THE HUNGARIAN REVOLUTION OF 1956 lasted from 23rd October to 10th November. It was a popular insurrection that overthrew an apparently all-powerful Stalinist dictatorship and forced the Soviet army to retreat as popular democratic organisations took control of society. But revolution was defeated when Soviet troops and party officials loyal to Moscow seized back control of the state.
Before the uprising the Hungarian Communist Party state led by Matyas Rakosi had consolidated its power by combining some progressive reforms in healthcare, housing, welfare and education with the repression of opposition by state terror.
The economy was mobilised for industrialisation and to make Soviet reparations payments. But the immediate consumption needs of the masses suffered and pressure on the workers to meet production targets provoked mass unrest.
The movement began among students and intellectuals who demanded the withdrawal of Soviet troops; the democratisation of power and the media; and intellectual and political freedom within the framework of a reformed socialist economic and political system. A bloody battle against the secret police erupted as insurgents and bystanders were killed and Soviet troops were mobilised to support the government. In rage the revolutionists carried out summary executions and lynchings of the hated secret police. The party split, and a new Communist government led by Imre Nagy assumed power backed by workers’ councils and other popular democratic organisations. But Soviet troops returned in force and with determination, and crushed the revolution.
After the ensuing repression the Hungarian party adopted a more lax system of economic control that allowed a greater role for markets and the private sector. This system lasted until a new wave of protests throughout Eastern Europe in 1989 signalled the end of the one party state. Then free elections were held and private enterprises and banks soon became the dominant economic players.
It is notable that when mass unrest erupted in all East European Stalinist states it often escalated from minimal demands and peaceful protests to a revolutionary insurrection in a matter of hours. When the police and other repressive organs responded with force, a rapid disintegration of the reliability of the command structure of the army, the party, and wider state was evident. This happened in Hungary 1956, and in East Germany, Romania, China and Czechoslovakia in 1989.
The reasons for this are to be found in the contradiction between the words of communist ideology and propaganda and the deeds of many communist officials. All of these states promoted a deep-seated egalitarian consciousness with which most people broadly agreed, particularly as nearly the entire economy operated under some form of state ownership.
So when the workers and the peasants encountered officials with unwarranted and illegal privileges this naturally generated hostility, bitterness and anger. The contradictions inevitably affected the party and the state, and produced splits and conflicts as different interest groups flexed their muscles. In all East European countries there were many communists who were committed to socialism and to improving the lot of the masses. They tried to work on the basis of honesty and integrity within the restrictions of a rigid, doctrinaire and bureaucratic party and state system. Leaders such as Imre Nagy in Hungary 1956 and Alexander Dubcek in the Prague Spring 1968 both won popular support for socialism based on popular democratic control. But although these same ideas and trends also made an appearance in Eastern Europe in 1989 their influence was fleeting as capitalism acquired a mass base of support.
The Hungarian revolution provoked splits in Communist Parties around the world. And many socialists and communists saw in it a glimmer of hope that the end of Stalinism would one day herald the rebirth of a truly democratic form of socialism. But this hope was disappointed by the revolutions of 1989 that brought down many Stalinist regimes. Although free elections and democratic representation were introduced, this was accompanied by economic turmoil and social disintegration, as private companies took command over the economy.