Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Hungary. Hugo Dewar and Daniel Norman 1957

III: The Workers and the Kádár Government

The workers have been beaten, but they have not been defeated. History will prove that it was quite others who suffered defeat. – Karl Marx

Of all the bodies thrown up by the revolutionary movement most important were unquestionably the Workers Councils. They represented the masses, their organisation was sound and efficient, they were founded on the vital economic base of the factories and mines. As the UN Committee report states:

The Workers Councils emerged from the revolution as the only organisations commanding the support of the overwhelming majority of the people and in a position to require the government to negotiate with them, because they constituted a force able to bring about the resumption of work.

The Kádár government, based on Russian force, naturally also called fraud to its aid. It issued a programme of fifteen points calculated to give the impression of concessions while worded sufficiently vaguely as to mean nothing. The Hungarian people recognised the fraudulent character of this programme and tore down the posters announcing it. In opposition to it the Workers Councils issued their own programme of concrete demands, the essence of which was:

1. The immediate withdrawal of Soviet troops from the territory of Hungary.

2. Free elections at a definite date under the supervision of the United Nations, with the participation of all democratic parties, and an immediate announcement by the government that United Nations observers would be allowed into Hungary.

3. Pending the holding of such elections, formation of a new coalition government in which members of the Kádár government would not participate; the return of Mr Nagy into this new government and his appointment as Minister of State.

4. Immediate withdrawal from the Warsaw Treaty.

5. An effort to secure recognition of Hungary’s neutrality.

6. Liberation of those imprisoned for participating in the fighting and assurance that they would not be prosecuted.

7. Recognition of the right to strike.

8. Re-examination and publication of all commercial agreements.

Demands were also made for official recognition of the Workers Councils, permission to raise armed factory guards, and the elimination of party control within the factories.

At this stage all the efforts of the government were directed towards getting the workers back to work, while the workers were determined to obtain firm guarantees before they did so. The workers sent numerous delegations to the parliament building pressing their demands: they came from the mines of Tata and Oroszlány Város, the Central Transdanubian industrial area, the Clement Gottwald factory, the Ganz Wagon and Engineering Works, the Hungarian State Iron and Steel and Engineering Works (MÁVAG), from factories in Baja and elsewhere.

To coordinate the activities of the Workers Councils 500 delegates met in Újpest on 13-14 November and formed the Greater Budapest Workers Council, with Sándor Rácz as chairman. It was through the Executive Committee of this body that henceforth most of the negotiations with the Kádár puppet government were carried out. Thus on 15 and 17 November the council representatives made it clear that the Workers Councils adhered strictly to socialism and social ownership of the means of production. Kádár told them then:

We surrender the party’s monopoly: we want a multi-party system and clean and honest elections. We know that this will not be easy, because the workers’ power can be destroyed not only by bullets but also by ballots. We must reckon with the fact that we might be thoroughly beaten at the elections, but we undertake the election fight because the Communist Party will have the strength to gain once more the confidence of the workers.

Justifying the calling in of Soviet troops he said:

We were compelled to ask for the intervention of Soviet troops... we were threatened with the immediate danger of the overthrow of the people’s power... First, the counter-revolution must be broken by the people’s power consolidated with the help of armed workers... and, after that, Soviet troops will be withdrawn from Budapest and we shall negotiate with a view to their withdrawal from Hungary.

Further he promised that no one would be penalised in any way for taking part in the great popular movement.

Kádár’s apparently conciliatory attitude decided the workers’ leaders to call upon their followers to return to work at latest by eight o’clock of 19 November. This appeal (16 November) stated that work was to be resumed in view of the government’s recognition of the competence of the Workers Councils in the field of economic management and its earnest promise to fulfil within the foreseeable future the revolutionary demands formulated on 23 October 1956, including the gradual withdrawal of Soviet troops.

At the meeting on 17 November Kádár was informed of this appeal. The workers then asked that a supreme national organ of the Workers Council be set up by decree. Kádár replied that this was unnecessary, since a ‘Workers’ Government’ existed in Hungary. Individual councils would be recognised, however, as would the establishment of factory guards. Kádár again emphasised the necessity of resuming work: if the workers’ delegates would use their influence in this direction he would use his to effect the withdrawal of Russian troops from Budapest, and to start negotiations with the parties to the Warsaw Treaty on the possibility of declaring Hungarian neutrality. Still distrustful of Kádár, and as events showed rightly so, the workers demanded a written statement, but this Kádár would not give, his word should be enough, he said.

The fragility of Kádár’s promises first became apparent when on 1 and 2 December a meeting called by the Greater Budapest Workers Council to discuss the decree on the establishment and functioning of the Workers Councils, promulgated that day, was forbidden. The decree law made it plain that the Kádár government had to follow the bidding of the Russians, who were determined to whittle away the power of these bodies. In protest against the banning of the meeting a twenty-four-hour strike was called. The government further issued a decree appointing commissioners to certain enterprises, whose function would be to decide disputes between the Councils and the Ministers. In these and numerous other ways the thin edge of the wedge was inserted.

Further meetings between the workers’ representatives took place, the government playing for time all along. On 25 November at one of these meetings Kádár for the first time showed his hand, more correctly the Russian hand. Now he bluntly characterised the movement that he had hitherto referred to as a ‘great popular movement’, as ‘counter-revolutionary’. He also unblushingly defended the treacherous abduction of Nagy on the grounds that had he been allowed to return home counter-revolutionary elements might have murdered him. The following day, without doubt stimulated by his Russian ‘advisers’ to be still firmer in his attitude, he declared that:

... a tiger cannot be tamed by baits, it can be tamed and forced to peace only by beating it to death... Every worker, instead of drawing up and scribbling demands, must immediately and unconditionally begin to work to the best of his ability.

‘Drawing up and scribbling demands’! – Note the contemptuous attitude towards the workers when they dare to express themselves in a manner contrary to the wishes of the Stalinist bureaucrats.

The Revolutionary Councils were abolished by decree, resulting in clashes between factory workers and Russian troops. On 6 December the chairmen of the Ganz and MÁVAG factories councils were arrested. On the same day the Great Budapest Workers Councils proclaimed:

The government does not build its power on the Workers Councils in spite of Comrade Kádár’s promises. Leaders and members of Workers Councils are being arrested, ... dragged from their homes during the night without investigation or hearing, ... peaceful meetings of Workers Councils are interrupted or prevented by armed forces.

A reply to this proclamation was demanded by eight o’clock on 7 December. None having been given, on 9 December a general strike was declared for 11 and 12 December ‘in protest against the repression of workers and their chosen representatives’. The Greater Budapest Workers Council and all Workers Councils above the factory level were thereupon declared illegal. On 11 December the chairman of the Greater Budapest Council, Sándor Rácz, and its secretary, Sándor Bali, were arrested. Further arrests of workers’ leaders took place over the next few days. At the same time a whole series of repressive decrees were enacted, among them those banning meetings without police permission, and authorising detention by the police for a period of six months of persons endangering public order, in particular those hindering resumption of work, that is to say, strike leaders.

The general impression given by the negotiations at this time was that the workers’ representatives adopted a more conciliatory attitude than the rank and file. Kádár’s attitude progressively hardened. It is clear that the Kádár government was fearful of the Workers Councils, but it was pushed and stiffened by the Russians, whose attitude was that concessions to the masses could only be graciously conceded – if at all – when the workers were completely disarmed and powerless. The Russians recognised that the demands of the workers were incompatible with the continued domination by the Communists, that is to say, by themselves. Kádár and company had so utterly discredited themselves in the eyes of the working people that it was impossible that they could, no matter what concessions they made on paper, ever regain the confidence lost. It is at least theoretically conceivable that, had the Russians been more realistic, less under the influence of Stalinist traditions, some sort of compromise, such as had been effected in Poland, might have been achieved. However, the Russians’ had chosen Stalinism and their criminal and senseless military action had created such a mood of implacable hatred that a compromise was out of the question.

The shattering of the organised opposition of the workers was effected by armed force under cover of all sorts of treacherous manoeuvres. It was a fairly gradual process an apparent sweet reasonableness; readiness to admit the popular character of the uprising, to admit that grave, even criminal ‘errors’ had been committed in the past; willingness at first to talk things over, to promise some concessions – under cover of this, behind the shield of Russian military might, a regrouping of an armed militia and secret police against the people. The workers’ delegates wanted to believe in Kádár’s goodwill, and the workers were anxious enough to get back to work and build up the country’s shattered economy, but determined to do all in their power to ensure that there was no return to the miserable past. The workers’ delegates were lulled with false promises and then bludgeoned. But it must be recognised that the shadow of the Russian military machine loomed over all negotiations. What could the workers’ delegates do, mistrustful of Kádár as they might be, except to hope against hope that the man might show himself not to be a snivelling coward? Might he not ally himself with the working people; might not his conscience smite him and he say: ‘I will stand with them, even in defeat. If I go down, I will go down fighting for the working people, whose champion I have so often proclaimed myself and it will be remembered of me that, however much I failed in the past, in the final hour I refused to make myself a cloak for tyranny.’ Can one blame the workers for wanting to believe in a miracle?

The government, executing the orders of the Russian military, set itself the task of whittling away the power of the workers, and re-establishing the machinery of coercion and repression. Towards the end of December representatives of the Central Workers Council of Csepel, still in existence, came to see Kádár to protest against the recruitment of former members of the hated secret police into the militia. Unavailing: Kádár had chosen. The old order was creeping back, casting cautious glances behind at the Russian tanks covering its advance. The prisons were being repaired, the hangman’s noose was being greased.

On 5 January 1957 Kádár made a declaration on the ‘Major Tasks’ of his government, in the course of which the establishment of Workers Councils was hailed as one of the achievements of the regime. The bouquet concealed the knife. The future function of the council was neither to counsel nor to represent the workers. It was, in Kádár’s own words, to see that ‘the workers adhere strictly to government resolutions’. Outraged, discouraged, but by no means cowed, the workers continued their passive go-slow resistance tactics. Incensed at the Communists’ abuse of them as counter-revolutionaries, the men at the workbench took to ironically addressing each other as ‘Count’ and ‘Baron’.

Large numbers of Workers Councils, their members harassed and arrested, now resigned. Typical of their attitude was the statement issued by the Central Workers Council of Csepel, which resigned on 8 January:

It was the hallowed events of the 23 October Revolution of the Hungarian people that brought us into being so that we could build an independent, free and democratic Hungary, and establish the basis for a way of life free from fear.

The events that have taken place in the meantime, however, prove that we are unable, in present circumstances, to fulfil our mandate. We have no other role than to carry out the orders of the government. We cannot, however, carry out the orders that are against our convictions and we cannot sit passively when members of Workers Councils are being arrested and harassed without any reason and when the entire work of the Workers Council is, in fact, branded as ‘counter-revolutionary’. We have unanimously come to the conclusion that we cannot realise the wishes of the workers and, regardless of our personal fate, we are unanimously resigning our Workers Council mandate.

Our decision does not mean that we are trying to evade responsibility, but it is our opinion that since we are not in a position, in the present situation, to fulfil the wishes of the workers, we should not mislead our comrades by our existence. For this reason, we are returning our mandate to the workers.

The composition of those Workers Councils remaining in being was progressively changed, government stooges replacing the workers’ representatives.

The repressive policy of the Kádár government, acting on the instructions of the Russian military, thus forced the workers’ opposition movement underground. The government had demonstrated that it would not tolerate an independent workers’ organisation, would not discuss even. Itself a puppet, it would have only puppets ‘representing’ the workers. As a consequence labour troubles flared up more violently. In Csepel, confirmation of the government commissioner and director in their positions against the wishes of the workers caused another demonstration. The militia was called in, was reinforced by Russian troops, and the demonstrators dispersed after three hours’ fighting. So grave was the situation in Csepel that the government issued an order forbidding newspaper reporters to visit the island.

On 13 January it was announced over the radio that, in view of the strikes and disorders, the death penalty would be made applicable to the crime of ‘causing wilful damage to factories of public interest’ (that is, by definition those employing 100 workers or more), or of ‘intentionally disturbing the functioning of such factories by inciting others or calling upon others to strike’. The death penalty for strikes – decreed by a ‘Workers’ Government’!

At a meeting of the National Assembly on 10 and 11 May, Kádár put the Communist attitude towards the workers in a nutshell:

In my opinion, the task of the leaders is not to put into effect the wishes and will of the masses... In my opinion, the leaders’ task is to realise the interest of the masses... In the recent past, we have encountered the phenomenon that certain categories of workers acted against their own interests and, in this case, the duty of the leader is to represent the interest of the masses and not to implement mechanically their incorrect ideas. If the wish of the masses does not coincide with progress, then one must lead the masses in another direction.

It is this point of view that determines the Communist’s approach to all social problems. It does not matter whether he or she consciously admits to holding the view, as Kádár did. The Communist is a member of an élite; he cannot be wrong; he knows what is best for the workers. And if the workers do not accept his view, so much the worse for the workers, wherever the Communist has the power to enforce his will. It is this arrogant, superman attitude that lies at the bottom of all the evils peculiar to the Communist regimes. Whether it is held openly and sincerely, or whether it serves – as in most instances it does – for the purposes of personal aggrandisement and material gain; or whether it lurks in the subconscious – this is immaterial. It is a frame of mind that must inevitable result, when Communists come to power, in the shocking abuses and unspeakable iniquities the existence of which the Communists themselves have been compelled in part to confess, without having the intellectual honesty to recognise, and the courage to admit, their true cause. The democrat broadly bases his attitude and actions on the principle that ‘the people have the right to make their own mistakes’; the Communist acts on the assumption that he alone knows the answer to all the problems of humanity.

Aware that the Communists not only did not represent their real interests, but were diametrically opposed to them, one of the acts of the Workers Councils during the revolution was to dissolve the party cells in the factories. For the most part, of course, these cells simply faded out of existence. But the restoration of the old order also required the re-establishment of these bodies. In the first resolution passed by the Socialist Workers Party (the Communist Party) on 8 December it was stated that Workers Councils were ‘to be taken over by the Communists and cleansed of unsuitable demagogues’. Yet the total membership of the party was then only 103 000 (pre-revolutionary membership was said to be 700 000). There were only 500 members in the great Csepel Iron Works, and not all of those reliable, and their position in all the other industrial enterprises was correspondingly feeble. In the circumstances the party cells could only be re-established by force and chicanery. But neither force nor fraud could compel the workers to welcome these gentlemen. However, the methods employed by the Communists to reassert their influence, and the desperate situation of the ordinary working-man is well illustrated by the evidence of a witness before the United Nations committee. Describing the method of election of members of the Workers Councils he stated that the Communists would say: We, the party, recommend this able man here, and that worthy man there, and so on. Then he would add: Of course, you are in full agreement, comrades, with their election! Say ‘yes’ or ‘no’. The witness then went on:

I should like to ask the committee whether they think that, under the form of government that exists in the country, there would be a worker who would say: ‘I do not like this.’ He has to earn his living because of his family, he wants to sleep peacefully at night without being woken up by the police, he has to work next day, so he cannot but agree.

Is it possible that there still exist people who would question the veracity of that witness? Yet it is truly astonishing how easily some people can brush aside such evidence. Those words should never be forgotten by anyone who cherishes and fights to preserve the traditions and the conquests of the labour movement of the West. ‘He wants to earn his living because of his family, he wants to sleep peacefully at night without being woken up by the police...’

Can any Communist deny that it was precisely this freedom from police terror that did not exist under Rákosi and Gerõ? Even their own leaders have been forced to admit, in their own mealy-mouthed fashion, that the police terror was a dreadful fact, that men and women were tortured, morally and physically, sentenced to long years of imprisonment or to execution in trials that were travesties of justice. What can there be strange today about those simple words of that worker witness before the United Nations Committee?

The Kádár regime knew that the Workers Councils, however their membership might be manipulated, remained bodies too close to the workers in the physical sense, and would therefore always constitute a potential threat. It was necessary to revive the pre-revolutionary trade union apparatus as a counter to these bodies, which would have in time to be reduced to the status of mere paper organisations. Simultaneously with the systematic whittling down of the Workers Councils, measures were therefore taken to regroup the trade unions. The name, National Council of Free Trade Unions, adopted during the revolution, was hypocritically retained, and in the initial stages of regroupment the government spokesmen masquerading as trade unionists made the usual protestations of undying devotion to the workers, larded with declarations of independence. The Workers Councils – the revolution’s answer to the bureaucratic, servile and corrupt trade unions – were not at first directly attacked in such speeches and statements. But by January, when the Csepel Workers Council representatives resigned, the Trade Union Council felt safe enough to dispense with some of the camouflage and charge that the Workers Councils had ‘heeded the provocative voice of alien elements who have infiltrated into these Workers Councils’. The withdrawal from the World Federation of Trade Unions was revoked and other measures taken during the revolution, including the affiliation to the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, annulled. It was made clear that the trade unions were to be the sole ‘expression of the interests’ of the working people and the Workers Councils were to be empty shells. And just how the unions were to serve the workers was stated in a resolution of the Hungarian Socialist Workers (that is, Communist) Party of 26 February, in the course of which occurs the following:

We have rejected the reactionary demands that trade unions should be ‘independent’ from both the party and the Workers’ and Peasants’ Government and for the right to strike in defiance of the Workers’ State.

The same old story: proclaim yourself a Workers’ and Peasants’ Government, but make very sure that the prisons and torture chamber and the hangman’s noose are ready for those who openly doubt your words!

There could be no more forceful demonstration of the reactionary, anti-working-class character of the regime that the Russians seek to impose again on Hungary than the attitude adopted towards these Workers Councils. In Hungary, these councils revived the movement that spontaneously arose during the first period of the Russian revolution. Then, as now, they expressed the will and aspirations of the ordinary working man. Whatever their faults and failings they represented a great advance in the political consciousness of the workers, and an invaluable organisational form for the expression of their will. However, the so-called Communists cannot permit the existence of an organisation that would give effective expression to the workers’ will, since it would inevitably clash with their will. Hugh Seton Watson summed up well when he wrote:

If the disparity between the strength of the combatants is taken into account, one may say that the effort of the Hungarian workers is the greatest single effort of resistance ever made by an industrial working class against an oppressor. It surpasses the Paris Commune, the St Petersburg Soviet of 1905, or the Viennese fighting of 1934. It is equally true that the Soviet government has shown itself more systematically, ferociously and consciously ‘anti-working-class’ than any capitalist government in history.