CHRIS and BETTY BIRCH, who were living in Hungary during the fighting 60 years ago, continue their account of the background to the uprising
IN yesterday’s article, we explained that many of those who joined the Hungarian Working People’s Party in the years after the second world war did so because some jobs were dependent on party membership and being a communist came with privileges.
Top communists drove around in big cars with darkened windows and had access to special shops where they could buy goods from the West.
They even had their own party hospital which was clean and modern, while most of the others were old and dirty. And it operated a caste system.
Senior comrades: private room with telephone, radio and balcony (like the one where our daughter was born); lesser comrades: room shared with three others, no radio; other comrades: a room for eight.
Whatever the facts of the matter, and we do not know them, there was widespread belief that Hungary had become a Soviet colony.
Many workers felt that they were more exploited than they had been under capitalism.
As soon as they increased production, the norm was raised so that their wages stayed the same. They felt that the products of their labour were going to the Soviet Union, and this led to a brake on all attempts to win big increases in production.
Two of the demands put forward at the start of the uprising were “Hungarian uranium deposits to be used in Hungary’s interests” and “Publish all foreign trade agreements.”
Many workers were on very low wages of 800 forints a month. These low wages may well have been because of the need for capital development but this was never adequately explained. And sacrifice has to have a limit, and this limit comes all the more quickly if the workers feel that others are living at their expense.
Party functionaries, and there seemed to be thousands of them, earned 2,000 forints a month or more.
The churches were open to all but faced restrictions and were frowned on by the regime. Most Christians retreated into the closet. One friend of ours came out as a Catholic during the uprising.
Criticism of the regime was punished. Workers were under threat of losing their jobs if they failed to turn out for May Day parades.
Our Scottish friend Charlie Coutts visited Szeged with a young student as interpreter. She told him about the lack of freedom in her studies, and Charlie mentioned this to an official of the youth organisation. Charlie later learned that she had been arrested and was in prison.
The Khrushchov speech was never published in Hungary. Daily Worker reports on the rehabilitation of Laszlo Rajk, the leading Hungarian communist and minister of the interior who was executed after one of Matyas Rakosi’s show trials, were suppressed.
One could buy capitalist newspapers in Poland but not in Hungary. Naturally these things affected intellectuals much more than the working class, but the latter also felt that they had no power to decide anything.
By and large the trade unions fulfilled their role with regard to health, holidays etc, but the workers were not involved in factory management.
They felt they were there to carry out the party’s plans and directives without any say in those plans.
This is why the demand for workers’ councils was so strongly voiced during the uprising.
The press was a travesty of what one would have expected the press in a so-called people’s democracy to be.
If you had read the party paper Szabad Nep, you had read all the other newspapers as far as any important matter was concerned.
And it went further than that. A Hungarian journalist wrote an article on the need to abolish the death penalty, quoting the point of view of the British party.
No paper or magazine dared to publish it because the Hungarian party had not pronounced on the issue. This kind of thing even extended to articles on sport.
After the 1947 elections there were 150 members of the eight opposition parties in parliament, who had together polled 1,995,419 votes.
By the time of the 1949 elections none of these parties still existed. There had ben no edict banning them. They had simply disappeared. Political differences were often settled by the use of the security police. In fact the lack of democracy in the state, in the factories, in the party, in all aspects of society lay at the heart of the Hungarian problem.
A week after the end of the fighting, Janos Kadar, the Hungarian party’s new general secretary, told a meeting of party activists in Budapest: “The whole idea of socialism is now compromised in Hungary. The masses of workers now say: ‘We are not interested in socialism or capitalism. We just want to live better’.”
Socialism without democracy, without the full involvement of the people, is like an egg without a yolk. It has a fragile shell that is easily broken.