Workers Vanguard No. 884

19 January 2007


Workers Political Revolution Against Stalinist Rule

The 1956 Hungarian Revolution

Part Two

This part concludes the article, Part One of which appeared in WV No. 883 (5 January).

As we noted last issue, the 1956 Hungarian Revolution had an enormous impact on the left internationally. It touched off a deep crisis in many Stalinist parties and had a major impact on Trotskyist organizations.

In the U.S., the Hungarian events led to the consolidation of a left opposition in Max Shachtman’s Independent Socialist League (ISL) and its youth group, the Young Socialist League (YSL). The Shachtman tendency had broken from Trotskyism in 1940, refusing to defend the Soviet Union in World War II and developing the position that Stalin’s Russia was a new exploitative form of class society, “bureaucratic collectivism.” Following their break with Trotskyism, the Shachtmanites pursued an uneven 18-year-long course to full-blown social democracy, culminating in their liquidation into Norman Thomas’ Socialist Party in 1958.

In response to the prevailing pressures of the anti-Soviet Cold War, Shachtman’s group, which became the ISL in 1949, moved to the right throughout the 1950s. Though still claiming to be orthodox Leninists, the Shachtmanites’ program in 1956 for Hungary—for a sovereign parliament based on free elections—amounted to a call for capitalist counterrevolution in the guise of “democracy.” Had this program been carried out in largely peasant Hungary, it might well have given an electoral majority to the bourgeois clericalist Smallholders Party. This openly counterrevolutionary line was an important step in the Shachtmanites’ liquidation into official American social democracy. A few years later, Shachtman himself supported President John F. Kennedy’s Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba.

A left opposition led by Tim Wohlforth, Shane Mage and James Robertson resisted the ISL/YSL’s capitulation to social democracy. In the course of this effort, these left Shachtmanites recognized that the events of the Hungarian Revolution affirmed Trotsky’s position that the Stalinist bureaucracy was a parasitic caste as against Shachtman’s “new class” theory (see “The Bankruptcy of ‘New Class’ Theories—Tony Cliff and Max Shachtman: Pro-Imperialist Accomplices of Counterrevolution,” Spartacist [English-language edition] No. 55, Autumn 1999).

Having transcended left Shachtmanism, these youth fused with the then-Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party (SWP) in 1958. An important section of the founding cadres of the SWP youth group, the Young Socialist Alliance (YSA), they found themselves again in a rapidly rightward-moving party. Robertson and Mage (the latter of whom subsequently abandoned Marxism) were among those comrades who emerged as the SWP’s left opposition, forming the Revolutionary Tendency (RT). Beginning in December 1963, Robertson, Mage and other RTers were bureaucratically expelled from the SWP. This grouping was the embryo of what became the Spartacist League, which was founded in 1966. (Wohlforth—acting as a tool for Gerry Healy, head of the Socialist Labour League in Britain—provoked an unprincipled split in the RT in 1962 and went on to serve as Healy’s toady as head of the Workers League. Wohlforth more recently emerged as an abject apologist for U.S. imperialism, calling in 1993 for American intervention in Bosnia under the headline “Give War a Chance” [In These Times, 26 July 1993].)

Another consequence of the impact of the Hungarian Revolution on the left in the U.S. was the formation of a pro-Stalinist faction, led by Sam Marcy, in the SWP. The Marcy group, forerunners of the Workers World Party (WWP), provided a sophisticated apology for the suppression of the Hungarian Revolution. Unlike Stalinist hacks such as the Communist Party’s Herbert Aptheker, whose book The Truth About Hungary portrayed the beginning of the revolution as the work of counterrevolutionaries organized by Washington, the Marcyites did not attempt to prove that the revolt was some deep-laid imperialist plot. The main Marcyite document, V. Grey’s “The Class Character of the Hungarian Uprising” (SWP Discussion Bulletin, Vol. 18, No. 1, January 1957), begins: “On October 23 the students and workers of Budapest demonstrated for a liberalization of the totalitarian Stalinist regime. Contrary to their own desires, the demonstration was swiftly converted into a full-scale, nation-wide counterrevolution throughout Hungary” (emphasis in original).

If the workers and intellectuals in the decisive battleground of the uprising were against a counterrevolution, then how did such a “conversion” come about? Grey argued that the workers, lacking a revolutionary party, had no understanding of the need to defend the gains of the deformed workers state: “The only consciousness was for ‘freedom’. But freedom from what?—Freedom to do what?… Their first duty was to keep the proletarian dictatorship. Apparently nobody understood this.” The Marcyites’ position boils down to the idea that, in the absence of a pre-existing Trotskyist leadership, the workers would inevitably accept the restoration of capitalism. In 1989, the WWP applied the same stance toward the Tiananmen events in China, denouncing this incipient proletarian political revolution as counterrevolutionary and acting as abject apologists for the Stalinist misrulers.

Polish Solidarność and the Lessons of Hungary

The central documents by Shane Mage in the factional struggle against the right-wing ISL/YSL majority were reprinted in the 1959 pamphlet The Hungarian Revolution, published by a forerunner of the YSA. Mage insisted that whether the collapse of Stalinist rule led to a workers government or to capitalist restoration would be determined by the political consciousness and leadership of the working class, specifically the ability of the workers movement to overcome and combat parliamentarist illusions and nationalist prejudices. This would be true even where there existed proletarian organs of dual power, as was the case in Hungary in 1956.

The heart of Mage’s argument was that “pure democracy” in East Europe—such as a sovereign parliament based on free elections—would likely lead to the victory of pro-Western, petty-bourgeois forces (such as the Hungarian Smallholders), who would in short order restore capitalist rule. Mage further pointed out that such counterrevolutionary parties need not call for nor effect the immediate denationalization of statified industry. Rather they would subordinate the nationalized economy to the interests of the domestic petty bourgeoisie and international capital.

In this, Mage was following Trotsky, who wrote in his November 1937 “Not a Workers’ and Not a Bourgeois State?” (Writings 1937-38):

“Should a bourgeois counterrevolution succeed in the USSR, the new government for a lengthy period would have to base itself upon the nationalized economy. But what does such a type of temporary conflict between the economy and the state mean? It means a revolution or a counterrevolution. The victory of one class over another signifies that it will reconstruct the economy in the interests of the victors.”

Mage insisted that such a counterrevolution was not what had occurred in Hungary in October-November 1956. The effective organs of power were the workers councils, which expressed an, albeit confused, socialist consciousness.

The material in Mage’s pamphlet was a central element in our tendency’s understanding of the struggle for proletarian political revolution and our fight against the forces of “democratic” capitalist counterrevolution in the East European deformed workers states and the former Soviet Union. In Poland in 1980, striking workers lined up behind an opposition dominated by reactionary ultranationalists, Catholic clerics and pro-capitalist social democrats. In 1981, we published a pamphlet, Solidarnos´c´: Polish Company Union for CIA and Bankers, with excerpts from Mage’s documents under the title “‘Pure Democracy’ or Political Revolution in East Europe.”

Wielding the upper hand in the Solidarność “union” was a constellation of counterrevolutionary forces, the likes of which had been a distinctly subordinate element in Hungary in 1956. At its first national congress in September 1981, Solidarność consolidated on a program of capitalist restoration. Behind its call for “free elections” to the Sejm (parliament) stood the program of capitalist restoration under the guise of parliamentary government.

In contrast to Hungary 1956, Solidarność was able to mobilize significant sections of the working class against the bureaucracy under the banner of right-wing reaction, symbolized by the Polish eagle and the Catholic cross. This was a direct consequence of the political bankruptcy of Stalinism. In Poland in 1956, 1970 and again in 1976, proletarian upheavals were headed off as the bureaucracy each time put forward a new leader who promised a new and better deal. At the same time, the Polish Stalinists strengthened the Catholic church in various ways, including by perpetuating a landowning peasantry. Having been disillusioned three times with “national-liberal” Stalinism, by the late 1970s the Polish working class was susceptible to being organized by clerical-nationalists who answered to the imperialists and the Vatican.

Solidarność’s counterrevolutionary bid for power was checked in December 1981 by General Jaruzelski’s coup, which was strongly backed by Moscow. Virtually the entire non-Stalinist left backed Solidarność, from the French Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire and other components of the pseudo-Trotskyist United Secretariat to the U.S. International Socialist Organization, then affiliated with the British Socialist Workers Party of the late Tony Cliff.

How such “leftists” distort reality in the service of their counterrevolutionary line on Poland can be seen in an article on the 1956 Hungarian Revolution in Socialism Today (November 2006), which is published by the Socialist Party (England and Wales), section of the Committee for a Workers’ International. The article compares the Hungarian workers, who were committed to the defense of socialism as they saw it, to Solidarność, writing of the latter that “some of its leaders retained a strong allegiance to the ideas of socialism.” Solidarność’s “allegiances”—including those of social democrats like Jacek Kuron who formed part of its leadership—can be gleaned from the fact that this was the only “union” beloved by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher!

In sharp contrast to the Stalinophobic fake left, we fulfilled our class duty to unconditionally defend the Polish deformed workers state against capitalist restoration, emphasizing in Workers Vanguard No. 289 (25 September 1981):

“Solidarity’s counterrevolutionary course must be stopped! If the Kremlin Stalinists, in their necessarily brutal, stupid way, intervene militarily to stop it, we will support this. And we take responsibility in advance for this; whatever the idiocies and atrocities they will commit, we do not flinch from defending the crushing of Solidarity’s counterrevolution.”

In 1989, the Polish Stalinists abdicated governmental power in favor of Solidarność, which had won a landslide electoral victory that June. Thus Solidarność formed the first of the capitalist-restorationist regimes in East Europe.

The Dead End of Stalinism

In Hungary, following the suppression of the 1956 Revolution, the Kremlin installed in power the liberal Stalinist János Kádár, who had been imprisoned and tortured under Rakosi. After an initial period of repression, Kádár set out to gain popular acceptance, or at least tolerance, for his regime by redirecting investment so as to rapidly raise consumption levels—a policy dubbed “goulash communism.” Kádár’s New Economic Mechanism anticipated the “market socialism” that would later characterize Deng Xiaoping’s China and Mikhail Gorbachev’s Russia. The Hungarian, Yugoslav, Polish and Czech governments borrowed heavily from Western banks, essentially mortgaging these countries to the imperialists. This set the stage for IMF-dictated austerity programs that took a knife to the living standards of the working people.

In the 1980s, petty-bourgeois “democrats” and nationalists became politically ascendant throughout most of East Europe, with the signal exception of East Germany. For its part, in 1989-90 the Moscow bureaucracy under Mikhail Gorbachev let it be known that it would abandon the East European Stalinist regimes to their fate. This followed Gorbachev’s treacherous withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan, which abandoned the Afghan peoples to the mercies of CIA-backed mujahedin cutthroats right on the border of the Soviet Union. Thus the fate of the East European and Soviet workers states was put in the balance: either proletarian political revolutions to defend and extend the gains embodied in the collectivized economies or capitalist counterrevolution, with its promise of all-sided social devastation.

The first sign of political revolution in this period occurred not in East Europe but in China, where events resembled the 1956 Hungarian Revolution in key ways. In May-June 1989, protest initiated by students in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square gained widespread support among the workers, who were angered by the sharply rising economic inequalities, rampant corruption and inflation encouraged by Deng’s “socialist market economy.” Under Deng over the previous decade, agriculture had been decollectivized and centralized economic planning had been weakened. The “iron rice bowl” of guaranteed lifetime employment and social benefits for workers was becoming rusted out.

Groups of young workers, some of them carrying posters with Mao Zedong’s picture, joined the huge demonstrations in Tiananmen Square, which spread throughout the country. As we wrote at the time, “It was the beginnings of a working-class revolt against Deng’s program of ‘building socialism with capitalist methods’ which gave the protests their mass and potentially revolutionary nature” (“Defend Chinese Workers!” WV No. 480, 23 June 1989). Initially, both rank-and-file soldiers and some senior military commanders refused to carry out orders to suppress the protests. Deng was finally able to find military units willing to carry out a massacre, which was directed primarily at working-class neighborhoods in Beijing rather than at the student protesters. As in Hungary in 1956, the key factor in China in 1989 was the absence of a revolutionary leadership such as that provided by Lenin and Trotsky’s Bolshevik Party, which led the 1917 Russian Revolution.

The ICL and the Fight Against Capitalist Counterrevolution

The events in China reverberated throughout East Europe, particularly in the German Democratic Republic (DDR) of East Germany. In autumn 1989, the DDR’s Stalinist regime collapsed, most graphically expressed by the opening of the Berlin Wall on November 9. East Germany at that time was engulfed in a developing political revolution. The impulses of the workers were directed not toward capitalist reunification with imperialist West Germany but toward building what they considered a decent socialist society on the foundations of the DDR’s nationalized economy. Meanwhile, as part of his conciliation of imperialism, Gorbachev pledged not to use the tens of thousands of Soviet troops stationed in East Germany to intervene militarily. All these factors created an exceptional opportunity to consummate a proletarian political revolution.

The International Communist League undertook the biggest sustained mobilization in our tendency’s history, drawing upon the personnel and other resources of all sections to intervene in Germany. We unconditionally opposed the capitalist reunification of Germany. We fought for political revolution in the East and socialist revolution in the West—for a red Germany of workers councils in a socialist Europe. To emphasize the need for internationalism, as opposed to narrow DDR nationalism, we published greetings in Russian to Soviet soldiers, linking the fight in the DDR to the struggle to defend the homeland of the October Revolution against imperialism and domestic counterrevolution. We also issued internationalist greetings in their languages to Cuban, Mozambican, Vietnamese and Polish workers in East Germany.

The impact of our program was seen in January 1990, when 250,000 turned out in a demonstration initiated by our German comrades and joined by the DDR’s ruling party, the SED (Socialist Unity Party), to protest the fascist desecration of a Soviet war memorial in Berlin’s Treptow Park. At Treptow, for the first time since Trotsky and his followers were expelled from the Soviet Union in the late 1920s, Trotskyists were able to address masses of workers under Stalinist rule (see article above).

The spectre of organized proletarian resistance to capitalist reunification alarmed West Germany’s imperialist rulers, led by the Christian Democrat Helmut Kohl, and their front men of the Social Democratic Party, and they accelerated the drive for capitalist counterrevolution. The Stalinists in the Kremlin and in the DDR gave the green light for reunification.

Uniquely, our comrades of the newly founded Spartakist Workers Party ran unambiguously against capitalist restoration in the March 1990 East German elections. However, under the impact of the bourgeois offensive, the vanguard layers of the working class increasingly despaired, particularly as the disintegrating Stalinists of the SED, which renamed itself the Party for Democratic Socialism, blatantly supported capitalist anschluss (annexation). The March elections were an overwhelming vote for capitalist reunification, with the vast majority voting for either Christian Democratic- or Social Democratic-based coalitions. This marked the victory of capitalist counterrevolution in East Germany.

It was the ICL alone which fought to the last against the drive for capitalist reunification led by the imperialists and their Trojan horse in the German Social Democratic Party. From the beginning, we were in a political struggle with the abdicating Stalinist regime and its program of capitulation and counterrevolution. While we were calling for a government of workers and soldiers councils, the Stalinists were consciously acting to prevent a workers insurrection. That included demobilizing army units that had formed soldiers councils, in part as a result of our propaganda.

The ICL also fought to the end in defense of the Soviet workers state. When Boris Yeltsin made his power grab in Moscow in August 1991, we put out a call titled “Soviet Workers: Defeat Yeltsin-Bush Counterrevolution!” This was the first statement widely distributed throughout the Soviet Union opposing Yeltsin’s bid for power. It advanced a program for political revolution against capitalist restoration—for genuine workers soviets as organs of a new proletarian political power. But the Soviet working class—atomized and bereft of any anti-capitalist leadership, lacking any coherent and consistent socialist class consciousness, skeptical about the possibility of class struggle in the capitalist countries—did not rally in resistance against the encroaching capitalist counterrevolution, which succeeded in destroying the Soviet workers state in 1991-92.

The victory of capitalist counterrevolution was a profound, historic defeat for the world’s working class and oppressed masses. Widespread poverty, disease and malnutrition quickly became rampant in East Europe and the former Soviet Union. With the USSR no longer providing a countervailing force, the U.S. imperialists have felt that they have a free hand to ride roughshod over whomever they please. The restoration of capitalist rule, particularly in the former Soviet Union, has also resulted in a massive, although uneven, retrogression in proletarian class consciousness internationally. The working class has been pounded by the bourgeois rulers’ “death of communism” ideological campaign and its attendant historical lies. In Hungary, the first order of business of the capitalist-restorationist parties that dominated the parliament elected in 1990 was to declare October 23, the anniversary of the 1956 Revolution, a national holiday celebrating “multi-party democracy” and “the independence of the motherland.”

The International Communist League is dedicated to the fight for new October Revolutions—crucially including in the U.S. and other imperialist centers—to sweep away the rotten capitalist-imperialist system and usher in an egalitarian socialist world order. Key to this perspective today is the unconditional military defense of China, the largest and most powerful of the remaining deformed workers states, as well as of Vietnam, North Korea and Cuba against imperialism and domestic counterrevolution. The urgent need is to win militants to the revolutionary program of Trotskyism—the fight to reforge the Fourth International as the world party of socialist revolution. It is thus that we honor the Hungarian workers political revolution of 1956.