Béla Kun and the Hungarian Soviet Republic

Our latest translation from the journal Kommunist is of an article by Béla Kun. It is a lucid and perceptive analysis of the relationship between Austria-Hungary, and its more powerful German ally at the end of the First World War. However it is not clear how much of a “proletarian” or “Left” communist Béla Kun was. He only contributed two articles to Kommunist (he wrote a lot more for Pravda [1] at this time) and both articles were on the crisis of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (the Dual Monarchy of the title) at the end of the First World War. The first of them, from Kommunist 2, is reproduced below (translated from the book La Revue Kommunist (Editions Smolny) by a comrade of Klasbatalo). There is a certain irony that the future leader of the first soviet republic to be formed after the one in Russia should provide an analysis of some of the factors which, less than a year later, would lead to the establishment of the Hungarian Soviet Republic. As the translation’s appearance coincides with the centenary of that event we should add a few words about it and the author of this piece.

Béla Kohn was born on 20 February 1886 in Transylvania (now in Romania) and became a journalist supporting the Hungarian Social Democratic Party. He “magyarised” his surname to Kun in 1904 in common with many of Jewish heritage at that time under pressure from the Austro-Hungarian Empire to “assimilate”. Called up to fight in the First World War, he was taken prisoner by the Russians in 1916. In a POW camp in the Urals he now began to read about communism and joined the Bolsheviks. Shortly before writing the article below he had founded the “Hungarian Group” of the Russian Communist Party (Bolshevik) with other former POWs, many of whom he had recruited himself through his skill as a speaker, a factor which impressed Lenin when he met him at that time. With the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in November 1918 he returned to Budapest with several hundred others of his group.

The newly formed state of Hungary, like much of the rest of Europe, was already on the brink of revolution. It had arisen from the collapse of the Habsburg Empire of Austria-Hungary which had been unable to conduct a modern war in a context of rising national and social unrest. There had been a series of strikes against the war from 1915 on. In Hungary workers had already set up workers councils by June 1918 in imitation of the Russian model, and the further economic collapse which accompanied the political demise of the old order helped to radicalise more and more of the working class. Kun quickly formed the Hungarian Communist Party, founded a paper and launched a class attack on the liberal/Social Democratic coalition government of Count Károlyi. This had only come to power due to the pressure from the working class but it proved no better at dealing with the crisis than the parties of the reactionary landlords. Kun was soon arrested, and beaten up in gaol, but observers noted at the time this did not halt the strikes and protests which only intensified. The final straw for the Károlyi Government was that the Entente powers (headed by France) suddenly decided to cut Hungarian territory even further than envisaged in the original treaty. Károlyi resigned, and with workers on strike and in the streets, the Social Democrats now came to negotiate with Kun in his cell. He held all the cards but played them badly. Instead of insisting on the separateness of his growing Communist Party, he formed a joint organisation with the Social Democrats (telling a concerned Lenin not to worry since he was in control) and set up a Soviet government which only had 4 Communists amongst its 13 ministers. During its short spell in power the Soviet Government issued over 500 decrees but by allowing the Social Democrats (who were all the time secretly negotiating with the Entente powers and waiting for the soviet republic to falter) to be part of the government he failed to expose their reactionary character. This left the way open for the Social Democrats to stab the Soviet Republic in the back when the military situation shifted against the soviets.

Kun was also convinced that the Bolshevik Revolution had been too timid, and was determined to establish “socialism” without reference to the real balance of class forces in Hungary. He passed a land reform which basically tried to turn the old latifundia of the “agrarians” (Kun mentions them in the article below) into communes. But this overlooked the fact that, unlike their Russian counterparts, Hungarian peasants had no tradition of such organisations and simply wanted land. In fact what often happened was that the old landlord remained on his estate and became director of the “commune”. The Hungarian Soviet government also aroused the incredulity of Lenin when they wasted time and energy on nationalising the theatres and other expressions of the arts.

More successful was the founding of an effective Red Army, which even managed to enter Slovakia, and set up a short-lived Soviet Republic there. Eventually, however, when the Romanians refused to honour a deal Kun made with the Entente, and did not retreat from Hungarian territory, he launched an attack. The Romanians retreated to pre-prepared defensive positions from where they launched a counter-attack which brought down the Soviet Republic. It had only lasted 133 days. Kun had hoped that the Soviet Republic in Russia would be able to come to his aid, but in 1919 the Russians were themselves under threat thus were in no position to aid their class comrades in Hungary.

After that a White Terror, led by Admiral Horthy, led to the deaths of some 5000 workers (ten times the number killed by Tibor Szamuely’s “Lenin Boys” in their earlier “Red Terror” when putting down a counter-revolutionary coup), Kun returned (via prison in Vienna) to Russia. However his association with the “proletarian” or left communists in March-April 1918 does not seem to have survived his experience in Hungary. In 1920 he achieved notoriety for his part in the killing of some 60,000 White Russians in the Crimea who had surrendered on the promise of being spared.

He then worked for the Communist International where he became a follower of its leader, Zinoviev, and his theory of the Permanent Offensive. He attempted to carry this policy out in the disastrous March Action in Germany in 1921. For his part in this catastrophe he was roundly condemned by Lenin as a “radical leftist” (this was in a letter to his mentor, Zinoviev!) for his “bêtises” (stupidities) but remained a Comintern operative. Impatient radical Kun may have been but there is no indication in any of his writings published in English that he shared the other left communists' concerns about the growth of state capitalism in the RSFSR or the stifling of the initiative of the working class in that period. Indeed he wrote in 1923 that “the power of the Soviets is alive and strong to-day” and the reason for this was not the self-activity of the working class but “lies first of all in the close organization of the Party” and its “iron discipline”. [2] Kun was thus already (in 1923) part of the myth-making of the ideal of the Stalinist Party. It was to be a costly choice.

He opposed the adoption of the Popular Front in 1935 and the infighting amongst Hungarian communists at the time led to them all to label each other as “Trotskyists”. This, alongside his previous support for Zinoviev, probably sealed Kun’s fate. He was arrested in 1937 and never seen again.

Notes to the Introduction

[1] For his articles in English see marxists.org

[2] See: marxists.org

Abroad: Inside the Dual Monarchy

MILITARY FORCES ARE CURRENTLY REGROUPING inside the Austro-Hungarian monarchy: troops are being dispatched from the Italian front to Prague, Budapest and Vienna. Austro-Hungarian imperialism, having feverishly awaited the opportunity to send its armies from the eastern front to Italy, must now fight on new fronts by force of circumstance. Its capacity for aggression long gone, it fights only because it has to. The State apparatus is relinquishing its functions on the eve of its complete disintegration, with certain elements no longer acting coherently. And thus Austro-Hungarian imperialism’s hands are tied on both fronts, internally and externally.

All government-led offensives of the united dual monarchy, within the country or beyond its borders, have been driven back in an impotent retreat. It was the stronger, more active German imperialism that forced the government of Emperor Karl [1] to carry out military offensives; within the country the last planned offensive became a defensive operation. And both were already beyond its powers.

The government crisis in Austria and Hungary, the resignation of Czernin [2] and Wekerle [3] are above all the consequence of the disintegration of the state apparatus, unable even to fullfil its commitments to Germany, the strongest imperialism.

All changes within the government participate in the attempt to conserve the monarchy's apparatus, even in its helplessness – deregulated and ready to break down – in trying to reshape it at any cost.

Austro-Hungarian capitalism, in a state of decomposition even before the war, had no perspective, because it was already supported by foreign capital. Before the war, Germany had easily expanded its sphere of influence on the back of the dual monarchy. German capital alone had invested four billion marks in Austria and one and a half billion in Hungary before the war. In addition to these five and a half billion marks from Germany, France invested two billion francs; the Hungarian railways were financed by English capital; even American capital attracted by high profits had begun to invest more and more often in the Hungarian market notwithstanding the risks that were almost as high as in the Turkish market. Thus, the capital invested in Austria-Hungary by the Entente powers was comparable to German capital.

German hegemony in Austria was not determined by the volume of capital invested, but by Germany's favourable geographical location and imperialist superiority.

German capital has invested mainly in military companies and loans.

Its aggressive character became evident long before the war. With each new loan, the vice tightened around Austro-Hungarian imperialism, which once claimed autonomy and dominance through its customs policy. In compensation for every million marks invested in Austria, Germany demanded the signing of new military agreements, extended its influence into new territories and appropriated new sources of raw materials. This aggressive German policy towards Austria and its internal affairs can be illustrated by the classic example of Wilhelm’s intervention, which caused a long parliamentary obstruction by the Hungarian petty bourgeoisie trying to achieve its "national aspirations", which then ended in the refusal to vote military credits.

This was also confirmed by the monopolisation of Transylvania's rich gas fields by the "Deutsche Bank" despite the more advantageous offers of British and American capitalists.

As for English capital, it mainly financed the local Hungarian railways owned by public limited companies. So therefore, it could not exert much influence on the internal affairs of the dual monarchy. French capital invested two billion francs in government bonds. It was easier to deal with French capital because it never asked for high profits or sought rewards in industry or agriculture.

Sympathies towards France in certain influential Hungarian circles led by Count Károlyi [4], and even the propaganda of alliance between France, Russia and Hungary, can be explained mainly by the aggressive policy of Austro-German capital. However, from a military point of view, friendship with French capital came up against a serious obstacle that ultimately ensured the domination of German capital. It was over competition with French capital in the Balkans, mainly in Serbia.

This competition has forced Austrian entrepreneurs into an alliance with the Hungarian agrarians. [5] Although their interests were opposed in the Balkans, they tried to act in perfect harmony.

The memorable conflict of customs protectionism between Serbia and Austria-Hungary [6], the first fruits of the bloody global tragedy, which lasted from 1906 to 1911 except for a 7-month respite, was very profitable for Hungarian landowners. The absence of Serbian agricultural products on the Austro-Hungarian market for five years increased the price of products from the latifundia of the Hungarian agrarians. On the other hand, Austro-Hungarian capitalists lost the Serbian arms market: 45 million crowns that France has taken over.

German capital also expanded its influence because, during the customs conflict between Austria and Serbia and the latter's annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina [7], the French stock exchange flooded the monarchies with Austrian bonds hitherto held towards it.

All in all, German capitalism bolstered its influence. Under such conditions, the idea of an alliance in Central Europe was dreaded by Austria-Hungary. The war and the colossal expenses involved only tightened the noose with which German imperialism dragged behind in its triumphal chariot, its young colleague – or rather, much smaller brigand.

The current war has revived all the issues that had long been buried in Austria and which Hungary had resolved in barbaric manner, through police coercion. All the discontent arising from the oppression of the masses, but hidden to an extent by the bourgeoisies of the different ethnic groups, oppressed and oppressive – Hungarian, Polish, Czech, Slovak, Romanian, Ukrainian – and which they have tried to disguise with nationalist ideology, explodes, dealing a hard blow to the ailing organ of the state, which was finding it increasingly difficult to solve its own insoluble problems.

In this country exhausted by the length of the war, capitalism can no longer satisfy all its demands or solve all the questions it raises. Even at the beginning of the Brest-Litovsk talks, famine and the lack of raw materials took on a cataclysmic form. The Austrian krone's price has been aligned with that of the Russian rouble. Even Germany, called upon to help, has driven down the Austrian krone to cheaply supply itself with Hungarian agricultural products.

Attacked from all sides (from without, within and below), the state apparatus of the monarchies was unable to carry out "prison socialism", the policy that Germany had so well conducted.

The Emperor's letter – shown to be a lie on the matter of the Alsace-Lorraine – and on the double-dealing of the "pacifist" Czernin are both the result of pressure from all sides on the Austro-Hungarian government. [8] They are beginning to rattle the weakest of the European powers whose capitalist apparatus is most incapable of any resistance.

The ministerial crisis is grasping at straws in its feverish attempt to keep capitalist Austria-Hungary, already condemned, alive.

The Viennese newspaper Arbeiter Zeitung, a supporter of the idea of the "great Austrian power" and Austro-Hungarian capitalism, paints dark prospects for the sinister future of the monarchies: the official organ of Austrian and German social democracy offers the proletariat only the rescue of the monarchy as an alternative means of salvation against all the incredible evils and barbarity resulting from the war. We hope that the Austrian proletariat will disapprove of the policies of the party's leaders and will not struggle to save capitalism. [9]

The Austro-Hungarian army, already having its doubts, is tired of war. This was already revealed in 1915 when Brusilov [10] managed to push it back to the Carpathians where German troops had stopped it. [11] But the army could still maintain order inside the country as long as the proletariat did not spontaneously rebel in all regions. Hungarian troops barbarically repressed demonstrations by the Czech proletariat demanding peace and bread, while in Budapest, Czech troops got back at the Hungarians; in Croatia the insurrection of the poor was repressed by the Austrian troops in Linz and Vienna.

With the deepening of capitalism’s decomposition, all these seemingly isolated demonstrations are becoming increasingly widespread. At the same time, the army is breaking down. Now, of the entire army, only four Tyrolean regiments remain reliable. The others are afflicted by the revolutionary contagion which has taken on the character of a real epidemic.

We cannot free ourselves from the evils and barbarism enflamed through war by following recommendations of the official journal of Austrian social democracy. This would be to avoid Charybdis in order to fall into Scylla, to replace one imperialism with another. The proletariat understands this despite all the efforts of its great leaders. That is why, at a time when the edifice of capitalism is threatening to collapse, it will try to preserve itself rather than the bourgeois state. It will leave the salvation of the "homeland" to those who wish to perpetuate the misfortune of the masses.

Naive were those who represented the international revolution as a solidarity strike in the early days of the Russian revolution, during the days of the "honeymoon" of the bourgeois and proletarian leaders of the time. The Russian revolution and a foreign policy of the dictatorship of the proletariat based on international revolution: that is the reality.

Austro-Hungarian capitalism, in breaking down, is no longer able to subdue the masses; it is unable to put up any real resistance. It is too weak to compete with the forces driving the proletariat to insurrection. This weakness is further aggravated by the fact that the bourgeoisie of all the dissatisfied ethnic groups which promote the disintegration of monarchies, aids the proletariat.

The bourgeoisies of the dominant and oppressed ethnic groups still have enough time to agree on how to prevent proletarian insurrection. But the crisis is brewing within the Austro-Hungarian monarchy. This is the first sign of the reality of the international revolution ripening within the Austro-Hungarian proletariat. The revolution cannot be triggered by external pressure, but once it has matured, it can no longer be suppressed. In no way do we share the fear that the Prussian soldier will crush the revolution.

Béla Kun


[1] Karl Franz-Josef of HABSBURG-LORRAINE (1887-1922): last emperor of Austria (22 Nov. 1916 - 12 Nov. 1918).

[2] Count von Czernin, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Austria-Hungary since December 22, 1916, resigned on April 14, 1918 as a result of the "Sixtus Affair": In March 1917 Emperor Charles had more or less considered the possibility of a negotiated peace with the French government through negotiations with the Belgian Prince Sixtus of Bourbon-Parma, arguing that he considered the restitution of Alsace-Lorraine legitimate. These secret approaches did not succeed, particularly because of Czernin's policy. On April 2, 1918, the latter gave a speech to the Vienna town council where he welcomed the alliance with Germany, then in the midst of an offensive, and where he was reckless enough to suggest that Clemenceau had made him peace offers. The latter retaliated by arguing that it was Austria, on the contrary, which since 1917 had been trying approaches in this direction and then made public a handwritten statement of 24 March 1917 in which Emperor Charles suggested that "if Germany refused to go down the path of reason, he would be forced to abandon his alliance to make a separate peace with the Entente". Faced with the crisis caused by Czernin's "fault" which made public the Emperor's duplicity towards Germany, Charles I had to publish a refutation that ended up placing Austria under the Reich's dependence.

[3] Sándor WEKERLE (1848-1921): Hungarian politician, Hungarian Prime Minister on three occasions (1892-1895, 1906-1910 and 1917-1918), moderately reformist but largely manipulated by the Conservatives, resigned on 17 April 1918, he trained a new coalition government with István Tisza (1861-1918), opposing any extension of the electorate.

[4] Count Mihály Károlyi de Nagykároly (1875-1955): Hungarian aristocrat and politician, supporter of national autonomy for Hungary, he was President of the Hungarian Democratic Republic in 1918-1919.

[5] Social movement for the defence of rural interests, which originated in the first half of the 19th century.

[6] This customs dispute (known as “the Pig War”) had used the ban on the import of pigs from Serbia as a pretext to protect the interests of Hungarian landowners.

[7] This annexation was formalized on October 5, 1908.

[8] On this "crisis" see note 2 above

[9] The Austrian Social Democratic Party, under the leadership of Victor ADLER (1852-1918), had joined in August 1914 under the banner of German militarism and the impotent Austro-Hungarian monarchy of Franz Joseph in the name of... defending the achievements of the working class! Victor Adler's own son, Friedrich ADLER (1879-1960), in opposition to party policy, assassinated, the Prime Minister Count Stürgkh on 21 October 1916 , who he believed was responsible for the continuation of the war and the suffocation of the parliament. The Social Democratic Party had the lowliness to condemn this act of "individual terrorism". Victor Adler went so far as to plead before the Psychiatric Disorders Court to excuse his son's action, even though he was proclaiming its political significance. Sentenced to death, then to 18 years of fortress, Friedrich Adler was finally pardoned by the revolution in 1918.

[10] Alexei Alexevich BRUSILOV (1853-1926): Russian general, famous commander during the First World War, joined the Soviet power during the civil war.

[11] Brusilov was then commander of the 8th Russian army on the southwest front in Galicia. He pushed the Austrians over 150 kilometres before having to turn back from the summer of 1915, partly in view of the defeats suffered elsewhere by the Russian army. Ironically, Brusilov commanded some of the most important future white generals in his army: Denikin, Kaledin and Kornilov!

Thursday, April 18, 2019