Friday, September 17, 2010

Peter Fryer - Hungarian Tragedy

It's a statement of the obvious, but revolutions change things. Most obviously a successful revolution changes the political and economic setup. But even unsuccessful revolutions throw life into turmoil. All that seems certain becomes uncertain; "All that is solid, melts into air" as Marx put it.

But revolutions also change people. They change the people who take part, turning them into leaders, writers and agitators - giving them the confidence to take up arms, or break open a police station. And finally they change the onlookers.

At the time of the Hungarian Revolution in 1956, Peter Fryer was an onlooker. He had, for some 14 years been a member of the British Communist Party. For years he'd been a proud journalist working "at less than a labourer's wage" on the CPGB's newspaper, The Daily Worker. Sent to Hungary to report on the events of the revolution, what he saw turned his world upside down.

Fryer almost certainly didn't have a rose tinted view of East European socialism. But he in no way expected the response that the Soviet regime inflicted upon the Hungarian people. More importantly, Fryer was inspired by the experience of a people in the midst of revolution. As he put it, "Here was a revolution, to be studied not in the pages of Marx, Engels and Lenin, valuable though these pages may be, but happening here in real life before the eyes of the world. A flesh and blood revolution with all its shortcoming and contradictions and problems - the problems of life itself."

In his travels, Fryer documents the revolutionary processes that mark working class uprisings time and again. The election of organising groups to run workplaces, cities and farms. The collective discussions and debates that take time, but are the true trappings of real democracy. The suppression of the enemies of people - sometimes, in the case of Hungary, the hanging of the secret police. We hear of the release of the thousands of people imprisoned by the former regime and the freeing up of ordinary men and women, held dormant for years. There is a lovely section where Fryer describes the explosion of independent newspapers - with one editor playing host to queues of young people coming in with their stories, poems, articles and writings.

Of course this was short lived. The Soviet invasion was a brutal suppression of these hopes. But the workers councils and committees didn't vanish. The people fought on, despite the overwhelming odds. Having tasted freedom, it takes much to give it up.

Fryer's dispatches were censored and then ignored by the Daily Worker. Such vivid descriptions of workers and peasants rising up and taking control, was far too much for an organisation and newspaper dedicated to believe that Russia and its client states ruled already in the name of the workers. His estrangement from the CPGB didn't mean he abandoned revolutionary socialism. His own experience in Hungary could only bring a greater desire to see a revolutionary transformation of society, but he learnt that that needed to take place in the East, as much as the West.

Further Reading

Chris Harman's "Class Struggles in Eastern Europe" goes much deeper into the background to the various risings against Soviet rule.

Mike Haynes' ISJ article "Hungary; workers' councils against Russian tanks" marked the 50th anniversary of the revolution. It's worth reading here.

Related Reviews

Dewer - Communist Politics in Britain


Anna said...

Sounds like an interesting memoir!

Bhaswati said...

Sounds like a must-read from your review. Definitely inspiring and also interesting in the context of India's current Maoist movement, which purports returning power to grassroots.