SUNDAY WORDS

23 Oct

arendtmanuscript
(From Russell McNeil)

First, there was no looting, no trespassing of property, among a multitude whose standard of life had been miserable and whose hunger for merchandise notorious. There were no crimes against life either, for the few public instances of public hanging of AVH officers was conducted with remarkable restraint and discrimination. Instead of mob rule which might have been expected, there appeared immediately, almost simultaneously with the uprising itself, the Revolutionary and Workers’ Councils, that is the same organization which for more than a hundred years now has emerged whenever the people have been permitted for a few days, or a few weeks or months, to follow their own political devices without a government (or a party program) imposed from above.

For these councils made their first appearance in the revolution which swept Europe in 1848; they reappeared in the revolt of the Paris Commune in 1871, existed for a few weeks during the first Russian revolution of 1905, to reappear in full force in the October revolution in Russia and the November revolutions in Germany and Austria after the first World War. Until now, they have always been defeated, but by no means only by the “counter-revolution.” The Bolshevik regime destroyed their power even under Lenin and attested to their popularity by stealing their name (soviet being the Russian word for council). In Russia, the Supreme Soviet is needed to conceal the fact that the true seat of power is in the party apparatus and to present the outside world the façade of a non-existent parliament. In addition, it serves as a kind of honor system; membership, acquired through nomination by the party, is bestowed for outstanding achievement in all professions and walks of life. Members of the Russian soviets neither rule nor govern; they do not legislate and have no political rights whatsoever, not even the privilege to execute party orders. They are not supposed to act at all; they are chosen in recognition of non-political achievements – for their contribution to the “building of socialism.” When Soviet-Russian tanks crushed the revolution in Hungary, they actually destroyed the only free and acting soviets in the world. And in Germany, again, it was not the “reaction” but the Social Democrats who liquidated the Soldiers and Workers councils in 1919.

In the case of the Hungarian revolution, even more markedly than in the case of the earlier ones, the establishment of the Councils represented the first practical step to restore order and to reorganize the Hungarian economy on a socialist basis, but without rigid Party control or the apparatus of terror. The councils thus were charged with two tasks, one political, the other economic, and though it would be wrong to believe that the dividing line between them was unblurred, we may assume that the Revolutionary Councils fulfilled mainly political functions while the Worker’s Councils were supposed to handle economic life. In the following we shall deal with the Revolutionary Councils and the political aspect; their immediate task was to prevent chaos and the spreading of crime, and in this they were quite successful. The question whether economic, as distinguished from political, functions can be handled by councils, whether in other words, it is possible to run factories under the management and ownership of the workers, we shall have to leave open. As a matter of fact it is quite doubtful whether the political principle of equality and self-rule can be applied to the economic sphere of life as well. It may be that ancient political theory, which held that economics, since it was bound up with the necessities of life, needed the rule of masters to function well, was not so wrong after all. For it is somehow, albeit paradoxically, supported by the fact that whenever the modern age has believed that history is primarily the result of economic forces, it has come to the conviction that man is not free and history is subject to necessity.

Hannah Arendt
“Reflections of the Hungarian Revolution”
Epilogue to the second edition of
The Origins of Totalitarianism, 1958

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