Sunday, October 23, 2016

Remembering the Hungarian Uprising

The Hungarian Uprising of 1956 was a revolt against the government of the Hungarian People's Republic and its Soviet-imposed policies that saw Russian tanks smashing down Hungarian workers. The Hungarian uprising began on October 23rd when the Secret Police, the A.V.O., fired on a crowd estimated at 200,000 demonstrating outside the radio station. The next day Russian tanks were called in but were forced to retreat. The government under the newly appointed Prime Minister Imre Nagy, lost control. Workers Councils, loosely linked together, organised the distribution of food supplies and the resistance to the Russians. Despite hunger and poverty there was surprisingly an absence of looting in the city. Shops with broken windows had their goods left intact.

The rebels demanded:
(1) The establishment of a democracy of the Western type.
(2) The free formation of parties of all types.
(3) Free elections.
(4) An armistice for the insurgents and complete withdrawal of all Soviet forces.

As well as recognition for the Workers Councils, higher wages, higher pensions, less piecework, higher family allowances, more houses and so on.

This mixed bag of demands could not even have begun to be met by the regime. Nagy, attempted to placate the Nationalist sentiment of the insurrectionists with his counter-proposals:-

(1) An armistice for all who took part in the fighting.
(2) The creation of a new police force based on the Army and workers' and youth groups.
(3) Dissolution of the Secret Police.
(4) The reinstatement of the Kossuth coat-of-arms in place of the Communist insignia.
(5) The restoration of the 15th March as a national holiday. This date is the anniversary of the Kossuth rebellion of 1848, which was put down by the then Russian Czar.

Developments forced Nagy to adopt a different stand, so that on the 30th October, he announced the abolition of the one party system and formed a government, including Agrarians and Social Democrats. Nagy's 'concessions' were too late to satisfy the rebels. With the Government ineffectual, power was moving towards the revolutionary workers' councils. The Communist Party slogans had said that workers were the ruling class, now, through the councils, the workers were putting it into practice.

Condemned as fascist counter-revolutionaries, the uprising was very much a nationalist one but the restoration of the old order was not on their agenda.
 The Smallholders Party leader Bela Kovacs made clear: "No one, I believe, wants to re-establish the world of the aristocrats, the bankers and the capitalists. That world is definitely gone."
 Likewise National Peasants Party leader Ferenc Farkas: "We shall retain the gains and conquests of socialism..." 
Even Catholic Party leader Endre Varga saw no point in trying to turn back the clock - "We demand the maintenance of the social victories which have been realised since 1945..." 
Of the twenty or more new papers that appeared within days of the uprising none were right wing. One that tried to publish found the compositors refusing to touch it.

The first workers' council was at the United Lamp factory in Budapest representing ten thousand workers. Within days workers' councils were being set up across the country. Moves to centralise and strengthen the movement resulted in a Parliament of Workers' Councils for the whole of Budapest, drafting a statement of the duties and rights of the workers' councils with nine points, here in full:

1. The factory belongs to the workers. The latter should pay to the state a levy calculated on the basis of the output and a portion of the profits.
2. The supreme controlling body of the factory is the Workers' Council democratically elected by the workers.
3.  The Workers ' Council elects its own executive committee composed of 3-9 members, which acts as the executive body of the Workers' Council, carrying out the decisions and tasks laid down by it.
4. The director is employed "by the factory. The director and the highest employees axe to be elected 'by the Workers' Council. This election will take place after a public general meeting called "by the executive committee.
5. The director is responsible to the Workers' Council in every matter which concerns the factory.
6. The Workers' Council itself reserves all rights to:
a. approve and ratify all projects concerning the enterprise;
b. decide basic wage levels and the methods by which these are to be assessed;
c. decide on all matters concerning foreign contracts;
d. decide on the conduct of all operations involving credit.
7. In the same way, the Workers' Council resolves any conflicts concerning the hiring and firing of all workers employed in the enterprise.
8. The Workers' Council has the right to examine the balance sheets and to decide on the use to which the profits are to be put.
9. The Workers Council handles all social questions in the enterprise.

It was an attempt to establish workers' control, and, to an extent, workers' self-management, in the work-place. It wasn't concerned with abstractions but with a day-to-day reality and it represented a starting-point for the workers' councils

The Russians launched a counter-attack on November 4th. 150,000 men and thousands of tanks were used. Nagy appealed to the U.N. and took refuge in the Yugoslav embassy. A puppet government under Kadar took over. The military defeat of the Hungarian workers and peasants took just over a week. Resistance continued for many months but the rising had been crushed. As long as the workers’ councils held the legitimacy of worker’s interests, Kadar's government had to defuse their militancy. Attempts to “legalise” and emasculate them were met by strikes, so in November 1957, the Hungarian government simply abolished them.  

The United Nations Committee investigating the uprising was told by a Hungarian professor of philosophy, "It was unique in history that the Hungarian revolution had no leaders. It was not organised; it was not centrally directed. The will for freedom was the moving force in every action." The same point is well made by two fighters: "There was no organisation whatsoever, consequently there was no discipline either, but there was astonishingly good teamwork." "Some people got together, fought, went home, then others came and continued the fight." The workers of Hungary proved once again that freedom comes from below, not from any leadership ('revolutionary' or otherwise). That the Uprising had no leaders was not a sign of weakness but of strength, for while it is possible to execute a few leaders, it is much more difficult to execute a whole people and a people who do not place their faith in a leadership, cannot be subsequently betrayed by them.

Continuing resistance can be gauged from the scale of the repression: the curfew was not lifted until May 1957; summary justice was not brought to an end till November 1957; during 1957 and 1958, executions occurred virtually every day; two years after the revolution, there were some 40,000 political prisoners; in 1959, nine members of the Ujpest Workers' Council were executed. It was not till January 1960 that death sentences were officially ended for 'offences' during the revolution. The last internment camps were closed in June 1960, but several hundred rebels were not released from prison till the late 'sixties and early 'seventies.

When those Russian tanks invaded Hungary to quell a popular rebellion for democratic rights it destroyed any lingering illusions that state-capitalist Russia was anything other than an oppressive occupying power. One political cost was the damage done to the British Communist Party with many of its members resigning, from which it never recovered.

Approximately 200,000 (about 2% of the Hungarian population at the time) fled abroad as refugees. The present prime minister of Hungary, Viktor Orban should be reminded of this fact when he builds his razor-wire fences and deploys his police and border guards to keep out the current refugees who are fleeing repression.