Peter Fryer

Hungarian Tragedy


There are really two Hungarian tragedies.

There is the immediate and heart-breaking tragedy of a people’s revolution – a mass uprising against tyranny and poverty that had become insupportable – being crushed by the army of the world’s first Socialist State.

I was in Hungary when this happened. I saw for myself that the uprising was neither organised nor controlled by fascists or reactionaries, though reactionaries were undeniably trying to gain control of it. I saw for myself that the Soviet troops who were thrown into battle against ‘counter-revolution’ fought in fact not fascists or reactionaries but the common people of Hungary: workers, peasants, students and soldiers. The army that liberated Hungary in 1944-5 from German fascist rule, that chased away the collaborating big landowners and big capitalists and made possible the land reform and the beginning of Socialist construction – this army now had to fight the best sons of the Hungarian people.

At least 20,000 Hungarians dead; at least 3,500 Russians dead; tens of thousands wounded; the devastation of large areas of Budapest; mass deportations of Hungarian patriots; hunger verging on starvation; widespread despair and the virtual breakdown of economic life; a burning hatred in the hearts of the people against Russia and all things Russian that will last at least a generation: these are the bitter fruits of the Soviet leaders’ decision to intervene a second time.

There is another tragedy, too. It, too, is written in blood on the streets and squares of Budapest. It, too, can be read in the lines of suffering long-endured on the faces of Hungarian citizens, in the forlorn gaze of the children who press their noses against the windows of Western cars and beg for chocolate, in the tears of men and women who have been promised much and given little. It is the long-term tragedy of the absolute failure of the Hungarian Communist Party, after eight years in complete control of their country, to give the people either happiness or security, either freedom from want or freedom from fear.

Most Hungarians, while they do not want capitalism back or the landowners back, today detest, and rightly so, the regime of poverty, drabness and fear that has been presented to them as Communism. The responsibility for this lies squarely on the shoulders of the Communist leaders, and principally on those of Rákosi, Farkas and Gerö, who promised the people an earthly paradise and gave them a police state as repressive and as reprehensible as the pre-war fascist dictatorship of Admiral Horthy. The workers were exploited and bullied and lied to. The peasants were exploited and bullied and lied to. The writers and artists were squeezed into the most rigid of ideological strait-jackets – and bullied and lied to. To speak one’s mind, to ask an awkward question, even to speak about political questions in language not signposted with the safe, familiar monolithic jargon, was to run the risk of falling foul of the ubiquitous secret police. The purpose of this highly-paid organisation was ostensibly to protect the people from attempts at the restoration of capitalism, but in practice it protected the power of the oligarchy. To this end it used the most abominable methods, including censorship, thought control, imprisonment, torture and murder. The tragedy was that such a regime was presented as a Socialist society, as a ‘people’s democracy’, as a first step on the road to Communism.

The honest rank-and-file Communists, inside whose party the reign of terror was in full force ‘ saw their ideals and principles violated, their sacrifices abused, their faith in human beings rejected in favour of a soulless bureaucracy which mechanically copied the Soviet model and which stifled the creative initiative of a people that wanted to build Socialism. The honest Communists, inside and outside Rákosi’s jails, saw their party brought into disrepute, their ideology made to stink in the nostrils of the common people to whose elevation they had dedicated their lives. No wonder they joined in the people’s revolution; no wonder they helped to resist the Soviet invasion.

There is yet another tragedy with which this book must deal to some extent. But it is a British, not a Hungarian tragedy. It is the tragedy that we British Communists who visited Hungary did not admit, even to ourselves, the truth about what was taking place there, that we defended tyranny with all our heart and soul. Till the Twentieth Congress of the Soviet Communist Party half-lifted the bandage from our eyes we admitted what we called certain ‘negative aspects’ of the building of Socialism. We were confident that healthy criticism and self-criticism would enable these ‘negative aspects’ to be overcome. After the Twentieth Congress we allowed ourselves to speak of ‘errors’, ‘abuses’, ‘violations of Socialist legality’ and sometimes, greatly daring, ‘crimes’. But we were still the victims of our own eagerness to see arising the bright new society that we so desperately wanted to see in our lifetime, and that our propaganda told us was being built.

When, in the Daily Worker last August, I revealed that the standard of living in Hungary had fallen since 1949, and ventured some very mild criticisms of certain inessential features of Hungarian life, the paper came under heavy fire from Communist Party functionaries. The Surrey district secretary complained that such articles were undermining the morale of the Party and making it hard to sell the Daily Worker. The North-East district secretary warned me sternly to ‘think again, leave the sniping and the muck-raking to the capitalist Press, and write with passion and enthusiasm about the New Hungary you are privileged to see’. Two months later I was privileged to see the New Hungary collapse like a house of cards as soon as its people rose to their feet, and I must reserve my passion and enthusiasm for the Communists and non-Communists who fought for liberty, won it – and had it torn from their grasp by foreign intervention. Theirs is the glory, not ours. Yes, we Communists are always right; we know all the answers, and if we don’t our questioner has base motives – and has he stopped beating his wife? We are the leaders; we are making history. But here was history being made in a way that none of us had foreseen. Our preconceived theories were shattered overnight. Painful though it may be, if we are really Marxists we must be brave enough to revise our theories. We must no longer try to twist or stretch or mutilate the facts to make them fit the Procrustean bed of textbook formulas or of Soviet policy.

I know a former Communist – he eventually left the Party in disgust – who was appalled by what he found during a lengthy stay in Eastern Europe as a journalist. On his return to Britain he went to see Harry Pollitt, then general secretary of the Communist Party, and told him everything that had distressed him. Pollitt’s reply was: ‘My advice to you is to keep your mouth shut’. The day is over when Communists will follow such advice. Never again shall we keep our mouths shut. The Daily Worker sent me to Hungary, then suppressed what I wrote. Much of what I wrote was concealed even from my colleagues. Both as a Communist and a human being I believe it my duty to tell the truth about the Hungarian revolution. I believe this will help bring about the urgently-needed redemption and rebirth of the British Communist Party, which for too long has betrayed Socialist principles and driven away some of its finest members by defending the indefensible. That is why I have written this book.

Last updated on: 15.1.2012