David North
The Heritage We Defend

The Impact of the Hungarian Revolution

The net effect of Mandel’s idle speculations about the struggle of tendencies within the Soviet bureaucracy was to politically disorient and disarm European workers and all those influenced by the Pabloites on the eve of a new eruption of Stalinist terror against the working class.

The brutal suppression of the Hungarian Revolution in November 1956, at the cost of 20,000 lives, decisively answered those who believed that Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin’s crimes signified the beginning of a process of bureaucratic self-reform.

Not only did the bloody intervention of the Soviet Union against the revolution prove again that Stalinism could be destroyed only by the methods of civil war; even more significantly, the struggle of the Hungarian workers was a vindication of the theoretical and political foundations of Trotsky’s fight against the bureaucracy. Just as the Paris Commune of 1871 showed the world for the first time, if only in embryonic form, the dictatorship of the proletariat, the Greater Budapest Workers’ Council (and associated councils throughout Hungary) revealed the living form of the political revolution.

In the heat of the events of November and December 1956, while the workers of Budapest organized and maintained for more than four weeks their heroic general strike against the Soviet intervention, the Pabloites temporarily adapted their rhetoric to the mass movement. But after the strike, the Pabloites quickly reverted to their familiar revisionist stance, sowing illusions in the nature of the bureaucracy and doing their best to emasculate the Trotskyist program of political revolution.

The differences between the International Committee and the SWP on the one hand and the Pabloites on the other that were apparent in their responses to Khrushchev’s secret speech were no less obvious in their evaluation of the Hungarian Revolution. In January 1957, on the eve of a sudden and decisive change in its international orientation, the Socialist Workers Party’s National Committee issued a statement, entitled “The Hungarian Revolution and the Crisis of Stalinism,” which based itself on what Cannon still chose to call “orthodox Trotskyism.”

Analyzing both the Hungarian Revolution and the mass movement in Poland which had preceded it, the SWP statement began with a slashing attack on the Pabloite perspective: “Once and for all, Stalin’s heirs demonstrated the idiocy of any belief in the possibility of their ‘self-reform.’ They showed in the harshest way possible the correctness of Trotsky’s view that they resemble a ruling class in the tenacity with which they cling to power and the special privileges it assures.”[1]

The document examined the development of the Hungarian Revolution and critically analyzed the experience of its most important achievement, the workers councils, placing its central emphasis on the necessity of constructing a Marxist leadership to organize and lead the successful political revolution. The workers councils, lacking Trotskyist leadership, could not provide the answers to the political and practical tasks that were raised by the struggle.

The absence of a revolutionary-socialist party was costly to the Hungarian workers. This is not to say that they can be held responsible for its absence. As experience has shown, it is not easy to build such a party under the totalitarian rule of Stalinism. Lacking conscious revolutionary-socialist leadership, the Workers Councils failed to assert their power. They continued to negotiate for concessions from Moscow’s puppets. This proved disastrous. While the leadership of the Workers Councils wasted time in futile negotiations with figures who had no real power within the country, the Stalinist counterrevolution mobilized its repressive forces.

(a) The leadership of the Workers Councils failed to proclaim clearly the aims of the revolution: national freedom and workers’ democracy; the overthrow of the bureaucratic caste and the vesting of power in the Workers Councils.

(b) The leadership of the Workers Councils failed to systematically issue revolutionary appeals to the workers of all Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, explaining the aims of the revolution and asking for socialist solidarity in the common struggle.

(c) The leadership of the Workers Councils failed to systematically appeal to the Soviet forces, reminding them of their heritage in the 1917 revolution, of their socialist convictions, and of their own deep-seated grievances against the Kremlin.

(d) The leadership of the Workers Councils failed to turn toward the workers in the capitalist countries for help in preventing the imperialists from taking advantage of the situation.

(e) The leadership of the Workers Councils failed to arouse every section of the populace to its stake in the victory and failed to mobilize the nation for all-out military defense.

(f) The leadership of the Workers Councils made a fatal mistake in taking for good coin the promises of the Moscow bureaucrats to reform and to end the occupation.

(g) The leadership of the Workers Councils failed to anticipate Moscow’s readiness to drown the revolution in blood and were therefore caught by surprise when the counterrevolutionary attack came.

Had the Workers Councils asserted their power, as they would have under a revolutionary-socialist leadership, this would have signified the doom of the Moscow bureaucracy, for their political appeals and resolute actions at the head of the revolution would have resounded through the length and breadth of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, bringing the masses to their feet with the blazing conviction that this marked the return to Lenin, the regeneration of the workers state.[2]

Of all the “forms of political expression” required by the Hungarian workers, the SWP insisted:

The most necessary of all is the party, which brings conscious leadership to its highest expression. How bright the prospects are for the rise of a revolutionary-socialist party among the workers of the Soviet bloc can be judged from many of the slogans that appeared in the Hungarian revolution. These slogans were the products of thinking minds who, perhaps without even knowing it as yet, came to Trotskyist conclusions.[3]

Summing up the lessons of the bloody struggle, the SWP wrote, “By its exposure of the counter-revolutionary nature of Stalinism the Hungarian revolution has further dissipated the baneful influence of Stalinism among the socialist minded workers of the world. This has opened new possibilities for the regroupment of the revolutionary vanguard under the banner of Leninism and Trotskyism.”[4]

The strength of this statement, and what set it apart from the sterile “objectivist” apologetics typical of Pabloism, was that it not only condemned Stalinism and asserted the vindication of Trotskyism. It sought to demonstrate, out of the experience of the first political revolution, the historic necessity of the Fourth International in the preparation and organization of the armed overthrow of the Stalinist bureaucracy.

The Pabloites’ complete rejection of this revolutionary, i.e., Trotskyist, perspective was recorded in their first major statement on Stalinism after the Hungarian Revolution, an infamous resolution which was adopted, about a half year after it was written, at the revisionists’ Fifth World Congress in October 1957. Its title, “Rise, Decline and Perspectives for the Fall of Stalinism,” was suggestive of the same teleological outlook that permeated all the pretentious “theses” prepared by Mandel and Pablo. Their analysis was not focused on the active role of the working class and the tasks of the Fourth International in the struggle against the bureaucracy. Rather, they were “above all concerned with defining the precise conditions for the fall of Stalinism.”[5]

This inquiry entailed an investigation of how the bureaucracy, reflecting the pressure of abstract and mysterious world-historical forces, divined and interpreted by Mandel from a writing table in his Belgian listening post, was liquidating, in semi-automatic fashion, even against its own wishes, its Stalinist heritage. Khrushchev, declared Mandel, had set in motion an inexorable process of self-transformation: “But despite the desperate resistance of this bureaucracy, despite the steps backward, the delays, and even the reactions shown in this or that field, the battle for freedom of thought in the USSR won at the XXth Congress tremendous victories whose effects cannot be wiped out.”[6]

Despite all the double-talk in which Mandel generally cloaked his revisions of Trotskyist theories, that statement made it clear that the Pabloites defined the bureaucracy, or at least sections of it, as the protagonist of the struggle against Stalinism. The great political challenge facing Mandel, therefore, was to explain the origins of that progressive faction. This he accomplished in his usual oracular style: “Under the pressure of the masses and of a discontent that was beginning to take on a political aspect, the leading nucleus of the bureaucracy was torn into various tendencies: a tendency in favor of major concessions to the masses (Malenkov-Mikoyan?); a tendency for stiffening the dictatorship (Kaganovich-Molotov?); a “centrist” tendency (Khrushchev-Bulganin).”[7] (Mandel’s question marks.)

Enraptured by the achievements of Khrushchev and his cohorts, Mandel proclaimed, “By destroying in so thorough a fashion the authority of Stalin, the incarnation of all bureaucratic autocracy, they definitively undermined the authority and spirit of bureaucratic command at every level.”[8]

To make such a sweeping claim amounted to denying the historical necessity of the political revolution through the armed uprising of the Soviet proletariat. After all, the authority of the bureaucracy, according to Mandel, had already been “definitively undermined” by the actions of the Twentieth Congress. Nor was that all. Peering intensely into his crystal ball, Mandel predicted a glorious future for progressive sections of the Stalinist bureaucracy in Eastern Europe. Adopting his favorite stance as an adviser to the bureaucracy, rather than its revolutionary opponent, Mandel suggested that its “left” elements could make successful use of national feelings:

The opposition within the CPs capitalizes on national feeling. The struggle for the “national road toward socialism” thus takes on there a highly progressive and revolutionary value, contrary to that in the CPs of the West, where it generally covers up a turn toward codified rightist opportunism. Gomulka in Poland, Nagy in Hungary, tomorrow perhaps Hernstedt or Ackermann in East Germany, by becoming in the eyes of the masses symbols of a struggle for national emancipation are creating favorable conditions for a renewal of popularity for the CP (through its “national” tendency) and permitting the political revolution under oppositional communist leadership to mobilize national feeling in its favor. …[9]

Nowhere was the contrast between the line of the Pabloites and that of the SWP more obvious than in their respective appraisals of the role of Tito, who had stabbed the Hungarian workers in the back by siding with Moscow in the suppression of their revolution. The SWP denounced this betrayal bitterly:

Tito played a despicable role during the Hungarian revolution. He did not lift a finger to help the fighters and ended up by condemning and slandering them. When the cards were down, the fact that Tito represents simply a variety of Stalinism proved decisive—despite his differences with Khrushchev & Co. Because of his critical attitude and his reputation for independence, Tito’s arguments in defense of Moscow were far more effective than anything that came out of Moscow itself.[10]

The Pabloites, on the other hand, skipped lightly over Tito’s perfidious role, which settled all questions about his relation to Stalinism, to stress, once again in the same objectivist fashion, his “highly progressive role in the international communist movement, during the whole crucial period of preparation for the XXth Congress of the CP of the USSR.”[11]

Trotsky had branded the Stalinist bureaucracy as “counterrevolutionary through and through,” and had always insisted on the necessity of constructing within the Soviet Union a section of the Fourth International as the new revolutionary party of the working class. Mandel’s perspective proceeded entirely from the belief that the Soviet and Eastern European bureaucracies were incubating revolutionary tendencies. Insofar as the actions of Soviet leaders encouraged the development of such tendencies, as, according to Mandel, Khrushchev did through his denunciation of Stalin and his rehabilitation of Tito, they, too, “played a highly progressive, and even objectively revolutionary, role within the respective CPs.”[12]

In his analysis of the events in Poland, Mandel insisted that the role of the proletarian revolutionary vanguard was not to be played by the Fourth International, but rather by the “left” forces inside the bureaucracy: “The degree to which the Left tendency remains faithful to its programme, applies it in practice, and binds itself ever more closely to the proletariat, will determine its capacity to fulfill completely the role of Leninist guide to the Polish working class.”[13]

This was certainly one Pablo-Mandel prediction that went awry. Instead of evolving into a “Leninist guide” to the Polish proletariat, the “Left” tendency reorganized the bureaucracy, resumed under the leadership of Gomulka the suppression of the working class, and was, by 1970, so thoroughly hated that it was overthrown after strikes and bloody demonstrations.

By the time the Pabloites’ Fifth World Congress opened in the autumn of 1957, Mandel was describing even the Soviet Communist Party as an organization teeming with revolutionary forces: “The trade-union cadres in the factories, the secretaries of the factory cells of the CP, even leaders of districts, small towns, and sometimes even provincial cities, especially the Komsomols, can thus become true transmission belts of the proletarian currents which are crystallizing in society. And from their ranks there may appear future Nagys and Gomulkas, perhaps even future Bolshevik leaders.”[14]

Only one conclusion could be drawn from Mandel’s analysis: that there existed no need for any sort of politically independent Trotskyist party in either the Soviet Union or Eastern Europe, for the revolutionary forces were maturing inside the existing Stalinist organizations. Through the political development of these forces, automatically and unconsciously reflecting the pressure and will of the masses, the old Stalinist regime was being liquidated. Or so Mandel claimed. In reality, it was the revolutionary perspective of Trotskyism that was being liquidated.

In a letter to Cannon May 10, 1957, Gerry Healy reviewed the content of the “Decline and Fall” and summed it up succinctly:

Here you have the double talk of the Third Congress brought up to date. With all the bitter experience of the Hungarian Revolution at our disposal, once again a question mark is placed over the role of the bureaucracy in the political revolution. How can you build mass Trotskyist parties with such a policy? And in fact Pablo doesn’t believe that you can. Study the document from the first page to the last and you will not find a single call for the construction of Trotskyist parties in the USSR, China, or Eastern Europe. Was that not one of the main reasons for the split in 1953?[15]

Healy’s letter was written in response to an abrupt change in the policy of the SWP toward relations with the Pabloites. Given the unmistakable differences in the official line of the SWP toward the Hungarian Revolution and that of the International Secretariat—the latter showing no signs whatever of retreating from its revisionist conceptions—the British Trotskyists were taken aback by the favorable reaction of Cannon to a new appeal by the Sri Lankan LSSP for talks with the Pabloites aimed at the resolution of the 1953 split and the reunification of the Fourth International.

The arguments advanced by LSSP Secretary Leslie Goonewardene in a letter to Cannon January 2, 1957 exhibited the same opportunist slurring over of political differences which generally characterized the work of the Ceylonese centrists. In seeking to entice the SWP, Goonewardene substituted flattery and expediency for principles: “An international Trotskyist movement without the SWP is a wounded international movement, just as an SWP outside such a movement is a grievously weakened SWP. Thus, whatever our differences, we also require each other.”[16]

Any proposal emanating from the LSSP for talks with the Pabloites was doubly suspect. Having played a despicable role in bolstering Pablo’s authority through its opposition to the “Open Letter,” the LSSP, following the split, moved steadily to the right, adapting ever more openly to bourgeois nationalists in Ceylon, as well as to the Stalinists.

Even as Cannon pondered the LSSP proposal and submitted it for consideration to the SWP leadership, he was well aware of the increasingly treacherous policies of Goonewardene and his associates. Cannon knew that the January 31, 1957 issue of the LSSP newspaper Samasamajist carried an editorial “Tribute to Chou En-lai,” which amounted to a dishonest coverup of the counterrevolutionary role of Stalinism. It declared, “Despite our political differences we recognize the tremendous sacrifices made by these men who led the Chinese Revolution to victory.”[17] This tribute made no reference to the plight of the imprisoned Chinese Trotskyists nor to the Chinese Stalinists’ defense of Khrushchev’s actions in Hungary.

The unmistakable signs of the LSSP’s opportunist orientation became even clearer one week later, when the February 7 issue of Samasamajist announced that the party’s leaders had been invited to visit China by Chou En-lai. There could no longer be any doubt about the essential political content of the LSSP’s alliance with the Pabloites and its call for reunification. The LSSP centrists wanted an international organization, based on opportunism, to neutralize genuine Trotskyists within its own organization and internationally, and thus provide a political cover for its preparations for a massive betrayal of the Ceylonese working class.

On March 11, 1957, The Militant carried an extraordinary editorial publicly criticizing the LSSP:

We would like to remind our comrades of the LSSP of Ceylon of fundamental conceptions that Trotskyists have always been careful to make clear:

Chou En Lai and the Chinese Communist Party did not lead “the Chinese revolution to victory,” nor can they legitimately be identified with that victory. For many years during the civil war after 1945, the Chinese CP tried to conciliate Chiang Kai-shek, offering to subordinate the revolutionary forces to the Chinese dictator, the puppet of U.S. imperialism.[18]

Pointing to the treatment of the partisans of the Fourth International in China, The Militant advised, “The Ceylonese Trotskyists should, in our opinion, lend strong support to the demand for the liberation of our Chinese comrades and for full democratic rights for the Chinese working class. Only workers’ democracy can make the victory of the Chinese revolution secure, assure its progress, and serve to advance the struggle for socialism in the whole of Asia.”[19]

Goonewardene and Colvin De Silva were to ignore that advice, and the behavior of the LSSP delegation while in China was an affront to the principles of Trotskyists all over the world. The delegates flatly refused to raise the issue of the imprisoned Trotskyists with the Chinese Stalinists!

Cannon knew the true worth of the LSSP leaders. Nevertheless, in a letter written to Goonewardene on March 12, 1957, just one day after the publication of The Militant editorial, he responded favorably to the LSSP’s proposals for discussions with the Pabloites aimed at reunification:

A consistent approach of both sides toward common positions on the political questions of the day would justify a deliberate and serious attempt at reunification, even if some of the important differences of general conception remain unresolved. It would not be wise to pretend that these differences do not exist or try to get around them by ambiguous compromise formulations which would be subject to different interpretations. It would be better and more realistic to contemplate a possible unification for common political action, and to agree to disagree on some questions, allowing the test of events and clarifying non-factional discussion to bring about an eventual settlement.[20]

This was a complete about-face for Cannon, who had explained again and again that any attempt to orchestrate reunification with the Pabloites by suppressing important issues of principle would disorient the Trotskyist movement in the US and all over the world. But it was not only Cannon whose position had changed. The central leadership of the SWP fully supported this shift on the question of reunification. At a meeting of the SWP Political Committee on that same March 12, Morris Lewit gave a political report which endorsed Cannon’s letter, even though he conceded that Pablo had never repudiated his past line.

On the contrary, Pablo and his supporters claim they have been right all the time and have been vindicated by the events. They do all this by conveniently forgetting their false prognostications and claiming credit for analyses and prognoses which derived not from Pablo’s specific line but from that of Trotskyism.

Be that as it may, we cannot justify the continuation of a split because the Pabloites refuse to admit they were wrong in the past, unless the wrong line of the past continues to determine the course today. This does not seem to be the case. Pablo is moving away from the specific line which inspired a liquidationist wing in the FI.[21]

The claim that Pablo was “moving away” from a liquidationist position was totally untrue, a flimsy cover for a clear political retreat by the SWP from the struggle against revisionism.

To understand how and why this happened, especially since it appeared that the SWP was still defending basic Trotskyist principles, it is necessary to study the internal evolution of the SWP itself. Such a study proves irrefutably that the decision to seek reunification with the Pabloites was directly bound up with a decisive turn toward petty-bourgeois radicalism in the United States. For this reason, Cannon’s letter to Goonewardene was a milestone in the degeneration of the Socialist Workers Party.


National Education Department Socialist Workers Party, Education for Socialists: The Struggle to Reunify the Fourth International (1954–63), vol. 2, February 1978, p. 35.


Ibid., p. 36.




Ibid., p. 39.


Fifth World Congress of the Fourth International, “Rise, Decline, and Perspectives for the Fall of Stalinism,” Fourth International, no. 1, Winter 1958, p. 56.


Ibid., p. 58.




Ibid., p. 59.


Ibid., p. 61.


SWP, The Struggle to Reunify, vol. 2, p. 38.


Fourth International, Winter 1958, p. 62.




Ibid., pp. 63–64.


Ibid., p. 77.


National Education Department Socialist Workers Party, Education for Socialists: The Struggle to Reunify the Fourth International (1954–63), vol. 3, July 1978, p. 33.


Ibid., p. 15.


Ibid., p. 82.






Ibid., p. 17.


Ibid., p. 19.