“To be liberated by others, whose leadership is the essential part of the liberation, means the getting of new masters instead of the old ones.”1 – Anton Pannekoek
Every year on Memorial Day (October 23) videos, articles show up from both left and right leaning sites to debate and claim the legacy of the revolution of ’56. Reactionary views have come to dominate the national discourse, especially in the shadow of the right wing Orbán governments decision to fold the 1956 Institute, a historical research group that promoted a nuanced view of the revolution, into the Veritas Historical Research Institute, a newly established body ‘whose historical views coincide with those of the current political leadership’2. Government officials, speaking at official ceremonies regularly use the opportunity to denounce communism rather than celebrate freedom. Thus it has become important in the current climate to highlight the distinctively socialist elements of the revolution, especially that of the munkástanácsok: the worker’s councils.
Beginning of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956
In the years before the revolution, Hungarian prime minster Mátyás Rákosi, who was known for purging potential rivals, had pushed widely unpopular policies such as forced development of heavy industry, forcing peasants into collectives to make them deliver goods at prices lower than the cost of production. 3 In 1953, less than a year in office, Rákosi was deposed in favor of Imre Nagy who promised to end the unpopular policies. However, Moscow hesitated to support him; he was expelled from the party in 1955. 4
After Khrushchev’s secret speech in February of 1956 in which he denounced Stalinism, tensions rose across the Eastern Block. There were protests in Poland and then, on the 23rd of October, students in Budapest staged a peaceful demonstration to demand changes in policies, but the police shot into the crowd and the demonstration became a revolution. 5
Workers’ Councils became one of the symbols of the revolution. As in the former revolution of 1918-19 they wanted to reorganize production and destroy the old system but during the ‘56 revolution they were not only against capitalists but against the party elite as well. In the eyes of the reform communists these workers councils were the hope for a “humanist” socialism against bureaucratic rule. 6 The British historian E.P. Thompson in his article Through the Smoke of Budapest described these councils as “‘anti-Soviet’ Soviets”. Thompson was one of many who quit the Communist Party around this time in protest at the paternalism of the Soviet state and he saw that the Hungarian people had defiantly picked up the baton of democratic socialism which had been discarded by the brutish ‘mechanical idealism’ of Stalinism, which still lived on in Soviet action, despite the death of its namesake. 7
The idea of worker councils had been developed by, amongst others, the Dutch philosopher and astronomer Anton Pannekoek. He emphasised a dictum that workers supposedly liberated by a new elite, would simply end up in a position of submission to the new leadership. For Pannekoek, the true revolution was not just the abolition of capitalism, but ‘the rise of the whole working people out of dependence and ignorance into independence and clear consciousness of how to make their life’.8 Pannekoek was suspicious of the ‘professional leader’ and instead advocated for a system in which organization was a process open to all and that authority was a more consensual system in which ‘everybody has to follow the decisions which he himself has taken part in making’9
These councils in Hungary worked with the same principles. While the revolution was made up of many elements, Hungarian politician István Bibó regarded the workers councils as evidence that it was not a revolution of landowners, capitalists and high priests. 10
On October 31 the councils presented a document about the rights and structure of the workers councils. They had 9 principles.
- Enterprises belong to the workers. The workers pay taxes and shares based on the profit of the enterprise.
- The head of the enterprise is the democratically elected workers’ council.
- The council elects a 3-8-member executive committee.
- The executive director is the employee of the firm, his and other important roles are elected by the council. Before the election there is an open application organized by the executive committee.
- The director deals with the matters of the enterprise and he is responsible to the workers’ council.
- The workers’ council maintains the following rights for itself:
A, Approval of the plans of the enterprise.
B, Decisions on wage-funds and their utilization.
C, Decisions on foreign shipping contracts
D, In the case of disagreements, the council decides on hiring and firing.
- Approves scales and decides over profit.
- Deals with the social matters of the enterprise. 11
In the beginning councils only dealt with local political issues but the role broadened after Soviet forces invaded on November 4. and they began to demand democratic parliamentary elections, national independence and for Soviet troops to leave the country. The new line was to unite worker self-management and a multi-party democratic system backed by a constitution that would have defended the new system against capitalist restoration and exploitation. 12
Imre Nagy’s side planned to negotiate with other non-socialist sides about the fundamental principles of the revolution and how to implement a constitution that would protect the achievements of socialism. 13 On the counter-revolutionary side, the new Communist Party leader Janos Kádár, who was backed by the Soviets tanks, attempted to negotiate moderate change. The Kádár supporting unions wanted a 2-house parliamentary system which would consists of a House of Representatives and Council of Producers with the latter deciding on issues of production and distribution and able to make proposals on political issues to the House of Representatives. 14
Kádár started to negotiate with the workers’ councils. The biggest enterprise of the country, the Csepel Iron and Metal Works resisted. They wanted Imre Nagy as the prime minister. Csepel IMW demanded that Kádár make a public announcement on radio and in the newspapers that the new regime would rely on the workers’ councils. The announcement happened on 14 November 1956, and the revolution was over. The idea was to expand the existing model of workers councils to the whole industry and to give them the power to determine wages and share part of the earnings among workers. In the main negotiation documents we could see a new system with a mixture of state-run, self-managing worker owned and restricted private enterprises.15 The main problem was how to organize central planning with self-managing workers’ councils.
The Central Workers’ Council of Budapest and other workers’ councils in general didn’t accept Kádár’s compromises. They wanted broader political roles than just the management of production. Yet Kádár believed that politics was not their sphere and as he consolidated his power, the question of workers’ council faded away. Party elites slowly returned to their places. 16
After the revolution was defeated there came a few years of retributions in which Imre Nagy and several associates were executed. Political and economic liberalization came in the 60’s and the question of workers council was forgotten17
Workers’ Councils today
The ideals of the Munkástanácsok were rediscovered in 1989 and there were several movements to restore workers’ councils but they were marginalized and lost in the midst of massive privatizations. 18
At present workers councils still exist, but they operate as trade unions do in other countries rather than an instrument for radical workplace democracy. On their websites they often take an anti-communist stance which goes against what they stood for in 1956 .19 This should be no surprise as the establishment is increasingly pushing anti-communist rhetoric.20 During the revolution there were many sides fighting from far-left to far-right. Today’s Hungary emphasizes the right-wing elements of the revolution, and the memory of workers’ councils or those who were fighting for a purer form of socialism are often swept under the rug.
Recently the government wanted to limit the autonomy of the University of Theatre and Film Arts in Budapest. As a protest students and teachers took control of the university buildings. They demanded the restoration of the university’s autonomy and for the government to guarantee the independence of education and art. The governing bodies of the “seized” university are democratically elected and the protest is still ongoing. 21
On the Memorial Day this year the students of the University of Theatre and Film Arts went on a peaceful march in the capital and invoked the spirit of ‘56 against authoritarianism and in support of academic freedom 22. The right wing government, who have long attempted to claim the spirit of ‘56 for their own ideology, now finds themselves cast in the position of authoritarian. The Munkástanácsok might be almost forgotten but the struggle for a more democratic way of life still lives on.
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7 Thompson, E.P, Through the Smoke of Budapest