From International Socialism, No.18, Autumn 1964, pp.24-31.
Translated and edited by Olivia McMahon and Colin Barker.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
Eight years ago, on 23 October 1956, the Hungarian revolution, the most important event in international working-class history since the Russian revolution of 1917, began. In honour of the eighth anniversary we are printing a shortened version of Balazs Nagy’s account of the formation of the Central Workers’ Council of Greater Budapest. This first appeared in French, in the volume Études sur la Révolution Hongroise, edited by the Imre Nagy Institute for Political Research, Brussels, in 1961. The Institute reissued it as a separate pamphlet, and it is from this that the present text has been translated. For reasons of space much of Nagy’s material has had to be omitted, but we hope that this selection has not too severely distorted his narrative. We plan to give readers a chance to judge for themselves in the not too distant future by publishing a translation of the complete text, as a pamphlet.
The Hungarian revolution can be seen as falling into two distinct phases, the first beginning on 23 October and lasting until 4 November, when the Russian troops returned. This first period has been well described in a number of publications available in English, but the second period, from 4 November onwards, has hardly been examined in detail at all. This is a matter of particular moment for socialists, for whom a primary concern in looking at working-class revolutions must be the analysis of the creative activity of the working class, both in building new organisations and in formulating new policies. Nagy’s account provides us with material which has not, to our knowledge, appeared elsewhere, and we are therefore very grateful to the Imre Nagy Institute for permission to re-publish. In the present version all references to sources have been omitted, together with the large part of Nagy’s commentary on the events. Where we have added linking passages these are indicated by parentheses, but the bulk of the text is a fairly literal translation of Nagy’s own account.
Although the Central Workers’ Council was not formed until after 4 November 1956, the workers had already made similar moves in this direction during the victorious days of the revolution. These were most noticeable in the provinces, where, in several cases, the local workers’ council had taken control of the political, economic and administrative life of an entire region. The absence of any central administration made it very easy for the councils to establish their power in this way. But even in Budapest, where the Imre Nagy government was giving a great deal of expression to the working people’s demands, the workers tried to organise themselves independently of the administration and the political organisations. In some places, for instance, factory delegates formed District workers’ councils, inspired and controlled by the councils in the bigger industrial concerns. In working-class suburbs like Ujpest and Csepel the workers’ council represented the entire community.
As well as building their factory councils, the Budapest workers were organising their activities on a wider scale, notably in the attempts at city-wide organisation. On 31 October 1956, for instance, a workers’ meeting took place at which delegates from 24 large concerns were present, among them delegates from the Ganz Railway Works, the Ganz Ship Yards, the Ganz Electrical Works, the Mavag and Lang Engineering Works, and the Beloiannis and Egyesült Izzó Electrical Engineering Works. At this meeting a resolution was adopted which set out in nine points ‘the basic rights and functions of the workers’ councils.’ The first stated, ‘The factory is the property of the workers’; and the second, ‘Overall control of the enterprise is invested in the democratically elected council of the workers’. The fifth, sixth and seventh points were concerned with defining the workers’ council’s rights, as follows:
There can, then, be no doubt that during the revolution the workers decided at both factory and District level on the line of action they intended to take, bringing their demands and their strength together in their own organisations. In this connection we would also cite the meeting of 31 October between the delegates of the workers’ councils in the factories of the 11th District, at which representatives from more than a dozen big concerns in the area met and adopted a common policy. During the afternoon of 1 November, Radio Kossuth announced that an important meeting had taken place that morning between representatives from the big factories, the intellectuals, the students and the government. It was decided at this meeting to convene delegates from the councils of the big factories that same evening. According to the first edition of Nepszabadsag, delegates came from the Csepel factories, from ‘Mavag’, ‘Ganz’, ‘Lang’, and another dozen large concerns. They decided on a return to work, for they were convinced that the revolution had been victorious and they had complete confidence in the Nagy government.
This decision is not connected with that cited above, nor with the rights of the workers’ councils. But it does demonstrate, however, that the government had to negotiate with the workers if it wanted to settle a question as vital to the consolidation of the revolution as the return to work. The government completely neglected the working-class parties, and the trade unions as well, and appealed directly to the workers, or, rather, to their councils. In other words, the formation of a workers’ organisation was not just an expression of the spontaneous will of the workers, but was an absolutely vital condition for the consolidation of the revolution. Thus, even before 4 November, the formation of a central workers’ council was inevitable. The workers’ councils were beginning to turn out people who would be capable -of running factory production and were setting about the coordination of their programmes. From here it was but a short step to the actual formation of a central council.
(Since the Nagy government was expressing the will of the people to a very large extent, the formation of a central workers’ council was slowed down.) One after another the workers’ councils were deciding on a return to work by, at the latest, 5 November ...
(However) the situation was changed completely by the Soviet army’s concentrated surprise attack at dawn on 4 November. Armed resistance was hastily organised, but it was powerless to stop the Russian army, although it did hold out until about 10 or 12 November, particularly in the working-class districts ... In the capital city, the struggle lasted until 11 November in Csepel, the traditional stronghold of the working-class movement. A look at the official statistics on damage to buildings during the fighting shows clearly that the Districts which suffered most were the 8th, 9th, 20th and 21st, which are equivalent to the working-class Districts of Paris. The smart residential areas of the 12th District were relatively untouched. Another statistical publication records, with a brevity that speaks volumes, ‘The greatest number of deaths during the armed combat was recorded in the 8th (22 per cent), 9th (14 per cent) and 7th (13 per cent) Districts.’ These are among the principal working-class areas of Budapest. And finally we would cite the following: ‘According to the figures supplied by the hospitals, 80-90 per cent of the wounded were young workers, while students represented no more than 3-5 per cent.’
For the workers the significance of the events of 4 November was obvious; and, just as they had been resolved on a return to work on 5 November, now they became equally determined to continue their strike. This strike was a much more important weapon in their hands than the armed struggle, which from the outset had been hopeless. (This can be seen from the importance which the newly installed Kadar government attached to ending the strike.)
As early as 4 November Kadar was appealing to the workers in his radio broadcast, ‘Go back to work.’ The workers turned a deaf ear to his appeals. Again, on 6 and 7 November, Kadar warned them: he ‘hoped for’, then he ‘requested’ a return to work, then he changed his tune and tried threats, and then again he pleaded with the workers. But all in vain. On 8 November his henchman Marosan declared over the radio, ‘It is the duty of every decent worker to go back to work.’ But the workers remained unmoved. They put forward their demands, and the strike remained general. Of course they went to the factories – to collect their pay – and then the strike went on as before. On 13 November the government declared it an offence to pay wages to any worker who did not go back to work.
(From different points of view, the workers and Kadar were concerned with political consolidation. The workers demanded the withdrawal of the Russian troops and the reinstallation to power of Imre Nagy. Kadar could not hope to be secure until the strike had ended.) From 4 November onwards Kadar tried to gain the confidence of the revolutionary people. The 9th and 11th points of his programme, broadcast on 4 November, were essentially revolutionary. The 9th stated, ‘On the basis of the broadest democracy, workers’ management should be realised in all factories and enterprises’; and the 11th declared, ‘Democratic elections will be guaranteed in all existing administrative bodies and in the revolutionary councils.’ While the government made advances to the workers, the latter quickly realised that an unorganised strike would achieve nothing. Basing themselves on this appeal by the government, the factory councils took up their activities again and became the authentic organisations of the struggle – all the more so as the workers, in the words of one of the future members of the Central Workers’ Council, ‘felt that the country was without a head.’ A delegation from the workers’ council at the Ganz Electrical Works, one of the biggest factories in Budapest, met Kadar on 10 November to discuss their demand that the workers should be armed. The leader of this delegation referred to these discussions in the course of a subsequent meeting with the government:
‘A fortnight ago we had very full discussions with the government ... We were assured that this demand (that the workers should have a say in the running of the police) would be satisfied. Up to now nothing has been done about this matter ... There was also another, similar demand, for the creation of armed guards in the factories. For the government is not alone in wanting guarantees from the working class against the return of fascism in Hungary; the working class itself also wants a guarantee that it will be armed so that it can stop any other force from negating the basic aims of the revolution and its achievements so far.’
The government attempted to restrict the activities of the councils to purely economic problems, and to keep them out of the political sphere. It ridiculed the workers by declaring that, even within the economic sphere, the councils must work inside the limits imposed by the current legal framework. (And it declared that it was the only legitimate central organisation – District Councils, let alone a Central Workers’ Council, were unthinkable.)
To instal Kadar’s government the Soviet High Command was forced to take the initiative in reorganising the life of the capital city – using military methods, of course. The third section of its first order, 6 November, declared:
‘We have called on the workers, the employees of the factories, shops, transport services, municipalities and enterprises to return to work. Any person attempting in any way to prevent them from going back to work will be arrested.’
There were daily disputes and skirmishes between workers and sections of the Russian army. As a result Grebennik (commander of the Russian forces in Budapest) invited the leaders of the workers’ councils of the 11th District to a meeting on 8 November. In a very strained atmosphere the workers declared they would only go back to work when their demands had been met. Grebennik rejected these demands out of hand, saying that under no circumstances could they be accepted. He treated the workers present at the meeting as fascists and agents of the imperialists and threatened to have them arrested. He again adopted the same tone at another meeting, this time with a delegation from the workers of Csepel. It didn’t take long for the workers to realise that they would have to develop more effective forms of struggle than the general strike by itself if they were to defend the revolution and get their demands accepted.
(The political parties were ineffective, and the workers had to depend entirely on their own resources.) From 8 November onwards the councils became hives of activity in Budapest, particularly in the llth and 13th Districts, and in Ujpest and Csepel. Delegates from the workers’ councils of the 11th District met on 12 November and formulated their common demands under eight headings. This was the first time since 4 November that councils from a wide area had convened and held a meeting at which – and this is the essential point – they united in drawing up a set of demands. Nor were these demands just a mere list of familiar grievances; they amounted in a sense to a real programme.
To sum it up briefly, their demands were: collective ownership of the factories, which were to be in the hands of the workers’ councils, which were to act as the only directors of the enterprises; a widening of the councils’ powers in the economic, social and cultural fields; the organisation of a militia-type police force, subject to the councils; and on the political plane, a multi-socialist-party system.
The meeting itself was of vital importance, for it showed the working class in process of organising itself on a wider scale than that of the individual factory. On the very day that the government was preparing to issue its decree restricting the activities of the councils to the factories and to the economic sphere, the workers in the 11th District were extending their activities towards a much greater union of workers. Workers everywhere recognised that they must group their forces and set about organising delegate meetings. And as an inevitable result of these meetings the Central Workers’ Council rapidly came into existence.
But it was not only the workers who were concerned with saving the revolution, and thus with opposing the Russian intervention and the new government of Kadar. The intellectuals’ organisations, for instance, were also politically active, but they concentrated more, in the political and theoretical spheres, on formulating a policy which would resolve the political problem created by the Russian military intervention. Among the proposals they put forward, the most noteworthy was that made by Bibo, who had been Minister of State in the Nagy government, was a member of the Populist Socialist-Peasant movement and one of the leaders of the Petofi Party. Bibo proposed an agreement with the Soviet Union on the basis of mutual guarantees. His plan provided for the systematic evacuation of Russian troops and for the possible withdrawal of Hungary from the Warsaw Pact. The Imre Nagy government would be able to give the necessary guarantees for a bilateral agreement with the Soviet Union. Bibo insisted that the essential gains of the revolution, in particular the system of workers’ councils and revolutionary committees, must be maintained until a constituent assembly could be set up to embody the country’s social and constitutional principles. Thereafter there would be collective ownership of the means of production and a lay majority in the running of a decentralised administration.
(This programme gained wide acceptance in intellectual circles.) In their attempts to implement it Bibo and the intellectuals turned to the workers. They could see the way the councils’ activities were increasing and they encouraged this development, in the hope that the councils would provide the force necessary to achieve this compromise. They did their best to persuade the councils to organise themselves into a single body; many intellectuals visited the factories, joined in council meetings and addressed the workers present. Journalists, students and members of the Petofi Circle all tried to establish a common front with the workers.
On 12 November, at die same time that the delegates from the llth District were meeting, another important discussion was taking place in Ujpest, 30 miles away. At this second meeting in Ujpest a much more conscious attempt was made to bring together and organise the workers’ strength in a concrete form – in the councils. It was an eventful day. In the morning the Stalinist members of the old Ujpest Council held a meeting under the careful protection of Soviet tanks which were patrolling outside. But – a typical feature of this period – the Revolutionary Workers’ Council of Ujpest, a body created during the revolution, also turned up at this meeting. The result of this ‘communion of souls’ was of course Bedlam. The old guard Stalinists bombarded the meeting with high-sounding revolutionary phrases, just like Kadar and his friends, while the members of the workers’ council opposed everything. In the end the Stalinists departed, still protected by Soviet bayonets, and the revolutionary organisation stayed behind, in their place ...
Realising the impossibility of the situation the members of the Revolutionary Council moved to another room to hold their own meeting separately. As had become general practice, a few young intellectuals took part in the meeting. One of these got up and explained that a completely oppositional policy to the Kadar government on the part of the workers would be ineffective, the more so since it could not be maintained for very long. For this reason, he said, the workers would have to stop having anything to do with the Stalinists in the administration and with Kadar’s central government; if they wanted negotiations then they should go to the real holders of power, the army and the Soviet government. But first the way must be prepared. The organised strength of the entire working class had to be represented, and this could be done only through a Central Workers’ Council. Furthermore, this representative body must, like any tactician, be able to use all the weapons that the workers possessed, for instance the strike and other forms of mass demonstration. Thus it was absolutely necessary that the Central Council should have the complete confidence of the working class.
He went on to say that, in his opinion, for the workers to put the emphasis on negotiations with Kadar was to admit to an at least de facto recognition of this government. The only result of this attitude would be that the government would treat the central body as a pawn in its own game, or just liquidate it after a discreet interval of time.
The Revolutionary Workers’ Council of Ujpest rapidly accepted the proposal to summon delegates from the workers’ councils in order to set about building a Central Council. They called on the young intellectuals present to draw up and distribute the invitation. This was done, and the now historic text, simply titled Call, was drawn up and approved by the Council.
The Call appealed to the Budapest factories ‘to send their council delegates to the Ujpest Town Hall at one o’ clock on Tuesday 13 November in order to form the Central Workers’ Council of Budapest.’
It might appear on the surface that it was the intellectuals’ proposals which decided the formation of the Central Council. But in fact the proposal only coincided with a movement already begun by the workers in the direction of a more coordinated form of organisation.
One must not regard the birth of this organisation as a simple and automatic process. Many obstacles and doubts had to be overcome, and the necessary organisational experience had to be acquired. The general level of consciousness had to be raised so that the Council could gradually take shape. It would be foolish to pretend that these workers, or even the intellectuals, had a very clear idea of what they had to do, or how they would do it. In the afternoon of 13 November the delegates assembled outside Ujpest town hall. A rumour went around that the previous night the newly organised police force, aided by Soviet military units, had arrested the members of the Ujpest Revolutionary Council and occupied the building. The workers lost no time. The ‘Egyesült Izzó’ factory council offered the delegates the use of their factory for the meeting. The workers who were present ‘slipped in on the sly’ – as one eye-witness put it later.
‘On our arrival (at the town hall)’, wrote Sebestyen, ‘we found a solitary delegate who sent us all to the “Egyesült Izzó” factory, so that we could keep out of the way of the police ... When we got to the factory we found that a number of factory and District delegates had already turned up and we started the meeting without any further delay. But soon we realised that there were still representatives from a large number of factories missing, and so we had to decide to put the meeting off till the next day and to get in touch with the councils of all the larger factories in the meantime.’
In the period between the two meetings a discussion took place between Kadar and the workers. (The precise relationship between the first constitutive meeting of the Central Council and the delegation that visited Kadar is not quite clear.) The delegation presented Kadar with the workers’ demands, laying particular emphasis on the following:
If we compare these demands with those of the delegates of the 11th District it seems at first sight that the workers drew up the later ones rather less boldly and presented them in a more prudent way. While the llth District’s resolution spoke of a general widening of the scope of the councils in the economic, social and cultural fields, this time the workers asked only for recognition for the councils. Also, the 11th District’s resolution demanded that the factories, etc, become the property of the workers, while now they demanded only the right of the councils to own the factories. There is clearly a difference in tone. Lastly, the demand for free trade unions is new, but nevertheless, a typically working-class demand. (These modifications were probably tactical.) But it is interesting to note how careful the workers were to make their demands acceptable. Note, for instance, the complete absence of the demand, included in the llth District’s resolution, that the workers should be armed.
As they left, the delegation informed Kadar that the strike would continue until the workers’ demands were acknowledged. Kadar’s reply was curt, arrogant and brutal. The workers could do what they liked, he said: if they didn’t want to work that was their look out, the government could take their place. The delegation had the right not to recognise the government, but he wasn’t bothered about that, since he had the support of the Soviet Union.
All during 14 November the telephone wires were buzzing. The workers were preparing for their meeting that evening and the ’phone never stopped ringing in the factories. In the afternoon the delegates started assembling outside Ujpest town hall, then made their way to the ‘Egyesült Izzó’ factory, as the town hall was still occupied by armed forces.
It is difficult to establish exactly how many delegates there were. Some sources speak of between 4,000 and 5,000 delegates, but the actual meeting was made up of far fewer people. It is true that there were crowds of workers, perhaps 4,000-5,000, in the factory recreation hall and round about, since there was another meeting going on at the same time. On their arrival the delegates mingled with the crowds of workers and so, when the meeting opened, many of these workers took part. We don’t want to waste praise on the spontaneous organisation of this meeting but only to note that, despite its importance, it disdained any sort of bureaucratic control – there were no doorkeepers or ushers, etc. It would not be inaccurate to say that there was even a certain amount of disorder. But to say this is itself to draw attention to an important factor, namely that the inauguration of the Central Workers’ Council had the approval of a workers’ ‘assembly’. It was a parliament where the representatives and the represented had an equal right to speak. Disorder, to be sure, but disorder of the right sort!
(Looking at the composition of the meeting, there are two noteworthy characteristics.) The first is that many of the older delegates had been militants in the workers’ movement for years. They had gained their experience in the trade-union struggles at the time of the Republic of the Councils in 1919, and in the Social-Democratic Party. During the Stalinist era many of them had been imprisoned for their socialist activities and ideas. Several of them had been members of the Communist Party in the period after the war, when it had been a truly working-class party. Then as the years passed and they remained workers they found out about the ‘big swindle’ either from inside a gaol or on the periphery of the movement. To take an example, 90 per cent of the members of the workers’ council in the Telephone Equipment Works had been party members.
The other notable characteristic, both of the councils and of the meeting itself, was the important part played by the young. Nearly half the delegates and members were young workers aged betweeen 23 and 28. We must remind the reader that these young men were only between 12 and 17 years old at the time of the collapse of the old regime in 1945, and that therefore they had been brought up in a People’s Democracy.
Nearly all the big industries were represented. Eight or nine of the Budapest Districts were also represented either indirectly through the big factories, or directly in the person of a delegate from a District council, who thus represented several factories. There were also a few delegates there from the provinces, notably two of the most active workers’ councils, those of Borsod (an industrial region) and Gyor (an industrial town). Also present were a few intellectuals, either as representatives of the various intellectual organisations or in a personal capacity. The general statements on the ‘historical necessity’ of the meeting contained in the opening speech revealed that the workers had only a hazy idea of the concrete tasks, methods and tactics that would be necessary for coordinated and unified workers’ councils. But despite the uncertainty over the choice of immediate tasks, the workers were quite clear and determined as to the programme they wanted to implement and the demands they wanted to advance. (The drawing up of the Central Council’s general programme was straightforward), all the more so since ‘... at the constitutive meeting everyone, although they came from different factories, wanted exactly the same thing, just as if they had met before to coordinate their ideas.’
This programme was almost identical with the previous sets of demands. The resolution and set of demands that the delegates from the council of the 11th District had presented to Kadar that morning summed up the unanimous will of the workers, as was shown when they were read out again at the meeting. But there were, nonetheless, some small but highly important differences. Delegate after delegate put particular stress on their demand that ‘the factories must become truly collective, and not capitalist property.’ The other important point that the delegates emphasised was connected with the demand for a multi-party system: the workers wanted to have only those parties which would recognise socialist achievements and which based themselves on socialist principles.
Speakers also laid stress on the general ‘national’ demands. The delegates expressed the strong wish felt by those whom they were representing for the withdrawal of Soviet troops, the re-installation of Imre Nagy, the guarantee of democratic rights, etc. (A programme emerged out of the meeting, but the problem of realising it remained.) Although every delegate had emphasised that the Council did not recognise the Kadar government and recognised the Nagy government as the only legal one, nobody suggested any means by which the latter could be restored to power.
(After some debate) Bali stood up to speak. He reported his conversation with Kadar  and summed up his conclusions, telling the delegates that the ‘Beloiannis’ workers already knew about these negotiations and had accepted his proposals. The starting point for the workers should be non-recognition of the Kadar government. But at the same time they had to build an organisation and confront the government with this. Only through this organisation could they force the necessary concessions out of Kadar. The delegates must set up a Central Workers’ Council which, backed by the general strike, would draw up the workers’ demands and communicate them to the government. And until these demands were accepted the strike would continue.
One after another delegates stood up and declared themselves in favour of Bali’s plan. They stressed that Kadar’s refusal meant that a massive demonstration of strength by the working class was necessary, to force acceptance of their demands; and it meant too that the creation of a Central Workers’ Council was even more urgent.
Several delegates, however, went even further. Some of them put forward the idea that they should build a national central council to represent the workers throughout the country – an obvious proposal to make, and one which was enthusiastically received by many of the delegates. However a few delegates objected that they had no mandate to form anything larger than a Central Workers’ Council for Greater Budapest, and that, besides, in the absence of so many provincial delegates no such decision could possibly be made. (This is important) for it shows that the question of a National Council was not considered just from the point of view of political effectiveness, but also – and more importantly – in a democratic spirit. For the Hungarian workers and their delegates the most important thing about the councils was precisely their democratic nature. There was a very close relationship between the delegates and the entire working class: the delegates were elected for the sole purpose of carrying out the workers’ wishes, and it is noteworthy that workers often recalled delegates who diverged from their mandate. They didn’t like delegates who were too ‘independent’.
The insistence on democratic procedure was evidenced more than once during the meeting. Time and again the delegates emphasised that the existing councils were only provisional bodies, and that as soon as possible general elections should be held in the factories and the Districts to appoint councils who would have the full confidence of the entire working class.
The meeting decided unanimously that a Central Workers’ Council of Greater Budapest should be formed and that this news should be relayed to the workers waiting in the factory’s recreation, hall. But at the same time they realised that such an announcement would not, by itself, satisfy the workers, who above all wanted a plan of action. So it was proposed that a committee be formed, made up of one member from each District, to draw up a resolution which would be put to the vote.
Unfortunately we shall perhaps never know all the names of the 20-22 people who withdrew to prepare the resolution. (But the general composition of the committee is clear from the incomplete list we do have.) Like the factory councils it was made up of an evenly balanced mixture of young and old. The young people had been brought up in a People’s Democracy, and their experience was therefore very different from that of their elders, who had lived under a capitalist system. They were at home with communist politics, with nationalised property, economic planning and the like. Indeed they had known nothing else. To people who are not very familiar with working-class life in a People’s Democracy these young people must be something of an enigma, in the way in which they could reject the existing socialist system while at the same time consciously and systematically accepting socialist ideas. But is there really any contradiction in a situation in which workers reject the sort of ‘socialism’ which is imposed from above in favour of ‘socialism-from-below’?
The older members – men like Sandor Bali, Jozsef Balazs and Sandor Balazs – had taken part in the struggles in the Metalworkers Union in the hard years before 1945. During and even before the Horthy regime this had been one of the most active unions and its revolutionary activities had won it a reputation as the indisputable spear-head of the workers’ movement. As for the trades from which the members of the committees were drawn, seven out of the ten whose names we know were metalworkers, and later an eighth, Sandor Racz, was added. There were four engineers, three of them apprentices. It is interesting to note that several of these metal-workers were toolmakers, a job which requires a high degree of intelligence. The toolmaker works on his own and has nothing to do with mass-production. He is the aristocrat among metal-workers. In Hungary it was this highly-skilled section of the workers which had for many years provided many of the most outstanding men in the working-class movement.
(There are no records of what took place during the meeting of the committee, except that there was a long and heated discussion which ended in the drawing up of a resolution.) They adopted Bali’s proposal and decided to set up the Central Workers’ Council of Greater Budapest, declaring that they had not the authority to set up a National Council – especially since, as some of the delegates explained later, there were even some Budapest factories not represented. Their first task was, in fact, to bring these factories in so as to strengthen the Council’s position.
‘The Central Workers’ Council approves the following proposal: workers’ councils are to be formed in each District of Budapest, under the direction of the larger factories; and are to send their delegates to the Central Workers’ Council of Greater Budapest.’
At the same time the Council decided to approach the government to inform it of the Council’s formation and to put forward its demands. To this end the committee of delegates drew up a statement encompassing the formation of the Council and its demands. It read as follows:
‘Today, 14 November 1956, the delegates from the District workers’ councils formed the Central Workers’ Council of Greater Budapest. The Central Workers’ Council has been given the power to negotiate in the name of the workers in all the factories of Budapest, and to decide on the continuation of the strike or a return to work. We declare our unshaken loyalty to the principles of socialism. We regard the means of production as collective property which we are at all times ready to defend.
Once the statement had been finished the committee appointed a group to meet Kadar that same evening. Between 12 and 15 of those present that evening were asked to make up the delegation, led by Devenyi, the delegate from Csepel. The various resolutions, etc, were finally approved and presented to the workers, who voted unanimously in their favour. And so the Central Workers’ Council of Greater Budapest was born.
(The delegation went to meet Kadar, whose attitude was more conciliatory than it had been towards earlier delegations, as if he realised what he was up against this time.) He carefully avoided giving an overall reply to their demands, for to do so would inevitably have led to a ‘dangerous’ discussion on the significance of the Central Workers’ Council itself. Instead, he adopted a ‘piecemeal method’, dealing with each section in turn. As far as forms went, his answers were explicit and conciliatory. He was polite, and even recognised the nature of the demands being made. But in reality he gave not an inch. The delegation waited in vain for one real reply to their demands.
By the time the meeting ended it was quite clear that Kadar was not in a position to grant anything at all. Indeed, any concession by the government would only have further increased the power and influence of the Central Workers’ Council, and this would have had a tremendous effect on the government’s destiny. So, politically, the first confrontation clarified the opposing positions, but the outcome was a general stalemate.
The following day, 15 November, the members of the Central Workers’ Council met again in the ‘Egyesült Izzó’ factory in Ujpest in order to discuss the situation that resulted from their negotiations with Kadar and to decide on their next step. Bali proposed that the Central Workers’ Council should continue to withhold recognition from the Kadar government while at the same time not completely ignoring its existence. De jure non-recognition, he argued, could not in practice entail a complete de facto estrangement from the government. This was the case especially in view of the fact that the general strike could not continue indefinitely. The workers simply didn’t have sufficient supplies of food and money and would therefore be obliged by sheer necessity to go back to work. And so the general strike would simply peter out.
On the other hand, Bali continued, the workers’ councils could only function properly if the workers were at their jobs in the factories. To continue the strike at any price would sooner or later lead to discontent among the workers and to the isolation of the councils. The strike would then just collapse – and by the same token working-class militancy would decline. But if the Central Council decided to call for a return to work, in exchange for concessions wrung out of the government, then the workers’ militancy could be maintained. Also, the councils would not then be cut off from the workers, for they would have daily contacts with them in the factories. In many ways the general strike was now no longer a tactic they could use, but a weapon which would hurt the people more than it hurt the government.
Having no desire to push the struggle to the limits, the Council’s only alternative was to seek a compromise. But this brought them up against a serious problem: how, faced as they were with a government that showed no sign of yielding anything at all, were they to force this compromise and guarantee its maintenance? And what rights ought they to try to win for the workers in this compromise? What Bali proposed provided some sort of an answer. They must, as he saw it, assert the right to strike and demand several important concessions in exchange for a return to work. (Here we must digress and discuss briefly the political ideas held by the workers before we turn to the Council’s actual decisions.)
It was the workers’ intention to set up a representative body which would be authorised to negotiate in their name. The delegates met with the sole aim of creating such an organisation, for the workers did not want to have either a party or a trade union to represent them, and it was therefore necessary to form a central body to coordinate the struggle of the councils. As the decision of the Central Council of 14 November stated, it had ‘the power to negotiate in the name of the workers.’ It seems clear that the workers were not thinking of seizing power, as Bali’s speech showed, and the Council was envisaged as an opposition body.
There is a contradiction here. As their Central Council declared, the workers did not want to seize power, yet in practice they were doing everything necessary for this: in particular, they had organised a political opposition that was both powerful and dynamic.
The reasons for refusing to seize political power were both theoretical and political. If they accepted Bali’s theoretical position, then they could not endow the workers’ councils with political power, as Bali explained later, at the time of further negotiations with the government on 25 November:
‘It was the working class which set up the councils, which, for the present, are the economic and political organisations that the workers are backing ... We know quite well that the workers’ councils can’t be political organisations. It must be understood that we are fully aware of the necessity of having political parties and trade unions. But, if we grant that for the moment there is no real chance of setting up these organisations, then we have no choice but to concentrate all our forces on one front while we wait to see how things develop. We mustn’t, indeed we can’t, talk about trade unions until such time as the Hungarian workers have built up their foundations and won back the right to strike ... We know that the workers’ councils will become the directing organs of the country’s economy, and of course we welcome this. But we don’t want to commit the same mistake that the Party made in the past, when it was at one and the same time master of the country and of the factories, and the only organisation representing the interests of the workers. If we make the same mistake then we’ll be back where we started. We want the workers’ councils to run the country’s economic affairs, and the unions to have the right to call strikes and deal with all matters concerning the protection of the workers’ interests.’
Bali and the other members of the Central Workers’ Council envisaged three sorts of workers’ organisation: firstly, the councils, controlling the economic life of the country; secondly the trade unions, defending and representing the workers’ interests; and thirdly, the political parties, which would be socialist. There was no problem as far as they were concerned, for each of these organisations had a perfectly justifiable place in society and in the lives of the workers.
In theory, then, Bali didn’t want to give power to the councils. But in practice he recognised the necessity of their playing a political role. Why then did he not consider a seizure of power and the setting up of a system that conformed to his ideas? Because there were, besides, political considerations, in particular Hungary’s very delicate international situation, which the Soviet intervention had made all too apparent. The Soviet Union had acted arbitrarily and installed Kadar in power, with the result that any attempt to seize power would have amounted to an attack on the Soviet Union ... The Council realised that, firstly, a reversal of the government would inevitably mean an armed struggle – and this was an impossibility after 4 November – and, secondly, the Kadar government, installed by the Russians, would remain there no matter what contacts there were between the Council and the Soviet Union. In other words, in the very act of making approaches to the Soviet Union (as some intellectuals had proposed should be done), the Central Council would have to negotiate with Kadar. So there was only one course open to them, that of trying to force a compromise. In other words, their politics had to remain oppositional.
Finally, we must remind the reader of the fundamental political principle adhered to by the workers, which also prevented the Council from following a policy that would lead to a seizure of power. We refer to the workers’ ever-present democratic spirit, which simply did not permit them to act for the peasants and the intellectuals without a mandate. It was one thing to develop the representative nature of the Council and its system of alliances to the point where it could speak and act in the name of the whole people, and – later on – the Central Council was to do this; but it was quite another to possess such representativeness from the moment of its formation.
In the eyes of the members of the Council the government’s intransigence made a policy of compromise on the part of the workers absolutely necessary, for it was impossible, for instance, to imagine the government retreating on the important question of the return of a Nagy government. On the other hand, the compromise had to be realised on some acceptable basis, the Council members declared, and this obliged them to demonstrate their strength.
The Central Workers’ Council therefore decided that it would reopen negotiations with Kadar and propose a return to work on 19 November, provided that Kadar promised negotiations with the Russians on the withdrawal of their troops and the integration of Imre Nagy into the government. In the course of the discussion several members of the Council drew attention to the extremely unfavourable response that a call to return to work would provoke. It seemed to them that the Council was going to have a hard task with the workers, who were greatly embittered, but the speakers nonetheless expressed confidence that in the end it would be for the best, for if the workers did accept the return to work, then they would answer any new call to strike that the Central Council put out in the future.
These decisions were published the following day, and became known as those of 16 November. And thus the Central Workers’ Council of Greater Budapest became the recognised organisation of the working class of the city of Budapest.
1. Bali led the delegation which had called on Kadar that morning.
2. The AVH was the Hungarian secret police.
Last updated on 20.8.2007