Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Hungarian Tragedy

Fifty years ago this week, hundreds of thousands of Hungarian workers and students were fighting the Stalinist secret police (AVO) and the newly-arrived Russian tanks, in the streets of Budapest. Against the Russian tanks and the well-armed AVO, the demonstrators had home-made Molotov cocktails and relatively few (mainly old) guns. But they had their massive numbers, their courage and their solidarity.

It suited both the Stalinists and and the leaders of the West, to make out that the revolution was demanding capitalist restoration. Radio Budapest spewed forth lies about "fascists and reactionaries" leading the uprising. Inevitably, such a spontaneous movement did not have a clear-cut political programme, and certainly many of the rebels did harbour illusions about Western capitalism. But in fact, the main demands being put forward were for greater pluralism in political life, free elections, an independent (of the USSR) national policy, an end to forced collectivisation and for the factories to be run by workers and specialists instead of bureaucrats. Many of the rebels also demanded the return of the reformist ex Prime Minister Imre Nagy, sacked by the Stalinist ruling class a year earlier.

What is often forgotten is that although the revolution was eventually defeated, that defeat only came about because of a second intervention (in early November) by Russian tanks. At the end of October, the Stalinist government collapsed, the Russians agreed a ceasefire (in Budapest - fighting continued elsewhere) and Imre Nagy formed a reformist government. Nagy ordered the Russians out of Hungary, reinstituted political pluralism and announced Hungary's withdrawal from the Warsaw pact. It was probably that last announcement (and the knowledge that the West would be preoccupied with Suez) that prompted a second Russian invasion in November, with fresh troops, air strikes and artilliary bombardment concentrated upon working class areas.

The (London) Observer's correspondent Lajos Lederer described the "total savagery"of what he saw; "People swarmed to the Legation all day...hundreds more telephoned, imploring the Great Powers to intevene. 'Tell the world what they are doing to us!' they cried. And we could do nothing. The outside world was busy elsewhere, in Suez. We were ashamed. We could offer nothing but a promise that we would do our best to tell the world about these horrors"; (incidentally, Lederer wasn't quite right about Suez being the cause of Western inaction: recent research has shown that the Eisenhower administration never had any intention of challenging the Russians over Hungary, quite regardless of what was happening in Suez).

Even so, the resisters fought on, and a general strike continued for some time. It wasn't until the next year that Stalinist "order" was fully restored.

More than 2,500 Hungarians were killed, about 20,000 were wounded and another 200, 000 fled into exile (incidentally, creating Europe's first post-war refugee "crisis"). Stalinism was eventually overturned, of course, in 1989.

All of us at 'Shiraz Socialist' salute the Hungarian heroes of 1956.

(NB: For an excellent eye-witness account of these events, get hold of Peter Fryer's book 'Hungarian Tragedy'. Fryer was a British Communist Party journalist sent to Hungary by the Daily Worker. He was horrified by the Russian intervention and sided with the Hungarians. The Daily Worker first heavily-edited his reports and then suppressed them altogether. Fryer left the Party in disgust and joined the Trotskyist Socialist Labour League. Another excellent source of information is this account, from a 'Council Communist' stance. Anderson takes a less charitable view of Nagy than most commentators, arguing that he agreed to calling in the Russian troops).


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