1956 and the rebirth of socialism from below

Issue: 112

Why commemorate 1956? The answer, in short, is that Sunday 4 November 1956 was one of the major ideological turning points for socialists in the 20th century. On that day Russian tanks moved in to crush workers’ councils in Hungary and did so just as the left across the world was mobilising hundreds of thousands of people on the streets in protest at the joint British, French and Israeli military attack on Egypt.

The coincidence brought to a head a ferment that had been brewing all year.

The Russian leader Nikita Khrushchev had stunned the world in February by denouncing the murder of many thousands of committed Communists by his predecessor Joseph Stalin. The impact was enormous for millions of militant fighters against capitalism and imperialism who had been taught for nearly three decades to regard Stalin as infallible.

The shock increased in summer and early autumn when the political crisis caused by strikes and riots in the Polish city of Poznan brought Wladyslaw Gomulka to power as the country’s prime minister only two years after his release from a Stalinist prison. Communist leaders who had justified not only the imprisonment of Gomulka but the jailing or execution of scores of leading East European Communists in the late 1940s and early 1950s now had to admit they were wrong—and many activists demanded to know why these leaders had not told the truth in the past.

And then on 23 October full blown revolution erupted in Hungary with all the classic features of mass demonstrations, a general strike, street fighting, barricades, police and army units going over to the revolution, the collapse of the old state machine and, in the midst of all this, the emergence of workers’ councils. It was this movement that the Russian army set about crushing systematically. The impact on very many of the best militants was to shatter unbridled faith in the Stalinist message that identified revolutionary socialism with one-party top-down dictatorship. It broke the mental shackles that led those fighting oppression in one part of the world to line up with those imposing it in another part.

There had been shocks to the Stalinist message before, especially in 1939, when the Stalin-Hitler pact betrayed the anti-fascist line that Communist Parties had proclaimed as all-important for the previous five years. But on such previous occasions those who turned against the ‘god that failed’ moved, in 99.9 percent of cases, towards social democracy or liberalism. And in the late 1940s and early 1950s this meant accepting the claim of US imperialism to stand for ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’. In Britain many of the novelists and critics who had written for the Communist-run Left Review in 1935 were writing for the CIA-financed Encounter by 1955.

In 1956 it was different. The claims of the western states to stand for freedom and democracy clashed with the reality of continuing colonial rule in Asia and Africa, and nowhere more so than in the Arab lands of North Africa and the Middle East. France’s social democratic government, brought to office at the beginning of 1956 (with Communist Party parliamentary support), was pouring troops into Algeria in a desperate, and unsuccessful, effort to crush the independence movement of the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN). And the British government was determined to restore ownership of the Suez Canal—the lifeline through which the oil of the Gulf made its way to Europe—after the Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalised it in July 1956. The bombing of Egyptian cities by British planes was living proof to many of those who broke with Stalinism that the Western system was no better. And the centrality of the workers’ councils of the Hungarian Revolution prompted them to begin to see an alternative to both Cold War blocs.

The historian Edward Thompson, then a young Workers’ Education Association lecturer in Yorkshire, gave expression to the new feeling:

Stalinism has sown the wind and now the whirlwind centres on Hungary. As I write the smoke is still rising above Budapest… It is true that dollars have also been sown in this embittered soil. But the crop that is rising will surely not turn out to be the one which [US secretary of state] Mr Dulles expected… By an angry twist of history, it seems that the crop is coming up in students’, workers’ and soldiers’ councils, as ‘anti-Soviet’ soviets.1

It was a feeling that created a ‘new left’ out of the ideological crisis—and with it the rebirth of Marxism as a living, creative force. Where before Marxism had been identified with a monolithic, stifling, mechanical dogmatism, now there was debate between different schools and different interpretations. Significantly, New Left Review and the International Socialism journal were both born in the aftermath of 1956.2

The impact on the wider class struggle was not immediate. The 1950s were a decade in which workers’ living standards rose in an economy kept in permanent boom by a high level of arms spending. Under such circumstances, the great mass of workers did not see a need for a thoroughgoing alternative to capitalism. Working class teenagers expressed rebelliousness against their place in the world through the explosion of rock and roll: 1956 saw the police called to deal with disturbances in cinemas where the film Rock Around the Clock was shown. But there was no politics to the rebellion. It was to be another decade before performers like Bob Dylan broke out of the folk music ghetto to find a mass audience for political lyrics.

Nor did 1956 end the pretensions of the different imperialisms. The USSR recovered from the crisis of the mid-1950s to impose its will over Eastern Europe for another generation, crushing revolt in Czechoslovakia a dozen years later with as many troops as in Hungary, but with less bloodshed. And British imperialism, unable any more to play an independent role, now looked to defend its worldwide interests by being the loyal junior partner to the US, a role it is still attempting to play in Iraq and Afghanistan today. In the Middle East the Arab nationalist challenge to imperialism that received such a boost from Suez in 1956 went into near-terminal decline with the debacle of the June 1967 war with Israel only 11 years later.

But none of this diminishes the vital ideological importance of 1956. As the introduction to David Widgery’s The Left in Britain 1956-68 tells us:

In Hungary in 1956 Stalin’s tanks blew apart the left in the rest of the world. Old complacencies were shattered and new parties, new ideas and events brought a new militancy. The ferment continued for a decade and burst out in 1968 in Paris and across much of the world.

That is why the excitement of 1956 is still relevant today.

1: E Thompson, ‘Through the Smoke of Budapest’, Reasoner, November 1956.
2: New Left Review came about through the merger in 1960 of two magazines that both started life in 1957; International Socialism began life in a duplicated form.