Hungary 56 - The Myths and the Reality


The 25th anniversary of the workers’ rising in Hungary of October 1956 gives us the opportunity to demolish both the myth of reactionaries that it was simply a nationalist rising without any particular working class content, and that of the libertarians who blind themselves to its failure and to its reactionary national aspect in order to praise the councilist form it took. It also gives us the opportunity to draw some lessons for the class struggle today. These lessons apply not just to the workers of Poland and the rest of Eastern Europe, but to the entire world working class.


The Hungarian workers’ revolt of 1956 was the climax of a series of strikes and spontaneous revolts which had led to the crumbling of the Stalinist period of Russian imperialism. Even before Stalin’s death striking workers in Czechoslovakia had found themselves up against Russian guns (1952). After Stalin’s death in 1953 Eastern Europe was in turmoil. The spontaneous strike, turned uprising in East Berlin, strikes again in Czechoslovakia and in Hungary the biggest strikes since 1946, all emphasised to the Russian Politburo that more subtle policies would have to be used if Russia was going to keep control of her client states.

The result of the Politburo’s deliberations was the decision to abandon Stalin-style dictatorship in Eastern Europe for the “spirit of collective leadership”. The Hungarian Party leaders were summoned to Moscow’ and under the Kremlin’s orders Imre Nagy was made Prime Minister and allowed to introduce his “New Course”. The essence of the New Course was to stave off popular unrest by appeasing the peasants through de-collectivising the farms and a return to private agricultural capitalism; and by staving off working class opposition by improving living standards. This latter would be done by turning some of heavy industry over to the production of consumer goods. However, Nagy’s enthusiasm for his “Hungarian road to socialism” earned him the opposition of the Russian Politburo and the Stalinists in the Hungarian Communist Party leadership. In 1955 he was removed from office and expelled from the Party.

Meanwhile the working class of Eastern Europe continued to resist exploitation. Khrushchev’s speech denouncing Stalin in February 1956, aimed at obtaining a rapprochement with Tito and warding off further “unrest”, only awakened greater hopes of better things to come. While the middle class began to think of national independence and formed what today are called “dissident” groups, the working class demanded the promised improve­ments in their living standard and working conditions. In June a mass strike of Polish workers in Poznan was put down by the Polish Army. When news of the Polish strikes reached Hungary sympathy strikes spread throughout the country”. The Hungarian Communist Party (CP) prepared to buy off the workers with promises of reform. In July the Politburo had instructed Rakosi to resign, by 14th October Nagy was readmitted to the Party.

AVH Sparks off Revolt

The incident which sparked off the uprising was the shooting of unarmed demonstrators by the political police (AVH) outside the state radio station in Budapest. On the morning of 23rd October students and middle class intellectuals (university lecturers, journalists, etc.) had responded to the Petofi Circle’s call for a demonstration “to express... solidarity with our Polish brothers”. (News had just reached Hungary that in Poland Gomulka had replaced the Stalinist Rokossovski as 1st Secretary of the Communist Party.) By late afternoon the demonstration in Budapest had been joined by workers eager to hear the state monopoly of information being challenged and to listen to the Writers’ Union’s demands being broadcast. When it became clear that this wasn’t happening the AVH saw the crowd’s mounting anger and fired. This led to armed revolt.

During the night workers and students armed themselves (from arms and munitions factories and from weapons handed over by soldiers and police). By the next morning the Hungarian government had called on Russia to send troops stationed in Hungary to put down a “fascist” and “counter-revo1utionary” uprising. There is no doubt that the revolt was unplanned.

The Nationalist Myth

There is also no doubt that the middle class intellectuals’ opposition to the regime in Hungary was based on nationalism. The Petofi Circle itself took its name from an Hungarian poet’ of the nineteenth century national revolt against the Austrian Empire. Its slogan of solidarity with their “Polish brothers” was not the prole­tarian solidarity of an internationally exploited class in one country for the members of their own class in every other country. It was only the out­dated nationalist cry of sympathy from the Hungarian bourgeoisie for the Polish bourgeoisie whose common fate was to have their freedom curtailed by Russian imperialism.

The slogans of October 23rd didn’t recognise any Russian “brothers. “Freedom” they demanded was the freedom for “Hungarians” to manage their “own” economy and to make their “own” foreign policy independent of Russia In other words, this was the voice of Hungarian capitalism demanding that the profits produced by Hungarian workers be returned to the Hungarian state which should be free to dispose of them how it liked. There was no mention of freedom for the working class in Hungary, Poland or elsewhere - the freedom from exploitation which can only come by ending the system wage labour and production for profit instead of producing goods directly for people’s needs.

The Strength of Nationalism

How do we explain the fact that Hungarian workers fought and died in their thousands in an uprising dominated by bourgeois nationalist political aims?

In the first place the Hungarian workers, like workers elsewhere, didn’t realise that socialism is incompatible with nationalism. There was no revolutionary organisation in Hungary to explain that the fight against imperialism can only be successful when it is part of an international workers’ struggle against capitalism everywhere. Nagy the reformist politician whom the workers rallied behind, thought it was possible to pursue a “Hungarian road to socialism” - a national path which could be followed independently of Russia or America.

Secondly, the Hungarian working class didn’t understand that the political system in Eastern Europe had nothing to do with communism.

Influenced by Titoism in Yugoslavia, Hungarian workers believed that the Stalinist system could be reformed into becoming socialist. Again, the was no revolutionary organisation to point out that the self-management set-up in Yugoslavia hides the fact that the working class remains exploited. Whether in Stalin’s Russia Rakosi’s Hungary or Titoist Yugoslavia, wage labour and therefore production for profit remains. While under private capitalism the profits. produced by workers’ surplus labour power goes to the individual capitalist in Eastern Europe (and other so-called socialist states) they are appropriated by the State. But state ownership of industry when the workers do not have control of the state doesn’t mean socialism exists. It means that the system i.e. state capitalist. In 1917 the Russian working class, under the leadership of the Bolshevik Party, had taken state power only to lose it again due to the isolation which followed the failure of the working class revolts in the West (1919-21). One of the biggest myths that today’s revolutionaries have to combat is the myth that Russia is still communist. In 1956 there was no revolutionary party to do this in Hungary and consequently the workers remained confused about where their real interests lay and how to push their struggle forward. Not surprisingly, the political aims of the middle class remained dominant.

Proletarian Internationalism

The practical consequences of this were tragic. When Russian troops moved in to crush the revolt Hungary’s workers didn’t follow a policy of revolutionary defeatism. They didn’t appeal to the class solidarity of Russian soldiers and they didn’t employ a systematic policy off fraternisation. Only by winning over their fellow workers in uniform and by appealing for the working class for the enemy army to revolt against their own rulers can the working class ever hope to make their revolution succeed. The fact that many instances of spontaneous fraternisation between Russian troops and Hungarian insurgents did occur only emphasises this point. Once Russian soldiers found they were fighting “ordinary workers” and not quelling a fascist uprising they were reluctant to fight. How much more effective might a policy of fraternisation from the start have been! As one Russian explained, “It’s hard not to fire back when you’re being shot at from all sides.” As it was, the Russian government was aware of the danger (from its point of view) of fraternisation and the reality of desertions. During the second round of fighting they brought in two divisions of “uncontaminated Orientals” to lessen the risk of fraternisation. Even so, there were reports of Russian troops being sent home in sealed trains.

For want of their own political leadership, the Hungarian workers didn’t exploit this situation to the full. The seeds of a revolutionary defeatist policy evident in quotations like the one above and in that of the Hungarian worker who said:

I found myself shooting at bewildered Ukrainian peasant boys who had as much reason to hate what we fought as we had ... It was an embittering shock to find that one can’t confront the real enemy even in a revolution

did not grow into a more general policy of internationalism. Instead proletarian internationalism means don’t fight the tanks but fraternise with the workers inside them to turn the imperialist invasion into class war.

The Hungarian workers’ resistance to imperialism and exploitation became more and more couched in nationalist slogans and the incidences of fraternisation declined. Thousands of workers lost their lives, not in the name of the proletarian world revol­ution but for the sake of Nagy - a loyal member of the ruling class and a state capitalist who naively imagined that Russia would allow its Hungarian satellite to leave the Warsaw Pact and return to the multi-party system of liberal democracy.

Basis of Workers’ Struggle

This does not mean that ‘Hungary 56’ had no positive proletarian content.

The working class is motivated to act from material reasons, not merely from abstract notions like freedom. Above all, it was the continuing brutality and massive exploitation of Stalinism which led to the 1956 revolt.

In 1956 Hungarian workers were actually worse off than they had been in 1949. One “National-Democratic” opposition group which emerged after the uprising calculated on the basis of official statistics that the standard of living of Hungarian workers in 1956 was 17% below that of 1949. In 1956 55% of Hungarian families lived below the official “minimum standard of living”. The daily pay of a state farm worker would not buy a kilo of bread; in l5% of families not every member had a blanket to sleep under and 20% of workers did not have a winter coat.

When the Hungarian revolt finally broke out workers’ own demands - ­ for example, for higher wages and an end to the notorious piece-work system - appeared alongside the nationalist ones. To fight for these demands the workers had to create their own organs of struggle - factory committees and workers’ councils. The first factory committee appeared at the Incandescent Light Factory in Budapest soon after the fighting began. Within a week factory committees had been formed in all the major industrial centres in Hungary and by 29th October they were beginning to link up and send delegates to form local workers’ councils.

The Councilist Myth

Workers’ councils (or soviets) are the basis of proletarian democracy. composed of delegates who are elected directly by the workers on the shop ­floor and who can be recalled by them at any time, workers’ councils are the organs by which the working class will wield political power once the capitalist state machine has been broken. This last point is very important. For anarchists and councilists the very existence of workers’ councils in Hungary is said to prove there was “a revolution.”

Yet we have already seen that the working class (like the libertarians themselves) did not recognise the Hungarian and Russian system for what it is - state capitalism. They thought socialism could be won by reforming the existing system - by decentralising, rather than over­throwing the existing state. Thus, although factory committees and local councils remained in existence after the second Russian attack, and despite a month-long strike in Budapest, the councils’ leaders stressed their “non-political” function. In other words, they denied that the councils had any intention of challenging the power of the Hungarian state. The Hungarian workers’ struggle was doomed to peter out in the name of self-management and free trade unions. Already thousands of workers had died for a “reformed” Hungarian state capitalism, in future months many more would experience the hardships of prolonged strikes, arrest and imprisonment in the belief that winning the right to elect their bosses and form trade unions separate from the official unions would be a step towards socialism.

The Russian Army dealt gently with the councils until the strike in Budapest lost its momentum and while the puppet government of Kadar strengthened its grip. In return for sticking to their “non-political” demands the Russian Army co-operated with the councils and treated them as a stabilising force until ‘order’ was restored. For example, lists of names of council executive members were given to the Russian Army so that any of these who were arrested could be released, under Russian instructions. At the beginning of December the Central Council of Budapest even appealed to the Russian government against Kadar’s attempts to force the council to dissolve!

The leaders of the Council could only have taken this step because they believed Russia was socialist. Need­less to say the Russians did not intervene to protect the councils from Kadar. To add confusion upon confusion the Budapest Central Council decided secretly to convene a national council which would act as a “workers’ parliament” until the 1st anniversary of the uprising when elections to a National Assembly would be held - on a multi-party basis!

These were not the actions of organisations which were preparing to overthrow capitalism or that they had already done so. They only show that the councils didn’t really know why they existed and how much they became sucked into the nationalist whirlpool.

The Myths

Contrary to the libertarian myth, a recipe of unplanned insurrection and no political party to lead the class led to a blood bath in which workers mistakenly thought they were fighting for socialism but where in fact they fought and died for bourgeois nationalism and the introduction of a more liberal form of capitalism. It was not just the Russian Army which crushed the Hungarian workers, but their lack of awareness as to where their real interests lay. Above all, “Hungary 56” shows that without an organised political leadership the creation of workers’ councils alone does not lead automatically to revolution.

We can’t condemn the Hungarian working class for this lack or class consciousness 25 years ago. Nor are we waiting for the emergence of a “pure” revolutionary movement, for the working class to become completely “uncontaminated” by bourgeois ideas. Every revolution begins with an uneasy contradiction between proletarian actions and bourgeois ideas. What assures the victory of the former over the latter is the activity of the communist minority within the working class. In Hungary in 1956 ,there was no communist minority since the present world crisis had not begun. Following the Second World War capitalism was booming and the political confusions of the counter­revolution still held unchallenged sway amongst the working class. The conditions for the growth of a revol­utionary party had not matured. Russia was able to buy off any more serious unrest among her satellites until 1968 by making concessions in the way of further de-collectivisation, better trade terms, etc., which allowed gradual improvements in living standards. After the Prague Spring unrest in Hungary was staved off by the introduction of a form of workers’ self-management in the factories.

What Hungarian workers had struggled for unsuccessfully against the Kadar government 25 years ago was introduced by the same government as a “reform” after 1968. In Poland today Solidarity has diverted the workers’ struggle into one of “free trade unions” and “workers’ self-management of production”. But neither of these measures can or will prevent Polish or Hungarian workers from feeling the effects of the crisis, from experiencing austerity. Today the Russian state is forced to bail out the Polish economy even though this means spreading Poland’s crisis throughout the Warsaw Pact countries. More than ever before the world working class, in both Eastern and Western blocs, is experiencing the same drop in living standards, the same change in material circumstances which is the basis for international revolution. It remains for revolutionaries to return the lessons of the past to the service of the working class. We must ensure that in the coming world struggle the working class is clear about how to make their revolution. Let the Hungarian workers’ revolt of 1956 stand as testimony that today we understand:

  • Russia is not communist.
  • Nationalism and socialism are incompatible. In East or West the workers’ struggle is the same international class struggle. “The workers have no fatherland” (Marx).
  • The working class must form its own political party to lead the revolution.
  • The State must be smashed - it cannot be reformed in the workers’ interests. The only real workers’ control is the dictatorship of the proletariat.

Key Events in Hungary 1953-56

  • 1953 June 48 hr strike of 20,000 steelworkers at Matyas Rakosi ironworks is biggest strike since 1946.
  • 1953-1955 Nagy replaces Rakosi as P.M. Introduces New Course to try and buy off working Class discontent.
  • April 1955 Nagy sacked.
  • 1956 June News of Poznan riots in Poland reaches Hungary - wave of strikes and demonstrations by Hungarian workers and students.
  • Oct 23rd Student demonstrations lead to fighting. Hungarian government calls in Russian troops.
  • Oct 24/25th Strikes begin and factory committees formed. Radio stations in provinces seized. Nagy appointed P.M., Kadar - First Secretary of Communist Party. In Parliament Square spontaneous fraternisation between Russian troops and workers ends in massacre.
  • Oct 26th Heavy fighting throughout Hungary. Newly-formed “National Council of Trade Unions” publishes its demands, including the withdrawal of Russian troops, the formation of a “broad government under Nagy” and “workers’ management”.
  • Oct 29th Soviet troops begin to withdraw. Factory committees linking up into workers’ councils.
  • Oct 30th Nagy announces abolition of one-party system.
  • Oct 31st Budapest “Parliament of Workers’ Councils” meets. Issues nine-­point statement on self-management in the factories.
  • Nov 1st Nagy announces Hungary’s withdrawal from Warsaw Pact and appeals to U.N. to protect “Hungarian neutrality”.
  • Nov4th Soviet troops attack Budapest, bringing back Kadar as new boss.
  • Nov 5-11th Working class areas offer strongest resistance to invasion and are last to be crushed.
  • Nov 12th Ujpest workers’ council issues call for central workers’ council and free trade unions.
  • Nov 21st Russian Army prevents meeting of “National Workers’ Council”. 48 hr protest strike in Budapest.
  • Dec 1st-7th 1200 delegates of factory committees and workers’ councils arrested. Delegation from Budapest Central Workers’ Council asks for Russian help against Kadar.
  • Dec 8th Budapest Central Workers’ Council meets secretly to discuss formation of National Workers’ Council.
  • Dec 9th Majority of Central Workers’ Council delegates arrested. Government bans Budapest Council. In Salgotarjan Russian Army fires on ‘striking miners.
  • Dec 11th Government arrests two of remaining Budapest Council delegates when they turn up for “discussions” with Government. Protest strike begins.
  • Dec 12th/13th Government declares state of emergency. All meetings and demonstrations banned. ‘Order’ re-established in Budapest, though strikes sit-ins and demands for workers’ control continue throughout 1957.
Workers Voice Autumn 1981

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