Hungary 1956: A workers’ revolt
crushed by the "workers' state"

By Ulli Diemer

This week [October 26, 1973] marks one of the most significant – but least observed – anniversaries of the twentieth century: that of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, when the Hungarian workers rose against the "workers' state".

The fact that the events of 1956 have been suppressed or misrepresented by the world’s major propaganda machines is far from surprising.

The "free world", despite its desire to score points against the Russians, could scarcely be expected to applaud a revolution that sought to overthrow a ‘Communist’ government, not because it was instituting communism, but because it wasn’t.

The Russians and their friends, of course, have no wish whatever to have it publicized that the “counter-revolutionary fascist gangs” they crushed with thousands of tanks comprised virtually the entire population of Hungary – office workers, factory, workers, students, housewives, intellectuals, artists, farmers, and even the army – united in workers’ and community councils, demanding and instituting a thorough-going socialism hardly the usual form taken by “fascist counter-revolutions.”

The contribution of the Chinese Maocultists, meanwhile, for whom all that was best in Russia died with kindly Joe Stalin, has been to criticize the Russian ‘revisionists’ for not being severe enough in putting the rising down.

All the more important, then, to draw lessons from those fateful days.

For the successes of this revolution, brief as it was, did as much as a century of socialist theorizing to show what a united and determined people could do to transform their society.

"From the first moment of victory, mistrust must be directed no longer against the conquered reactionary parties, but against the workers’ previous allies, against the party that wishes to exploit the common victory for itself alone... The workers must put themselves at the command not of the State authority but of the revolutionary community councils. Arms and ammunition must not be surrendered on any pretext."
- Friedrich Engels

And its defeat spelled out in letters of blood the message that Soviet Russia, far from being the cradle or exporter of revolution, was as barbaric a counterrevolutionary butcher as the world had ever seen.

The story began in 1944, when the Red Army drove the retreating Nazi forces out of eastern Europe. Hard bargaining between Churchill, Stalin, and Roosevelt produced a post-war division of spoils; Russia was awarded roughly all of eastern Europe – the area her armies occupied.

Stalin scrupulously kept his part of the bargain: he betrayed the Greek communists, on the verge of seizing power – Greece had been assigned to Britain’s sphere of influence. And he instructed the Communist parties of Italy and France, armed, and with supporters numbering in the millions, not to attempt to seize power but rather to disarm the resistance and cooperate with the bourgeois parties.

“All workers, socialists, even communists, must at last understand that a bureaucratic state has nothing to do with Socialism.”
- Nemzetor, Jan. 15 1957

Contrary to American Cold War propaganda, Russia’s desires were conservative, not expansionary. She sought American economic aid, but was refused acceptable terms. The Russians demanded friendly regimes in eastern Europe as a buffer against a potentially revived Germany – hardly outrageous after the experience of two invasions in less than 30 years – but made no demand that they be communist – indeed, the early regimes they set up almost invariably consisted of liberal or conservative politicians.

It was only after the U.S. initiated the Cold War – pressuring Russia heavily on all fronts – that Stalin and his cohorts hardened their positions, and began to install their supporters in the eastern European governments.

In Hungary, the first government set up by the Russians after the fascist Horthy regime collapsed was headed by General Bela Miklos, a Horthy supporter who had been personally honoured by Hitler himself. The Communists occupied a number of posts, including the Ministry of the Interior, through which they controlled the army and the police. They reorganized and extensively used the secret police, (the A.V.O.) retaining many of the personnel from the fascist days. Gradually their hold on the state was tightened.

Terms of trade favourable to Russia were established; peasants were forced to collectivize their holdings. When, in 1948, the factories were nationalized, this occurred without the participation or even knowledge of the workers on whose behalf the action was ostensibly taken. Hungarian workers came back to work after Easter to find themselves with a new boss – the state. Other than that, very little had changed for them, politically, in their work, or in their daily lives, from the fascist days.

While political repression continued unabated, economic exploitation was stepped up. Piece-work, what Marx called a "lever for lengthening the working day and the lowering of wages," was introduced on a massive scale. Periodically, purges rid the Communist party of dissenters. ‘Go-slow’ movements and other forms of ‘passive resistance’ increased rapidly. In response, the "workers’ government" instituted severe penalties. Forced labour camps came into existence. It became a crime for a worker to leave his or her job.

The ‘revelations’ Krushchev made about Stalin in 1956, accompanied by a slight liberalization in the regime and promises of reform, encouraged rising hopes. But there was caution, too – the memory of the crushing, with tanks, of workers’ risings in East Berlin in 1953 and Poland in June 1956, were still too fresh in many minds.

But in the summer of 1956, intellectual agitation, for freedom of speech, for the abolition of exploitative trade treaties with the Soviet Union, for an end to repression, swept Hungary. A demonstration was called in Budapest – first forbidden, and then, when it had already formed, ‘permitted’ by the government. The demands were fairly mild – certainly none of them were counter to the rhetoric, if not the practice, of the Communists. The demands called for independence, socialism, secret ballots, the right of workers and specialists to run the factories, and the removal of the hated “Rakosi group” from the government.

When the demonstrators – numbering over 100,000 but peaceful – asked that their views be broadcast over the State radio, they were fired on by the machine guns of the secret police, and the demonstration had turned into a revolution.

The workers in the arms factories began to distribute weapons and ammunition. Many soldiers and policemen joined the demonstrators or turned over their weapons to them.

"Piece-work Is the form of wages most In harmony with the capitalist mode of production... it serves as a lever for lengthening the working day and the lowering of wages."
- Karl Marx

"Piece-work is a revolutionary system that eliminates inertia and makes the labourer hustle. Under the capitalist system loafing and laziness are fostered. But now, everyone has a chance to work harder and earn more."
- Scanteia (‘Communist’ daily)

Groups spontaneously formed to control central arteries and city squares. Sporadic fighting with the secret police broke out.

Russian tanks moved into the city and the fighting intensified. Significant numbers of Russian soldiers, however, defied their orders and refused to fire on the Hungarians. They were rapidly shipped back to Russia. In some cases, groups of Hungarian workers and Russian soldiers seen fraternizing were shot down.

A peaceful demonstration at the A.V.O. (secret police) headquarters was fired on with machine guns, with over 250 casualties. After this incident, A.V.O. men, reaping the results of the hatred they had sown, were killed whenever they were found.

In the midst of the fighting, Workers’ Councils were born in all the major centres and places of work. In a remarkably short period of time, these spontaneously invented institutions had taken over the management of the economy, the manufacture of weapons, the distribution of foodstuffs and goods, the coordination of armed groups, and communication.

The power of the government was totally broken; even its armed forces either went over to the revolution or stayed in the barracks, refusing all orders. When after three days of fighting Russian troops were withdrawn from the cities, the government was reduced to alternately broadcasting appeals to the population, and denunciations of "counter-revolutionary" forces. Both were equally ignored.

The exercise of power now lay with the Workers’ Councils, not with an impotent government. The councils were formed everywhere: factories, mines, state farms, offices, educational institutions, on the railways . . . Mass meetings at which everyone had one vote made all decisions. Decisions encompassing more than the immediate unit were made by delegated regional, provincial, and a national council. All delegates were immediately recallable. Without a party to lead them, without a state apparatus, the Hungarian workers – i.e. the vast majority of the population – took over the running of their society, and began to radically change it.

"Economic relations are relations between people: who tells whom what to do and how to do it. Property relations are relations between people and things: who owns what: land, factories, mines, ships, etc. These are basic definitions in the science of political economy as elaborated by Marx and Engels. But for many years, carried away by the promises of the Plan, the majority of Marxists have forgotten this. That is, they forgot who was telling whom what to do and how to do it... (Their view) was based upon the extremely simple and extremely false thesis that state ownership of property equals workers state."
- C.L.R. James

The managers of the factories were removed, yet production continued, with priorities set by the councils. The London Observer reported: "A fantastic aspect of the situation is that although the general strike is in being and there is no centrally organised industry, the workers are nevertheless taking it upon themselves to keep essential services going, for purposes which they themselves determine and support. Workers’ Councils in industrial districts have undertaken the distribution of essential goods and food to the population, in order to keep them alive. The coal miners are making daily allocations of just sufficient coal to keep the power stations going and supply the hospitals in Budapest and other large towns. Railwaymen organise trains to go to approved destinations for approved purposes..."

Within days, twenty-five new daily newspapers appeared, with believable news and conflicting opinions openly presented.

Hungary had made a successful communist revolution. Successful, except for one thing. Early in November, Russian troops moved in again. The tanks, planes, and machine-guns of the world’s most powerful army were used to crush the resistance of the tiny (10 million) revolutionary nation. For a week, armed resistance continued, but then it was drowned in blood. Even afterwards, a general strike continued for weeks and the workers’ councils attempted to continue operating. Ironic posters appeared proclaiming: "Danger, 10 million counterrevolutionary agents still at large". Not for months was resistance completely broken. But finally the revolution was defeated – at least for the present.

But even in defeat, the revolution taught some invaluable lessons, both negative and positive, to all those who were willing to heed them.

The nature of the Soviet Union was made utterly clear.

For a long time, Russia had been seen as the homeland of revolution, a nation that, despite its failures and faults, was treading a new path for mankind.

Few had understood that the Russian revolution, taking place in a tremendously backward country with a tiny working class, and led by a party that denied workers the right to manage their factories and gain the experiences that were necessary for a socialist consciousness, had been unable, in its isolation and in the face of the active hostility of the rest of the world, to accomplish what it set out to do. Instead, the Bolsheviks were forced to

"Released from the fear that art and literature must serve only politics, sensing all around them the expansion of human needs, human capacities, and cooperation, the Hungarian people created twenty-five newspapers overnight, the older artists and the younger talents pouring out news, articles, stories, and poems, in a flood-tide of artistic energy."
- C.L.R. James

"Workers’ management of production, government from below, and government by consent ... (are) one and the same thing."
- C.L.R. James

propel the nation into the industrial age with the managers, bureaucrats and techniques of capitalism – but of a capitalism in which all property belonged to the state – state capitalism. Marx had predicted that only advanced industrial nations could achieve socialism. The Bolsheviks used superhuman efforts to prove him wrong, but failed.

The result was a rapid degeneration of the revolution. Bureaucracy and over-centralization ran rampant as the dictatorship of the proletariat became the dictatorship over the proletariat. The essential social and economic relations of capitalism continued unchanged. Russia was no more a workers’ state than Sweden or the United States.

Indeed, as the western countries such as the U.S. moved into the era of the welfare state and ever greater state intervention in the economy, increasingly, the major difference between the west and the Russian bloc came to be a gap in living standards, quickly being lessened, and a lack of political freedoms (though this is true of many "free world" countries as well). For ordinary people, the differences between the competitive capitalist societies and the state capitalist societies were largely academic.

And for their governments, their relationships became those of competing imperialist blocs – the American, vastly more powerful, being the more aggressive – whose differences were major, but hardly irreconcilable. The current U.S.-Russian detente bears witness to that.

The Hungarian workers were among the first to understand this, and to understand that their conditions and relations under "Socialism" were no different from those they had experienced under capitalism. They rose to oust the privileged bureaucracy that was exploiting them.

"The relations of production (boss-worker; manager-managed; order-giver order-taker;) remain the basis of the class structure of any society. In all countries of the world these relations are capitalist relations because they are based on wage labour. The Hungarian working class attempted to transcend class society by striking at the very roots of the social system.

"Certain Western observers thought their methods ‘chaotic’. They deplored their ‘absence of organisation’. But the Hungarian workers had instinctively grasped, although perhaps not explicitly proclaimed, that they must break completely with those traditional forms which had for years entrapped both them and the working class of the West. This was their strength. New organs of struggle were created: the Workers’ Councils which embodied, in embryo, the new society they were seeking to achieve." (from Andy Anderson, Hungary 56)

By showing that socialism has nothing in common with state bureaucracies or state capitalism, that liberation cannot be legislated or bestowed but only desired and taken, and by indicating a fundamental form of socialist society – the form as efficient as it is liberating – the Hungarian people pointed the way for the rest of the world. It is up to us to follow that road.

Much of the material for this article was taken from Andy Anderson, Hungary 56.

Andy Anderson, Hungary 56, Solidarity.
C . L . R . James, Facing Reality, Bewick Editions.
Peter Fryer, Hungarian Tragedy, Dodson Books.
Socialism or Barbarism, Solidarity.
George Mikes, The Hungarian Revolution, Andre Deutsch.

Gabriel Kolko, The Politics of War, Vintage.
David Horowitz, From Yalta to Vietnam, Penguin.

Published in The Varsity, October 26, 1973.

Subject Headings:
Communist Regimes/Europe - Hungarian Revolution 1956 - Hungary - Revolutionary Moments