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Did the Revolution Have to Fail?’: An Exchange

In response to:

Did the Revolution Have to Fail? from the March 1, 2007 issue

To the Editors:

Professor István Deák’s valuable article [“Did the Revolution Have to Fail?,” NYR, March 1] will recall the stirring days of 1956, and their interesting consequences, to those who lived through them. May I offer the following comments?

  1. Professor Deák refers to András Hegedüs, Hungarian prime minister when the revolution occurred, as a “nonentity.” One supposes that he was chosen for the post since he was not part of the older Stalinist gang led by Mátyás Rákosi and he was sent to Moscow by the Soviet Union when it rescued its loyal Hungarian servants. He returned some years later after studying social sciences in Moscow and worked as a social researcher. I met him in 1965, when I visited Budapest to call on Georg Lukács, and on a couple of other occasions—once in Italy and once in Germany. By 1965 he had attached himself to the group of critical Marxists and reformers around Lukács—a long distance from his beginnings. His work, on class and work in the state socialist societies, was part of a critical current that included the inquiries of the group around Radovan Richta in the Czech Academy of Sciences—and quite a few groups in the USSR itself.

This current did not call for the total overthrow of state socialism, but for decentralization and democratization in it—and eventually provided the intellectual resources Gorbachev drew upon. Hegedüs told me that in the plane carrying the Stalinists to Moscow in 1956 he heard Rákosi and others loudly denounce the “fascists” who were in the streets—and that he began then to wonder why there were so many “fascists” in Hungary after a decade of such enlightened rule. I did not have the impression that he was a nonentity.

  1. The Hungarian Revolution certainly was a considerable stimulus to what became the New Left in Western Europe. In the UK, where I was living at the time, it crystallized all the doubts figures like Christopher Hill and Edward Thompson had about their loyalty to the British Communist Party. In France, it led Sartre to write his searing “Le Fantôme de Staline.” In Italy, it hastened the evolution of the Communist Party to a position pronouncedly independent of Moscow’s dogmatics. For those not in the Communist orbit, it closed that option rather dramatically and led them to seek new forms of politics. Whatever sympathies Khrushchev had won with his “Cult of Personality” speech and the ensuing de-Stalinization were considerably dissipated by the suppression of the Hungarian revolt.

  2. Professor Deák raises the question of whether some general settlement of the cold war could have saved the Hungarian Revolution. One would have to be totally committed to a rigorous variant of historical determinism to argue that because the cold war took the course it did, no other possibility existed. Stalin in 1952 proposed the neutralization of Germany, but his offer was not even discussed. After his death, Churchill was told by John Foster Dulles and Eisenhower not to go to Moscow to sound out the new leadership on a new great power bargain. At various times, Anthony Eden, George Kennan, and the Polish Foreign Minister Adam Rapazcki proposed serious force reductions in Central Europe which might have accelerated the processes which proved irresistible in the Eighties.

I recall a novel by Hugh Thomas, for a while a British diplomat, about the horror experienced by British, French, and American negotiators when a Soviet delegation accepted their proposal for a settlement in Europe (The World’s Game, 1957). In fact, it was the opening of the Hungarian border with Austria by the Hungarian government in 1989 that had large disruptive effects in Communist Germany. It is difficult to judge the significance of the fact that the Hungarian prime minister who opened the border, Gyula Horn, had sided with János Kádár in suppressing the 1956 revolution. Perhaps his entire policy represented a belated change of heart, perhaps (as he himself claimed) in 1956 the time was not ripe. There was a certain Western responsibility for the division of Europe which it would be well to recall.

Norman Birnbaum

University Professor Emeritus

Georgetown University Law Center

Washington, D.C.

István Deák replies:

The Hungarian Revolution of 1956 went through many major anniversaries but not until its fiftieth did it attract the attention of the media, the universities, and many political leaders. Last June, for instance, when visiting Budapest, President Bush greatly praised the Hungarian freedom fighters, comparing them, somewhat awkwardly, to the Iraqi freedom fighters, by which he meant not the opponents but the supporters of the American occupation. Repeating almost verbatim the Soviet justification for sending tanks to Budapest on November 4, 1956, and for installing the pro-Soviet government of János Kádár, Bush promised continued fraternal aid to the Iraqi government in its struggle against “the enemies of freedom.”1

Professor Birnbaum is right to point to the impossible situation Soviet military intervention in 1956 created for some of the less cynical Hungarian Communist leaders. Prime Minister András Hegedüs, who had truly been just a flunky of the terrible Stalinist dictator Mátyás Rákosi, struggled for the rest of his life with the stigma of having signed the call for Soviet military intervention after the revolution broke out on October 23. Yet the call was a formality; by the time it was signed, the Soviet troops had long been in Budapest. Not in the good graces of either Moscow or of the post-revolutionary, pro-Soviet but anti-Stalinist Hungarian government, Hegedüs worked as a statistician and sociologist, gradually developing his own political ideas and personality.

When I met him in New York, in the 1980s, he already enjoyed a considerable reputation as a dissident and a critic, among other things, of the “fraternal aid” Warsaw Pact troops had brought to Czechoslovakia in 1968. With the strong stand he took against the opportunistic Kádár regime, for which he was expelled from the Party, Hegedüs helped in the formation of the post-Communist democratic system in 1989. But his revised Marxist ideas appealed only to a few, and he died, nearly forgotten, ten years after the end of communism in Hungary.

The exodus of Western intellectuals from the Communist orbit following the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 is one of the great facts of history. Such well-known French writers as François Furet and Henri Lefebvre left the Party; others, such as the Arguments group, strove to create what they called a decontaminated form of Marxism. Some historians date the beginning of the decline of the French and Italian Communist parties and the collapse of the American Communist movement from 1956. The magic appeal of the Soviets and communism, however, had begun to dissipate earlier, namely following the death in 1953 of Stalin. It was more difficult to accept the pudgy Georgy Malenkov, the grim-looking Lavrenty Beria, the dullard Marshal Kliment Voroshilov, the coarse peasant Nikita Khrushchev, and the rest of the new Soviet collective leadership. Add to this the Berlin workers’ revolt in June 1953, Khrushchev’s revelations at the Twentieth Soviet Party Congress in February 1956, and the massacre of workers at Poznaå«n in June 1956. Meanwhile, Europe was becoming more prosperous and the passions of World War II and its aftermath were fading. Being a Party member or a sympathizer was no longer “in,” whether in Paris, Rome, Oxford, New York, or Budapest.

The overall impact of the defection of the intellectuals from the Soviet camp in 1956 is debatable. By the time of the Hungarian Revolution, the political influence of left-wing thought had been generally in decline; a progressive, democratic, socialist, anticapitalist Europe under the leadership of the former antifascist resisters had never materialized, whether in the Western or the Eastern part of the Continent. A few years after the war, many of the wartime resisters went into political opposition or, if in Communist Eastern Europe, they went to jail. Certainly Soviet power was not weakened by the defections or by the Hungarian Revolution. On the contrary, the Soviet Union reached the zenith of its power at the time of the first Sputnik in 1957. Still, while the Soviet Union inspired more fear and respect than ever before, it was gradually losing the battle of ideologies. A few decades later, hardly anyone in Europe took “Marxist-Leninist thought” seriously; this must have contributed greatly to the Soviet system’s demise.

Whether or not Stalin seriously wanted reconciliation with the West at any time between 1945 and his death is one of the main dilemmas discussed by the enormous cold war literature. Views vary all the way from the argument that the evil Soviet regime could not be negotiated with to the conviction that US imperialism alone was responsible for the cold war. With regard to Stalin’s famous proposal in 1952 for the neutralization of Germany, let me quote Tony Judt in his brilliant Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945:

The Soviet leaders…didn’t seriously expect the Americans, British, and French to withdraw their occupying troops and allow a neutral, unarmed Germany to float loose in the middle of a divided continent. If anything Stalin and his successors were not unhappy to see a continuing American military presence on German soil; from the point of view of the Soviet leaders of this generation, the presence of US troops in West Germany was one of the most reliable guarantees against German revanchism.2

It is indeed worth remembering that Soviet–Western cooperation over Germany, the ultimate trouble spot in Europe, had developed during the war and continued basically all through the cold war. It was symbolized by, if nothing else, the incursions in Berlin of Soviet and Western army officers in squad cars through each other’s occupation zones. The trips made clear to all that the capital of the former Nazi Reich was under the joint occupation of the four victorious powers.

Fundamental cooperation was also characteristic of the general division of Europe into Soviet and Western zones of influence. As the Hungarian historian Csaba Békés has pointed out, even the handling of Prime Minister Imre Nagy’s declaration of Hungary’s neutrality during the 1956 revolution can be interpreted as a case of tacit superpower cooperation. He writes that both Washington and the Kremlin “treated the problem in a rational way: Moscow simply did not take it seriously, while the US leadership did their best to avoid an international obligation that could have seriously jeopardized the process of rapprochement with the Soviet Union.”3

Americans and Soviets felt free to make life difficult for each other; each also prepared for the possibility of a great war. But neither side wished to intrude into the other’s territory. Hungary, like East Berlin, was under Soviet influence and nothing would persuade even the fanatical anti-Communist John Foster Dulles to change this agreement which, as we know today, saved us from a nuclear war.4

  1. 1

    President’s Remarks to the People of Hungary,” Budapest, June 22, 2006; available at www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2006/06/20060622-6.html.

  2. 2

    Penguin, 2005, p. 243.

  3. 3

    Csaba Békés, “The 1956 Hungarian Revolution and the Declaration of Neutrality,” Cold War History, Vol. 6, No. 4 (November 2006), p. 493.

  4. 4

    Here is a small correction to Norman Birnbaum’s most interesting letter: Gyula Horn, the Communist politician who dismantled the Hungarian sector of the Iron Curtain in 1989, was not prime minister but foreign minister at that time.

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