Forty years ago almost to the day, on 9 December 1956, an emergency decree signed by the then Hungarian prime minister, Janos Kadar, banned the Central Workers' Council of Budapest. His reason, he said, was that «its members are only concerned with politics aimed at building a new power opposed to the executive institutions of the state». At the very same time, a full meeting of this Budapest Central Workers' Council was voting a call for a general strike in an attempt to stop a brutal wave of repression which had already taken a heavy toll among workers. The last stage in a seven-week confrontation between a popular uprising and the Hungarian state which was backed by 200,000 Soviet troops, had begun. By that time, the only serious obstacle to a return to the previous dictatorship was this Council and the social forces which it represented, the working class.
What took place in Hungary in 1956, was a revolution, in the sense that the population staged an armed uprising against the repressive forces of the state. Moreover it was a proletarian revolution, in that the working class soon emerged as the main force of change, with its own banners and organisations. The Budapest Central Workers' Council was the voice and the instrument of the Budapest working class. It had been set up by the workers themselves in the heat of the armed insurrection in order to provide it with a backbone and a leadership of their own. And yes, Janos Kadar was dead right. The Central Workers' Council was indeed striving to build «a new power opposed to the executive institutions of the state» - a power which would have allowed the working class to reshape society in accordance with its social interests, leaving no space for privileges of any kind. And even though most of the Hungarian insurgents would probably not have used such a phrase, because its real sense had been so distorted by the official jargon, their objective was just what their forerunners in the history of the working class had always called the dictatorship of the proletariat.
The Hungarian revolution was an integral part of the chain of proletarian revolutions initiated by the 1917 October revolution. In postwar Eastern Europe, it was part of a tradition of proletarian resistance against the dictatorial regimes and, in fact, the most powerful challenge ever faced by these regimes. It was also a revolution which had to re-invent and go through many of the past experiences of the international working class. How it did this, its strengths and its weaknesses, and the causes of its final defeat, is what concerns us today. And this cannot be understood outside the context of the postwar transformations in Eastern Europe.
Sharp contradictions in Eastern Europe
Before World War II, leaving aside the special case of what was to become East Germany, all these countries were poor, by any standards. In 1939, their Gross Domestic Product per head ranked somewhere between Egypt and Greece. The richest among them, Czechoslovakia, only reached 28% of Britain's level, while the poorest, Albania, which had still to build its first railway track, was probably below 10%.
These were primarily agricultural countries. Their rural economy was archaïc, dominated by the survival of huge feudal estates like that of the Esterhazy family in Hungary, which covered around eight hundred square miles. On the other hand, nearly half of the population of these countries was made of an impoverished rural proletariat of landless farmhands and ruined small farmers.
The industries were weak, dominated by foreign capital - German, French, American and British. Their bourgeoisies were proportionally weak, crushed between an agrarian feudal class, which was still very strong, and a rising urban proletariat, which was already too strong to be contained easily.
All the ingredients for a political and social explosion existed, therefore, all over Eastern Europe. And the capitalist classes only managed to keep the lid on the boiler by sheltering in the shadow of more or less open military dictatorships - admiral Horthy in Hungary, Pildzudsky in Poland, General Georgiev in Bulgaria, Antonescu in Rumania, etc.. Only in Czechoslovakia was there anything remotely resembling a parliamentary democracy.
World War II postponed the threatening explosion. But at the same time, it deepened the existing contradictions. The whole of the Eastern European bourgeoisie, being much too weak to resist the powerful economic and military machine of German imperialism, capitulated. A large part of the industrial machinery of Eastern Europe, whether foreign-owned or not, was taken over and integrated into the conglomerates which made up Germany's war production machine, while Germany's central bank took over the entire banking system. To all intents and purposes, the Eastern European bourgeoisies were therefore virtually expropriated by German capital.
With the end of the war, the collapse of the German state resulted in the total or partial disintegration of all Eastern European states. The economy was not just plundered and disorganised by several years of operating almost entirely for the German war effort, it was also headless and, as a result, it came to a virtual standstill. As to the national bourgeoisies, which had been living in the shadow of German capital throughout the war, they were drained of any energy and even more impotent than in the pre-war days.
In many ways, the deep contradictions of Eastern Europe were coming to a head. And this time there was very little that stood in the way of the burning resentment of the Eastern European proletarian masses.
The Soviet bureaucracy fills the political vacuum
The situation in Eastern Europe at the end of 1944 was just what the imperialist bourgeoisies had feared right from the beginning of the war. The possibility of a large-scale revolutionary crisis reared its head, due to the political vacuum left by the end of the war and the determination of the exploited masses to settle accounts with the bourgeoisies who were responsible for these years of terrible hardship. This threat was one of the reasons for the inclusion of the Soviet bureaucracy in the imperialist alliance against Hitler. Stalin took responsibility for preventing a revolutionary backlash in the zone of occupation allocated to the Red Army, mostly in Eastern Europe.
The first objective of the Red Army when occupying Eastern Europe was therefore to fill urgently the political vacuum created by Hitler's collapse. To this end, national state machineries had to be rebuilt to supplement and legitimise the repressive role of the Red Army against the masses.
In practice, this meant that the Red Army brought back into business the police, judges and functionaries who had been responsible for the torture and killing of political opponents in the previous period. Many former members of the fascist militias which had blossomed all over Eastern Europe under Hitler's rule, were offered indemnity and an easy reconversion by joining the special repressive forces which were later to provide the core of the People's Democracies' political police, such as the AVH in Hungary or the STASI in East Germany.
Politically, the Soviet bureaucracy took no chances. As soon as the Red Army entered a country, a provisional government was set up with whatever bourgeois politicians were available. In Hungary, traditional bourgeois politicians were in short supply. So, when a provisional government was declared, in December 1944, in Debrecen, after the Red Army had occupied the town, it was led by general Miklos, the commanding officer of Horthy's First Army who had gone over to the Soviet side only two months earlier. Next to him sat his own chief of staff, a former general of Horthy's police, a rich aristocratic land-owner and a prominent member of the Catholic church hierarchy, plus a few bourgeois politicians and three members of the Hungarian communist party.
It must be said that, by and large, the setting up of these "national alliances" met with very few protests among the leading circles of the communist parties. Of course, all these parties were weak, and therefore more likely to be dependent on Moscow and to toe Stalin's line. But there were also deeper reasons for their acceptance of the postwar policy. Since the turn to the Popular Front in the mid-30s, the Stalinist line had been to promote national alliances with so-called "left" bourgeois forces. After the USSR entered the war, following Hitler's invasion, this line had taken the even cruder form of promoting patriotic or national alliances with whatever forces were willing to join in. Predictably, these policies had shaped the Eastern European communist parties into nationalist parties, which were largely isolated from the working class and which could more easily find common ground with the national bourgeoisies.
From normalisation to the cold war
Having thus filled the political vacuum with these artificial bourgeois regimes and rebuilt the repressive institutions of the state, the Soviet bureaucracy proceeded to consolidate the new regimes.
In Hungary, as soon as the country was totally occupied by the Red Army, the provisional government was faced with the daunting task of cold-starting an economic machinery which was at a virtual standstill - and yet was expected not only to feed the population, but also to cater for the needs of a huge Soviet occupying army.
Agriculture was paralysed by the fact that many of the largest landowners had fled the country. On the other hand, in many areas, the landless peasants had occupied some of the large estates even before the arrival of the Red Army. So the government took the obvious step of organising the redistribution of these estates to 700,000 landless families as well as to many small farmers. Significantly, there was no dissenting voice over this reform among the various politicians who made up the government coalition. Besides, this land reform had the additional advantage of providing this artificial regime with the grateful support of millions of peasants. So that when the first general election took place in December 1945, the coalition parties won an overwhelming majority. The largest vote by far went to the Smallholders' party - which represented the interests of the better-off farmers - whose leader became prime minister.
Subsequently further economic reforms were introduced. The coal mines were nationalised in January 1946, then the power stations and a series of large heavy industries. Many more were effectively taken over by the state without being formerly nationalised, since in the absence of their former owners and managers, this was the only way to resume production. There was nothing very radical in these measures which were not just approved but actually introduced by the bourgeois party which dominated the government coalition, the Smallholders' party.
As to the Hungarian communists, their position was summarised by the communist Agriculture minister, Imre Nagy, at his party conference in September 1946: «While the war was still being fought, we had determined, and this is one of the basic principles, that in Hungary this is not the time for transition from capitalism to socialism, for struggle between the two social systems, but for uprooting the powerful remnants of feudalism. It is not a question then of struggle between the two social systems, but of the struggle between democracy and the reaction within capitalism.»
By that time, it looked as though the Red Army's presence in Hungary had succeeded not just in putting back on its feet state rule by the privileged classes, but also in providing the country with a stable regime, and the bourgeoisie with a stable social basis among the millions of peasants who had benefited from the land reform. Events were, however, to take a different turn, not due to a change in Stalin's strategy, but to the pressure of imperialism.
Indeed, once the danger of a postwar proletarian backlash receded, imperialism resumed its efforts to weaken the position of the Soviet bureaucracy and force the opening up of the Soviet sphere of influence to the world market. To step up the pressure, the leaders of US imperialism chose to use their most effective and powerful weapon - their huge economic superiority. In 1947, they launched the Marshall Plan which, under the pretext of helping the war-torn countries with the cost of rebuilding their economies, effectively aimed at integrating them into the US sphere of influence.
Predictably, this offer attracted a lot of interest among the bourgeois forces of the coalition governments. Moreover, many communist officials proved willing to accept concessions to imperialism in return for the capital that the local bourgeoisies were unable to provide. On their part this was merely an attitude which was consistent with their nationalism. But this left the Soviet bureaucracy with only one alternative - either they allowed Eastern Europe to be caught in the economic net of imperialism or they tightened the screw in order to retain control over the region. Rather than taking the risk of finding themselves surrounded, at some point, by a belt of hostile states, the rulers of the USSR chose the second solution. Thus came to existence the People's Democracies while the Cold War settled over Eastern Europe.
The turn of the screw
The USSR chose to retaliate on both economic and political fronts. On the economic front, the introduction of a state monopoly over foreign trade resulted in cutting the Eastern European countries off from the imperialist world market. At the same time, steps were taken to overcome the backwardness of their economies, increase their viability and self-reliance, as well as their capacity to provide the USSR with the products it needed. Politically, the Soviet bureaucracy tightened their control over the regimes, by getting rid of all the bourgeois political parties which had been represented so far in the government coalitions, thereby establishing regimes which were openly under Moscow's control.
Yet, in the medium term, these measures failed to resolve the problems that they were meant to address. Because the Eastern European state machineries remained intact, representing the same privileged classes, these regimes retained their original fundamental contradiction. On the one hand they were closely associated with, and dependent on the USSR. But on the other hand, socially, they remained bourgeois regimes prone to nationalist tendencies.
Of course the Soviet bureaucracy was already in control of the state machineries. The key positions were held by people selected for their loyalty to Moscow - communist party members, former army officers, agents who were in the pay of the NKVD, etc.. The heavy presence of the Red Army helped to discourage open rebellion. The AVH, which became the regime's political police, soon instituted a climate of terror designed to prevent any kind of open opposition. Behind Ferenc Farkas, who was formally in charge of running it, the AVH was directly controlled by the NKVD. It had better and more modern equipment than the Hungarian army and police force put together, as well as being numerically much larger - numbering 100,000 by the early 50s.
It was therefore easy for the Soviet bureaucracy to tighten the screw over Hungary. They only had to use the instruments they had already created within the Hungarian state machinery. Their problem was elsewhere. They needed to get rid of the politicians whose loyalty they could not trust and the organisations which could have become the rallying flag for a structured opposition to Soviet control. So, between 1947 and 1949, the non-communist parties became the target of all kinds of manoeuvres, provocations and stage-managed trials. The smaller parties were simply disbanded or forced to disband themselves. The much larger Smallholders' party was only allowed to survive in the form of a weak shadowy grouping whose only purpose was to give some credibility to the remaining fiction of a coalition government. As to the social-democratic party, it was forcibly "merged" with the Communist party, in June 1948, under a new name, the "Hungarian Workers Party".
This was not the end of the story, however. The dictatorial, and at times terrorist, character of the regime got even worse. Various other targets were selected among personalities whose high profile might have turned into symbols of opposition. Such was the case of the head of the powerful Catholic Church, Cardinal Mindszenty, who was sentenced to life imprisonment, for an alleged conspiracy. But there was nothing ideological in this sentence, since Rakosi himself, the Communist party strong man, made sure to be photographed at baptisms as often as possible and became godfather to scores of children. This was merely a precautionary measure and a warning against potential opponents.
The biggest problem faced by the regime, however, was now the communist party itself, and the nationalist currents which were rife in its ranks, all the more so as these currents were now reinforced by the example given by Tito and his break with Moscow. A huge purge of the communist party ranks was launched. Several hundred thousand party members were "just" expelled, while many thousands of others were put into subterranean prisons in solitary confinement, tortured, and left to rot.
One prominent victim of the purge was the previous Interior Minister himself, Laszlo Rajk, one of the most popular figures in the party, who was both a veteran of the Spanish civil war and a leader of the Hungarian underground during World War II. Rajk was suddenly accused of "Titoism" in a trial which beggared the imagination with its revelations of CIA and other imperialist plots and conspiracies. He was hanged. A few months later, Janos Kadar, Rajk's successor at the Interior ministry, was himself arrested, tortured and jailed.
On the economic front, the turn of the screw took the form of a brutal stepping up of the rationalisation of the economy, contained in the five-year plan, announced by Rakosi in 1947.
This plan included a partial forced collectivisation of the countryside, aimed at increasing the productivity of agriculture. But in the absence of an industry capable of providing the machines, vehicles and agro-chemicals necessary for large-scale farming, this was pure bureaucratic madness. Instead of generating an increase in agricultural production, it had the reverse effect. Soon an agricultural crisis was precipitated, and towns could not be fed. By 1952, shops and granaries were empty and Hungary was on the brink of famine. The brutality with which this measure was implemented, through a regime of terror, left many scars. As a result, whether they were personally expropriated or not, the vast majority of the peasantry saw these measures as an attempt at reversing the 1945 land reform, and they blamed it squarely on Rakosi and his regime.
The five-year plan also involved the completion of the original limited nationalisation programme. In March 1947, all the banks were nationalised; in 1948, factories with more than 100 workers; and in 1949, those with at least 10 workers. Once again, there was nothing radical in these nationalisations, which were the only logical response to the economic situation. Indeed, in the larger industrial operations, which were in most cases already managed by state appointees, this nationalisation only formalised the situation inherited from the war.
In addition, the plan included a huge development of heavy industry at the expense of the production of consumer goods. Industrial production experienced rapid growth, increasing by 50% between 1950 and 1954. Half the national income was set aside for industrial investment and, out of that, 89% went to heavy industry. This led to a further shortage of consumer goods and standards of living dropped by 20%.
In the factories, the regime instituted a pattern of working practices inspired by the worst years of Stalinism in the USSR. A Stakhanovite system of piece work, aided by successive wage reductions, was introduced to force production up. This was achieved by selecting well-paid "top-rate" workers to set production levels, while providing them with the best machines and facilities to ensure that they would reach the top limit of what human labour could achieve. The rest of the workforce had to choose between killing themselves on the job or losing out on their piece rate.
Not only did the Stakhanovite system fail to achieve much in terms of raising productivity, but the bureaucratic operation of the industry was marred by catastrophes. The regime of terror administered by the AVH in the factories themselves, with its networks of spies reporting on the most trivial goings-on, ensured that criticism, let alone any intention of protest, was best kept to oneself.
Growing opposition to the regime
By the early 50s, the main achievement of all these policies had been to generate hostility to the regime from just about every quarter of the population, from the working class, the peasantry, the intellectuals as well as the politicians, including those of the ruling party.
Among the intelligentsia, many had initially welcomed the regime's guarantee of an income for them. Writers, poets, artists were all taken on as salaried employees of the state and were part of the privileged layers of the regime. However with this came control over what they wrote. Most put up little resistance to it. However the fact that no independent publications were possible - the state had absolute control over anything printed on paper, in addition to the constant censorship - made the regime more and more stifling for them and all the more unbearable as they, too, were victims of constant spying and harassment by the AVH. But actual resistance to the regime was only to emerge much later among the intellectuals.
The peasantry, although relatively less badly off than the urban working class, had been irreversibly alienated by the limited collectivisation of the five-year plan. This was instrumental in driving a deep wedge within the ranks of the state privileged and petty bourgeoisie. Indeed the only way these layers could hope to achieve one day the status of a mature national bourgeoisie, was by developing a stable social base in the countryside, which could then provide the basis for some form of limited parliamentary democracy.
As to the working class, very early on it had lost any illusions in the regime, assuming it ever had any, when the factory committees were replaced by state-controlled trade union committees, whose officials were there only to earn a comfortable wage for helping out the management in disciplining the workforce. To use the words of a factory worker from the Csepel suburb of Budapest quoted by a British journalist: «The communists nationalised all the factories and similar enterprises proclaiming the slogan: 'The factory is yours - you work for yourself'. Exactly the opposite of this was true. They promised us everything, at the same time subjugating us and pulling us down to the greatest misery conceivable."
The bureaucratic brutality of the regime was creating a huge backlog of resentment. A speech made in 1948 by the minister of Industry underlined the extent of this resentment: «Workers have assumed a terrorist attitude to the directors of the nationalised industries», complained this "communist" minister, and he went on by threatening the culprits with forced labour. Indeed sabotage by frustrated workers, among other things, was one of the main problems faced by the regime's bureaucrats. As a result, by 1950 already, urban workers made up 80% of the prison population.
By the early 50s, there were therefore a current of opposition to the regime in all the main social layers of society. The aspirations of these oppositional currents were, of course, different depending on the social layers from which they originated, but they all had one thing in common: their hostility to Rakosi's dictatorship and the conviction that none of their aspirations could ever be fulfilled as long as the Soviet army, the main pillar of the dictatorship, remained in Hungary. And this provided the basis for a concensus between all the opposition currents in the following period.
Stalin's death opens a temporary space
In many respects, the death of Stalin, on 6 March 1953, marked a turning point for Eastern Europe. This opened up an acute succession crisis which, for a while, created the impression that there was something like a vacuum of power in the USSR, at least compared to the previous decades.
Soon, unprecedented news started to arrive from Moscow, like a partial amnesty for political prisoners, the rehabilitation of the victims of past show trials, etc.. They were accompanied by persistant rumours of liberalisation which were soon followed by formal, although rather imprecise instructions from the Kremlin to introduce a "new course". Not that the new Soviet leaders were willing in any way to loosen their control over Eastern Europe, of course. But they must have been aware that Stalin's death was likely to encourage the nationalist currents which existed across Eastern Europe to push their demand for more independence from the USSR. They must have known that the ruthless dictatorial methods used in the previous period were likely to have generated widespread popular support for such a demand. So, they simply chose to pre-empt the risk of an open mass rebellion against Soviet rule in one of the satellites, by ostentatiously taking the initiative of relaxing the political and economic regime which had been imposed on these countries.
Indeed the events in the USSR had an almost immediate impact across Eastern Europe, in the form of open power struggles within the state machineries and privileged layers, between the factions in power and those which were jumping on the nationalist bandwagon. Hungary was the first country to display a perceptible wavering within the leadership of the ruling party. Two main factions emerged, centered around the names of Rakosi, who was still prime minister, and that of Imre Nagy, by then a well-known politburo member. The border line between the two factions was sometimes unclear and fluctuating, as individual rivalries and interests often took precedence in determining the allegiance of the party dignitaries - for instance, within the first few months, the AVH strong man, Farkas, switched sides twice between the two factions. But by and large, Rakosi represented the status quo, both with Moscow and at home, whereas Nagy emerged as the champion of a nationalist liberal turn.
The Soviet leaders did not wait for this power struggle to develop beyond the confines of the ruling party. They took the initiative to resolve it. In June, Moscow settled the factional fight in its own way by ordering the Rakosi faction to leave the government to Nagy and his supporters, while they retained most of their positions in the party, for the time being.
Within the next few weeks, a series of policy changes were announced. Nagy went on the offensive, denouncing the past policies, particularly the use of terror, the forced collectivisation and the emphasis on industrialisation. Internment camps were dissolved, thousands of political prisoners were released while some of the top figures of the AVH were sentenced to jail. Among the economic measures of Nagy's "new course", various concessions were granted to the peasantry while efforts were made to provide the urban petty-bourgeoisie with more consumer goods. All this, together with his past role as the Agriculture minister who had implemented the postwar land reform, turned Nagy into the most popular politician in the country, by far.
What was probably most significant for the future was that it was the first time since 1947, that the authority of a prime minister in a People's Democracy was based on popular support rather than on the terror exercised by the Soviet army and the political police. Ironically, it was the popular illusions in Nagy's "independence" which allowed the Soviet bureaucracy and its henchmen to gain time and avoid an early confrontation. Being a responsible politician of the bourgeoisie, and at the same time an entrenched Stalinist, Nagy never sought to mobilise the population in support of his policies and against his enemies. Yet, all along, the factional fight was carrying on behind the scenes. And, in January 1955, Rakosi succeeded in getting Nagy dismissed from the government and from the party. Rakosi's victory, however, was only apparent - he had only succeeded in bringing back utter exasperation among the population while turning Nagy into the natural leader of all oppositional currents.
The first explosions
In the meantime there had already been a number of popular explosions across Eastern Europe. In early June 1953, there had been massive strikes and riots in the Czech industrial center of Plzen. Two weeks later, a much larger explosion was taking place in East Germany.
On 16 June, thousands of workers from the Stalinallee building site in East-Berlin responded to a recent increase in production norms by walking out and marching towards the government's headquarters. The news spread like wildfire and soon tens of thousands of workers were converging from the capital's suburbs to join the striking building workers. Calls for the government to resign began to circulate, as well as a call for a general strike.
The next day, the strike spread everywhere in Berlin, far beyond the Soviet-controlled section of the town. By midday, several hundred thousand demonstrators were gathered in central Berlin, when Soviet troops and German police, protected by two dozen Russian tanks, opened fire on the crowd. An hour later, the Soviet command declared a state of emergency in Berlin. But already the strike had spread to all the main industrial centres of East Germany. In some towns, the ruling party headquarters was ransacked by the strikers, in others the prisons were forced open.
Finally, the government made a series of spectacular concessions, including the cancellation of the new norms, the distribution of additional food rations and stocks of clothes and shoes, and the payment of 90% of wages for the duration of the strike. In the end, the situation was calmed, even if the unrest took another two weeks to finally die down.
The German explosion was undoubtedly seen as a serious warning in Moscow, and another argument for liberalisation across Eastern Europe, all the more so as it had an immediate impact in other satellites. On the second day of the strike, there were riots in at least seven major Polish towns, which were only suppressed by declaring martial law and bringing in Soviet tanks. Later in the month, Hungary saw its first major strike since the late forties, when the 20,000 workers of a giant steel works - ironically named after Rakosi - in the Csepel suburb of Budapest walked out against low wages, unbearable norms and the shortages of food.
There was a relative respite for nearly three years. But once again it was ended by new developments in the USSR. On 23 February 1956, Khruschev, who was waging his final battles over Stalin's succession, made his famous speech at the XXth congress of the communist party - a rather hypocritical, but nevertheless open exposure of Stalin's crimes. Although the speech was supposed to be secret, its content spread like wildfire, in the USSR as well as in the People's Democracies. Overnight, the factions within the satellites' ruling parties who had been opposing the regime of the past period found themselves vindicated publicly by the top Soviet leader, whereas the rival "hardline" factions were implictly condemned by Moscow.
It was in Poland that the impact was first felt. Poland was then in the middle of a process comparable to the liberalisation that had taken place in Hungary, which was followed by a similar repressive backlash as a result of which Nagy's Polish equivalent, Gomulka, had been sent to jail. After this defeat, Khruschev's speech gave a new boost to the opposition within the party. Open protest within the party and the youth restarted. Then, on 26 June, the massive battalions of the workers of Poznan threw their weight into the general protest, by going on strike over norms and wages. Around 100,000 demonstrators joined riots and street battles with the police and the army, leaving 80 dead and thousands injured. This was followed by a lull, during which workers councils were elected in many of the country's most prestigious factories, who then joined their voices to those of the youth organisations, to call for Gomulka to become prime minister. The agitation gathered momentum, to the point when, on the 19th October, the entire top Soviet leadership flew to Warsaw to find a solution. The next day, Gomulka became leader of the party and the population celebrated what they saw as a decisive victory.
As it turned out, this victory was an illusion. Khruschev had gambled on Gomulka's ability to contain his own supporters and stop what was threatening to turn into a major social explosion. He was proved right and the Polish working class was deprived of the gains that were, possibly, within its reach, had it not put its trust in Gomulka and the nationalist faction of the regime.
The Hungarian October
In Hungary, Rakosi's victory over Nagy, back in April 1955, was short-lived. From this point on, the opposition to the regime never ceased to gather strength and audacity. In this early period, the spearhead of this movement was the intellectual youth and its main platform was a discussion group set up by members of the communist students organisation, which they called the Petöfi circle, after the poet and hero of the 19th century nationalist movement in Hungary.
Initially this circle was closely supervised by the Party's Central Committee, but after the 20th Congress in the USSR, it broke free and its audience grew. Soon it became a platform for the dissident writers. In June 1956, 6,000 people attended a discussion on press freedom, during which communist writers like Tibor Dery and Tibor Tardas demanded total abolition of censorship and the resignation of Rakosi. Three days later Rakosi expelled them from the party and the Petofi circle was prevented from meeting openly.
However by July, the Soviet leadership had become sufficiently concerned by the growing opposition to act. Rakosi was replaced by Gerö as first secretary of the party. Farkas, the head of the AVH, was expelled from the party, while Janos Kadar, who had recently been released from jail, was co-opted onto the Politburo. This was not much of a change since, after all, Gerö had been Rakosi's deputy and right-hand man. Nevertheless it was a significant moral victory for the opposition, significant enough for a large section of the population to turn their attention towards the dissident intellectual youth.
In September, the opposition's agitation took a higher, more defiant profile. All the Stalinist members on the presidium of the Writers' Federation were removed at its annual conference. The Petöfi circle resumed its public meetings, this time agitating for Imre Nagy's return to government. This defiance reached a new peak on 6 October, at a reburial organised by the party for Laszlo Rajk and three of his co-defendants, who had just been rehabilitated. What had been meant to be an official ceremony turned into a 300,000-strong silent demonstration against the regime.
Two weeks later the news came that the Polish workers and students had finally succeeded in imposing on the Soviet leaders their own choice for the post of prime minister - Gomulka. This success electrified the Hungarian opposition. If Gomulka could be forced down Moscow's throat, why not Nagy? Almost instantaneously the movement spread to the majority of university students. Meeting upon meeting was held to discuss the lessons of the "Polish October".
On the evening of 22nd October, a mass meeting of 5,000 Budapest students, held at the Polytechnic university, voted a 16-point programme which was soon to become the programme of the first phase of the insurrection. This programme demanded, among other things: the total withdrawal of Soviet troops and the publication of all economic and financial deals made with the USSR; the appointment of Imre Nagy as prime minister and a public trial for Rakosi and Farkas; a general election with several parties participating; the revision of the norms imposed on workers and the compulsory delivery system imposed on the peasantry, and the introduction of a minimum living wage. Radical as it was, compared to the previous demands of the Petöfi circle, this programme was a reformist one. Its aim was to get the regime to amend itself by forcing changes from above - more democracy, more freedoms, more independence from the USSR. In this, it reflected the limitations of the students' social outlook, their loyalty to the stalinist "strong state" model and their doubts, if not their distrust, in the ability of the working masses to implement even more radical changes from below.
Having adopted the 16-point programme, the students called for a demonstration in Budapest for the next day, 23rd October, in order to express their solidarity with the Poles and, at the same time, publicise their own demands. This demonstration was immediately banned by the Ministry of the Interior. After much to-ing and fro-ing between the organisers and the Ministry it was given the go-ahead at 2pm. By this time however thousands of people had already begun massing at the assembly point near the statue of Petofi. Among the leaflets which were being handed out, one bore the heading «Our Slogans» and listed, among others: «Poland sets the example; we want the Hungarian way!», «Children of workers and peasants, we go along with you!», «We demand new leadership; we trust Imre Nagy!», «We shall not stop halfway; we shall destroy Stalinism!», «Independence, freedom!», «Long live the Polish people», «Long live the Polish Workers' Party!», «Worker-peasant power!», «Long live the Peoples' Army!» This certainly showed a rather mixed jumble of perspectives, borrowing from both the nationalist and stalinist outlook.
The march was soon swelled by workers leaving the factories and 250,000 to 300,000 wound their way across the town. By 5pm, the demonstration was still gathering strength. Soldiers and off-duty policemen had joined the students and workers. The march made its way to the Parliament building. Then at 8pm Gerö finally made a broadcast on the radio: he condemned the demonstrators as counter-revolutionaries and chauvinists and stated that the party line would not be changed. The crowd became angrier and called for Nagy to address them. At this point the slogan for a «General Strike tomorrow» was launched.
Eventually Nagy was brought to the Parliament building balcony and addressed the crowd. Actually Nagy had been opposed to this demonstration and refused to join it. It was only under the instruction of the Politburo that he agreed to address the demonstrators. By then the mood among them had changed. They had an entirely new sense of strength and his suggestion that «a proper outcome will be found in negotiations» sounded too lukewarm to be satisfactory.
Meanwhile, many demonstrators had already made their way to Stalin Square, where the massive statue of Stalin loomed over the trees. The workers had fetched tools from their factories and set about cutting it down. It was just after 9pm that it lay, decapitated, on the ground, with a Hungarian flag stuck in one of the boots still on the plinth.
It was however the events at the radio station that precipitated the armed insurrection. 200 students had gone there to have their 16-point programme broadcast. A delegation had gone into the building to negotiate while the crowd was gathering outside. It was well known that the AVH had a contingent inside. There was some stone throwing at the building but mostly people waited anxiously to see what had happened to the students delegation. Then the AVH suddenly unleashed a volley of bullets into the crowd, killing five people and wounding 30 others.
The troops and police who were ordered onto the scene, hearing what happened, handed their weapons over to some of the demonstrators. Others ran to get guns wherever they could find them - many commandeered lorries to go to the barracks and police stations where guns were given to them without much need for argument. Soon, the radio building was the scene of a full scale gun battle. It was charged and occupied by armed demonstrators. The AVH was routed, many of them killed on the spot and those who failed to get away were taken prisoner, with some hanged publicly. Attacks now began on the Ministry of the Interior, railway stations, and telephone exchanges, but mostly they were directed at the symbols of the stalininst regime - red stars were torn down, books, portraits and posters burnt and more statues destroyed.
Within a few hours, Gerö's arrogant response and the brutality of the AVH, had turned the initial peaceful demonstration into an armed insurrection.
The First Soviet Intervention
At this point, suddenly, the regime seemed to back down. An overnight Central Committee meeting took two decisions. The first one, which was immediately made public was that Nagy would replace Gerö as prime minister, while the latter would retain his position at the head of the party. The second decision was kept secret - it was a request for the Soviet troops to intervene, made on behalf of the new government.
The next day, the 24 October, at 4 in the morning, the first Russian tanks entered Budapest. Immediately a call for a general strike began to circulate. The Soviet troops proved unable to stop the street-fighting partly because their tanks could not negotiate the narrow streets and partly because many of them, having been in Hungary for a long time, were unwilling to shoot at the insurgents. However the insurgents set up barricades immediately and fired on the tanks or threw petrol bombs at them. The tanks started to fire back. But this was not the case everywhere and there are many stories about Soviet soldiers fraternising with the crowd, draping their tanks with the Hungarian flag and joining the demonstrations which continued on the 24th and 25th. A few even deserted to fight on the side of the insurgents.
It was the youth from the poor industrial suburbs who formed the majority of the street fighters, organising themselves into groups with their bases at workers' or students' hostels. From the reports of the field hospitals set up, the figures of wounded bear this out - 80-90% of those wounded were young workers whereas students comprised no more than 3-5%. A doctor who treated many of them recollected: «There was any number of youngsters amongst the fighters who knew nothing about the Petöfi Circle...to whom Gomulka's name was almost equally unknown and who replied to the question as to why they had risked their lives in the fighting with such answers as: "Well is it really worth living for 600 forints a month?"»
Former partisans, or former soldiers, like Janos Szabo who was a 59 year-old bus driver were among those who took command of these youthful bands, some of the participants being as young as 12 years old. Another organised battalion was under the command of 32 year-old Laszlo Nickelsburg, a factory worker and a well known Communist Party member. Soldiers in the Kilian Barracks instructed the youth in the use of tommy-guns - which they referred to as their "guitars" - and hand grenades. The insurrection even had, in a manner of speaking given the hectic conditions of the fighting, its own chief of staff. This was Colonel Pal Maleter who had gone over to the insurgents to organise the resistance when the Soviet troops had attacked the rebel Kilian Barracks. Maleter, who was later to become Nagy's defence minister for a short while, wore his red partisan star right through the revolutionary days and stood as a committed communist. In a statement to a Western journalist he explained: «If we get rid of the Russians don't think we're going back to the old days. And if there's people who do want to go back, we'll see!», emphasising this last remark by reaching for his revolver. He repeated: «We don't mean to go back to capitalism. We want socialism in Hungary.»
On the evening of the 25th, the regime made another gesture. Apparently this was the result of the direct intervention of the Soviet leaders, Mikoyan and Suslov, who had considered the intervention of the Soviet troops to be a mistake. In any case, Gerö was dismissed as party secretary and replaced by Kadar whose period in jail under Rakosi was thought to make him more acceptable to the insurgents. But this too failed to bring the fighting to an end.
And what was Nagy, the reluctant leader pushed to the fore by the insurgents, doing in the meantime? The fact was, that as a responsible representative of the privileged, Nagy was much more afraid of the power unleashed by the masses than by the threat of retaliation from the Soviet leaders or his rivals in the ruling party. He was desperate to get the fighters to lay down their arms. But his pleas were totally ignored. Not that the insurgents had lost their illusions in Nagy. But they simply did not trust him to be able to deliver on his own - certainly not with the Soviet troops around. So from 27 October, Nagy's new government reluctantly attempted to ride the wave of rebellion. On the radio the previous day's "rioters" suddenly became "young patriots" and the government tried to appear as their mouthpiece. To no avail.
Finally on 29 October came the official announcement of the withdrawal of the Soviet troops. Nagy stated that the rebellion had been a «great national and democratic movement», out of which was born the new government of «democratic national unity, independence and socialism.» But this demagogy was falling on deaf ears. Even though the fighting had ended, the insurgents were busy building more stockpiles of weapons, and, of course, agitating for their demands.
In Poland, Gomulka's strength with regard to the Soviet bureaucracy, to which he owed his success in gaining some concessions from Moscow, was his ability to demobilise the rioters once he was in government. But Nagy failed to be Hungary's Gomulka. He never had enough weight on the insurgents to get them to trust him to do the business. And therefore Nagy's bargaining position in front of the Soviet leaders was always very limited.
But there was another, even more decisive dimension in the situation. In the heat of the armed insurrection, a much more powerful social force was emerging - that of the working class, with its own organisations, the workers' councils. And this was already changing the face of the Hungarian revolution, by giving it the potential to alter not just the balance of forces with the USSR, but also class relations in Hungary.
The workers councils
From the morning of the 24th strikes had broken out throughout the country, following the example of all the large factories in Budapest. Within 24 hours the strike was general. The workers seized control of the factories, forming workers councils to replace the factory administrations and to voice their demands. Once the fighting had broken out, these workers' councils organised workers' militias to defend their factories and to take part in the local fighting.
One of the first councils to be set up was that of the old United Electric Factory "Egyesult Izzo" one of the largest in Buda, employing over 10,000 workers in the north of the city. The reporters who attended these meetings were surprised that they came across no opposition to socialism - but rather demands for a genuine workers' democracy.
The councils were set up largely spontaneously in the first instance. Sandor Racz, a 23-year old toolmaker who was later to become the leader of the Budapest Central Workers' Council, explained how the first factory council was set up in his factory, the Standard Works:
«Well on the 29th, there inside the factory, some 500 of us gathered together in the main hall. We stood around, we talked - there was plenty to talk about. We were in our street clothes; we didn't get changed for work because there were too few of us to start up production. I don't remember just who it was, but someone suggested we should elect a workers' council...The provisional workers' council finally came to have fifteen members. We went up from the main hall to the manager's office, and here someone suggested I should be the president, but I didn't accept... While we were still up in the office we decided we should start work, and organise factory guards. We took it as natural, as a conquest of the revolution, that the manager shouldn't run things, but that we should take over the factory ourselves...»
Councils were being set up everywhere. A radio broadcast from Miskolc in North-eastern Hungary, the largest industrial centre outside Budapest, said: «We have had enough! Enough of the autocracy of certain leaders! We too want socialism, but according to our own special Hungarian conditions, reflecting the interests of the Hungarian working class and the Hungarian nation.» They set up a council on the 24th October. In Gyor, the largest provincial town in Western Hungary, close to the Austrian border, where it was first rumoured that reactionary forces had gained the upper hand, a council was set up on the 26th October to take over the town's administration.
It was the industrial towns where the councils came most prominently to the fore, initiated by workers from the largest factories, many of whom had been, or were still members of the party. Balasz Nagy, who had been a leading figure in the Petöfi circle, described later how workers began to organise themselves in Ujpest, one of Budapest's industrial suburbs:
«On October 31st, a meeting was held with delegates of 24 large factories - among them: the rail carriage factory, shipyard and electrical plant from the Ganz complex, the machine-tool factories Mavag and Lang, the electrical equipment factories Beloiannis and Egyesült Izzo.
This meeting adopted a motion summarising in nine points the "principles for the rights and activities of the workers' councils".
The first point stated that "the factory belongs to the workers" and the second that "the ultimate authority in the running of the factory is the workers' council, elected democratically by the workers.
It is worth noting the fifth, sixth and seventh points which defined the rights of the workers' councils:
- They approve and authorise every plan for the company.
- They decide the level and ways of determining workers' wages; any foreign import and export contract; whether and how to proceed with any borrowing; when and how new workers should be hired.
- They recruit the factory managers who are accountable to the workers' councils»
But what were these councils trying to achieve? In view of the bankruptcy of the previous regime as well as its unnacceptable character, the workers' councils stepped in naturally, asserting the specific interests of the working class. They did not aim at returning to the capitalist fold, as many petty-bourgeois backing Imre Nagy had in mind. They just took steps to ensure that society would respect their interests and as they did not trust anyone to achieve that, they saw the councils as a permanent means of control by the working class over the running of society.
The workers' power against the regime
On 29 October, the same day that the Soviet troops were officially withdrawn, Mikoyan and Suslov returned to Budapest. The Moscow leaders were afraid of the fuse which was now burning across Hungary back towards Poland and, possibly, threatening the whole of Eastern Europe. They could not leave the revolution to develop on the strength of what could only be seen as a victory for the insurgents. The entire state machinery of Hungary was already threatening to collapse. Not only had the AVH and the Hungarian army amost totally melted away, but the communist party had now virtually exploded, when it was not ffectively banned by the workers' councils as was the case in many provincial towns. The nationalist current among the ruling circles was now so confident that they were forming new parties openly, which were being invited to join the government. For the Soviet leaders, a solution had to be found to the crisis, and fast, and for this, the only forces they could trust by then were their own troops.
On 4 November fresh Soviet troops began to move into Budapest. In total, it was admitted later that 200,000 soldiers and 2000 tanks took part in the operation against the capital. This time the soldiers had been brought from the most distant areas of the USSR, to ensure that they would know nothing about the events of the previous week and would be unable to speak Hungarian. When arriving in Budapest some of the young tank operators seemed convinced that they were heading towards the Suez Canal to help out the Egyptians against an imperialist attack. The tanks opened fire on the rebel barricades. Maleter, who had been invited to the Soviet HQ for negotiations, was arrested. Meanwhile Nagy fled to refuge in the Yugoslav embassy with his collaborators and Kadar took over the running of the government.
The well-planned Soviet intervention easily overcame the resistance of the young insurgents. Compared to the Russian troops, they were few, poorly organised and had little ammunition.
It was in the large industrial strongholds, like Csepel and Dunapentele, or mining areas like Pecs, that the resistance was strongest, under the leadership of the workers' councils. This was not just due to more courage, organisation or determination, but to a high level of class consciousness. Despite the terrible circumstances, there were many proofs that the armed workers were not blinded by the lure of nationalism, as was shown, for example, by this address to the Soviet troops issued by the workers' councils of the steel town of Stalinvaros, on 7th November, at the peak of the fighting:
«Soldiers, your state was created at the price of a bloody struggle, so that you could have your freedom. Why would you want to smash our own freedom? You can see with your own eyes that those fighting against you are neither the employers nor the rich landlords nor the bourgeoisie, but the Hungarian people, which is fighting desperately for the very same rights for which you fought in 1917.»
Long after the centre of Budapest had been occupied and disarmed, Soviet troops were still fighting in the industrial strongholds, to take over each workshop, each building, one after the other. It took them two full weeks before all armed resistance was broken.
But while the revolution was militarily defeated, and the nationalist-minded petty-bourgeoisie had lost its fighting spirit, the social revolution was still alive and powerful thanks to the workers' councils' control over production and to the considerable social weight of the working class in Hungarian society. In very practical terms, the power wielded by the workers' councils emerged as an alternative power to that of the ruling state.
Following the victory of the insurgents on 29 October, the councils had initially decided a return to work for 5th November. Of course, the Soviet invasion triggered an immediate reversal of this decision which was replaced with a call for a general strike. But at the same time, the role of the general strike, and therefore the role of the working class, changed as Balazs Nagy described in the following terms:
«For workers, the nature of the change which took place on November the 4th was self-evident. Before, going back to work on the 5th had been what they wanted to do. But after the Soviet attack, going on strike seemed just as natural to them. The strike became a much more important weapon than the armed struggle, which was doomed to failure right from the beginning.
Never had a strike been as unanimous as the one initiated by the Hungarian workers against the Soviet invasion. Everyone followed their example - white collar workers, public servants, school and university teachers, students, etc...»
Once Kadar had been put in the driving seat by the Soviet invasion, the only obstacle to the consolidaton of his regime was the general strike and the authority of the workers' councils. Kadar therefore did his utmost to lure them into going back to work by promising to recognise the councils in the future. But the councils wanted deeds, not vague promises. A delegation was sent from Ganz electrical plant to discuss the workers demands on the 10 November, for instance. The leader of this delegation described this meeting as follows:
«We had relatively thorough discussions with the government and we got the assurance that the demand of the workers (to be involved in organising plant safety) would be satisfied. But to date, nothing has been done in this respect. There was also another similar demand: the setting up of an armed guards corps in the factory. The government is not the only one who wants guarantees against the return of fascism in Hungary. The working class also wants the guarantee that, due to its being armed, no other force will be in a position to reverse the initial and real goals of the revolution and the gains it has made so far.»
This was quite simply demanding from Kadar that he should recognise the factory militias which the Soviet troops were still trying to suppress - no wonder the government did nothing in this respect! Far from being naive, making this demand was effectively declaring the working class independent from the state of the privileged.
The co-ordinatiion of the councils was the next problem to solve. By 12th November, district workers' councils had been formed in seven Budapest industrial districts. The Ujpest council sent an appeal to the others for the election of a Central Workers' Council for Budapest. On the 14th this was created. They mandated a working executive to formulate and present their demands both to Kadar and to the Soviet occupying force. These demands were: general amnesty, reinstatement of Imre Nagy's government, withdrawal of Soviet troops, abolition of the one-party system but no recognition for any party which did not recognise social ownership of the means of production... and workers' control over production...
This Central Workers' Council soon became the main force resisting the regime and the Soviet intervention. It developed into a national political force, setting itself the task of representing the class interests of the working class. This was spelt out, for instance, in an appeal to all the city's workers' councils, which said:
«As we have always done, we reaffirm that our task has been assigned to us by the working class. True to this assignment, we are prepared to defend, including at the cost of our lives, our factories and our country against any attempt at capitalist restoration. We declare at the same time our determination to build a social and economic order in the framework of an independent Hungary, following a Hungarian road. We will not renounce any of the revolution's demands. We consider that human labour is the basis of society.»
The Soviets and Kadar were de facto forced to recognise the Central Council, which sometimes negotiated directly with the Soviets above Kadar's head. It demanded the release of political prisoners, stopped deportations to the USSR and got some workers and youth brought back. The Soviet mlitary command even issued council members with passes to travel after curfew and permits to carry firearms!
By that time, Kadar still claimed that his "workers' and peasants' revolutionary government", as he called it, was the by-product of the "legitimate popular insurrection" of 23rd October. But in fact, Kadar was only playing for time. Although he was careful not to refuse concessions, at the same time he argued that for these to be implemented, workers would have to return to work. On the 19th November they did, but unbowed. Sandor Racz, the president of the Central Council proclaimed: «We are and shall remain the leaders here in Hungary.»
On the 21 November, the Central Council moved one step further by convening a conference to create a national workers' council. This led to the first determined moves by the regime to put a stop to their activities - 400 tanks were brought in to surround the stadium to prevent the conference. The next day Nagy and his immediate collaborators were abducted from the Yugoslav embassy and taken to Rumania, while the government issued a decree restricting the activity of the councils to economic functions at factory level.
To Kadar's strong-arm tactics, the councils responded by resuming the general strike. A sort of war of attrition followed. Thus when the Central Council prepared to publish its own newspaper, a police raid confiscated all copies of the first issue. But when the regime tried to reinstate the factory managers who had been driven out by workers, they faced a humiliating failure due to the unbending unity of the shopfloor behind their councils.
Eventually, being unable to erode the power of the councils, the regime had to take the risk of a direct confrontation. They launched a wave of arrests against council members - imprisoning 300 of them. Then, on 9th December, Kadar responded to a fresh attempt at setting up a national council by banning the Central Workers' Council. The latter had just enough time to call for a 48-hour general strike to start on 11th December, but all its members were arrested. In the meantime, Soviet troops had opened fire on striking miners in the town of Salgotarjan, leaving several dead and many injured. All this gave added impetus to the strike. Kadar retaliated with a state of emergency. All strikes and demonstrations were banned and detention without trial instituted. The death penalty was extended to strike action and incitement to strike...
The end of December and the first weeks of January saw the last stand of workers' power. Armed clashes occurred in workers districts after strikes and demonstrations. Soviet troops were sent to occupy these areas and factories were again often the site of pitched battles. By the Spring of 1957 the organised power of the working class was finally broken. But it was not until November 1957 that Kadar felt confident enough to decree the blanket dissolution of all remaining workers' councils.
Preparing for tomorrow
The Hungarian revolution was defeated. It was defeated first of all because of an international balance of forces which was heavily tilted against the Hungarian working class. Its enemies had powerful international allies - the Soviet bureaucracy for some, Western imperialism for others. The only potential ally which the Hungarian working class could have had, outside the country's borders, was the international working class. But there was no revolutionary proletarian organisation, neither in Hungary nor internationally, capable of cementing such an alliance and turning it into an offensive and effective weapon.
Beyond this generally unfavourable balance of forces, the absence of a proletarian revolutionary party in Hungary had drastic consequences for the revolution.
The historical context pointed to the USSR as being the main cause of the Hungarian population's hardship. This allowed the Hungarian petty-bourgeoisie to dress the fight against the dictatorship in nationalist colours and to impose Imre Nagy, an enemy of the proletariat, as the political figurehead and sole representative of the armed uprising. Subsequently, the Soviet intervention only reinforced this nationalist dimension.
On the ground, this resulted in concealing the opposition between the interests of the working class and those of the other forces which were fighting against the dictatorship. As a result, the workers' councils wasted precious time before they moved to assert themselves as the real leadership of the revolution and seeked to turn their atomised power into a centralised and effective weapon for the Hungarian working class as a whole. When this eventually happened, after the uprising had already been defeated militarily, their struggle was already a rear-guard battle which was doomed to failure.
Only a proletarian revolutionary party could have prevented the Hungarian working class from falling into the trap of petty-bourgeois nationalism. Instead, not only had the working class to overcome this disadvantage, but they had to rediscover the problems faced by the previous revolutionary generations and to reinvent solutions by themselves. A revolutionary party, armed with the experience of a century of revolutionary struggle, could have avoided such a delay.
Despite this handicap, without any guidance, the Hungarian working class displayed a remarkable class consciousness throughout the revolution. It never allowed itself to be drowned in the nationalist alliance. On the contrary, it kept improving and strengthening its class organs. And when it came to the crunch, when all the other social layers had already retreated into the shadows, or fled abroad, it proved its capacity to hold at bay the forces of reaction, despite their overwhelming physical superiority.
By crushing the Hungarian revolution, the Soviet bureaucracy gained a new lease of life in Eastern Europe, which lasted another three decades. But, as was shown in the subsequent years, they had to pay a significant price for this. One after the other, first Poland, then Albania and Romania, then all the People's Democracies to various degrees, had to be allowed to loosen their ties with the USSR, long before the final breakup in 1989. Hungary got special treatment in 1956, different from that conceded to Poland, because the Soviet bureaucracy was willing to make concessions to a bourgeois state led by a Gomulka, but not to a proletarian revolution. In this, the policy of the Soviet bureaucracy in 1956 remained consistent with their postwar policy, centered on concessions to the national bourgeoisies, respectful of the worldwide social order. But in doing so, the Soviet bureaucracy also strengthened the position of imperialism worldwide, increased the isolation of the USSR and the pressures on Soviet society to give in to the imperialist market. In that sense, the intervention of the Russian tanks in Budapest, contributed in its own way, in precipitating the collapse of Eastern Europe in 1989 and the subsequent breakup of the Soviet Union.
Forty years on, there have been major changes in Eastern Europe. Soviet domination is no longer there to blindfold the working class with their national flag. But the same privileged layers which used to share the looting of these countries with the Soviet bureaucracy, share it today with the imperialist bourgeoisie. And some of the politicians in power, including the prime minister himself, already held prominent positions during the repression against the 1956 revolution.
The working class, they say, has won "freedom" and "democracy". But the social crisis has been deepening even further. Over the last years since the regime's liberalisation, 1.5 million jobs have disappeared - for a population five times smaller than that of Britain. Entire industries have ceased to exist. How much longer will it take before the Hungarian working class finds again the road to the revolution?
We do not know what traces or traditions, remain of the Hungarian revolution today. There are some indications that these might be significant. For instance, in the period immediately preceding the liberalisation, Christian Democrat politicians rushed to set up an organisation, the National Association of Workers' Councils, which claimed to represent the tradition of the 1956 workers' councils. They must have had reason to believe that this would find an echo among the Hungarian workers. Or maybe they wanted to pre-empt the possible emergence of a genuine class-based organisation along the same lines. Today, this National Association of Workers' Councils only organises 60,000 members. But this may well be because workers have seen through the Christian Democrats' games.
We can only hope that the younger generations of the Hungarian working class will have retained some of the traditions and lessons of their fathers' revolution. But we can do more than just hope. For these younger generations will have to be able to find their place, in due time, in the international proletarian revolutionary organisation whose absence was felt so dramatically by their parents in 1956. This international organisation still remains to be built today. And that is what we can do something about. We can work at ensuring that it comes into being tomorrow, so that in the new revolutionary struggles to come, this time the working class has all the weapons it needs.