Protesters marching in Budapest on 25 October 1956. Photo: Wikipedia Protesters marching in Budapest on 25 October 1956. Photo: Wikipedia

The 21st century anti-capitalist movement owes a debt to the heroic and inspiring working-class uprisings in Hungary 60 years ago, argues Sean Ledwith

Today Hungary is infamous in left-wing circles for the virulent anti-immigration policies of its odious Prime Minister, Victor Orban, and the even more ominous rise of the far right Jobbik Party. Sixty years ago this month, however, the country witnessed one of the most heroic and inspiring working-class uprisings of the second half of the last century. The Hungarian Revolt of 1956 not only electrified the country itself, but also sent shockwaves around the globe that led to the rise of a new generation of left-wing activists and thinkers, collectively known as the New Left, that re-energised radicals and revolutionaries who had spent decades smothered by capitalism in the West and Stalinism in the East.

Although it was ultimately smashed by brute force, the rebellion displayed many of the hallmarks of a classic revolutionary situation: a ruling class split by ideological confusion; a huge urban movement initiated by student activists; the takeover of key sections of the economy by workers’ councils; and, climatically, a fragile period of dual power that had to be violently resolved in favour of the old order or the new. Perhaps the most important legacy of Hungary’s lost revolution was how its bloody suppression began the gradual unravelling of the illusion that the USSR and its client states in Eastern Europe represented a progressive alternative to the established capitalist states of the West. The process of fully recovering the authentic revolutionary tradition of 1917 would still take many years, but the anti-capitalist movement of the 21st century owes a debt to the Hungarians who perished on the barricades in 1956. 

Stalin’s vassal

Like many revolutions before and after, the momentous events in Hungary were triggered by a crisis at the top of an oppressive system. Three years earlier, Josef Stalin had died, permitting a small window of political breathing space for oppositional forces in the USSR and Eastern Europe. Stalin had cynically colluded with the post-WW2 carve-up of Europe by the other victorious powers of Britain and the US. Hungary was designated as part of the Russian sphere of influence, despite the national Communist Party only receiving 17% of the vote in elections at the end of the war. Within a couple of years, the Hungarian CP had achieved a political stranglehold over the country thanks to overwhelming presence of the Red Army.

The political straitjacket was accompanied by an economic one which effectively transformed Hungary into a vassal state of the USSR, modelled on the state capitalist framework that Stalin had developed in Russia. Over 90% of engineering and metal products were commandeered by the Russians, the uranium industry was directly controlled by Russian supervisors and Hungary was forced to repay punishing reparations to Stalin’s state for the war. The suppression of pay and conditions in the ‘workers’ state’ as a result saw a 20% drop in wages up to the year before the revolt erupted.

The death of Stalin in 1953 marked the first crack in the East European monolith that would become a major fault-line three years later. The year Stalin died, workers in East Berlin rose up to demand political liberalisation. Khrushchev, the new Russian leader, sought to channel the growing anti-Stalinist wave into the safe territory of an internal Communist Party re-shuffling of personnel. His ‘secret speech’ in Moscow in 1956 denouncing the excesses of Stalinism was designed to manage and contain the forces of opposition but only served to provide added ballast to the sense of crisis throughout the Warsaw Pact states.

In Poland, a wave of strikes and occupations in the Baltic coast shipyards forced the Communist Party to appoint a new leader, Wladyslaw Gomulka with a mandate to ease the vice-like grip of the security forces on the political system. The massive demonstration in Budapest on the 23 October that would trigger Hungary’s uprising was initially called by students wishing to display solidarity with Gomulka. Again like many other revolutions of the modern era, the Hungarian crisis was part of a chain reaction of rebellion affecting a number of connected states.


Manoeuvring at the top of the local Communist Party also played a role in detonating the revolution. Imre Nagy had emerged in the years leading up to 1956 as the political figure most identified in Hungary with a Khrushchev-style liberalisation of the political order. In contrast, Matyas Rakosi was regarded as the figurehead of a Stalinist retrenchment of the postwar arrangement. Rakosi was deposed as Prime Minister on Moscow’s order in the summer of 1956 as the tide appeared to be turning in the direction of Nagy and the reformists. However, Rakosi was replaced not by Nagy but by another Moscow-approved candidate, Erno Gero.

Political opposition had been simmering beneath the surface in Hungarian society, partly inspired by the recent rebellions in East Germany and Poland, and also by discussion groups such as the Petofi Circle. This was ostensibly a forum for Communist Party youth to express their views on the state of the country, but which increasingly became a focal point for oppositional forces to congregate in relative safety. When students from this group called for a demonstration in the capital city to express support for liberalisation in Poland, they expected a few thousand to turn up; by the evening of the 23 October ,however, there were 200,000 people on the streets of Budapest demanding the end of the pro-Moscow government and the withdrawal of the Russian occupation.

Children of the Revolution

The gargantuan size of the protests-not just in Budapest-but all over the country triggered an inevitable crisis among the elite. The regular army and police melted away in the face of the overwhelming numbers of demonstrators they were confronted with. The only non-Russian forces Prime Minister Gero could initially rely on were the hated secret police known as the AVH. This 50 00 strong force had been integral to the apparatus of terror that had prevailed in Hungary since WW2. Their fear of the wrath of the people led them to open fire indiscriminately as protesters headed for locations associated with the Stalinist regime such as radio and police stations.

For the next few days, the country was wracked by scenes of brutal urban warfare, reminiscent of the battles that had taken place throughout Europe in the great global conflagration of the previous decade. AVH forces, backed by Russian firepower, launched merciless attacks on the rebels without the slightest regard for the mounting toll of civilian causalities. The disparate forces of the opposition raided the barracks of the Hungarian army for weapons and were frequently bolstered by regular troops defecting to the cause of the revolution. The British journalist and Communist Party member, Peter Fryer, observed this process of revolutionary fraternisation in his classic account of the uprising:

The troops in Budapest, as later in the provinces, were of two minds: there were those who were neutral and there were those who were prepared to join the people and fight alongside them. The neutral ones (probably the minority) were prepared to hand over their arms to the workers and students so that they could do battle against the AVH with them. The others brought their arms with them when they joined the revolution. Furthermore, many sporting rifles were taken by the workers from the factory armouries of the Hungarian Voluntary Defence Organisation. The mystery of how the people were armed is no mystery at all. No one has yet been able to produce a single weapon manufactured in the West.

As Fryer implies, the predictable response of the Stalinist left-inside and outside the Hungary- to the revolution was to label it as some form of Western-backed, CIA-sponsored plot to undermine Russian hegemony in Eastern Europe. Fryer’s demolition of this view, and his conviction that the rebellion was a home-grown and justifiable response to the contradictions of state capitalism, would subsequently provoke his expulsion from the British Communist Party. However, his powerful eye-witness account remains moving testimony to the heroism of Hungarian students and workers who took on a seemingly invincible foe.

Many photographs from the early days of the revolution illustrate the remarkable youth of those who were in the vanguard of the struggle against the AVH and their Russian masters. On a single day one detachment of these teenage fighters managed to destroy 17 Russian tanks, equipped only with Molotov cocktails. One of the most iconic images of 1956 is that of 15-year old Erika Szenes defiantly holding a machine gun. A municipal park has recently been opened in Budapest to commemorate these so-called ‘Lads of Pest’ whose astonishing courage was noted by one of their commanders

Children wounded by Molotov cocktails were often taken to the aid station operating in the cellar of the Kilián barracks with burns on their palms. Following treatment, instead of waiting for complete recovery, the Pest lads rejoined street fighting, saying that “we can already throw with this…”

Proletarian democracy

Incredibly, the bloody battle for Budapest and other key cities temporarily forced the Russian forces to withdraw to the country’s external borders and led the crumbling national Communist Party to re-appoint Nagy to the leadership in a desperate bid to cling onto a semblance of authority. The atmosphere on Hungary’s streets over the next few days was filled with a surreal combination of dread regarding a possible Russian counter-attack and euphoria regarding the astonishing revival of authentic workers’ control that had swept the country’s factories and workplaces. On the same day the  massive march of the 23 October had revealed the depth of the people’s hatred for the regime, workers began to spontaneously take over the heavy industrial plants that dominated Budapest’s economy.

By the end of the month, these workers’ councils were groping towards some form of national coordinating structure in the shape of a ‘parliament of workers’ councils’ that was convened in the city. The democratic and inclusive nature of scores of these committees that sprang up all over Budapest was reminiscent of the legendary soviets of workers and soldiers that had spearheaded the Russian revolutions of 1905 and 1917. The proletarian and explicitly socialist nature of these remarkable organs of authentic democracy became the ultimate riposte to the Stalinist sceptics of the revolution beyond Hungary’s borders who sought to dismiss it as a Western-conceived plot. Peter Fryer highlighted the revolutionary credentials of the Hungarian soviets of 1956:

In their spontaneous origin, in their composition, in their sense of responsibility, in their efficient organisation of food supplies and of civil order, in the restraint they exercised over the wilder 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 at so many points to the soviets or councils of workers’, peasants’ and soldiers’ deputies which sprang up in Russia in the 1905 revolution and again in February 1917, these committees, a network of which now extended over the whole of Hungary, were remarkably uniform.

There are many inspiring aspects of the revolution of 1956, including the raw courage of young people who confronted the armed might of a superpower with hopelessly inferior weaponry. The almost-overnight resurgence of proletarian democracy in a society that had endured suffocating tyranny for ten years is possibly an even more lasting beacon for future struggles. Hungary had been part of the revolutionary wave that had swept Europe in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the formation of an impressive network of workers’ councils had been a feature of that era of struggle. It is likely that the collective memory of a previous generation’s experiment in proletarian democracy was activated among the Hungarian working class of 1956.

‘Soviets’ versus soviets

Tragically, Hungary’s thirteen days of authentic workers’ power was crushed by a merciless counter-revolution spearheaded by the return of vengeful Russian tanks and troops on November 4th. The world’s attention was distracted by the bungled Anglo-French attack on Suez the same day and, despite another round of heroic street-fighting by the resistance, the uprising was smashed at the cost of 2000 lives, mostly civilians. Western governments wept crocodile tears over the destruction of Hungary’s revolution but the cynical reality was that they were actually relieved that the postwar settlement between the major powers concerning the map of Europe had been restored. Remarkably, the spectacle of T-34s rumbling through the streets, firing on residential blocks and machine-gunning civilians on sight was not enough to completely snuff out the opposition.

For the remainder of 1956, the remnant of the organised workers’ councils declared a general strike that was only finally brought to a close months later when the restored pro-Moscow state conceded generous wage demands and easing of working conditions. Hungary was forcibly restored to the Stalinist sphere of influence where it would remain until the fall of the Berlin Wall decades later. By that time, however, the myth of ‘actually existing socialism’ in Eastern Europe had been well and truly shattered. After the Hungarian Revolt it was more feasible for socialists around the world to reject the false dichotomy of East and West and instead defiantly proclaim ‘Neither Washington or Moscow’. The rebels of 1956 played a major role in starting that essential process of recovering the authentic legacy of revolutionary socialism which had pre-dated Stalin and keeping it alive for the 21st century. 

Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith is a Counterfire member and Lecturer in History at York College, where he is also UCU branch negotiator. Sean is also a regular contributor to Marx and Philosophy Review of Books and Culture Matters

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