Hungary: workers’ councils against Russian tanks

Issue: 112

Mike Haynes

‘Tell me what you think about Hungary and I will tell you who you are,’ said a Polish writer in late November 1956. So in this spirit let us make a declaration. The Hungarian Revolution of 1956 was an authentic working class revolution. Other factors were involved; revolutions are complex things. But the driving forces of the Hungarian Revolution were the efforts of the workers. First they established organs of popular power. Then they fought to extend them to defend Hungary against the invading Soviet forces that eventually allowed the puppet government of János Kádár to crush the revolt:
Most of the provincial councils and workers’ councils in the capital became, to an ever increasing degree, representative of an attitude unknown in Hungary: the belief in self-government, or to put it in other words, government by soviets, in the original sense of the term—people’s councils, organs of local power.1

Neither then nor now did the revolt fit into a conflict between Washington and Moscow, between West and East. On 7 November, as Russian forces fought Hungarian workers in Budapest, a group of fighters in Tüzoltó Street ran up a red flag in honour of the October Revolution, the fortieth anniversary of which fell that day. The fluttering flag, like others in those desperate days, signalled a different version of socialism not only in Hungary but the world over. The flag was a rebuke to a Soviet imperialism that had grown upon the ashes of the real October Revolution. For this reason such flags also found little favour in the West. ‘We wish for neither capitalism nor Stalinism,’ said the Revolutionary Council of Budapest University. And this is the problem. With Stalinism and the USSR gone, the pressure everywhere is to reinterpret the past as a march to Western capitalism. So the role of the workers in the Hungarian Revolution remains an embarrassment.2

The Hungarian Revolution

Hungary in 1956 was a small European country of some 10 million people. Once a central part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, it was now reduced in size and status by two world wars and the unhappy period between them of authoritarian rule, repression and failed development. It was occupied by the Soviet army at the end of the Second World War and incorporated into the Soviet bloc as the Cold War developed. For Moscow, Hungary was in the front line against NATO to the West. For Washington, the Hungarians were another of Moscow’s ‘captive peoples’, a bargaining chip in the jousting for position that characterised the whole Cold War era.

The events of 1956, however, did not derive directly from geopolitical competition. They were a product of the way in which Cold War pressures manifested themselves internally as economic, social and political contradictions. The Eastern European regimes claimed to be socialist but they were driven forward by a competitive industrialisation in which the resources for accumulation were squeezed from the mass of the population using whatever repression was necessary.5 But on the mass of people pressure was so intense as to become counter-productive, and after Stalin’s death in 1953 his successors signalled a degree of relaxation. However, contradictory messages, policy changes, and admissions of the monstrous levels of repression in the past—culminating in the denunciation of Stalin’s behaviour by the new Russian leader Nikita Khrushchev in his ‘secret speech’ of February 1956—opened up a space for the open, if still cautious, articulation of discontent.

In Hungary Mátyás Rákosi, ‘Stalin’s best Hungarian disciple’, was sidelined from Moscow in favour of Imre Nagy, a loyal but reform minded ‘Stalinist’, in 1953. But Nagy could not consolidate his grip and a change in the balance of power in Moscow enabled Rákosi to come back in 1955 and expel Nagy from the Communist Party.6 Blind to the pressure for change, Rákosi’s triumph was short-lived. After Khrushchev’s secret speech Rákosi again found support draining in Moscow—Khrushchev later talked of ‘that idiot Rákosi’. At home the growing ferment in the Hungarian Communist Party was reflected in huge popular debates held by the Petöfi Circle—initially a forum for party youth.

Critics of the regime were emboldened by events in Poland where June 1956 saw a near-rising of workers against the regime in Poznan.7 Moscow removed Rákosi (he now thought of himself as ‘the last Mohican of the Stalinist era in Eastern Europe’) on 18 July, and replaced him, not with a reformer like Nagy, but another man identified with the old Stalinist era—Ernö Gerö.8 Meanwhile growing revelations about the many victims of Stalinism in Hungary, most notably László Rajk, a leading Communist minister executed as a traitor and spy in the paranoia of 1949-50, stimulated further defiance. The new prime minister, Hegedüs, said that ‘by now a big part of the media is not controlled by the party any more’.9 The Hungarian leadership was forced to allow the ceremonial reburial of the body of Rajk on 6 October and this led to a spontaneous demonstration of support for change. ‘The reburial of Rajk’s remains dealt a massive blow to the party leadership, whose authority was not all that high to begin with,’ Gerö told the Soviet ambassador, Yuri Andropov.10

The real explosion came just over a fortnight later on 23 October. Students had called a demonstration in support of Poland, where a reformist government seemed to be standing up to severe political and military pressure from Moscow. But the demonstration immediately brought tens of thousands on to the streets . The regime felt the full force of popular anger when the hated state security secret police—the 50,000-strong AVH —fired upon crowds.

The revolt went through three stages.

From 23 to 28 October there was disorder as protests spread and the old order began to disintegrate. ‘The democratic storm…is…raging in full force,’ said one Hungarian newspaper at this time.11 In this storm the initiative passed to the streets and the factories. ‘It was the (inner party) opposition who ‘prepared’ the revolution and yet no one was so dumbfounded by the outbreak as they’, wrote Sándor Fekete in an early participant account.12 Russian forces initially attempted to come to the aid of the Hungarian leadership but were then withdrawn as the revolt gathered force. Nagy was made prime minister but immediately found himself overtaken by the popular mood.

From 29 October to 3 November a degree of order driven from below was established. Nagy, at last, responded to popular demands with announcements of policy changes aimed at democratisation and the weakening of Moscow’s grip. But neither he nor anyone in the Hungarian leadership could offer Moscow the prospect of containing the ferment from below. For the Russian leadership fear of the strategic implications of the loss of Hungary and the way revolt was erupting from the bottom up was too much.

On 4 November the revolution entered its third and longest stage. Moscow had already decided that it had been a mistake to withdraw Russian troops and new units had begun to enter Hungary on 1 November. But it was on 4 November that they attacked Budapest and other centres. There were several days of armed resistance, but the odds were in favour of the well armed Russian forces. Nagy fled to the Yugoslav embassy and was later betrayed and executed. Other leaders were rounded up and arrested; still others fled across the border to the West along with some 200,000 others (2 percent of the population). Those who had died fighting the Russians and the old Hungarian regime were buried in unmarked graves. Since 1989 there has been a huge effort in Hungary to uncover their fate, but putting a name on a headstone is a poor memorial if in the process what a person died for remains hidden from history.

Workers’ councils, formed from 23 October, now continued to oppose the occupation until December when widespread arrests and repression finally overcame resistance. It is here, in the role of these councils, that we see the real nature of 1956 as a social revolution, and it is exactly this that current accounts are anxious to bury.13 But before we examine the workers’ councils in some detail it is worth pausing a little to say something about the street fighting in 1956.

Street fighting people: round one

On 23 October and in the days following the most visible aspect of the Hungarian Revolution was the street fighting. For a revolution to occur state authority must weaken sufficiently to disorient the forces of repression. This had happened in Hungary. On 23-24 October the panic in the Budapest leadership was such that some fled ‘into underground bunkers that were unsuitable for any work’, according to Soviet politburo members who were there.14 The regular police proved powerless, and in Budapest a significant number of the 1,200 officers, led by Sándor Kopásci, the Budapest police chief, defected to the demonstrators.15 The army too was disorientated. The only major unit to initially obey orders to repress protests was the Third Army Corps whose commander forced his men into action and even bombed demonstrators in Tiszakeske and Kecskemet from the air before he thought better of it and fled to Russian protection. Most army units took a position of benign neutrality. Sometimes they intervened to enforce ceasefires on the state security forces. Occasionally units, as well as individual soldiers, went directly over to the protesters. The main group defending the state was therefore the hated state security AVH. It was because they appeared so isolated that Gerö called on Soviet forces for support late on 23 October. With some 31,000 troops immediately at hand, and some 1,100 tanks and air power, this was a formidable force.

In most of the provinces, where there was also a limited presence of Russian forces, the Hungarian security forces were soon overwhelmed, despite the shooting of protesters. Conflict in Budapest was more costly. At the peak perhaps 15,000 demonstrators, armed with weapons seized or donated from the civil defence, police and army, faced the disintegrating AVH and the Russian army. The fighting was serious at a small number of key points, but both the AVH and Russians were uncertain of what to do. The Russians had confused orders. Ordinary troops were quickly disconcerted when they found that they were facing ordinary Hungarians. There was some fraternisation. Tensions rose high on 25 October when indiscriminate shooting led to many deaths outside the Hungarian parliament. On 26-28 October the radicalisation and polarisation continued, as did the brutal Russian response—‘To solitary shots we replied with salvos,’ said one Soviet commander.16 It was at this point that Nagy managed to establish a ceasefire and announce that Soviet troops would withdraw from Budapest—the start, many hoped, of a negotiated withdrawal from the whole of Hungary.

The evidence from Budapest is that much of the street fighting was done by young people, including even schoolchildren. The fighters tended to form self-organised groups, often around key individuals, some of whom may have had a murky past, though it is difficult to separate claim and counter-claim. But it would be wrong to make too much of this. ‘It is touching that it was the hooligans of Ferencváros who created ethics out of nothing during the revolution,’ said a student at the time.17 It is clear that a broad process of radicalisation was occurring. Not the least example of this was the role of Colonel Pál Maléter who became ‘the most popular hero of the revolution’, for which he would pay with his life, executed by the Kádár regime. Maléter had had an erratic career which ran from being a bodyguard of the pre-war dictator Horthy, to a Russian trained partisan fighting the Nazis and then a senior figure in the new army. He at first tried to play a neutral role when he was sent to try to relieve the Kilián Barracks but then appealed to the ministry of defence to have Soviet forces withdrawn to reduce the tension and loss of life. When this was refused he famously cast his lot with the revolutionaries: ‘I must inform you that I will fire on the first Soviet tank to approach the Kilián barracks’.18

The rise of the workers’ councils

Most of Budapest had stopped work, supported by growing strikes in the rest of the country, while these struggles were taking place. A new network of committees and councils began to emerge. The echoes of 1917 are obvious. Some of these new forms were factory committees. These would then link into revolutionary (sometimes called national) councils or committees. But in smaller places local area-based councils were formed straight away. The pattern and the names are often confusing because, unlike in Russia in 1917, there was not time for more sophisticated forms of organisation to be worked out. But this does not diminish the central role of these councils or what they achieved in a short time. ‘Without their political pressure,’ say the authors of the standard Hungarian account edited by György Litván, ‘the Nagy government would probably have stopped halfway’.19 But the significance goes beyond this immediate political dynamic, which is why they remain so controversial and why they are so difficult for more conservative accounts to digest.

Budapest was the centre of the workers’ council movement. Once the second city of a great empire, it was now the overblown head of a small country and contained nearly a fifth of Hungary’s population. Over half of the country’s industrial output was produced there by 46 percent of its industrial workers. They were concentrated in engineering works, chemical plants, consumer and food industries. Here too were a significant part of Hungary’s building and transport workers. Industry was not evenly spread within the city. Two of the most concentrated areas were the Újpest district to the north and the Csepel island in the Danube to the south, long an industrial area based around iron, engineering, paper and oil. The city, split by the Danube, tended to be more industrial on the Pest side than the Buda, the area developed for the imperial middle class and now the site of the residences of many of the people who had done well under Rákosi.

The first Budapest workers’ council was established on 23 October in the Újpest district at the huge Egyesült Izzó (United Lamp) Factory which employed around 10,000 people.20 A day later factory committees and workers’ councils were spreading to most of the city’s plants and districts. On 29 and 30 October district workers’ councils began to be created in the areas where the bigger plants were concentrated—Újpest, Obuda, Angyalföld, Csepel. Then on 31 October a parliament of workers’ councils for Budapest was convened with delegates from 24 factories and looked to establish a new order within them. Many elements of this order remained unclear but most commentators have been struck by the sophistication of the demands. The delegates declared:

The supreme controlling body of the factory is the workers’ council democratically elected by the workers… The director is employed by the factory. The director and highest employees are to be elected by the workers’ council…the director is responsible to the workers’ council in every matter which concerns the factory.21

The councils also looked to the political situation, demanding a whole range of measures of democratisation and, above all, the withdrawal of Russian troops. In this process the old instruments of Stalinist rule were simply pushed aside. The Communist Party and the official trade unions, two of the means of repressing the working class and driving forward accumulation, were marginalised. As Lomax writes, ‘When a few days later the government, the Communist Party and the Central Council of Trade Unions called in turn for the creation of workers’ councils [in a failed attempt to direct them—MH] they were merely giving official recognition to an already accomplished fact’.22

Inevitably the geography of workers’ councils outside of Budapest reflected the industrial geography of Hungary, with the strongest ones in the north and the weaker ones in the towns of the southern agricultural plains. But, as Peter Fryer, the shocked but honest reporter for the British Communist Party’s Daily Worker, put it:

these committees, a network of which now extended across the whole of Hungary, were remarkably uniform. They were at the same time 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 4 November the real power in the country lay in their hands.23

Listeners to a radio broadcast from Miskolc heard the following declaration on 25 October: ‘We have had enough! Enough of the autonomy of certain leaders! We too want socialism, but according to our special Hungarian conditions, reflecting the interests of the Hungarian working class and the Hungarian nation’.24 Miskolc was the second largest town in Hungary. It had a population of some 140,000 in 1956 and was situated to the north east of Budapest in Borsod county, ‘the largest unbroken industrial area in Hungary’.25 The whole area had been a centre of rapid expansion in the post-1948 industrialisation drive, based on concentrated investment in heavy industry, cement and brickworks, as well as a textile mill. As Miskolc expanded so it merged with Diósgyör, the site of Hungary’s first iron foundry and now the main iron and steel centre as well as the location of a large machine works making rolling stock and turbines.

It is here that we find the second great centre of the workers’ councils of 1956. While local students formed a student parliament, committees were formed in the factories and then workers’ councils. Things began to move on 22 October with the formation of various committees and then, on 24 October, a ‘labour council’. Organisation spread within and between plants in the neighbouring towns. Government authority collapsed locally in the face of a mass demonstration in Miskolc on 26 October when 38 people are thought to have died as state security forces opened fire and the crowd took its revenge. The workers and students and existing forces which defected to them quickly restored order and Radio Miskolc could announce on 27 October that ‘for two days the town of Miskolc has been under the leadership of the workers’ council and student parliament.’ The new councils of the industrial belt linked up to form a countywide Borsod Workers’ Council. When the claim was later made in Budapest that what was at stake was a counter-revolution, the Borsod County Workers’ Council simply said, ‘You have only to pick up the telephone, and in three hours we will be there, the workers of Ozd, Diosgyör, Miskolc, all 20,000 and armed’.26

To the north of Budapest was the smaller town of Salgotarjan. Here industry was based on coal, iron and steel and there was no university. Anyone stopping there in late October would have found a town in which the radicalisation appeared to have involved one of the most peaceful power shifts. On 25 October a strike became general and on 27 October there was a march to the town centre. The local Communist Party attempted to lead the workers’ council movement but it was pushed aside. But the relative calm of this period would be deceptive, for in the next phase Salgotarjan would become a major centre of resistance to Russian invasion and the Kádár government.

Györ had a population of around 70,000 in 1956. Situated on the Danube, 80 miles north west of Budapest and on the main Budapest to Vienna route, the town had grown on the basis of the expansion of its pre-war wagon building works, textiles and consumer goods industries. Nearby were the coal mining town of Tatabánya and smaller towns based on opencast coal and bauxite mining. Some discontent appeared before 23 October but news of the events in Budapest led to a small demonstration on 24 October, which quickly snowballed. In the evening state security forces again opened fire. The next day thousands came out. Strikes were generalised and local authority collapsed. On 26 October a town-wide National Revolutionary Committee was formed and the next day Radio Free Györ announced that ‘national committees and workers’ councils were being formed everywhere between Györ and Tatabánya’. The Györ council became the core of the Transdanubian National Council formed to represent the western half of Hungary.

While this was happening the state security forces had acted out another massacre at nearby Mosonmagyaróvár in which 52 had died. Order was only restored when the state security police were disarmed by local troops under the control of the Györ council.27 The strength of the workers’ councils here was based on the Györ factories and nearby mines at Tatabánya and Balinka. The Györ National Council not only issued a programme, but also ran the town and even negotiated for a time with local Soviet military leaders. But its most demanding task was trying to cope with the political cross currents in Györ. The mood in the town was heated and, especially early on, there was frustration with the timidity of Nagy in Budapest. Some right wing forces tried to take advantage of this, as did adventurers, some from within Hungary, others from across the border. There were several tense episodes before the leaders of the local council were able to encourage a focus on building a base through the development of the workers’ council movement in the wider Transdanubian area.

Further south on the Danube, some 40 miles from Budapest, was Sztálinváros (now Dunaújváros). This was intended as the centrepiece of Hungary’s new industrial development. In the late 1940s it had only been an overgrown village but in the spring of 1950 the building of the Stalin iron and steel works began under the supervision of Soviet engineers with ostensibly a model ‘socialist’ community—the biggest investment project of Hungary’s first five year plan. By 1956 Sztálinváros had a population of 30,000 and, as in Russia, welfare there very much took second place to demands of steel output.28

Agriculture still dominated much of the south of the country. Here the major towns had been trading, administrative and educational centres, with their social structure less intensively affected by Stalinist industrialisation. Debrecen is Hungary’s third largest town with a population of some 130,000 in 1956. It had been the scene of Kossuth’s short-lived declaration of independence from the Austrian Empire in 1849 and the base for the Soviet-backed liberation government in 1944. On 23 October demonstrating students were joined by workers. Local party leaders ordered forces to open fire, killing three people. Over the next days talks between representatives of the local soldiers, students and workers led to the formation of the Debrecen Socialist Revolutionary Committee which soon became the effective power in the town until the second Soviet onslaught on 4 November. A second southern town, Szeged, with a population of just under 100,000, was the place where the first independent student organisations had been created before 23 October. After the 23 October events in Budapest, students in Szeged were involved in local protests and occasional clashes until 26 October when security forces withdrew. Workers’ councils in the local factories were set up which then linked with student groups to form a People’s Revolutionary Council on 30 October. This then began to organise a local national guard.

Pecs had been the site of Hungary’s first university and was also a major trading and agricultural processing centre. In 1956 it had a population of 110,000. Its post-1948 growth had been affected by the development of coal mining nearby and uranium mining. Here, however, the old order held together better in the first days. Local bosses encouraged factory committees in the belief that they could put their own people at the head of them but they were pushed aside. Then, as news spread of events elsewhere, the local state security police began to crumble. On 28 and 29 October councils were elected and a national guard created. The Pecs councils were less impressive in depth than those in the north, but the town would be a major centre of resistance to Russian forces in the next phase.

It was, however, not just the towns that were affected by the revolution. As Table 1 shows, Hungary was still a predominantly agricultural country. Authority began to collapse in the rural areas on the Saturday and Sunday of 27-28 October. The process had echoes of traditional peasant revolt. News arrived of the urban protests, sometimes brought directly by migrant workers returning from the factories. Discussions took place in village centres and pubs, and on the Sunday around and in churches. Fearful of a state which they saw as both oppressive and exploitative, the peasants, reflecting an older moral economy, sought to legitimise their revolt symbolically. Village national committees were elected in many places. While some of the old, imposed rural leaders fled and others were offered some kind of protective security, less hated figures might symbolically hand over village centre keys to the new committees. The state campaign against religion had been especially resented and therefore dressing in one’s Sunday best to go to church had a special resonance that weekend. Sometimes local Stalinist party secretaries were made to carry the crosses. Tax records were seen as an instrument of the power of the state and burned in some places.29 Some villagers also loaded carts with food to take to towns both as a gesture of solidarity and as an assertion of the superior morality of the gift over the past history of forced deliveries to the state.

The level of politicisation in the countryside was much lower than in the towns. But, with the power of the state gone, many peasants took the opportunity to leave what they saw as state organised agriculture. By early 1957 only around 6 percent of peasants were left in state cooperatives which now had some 10 to 12 percent of arable land.30

The question arose of how far the workers’ councils should sustain the strike and cooperate with the Nagy government as it began to broaden the agenda of change under the pressure of the councils. Almost from the outset delegations had gone to Nagy to influence him. Then on 1 November, with the Russian forces seemingly withdrawn and Nagy radicalising his position, delegates from the councils argued that the strike should be called off while maintaining the general role of the councils. This produced some sharp local debates but when the district councils in Csepel and Újpest agreed to support a return to work the position was endorsed and the date set for Monday 5 November. But the agreement would be rendered redundant by the second Soviet military assault.

The significance of the workers’ councils

What was the significance of the workers’ councils? The fact that they were set up against a so-called ‘socialist state’ and then destroyed by it should show that neither before nor after 1956 was Hungary in any sense socialist. The fact that the councils involved workers seizing control of the means of production should also show that what was wrong with Hungary was not some ‘political degeneration’ at the top but a system which exploited and oppressed workers both politically and economically. ‘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,’ said one Csepel worker.31

But these are only the first questions posed by the workers’ councils in 1956. Clearly the councils were tools of destruction through which the old regime was being brought down. But were they, and can they again be, tools of creation through which a new democratic economic and political order can be built?

There is a horrible irony in the fact that many historians today, and not least those in Hungary, are as anxious to dismiss this possibility as was the Kádár regime that destroyed the workers’ councils in 1956. Those for whom the only alternative to dictatorship is a Western style bourgeois democracy solve the problem of 1956 by concentrating on the political demands. The re-emergence of some 20 political parties, with the potential to compete for parliamentary power, was bound, they suggest, to lead to a market transition and, sooner or later, a degree of privatisation. Nineteen fifty six is made to anticipate 1989. It was a ‘bourgeois revolution’, said the Hungarian politician Viktor Orban in 2001. For Peter Kende, one of a number of participants who now doubt their own past, ‘by history’s inscrutable logic the Hungarian people seem to have achieved in 1989 what they fought for in 1956’.32 Litván, another participant historian, is less direct, redefining 1956 (in a phrase of István Bibó) as a ‘revolution in human dignity’. But all revolutions involve the oppressed asserting their dignity against the oppressor. Moreover dignity comes in different forms—not all of them compatible. If people in 1956 did not believe it could be found in the old system, they equally did not seem to believe it could be found in the restoration of other discredited forms. Istvan Bibó, who attempted to theorise what was happening at the time, called it ‘the beginning of one of the most exciting socialist experiments of the century’.33 ‘The intended economic order’, writes Litván’s group of historians, ‘would place decision making in industry, mining and transport in the hands of the producers.’ But sooner or later, they also imply, workers would have been forced away from this ‘possibly utopian’ road. ‘The healing of a ruined economy was impossible without a more or less free market’.34

But if the workers’ councils were incompatible with a Stalinist state capitalism masquerading as ‘socialism’, how could they have been compatible with more free market capitalism either? It is true that what was called ‘workers’ participation’ existed in some social democracies and in Yugoslavia in the 1950s, but participation is not control. These were top down initiatives in which real influence from below was severely constrained. The importance and challenge of the Hungarian councils lie in their contradiction to these lesser visions of change.35

The Hungarian workers’ councils grew from the bottom up and were marked by the breadth and depth of participation. They combined national demands with a fundamental social agenda which looked to a new system moulded from the workers’ councils, independent free trade unions and competing socialist parties. This idea is less distinctive than some have suggested. It recaptured elements of an earlier socialist tradition (even, we would suggest, a Bolshevik one) that had been squeezed out by the statism of social democracy and the one-party developmental dictatorship of Stalinism. Its base would lie in the claim that ‘the factories must become truly collective, and not capitalist property’ and the argument, expressed in different forms, that ‘the working class itself wants a guarantee that it will be armed so that it can stop any force from negating the basic aim of the revolution and its achievements so far’.36

Here at least we must grant the Kadar regime the virtue of consistency. For it the workers’ councils were a fantasy in theory and mob rule in practice. They had no creative element; they were simply destructive. The regime was quick to identify every incident and build it up as one of the crimes of 1956. The most notorious, perhaps, was on 30 October when state security police opened fire from inside the Budapest Communist Party headquarters. Protesters returned the fire, killing, among others, Imre Mezö, the local party secretary and Nagy supporter, and then lynched a number of the people in the building, some of whom may not have been involved in the shooting. But the regime’s own data puts any popular violence into perspective. There were, it claimed, 215 ‘victims of counter-revolution’ of whom were 169 were military; 14 of these were claimed to have died from summary execution. Forty six deaths were civilians, of whom eight were Communist officials killed or lynched by crowds. ‘Believe me, we are not sadists, but we cannot bring ourselves to regret those kind of people,’ said one contemporary who was asked.37 The majority of deaths, even if they were all regime deaths, clearly came in the fighting. All the occasional indiscriminate ‘crimes’ of the real revolution cost no more lives than a single massacre by the forces of the Hungarian state or the Russian army. Far from the revolution involving widespread mob rule, the Litván group writes, ‘there is abundant evidence that the freedom fighters themselves penalised any lawlessness resolutely’.38

Most present day accounts want to claim that the councils had limited capacity. But the creative energy and self-discipline of the councils create a problem for them. The historical undermining of the legacy of the workers’ councils today does not derive from a grand theory of bourgeois democracy or the majesty of its reality. Where is such a reality today? Rather it derives from an accommodation to current practice. Historical accounts inevitably reflect the time in which they are written. The best can partly rise above this and connect past, present and a range of new futures; the worst bludgeon the present into the past to deny any future other than what is. The political vision that emerged out of the transition in Hungary was a narrow one, and leading Hungarian intellectuals accommodated to it. It does past, present and future a grave disservice.

Street fighting people: round two

‘Today at dawn’, Imre Nagy broadcast on Sunday 4 November, ‘Soviet troops attacked our capital with the obvious intention of overthrowing the legitimate government.’ The second Soviet intervention, ‘Whirlwind’, was more massive and better organised than the first. The Hungarian army was immediately demobilised by Russian troops. The new National Guard had had no time to organise for such a contest. Potential leaders like Maléter were arrested. Kopásci was soon rounded up. Resistance again had to come from below. The Soviet general Zhukov later claimed that his forces had to disarm 35,000 Hungarians. This may be true but they could never have matched a major army.

Nevertheless, the stand taken in key areas was heroic in the face of often overwhelming force. Fierce fighting took place in several provincial centres including Pecs in the south. But generally the stiffness of resistance reflected the distribution of sections of the working class. ‘The greatest armed resistance to the Soviet forces occurred in the large iron and steel centres of Dunapentele, Ozd and Miskolc, and in the mining regions of Borsod, Tantabánya and Pecs,’ writes Lomax. At Dunapentele, the former Sztálinváros, the workers’ council faced with the Soviet army declared:

Dunapentele is the foremost socialist town in Hungary. Its inhabitants are workers, and power is in their hands. The houses have all been built by workers themselves. The workers will defend the town from ‘fascist excesses’ but also from Soviet troops.39

Within Budapest the same pattern emerged. In the centre street fighting was hard at the Kilián Barracks, Corvin Passage and Tüzoltó Street—all these places became legendary. But it was also considerable in Újpest and Kobanya. It was no less fierce on the Cespel Island where workers held out until 10-11 November.

In 1957 the Kádár government was quick to issue its own data to claim that the cost of violence was greater during the first wave of fighting, when the Soviet army withdrew, than in the second wave after its re-entry. Its ‘order’ was supposedly preferable to the ‘disorder’ of the revolution. ‘Two thirds of the injured were wounded before 3 November and one third after 4 November.’ But the figures, based on hospital admissions, can hardly be a guide since arrest was more likely after 4 November. The deaths seem to have been 40 percent in the first round and 60 percent in the second round of fighting. Property destruction was largely a product of the second phase. The regime claimed only 4 percent of housing in Greater Budapest as a whole was damaged but this somewhat foolish statistic could not hide that fact that 23 percent of housing had been damaged in the 9th Ferencváros district and 18 percent in the Jozsefváros district. Fifty percent of the Budapest dead were recorded in these two districts and the 7th.40 As Peter Fryer wrote:

I have just come out of Budapest, where for six days I have watched Hungary’s new born freedom tragically destroyed by Soviet troops… Vast areas of the city—the working class areas above all—are virtually in ruins. For four days and nights Budapest was under continuous bombardment. I saw a once lovely city battered, bludgeoned, smashed and bled into submission.41

The data on the Budapest dead tell an even clearer social story of a predominance of working class youth. Twenty percent of the dead were under 20 years old, and 28 percent aged between 20 and 29. Seventy five percent of the injured were reported to be under 30; 1,330 of the dead were recorded as workers, only 44 as students. Another Kadar source suggested that ‘according to the figures supplied by the hospitals, 80 to 90 percent of the wounded were young workers, while students represented no more than 3 to 5 percent’.42

Resistance and the struggle for power

With the armed resistance crushed by 10-11 November a month and a half of passive resistance to occupation and counter-revolution began. The Hungarian army had disintegrated, the political leaders had been arrested or had fled, and writers and intellectuals, however prominent, lacked an organisational base of their own. It was the workers’ councils which were the basis of opposition and they stood at the head of a general strike. ‘We are and shall remain the leaders in Hungary,’ said Sándor Racz when he was elected president of the new Central Workers’ Council in Budapest. Despite the continued emphasis in some accounts on the role of intellectuals, the Writers Association passed a motion on 12 November which read, ‘We throw in our lot with the Hungarian working class, the peasantry and the revolutionary youth, and in the course of further developments we shall work together with their democratically elected organisations’.43

It is not difficult to see why. If we take industrial production in September as 100 then in October it was 71.1 percent of that level and in November a mere 17.6 percent. Even with the actions of the authorities in December it only rose to a monthly figure of 30.5 percent of the September level. To close down over 80 percent of industrial production effectively for over a month must register as one of the most complete and sustained general strikes in history. And in particular sectors for which data was collected by the statisticians the strike was even more effective.44

A journalist writing for the Observer in Britain reported the situation in mid-November:

A fantastic aspect of the situation is that although the general strike is in being…the workers are nevertheless taking it upon themselves to keep essential services going, for the purposes which they themselves determine and support. Workers’ councils in industrial districts have undertaken the distribution of essential goods and food to the population in order to keep them alive. The coal miners are making daily allocations of just sufficient coal to keep the power stations going and supply the hospitals in Budapest and other large towns. Railwaymen organise trains to go to approved destinations for approved purposes…45

The impact of the invasion on the workers’ and revolutionary councils was uneven. In some areas they quickly collapsed but those based on factory committees in urban, working class environments proved more resilient and their organisation deepened. So strong was it that the Kádár government was forced to temporarily recognise the workers’ councils while trying to gain time to contain and undermine them and pick off their leaders. In some areas arrests began immediately. On 5 November, for example, 12 members of the Borsod workers’ councils attempted to negotiate and were arrested and taken out of Hungary.46 Occasionally, however, such arrests had to be rescinded and negotiations were held with Soviet commanders to this effect.

The biggest developments were in Budapest. On 12 November the Revolutionary Workers’ Council of Újpest proposed the creation of a Central Workers’ Council for Greater Budapest. In spite of attempts by the authorities to disrupt it, on 14 November the new Central Council met at the Egyesült Izzö plant. The meeting, which was chaotic, elected a provisional committee made up from delegates from the district workers’ councils.47 As in any revolution, individuals were thrown up who quickly proved unequal to the task and were replaced by others who found a strength, courage and vision that perhaps they had not appreciated they had. Two of these were workers from the Beloiannis electrical factory. Sándor Racz was a young tool fitter who was soon elected president of the council. Sándor Bali, another tool fitter, was older and more experienced, having been a past member of the Social Democratic Party and Communist Party but also having conspicuously refused to take advantage of the possibilities of social mobility that the regime offered before 1956.

It was Bali who was the leading influence on the perspectives of the Central Workers’ Council. These involved seeing it as the organising centre for the Budapest workers’ councils. It became, said Balász Nagy, ‘a hive of activity’. New elections were held in the factory committees and workers’ councils to ensure the legitimacy of these organisations and hence the Central Council itself. ‘The factories are in our hands, the hands of the workers’ councils,’ said one leaflet from late November. But the key political issue was whether to negotiate with the Kádár regime. The brute face of military power was everywhere. Bali therefore proposed that the Central Council negotiate but refuse any formal recognition of the government. But negotiate to what effect? The Central Council and the councils on which it drew were determined to deepen their role. The big immediate weapon they had was the general strike. But general strikes cannot last indefinitely, especially one so complete. The most conservative voices argued for the strike to be called off to give Kádár time to show his intentions. The most radical argued for it to be maintained to the bitter end, come what may.

In the midst of military occupation, with perhaps 2,000 dead already and many more wounded and under arrest, the difficulty of these choices should not be underestimated. In the event the position that won was to agree to return to work in return for concessions. But what concessions, and could the government be trusted? This produced sharp arguments in some of the Budapest districts and committees. In Csepel, for example, leaders who saw this position as too radical were removed in favour of delegates who thought it too moderate.48 Racz argued that the workers’ councils were in a position of growing strength: ‘The government is now beginning to make certain concessions, and it will make still more. We just have to force it to do so. We must wait until work has been resumed everywhere, because otherwise the Russians will occupy the industrial centres and replace the workers. The question now is whether we will be the masters or the Soviet command’.49 Outside of Budapest too there were divisions. Some miners took the view, ‘You can work if you want, but we shall provide neither coal nor electricity; we shall flood the mines’.50 But negotiations went ahead with the Kádár regime for the removal of Soviet troops, the generalisation of workers’ councils, and the defence of the right to strike. The return to work was set for 17 November.

But the government’s position was well described by a British reporter. Its aim was ‘to divert workers’ councils into innocuous channels by “legalising” them as organs of economic self-government, somewhat on the Yugoslav model, but denying them the right to put forward political demands or issue a newspaper’. The perspectives were far apart and ‘merely led to continued deadlock in Budapest’.51

To maintain its position the Central Council could not stand still. The organisation had to be widened. Accordingly on 19 November it accepted a plan to create a new Parliament of Workers’ Councils and made an appeal for delegates to meet in Budapest on 21 November. But when delegates arrived at the sports stadium where the meeting was due to be held they found it surrounded by Soviet tanks (some called them ‘Kádár taxis’). A smaller meeting was held at the headquarters of the Central Council which, again after debate, accepted its positions. But while the talk was going on, workers, fearing that delegates had been more widely arrested, were coming out on strike again and on 22-23 November Budapest was hit by a general strike which also served to commemorate the outbreak of the revolution a month earlier. The Central Council had no choice but to put itself at the head of this.

The Kádár regime and Soviet forces were far from idle during this time. It is clear now that János Kádár swung to become the figurehead of the Russian invasion quite late on. When he arrived in Budapest on 7 November in a Russian armoured car he had no plan or authority other than that given to him by the Russian army.52 The secret police had gone, the army had disintegrated, and government was in disarray. His new ‘party’—the Hungarian Socialist Workers Party—barely existed (in December it only had 37,000 members, a few percent of the old Communist Party). In the next weeks Kádár talked but refused to yield, supported as he was by the Soviet occupation. Imre Nagy and his supporters were tricked out of the Yugoslav embassy with the complicity of the Yugoslav government on 23 November, arrested and taken out of Hungary. But Kádár also tried to build a new base for himself through the formation of the Hungarian Revolutionary [sic] Home Guard Militia, which was supplemented in early 1957 by a ‘Workers’ [sic] Guard’.

It was the militia, with the Russian army, that would eventually crush the revolution in December. Another strand of Kádár’s policy was to send out the signal that there would be no return to the past, whatever repression followed, Attempts were made to buy off working class discontent with backdated pay rises, peasant discontent with concessions on forced deliveries and agricultural process, and the discontent of small craftsmen through tax and property changes. Rákosi and Gerö remained in exile and gestures were made on religious freedom and towards an even more obvious co-option of national symbols. But the regime, like all established orders, had an additional weapon and a very powerful one—time. It could sit it out and try to stretch out negotiations to a point when it felt able to move. By early December Kádár and others seem to have begun to feel that their time was coming.

The Central Workers’ Council (CWC) did not want the provocation of a major demonstration on 4 December, a month on from the second Soviet invasion. Fearing the consequences if the authorities used force against a mass demonstration, an evocative procession was organised of some 30,000 women dressed in black. They walked through Budapest until they encountered Soviet troops. The demonstration was deeply symbolic and moving. But in terms for the balance of power between the councils and the government it was too little. The authorities now began to move quickly.

The Kádár regime began to widen arrests and then news came through that on 8 December a massacre had occurred at Salgótarján, with the arrest the leaders of miners’ workers’ councils and the shooting of 39 demonstrating miners. The Central Council meeting in Budapest called a 48-hour general strike for 11-12 December, ‘the like of which has never before been seen in the history of the workers’ movement’, an official Hungarian paper was forced to report.53 The government responded by declaring that the CWC and local councils were illegal (but not yet the factory committees) and declaring a state of emergency. Some 200 working class leaders were rounded up and arrested. Racz and Bali were major targets but they were protected for a time by the workers in their factory. They were only induced out by a duplicitous personal offer from Kádár to negotiate. They were then arrested. When other strikes and demonstrations against the arrests were called the response was just as ruthless as it had been in Salgótarján. Workers were shot down in the streets in several places including Miskolc, Eger and Zalaegerszeg.

Workers’ opposition was now forced underground and on 5 January 1957 the government announced the death penalty for a refusal to work and strike agitation. Several workers’ councils ceremoniously dissolved themselves rather than just fade away under the weight of this repression. The Csepel council said that to continue ‘would be to deceive our comrades. We therefore return our mandate to the workers’.54 When, on 8 January, workers on the Csepel Island demonstrated their support they too were met with Soviet tanks and more were killed. Five days later the Kádár government further widened the death penalty. The regime was able to move on and suspend the Writers Association on 18 January and close the Journalists Club on the 20th. After nearly three months the Hungarian Revolution had finally been crushed.

The pattern of repression

The story of a revolution can also be told through the nature of the victims when it is repressed. The weight of repression has obviously to serve as a warning to the main social forces involved never to attempt the same again. Here too then we find evidence of the absolute centrality of the workers’ councils. Arrests began to mount between November 1956 and the end of 1959. Some 100,000 were arrested, 26,000 tried and 22,000 sentenced; 229 formal death sentences were passed but accounts suggest that as many as 350 executions may have occurred. Those of Imre Nagy, Maléter and others were the most prominent. Leading intellectuals were jailed. But the target of repression was much more the working class. The majority of the arrested and sentenced ‘were workers 20 to 30 years of age’. Death sentences fell especially on workers accused, rightly or wrongly, of street fighting. Among the arrested ‘the group that contributed the greatest number of those sentenced consisted of the members of the workers’ councils and revolutionary committees from factories and local institutions’. Death sentences were rarer but long prison sentences the norm, including life (for Bali and Rácz, for example). Despite later amnesties ‘quantitatively…this group was hardest hit, by both judicial sentences and by extra-legal measures of repression’. As the Litván history notes, the targeting of this group was hardly an ‘accident’ but ‘a major goal of the repression’.55

Fifty years on

Once the threat of the revolution had been overcome Kádár began to build bridges to the Hungarian people. From the early 1960s he became the most successful Eastern bloc leader. But the memory of 1956 still had to be contained through suppression and distortion. The same process is at work today but the politics are different.

When the Soviet bloc collapsed in 1989, ‘the transformation in Hungary was perhaps the most tranquil of all’.56 This was a negotiated transition, negotiated in no small part by those who had made their careers under Kádár and who saw the chance not only to survive but also to prosper in a new Hungary. Manipulating 1956 as a ‘national’ myth served the interests of these people as well as a new generation of leaders committed to the market and private property. Today Hungary is a member of the European Union. It is an ally of the United States, and the share of multinationals in its manufacturing turnover is over 70 percent—second only to Ireland. Ordinary Hungarians, however, like most ordinary people in the transition regimes, have seen fewer of the benefits of change. This has been especially the case in the industrial areas that were the core of 1956.

In this new situation the radical interpretation of 1956 is unwelcome. So too is a recognition of the hollowness of Western policy in 1956 which was strong on rhetoric but involved standing by to allow Russia to crush the revolution and maintain its sphere of interest and the overall balance of power. ‘Alas, the logic of great power policy made accomplices of many otherwise honourable Western politicians’, writes the Litván group.57 This is self-deceit of the worst kind, for 1956 was the year of both Hungary and Suez. It simply writes into history the cynical idea that it is better for a small country to prostrate itself voluntarily before Washington and Brussels than be enslaved by Moscow.

Did Hungarian workers want to control their own lives? The self-deceit works again. Of course, but now it must be understood that freedom can never be anything more than the freedom to apply to work for this or that multinational and their freedom to reject you.
But the story of 1956 is bigger than this. Different regimes in France struggled to contain the legacy of its great revolution for 200 years. But it has not always been easy. One of the songs heard on the streets of Budapest in 1956 was in fact the Marseillaise. What Kende now calls ‘history’s inscrutable logic’ is often more inscrutable than those who invoke it suggest. Connecting to the real history of 1956 shows that its legacy is much more open than many would like us to believe.

1: M Molnar, Budapest 1956: A History of the Hungarian Revolution (Allen & Unwin, 1971), p174.
2: It is ironic that accounts of the post-1956 Kádár regime often paid more attention to the ‘counter-revolutionary’ role of workers in 1956 than some post-1989 Hungarian accounts. The main translated general history of the post-1989 era, Ignac Romsic’s Hungary in the Twentieth Century (Corvina, 1999), (which incidentally concludes with a near racist celebration of Hungary’s thousand year struggle to resist ‘Asian and Eurasian tyranny’ in favour of membership of the Christian West) does not mention the workers’ councils in its discussion of the first stages of the revolution. It then gives them scant attention in the resistance except when they became victims of repression. ‘The spirit of the revolution,’ Romsic argues, ‘lived on most conspicuously among groups of intellectuals’ (p316).
3: Data from M Pécsi and B Sárfalvi, The Geography of Hungary (Collets, 1964).
4: There is an element of spurious precision in this data. Although the order of magnitude is correct it is probably an undercount. Some of the losses on the Soviet side may have been hidden. The undercount is probably greater on the revolutionary side. Some urban dead were simply buried by relatives; there was a less accurate count in the countryside and some others died trying to flee the country—G Litván (ed), The Hungarian Revolution of 1956: Reform, Revolt and Repression 1953-1963 (Longman, 1996), p103. For the Russian data see J Granville, ‘In the Line of Fire: the Soviet Crackdown on Hungary, 1956-57’, in T Cox (ed), Hungary 1956: Forty Years On (Cass, 1996), p82.
5: See M Haynes, ‘Accumulation and Working Class Exploitation, Some Origins of 1956 in Hungary’, London Socialist Historians Conference on 1956, February 2006 (forthcoming).
6: Quoted in M Kramer, ‘The Soviet Union and the 1956 Crises in Hungary and Poland: Reassessments and New Findings’, Journal of Contemporary History, vol 33, no 2 (1998), p175.
7: J Granville, ‘Reactions to the Events of 1956: New Findings from the Budapest and Warsaw Archives’, Journal of Contemporary History, vol 38, no 2 (2003), pp264-265.
8: Rákosi’s comment to Voroshilov quoted in J Granville, ‘Reactions…’, as above, p268.
9: Quoted in J Granville, ‘Reactions…’, as above, p277.
10: Quoted in M Kramer, as above, p181.
11: Quoted in M Molnar, as above, p178.
12: Quoted in C Harman, Bureaucracy and Revolution in Eastern Europe (Pluto, 1974), p150. Fekete was the imprisoned author of a famous underground pamphlet by ‘Hungaricus’.
13: The analysis of Hungary in 1956 as a social revolution forms the centrepiece of Bill Lomax’s The Hungarian Revolution, (Allison & Busby, 1976). Since 1989 a mass of material has become available but new Western accounts focus primarily on the international dimensions. Hence Lomax’s classic account remains a significant point of reference. Lomax also edited a major documentary collection: B Lomax (ed), Hungarian Workers’ Councils in 1956 (Social Science Monographs, 1990).
14: Quoted in M Kramer, as above, p185.
15: Kopásci later wrote his own account. See S Kopásci, In the Name of the Working Class: The Inside Story of the Hungarian Revolution (Fontana, 1987).
16: Quoted in J Granville, ‘In the Line…’, as above, p101.
17: Quoted in B Lomax, The Hungarian Revolution, as above, p111.
18: As above. For a sizeable extract from a first hand account of Maléter’s actions see C Harman, as above, pp136-137.
19: G Litván (ed), The Hungarian Revolution of 1956: Reform, Revolt and Repression, 1953-1963 (Longman, 1996), p68. This is the quasi-official post-1989 history of 1956. Its editor, György Litván, was then a brave history teacher who denounced Rákosi to his face. He was later imprisoned. Now he is one of the most senior historians in Hungary. The 1956 Institute in Hungary has a large website with a mass of materials that I have drawn freely on:
20: Despite its name this plant was involved in engineering, including military production.
21: Quoted in B Lomax, The Hungarian Revolution, as above, p141.
22: B Lomax, The Hungarian Revolution, as above, p140.
23: P Fryer, Hungarian Tragedy (New Park, 1986), pp44-45.
24: Quoted in B Lomax, The Hungarian Revolution, as above.
25: Hungary (Corvina Press, 1964), p280.
26: Quoted in B Lomax, The Hungarian Revolution, as above, p97.
27: This was the first place Peter Fryer, the Daily Worker correspondent, saw. He arrived the day after the massacre and was immediately broken of his Stalinism by what he saw. See P Fryer, as above, pp17-24.
28: S Horváth, ‘Everyday life in the first Hungarian socialist city’, International Labor and Working Class History, no 68 (Fall 2005), pp24-46. Whether Sztálinváros was ever rational is an interesting question but whatever logic it had was further undermined as it was being planned by Stalin’s dispute with Tito in Yugoslavia, which denied the iron and steel works expected supplies from that country. Horváth’s study of Sztálinváros shows that many of the new workers and especially the skilled ones came from other towns including Budapest. This confirms the pattern evident in the work of Mark Pittaway which stresses the role of skilled workers in 1956. See, for example, M Pittaway, ‘The Reproduction of Hierarchy: Skill, Working Class Culture, and the State in Early Socialist Hungary’, Journal of Modern History, vol 74, no 4 (December 2002).
29: Peter Fryer describes a peasant council at the Bábolna state farm where he spent two days—P Fryer, as above, pp49-54.
30: Calculated from I Romsic, as above, p330.
31: Quoted in B Lomax, The Hungarian Revolution, as above, p37.
32: P Kende, ‘Afterword’, in G Litván (ed), as above, p180. Kende had been an oppositionist journalist in the 1950s.
33: Quoted in B Lomax (ed), Hungarian Workers Councils, as above, pxix.
34: G Litván, as above, p126.
35: On the debate on 1956 in Hungary see H Nyyssönen, The Presence of the Past in Politics: ‘1956’ after 1956 in Hungary (Sophi, 1999).
36: Quoted in B Nagy, ‘Budapest 1956: The Central Workers’ Council’. This is reprinted in B Lomax (ed), Hungarian Workers’ Councils, as above. It is also more easily available on line in the Marxist internet archive.
37: Quoted in B Lomax, Eyewitness in Hungary (Spokesman, 1980), p125.
38: G Litván, as above, p77.
39: See B Lomax (ed), Hungarian Workers’ Councils, as above, p85.
40: ‘Fontosabb adatok az 1956. Október-Decemberi idöszakról’, Statisztikai Szemle, vol xxxiv, no 11-12 (November-December 1956), p928.
41: P Fryer, as above, p69.
42: G Litván, as above, p103; B Nagy, as above.
43: Quoted in B Lomax, ‘The Working Class in the Hungarian Revolution’, Critique, no 12 (Autumn-Winter 1979-1980), p46.
44: ‘Fontosabb adatok az 1956. Október-Decemberi idöszakról’, Statisztikai Szemle, as above, pp17-918.
45: Observer, 25 November 1956, as quoted in A Anderson, Hungary ’56, available at
46: G Litván, as above, p135.
47: For the role of the Council see B Nagy’s account, as above, and the documents in B Lomax (ed), Hungarian Workers Councils, as above, pp91-180.
48: See E Nagy, ‘Conflicts Between the CWC of Greater Budapest and the CWC of the Csepel Iron and Steel Workers’, in B Lomax (ed), Hungarian Workers Councils, as above, pp467-499. Elek Nagy was president of the Csepel Central Workers’ Council.
49: This comes from evidence presented in the trial of Rasz and the other CWC leaders after the defeat of the revolution. See B Lomax (ed), Hungarian Workers’ Councils, as above, p562.
50: Quoted in B Lomax, The Hungarian Revolution, as above, p159.
51: Observer, 2 December 1956, quoted in A Anderson, as above.
52: The Russians needed a figurehead. Kádár’s shame is that he became it. We now know that he did so after hesitation. See M Kramer, as above, pp200-201.
53: Quoted in P Fryer, Hungary and the Communist Party (London, 1957), p27.
54: See Elek Nagy’s account in B Lomax (ed), Hungarian Workers Councils, as above, pp497-498.
55: See G Litván, as above, pp139-148.
56: As above, pxiii.
57: As above, p155.