During the last week I had a chance to spend a few days in Brussels between 17th and 20th of October as a part of the Graduates of Democracy delegation to a series of meetings. I was happy to see the preparations to an event and exhibition for the 60th anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. It showed the appreciation of very important event in our history, not for just Hungary but for our common European heritage. The revolution lasting for only 18 days (between October 23 and November 10) gave an important lesson about our democratic and social values.
The context of the events in short: on 1956 February 25 at the 20th Congress of the USSR Communist Party Khrushchev acknowledged (some of) the crimes committed by the preceding Stalinist regime, giving space to some economic and political reforms in the whole Soviet-bloc. Nevertheless the Hungarian leadership with Mátyás “Satlin’s best pupil” Rákosi were not really keen on changing ways despite the popularity of such reformist politicians such as Imre Nagy. The widespread economic, social and political oppression, with the visible lack of intent for some changes by the end of the year became so irresistible that created a widespread revolt seeing the union of students, proletariat, and farmers. The revolution first started bloodless, the leadership seeded power to Nagy and the reformist forces by popular demand, but then the Soviet forces wiped out any resistance and a new-old government were established with János Kádár bringing years of totalitarian terror and political prosecution before the consolidation years of the authoritarian regime until the fall of the communism in 1989.
The most important takeaway of the 1956 revolution was the natural reaction of the political mass to an oppressive regime’s unbearable grip. The lack of freedom of speech, the total control of public and private dialogue and the ban of the multi-party system where the known characteristics of everyday life in the Stalinist system. The reformist thinking and voices were already represented in the party’s internal opposition (sic!), but were (unsurprisingly) oppressed. This democratic deficit didn’t lead alone to the fall of the system. The problem came when the Stalinist leadership even failed to provide and represent the class that they built their legitimacy on: the proletariat. The proletariat felt left alone, vulnerable and exploited by their very own movement. They started to organize themselves, creating local Worker’s Councils to represent their rights and to establish an effective(!), representative leadership for the sake of productivity. The farmers of the countryside were also the most exploited parts of society, felt the inequality of wealth the most. The revolution started on 23rd with a student protest, which expanded into a much wider, nation representing event. The first student self-organizing activities were already in the progress since October 16th when in Szeged – at a University (!) which is located in the countryside(!) – they established the Hungarian University and College Students Alliance (MEFESZ) with their political manifesto, and soon joined by others in university and industrial towns like Miskolc, Pécs and Budapest.
The key was the amalgamation of a society wide discontent and organization and the realization of the common goals and interests of every classes and parts of society felt obligated to cooperate to create a liveable, freer country. The bottom-up organization, the lack of leadership, the student spirit of October 23rd protest did not stopped the event to expand into what it became: a society and nation-wide stance against the Stalinist oppression peaking in the symbolic toppling of the Stalin statue on Budapest. The nature of the revolution was anti-soviet but not anti-socialist. The organizing forces behind it were the Workers Councils and the reformist-wing intellectuals and members of the Workers Party like Imre Nagy. It still represented the basic values of what social-democrats and progressives are sharing today: the democratic, social and community values to bring together the whole nation.
This is why it an important lesson, especially because of the tragic bloody end of it, an important democratic moment in European history, and important to remember it properly as it is without political agenda and profit. I am writing this article not on the 23rd but the next day due to the fact that as usual in many events like this in many countries, yesterday’s celebrations in Hungary didn’t go in such spirit. 10 years ago for the 50th anniversary there were bloody riots, and yesterday violence also took place between people from opposing political positions, both claiming to represent the memory of the heroes of 1956. Nevertheless again, I say to reflect to the event as it was with the words of István Bibó:
“Empowered by their direct experiences the Hungarian masses are also aware, that any professional, trade union and representative democracy cannot replace the community’s universal democracy; that essential modern requirement, that every grown person is indeed competent, entitled and responsible to form and express an opinion regarding the most important affairs of their communities. ”
Laszlo Bugyi (25) a member of the Graduates of Democracy from Hungary, currently studying and working in Denmark at the University of Southern Denmark, Odense. Special credit to the Hungarian Youtube Chanel “slejm – a torkon ragadt politika” for the inspiration to reflect on 1956 as we should!
More information in Hungarian: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zukJss9wi2k