Hungary 1956: the revolutionary alternative to Stalinism

The workers’ rebellion in the Eastern European state of Hungary in 1956 shows how real socialism is possible, argues Solidarity

SINCE THE end of “Communism” in 1989, Hungary has seen a decline in economic output, rising unemployment, decreasing living standards for the majority of people, and growing social inequality.
In recent years Hungary has been particularly badly hit by the economic downturn and in 2008 the government was forced to ask for a $25 billion bailout from international lenders to avoid their mounting debt crisis. The economic crisis rapidly turned into a political crisis: the ruling socialist-liberal coalition is in complete disarray, and in the European Parliament elections last year the fascist Jobbik Party came third, with almost a sixth of the overall vote.
Hungary’s transition to Western-style democracy and free market capitalism has had few desirable results. But Hungary’s past provides one of the best examples of how an alternative to both Western market capitalism and the Russian imposed Stalinist system is possible.

The significance of the 1956 Revolution
The Hungarian 1956 Revolution exposed Stalin’s Russia for what it was: a perversion of socialism, which was more than happy to attack workers’ self-government when it threatened Russian power. The workers’ councils that emerged during the revolution showed what true socialism looked like and are an inspiring example for us today.
The Russian Revolution in 1917 saw workers take power but had morphed into something horrific under Stalin. His regime of state ownership was controlled from above, not by ordinary people. Stalin used any means possible, be it decreased living standards or even forced starvation, to drive the Russian economy forwards. A new “Communist” ruling class brutally oppressed any kind of dissent. Stalin’s Russia had nothing to do with socialism and is best described as state capitalist.
At then end of the Second World War in 1945 Hungary fell into the Russian sphere of influence and up until 1956 its people suffered hugely as Stalin’s model of state capitalism was introduced.
Hungary’s industrial centres in the north and agricultural land in south were an asset to Stalin. Capital accumulation was achieved by keeping production high and wages low. The Soviet Union would buy goods made in Hungary at low cost and then sell them goods back at inflated prices. This was part of an effort to bleed the Hungarian economy to speed industrial development in Russia.
A worker from the industrial district of Csepel Island in Budapest said:
“The communists nationalised all the factories and similar enterprises, claiming the slogan ‘the factory is yours—you work for yourself’. Exactly the opposite was true. The promised us everything, at the same time subjugating us and pulling us down to the greatest misery conceivable.”
Despite the havoc state-run factories and collectivised farming caused, living standards generally rose for Hungarian people during the immediate post-war period. While their own living standards were rising, the mass of workers were prepared to put up with the class antagonisms and injustices Russian control brought.
In 1955 the economy went into crisis due to bureaucratic blunders and economic mismanagement. The oil fields in Western Hungary were accidentally flooded due to a too rapid a rise in production ordered by Hungary’s Stalinist leader Matyas Rakosi. This was just one example of a ruling class’s interest in production at any cost, environmental or social. Amongst Hungarians there was a rising feeling of discontent.

The ‘Secret Speech’

When Stalin died in 1953 there was confusion among the Soviet ruling class around how to move forward; indecisive policy and leadership changes showed there was debate at the top.
The height of this was when Stalin’s successor Khrushchev made his “secret speech” (that everyone in the world would come to hear) to a small group of the Communist Party elite in February 1956. He denounced Stalin’s repressive regime, the paranoid murder of intellectuals and dissidents, and other brutalities and failures during Stalin’s leadership.
Inside Russia and its satellite states the “secret speech” was the first time anyone had openly criticised Stalin without legitimately fearing for their own or their families’ lives.
The speech had much greater implications than Khrushchev intended. Denouncing Stalin not only cast doubt on his rule, but the entire Soviet system. By opening up criticism of the Stalin regime at the top, Khrushchev also allowed debate to trickle down to intellectuals, sparking the debates seen in the Communist youth forum the Petofi Circle in Hungary, and then down to the working class where long-standing dissatisfaction erupted.Communist leaders who had justified imprisoning or executing dissidents and former leading figures during the 1940s and 1950s were forced to admit they were wrong – and people started to demand answers about why their leaders hadn’t told the truth in the past.
For the Soviet ruling class denouncing Stalin was supposed to promote the image of reform whilst legitimising the next phase of Soviet rule. In reality it gave political fuel to resistance.
1956 was marked with protests in Poland, Georgia and Hungary.

Prelude and radicalisation
The Hungarian Revolution was initially triggered by events in Poland.
The Polish government responded to demonstrations in the industrial city of Poznan by restoring Gomulka, a reformer who Stalin had earlier imprisoned, as Polish leader. For a short time it looked like Poland would face intervention by Russian troops.
In October Hungarian students called a demonstration in solidarity with the Polish people. Initially the Hungarian government allowed the demonstration to take place. But when the students were joined by tens of thousands of Hungarian workers, they panicked and tried to crack down.
The revolution took shape as spreading protests forced the Hungarian government into disarray. In Budapest during late October some of the Hungarian elite fled to underground bunkers to wait out the violence. Many members of the police force including the police chief joined the demonstrators. Only one army corps followed orders to quell the protests, while others remained neutral or even defected to the protesters. The only force seriously obeying the state’s commands was the state security police. In light of this Hungarian Stalinist leader Gero called on Soviet forces for military support to crush the revolution.
At its peak in October there were around 15,000 protesters in Budapest fighting the state security police and the Russian army.

Workers’ councils
The emergence of workers’ councils that sustained the 1956 Revolution were its most striking feature. Budapest was the centre of the movement. It produced more than half the country’s industrial output and 46 per cent of Hungary’s workers lived there.
The first workers’ council was established on October 23 at the United Lamp factory in Ujpest that employed some 10,000 people. By October 31 the councils had spread to other industrial suburbs of the city and a central council was set up. It issued a statement saying:
“The supreme controlling body of the factory is the workers’ council democratically elected by the workers … The director is employed by the factory. The director and the highest employees are to be elected by the workers’ council… the director is responsible to the workers’ council in every matter which concerns the factory.”
The councils were democratically elected bodies controlled entirely by the workers. They effectively took the means of production into their own hands and oversaw things like wages, hiring and firing and food distribution.
The Communist Party and official trade unions, which upheld the Stalinist system and helped repress Hungarian workers, were made redundant and replaced by the democratic self-government of workers’ councils.
The councils were most successful in highly industrialised areas in the country’s north and west and university towns. Even though radicalisation in major agricultural areas was less than in the industrial centres, many peasants left their state-run farms. By 1957 only around 6 per cent of peasants were left working for the state farms.

General strikes
During the revolution Hungarian workers sustained one of the most comprehensive general strikes ever; they produced food, electricity and gas, as well as allowing public transport to continue in order to keep the revolution going, but nothing beyond that.
Workers closed down around 80 per cent of industrial production for over a month. Rail workers refused to transport Russian troops or supplies. The Communist ruling class had huge military power behind it, but the Hungarian people controlled the useful bits of society. They couldn’t make all the workers work at gunpoint.

Out of the general strike the workers’ councils demanded a program of democratisation. Imre Nagy, a member of Hungary’s Communist elite with a reputation as a reformer, took power and reached a ceasefire agreement that saw Russian troops pulled out of Budapest on November 1.

Crushing the revolution
But the Russians knew that losing grip on Hungary to the workers’ councils could topple their entire power structure. If Russian and satellite state workers could see success in the Hungarian Revolution they too might seek to overthrow Soviet rule.
Nagy was replaced with the Russian puppet Kadar and Russian troops re-entered Hungary for a second round of fighting on November 4. Industrial areas maintained the strongest opposition.
This was a hugely bloody period of the revolution. Overall 200,000 people left the country and over 2000 were killed, most of them under 30, and 60 per cent of these died in the second wave of fighting.
Kadar denounced the revolutionaries as fascists and counter-revolutionaries funded by Western imperialism. He claimed, “We are going to defend the interest of the workers and peasants and the achievements of the people’s democracy”.
But his action received no support from the mass of Hungarian workers.
He oversaw a wave of mass arrests and executions, particularly against the organisers of the workers’ councils. Russian military might made communication impossible between the councils and resistance all over the country crumbled.
The last pocket of resistance in Csepel called a ceasefire on November 10. Despite overwhelming military force it took until early January to completely destroy the revolution. Isolated strikes and demonstrations continued well into 1957.

Crushing the revolution today
In western media sources then and Hungarian political culture now, the 1956 Revolution is portrayed as part of a story of Hungary’s march toward western free market capitalism. 1956 is presented as a precursor to 1989—when all the Eastern European satellite states overthrew their Stalinist leaders and brought down the Soviet system. But these revolutions led to a transition to free market capitalism, which is very far removed from what the workers’ councils were trying to achieve in 1956.
One of the leaflets distributed by the Gyor Railway Workers in 1956 read: “We stand opposed to the restoration of the land to the aristocracy and industry and banking to the capitalists. At the same time we oppose any restoration of the Stalinist-Rakosi clique.”
We can see this revolution wasn’t about transitioning from Stalinist state capitalism to Western market capitalism; it was a genuine socialist revolution which commentators and historians have tried to write out of history.

Lessons for the future
The Hungarian revolution was one of the major ideological turning points for socialists in the 20th century.
David Widgery said in The Left in Britain 1956-68: “In Hungary in 1956 Stalin’s tanks blew apart the left in the rest of the world. Old complacencies were shattered and new parties, new ideas and events brought a new militancy. The ferment continued for a decade and burst out in 1968 in Paris and across much of the world.”
The dominance on the Western left of the pro-Moscow Communist Parties was weakened. Hungary showed an alternative to both Stalinism and Western capitalism. The workers’ councils in Hungary are an example of what socialism from below looks like and how it could be achieved.
Socialist historian Mike Haynes calls Hungary a country built on lies. The biggest lie perpetuated is that “Communism” in Russia and Eastern Europe during the 20th Century represented any kind of socialism, and that there was no other alternative to capitalism.
This is a lie socialists face all the time. Knowing the truth about Hungary’s revolution makes us better equipped to debunk these lies and fight for a better world—just as they did.


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