50 years since the Hungarian workers' uprising

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From World Revolution 9, December 1976

(Originally entitled ‘Hungary ’56: the spectre of the workers’ councils’)

Twenty years after the workers’ revolt shook Hungary in 1956, the vultures of the bourg­eoisie are ‘celebrating’ the anniversary in their usual style. The traditional bourgeois press waxes nostalgic about the heroic resis­tance of the ‘Hungarian people’ against the’ horrors of ‘Communism’, while at the other end of the bourgeois political spectrum, the Trotskyists wistfully recall the insurrection as a “political revolution for national independence and democratic rights” (News Line, October 1976). All such reminiscences merely describe the appearance of the up­rising and thus mask and distort its real meaning. The 1956 uprising in Hungary, like the strikes which occurred in Poland in the same year and more recently in 1970 and 1976, are not the expressions of the will of the ‘people’ of Eastern Europe to reform ‘Commu­nism’ or reform the ‘deformed workers’ states’. They are the direct result, of the insoluble contradictions of capitalism in Eastern Europe and the whole world.

The crisis in the eastern bloc, 1948-1956

The establishment of the Stalinist regimes of Eastern Europe after World War II was the response Russian capital made to the intensification of imperialist rivalries on a world scale. The Berlin blockade, the Korean War, the emergence of the Cold War expressed the continuing tension between the two imperialist giants, Russia and America, which had come to dominate the world after the war. Russia, always on the defensive because of America’ economic superiority, was forced to turn the countries of Eastern Europe into economic and military ‘buffers’ against the West. To ensure the stranglehold of Russian capital over these economies, the rigid political apparatus of Stalinism had to be imposed on them. The total statification of these regimes was accelerated by the weak­ness of their economies in the wake of the war. But the Stalinist system was even imposed in countries like Czechoslovakia which had ‘enjoyed’ the blessings of demo­cracy before the war. The Stalinist charac­ter of these regimes is inseparably bound up with economic domination by Russia; to challenge one means challenging the other. The events of 1956, like those in Czechoslo­vakia in 1968, show the narrow limits of ‘liberalization which the Kremlin will tol­erate among its ‘satellites’.

In the years 1948-53, the pressure of inter-imperialist competition impelled the Russian bloc to embark upon a new phase of frenzied accumulation. Heavy industry and military production were increased rapidly at the expense of consumer goods and working class living standards. On top of this Russia exacted an enormous tribute from its clients by means of unequal exchanges, Russian-owned companies, etc. This brutal ‘partnership’ had its economic and military expression in COMECON and the Warsaw Pact. In political terms this period of ‘siege economy’ was accompanied by massive repression both against the workers and the old bourgeois parties in addition to a series of purges and show trials of dissidents within the bureaucracy itself; Slansky in Czechoslovakia, Rajk in Hungary, and so on. These barbarous charades were aimed at suppressing any tendencies toward ‘Titoism’ within the national bourgeoisies of Eastern Europe. Titoism functioned simply as a catch-phrase to denote any striving toward national self-assertion on the part of the local bourgeoisies.

The economic weakness of the Russian bloc compared to the West explains why the, work­ing class in the East did not begin to bene­fit from the post-war reconstruction until it was almost over. In order to ‘catch up’ with America on the military level (the only one on which Russia can hope to rival the US), the bourgeoisie of the Russian bloc had to keep wages down and expand heavy industry as quickly as possible. In the period 1948-53, workers’ living standards all over the Eastern bloc dropped below that of the pre-war level; but Russia emerged from this period with her H-bomb and her Sputniks.

Nevertheless, profound economic strains began to appear inside the bloc as the markets of COMECON reached saturation point, and as the working class began to grow increasingly restless, provoked by this vicious assault on its living standards. It was becoming more and more necessary for the siege to be lifted and for Russia to ‘open out’ onto the world market. In Eastern Europe relaxa­tion of a similar kind was also necessary, but required a certain loosening of Russian control over the economies of her satellites.

The death of Stalin in 1953 happily coincided with the general need of capitalism in the Russian bloc to ‘loosen up’ both politically and economically. The social conflicts which had been festering under the surface now burst out into the open. A ‘liberal’ faction of the bureaucracy began to emerge, calling for a relaxation of economic and political despotism and a re-orientation in foreign policy. Such measures were defended as the only way of restoring profitability and keeping the proletariat in line. This latter requirement was startlingly emphasized by the outbreak of mass workers’ revolts in East Germany, Czechoslovakia, and even in Russia (at the huge Vortuka slave labour camp).

In Russia, the death of Stalin was followed by faction fights which ended in the victory of the Khrushchev ‘revisionist clique’ at the 20th Congress of the CPSU in 1956, where the crimes and excesses of the Stalin era were denounced before an astonished-world. The new line announced by Khrushchev promised a return to proletarian democracy, to be accompanied by an international policy of ‘peaceful co-existence’ in which Russia would restrict itself to economic and ideo­logical competition with the ‘capitalist West’.

In the countries of Eastern Europe, the ‘liberal’ tendency in the bureaucracy inevi­tably expressed its desire for some kind of economic independence from Russia. It was a major problem for the ‘liberals’ to know how far they could safely press their national­istic impulses, but at first the Russians actively encouraged programmes of cautious reform in the satellites. In Hungary in 1953 the arch-Stalinist Rakosi was advised by Malenkov to take a back seat to the reformer, Imry Nagy. Nagy demanded a slow-down in the expansion of heavy industry, more emphasis on consumer production, a suspension of the collectivization campaigns in the country-side, and an easing of the control of ‘cul­ture’. In the next few years the Hungarian bureaucracy was torn by the ensuing conflict between the ‘conservatives’ entrenched in the police and the party hierarchy and the ‘reformers’ based in the lower echelons of the bureaucracy, the factory managers, etc. At the same time the liberalization of the arts gave birth to a national movement of artists and intellectuals whose desire for national independence and ‘democracy’ went considerably beyond the programme defended by the Nagy faction of the bureaucracy.

Despite the cautious nature of Nagy’s ‘NEP’, the Russian bourgeoisie very quickly decided he was proceeding at too brisk a pace. In 1955 he was relieved of his post as Prime Minister and the unpopular Rakosi again took over the reins of power. But the Russians and their lackeys had set something in motion which was difficult to control. The protest movement of artists, intellectuals, and stu­dents continued to grow. In April 1956 the Petofi Circle was formed by ‘Young Communist’ students. Ostensibly a cultural discussion group, it soon became a type of ‘parliament’ for the whole opposition movement. Official censure of this movement simply gave impetus to it.

In June 1956 the workers of Poznan in Poland staged a mass strike which quickly assumed the character of a local insurrection. Though rapidly and brutally repressed, the revolt led to the triumph of the ‘reformists’ in Poland under the leadership of W. Gomulka. Like his successor Gierek in 1970, the ‘leftist’ Gomulka appeared as the only figure capable of maintaining control over the working class on his ascension to power.

The convulsions in Poland gave a dramatic push to the developments in Hungary. The uprising in Budapest on October 23 followed a mass demonstration, originally organized by the students, ‘in solidarity with the people of Poland’. The intransigent response of the authorities, who called the demonstra­tors ‘fascists’ and ‘counter-revolutionaries’ the bloody repression meted out by the AVO (the secret police), and last but not least, the fact that the ‘student’ demonstration was swollen by thousands and thousands of workers, turned a peaceful protest demanding democratic reforms and the return of Nagy into an armed insurrection.

The class character of the Hungarian uprising

This is not the place to go into all the events which led from the uprising of October 23 to the final Russian intervention that claimed the lives of thousands of people, the majority of them young workers. We simply want to consider the general character of the revolt in order to rescue it from the terrible confusions which surround it.

As we have seen, opposition to the Stalinist ‘old guard’ expressed itself in two ways. The first was from within the bourgeoisie itself, led by liberal bureaucrats and supported by rather more radical students, intellectuals, and artists. They stood for a more democratic and more profitable form of state capitalism in Hungary. But the ‘other opposition’ was the spontaneous resistance of the working class to the mon­strous exploitation imposed on it. And as could clearly be seen in East Germany and Poland, this resistance was a potential menace not to one or other faction of the ruling class, but to the survival of capi­talism itself.

In Hungary these two movements ‘came together’ in the uprising. But it was the intervention of the working class which transformed a protest movement into an in­surrection, and it was the infection of the workers’ insurrection with all the democra­tic and nationalist ideology of the intel­lectuals which was to weaken and confuse the proletarian movement.

The workers ‘joined’ the protest movement out of instinctive hatred for the Stalinist regime and because of the intolerable condi­tions they were forced to live and work under. Once the workers threw their weight into the movement it assumed a violent and intransigent character which no one had bargained for. Although many different ele­ments took part in the fighting (students, soldiers, peasants, etc) it was overwhelm­ingly young workers who in the first days of the uprising, destroyed the first contingent of Russian tanks sent to Budapest to restore ‘order’. It was primarily the working class which disintegrated the Hungarian police and army and armed itself to fight the AVO and the Russian Army. When the second wave of Russian tanks arrived to crush the uprising, it was the working class neighbourhoods which had to be smashed to rubble because they were the main centres of resistance. And even after the restoration of ‘order’ and the installation of the Kadar government, even after thousands of workers had been massacred, the proletariat continued to resist by waging a number of bitter strikes.

The most powerful expression of the prole­tarian character of the revolt was the appearance of genuine workers’ councils all over the country. Elected at factory level, these councils linked whole industrial areas and cities, and were without doubt the organizational focus of the entire insurrec­tion. They took charge of organizing the distribution of arms and food, ran the general strike, directed the armed struggle. In some towns they were in total and undis­puted command. The appearance of these soviets struck terror into the hearts of the ‘Soviet’ capitalists and no doubt tinged the ‘sympathy’ of the Western democracies with unease about the excessively ‘violent’ character of the revolt.

But to sing the praises of the Hungarian workers’ struggles without analysing its extreme weaknesses and confusions would be to betray our task as revolutionaries, which is not to passively applaud the struggles of the proletariat but to criticize their limi­tations and point out the general goals of the class movement. Despite the fact that the workers had de facto power in wide areas of Hungary during the uprising, the 1956 rebellion was not a conscious attempt by the proletariat to seize political power for itself and build a new society. It was a spontaneous revolt which failed to become a revolution because the working class lacked a clear political understanding of the historic goals of its struggle.

In an immediate sense, the main obstacle to the development of a revolutionary consciousness by the Hungarian workers was the immense barrage of nationalist and democratic ideology which was thrown at them from all sides. The students and intellectuals were the most active disseminators of this ideo­logy, but the workers inevitably suffered from all such illusions themselves. Thus instead of asserting the autonomous inter­ests of the proletariat against the capi­talist state and all other classes, the councils tended to identify the workers’ struggle with the ‘popular’ struggle to reform the state machine to achieve ‘national independence’. National independence is a reactionary utopia in the epoch of capitalist decadence and imperialism. Instead of calling - as the soviets in Russia in 1917 had done - for the destruction of the bour­geois state and the international extension of the revolution, the councils limited them­selves to demanding the withdrawal of Russian troops, an ‘independent socialist Hungary’ under the leadership of Imre Nagy, freedom of speech, self-management of the factories, and so on. The methods of struggle utilized by the councils were implicitly revolution­ary, expressing the intrinsically revolu­tionary nature of the proletariat. But the goals they adopted all remained within the political and economic framework of capi­talism. The contradiction the councils found themselves in can be summed up in the following demand put forward by the Miskolc workers’ council.

The government must propose the forma­tion of a Revolutionary National Council, based upon the workers’ councils of the various departments and Budapest, and composed of democratically elected dele­gates from them. At the same time the old parliament must be dissolved.” (Quoted in Bureaucracy and Revolution in Eastern Europe by Chris Harman, p. 161)

The Miskolc council is expressing here its hostility to the bourgeois parliamentary system, and alongside other councils, it also protested against the reappearance of the old bourgeois parties. Such positions reflect a groping towards the political power of the working class organized in its councils. Yet we can see at the same time the terrible consequences of the mystifica­tion that the Stalinist state somehow already belonged to the working class, no matter how ‘bureaucratically deformed’. This illusion prevented the councils from taking the really vital step which would have made the uprising into a proletarian revolution: the annihilation of the whole bourgeois Stalinist state machine, both its ‘conservative’ and its ‘liberal’ wings. But instead of taking this step, the councils posed their demand for the dissolution of parliament and the setting up a central workers’ council to the government of Imre Nagy, i.e. to the very force that they should have been obliterating! Such illusions could only lead to the crushing of the councils, or to their integration into the bourgeois state. It is to the credit of the majority of the workers’ councils that they either went down fighting or dissolved themselves when they saw that there was no prospect of any further struggle and that they were doomed to become rubber stamping organs for the Kadar government.

The inability of the Hungarian workers to develop a revolutionary understanding of their situation was also expressed by the fact that, as far as we know, not one revolutionary political grouping was generated in Hungary by these immense convulsions. As Bilan, the publication of the Italian Left, wrote of Spain in the l930s, the Spanish proletariat’s failure to create a class party despite the radical nature of its struggle was fundamentally the expression of the profound depression which the international proletarian move­ment found itself in at the time. By 1956 the situation was in some ways even worse: the last of the left communist fractions had disappeared, and not only in Hungary, but all over the world, the proletariat found itself almost without any political expres­sion of its own. What small voices there may have been were easily drowned by the clamour of those forces of the counter-revolution whose task is to speak ‘on behalf’ of the working class. The Stalinists of all coun­tries displayed their brutally reactionary nature by slandering the workers’ uprising as a ‘Horthyite’ or ‘CIA-inspired’ conspir­acy. Many individuals left the CPs in disgust at this time, but the Parties themselves fully supported the savage suppression of the Hungarian workers. Indeed some of these scum, led by the glorious helmsman, Chairman Mao in Peking, criticized Khrushchev for not smashing the Hungarian workers with sufficient force! The Trotskyists by trumpeting their ‘support’ for the uprising, may appear to have been on the side of the workers. But by defining the revolt as a ‘political revolution’ for ‘workers’ democracy’ and ‘national indepen­dence’, they assist in reinforcing the insi­dious mystification that the state in Hungary already had a working class character and only needed to be purged of its bureau­cratic deformations to be fully restored into the workers’ hands. It is worth remembering that even for the International Socialists who apparently see Russia as a state capital­ist country, Russia implicitly receives support on the grounds of its being the ‘lesser evil’ in any situation of inter­-imperialist confrontation with the U.S. There are too many examples of IS’ support for Russian-backed national liberation movements to list here; one of the most recent, however, is the MPLA in Angola. Their ‘support’ there­fore, for the workers’ uprising in Hungary in 1956 is a vile mixture of petty-bourgeois moralism and thorough-going deceit.

The extent to which the Trotskyists not only try to keep the workers’ struggle inside the framework of the bourgeois state, but also act as mere appendages to the ‘liberal’ bureaucrats of the Stalinist regimes, is succinctly expressed in the statement made in 1956 by the druid of the Fourth Inter­national, Mandel, concerning the victory of the Gomulka clique in Poland: “Socialist democracy will still have many battles to win in Poland, (but) the principal battle, that which has permitted millions of workers to identify themselves again with the workers’ state, is already won” (quoted in Harman, p.108).

Since 1956 more ‘radical’ analyses of the Hungarian events have been made, but few really break from the framework of Trots­kyism. For example, the libertarians of Solidarity in their pamphlet, Hungary ‘56, see the demand for workers’ self-management (as elaborated by the Hungarian trade unions!) as the real revolutionary core of the uprising. But this demand, like the call for national independence and democracy, was yet another diversion from the workers’ first task: the destruction of the capitalist state, the councils’ seizure not merely of‘ production but of political power.

The absence of any clear communist tendency in the 1950s was simply a reflection of the basic historic reason for the impasse reached by the Hungarian uprising. In that period the world capitalist system was going through the long boom of the post-war reconstruction, and the working class had still not recovered from the bloody defeats it had suffered in the twenties, thirties, and forties. The ‘50s’ are recalled with nostalgia today by many sectors of the bourgeoisie, since it was a period when capitalist ideology seemed to have obtained an absolute control over the working class, and when the economic contradictions of the system seemed to be a long-vanished nightmare. Both the economic crisis and the proletarian struggle which swept over the Russian bloc in the 1950s were limited to that bloc. The workers of Eastern Europe thus found themselves isolated and subject to all the illusions fed by an apparently ‘particular’ situation. With capitalism in the West seeming so prosperous and free, it was not hard for the workers of the Eastern bloc to see their enemy to be ‘Russia’ or ‘Stalinism’ and not world capitalism itself. This explains the awful illusions the insurgents often had in the ‘democratic’ regimes of the West. Many hoped that the West would ‘come to their aid’ against the Russians. But the West had already granted Russia the ‘right’ to exploit and oppress the workers of the Eastern countries at Yalta, and they had no interest in coming to the aid of anything so uncontrollable as a mass workers’ up­rising. Indeed not only did the ‘democracies’ stand aside; they conveniently provided the Kremlin with a moral smokescreen for wiping out the insurrection by launching their attack on the Suez Canal at exactly the same time as the Russians were preparing their final advance into Budapest. Isolated and alone, the Hungarian workers fought like lions, but their struggle was doomed to defeat.

Yesterday, today and tomorrow

The capitalist world is no longer what it was in the l950s. Since the end of the l960s the whole system has been sinking deeper and deeper into insoluble economic crisis, the expression of capitalism’s historic decline. In response to this crisis, a new generation of workers, nurtured and streng­thened by the reconstruction period, has opened up a new period of class struggle on an international scale. Today both the crisis and the class struggle are sweeping across the West as well as the East. In the East, the vanguard of this movement has been formed by the Polish workers, whose strikes in 1970 and 1976 have issued a warning to Stalinist bureaucracies everywhere. If one compares the strikes in Poland to the up­rising in Hungary, one can see that many of the illusions of the l950s have begun to lose their grip. The workers of Poland did not fight as ‘Poles’ but as workers; and their immediate enemy was not the ‘Russians’ but their own bourgeoisie; their immediate target was not the defence of ‘their’ country but the defence of their own living standards. It is this reappearance of the international proletariat on its own class terrain which has once again put the world communist revolution on the historical agenda. But although the Hungarian uprising belongs to a period that the working class has left behind, it has much to teach today’s working class in its struggle to achieve an awareness of its revolutionary mission. Through its errors and confusions, the up­rising underlined many crucial lessons about who and what are the enemies of the working class: nationalism, self-management, Stalin­ism in all its forms, Western ‘democracy’, etc, etc. But at the same time, to the extent that it haunted the bourgeoisie of East and West with the spectre of the armed workers’ councils, the insurrection was a heroic harbinger of the future that awaits the proletariat everywhere.

C.D. Ward, December 1976.