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The uprising that shook Eastern Europe's tyrants
Hungary '56

November 3, 2006 | Page 10

DENNIS KOSUTH tells the story of the uprising 50 years ago against the fake socialist regime of Hungary.

THIS SUMMER, George Bush visited Hungary to pay tribute to Hungarians who died fighting the Stalinist regime 50 years ago. He compared their historic struggle with current events in Iraq. "Iraq's young democracy faces determined enemies," Bush said, "Defeating these enemies will require sacrifices and patience--the kind of patience that the good people of Hungary displayed after 1956."

What he meant by the "patience" of the "good people of Hungary" after 1956 is anyone's guess. It took two Russian invasions, thousands of Hungarians killed, and many more fleeing the country to finally repress a revolution that took place in the autumn of 1956.

The USSR-backed dictatorship would survive another three decades, until the wave of revolutions in 1989 that toppled the regimes of the so-called Eastern-bloc--a prelude to the collapse of their sponsor, the USSR, two years later.

But during those 33 years, Hungarian workers--rather than displaying "patience"--continued to resist in various ways the tyranny of a regime that claimed to rule in their name, but in fact presided over a system with much in common with Western governments.

What else to read

For a good book on the Hungarian Revolution, look for Peter Fryer's Hungarian Tragedy. Chris Harman's Class Struggles in Eastern Europe 1945-83 has a chapter that covers Hungary 1956.

To learn more about the developments in Russia that formed the backdrop for both the establishment of a Stalinist regime in Hungary and the rise of resistance to it, see Russia: From Workers' State to State Capitalism.


Until the fall of the USSR, there were competing stories about the Hungarian Revolution. Besides the one put forward in the West that Bush echoed, there was the assertion by the defenders of the USSR and its Eastern European satellites that the uprising was a coup, funded and inspired by agents of Western governments.

Fascists and counterrevolutionary clergymen were to blame. How else could the Russian government explain why it drowned the revolution in blood?

Radicals today should know the truth about the Hungarian revolution. It represented an uprising from below against an oppressive system. The centers of Hungary's industry became the centers of resistance to Soviet rule in Hungary.

And in the course of struggle, from these centers of resistance the seeds of an alternate society grew. As in other revolutionary situations before and since, workers councils, the embryo of a genuine workers' government, formed as a democratic organization for workers to continue the struggle.

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THE YEAR 1956 was when the Stalinist system had its grip shaken in the USSR and the Eastern European countries where satellite regimes had been imposed after the Second World War.

The 1917 Russian Revolution had been a genuine workers' revolution, but within a few short years, it was strangled by isolation and poverty. A new elite, led by Joseph Stalin, rose to power, presiding over a system that kept the rhetoric and some of the trappings of socialism, but used its control of the state to re-establish an exploitative and oppressive system.

After Stalin's death in March 1953, a power struggle ensued within the USSR over who would succeed him. Three years later, the winner, Nikita Khrushchev, made his famous "secret speech," outlining the crimes of Stalinism--its labor camps, purges and executions of political opponents.

Khrushchev's goal was not to democratize Russian society, but to change the methods of the regime. He believed that Russian industry had been successfully built up to where it could sustain the USSR in its military competition with the West, but that the political system of Stalinism had become a fetter to further economic development.

This political shakeup had implications in the satellite countries, beginning with Poland. What started with a thawing of political debate and discussion among intellectuals and students became a flood of dissent, culminating in a mass workers' demonstration over unbearable conditions.

The same dynamic of economic hardship and political awakening occurred in Hungary. On October 23, students in the capital of Budapest--fearing that Russian forces might intervene in Poland to crush the demonstrations--called a mass march in "solidarity with our Polish brothers."

During the unprecedented 100,000-strong rally, word circulated that Ernö Gerö, installed in power with Russian backing a few months before, had denounced the protesters over state-run radio, calling it "slanderous to the Soviet Union." This infuriated the demonstrators, who divided into two parts--one section tore down a massive statue of Stalin, and the second headed to the radio station to make a reply over the same airwaves.

Protecting the radio building were 500 agents of the notorious State Security Police (known by the initials AVH). These political police, with wages 10 times higher than the average Hungarian worker, earned their money by drawing blood--through beatings, torture and murder. In the resulting confrontation, several protesters were torn apart by AVH bullets.

This was the act that turned demonstration into insurrection. Army soldiers sent in to establish order either turned their weapons over to the people or joined in the fight themselves.

As Col. Pál Maléter recounted, "I received an order to set out with five tanks against insurgents. When I arrived at the spot, I became convinced that the freedom fighters were not bandits, but loyal sons of the Hungarian people. So I informed the Minister that I would go over to the insurgents."

By the next morning, the old government had fallen, and a new one was formed under Imre Nagy, a former Communist prime minister associated the reform wing of the ruling elite who remained quite popular.

Another new institution was being formed at the same time--revolutionary councils sprang up across the country--in villages, towns and all areas of different cities.

This report from the town of Miskolc--broadcast by Radio Free Miskolc, a station run by a revolutionary council--was typical of the period following the October uprising: "For two days, the town of Miskolc has been under the leadership of the Workers' Council and the Student Parliament. The Workers' Council has taken over control of the garrison and the police.

"As you know, the County Strike Committee has called on all the plants in the county to strike, with the exception of the post, transport, communications, food supplies and health services, and the power plants."

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WORKING PEOPLE themselves had set up bodies that had de facto control over key aspects of everyday life--and which represented the potential of organizing society in a completely different way.

But within Hungary, no political grouping argued that these councils should continue the revolution and fight for a system in which workers had control over society. Nor were there organizations internationally that had the capacity to aid the struggle.

The rulers of the USSR determined that the uprising represented too grave a threat to their system. On November 4, Russian forces were sent into Hungary, sparking bloody fighting in Budapest and other cities and towns. In a week's time, the Russians had established military control, at a cost of some 2,500 people killed.

The workers' councils continued to organize resistance following the Russian crackdown. The councils called three general strikes that paralyzed the economy. But the grip of martial law was too strong. During December and January, there were more mass arrests and massacres to smash any remaining centers of opposition. Isolated and without a way forward, the revolution was defeated.

Nevertheless, Hungary represented a major blow to Stalinism, not only in Eastern Europe but internationally. The revolution shook the Communist Parties around the world that looked to the USSR as a model of socialism. Thousands of members resigned after the crushing of the uprising.

Meanwhile, the Western governments that claimed--as Bush continues to do today--to be on the side of the protesters took no action. For all their rhetoric about opposing totalitarianism, they understood that a successful revolution in Hungary would be more dangerous as a model to workers everywhere than the USSR regaining control.

The lesson of Hungary's revolution today is, first and foremost, that the most seemingly invincible systems can be defeated. The Hungarian people not only did not love the Big Brother regime that ruled over them, but they were capable of toppling it--and creating the means of building a new society, dedicated to democracy and freedom.

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