Hungarian Revolution 1956 – Interview with Nicholas Krassó

More than fifty years since the Hungarian revolution of 1956, the events have faded and their meaning and importance to socialists perhaps lost in time. The struggles, the barricades, the workers councils and resistance to Russian imperialism are a vague memory even for those involved in the movement at the time.  The real struggles and aspirations of the Hungarian revolution will be reduced even further to the strong box of history by the official commemorations attended by the great and the good of the bourgeoisie who will claim the mantle of the freedom fighters of 1956.  In so doing they will continue such myth as the decisive role in the  fall of Stalinism in Eastern Europe was played by the prayers of Pope John Paul II and the foreign policy of the American President Ronald Reagan and his ally Thatcher. 

All of these commentators who to point to some politician and higher saviour aim to perpetuate their own rule and survival of global capitalism by keeping alive the lie that Stalinism truly was ‘really existing socialism’ as opposed to exploitative state-capitalist regimes.   They do all in their power to deny that working class people themselves through decades of struggle preceded the final collapse of totalitarian ‘communism’.  Whilst Stalinism had given an outwards appearance of stability, and cohesion it was wracked by the instabilities of social and class contradictions on a more extreme form than traditional capitalism.   This false image of stability was spread through the labour movement by the   Communist Party and their apologists.  But despite their best efforts propaganda could not hide reality for ever; the rule of capital and its exploitation produces it dialectical opposite working class resistance and revolt.

Even at the height of Stalin’s power there was resistance, in the Vorkuta slave-labour camps, the Ukrainian partisans, and revolutionary strikes in East Germany in 1953.  Hungary in 1956 was on a whole new level, whilst would take a further three decades of struggle it was the beginning of the end of Stalinism in Eastern Europe, and initiated the start of the disintegration of the western Communist Parties.

For the new generation of socialists in the West it is imperative to reclaim truth of the Hungarian revolution which was watershed in modern history.  A revolt which did not reduce its conception of freedom to the ‘free market’ but returned soviets as organs of workers’ power to central Europe.  This interview with Nicholas Krassó, a Hungarian Marxist who played an important role in workers councils in 1956 gives us an insight to true history the revolution.

Krassó (1930–1986) joined the Communist Party of Hungary at the age of fourteen in 1945, in 1950 he was banned from university during the repressions again the Marxist philosopher Georg Lukacs.  Along with Lukacs he was part of the anti-Stalinist Marxist circle during the revolution.   Forced into exile he

joined the editorial committee of the New Left Review in 1965.  This interview was first published from the Canadian-Ukrainian socialist journal Meta, no.3-4, 1976.

Chris Ford

Interview with Nicholas Krassó

It must be unique for a revolution to begin with a mass demonstration in solidarity with the people of another country. Why did the demonstration in support of Poland on 23 October produce a popular uprising in Budapest?

The international context was very fundamental. In 1955 the Soviet Union had accepted Austrian neutrality, and in 1956 Khrushchev had recognised Yugoslavia as a country on the road to socialism even though it was outside the Warsaw Pact. And now suddenly Gomulka was being swept into power in Warsaw and he also seemed to be taking a neutralist position.

So it seemed that everybody around us was taking a neutralist stand and we Hungarians were again missing the bus, just as we had been the last satellite of Hitler at the end of the war.

The student demonstration in solidarity with Gomulka’s Poland had been banned a day or two before, but on the 23 October itself, at about midday, the radio announced that the ban had been lifted. This turned what would have been a largely intellectual affair into a mass mobilisation with workers pouring out of the factories in the suburbs towards the centre of the city. Hundreds of thousands of people joined the demonstration, with the dramatic events in Poland (which filled the newspapers) fresh in their minds.

The gigantic crowd reached the Parliament Building and everybody wanted to hear Imre Nagy, People kept going to fetch him while actors recited Petofi poems from 1848. But it was well over an hour before Nagy finally agreed to appear in front of an increasingly restive crowd, and a more incendiary speech could not have been made: he called on the people to remain calm and trust him and return home after singing the national anthem.

This convinced large numbers of people that they would have to act themselves: Nagy was an anti-climax. A section of the demonstration went over to the radio building. The AVH forces fired on them: the uprising began.

Soviet troops occupied Budapest almost straight away. What was the character of this first Soviet intervention?

It was about two o’clock the following morning when I saw the first Russian tanks entering Budapest. The next morning, when I walked across the city to the Writers’ Union, there were Russian tanks all along the boulevards. They were not doing anything; just standing by, making a demonstration of strength.

It is a myth to say that there was heavy fighting between the Russians and the youth during this first Soviet intervention. It is true that AVH cars were entering the small streets shooting. But apart from anything else, the tanks were too big to enter the small side streets.

Occasionally the freedom fighters would run out with Molotov cocktails and blow up a tank. Then other Russian tanks would respond by moving up and down the boulevards, firing at houses that were in no way connected with the uprising. And soon lots of tank crews raised the Hungarian flag and people were saying that they had come over to our side; but when one talked to the Russians it became clear that they had put up the flags because they didn’t want to be blown up.

At the same time they did not have orders to crush the uprising during this first intervention.

What were the main forms that the uprising took?

The anti-Stalinist movement had remained a student and intellectual affair, focused on the Petofi circle debates and the various official organisations of intellectuals until the Rajk funeral on the 6 October 1956, when about 20,000 people participated. And it was really only during the night of the 23 October that the tremendous popular uprising burst forth, spreading throughout the country.

It was the young people, including very young school­children, who were doing most of the fighting in various parts of the city. The adults were organising the general strike and the workers councils and all kinds of revolutionary committees.

The general strike began immediately and the workers councils were set up completely spontaneously, at first on an improvised basis. They often started with the workers refusing to allow the Party secretary into the factory premises and then setting up councils to run things.

The national bank had its own revolutionary council and so the workers were still paid while the general strike was on. And there was absolutely no problem with telephones, gas or electricity – these services were maintained by their respective workers councils. Peasants were coming into the city to sell food in amazing amounts.

Of course, it was not workers’ management over production because the whole task was to push forward the general strike. There were workers’ councils for factories and workers’ councils for districts. Their fundamental functions were to organise meetings, frame demands, keep up the general strike and organise the weekly distribution of wages.

It was extraordinary to see how identical the demands were: freedom of parties to operate, withdrawal of Russian troops, withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact, neutrality, the right to strike, and so on. There were only very occasional deviations to the right or left.

Left deviations would include demands like freedom only for those parties adhering to public ownership of the means of production – this demand came from several factories. Then there was the occasional right-wing point, like the rather silly demand for the re-introduction of religious teaching in schools.

I myself was elected to one of the district workers councils. On Friday 26 October I spoke at a huge public meeting in Ujpest, the biggest industrial area after Csepel. Because they liked what I said, they elected me a member of the Ujpest Revolutionary Council then and there. I had never been to the district in my life before, except to watch the odd film.

The head of the council was a carpenter. I stayed in Ujpest for the next three days, and returned later after the second Soviet intervention.

The atmosphere among the intellectuals, who had played a leading role before October, was transformed after the uprising began. On the morning of 24 October I went into the Writers’ Union, and the writers were just sitting there, with their heads as though in mourning; and some were becoming very poetic. One told me he would just like to sit and let his tears flow and flow and flow.

I said to Dery that surely the writers were at least partly responsible for what was happening, and shouldn’t they consider what was to be done? And he replied:” Why? We are writers and we just told the truth. We are not politicians, we were just telling the truth.” They really felt everything was lost.

This was in complete contrast with the total optimism of the teenagers who were making the uprising. Generally the attitude of the intellectuals was pessimistic; but the workers and the young people, feeling their power, were filled with optimism.

The period between the first and second Soviet interventions gave a breathing space for some kind of organised leadership to emerge, around Imre Nagy, or in opposition to him. Isaac Deutscher called Nagy a kind of Bukharinite, and a possible harbinger of a Hungarian Thermidor. What was your attitude to Nagy, and to the problem of political leadership?

In a certain sense the analogy with Bukharin is valid. Nagy was an agrarian socialist in origin. He had participated in the civil war in Russia with the Bolsheviks, and belonged to the Lander-Lukacs faction against Bela Kun’s ultra-left voluntarism in the 1920’s .

He spent the 1930’s in an agrarian institute in Russia doing endless research to prove the feasibility of a radical agrarian reform in Hungary, against the whole record of the Kun CP, the Social Democrats and the reactionaries who had all in different ways opposed a land redistribution as economically disastrous.

Nagy was undoubtedly a very courageous man. In 1949 he had stood out in the Central Committee against the Stalinist plan for forced collectivisation. His concern for the peasantry in the 1950’s was, in itself, absolutely justified. But something of the agrarian socialist remained in him, and criticism of the one-sidedness of his pre-occupation with the peasantry to the point of underestimating the problems of the workers would also be justifiable.

Moreover, in the field of political manoeuvre and organisation, Nagy was very naive, unlike Rakosi or Gero who were very acute in political intrigues. Nagy’s whole idea was to stand for moral purity against Rakosi’s dirty ways: and this moral condemnation of Stalinist practices was, of course, absolutely justified, but it was not enough to meet the organisational and political tests of the crisis.

There was simply no leadership which represented the line that I thought should be followed, so my position was to support these ‘Bukharinites’, back them in forming a government, but try to build an -opposition to them at the same time. But here there was this complete organisational vacuum. This was the problem, not whether Nagy might be opening the door to Thermidor – Nagy might have moved towards some kind of NEP, but this would not have been disastrous in the Hungarian context.

The unanimity of the workers’ political demands was really extraordinary. But equally striking was the fact that nowhere did the workers show clear ideas as to how to achieve their demands. There is, of course, nothing remarkable about this, except to those who are submerged in a workerist mysticism.

Nowhere was the slogan ‘All Power to the Workers Councils’ raised, or at least I didn’t come across it. The initiative to create a central workers council came from myself and I didn’t hear about it from anyone else.

The general strike was continuing and was fully fledged. The workers felt their strength and believed that the general strike would solve everything, even after the second Russian intervention. They believed that the Russians would not be able to stabilise the situation because the workers would not start working.

This is of course true, but things become more complicated. The strike may go on, but the mass of workers are sitting at home and the force of inertia sets in. Also it will not be possible to continue to get money each week from the national bank and the children begin to starve.

It is true that you have the active minority and they can be decisive, leaning on the support of the great mass. But then another problem came up: there was this tremendous reaction against Stalinism, against a situation where every meeting was manipulated.

Rigged meetings are obnoxious, but this does not mean that the active minority can leave things without any previous plans or arrangements, relying entirely on sponaneity. Political strategy and tactics have to be worked out and consciously put into practice in an organised way.

But here another problem arose: there was this ideology that the tasks of intellectuals was to get things started and then leave it to the workers to carry everything through. This is, in fact, completely alien to Marxism, to Lenin’s outlook, this idea that the intrinsic virtues of the masses will sort things out. These virtues are great but not of that kind, not of the kind to be clear about the political relationships in the situation.

What, then, is your attitude to the view that there was at least the possibility of a counter-revolution? This is the official CP position, and was also held by Deutscher at the time. Furthermore, every bourgeois commentator in the West hails the Hungarian Revolution as his own. In particular, what do you think of the view that Nagy might have given way to a Minszenty-type regime?

There is a sexist German expression, ‘Madchen fur Alles’ a girl for all purposes. The Hungarian Revolution was destined to be treated in this way everyone has taken it as a justification of their outlook. This was an instant reaction to the event; for socialists of all kinds, for anarchists, liberals, fascists and conservatives, it was their revolution.

And it could hardly have been otherwise, considering that Hungary had been dominated by a Stalinist state that was opposed by the entire population, and, having had a complete organisational monopoly, when this state crumbled it left behind a total organisational vacuum. There had been no parties, no free trade unions and even the cultural organisations could be formed only by the state.

The Hungarian masses, and in the first place the Budapest working class, rose up in a tremendous national uprising without any organised political expression on a national scale. And before the forces of the Hungarian Revolution could acquire a definite political form, the process was crushed by Russian intervention. In defeat, the uprising could serve a multitude of causes.

Kadar’s own theory of counter-revolution, as outlined in the Party’s December resolution, was curious. It said that the reform movement before the revolution had been correct – an anti-dogmatic, anti-sectarian thing. But when this programme was taken to the streets, it became counter-revolutionary!

The model he was following here was Stalin’s line of 1927 that the Trotskyists had ceased being a working class tendency and had become an agency of imperialism by taking their programme to the streets. But Stalin’s version had involved a supposedly incorrect line being taken to the streets. This time what was declared to be counter-revolut­ionary was taking a correct line to the masses!

As for the Kadar claim that there would have been a Minszenty-led return of the ancien regime, this was not on the cards. Minszenty had indeed protested against the land reform in 1945 and undoubtedly remained its enemy. After all, the Catholic church had been the biggest single landlord in the country. But Minszenty was not only an ultra-reactionary: he was a fool and always equivocating as Cardinals do.

In his broadcast speech during the uprising, he did not actually say the land reform should be overturned: he made allusions which could be interpreted in that way. But a return of landlordism was completely out of the question. Whoever tried to carry it through – and it is conceivable that Minszenty might have tried it later – would have committed political suicide: after all the main social base of any clerical reaction would have been the Catholic peasantry.

When I left Hungary, through the Catholic, Western part of the country, the peasants on the train were saying how much they had been attached to the Cardinal:”After all”, they said, “he was the only really courageous man who had stood up against the Communists; and what a disappoint­ment it was for us that his speech had called for the land to be returned to the landlords.” Actually he hadn’t said this, but I was delighted to hear the peasants misinterpreting him in exactly the right way.

Of course, anti-communist moods were very obvious among the masses after the start of the uprising. But they must be put into perspective.

I remember asking a worker what he thought the chances of the Nagy-led CP were. And he said: “Oh, nil. They might get four or five percent. No Communist has a chance, even if he is Imre Nagy.” What then was needed? “A completely new Hungarian workers party”, he replied.

To test the reaction, I asked: “You wouldn’t want a united workers and peasants party?” And his response was: “Oh, no. It’s only in full communism that the interests of the workers and the peasants will be the same, and then both classes will disappear.” This sort of thing was common: people expressing anti-communist attitudes, but at the same time showing that they had internalized many of the transformations that had taken place during the previous ten years.

Undoubtedly some kind of anti-Marxist Christian Socialist movement would have gained ground – though one cannot say to what extent. Nor can one rule out the possibility of a return of small capital, perhaps going further than NEP in Russia. All these possibilities remain in the realm of speculation, and would have been decided in the course of a political struggle which Russian intervention precluded.

Not since 1917 have we seen workers councils of such an advanced scope and level of organisation as were thrown up in the Hungarian revolution. You played a key part in setting up the Budapest central workers council. How was it formed?

After the second Soviet intervention, I returned to Ujpest to see what was happening to the workers council there, to which I had earlier been elected. In the town hall both the Stalinist town council and the revolutionary workers council were operating, occupying separate rooms. And when I arrived the two councils were having a joint meeting. This was typical: they kept on arguing with the Stalinists, and I thought, what’s the point?

Anyway, listening to the discussion I came to the idea of creating a central workers council. I drafted a proclamation and when the meeting ended I put my proposal to the revolutionary workers council.

The proclamation simply said that at the moment there is dual power in the country: the Kadar government is just there on paper, it’s non-existent. There are only two powers: one is the Russian armed forces, and the other is the Hungarian people and in the first place the Budapest working class.

One of these two powers is organised – the Russian Army -but the other is still unorganised, so we must organise it. We must create a central workers council.

They accepted it. The proclamation was handed over to the students’ revolutionary council for distribution. We called a meeting of delegates of workers councils to set up the central body along with a newspaper that would be its organ.

I was to present the plan to the meeting of workers council delegates and I felt I had to have backing, otherwise people would say: who is this adventurer? What does he represent? So the carpenter chairman of the Ujpest council agreed that I should sit as part of the presidium of the Ujpest council that was convening the meeting, and speak first.

The meeting was to be at the Ujpest town hall, but when we arrived it was surrounded by Russian tanks and the members of the Ujpest council had all been arrested the previous night (as I learned later, many of them were hanged). We moved the meeting to United Electric, a big factory making sophisticated electrical appliances, with a consequently very social democratic revolutionary workers council. So this council formed the presidium.

There were about eighty or ninety delegates from different factories: not as many as we hoped for, but about thirty of the biggest factories were represented. Each delegation stood up in turn and read out their demands, one two three four, amazingly identical. I was alone, with no backing, and when it came to my turn the situation became almost farcical.

The elderly social democratic chairman asked: “What factory are you from?” “None”, I said. ‘What right have you to be here?” I said that I had actually organised the meeting. The chairman replied: “This is untrue. This meeting is an historical inevitability.” So I was demagogic in return: “These kind of philosophical points should be discussed after the events are over. Now we have more urgent matters to confront.”

So the chairman said: “All right, speak for ten minutes.” And he was ostentatiously looking at his watch.

There were some unpleasant noises in the hall after I had mentioned the word ‘compromise’. And in fact I had started with it, saying that it was very impressive how identical all the demands were, but so far nobody had said a single word about, how to win them. Ideals are not enough. We have to decide to get the essential thing, and be ready to compromise on other questions.

What was important was to have nothing to do with the Kadar regime and to have internal democratisation. The workers council had to be turned into a real force for democratisation. At the moment we shouldn’t talk to anybody and should develop the general strike, but with a more organised leadership.

This meant organising a really strong centra] workers council in Budapest. And When the Russians realised that they couldn’t stabilise without us, they would have to talk to us. Kadar was irrelevant: there is no point in talking to the servants when the masters are there. This was frankly a compromise plan – it did not take up the question of the Warsaw Pact, but concentrated on the internal question.

The speech made no impact. The meeting decided to set up the central workers council, but the only other decision was diametrically opposite to my conception: a delegation was elected to go and negotiate with Kadar, while simultaneous­ly insisting that it did not recognise him.

The central workers council continued to exist and held a second full meeting, but the working class was trapped. Kadar was ready to promise just about anything after the general strike was called off.

The workers demanded the right to strike? He fully agreed with the workers. He wholeheartedly concurred that the workers should be able to strike, but first this particular strike must stop.

The Russian troops must withdraw? Absolutely! And as soon as law and order was re-established, he would personally start negotiations to this effect. In short, Kadar was sufficiently trained in the art of politics to know how to concentrate on the essential and reach his objective.

The discussions went on until Kadar and the Russians felt strong enough to arrest some of the workers’ leaders and then mass arrests followed. The workers councils continued in many areas through November and into December.

In January 1957, the workers councils in Csepel, the working class bastion, issued a declaration that they didn’t want to deceive the working class any longer by a resistance that was a sham resistance. So in order to be true to their class they had decided to declare their own dissolution. The Workers council movement had ended. The repression of the leaders of the working class was terrible.

Could you sum up the meaning of the Hungarian Revolution?

I have often remembered the 19th Party Congress in the Soviet Union in 1952. Stalin kept silent throughout the Congress till the very end when he made a short speech which covers about two and a half printed pages. He said that there were two banners which the progressive bourgeoisie had thrown away and which the working class should pick up – the banners of democracy and national independence. Certainly nobody could doubt that in 1956 the Hungarian workers raised these two banners high.

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