How memories of Soviet repression turn Eastern Europe against the left

Reflecting on the recent anniversary of the 1956 Hungarian Uprising, Hanna Gal offers some personal thoughts on the anti-communist political culture of Eastern Europe, and on how to bridge the divide between Eastern European workers and Western Marxists.

Statue of Stalin damaged in Hungary, 1956

It was the 61st anniversary of the 1956 uprising in Hungary on 23 October. Since I have become involved in the UK left, I have had much to think about in relation to this event. I started out, just like probably a large number of people on the left, as a liberal. I have a mitigating circumstance, though: I am Eastern European, and as such I was brought up to hate communism.

The very unsavoury image of Marxism and other left-wing ideologies in much of Eastern Europe is down to several factors. There is the collective historical consciousness, formed predominantly by the memories of those who lived through the Soviet-aligned Socialist Party’s rule and remember its misconducts. Our grandparents remember their parents’ businesses, flats or houses and personal belongings being confiscated, including even food supplies in the case of peasants (termed ‘cellar sweeping’ by historians, quite tellingly). They also remember, if they are old enough, hiding – in most cases, unsuccessfully – from the soldiers of the Red Army to avoid getting raped.

There is also the propaganda of all the governments from 1989 onwards. Given the wide unpopularity of socialism, the way to win votes over the last few decades has been to promise ‘the Western standard of living’, which is of course a nonsense term in itself. What it refers to is essentially the standard of living of the middle- to upper-middle classes in Western European countries. Most of the public in Hungary, even when many of them migrate to these countries today, are not aware that this lifestyle is unattainable for the majority of the population. The hatred of socialism is so deeply ingrained in most of our minds that, even when Hungarians move to countries like the UK and integrate into the working class (Reuters in 2016 reported that there were at that time at least 95,000 Hungarians working in the UK), they still retain their conservative or libertarian views and firmly believe that poor people are lazy. If you talk to most Hungarians who reside in the UK, you will hear opinions almost identical to those of a middle-class Tory.

In a conversation with a friend in a school Facebook group, I encountered a very good example of how capitalism, class and society are viewed in Hungary in general. This particular friend studied economics at one of the leading Hungarian universities. I include his views with his consent:

  • The system that will be sustainable in the long term will have to be a system that is compatible with our evolutionary instincts, and communism is obviously not one of those, which is why very strict authoritarian governments were necessary [in communist countries], and even like that it wasn’t really possible to make it happen anywhere in the world… so ultimately [capitalism] is absolutely more sustainable and even fairer, as those who work useful jobs are rewarded more by the system than those doing something less useful.
  • The exploitation of undeveloped countries is not the fault of capitalism either, as all through history, the stronger have always exploited the weak, in the case of any economic system… indeed, there is the potential in capitalism to change that, as, in order for companies to open up new markets, the undeveloped countries need to be developed first.
  • Furthermore, capitalism motivates the individual to develop and it also motivates companies to provide better-quality products and services… you don’t have to settle for mediocre shit because there isn’t anything else as the producer has no competition.

These anti-communist views would be less likely to exist were it only down to politician’s speeches and the subjective viewpoints of survivors. Education is the other realm which plays a key role in influencing one’s thinking. A prime example is that of how the 1956 Uprising is taught in schools.

In English, when we talk about 1956, we refer to it as an ’uprising’. In Hungarian schools, however, the term used is ’forradalom’ which in all cases translates as ’revolution’. Because of the etymology of the word (it became widely used in reference to 1848 at first) it is easier to ignore the otherwise very obvious Marxist implications, and what’s more, use it to insidiously signal nationalist intentions.

When I look back on the long, long hours of being taught about the events of 1956, I do not remember hearing about any left-wing ideologies being talked about in positive terms. The state-sanctioned narrative is taught in several lessons both in the final year of primary school, aged 14, and the final year of secondary school, aged 18, as well as at the commemoration ceremony at school every year on the date closest to 23rd October. The actual day is a bank holiday. According to these lessons, the left were the cruel, inhumane and incompetent government of Mátyás Rákosi, and of course the Soviet army who came to shoot street children. The political affiliations of those participating in the uprising were barely talked about.

Of course, there were cases where it was unavoidable, such as in the case of László Rajk, former Minister of the Interior, Minister of Foreign Affairs and the person to set up the secret police. He was later executed following a conviction on false charges in a show trial, and his reburial on 6th October 1956 flared up general dissatisfaction amongst the citizens. What was deemed to be important to know about László Rajk was the fact that he, just like the leading communist figure of the uprising Imre Nagy, favoured the Titoist model of governance as opposed to the Soviet Union’s. As someone who was in education post-1989, I was presented with this as proof that both Rajk and Nagy preferred to turn towards the West and wished to distance themselves from the USSR, which for us in schools was synonymous with communism. The fact that both politicians were lifelong communists was only briefly mentioned, and there was no explanation offered as to why Imre Nagy would participate in a supposedly anti-communist uprising.

We were also taught about the formation of workers’ councils upon the start of the uprising in order to ‘decide on the direction of the revolution’. We never received an explanation as to what a workers’ council was. Workers’ councils were workplace-based political groups, a means for workers to democratically discuss all affairs concerning their lives and the matters of the country and the world in general. The workers’ councils during the uprising assembled for the specific purpose of deciding how the uprising would enable the country to enter on the path towards true socialism. That was also the reason why the protesters on 23rd insisted on Imre Nagy giving a speech to support the movement. The 10,000 mourners at the reburial of László Rajk turned the ceremony into a silent protest against the incompetent state apparatus of General Secretary Mátyás Rákosi that was built on the personal cult of Rákosi himself, since it had wrecked the country with its terribly planned economy and brutalised its citizens. The protesters wanted the government gone and the system to improve to represent the workers. The people initially leading the uprising were anti-Rákosi and anti-Stalinist, but not in any way anti-communist. They, in fact, intended to fight for what they saw as true communism.

Since 1989, both in education and in public discourse, the focus has been on the symbolism of 1956, partly because it successfully diverts the attention from the substance of the uprising. It also provides a good basis for those who wish to present the events as predominantly nationalist. Hungarian flags with a hole in the middle – which represent the toppling of the 1956 government – pop up all around town squares and schools. Again and again, we hear about the angry mob destroying and decapitating the statue of Stalin in Budapest, and most importantly, ‘the lads of Pest’, as they are referred to, who were groups of mostly teenage boys who took the streets to defend the city against the soldiers of the Red Army. Focusing solely on the ‘heroism’ of these boys, without the slightest criticism of their machismo and non-existent political affiliations, is a great way to whitewash any communist sympathies from the uprising.

By this point it had already been established that communism is anything that the Soviet Union does – we only very briefly learned about China and Cuba in schools and nothing about other socialist countries. During the days of the uprising, the Red Army, which in textbooks represents the Soviet Union and all communism, forcefully entered the country to shoot fourteen-year-old schoolboys. Communism is evil and violent. If you are a communist, you are a Nazi. The horseshoe theory is drilled into our brains, not only at school, but also at the level of legislation: the use of the hammer and sickle symbol is banned under the same law the use of the swastika is.

No wonder that, growing up in such environment, I was taken aback and, truthfully, offended, when I realised how many people of my age identify as communists. I hated them. Did they not know? Are they this stupid?

That was three years ago. Now I am slowly getting myself through the tons of reading and discussion that is contemporary Marxist discourse and trying to find my place in the radical left. I have unlearned a great deal of what I grew up to believe, not only through reading, but also by experiencing first-hand that the West is in fact not great by any means, and that there is such a thing as a class system and class oppression (as another pushback against socialism, class in Hungary is not talked about). This is not to say that I am completely comfortable with all of what is happening on the left in this country. While I do not agree with the law in Hungary, I would really rather leftists got rid of the hammer and sickle out of respect for Eastern European comrades. More importantly, the fetishisation of Stalin, Mao and so on is another unpleasant side of the left that I feel might alienate non-Westerners from organising. And ultimately, symbols do not make revolution. I would much rather be a part of a left that is more democratic, discursively inclusive, and has fewer macho boys playing dress-up.

 

There are 3 comments

  1. ihbirchall

    Hanna makes some very important points. I’m afraid there is no easy way to get rid of the terrible heritage of the whole Stalinist experience. One thing that can be done with reference to the Hungarian revolution is to make available some of the accounts written at the time which draw out the full implications of the workers’ councils. For example Balázs Nagy’s piece on the Budapest Central Workers’ Council is at https://www.marxists.org/history/etol/newspape/isj/1964/no018/nagy.htm And maybe some RS21 member with time on their hands (!!) could scan in Dora Scarlett’s excellent Window onto Hungary (it’s in the British Library but few copies survive) and put it on-line. And I’m sure there is masses of stuff in Hungarian that could be translated – maybe Hanna could help with that.

  2. Joe

    Interesting article. some thoughts

    it is impossible to seperate the USSR, North Korea, Cuba etc, good and bad, from Marxism as such. it seems to me a legitimate concern that revolutionary socialism in the 21st century may be much like it was in the 20th century, a top down bureaucratic state with a charismatic leader who stays in power for life.

    to dismiss everything that went wrong in the communist movement, all around the world at any time as due to ‘stalinism’ may seem like a bit of a cop out. it is too easy. it is a bit like the ‘original sin’ of Marxism. (as Slavoj Zizek has pointed out).

    there were different factions in the 1956 Hungarian uprising, and some were fascist remnants also.

    what is actually different about your group or tendency from that of openly pro stalin groups such as those people who carry the Stalin banner and hammer and sickle on the Mayday rallies?

    if the only difference is one of packaging, but the essence is the same, then i don’t see how your revolution wont lead to the same results as before.

    the problem is not Stalin but Lenin, and in particular the Jacobin democratic centralist way of organising, together with the old Blanquist doctrine of dictatorship of the proletariat, which in effect means dictatorship of the party, and of a faction in that party, and of an individual in that faction. in practice, dictatorship of the proletariat leads to one person dictatorial rule.

    this is why marxism needs to embrace also the doctrine of ‘rule of law’ and ‘human rights’, things that were greatly lacking in eastern europe and are lacking in China today.

    Trotskyism is too utopian. it wont convince anyone.

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