The Hungarian Revolution of 1919 (i)

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The example of Russia 1917 inspired the workers in Hungary


The revolutionary attempt by the Hungarian proletariat had a strong international motivation. It was the result of two factors: the unbearable situation provoked by war and the example of the revolution of October 1917.

As we said in the introduction to this section, the First World War was an explosion of barbarism. In some ways, the "peace" was even worse; a peace signed in haste by the major capitalist powers in November 1918 when the revolution broke out in Germany.[1] It did not bring any relief to the suffering masses or a decrease in the chaos and disruption of social life that the war had caused. Winter 1918 and spring 1919 were a nightmare: there was famine, paralysis of the transport system, deranged conflicts between politicians, military occupation of the conquered countries, war against Soviet Russia, extreme disorder at all levels of society and the rapid spread of an epidemic called Spanish flu, that caused as many deaths as the war, if not more... In the eyes of the population, the "peace" was worse than the war.

The economic apparatus had been stretched to its extreme limit, which produced a strange phenomenon of under-production, as Béla Szantò outlines for Hungary:[2] "As a result of the effort put into war production, driven by the quest for super-profits, the means of production were left completely worn out and machines out of action. Their conversion would have required huge investments when there was absolutely no possibility of money being available. There were no raw materials. The factories were shut down. After demobilisation, with the factories closed, there was huge unemployment."[3]

The Times of London declared (19/07/19): "The spirit of disorder reigns over the whole world, from America in the west to China in the east, from the Black Sea to the Baltic; no society, no civilisation, as strong as it is, no constitution as democratic as it is, can escape this malign influence. Everywhere there are signs of the collapse of the most basic social bonds, caused by this prolonged tension."[4] In this context, the example set in Russia provoked a wave of enthusiasm and hope for the world's proletariat. The workers had an antidote to the deadly virus of a capitalism deep in chaos: the world revolutionary struggle, taking its lead from the example of October 1917.

The democratic republic of October 1918

Hungary, which was still part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and one of the losers in the war, suffered as the situation worsened, but the proletariat - heavily concentrated in Budapest with one seventh of the country's population and almost 80% of its industry there - proved itself to be highly combative.

A period of apathy had ensued after the uprisings of 1915 were crushed with the scandalous help of the Social Democratic Party (SDP), with some hesitant reactions in 1916 and 1917. But in January 1918, the social agitation led to what was probably the first international mass strike in history, which extended across many central European countries from its epicentres in Vienna and Budapest. It started in Budapest on January 14th; moved to Lower Austria and Styria by the 16th, to Vienna by the 17th and on the 23rd into the large armaments factories of Berlin, with numerous echoes in Slovenia, Czechoslovakia, Poland and Croatia.[5] The struggle was focused around three aims: against the war, against food shortages, and in solidarity with the Russian revolution. Two common slogans were raised in numerous languages: "Down with the war" and  "Long live the Russian proletariat".

In Budapest, the strike erupted beyond the control of the Social Democrat leaders and the unions, and in numerous factories, enthused by the Russian example, resolutions were voted in favour of workers' councils... without any success in actually setting them up. The movement wasn't organised, which gave the unions the opportunity to take control and impose their own demands, particularly for universal suffrage, with disregard for the concerns of the masses. The government attempted to overpower the strike using troops armed with artillery and machine guns. The lack of success of this show of force and the growing doubts of the soldiers who did not want to fight at the Front and even less against the workers dissuaded the government which, in 24 hours, changed its mind and "conceded" to the demands - but only those of the unions and the Social Democrats - for universal suffrage.

Encouraged by this success, the unions went back into the factories to take control of the strike. They got a cool reception. However, fatigue, the lack of news from Austria and Germany and the gradual resumption of work in the most vulnerable sectors, dented the morale of the workers in the big metalworks who finally decided to return to work.

Strengthened by this victory, the Social Democrats "led a campaign of reprisals against all those committed to reviving revolutionary class struggle amongst the masses. In the Népszava - the main publication of the party - defamatory articles and even denunciations appeared that provided an abundance of ammunition for political persecutions by the reactionary government of Wkerle-Vaszonyi".[6]

The agitation continued despite the repression. In May, soldiers of the regiment at Ojvideck mutinied against being sent to the Front. They took control of the main telephone exchange and the railway station. The workers of the town supported them. The government sent two special regiments that bombarded the city for three days before taking back control. The repression was pitiless: one soldier in ten - whether part of the mutiny or not - was shot, and thousands were imprisoned.

In June, police fired on striking workers from a metalworks in the capital, leaving many dead and wounded. The workers quickly went to the neighbouring factories, which stopped work straight away and came out onto the streets. The whole of Budapest was paralysed in a few hours. The next day, the strike spread across the whole country. Impromptu assemblies, in a revolutionary atmosphere, decided on what measures to take The government arrested the delegates, sending the most implicated workers to the Front, and put the tramways back into operation using strike-breakers, each escorted by a squad of soldiers with bayonets at the ready. After eight days of struggle, the strike ended in defeat.

However, consciousness was developing inside the class: "Little by little, in numerous workers' circles there was a growing belief that the policy of the SDP and the stand taken by the Party leaders was not giving them support and was not in favour of revolution (...). The revolutionary forces had begun to come together; contacts were being established between workers in the big factories. The meetings and the secret deliberations were taking place on a semi-permanent basis and the outlines of independent proletarian political positions were being drawn up."[7] These workers' circles came to be known as the Revolutionary Group.

Mutinies by soldiers were becoming more and more frequent despite repression. Strikes were happening daily. The government - incapable of conducting a lost war, with its army more and more in retreat, disorganised, its economy paralysed and with a complete lack of provisions - collapsed. In such a dangerous power vacuum, the SDP, once again showing which side it was on, decided to bring the bourgeois parties together in a National Council.

On October 28th the Soldiers' Council co-ordinating with the Revolutionary Group organised a large demonstration in Budapest with the intention of marching on the Citadel to present a letter to the Royal representative. There was an enormous cordon of soldiers and police. The soldiers moved aside to let the crowd pass but the police opened fire, killing many people. "The anger at the police was indescribable. The following day workers in the armaments factory broke open the stores and armed themselves."[8]

The government attempted to send out of Budapest military units that had been in the avant-garde of the Soldiers' Councils, which caused a general uproar: thousands of workers and soldiers assembled in Rakóczi Street - the main artery of the city - to prevent their departure. One company of soldiers with orders to depart refused, and joined with the crowd outside the Astoria Hotel. Near midnight, the two main telephone exchanges were seized.

In the morning and during the following day, groups of armed soldiers and workers occupied the public buildings, barracks, central station and food shops. Massive detachments went to the prisons and freed political prisoners. The unions, posing as the mouthpiece of the movement, demanded power for the National Council. In the middle of the morning of October 31st, Count Hadik, head of government, handed power over to another Count, Károlyi, leader of the Independence Party and president of the National Council.

He found himself with total power without having lifted a finger. But his hold on power was still tenuous because of the threat from the as yet unorganised and unconscious working masses. This is why the government rejected all revolutionary endorsement and sought its legitimacy from the Hungarian monarchy, which was part of the fading "Austro-Hungarian Empire". In the absence of the king, members of the National Council, with the Social Democrats at their head, went to find the Emperor's representative, Archduke Joseph, who authorised the new government.

This news angered many workers. A rally was held at the Tisza Calman-Tér. Despite torrential rain, a large crowd gathered and decided to go to the HQ of the Social Democratic Party to demand the proclamation of a Republic.

During the 19th century the demand for a Republic became a slogan of the workers' movement, which considered that this form of government was more sympathetic to its interests than the constitutional monarchy. However, faced with this new situation, where the only alternative was bourgeois power or proletarian power, the Republic presented itself as the last resort of capital. Indeed, the Republic was born with the blessing of the monarchy and the high clergy, whose leader, the Archbishop of Hungary, received a visit from the entire National Council. The Social Democrat Kunfi made this famous speech: "I am, myself a convinced Social Democrat, charged with the overwhelming responsibility to say that we do not wish to act in line with the methods of class hatred or class struggle. And we are appealing to everyone to set aside class interests and partisan positions to help us deal with the burden of work before us."[9] The whole Hungarian bourgeoisie united behind its new saviour, the National Council, whose driving force was the SDP. On November 16th the new Republic was solemnly proclaimed.

The constitution of the Communist Party

The working class cannot launch a revolutionary offensive without creating the vital tool that is the communist party. But it's not enough for the party to defend internationalist programmatic positions; it must also put them into practice, with concrete proposals for the proletariat, through its capacity for careful analysis, with a broad vision of current events and the orientations to follow. To do this, the party must be international and not a simple sum of national parties, so that it can combat the confusing and suffocating weight of the immediate, local and national particularities and also promote solidarity, common debate and a global vision of the perspectives ahead.

The tragedy of the revolutionary attempts in Germany and Hungary was the absence of the International. It was constituted too late, in March 1919, when the Berlin insurrection had been crushed and after the revolutionary attempt in Hungary had already begun.[10]

The Hungarian Communist Party suffered cruelly from this difficulty. One of its founding organisations was the Revolutionary Group, formed by delegates and individual militant workers from the big factories in Budapest.[11] It was joined by elements coming from Russia in November 1918 who had founded the Communist Group, led by Béla Kun, by the anarchist Union of Revolutionary Socialists, and by the members of the Socialist Opposition, a nucleus formed inside the Hungarian SDP at the outbreak of the First World War.

Before Béla Kun and his comrades arrived, the members of the Revolutionary Group had considered the possibility of forming a communist party. The debate on this question led to an impasse because there were two tendencies that could not reach agreement: on one side were the supporters of the Internationalist Fraction inside the SDP and, on the other, those who considered that there was an urgent need to form a new party. The decision was finally taken to form a Union that took the name of Ervin Szabo,[12] which decided to continue the discussion. Militants arriving from Russia radically changed the situation. The prestige of the Russian Revolution and the persuasiveness of Béla Kun tipped the balance towards the immediate formation of the Communist Party, which was founded on 24th November. The programmatic document adopted included some very clear points:[13]

"while the SDP aimed to put the working class into service rebuilding capitalism, the new party's task is to show the workers how capitalism has already suffered a mortal blow and has reached a stage of development, both morally and economically, that is taking it to the brink of ruin";

"mass strike and armed insurrection: these are the means acknowledged by communists for taking power. They do not aspire to a bourgeois republic (...) but to the dictatorship of the proletariat, through the councils";

it gave itself the means of: "assisting the conscious development of the Hungarian proletariat, freeing it from its old ties to the dishonest, ignorant and corrupt ruling class (...) reawakening within it the spirit of international solidarity, systematically stifled until now", and linking the Hungarian proletariat to "the Russian dictatorship of the councils and with any other country where a similar revolution could break out".

A newspaper was founded - Vörös Ujsàg ("Red Gazette") and the party launched itself into feverish agitation that was moreover made necessary given the decisive nature of the events it faced.[14] However this agitation was not backed up by an in-depth programmatic debate, with a methodical, collective analysis of the events. The Party was in reality too young and inexperienced, and besides had little cohesion. This all led, as we will see in the next article, to it committing grave errors.

Trade unions or workers' councils?

During the historic period 1914-23, a very complex question was posed for the proletariat. The trade unions had behaved as recruiting sergeants for capital during the imperialist war and the subsequent workers' responses had gone beyond their control. Nevertheless, the heroic times when the workers' struggles had been organised through the unions were still very recent; they had cost a lot of economic effort, many hours in meetings, and had suffered a lot of repression too. The workers still considered them their own and hoped to be able to win them back.

At the same time, there was huge enthusiasm for the Russian example of the workers' councils that had taken power in 1917. In Hungary, in Austria and in Germany, struggles led to the formation of workers' councils. But whereas in Russia the workers had accumulated a lot of experience of what they were, how they worked, what their weaknesses were, and how the class enemy tried to sabotage them, in both Austria and Hungary this experience was very limited.

This combination of historical factors produced a hybrid situation that was cleverly exploited by the SDP and the unions, who on November 2nd formed the Budapest Workers' Council with a strange mixture of union chiefs, SDP leaders and elected delegates from a few large factories. In the following days all sorts of "councils" appeared that were only unions and professional organisations following the new fashion: councils of police (founded on November 2nd under Social Democrat control), councils of civil servants, councils of students. There was even a council of priests formed on November 8th! This proliferation of councils had the goal of short-circuiting their formation by the workers.

The economy was paralysed. The state's coffers were empty and with everyone asking it for help, its only response was to print more paper money, to pay for grants, the salaries of state employees and current expenses... In December 1918, the Minister of Finance met the unions to ask them to put an end to wage demands, to co-operate with the government in re-launching the economy and if necessary taking the reins, of the management of industry. The unions were very receptive.

But the workers were outraged. There were more massive assemblies. The newly formed Communist Party took the lead in the protests. It decided to participate in the unions and quickly achieved a majority in several organisations in the large factories. Its programme was to create workers' councils; but these were considered compatible with the trade unions.[15] This situation produced a continual to-ing and fro-ing. The Budapest Workers' Council, created by the Social Democrats as a diversionary tactic, had become a lifeless body. At this time, efforts at organising and developing consciousness were taking place on a terrain where the unions had less and less control, such as the massive assembly of the Metalworkers' Union which in response to the plans of the Minister after two days of debates adopted some very radical positions: "From the perspective of the working class, state control of production can have no effect given that the People's Republic is only a modified form of capitalist rule where the State continues to be what it was before: the collective organ of the class that has ownership of the means of production and oppresses the working class."[16]

The radicalisation of the workers' struggles

The disorganisation and paralysis of the economy pushed the workers and the majority of the population to the brink of starvation. In these circumstances, the Assembly decided that "In all the big firms there should be Councils of Factory Control which, as organs of workers' power, control factory production, the supply of raw materials and also the functioning and smooth running of business".[17] However, they did not consider themselves as in partnership with the state, or as organs of "self-management", but as levers and as supporters of the struggle for political power: "Workers' control is only a phase of transition to the system of workers' management in which first seizing political power is a necessary condition (...) Taking all this into consideration, the Assembly of delegates and members of the organisation condemn any suspension, even provisional, of the class struggle, any adherence to constitutional principles, and considers that the immediate task is the organisation of Workers', Soldiers' and Peasants' Councils, as representatives of the dictatorship of the proletariat."[18]

On December 17th, the Workers' Council of Szeged - the second largest city - decided to disband the municipality and "take power". This was an isolated act, which illustrated the tension in the deteriorating situation. The government reacted cautiously and began negotiations that led to the reestablishment of the municipality with a "social democratic majority". At Christmas 1918, the workers of one factory in Budapest demanded a pay rise. In two days the whole of Budapest took up the same demand that began to spread to the provinces. The factory owners had no other choice than to give in.[19]

At the beginning of January, the miners of Salgótarján formed a workers' council that decided to take power and organise a militia. The central government was alarmed and immediately sent in elite troops, who occupied the district, killing eighteen people and wounding thirty. Two days later, workers from the region of Satoralja-Llihely took the same decision and received the same response from the government, provoking a new bloodbath. In Kiskunfélegyháza, when women staged a protest against food shortages and high prices, the police fired into the crowd, killing ten and wounding thirty. Two days later it was the turn of the workers of Poszony where the workers' council declared the dictatorship of the proletariat. The government, its forces stretched, asked the Czech government to militarily occupy the town, which was in a border area.[20]

The peasant problem intensified. Demobilised soldiers returned to their villages and spread the agitation. Meetings were held demanding that the land be divided up. The Budapest Workers' Council[21] showed great solidarity that led to a proposal for a meeting: "to impose a solution on the government to the agrarian problem". The first meeting did not reach any agreement and it was necessary to hold a second that ended with acceptance of the SDP proposal that made provision for the creation "of individual farms with compensation for the former owners." This temporarily calmed the situation, but only for a few weeks, as we shall see in the next article. Indeed, in Arad near Romania, in late January the peasants occupied the land and the government had to use a large contingent of troops to stop them, which led to a further slaughter.

February 1919: Repression against the communists

In February, the Union of Journalists formed itself into a council and demanded censure of all articles hostile to the revolution. The assemblies of printers and other related sectors were growing and gave this measure their support. The metalworkers participated in this activity that led to the workers taking control of most newspapers. From this point, the publication of news and written articles was submitted to the collective decision of the workers.

Budapest had been transformed into a gigantic debating chamber.[22] Every day, every hour, discussions were held on a variety of topics. Premises were occupied everywhere. Only generals and big bosses were denied the right of assembly, since when they tried they were dispersed by groups of metalworkers and soldiers, who eventually took control of their luxurious premises.

Alongside the development of workers' councils and in the context of the chaos and disruption of production, a second type of organisation developed in the factories, the factory councils, which took control of the production and supply of essential goods and services in order prevent shortages. At the end of January, the Budapest Workers' Council took a bold centralising initiative: taking control of gas production, armaments factories, major construction sites, the newspaper, Deli Hirlap, and the Hungaria Hotel. 

This was a challenge to the government, and the socialist Garami responded by proposing a bill that reduced the factory councils to mere underlings of the bosses who were again put in charge of production and the management of their businesses. Massive protests against this measure grew. In the Budapest Workers' Council discussion was very animated. On February 20th, the SDP "dropped a bomb" during the third session on the bill; their delegates interrupting the meeting with sensational news: "the communists have launched an attack against the Népszava. The editorial offices have been stormed with machine gun fire! Several editors are already dead! The street is littered with corpses and the wounded!".[23]

This allowed the proposal against the factory councils to be passed by a narrow majority, but it also opened the door to a crucial stage: the attempt to crush the Communist Party by force.

The storming of the Népszava was soon found to have been a provocation staged by the SDP. The operation came at a particularly delicate time; the workers' councils were growing everywhere in the country and increasingly rising up against the government - and crowned a campaign against the Communist Party by the SDP that had been prepared months before.

Already, by December 1918, following an SDP proposal the government had forbidden the use of all kind of printing paper with the aim of preventing publication and distribution of Vörös Ujsàg. In February 1919, the government resorted to force: "One morning, a detachment of 160 policemen armed with grenades and machine guns, surrounded the Secretariat. Claiming to conduct an investigation, the police invaded the premises, smashing the furniture and equipment and taking everything away in eight big cars."[24]

Szanto tells us that "the assassination of Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg by the white counter-revolution in Germany was considered to be the signal for the fight against Bolshevism by the Hungarian counter-revolutionaries ".[25] A very influential bourgeois journalist, Ladislas Fényes, launched a persistent campaign against the communists. He said "they had to disarm".

The SDP continued to claim that Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg "had paid with their lives for challenging the unity of the workers' movement". Alexandre Garbai, who was later to become the chairman of the Hungarian worker's councils, stated that "communists should be lined up and shot because no one can divide the social democratic party without paying with his life".[26] Workers' unity, which is fundamental to the proletariat, was fraudulently used to support and expand the bourgeoisie's offensive.[27]

The question of "the threat to workers' unity" was brought before the Workers' Council by the SDP. The workers' councils which were just beginning to function found themselves confronted with a thorny question that eventually paralysed them: on several occasions the social democrats put forward motions demanding the exclusion of the communists from meetings for "having split the workers' movement". They were only replaying the ferocious campaign of their German acolytes who, after November 1918, had made unity the main basis for excluding the Spartacists, fostering a pogrom atmosphere against them.

The attack on the Népszava has to be seen in the same context. Seven policemen die there. In the course of this same night of February 20th there is a wave of arrests of communist militants. The police, revolted by the death of their colleagues, torture prisoners. On February 21st, the Népszava broadcasts a statement that brands communists "counter-revolutionary mercenaries in the pay of the capitalists" and calls for a general strike in protest. A demonstration outside parliament is called the same afternoon.

The demonstration is huge. Many workers go, outraged by the attack attributed to the communists, but it is the Social Democrats in particular who mobilise civil servants, petty bourgeois, army officers, tradesmen, etc, who demand harsh bourgeois justice for the communists.

On February 22nd, the press reports torture inflicted on prisoners. The Népszava defends the police: "We understand the resentment of the police and deeply sympathise with their grief for their fallen colleagues defending the workers' press. We can be grateful that the police have given their support to our party, that they are organised and that they have feelings of solidarity with the proletariat ".[28]

These repugnant words are the alpha and omega of a two-stage offensive against the proletariat led by the SDP: first, crush the communists as the revolutionary avant-garde, and then defeat the proletarian masses more and more forcefully.

On the very same 22nd, the motion to expel the communists from the Workers' Council is approved. Are the communists going to be completely decapitated? It looks like the counter-revolution is about to win.

In the next article, we will see how this offensive will be defeated by a strong response from the proletariat.

C Mir 3/3/09


  Part 2

[1]. The general armistice was signed on November 11th 1918, just days after the emergence of the revolution in Kiel (northern Germany) and the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm, the German Emperor.  See the series of articles we have published on this subject, starting in International Review n° 133.

[2]. See the book by this author The Hungarian Republic of the Councils, page 40 of the Spanish edition.

[3]. Thus phenomenon of under-production caused by the total and complete mobilisation of all the resources into armaments and war is also noted by Gers Hardach in his book The First World War (page 86 of the Spanish edition) with regard to Germany which, from 1917, showed signs of its economy collapsing, causing disruption to supplies and chaos, which in turn ended up blocking war production.

[4]. Karl Radek, quoted in Szantò (page 10 of the Spanish edition).

[5]. In his book World Communism, the Austrian, Franz Borkenau, an old communist militant, says that: " was in more than one sense the biggest revolutionary movement of properly proletarian origin which the modern world has ever seen (...) The international co-ordination which the Comintern later so often tried to bring about was here produced automatically, within the borders of the Central Powers, out of the community of interests in all the countries concerned, and the common predominance of two main problems, bread and the Brest-Litovsk negotiations [peace negotiations between the Soviet government and the German Empire in January-March 1918]. The slogans everywhere demanded a peace with Russia without annexation or compensation, better rations, and full political democracy" (page 92).

[6]. Béla Szantò, The Hungarian Revolution of 1919, Spanish edition, page 21.

[7]. Szantò, op. cit, page 24.

[8]. Szantò, op. cit, page 28.

[9].  Quoted by Szantò, page 35.

[10]. See "Germany 1918: Formation of the Party, absence of the International" in International Review n° 135.

[11]. Very similar to the revolutionary delegates in Germany. Indeed, there is a significant coincidence in the constituents that lead to the formation of the Bolshevik Party in Russia, the KPD in Germany and the Hungarian CP: "It is no peculiarity of the situation in Germany that the three above mentioned forces within the working class played crucial roles in the drama of the formation of the class party. One of the characteristics of Bolshevism during the revolution in Russia was the way it united basically the same forces within the working class: the pre-war party representing the programme and the organisational experience; the advanced, class conscious workers in the factories and work places, who anchored the party in the class, played a decisive, positive role in resolving the different crises in the organisation; and revolutionary youth politicised by the struggle against war." (Op. cit., International Review n° 135).

[12]. A militant on the left of social democracy who left the party in 1910 and moved towards anarchist positions. He died in 1918 after having energetically opposed the war with an internationalist position.

[13]. We are quoting the summary of principles by Béla Szantó in the book referred to above.

[14]. The party showed considerable success in its agitation and recruitment of militants. In four months it grew from 4,000 to 70,000 militants.

[15]. This same position prevailed inside the Russian proletariat and among the Bolsheviks. But whereas the unions were very weak in Russia, in Hungary and other countries they were much stronger.

[16]. Szantò, op. cit., page 43.

[17].  Idem.

[18].  Idem.

[19]. In compensation, the SDP minister Garami proposed granting the factory owners 15 million kroner in credit. This meant the increases obtained by the workers would evaporate in a few days due to the inflation this lending would cause. The subsidy was approved even though the official bourgeois ministers of the cabinet were opposed to it.

[20]. This area would stay under Czech rule until the outbreak of the revolution in August 1919.

[21]. From January, it had returned to life with the to-ings and fro-ings that we have referred to above. The large factories sent delegates - a lot of them communists - who demanded the resumption of its meetings.

[22]. This was one of the remarkable characteristics of the Russian Revolution that was underlined, for example, by John Reed in his book, Ten days that shook the world.

[23]. Szantò, page 60.

[24]. Szantò, page 51.

[25]. Ibid.

[26]. Szantò, page 52.

[27]. We will see in a subsequent article how unity was the Trojan horse used by the Social Democrats to keep control of the workers' councils when the latter took power.

[28]. Szantò, page 63.


History of the workers' movement: