Workers Vanguard No. 883
5 January 2007
Workers Political Revolution Against Stalinist Rule
The 1956 Hungarian Revolution
This past October 23 marked the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. The anniversary was celebrated internationally by bourgeois politicians and ideologues, who cynically portrayed the uprising as a precursor to the counterrevolutions that restored capitalist rule in East Europe and the Soviet Union in 1989-1992. Four months earlier, George W. Bush visited Budapest and laid flowers in honor of the Hungarian patriots who tore down the statue of Josef Stalin and defied an empire. Commemorations of the uprising were held in Budapest by the government of former-Communist, now-millionaire Ferenc Gyurcsany as well as by anti-government protesters, including a hefty contingent of fascist skinheads.
The depiction of the 1956 events as an anti-Communist, pro-capitalist rebellion, which has been propagated by reactionary forces for the past half-century, is an outright lie. The Hungarian uprising was an attempt by the working class, in a country where capitalism had been overthrown but political power was in the hands of a Stalinist bureaucracy, to throw off bureaucratic rule and open the road to socialism. Workers seized the factories and mines and set up elected workers councils (soviets), embryonic organs of proletarian political power. For weeks the workers fought courageously—by means of strikes, demonstrations and armed struggle—before this political revolution was suppressed.
The cynical misappropriation by capitalist spokesmen of the uprising was skewered in a 1957 document by Shane Mage, a founder of our political tendency:
What a cruel, cynical joke of history this seems to be! The Hungarian revolution is hailed lyrically by the rulers of the West, the worst enemies of socialism and of the Russian revolution. The men who surrounded the infant Soviet Republic with a cordon sanitaire of steel and fire, who hailed Hitler and Mussolini as bulwarks against Bolshevism, who stood by with smiling neutrality while Franco murdered freedom in Spain, whose hands are still stained by the crimes of Algeria, Suez, Guatemala—the Free world gleefully hands its poisoned bouquets to the freedom fighters of Hungary.
—The Meaning of Two Revolutions (reprinted in the 1959 Young Socialist Forum pamphlet, The Hungarian Revolution)
Bourgeois ideologues focus on isolated expressions of anti-Communism, such as some lumpen gangs calling themselves freedom fighters or arch-reactionary Cardinal József Mindszenty addressing the insurgents by radio. (Following the suppression of the revolt, Mindszenty spent the next 15 years holed up in the U.S. Embassy in Budapest.) This is a fundamental distortion, one that was also disseminated by Stalinist spokesmen to justify the brutal repression of the workers. As we stated in Political Revolution in Hungary—Ten Years After (Spartacist [English-language edition] No. 8, November-December 1966), the slander that the Hungarian masses embraced fascists and monarchist reactionaries was demolished not only by the actions of the revolutionaries—including the violent suppression of what anti-Semitic and White Guard threats actually existed—but by the workers militantly communist aspirations and their unambiguous hatred for capitalism.
The Hungarian working class was overwhelmingly committed to socialism and opposed to a return to capitalism. In all of the workers councils and other proletarian bodies that arose in 1956, Communist Party members were elected to positions of leadership. Ferenc Töke, a vice-president of the Central Workers Council of Greater Budapest, later recalled: No reactionary tendency manifested itself throughout the entire strike. There was never, at any moment, a question of the former owners eventually returning (Jean-Jacques Marie and Balazs Nagy [eds.], Pologne-Hongrie 1956 ). The Central Workers Council of Budapest declared in a 27 November 1956 appeal to workers councils throughout the country: Faithful to this mission, we defend, even at the cost of our lives, our factories and our fatherland against any attempt to restore capitalism.
The 1956 Hungarian Revolution was in fact a powerful confirmation of the Trotskyist understanding of the nature of the deformed and degenerated workers states. In the Soviet Union and East Europe before the restoration of capitalism—as in China, North Korea, Cuba and Vietnam today—capitalist rule was overthrown as a result of social revolutions but political power was/is monopolized by a conservative, anti-working-class bureaucracy. The Hungarian Revolution decisively demonstrated that the Stalinist regime represents a caste parasitically resting upon the collectivized economy, not a new type of social class. Unlike the capitalist ruling class, which in the face of revolution inevitably unites around a program of counterrevolution, the Stalinist bureaucracy in Hungary shattered, with large sections going over to the side of the workers.
These events caused a profound crisis in the Communist parties internationally. In Italy, the Communist Party lost some 200,000 of its members. The French Communist Party, already facing discontent over its support to the Socialist-led government as it pursued the Algerian War, saw its share of the electorate plunge. In Britain, the Communist Party lost a third of its membership. More than 200 CP members and ex-members, including a number of talented intellectuals, were won over by the British Trotskyist group led by Gerry Healy. These former CPers included Brian Pearce, Cliff Slaughter, Tom Kemp and Peter Fryer, the correspondent in Hungary for the Communist Partys Daily Worker whose first-hand observations of the events were recounted in his 1956 book, Hungarian Tragedy (see article, page 9).
With the formation of workers soviets, Hungary entered into a period of incipient dual power in which local workers councils, defended by the armed masses, confronted what remained of the Stalinist repressive apparatus, which was backed by Soviet troops. Mage noted:
The first and decisive thing about the Hungarian revolution is that it was a workers revolution, and the leading role of the workers was institutionally formulated by the establishment of workers councils. Except for the Russian army, there was in Hungary not the shadow of a social force capable of preventing the assumption of state power by the workers councils. Thus the objective conditions for the formation of a soviet republic, in the event of revolutionary victory of course, were entirely favorable.
The actual level of consciousness of the Hungarian workers, however, was not at the level indicated by the objective possibilities of the revolution. In this the Hungarian workers were like the Russian proletariat after the February revolution. The general demand was not for all power to the workers councils, but for free elections to a sovereign parliament.
It would, however, be a disastrous mistake to take the level of consciousness corresponding to the struggle against the Stalinist bureaucracy as the permanent and ultimate political program of the Hungarian proletariat. The Hungarian workers wanted free elections, but they also wanted to preserve their own councils and extend their powers. They wanted to move forward to socialism, not backward to capitalism.
—The YSL Right Wing and the Crisis of World Stalinism,
The Hungarian Revolution; excerpted as Pure Democracy or Political Revolution in East Europe in the Spartacist pamphlet, Solidarność: Polish Company Union for CIA and Bankers (1981)
The Birth of the Hungarian Deformed Workers State
To understand the 1956 Hungarian Revolution requires examining the Russian Revolution of 1917—the only successful revolution as yet carried out by the working class—as well as its later degeneration under the Stalinist bureaucracy. In the October Revolution of 1917, the proletariat, led by Lenins Bolshevik Party, took state power, basing its rule on the soviets of workers, soldiers and peasants deputies. The young workers state nationalized the land and went on to expropriate capitalist property. The Bolsheviks understood their revolution as the first step of the world socialist revolution and founded the Third (Communist) International in 1919.
However, the immaturity and indecisiveness of revolutionary leadership outside Russia led to the failure to realize opportunities for proletarian revolution. For example, a proletarian revolution was defeated in Germany in 1918-19, and short-lived soviet republics were crushed in Bavaria and Hungary in 1919. The decisive defeat was the failure of the German Communist Party to consummate a socialist revolution in 1923. The economically backward Soviet workers state—suffering under the devastation wrought by World War I and compounded by the bloody 1918-20 Civil War against imperialist-backed counterrevolution—was left isolated in the face of imperialist encirclement and a general stabilization of the world capitalist order. Together with the decimation of the most conscious layer of the proletariat during the Civil War, these factors set the stage for a political counterrevolution.
While the social foundations of the workers state—above all, the expropriation of the capitalist class and the establishment of a collectivized economy—remained intact, by 1924 political power was transferred from the hands of the proletariat and its revolutionary vanguard into the hands of a conservative bureaucratic caste headed by Stalin. From that point on, the people who ruled the USSR, the way the USSR was ruled, and the purposes for which the USSR was ruled all changed. Under the false dogma of socialism in one country, proclaimed by Stalin in December 1924, the bureaucracy accommodated the imperialist order. Correspondingly, the Comintern became transformed over time into an instrument of the bureaucracys search for peaceful coexistence with imperialism. With the elaboration of the Popular Front line at the Cominterns Seventh (and last) Congress in 1935, the Stalinists explicitly and officially embraced the program of class collaboration with the democratic imperialist bourgeoisies.
Leading the fight against the degeneration of the Bolshevik Party, Leon Trotskys Left Opposition upheld the revolutionary-internationalist program of the October Revolution. In 1938, Trotsky and his co-thinkers founded the Fourth International. Central to its program was the unconditional military defense of the Soviet degenerated workers state against imperialism and capitalist counterrevolution and the call for proletarian political revolution to oust the Stalinist bureaucracy and restore working-class political power. Such a political revolution would be premised on defense of the socialized property forms. This is in contrast to social revolutions or counterrevolutions, which overturn existing property relations and place a different class in power. The Trotskyist analysis of Stalinism is key to understanding the creation and subsequent development of the bureaucratically deformed workers states of East Europe.
In the closing months of World War II, in Hungary as throughout much of East Europe, large sections of society welcomed the Soviet Red Army as liberators from the nightmare of Nazi occupation and supported the ensuing destruction of the old bourgeois order. Class-conscious workers hated the right-wing dictatorship of Admiral Miklós Horthy, who ruled Hungary during the interwar period and much of World War II. Impoverished agrarian laborers settled huge scores with the landlords in this land of feudal-derived estates.
Initially, the remnants of the bourgeoisies of Soviet-occupied East Europe, which had been discredited and shattered by the war, were not expropriated, either politically or economically. In Hungary, elections in 1945 gave a majority, in what was then a largely peasant country, to the bourgeois-clericalist Smallholders Party, which was allowed to form a coalition government with the social democrats and Stalinists. But, as elsewhere in East Europe, it was the Red Army that held the real power. Under the growing pressure of the anti-Soviet Cold War, the Stalinists in 1947-48 proceeded to expropriate the bourgeoisie in Hungary and elsewhere in East Europe, jettisoning their bourgeois coalition partners, nationalizing industry and establishing deformed workers states, that is, societies qualitatively similar to the Soviet Union under the Stalinist bureaucracy.
Prelude to Political Revolution
The 1945-48 period of the so-called Peoples Independence Front government had a significant effect on the attitudes of the Hungarian working masses. Many would later view that period favorably in comparison to the harsh Stalinist police state that came afterward, although virtually no one wanted a return of the capitalists and large landowners. The 1945-48 interregnum also created certain left-right tensions among the Stalinists themselves. An incipient left opposition, impatient with the slow pace of social transformation, crystallized around Minister of the Interior Laszlo Rajk, a hero in the eyes of many for having fought in the Spanish Civil War and for having been a leader of the Communist underground under the Horthy dictatorship. At Moscows behest, the Hungarian regime adopted a one-sided economic policy concentrated on heavy industry. This served to drive down living standards, further fueling proletarian discontent.
The fact that, with the exception of Titos Yugoslavia, the East European Stalinist regimes were imposed from without meant that they had shallower roots than in the Soviet Union. This rendered the social order in the East European deformed workers states relatively volatile and unstable.
Facing social discontent, the East European bureaucracies began to split into Moscow loyalists and national-liberal Stalinists more attuned to popular moods. In 1949 Titos Yugoslavia broke from the Kremlin. With its workers self-management, Titoism presented itself as a more democratic and authentic form of socialism than Stalins Russia. Among East European Communist oppositionists there was a tendency to idealize the Yugoslav road to socialism, on the one hand, and Western bourgeois democracy on the other. Fearing further splits, Stalin went into a murderous frenzy, seeking to eliminate any potential Titos elsewhere. The Polish party leader Wladyslaw Gomulka was imprisoned and placed under house arrest. Rajk in Hungary and Rudolf Slánský in Czechoslovakia were subjected to show trials and then executed.
Following Stalins death in March 1953, the Kremlin bureaucracy and its counterparts in East Europe embarked on a policy that has been referred to as de-Stalinization. Moves in the direction of liberalization throughout East Europe had the effect of simultaneously opening up possibilities for mass struggle while reinforcing illusions that, under the pressure of the masses, the Stalinist bureaucracy could carry out self-reform and become an instrument for building socialism.
On 17 June 1953, the first incipient proletarian political revolution in the deformed workers states broke out in East Germany. Both the Stalinist regimes and West Germanys capitalist rulers portrayed the uprising as pro-Western. But this was a lie. Workers from the East German Hennigsdorf steel works marched through West Berlin and back to the East demanding a metal workers government. June 17 powerfully demonstrated the potential for the slogan later adopted by the international Spartacist tendency (now the International Communist League) for the revolutionary reunification of Germany through political revolution in the East and socialist revolution in the West. (For more on the 1953 events, see The East German Workers Uprising of 17 June 1953, WV No. 332, 17 June 1983.)
The post-1953 crisis of de-Stalinization had a particular impact on Hungary. Of all the Stalinist regimes in East Europe, that of Matyas Rakosi was unquestionably the bloodiest: more Communists were killed under Rakosi than under Horthy. Rakosis widely despised political police, the AVH, a multitude of highly paid thugs, constituted fully 1 percent of the entire population of Budapest.
In 1953, to head off the pressures building up in Hungary, the Soviet leadership forced Rakosi to step down as prime minister. He was replaced by Imre Nagy, who had a reputation as a liberal Communist. Nagy proclaimed a New Course that included easing the pace of industrialization, lessening pressures on the peasantry and relaxing police terror. However, Rakosi, fearing the vengeance of his political opponents, hung onto power and by 1955 managed to oust Nagy. Thus, between 1953 and 1956 the Hungarian Stalinist regime was torn by a severe polarization between the Rakosi clique and the mass of Communist Party members who supported Nagy. One sign of the ferment in the Communist Party was the emergence of the Petofi Circle, a grouping of dissident intellectuals and others that provided a forum for public debate and became a hub of opposition to the Rakosi hardliners.
In February 1956, Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev gave a secret speech to the Soviet Communist Partys 20th Congress in which he acknowledged a number of Stalins crimes. Four months later, locomotive workers in Poland demonstrating for higher wages and lower prices attacked the city hall, radio station and prison in Poznan. Security forces fired on them, killing over 50 workers. Poland entered into an incipient proletarian political revolution, which was headed off at the last minute by Gomulkas restoration to power. Subsequently, Khrushchev and his Kremlin colleagues did not move against Gomulka, in large part because in factories throughout the country workers councils organized resistance to any attempt to overturn the Polish October. Gomulka granted sweeping concessions, such as wage increases. But once the crisis was defused, he disbanded the workers councils that had helped bring him to power.
Meanwhile in Hungary, 200,000 people turned out in early October for a ceremony marking the regimes rehabilitation of Laszlo Rajk. The mass turnout foreshadowed the revolutionary explosion later that month.
The Hungarian October
The Hungarian Revolution, whose events were broadcast on radio and television internationally, was one of the best-documented revolutions ever. It began on October 23 with a largely student demonstration solidarizing with the victory of Gomulka in Poland and calling for the reinstatement of Nagy as head of the Hungarian government. The Rakosi regime denounced the protest as a counterrevolutionary mobilization, and when the unarmed demonstrators marched to the radio station to protest, the AVH goons fired on them.
Hungary then exploded in a near-universal general strike combined with military resistance to the regime. While the initial agitation was student-based, once the fighting started the core of the insurgency in Budapest and the other main centers was the workers councils and workers militias. Writing about the emergence of the workers soviets, Peter Fryer observed in Hungarian Tragedy:
In their spontaneous origin, in their composition, in their sense of responsibility, in their efficient organisation of food supplies and of civil order, in the restraint they exercised over the wilder elements among the youth, in the wisdom with which so many of them handled the problem of Soviet troops, and, not least, in their striking resemblance at so many points to the soviets or councils of workers, peasants and soldiers deputies which sprang up in Russia in the 1905 revolution and again in February 1917, these committees, a network of which now extended over the whole of Hungary, were remarkably uniform. They were at once organs of insurrection—the coming together of delegates elected by factories and universities, mines and Army units—and organs of popular self-government, which the armed people trusted. As such they enjoyed tremendous authority, and it is no exaggeration to say that until the Soviet attack of November 4 the real power in the country lay in their hands.
Even a 1957 Report of the Special Committee on the Problem of Hungary by the United Nations, whose role is to provide a fig leaf for imperialist depredation, noted that the emergence of workers councils represented the first practical step to restore order and to reorganize the Hungarian economy on a socialist basis, but without rigid Party control or the apparatus of terror.
The Hungarian army immediately ceased to be an effective force. Some sections went over to the insurgents; many soldiers turned their weapons over to the workers militias. Militarily, the turning point of the revolution was the attempt by the Soviet Army to capture the Kilian barracks, the main stronghold of the Hungarian army within Budapest. The commander of the barracks, Colonel Pal Maleter, a veteran Communist, went over to the revolution and led the forces that repulsed the Soviet attack. Following the subsequent Soviet withdrawal from Budapest, the embryo of an effective revolutionary authority was seen in the newly established National Guard under Maleters command, although its authority remained largely limited to the capital. In many press interviews, Maleter insisted that he was a good Communist and would remain so. Maleters comments in one such interview are recounted in Hungary 1956 (1976) by Bill Lomax:
If we get rid of the Russians dont think were going back to the old days. And if theres people who do want to go back, well see! To emphasize the last remark, he reached for his revolver holster and repeated, We dont mean to go back to capitalism. We want socialism in Hungary.
Despite attempts to portray the uprising as dominated by anti-Russian nationalism, what stands out is the degree to which the insurgents attempted to fraternize with the Soviet soldiers—and the degree to which they were successful. The workers and students Council of Miskolc 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. On October 28, the Hungarian trade-union newspaper Népszava called for the right of asylum for Soviet soldiers who sided with the workers (François Manuel, La Revolution Hongroise des Conseils Ouvriers ).
There were innumerable cases in which Soviet soldiers refused to fight or sided with the insurgents. In his autobiographical In the Name of the Working Class (1986), Sandor Kopacsi, the Budapest police chief who went over to the insurgents, described a scene that occurred on October 25 when Soviet tanks encountered a crowd of demonstrators:
A boy, undoubtedly a student—the scene took place just below us—pushed his way through the crowd to the first tank and passed something through the loophole.
It wasnt a grenade but a sheet of paper. It was followed by others.
These sheets, many of which my men would later collect, were tracts in Russian composed by students in the faculty of oriental languages. They reminded the Soviet soldiers of the wishes of the Hungarian nation and of the unfortunate role of policemen in which they had been cast. The tracts started with a citation from Marx: A people that oppresses another cannot itself be free.
We counted the minutes. Nothing happened.
Then the top of the turret of the lead tank opened a little, and the commander, with his leather cap and the gold epaulettes, emerged slowly into the view of the apparently unarmed crowd. Then he flung the turret open and perched himself upon the top of his tank
The crowd erupted in a frantic ovation. In this jubilant atmosphere, the commanders cap was thrown into the middle of the crowd. In exchange, someone plunked a Hungarian Army kepi on his head. The crowd sang Kossuths Song and then the Hungarian national anthem. And, at the top of their voices, they cried: Long live the Soviet Army!
Moments later, Kopacsi received a report from one of his police officers: The AVO [AVH] is firing from every roof. Now the Soviet tanks are firing on the AVO! Theyre defending the crowd.
Though the Stalinist apparatus had disintegrated, a short-lived government was cobbled together under Nagy. On October 28, the Nagy government announced an agreement that Soviet troops would immediately leave Budapest. Indeed, one of the reasons that the Kremlin pulled troops out of Budapest was fear of the effect of fraternization with the insurgent Hungarian masses. But the Kremlin quickly reneged on the agreement. And on November 1, Nagy protested to Soviet Ambassador Yuri Andropov (who would become head of the Soviet Union in the early 1980s) against the entry of new Soviet troops into Hungary without his governments assent.
The new troops were not only lied to about what was happening; they were lied to about where they were being sent. A leader of the insurgents in a village in eastern Hungary recalled his encounter with the troops (Melvin J. Lasky, ed., The Hungarian Revolution ): Some of the Russians thought they were in East Germany and that they would soon meet American fascists who had invaded the country. Other troops thought they were in the Suez Canal zone. (The Suez Canal had just been nationalized by Nassers Egypt, which was then attacked by British, French and Israeli forces.)
At dawn on November 4, Soviet troops attacked Budapest. Despite stiff resistance, the insurrection was soon crushed. Nevertheless, the general strike continued well into December—the longest nationwide general strike in history. In this way, the proletarian centrality of the uprising was even more evident in its aftermath than during the anarchic period of the revolution itself.
The Significance of Hungary 1956
During his brief tenure, Nagy moved steadily to the right. He brought into his government bourgeois politicians from the Peoples Independence Front period. Nagy also declared Hungarys withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact and appealed to the United Nations to defend Hungarian neutrality. The logic of Nagys policies, had they succeeded in running their course, was to strangle the revolution and enormously strengthen the forces of capitalist counterrevolution. However, Nagy, who spent his greatest efforts trying to get the workers to lay down their arms, utterly lacked control over events. While the revolutionary workers had their fair share of political confusion, their representative organs were in practice counterposed not only to the old hardline Stalinist butchers like Rakosi but to the Nagy regime as well.
In the industrial city of Miskolc, one of the main centers of the revolution, the workers council sent a delegation to Nagy demanding that a new government be formed based on the existing workers councils, not through elections to a new parliament. The Budapest Parliament of Workers Councils adopted as its first programmatic principles that the factory belongs to the workers and that the supreme controlling body of the factory is the Workers Council (see Lomax, Hungary 1956). While that statement did not express the Marxist program for central economic planning combined with genuine soviet democracy, it was nevertheless incompatible with a capitalist order and bourgeois parliamentarism.
On the available evidence, the Hungarian workers looked toward an idealized version of Titoist Yugoslavia. Tito, however, along with Mao Zedong, supported the crushing of the 1956 Revolution. Tito and Mao were quite aware of the ramifications for their own bureaucratic regimes if the Hungarian workers succeeded in taking and securing political power. Nagy had taken refuge in the Yugoslav Embassy in Budapest on November 4. But despite an agreement for safe passage out, Nagy was arrested by Soviet forces later that month. He was eventually handed over to the Hungarian Stalinist regime under János Kádár, which executed Nagy as well as Maleter and other leaders of the revolution in 1958.
The repression directed at the workers, however, was relatively mild. The Kádár government announced in early November that it will not tolerate the persecution of workers on any pretext, for having taken part in recent events. But Kádár was not in control of events, and Soviet troops conducted searches for those suspected of having participated in the uprising. For the most part, the Kádár regime attempted to piece off the population by raising consumption levels under a policy that came to be known as goulash communism.
What was lacking above all in the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 was a Leninist-Trotskyist vanguard party rooted in the working class. Such a party would have had the task of winning the workers to a program of transforming the soviets from being organs of insurrection to becoming the sole basis for political power in the workers state. It would have fought to extend the struggle for political revolution to neighboring East European countries and crucially to the Soviet Union, linking these efforts with the fight for socialist revolution in the capitalist countries. This would have required politically combatting the views of Maleter, Kopacsi and others whose outlook at the time remained within the framework of Stalinist nationalism and peaceful coexistence with the imperialist world order.
Had even a small Trotskyist propaganda group been able to intervene in this situation, it could have rapidly won an initial base among the tens of thousands of workers and radical intellectuals who saw themselves as authentic communists. These lessons have profound significance for the remaining deformed workers states, in particular China, which experienced an incipient political revolution in May-June 1989 and, more recently, a massive growth in defensive struggles by both workers and peasants.
What Leon Trotsky foresaw in outlining the course that a political revolution would take in the Soviet degenerated workers state was amply confirmed by the 1956 events in Hungary:
When the proletariat springs into action, the Stalinist apparatus will remain suspended in midair. Should it still attempt to resist, it will then be necessary to apply against it not the measures of civil war but rather the measures of a police character
A real civil war could develop not between the Stalinist bureaucracy and the resurgent proletariat but between the proletariat and the active forces of the counterrevolution
. The victory of the revolutionary camp, in any case, is conceivable only under the leadership of a proletarian party, which would naturally be raised to power by victory over the counterrevolution.
—The Class Nature of the Soviet State (October 1933)
[TO BE CONTINUED]