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Hungary 1956: Introduction

Could things have been different? Was the dawn of hope ushered in by the Russian revolution of 1917 bound to end in the capitalist counterrevolution of today? The 50th anniversary of the Hungarian revolution is one of the most significant dates in the 20th century calendar of the working class.  A genuine workers revolt against Stalinism was crushed and was followed by repression across Eastern Europe and the USSR.  The Stalinists justified the repression as a defence of socialism, only to become the capitalists themselves.   The following analysis has been published on the world socialist website and, although we consider it dogmatic and sectarian when it includes in its analysis its account of differences within the Trotskyist movement, we believe the overall account to be worthwhile. (Editor)

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Hungary 1956: A revolution against Stalinism

By Sybille Fuchs

26 October 2006

Part one

This month marks the fiftieth anniversary of one of the most seminal episodes in the post-war history of Eastern Europe—the bloody suppression of the Hungarian Revolution by Soviet tanks. We are reprinting here the first of a two-part article dealing with the historical and political background to the popular uprising against the Stalinist bureaucracy, which was first published in the International Workers Bulletin, the printed forerunner of the World Socialist Web Site, in February of 1997. The original German version appeared in December 1996 in the German newspaper Neue Arbeiterpresse.

Fifty years on, the Hungarian Revolution of autumn 1956 remains the subject of contradictory explanations and many historical distortions.

Apologists for the Soviet Stalinist bureaucracy present the bloody suppression of the uprising as a justified response to a fascist counterrevolution, while imperialist powers seek to confer on it the mantle of a heroic struggle against communism in favor of bourgeois democracy and capitalist restoration. They portray it as the beginning of a movement which culminated in the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the triumph of capitalism throughout Eastern Europe.

An examination of the events of autumn 1956 reveals that it was neither of these. The Hungarian Revolution was a tragically unsuccessful attempt by the Hungarian working class to bring down the ruling Stalinist regime and erect organs of workers’ power, thus opening the way for a genuine socialist society.

Hungary in the years following the Second World War was still an economically backward and overwhelmingly agrarian country. But the working class, although small and concentrated in a few places, possessed strong revolutionary traditions. Under the leadership of the Communist Party in 1918-19, Bela Kun sought to establish a soviet republic after the model of the 1917 October Revolution in Russia.

The undertaking ended bloodily with a right-wing coup, in no small measure due to serious political mistakes made by Kun. The Horthy regime which came to power rested on the fascist gangs of the Szalaszi. Horthy later became one of the most loyal allies of the Nazis. In the 1930s, thousands of resistance fighters, mainly from the workers’ movement, were deported or murdered.

Many of the cadres of the Hungarian Communist Party who managed to evade the death squads and prisons of the Horthy regime and fled into exile in Paris, Spain or the Soviet Union later fell victim to the Stalinist purges. Those who returned to Hungary after 1945 and rose to assume leading positions had, as a rule, proved themselves loyal supporters of the Stalinist bureaucracy.

Hungary after the war

After 1945, Hungarian workers were burning to settle accounts with the fascists and their backers within the feudal aristocracy and the bourgeoisie. They hoped that the presence of the Red Army would facilitate this. But in the deals struck between Stalin and the imperialists, Hungary was categorized as a vanquished country that had to pay reparations. The Stalinist-dominated Hungarian regime suppressed the Hungarian workers and held down their living standards in order to make the payments.

Despite the introduction at the end of the 1940s of elements of a planned economy, severely distorted by the rule of the Stalinist bureaucracy, the reparation payments provoked a protracted economic crisis. Compounding the crisis, the forced collectivization of the peasants effectively put out of action 10 percent of the agricultural land.

Because of the Cold War, enormous investments flowed into the military-industrial complex and the Hungarian Peoples Army. At the same time, Hungary had to pay for the upkeep and supply of four Soviet divisions. Supplies for the civilian population were inadequate and the situation grew even worse at the beginning of the 1950s. Despite the claims of the bureaucracy to the contrary, living standards had fallen below the prewar level, while workers were confronted with ever-rising productivity targets and compelled to work more and more unpaid shifts.

The post-war bourgeois coalition government which was formed by the Communist Party on instructions from Moscow was unable to hold onto power. The Stalin loyalists who had returned from Moscow took full power into their hands in 1947. An omnipresent political police force called the AVH was formed almost entirely from elements of the old Horthy government.

The main task of the AVH was to hunt down the old resistance fighters and communists who had not been selected and trained in exile in Moscow, but had remained in Hungary to fight in the underground. Several purges strangled any form of political opposition to the party regime of the Stalin loyalist Mátyás Rákosi. Political show trials, power struggles inside the bureaucracy, cloak-and-dagger actions by the secret police, torture and executions characterized the political climate.

Following the break by Tito’s Yugoslav Communist Party with Stalin, Tito became a pole of attraction for opposition elements both inside and outside the Communist parties. In Hungary, party purges and deportations increased. Between 1952 and 1956 alone, 1,136,434 people were put on trial, and more than half were given prison sentences. Almost a quarter of the entire population was subject to state persecution or police harassment.

Before the uprising

Following Stalin’s death in 1953, and even more so after Khrushchev’s secret speech to the Twentieth Congress of the Soviet Communist Party in the spring of 1956, the hopes of workers in Hungary and the rest of Eastern Europe began to rise. Their determination to defend themselves against the bureaucracy and its hated apparatus grew. Shortly after the uprising of the East German workers in 1953, 20,000 Hungarian steelworkers from the Mátyás-Rákosi plant in the industrial district of Csepel in Budapest took strike action. The action rapidly spread to other towns.

The government felt obliged to make considerable concessions to the workers. Fearing that the bureaucracy as a whole might lose control of the situation, Khrushchev intervened in Hungary. He replaced Rákosi with Imre Nagy, a popular figure as a result of land reforms implemented while he was minister of agriculture in 1945.

Nagy promised a “new course,” i.e., more consumer goods and a higher standard of living. This change proved, however, to be only a short-lived maneuver. After 18 months, Rákosi was put back in office. His return sparked considerable unrest, even inside the Hungarian CP, which continued up until 1956.

Things were also fermenting in neighboring Poland. On June 30, 1956, a rebellion of workers and students broke out in the town of Poznan. The army and security forces killed 41 people. In October of the same year, the crisis intensified to such a degree that the country faced the real threat of civil war and a split in the party. The Soviet army set off in the direction of Warsaw and Khrushchev traveled to the Polish capital, attempting to defuse the situation with some concessions.

An opposition bureaucrat, the “reformer” Wladyslaw Gomulka, was released from jail and made head of the Polish party. At the same time, the Soviet chiefs-of-staff of the Polish army were replaced with Polish officers. In this way the bureaucracy was able to temporarily stabilize its rule in Poland.

However, the fire spread to Hungary. In the spring of 1956, immediately following Khrushchev’s speech, violent protests erupted among intellectuals, writers and students against the Rákosi regime. The Communist Youth League established a discussion forum as a safety valve and named it after the Hungarian national poet Petöfi.

The Petöfi circle, as it was called, more and more became a forum for the entire political opposition to the regime. The youth and intellectuals demanded Rákosi’s removal and the “de-Stalinization” of Hungary.

The Soviet ambassador Yuri Andropov—later head of the KGB and Brezhnev’s successor as party chief—provided the Kremlin with detailed information on these events. The Soviet bureaucracy intervened once more to defuse the situation. Rákosi was again removed and brought to Moscow, were he remained until his death in 1971.

In his place came not the popular Imre Nagy as in 1953, but deputy party leader Ernö Gerö, who was no less hated than Rákosi. Gerö gained his reputation as a Stalinist butcher and torturer in Spain, and prior to 1945 he had enforced a 100 percent Moscow-true line on the exile party in Paris.

Gerö, promising reforms, released a few hundred political prisoners and made a demonstrative reconciliation with Tito. The latter, fearing a growth of worker unrest in Yugoslavia, had buried his differences with Moscow. But Gerö was not in a position to implement policies which had any credibility in the eyes of the masses. Unrest grew daily, above all among the youth.

Eventually, Gerö was forced to rehabilitate the former leader of the Hungarian CP Lázlo Rajk and his supporters. Rajk had been executed as a “Titoist” following a show trial in 1949. Rajk’s widow had publicly called for his rehabilitation and the punishment of his murderers, and this had been taken up by the Petöfi circle as one of its demands.

On October 6, a state funeral was held for Rajk and three of his collaborators. The same figures who had organized the execution of Rajk now delivered orations in his honor. But to their surprise and horror, some 200,000 people showed up to demonstrate their opposition to the regime.

The so-called reformers within the CP apparatus, no less than the hard-line Stalinists, were frightened by this mass mobilization. As a sop to the opposition, Gerö had a number of state security officers arrested and charged in the death of Rajk. But this had the opposite effect. Mistrust in the Stalinist bureaucracy intensified and the self-assurance of the masses grew.

Everywhere, small Petöfi circles sprang to life, expressing popular dissatisfaction with the economic and political situation and seeking to uncover all manner of crimes committed by the bureaucracy. The preeminent elements in these circles were students and intellectuals, above all from the technical faculties. Many of them came from working class families. But in the factories too, political discussions became more and more frequent, lasted longer and grew increasingly heated.

The uprising begins

On October 15, 1956, students in Szeged in southern Hungary formed their own student league and resigned from the Stalinist-controlled League of Working Youth. On October 22, they were followed by students from Budapest, who addressed demands to the party and government.

Among other things, the students called for freedom of expression and the press, free and secret elections, the right of other political parties to participate, the right of workers to strike, a check on productivity targets, and the reorganization of economic life.

There were three basic demands:

* The withdrawal of Soviet troops.

* Reelection of the top and middle-ranking party leadership by the rank-and-file by means of secret ballot elections, to be held within the shortest possible time. The calling of a party congress to elect a new central committee.

* The formation of a new government under the leadership of Imre Nagy. All leading functionaries from the Stalin period under Rákosi to be removed immediately.

There was also a call for public trials of the heads of the Stalinist bureaucracy and the state security agencies to hold them accountable for their crimes.

Another demand was for the “review and reorganization of Hungarian-Yugoslav relations in the fields of politics, economics and culture.”

There were demands that the Stalin monument be removed and replaced with a monument to the heroes of the Hungarian freedom struggle of 1848-49.

The students’ mobilization continued to spread. The universities were occupied. One political meeting followed another. The students turned to the workers and held spontaneous meetings at the factory gates, where they were received with increasing enthusiasm.

On October 23, the government banned a meeting called to show solidarity with the Polish uprising. Faced with the threat of mobilization of youth, the ban was lifted shortly after it was announced.

At 3 PM, 10,000 people assembled at the Petöfi monument in Budapest. To loud acclaim, a student read out the demands put to the government. That same afternoon, 200,000 people gathered at the monument to General Bem, one of the freedom fighters of 1848, where the author Péter Veres read out demands advanced by Hungarian writers, and a Polish writer brought greetings to the demonstrators.

The students had invited workers, officer cadets and soldiers to the rally, who turned out in their thousands. A delegation from the CP’s own party school, the Lenin Institute, marched with red flags and a large portrait of Lenin. The crowd sang by turns the Hungarian national anthem, the Marseillaise and the Internationale.

Later in the afternoon, the crowd, which had now grown to 300,000, moved to parliament square to listen to a speech by Nagy. The students were by now just a small minority of the assembled throng.

Nagy appeared on the balcony when it was dark and gave a short and confused speech. He promised to speak up for the crowd’s demands in the Politburo and urged that peace and order be maintained. The crowd was visibly disappointed. With the increasing enthusiasm the demonstration took up the chant, “We will not stop half-way, Stalinism must be destroyed!”

Workers in tractors proceeded to the Stalin monument, intent on pulling it down. When they failed to topple it, they used a blowtorch to sever the statue above the feet. The colossus fell, leaving only a pair of giant empty shoes on the plinth. They hitched the statue to a truck and in triumph dragged it through the streets to the National Theater, where demonstrators spat on it.

In the meantime, another part of the demonstration had gathered at the radio broadcast offices. The students insisted that their demands be read over the airwaves. When the crowd tried to force its way into the building, AVH guards began shooting. The crowd began to chant, “The AVH are murderers! Death to the AVH!”

When military reinforcements arrived and saw the situation, they joined with the demonstrators, passing out their weapons and participating in the storming of the radio transmitter. An entire tank regiment that had been given the order to violently break up the demonstration refused to intervene and fraternized with the crowd.

By midnight more and more trucks full of workers from the factories in the industrial districts of Csepel and Ujest were arriving. They brought munitions and weapons from the factory depots. Other workers went to the army barracks and arsenals to fetch more weapons. These were, in many cases, given to them freely by the soldiers.

The government called on Soviet troops and tank units for help in defeating the uprising. The battles continued throughout the night. In the early morning hours of October 24, Soviet tanks rolled through the streets of the capital. Spontaneously throughout the working class districts combat units were formed and barricades erected. Militant communist workers often stood at their head.

The largest and most important combat unit was at the Corvin Alley, immediately opposite the Kilian Barracks. Fighting broke out there when officers from the barracks attempted to arrest some of the demonstrators. The Ministry of Defense sent Colonel Pál Maléter with five tanks to free the barracks from the siege. He released the prisoners and negotiated a cease-fire. Maléter then tried to pursue a policy of neutrality. However, when Soviet tanks threatened, he defended the barracks and the surrounding area until a cease-fire was announced.

Maléter, who was 39 at the time, had fought as a partisan in Transylvania against the Nazis. He had joined the Communist Party in 1945 and was entrusted with the reorganization of the Hungarian military. During the entire revolution, he wore the red star of the partisans and always stressed that he was nothing other than a communist. In an interview with Western journalists, he said: “If we get rid of the Russians, don’t think we will be going back to the old times. And if some people want to do this, then we shall see what we do with them!” He stroked his revolver and added, “We don’t want to go back to capitalism. We want socialism in Hungary.”

Maléter was made defense minister in the short-lived Nagy government. During negotiations with representatives of the Red Army under the leadership of KGB chief Serov, he was arrested. He was later executed along with Nagy.

Red Army soldiers fraternize

After four days of bitter fighting, the Moscow bureaucracy agreed to a cease-fire and promised to withdraw its troops. The decision was made not so much because of the unexpectedly determined resistance of the Hungarians, but out of fear that Red Army soldiers, infected by the spirit of the revolution, would join the uprising and impart the mood of rebellion to the Soviet working class.

Wherever Russian tank columns arrived, workers and students encircled them and sought to explain that they had a right to defend themselves against the Stalinist bureaucracy. In some cases, tank commanders made speeches explaining they had been told they would be fighting fascists in Hungary, but now saw that only workers were on the streets.

The rebels distributed leaflets in Russian to the soldiers. One of these said: “Friends, do not shoot us! Refuse to play the role of executioner! You helped us overthrow the fascist dictatorship, but now you yourselves are helping a dictatorship. Friends, you are serving red imperialism and by no means the cause of socialism!”

The scenes of fraternization, in which Hungarian workers and students clambered onto Soviet tanks and draped them in Hungarian flags, led many people in Budapest to believe that the Red Army had joined the revolution. The mere thought of such a development made the blood of the Kremlin bureaucrats run cold.

At one point, a crowd marching to the parliament building and shouting, “We are workers, not fascists,” was hit with machine-gun fire from a roof top. Neither the demonstrators nor the Soviet soldiers in the square knew who had fired. Soviet tanks shot back at the roof, but by this time almost 100 demonstrators lay dead in the square.

It was assumed that the hated AVH was responsible for the massacre. But Western radio stations, above all, the American propaganda station Radio Liberty, repeatedly broadcast that the Red Army was responsible for the mass killing. This incident became the trigger for further violent battles which continued until October 28.

Part two

At the heart of the military confrontation which began on October 23, 1956 lay the question of political power. Hungarian workers established revolutionary committees or elected councils all over the country. These were organs of workers’ power, similar to those which had appeared in Russia in the revolutions of 1905 and 1917.

By October 25, the workers of Pecs had established the first revolutionary committee. A workers council was set up in the Miskolc factory. That same afternoon, the workers formulated their demands and submitted them to the government. Prisoners were released from jails and labor camps.

A national strike began on October 26. Fighting spread rapidly to the provinces. Revolutionary committees and workers’ councils began organizing political and social life independently of the party and government. As in Russia in 1917, a situation of dual power arose.

Isolated from the masses, the party leadership floundered helplessly. The Central Committee of the Communist Party of Hungary eventually agreed to the formation of a new national government. It also promised to renegotiate Hungary’s relations with the Soviet government, on condition that the acts of resistance cease.

Although Imre Nagy managed to restrain the party’s military committee from attacking Corvin Alley, a center of armed workers’ resistance, sections of the ruling Stalinist bureaucracy were intent on crushing the rebellion by force. All over the country there were bloody clashes, with numerous fatalities.

The Stalinist “reformers” show their true face

On October 28, Nagy and Yuri Andropov, the Soviet ambassador, held talks in the presence of a representative of the Kremlin bureaucracy, Anastas Mikoyan. The most discredited members of the Hungarian party leadership retreated to the Soviet Union for their own safety. A new group of six Central Committee members—including both Janos Kadar and Imre Nagy—took over political leadership.

It seemed as though the new government had received the go-ahead from Moscow and could now act with greater independence. Nagy recognized the councils as legitimate workers’ organs and even promised to build a republic based on them. He ordered a cease-fire and in a radio speech announced the immediate withdrawal of the Soviet troops and the liquidation of the AVH, the hated Hungarian secret police.

Behind the scenes, however, the party’s military committee was drawing up plans for a military dictatorship and making the appropriate preparations.

On October 29, the withdrawal of Soviet troops began in earnest. There were only sporadic armed clashes. Most Hungarians believed that their revolution had triumphed over the Kremlin bureaucracy.

At this point reactionary movements were founded with the aim of shifting the revolution in a different direction. Anti-Semitic slogans began appearing sporadically on Budapest walls. Released from detention, the Catholic cardinal, József Mindszenty, was glorified by the Western media as the real hero of the resistance. Such developments were later used by the Kremlin bureaucracy to claim that the Hungarian uprising was a fascist counterrevolution.

On October 31, Nagy made a speech in Kossuth square in which he announced the beginning of talks with the Soviet Union and plans for Hungary’s withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact. He promised that October 23 would be a new national holiday.

On the very same day, as most Hungarians were still celebrating the victory of their revolution, the Kremlin leadership met to consider the crisis. Recently released documents confirm that after heated factional conflicts the Kremlin agreed it could no longer tolerate political experiments or reforms in Hungary. It decided to restore the old order by force. The Moscow bureaucracy had every reason to fear that the revolution would spread, threatening its own rule.

On November 1, two members of the Hungarian party leadership, Ferenc Muennich and Janos Kadar, went to the Soviet embassy. For the next two days no member of the leadership was able to contact either of them. They were receiving their orders from Moscow. Both were to play a central part in crushing the workers’ councils.

The Soviet leadership under Khrushchev had discussed the matter with the Chinese party leadership and obtained its consent for a military intervention in Hungary. Zhou Enlai traveled to Budapest to make clear his government’s approval of the plan. Fresh troops from the most remote regions of the Soviet Union started to move towards Hungary. To prevent the recurrence of fraternization with the Hungarian workers, the bureaucracy selected troops who barely spoke Russian.

Tito’s Yugoslav government, which at first indicated support for the uprising in Hungary, also made clear that its “anti-Stalinism” should not be misconstrued as support for the workers’ conquest of power. It was far too interested in securing its own bureaucratic rule for that. Tito even declared to Moscow’s envoy that the Kremlin should “get the matter out of the way quickly and thoroughly.”

Western powers give Moscow the go-ahead

The US and its Western allies exploited the Hungarian rebellion for their own purposes. Radio Free Europe launched an anticommunist propaganda crusade, giving every impression that the West would intervene on the side of the Hungarians in the event of a Soviet attack. Through the channels of secret diplomacy, however, the US government signaled Moscow that it recognized Hungary as part of the Soviet sphere of influence. The message was clear: the Kremlin could act as it saw fit.

On the evening that Soviet troops marched back into Hungary, US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles declared that Moscow’s action was completely legal under the terms of the Warsaw Pact. “From the standpoint of international law and the honoring of agreements,” he said, “I do not think that one can claim that it is a breach of contract.”

The US government understood that the victory of the Hungarian workers could spark rebellions by the working class in the other Eastern European countries and eventually in Western Europe. It clearly recognized Stalinism’s suppression of the working class as a mainstay of its own rule and a bulwark against revolutionary upheavals.

The other Western powers backed Washington’s agreement with Moscow. England and France were at that moment embroiled in a military adventure in another part of the world. Egypt had nationalized the Suez Canal and in so doing expropriated its former French and British owners. Israel, France and Great Britain attacked Egypt on October 29. The Soviet Union signaled that it would not intervene to support Egypt. Under pressure from Washington, the British, French and Israeli troops arranged a cease-fire. Although Egypt kept the canal, a large part of its territory was occupied by the Israelis.

In light of the Kremlin’s cooperation in the Middle East, the Western powers saw no reason to cancel the Potsdam and Yalta treaties. Even after November 1, when the Nagy government announced its decision to withdraw from the Warsaw Pact, establish Hungarian neutrality and seek the protection of the four powers, the West showed no desire to intervene. The imperialist powers placed their trust in the Kremlin bureaucracy and its powerful apparatus. They feared that the Nagy government would be unable to keep the workers under control and prevent the revolution from spreading.

Nevertheless, Nagy and his advisors refused to believe in an imminent military intervention by the Kremlin with the tacit backing of the Western governments.

On November 3, Nagy established a new government, including ministers from the Small Peasants Party and the Social Democrats. The same day a Hungarian delegation under the leadership of the minister of defense, Colonel Pál Maléter, went to the Soviet headquarters in Toekoel to negotiate the final withdrawal of the Soviet troops. General Serov, leader of the KGB, had them arrested immediately.

The next day the Soviet army’s invasion began. Nagy was warned, and with 43 of his co-workers was able to escape to the Yugoslav embassy, where they were granted asylum. Later it was revealed that the Yugoslav role had been arranged in advance between Tito and Khrushchev. When they left the embassy sometime later, with the assurance of safe conduct, they were arrested. Nagy and some of his closest collaborators were hanged in 1958.

A new government was set up under Kadar, who immediately requested that the UN secretary general remove the Hungarian question from the agenda of the Security Council.

The Hungarian workers renewed their military struggle for a free and truly socialist society. In a number of places armed resistance broke out against the Soviet troops. During fighting in Budapest more than 160 people were killed on November 6 alone. Hundreds of Hungarians were arrested and deported to Soviet gulags. The revolution was drowned in blood.

But the workers did not give up. Lightly armed and with Molotov cocktails, they fought with all their might to defend their factories and homes.

Workers’ councils organize resistance

That the Hungarian Revolution was anything but a counterrevolutionary rebellion for the restoration of the capitalist order is shown, above all, in the role played by the workers’ councils. The Kadar government had a hard time pushing through the policies decided by Moscow. The workers’ councils, which were the backbone of the armed resistance, still largely controlled political and economic life throughout the country.

The first workers’ council was elected as early as October 24 in the Eggesult Izzo lamp factory, one of the biggest factories in Budapest, with 10,000 workers. This decision was taken as Soviet tanks rolled into the city for the first time.

The workers’ council demanded the dismissal of the factory directors appointed by the bureaucracy and their replacement by workers’ committees at all levels of production. “Let us demonstrate that we can settle matters better than our blind, tyrannical bosses,” read the council’s 10-point declaration.

In the days that followed, workers’ councils were set up in the steel mills, the shipyards of the Danube, the mines and many factories all over Hungary. They tried to enforce their political demands, which coincided to a great extent with those of the students, with a general strike. A meeting of the delegates of the workers’ councils from the biggest factories in Budapest agreed upon a program, which began with the statement: “The factories belong to the workers.”

When Soviet troops and tanks invaded on November 4, the Nagy government collapsed and all of the Hungarian party’s “reformers” capitulated to the Kremlin bureaucracy. This demonstrated that the working class and its councils were the real driving force of the Hungarian Revolution.

From the beginning of the revolution, the power of the Nagy government was hardly felt outside the walls of the government building. The regime went further and further to the right the more the situation came to a head. It could not and would not rest upon the workers. Instead, it called for support from the imperialists and the UN.

The students’ and workers’ combat groups were hardly a military match for the Soviet tanks. Nonetheless, the workers continued to fight in the councils and in the factories. They organized another political general strike, this time against the new Soviet-installed government of Kadar. In the face of Soviet occupation and Stalinist repression, the strikers held out for a whole month.

In the working class areas of Budapest and in the industrial suburbs and towns, the occupying forces of the Stalinists met fierce resistance. In Dunapentele, a town which had been built around huge iron and steel works, the workers’ council produced a statement during the siege which read: “Dunapentele is the leading socialist town in Hungary. In this town, all inhabitants are workers and they have the power here.... The town’s population is armed. It will not give up because it has built the factories and the houses with its own hands.... The workers will defend the town against fascism—as well as against the Soviet troops.”

The Budapest workers also defended the factories they had occupied against the tanks. The hospitals reported that the majority of the dead and wounded were young workers, whereas the well-to-do villa areas of Budapest, where the upper-middle class lived, were hardly touched.

On November 9, the government outlawed the Budapest workers’ central council and arrested the majority of its members after the council had renewed its call for a strike. But even then the workers refused to be intimidated. They extended their strikes on December 11 and 12. Even the Communist Party’s newspaper Nepszabadsag was forced to concede that the strike was the “biggest in the history of the Hungarian workers movement.”

In response, the government declared a state of emergency, giving itself the power to ban all meetings and demonstrations and to imprison people without trial. Even so, the workers continued their struggle. In the iron and steel mills of Csepel, workers staged a sit-down strike. They demanded the release of their leaders.

A speaker declared: “We think that this is the only reasonable thing we can do at the moment. We have come to the factory because we need our wages and because we are together here. If we stayed at home, the factory doors would be closed and it would be much easier for the government to pick us off individually than here in the factory where we are united.”

Similar occupations spread to many other big factories. When the AVH and the Soviet troops were eventually called in to take over the factories, fighting broke out.

Even after the last armed resistance in “Red Csepel” ended on November 11, the workers remained organized in councils in the factories, regions and towns and on a national level. And the strike continued.

The strikers stipulated to Moscow and the Hungarian government that they would go back to work only if political prisoners were released and Soviet troops withdrawn. Their aim was to keep the factories under workers’ control and strengthen the councils’ power.

A meeting was called in Budapest on November 21 for the purpose of forming a national workers’ council. When the workers arrived at the meeting place, they found that the police and the army had bolted the entrances to the building. Despite the massive threat of repression, the delegates reconvened at another site and held their meeting. Many workers in the factories went on protest strikes, fearing that their delegates had been arrested.

Only after weeks of repression did the workers’ resolve weaken, making it possible for the Kadar government to consolidate its power over the councils. Lacking an independent political leadership, the delegates of the workers’ councils were unable to take power. Instead, they negotiated endlessly with the Kadar government. Finally, in most of the councils, a majority voted to return to work. But only a fourth of the workers returned.

In January, the Kadar government felt strong enough to move in for the kill. It issued a decree banning strikes or the call for strikes, threatening violators with the death penalty. The workers’ councils were barred from making any more political decisions and all resolutions concerning the factories were required to have the approval of a political commissar of the Stalinist party.

The last thing the workers wanted was councils that functioned as instruments of the bureaucracy. They decided to dissolve the bodies.

Hungary and the Fourth International

As a member of the Nagy government, Kadar had enjoyed a degree of confidence among some layers of the population (mainly the farmers and the middle class of the towns). This is one reason why the Kremlin chose him to head the new government installed by force of Soviet arms.

The Kremlin left it to Kadar to enter into a round of talks with the workers, during which he made false promises in order to persuade them to give up their struggle.

Moscow’s plan was eventually successful, but not because workers supported Kadar. What the workers lacked was a Marxist understanding of Stalinism and the necessity for a political revolution to overthrow the bureaucracy.

Only the Trotskyists organised in the International Committee of the Fourth International (ICFI) warned the Hungarian workers against any confidence in the various “reform wings” of the bureaucracy and against allowing their fate to be decided by the Western powers or the UN.

The ICFI called for the unification of the workers of Hungary, the rest of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union in a struggle to overthrow the Stalinist bureaucracy. It based itself on the analysis of Stalinism made by Leon Trotsky, who had already concluded in the 1930s that the bureaucracy was a counterrevolutionary force that could defend its power and privileges against the working class only through increasingly close cooperation with the imperialist bourgeoisie. The social conquests of the October Revolution could be defended and the path to socialism opened up only through a political struggle by the working class to overthrow the bureaucracy and unite with workers in the West on the basis of the program of world socialist revolution.

This perspective was central to the establishment of the Fourth International in 1938. The founding program of the Fourth International states: “Either the bureaucracy, becoming ever more the organ of the world bourgeoisie in the workers state, will overthrow the new forms of property and plunge the country back to capitalism, or the working class will crush the bureaucracy and open the way to socialism.”

But in 1956, Hungarian workers were cut off from this perspective as a result of Stalinist purges and repression. There existed no section of the Fourth International in Hungary. The Stalinist bureaucracy had carried out a ruthless campaign of political genocide against its socialist opponents, including the Moscow Trials of the 1930s. The most important Trotskyist cadres, as well as other left opponents of Stalinism, were murdered, not just in the Soviet Union, but in many other parts of the world. The principal target of the purges and mass executions were the supporters of Leon Trotsky, who was assassinated in Mexico on Stalin’s orders in 1940.

An additional and critical factor in the postwar period was the emergence of an opportunist tendency within the Fourth International itself, which challenged Trotsky’s assessment of the counterrevolutionary role of Stalinism. Basing themselves on the nationalizations carried out by the Stalinist bureaucracy at the end of the 1940s in Eastern Europe, Michel Pablo and Ernest Mandel concluded that under pressure from the working class, the bureaucracy could be forced to the left and compelled to play an historically progressive role. This repudiation of Trotskyism meant, in practice, the liquidation of independent Marxist parties of the Fourth International.

The supporters of Pablo and Mandel glorified Yugoslav leader Tito and other alleged “reformers” within the Stalinist bureaucracy—such as Nagy in Hungary and Gomulka in Poland. They proclaimed Khrushchev to be an “anti- Stalinist” following his secret speech to the 20th Party Congress. All of this served to politically disarm the workers in Hungary.

Nagy’s role in politically subordinating the Hungarian workers to Stalinism and the bloody suppression of their rebellion by Khrushchev’s tanks not only revealed the true face of the Stalinist “reformers,” but also the political character of Pabloism as an appendage and prop for the counterrevolutionary bureaucracy.

The International Committee had been created three years before to defend the revolutionary perspectives of Trotskyism against Pabloite opportunism. Lacking forces in Hungary in 1956, it nevertheless did all in its power to support the workers politically. It published all of the reports of the Hungarian Revolution which had been suppressed by the Stalinist and capitalist media.

The British section of the International Committee, in particular, used the lessons of the Hungarian rebellion to undertake an offensive against Stalinism. It turned to workers, young people and intellectuals who belonged to the Communist Party or stood close to it, but were angered and repelled by the Kremlin’s actions in Hungary. It explained that the Hungarian events vindicated Trotsky’s analysis and the historic struggle of the Fourth International against Stalinism.

Through such a political offensive, the British section was able to win the best members of the old Communist parties, assist them in breaking from Stalinism and win them to the Fourth International. This strengthened the authority of the section in the working class and assisted in the building of new sections.

The role of the bureaucracy was further exposed in the subsequent years of Kadar’s regime. His “reforms” of the 1960s—carried out with the approval of the Kremlin bureaucracy—were aimed at the partial introduction of “free market” forms of exploitation. In 1980 he began to agitate vehemently against so-called social “equalisation,” under conditions where workers were increasingly angered by the growing economic and social differentiation between the working masses and middle-class elements in and around the bureaucratic state and party apparatus.

Kadar’s successors at the head of the Stalinist party and its successor organizations, such as Gyula Horn and the country’s current prime minister, Ferenc Gyurcsany, went even further in paving the way for the reintroduction of capitalism.

Contrary to bourgeois propaganda about the Hungarian Revolution, it was the Stalinist bureaucracy which steered the country towards capitalist restoration, not the working class. In 1956, the working class fought for genuine socialism. The bloody suppression of the Hungarian workers was a decisive precondition for further steps by the Stalinist bureaucracy toward the final liquidation of the gains of the Russian Revolution and the restoration of capitalist market relations in Russia and Eastern Europe—with all of its attendant catastrophic consequences for the Hungarian, East European and Russian working class.


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