Zsigmond Kunfi (wikipedia)

Demonstration in January, consequences in February – Early 1918 and the Social Democrats

The government seeking to govern without parliamentary majority, politicians betraying each other, parties being unable to compromise, arrested radicals – such a divided elite would destabilize a state even in peace times, but Hungary started the last year of the First World War with this political apparatus.

A huge political demonstration paralysed Budapest on 18-19 January, 1918. Workers stopped work and demonstrated for peace without annexation during the negotiations with Soviet Russia, as well as stood for expanding the right to vote and better food supply. Even insiders were surprised by the outbreak of a practically general demonstration in the capital, where at least 150 thousand people stopped work, and the protests spread to rural towns as well.

Of course, this would not have been a problem from the perspective of the main organizers – metropolitan trade union “trustees” related to the Hungarian Social Democratic Party (MSZDP) –, however, the success of the action was questioned from the beginning due to the lack of coordination with the strike of workers in Vienna. Manfried Rauchensteiner said that a total of 600 thousand people stopped work from 14 to 19 January in Austria, but by the time Hungarians joined, Austrian Social Democrats had already started to calm down the movement. Thereby the Hungarian strike achieved only illusory success, while in the long run it pushed the government in a conservative direction, and removed Social Democrats from civil parties and in general rather radicalised public life. But let us have a look at what happened in Budapest in early 1918. In the Hungarian capital, assemblies were held in eleven places on 18 January. Traffic stopped, shops closed, papers were not published for three days. Around twenty thousand people listened to Jakab Weltner and Vilmos Böhm, MSZDP leaders on Thököly Road, as written by Lajos Varga in his volume. Weltner did not want to chase the masses into armed clashes these days. “Nobody can question peace demands, but it does not mean making a revolution similar to the one in Russia. In Russia, councils are the bodies vested with authority, while in Hungary, they are not more than a tool for discrediting the party leadership”, wrote Varga when analysing Weltner’s views. That is why MSZDP soon made efforts to stop the demonstration.

What Weltner meant when talking about discrediting the party leadership turned out from contemporary press. Some protesters also planned the establishment of a Workers’ Council of Budapest during the demonstration. Several meetings were held, but eventually the organization was not established. Though some say that the idea of a workers’ council was the result of Soviet Russian developments, it was also a characteristic Hungarian phenomenon: the organizers wanted to achieve the control of the leadership of the Social Democratic Party, not to influence the government, as done by Russian Soviets (worker and military councils) in 1917.

MSZDP leaders and trade union leaders (with significant personal overlap between the two groups) had to face another unpleasant surprise. Trade unions were able to keep the activities of their members relatively under control. Though in 1917 there were some demonstrations where passions were unleashed and protesters even damaged trams, the strike in January 1918 was a much more complex phenomenon. On the one hand, Rauchensteiner said that participants of street protests already ripped off tram rails at night on January 18 in Budapest, on the other hand, political demands were published that did not match the ambitions of MSZDP leaders. The party leadership had hard times stopping the protest as well: some workers – especially Vasas members – did not return to work even in spite of the central order. (The entire MSZDP party leadership resigned due to this, i.e. the breach of party discipline.)

This was a complaint of Ferenc Bárdos trade union activist on the extraordinary Social Democratic Party meeting on 10 February, 1918, held as a result of the strike: “One year ago iron workers were the ones who wished to add more vitality to party life.” However, he felt that “it did not mean decomposing the unity or tolerating any attacks against the party unity by anyone”. In his view, this leads back to the fact that “such new masses joined the Hungarian labour movement that cannot be named educated Socialists.

As another unexpected development, István Friedrich, a politician who became famous (infamous) later, appeared around iron and machine factories. He offered his services for the Party of Independence and ’48 of Mihály Károlyi, and sought to influence workers during the protest. This contributed to the temporary deterioration of the relations between Károlyi and the Social Democrats.

Probably the proposal of Bárdos on the MSZDP congress on February 10 was an answer to this: “the party meeting declares that a member of the social democratic party cannot be a member (…) of any associations or bodies that are concerned with politics or political issues.” This was accepted by the congress only after refinement, but the 12 February issue of Népszava did not publish the final decision directly after the meeting. The amended and adopted proposal was published on 17 February: “The party meeting declares that a member of the social democratic party cannot be a member of any Masonic associations. The party leadership and caucus shall decide what civil associations the party members can be member of.”

Primarily this would have made cooperation in the Electoral Block more difficult, since it was a political organization that MSZDP was only one member of. The Electoral Block was established back in the middle of 1917 by Social Democrats, Károlyi’s party and civil democrats of Vilmos Vázsonyi. The block was disintegrating owing to heated disputes between Vázsonyi and Károlyi by February 1918, but MSZDP’s dissociation from civil parties – since they did not support the protest in January and wanted to intervene into the matters of Social Democrats – worsened the situation even more.

Regarding suffrage, MSZDP continued to emphasize in vain that it supports all forces aiming at the expansion of rights. During the strike in January, the newly formed government of Sándor Wekerle and Vilmos Vázsonyi, soon advancing to be a justice minister, negotiating on behalf of the government, tackled the Social Democrats by promising the expansion of the scope of eligible voters, but could not fulfil his promise. (Vázsonyi resigns in April for this reason.)

However, this was not only the responsibility of the Wekerle government and Vázsonyi. Although they did a conservative turn indeed, but a great role was played by the fact that the government did not have majority in the House of Representatives, therefore they got closer to the party of the failed Count István Tisza, the Labour Party. Austria was also on the verge of being ungovernable in the first months of 1918: the government in Vienna did not have a solid majority in Reichsrat, the imperial legislative body convened again in 1917 after a three-year break. In Austria, representatives were elected to the parliament based on general suffrage, but the Austrian Reichsrat, divided into nationality factions, frightened Hungarian political elite. Although the conservative Count István Tisza failed as a prime minister in 1917, since no new election was held, the Labour Party led by him retained its majority in the Hungarian Parliament. Thereby all more radical reforms involving suffrage were doomed to fail until the collapse of the Monarchy – and owing to the Austrian example, the Hungarian power elite did not really force electoral reform in the similarly multi-ethnic Hungary.

The Electoral Block failed in early 1918 because by this time Vázsonyi had already broken up with his former ally, Károlyi, and joined the new government party organized around Wekerle. The government party was recruited from forces that used to form Tisza’s opposition (mainly from party groups of younger Gyula Andrássy and Alber Apponyi), but did not include Károlyi’s group. This united government party should have formed a strong political pole against Tisza’s Labour Party (in theory), however, in reality, the government tightened censorship and stepped up against Hungarian “Bolshevism”, sometimes even surpassing Tisza’s forcefullness. Thereby eventually –after the strike in January – some Tisza-supporters also started to support the Wekerle government. That is, a few months before the fall of the Monarchy, Sándor Wekerle Prime Minister made a conservative turn and got closer to the Tisza party. This is how he tried to establish a united and efficient group around himself. However, he could not have succeeded, since eventually Vázsonyi and Apponyi left the coalition government in April, when it turned out that Tisza’s group are only willing to accept minimal compromises regarding suffrage.

Going back to Social Democrats, as a further problem in coordinating left-wing movements, the enthusiastic youth activated themselves in January, who became influenced by the rather theoretic Ervin Szabó and the Galilei Circle (this latter became important due to its pacifism at this time).

In January 1918, prior to the strike, the government dissolved the Galilei Circle and arrested some young revolutionary socialists, but they already held far more radical views than MSZDP. Social Democrats recalling the events say that the police knew about some of their demands earlier than other left-wing associations, thereby their actions died on the vine, but gave the authorities a good cause for depicting the nightmare of Bolshevism and revolution and severely punish (imprison) radical activists. The same was done by the Justice Minister, Vázsonyi, who joined the aforementioned new, ‘unified’ power elite between January and April.

However, the Social Democratic leadership also started to crack from January. This process was rather only concealed: the difference between devotees of the Soviet-Bolshevic revolution (e.g. Zsigmond Kunfi) and the moderate Social Democrats (Ernő Garami) was only noticeable from informal signals according to Lajos Varga. Though leaders of MSZDP mainly emphasized not wishing for a Bolshevik-type revolution in January-Febuary 1918, in his view, they did not openly and clearly distance themselves from Russian events.

The strike in January forced MSZDP leaders to explain themselves also to the general public. The Social Democratic leadership also resigned at the end of January, the new governing body was elected on 10 February at an extraordinary congress. Jakab Weltner, a member of the party leadership, held a two-hour speech at the assembly, explaining in length the Social Democratic measures made to attenuate the January strike. Pursuant to Népszava, the extraordinary congress “brought purification in two ways“: “Internally and externally: in the internal life of the party and in its relation to civil society. Internally, it made the fundamentals of party discipline and Socialist education stronger, externally, it cut all organizational relations between the Socialist party and all civil formations.”

As Népszava pointed out: “The extraordinary congress was primarily made necessary by the disruption of party discipline. That is why the party leadership resigned and the congress in fact showed its decisive commitment to party discipline with the confidence toward and re-election of the old party leadership. The re-election of the party leadership proves that masses of Hungarian workers clearly and unanimously approve the outbreak of the great political strike, just like its end, they approve the fighting, the whole tactics, they declare the effectiveness of the struggle of the masses, and reject disruptive aspirations of false revolutionary phrases.”

As the paper emphasized: “So the Social Democratic Party starts the spiritual revolution of working masses with a rich programme of great deeds after this extraordinary party meeting.” (This primarily concerned the in-party ideological worker training, the launch of a party paper in this topic.)  The paper also meant the radicalization of the party: “But the caucus did not only declare open fight against class state but against the entire civil society.”

Speaking at the congress, Jakab Weltner praised the January performance of party leadership (i.e. he also talked about himself), and though he talked about success, his thoughts got uncertain by the end, with good reason. As it later turned out, the Wekerle government did not hold themselves to the government declaration that Weltner had depicted as successful, and the country eventually did not get closer to general suffrage.  But let us have a look at what Weltner had said: “Hungarian workers returned triumphantly from the mass strike to the factories, because the declaration forced from the government was a victory. But let’s say the strike have ended with defeat and we have not received a satisfactory statement. If it had happened, I still say that, when trustees made their decision, no comrade has the right to overthrow this decision with mean slanders. The party is strong only as long as unity is protected!” Weltner also pointed out that the strike was not put down by the government, but by Social Democrats and trade union trustees.

At the party meeting, the party leadership eventually ordered a vote of confidence. The secret voting eventually brought great success to the leaders who resigned at the end of January: their position was strengthened again. This was reported on by Népszava as follows: “Sámuel Csapó (Budapest, ironworker) announced the results of the vote. Pursuant to this, the following persons were elected to be members of the party leadership with 230 cast and 228 valid votes: Dezső Bokányi with 224 votes. Vilmos Böhm (224), Manó Buchinger (224), István Farkas (221). Ernő Garami (225), Sándor Garbai (226), Zsigmond Kunfi, dr. (218), Ferenc Miákits (226), Károly Peyer (210), Gyula Peidl (225) and jakab Weltner (223).”

Pártegység és osztályharc. A szociáldemokrata párt rendkívüli kongresszusa = Népszava, 1918. február 12.
A pártvezetőség lemondásának okai és a párt legközelebbi föladatai = Népszava, 1918. február 12.
A pártgyűlés = Népszava, 1918. február 13.
A pártgyűlés. A tudósítás folytatásának közléséről lemondunk = Népszava, 1918. február 15.
Pártgyűlésünk. Az indítványok tárgyalása = Népszava, 1918. február 17.
Varga Lajos: Háború, forradalom, szociáldemokrácia Magyarországon. 1914. július–1919. március. Budapest, 2010.
Manfried Rauchensteiner: Az első világháború és a Habsburg Monarchia bukása. Budapest, 2013.

Written by: Iván Miklós Szegő