History: Hungary 1956 – the dreams and the distortions

How the events are seen today

On October 30 1956, the withdrawal of Russian troops from Hungary was officially announced. Power was in the hands of the working class but, as so often in revolutionary situations, they failed to see it. The opportunity for sweeping aside the old politicians and their hated system of government came and went. The reins of power fell into the hands of other forces either not willing or not able to lead the mighty workers’ struggle to a successful conclusion.

In an article written for the Socialist Clare Doyle looks at why the Hungarian revolution was brutally crushed and how the events are seen today.

Hungary 1956 – the dreams and the distortions

Veterans of the October days in Hungary spoke of their dreams in a TV documentary called "Our Revolution": "There was such elation and excitement. People were almost insane! We felt free; we could say what we wanted." "It was great to be human, and even better to be a Hungarian in Hungary." "We had taken fate into our own hands."

But on 4 November their short-lived dreams were brutally shattered. The Kremlin’s ’second invasion’ was under way. Thousands of tanks and planes, started a merciless bombing operation in all the major cities. Bela Kiraly, leader of the National Guard under Nagy’s ill-fated government told the Irish Times of 23 October that the force used in ‘Operation Whirlwind’ was “almost equal to that landed by the Allies at Normandy”. A Hungarian MP, Imre Mecs, says there were “more tanks than the Germans used to invade the USSR”.

Revolutionary fighters – young and old – put up fierce resistance. They built barricades, fired on the enemy, hurled Molotov cocktails, renewed their all-out general strike and vowed to fight to the end. Just over 2,500 people were recorded killed, and tens of thousands injured at this time. But it seems likely that the toll is far higher. Working class strongholds were targeted and tens of thousands left homeless.

What was behind this use of overwhelming force, followed by a reign of terror and brutal reprisals against the workers and ’freedom fighters’ of Hungary? It was comparable with the crushing by a terrified French ruling class of the heroic Paris Commune of 1871 and for exactly the same ‘crime’ – making a revolution.

Effective power

An insurrectionary general strike had spread country-wide in response to armed attacks on peaceful demonstrations starting with those of 23 October. Revolutionary councils sprang up amongst workers, students, peasants, soldiers. The demands of the uprising were for a total withdrawal of the Soviet troops, for basic democratic freedoms and for new elections without the ruling ’Communist’ party. A way was being sought for workers to take control in the workplace, in society and in the state-owned, planned economy.

A political revolution was in the making. This would have entailed the removal of the dictatorial caste which claimed to rule in the name of the working class while suppressing every democratic right and independent activity. The movement was inchoate but was moving firmly in the direction of establishing genuine workers’ democratic rule. A social revolution was not on the cards – the reversal from public/state ownership of land, industry and finance back into private ownership.

“Effective power”, wrote Peter Fryer, the correspondent for the ‘Communist’ Daily Worker, “was divided between the Nagy government…and the armed people” (‘Hungarian Tragedy’). To nail the lies being spread by his own party, and ‘Communist’ Parties world-wide in unison, that the fighting was led by fascists and capitalist counter-revolutionaries, Fryer asks, “Who held the arms? Fascists? No, the people who had done the fighting, the Freedom Fighters, the workers of Csepel and Ujpest, the students, teen-age boys and girls…the soldiers who had exchanged the red star of servitude for the red, white and green ribbon of liberty.

“Were reactionary forces becoming more active? Of course they were. Was there a danger of counter-revolution? It would be senseless to deny it…But the danger of counter-revolution is not the same thing as the success of counter-revolution. And between the two lay a powerful and significant barrier – the will of the Hungarian people not to return to capitalism.

“Bruce Renton of the New Statesman and Nation explained: ‘Nobody who was in Hungary during the revolution could escape the overwhelming impression that the Hungarian people had no desire or intention to return to the capitalist system’”

The CIA actually began to promote Cardinal Mindszenty as a potential leader to pull Hungary into the capitalist fold. His name was passed on to US President, Eisenhower, standing the following week for re-election. Radio Free Hungary was used to urge support for him but made little headway.

Victory possible?

Within a week, the Hungarian police state machine crumbled. The Russian occupying forces had been won over or neutralised and the official government was suspended in mid-air. Party leaders were being moved in and out of office like toy soldiers.

With a revolutionary party at its head, the mighty workers’ movement in Hungary in October 1956 could undoubtedly have taken power. But, as Sebestyen underlined in his book, this was "the least organised revolution in history". "There were no leaders or hundreds of leaders," commented one of the veterans.

Could a few hundred revolutionary cadres have amassed the necessary forces to have drawn all the threads together, forged an unwavering central command and brought victory? Only in the last hours was a desperate call made by radio for the workers of the world to come to the aid of the revolution. Appeals to the UN fell on the deaf ears of the assembled representatives of imperialism on the one side of the ’Cold War’ and the representatives of Stalinism on the other.

Both dreaded with equal intensity the consequences of the workers coming to power in Hungary. The class rule of the capitalists would be challenged by workers following the Hungarian example and the days of one-party dictatorships in the state-owned, planned economies would be numbered. The Stalinist bureaucracies world-wide were also mortally afraid of workers moving to throw them aside, not only the hated dictators like Ceaucescu in Romania and Enver Hoxha in Albania but Mao Tse Tung in China and the so-called ’dissident’ Tito in Yugoslavia. Every one of them gave solid backing to the wavering soviet leader Krushchev in his fateful decision to drown in blood the Hungarian workers’ revolution. The survival of their own one-party systems was at stake.

There are inevitably many imponderables – the ’what-might-have-beens’ – of the great historic events of Hungary 1956. Recent media coverage has brought home how bewildering and misinterpreted the events of that year can be, not only to observers looking back across 50 years but even to participants in the insurrection itself.

Most have confirmed the socialist aims of the revolution, but, in then light of the collapse of Stalinism, now think perhaps they were striving for the impossible. But most of the capitalist media have deliberately obscured the ideals for which so many Hungarians were prepared to die.

Britain’s ’Communists’ of 50 years ago were featured in the Guardian of 21 October. A few had stuck to the line of justifying the invasion. Many saw it as the last straw – “the decisive moment" for leaving the party, as Dorothy Thompson commented. Today’s ‘Communist’ Party newspaper, the Morning Star, on the 23 October, could only carry the reminiscences of a loyal member who had grown up in the post revolutionary Hungary – the ‘Velvet Prison’ or the ‘Happiest barracks in camp’. No mention was made on this, the 50th anniversary of the uprising, of either the real socialist sentiments of those who were making the revolution or of the brutal counter-revolution ordered by the Moscow bureaucracy.

Capitalist lies

Capitalist politicians in Hungary and elsewhere are, predictably, using the anniversary of the uprising to ’remind’ workers of the evils of communism, hypocritically allying themselves with the ’freedom fighters’. The revolutionaries who cut the Soviet emblem from the national flags were not signalling hostility to communism and socialism but expressing the burning desire to get rid of the foreign overlords while maintaining state-ownership and the plan.

The gestures of the youth on the streets of Budapest on the 50th Anniversary – waving flags with holes in and riding on tanks, invading a radio station – bear no comparison with the heroic events of 1956. They were probably meant to show hatred not just for totalitarianism but all forms of socialism and communism. Many facing the teargas and rubber bullets of the police appear to come from right-wing parties and even far-right organisations.

But there were also left and non-aligned people on the demonstrations. A party is urgently needed in Hungary today which will tell the truth about the 1956 revolution and put forward a programme of socialist demands to channel the anger and resentment building up amongst workers and youth against the deteriorating economic and social situation. According to the Hungarian Social Forum, there are up to four million Hungarians living on €200 or less per month.

The continual protests outside parliament and the recent local election results have shown the rejection by Hungarian voters of their ’socialist’ prime minister – the man who admits lying to get re-elected. Gyurcsany is a former ‘communist’ youth leader who became a millionaire in the course of the privatisation process of the 1990s. His ’Hungarian Socialist Party’ (HSP) is avowedly pro-capitalist and unashamedly neo-liberal, with a programme of cutting public sector jobs by a quarter, cutting pensions and health care, imposing tuition fees etc.

But the HSP is directly descended from the party against which the revolution of 50 years ago was made. It is the same party which voluntarily took the road to the capitalist market. In 1989-1990 you could be arrested if you didn’t call the counter-revolution a revolution! It is understandable that many Hungarians have not wanted to attend anniversary celebrations organised by these hypocrites.

Nothing resolved

A new monument to the heroes of 1956 has brought protests of its own. . “We have waited 50 years, but we don’t want this government to erect a monument. It is the descendents of those we fought who want to pretend the wounds have healed”.

Survivors of long years in Kadar’s jails, after the workers’ resistance was finally crushed, complain: "The rusty metal spikes remind us more of the forces that crushed the revolution, not of us and our struggle". “Intended to depict a united society,” they told BBC journalists, “They look like the gallows poles that took the lives of so many of our comrades.” Far from reconciliation, the 50th Anniversary of the revolution has opened up new divisions.

The task of socialist fighters in Hungary and internationally is to learn all the lessons of the October days when the workers of Hungary rose in their millions, like the Paris Communards, to ‘storm heaven’. They showed the world how real is the possibility of establishing genuine socialism, with power firmly in the hands of the working class.



Bourgeois revolution for independence drowned in blood



Hungary becomes autonomous partner in Austro Hungarian Empire.


End of War – Hungarian independence declared


Short-lived socialist revolution, soviet republic. Bela Kun.

Rumanian army used to crush. ‘Admiral’ Horthy returns to power.


Trianon treaty takes two-thirds of Hungarian territory


Hungarian government declares war on USSR, war on the UK and US.


March Germans invade and occupy Hungary.

Horthy ousted. Scalasi regime. Arrow Cross Party on rampage.

Siege of Budapest by Red Army

December. Miklos Government established in Debrecen.


Red Army liberates Budapest.

Land reform.


Republic declared.


12 – 14 June. SD and CP merged into Hungarian Workers’ Party.

Rakosi’s ‘Salami tactic’ finally successful.

Nationalisation of industry and collectivisation of agriculture begin.


Parliament dissolved. Assembly elected. One party ‘workers’ and peasants’ state’.


Stalin dies. Malenkov takes over in Kremlin, then Kruschev.

Uprising in Germany.

Imre Nagy replaces Rakosi – more emphasis on consumer goods, less on heavy industry.

Nov 54

Janos Kadar released from prison


Feb. Malenkov falls from power. Rakosi replaces Nagy on Kruschev’s orders.


February. 20th Congress CPSU


Petofi Circle Writers’ Association Congress.

Poznan revolt, Poland.


Rakosi replaced by Gero.


Rajk rehabilitated. 200,000 at reburial ceremony.

Poland. Gomulka re-instated

October 23

Budapest. Students, workers march. 300,000 in Parliament Square. Students to Radio Station. Gero makes inflammatory speech. Government collapses.


Russian tanks into Budapest. AVO open fire.

24 – 28

Nagy Prime Minister. New government formed

Workers and young people get arms.

25th, hundreds killed. Strikes called. Workers’ councils formed across the country.

AVO abolished

29 – 31

Suez Crisis. Israel, Britain, France attack Egypt. (US condemned.)


Russian troops pulled out of Budapest.

Cardinal M. released and supportive.

Nagy announces end of one-party system.

Appeals for UN assistance. Commander of Hungarian Army, Pal Maleter, on side of insurrection, made Defence Minister.

November 1

Kadar announces dissolution of CP.


Kadar disappears.


Nagy, Maleter and others seek refuge in Yugoslav embassy.


Given safe conduct by Kadar (who has reappeared). Never seen again.

New wave of Russian tanks roll into Budapest and other cities. Aerial bombardment.


Battles and strikes until 11 November. In some areas, workers hold out longer.

13 and 14 and beyond

Meeting of 500 delegates of Greater Budapest Workers’ Council. National body created 21 November. 48 hour General Strike. Go-slows and strikes continued sporadically for more than a year.


Nagy, Maleter and others executed for treason 18 months after disappearance.


General amnesty given.


Czech revolt. (Hungarian forces used to assist SU troops.)

Kadar’s ‘New Economic Mechanism’, elements of the market.


Kadar replaced by Karoly Grosz.

Hungarian Democratic Forum set up by opposition groups.


May. Border with Austria opened.

June. Bodies of Nagy, Maleter and co. exhumed and given state funerals.


Stock Exchange opened. Hungary withdraws from Warsaw Pact.


USSR forces withdrawn from Hungary. Warsaw Pact dissolved.


Hungary joins NATO


1 May Hungary joins European Union

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November 2006