The Hungarian Revolution of 1956

Workers tear down the statue of Stalin in the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. (Image Credit: Andor D. Heller)

Introduction

With all of the challenges facing us today – environmental destruction, the public health crisis of the pandemic, the overall immiseration of many of our lives – we have plenty of reasons to look at the potential for a radically different society to meet our needs. The Hungarian uprising of 1956 offers us an example of people organizing themselves, attempting to throw off a repressive dictatorship, and attempting to create exactly the type of radically different world that we need to work towards today.

October 23 marks the anniversary of the beginning of the Hungarian uprising of 1956. While the uprising was ultimately unsuccessful and brutally crushed, it was a moment when the Hungarian working class began a process of organizing itself to begin to take control over society. We can learn much from this uprising about the radical potential that the uprising represented, as workers were able to self-organize, begin to take over their workplaces and key sectors of the economy, and create their own democratic organizations of governance and accountability based on workers power.

In the western, capitalist media and scholarship, the uprising has generally been presented as an anti-communist revolt, standing against an oppressive communist dictatorship. This narrative was echoed within the Stalinist world of the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc, which, however, characterized the revolt as a right wing fascist movement that needed to be crushed to defend Hungary’s communist society. These perspectives couldn’t be further from the truth. It is true that there were anti-communist, far-right and even fascist forces that participated in the uprising. But they never were able to play any leadership role. Instead, the masses of working people fought courageously, not for the implementation of capitalism, or a brutal rule by “socialist” or “communist” party bureaucrats, but for socialism built on their own genuine power as workers.

The Aftermath of the Russian Revolution

In 1917, the Russian working class took power and began to remake society in its interests. However, facing exhaustion brought on by years of suffering during World War I, isolation of the Revolution in just one country, and then three years of brutal and destructive civil war against Tsarist generals and imperialist powers – all on top of near total economic collapse – the Russian working class was unable to maintain their revolutionary energy. In a state of demoralization and decline, the Russian working class and the Bolshevik party that had led the Revolution could no longer lead the society on toward socialism. In their place, from at least 1924 on, a bureaucratic layer of self-serving officials assumed power and coalesced around the leadership of Joseph Stalin. From this point on, nearly every action taken by what came to be called the Soviet Union was motivated by protecting Russia and its bureaucratic leadership, even at the expense of sacrificing the workers’ interests and the goal of spreading their socialist revolution internationally. This was apparent in the Soviet Union’s policies in leading the communist movements in China, Spain, the United States and other nations, and eventually in Eastern Europe both during and in the decades immediately following World War II.

One of the major ideas that inspired the Russian Revolution was the Right of National Self-Determination, which was strongly championed by Vladimir Lenin, one of the leaders of the Russian Revolution. Lenin took this principle seriously and went so far to say that, “‘If Finland, if Poland, if the Ukraine break away from Russia, there is nothing bad about that. Anyone who says there is, is a chauvinist. It would be madness to continue the policy of the Tsar Nicholas … No nation can be free if it oppresses other nations’.” Lenin, in other words, did not believe that even the socialist society he was trying to build had the right to impose its system or rule over any other people.

In contrast to Lenin’s view, the Communist Parties that were founded in the 1920s and 1930s under Stalin’s influence quickly became mere pawns of the Soviet Union in the geopolitical chess match to protect Russia at all costs from external threat, in particular the threat of the United States and capitalism during the period that has come to be known as the Cold War.

The Illusion of the “People’s Governments”

During the Second World War, Hungary, like much of Eastern Europe, was taken over by far-right, nationalist and anti-communist regimes that had connections to the fascist, German Nazi Party. Hungary was under the control of the far-right leader Mikalos Horthy. After suffering a military defeat against the Soviet Union in the Battle of Stalingrad, Horthy attempted to initiate a peace treaty with the Soviet Union and Hungary was invaded by the Nazis, who set up a puppet government of the fascist Arrow Cross party. The new regime rounded up hundreds of thousands of Jews and sent them to Auschwitz. As the war ended, the Soviet Red Army was able to invade Hungary and defeat the fascists, as it did throughout Eastern Europe.

Before and during the Second World War, the Communist Parties in Eastern Europe and everywhere else were largely under the thumb of the Stalinist bureaucratic leadership of the Soviet Union. In fact, the Hungarian Communist Party, like many of its counterparts in Eastern Europe, was small, weak and marginal. When German armies started to face military defeat at the end of the Second World War and the forces of fascism started to crumble throughout Europe, organizations like the Hungarian Communist Party, with the full support and military force of the Russian Red Army, were able to fill in this political vacuum and take power alongside other “antifascist” forces. The Hungarian Communist Party though, like its counterparts in other Eastern European states recently liberated from fascism, made it clear from the outset that it had no intention of fundamentally reorganizing society based on genuine workers’ power. These regimes did undertake massive efforts to nationalize industry. But for the most part, this was an almost entirely top-down affair orchestrated by officials hand-picked by the Soviet Union, under the intimidating military occupation of Russian Red Army forces, and with little mobilization or participation from the working class in directing the process.

In Hungary, there were two main poles within the Communist Party. One pole centered around the people who were in exile in the Soviet Union and had close ties to the Russian Stalinist bureaucracy, led by Matyas Rakosi. The other pole centered around the people who were active in Hungary against the Horthy government and the following Nazi occupation, led by Laszlo Rajk.

Following the defeat of the fascist occupiers in 1945, Rakosi and his clique became the Russian backed rulers of Hungary. He characterized himself as the “best disciple of Stalin in Hungary”, cultivated a cult of personality around himself, and had strong ties to the leadership of the Soviet Union. He led the repression of hundreds of thousands, including repression of members of the fascist Horthy regime, but also including Laszlo Rajk and his other critics within the Communist Party. Despite being a popular leader, Rajk was accused of being a “fascist spy” and executed. Rakosi ruled the party with terror. The party ruled the population with terror. The end product of this terror was that Hungary, like the other “People’s Democracies” in Eastern Europe, was extremely rigid and hierarchical with no room for critical thought or expression. The message was clear – “don’t step out of line.”

Economically, the regime focused on developing heavy industry while largely neglecting consumer goods, mainly to support the needs of the Soviet Union and particularly the Russian Red Army. Hungary and the other Eastern European regimes were forced to sell their goods to the Soviet Union at below market prices and forced to buy goods from the Soviet Union at above market prices. On top of this unequal and exploitative trade relationship, Hungary was forced to pay reparations to the Soviet Union for its role in World War II, so that in 1947 nearly one quarter of Hungary’s state budget was going to finance these reparations!

Very quickly, this unsustainable situation of being treated as a de-facto colony led to economic collapse in which working people faced drastic cuts in their real wages due to inflation and shortages of basic necessities. Small peasants who were unable to trade their crops for consumer goods were driven from the land and into the cities. Food shortages were so severe that rations were instituted of 850 calories per day. Leaders of the Eastern European Communist Parties, such as Rakosi in Hungary, went along with the policies that led to the impoverishment of working people in their own states. These leaders then came to be seen as the cause of the suffering for millions throughout Eastern Europe.

In 1953, Joseph Stalin died. The death of Stalin opened up a political climate within the “Communist” world in which many people, within the leadership of the Communist Party and society in general, began to openly criticize aspects of Stalinism on a scale that hadn’t been done before. As for how to manage the “People’s Democracies” of Eastern Europe, the new leadership in Russia was troubled by the threat of possible revolts and decided to lessen, but not eliminate, the degree of economic exploitation of Eastern Europe.

The climate of critically re-evaluating the recent past extended to Hungary, where a growing number of people felt more confident in openly questioning the legitimacy of their own living dictator, Rakosi. As it became more and more clear that Rakosi was no longer able to govern with some level of popular control due to the rampant repression and economic hardship, Rakosi was pushed by the Soviet Union to resign as the Prime Minister and demoted to the position of First Secretary. He was replaced by Imre Nagy, who had been up until that point another Hungarian exile in the Soviet Union, and who supported the same general political line as the Stalinist leadership in Russia. To the extent that he had expressed disagreements with Rakosi, they were tactical rather than fundamental. In other words, little was expected to change.

However, once in power, Nagy instituted a series of reforms known as the “New Course”. His regime began to reorient the economy toward light industry to produce more consumer goods, to decrease the mandatory work hours, to lower the taxation rate of peasants, and to free political prisoners and shut down forced labor camps. Many former critics of Rakosi were allowed back into the party. While Hungarian workers and peasants gladly welcomed these changes, making Nagy increasingly popular, they still played no active role in these changes. At the core, Nagy’s “New Course” did not challenge the idea that a small, privileged bureaucracy should rule society. Instead, they shifted policies so that their rule was based less on open brutality, and more on their ability to deliver basic necessities to their subject population. In other words, they were willing to reform the system in order to preserve it.

The new leaders of the Soviet Union were divided on how to regard the new reforms. Rakosi, still with some remaining influence, did what he could to discredit the reforms. Ultimately, Nagy’s “New Course” reforms were too much for the Russian bureaucracy so they removed him from power at the beginning of 1955. Rakosi was able to take power again and the “New Course” was scrapped for good.

Inside the Soviet Union, Nikita Khrushchev was able to consolidate power following Stalin’s death. In February of 1956, he gave what was known as the “Secret Speech” to the 20th Party Congress, which denounced many of the brutal crimes of Stalinism. The leaked transcript of this speech sent a shockwave throughout the Communist world, with masses of people becoming disenchanted with what was held out to them as their salvation, supposedly being carried out by the Soviet Union.

This disillusionment spread throughout Hungary, where the recently reappointed Rakosi quickly lost what little support he had within the party and larger society. He was forced to admit that the murder of Laszlo Rajk had been an “ideological error,” and was compelled to step down again and fled to the Soviet Union where he would spend the rest of his life. Erno Gero, an even less popular Communist Party bureaucrat, stepped in as First Secretary, further angering many Hungarians.

Ferment was building up all throughout Hungarian society. Intellectuals called for freedom. University students demonstrated in favor of professors that had been sacked. Journalists started to defy the political censorship imposed on them. Workers began to discuss demands among themselves. Many young communists and students held public debates about various issues confronting Hungarian society. Attendance at these events grew from dozens to thousands when Laszlo Rajk’s widow demanded that he be rehabilitated and given a proper funeral. The government could not afford to ignore this call.

On October 6, 1956, there was a ceremonial reburial commemorating Laszlo Rajk, killed 7 years earlier by Rakosi’s terror. Rajk had become a martyr – a symbol of the struggle against fascism as well as Stalinist oppression. The service attracted an estimated 200,000 people who massed in silent defiance. The Hungarian people began to feel their strength.

Resistance Elsewhere Behind the Iron Curtain

While the oppressive conditions imposed on the Hungarians by the Soviet Union were not unique in Eastern Europe, neither was the opposition to them. In the period leading up to the Hungarian revolution there were a number of uprisings that were able to push back in small ways against the Stalinist rule. In 1953 in East Germany, workers were met by repression when they carried out a general strike and marched through the streets to demand a real workers government. In the summer of 1956 in Poland, a strike wave and mass protests led to greater autonomy by removing some Soviet troops and reinstating a formerly imprisoned leader.

Throughout Eastern Europe, resistance was in the air and the Hungarian working class was paying attention. Change now seemed possible.

Opening Shots of the Revolution

On October 22, various student groups called for mass demonstrations on the following day, “in solidarity with our Polish brothers.” On the 23rd, over 20,000 people gathered in front of a statue commemorating Joszef Behm, a Polish martyr who gave his life in the Hungarian uprising of 1848.

At the rally, the leader of the writers union read of a list of radical demands:

– Withdrawal of all Soviet troops from Hungary.

– A review of international policies in relation to the Soviet Union and the other People’s Democracies based on the principle of national equality.

– Control of the factories by workers and technicians.

– The Communist Party must be reformed with the old Rakosi clique removed and held accountable for their crimes, to be replaced by Nagy and his associates.

– Free elections must be held for all levels of Hungarian society.

– Freedom of expression and of the press.

The government could not ignore what was taking place. Gero, the replacement to Rakosi, got on the radio and publicly condemned the list of demands and the protesters. This infuriated people.

The demonstrators marched through Budapest and working people swelled the crowd as they got off work, bringing the numbers to an estimated 200,000. The demonstration eventually reached the parliament building, where there were passionate calls for Nagy to speak. In the evening, Nagy came out and addressed the crowd, essentially telling them to go home and that he was working on the reforms that people wanted. In reality, most people could not hear what Nagy had to say and even if they did, it didn’t matter because people were tired of being told to wait.

Rather than going home, people continued to demonstrate and march throughout Budapest. Protestors tore down symbols of Soviet domination. One group of protesters marched to a statue of Stalin and famously tore it down. Another group marched to the Hungarian radio station to demand that the list of demands be read on the airwaves. A standoff took place in which members of the secret police fired bullets into the crowd. Rather than running away, protesters were furious and fought back with whatever weapons they could get a hold of, even by disarming the secret police in the streets. News of the battle spread throughout Budapest and led to skirmishes throughout the city. Even children joined the fighting. When the secret police called for backup from the military, many soldiers actively joined the workers and fought against the secret police. Seeing the writing on the wall, the secret police essentially surrendered and could do nothing as the revolutionary workers broke into their arms depot and armed themselves with their weapons.

Who Holds The Power?

The next day, October 24, a new government was declared with Imre Nagy as the prime minister. But Gero and his associates still maintained important positions within the government. This concession did not stop the revolutionary spirit of the working people. General strikes were called throughout the country. Workers continued to fight against the Russian soldiers.

While this revolt has been presented in the West as a nationalist movement for Hungarian independence (which in some ways it was), thousands of people in fact attempted to fraternize with Russian soldiers and tank crews to win over them to their side. At one point, workers and students published leaflets in Russian for the Red Army soldiers declaring: “Our interests are identical. We and you are all fighting together for a better socialist life.” While not universal, there were a few instances when these appeals to solidarity were successful. The Hungarian workers were not against the ideals of socialism. They stood instead against a government dominated by a bureaucratic and exploitative Soviet Union.

People began to stop looking to the government and started looking to themselves to bring about changes. In a matter of days, the revolutionary movement had spread throughout the country. To respond to the new situation, in towns and villages, in radio stations, in collective farms and especially within factories, workers began to form “Revolutionary Councils.” The basic functioning of society, whether distributing food supplies or maintaining some sense of “order,” was beginning to fall into workers’ control. Officially the new government ruled, but in reality, much of its capacity to govern had effectively collapsed. Power was beginning to shift to the streets and workplaces.

Workers’ councils began to connect the various industries. Factory workers elected their own delegates to represent them in the larger workers’ councils. Some had previously been members of the Communist Party and others had not. Young workers disproportionately played leadership roles. The councils were resolute in their perspective that workers should have control of the factories and not the owners from before the war. This was all reminiscent of the workers’ councils, or soviets, created by Russian workers first in 1905 and again on a larger scale in 1917 as they made their successful revolution.

The workers’ councils drafted a list of demands for the Nagy government, one of which was the following: “We will support the new government when it accepts our program, particularly the withdrawal of Russian troops.” Nagy promised the immediate withdrawal of the Russian troops from Budapest. By October 31, there were no more Russian troops in any of the cities. Without the presence of the Russian troops, the main factor keeping the new government alive was the personal prestige of Nagy himself.

A number of additional concessions were announced. The old non-Communist parties were legalized and were to be allowed into a new coalition government, and old newspapers were republished. While the old parties were free to function again and many people flocked to join them, none of them had anything to say about the situation facing the country and essentially functioned as “junior partners” to the reformist Communists.

On November 1, Nagy proclaimed neutrality and announced his intention of leaving the Warsaw Pact, the military alliance in support of the Soviet Union. He eventually spoke at international forums like the United Nations in support of Hungarian autonomy. These changes were a huge shift that was seen as a major victory for the demonstrators.

But despite these changes, an uneasy question of Hungary’s future was left unresolved – would the workers’ councils control the government or would the government control the workers’ councils? Unfortunately, the workers did not have much time to discuss and decide this question.

The Flame That Needed To Be Extinguished

The leaders of the Russian bureaucracy accurately interpreted the Hungarian uprising, especially the potential of the workers’ councils, as an existential threat to their existence and domination. They correctly recognized that what happened in Hungary could serve as an example for workers within the Soviet bloc, whether in Russia or any of their satellite states such as Poland, East Germany or Czechoslovakia. For this reason, the leadership of the Soviet Union played the role of the counterrevolutionary butchers to put down the Hungarian masses.

On November 4, Budapest was invaded by 6,000 Russian troops and hundreds of tanks. The Russians shelled the city mercilessly and indiscriminately. Nagy’s government quickly collapsed but the popular resistance did not. While Nagy fled to the Yugoslav embassy and was replaced by a new Russian puppet, János Kádár, the Hungarian workers fought back with whatever they could – both actual weapons as well as the strike. Within days though, the insurrection in Budapest was crushed by the force of Russian troops. The new Kadar government that took shape was just a formality, a puppet of Russian Soviet leadership. Officials could only go outside with a strong presence of Russian military escorts.

Strikes spread throughout the country from the first day of fighting, and the tanks could not force the workers back into the workplaces. The strikes were able to gain concessions from the Kádár government such as wage increases and expanded civil liberties. But these concessions weren’t enough for a total victory on the question of power. This strike movement lasted all the way through the middle of December.  All of the heroism and determination of the workers were not able to force the Russian troops out, but over time slowly depleted the energy and will of the workers.

The workers’ councils that filled the vacuum left by the government continued to function into December. But the leaders of the workers’ councils did not fully appreciate what the councils represented, or what they could have been – a vehicle that could rally the working class and oppressed groups to fight for a new social order. They did not appreciate that to do that, they would have to smash the old social order. Nor was this perspective understood by all Hungarians.

But the Kadar government did recognize that potential. For that reason, the government knew that the councils could not be allowed to remain, and the decision was made to destroy them.

On December 11, repression of the councils began and the leaders of the councils were arrested. As time went on, the strikes came to an end and so did many of the councils around the country, either severely repressed or formally disbanding. By November of 1957, the councils were officially outlawed.

The Russian effort to reassert control over Hungary left Imre Nagy and his political associates publicly executed, more than 20,000 Hungarians dead and at least 3,500 Russians dead, much of Budapest in ruins, and a collapsed economy. Hungary would be governed by its Russian backed Stalinist leaders for the next several decades until the Soviet Union collapsed.

Conclusion

If some of the Hungarian rebels held illusions in western governments, the western governments had no illusions about them. For all of the hostility between the Soviet Union and the western capitalist nations, they were in complete ideological agreement about the threat of rebellion by the workers from below. The example of the Hungarian workers taking matters into their own hands could not be allowed to continue. There was no way that this uprising could be supported because of the possibility that it represented. For this reason, none of the western powers even attempted to come to their rescue.

Despite the heroism of the Hungarian revolution, it was ultimately a failure. What was the main source of this failure? In summary, the working class did not have the leadership that it deserved.

In the heat of the moment, leaders like Imre Nagy and his circle were thrust forward. They likely believed in the reforms they were advocating for, both the lessen Soviet dominance and to improve conditions for Hungarians. However, rather than looking to the power of the Hungarian working people to drive Russian troops out and remake their society, Nagy and other reformers tried to work within the larger Russian-dominated system. By limiting their scope to trying to influence the Russian-dominated bureaucracy from within, they limited the possibilities to real change, and ensured that they would not have the power needed to stand up to Russian troops and the Russian Soviet bureaucracy.

On the other hand, the inexperienced leaders of the workers’ councils also did not fully appreciate the potential that these councils represented. With more experienced leadership, they could have been a vehicle that could rally the working class and oppressed groups to fight for a new social order, as the leaders of the soviets in 1917 Russia had done to make their Revolution. But to do that, the Hungarian workers and their leaders would have had to fight to smash the existing social order. There was no other way to throw off Russian dominance and to create a new political, economic, and social system that might have met the needs of all Hungarians. The failure of the Hungarian councils to succeed in building and taking power thus left the Hungarian uprising vulnerable, and within two months it had ended.

As we commemorate the anniversary of the failed Hungarian uprising, let’s remember its valuable lessons. It showed that working people can act with heroism and creativity under oppressive conditions. It also demonstrated that when working people unite to challenge oppression, it can open up possibilities for further change that had been unthinkable even a short time before. But it also showed that without revolutionary leadership, huge opportunities for change can be squandered, giving those in power an own opportunity to gather their own forces and crush movements from below that challenge their dominance.

If we are to make change in the future, to try to build a new society from the ashes of the old, let’s remember both the possibilities of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, as well as its lessons.

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