Hungary 1956 and the Political Revolution

This month is the thirtieth anniversary of the Hungarian revolution of 1956. Even though its outcome was a tragic defeat, in which at least 20,000 Hungarian workers were killed and countless others injured, imprisoned and forced into hiding or exile, it nevertheless was undoubtedly the most significant pointer to future developments in the Stalinist states since the consolidation of the bureaucracy around Stalin in the 1920s. It was the most vivid confirmation of the perspectives of Trotsky, that the workers under Stalinist dictatorship, far from accepting their conditions or demanding a return to capitalism, would move in a political revolution to take power into their own hands. The tremendously inspiring events of the Hungarian October are full of lessons for the workers of Eastern Europe and the whole world.

The 1945 Revolution

Stalinist commentators have tried to paint a picture of these events as the work of CIA agitators and counter-revolutionaries. Nothing could be further from the truth. The revolutionary traditions of the Hungarian working class in themselves make such a claim incredible. Even prior to world war one there were big strikes and wage demands. In 1905 there was a big movement of landless labourers against wage cuts. In the Hungarian revolution of 1919 the workers moved to overthrow the fragile regime of the bourgeois liberal Karolyi because it could not satisfy their revolutionary demands. They established a soviet republic. It was only due to the inexperience and mistakes of the Hungarian Communist Party, under Bela Kun, that the republic lost support from some layers of the peasantry, providing a base for counter-revolution and the establishment of a brutal regime of fascist terror under Horthy.

No-one in 1956 would have wanted a return to the conditions under Horthy, the only conditions capitalism was capable of in Hungary. Then forty families had owned two thirds of the land while 1.1 million peasants, out of a population of 9 million, lived without land on the verge of starvation. When industry was nationalised and a land reform carried through, in the wake of the victory of the Red army in 1945 and the flight of most of the old exploiting classes along with the retreating Nazi armies, there was widespread support for these measures.

Yet this second Hungarian revolution was carried through without the conscious participation of the mass of workers. On the contrary, all genuine workers leaders were tortured, imprisoned, put on show trial and purged from the party, including many heroes who had fought in the underground against the Horthyites and the Nazis. Some were even executed. The revolution was carried through in a bureaucratic form, and a swarm of careerists jumped onto the bandwagon of the party, including even some ex-fascists. Moreover the bureaucracy in the USSR systematically pillaged the economies of the other Eastern Bloc countries in the period 1945 to 1956. Goods were bought by the USSR below world market prices, sometimes even below the cost of production, while Russian goods were sold in Eastern Europe at inflated prices. In fact the "fraternal bargaining" over these matters sometimes went a little beyond the traditional limits governing such friendly co-operation between "socialist allies": two ministers of foreign trade (Bulgaria and Czechoslovakia) were executed quite specifically for trying to get more equitable terms of trade!

Nevertheless, despite looting, bureaucratic mismanagement and corruption, because the Hungarian economy was now on a more advanced social base an immense programme of economic reconstruction and development was carried through. Living standards rose in the period 1945-49. Immeasurable advances were made in the field of education, culture, and public health. Workers and youth for the first time gained recreational facilities. Big advances were made for women. Equal pay was established and all professions were opened up to them. A system of creches, kindergartens and maternity benefits including three months' leave on full pay was introduced. Yet at the same time the bureaucracy accumulated for itself vast privileges: private holiday homes with luxury hotel accommodation, cut off by barbed wire from the mass of the population; imported luxury chauffeur-driven cars while the mass of workers were herded like cattle onto crowded busses; private hiring of musicians while the average worker did not even have a record player; better food; better clothes; vastly superior housing.

Whilst their own living standards were rising, the mass of workers were prepared to put up with these injustices. But in 1955 the economy began to go into crisis due to a series of bureaucratic blunders. The oil fields in Western Hungary were accidentally flooded due to too rapid a rise in production ordered by the head of state Rakosi. Dora Scarlett, a British Communist Party member who was working in Hungary at the time, describes the appalling mismanagement:

"In the mines and factories work pledges had to be taken…seriously and there was a terrific rush to fulfil them, even if it meant completing a block of flats so badly that they would need repairing before the year was out, or sending a consignment of goods 40 percent of which might be rejects."

The 1953-55 Nagy Government

Shortages began in the shops, especially of meat. People had to queue all night to get the things they wanted. At the same time the bureaucrats carried on with their opulent existence. The revolution of 1956 was a revolution to rid society of this gang of parasites, torturers and murderers, who claimed to rule in the name of the working class, and to reassert the traditions of 1919 of the involvement of the working class in the revolution and the subsequent running of society. One worker from the giant Csepel plant told a western correspondent: "The West should not believe that the workers fought to bring back Horthy or the landowners and counts. We shall not give back the land, the factories or the mines."

The causes of the 1956 events also lie in the political developments within the bureaucracy. Mirroring the economic crisis there were tremendous political upheavals. In 1953 with the death of Stalin there were some signs of a "thaw" in the monolithic rule of Moscow and its puppets in Budapest. Rakosi, a hard line Stalinist, retired. Nagy, who had a reputation as a "liberaliser" and was initially favoured in the Kremlin by Khrushchev, took over. In several Eastern Bloc countries during the fifties a similar switch was made. Bureaucrats who were denounced later as "Titoists" came to the fore. This layer of the bureaucracy had no objection to a one-party totalitarian system in which the leading layer had enormous privileges, but they did oppose the Russian bureaucracy plundering all the spoils of the nations' economic progress for themselves. Gomulka in Poland played a similar role. It was the fact that these bureaucrats had been persecuted by the USSR earlier, for taking an anti-Russian stand, that gave them a certain credibility with the masses. The hopes which the masses had originally placed in the revolutionary changes of the immediate post-war years were revived. Some sections of the masses believed that Nagy's "new course" would give the regime a "human face". But behind the scenes there was a desperate struggle going on within the bureaucracy, and much trepidation within the Kremlin, as to the dangers inherent in even a microscopic dose of reform.

A real measure of just how little "return to legality" took place under Nagy was subsequently revealed during the 1956 revolution itself. Within the first week 5,500 prisoners of war were released. These were men who had been sent back from Russia eight years before but had been imprisoned again by the hated AVO secret police.

The Petofi Circle

They had not been charged and had no prospect of release. These people remained illegally in prison, many assumed by relatives to be dead, during the Nagy period of 1953-55. In fact the prison camps, allegedly intended for the enemies of the revolution, were at this time full of common people, workers, poor peasants, small stall holders, etc. Sandor Kopacsi, the Chief of Police in Budapest in 1956, who subsequently resigned and got political asylum in the west, gives an account of his tour of inspection of these camps which reads like Dante's journey through hell. The camps were packed full of dejected demoralised prisoners, who had never been tried, who came up to him and told him of the petty crimes, such as chicken stealing, they had been incarcerated for. Yet even the minuscule moves in the direction of reform under Nagy proved eventually too much for the nerves of Moscow. Khrushchev changed his attitude towards "the new course".

In April 1955 Nagy was removed from the premiership and expelled from the party as a "right-wing deviationist". Rakosi was wheeled back in with a clampdown on all the new policies. Yet the zig-zags of the Kremlin bureaucrats only whipped up a mood of discontent amongst the Hungarian masses. When, in February 1956, Khrushchev's speech at the 20th congress denouncing Stalin's crimes came to light, the whole of Hungary began to seethe with discussion. A group of intellectuals, naming themselves the Petofi circle (after the famous poet of the bourgeois revolution who was executed in the defeat of the 1848 revolution and became a national hero), began to meet regularly and semi-openly.

In his book, Kopacsi makes a very interesting revelation about the morale of the state forces at this time. In the spring of 1956 a squad of secret police were sent into the Petofi circle and the active element of the Young Communist movement, which was also bubbling with debate. As the dissidents' arguments became more fully explained the police spies became more and more open to the ideas about reforming the system which were being put forward at these meetings. "Suddenly a majority of these 'spies' declared that they were in agreement with the points made in the Petofi circle!" Kopacsi recounts, "together they issued a statement, which they signed, declaring themselves in solidarity with the ideas put forward by the young reformists of the party."

The whole of the Eastern Bloc was awash with discontent. The floodgates had begun to burst even as early as 1953 with a massive strike wave and street fighting in East Germany. In Plzen and Prague, Czechoslovakia there had been riots. In the Hungarian industrial towns of Csepel, Ozd and Diosgyor the masses had come onto the streets in protest against the conditions. Even within the Soviet Union there had been strikes and protests amongst the prisoners within the labour camps. In May 1956 vast numbers of Russian troops and armoured vehicles were sent into Tiblisi, capital of Georgia, to crush an uprising sparked off by austerity measures. In June 1956 the workers of Poznan, in Poland rose. Inevitably this also had an effect on the young people inside the state forces. The Petofi circle even held one famous all-night meeting of 6,000 with people spilling out into the streets around demanding democratisation of the system and intellectual liberty. This movement of intellectuals was a reflection of the deep underlying discontent amongst the workers. In conditions such as this where all political freedom is barred, it is often the intellectuals who give the first overt expression of the movement swelling up beneath the surface of society.

23rd October 1956

Pravda angrily denounced this ferment. Yet even Szabad Nep, the Hungarian CP paper, under the pressure of the masses was grudgingly forced into agreement, in words, with the more secondary demands. The bureaucracy in Budapest went into crisis over the question of whether to bring in more reforms in an attempt to restore the ailing credibility of the party, or to bring in more hard-liners and clamp down on all the ferment. Many bureaucrats dithered between the two positions lacking any confidence in either. In every subsequent political crisis in the Stalinist states the bureaucracy has divided to differing degrees along these lines. In fact in Hungary today the same split is opening up again.

A further symptom of this indecision was the removal again of Rakosi in July 1956, because he was obviously arousing the hatred of the masses. This time, however, he was not replaced by a reformer but another hard-liner, Kadar. Kadar had been imprisoned and appallingly tortured by the Stalinists. This gave him a certain credibility in the eyes of the masses, but it also made him a compliant tool of Moscow.

Nagy was further demoted, confirming the impression that the leading circles within the bureaucracy were absolutely determined not to tolerate any quarter for reforms. The so-called Communist Party was by this time a Communist Party in name only. It had been purged, terrorised, bribed and corrupted into nothing more than a freemasonary of cynical careerists, and an appendage of the totalitarian state. In the elections of 1945 the CP had got 17 percent of the vote. Dora Scarlett reported an estimate made in 1956 which is only a very rough guide but nevertheless significant, that if an election was held with a guarantee of no interference, the CP would have been lucky to get 10 per cent.

During the revolution itself the CP of 900,000 vanished overnight. Today less than 1 percent support the party. This applies to all the Eastern Bloc countries.

Over the summer of 1956 discussion and opposition became widespread in the colleges and in the factories. The revolution was already in motion. Hostility amongst the masses towards the regime reached such a pitch that any spark could set off an explosion. In October that spark came. Students in Budapest called a demonstration for the 23rd. It was unprecedented for a demonstration to be organised outside of CP control. The authorities banned it but the organisers announced they were going ahead anyway. Initially it was over the conditions of students but an atmosphere of excitement spread amongst all the youth and workers of the town. A series of wider political demands soon were included and eventually the youth were being called to demonstrate in support of the workers of Poland. What a marvellous testimony to the internationalism of the movement, that the spark which ignited the revolution was actually a demonstration of international solidarity!

Tens of thousands flooded onto the streets. The secret police (AVO) understood that any reforms whatsoever would inevitably include a calling of them to account for their ten years of crime and organised terror. In panic they fired on the crowd. When police arrived to try and restore order, the crowd explained to the police how the AVO had fired on defenceless men, women and children. The young policemen, who knew the cruelty of the AVO, scarcely hesitated before handing over their guns to the crowd. Anyone who says that the forces of the political revolution are powerless against the arms of the state apparatus should look at the reports of Police Chief Kopasci as he describes his conversations over the radio with the different police units in the capital.

For example, he describes a conversation over the radio with one of his lieutenants during the October 23 demonstration, a Lieutenant Kiss (someone who "was prepared to sacrifice his life for the party. But for the Stalin statue?"):

"KISS: People are pulling down the Stalin Statue. Please send us orders immediately.

"KOPASCI: Okay Comrade Lieutenant, tell me about this pulling down.

"KISS: There are about a hundred thousand people around the Stalin Statue.

"KOPASCI: Are you sure there are as many as that?

"KISS: Comrade Colonel, there are more than a hundred thousand, if not two hundred thousand. All of Heros Square, all the edge of the woods is black with people. What shall I do?

"KOPASCI: Okay, how many men have you got?

"KISS: Well, er…twenty-five Comrade Colonel!

"KOPASCI: Useless! Look at what the people are doing and you will know straight away…You see Comrade Kiss these are specialists. They are workers from one or other of the big Pest factories. Only the workers possess the equipment to do what you report."

This is how Kopasci describes the first news over the police radio that the masses were armed:

"The tone of the junior officer at the other end was one of catastrophe: 'Comrade Kopasci the participants have guns.' I asked for complete silence in the room. I thought the man I was talking to had gone mad. 'I don't quite understand. Repeat Comrade Lieutenant.' In a measured tone the lieutenant repeated the account of how young recruits has been surrounded by the crowd, told they needed weapons to defend themselves against the security police and then how one soldier, then two, had offered their guns to the people.

"In my office silence reigned. My colleagues looked at me motionless. From the gravity of my voice and the look on my face they understood that the news I was getting was no joke. 'My boy how many arms have you distributed and what type?'…I awaited the reply, the blood frozen in my veins. 'Twenty-five or thirty rifles and about as many small machine guns. Some rounds of ammunition as well. What are your orders?' I could only give one: 'Barricade yourselves in and turn out your lights.'"

These conversations clearly illustrate how powerless and terrified the bureaucracy were in the face of an armed movement of the masses. They show that once the workers are on the move all the seeming strength of the state forces comes to nothing. Parallel with the rapid conquest of the streets went a very rapid development of political consciousness of the masses. One meeting held in the town centre began with a demand from the crowd that the government send a minister to address them about what reforms it proposed to make. The bureaucracy hesitated and vacillated for an hour and then decided to send the minister of agriculture. By the time he arrived the mood of the crowd had changed to hostility towards anything the government may have offered and they booed him off the platform. One of the features of all revolutions is this very quick development of the political consciousness of the masses.

The first invasion

The Russian bureaucracy responded to these events with panic measures. On the night of October 23-24 they sent in the tanks. Everyone fought them in the streets. People brought small arms out of their homes with which to attack them. Children as young as thirteen or fourteen set to them with Molotov cocktails. Such ferocious resistance on the part of the Hungarian workers and youth inevitably made a big impression on the Russian soldiers. They began to question why they had been sent. Some had been told by their officers that it was a fascist rebellion that needed crushing. This did not square with such widespread and popular resistance. By dawn some of the Soviet soldiers were leaving their vehicles and joining the mass demonstrations. Some of the tank crews decorated their tanks with the flag of the revolution (the Hungarian flag with the coat of arms removed). Russian troops asked for political asylum. They saw in the determination of the Hungarian workers the capacity to set up a new type of regime that would not hand them back to the Russian commanders.

A vast crowd assembled in front of the parliament building. The AVO fired on the crowd. Russian troops moved in and defended the crowd from the AVO. All public buildings were taken over by the workers. The radio was requisitioned for the revolution and the demands of the workers broadcast to the rest of the nation and beyond. Russian troops used their tanks to give backing to the assault of the workers on the police headquarters.

The prisons were open. Whole labyrinths of underground passages, cells and torture chambers were unlocked. Prisoners walked out like ghosts, men and women who had been assumed dead for years. In fact the network of secret police passageways under Budapest was so vast that throughout the weeks of the revolution relatives and friends searched for prisoners. Tappings could be heard in the further recesses. Some were so hidden that the revolution never reached them, before they could be found the counter-revolution had struck.

Newspapers sprung up everywhere. One CP eyewitness said "people hungered and thirsted for the printed word as though they had crossed a desert." From six dreary official papers twenty-five lively dailies with circulations going into millions sprang up within a few days. The revolutionary youth, the different sections of workers, peasants, police and army all had their papers. All rejected anti-semitism and fascism.

Arising out of the spontaneous political interests of the masses a number of new political parties sprang into life, including a Social Democratic Party and a Peasants Party. The right for a multiplicity of political parties to exist was enshrined in the programme of the political revolution. Without a doubt the experience of the Hungarian revolution shows that the workers had the capacity to take over and run society. And they had the strength and determination to win against all odds.

Such was the effect on the consciousness of the masses that moral attitudes changed overnight with the enthusiasm of the fight for a new society. Open suitcases taking collections for the families of those killed in the fighting were left unguarded on the street corners. Peasants showed their support for the revolution by bringing cartloads of food into Budapest and distributing it free. This in a country where people were still living in poverty! Let no-one in the face of these facts say that human nature is unchangeable, that people will always want to accumulate for themselves and that there will always be crime, even under socialism.

In desperation at their troops defecting to the revolution the Soviet authorities withdrew them from Budapest. In his memoirs Khrushchev recalls the vacillations within the top circles between "crushing the mutiny" or pulling "out of Hungary": "I don't know how many times we changed our minds back and forth." Desperately seeking a means to contain the situation, in consultation with Moscow through Andropov, then the ambassador in Hungary, the leaders switched once again to concessions. On October 25 the premier, Gero, who had provoked the masses further by a ranting speech on the radio about fascist agents, was removed at Moscow's bidding. Several of the worst Stalinist die-hards were removed from the Politburo and Nagy was suddenly rehabilitated and made premier.

Nagy returns

But despite his reputation as a "reformer", on the crucial questions confronting the Hungarian workers Nagy was no different from the hard-line Stalinists. Moscow persuaded him to declare martial law. He dumbly acquiesced with the Soviet decision to send troops to crush the movement. On the first day of his new premiership 300 workers were killed outside the parliament building by the state forces. His hands were drenched in blood from the outset. But given the tremendous power and sweep of the revolution he was a last line of defence for the bureaucracy because of his reputation.

Nagy offered an amnesty for all those who handed in their weapons. The Soviet authorities started a display of "negotiations" with his new administration, offering the masses the hope of a peaceful withdrawal of Soviet troops from the country. In reality this was a smokescreen behind which they were preparing for more effective military action. The truth was that the irresistible sweep of the mass movement rendered the Nagy government completely impotent. Without army, police or mass backing, it was a government in name only, an administration suspended in mid-air.

Rumours flew around as to the actions of the Russian columns. There was much confusion. Some sections of the masses did not want to believe that a new invasion was in the offing. If they were coming why were they going? Yet to anyone prepared to think things through carefully, it was clear their job had not finished. They were not far outside Budapest and their ranks were being swelled by reinforcements. Soviet troops took over all the airports.

Here we get a glimpse of the role that an organised revolutionary party would play in a political revolution. To equip the advanced workers with a clear analysis, strategy and tactics for the spread of the revolution into the other Stalinist states, and thus to prepare for the next battle of the revolution it was necessary for their experiences to be brought together within one party. Such a party would have directed agitation and propaganda to the wide layers of the masses who were hoping against hope that things would not come to a second clash. It would have based itself on the workers who were warning: "Don't lay down your arms." "No trust in the Nagy government to implement the demands of the revolution." A revolutionary party would have prepared politically clear slogans with which to meet the next wave of Soviet troops. Most important of all it would have formed a government based on the newly created workers' organisations and have immediately arrested Kadar and all the other representatives of Stalinism who still clung onto the shadow of power. Above all it would have undertaken from the outset of the revolution the task of directing propaganda to the workers of all the Eastern Bloc countries, especially Russia.

Power in the hands of the workers

All these tasks the advanced workers moved towards, through their own experience, in the two weeks of the revolution. The programme of the revolution had gone through different stages as the workers' consciousness leaped forward. In reality it was an elaboration of the programme of Lenin, put forward in April 1917, to defend the revolution against bureaucracy. The workers demanded:

  1. Workers' councils in all factories to establish workers' management and a radical transformation of the system of state central planning and directing.
  2. Wage rises of 15 percent for the lowest paid, 10 percent for other workers and an upper limit of £106 on salaries, which in the money of those days would have done away with the privileged position of the bureaucracy.
  3. Abolition of production norms except in factories where the workers' council decided to keep them.
  4. Increases in the lowest pensions.
  5. Increase in family allowances.
  6. A fairer system of taxation.
  7. A more rapid programme of house building by the state.

These demands, which contain not a hint of nationalism, religion, or reaction are the answer to all those who say that the revolution against the Stalinist bureaucracy is anti-socialist. They are a brilliant confirmation of the prognosis Trotsky had put forward in relation to the character of the political revolution. This was a programme with a wide appeal to the masses. Yet although of crucial importance, a programme on its own does not guarantee the outcome of a revolution. This is especially so when this programme is arrived through a series of successive approximations based on the conclusions the workers draw from their experience of each phase of the struggle.

The prior existence of a cadre organisation within the ranks of the most conscious workers, armed in advance with perspectives and at least a general understanding of what was necessary, would have made an enormous, and probably a decisive difference to the outcome of the revolution.

The revolution had transformed Budapest over the short space of a week. Kopasci paints a vivid picture of the parliament building in these days of workers' power. "This immense 'Westminister on the Danube' was more like the Smolny Palace in Petrograd, Bolshevik headquarters in 1917…than the old parliament chamber in London. The corridors and rooms were packed with delegations of workers, peasants, soldiers, artists, writers and politicians of different parties which had not been seen at all since 1947." Effectively the workers had taken power. In the provinces the workers had joined the movement and come out on strike. In the mining towns there was a very solid strike. All the workers were on the streets. There was an atmosphere of insurrection.

Amongst the peasantry too there was a big movement. The old Stalinist collective farm managers were driven off with knives and pitchforks. The peasants elected revolutionary committees. It is true that in some areas they broke up the land from the collectives into private plots. But this was linked with a warning that if any of the landlords tried to come back the peasants would organise a second revolution. Undoubtedly even these peasants would have, through experience, if the Hungarian workers had held onto power and established a regime of workers' democracy, come to the conclusion voluntarily that they were better off in collectives. This is how Peter Fryer, a reporter for the British Communist Party paper, the Daily Worker described the workers' councils:

"In their spontaneous origin, in their composition, in their sense of responsibility, in their efficient organisation of food supplies and of civil order, in the restraint they exercised over the wilder elements of the youth, in the wisdom with which so many of them handled the problem of Soviet troops and, not least, in their striking resemblance to the soviets or councils of workers', peasants' and soldiers' deputies which sprang up in Russia in 1905 and again in February 1917, these committees, a network of which now extended over the whole of Hungary were remarkably uniform. They were at once organs of insurrection - the coming together of delegates elected by factories and universities, mines and army units, and organs of popular self-government which the armed people trusted. As such they enjoyed tremendous authority, and it is no exaggeration to say that until the Soviet attack of November 4 the real power in the country lay in their hands."

The second invasion

The Nagy government, the last fig leaf of the authorities, effectively had no control. Power was in the hands of the revolutionary committees. The advanced sections of the workers, big sections of the youth and the industrial workers sensed that things could rapidly come to a head. They prepared to once more defend the revolution. A new wave of strikes began which rapidly reached the proportions of another general strike.

At this juncture the Russian bureaucracy began their second assault on the revolution. At 4 in the morning of Sunday November 4, Russian tanks, having encircled Budapest, began to bombard it with shells from the hills outside. By dawn they had entered the city and occupied key buildings including the parliament. The attack came across the nation all at once. Every city was pounded by artillery and then occupied.

Yet far from being crushed in one simple and massive assault as the Russian bureaucrats had hoped, the second invasion in fact spurred on the workers to even greater struggle making them more determined than ever to fight for the revolution to the finish. The consciousness of even the widest sections of the masses exploded into new life. Those who had not participated previously in the street fighting came pouring out to join the "veterans" of the previous week. The workers fought, along with children, students, the old and the soldiers and police who had come over. They built or rebuilt barricades. They occupied positions before the Russian columns entered the towns. The fighting was ferocious. The tanks were attacked by the masses from all sides. Russian soldiers later reported that they had never seen such determined resistance.

Resistance continues

But this second wave of Soviet troops had very little understanding of what they were crushing. Many of them had been hastily transported from the far-eastern provinces of the Soviet Union and could speak no European languages. Peter Fryer, in a final dispatch to the Daily Worker, which the editor hid from his staff, said: "Some of the rank and file Soviet troops have been telling people that they had no idea they had come to Hungary. They thought at first they were in Berlin, fighting German fascists." Some had even been told they were on the Suez Canal. The Hungarian workers attempted to hand them leaflets, but there was very little infantry action because the top officers feared the fraternisation that had occurred before. The Russian tanks came in and pumped shells into the buildings where they thought the resistance was.

The top Soviet officers desperately manoeuvred to "maintain the morale" of their troops by shooting those of their men who displayed any sympathy for the Hungarian workers! For example, one Soviet tank officer was executed because his column had found its road blocked by a line of women and children sitting in their path. Instead of christening the street with their blood he drove his contingent round another way. Several of the soldiers who complied with this were also executed. In the prison yards of Budapest such executions continued all day and all night. This grisly fact illustrates that despite all the measures taken by the Russian bureaucracy the Hungarian workers made an impact on the minds of quite wide layers of even this second wave of troops.

Despite this show of strength the bureaucracy almost failed to regain control. It took fifteen divisions, with six thousand tanks, backed up by MiG fighter planes to quell the movement. Buildings were pumped with phosphorus to set them on fire. One commentator, Andy Anderson, described it thus:

"Smoke from burning buildings, exploding shells and Molotov cocktails mixed with the dust from crashing masonry to create a choking fog. The sight of the mounting wounded created a fog to choke the mind."

Yet even with such brutality on the part of the Russian bureaucracy it took weeks to finish the job. On November 4 the still-born Nagy government, which represented nobody and no-one, was replaced by one under the hard-liner Kadar. He appealed for the workers to go back to work but the strike intensified. On November 5 he "warned", he "hoped for" and he "requested" a return to work. On the 6th and 7th he "threatened". On the 8th his henchman Marosan declared "it is the duty of every decent worker to go back to work." But throughout the workers remained on strike and more and more Russian tanks fell victim to the heroic armed resistance of the masses.

Hungary '56: Portent of future struggles

The most forceful and long-lasting resistance to the invasion came precisely from the big working-class areas of Budapest. Hospital figures show that the injured consisted of 70-80 percent young workers. These figures are incompatible with the Stalinist slur that the insurgents were hotheaded lumpen proletarians egged on by fascist provocateurs. "Red" Cespel, so called because it had been in pre-war days a bastion of the CP, was one of the last districts to hold out. Open resistance continued in isolated pockets well into 1957 and even in 1958 and 1959 there were strikes and demonstrations as the workers attempted to resist the remorselessly tightening grip of bureaucratic control.

The victory of the bureaucracy did not come easily. 1956 opened up a new period of economic development for the Hungarian economy. The Russian bureaucracy deliberately decided to pump resources into the country. They had been so frightened by the revolution that they wanted to ensure the masses were kept more content to avoid a repetition. Living standards rose significantly for the Hungarian masses for the rest of the 1950s and the 1960s. To put it in the words of Khrushchev: "We shall shut their mouths with goulash." Even in the seventies there was still substantial progress. This was the basis for the relative stability of the Kadar regime.

The Hungarian Revolution of 1956 was a glorious page in working-class history. It added to the heritage of mankind a priceless experience. It showed, not just in books but in living historical experience, that there was an alternative to the brutality of Stalinism that did not consist of a return to capitalism. It was in this sense a pointer to the future of mankind. Victory was possible. In reality victory was won, but it was snatched away again by the second Soviet invasion. Victory could have been consolidated only by spreading the revolution to the Soviet troops, including the far-eastern contingents, and that would have entailed spreading the revolution into the USSR itself. The material basis for the victory of the bureaucracy lay in the relatively progressive role that the Stalinist system was playing at that time. Even then a successful revolution in Hungary, headed by a revolutionary party that knew what it was doing and where it was going, could have been the trigger to set off the revolution within the USSR.

Today however, conditions are infinitely more favourable. The bureaucracy no longer plays any sort of progressive role in the USSR or Hungary. The economic outlook is gloomy for Hungary. The rate of growth has been less than 1 percent for the last five years. The Hungarian economy ran a trade deficit of £308 million in the first seven months of this year - almost three times higher than the same period last year - partly due to the fall in prices of its oil product exports. Living standards are no longer rising as they were in the decades following 1956. Once again the whole of the Eastern Bloc is wracked by ferment and discontent. The events in Poland in 1980 and 1981 are only the tip of the iceberg. The heritage and experience of 1956 will be invaluable to the new generation of Hungarian workers and the workers of Eastern Europe as they move into battle to reopen the unfinished war against the bureaucracy.

We recommend Peter Fryer's book Hungarian Tragedy

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