'56 Hungarian Revolt Taught West a Lesson
October 26, 2006
by John O'Sullivan
'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 theater throughout the English-speaking world and opened the way for new dramas exploring themes of social criticism and the absurd. As for the phrase, it captured the mood of a left dissatisfied with the tepid social justice of the postwar welfare state and nostalgic for such grand revolutionary causes as the Spanish civil war.
Two months later such a grand revolutionary cause pushed onto the stage of history in the form of the Hungarian Revolution. This was actually a better, 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. The complaint leveled by Hungarians then and by historians later is that the United States and the West held aloof and gave the freedom-fighters no help against Soviet tanks.
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 Kremlin successors 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.
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 hard-line 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 a march called unofficially by students grew to a quarter of a million people. They pulled down a giant statue of Stalin. Police and army units went over to the people, handing over their weapons.
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 Hungary would either be brought back under Soviet control or it would become a fully independent democratic nation.
On May 4 they surrounded Budapest and crushed the revolution with massive force ruthlessly applied. More than 20,000 Hungarians were killed. Nagy was hanged. Communist gangs roamed Budapest arresting thousands of suspected revolutionaries and deporting them to the gulag. Thousands more Hungarians fled to the West.
Here was a good brave cause if ever there was one. Yet with honorable 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.
A revolution against socialism was a crisis and embarrassment for them rather than a cause. Socialism was so economically disastrous that it could not survive without political repression. 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" mind-set over the "anti-fascist" one. Anti-totalitarianism was the doctrine that despotisms of both right and left were to be equally (or almost equally) condemned. Its political effect was to prevent the non-communist left from cooperating with communists against their conservative and liberal opponents.
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. 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 America 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.
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. We in the West finally observed the full reality of "really existing 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 the October 24, 2006, Chicago Sun-Times.
John O'Sullivan was a Senior Fellow at Hudson Institute and editor-at-large of National Review.