Credit: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

November 1, 2018   5 mins

Sixty-two years ago this week protests began in the Hungarian capital Budapest that would culminate in Soviet tanks rumbling through the streets – and the importance of that historical event can be seen in the subsequent transformation of the Left.

Although events in Budapest would ultimately be a curtain-raising exercise for the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Soviet domination over Eastern Europe – and over Russia itself – appeared relatively secure in the mid-to late 1950s. Indeed, during the Khrushchev era the Soviet Union appeared in rude health to outsiders: by the late 1950s the Soviet economy was growing at 5% a year, faster than the United States.

Yet in October 1956 Hungarian student organisations began organising themselves independently of the ruling communist party. This culminated in a sixteen-point manifesto which demanded the right to free speech, greater democracy, and the removal of hard-line Stalinist Mátyás Rákosi as prime minister and his replacement with Imre Nagy (Nagy had previously been removed from the party leadership for ‘rightist deviations’). The manifesto also called for the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Hungary.

The authorities in Moscow initially acquiesced in demands for the return of Nagy, who they hoped would put an end to the nascent revolution. Yet in power Nagy moved closer to the demonstrators, appealing on October 30th for a “free, democratic and independent” Hungary, and hinting at multiparty elections.

This perceived threat prompted Khrushchev to act. Soviet tanks rolled into Budapest on November 4th, and within 72 hours a new government under the leadership of the loyalist hardliner János Kádár was sworn in. The repression began in earnest: over 22,000 Hungarians were subsequently sent to prison for ‘counter revolution’, while 200,000 people fled the country. Nagy was later executed in Romania.

Prior to the slaughter in Budapest, where some 30,000 people were killed, illusions about the nature of Soviet communism remained widespread on the British Left, despite knowledge of Stalin’s crimes. Events in Hungary thus became a post-war ‘Kronstadt moment’ – a reference to the disillusionment felt by many communists at the 1921 Bolshevik deployment of the Red Army against mutinous soldiers – for many western sympathisers who had hitherto believed that communism had democratic potential.

That it took events in Hungary to discredit an ideology that was already responsible for the death of millions is testament to its power – Stalinism was handily dismissed as an aberration, a perversion of the truths laid down by Lenin.

The events of ‘56 shattered these illusions for many, but not the most fanatical, who rushed to defend the Soviet Union as its tanks began demolishing buildings in Budapest. The Daily Worker, organ of the British Communist Party and forerunner of The Morning Star, portrayed the protesters as part of a “counter revolution” engaged in “fascist activities”. Jean-Paul Sartre smeared the protesters as animated by a “rightist spirit”, despite the Left-wing demands of striking Hungarian workers.

Historian and Communist Party member Eric Hobsbawm self-importantly described 1956 as a period in which “British communists lived on the edge of the political equivalent of a nervous breakdown”. Seeking decades later to justify this unwillingness to break with the communist movement in his memoir Interesting Times: A 20th-Century Life, Hobsbawm appeared more horrified by the prospect of “being in the company of those ex-Communists who turned into fanatical anti-Communists” than by the crimes of communism itself.

Others dissented more firmly from the official line. Notable among them was the historian E.P. Thompson, who months prior to the Soviet attack on Hungary had started a critical periodical entitled The Reasoner with fellow dissenter John Saville. The Communist Party of Great Britain ordered the pair to cease publication but they declined, leading to their suspension from the party. Both resigned their party membership completely following the Soviet invasion of Budapest.

To those who had never swallowed the doctrines of Marx and Engels, the question was not whether you were still a communist after 1956, but rather, how you could have remained a communist until that point. The slaughter in Budapest followed the deaths of between two and three million people in the Soviet gulag. This itself followed the murder of hundreds of thousands under Lenin’s dictatorship.

For those who continued to cling to their illusions about Soviet communism, the moral equivalence bar got progressively lower as the twentieth century progressed. Communists began the post-war period by asking themselves whether the Soviet system was superior to the United States. As the scale of Stalin’s crimes was gradually revealed, they ended up defending communism against the charge that it had produced regimes as murderous as Hitler’s Germany.

The brutal events of 1956 have had a lasting impact on Leftist politics, helping shape what has been called the ‘New Left’, an attempt to square the theoretical circle of economic planning and political freedom. The New Left looked to the third world for inspiration, worshiping revolutionaries such as Fidel Castro and Mao Zedong, who blended Marxism with nationalism. As the historian Tony Judt put it in his Post War: A History of Europe Since 1945:

“After 1956, the secrets of History were no longer to be found in the grim factories and dysfunctional kolkhozes of the People’s Democracies but in other, more exotic realms.”

Later on, as communist revolutions in countries such as China, Cuba and Vietnam sank into a familiar blend of poverty and dictatorship, the Left began to accept that democratic communism might, as Polish academic philosopher Leszek Kolakowski pithily put it, be about as contradictory as “fried snowballs”.  In the West, more and more communists became democratic socialists – membership of the Communist Party of Great Britain had fallen to just 6,300 by 1991 – while during the eighties and nineties socialists within the Labour Party morphed into ‘third-way’ social democrats, voting for politicians such as Tony Blair.

A Leftish disposition still exists of course, but nowadays there is no coherent economic theory which binds it together. Few today believe in central planning, while much of what passes for Left-wing social democracy is under the surface little more than a fetish for nationalisation.

To be sure, it was the economic failure of communism that ultimately brought the system down. But it was the crushing of dissent in Eastern Europe that destroyed the faith of hitherto committed communists in the West. Of course, those living in Eastern Europe would have to wait another three decades before they could finally be free from communist ideology.

But then communism has always looked more appealing to those living at a great distance from its crimes and deprivations. Today the ideology lives on almost exclusively online and in the university seminar rooms of affluent liberal democracies. When the Novara journalist and activist Ash Sarkar was recently asked by fellow left-winger Owen Jones to describe what communism was (Sarkar gained national prominence after telling Piers Morgan on live television that she was “I’m literally a communist you idiot!”) she described her ideology rather vaguely as “a belief in the power of people to organise their lives as individuals, their social lives, their political lives, their economic lives, without being managed by a state”.

This is hardly the sort of stuff to terrify the bourgeoisie. Yet Sarkar was simply giving voice to an incoherence that exists at the heart of contemporary communism. Communism – or at least communism as the abolition of private property – survives today only as a vague and muddled ideal. And it cannot be otherwise, for the residual memory of what policies such as the abolition of private property entail – encapsulated by the murder of tens of thousands in Hungary and countless other communist-inspired crimes – remains with us.

Remembering 1956 is primarily a duty to its victims. However the memory of Budapest should also act as an insurance policy against the surreptitious resurrection of a bankrupt political ideology, even if its contemporary exponents do pose as voguish radicals.

James Bloodworth is a journalist and author of Hired: Six Months Undercover in Low-Wage Britain, which was longlisted for the Orwell Prize 2019.