Hungary 1956: When workers rose in their millions

Hungary 1956

When workers rose in their millions

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.
Clare Doyle explains the background to these inspiring events and the reasons why the Hungarian revolution was brutally crushed by a new ‘Soviet’ invasion.

“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.” Such were the moving reminiscences of veterans of the October days, expressed in the BBC4 documentary Our Revolution.

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.

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.

This use of overwhelming force, followed by a reign of terror and brutal reprisals against the workers and ‘freedom fighters’ of Hungary for the ‘crime’ of making a revolution.

General strike

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.

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 began to promote Cardinal Mindszenty as a potential leader to pull Hungary into the capitalist fold. They used Radio Free Hungary to urge support for him but made little headway.

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 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 leadership 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 the Stalinist bureaucracies 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 Žlites 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 the 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.

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 unaligned 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 Û200 or less per month.

The 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.

A new monument to the heroes of 1956 has brought protests of its own. 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.

For fuller details of these events, plus some of the background and consequences, see the November issue of Socialism Today and the CWI website at

Some further reading on Hungary
  • Hungarian Tragedy by Peter Fryer Includes other writings on the 1956 uprising (paperback) £11.99
  • Twelve Days: Revolution 1956 by Victor Sebestyen (hardback) £20.00
  • In the Name of the Working Class by Sandor Kopacsi, Budapest police chief who supported the uprising (secondhand paperback) £9.50
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