The Liberator’s Crystal Eastman was one of the very few U.S. radical journalists to witness the Hungarian Soviet of 1919. In this invaluable record written before the short revolution’s fall, she chronicles the events that led to the Communists taking power, some of their programs, and interviews Bela Kun, Julius Hevesi, and Commissar for Education Georg Lukacs.
‘In Communist Hungary’ by Crystal Eastman from The Liberator. Vol. 2 No. 8. August, 1919.
BEFORE the war, they told me, Bela Kun was an obscure Socialist secretary in a small city of Hungary, employed by a Workingmen’s Insurance Association. During the war he was one of those fortunate military prisoners in Russia who saw the Revolution. He organized thousands of Hungarian soldiers for the Russian Red Army, was prominent in the Revolution, served close to Lenine, and became an intimate and trusted lieutenant. Lenin had planned to send him to Germany, but at the last moment changed his, mind and sent him to Hungary. He arrived last November, and at once began a revolutionary agitation. At the time, there was no Communist movement in Hungary. The present Commissars were for the most part inactive members of the Socialist party. Bela Kim had hardly arrived, however, before the strong men came out of their obscurity in the discontented ranks of the party, and joined him. By February they were all in jail-the whole Communist executive. Another executive was formed at once and the agitation went on, but this time completely underground. The proletariat was turning more and more toward the Communists.
During all this period Karolyi, the pacifist liberal who had dismissed the Hungarian army, was premier. There was no force to def end the bourgeoisie; the Communists felt that a single demonstration of power would deliver the city into their hands. They planned a coup. Two cannon were secretly placed on the mountain across the river, from which the city could be bombarded, and a great street demonstration was arranged for Sunday, March 23d. At the climax of the demonstration it was planned to demand the immediate release of Kun and the other leaders; and if they were not free within two hours, to bombard the city. But the demonstration never occurred. Hungary did not even come this near to a violent revolution. By Friday, March 21st, the Big Four’s ultimatum had been received, making such inroads on Hungarian territory that. even Karolyi was unwilling to accept it. He prepared to evade responsibility by handing the government over to the Social Democrats. But the Social Democrats were wise; they did not venture to accept it alone. They realized that they could not succeed without the co-operation of certain group of strong men in the city jail. So they went to the jail, then and there accepted the Communist. platform, and formed a government with Bela Kun, each group being equally recognized in the division of offices.
On that same night, Friday, March 21st, Bela Kun walked out of jail, ruler of a completely blockaded nation of nine millions, pledged. to abolish private capital and establish a Communist society, and at the same time to lead his country in a desperate war of defense on four fronts- Rumanian, Serbian, Czecho-Slovak and. Italian.
Bela Kun is a young man (they are all young)-probably 29or 30. He is stocky and powerful in physical build, not very tall, with a big bulging bullet-head shaved close. His wide face with small eyes, heavy jaws. And thick lips is startling when you first see it close- I am told it is a well-known Magyar type- but his smile is sunny and winning, and he looks resolute and powerful. He has a superhuman capacity for hard work. His title is Commissar of Foreign Affairs, but there is. not the slightest doubt in anyone’s mind that he is in every sense the head of the government. He is described by his comrades as a “great agitator.” a man of real revolutionary talent, a “genuine Socialist statesman,” the “first statesman Hungary has had in seventy years.” Their eyes glow with pride in him. “The rest of us are nothing,” said Lukacs, Commissar of Education. “We do our part, but there are hundreds like us in every country.”
It is nothing to the European movement whether we are hanged tomorrow or not. If Kun were killed it would be a serious loss to the revolution.”
Bela Kun gave me a written message to the workers of America, which I cabled for publication in the July number of The Liberator. He also gave me written answers to some of the questions that were in our minds in America. He said that they had learned much from the experience of Russia-both what to do and what to avoid. Perhaps it was a reflection of his own personal growth in Russia that made him say, “We certainly learned, from the Russian example, self-sacrifice.”
He also said, “We learned the proper form of dictatorship there.”
I asked him whether the Hungarian dictatorship was more or less strict than the Russian, and he said it was more strict. “The Russians made many experiments,” he said, “before they found the proper form of dictatorship. We have been saved those experiments.”
I asked him whether he found necessary a complete suppression of free speech and press, and this is his reply:
“We do not practice general suppression of free speech and free press at all. Workmen’s papers are published without the intervention of any censorship. Among workingmen there is perfect freedom of speech and of holding meetings; this freedom is enjoyed not only by the workmen who share our views but also by those whose views are different. The anarchists, for instance, publish a paper and other printed matter. There are also citizens’ papers, for· instance, the ‘XX Szazad’ (Twentieth Century), a periodical published by the society for sociology, without any control or restriction being exercised upon it. We only suppress bourgeois papers having decided counter-revolutionary intentions.
“We are doing this not because we are afraid of them, but because we want in this way to obviate the necessity of suppressing counter-revolution by force of arms.”
He did not say how long he thought the dictatorship of the proletariat would last, but he was very emphatic in describing it as a condition which belongs only to the period of transition from capitalism to communism. I quote his words again: “We consider the dictatorship as a transitional form of government only, justified by the state of revolution and war alone. As soon as the danger of counter-revolution is over and peace returns it will be possible to establish in all respects real and complete freedom of speech and press, which up to now has never existed. For up to -now the so-called freedom of press was really a privilege of capitalist interests only.”
In answer to my question about bloodshed- whether it will be possible for the Hungarian government to establish communism without violence except against invading armies, he said: “Not completely. It has happened several times that persons have attacked us with the force of arms and killed some of our political delegates. In such cases we have, of course, to make reprisals against the murderers. We are doing, however, everything in our power to persuade our farmer oppressors, by the demonstration of our strength, to refrain from every attempt to impose their yoke on us again. Our effort has been so far successful; only very slight bloodshed has occurred. What some foreign papers have published to the contrary is absolute falsehood.”
In regard to the attitude which communists should adopt toward the centrists, the pacifists- men like Longuet in France and Robert Smillie in England- he said:
“We do not consider them adversaries and we profit by every occasion to distinguish them clearly from people like Renaudel and Scheidemann. We hope that within a short time they will come to see their place on our side.”
Of course, we would all like to ask Bela Kun a thousand questions, seeing that we cannot reach Lenin, but these are the principal ones to which I secured his answer in his own words for quotation.
Another interesting figure is Lukacs, the Commissar of Education. He is thirty-four- “One of the oldest,” as he quaintly says- a slender, fair-haired, studious Jew with blue eyes, and spectacles. His father was a very rich banker- the head of the biggest bank in Hungary. Lukacs was wholly a student. He asked nothing of life but leisure and a chance to study philosophy. He was a Socialist, but inactive because he was disgusted with the compromise parliamentary policy of the party. A month· after Bela Kun’s return he had become an active leader of the Communists. Now he is the Commissar of Education over Sundays, but acts as “political commissar” for one of the Red Guard companies at the front on week-days. He goes about in a leather uniform, an earnest little professor, very learned and intelligent, very kindly and humorous, and awfully amused at his sudden transformation- pleased, too, I think, especially at the army end of it.
Each company has a soldier in command, and a “political commissar,” who acts as his colleague, to keep up the “revolutionary morale” of the Red Guard. I suppose he is the revolutionary counterpart of the chaplain and the Y.M.C.A. But he fights, he goes into battle with the soldiers.
Lukacs is interested in his educational reforms. Teachers’ salaries under him have been raised to the highest rank-650 kronen a week. It is just what the commissars get. (650 kronen to-day is about $35.) But Lukacs is more interested now in the army. He is as proud of the fighting spirit of his company of Red Guards as Napoleon ever was of his chosen troops.
“When the Rumanians first attacked, our Red Guards quite simply ran away!” he says, “but now they are strong and eager. The army is five times as strong as it was on May 1st. It numbers between 80,000 and 100,000 men.”
I found Lukacs and the others supremely confident of military success. They smile at the suggestion that the small governments now surrounding them might defeat the Red Army. The power of the Entente to crush them they acknowledge, but they have a sure and smiling faith that the workers of the Entente countries will prevent this. All these young leaders live in confident hope of new revolutions. The only question debatable is where the next one will break out. Capitalism they speak of always in the past tense: “Capitalism was…”
Confidence, amazing confidence, not only in their power to establish Communism, but in the complete success of Communism when established, the power of this idea to save the world and make everybody happy, is the irresistible quality in these men. For instance, Julius Hevesi, Commissar for Social Production, who explained the whole process of socializing production to me, insisted that it had all been very easy. And when I asked about distribution- were there no difficult problems in distributing the product under Communism?- he could think of no problems. Distribution will be easy enough, once Hungary has possession of her coal mines and the other sources of raw materials upon which her productive industries have always depended.
Hevesi is an engineer, a university graduate, who was for years an ardent Communist-as it seems most of the Hungarian engineers were. He is a slight, dark man, very well dressed-a delicate oval face, black eyes and mustache. He might be a neat little French or Italian officer.
I will describe, if I can, the exact process by which private capital was abolished, as Hevesi explained it to me.
The morning after Bela Kun came out of prison placards throughout the city announced the establishment of the Communist Republic, and commanded all commercial and industrial establishments to close for three days, during which time they must make an accurate and exhaustive inventory and deliver it to the government, under penalty of death. The threat was believed, and all business men, both great and small, hastened to obey. After this was done, factories employing under thirty people were allowed to continue on condition of accepting the new scale of wages. All factories employing more than thirty people were as rapidly as possible “socialized”- that is, the government took the place of the shareholders. All who really did any work were left at their places. The owner was offered the post of manager at 2,000 kronena month; if he declined, things went on without him. According to Hevesi, their plan differs very much from syndicalism. “Under syndicalism,” he said, “industries could be continued that we do not consider important.” Every factory is the common property of the whole people, and is under centralized control. The workmen elect a controlling council, which has general direction, but the final power rests with a special commissar appointed by the Central Government. I suggested that this sounded a little like State Socialism, but Hevesi reminded me that they had abolished private capital!
Wages everywhere were raised, wages of the unskilled the most, on the whole. Sometimes they were raised as much as 100 per cent. Three classes of workmen were established:
Skilled to receive 5-8¼ kronen per hour (25-42 cents) Semi-skilled to receive 4-5¼ kronen per hour (20-33 cents) Unskilled to receive 3-5 kronen per hour (15-25 cents).
The workmen’s controlling council in each factory determines which workmen belong in each class. Otherwise it has no control over wages.
The syndicalist tendency, however, is to express itself in an industrial parliament, or congress of production, to be made up of the commissars and delegates from the trades unions. But, according to Hevesi and Lukacs, the Communist State is not to be established on a basis of industrial representation as we have understood the Soviet State in Russia to be, but on a basis of geographical representation. All the workers in a certain district will elect a representative. It is on this basis that the present Buda-Pesth Soviet is constituted. And the first All-Hungarian Congress of Soviets-to be held on June 16th- is to be elected in the same way. The industrial parliament is to be a sort of co-ordinate advisory body. In the progressive adjustment of these two bodies, of course, lies a vital development for the future.
Unemployed relief is paid, if necessary, but nearly all the unemployed are absorbed by the Red Army.
Communist distribution is hardly as yet to be described, because, owing to the blockade, the lack of materials, the alarming, shortage of coal, very little is being produced. Distribution of necessities is managed through the co-operatives with the aid of some small commercial shops, which are being incorporated as branches of the central distributing system. The plan is to have a distributing center for every five hundred families. Goods are also being distributed through. a central bureau on requests by the unions. The distribution of luxuries in a starving country under blockade is not, of course, a pressing problem.
The stores are still closed. Gray iron shutters throughout the shopping districts deny you even that idle pastime of looking in the store windows at what you can’t afford to buy. You know what a city is like on Sunday. Well, in Buda-Pesth, Monday, and Tuesday, and Wednesday, and Thursday, and Friday, and Saturday are just like Sunday- and Sunday in a bone-dry town. Complete prohibition was almost the first decree of the Communists.
I shall never go into a big, comfortable house again whether it is the house of a Socialist professor or a railroad president, without quietly figuring up the number of rooms and the number of people, to determine whether the family will be allowed to continue in possession of the whole house when communism comes. So real was my experience in Hungary. Vago, Commissar of Housing, who looks like a college hero-big, brown, handsome, and built like an athlete-smilingly assured me that the new Communist rule of one room per person until all are housed, is actually in force in Buda-Pesth. Of course, each family is allowed a kitchen, and people who work at home-writers, artists, professors, etc. may each have a workroom in addition. Many of the rich people have moved out of their big houses into hotels, or have left the country. Some, however, are living in the three or four rooms allowed them in their own houses. The housing room thus gained is being used as rapidly as possible to relieve the overcrowding of the poor. Of course, it is not simple: Kitchens have to be put in. But it is being done.
The summer villas on the mountain are turned into homes for convalescent children. I saw one, a great white palace of twenty-eight rooms, which had been occupied; by one man with his son during only two or three months in summer. It is transformed into a gay and spacious getting-well place for thirty children, light tuberculosis cases, with doctor and nurses employed by the State. I did not see many people that looked happy in Buda-Pesth, but those children did. They were lying out on a big stone balcony in sea-chairs, wrapped each one in a red blanket, talking and laughing together. They thought one of our party was Bela Kun, and roared a joyful greeting to him. There are five hundred children on this mountain. There would be five thousand, I was told, if they could get beds. I thought for the thousandth time how bitterly tragic it is that these great experiments in government must commence at a time when material conditions are so desperate. But, as Lukacs said to me, “It is not an accident that revolution and starvation come hand in hand.”
There is one commodity of which there is no shortage- water. Buda-Pesth is famous for its baths-big, well-equipped baths for the middle class and luxurious baths for the rich. For two days a week now all these baths are given over to the children of the city; ‘70,000 boys and girls from the public schools, between nine and fourteen, “go through” the baths every week. I saw five hundred boys in the midst of it. First they come along in line, naked to the waist, carrying their little coats and blouses, for a five-second medical examination, long enough for the doctor to discover heart weakness or skin trouble. Their heads are looked at, too, and shaved if not perfectly clean. Then they take off the rest of their clothes in little dressing rooms and run along down to the big steaming dark baths, first for a cursory scrub from one of the bathers, then into the hot tank, and at last, with a whoop of joy, into the big swimming tank, hundreds of them together.
The baths are dark, just as the hotels are dark, because there is such a shortage of coal that only absolutely essential bulbs can be lighted. When I was in Buda-Pesth the Hungarians had just one coal mine left in uninvaded territory. I could understand how, earlier in June, when in a victory over the Czechs they won back two coal mines, a great public rejoicing was held, with dancing in the streets. Lack of light would kill the revolutionary spirit in me almost sooner than lack of food. I shall never forget the dim and dreary gloom of the Hotel Hungaria, where I stayed and where the young Commissars lived. Yet their eager spirits seemed untouched by it.
How about banks? How about farms? How about money? Food? I can hear your questions, but my time was very short.
The Soviet State has taken possession of banks exactly as it has taken factories. The Soviet steps into the place of the shareholders, and hires the employees. Sometimes the rich banker becomes the manager, employed by the State at 2,000 kr. a month. That is what Lukacs’ father is doing. I asked Lukacs how his father liked it, whether he was reconciled to the new order. He said: “Well, not quite. He doesn’t say anything to me, of course, but I think he has some secret plans. I think perhaps he is plotting to overthrow us. And the funny thing about it is that the day he gets back his fortune is the day I get hanged!”
Bank deposits have not been disturbed, but each depositor can draw only 2,000 kr. a month, and that only if he proves that he has· no other source of income. Jewels and other valuable private possessions in excess of a certain generous allowance were taken from the bourgeoisie at the beginning. The immediate purpose of these measures was to prevent anyone in Buda-Pesth from getting more than his share of food. In Vienna another blockaded city- the poor are absolutely starving, and the former middle class, still living in comfortable houses and big apartments, look pinched and are obviously undernourished, while the rich are living well. In Buda-Pesth, as a result of these measures, everybody is hungry. There is that satisfaction. As Lenin is reported to have said about Russian Communism, “We have demonstrated that we can distribute nothing. It remains for us to prove whether we can distribute something!”
Hungary, it seems, was the one well-fed country of Central Europe during the war, and twenty miles from Buda-Pesth there are eggs and milk and good things to be had for real money to-day. But the small farmers, whose private ownership has not been disturbed, distrust the new government, will not take Soviet money, and, it is said, are hiding their food.
“All right, if they’re hiding their food we’ll go out with machine guns and get it,” said Bolgar, the Soviet Ambassador at Vienna to me. (He, by the way, is an. old American I.W.W., for ten years editor of a Hungarian paper in Boston.) But I have more faith in the distribution to the towns of surplus produce from the big estates, which are being communized and operated by soviets formed of the former landlords’ employees with the blockade cutting off raw materials, and the foreign invasion preventing access to all but one of Hungary’s own coal mines, it will be, of course, next to impossible for the city workers to make anything to exchange for the farm produce which they need. It is a pretty ‘tight situation. The leaders know it, despite all their bold courage. There is almost a desperate note in the Hungarian appeal to the workers of the Entente countries:
“Comrades, the Russian and Hungarian workers alone cannot achieve, victory for the· revolution, not even if the German working class ranges itself beside them. To-day there is only one power which can save the Russian and Hungarian revolutions and lead the international revolution to victory. And that one power is you, workers of the Entente countries. On your shoulders, comrades, rests to-day the tremendous responsibility for, the future of the working class revolution, which is the future of humanity.”
There is no use having any illusions about the revolution. It was born in starvation, and its first business is war. There is no freedom, no plenty, no joy, except the joys of struggle and faith. Cherished dreams of scientists, educators, artists, engineers, who were waiting for a free society, must be set aside, while the whole proletariat organizes in desperate haste to check the invading hosts of the enemy. And war means recruiting propaganda, conscription, military discipline, the death penalty, the whole damnable business of organized dying and killing. Max Eastman said in Madison Square Garden two years ago, “When our own war comes you’ll know it, because it won’t be necessary to conscript the workers to fight in it.” I thought he spoke a profound truth. I do not think so now. When we heard about those democratic regiments formed in Russia after the first revolution, I thought, “This is a real workers’ army.” Now I know there can be no such thing as a democratic army. People don’t want to die, and except for a few glorious fanatics they are not going to vote themselves into the front line trenches.
“We are in the war,” said Lukacs, when I cried out against the shooting of six men from that first regiment which “quite simply ran away at the first fire.” “In war, fugitives and traitors must be shot. If not, all right, then, let the Czechs in and the revolution will be lost.”
I hope there is some pacifist revolutionary with an answer to that. I have none.
The Red Army was recruited at first by spontaneous volunteering on the part of thousands. It was encouraged later by unemployment. The closing of the cafes in Buda-Pesth, for instance, must have driven hundreds of workers into the Red Guard. It was stimulated by a brilliant and overwhelming propaganda. Finally they resorted to conscription-not as we know it, but through the trades unions. Decrees were posted calling upon each trades union to draft a certain number of its members for the Red Army by a certain date. (It must be understood that those decrees are inescapable Nobody takes any chances with the dictatorship.)
The Red Army recruiting propaganda interested me perhaps more than anything else I saw in Hungary. I remember when I. first caught sight of big photographs of Lenin decorating a newsstand. It was the same friendly, quizzical, half-smiling picture we had on our January cover, and it suddenly peered out at me through the murky dimness of a country railway station, where our train stopped for an hour on the all-night trip from Buchs to Buda-Pesth. I must have been a little lonesome, because a felt like crying when I saw Lenin’s face, and I said to myself, “Lenin is my father, and I am coming home!”
Next morning in Buda-Pesth I found the newsstands, the pillars, the walls, every blank space, shouting with revolutionary posters. It seemed to me that Por and the other Commissars of Propaganda, in the two short months of their work, had put the National Security League, the American Defense Society and all the other patriotic poster designers of America wholly in the shade. The revolutionary placards are all red, almost wholly one color. They are everywhere, on every wall of every street- enormous sheets many of them, some good drawings, some bad; very daring and simple; all emphatically modern. One is a great bold red figure running with a flag-“To Arms!” There is a soldier charging with a bayonet- “He who is not with us is against us!” “Save the Proletariat,” “Defend the Revolution,” “Join the Red Guard!”- these are the phrases repeated again and again-but never a word about Hungary, never a note of nationalist appeal.
At the moving pictures it is the same. (Theatres, of course, are already communized, actors, singers and managers employed by the State, and tickets sold through the Union) All these recruiting
posters are thrown on the screen. Then come Red Army scenes-soldiers marching to the front, warships on the Danube, battle scenes, wounded Red Guards. Everywhere the desperate appeal to arms, but never a suggestion of nationalism. This seems to me immensely significant. It is a tribute to the sincerity and purity of purpose, the intellectual integrity of these revolutionary leaders, that never, even in the darkest hour of despair, did they appeal to the people to defend Hungary against invasion from its ancient enemies, Italy, Bohemia, Roumania. It would have been so easy, but it would have been false. It would have made impossible the tributes and pledges of faith and friendship which I heard given to the Buda-Pesth Soviet by Roumanian, Italian, Czech and Serbian workers’ representatives. They brought greetings from workers of these nations to the Soviet government of Hungary, and proclaimed their devotion to that government almost within sound of the guns of their invading armies, marching to destroy it.
In all the theaters of Buda-Pesth now the International is played. In the movies the words are put upon the screen and the people sing it. You “have to stand up”- the same sort of social compulsion, perhaps, that our patriots exercised upon us in New York during the war. One day I met an American newspaper correspondent, who was cursing life under the Soviet regime. He could see no hope short of the day when “all these Jews will be hung up there along the castle wall where they belong.”
“Why,” he said, “I used to love the Hungarian opera. Now I can’t even go to that, because they play the International and you have to stand up. I wouldn’t mind standing up for the Hungarian national hymn, but I’ll be damned if I’ll stand up for the International!” It is a small incident, but I think it shows how rapidly all our passionate national hysterias- amazingly vital as they often are-will pale and disappear beside the deeper realities of this new struggle.
The great war is over. The Revolution has begun. And we’ve got to choose new sides. The other clay in the British Parliament Winston Churchill, Secretary for War, in the course of his reply to Colonel Wedgewood’s able arraignment of British intervention in Russia, turned suddenly to Wedgewood- a Liberal who recently joined the Independent Labor Party- and asked ironically!
“If my honorable and gallant friend is so enthusiastic about these Bolsheviki, why doesn’t he go and join them?”
Without a moment’s hesitation Wedgewood replied seriously:
“If this is going to be a class war, that’s my side.”
And so it goes.
The Liberator was published monthly from 1918, first established by Max Eastman and his sister Crystal Eastman continuing The Masses, was shut down by the US Government during World War One. Like The Masses, The Liberator contained some of the best radical journalism of its, or any, day. It combined political coverage with the arts, culture, and a commitment to revolutionary politics. Increasingly, The Liberator oriented to the Communist movement and by late 1922 was a de facto publication of the Party. Max Eastman would sell the paper to the Party and In 1924, The Liberator merged with Labor Herald and Soviet Russia Pictorial into Workers Monthly. An essential magazine of the US left.
PDF of full issue: https://www.marxists.org/history/usa/culture/pubs/liberator/1919/08/v2n08-w18-aug-1919-liberator-hr.pdf