Fifty years ago today, Hungarians rose up in revolution against their Soviet masters, only to see their bid for freedom crushed by the Red Army's invasion that soon followed. In the first of a three part series commemorating the revolution, John O'Sullivan examines the impact the failed revolution had on the Left:
'There aren't any good brave causes left," railed Jimmy Porter in John Osborne's play Look Back in Anger on its first night in August, 1956. Both the phrase and the play almost immediately established themselves as revolutionary. Osborne's play changed the theatre throughout the English-speaking world and opened the way for new dramas exploring themes of social criticism and the Absurd from playwrights such as Harold Pinter, Samuel Beckett, Arnold Wesker, and in time Tom Stoppard. As for the phrase, it captured the mood of a Left dissatisfied with the tepid social justice of the post-war welfare state and nostalgic for such grand revolutionary causes as the Spanish civil war.
Two months later such a grand revolutionary cause pushed on to the stage of history in the form of the Hungarian Revolution. This was actually a better and braver cause than the Spanish civil war because it combined a national struggle for Hungary's independence with a political fight for the individual freedom of ordinary Hungarians. Nor was it corrupted, as the republican side in Spain had been, by the controlling influence of a great power (in the form of Stalin's Soviet Union.) Indeed, the complaint levelled by Hungarians then and by historians later is that the U.S. and the West held aloof and gave the freedom-fighters no help against Soviet tanks. Yet, for an exhilarating few days, it seemed as if this gallant uprising of young men in mackintoshes armed with rifles and Molotov cocktails would prevail unaided against the heavy armour of the Red Army.
The Hungarian Revolution is an instance of a law that has frequently frustrated Marxist plans: the law of unintended consequences. After Stalin's death his successors in the Kremlin wanted to create a more liberal communism. Khrushchev began the process with his February 1956 "secret speech" denouncing the crimes of Stalin and his cult of personality. As John Lewis Gaddis explains in his short history of the Cold War, this was a devastating shock to a system that was rigid, authoritarian and allegedly infallible. When the Polish communist leader read the speech, he dropped dead of a heart attack.
Discontent, already widespread, began to be openly expressed throughout the Eastern bloc. Riots broke out in Poland and the party shrewdly appointed the relatively popular reformer, Wladyslaw Gomulka, to head the regime. That quieted things temporarily.
Khrushchev sought the same effect in Hungary by informing the hardline ruler, Matyas Rakosi, that he was ill and needed treatment in Moscow. Instead of calming things down, however, this stimulated demands for greater freedom. On Oct. 23, 1956, a march called unofficially by students grew to a quarter of a million people. They pulled down a giant statue of Stalin in one of the main city squares. Police and army units went over to the people, handing over their weapons. Crowds attacked the radio station and the secret police headquarters (now a museum of terror). Within the space of four days, the revolutionaries had defeated a first wave of Soviet troops (some of whom went over to the Revolution) and forced a dithering Kremlin to appoint the reformer Imre Nagy to head a new government.
But the Soviets themselves soon realized that this was a halfway house to some other destination. Hungary would either be brought back under Soviet control or it would become a fully independent democratic nation outside the Warsaw Pact. On Sunday, Nov. 4, they surrounded Budapest and crushed the revolution with massive force ruthlessly applied. More than 20,000 Hungarians were killed. Imre Nagy was tricked by a promise of safe passage and hanged. Communist gangs roamed Budapest arresting thousands of suspected revolutionaries and deporting them to the Gulag. Thousands more Hungarians fled to the West, greatly benefiting the arts, sciences, academy and business in their adopted countries. And Khrushchev drew the appropriate lesson: according to Gaddis, he told a Chinese delegation in 1957 that being a communist was "inseparable from being a Stalinist."
Here, then, was a good brave cause if ever there was one. No one who heard Nagy's last desperate appeal for Western help over the radio from Budapest (as I did as a boy of 14) could have doubted that. Yet with honourable exceptions -- the Budapest correspondent of the British Daily Worker saw his reports suppressed, left the Communist party, and wrote an honest history of the events -- the Jimmy Porters of the Left never really rallied to the Hungarians. Their preferred cause was to support the Egyptian dictator, Colonel Nasser, over the Suez crisis.
A revolution of the people against socialism was a crisis and embarrassment for them rather than a cause. It demonstrated, as Khrushchev realized and as Solzhenitsyn later observed, that democratic socialism was an impossibility -- like "boiling ice." Socialism was so economically disastrous that it could not survive without political repression. Once that was lifted people either rebelled or fled to the West -- as two million East Germans did until the Berlin Wall stopped them.
Within the West, 1956 had several political effects. It extended for about a decade the dominance of what historian David Gress has called the "anti-totalitarian" mindset over the "anti-fascist" one on the Left. Anti-totalitarianism was the doctrine that despotisms of both Right and Left were to be equally (or almost equally) condemned.
Hungary naturally reinforced that idea. Its political effect was to prevent the non-communist Left from cooperating with communists against their conservative and liberal opponents. In France and Italy that deprived the Left of power for another quarter-century.
Throughout Western Europe it solidified support for NATO and the American alliance.
Its second effect was to midwife a New Left. Thousands of members resigned from Western communist parties while not drawing Khrushchev's logical conclusion that a liberal communism was impossible. They continued to believe in "boiling ice."
Their moment came in 1968 with the Prague Spring offering "socialism with a human face." Fortunately for its admirers, this was suppressed by Moscow before the contradictions between socialism and democracy could emerge. It gave the New Left a myth to cherish for the next two decades. And because the U.S. was fighting in Vietnam at the same moment, it also fostered another myth on the Left: that the Cold War was a battle between two equally odious imperialisms. Under these two influences, the anti-totalitarian principle was gradually abandoned and in the 1970s new "Popular Fronts" -- the Broad Left, the Peace Movement -- began to form, uniting communists with the New Left and even social democrats.
The freedom revolutions of 1989 demolished both myths once and for all. They were, ironically, caused by Gorbachev's decision to repeat Khrushchev's attempt to install "reform communists" with moderately human faces throughout Eastern Europe. Yet again, once Soviet repression was lifted, the people quickly demanded real liberty rather than its communist imitation. When they did, their newly-free societies revealed not only the economic ruins of the planned economy but also mass graves and historical crimes equal not to those of Kennedy and Johnson, but to those of Adolf Hitler. We in the West finally observed the full reality of "socialism."
Without the sacrifice of thousands of Hungarian patriots, however, the West might have learned that lesson too late and at first hand.
This article originally appeared in October 23, 2006, edition of Canada's National Post.