Charles Taylor Coutts, 28. 6. 1987, Budapest, Hungary


Location Budapest, Hungary
Date 28. 6. 1987
Length 14:46

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When you came out to Hungary, what did you think the communist party was doing right here?

Just about everything. I was a communist from Britain, it seemed to be doing all the things that we worked for in Britain, dignity of the workers were…, a sort of dignity they had never had before, living standards were high, comparatively. The pensions were the sort of thing you could dream about in Britain in those days, that they would be related to your actual salary. So, on the whole they seemed to do everything right, so much so that when any Hungarian was slightly critical, I immediately educated them about how fortunate they were, to be living in a socialist society.

After a little while, did you see that some things weren't right, and what were they?

Well, the first thing went so, wasn't right, was the fact that people did not speak openly, did not say all that they felt about many things. That in the countryside the peasants by no means were happy about the compulsory delivery system. And that inside the party there was virtually no real democracy. And, well, what else can you say? There were so many things which added up to not as I once said a police state, but very much a state in which workers certainly had very little say.

Did you think that was the result of the sort of Soviet influence or not?

I think it was a result of the Soviet influence in the sense that we communists all thought that we were going the right way and well it was the influence of Stalin, yes. And of Stalin's approach to the whole question of building socialism which we all immediately followed, I had the exam…, idea there's the class enemy, you've got to fight him, this is the way to do it, it succeeds in the Soviet Union, so you do it here as well.

Can you give me an example of this problem at the time?

Personal example? Well in the first period when I was here, I was invited to Szeged to speak to the university students there, and I had a very interesting young fellow interpreting for me, and he and I had lots of discussion about all problems and so on. In the course of which he said that he thought Yugoslavia had a better brand of socialism than Hungary. I dissuaded him. When I came back to Budapest and the Federation asked me how did you get on? I said it was a very good, wonderful trip and the interpreter and I had very interesting discussions, they said what about? I said well he thought Yugoslav Socialism was better than the Hungarian variety. I didn't think any more about it but two years later a young woman in the Federation asked me do you know István Kovács? And I said no I don't think so. She said the name should mean something to you. Why? She said because on the basis of the report you made about his preference for Yugoslav Socialism he was taken into custody and probably that and other things, he was sentenced to two years in prison.

Did that shake your faith in communism?

Oh no, but I had also had my own personal trial in between the leadership of the Federation wanted to send me back to Britain as a saboteur for, because of political differences. And the two Hungarians in the Committee who knew the truth didn't speak at all. And afterwards when I said to them why the hell didn't you open your mouth? They said well we were afraid to because the Soviet comrade was on the other side. And so, I had had plenty of experience of it, of these things as I went along. No, I didn't change my faith in communism if you can call it faith, it didn't change my belief in socialism as a superior, or a potentially superior system of society.

You were here during the events of ‘56, how do you interpret them?

Oh, it was a counterrevolution. It was a mass movement of, of people, of young people, writers, and workers. But mainly young people, for change inside the communist party, change of leadership, Hungarian, a specific Hungarian form of socialism. And, but that was subverted in the course of the demonstrations and events into, into a process which was day after day after day was going hell-bent back to the semi-fascist Hungary of pre-war years. There was no way in which it was going to stop suddenly, and become a nice democratic British capitalism, or something like that. This, that was the reality of the situation, and that is why I took my stand on, against it.

What sort of things did you see during the events of ‘56 that convinced you for example there were fascists, there were criminals, and that …

Well for example on the, on the 28th or 29th of October when the party in government agreed on a ceasefire, and the opposition leadership agreed on a ceasefire. I went out to have a look at what was going on, and the thing I see is people making their way towards Republic Square where the party headquarters are, everybody was supposed to have handed in their arms. They were going to Republic Square to attack the party headquarters. Later they were joined by tanks. And the fighting went on all day, and at the end of the day, they brought the people out who were, we called them defenders, young soldiers in fact, and some leading communists, hung them from the trees upside down, cut out their heart, dragged them through the streets, shot the five young people in uniform that they brought out, who came out with their hands up to surrender, shot them, and from that you, in that you could feel that this, now events were totally out of control of Imre Nagy and the supposed opposition leadership. I also had the experience of going for example to Parliament and negotiate about the houses that belonged to the World Federation of Democratic Youth, which Hungarians were moving into, and ejecting the foreigners. So, I went to, with two other people to see Imre Nagy the Prime Minister, to ask him if he couldn't do something, give a diplomatic immunity or something. We had to wait three hours because he was changing his government once again, we never got to see him, as it took too long, but the officer in charge of the bodyguard at Parliament gave me a leaflet on my way out, which was from the National Revolutionary Council of the Armed Forces, saying Imre Nagy and such Bolsheviks, we have to get out. And continue the, in other words the very head of the bodyguard of the, of the Prime Minister, was giving out leaflets saying he had to be ejected. I was also at a meeting where they founded the, or refunded the Christian, well the equivalent of the Christian Democratic Party. There were about a hundred people in the cinema, they elected a leadership and then eight young men armed to the teeth came in, talked everyone off the platform, and appointed a new leadership. Well, I could give you many examples of this, I also had the experience of a machine gun stuck in my stomach and trying to make up their minds whether I was, should be shot out of hand as a communist from Britain, or welcomed as a, as advanced guard of the United Nations’ force coming to help the Hungarian Revolution.

Did you, did that period also show a lot of communists were opportunists? I believe there some young woman you had helping get into the party, changed her view.

Yes, well, well she was a party member. She had just become a party member on the eve of the counterrevolution. But in the party unit in the World Federation of Democratic Youth had had arguments for nearly a year about her application for membership, it was opposed on the grounds of her social origin, in other words if she had come from a middle class or upper-class family. But finally, just on the eve of the counterrevolution, they accepted her, and she became a member of the party. And I met her on the second day of the counterrevolution, October the 25th, here in Népköztársaság utca and she flings her arms open and says Charlie I always knew there was a good God above who would come down and get rid of all these communists, you know? Yes, of course there were many opportunists in the party, most parties have opportunists, of course. But there was a peculiarly favorable situation for opportunists, naturally.

Did you think it was right to punish a lot of the people, who were executed after the ‘56 events including Imre Nagy, what was your view of that at the time?

At the time of the execution of Imre Nagy, I was against it. I think I am still against it, in the sense that I think it was a, well I am against capital punishment to begin with, and therefore I wouldn't have executed Nagy in any case. I think it was a mistake in the sense that Imre Nagy was not a conscious traitor to socialism or to Hungarian Socialism. But a man who found himself trapped by his own opportunism and ego into a situation where he was completely in the hands of the right, of counterrevolution. And didn't have the, either the courage or the ability to break out of it. That was how I felt at the time, and so I was against, when I heard he had been executed I was against, of course I have since seen some of Imre Nagy's memoirs which have been published in the west, in which becomes clear that a year before these events, in actual fact he was proposing a policy of taking Hungary out of the Warsaw Pact, and of various such steps. Which in the circumstances in my opinion are very close to treachery, to say that you take Hungary out of the Warsaw Pact at that time, at the height of the Cold War and put it in, because it wouldn't go anywhere else, into the camp of the United States and the west, yes that was treachery. And, so, I understand the execution. But no, I don't think it was a correct, and I think that it was politically a mistake because you can still find in Hungary the feeling that well Imre Nagy was done to death unfairly, and maybe it wasn't because the Hungarians decided but the Soviet Union decided and so on. All of which I think is nonsense. But there is, yes that does give some grounds for the, or some basis for the idea of Imre Nagy as a martyr.

Would you describe the events in Czechoslovakia in ‘68 and the Solidarity crisis? Would you also see those as being counterrevolutions in some sense? 

Yes, I think Czechoslovakia was Hungary in slow motion. It would have ended in much the same way, and an even…, and an even more critical situation. Because Czechoslovakia was bound for the arms of West Germany. Czechoslovakia which left the Warsaw Pact and left the Socialist camp would inevitably have fallen into the hands of West Germany, and therefore all the other things that followed like the opening to the east, the West German Ostpolitik, the select settlement of relations between east and west, West Germany and the Soviet Union, or even the United States and the Soviet Union agreement on SALT, all of these would have gone by the board, because the impetus would have been for the west to say aha, now we have Czechoslovakia, it's the next step, we must take the next steps.

Some communists in Hungary now talk of having a pluralism, some sort of pluralism, but do you think, do the communist leaders in Hungary you know, would still subscribe to the view that at least there are two things the communist party can never do, it can never leave, lose its leading role in society, and can never lose its close relationship with the Soviet Union.

I'll answer the first one first, second one first. I can imagine socialism and the Soviet Union without Hungary but cannot imagine socialism in Hungary without the Soviet Union, nor anywhere else in the world, without the existence of the Soviet Union and what it means and what help it can give. The leading role of the party, yes I think that's absolutely essential. I’m, I would put it in another way, in 1956, I became more convinced than ever before of the need for the leading role of the communist party, when I saw a communist party fall apart, and disintegrate, and the political vacuum that was created for the working class, simply one of not knowing where to turn, where to go or what to do next. Yes, in a socialist society I think a leading role, but I think the Hungarian Socialist Workers' Party, now in the way which it is exploring the representation of group interests, the possibility of the Patriotic People's Front and other Socialist organizations taking a much bigger role in deciding policy, are all leading to a form of pluralism within socialism. You see last week when Magyar Nemzet, the paper of the Patriotic People's Front in a signed editorial said that members of Parliament were saying in committees that unless there were changes in the leadership, when the parliamentary debate came on the budget, they were going to propose that the budget should not be discussed at all, never mind voted on. And these expressions of opinions of a very open and frank kind which represent not just communists but the general feeling within the country. I think yes that we're on, we're on the road to what I would call socialist pluralism, with the communist party playing a leading role.

Charles Taylor Coutts (1921–2000)

Charles Taylor Coutts

Charles Coutts, a Scottish journalist, was born in Peterculter, a suburb of Aberdeen, on 8 January 1921, and died in Budapest, on 6 April 2000.

As a British soldier, he was taken prisoner of war in Japan during World War II, spending more than three years in various camps. As a prisoner of war, he was involved in the construction of the Burma (Death) Railway in Thailand and the famous bridge over the Kwai River.

He later joined the Communist Party of Great Britain and became a correspondent for the party's central newspaper, the Daily Worker. He joined the left-wing, socialist World Federation of Democratic Youth, which was (and still is) based in Budapest, and moved to Hungary. In addition to his work as a correspondent for the Daily Worker, he was also editor of the WFDY’s magazine, Világ Ijúsága (World Youth) first published in 1950. He resided in Budapest during the outbreak of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, and he reported daily to the Daily Worker on his experiences on the streets. As an official of the WFDY, he was well acquainted with the editorial staffs of political dailies as well as with politicians.

After the revolution, he stayed in Hungary, married a Hungarian woman, and later became the head of the English section of the Magyar Rádió (Hungarian Radio Corporation). His passions included music and sports, especially football, so he paved the way for many English bands to perform in Budapest, and helped Hungarian bands organize their tours in England. He was able to hold his position until 1995, after which he worked as a freelancer until his death.