The real lessons of the 1956 uprising in Hungary

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The real lessons of the 1956 uprising in Hungary


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On June 22, President Bush traveled to Hungary to join a commemoration of an uprising that occurred there 50 years ago, in October-November 1956. He went there as chief representative of U.S. imperialism presiding over a ceremony marking its greatest victory—the collapse of the socialist camp in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.

After he and Laura Bush laid a wreath at the 1956 Memorial Monument, he addressed the people of Hungary. “In 1956,” he said, “the Hungarian people suffered under a communist dictatorship and domination by a foreign power. That fall, the Hungarian people had decided they had had enough and demanded change.

“In 1989,” he continued, “a new generation of Hungarians returned to the streets to demand their liberty, and boldly helped others secure their freedom. … Because you had the courage to lead, Hungary became the first communist nation in Europe to make the transition to democracy.”

That version of the 1956 events in Hungary has been so often repeated in big business media and academia that it is

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The January 1957 Time “Man of the Year” showed where U.S. imperialism stood on the 1956 Hungarian uprising.

accepted as gospel. Given the anti-communist atmosphere surrounding the celebrations, any class-conscious worker would be skeptical that the uprising was really so positive. The same capitalist politicians, media and academia never portray genuine uprisings of working people in their own interests in such glowing terms.

Of course, the 1956 events in Hungary were dramatic. Thousands of people, including wide sections of the working class in Budapest and other cities, were in the streets. The infant workers’ state, formed after the defeat of Hungary’s brutal pro-fascist World War II regime, was on the brink of collapse. Besieged elements of the Hungarian Communist Party appealed to the Soviet Union for aid, and on Nov. 4, 1956, Soviet troops moved to put down the rebellion.

Using the same language Bush uses today, the Hungarian uprising of 1956 was cloaked under the veil of “freedom and democracy.” Few of the demonstrators called openly for the restoration of capitalism and landlordism. But the imperialist politicians and press knew where it was heading; they knew “on which side they were.”

Today, 50 years later, there has been a restoration of capitalism, after the 1989 demonstrations—inspired by the 1956 rebellion—succeeded in toppling the government. The defeat of the workers’ state was greeted euphorically as the victory of “freedom and democracy.”

The reality has been much different.

Post-1989 Hungary

Here, for example, is a description of the documentary “Barren,” shown at a film festival in Prague, the Czech Republic, in April 2002:

“Stark images of poverty and the economic underclass in Eastern Hungary five years after the fall of Communism. Unemployment is widespread; poverty, corruption and crime are on the rise. The police impose the law-and-order policies by evicting the poor from their homes. … Children beg in the streets for food; people steal to survive. The situation is severe, and the hunt for a scapegoat has begun.”

Unemployment and poverty, unknown in socialist Hungary, are now part of everyday life. While the official unemployment rate is around 7 percent, almost 40 percent of the workforce is not even counted in the figures, according to the 2006 CIA World Factbook.

Of course, as in every capitalist economy, these scourges hit the most vulnerable the hardest.

Chris Corrin, a professor of Feminist Studies at the University of Glasgow in Scotland, presented a paper in 1999 in which she summed up the situation of women in post-1989 Hungary:

“Although certain groups of women (such as bankers) have been able to succeed in the competitive, market-oriented framework, many women and groups of women have not. The rapid social differentiation that market economics has brought to Hungarian society over the past decade has resulted in vast inequalities, which have yet to be fully dealt with in social policy measures and government legislation.

“Older women living in poverty are not yet adequately counted into the social system,” Corrin continued. “Women suffering violence in the home and elsewhere do not have as many options for support and redress as they need.”

The Roma people, derogatively referred to in the West as “gypsies,” have historically been discriminated against in Hungary. The European Roma Rights Center Executive Director, Dimitrina Petrova, submitted the following statement to the U.N. Human Rights Committee on March 22, 2002:

“[P]ost-1989 Hungary is a place where Roma are in a state of undue exposure to violations of their basic human rights. Protection provided to Roma by Hungarian authorities against human rights violations is often inadequate or unavailable, and the Hungarian government has undertaken little to reduce anti-Romani sentiment.”

“Indeed,” Petrova said, “Hungarian officials have tacitly or explicitly appealed to racist sentiments to garner support, arguably contributing to the creation of a public culture in which abuses of the fundamental rights of Roma are tolerated.”

And, finally, this report appeared in the July 31, 1995 Cultural Survival Quarterly:
“In Hungary, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic, skinhead groups regularly roam villages and city neighborhoods looking to beat up Roma, Jews and foreigners. They also distribute hate literature and music.”

Racist and skinhead groups were banned in socialist Hungary.

Similar reactionary consequences of the counterrevolutionary changes in 1989 to 1991 are common throughout the former socialist camp.

Clearer in retrospect

But it is much easier to see these consequences in retrospect. At the time, there was widespread confusion about the nature of the 1956 rebellion, both in the Hungarian working class and within the world socialist and progressive movement.

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Before liberation by the Soviet Red Army in 1945, Hungary was led by the fascist Arrow Cross Party.

The roots of the rebellion can be traced to the way in which capitalism was uprooted in Hungary after World War II. While the defeat of Nazi Germany opened the door for a number of Eastern European communist-led movements to victorious revolutions, like in Yugoslavia, Albania and Czechoslovakia, the working-class movements in Hungary and several other Eastern European countries were weak. Capitalism was abolished primarily due to the Soviet Red Army.

Contrary to Western propaganda, the overturning of the rule of reactionary landlords and capitalists—many of whom were enthusiastic backers of the fascist Arrow Cross regime and its anti-Semitic and anti-Roma pogroms—was welcomed by many Hungarian workers and peasants. But enthusiasm for the social gains made in the revolutionary overturn of capitalist property relations were tempered by virtual civil war conditions immediately after the war.

The Soviet government had imposed heavy reparations for the great damage and casualties Hungary’s wartime regimes had inflicted as an ally of Nazi Germany in the invasion of the Soviet Union. Hungary paid additional reparations to Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, and it also paid for Soviet troops that were stationed on its territory to deter another invasion from the capitalist West. All this caused real hardships for the Hungarian working class.

There was also the political weakness of the Erno Gero regime in Hungary in 1956, which failed to inspire solid support in the working class and the spirit of sacrifice needed under the circumstances. Like the Matyas Rakosi government that preceded it, Gero relied as much on party-controlled security forces as on sections of the working class itself to shore up its base of support.

All this meant that legitimate grievances of the Hungarian working class found no adequate expression in a revolutionary, organized manner. When workers did form councils as part of the rebellion, their demands for democracy and the withdrawal of Soviet troops were hijacked by counterrevolutionary forces fueled by widespread propaganda aimed at the Hungarian masses by the U.S.-sponsored Radio Free Europe.

Absence of revolutionary leadership

Under the immense pressure of imperialist propaganda and the anti-communist hysteria prevailing in the United States at the time, many ostensibly socialist groups in the United States and Europe felt that these councils were progressive or even played a revolutionary role in Hungary, especially in relation to the politically contradictory Soviet leadership.

These groups failed to recall the experience of the Bolshevik Party in the revolutionary events of 1917 in Russia. After the czar was deposed in February, workers’ councils—known in Russia as soviets—sprang up in factories, fields and barracks across Russia. But without the fusing of this new form of organization with a revolutionary leadership, the soviets actually buttressed the political rule of the bourgeoisie.

Eight months of patient but determined political work on the part of the Bolsheviks exposing the counterrevolutionary role of the social democratic leaders within the soviets was needed before the capitalists’ hold on power could be shattered. (Lenin, “Dual Power,” April 9, 1917)

There was no Bolshevik-type party in Hungary in 1956. The only party that stood firmly for the overturn of capitalist property relations was the Hungarian Communist Party—and even sections of that party wavered.

Potentially the most influential party at the time was the bourgeois, anti-communist Smallholders’ Party. It had won a large majority in the first post-war election, and was later dissolved. Also dissolved was the reformist Social Democratic Party, which had outpolled the Communists by a small margin in the same election. During the 1956 uprising, both parties regained legal status and joined a new coalition government formed by Imre Nagy, a member of the Communist Party who favored major concessions to the demands of the rebellion.

The political character of the coalition government was clear from the outset. In the streets, crowds lynched communists, destroyed Soviet war memorials and burned socialist books. The new government released from prison the extreme reactionary Catholic prelate József Cardinal Mindszenty, who immediately assumed a prominent role in leading the demonstrations. He made a radio broadcast praising the anti-communist actions of the uprising.

Nagy also announced that Hungary would withdraw from the Warsaw Pact, the defensive alliance of Eastern European states organized to prevent a NATO invasion.

Under the circumstances, were it not for the intervention of Soviet troops, counterrevolution would surely have been the outcome. This was, in fact, the outcome some twenty-five years later, after Mikhail Gorbachev withdrew Soviet troops.

After the Soviet intervention, Mindszenty fled into the U.S. embassy. Appeals from anti-communist demonstrators for U.S. intervention went unheeded, despite repeated Radio Free Europe broadcasts that the West stood behind the demonstrations. Apparently the Pentagon did not consider counterrevolution in Hungary worth the risk of nuclear war or a Europe-wide confrontation with the Soviet Union.

One of many attempts

The 1956 uprising in Hungary was one outcome of a long series of attempts—some successful, some not successful—by the U.S. rulers and their allies to bring about reactionary “regime change” in countries that had undergone social and political transformations unfavorable to their interests. Such attempts go back at least to 1918 in Russia, when a major imperialist operation was launched to overturn the new Bolshevik government.

During the civil war that followed the 1917 revolution, the United States joined with 13 other imperialist and allied powers to send troops in support of the counterrevolutionary “White” armies. Some 10,000 U.S. troops were sent to Siberia. All the invading troops were later withdrawn after the Soviet Red Army defeated the White armies.

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U.S. marines based at the embassy in Budapest pose with Hungarian rebels.

Other instances took place in Czechoslovakia in 1968, Poland in 1981 and China in 1989, for example. Ultimately, such movements precipitated the collapse of the socialist camp in Eastern Europe from 1989 to 1991.

While each of these instances had particularities, they shared a common feature. In all cases, legitimate grievances on the part of the working classes were exploited and channeled into counterrevolutionary movements. Absent a clear anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist leadership, such a degeneration is inevitable in a world dominated by imperialism.

Cuba still on the hit list

The lessons are not just historical. They are important for any partisan of the working class who genuinely seeks to defend the gains of the world working class against imperialism.

It is beyond the scope of this article to detail the long history of measures U.S. imperialism has taken to bring about reactionary regime change in Cuba. But 10 different U.S. administrations have used every trick in their regime-change bag of measures, including numerous attempts on Fidel Castro’s life, germ warfare, economic blockade, subversive broadcasts and a proxy army with the 1961 Bay of Pigs fiasco, save one—direct U.S. military attack.

Pentagon planners are looking to the transition in Cuba’s revolutionary leadership as an opportunity to overturn the 1959 revolution. They will look for any weakness within the Communist Party or any grievance, justified or not, within the population to create the conditions for counterrevolution.

Cuba’s leadership has prepared for that eventuality. They have carried out a careful campaign with the party and the masses to ensure that the stakes and the difference between revolution and counterrevolution are understood.

U.S. imperialism is committed to its policy of unending war—the guarantee of its survival as an empire. Bush’s visit earlier this year to Hungary should be seen as a threat to Cuba, Korea, Venezuela, China and any other country trying to build socialism or follow an independent course.

But as the resistance of the Palestinian, Lebanese and Iraqi people shows, that threat can be challenged.

Hungary itself has a revolutionary tradition, which cannot be erased from the workers’ consciousness despite anti-communist propaganda. In 1918, Hungarian workers and peasants, led by Bela Kun, established the first soviet republic following the revolutionary victory of 1917 in Russia.

The socialist revolutions in the Soviet Union and other oppressed countries inspired hundreds of millions of workers around the world with the reality that capitalist oppression was not inevitable. Today, it is the special duty of the multinational working class in imperialist countries—especially in the United States—to end capitalist and imperialist plunder.

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