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15. The Workers' Councils

The Workers' Councils

"Those miners were not concerned with the question as to whether or not they should have a President. They seized the mine, and the important question to them was how to keep the cables intact so that production might not be interrupted. Then came the question of bread, of which there was a scarcity. All the miners again agreed on the method of obtaining it. Now this is a real programme of the revolution, not derived from books. This is a real seizure of power, locally."
V. I. Lenin, The All-Russian April Conference of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (May 1917).

In the thick of the fighting on Thursday 25, Nagy came again to the microphone of Budapest Radio.

"As Chairman of the Council of Ministers, I hereby announce that the Hungarian Government is initiating negotiations on relations between the Hungarian People's Republic and the Soviet Union, concerning among other things, the withdrawal of Soviet forces stationed in Hungary. ... I am convinced that Hungarian-Soviet relations built on that basis will provide a firm foundation for a sincere and true friendship between our peoples." Meanwhile, the struggle in the streets of Budapest went on more fiercely than ever. As it developed, so did the strike.

The strike began on the morning of Wednesday 24. It spread quickly through the industrial suburbs of Budapest - Czepel, Rada Utca, Ganz, Lunz, Red Star - then out into the industrial centres of the country - Miskolc, Györ, Szolnok, Pécs, Debrecen. In Budapest, almost the whole population had risen. In the industrial areas, the revolution was carried out exclusively by workers. Everywhere the workers formed 'councils': in the factories, in the steel mills, in the power stations, in the coal mines, in the railway depots. Everywhere they thrashed out their programmes and demands. Everywhere they armed themselves. In a number of places they fought. Hubert Ripka [66] comments that, in the middle of the fighting, workers proclaimed "a programme of radical and political social change. This was a spontaneous development. There were no governmental directives or any central leadership ... Workers' Councils took over the management of the factories... In Hungary they were born of a spontaneous popular movement, and they soon became the living organs of a rising democracy and the effective instruments of a fighting revolution." [67]

Radio Budapest's news broadcasts referred to the strike and to the formation of workers' councils as "industrial disturbances". "Public demonstrations" in the towns and cities of the various industrial regions, were constantly referred to. There were also repeated announcements that, in such-and-such a city, "calm" had returned and that workers should therefore return to "normal work" the following morning. But in the provinces the workers had taken over a number of radio stations, and news of a very different kind was being beamed from them.

There were now hundreds of Workers' Councils throughout the country. The number of people in the Councils varied considerably. So did their programmes. But all included demands for the abolition of the A.V.O., for the complete withdrawal of Russian troops, for political and civil liberty, for workers' management of factories and industries, for independent trade unions and freedom for all political parties, and for a general amnesty for all the insurrectionists.

The various programmes also called for improvements in wages and pensions, but nowhere were these the first items on the list. Many included demands for 'parliamentary democracy'. A number expressed their confidence in Nagy.

Before 'revolutionary socialists' raise their hands in puritan horror, let them remember that in relation to the social, political, and economic conditions prevailing in Hungary prior to October 1956, even a Liberal programme would appear revolutionary. In such conditions, democratic slogans have an explosive effect. They were a great step forward. They resulted in the smashing of the totalitarian state machine. These demands had never been realised under the Horthy regime. The Hungarians turned their backs on both the feudal-capitalist dictatorship and on the Stalinists. The workers were not blinded by bourgeois ideology: while they supported broad democratic claims, they also fought for claims of their own. The workers wanted no more elections in which the Communist Party imposed a single list of candidates and where the result had been decided in advance. They wanted to choose their representatives themselves. They wanted the one-party system abolished. They had seen it result in the suppression of all opinions and all groupings which did not conform to the views disseminated by those who controlled the State. They wanted freedom to organise themselves. It cannot be doubted that such freedom would have led them to make conscious choices between a number of revolutionary parties or groups, and to reject both bourgeois and bureaucratic parties which could have threatened their freedom. Their reactions were fundamentally sound. Even their demand for freedom of the press was aimed at the destruction of organs owing allegiance to the State.

A revolution is never 'pure'. Different tendencies show themselves. The great revolution of 1917 was not pure - side by side with the workers and poor peasants there fought sections of the petty bourgeoisie ... and even some elements who felt indignant at the Czar's inability to effectively wage the war against Germany. When revolution breaks out in the so-called Peoples' Democracies or in the U.S.S.R., the forces at work will be particularly complex. Totalitarianism gives rise to universal feelings of revolt. The majority of the population will some day line up against it, bound at lust by a common objective: freedom. After this first stage, some will doubtless want to revive the religion of their ancestors, archaic national customs, the little private profits they had once made. Others will want radical social change and will seek to bring about the society to which their rulers had paid lip service (while they went about destroying any attempt to achieve it). Shopkeepers will thank God for lower taxes. They may even seek to raise their prices. The workers meanwhile will be forming their Councils and will take over the factories.

* * *

The level of political consciousness achieved by the Hungarian workers was quite astonishing. For twelve years every means of propaganda had been used to stud their minds with the myths and dogmas of the Party's infallibility, of its right to rule 'on behalf of the working class'. But the workers knew they had remained a subject class. They had remained those who merely carried out the self-interested decisions taken by a managerial and bureaucratic hierarchy. The most 'revolutionary' words were no substitute for the reality of their everyday experience both in production and in society at large. Reality, however fogged by incessant propaganda, kept their class instinct unblunted.

On Thursday, the Councils had begun to link up. In the cities, the main Councils (usually simply called 'Revolutionary Councils') consisted of delegates from all the councils in the area. Some of these Revolutionary Councils included representatives from white-collar workers, from the local peasants and from the army. Peasants willingly supplied the rebels with food. In some agricultural areas, despite their allegedly intrinsic conservatism, the peasants formed their own councils - for example, that of the big state farm at Babolna. [68]

On Thursday afternoon, while Nagy and Kadar were promising they would negotiate for the withdrawal of the Russians, it had become clear that nothing could stop the growth of the Councils and of the General Strike. By the evening the Councils constituted the only real power in the country apart from the Red Army. [69] Radio Budapest meanwhile paternalistically proclaimed: "The Government knows that the rebels are quite sincere."

Thursday, October 25, marked a sort of turning point. It seemed the Government was giving way. Premier Nagy now appeared to realise the strength of the movement throughout the country. The previous morning he had only appealed to the "People of Budapest". At that time Revolutionary Councils had already been formed in all the main cities. The Miskolc Revolutionary Council had, for example, been elected early on Wednesday by all the workers of the factories in the area. It immediately organised a strike in all sectors except the public services (transport, electrical power supply, and hospitals). A delegation was sent to the capital to coordinate activities with the Budapest Councils, and there to put forward the proposals of the Miskolc Council's programme. These proposals were similar to those mentioned above. They had been made known to the whole of Hungary on Thursday 25 when the revolutionaries had gained control of Miskolc Radio.

The Miskolc Council was not opposed to Nagy. It even proposed him as First Minister of a new government. But that did not prevent it from doing the opposite of what Nagy wanted. When he begged the insurrectionaries to lay down their arms and go back to work, the Miskolc Council formed workers' militias, maintained and extended the strike and organised itself as a local government independent of the central power... It was only ready to support Nagy if he applied a revolutionary programme. Thus when Nagy brought representatives of the Smallholders Party (Zoltan Tildy and Bela Kovacs) into the Government the council reacted vigorously. In a special communiqué broadcast on Saturday 27, at 9.30 p.m., the Council declared that it had "taken power in all the Borsod region. [70] It severely condemns all those who term our battle a battle against the will and power of the people. We have confidence in Imre Nagy. but we do not agree with the composition of his Government. All those politicians who have sold themselves to the Soviet Union must not have a place in the Government."

"This last declaration also puts the activity of the Council into proper perspective. It acted like an autonomous government. On the day it took power in the Borsod region, it dissolved the organisations which were the hallmark of the preceding regime, that is, all the organisations of the Communist Party. This measure was announced by the radio on the morning of Sunday, October 28. It also announced that the peasants in the region had driven out those responsible for the kolkhozes and begun a redistribution of the land. In Györ, in Pécs, in the greater part of other large towns, the situation was similar to that in Miskolc. It was the Workers' Councils which directed everything: they armed the fighters, organised the provisioning, presented the political and economic demands." [71]

* * *

Some idea as to what the Revolutionary Councils were like can be got by looking at the Council at Györ. Its headquarters were the Town Hall. At almost any time of the day, the square outside was packed with groups of people deeply, and often loudly, engrossed in discussion. In a revolution 'from below', there will always be a great deal of talking, arguing, row, jostling, polemic, excitement, and agitation.

Delegations leaving the Town Hall for other Councils crossed deputations coming in from the various local groups and committees. The noise and bustle inside the Town Hall reminded one of the seeming chaos of a disturbed ants' nest. Shouldered rifles got caught up with shouldered flags. Arm-banded people holding documents jostled their way through thronged corridors. People filled the rooms. As one walked along the corridors one knew from the various sounds coming from the rooms that this was a real people's movement - a calm male voice, the shrill ring of a telephone, the excited tones of a girl, uproar, laughter, booing, swearing, applause. Many deputations demanded lorries for a great attack on Budapest to relieve Red Army pressure on the 'freedom fighters'. Council members argued that this would prejudice the success of the revolution. All lorries that could be spared should be used to carry food to the people of Budapest. The huge numbers of people who turned out to help with this operation showed that a majority agreed with the Council's decision. Meanwhile a man was addressing a crowd in the square demanding the removal of the 'compromisers' from the Council. The spokesman of a deputation wanting a 'march on Budapest' was denouncing those on the Council who wanted 'to pacify us instead of mobilising us'. But from this seeming chaos had nevertheless evolved a programme of demands which had the support of the great majority.

From the first day of the revolution, a truly proletarian movement had expressed itself in the spontaneous formation of Councils all over Hungary. These Councils, partially isolated by the Red Army, immediately sought to federate. By the end of the first week, they had virtually established a Republic of Councils. Only their authority meant anything. The Government, regardless of the fact that Nagy was at its head, had no authority whatsoever.

Does anyone still wonder why the Kremlin and its stooges used the foullest methods to smear and discredit this Revolution? They called it a 'counter-revolution', a 'fascist uprising'. [72] Does anyone still wonder why the press and the 'leaders' of the West used lies in their efforts to misrepresent this Revolution as merely a 'national' uprising? Nationalist aspects there certainly were, but these were taken out of context and given a prominence and an importance they certainly did not warrant. [73]

* * *

Apart from the industrial workers the real social force in the provinces was the agricultural proletariat - the peasantry. Peasant claims during this period may have been confused, but their struggle for the division of the land had a revolutionary character. To get rid of the Kolkhoze (collective farm) bosses, had for them the same meaning as getting rid of the great landowners. Under the Horthy regime, agricultural workers represented over 40% of the population. They had tasted the benefits of agrarian reform after the war, but saw themselves almost immediately deprived of their new rights and forced into collective farms. Hatred for the bureaucrats who managed the co-operatives and got rich at their expense came to replace, almost without transition, the hatred they had previously felt for their ancestral exploiters - the landed aristocrats.

After October 23, a redistribution of land took place in some districts. In others the co-operatives continued to function although taken over by the peasants. This suggests that certain peasant groups were aware of the advantages of collective work despite the exploitation they had suffered under the Rakosi regime. Although many peasants were prepared to put their trust in representatives of parties such as the Smallholders (who reflected and expressed their religious and family traditions) they nevertheless remained members of an exploited class. They showed they were ready to reunite with the working class in its struggle for socialist aims.

In this context, the programme of the Magyarovar Municipal Executive Committee, (a body obviously directed by peasant elements) should be mentioned. It demanded free elections under the control of the United Nations, the immediate re-establishment of the professional organisation of the peasantry, and the free exercise of their profession by small craftsman and tradesmen. The programme goes on to make a whole series of bourgeois-democratic claims. But at the same time it demands "the suppression of all class distinctions" (point 13). This surely shows that within the peasantry conservative and revolutionary elements always co-exist. This had been shown by the Russian Revolution itself, some 40 years earlier.

While the idea of collective farms could be profoundly socialist, collective ownership only has a socialist content provided the association of peasants is freely arrived at. If, as was the case prior to October 23, agricultural workers are forced into collectives, if they do not themselves determine their work in common but have to carry our orders of officials who don't work, if their standard of living does not increase, if the differentials between their incomes and those of the bureaucracy are great and grow greater, then such collectives have nothing whatever to do with socialism. They can in fact prove to be instruments for a 'rationalised' and intensified form of exploitation.