www ISR
For ISR updates, send us your Email Address

Back to home page

ISR Issue 51, January–February 2007

Hungary 1956

Revolution in a “workers’ state”


ALMOST THIRTY-NINE years to the day after Russia’s October Revolution shook the world in 1917, a revolutionary workers’ movement sprang up in what would seem to be the unlikeliest of places in Cold War Europe—the Hungarian People’s Republic. Hungary’s workers rose up, armed themselves, and formed independent democratic councils that directly challenged the existing power structures. When such an event occurs at all, it is impressive in itself, but when it happens in a country where “all power belongs to the working people,”1 it requires special examination.

In the end, the Hungarian revolution was brutally crushed by Joseph Stalin’s successors, who claimed it was the work of “counter-revolutionary insurgents” and “reactionary conspirators” aiming to “re-establish the authority of the capitalists and landowners”—under the influence of Western “organizing and financing.”2 But in the way that the initial Russian Revolution of February 1917 was a mass movement, and not the result of a band of Bolshevik conspirators, so the Hungarian experience was a reflection of the majority mood.

George Bush II visited Budapest in the summer of 2006 to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary and linked the 1956 revolution with the war in Iraq. Recounting his visit to Baghdad the week before, he told Hungarians that they would “recognize the spirit of democracy” in Iraq.3 Bush failed to see the irony in his analogy.

Every revolutionary socialist should know about Hungary in 1956, not only to refute the distortions from the Left and the Right, but to learn from and be inspired by the magnificent struggle of ordinary people against a horribly repressive and exploitative regime—a regime that disguised itself with the rhetoric of socialism, but in reality had nothing in common with it, a regime diametrically opposed to genuine workers’ democracy.

The Hungarian Revolution exposed two great lies, one peddled by the Stalinist Left and the other by the Cold War Right: one, that the Eastern European bureaucracies were workers’ states; and two, that they were monolithic states where rebellion was unthinkable.

Gray coveralls and bread lines

To understand the conditions that led to revolution in Hungary, it’s necessary to understand the background. The Russian victory against Germany during the Second World War allowed Stalin to expand his influence throughout Eastern Europe. The Western powers had little argument with this, for they did the same thing on their side. In fact, Winston Churchill and Stalin sat down and decided the futures of millions by scribbling on a half sheet of paper the division of Romania, Greece, Yugoslavia, Hungary, and Bulgaria between the Allied powers.4

The postwar governments installed in Eastern Europe were not the result of democratic elections, but were appointed by the Kremlin. Russian tanks and bayonets indeed brought “liberation” from Nazi Germany, but they also imported the political and economic systems of Stalinist Russia.

Interestingly enough, both opponents and proponents of Soviet Russia accepted this as the spread of socialism. To Western governments, the method of conquering territory for economic and political gain was second nature, so why wouldn’t their so-called socialist competitors follow the same route? To one trained in a tradition of viewing the Soviet Union as some sort of workers’ state, the spreading of socialism could only be seen in a positive light, even if achieved through military occupation.

The main problem with the second premise was that Russia was far from a workers’ paradise. The 1917 Russian Revolution had been a genuine workers’ revolution, but within a few short years, it was strangled by isolation and poverty. A new elite led by Stalin rose to power, presiding over a system that kept the rhetoric and some of the trappings of socialism, but used its control of the state to re-establish an exploitative and oppressive system.

In order to survive and successfully compete in a worldwide system of capitalism, rapid industrialization had to be the main goal of building “socialism in one country,”5 and this required a massive amount of resources. The accumulation of capital that accompanies industrialization, which took hundreds of years in Britain, was attempted in Russia through a series of five-year plans. Dickensian misery concurrent with industrialization was compacted into one five-year stretch after another.

The need to accumulate also drove the Russian state to look abroad for raw materials, labor resources, and new markets. This explains Stalin’s deal with Churchill for domination over the countries of Eastern Europe.

Hungary, already devastated by war, was expected to pay reparations to the Soviet government. Reparations payments ate up a quarter of Hungary’s state budget in 1948.6 Russia also extracted wealth from Hungary through unequal trade agreements. Hungarian goods were purchased at below world market prices, and Russian goods were sold at above world market prices.

Industries in Hungary were nationalized from above, not by the workers themselves. “The way nationalization was carried out in Hungary illustrates the tactical methods of the Hungarian Communist Party leaders and their view that the active participation of the workers in the nationalization was unnecessary,” writes Ygael Gluckstein [who later took the name Tony Cliff]. “Easter Monday, 1948, was declared a holiday, and when the workers were not in the factories, state officials came down and took them over. The next day the workers arrived to find a new master.”7

While nominally socialist, the East European economies had more in common with their Western counterparts than either their defenders or detractors were willing to admit. Property was nationalized not under the collective control of the workers, but under the control of a single-party state ruled by an unaccountable bureaucracy, which saw its task as industrial development based on the exploitation of peasant and industrial labor. Hungary had become a state capitalist economy.8

Workers were now exhorted to produce for the purposes of state accumulation. Managers mandated work speedups to commemorate anniversaries like the Russian Revolution, Stalin’s birthday, and May Day.9 It took a twisted mind to come up with the idea that on May Day, International Workers Day, the celebration of the 1886 Haymarket struggle for an eight-hour-day, people would work harder for their bosses.

Crises at the top —upsurge from below

Stalin’s death on March 5, 1953, was greeted in different ways. While tearful obituaries filled the pages of Communist Party papers around the world, in a Russian labor camp the response was a bit different:

The whole camp was formed up in ranks.... The major, somber with grief, begins to announce, “It is with deep sorrow…that I must tell you that yesterday in Moscow…”

And they all started to grin, they were all but openly crowing in triumph, their course, sharp-boned, swarthy prisoners’ mugs. The major saw them as they started to smile. Beside himself, he ordered “Caps off!” Hundreds of men hesitated on the verge of obeying. To refuse to take them off was still out of the question, but to take them off was too painfully ignominious. One man showed the way—the camp joker, the popular humorist. He tore off his cap—it was a Stalinka made of artificial fur—and hurled it up into the air. He had carried out the order!

Hundreds of prisoners saw him. They too threw their caps in the air!10

The death of Stalin threw the regime and the Eastern European satellites into crisis; bureaucratic power struggles and confusion at the top opened up a space for revolts from below. In 1953, for example, a spontaneous uprising began when building workers, chanting “we are workers and not slaves!” walked off a job site in East Berlin.11

In February 1956, the new Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev delivered a speech at the Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party of Russia. It has been referred to as the “secret speech,” but it was intentionally leaked, and soon read by people around the world.

Khrushchev revealed facts that everyone in the leadership knew, but no one talked about: secret trials, executions, and forced labor camps. The speech politically inoculated him from others who might attempt to take power using Stalin’s methods, while at the same time preserving the bureaucratic machine under his control.

Khrushchev recognized that Stalinism had become a fetter to further Russian economic development. Tony Cliff outlines this dynamic well,

Stalin’s method of approach to each new failure or difficulty was to increase pressure and terrorism. But this rigid method became not only more and more inhumane, but also more and more inefficient. Each new crack of the whip increased the stubborn, if mute, resistance of the people. Rigid, Stalinist oppression became a brake on all modern agricultural and industrial progress.12

Stalin left a crisis in Russian industrial and agricultural production that Khrushchev needed to solve. In order to promote labor productivity, more material and cultural incentives would have to be given to workers. Under the new leadership, tactics of control were changed, and the goal of capital accumulation remained in place. Khrushchev was forced to politically open things up in order to move the economy forward, but he opened a Pandora’s box, and the reforms were soon eclipsed by further demands.

Two countries immediately affected were Poland and Hungary.

The trickle of political debate that began after Stalin’s death turned into a torrent after the Twentieth Congress. Starting with intellectuals and taken up by students, it was a short road for discontent to express itself in the workplaces and factories. In Poland, a spontaneous uprising occurred in late June of 1956, four months after Khrushchev’s speech. Autoworkers in Poznan started a petition for improved conditions, which then turned into a strike, snowballing into a mass demonstration involving many other workers. Within hours, thousands of demonstrators were battling against the political forces of the regime, destroying police stations, seizing arms, and releasing political prisoners.

Similar things were occurring in Hungary, only in a sharper way and at a more fundamental level.

By July of 1956, Hungary had had its third leadership change in as many years. Mátyás Rákosi, a brutal Stalinist to the core, had been running the country since 1945—and had his main rival, László Rajk, executed in1949 for allegedly conspiring with Yugoslav leader Tito.13 Rákosi was given a twenty-month break by Moscow after Stalin’s death, and Imre Nagy took over—the idea being that Nagy would keep the lid on the pressure-cooker that had briefly blown open in Germany in 1953. Then, in March of 1955, Rákosi was brought back. Poland then blew up, so Moscow switched Rákosi out and brought in his henchman, Ernö Gerö. The details are secondary to the main point: in an attempt to maintain political control, Russia was continually replacing Hungary’s leaders like cheap light bulbs.

Life in Hungary was characterized by economic stagnation and political repression. Overdevelopment of heavy industry and the underdevelopment of agriculture resulted in idle machinery and bread shortages.14 Not even an illusion of political freedom existed in Hungary. The secret political police, known as the AVH, were the paid street thugs of Rákosi and Gerö. Their wages were three to ten times that of an average worker, and it was money earned by drawing blood. Thousands of people, including anyone who questioned the actions of the government, were spied on, imprisoned, tortured, or killed by these Orwellian figures.

After the secret speech, intellectuals of the Hungarian Young Communists formed groups called Petöfi circles. Intended initially to create a controlled forum, the circles were meant to discuss issues like Hungarian culture and Marxist philosophy. Unfortunately for the regime, these “self-criticism” sessions began discussing police repression, freedom of the press, and who should run Hungary.

The existence of criticism without immediate imprisonment opened things up even more. The slight breeze of “free speech” in Moscow had become a tornado in Hungary. By August, rumblings among workers began to be heard, first about economic issues, and then about political issues, especially when they learned about the struggles of the Polish workers.

The tension increased as the summer passed. The rehabilitation and reburial of Rajk provided an occasion for the opposition’s first demonstration, and 200,000 participated in the ceremony. The government responded with more concessions; the old chief of the political police was arrested and Nagy was readmitted to the party.

From demonstration to insurrection

“In solidarity with our Polish brothers,” students called for a demonstration on October 23. At first the government gave permission, even announcing the details on the official radio. On the day of the protest, the government changed tack, and announced that permission had been withdrawn. This only incensed people, encouraging even more to flood the streets of Budapest.

One hundred thousand marched, and Gerö could do nothing. But no one came out that day thinking a revolution was going to occur. The main political slogan was for Nagy to be reinstated, which was hardly a revolutionary demand, since the Russians themselves had installed him only three years prior.

Speeches were made, demanding more equal relations with the Soviet Union, free trade unions, reforms of peasant policy, Nagy to lead the government again, and free elections. The slogans began to sharpen as more people were drawn into the demonstration, with calls like “out with the Russians,” and “death to Rákosi.”15

At this point, people had heard reports that Gerö had spoken on the state radio and dismissed their demands as “nationalistic” and “slanderous of the Soviet Union,” which only further angered the protestors. One section of the demonstration headed to the state radio headquarters, wanting to broadcast a people’s response to Gerö. Another section marched to the city park, where they toppled a huge statue of Stalin.

At the radio station, 500 AVH had formed ranks in front of the building. The AVH opened fire on the crowd, killing several. The ante had been upped. This was the action that pushed a peaceful mass demonstration into a revolutionary insurrection.

A young architect who was at the scene describes what happened after the AVH shooting. “Two trucks of soldiers arrived from Buda across the river, but neither officers or soldiers fired on the people. No order was given, and the soldiers remained in the trucks. They began slipping their guns over the side of the trucks into our outstretched hands. I took a machine-gun and began firing it at the AVH in the station windows.”16

The fighting continued through the night, and the next morning a new government under Nagy was declared. Two pronouncements were made under his name, one calling on Russian troops to “restore order,” and the other proclaiming martial law. But fighting did not stop. Over the radio, the government first called for order, then assured anyone listening that order had been restored, and then pleaded for order once again—all while the revolution continued to spread.

Here is a description from a twenty-one-year-old factory worker of how he joined the revolution.

On Tuesday we worked, but we talked as we worked. We talked about wages, about the results of the writers meeting. We had printed copies, and knew what they meant when they said it was impossible to go on this way. We could not live on what we got from our work. After work we saw the students demonstrating and joined in.

On Wednesday morning the revolt began in our factory. It was unorganized and spontaneous. If it had been organized, the AVH would have known and stopped it before it started. The young workers led the way and everyone followed them. Yes, it was the young workers who made the revolution against Communism —the workers on whom the whole system was supposed to be based.

We usually began work at 7 a.m. Those who were there early waited in the factory for the others to arrive. Just before 7 a.m. a truck filled with young workers with arms arrived at the gate. When one began to shoot at the red star on top of the factory a member of the management gave orders for the doors to be closed.

We were now divided into two groups—those inside and those outside. We who were inside broke into the Mohosz (volunteer defense forces) office and took the rifles. A Communist leader tried to stop us, but it was no good, everyone was united. With the guns we broke out of the factory and everyone marched into the city.

When we first acted, we had no communication with anyone. We were not in touch with other factories. But as we marched, more and more workers joined us, some with arms.17

Russian tanks, troops, and armored cars continued to enter the city that night and early the next morning.

Sections of the Hungarian Army went over to the revolution as illustrated by this interview with Colonel Pál Maléter:

In the early hours of the 24th I received an order from the then Minister of Defense to set out with five tanks against insurgents and to relieve the Kilian barracks [of Budapest]. When I arrived at the spot I became convinced that the freedom fighters were not bandits but loyal sons of the Hungarian people. So I informed the Minister that I would go over to the insurgents. Ever since, we have been fighting together and we shall not end the struggle so long as a single armed foreigner is in Hungary.18

It was not just Hungarian troops who went to the side of the revolution; a few Russian soldiers did as well. The troops that were used on October 23–24 were already stationed in Hungary. Some of the Soviet troops identified with their struggle, and when forced to pick a side, chose Hungarian workers over their military commanders. This was half done by gut identification with the revolution, but also because demonstrators appealed to them directly in the streets and through a poster campaign. Some of the Hungarian workers’ councils’ later demands included amnesty for Russian troops who defected during the revolution.

It was not by accident that twelve days later, when the second suppression of the Hungarian revolution took place, the first set of Russian troops had been rotated out; replaced by those who were ignorant of what had been occurring.

These events were not confined to Budapest, but were occurring in all major cities, over the course of the next few days, as the news spread.

Every day the papers printed reports from the provinces which showed that the revolt was nationwide. Revolutionary Councils were formed in the principal towns. In Debrecen, Györ, Magyaróvár, Tatabánya, Miskolc, and Veszprém, power was in their hands. The railways were in the hands of the workers; they refused to transport Soviet troops and supplies, and in the north-eastern districts, which have a frontier with the Soviet Union, railway workers refused Soviet demands that they should give up the stations.19

By the third day of the revolution, workers, soldiers and students everywhere were establishing institutions to give expression to their new power. They formed revolutionary councils in the towns, villages, and all quarters of the cities. These organizations were formed in newspaper and radio offices, as well as government ministries, in colleges and collective farms, and above all in factories across the country.

Below is a report from Miskolc, a city about eighty miles northeast of Budapest, as reported by Radio Free Miskolc—a station which itself was run by a revolutionary council.

For two days the town of Miskolc has been under the leadership of the Workers’ Council and the Student Parliament. The Workers’ Council has taken over control of the garrison and the police. As you know the County Strike Committee has called on all the plants in the county to strike, with the exception of the post, transport, communications, food supplies and health services, and the power plants.20

The workers’ councils of Hungary were a direct product of the struggle. In a country where industrial production was so heavily emphasized, the meeting halls of factories became the logical place for workers to gather and discuss the revolution.

Peter Fryer, Britain’s communist Daily Worker reporter in Hungary, observed the following:

In their spontaneous origin, in their composition, in their sense of responsibility, in their efficient organization 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.

Of course, as in every real revolution “from below,” there was “too much” talking, arguing, bickering, coming and going, froth, excitement, agitation, ferment. That is one side of the picture. The other side is the emergence to leading positions of ordinary men, women and youths whom the AVH dominion had kept submerged. The revolution thrust them forward, aroused their civic pride and latent genius for organization, set them to work to build democracy out of the ruins of bureaucracy.21

The political demands of the councils across the country were varied, but shared some common themes, the main ones being the immediate withdrawal of Russian troops and free elections.

The government recognized the existence of these organizations, and even attempted to seize control of them by encouraging their formation where they didn’t already exist and putting their own people up for election. This plan backfired, and workers “took this project seriously. They proceeded to elect workers, their own representatives, to the council, and not the men suggested by the [Government Trade Union] leadership,” relates a worker from the telephone factory in Budapest.

Approximately half the council members were young, between the ages of 23 and 28. They were, in our factory, representative of Hungarian youth. They had participated in the actions preceding the revolution, the demonstrations, the pulling down of the Stalin statue, in the fight in front of Broadcasting House; some of them attended the university and with their youthful, revolutionary spirit could carry away the older workers who felt like them but left the initiative to the young. It didn’t count whether or not one had been a Communist Party member. Approximately 90 per cent of the workers’ council members in the telephone factory belonged to the party, some had even been active Communists, but the workers trusted them because they had always stood up for them. We were very careful that only men whose hands were clean should be elected into the workers’ council.22

Like the workers councils (soviets) of the 1917 Russian Revolution, the Hungarian workers’ councils were democratic. During mass meetings, the workers would discuss and draw up their demands, as well as debate plans of action. They discussed which industries were necessary to continue for the benefit of the revolution, and which areas needed to be stopped, such as the transport of Russian supplies and troops. They would elect trusted militants from their own ranks to represent their desires when negotiating with the government, or in discussions with other councils.

Dual power

Nagy had a choice to make: either call upon the Russians to crush the movement, or join the revolution: that is, attempt to put his government at the head of it, and defuse it. He chose the latter course.

This posed a question to the workers’ councils. Didn’t Nagy call the Russian troops in on October 24? Would he be effective in getting the Russians out? Shouldn’t the workers’ councils be represented in government? At the heart was the fundamental political question: Which institution was going to take state power, Nagy’s government or the workers’ councils?

Just because the working class in Hungary was the force that overthrew the Rákosi-Gerö regime does not mean that it was ready to take over running society. A contradiction existed in the heads of the revolutionaries. Though one of their demands was the installation of Nagy as head of the government, in fact it was the workers’ councils themselves that were running the radio stations, coal plants, and food distribution centers. The councils would consistently deny the goal of state power, while continuing to build the organs of it in practice.

As Leon Trotsky wrote, “The political mechanism of revolution consists of the transfer of power from one class to another. The forcible overturn is usually accomplished in a brief time. But no historic class lifts itself from a subject position to a position of rulership suddenly in one night.”23 In other words, it takes time for the working class to build up confidence. They must change themselves to make themselves fit to rule, to paraphrase Karl Marx.

Nagy was attempting to hold things together, meeting with representatives of the workers’ councils as well as the Russian ambassador. Using only his personal prestige, Nagy was trying to bring the popular movement under his control to avert a Russian invasion.

While there was friction between the workers’ councils and the Nagy government, workers endured the situation because they dreaded the imminent interference of a third force—the Russian army. The workers’ councils feared a Russian invasion for the obvious reason that it would mean the physical destruction of the movement. The Nagy government feared it because it would set back the economy, his reform programs, and destroy whatever hope they had of lessening Hungarian dependence on the Russians.

Soviet propaganda portrayed the Hungarian events as counterrevolutionary, favoring the restoration of private capitalism in Hungary. A workers’ council representative replied: “It is not true that the present struggle—certain circles call it a ‘counter-revolution’—was started by imperialists. Lenin taught, and his thesis still applies, that

revolutions cannot be exported or imported. It is not counter-revolution. It has been the dynamic explosion of the people’s suppressed longing for freedom.”24 The president of the Borsod county workers’ council was more explicit: “We repeat, we will not return the land to great landowners, the factories to the capitalists, the mines to the barons and the direction of our army to the Horthyite enemies of the people.”25

Despite the fact that the occupying army called themselves socialists, within the workers’ councils, the demand for socialism still existed. “We workers, students and armed forces under the leadership of the Miskolc Workers’ Council and Student Parliament demand a new provisional government, truly democratic, sovereign and independent, which will fight for a free and socialist country.”26

While the threat of invasion loomed, it is clear that the workers’ councils consciously saw their revolution as a mass democratic act, that they didn’t want to return to the old days of fascism or capitalism, and wanted to fight for a genuine form of socialism, though the experience of Stalinism had created great confusion over what that would mean in practice.

Other revolutionary forces with degrees of diverging interests certainly existed along side the councils. Between Nagy and the intellectuals that made up his clique, they saw themselves as the future capable rulers of Hungary, who would run Hungary in a kindler gentler manner, possibly more independent from the Russians. On the streets of the cities, the main demand was “out with the Russians,” but solutions beyond that were disparate. Only from the workers’ councils did both a clear message and a possible means to achieve it emerge. But this solution of workers’ power only existed as revolutionary potential, and was not a conscious demand.

No organization existed in Hungary that explicitly called for the workers’ councils to take power for themselves, such as the Bolsheviks did in Russia. The situation in Hungary was most similar to Russia in February of 1917, or Germany in 1918–19, importantly missing an active minority organization agitating for workers’ self-rule. It is easy to understand why such an organization was lacking in Hungary—socialism had become identified with bureaucratic state power.

Repression and the butcher of Budapest

Early in the morning of November 4, the Russian troops and tanks that had been massing at the border and around Budapest began their attack. The Kremlin did not instruct its soldiers to take on the Hungarians rifle against rifle. The Soviet leaders were afraid that the Russian infantry might identify with the Hungarians they were murdering as workers like themselves. Instead, the invasion was conducted from inside sealed tanks.

The Russians used artillery and air strikes, shelling the strongholds of the revolution—working-class districts—further exposing the lie that the Soviets told around the world, that this was a war of liberation of the Hungarian people against a few counter-revolutionary fascists.

This was not a war of liberation, it was a total war to annihilate the idea that the workers of Hungary—or anywhere else in the Eastern bloc—had the right to run their own lives or determine their own future.

The Russians did not count the dead. The conservative death estimates are 2,500, up to a high of 20,000 killed. The people of Hungary fought heroically against the Russian invasion with whatever weapons they had. Once the workers could no longer physically wage battle, a general strike began. In the Csepel factory district, posters mocked Moscow’s lies. One of them sarcastically proclaimed: “the forty thousand aristocrats and fascists of the Csepel works strike on.”27

The man who oversaw this slaughter was Janos Kádár.

On November 1, six days after Kádár was appointed part of the Nagy government—the government that declared itself on the side of the popular uprising—Kádár announced, “the [Communist] Party has degenerated into a medium of despotism and national slavery…in [this] glorious uprising our people have…achieved freedom…and independence.” He called for the formation of a new party that “will break away from the crimes of the past for once and for all.”28 Directly after making this statement, he left to meet with the founders of this new political party. During the meeting, he suddenly said he had to leave, and disappeared.

Two things were later discovered. One was that the Kremlin had made the decision to crush the Hungarian Revolution on October 30;29 the second was that when Kádár left the meeting he went directly to the Soviet Embassy. He returned three days later with thousands of Russian tanks, and declared that the “fascist counter-revolutionary aristocrats” who led the revolution must be crushed.

In 1949, Kádár was part of the leadership of a newly installed Hungarian government. He was a close friend and associate of Rajk, another member of the government who was the main political competition to Rákosi, Moscow’s man in Hungary.

They were such close friends that when Rajk’s son was born in the spring of 1949, Kádár was his godfather. Unfortunately, this blossoming friendship came on the heels of the Tito-Stalin split,30 and a fall guy was needed in Hungary. Moscow wanted Rajk—and he was immediately arrested and imprisoned.

A few weeks after becoming the godfather to Rajk’s child, Kádár publicly denounced Rajk as a despicable spy. Kádár then visited the prison and convinced Rajk that he should confess to conspiring with Tito at a public trial, where he would be sentenced to death, but not really executed. The Kremlin would secretly move him out east, where he would live comfortably under a different name with his wife and child—and no one would know any better.

Soon afterwards, guards stormed into Rajk’s cell and stuck a piece of wood in his mouth right after he uttered his last words, “what are you doing to me?”31 They then took him outside where he was hanged —his wife could hear the execution, as she was being held in a cell above the gallows. In the end, only Rajk’s months-old son ended up living under a different name in the east, after being robbed from his mother, Julia, who remained in Hungary.

Before too many tears are shed for Rajk, it is worth remembering that he had organized the secret political police. This may sound like a plot line from the Sopranos, but it’s not HBO. Even Mario Puzo could not have written a better story. This was Stalinism, straight up—no ice, no chaser. This is how the gangsters who called themselves Marxists ran the satellite states of the Soviet Union. If this gives a glimpse of how these individuals treated each other, their “friends and associates,” consider how they treated the people they ruled over. It is no wonder that Siberian prisoners cheered when Stalin finally dropped dead. And it is little wonder that the people of Hungary had also had enough, and finally did something about it.

In Hungary there were two periods of dual power. One occurred after the initial insurrection between the workers’ councils and the Nagy regime. These powers were, on the surface, both for the revolution, both for independence from the Soviet Union, and the withdrawal of Soviet forces.

The other instance of dual power came after the second invasion by Soviet tanks on November 4 and the installation of the new government under Kádár. This period of dual power was much sharper, since it was between workers’ councils and the Russian occupation. The Kádár government’s only legitimacy came from the 200,000 Russian troops and 3,000 tanks standing behind him.

To put the invasion and occupation in today’s perspective, in Iraq today there are about 150,000 total foreign troops occupying a country of twenty-nine million people in an area that is about 170,000 square miles. In Hungary, there were 200,000 Russian troops to occupy a country with fewer than ten million people, in an area of 36,000 square miles—so one-quarter more troops were used to pacify one-third the number of people, in one-fifth the area.

Despite the repression, the Central Workers’ Council of Greater Budapest did not revoke its demand for socialism: “We declare our unshaken loyalty to the principles of socialism. We regard the means of production as collective property which we are at all times ready to defend,” read the council statement from November 14, 1956.32

The people of Hungary had been defeated militarily—they were living under occupation. The only weapon they had left was the general strike, and they used that weapon three times over the next six weeks. Indeed, the workers’ councils shut the entire country down three times. The first time was in protest of the Russian invasion, the second was when the Russians and Kádár attempted to prevent a national meeting of the workers’ councils, and the third was when Kádár tried to arrest two leaders of the councils, Sándor Rácz and Sándor Bali.

One report gives a flavor of their power:

Although the general strike is in being and there is no industrial production, the workers are taking it upon themselves to keep essential services going, for purposes which they themselves determine and support. Workers’ councils in industrial districts have undertaken the distribution of essential goods and food to the population, in order to keep them alive. The coal miners are making daily allocations of just sufficient coal to keep the power stations going and supply the hospitals in Budapest and other large towns. Railway men organize trains to go to approved destinations for approved purposes.33

This period of dual power was unstable. It could not last, and it was not going to lead to a workers’ victory. The more time that passed, the more the councils felt the sting of the occupation, and the more that Kádár was able to consolidate his power. While the strikes were successful at shutting down production, they simply could not drive the Russian troops out of Hungary.

This was a country under siege, and it would take more than militancy to change that fact. Shortages of food, electricity, and the necessities of daily living eventually forced the workers back into production. The Hungarian working class was defeated by political isolation combined with military occupation, not by lack of unity or organization.

On January 6, the Csepel Workers’ Council, the largest and most militant of all the councils—representing 40,000 industrial workers—unanimously voted to dissolve itself. Their final statement read, “Events have prevented us from fulfilling our mandate. We have no other role than to carry out government orders. We cannot carry out orders that oppose our mandate…. It is our opinion that our continued existence would only help to deceive our members”34

The repression that followed defeat was severe. Imprisonment was the fate of many of the leaders of the movement. Nagy and Colonel Maléter were among those secretly executed. Thousands were allowed to flee to the West and others simply disappeared. Despite this, all was not for nothing. The governments that followed never felt confident enough to resuscitate the instruments of terror that existed prior to 1956. For what it was worth, Hungary became one of the least repressive states of the Eastern Bloc.

International response and the legacy of 1956

The Western ruling classes watched the events in Hungary with detached interest and did absolutely nothing. More accurately, the Western governments did nothing to assist the workers of Hungary. The U.S. State Department did send a telegram to Khrushchev through Tito on November 2, 1956 that read, “The government of the United States does not look with favor upon governments unfriendly to the Soviet Union on the borders of the Soviet Union.”35

Regarding the other Western powers, on October 29, six days after the uprising in Hungary, France, Britain, and Israel invaded Egypt—precipitating the Suez crisis. President Gamel Abdel Nasser had nationalized the Suez Canal in July, upsetting the British and their significant economic stake in it. After it was clear that the Russians were tied up in Hungary, British Prime Minister Anthony Eden contacted France and Israel to execute their own invasion.

The Hungarians called for assistance from the United Nations and Western governments. But it was in vain. The agreement between the Russians and the West predated their struggle. If the West would turn a blind eye to Hungary, the Russians would do the same in Egypt.

If Hungarians had faith in the Western powers, the Western powers did not return the sentiment. They knew that what was happening in Hungary was as dangerous to their own rule as it was to their Russian rivals. They feared the potential for genuine socialism more than the reality of Stalinism.

By organizing and executing a revolution from the bottom up, Hungarians had done more than any other force to expose the true nature of Russia and its Eastern satellites. If Hungary was a workers’ state, why would the workers rise up and form democratic institutions almost identical to those established by Russian workers in 1917? If Russia was actually a workers’ state, why would it so brutally repress other workers? These contradictions necessitated the outpouring of slander and lies about the Hungarian Revolution from communist parties internationally.

A political price accompanied Krushchev’s revelations and the Hungarian events. Thousands immediately left the communist parties in various countries. New groups were started—this is where the circle that founded the New Left Review in England has its roots—with the exodus of people like E. P. Thompson. Some moved to the right, and some just disappeared from politics. Altogether, 10,000 left the Communist Party in Britain alone during the following months.36

When one reads Peter Fryer’s Hungarian Tragedy, the bitterness of betrayal that weaves through his words is unmistakable:

The honest rank-and-file Communists, inside whose party the right of terror was in full force, saw their ideals and principles violated, their sacrifices abused, their faith in human beings rejected in favor of a soulless bureaucracy which mechanically copied the Soviet model and which stifled the creative initiative of a people who wanted to build Socialism. The honest Communists, inside and outside Rákosi’s jails saw their party brought into disrepute, their ideology made to stink in the nostrils of the common people to whose elevation they had dedicated their lives. No wonder they joined the people’s revolution; no wonder they helped to resist the Soviet invasion.37

Fryer joined the Communist Party of Great Britain at fifteen because he wanted to commit his life to fight for a better world. He was a member for fourteen years and a reporter for the Daily Worker for the last eight. He was sent to Hungary in October, after the first uprising and before the Soviet tanks came in on November 4, and reported on what he witnessed. His reports were censored and suppressed. He left the paper, and soon after was expelled from the party for the crime of telling the truth.

In the U.S. the one-two punch of Khrushchev’s speech and Hungarian repression resulted in a precipitous membership drop from 50,000 in the immediate postwar period to 3,000 after 1956.38 The group had fallen from political hegemony into relative obscurity. Among American Trotskyists, the Socialist Workers Party opposed the Russian intervention, but a faction that became the Workers World Party soon split in support of Soviet repression.39

The Hungarian Revolution also marked the first of a series of crises for state capitalism. The system lived on for thirty-five more years, and other Eastern European countries went through even more convulsions. Prague in 1968, Poland in 1970, and again in 1981, Berlin in 1989, then finally breathing its last breath with the fall of the Soviet Union in the summer of 1991.

Winston Smith, the main character in George Orwell’s 1984, in the end of the story “loved big brother.” Orwell was perpetuating the myth that totalitarian societies engender passive masses where all-encompassing governments are undefeatable. With the 1956 revolution, this myth was smashed once and for all. Hungarians not only did not love big brother; they tried to take him down.

In all societies where the drive to accumulate wealth is paramount, periodic economic crisis occurs, this is a dynamic built into the system. When there is crisis, the ruling class will often split, unsure of how to go forward. The openings provided by these splits allow space for struggles from below to foment, even under the most oppressive conditions.

What happened in Hungary has been repeated in many other countries, before and after, East and West: Paris 1871, Russia 1905, Germany 1918, Shanghai 1927, Portugal 1974, Iran 1979—in these countries, the industrial centers that regimes had created in their blind drive to accumulate were also the centers of resistance to those regimes. The working-class district of Csepel, Budapest, with its 40,000 industrial workers was not nicknamed “Red Csepel” by accident. It was this district that led the first national Hungarian workers’ uprising in 1919, and the second one in 1956. It was these workers who had the strongest councils and fought with the greatest resistance.

It is these organizations, workers’ councils in Hungary, soviets in Russia, shoras in 1979 Iran, cordones in Chile, which can lead the most awe-inspiring struggles. But they do much more than just lead amazing struggles: they contain the potential for a completely different type of society, a system of workers’ democracy, a socialist society. The final lesson from Hungary is that resistance is built into the capitalist system, regardless of its specific form, and with resistance humanity is given a potential to create socialism.

Dennis Kosuth is a member of the International Socialist Organization in Chicago.

1 Peter Fryer, Hungarian Tragedy (London: Dennis Dobson, 1956), 88. This is a quote from the 1949 constitution of the Hungarian People’s Republic.
2 Quoted in Melvin Lasky, The Hungarian Revolution (New York: Praeger, 1957), 104,

0. These are quotes from Radio Moscow.
3 Sheryl Gay Stolberg, “Bush sees Iraq echo in ’56 Hungary revolt,” New York Times, June 22, 2006.
4 Quoted in Chris Harman, Bureaucracy and Revolution in Eastern Europe (London: Pluto Press, 1974), 23. A quote from Churchill’s autobiography.
5 Tony Cliff, State Capitalism in Russia (London: Bookmarks, 1988), 166.
6 Harman, Bureaucracy and Revolution, 50.
7 Ygael Gluckstein, Stalin’s Satellites in Europe (Boston: Beacon Press, 1952), 42.
8 For an interview with Tony Cliff on state capitalism see “50 years of the International Socialist Tradition,” ISR issue 1, summer 1997,
9 George Mikes, The Hungarian Revolution (London: Andre Deutch, 1957), 52.
10 Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Cancer Ward (New York: Modern Library, 1983), 340.
11 Harman, 71.
12 Cliff, State Capitalism in Russia, 280.
13 The 1939 Hitler-Stalin non-aggression pact ended when Hitler invaded Russia in June 1941. Yugoslav Communist Party leader Tito led a partisan army to fight the German occupation of Yugoslavia. Because Tito came to power independently from the Russian army, he was reticent to become subservient to Russian economic interests, and openly criticized Stalin, resulting in his 1948 expulsion from the Cominform, a Soviet-dominated organization of Communist parties founded in 1947. To avoid similar scenarios in other Eastern Bloc countries, a series of trials were organized to purge potential “Titoists.”
14 Harman, 124.
15 Harman, 131.
16 Quoted in Lasky, 57.
17 Quoted in Ibid., 68.
18 Quoted in Ibid., 176.
19 Bill Lomax, Eyewitness in Hungary (Nottingham: Spokesman, 1980), 59. Excerpt by Dora Scarlett.
20 Lasky, 98. Statement of Borsod County Workers Council broadcast by Radio Free Miskolc.
21 Fryer, 51.
22 Harman, 140–41.
23 Leon Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution (London: Pluto Press, 1997), 223.
24 Lasky, 145. From a spokesman for the Borsod Workers Council and Student Parliament.
25 Harman, 146. Miklós Horthy was the fascist dictator of Hungary before his defeat in the Second World War.
26 Lasky, 120. Workers’ Council and Student Parliament of Borsod County.
27 Ibid., 233.
28 Ibid., 179. Statement by Janos Kádár broadcasted by Free Radio Kossuth.
29 Mikes, 140.
30 For more on the Tito-Stalin split, read Part III of Gluckstien’s Stalin’s Satellites in Europe.
31 Fryer, 34.
32 Quoted in Lomax, 177. ´
33 Quoted in Harman, 176.
34 Harman, 185.
35 “After Stalin,” interview with Gergely Pongracz, June 17, 1996,
36 Ian Birchall, Workers Against the Monolith (London: Pluto Press, 1974), 93.
37 Fryer, 8–9.
38 Edward Johanningsmeier, Forging American Communism (New Jersey: Princeton University, 1994), 344, 347.
39 Steven Millies, “What really happened in Hungary,” Workers World, November 9, 2006,

Back to top