Judt on Lost Illusions After 1956

From Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945, by Tony Judt (Penguin, 2005), pp. 321-323

Khrushchev’s secret speech [in February 1956], once it leaked out in the West, had marked the end of a certain Communist faith. But it also allowed for the possibility of post-Stalinist reform and renewal, and by sacrificing Stalin himself in order to preserve the illusion of Leninist revolutionary purity, Khrushchev had offered Party members and fellow-traveling progressives a myth to which they could cling. But the desperate street fighting in Budapest dispelled any illusions about this new, ‘reformed’ Soviet model. Once again, Communist authority had been unambiguously revealed to rest on nothing more than the barrel of a tank. The rest was dialectics. Western Communist parties started to hemorrhage. By the Italian Communist Party’s own count, some 400,000 members left between 1955 and 1957. As Togliatti had explained to the Soviet leaders at the height of the Hungarian crisis, ‘Hungarian events have developed in a way that renders our clarifying action in the party very difficult, it also makes it difficult to obtain consensus in favor of the leadership.’

In Italy, as in France, Britain and elsewhere, it was younger, educated Party members who left in droves.* [*In particularly backward organizations, like the French Communist Party (which for a long time denied all knowledge of Khrushchev’s denunciations of Stalin), many members abandoned the Party not so much because of what was happening in the Soviet bloc, but because the local leadership forbade any discussion of it.] Like non-Communist intellectuals of the Left, they had been attracted both to the promise of post-Stalin reforms in the USSR and to the Hungarian revolution itself, with its workers’ councils, student initiatives and the suggestion that even a ruling Soviet-bloc Party could adapt and welcome new directions. Hannah Arendt, for one, thought it was the rise of the councils (rather than Nagy’s restoration of political parties) that signified a genuine upsurge of democracy against dictatorship, of freedom against tyranny. Finally, as it seemed, it might be possible to speak of Communism and freedom in the same breath. As Jorge Semprun, then a young Spanish Communist working clandestinely in Paris, would later express it, ‘The secret speech released us; it gave us at least the chance to be freed from … the sleep of reason.’ After the invasion of Hungary, that moment of hope was gone.

A few Western observers tried to justify Soviet intervention, or at least explain it, by accepting the official Communist claim that Imre Nagy had led—or been swept up in—a counter-revolution: Sartre characteristically insisted that the Hungarian uprising had been marked by a ‘rightist spirit’. But whatever the motives of the insurgents in Budapest and elsewhere—and these were far more varied than was clear at the time—it was not the Hungarians’ revolt but rather the Soviet repression which made the greater impression on foreign observers. Communism was now forever to be associated with oppression, not revolution. For forty years the Western Left had looked to Russia, forgiving and even admiring Bolshevik violence as the price of revolutionary self-confidence and the march of History. Moscow was the flattering mirror of their political illusions. In November 1956, the mirror shattered.

In a memorandum dated September 8th 1957, the Hungarian writer István Bibo observed that ‘in crushing the Hungarian revolution, the USSR has struck a severe, maybe mortal blow at “fellow-traveler” movements (Peace, Women, Youth, students, Intellectuals, etc) that contributed to Communism’s strength.’ His insight proved perceptive. Shorn of the curious magnetism of Stalinist terror, and revealed in Budapest in all its armored mediocrity, Soviet Communism lost its charm for most Western sympathizers and admirers. Seeking to escape the ‘stink of Stalinism’, ex-Communists like the French poet Claude Roy turned ‘our nostrils towards other horizons’. After 1956, the secrets of History were no longer to be found in the grim factories and dysfunctional kolkhozes of the People’s Democracies but in other, more exotic realms. A shrinking minority of unreconstructed apologists for Leninism clung to the past; but from Berlin to Paris a new generation of Western progressives sought solace and example outside of Europe altogether, in the aspirations and upheavals of what was not yet called the ‘Third World’.

Illusions were shattered in Eastern Europe too. As a British diplomat in Budapest reported on October 31st, at the height of the first round of fighting: ‘It is nothing short of a miracle that the Hungarian people should have withstood and turned back this diabolical onslaught. They will never forget nor forgive: But it was not only the Hungarians who would take to heart the message of the Soviet tanks. Romanian students demonstrated in support of their Hungarian neighbors; East German intellectuals were arrested and put on trial for criticizing Soviet actions; in the USSR it was the events of 1956 that tore the veil from the eyes of hitherto committed Communists like the young Leonid Pliushch. A new generation of intellectual dissidents, men like Paul Goma in Romania or Wolfgang Harich in the GDR, was born in the rubble of Budapest.

The difference in Eastern Europe, of course, was that the disillusioned subjects of a discredited regime could hardly turn their faces to distant lands, or rekindle their revolutionary faith in the glow of far-off peasant revolts. They were perforce obliged to live in and with the Communist regimes whose promises they no longer believed. East Europeans experienced the events of 1956 as a distillation of cumulative disappointments. Their expectations of Communism, briefly renewed with the promise of de-Stalinization, were extinguished; but so were their hopes ofWestern succor. Whereas Khrushchev’s revelations about Stalin, or the hesitant moves to rehabilitate show-trial victims, had suggested up until then that Communism might yet contain within itself the seeds of renewal and liberation, after Hungary the dominant sentiment was one of cynical resignation.

This was not without its benefits. Precisely because the populations of Communist Eastern Europe were now quiescent, and the order of things restored, the Khrushchev-era Soviet leadership came in time to allow a limited degree of local liberalization—ironically enough, in Hungary above all. There, in the wake of his punitive retaliation against the insurgents of 1956 and their sympathizers, Kádár established the model ‘post-political’ Communist state. In return for their unquestioning acceptance of the Party’s monopoly of power and authority, Hungarians were allowed a strictly limited but genuine degree of freedom to produce and consume. It was not asked of anyone that they believe in the Communist Party, much less its leaders; merely that they abstain from the least manifestation of opposition. Their silence would be read as tacit consent.

The resulting ‘goulash Communism‘ secured the stability of Hungary; and the memory of Hungary ensured the stability of the rest of the Bloc, at least for the next decade. But this came at a cost. For most people living under Communism, the ‘Socialist’ system had lost whatever radical, forward-looking, utopian promise once attached to it, and which had been part of its appeal—especially to the young—as recently as the early fifties. It was now just away of life to be endured. That did not mean it could not last a very long time—few after 1956 anticipated an early end to the Soviet system of rule. Indeed, there had been rather more optimism on that score before the events of that year. But after November 1956 the Communist states of Eastern Europe, like the Soviet Union itself, began their descent into a decades-long twilight of stagnation, corruption and cynicism.


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