Hungary 1956 – the “October” that was lost

Thodoris Marakis

This article was initially published in Greek and can be read here

The Hungarian political revolution of 1956 (October 23 – November 10) proved that the working class in the countries of the Eastern Bloc before the capitalist restoration of 1989-1991, was engaged in important struggles, even of a revolutionary character, in order to free itself from the Stalinist bureaucracy and to open the road to socialism with workers’ power and workers’ democracy.

The Hungarian revolution was preceded by the workers’ uprising in East Germany in June 1953 and the strike unrest and demonstrations in Poland in June 1956. It was followed by the Prague Spring of 1968 and new social explosions in Poland, culminating in the creation of the nationwide trade union Solidarity in 1980.

Above we mention only the most important struggles, because in essence the regimes of the Eastern European countries were in a constant state of social unrest. In essence they were crisis-ridden regimes.

A turning point

The Hungarian revolution was a turning point, among other things, because it gave birth in a spontaneous way to workers’ councils (soviets) – a continuation of the spontaneous creation of soviets in the 1905 and 1917 revolutions in Russia, in the German revolution of 1918-1919 and that of Hungary in 1919.

It served to remind us of the social law that the working class, when it rebels, creates “by instinct” its own organs of power, which are an extension and development of the organs it creates to coordinate and make its struggles more effective.

At the same time, its defeat served to validate the necessity of the existence of a mass revolutionary party, which needs to be patiently built throughout the period preceding the revolution.

But let us put things in order.

The general situation

a) Situation in the West 

The decade of the 1950s was characterised by a simultaneous crisis of both Western imperialism and the Stalinist regimes. The anti-colonial movement was on the rise in the Middle East, North Africa and Southeast Asia, and had embarrassed the Anglo-French imperialists. The anti-imperialist movement was also rising in the countries of the West.

1956 was a turning point in the decade of the 1950s. In the USA, the civil rights movement of the Black people was developing. In Egypt, Nasser nationalised, among other things, the strategic Suez Canal Company. This provoked a military operation by the British imperialists, which ended with a humiliating retreat. This event was a marker for the end of the British empire world domination, which ceded its place to the United States.

b) Eastern Bloc

The victory of the Red Army against the Nazis and their advance to Berlin changed the situation in Europe. The USSR created “clone regimes” in the countries they marched through. This led to the creation of new “bureaucratic” or “degenerated workers’ states” in a number of Eastern European countries.

Yet, by their very nature, these regimes have been crisis regimes from their inception. They were “hanging”, transitional regimes, in between capitalism and socialism. Their perspective would ultimately be determined by the ability of the working class to overthrow (or not) the power of the bureaucracy through a process of a political revolution.

Ultimately, the efforts of the working masses to overthrow the Stalinist bureaucracies failed. These successive defeats culminated in the capitalist restoration in the USSR and the Eastern Bloc countries. 

Life under Stalinism

The life of the masses under the bureaucratic regimes of the Eastern Bloc bears no resemblance with the rosy picture that the defenders of Stalinism paint to this day.

Oppression and inequalities prevailed. For example, in Hungary, the worker’s salary was 1,000 forints, the secret police’s one was 3,000 forints, and the salary of party and government officials was up to and even over 11,000 forints. Exhaustive work to keep up with “norms” and “plans” predominated, reviving the hated Stakhanovism. There were shortages of basic consumer goods, because the emphasis of the “economic plans” was mainly on the establishment of heavy industry, neglecting the production of consumer goods.

There was plundering of the countries’ resources by the Russian bureaucracy through inequality in the terms of trade (they bought raw materials cheaply and then sold industrial products at high prices). The USSR bureaucrats even lifted entire factories from the Eastern Bloc and transferred them to Russia. In countries such as the Czech Republic, for example, where the bourgeoisie had collaborated with the Nazis, they had imposed war reparations (something the Bolsheviks had denounced when the victorious countries of WWI had imposed it on Germany, because the people would pay them)!

This attitude of the Russian bureaucracy gave rise, among other things, to the demand for national independence, equal relations with the USSR and even to the removal of its army.

The collapse of illusions about socialism under Stalinist rule led to an accumulated resentment and the desire to react, to revolt.

Stalin’s death – crisis at the tops

But this alone is not a sufficient condition to have a revolutionary situation. There needs to be a crisis at the tops. And this happened with the death of Stalin in March 1953.

The bureaucracy split into “Stalinists” and “anti-Stalinists” -although the common denominator of both camps was the conservation of the old regime, they disagreed on whether the cult of personality of Stalin as the infallible and unquestionable “patriarch” should continue!

The crisis at the tops created cracks through which the indignation of the masses and their desire to change their lives came to the surface. The instinctive trend of the majority of workers was not to fight for a return to capitalism (as the Stalinists and Maoists of various kinds argued and still argue to this day) but to advance towards true socialism, with workers’ management and control, with workers’ democracy.

Berlin, June 1953

The workers in the Eastern Bloc did not wait long – the first uprising came on June 17, 1953 in East Berlin:

“The revolt started with a demonstration of building workers on the Stalin Allee. Downing tools, they marched to the city centre to present their demands. … Transport workers left their trams and lorries to join the demonstration. Factory workers rushed from their benches, students from the colleges, housewives from their homes and shopping, even schoolboys from their lessons … Soon, the revolt spread throughout Eastern Germany.” Hungary ’56 – Andy Anderson  

Their demands were economic and political: Wage increases, abolition of piece work and unreachable targets (norms), participation in the management of factories, resignation of the government and free elections.

The response of the bureaucracy was the Russian tanks, against which the workers of East Berlin fought “bare-handed” in bloody clashes that lasted several days, only to be defeated in the end in the face of Soviet tank superiority.

The Berlin uprising alarmed the Moscow bureaucracy and that of the Eastern Bloc countries – they felt the angry breath of the workers on the back of their necks. They started looking for ways to defuse the popular anger without infringing on their privileges. The “anti-Stalinists” were strengthened, a certain loosening took place both in the USSR and in the other countries.

The 20th Congress of the CPSU

It was in this general atmosphere that the 20th Congress of the CPSU (Communist Party of the Soviet Union) took place in February 1956, in which Stalin was denounced – but only as an individual, not as a system of governance. The one-party dictatorship and the privileges of the bureaucracy, which was the essence of Stalinism, were left intact. The 20th Congress exposed Stalin’s crimes in order to deal a decisive blow to the hard-line wing of the bureaucracy so that the “reformist” wing could prevail.

The “de-stalinisation” shook the Communist Parties both in the East and the West. The prestige of the bureaucracy took a decisive blow, the consciences of the members and cadres of the Left in general were shaken to the core. Its most essential contribution was that it opened up paths for the workers’ and people’s movement to go out into battle.

Poland – June 1956

The Polish working class joined in the thread of mobilisations and was the spark for the outbreak of the Hungarian revolution soon afterwards.

In Poland, on the morning of June 28, workers at the Joseph Stalin Metal Works (ZISPO) factory in Poznań went on strike. They took the streets in protest of raised work quotas and other problems. A demonstration of 16,000 workers marched towards Stalin Square. At 10 a.m. the demonstration had reached 100,000. They raised banners with slogans, “Freedom and Bread”, “Out with the Russians” and “No more piece work”.

They attacked the party offices and the town hall and took down and destroyed the portraits of the leaders and party emblems, leaving only the portrait of Lenin.

At first the bureaucrats mobilized Polish tanks against the demonstrators. But this added fuel to the fire, sparked a wave of solidarity throughout Poland, and the strike turned into an uprising in the following days.

Shocked and bewildered, the Polish bureaucracy attributed the uprising to “provocateurs and secret agents in the service of the USA and West Germany” – the favourite method of Stalinism under any circumstances.

“Provocateurs”, “Agents” and “Counter-Revolutionaries” were the workers who demanded, among other things, workers’ control and management and changes in the management of factories and enterprises.

The human toll of the crackdown was 78 dead (64 civilians) and over 400 wounded. 300 were arrested and brought to trial on charges of being “agents of the West”.

However, the regime was forced to make concessions because the repression has not been able to break down the spirit and the urge for change. Thus we have the return of Władysław Gomulka in the leadership of the party and the government.

To defuse social indignation, Gomulka spoke about the “Polish way to Socialism”, called for the replacement of the pro-Soviet Minister of Defense Konstantin Rokossovsky and was seriously discussing the withdrawal of Poland from the Warsaw Pact. This alarmed the bureaucrats in Moscow and forced almost the entire USSR leadership, headed by Khrushchev himself, to go to Warsaw for talks.

Eventually a compromise was reached – Poland remained in the Warsaw Pac” and Gomulka kept his position. However, all these developments shook powerful image that the bureaucracy was trying to build in the eyes of the masses and raised the morale of the workers and youth.

Next up: Hungary

The events in Poland influenced the processes and developments in Hungary. The spark for the outbreak of the 1956 Hungarian revolution was demonstration of solidarity with the struggling Polish people, organised by the Petofi Circle on October 23, 1956.

The government showed its confusion and its inability to decide when it initially allowed the demonstration to take place and then, a few hours before the demonstration actually went ahead, it baned it. The organisers sent a message saying that the demonstration will take place anyway, which forces the government to finally allow it!

The demonstration had been decided to end at the statue of General Bem József. When the crowd gathered in front of the statue it had already reached 50,000 and the speaker read out the resolution of the Writers’ Union.

“We want

1. An independent national policy based on the principles of socialism.

2. Equality in relations with the U.S.S.R. and the People’s Democracies.

3. A revision of economic agreements in the spirit of the equality of national rights.

4. The running of the factories by workers and specialists.

5. The right of peasants freely to decide their own fate.

6. The removal of the Rakosi clique, a post in the Government for Imre Nagy, and a resolute stand against all counter-revolutionary attempts and aspirations.

7. Complete political representation of the working class – free and secret ballot in elections to Parliament and to all autonomous organs of administration.”

The crowd, after the end of the rally, did not disperse and spontaneously moved to the parliament square, where new demonstrators, mainly youth and workers, are also flocking in their thousands – the number of those gathered reached 100,000.

The assembled people were informed of the content of the message of Ernő Gerő (who had replaced the populist Mátyás Rákosi as the secretary of the Hungarian Communist Party) on the Budapest radio, in which he denounced the workers and youth demonstrators for an

“attempt to destroy democracy … to undermine the power of the working class … to loosen the friendly ties between Hungary and the Soviet Union … whoever attacks our achievements will be repelled … the intellectuals had heaped slanders on the Soviet Union; they had asserted that Hungary was trading with the Soviet Union on an unequal footing, that independence must allegedly be defended, not against the imperialists, but against the Soviet Union. All this was an impudent lie – hostile propaganda which did not contain a train of truth”

In the radio station

They crowd decides to head to the Magyar radio station to take it over and broadcast their own message. While marching towards the station a large section of the demonstrators decides to pass by the City Park, where the 26-foot-tall bronze statue of Stalin is located, which they tear down with cheers.

Strong armoured forces of the hated State Protection Authority (ÁVH) prevent the march from approaching the radio station. The crowd protests.

After negotiations they allow a delegation of protesters to enter the building – but they arrest them. When this was noticed by the crowd hours later, things got ugly and the crowd roared impatiently: “Where is our delegation?”, “Let them out!”, “Release our representatives!”

The crowd spontaneously moved forward and broke the first police belt. Then the machine guns opened fire. Andy Anderson writes

“Agonized shrieks arose as the front ranks of the peaceful demonstrators crumpled to the ground. The crowd became infuriated. The police were quickly overwhelmed, their arms used to fire at the windows of the Radio Building from which lead now streaked into the throngs below.

The Hungarian Revolution had begun.”

The first concern of the workers and youth was to arm themselves.

Weapons in the hands of the workers

After occupying an arms factory in Budapest, they brought the weapons and distributed them to the protesters who formed militia groups controlling the main parts of the city. The majority of the Hungarian army remained neutral and a part of fraternised with the people, giving them weapons. The majority of the municipal police also crossed over with the people – the state apparatus was paralysed and the only support for the regime was the AVH and Russian troops and tanks.

The propaganda of the radio stations presented the uprising as the work of “counter-revolutionaries”, “fascist elements”, “anarchists”, “agents of the West who had infiltrated the ranks of the demonstrators , guided by the CIA”, etc. This was classic Stalinist nonsense. The truth was revealed to the people of Budapest on the same day, was people took to the streets. In the following days, the events became known throughout Hungary where the main cities were occupied by the masses.

In the countryside they managed to take over radio stations, from which they broadcasted the demands of the revolution. The bureaucrats had been completely isolated. The insurgents opened the prisons and released the political prisoners – a total of 5,500 people.

In the face of the determination of the masses, the regime was forced, in order to buy time, to proceed the very next day in a decision of the Central Committee to make the “reformist” Imre Nagy prime minister. At the same time though, it called on Russian troops to intervene.

The masses did not fall into the trap of the regimes carrot and stick and continued their struggle. Gerő was also relieved of his duties as first secretary of the party and his place was taken by János Kádár.

October 24 – the invasion of the Russian tanks

The appearance of Russian tanks on the morning of October 24 strengthened the will of the revolutionary masses to resist.

A revolutionary council was created in Budapest by the workers and youth, which met and gave directions to the insurgents. Barricades were set up and Molotov cocktails were thrown at the tanks, 30 of which were immobilised during the fighting of the first day.

However, the main weapon of the revolutionary workers and youth was the dialogue with the Russian soldiers (as they spoke Russian), which made the majority of the Russian soldiers uncomfortable.

In a radio message Nagy called the people to calm down and give up their weapons. He promised to start talks with the USSR on the withdrawal of troops and more generally on relations between the two countries. He tried to nurture illusions that solutions could be found and left the possibility of Hungary’s possible withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact open.

General strike and revolutionary councils

The workers’ response came with the declaration of a general strike, which started in the industrial centre of Budapest and then spread throughout the country. The important element, again, was the formation of factory councils which took over the management of the enterprises and the struggle in general.

The factory councils set up town-by-town coordinating committees which they called Revolutionary Councils and on October 26 they proceeded to set up the People’s Revolutionary Council. The main points https://libcom.org/library/Hungary5616 of its programme were:

“Political

(1) That the fighting cease, an amnesty be declared, and negotiations begun with the Youth delegates.

(2) That a broad government, comprising representatives of the Trade Unions and of youth, be constituted with Imre Nagy as its president.

(3) That the country’s economic situation be put to the people in all honesty.

(4) That help be given to people wounded in the tragic battles which had just taken place and to the families of the victims.

(5) That, to maintain order, the police and the army be reinforced by a national guard composed of workers and young people.

(6) That, with the support of the trade unions, an organisation of young workers be formed.

(7) That the new government start immediate negotiations for the withdrawal of Russian troops from Hungarian territory.

Economic

(1) Constitution of Workers’ Councils in all the factories, to establish (a) workers’ management and (b) a radical transformation of the system of central planning and direction of the economy by the state.

(2) Readjustment of wages: immediate rise of 15% in monthly wages less than 800 forints and of 10% in wages less than 1,500 forints. Maximum monthly wages to be fixed at 3,500 forints.

(3) Abolition of production norms except in factories where the workers’ council elect to keep them.

(4) Abolition of the 4% tax paid by unmarried people and childless families.

(5) The lowest pensions to be increased.

(6) Family allowances to be increased.

(7) Speed-up of house building by the State.

(8) That the promise made by Imre Nagy be kept regarding the start of negotiations with the Government of the U.S.S.R. and other countries with a view to establishing economic relations ensuring mutual advantages by adhering to the principle of equality.”

Dual power

As in every revolution, the Hungarian revolution also gave rise to the phenomenon of dual power. Although there was a rapid development of the political consciousness, the working class was not capable of seizing power because a decisive factor was missing. The missing factor was a revolutionary political party, built in the period before the revolution so as to sink roots inside the masses and acquire the necessary political experience.

In the ensuing days of the revolution, the struggle had contradictory characteristics. The Russian tanks failed to impose order. On October 28, Nagy announced that an agreement had been reached to withdraw the Russian tanks (indeed they were withdrawn) and that Hungary would withdraw from the Warsaw Pact.

Moscow bureaucrats did not like the latter part at all. The whole situation set a bad example for the peoples of the other countries of the Pact and the USSR. In particular, the demands for workers’ control and management, i.e. workers’ democracy, which would mean an end to the privileges of the bureaucracy, were a matter of life or death for the bureaucrats. That is why they prepared their intervention for November 4.

November 4: second invasion, 2,000 tanks

With new armoured divisions, the USSR army reinforced the existing ones and made sure the soldiers were from the depths of Asia so that they did not speak Russian but, more importantly, did not know which country they were fighting in – they convinced them that they were in East Germany to suppress a fascist revolt.

On the morning of November 4, 2,000 tanks invaded Hungary and surrounded the country’s main cities, while the Russian air force pounded Budapest. The people defend themselves in an unequal battle and managed to hold out until November 10.

Finally, the revolution was drowned in blood. It is speculated that over 2,000 Hungarians were killed in the street battles. 450 were executed after going through trials, 12,000 were imprisoned. The destruction suffered by Budapest from the bombing was immeasurable, greater than during the German invasion and the 45-day siege of the city by Russian troops for its capture in 1944! More than 200,000 people were displaced. Nagy fled to the Yugoslav Embassy only to be arrested later and executed in 1958.

Despite the military crushing of the revolution, the working class continued to react with strikes until the government was forced to pass a law criminalizing them. Workers in the factories then turned to white strikes. The workers’ councils remained in operation until January 1957. Generally, there were pockets of resistance and disobedience until late 1957 early 1958.

The decision to invade Hungary was taken by none other than the… “reformist”, “anti-Stalinist” Khrushchev, who stifled a magnificent workers’ revolution by classical Stalinist methods.

The defeat of revolutions – the victory of capitalist restoration

Communist parties all over the world smeared the Hungarian workers and youth as counter-revolutionaries, playing the game of the secret services of the West.

But what determined the character of the Hungarian revolution was its programme, with the demand to overthrow the bureaucracy and advance to socialism as its dominant element. The Hungarian October was soon followed by the Prague Spring and later again by the events in Poland. But these revolutions were defeated through the use of USSR army violence.

The defeat of these revolutions and the fact that they could not complete the political revolution to overthrow the bureaucracy and transition to a workers’ democracy, i.e. real socialism, was the factor that led to the collapse of the Stalinist regimes. Alas, the new capitalists were none other than yesterday’s leaders of the Stalinist Communist Parties, continuing their repressive policies under a different social system! Workers in the countries of the former Eastern Bloc have much to learn from the failed political revolutions in these countries.

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