Shattering the communist myth in the West

“Foreign tanks, police, twentysomething girls executed by hanging, workers’ councils derided and prevented from functioning, executions, deported and imprisoned writers, a lying press, work camps, censorship, arrested judges, criminals acting within the law, and more executions. Is this the socialism that’s supposed to celebrate freedom and justice?” Albert Camus wrote after the 1956 Revolution.

“Western communists have never felt so isolated, they’ve never experienced such inner turmoil, the right has never claimed such a victory over them. […] On the second and third days of November, when the radio announced that Soviet reinforcements were arriving to Hungary, the people of the left, the friends of the Soviet Union and communism in France and elsewhere considered the consequences of a violent takeover of power, and said ‘this is impossible, they would not do it’. But they did. But in the name of what and what did they wish to save? […] No one has the right to say that the events in Hungary made intervention unavoidable. No one. Not even those who decided upon it,” wrote Jean Paul Sartre.

The first and most important questions are why did the Hungarian Revolution have such an impact on the western communist parties and why did this persuade its members to leave in droves? The simple answer is that the 1956 Revolution and its overthrow dismissed the naïve belief among western communists that the ideals of socialism had been achieved in the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc, that people were equal and everyone had the opportunity to lead a good life. We should recall André Gide’s account of his travels in the Soviet Union. Prior to his visit, Gide had been an ardent supporter of communism, but after seeing the Soviet Union firsthand he became a strong opponent.

With the revolution and its bloody overthrow, party members and fellow travelers were confronted with the giant chasm between communist ideals and reality. The people living under a dictatorship were hungry for freedom, and when they tried to throw off their shackles the Soviet Union prevented them. Therefore, those who believed in communist ideals could not fully support the Soviet Union, even if after Stalin’s death Khrushchev’s appearance on the stage resulted in a thaw. The Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc were not systems based on equality for all, but in truth were ruled by vicious tyrants.

In Great Britain, famous intellectuals left the communist party en masse and would go on to later found the New Left Review and Social Register journals.

In Italy the Socialist Pietro Nenni and the Social Democrat Giuseppe Saragat condemned the Soviet invasion, while communist party leader Palmiro Togliatti did not. On October 29, 1956, 101 Italian communist intellectuals signed a declaration of solidarity, and many left the party after November 4th. The Italian ambassadors in Vienna and Belgrade (Angelino Corrias and Gastone Guidotti respectively) aided Hungarian refugees who had fled to Austria and Yugoslavia in their onward journeys. Italy would receive Hungarian refugees until July 1957.

At the start of the revolution the French Communist Party had 350,000 members and was led by the Stalinist Maurice Thorez who had his own cult of personality. In contrast to the Italian communist press, the French communist press printed little on the revolution. As revealed in the quote above, Jean Paul Sartre, the existentialist philosopher and writer, who previously had been a fellow traveler, came down strongly on the side of the Hungarian Revolution and condemned the Soviet invasion.

All in all, 1956 is seen as a watershed moment for the communist parties in Western Europe, as the Soviet invasion was considered the moment that communism showed its true face to the world. The western communist parties never recovered from this shock and wide-scale desertion, and the possibility of western communist parties coming to power through democratic means ceased. Western communism was never able to recover from the blow that the Hungarian Revolution struck.

Eszter Zsófia Tóth