The Hungarian Revolt of 1956 -- Nonsense, Lies, and What We Can Really Learn From It

October 23 marks the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the "Hungarian Revolution," an event that is heavily falsified, smothered in capitalist, nationalist, and anticommunist lies.

We can’t attempt a full discussion of the events and lessons of the Hungarian Revolt in this short article. Instead we’ll summarize the main points of Charles Gati’s new book Failed Illusions: Moscow, Washington, Budapest, and the 1956 Hungarian Revolt (Stanford University Press, 2006).

A Hungarian refugee and fanatic anticommunist, Gati has studied all the primary documents from the former revisionist Hungarian regime and from the Soviet leadership. This evidence forces him to come to very different conclusions from earlier Cold-War anticommunist, as well as Trotskyist, studies.

At the end we’ll point out a few lies from a prominent Western source, the BBC, and briefly draw some lessons.

We need to be clear about one thing up front. By 1956 the Soviet Union was no longer the dictatorship of the proletariat. It had abandoned the goal of communism, and was a state capitalist system. As Mao Tse-tung and the Chinese CP were soon to realize, the USSR was beyond "reform." The same is true for the Hungarian CP.

Gati’s conclusions

1. "Relatively few Hungarians actually fought against Soviet rule." (3)

No more than 15,000 including all political shades from reform socialist (the majority) to fascists, out of a total population of almost ten million.

2. The revolt was not "against communism."

"Their ultimate goal was to reform the system, not to abolish it." (3) "Products of a system that professed to build a new socialist economic, social, and political order, the insurgents initially rebelled against the failure of that ideal, not the ideal itself… It was telling that their key original demand focused on the return to power of Imre Nagy, a man they learned to respect in 1953-55 as a Communist reformer… It probably never even occurred to them to raise such issues as the reprivatization of large industry and banks or the return of huge holdings to large landowners; the country’s so-called socialist achievements – at least in the economic realm – were beyond challenge." (159-60)

3. "The revolution lacked effective leadership." (4)

Imre Nagy could not stop the revolt from sliding more and more into the hands of right and fascist forces who were lynching communists, including "reform" communists, attacking Jews, and trying to provoke as much violence as possible.

4. "The Soviet leadership in Moscow was not trigger-happy." (4)

The key Soviet leadership documents, now published, show that Khrushchev & Co. would have settled for a multi-party system and a neutral Hungary. But they would not permit a right-wing regime such as had invaded the USSR in 1941 to return to power allied with NATO.

5. US propaganda was "very provocative" (5). "More than anything else, hypocrisy characterized the U.S. approach to Hungary." (218)

Rather than "liberating" Hungarians from socialism, the Republicans under Eisenhower and Nixon were "interested in liberating Congress from the Democrats." (218) They were actually "relieved when the Russians came back and squelched the Hungarian Rising." (181)

The last thing the US wanted was a belt of neutral countries in Eastern Europe, though both the Eastern Europeans themselves and the Soviet leadership did want it. Radio Free Europe was "sympathetic to the pre-1945 Horthy regime" – the fascists who had invaded the USSR.

What Was the Hungarian Revolt?

It would take a long article, if not a book, just to deal with the lies spread about the Hungarian Revolt. Here are a few such lies taken from the BBC web page on it

* The lie:

"25 October, 1956: Soviet tanks open fire on unarmed demonstrators. Soviet troops shoot unarmed protesters outside the parliament building. Tanks are deployed on the streets against the lightly-armed [weren't they "unarmed" a minute ago?] demonstrators and hundreds are killed."

The reality:

"Suddenly, indiscriminate shooting began. It is still uncertain who started it… [ Gati thinks a Hungarian police unit may have fired the first shots]. In the end 60 to 80 protesters were killed." (159)

* The lie:

"11 November, 1956: Soviets claim victory … Up to 5000 civilians are reported to have died or been wounded. … Tens of thousands are jailed or deported to the Soviet Union.

The reality:

2500 Hungarians killed (United Nations, 1957), including communist party members and Jews lynched by fascists among the rebels.

"There are no reliable figures on the number of people taken to the Soviet Union, but they appear to have been fewer than the thousands originally rumored" (Gati, 230 n. 4.) [In other words, no evidence at all!]

* The lie:

"6 June, 1958: Imre Nagy hanged on the Kremlin's orders for his role in the 1956 uprising."

The reality:

"Kádár [Hungarian CP leader] … made all the decisions about the sentences." (Gati, 233). The Soviets recommended leniency, but let Janos Kádár, the Hungarian communist leader, do as he wished. "On the trial of Imre Nagy: Adopt the proposals (show firmness and generosity.)" – Soviet Presidium [Gati mistakenly writes ‘Politburo’] of February 5, 1958. (Gati, 232 n. 8)

The Lessons of the Hungarian Revolt

The revolt began as a protest from the Left against a revisionist (= phony communist) Party and leadership. But, heavily influenced by nationalism from the beginning, the rebels’ politics rapidly moved to the Right.

No leadership ever developed that opposed any of the following:

In addition,

By contrast, the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in China a decade later was mainly a revolt from the Left against revisionist leadership. So the Cultural Revolution is slandered, while the Hungarian revolt is lauded.

(See PLP analysis of the Cultural Revolution, part of our "ROAD TO REVOLUTION III: The Continuing Struggle Against Revisionism" ).

Building a base for communist politics in Hungary would have been a hard job -- as it always is, anywhere! Right-wing capitalists, aristocrats, and Fascists had ruled Hungary for decades. These forces still had a following. But they were heavily discredited by losing the war, and causing the deaths of so many Hungarian soldiers and civilians. And as Gati is forced to recognize, the youthful worker and student rebels of 1956 wanted, not capitalism, but a better form of socialism.

So the chance was there. But The Hungarian Workers Party (real name of the Communist Party) blew it. It had never made a revolution. It was put into power by the Soviet Union. It modeled itself on, and was a right-wing caricature of, the Soviet Communist Party. It "built a base" by offering privileges, and repressing those who disagreed with it.

The future of the working class lay not with the Soviet and Hungarian CPs, and still less with the "West", who did not care at all for Hungarian workers (except as they could make good anti-communist propaganda by lying about the Hungarian "Revolution", as they call it).

It lay with those forces who broke with the Soviet, and later with the Chinese, parties fron the Left. Our own Party, the Progressive Labor Party, stands on the shoulders of these revolutionaries of the past and continues the fight for communism -- the only kind of society that can serve the working class.