There has always been a strange indifference to what happened in Hungary in 1918-1919. They never made much of an impression on the memory of the proletariat. Maybe because of the almost absolute absence of documentary evidence, the Hungarian revolution has not been appreciated in all its extraordinary grandeur. Its true character and its actual causes as it came to pass as well as well as its catastrophic fate have always been little known if not outright ignored. It is widely supposed that it represented a bold but luckless move on the part of “bolshevism” and the most common criticism applied to its tragic demise boils down, in some cases, to some alleged ineptitude on the part of the Magyar people, or, in others, to the lacklustre way in which the principles of “marxism-leninism” and the coercive methods of the “dictatorship of the proletariat” were supposedly espoused and enforced by Bela Kun and his lieutenants.
This study, though, will reduce such mistakes and myths to rubble. It has fallen to Pierre Ganivet in his capacity as an enthusiastic student of Danubian affairs to do right by the Hungarian Commune. Supported only by dense documentary evidence, a painstaking chronology and very shrewd analysis, he has managed to paint a very comprehensive picture linking situations deeds and personnel in the bright light of truth.
The Hungarian Commune was not the product of some spasmodic upheaval, but rather of a genuine, grandiose, albeit unfinished revolution. During its brief existence, in the midst of all the attempts at workers’ emancipation and human betterment, it stood out as one of the brightest, most promising events. Its repercussions on the destinies of post-war Europe was immeasurable. It was a revolution that was murdered, not thwarted. And its failure was due exclusively to one horrendous crime; doubly criminal in that the responsibility for it belongs entirely to bourgeois democracy, and to those factions that thought the toiling masses congenitally incapable of looking out for their own interests and carving out their own future and which staked their own claim to the historical role of the proletariat’s infallible leaders.
Rather than erring through revolutionary immaturity during the fiery, worrisome times when “victors” and “vanquished” were both emerging, bloodied, from the hellish Great War, Hungary, more than any other country, displayed all the objective conditions that render a revolutionary crisis inevitable and the objective conditions conjured up to resolve that crisis into a magnificently constructive synthesis. Due to the decomposition of the Habsburg Empire, the component nationalities that had been oppressed for entire centuries were waking up to an independent existence. At the same time, in Hungary, the festering unease of a 14 million-strong peasant population – 11 and a half million of them were out and out serfs – was boiling over. However ineluctably, this raised two basic issues – which had been simmering together since back in the days of Kossuth – the issues being national autonomy and agrarian reform through the abolition of every remnant of feudalism. Taken together and driven by the over-heated atmosphere right across Europe at the time, these two issues, the political and the economic, made up a formidable potential for revolution that only error or terror could forestall.
Count Karolyi’s transitional regime was only a vain attempt to dissever the economic issue from the political one and to clip the wings of the Hungarian revolution. A champion of national independence, a democrat and a sympathizer with the Allies, with ties to the Jacobin principles of 1793, Karolyi armed to prevent the onward march of revolution from spilling over the boundaries of an anti- conservative struggle respectful of private property rights. In coming around to such goals, he was dependent on the support of the Allied governments which had fought and won the 1914-1918 war in the name of the sacred principles of democratic national self-determination. Besides subscribing to the same ideals, he assuredly reckoned that the democratic western bourgeoisie had a powerful interest in preserving the fruits of its victory by underwriting an independent Hungary, the final disappearance of the Habsburg Empire and of Teutonic power. But behind the Wilsonian mask lurked Clemenceau’s feline features. The “democracy” for which the victorious powers stood deserted and betrayed Karolyi’s democratic republic, just as they would later all the other democracies under threat. Without avail, a few voices pointed out that sabotaging the lukewarmly democratic Hungarian Republic posed a huge threat to the Entente. “Karolyi” – the nationalist Jacques Bainville protested in the columns of L’Action Française on 24 March 1919, adding his voice to the chorus of liberals and socialists – “offered us his support in our fight against Germany. Yet was allowed to fall.” In Le Figaro (28 March) and E.A. Bartlett in the Daily Telegraph (24 June 1919) pointed out that Clemenceau, out of a fear of revolution, was sacrificing the fruits of “victory” by paving the way for a return of imperialist absolutism in Central Europe. But these objectors failed to understand – any more than Karolyi himself did – that “democracy”, seemingly consolidated by victory in the war, was in decline due to the sudden exacerbation of its contradictions regarding the proletariat’s demands for equality and redemption. And the help denied to the Hungarian Republic inaugurated on 1 October 1918 was afforded instead to Horthy!
In Hungary the organized proletariat was the only force with the ability to prevent a catastrophe. Under pressure from worker and peasant pressures and from the danger without, Karolyi handed over power to Bela Kun. It was to Karolyi’s credit that he opted to go down in history as a silly figure rather than as a bloodthirsty one.
In fact, he was not up to his job. As P. Ganivet states, he had, to no avail, tried to control developments that were too much for him. But events were also to prove too much for Bela Kun as well.
Bela Kun was drafted in at the height of the revolutionary ferment among the worker and peasant masses. One of the more startling disclosures in this book to which are writing this foreword is that it highlights the Magyar people’s deep-rooted revolutionary traditions, intense activity and capacity for self-government. Far from its being the reckless, premature adventure of an elite of leaders, the rising tide of Hungarian revolution culminating in the proclamation of the Commune (21 March 1919) had clearly been incubating among the populace and was deeply rooted in the country’s historico-social present and past. The political leaders jockeying for power had not themselves been the fomenters nor the instigators of the revolution. They inserted themselves into the revolution almost at the last moment, remaining there only as indigestible, negative presences. The role played by the producer masses and their “leaders” in the exercise of power was always different and often conflicted.
Bela Kun and his followers imported the new-born Leninist ideology of the dictatorship of the proletariat, meaning a monopoly on public affairs for the duration of the revolutionary process, in an atmosphere that nurtured the creations of the unfettered initiative of the populace. In Hungary the first seeds of revolution had not been sown by politicians and state worshippers, but rather by apostles and agitators who, drawing inspiration from the ideas of the likes of Tolstoy or Kropotkin, advocated autonomous direct action by the proletarian forces and from the bottom up. Which is how the class organizations of the Magyar proletariat had been built up outside of the political realm. They had not assumed “party” formats, but rather those of cooperatives, ideological and cultural groups or trade unions. The fire of insurrection that broke out in Hungary during the pre-war years and then with a rowing intensity in the midst of that conflagration were not vulgar “putsches” seeking to conquer power. They had been mass revolts, but revolts by masses perfectly well aware of their mission, as demonstrated by the spontaneous establishment of free soviets and councils of workers, peasants and soldiers. The Hungarian Communist Party itself, within which the libertarian elements were so numerous and dynamic, was not a “Bolshevik” party and the “proletarian dictatorship” formula it espoused did not have the same strictly Leninist connotations.
As in any revolution in which the proletarian masses play an active role and are not seduced by authoritarianism, the Hungarian revolution was, in terms of its accomplishments, extraordinarily prolific. The Hungarian Commune survived for a fleeting 126 days. But that short span was enough for rural and industrial production to be organized perfectly on socialist foundations, for transport services to be overhauled and for the groundwork to be laid for a cultural effort which, had it not been drowned in blood, might have stunned the world.
Bela Kun and others fed on Bolshevik principles strove in vain – but strove anyway! – to snuff out the creative endeavours of the producer masses by imposing statist, totalitarian practices upon them. All of the internal factors that helped eliminate the Hungarian Commune can be traced, without a single exception, to the conflict generated by government meddling in the prosecution of the revolution. Andrea Reverz, in his book Bela Kun and Hungarian Communism (1919) points out how the “dictator” schemed to eradicate trade union autonomy. In a talk delivered on 14 May 1919, Bela Kun queried: “What are the relations between the unions and the party going to be like in future?” And he answered: “The unions must hold on to their cohesion and their economic character. The party is a political organization. The party has to be the vanguard of socialism.” This deliberate distinction between the economic and the political concealed an intention to reject all meddling by the trade unions in the determination of the guidelines of the revolution or to subject them to the dictatorship of the party. But any such intentions ran up against the staunchest and most stubborn resistance. Speaking on behalf of the Printworkers’ Union, J. Weltner asserted in Nezpava that “the unions will not allow themselves to be reduced to the role of merely consultative bodies.” S. Iunfi, the commissar for public education, wrote in the review Az Ember (Man): “We have witnessed how neither the party organization, nor the factory councils (soviets), nor any other agencies of the proletarian class were capable of organizing the current army and that the trade unions alone are possessed of the power and capacity to undertake that great effort.” Bela Kun’s policies were beginning to create a gulf between the authorities which he stood for and the trade unions: the unions to the efforts of which the fate of the revolution had been entrusted! … In late May (1919), Payer, representing the 30,000+ membership of the Metalworkers’ Union, joined the opposition. Such fall-outs at the top of the Commune certainly did nothing to bolster it.
The unions were the creators of the new economy. But they were not answerable for the crisis by which it was afflicted. Some of the reasons behind the crisis had nothing to do with the regime. But the state could be held directly responsible for others of a more home-grown nature. Thus, just as Karolyi had cause mayhem in the agrarian economy, and rendered the reforms promulgated by his own government pointless, by dispatching swarms of civil servants to enforce them, so the Bela Kun government hindered the progress of industrial reconstruction being implemented by the unions and cooperatives, by trying to make it subject to a brand-new corrupt and inept bureaucracy. Eugen Varga, the famous economist who was by then the commissar for “social production” admitted at the General Congress of Soviets on 15 June 1919: “We are having to create a bureaucracy to replace the 20-30,000 capitalists who had overseen production. I must acknowledge that the new bureaucracy falls some way short of the ideal agency for which we had been hoping.” Incompetence, greed, a taste for the high life and all sorts of abuses typified these new representatives of the state. They were largely responsible for the slump in production and the split between the countryside and the towns.
Despite which or maybe because this had barely begun, these drawbacks had no decisive impact on the Commune’s fate. Internally, the situation was excellent. This was shown by the swift crushing of the counter-revolutionary coup of the cadets. So where did the Commune actually go wrong? In conferring full powers upon Bela Kun in the running of the war and foreign policy.
With an eye to bolstering the state, Bela Kun sought to turn the revolutionary militias into a proper army. To do so he had to destroy the communalist enthusiasm, the idealism and the spirit of sacrifice of the armed forces, which were contaminated by neutral or blatantly counter-revolutionary elements. On the other hand the Hungarian Commune’s fate was entrusted to the fortunes of revolution in Europe. Let us not forget that in 1919 the proletarian revolution was on the agenda across Europe. Russia was in the throes of revolutionary struggle. There were flare-ups of revolution in Austria, Bavaria, Italy and in the Danube area. For the Magyar Republic there was only one feasible foreign policy. To quote Danton: “Boldness!” None of the revolutionary upheavals racking many countries at that time stood any chance of survival other than in some reciprocal effort to support one another, to spread and join forces. Bela Kun, on the other hand, was not considering help from the proletariat; instead he was thinking about help or at any rate some sort of indulgence on the part of the “democratic” statesmen with whom he was seeking or trying to reach an understanding. He was in negotiations with Clemenceau, even as Clemenceau was sponsoring Horthy. Czechoslovakia, headed by Janusek, proclaimed a Commune of its own. But Bela Kun stabbed the Czechoslovak revolution in the back by ordering a halt to military operations on 17 June (an order recommended to him by “le Tigre” [Clemenceau]), just as the Russian Bolsheviks had stabbed the German revolution in the back with the treaty of Brest-Litovsk. The Hungarian Commune was therefore left to its own devices, cut off from the European proletariat and had to succumb to the bows of armies armed by “Allied democracy”. And that revolution, so full of life and promise in terms of its internal resources, was snuffed out in an orgy of bloodshed and persecution that has yet to end, twenty years on!
The conclusions from this are bitter, but enlightening. In putting the Hungarian Commune to death, Democracy was putting itself to death. From then on, “democracy” could only carry on as pre-fascism or philo-fascism. But the Hungarian revolution whilst it could not be rescued from democracy coming from government, could have, should have been rescued by the world proletariat. Here too Pierre Ganivet’s words regarding Karolyi apply to the “leaders” of the dictatorship of the proletariat or of Social Democracy who were leading the European proletariat that that time: “… he refused to understand that only the people has the capacity to decide its own fate for itself and that in a revolution only extreme measures produce results.” The absence of “extreme measures” is what we face today in Europe where lots of peoples are suffering the same tragedy as the Hungarian people. The spirit of Clemenceau or of Horthy has triumphed in Italy, Germany and Austria. The reasons behind these defeats have at all times been identical. And the responsibility for them has been identical too.
For twenty years, “democracy” has carried on gulling the people and the state revolutionaries have carried on leading it into disaster. Only today is a people that has a wealth of tragic experiences under its belt trying to break free of a long series of defeats through “extreme measures”.
Today we look at Spain in arms, hopeful and anxious. And there is a heroic proletariat, brought up in the school of libertarian ideas; a proletariat which, on its own, has conjured up an army of liberation to counter the hordes of hangmen and built a new world to replace the old, rotten one. A curious analogy links the Magyar proletariat to the Iberian proletariat …
But do we today not also have our Clemenceaus, our Bela Kuns, our Francey D’Espereys and that whole sham of “democracy” and authoritarianism waiting to ambush us?
Is history repeating itself?
No. History never repeats itself. It merely replicates comparable situations, raising the same issues and offering an old or new, mistaken or proper solution, depending on whether upcoming generations have or have not successfully learnt their lesson. The Spanish proletariat today must take up the burden dropped by other peoples who collapsed under their own weight. But the Spanish proletariat’s effort is not going to be a pointless Sisyphean task. Its ears are cocked; its muscles strained. Let the world of freedom or civilization embrace them and champion their cause.
(Note) This article is a reprint of the Italian original of the “foreword” to the first Spanish edition of Pierre Ganivet’s book entitled The Hungarian Commune, published by Editores Imán in Buenos Aires.
From: Studi Sociali (Montevideo), 20 September 1937. Translated by: Paul Sharkey.