The State against Society: Political Crises and Their Aftermath in East Central Europe

By Grzegorz Ekiert | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 4
The Political Crisis, Demobilization, and
Regime Reequilibration in Hungary

THE HUNGARIAN revolution was the most tragic and dramatic culmination of the political decompression in East Central Europe following Stalin's death and the de-Stalinization campaign launched by Khrushchev at the Twentieth Party Congress. The political crisis bore characteristic marks of this period, which Hungary shared with other East European regimes undergoing the transition from Stalinist rule. Legacies of Stalinist rule, with its political terror, ideological belligerence, desecration of national traditions, the Soviet-style industrialization drive, and disastrous economic policies, created preconditions for a political cataclysm. The impetus for change came from within the regime and caused profound intra-elite splits and struggles. Only then did the political opportunity structure open to allow other groups and actors to organize, articulate demands, and press for policy changes and reforms. During this period, revisionism or reform communism dominated the discourse and imagination of collective actors challenging the Stalinist ruling elites. Critics of Stalinist policies framed their demands in terms of “true” and “just” state socialism and condemned Stalinist elites for distorting a real potential of economic and political transformations instituted in these countries. Thus, in Leszek Kolakowski's words, “1956 was the year of ideological delusion.” 1 The crisis, however, also reflected specific features of the Hungarian situation and developments before 1956, such as the brutality of the regime, the depth of the economic crisis, and an unwavering and prolonged attempt of the Stalinist elite to stay in power. The result was a popular revolt and rapid institutional breakdown of the regime. The period of successful demobilization policies following the revolution and the restoration of the party-state in Hungary was decisively conditioned by the radical character of the political crisis and the equally radical Soviet military response to this crisis aimed at preserving communist rule in the country at all cost. The revolution itself and the bloody Soviet intervention established a set of conditions that, paradoxically, made the restoration of state socialism in Hungary easier than the intensity and consequences of the conflict would indicate. The relatively rapid decline of popular resistance in the face of postrevolutionary repression and the unexpected long-term effects of demobilization policies that turned Hungary into the quite tolerant and reform-minded country of the Soviet bloc are puzzles that have confronted the students of contemporary East European politics since 1956.

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