9. Nearing Flashpoint

Nearing Flashpoint

"The time of surprise attacks, of revolutions carried through by small conscious minorities at the head of unconscious masses, is past. Where it is a question of a complete transformation of the social organization, the masses themselves must also be in it, must themselves already have grasped what is at stake, what they are going in for, body and soul."
F. Engels, Introduction to Marx's ' The Class Struggle in France' (1895).

From the spring of 1956 on, the quick build-up of tension in Poland was paralleled by similar development in Hungary. The exposure of Stalin at the 20th Congress, in February 1956, gave further impetus to revolutionary tendencies in Hungary. These, already discernible in October 1955, now came more into the open.

In April, 1956, the 'Petöfi Circle' [46] was formed by the Young Communists - mainly students. Assisted by the Writers' Union, it soon became an important and effective centre for the dissemination of opinion, criticism, and protest about the deplorable state of Hungarian society. Several other discussion groups were formed, but the Petöfi Circle remained the largest. (Similar discussions took place in Russia, prior to 1917.)

Many pamphlets were produced and distributed at this time, mainly in Budapest. A duplicating machine at Party Headquarters in Budapest is said to have been used. This could not have been done without the connivance of some members of the government. Due to shortages, there were production difficulties. It is reported that one pamphlet had been produced on toilet paper. In the early days, the main themes of this literature were purely demands for more literary freedom. But the political implications were clear. Later, the writers, all Communists, demanded that Hungary should follow her own road to Communism. They thereby clearly implied that the present road was wrong and that a greater independence from the U.S.S.R. was necessary.

Similar themes were now being discussed at the longer and longer meetings of the Petöfi Circle. The Rakosi government then banned these meetings. This made things worse.

The ban was soon lifted. The Communist writer, Gyula Hay [47] took the discussion a stage further. In an article in Irodalmi Ujság (Literary Gazette), he sharply attacked the bureaucratic interference with writers' freedom. Soon, the meetings of the Petöfi Circle were attracting thousands of people. These gatherings, already unanimous in their demands for intellectual liberty and truth, began to hear voices openly calling for political freedom.

One of these meetings was noteworthy for a passionate speech made by Mrs. Julia Rajk, widow of Laszlo Rajk, who had been executed as a "Titoist Fascist" in October, 1949. Several thousand people attended this meeting. It overflowed into the streets, where the speeches were relayed by loudspeakers. Mrs. Rajk called for justice to her husband's memory; an honourable place in the Party's history. She severely criticised the offhand way in which a few months earlier her husband had been "rehabilitated". In a speech at Eger on March 27, 1956, Rakosi had casually announced that the Party had passed a resolution to rehabilitate Laszlo Rajk and others. This had been done officially through the Supreme Court. In a cold voice, Rakosi had added that the entire Rajk trial had been based on a provocation. "It was a miscarriage of justice," he said. Julia Rajk then demanded that those guilty of his murder should be punished. This electrified the audience. Although there was no mention of Rakosi, everybody present knew exactly whom Julia Rajk meant.

By June, 1956. the intellectual agitation was in full swing. The articles in Irodalmi Ujság were becoming more and more bluntly critical of the regime. Although, earlier in the year, an issue of the paper had been confiscated, people were now quite surprised that the 'leadership' did not suppress it. As the title suggests, the paper was primarily intended for people with literary interests. But many others were now reading it. Odd copies could be seen in the hands of factory workers, on the shop floor. In fact, demand for some issues so outstripped supply that a 'black market' developed. Copies were selling at 60 forints - about 30s. each.

The articles by Gyula Hay suggested he was the centre of a campaign for freedom of the written word. During June this was sometimes referred to as the 'writers' revolt'. Officialdom reluctantly countenanced the situation. In fact, the June 28 issue of Szabad Nep [48] surprised many of its readers by welcoming this hitherto frowned-upon use of the human intellect. Pravda immediately countered the move.

It vehemently denounced the Hungarian writers. On June 30 the Central Committee brought Szabad Nep back to the Party line, with a resolution condemning the "demagogic behaviour" and "anti-party views" of "vacillating elements." It accused the writers of "attempting to spread confusion" with "the provocative content" of their articles. For once, part of the stereotyped party jargon was quite correct. This was indeed the precise intention of the revolutionary writers: to provoke thought, ideas, and discussion about the existing conditions in Hungary. The Central Committee resolution was carried and hastily propagated at exactly the time when news of the workers' revolt in Poznan was reaching intellectual circles in Hungary and inspiring them to intensify their campaign.

The feeling of guilt among honest Communist intellectuals - members of long standing - became apparent. Their consciences no longer allowed the gulf between myth and reality to be bridged. At a large meeting of the Petöfi Circle on June 27, the novelist Tibor Dery had asked why they found themselves in such a crisis. "There is no freedom," he said. "I hope there will be no more Police terror. I am optimistic. I hope we shall be able to get rid of our present leaders. Let us bear in mind that we are allowed to discuss these things only with permission from above. They think it's a good idea to let some steam off an overheated boiler. We want deeds and we want the opportunity to speak freely."

In the first days of July, articles in Irodalmi Ujság began demanding Rakosi's resignation. The same demand was clearly voiced at the meetings of the Petöfi Circle. It was even suggested by some speakers that Imre Nagy should be brought back into the Party, although Nagy's name was only mentioned casually, even guardedly. Rakosi, who was in Moscow, returned suddenly to Budapest. He sought to suppress the heretical movement. He knew of only one way to do this: a purge. A list of prominent names among the politicians and writers was drawn up. But before the first stage (the arrests) could be carried out, Suslov, Russian Minister for the affairs of the People's Democracies, unexpectedly arrived in Budapest. He was immediately followed by Mikoyan. They told Rakosi that his plan would ignite an already explosive situation. The Kremlin had decided that Rakosi should go.

The smouldering crisis in Hungary was not the only reason for the Kremlin's decision. Tito hated Rakosi. He had for some time been agitating for his removal. Tito refused to meet Rakosi, or even to travel through the country where he held power. The Russo-Yugoslav rapprochement influenced the decision to get rid of Rakosi.

All this was clearly a Kremlin-inspired compromise. For Rakosi's close friend and collaborator, Erno Gerö, was to succeed him as First Secretary. And, with the exception of General Farkas, who was expelled from the Party, most of Rakosi's followers retained their positions.

Hungarians heard of Rakosi's resignation on July 18. They also heard that the recently rehabilitated Janos Kadar and Gyorgy Marosan, [49] the Social Democrat, had been made members of the Political Bureau. These were the first of a few minor concessions made during the month of August. In the tumultuous situation, these concessions were to prove insignificant and wholly inadequate. The suffering of the working people had been too long and too great for them to harbour illusions about changes in the Leadership or to be bought off by a few extra coppers in their pay packets.

Through the long summer days the debate smouldered on. While the fireflies danced animatedly among the trees of the countryside, fascinating ideas about freedom flew about the meetings in the towns. Tension mixed strangely with a holiday mood. The whole month was like a heavy summer evening: the sun still glowing eerily through the dark purple clouds of a threatening storm. Familiar objects seemed out of perspective and took on a different shape and colour. In private rooms and public meeting places an ominous feeling of destiny pervaded the air. The intellectuals seemed to sense the 'dangers' inherent in their ideas. Yet they felt compelled to carry on, on to whatever ends free expression might lead them to.

We have found no evidence throughout the whole of this restive period of any conscious attempt made by the intellectuals [50] to co-operate with the industrial workers on a mass scale, to share with them the experiences of this cultural and political awakening, and thus to demonstrate that the workers' struggles were bound up with the articulate demands for freedom, for truth, etc. Nevertheless, the Petöfi Circle had become, albeit not in a completely conscious manner, the articulate voice of the working people of Hungary. It may well be that, had such co-operation occurred, the Party leaders would have acted to suppress the movement sooner than they did. But they would have had to do so in the face of even greater solidarity than was to develop at the height of the revolution. In the event, the degree of co-operation, liaison, and solidarity between workers and intellectuals was remarkably great. But closer co-operation with the workers earlier on would most certainly have broadened the base of the movement. The more practical and radical approach of the workers would have cleared the air of at least some of the cramping illusions held by many of the intellectuals - for example their great enthusiasm for a Nagy Government, appeals to Western leaders, to U.N.O., etc.

It was the veteran Communist writer, Gyula Hay, who again brought the cauldron to the boil with an article in the September 8 issue of Irodalmi Ujság. It poetically demanded "absolute and unfettered freedom" for writers.

The article stated that "it should be the writer's prerogative to tell the truth; to criticise anybody and anything; to be sad; to be in love; to think of death; not to ponder whether light and shadow are in balance in his work; to believe in the omnipotence of God; to deny the existence of God; to doubt the correctness of certain figures in the Five Year Plan; to think in a non-Marxist manner even if the thought thus born is not yet amongst the truths proclaimed to be of binding force; to find the standard of life low even of people whose wages do not yet figure amongst those to be raised; to believe unjust something that is still officially maintained to be just; to dislike certain leaders; to describe problems without concluding how they may be solved; to consider ugly the New York Palais, [51] declared a historic building, despite the fact that millions have recently been spent on it; to notice that the city is falling into ruins since there is no money to repair the buildings; to criticise the way of life, the way of speaking, and way of working of certain leaders; ... to like Sztalinvaros; to dislike Sztalinvaros; to write in an unusual style; to oppose the Aristotelian dramaturgy; ... etc., etc. Who would deny that a short while ago many of those things were strictly forbidden and would have entailed punishment ... but today, too, they are just tolerated and not really allowed."

About a week after Hay's article was published, the congress of the Writers' Union opened in Budapest. The depth of the revolt revealed itself in the elections for the new Presidium. All those who had supported the Rakosi regime, if only passively, were ousted. Communist 'rebels' and some non-Communist writers were elected. All the speeches sharply criticised the "regime of tyranny." The rehabilitation of Nagy was demanded. Gyula Hay admitted that Communist writers, "having submitted to the spiritual leadership of the Party Secretariat, let themselves be led astray on to the path of mendacity." He added that the most honest writers had found themselves in a frightful dilemma and "suffered horribly in this atmosphere of lying ... and paid dearly for the lie ... with the lowering of the standard of our work ..." Konya, the poet, took up the theme in an impassioned speech about writing only the truth. He ended with the rhetorical questions: "In the name of what morality do the Communists consider themselves justified in committing arbitrary acts against their former allies, in staging witch-trials, in persecuting innocent people, in treating genuine revolutionaries as if they were traitors, in gaoling and killing them? In the name of what morality?"

Thus, the intellectuals exposed their crisis of conscience. Yet this resolute search for truth, amounting at times almost to mysticism, helped to give the events that followed an essential theme of socialist morality.