According to political philosopher Hannah Arendt, the Hungarian uprising of 1956 was an authentic revolution: it was popular, spontaneous, and unexpected. It took everyone by surprise. Despite the steps taken by the Soviets to recreate and establish their own totalitarian system in Hungary, the 1956 Revolution was a striking example of the “possibilities and duties of people to rebel against totalitarian terror.” The Hungarian revolution proved to the world the falsity of the claim that the Soviets’ captive peoples were their willing cooperators.
In her article “Totalitarian Imperialism: Reflections on the Hungarian Revolution,” published in 1958 in The Journal of Politics, Arendt updated her 1951 masterpiece The Origins of Totalitarianism, adding the consequences and effects of the postwar period in the Soviet Union.
According to Arendt, one of the antecedents of the Hungarian uprising was Stalin’s death. The death of a leader generally poses a problem for totalitarian systems: having a clear succession mechanism adds an unwelcomed element of certainty and stability that reduces the supreme leader’s absolute discretionary powers. Stalin was succeeded by Nikita Khrushchev. Yet, despite criticizing his predecessor’s personalist style of leadership in his speech at the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, he still ruled over the USSR and its satellite nations with an iron fist. Khrushchev had learned from Stalin that every group of people who begins to show signs of class identity and solidarity must be broken up—ideologically for the sake of the classless society and practically for the sake of maintaining an atomized society which alone can be totally dominated. Fearful of popular demonstrations and spontaneous political activity, he rushed to crush the Hungarian uprising when it became clear the Hungarian armed forces were backing the rebellion instead of suppressing it.
His techniques, however, strayed from the Stalinist handbook. Arendt thinks Stalin would have organized a massive deportation of the “disruptive” Hungarians to Siberia and would have directed the political repression through the secret police. Khrushchev, instead, ordered a full-blown incursion by the Russian military. He also sent aid to prevent a collapse of the Hungarian economy—something that certainly would have given reason for further unrest and demonstrations. Arendt expects that Stalin, in contrast, would have been glad to leave the Hungarians in dire straits. If the Ukrainians had to endure their own famine without the slightest hint of protest, why shouldn’t the Hungarians follow their example?
According to Arendt, two factors led Russia to refrain from conducting a mass deportation or “super-purge.” The first one was a shortage of labor. The second was the emergence of communist China as a rival for world supremacy.
Despite these moderating factors, Arendt did not lose sight of Khrushchev’s malign nature. She saw the apparently liberalizing moves he performed during the initial stages of his rule as nothing more than a tactical retreat: a strategy to gain more legitimacy from the Russian public by appearing more benign while still having his iron fist in his pocket. In her view “the reestablishment of full-fledged terror as well as the recurrence of super-purges” shouldn’t be ruled out as long as a totalitarian regime was in place.
Typical of communist regimes then and now, the law in the USSR was unclear—everyone was a potential suspect and prisoner. The regime reserved the right to condemn anyone under any kind of charge using any kind of evidence, no matter how circumstantial, or false. An instrument that facilitated this task was a law against “social parasites.” “The totalitarian character of the decree is illustrated by the careful omission of criminal acts which remain subject to prosecution in court, by the failure to define what constitutes a ‘social crime,’ and by the extra-legal way of its punishment: deportation to places which are not identified.”
Confronted with a law that allowed the reestablishment of mass-deportations and massive slave labor, Arendt couldn’t hide her skepticism and hopelessness regarding the chances totalitarianism had of redeeming itself: “One wonders if the hopes of some Western observers for the emergence of some ‘enlightened totalitarianism’ will not turn out to be wishful thinking.”
Half a century later, her skepticism seems vindicated. Reform attempts in totalitarian regimes effectively seem to destroy them from within—as Gorbachev’s “enlightened” measures of Perestroika and Glasnost show. The enlightened version of totalitarianism is nothing more than an oxymoron, a word game put into circulation by those who were hopeful about improvements in a system that was beyond any hope of real improvement.
Khrushchev’s speech to the 20th Party Congress, was intended only for the top cadres of the USSR Communist Party. But it backfired when Eastern Bloc populations interpreted it as a gesture towards liberalization. Taken at face value, the speech generated this elation “because it sounded as though a normal human being were talking about normal human occurrences.” Khrushchev’s speech apparently “confirmed the charge of the free world that this was not so much a communist as a crime-ridden government which lacked not only the democratic type of legality but any restriction of power through law whatsoever.”
This misunderstanding was costly. The Soviets crushed the Hungarian and Polish uprisings inspired by Khrushchev’s speech. In doing so they demonstrated to the world that—Stalin or no Stalin—they were a ruthless imperialistic power that would commit any act in order to perpetuate their dominance over their captive nations.