… [T]he absence of internal strife in the developments that followed … The striking absence of ideological dispute, the concomitant lack of fanaticism and the ensuing atmosphere of fraternity, which came into being with the first demonstration in the streets … lasted until the bitter end …
In its positive significance, the outstanding feature of the uprising was that no chaos resulted from the actions of people without leadership and without previously formulated program. … Instead of the 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 …
In order to understand the council system, it is well to remember that it is as old as the party system itself; as such, it represents the only alternative to it, that is, the only alternative of democratic electoral representation to the one presented by the Continental multi-party system with its insistence on class interests on the one hand and ideology, or Weltanschauung, on the other. But while the historical origin of the party system lies in Parliament with its factions, the councils were born exclusively out of the actions and spontaneous demands of the people, and they were not deduced from an ideology nor foreseen, let alone preconceived, by any theory about the best form of government. Wherever they appeared, they were met with utmost hostility from the party-bureaucracies and their leaders from right to left and with the unanimous neglect of political theorists and political scientists. The point is that the councils have always been undoubtedly democratic, but in a sense never seen before and never thought about. And since nobody, neither statesman nor political scientists nor parties, has ever paid any serious attention to this new and wholly untried form of organization, its stubborn re-emergence for more than a century could not be more spontaneous and less influenced by outside interest or theory.
Under modern conditions, the councils are the only democratic alternative we know to the party system, and the principles on which they are based stand in sharp opposition to the principles of the party system in many respects. Thus, the men elected for the councils are chosen at the bottom, and not selected by the party machinery and proposed to the electorate either as individuals with alternate choices or as a slate of candidates. The choice, moreover, of the voter is not prompted by a program or a platform or an ideology, but exclusively by his estimation of a man, in whose personal integrity, courage and judgment he is supposed to have enough confidence to entrust him with his representation. The elected, therefore, is not bound by anything except trust in his personal qualities, and his pride is
“to have been elected by the workers, and not by the government”
or a party, that is, by his peers and from neither above nor below.
Once such a body of trusted men is elected, it will of course again develop differences of opinion which in turn may lead into the formation of “parties.” But these groups of men holding the same opinion within the councils would not be parties, strictly speaking; they would constitute those factions from which the parliamentary parties originally developed. The election of a candidate would not depend upon his adherence to a given faction, but still on his personal power of persuasion with which he could present his point of view. In other words, the councils would control the parties, they would not be their representatives. The strength of any given faction would not depend upon its bureaucratic apparatus and not even upon the appeal of its program or Weltanschauung, but on the number of trusted and trustworthy men it holds in its ranks. …
Remarkable, finally, is the great inherent flexibility of the system, which seems to need no special conditions for its establishment except the coming together and acting together of a certain number of people on a nontemporary basis. In Hungary, we have seen the simultaneous setting-up of all kinds of councils, each of them corresponding to a previously existing group in which people habitually lived together or met regularly and knew each other. Thus neighborhood councils emerged from sheer living together and grew into county and other territorial councils; revolutionary councils grew out of fighting together; councils of writers and artists, one is tempted to think, were born in the cafés, students’ and youths’ councils at the university, military councils in the army, councils of civil servants in the ministries, workers’ councils in the factories, and so on. The formation of a council in each disparate group turned a merely haphazard togetherness into a political institution.
The men elected were communists and non-communists; party lines seem to have played no role whatsoever, the criterion, in the words of a newspaper, being solely that there is
“none among them who would misuse his power or think only of his personal position.”
And this is more a criterion of qualification than of morality. Whoever misuses power or perverts it into violence, or is only interested in his private affairs and without concern for the common world, is simply not fit to play a role in political life. The same principles were observed in the further stages of election; for the councils, elected directly at the base, were urged to elect representatives for the higher bodies
“without regard for Party affiliation and with due regard to the confidence of the working people.”
One of the most striking aspects of the Hungarian revolution is that this principle of the council system not only reemerged, but that in twelve short days a good deal of its range of potentialities could emerge with it. The council-men were hardly elected in direct vote when these new councils began freely to coordinate among themselves to choose from their own midst the representatives for the higher councils up to the Supreme National Council, the counterpart of normal government – and the initiative for this came from the just revived National Peasant Party, certainly the last group to be suspected of extreme ideas. While this Supreme Council remained in preparation, the necessary preliminary steps had been taken everywhere: workers’ councils had set up coordinating committees and Central Workers’ Councils were already functioning in many areas; revolutionary councils in the provinces were coordinated and planning to set up a National Revolutionary Committee with which to replace the National Assembly. Here, as in all other instances, when for the shortest historical moment the voice of the people has been heard, unaltered by the shouts of the mob and unstifled by the bureaucracies of the parties, we can do no more than draw a very sketchy picture of the potentialities and physiognomy of the only democratic system which in Europe, where the party system was discredited almost as soon as it was born, was ever really popular. (We discussed in Chapter VIII, Section 3, the decisive difference between the Continental multi-party system and the Anglo-American two-party system which one must always keep in mind for a proper understanding of European events and revolutions.) The rise of the councils, not the restoration of parties, was the clear sign of a true upsurge of democracy against dictatorship, of freedom against tyranny.