers were set up in every town and city. These committees called themselves ‘national’ or ‘revolutionary’ - they rejected the word Soviet, which had been soiled by Stalinism.
Peter Fryer, a correspondent for the British Communist Party’s Daily Worker who was in Hungary at the time, described in his book Hungarian Tragedy the move towards workers’ democracy as follows:
“Of course, as in every real revolution ‘from below’ there was ‘too much’ talking, arguing, bickering, coming and going, froth, excitement, agitation, ferment. That is one side of the picture. The other side is the emergence to leading positions of ordinary men, women and youths whom the AVH dominion had kept submerged. The revolution thrust them forward, aroused their civic pride and latent genius for organisation, set them to work to build democracy out of the ruins of bureaucracy.”
The revolution swept from the towns to the countryside. The hated forced co-operatives were broken up and the incompetent bureaucrats who ran them were kicked out. The peasants organised themselves to send food to Budapest, which was distributed for free to help the revolution. Despite the dismantling of the collectivised farms, resolutions were passed throughout the countryside that said the farmers would not accept the return of capitalism and landlordism.
The radio station was requisitioned by the workers to broadcast their revolution to the whole world. Newspapers sprung up everywhere - the six official papers were overtaken by 25 new ones within a couple of days. The prisons were opened and thousands of people, many of whom had been assumed dead for years, spilled onto the streets. A vast network of secret underground passages that spanned the whole of Budapest was discovered and tappings in the deepest recesses indicated that there were some people still locked away who could not be reached in time before the counter-revolution struck.
The bureaucracy’s next move, on 25th October, was to remove those hardliners who had provoked the masses and to reinstall Nagy as Prime Minister. On his first day back in the job martial law was declared and 300 workers were killed by state forces outside parliament. For those who, just two days before had been looking to Nagy as a counter-weight against the Soviet bureaucracy, these illusions were shattered.
For a full week power lay with the workers and their revolutionary committees. As the government was slaughtering its own people at Moscow’s bidding these committees were seen as the only legitimate organs of administration in the country, and what’s more they were the only real armed force in the country. The committees were demanding that workers’ councils be given control of production; that wages be increased and wage differentials be capped; and that a rapid programme of housebuilding be undertaken.
A vision of a genuinely socialist society was taking shape in the minds of millions. This was a vision in which the Nagy government had no place - it was suspended in mid-air, representing no-one but itself.
For Khrushchev there was one last roll of the dice to crush a revolution that had the potential to flood through the whole Eastern Bloc and the USSR itself. Every city in Hungary was surrounded by Soviet tanks and, at 4am on Sunday 4 November, the bombardment began.
This second invasion was carried out by troops from the furthest Eastern regions of Russia, who had little or no connection or even a common language with the Hungarian workers. The troops were ordered to stay in their tanks and not to speak to the civilians. Any Soviet troops who showed any sympathy for the population were shot by their commanders. The troops were told that they were in Berlin, fighting German fascists. Every possible measure was taken to prevent a repeat of the fraternisation and desertions during the first invasion.
The brutality of the second invasion was supposed to smash the revolution with one blow. But the Hungarian workers could not be cowed so easily.
For four days and nights Budapest was bombarded. Tanks patrolled the city during the day, pumping buildings full of phosphorous to set them on fire and shelling houses at point blank range. Budapest’s workers, soldiers, students and school kids took to the streets and vowed to fight to the bitter end.
Peter Fryer, who witnessed the resistance, again writes in Hungarian Tragedy:
“The people fought the invaders street by street, step by step, inch by inch. The blazing energy of those eleven days of liberty burned itself out in one last glorious flame. Hungry, sleepless, homeless, the Freedom Fighters battled with pitifully feeble equipment against a crushingly superior weight of Soviet arms. From windows and from the open streets, they fought with rifles, home-made grenades and Molotov cocktails against T54 tanks. The people ripped up the street to build barricades, and at night they fought by the light of fires that swept unchecked through block after block.”
By 10th November the fighting was over. Nagy was again replaced, this time by hardliner Kadar. The resistance continued in the form of a general strike. There are even reports of further isolated strikes and demonstrations as late as 1959, as the USSR tightened its grip and flooded Hungary with more troops stationed there on a permanent basis.
The crisis of Stalinism
Despite its defeat these events proved that there was an alternative to Stalinism other than a return to capitalism. This was why the bureaucracy had to crush the Hungarian revolution, and it is why, in doing so, Moscow created a crisis in the Communist movement all over the world, leading to splits and demoralisation in the ranks of the Stalinist parties.
The Hungarian revolution hardly lasted two weeks, but in that time the workers went from a first radio broadcast calling for UN intervention, to a final broadcast calling on the workers of the world to unite. In a revolutionary situation every hour of every day can make all the difference.
The organised presence in Hungary at that time of a genuinely Marxist leadership, basing itself on the ideas and methods of Lenin and Trotsky, could have accelerated the attempts to spread the revolution throughout the Eastern Bloc, and could have armed the workers politically to prepare them from the beginning for the inevitable showdown with the Soviet bureaucracy. Unfortunately the forces of genuine Marxism at that time were extremely weak all over the world, especially in the Stalinist states.
Hungary 1956 was just one episode in the crisis of Stalinism and the Soviet Union. The convulsions that shook Russia and its allies in this period were symptoms of the fundamental contradiction at the heart of Stalinism: a planned economy cannot survive without workers’ democracy. Eventually this contradiction brought down the Berlin wall and caused the USSR to collapse. But by that time the movement had been hijacked and the traditions of 1956 were smothered by hollow liberalism and a return to capitalism.
Today we are continuing the struggle of the heroic workers and youth of Hungary by fighting for genuine socialism. We should learn the lessons their history has to teach us, and be inspired by their dedication, militancy and sacrifice.