7. New Course?

New Course?

"... a stratum of the old state that had not cropped out but been upheaved to the surface of the new state by an earthquake; without faith in itself, without faith in the people, grumbling at those above, trembling before those below, egoistic towards both sides and conscious of its egoism, revolutionary in relation to the conservatives and conservative in relation to the revolutionists ..."
K. Marx, The Bourgeoisie and the Counter-Revolution (1850).

On March 6, 1953, the Kremlin bluntly announced that Stalin had died after a short illness. Workers in Eastern Europe felt the time had now come to end the oppression his regime had imposed on them. They did not wait long. Early in June, workers in Plzen began a mass demonstration.

Plzen is one of Czechoslovakia's largest industrial centres. The great 'Skoda' arms factory is situated there. The demonstration, which was quite spontaneous, began as a protest against currency changes. But as it spread, political demands were made: greater participation in factory management, an end to piece-work, the resignation of the Government and free elections. By the time the demonstration had developed to the verge of a revolt (uniformed soldiers had joined in and large crowds had occupied the Town Hall), troops arrived from Prague and the rising was swiftly quelled. Further spontaneous risings in other parts of Czechoslovakia and in other satellite countries, were quickly crushed without reaching the world's headlines. Two weeks later, on June 17, 1953, the workers of East Berlin rebelled.

The revolt started with "a demonstration of building workers on the Stalin Allee. [39] Downing tools, they marched to the city centre to present their demands. ... Transport workers left their trams and lorries to join the demonstration. Factory workers rushed from their benches, students from the colleges, housewives from their homes and shopping, even schoolboys from their lessons ... Soon, the revolt spread throughout Eastern Germany." [40]

The workers of East Berlin were not subdued until after they had waged bloody battles with Russian tanks. For several days, this revolt drew world wide attention, not only because it involved workers whose demands were political as well as economic, but also because of Russia's direct and violent intervention. This intervention exposed the weakness of the Ulbricht regime.

After the Berlin uprising, the Kremlin adopted a 'new course'. Many reasons dictated this change of policy. The men in Moscow were certainly frightened by the Berlin events. Their lackeys in the capitals of Eastern Europe were shuddering as they felt the angry breath of the masses down their backs. They were all for 'changing course', but they knew that the Russian bureaucracy could grant them no major degree of autonomy, for it feared they might attempt to go the Tito way. The last thing Moscow wanted at this stage was to be seen using the tanks and bayonets of the Red Army to crush revolution throughout Eastern Europe.

* * *

A slight relaxation occurred in the U.S.S.R. itself. It was immediately reflected in the satellite countries.

In Hungary, early in July 1953, Malenkov himself 'advised' Rakosi to move into the background for a while. Imre Nagy, who had been Minister for Agriculture in the 1944 Government, Minister of the Interior in 1946, and had somehow survived the various purges, became Prime Minister. His first speech outlined the new programme.

In this first speech, Nagy criticised the revised plan of 1951 as too heavy a burden on the country. Greater consideration was to be given to light industry and to consumer goods. More material aid was to be given to collective and state farms, and also to individual peasant owners. A collective farm could be dissolved on a majority vote of its members. The special police tribunals were to be abolished. These were only concessions. But it is noteworthy that they were the most radical of all those made by the satellite leaderships during this period.

During the four months that followed Nagy's speech, a number of collective farms were dissolved - 10% according to a speech that Rakosi (who remained Party Secretary) made to a plenary session of the Party's Central Committee on October 31, 1953. Rakosi also reported that some local officials were obstructing peasants who wished to leave the collectives. In a few cases, force had had to be used. Rakosi, who showed no real enthusiasm for the concessions, stressed that it was a Party decision that must be carried out by members. The Party, whether torturing and killing people or just throwing them a few crumbs, is always right.

The 'new course' was applied throughout 1954. The 'relaxation' was even noticeable to foreign visitors. In conversation, people were more ready openly to criticise the Government. Many political prisoners were released. There can be no doubt that Hungarians were breathing a little more freely.

When a smothered people begin to see daylight, when they get the first whiff of fresh air, they tend to press strongly forwards. Their first ideas are to enlarge the holes, their second to tear down the whole throttling structure. This creates insoluble dilemmas for all ruling minorities - dilemmas felt the more acutely the more totalitarian their regimes.

* * *

All major decisions about Hungary were taken in Moscow. After Malenkov had 'resigned' and Krushchev had taken over, the Hungarians again sensed change in the air.

In real terms, Nagy's concessions had been small enough. But he was moving too quickly for the Kremlin. On April 18, 1955, the National Assembly decided, by a 'unanimous' vote, to relieve Nagy of his post. The Hungarians tensed when Rakosi was brought back to the centre of things. The feeble lights dimmed. The tragedy again reverted to macabre farce.

The long statement issued by the Central Committee showed some signs of the Party's discomfort. It accused Nagy of hindering the development of heavy industry and of collective farms, and of "using the Government machine as an instrument of repression against the Party." That Nagy was not immediately 'liquidated' reveals the uneasiness and indecision felt in the Kremlin about Hungary. 'Reconciliation' negotiations were proceeding between Tito and Krushchev. [41] Nagy was not called a 'Titoist' or a 'Fascist' when he was later expelled from the Party. He was simply labelled - "an incorrigible, right-wing, deviationist". [42] To be called a 'deviationist' by Rakosi would stand a worse 'Stalinist' [43] than Nagy in good stead with the Hungarian people.

Most of the concessions granted over the twenty months of Nagy's rule were now subjected to 'salami tactics': they were slowly whittled away. The Secret Police, who for a while had remained discreetly in the background, now felt they could safely justify their high pay once again. Measures for the rapid development of collectivization were introduced. Pressure on workers for increased output was stepped up... to help fulfil Moscow's Five Year Plan [44] - a plan in which the Hungarian workers, incidentally, had never been consulted in any way.

In the Kremlin, the new leadership felt fairly secure. They had coped with the immediate repercussions of Stalin's death. The Plan seemed to be working. Leaders in the satellite countries boasted of increased outputs for 1955. In Hungary, industrial production was claimed to have increased by 8.2% over the figures for 1954. The methods used to extract this from reluctant workers hardly bear thinking of. The people had endured misery up till 1953 - yet had shown they could resist. The relative clemency of the Nagy regime followed by the abrupt putting back of the clock to 1953 provoked a working class resistance greater than ever. Even harsher measures were needed to 'discipline' the masses.

But as far as the Kremlin was concerned, things seemed definitely on the mend. Khrushchev and his colleagues felt they had everything under control. This was an important consideration in their momentous decision to reveal that after all Stalin had not been God.