AT THE end of the Second World War the world was carved up between the US, Russia and Britain. Hungary fell under Russian control.
A regime similar to that in Stalin’s Russia, based on top-down state ownership, was imposed.
By the mid-1950s there was economic stagnation, and widespread discontent about living standards.
In 1956 Stalin’s successor, Khrushchev, made a speech in which he called Stalin a murderer. Although known as the “secret speech”, its contents became widely known.
This produced a ferment among Hungarian intellectuals—writers, professors, etc. Large meetings discussed rigged trials held a few years earlier. Soon there was intense debate everywhere. Some 25 new daily newspapers were launched.
A British Communist working in the capital, Budapest, Dora Scarlett, described the scene in one of the main streets as being “like a public reading room. Walls and shop windows were plastered with notices, lists of demands, declarations, poems, caricatures and jokes from end to end.”
The new mood spread to workers. In workplaces throughout the country workers set up councils to manage production.
These controlled basic wage levels, hiring and firing, and appointed the director. Some former managers went back to work on the factory floor.
Old hierarchies and boundaries broke down. At the radio station the workers’ council brought together actors, producers, reporters, technicians, garage hands and cleaners—all workers with equal rights.
A Central Budapest Workers’ Council was formed, with delegates from most of the main workplaces. Delegates were frequently recalled by those who elected them if they did not represent their position adequately.
British Communist journalist Peter Fryer, whose reports from Hungary were suppressed by British Communist paper the Daily Worker, celebrated the way in which workers organised:
“In their spontaneous origin, in their composition, in their sense of responsibility, in their efficient organisation of food supplies and civil order, in the restraint they exercised on the wild elements among the youth, in the wisdom with which so many of them handled the problem of Soviet troops, and, not least, in their striking resemblance to the workers’, peasants’ and soldiers’ councils which sprang up in Russia in the 1905 revolution and in February 1917, these committees, a network of which now extended over the whole of Hungary, were remarkably uniform.”
There was particular anger against the political police, who shot down unarmed demonstrators. They were hunted down and killed.
Khrushchev, despite his claim to be more liberal than Stalin, was frightened.
In early November more Russian troops were sent to Hungary.
The prime minister, Imre Nagy, who had supported reform, was removed. He was later kidnapped and murdered. He was replaced by a hardline pro-Moscow man, Kader.
The Russian troops made violent attacks on centres of resistance, especially working class districts. Some 20,000 people died.
The Hungarians fought back. Where there were no guns, they used Molotov cocktails. A beer bottle was filled with petrol and securely sealed, a rag attached to the neck and lit. Thrown well, this could damage a tank.
The Russians alleged the resistance was led by reactionaries who wanted to restore the old order. But why should workers who were running their own factories want to hand them back to the old owners?
Nor were the resisters nationalists. Certainly they wanted Russian troops to go home. But they made every effort to fraternise with sympathetic Russian soldiers, and even demanded the right of asylum for Russian soldiers who refused to fire.
The real strength lay with the workers. A widespread strike continued. Only those services which workers were willing to supply, like electricity and gas, food and transport, continued, in order that workers themselves could survive.
Railway workers refused to transport Russian troops and supplies. The Russians could kill, but they could not make every worker work at gunpoint.
For weeks the workers’ councils survived. They made the Kader government negotiate and won some concessions, such as wage increases and new housing for miners.
Eventually the workers were defeated. By January many workers’ councils, unable to act independently, dissolved themselves, although strikes and demonstrations continued well into 1957.
The whole world had seen workers’ councils crushed by a state which claimed to stand for workers’ power.
Thousands of Communists left their parties, often to set up new organisations committed to authentic socialism.