Hungarian Revolution and Workers Councils

views updated

Hungarian Revolution and Workers Councils

Hungary 1956


In October 1956 a popular uprising in Hungary liquidated the Stalinist bureaucracy that had ruled the country since 1949. Imre Nagy, a reformist Communist Party member, became the head of a new government, supported by popular grass-roots organizations including the workers' and revolutionary councils.

The councils pursued a program of national independence from the Soviet Union and workers' self-management in the factories. They also established coordinating bodies that took control of regions, cities, and productive centres. For critical left-wing militants on both sides of the Iron Curtain, the experience meant a new form of direct democracy. The councils' heterogeneous social composition and unclear political platform, however, caused fears in the USSR leadership about their shift toward nationalist and pro-Western positions. When the Hungarian government withdrew from the Warsaw Pact at the councils' requests, the USSR's Red Army occupied the country, arrested Nagy, and placed a puppet government in office.


  • 1936: Germany reoccupies the Rhineland, while Italy annexes Ethiopia. Recognizing a commonality of aims, the two totalitarian powers sign the Rome-Berlin Axis Pact. (Japan will join them in 1940.)
  • 1941: Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on 7 December brings the United States into the war against the Axis. Combined with the attack on the Soviet Union, which makes Stalin an unlikely ally of the Western democracies, the events of 1941 will ultimately turn the tide of the war.
  • 1946: Winston Churchill warns of an "Iron Curtain" spreading across Eastern Europe.
  • 1951: Julius and Ethel Rosenberg are convicted and sentenced to death for passing U.S. atomic secrets to the Soviets.
  • 1953: The people of East Berlin revolt against communist rule, but the uprising is suppressed by Soviet and East German tanks.
  • 1956: Elvis Presley appears on Ed Sullivan's Toast of the Town, where he performs "Hound Dog" and "Love Me Tender" before a mostly female audience. Nationwide, 54 million people watch the performance, setting a new record.
  • 1956: By now firmly established as the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev denounces the crimes of his predecessor and mentor, Josef Stalin.
  • 1956: First aerial testing of the hydrogen bomb at Bikini Atoll. The blast is so powerful—the equivalent of 10 million tons of TNT—that it actually results in the infusion of protons to atomic nuclei to create two new elements, einsteinium and fermium, which have atomic numbers of 99 and 100, respectively.
  • 1956: Egypt seizes control of the Suez Canal, and Israel attacks Egypt on the Sinai Peninsula. Britain and France intervene against Egypt and only relent under U.S. pressure.
  • 1961: President Eisenhower steps down, warning of a "military-industrial complex" in his farewell speech, and 43-year-old John F. Kennedy becomes the youngest elected president in U.S. history. Three months later, he launches an unsuccessful invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs.
  • 1966: In August, Mao Zedong launches the "Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution," which rapidly plunges China into chaos as armed youths plunder the countryside, rooting out suspected foreign collaborators and anti-Chinese elements. Along with rifles and other weapons, these Red Guards are armed with copies of Mao's "Little Red Book."
  • 1971: East Pakistan declares its independence, as the new nation of Bangladesh, from West Pakistan (now simply known as Pakistan); civil war, exacerbated by famine and a cholera epidemic in Bangladesh, ensues.

Event and Its Context

The Revolution

In 1956 the Twentieth Congress of the Soviet Union Communist Party denounced Stalin's crimes and personality cult, and a wave of changes stalked the Eastern bloc. In Hungary, Matyas Rákosi, the Stalinist chairman of the Hungarian Workers' Party, had to resign after being accused of imposing draconian economic measures on the workers and practising state terrorism against dissidents. Rákosi was replaced by Erno Gerö, who was, however, unable to cope with the increasing political agitation. On 22 October 1956 the Petöfi Circle, a student debate club within the Young Communist Organization, called for a demonstration in Budapest. Demands included the replacement of Gerö by Imre Nagy; better labor conditions, free elections, freedom of speech, the suppression of compulsory study of Russian, the withdrawal of the Soviet troops, and political neutrality.

Workers from industrial areas of Budapest joined the students. Riots started and the demonstrators occupied government and party buildings, newspapers, and radio stations. The army hesitated: some of the units passed to the demonstrators' side, and others remained in the barracks or deserted. On 24 October a Hungarian Workers' Party meeting dismissed Gerö and nominated Nagy as prime minister, and elected Janos Kádár, another communist who was critical of Stalinism, to be the party's chairman. Almost at the same time, Soviet troops formally entered Budapest to "restore order," and gained full control of the city.

On 27 October, Nagy formed a coalition government of communists and noncommunists that freed political prisoners, dissolved the state security police, and initiated negotiations with the Soviets. The Soviets withdrew from Budapest on 28 October with no apparent objections to the course that the Hungarian government had taken, as the agreements indicated that Hungary would respect its commercial and military agreements with the Soviet Union and the peoples' democracies. However, on 1 November, Nagy declared neutrality and Hungary withdrew from the Warsaw Pact. Then, Kádár and the other communist members of the cabinet resigned after accusing Nagy of losing control of the situation to nationalists and reactionaries. On 4 November the Red Army entered Budapest again, and a new pro-Soviet government, headed by Kádár, took power. Nagy sought refuge in the Yugoslav Embassy and agreed to go into exile. However, as he left the embassy, he was arrested. He was executed in 1958.

The Agents of the Revolution: Revolutionary and Workers' Councils

After Nagy took power, revolutionary councils and workers' councils formed throughout Hungary to support the revolution. These organizations worked together very closely by means of territorial councils in the provinces and industrial areas. The nature of the workers' and revolutionary councils varied with regard to their social composition, their activities, and their objectives.

The workers' councils were based in factories, mines, and other centers of production. The councils comprised all the workers in the case of a small factory, whereas in bigger ones, the elected representatives attended the council. Despite their original lack of coordination, all workers' councils dismissed the much-hated Rákosian "factory triangles" (composed of the director of the factory, the party secretary, and the trade union representative) and campaigned for the end of centralized economy, direct control of the companies, reform of the trade unions, and better labor conditions.

Whereas the workers' councils focused on trade union demands, the revolutionary councils had a broader political scope. Their focus was not the industrial areas but state administration, the army, the universities, the media, and other social and government institutions. The revolutionary councils wholeheartedly supported the workers' councils and demanded neutrality, free elections, freedom of speech, cessation of Warsaw Pact membership, and the withdrawal of the Soviets.

The Coordination of the Councils and the Second Soviet Intervention

Starting on 25 October, territorial councils, also called central or national councils, formed across Hungary. These groups were particularly active in industrial areas such as Debrecen, Dunapentele, Györ, and Budapest's XI and XIII districts, and in the Csepel iron and steel complex. One of the most active territorial councils was the Transdanubian National Council (TNC), a coordinating body of revolutionary and workers' councils based in Györ that controlled all of western Hungary.

The army and the police assisted with the founding of the TNC after demonstrators in Györ pulled down Soviet emblems and called for Western military intervention. One of the TNC's leading members was Béla Kóvacs, the former chairman of the Smallholders Party (an antifascist political force that had acted as a satellite of the communists from 1949). Kóvacs joined Nagy's government on 27 October, as did Petöfi Party member István Bivó, who was the ideologue of the Budapest Central Council.

After the second Soviet intervention on 4 November, the TNC was isolated from the capital and neutralized. The Central Workers' Council, an association of the Ujpest Revolutionary Council, and the workers' councils of Csepel and the XI and XIII districts, which counted on the support of the students' andintellectuals' councils, however, offered further resistance in Budapest. The Central Workers' Council refused to recognise Kádár's government and pursued a program of democratization and national independence. Demands included the return of Nagy to office; free elections "with the participation of all parties which recognise the Socialist conquests and collective property of the means of production"; and Hungary's withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact, to be substituted by bilateral treaties with the USSR and the peoples' democracies.

On 12 November, with Budapest paralyzed by strikes, Kádár issued a decree that limited the activity of the revolutionary councils to a consultative role and declared workers' councils illegal beyond single factories. Meanwhile, organized groups of Kádárist workers began to appear in the factories, and students and intellectuals continued to demand the return of Nagy and the withdrawal of the Soviets. These internal divisions, together with repression, soon finished any effective opposition to Kádár. By January most of the territorial and revolutionary councils had dissolved and the new government had gained full control of the country.

Two Views of the Hungarian Revolution

The majority view in the West presented the councils' experience as a spontaneous exercise of democracy. For example, Balasz Nagy, a former member of the Budapest's Central Council, claimed from exile in France that "the Hungarian Revolution essentially meant a workers' struggle" against Stalinist tyranny and the cold war status quo. Meanwhile, those in the Soviet bloc and the Western communist parties regarded the event as a counterrevolution carried out by demagogic, nationalist, and populist forces that had infiltrated the councils, taking advantage of the workers' anger against Rákosi and his period of Stalinist terror. "Pasionaria," the head of the Spanish Communist Party, compared the Hungarian revolution with Franco's fascist rebellion in Spain and the Red Army with the International Brigades. In her view, "The sectarian swanky behaviour of the leaders of the Hungarian Workers' Party … helped the Fascists to set off the counter-revolutionary terror."

Other Western communist leaders offered a similar interpretation. However, they could not halt dissident interpretations within their own organizations. So far the Soviet Union had been the main reference point for the bulk of the European left. The repression of the Hungarian revolution (which many people in the West regarded as a real socialist experience), however, also marked the definitive dethronement of the Soviet Union as the standard-bearer of radical virtue.

Key Players

Bivó, Itsván (1911-1979): Historian, sociologist, and politician, during the 1930s Bivó opposed Admiral Miklós Horthy's pro-Nazi dictatorship and became a representative of the so-called Populist Movement, a 1930s sociological trend that sought for a third way between Hungarian nationalism and Bolshevism. In 1956 Bivó became a leading figure of the Petöfi Party and was nominated as minister of state in Nagy's cabinet. He was arrested in 1957 and sentenced to life imprisonment.

Kádár, Janos (1912-1989): Kádár joined the Communist Party in 1931 and became a leading member of the Hungarian inland clandestine communist organization. He served as minister of interior during Rákosi's rule until he was purged in 1950. Nagy freed and rehabilitated him in 1954, and they worked together against Rákosi until 1 November 1956. Kádár took power three days later and remained the Hungarian leader until 1988.

Nagy, Imre (1896-1958): Politician, scholar, a lifelong socialist militant, Nagy fought with the Bolsheviks during the Russian Civil War and returned to Hungary in 1922. He went on exile in 1928 and became a member of the Hungarian communist leadership in Moscow. After World War II Nagy returned to Hungary and occupied different positions in the government, the parliament, and the party. He was elected prime minister from 1953 to 1955, coexisting with Rákosi until the latter expelled him from the party. Nagy returned to power for a brief period during the 1956 revolution. After the Soviet intervention, he was deported to Romany, judged, and executed in 1958.

Rákosi, Matyas (1892-1971): A politician, Rákosi was a founding member of the Hungarian Communist Party and participated in Bela Kun's government during the 1919 revolution. After Kun's fall, Rákosi went into exile, but he returned to Hungary in 1924 to lead the underground communist organization. He was arrested in 1925 and remained in prison until 1940, when he went into exile in Moscow; he remained there until 1945. In 1948 Rákosi was elected chairman of the Hungarian Workers' Party and became prime minister in 1952. After the 1956 uprising, he went into exile in the USSR. He was expelled from the party in 1962.

See also: Poznan Workers' Riots.



Berecz, János. 1956: Contrarrevolución en Hungría,Palabras y Armas. Budapest, Hungary: Tesys, 1988.

Fejtö, François. Hongria 1956, Socialisme I Llibertat.Barcelona, Spain: Edició de Materials, 1966.

Halász, Zoltán. Historia de Hungría. Budapest, Hungary:Corvina, 1973.

Hungría Informe de la Comisión Especial de las Naciones Unidas. Buenos Aires, Brazil: Ágora, 1957.

Kádár, Jaános. Algunas Enseñanzas Sobre la Construcción del Socialismo en Hungría. Budapest, Hungary: Budapress, 1981.

——. Socialismo y Democracia en Hungría: Discursos,Artículos y Entrevistas, 1957-1982. Budapest, Hungary: Corvina Kiadó, 1984.

Mercier, Louis. La Revolución Popular Húngara, Hechos y Documentos. Buenos Aires, Brazil: Editorial Reconstruir, 1957.

Nagy, Balasz. La Formación del Consejo Central Obrero de Budapest, 1956. Barcelona, Spain: Crítica Comunista, 1981.


Ibárruri, Dolores. "No Podemos ser Neutrales Frente al Fascismo." Mundo Obrero 25, no. 10 (November-December 1956).

Ruiz de Azúa, Estíbaliz. Hungría 1956. Historia 16, Cuadernos del Mundo Actual, Grupo 16. Madrid, Spain: 1994.

—Juan José Gómez Gutiérrez