What seemed a death rattle spawned a new form of protest and politics

By David Edgar, a playwright. His radio drama set in the aftermath of the Hungarian events of 1956 will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 in January (THE GUARDIAN, 31/10/06):

Two thousand and six: the year of the historical analogy. Through the summer, Labour’s succession crisis was compared to the Thatcher coup (punish the assassin), the Macmillan retirement (the outmanoeuvred challenger), and even the Churchill-Eden handover (the heir apparent forced to wait too long). Now, the plethora of 50th anniversaries provides more lessons from history. Coverage of the Suez crisis draws parallels between one prime minister’s ill-judged Middle Eastern regime-toppling adventure and another’s. And, on the streets of Budapest, anti-left demonstrators combine commemoration with re-enactment. Everywhere, the battles of the present are fought through arguments about the past.

1956 is particularly rich in such debates. It has been seen as the year of cultural beginnings and political endings. From the Angry Young Men of theatre to Rock Around the Clock in the cinema, it gave dramatic birth to the major cultural forces of the postwar period. By contrast, the political events of the year looked more like last gasps. Suez seemed to put paid to Britain’s imperial pretensions, and, after Khrushchev’s condemnation of Stalin in February, the Soviet suppression of the Hungarian uprising appeared to sound the death rattle of the communist ideal.

Following Ian McEwan’s canny prediction (in his 1983 screenplay The Ploughman’s Lunch) that Suez would become a happy hunting ground for revisionists, young-fogey historians like Andrew Roberts have had fun claiming that, like the Americans in Vietnam, the only thing the Brits did wrong in Egypt was withdraw. Now, 50 years on, the received interpretation of the Hungarian events is also being challenged.

True, in the Observer, the historian Dominic Sandbrook presents the traditional view of the uprising as a proud people’s doomed revolt against a Soviet satellite ruled by a narrow Marxist clique, savagely put down by the Russian army. But other treatments have acknowledged that it wasn’t that simple: the revolt began partly among the communist leadership, whose main reformist leader, Imre Nagy, was invited by the crowds to lead what would almost certainly have looked like a social-democratic government. Following attacks by the secret police and Soviet army on unarmed protesters, leadership of the demonstrations passed to young, often violently anti-semitic street fighters whose lynching of young police conscripts and low-level party officials does not justify the (much more violent) Soviet invasion, but goes some way to explain it. Many commentators accept that the Soviet politburo was deeply split about the wisdom of invading Hungary, up to and including the moment when Nagy declared his aim to introduce multi-party democracy; it was his announcement of Hungary’s planned withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact (irresponsibly encouraged by the propaganda of Radio Free Europe) that left the Soviets with – as they saw it – no choice but to put the rebellion down.

But it’s what followed that calls into question the conventional view of Hungary as a kind of political obituary. The notion that the invasion set an inflexibly orthodox communist imperium in stone is belied by what happened next. In the Soviet Union, the acknowledgment of Stalin’s crimes, a partial rapprochement with Yugoslavia and an acceptance of the new reformist regime in Poland led to an unprecedented cultural thaw (culminating in the publication of Solzhenitsyn’s gulag novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich). It also led to considerable economic advances. From the launch of Sputnik in 1957 through and beyond Yuri Gagarin’s space flight in 1961, the west was understandably fearful that communism was winning the cold war. In Hungary, the communist leader Janos Kadar slowly but surely transformed himself from the violent suppressor of the uprising (which he undoubtedly had been) to the head of the most liberal and liberalising regime in eastern Europe.

It is one of the most intriguing counterfactual questions of the postwar period: if Imre Nagy had not spurned Hungary’s military alliance with the Soviet Union, and Khrushchev had managed to outflank the Brezhnev coup against him in 1964, might the reforming Czech government of 1968 have survived unsuppressed, to provide a feasible bridge between east European socialism and the (then) still vibrant social democracies of central Europe and Scandinavia?

In this country too there is an alternative history of Hungary. Much attention has been paid to the British communists for whom the events of 1956 proved, in Eric Hobsbawm’s phrase, «a collective nervous breakdown». However, not all the communists who left the Communist Party of Great Britain (between a fifth and a quarter of members) turned up their toes and died. As Ian Black recently pointed out in the Guardian, many left for pastures new. Large numbers of serious if traumatised Marxists were freed from the obligation to defend Stalin or (after Hungary) the Soviet Union, and could concentrate on forging a new kind of non-aligned left politics at home.

One important element of this project was paying heed to the popular cultural forms which emerged so decisively in 1956. At the time, most political radicals (and many of the Angry Young Men) saw pop culture as an enemy. Ten years on, rock groups on both sides of the Atlantic were providing anthems for the millions who marched against the Vietnam war. The fact that commercial pop culture could contribute to an oppositional counterculture had been first spotted by new-left intellectuals in the wake of Hungary. The result was the emergence of a new kind of movement, combining political campaign, personal witness and way of life, of which the most striking, long-lasting examples were the environmental, anti-racist and feminist movements that were to flower in the 1970s.

The other contribution of 1956 to later mass movements was more traditional and more direct. British anti-Suez protests anticipated CND and the anti-Vietnam war movement. The model of the Hungarian uprising – intellectual dissidence leading to student demonstrations later joined by general strikes (which, in Hungary, carried on for weeks after the invasion) established the pattern that was to be repeated in Paris in 1968, and foreshadowed the alliance which threatened the Polish regime in 1980 and brought it down nine years later. While the iconography of the late 1960s anti-war movement in the US – from putting flowers in the barrels of riot policemen’s guns to the slogan «the whole world is watching» – was reminted wholesale for Czechoslovakia’s velvet revolution.

Contemporary governments feel free to ignore millions of marchers, while caving in to one prod from the Catholic church. The events of 1956 remind us that it doesn’t have to be that way.