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

V: The Social Democrats

Neither Democracy without Socialism, nor Socialism without Democracy. – Léon Blum

... through all of Eastern Europe there roves a spectre of humanist Socialism, and it frightens not only the capitalists but also the Stalinists. – Edda Werfel, November 1956

The influence of democratic socialism and the role of the social-democrats in the revolution represents one of the most striking features of the October events in Hungary. When one examines as a whole the main political demands of the revolutionaries, their identity with the traditional aims of democratic socialism as expressed in the programme of the movement is indisputable. Although this or that demand may be found in the programme of other Hungarian political organisations, taken as a whole they are to be found only in the platform of the Social-Democratic Party. Not only have the Stalinists failed to weaken the influence of social-democratic ideas, they have even been unable to prevent their steady growth. From time to time the Communists themselves have been compelled to draw attention to this fact, in order to stimulate their informers and their police to further efforts of repression, and their propagandists to even more frenzied lying against those whom they rightly recognise as ‘enemy No 1’. For the subject peoples behind the Iron Curtain democratic socialism offers the only alternative to the spurious ‘socialism’ exported by the Kremlin that would not mean a return to the abhorred past.

Since the foundation of the Hungarian Socialist Party in 1869 the working people of Hungary have always shown their preference for democratic socialism, and the social democrats have consequently played a decisive role in the trade union movement. Perhaps one of the most alarming aspects of the situation that confronted Rákosi and his friends on their return from Moscow in 1945 was the working-class character of the social-democratic rank and file and the degenerate character of the bulk of the Communist Party rank and file, which had been swamped with all sorts of compromised people, careerists and self-seekers. And later on they were confronted with the fact that the imprisonment of the socialist political and trade union leadership after 1948 did not diminish their popularity, but only served to increase it. Social-democratic influence became one of the worst nightmares of the Stalinists.

Already in 1952, in a report to a plenary meeting of the Central Committee, Moscow-trained Márton Horváth, member of the Politbureau and editor of the official Communist daily, Szabad Nép, admitted the existence of a ‘very strong social-democratic organisation among the workers.’ According to him, the regime was faced in the factories ‘not with bourgeois influence, but with a social-democratic ideology’. The number of those workers, including the youngest, who ‘came to have social-democratic views’ was sufficiently important to show that they must be energetically fought’ (Szabad Nép, 29 July 1952). Since that time little has been heard of Márton Horváth, but his cry of alarm at the ‘hostile social-democratic activities’ has been repeated at more or less regular intervals, and the Hungarian Communist officials have periodically been called to account by Rákosi and his spokesmen for ‘neglecting the danger of social-democracy’.

During the revolution the attitude of the Socialist leaders remained firmly consistent with the principles they had always advocated and which now more than ever appealed to the nation in revolt. As long as the regime refused to acknowledge the right of other political parties to organise and propagate, the Socialist leaders rejected all invitations to join the successive governments set up by Nagy. It was only when the different parties were allowed to reconstitute themselves, when the freedom of the press was a fact, and when Nagy indicated willingness to form a truly representative government, that the Socialists’ provisional executive permitted their representatives to participate in the government. From the first to the last the Hungarian Socialists were unreservedly on the side of the insurgent people.

On 31 October, in Budapest, György Lukács, the veteran theoretician of the Hungarian Communists, told Wiktor Woroszylski, Polish Communist writer and editor of Nowa Kultura, that ‘Communism is completely compromised in Hungary... The working class prefers to follow the social-democrats.’ (Nowa Kultura, 2 December 1956) The same day, Woroszylski noted in his diary that, of all the newly published journals of the resuscitated Hungarian political organisations, ‘it seems that it is the social-democratic Népszava which has the greatest success’ (ibid).

The impact of democratic socialism on the Hungarian revolution was such that it carried beyond the frontiers of Hungary. The honest Hungarian national Communists, living and acting in the midst of a nation in revolt, in the midst of this storm that had utterly destroyed the last shreds of their ‘socialist’ fiction, could no longer afford the luxury of self-deception. They had to accept that the basic ideas and methods of social-democracy offered the only way out of their dilemma. But for Tito and Gomułka this has proved too much; they finally gave the new Russian pro-consul, János Kádár, their blessing.

‘The most surprising thing about the latest Hungarian events’, said Edvard Kardelj, the most intelligent of Tito’s lieutenants, in a speech to the Yugoslav National Assembly, ‘is the fear displayed by Hungarian Communists of the Workers Councils.’ Kardelj explained this by alleging the existence in the Workers Councils of ‘alien, anti-socialist influence’. In support of this contention he did not adduce any evidence, for the very good reason that such evidence did not exist. In fact, his own assertion that the Hungarian events were not ‘an organised counter-revolution’ directly contradicts this contention, since the Workers Council movement was the heart and the soul of those events. And the industrial workers showed by the demands they raised that they were – as they still are – firmly opposed only to the fake ‘socialism’ of the Stalinists, and equally firmly supporters of democratic socialism. Through their Workers Councils they expressed their awareness of the fact that under a one-party system all talk of their being ‘owners’ of the factories and industrial enterprises was empty phrase-mongering. There is thus no mystery about the Communists’ fear of these councils. They knew well enough that here lay the real danger to their regime: a truly workers’ movement giving organised expression, at the point of production, to democratic socialist principles.

They had to destroy these Workers Councils and they had to suppress the party whose views they expressed. That is why, on 5 January 1957, Marosán, the renegade socialist supporter of the new totalitarian dictatorship, warned that ‘to ask for the reorganisation of the Social-Democratic Party is a hostile act’. Yet the years of Stalinist terror did not destroy Hungarian social-democracy, and Kádár’s uneasy regime will be no more successful. For democratic socialism offers the only way out of the crisis that besets the peoples behind the Iron Curtain.