Hungary 1956

A risen people – against Stalinism, for workers’ democracy

Norma Prendiville, Militant Irish Monthly, Dec. 1986

On the evening of October 23rd 1956 in Budapest, a crowd attacked the huge Stalin statue in one of the city’s main squares. They threw ropes and steel cables around it and pulled and tugged until the head came off.

A huge roar of approval went up. Soon the whole body of the statue crashed to the ground. Only the hollow boots remained on the stand. The head was cast aside. Later, someone hung an old street sign on it which read ‘Dead End’.

This singular act of defiance signalled the opening events of what was to become known as the Hungarian Revolution – a mass movement of workers, youth, soldiers and peasants against a regime which reigned through terror, bureaucracy and national oppression, symbolised by the 50-foot high Stalin statue.

It was not, as Communist Party apologists throughout the world claimed, a movement inspired and led by ‘fascists, reactionaries and counter-revolutionaries’. Neither, as many Western commentators claimed, was it a movement to return to capitalism and free enterprise. Rather it was an heroic struggle against enormous odds and at a very heavy cost in lives to establish genuine socialism in Hungary – and for a brief period of weeks it succeeded.

At about the same time as the events around the Stalin monument, a crowd of demonstrators made their way to the radio building. They wanted to get a list of 16 demands broadcast and made known to the government. A delegation went inside. An hour or more passed and still the delegation had not returned. The crowd grew uneasy. A broadcasting van appeared and in view of the crowd an announcer began to speak their demands into a microphone. People in nearby flats turned on their radios to hear better but only light music was coming over the air. The whole thing was a hoax to fool the demonstrators.

Angered, the crowd moved forward towards the 500 AVO men (secret police) who guarded the building. Tear gas was thrown and then the police opened fire into the unarmed crowd. Inside the building, a radio worker telephoned a friend to cancel an appointment because, he said, “the revolution has started.”

Within hours fighting had broken out in many parts of the city. An army unit, the First Motorised Regiment – sent to restore order at the radio building – refused to take action against the crowd and handed over their weapons. Police headquarters were taken over. Truckloads of arms and ammunition arrived from the munitions factories in Csepel, the city’s industrial area.

Armed workers

The authorities reeled and panicked under the impact of fast-moving events. How could a demonstration which began peacefully enough end up unleashing an insurrection of armed workers and youth? The answer was to be found only in an understanding of what had been simmering under the surface of Hungarian society for many years. The Stalinist regime had been established in Hungary with the collapse of the fascist dictatorship under Horthy and the defeat of the Nazi armies at the end of World War 2.

The liberation of the country by Stalin’s Red Army left the army in control and able to head off any independent movement of the working class. The land, the mines, the factories were all brought under state ownership and a plan of production established, enabling considerable economic progress to be made. 4.5 million acres of land were distributed among 400,000 peasant families. Advances were made in education, culture and public health. Reconstruction went ahead. Living standards continued to rise until 1949.

But power lay not with the workers and peasants, but firmly within the bureaucratic hands of the Communist Party, under Rakosi, and under the total control of the Kremlin. Corruption and mismanagement were rife. “Under Communism, we should have a share in governing Hungary”, said one Red Star Tractor worker, “but instead we’re the poorest people in the country. We’re just regarded as factory fodder.”

Moreover, in order to maintain the regime, an extensive network of spies, of surveillance and of repression was developed by the AVO, the secret police. The AVO men (as they were called), numbered 30,000 and led privileged lives in rent-free flats, shopped in special subsidised stores, had their own luxury holiday village and were paid up to 11 times the average wage. Their headquarters had its own torture rooms and punishment cells and personal files on over a million people. When their offices were sacked, four rooms were found to be full of confiscated letters from abroad. They were feared and loathed by the people.

Against this background of bureaucratism, of mismanagement, of compulsion and of fear, demands for greater freedom began to emerge in early 1956. Encouraged by Stalin’s death and the promise of a new departure under Khrushchev, the new Soviet leader, students and writers at first articulated protest against the regime. The Petofi Circle which organised them held meetings first of hundreds, then of thousands.

Enormous courage

Their demands became increasingly political and they called a demonstrations for October 23rd as a peaceful show of solidarity with the Polish workers. (The Polish workers had shown enormous courage in defying the same bureaucratic and oppressive regime as existed in Hungary. Moscow, in an attempt to stave of the movement of workers from below, had moved successfully to bring in limited reform from the top, and installed Gomulka in power.)

Tens of thousands of workers and youth turned out in Budapest and enthusiastically cheered and applauded the demands read out by the students which, among other things, they demanded:

  1. Withdrawal of Soviet troops.
  2. All party positions to be elected through secret ballot.
  3. New elections to be called with an end to the one-party system.
  4. All the criminal leaders of the Stalin-Rakosi era to be removed.
  5. A new government under Imre Nagy to be formed. (Imre Nagy was a communist who had suffered under Rakosi. He was seen as a ‘more liberal and honest’ communist and as such enjoyed support.)
It was then that the news came of the killing of unarmed men, women and children by the AVO at the Radio building. The pent-up anger and hatred of years was unleashed and the workers turned on the hated AVO men and demanded that Nagy be installed in the government. The following morning however, was to see two new and decisive developments - Russian tanks in the streets of Budapest and the workers on strike.

In one of his last acts as First Party Secretary, Erno Gero, had called on the assistance of Soviet troops. In the early hours, tanks trundled through the streets to be met with the fiercest resistance.

Whole sections of the Hungarian Army had by now come over to the side of the insurgents. Vullian Barracks, of strategic importance, was under the command of Pal Maleter. (Maleter was an officer in the Hungarian Army whose decision to side with the revolutionaries was decisive.)

The entire Budapest police force came over to the side of the revolution. Small groups, armed with rifles and grenades, were formed and took over strategic positions. A Revolutionary High Command was set up with Maleter in command. Men and women attacked and disabled tanks, often with only a grenade. Youngsters from 12 years upwards volunteered for service or formed their won units. Girls and boys of 12 and 13 showed particular skill at making ‘Molotov’ cocktails and great ingenuity at disabling tanks. In one square, a group of youths requisitioned bales of silk from a local shop, spread them across the street and smeared them with oil. The tanks spun helplessly, unable to move forward or back. Liquid soap was also used with similar results. According to one eye-witness, "As the tanks became immobilised, daring youngsters darted forward below the arc of fire and daubed jam over the tanks glass panels." Many scrambled over tanks to ensure the grenades met their target. Hundreds of tanks were disabled or wrecked in this way.

Resistance increased

Appalled by the enormity of the situation that opened up, Moscow acted. Gero was sacked and in an attempt to buy the movement, Imre Nagy was appointed Prime Minister with Janos Kadar as Party Secretary. It was hoped that because both these men had suffered under the Rakosi-Gero era they could win over the confidence of the people. Far from abating however, the resistance intensified. A general strike was declared and solidly supported. Workers’ Councils were formed in workplaces, and district workers’ councils co-ordinated supplies and emergency services. Perhaps most ominously of all for the authorities, the Russian soldiers were being won over. According to Dora Scarlett, a British Communist Party member in Hungary at the time of the events, in one incident “A tank had stopped and the crew got out and asked for an interpreter. They were given a Hungarian flag and put it up. A crowd gathered and as soon as someone was found who could talk to them the crew asked what they should do. ‘Go to the Parliament – there’s going to be a big demonstration there,’ and off the tank went, with the Hungarian flag flying.”

The pursuit of the AVO went on. AVO men threw away their uniforms, took refuge in cellars or tried to get out of the city. They were hunted down like animals, hung on trees or just beaten to death by the enraged population. Every family knew of the treatment meted out in police dungeons. Newspapers began to appear – not simply the official Party newspaper, but dozens of independent ones. Each revolutionary committee had its own – the students, the soldiers, the workers. Some were full-length, others no more than a page. “Korut- a street of luxury shops – was like a public reading room. Walls and shop windows were plastered with notices, poems, caricatures and jokes” according to Dora Scarlett. New revolutionary radio stations were set up. Political prisoners were released. Reports began to pour in – every area of the country was affected.

Programme of demands

Yet the price as heavy, between two and three thousand dead according to some reports. In the streets of Budapest, flowers and flags were strewn on the corpses of the slain. Suitcases were left on the pavement for donations for the families of the dead. Full of money, they were never guarded and never stolen. Not one act of looting was reported.

The newly formed National Council of Free Trade Unions published its programme of demands:

  1. Workers’ Councils to be set up in all workplaces, to establish workers’ management and end bureaucratic central planning.
  2. Ending of all unreal work norms; except on the basis of workers’ control; increased wages; an end to privileges; family allowances to be increased and housing to be stepped up.
This two million strong body declared: “we condemn all attempts to restore capitalism in our country.”

The Kremlin was shaken. Within days, the Hungarian Communist Party had virtually ceased to exist. Power had been wrested from the ruling bureaucracy. While the government had some support, nonetheless it was incapable of preventing the movement from developing further. The workers’ councils were emerging as the real source of power.

The Hungarian army and police were with the revolutionaries. Their ‘own’ troops were either neutralised or unreliable. Khrushchev sent his emissaries back to Hungary. The Soviet troops were to be withdrawn and negotiations opened on the various demands raised.

Sunday evening, October 28th, five days after the revolution began, Soviet troops began leaving Budapest. A wave of joy and jubilation swept the city. The sweet smell of victory was in the air.

Cafes opened. Music and dancing started up. Peasants sent truckloads of food to feed the Budapest workers. A new cabinet was announced which included representatives from the Social Democratic Party and the Smallholders Party.

Imre Nagy, the Prime Minister, announced that free elections would take place. The workers’ councils were organising their activities on a wider scale. In Budapest on 31st October delegates from the city’s largest workplaces – the railway workers, electrical workers, engineering workers, shipyard workers – met to draw up a nine-point plan, to set out “the basic rights and functions of the workers’ councils”. They declared, “the factory is the property of the workers” and “overall control of the enterprise in invested in the democratically elected council of the workers.” The work of the councils was to:
  1. Approve and ratify all projects concerning the enterprise.
  2. To decide basic wage levels and how these were to be assessed.
  3. To decide on all contracts involving the export of goods and all credit operations.
  4. To control the hiring and firing of all persons employed.
  5. To appoint the directors of the enterprise who were to be responsible to the workers’ councils.
But even as the Hungarian workers were moving to consolidate their gains and establish a genuine workers’ democracy, reports were coming through of Soviet troop movements. Tanks were massing on the borders in the East. Russian tanks had surrounded the three airports in Budapest. Andropov, then Soviet ambassador in Hungary, assured Nagy that there was nothing sinister happening, only measures to ensure the safe evacuation of Russian civilians.

The tension began to mount. On November 1st the government invited Andropov to a meeting, accused Russia of violating the terms of the Warsaw Pact and declared its withdrawal from the Pact and a neutral stance for Hungary. At that meeting Janos Kadar declared, “What happens to me is of little importance, but I am ready as a Hungarian to fight if necessary. If your ranks enter Budapest, I will go into the streets and fight against you with my bare hands." That night he vanished only to reappear, as we shall see, within a few days in a new and sinister role.

By Saturday, November 3rd, “people swung between hope and despair” according to Anna Gabor, a Hungarian secretary and participant in the events, “they believed they had won a victory. They could not think it would be snatched from them.” Early the following morning, Sunday November 4th, the second invasion of Russian troops and tanks began. This time the Kremlin was leaving nothing to chance. Many of the troops were from Mongolia and were told they were fighting fascists in Berlin, or that the Danube was the Suez Canal and that they were fighting British imperialists.

Conquer or exterminate

An English journalist in Budapest at the time wrote: “No one who lived through the day and night of Sunday, 4th November, will ever be able to forget its savagery. The Russian order was ‘conquer or exterminate’..the Soviet officers were professionals of the first order, who went about their task of subduing the country with efficiency that left no room for sentiment....They were merciless.” The forces assembled by the Soviet Union to crush the Hungarian revolution were larger than the combined forces of Montgomery and Rommel at the battle of El Alamein, and in the wake of these forces, they installed in power a puppet-government headed by none other than Janos Kadar. This time he said “Acting in the interests of out country, our working class and our country, we requested the Soviet Army Commander to help our nation in smashing the dark reactionary forces and restoring order and calm in the country.”

Unbelievable heroism

Three days later, Kadar arrived in Budapest, the puppet leader of Hungary, elected by Russians inside Russia, he was driven to the capital in a Soviet armoured car with a Russian driver and was escorted by Russian tanks to the steps of the Parliament building.

Once again the Hungarians fought back with almost unbelievable heroism. For days the fighting continued although at enormous loss of life. Corvin Cinema, once a garrison of almost 2,000 revolutionaries, surrendered only when they were reduced to less than 40.

Cspel, the main workers’ district held out the longest. For five days the Soviet command tried to break their resistance, without success. The workers were brilliantly organised – food, ammunition, hospital. The routine was simple. Each worker spent eight hours fighting, eight hours working in the factories manufacturing shells and guns, eight hours sleeping.

It took 10 days and 600 tanks for the might Soviet forces to stamp out armed resistance and restore ‘order’. Still the workers fought back though the workers’ councils. A general strike, initially spontaneous, developed into a centrally organised general strike, united and consolidated throughout the country. On November 13 and 14 the Greater Budapest, or Central Workers’ Council, was established. 500 delegates, over half of them between 23 and 28 years of age, attended. Their programme was for socialist ownership, free elections, the maintenance of the workers’ councils, free trade unions, full democratic rights and the withdrawal of Soviet troops.

Workers’ organisations

They took this a step further with the establishment on November 21st of a National Workers’ Council, whose aim was a ‘parliament of Workers’ Councils’. Kadar, and the news ‘regime’ were unable to crush the workers’ organisations immediately. At times and only in words, forced to ‘recognise’ the councils, he used arrests, imprisonment, deportation and brutal repression to break them. Strikes and protests continued despite the arrest of the entire leadership of the Budapest Workers’ Council. A state of emergency was declared. Meetings and demonstrations were banned. Detention without trial was introduced and ‘special’ courts set up. In the face of barbaric repression and intimidation, the workers’ heroic resistance was eventually worn down. But it was not until January 8th, 1957, that the Cspel Workers’ Council announced its resignation saying: “Under the presently prevailing circumstances, we are no longer able to carry out our obligations…and for this reason, we are returning our mandate into the hands of the workers.”

Unrest continued well into 1957 and even 1958. It was only in the summer of 1958 that the authorities felt safe enough to execute national figures such as Imre Nagy and Pal Maleter. They followed tens of thousands of Hungarians who had been taken out and executed summarily. To secure their ‘victory’, the Stalinists had mobilised tens of thousands of troops, thousands of tanks and had suffered 3,500 casualties. For the Hungarians, the losses were colossal; 20,000 dead, tens of thousands fled the country – 20,000 through Austria alone. By November 14th some 16,000 Hungarians had been deported, according to figures given to the United Nations. Whole areas of towns, cities and countryside lay devastated.

Why was such devastation visited on such a small nation? Theirs was not a struggle to restore capitalism or landlordism as the Communist Party apologists would have us believe. In the words of one worker, “The West should not believe that the workers fought to bring back Horthy or the landowners and counts. We shall not give back the land or the factories or the mines.”

In their struggle they moved instinctively to establish the organisations of genuine socialism –the Workers’ Council, the Russian ‘soviet’ of October 1917. But there was no place for such genuine workers’ democracy in the Soviet regime of 1956. The Workers’ Councils posed a critical threat to the Soviet regime. Had they been allowed to exist and to spread beyond the Hungarian border, they would have spelled the end of the privileged bureaucracy, who had usurped the political power of the working classes they claimed to represent. The councils posed the threat of political revolution – and in a political revolution within the context of Soviet society, it is ‘all or nothing’. For this reason the Hungarian revolution was drowned in blood.

Worker democracy

Lenin in 1917 had explained that in a nationalised economy, democracy – workers’ democracy – was vital to ensure a healthy workers’ state and to prevent the formation of a bureaucratic elite. To this end he formulated a programme as a safeguard and check:

  1. All workers’ representatives to be elected and subject to recall.
  2. No official to receive more than the wage of a skilled worker.
  3. No standing army but an armed people.
  4. Rotation of duties – when everyone is a bureaucrat, nobody is a bureaucrat.
In the programme of Workers’ Councils, we find the same demands with one further addition – the demand for free elections and political parties, and an end to the one party totalitarian system. The Hungarian Revolution was in very way a return to the traditions and ideas of Lenin.

Writing in October 1917, Lenin also said, “We may not be able to hold out for long, so let us do such things during our brief tenure of power that the working classes of the world will remember them forever.” This was the achievement of the Hungarian workers. In deed and in word, they demonstrated to the world, the principles of genuine socialism. For a brief period, they laid claim to their rightful heritance – the genuine workers’ democracy of Lenin and Trotsky. The workers of the world have not forgotten. And the coming years will see their struggle vindicated.

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