Another memorable year

Issue: 118

Pete Jackson

Keith Flett (ed), 1956 and all that (Cambridge Scholars, 2007), £34.99

The year 1956 shook the post-war consensus. Riots in Poland were followed by a workers’ uprising in Hungary, which was crushed by Russian tanks. The Suez War led to resistance across the Middle East and mass demonstrations in Britain. The impact was felt around the globe. CLR James wrote, “Since 1917 nothing has so shaken the world.”

This collection of essays was spawned by the London Socialist Historians day school marking the fiftieth anniversary of 1956. Keith Flett has brought the stories of people who were active at the time together with explanations of why 1956 saw such a crisis in the old order. The collection highlights the political turmoil that events of the year sparked on the left, and the openings it created for genuine Marxist ideas to grow.

At the end of the Second World War the Russians incorporated large chunks of Eastern Europe into their sphere of influence. Eastern European economies were looted of heavy industry, and forced into economic dependence on Russia. Communist Parties across the world accepted this uncritically.

Then, in February 1956, Russian leader Nikita Khrushchev’s “secret speech” exposed the crimes of Stalin and opened up a period of questioning. But the greatest blow for those believing Russia was socialist came with the Hungarian rising in October that year. The British Communist Party’s paper, the Daily Worker, sent Peter Fryer to Hungary, but never printed the reports he filed. Instead of following the party line and describing the rising as “fascist”, he reported on a workers’ uprising and became involved in it. Thousands of people, many of them key trade unionists and intellectuals, left the Communist Party in response to events in Hungary.

The Suez War added another dimension to the political maelstrom of 1956. Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal in July. In October British, French and Israeli forces launched a war to maintain control of it. The response in Britain was dramatic—30,000 marched against the war, the biggest demonstration in Trafalgar Square since the 1930s.

Hungary without Suez would have been seen as a victory for the West, Suez without Hungary a victory for the East. When Russian tanks crushed Hungarian workers on the same day that British tanks sought to crush Arab nationalists, the result was ideological ferment.

Christian Høgsbjerg’s essay looks at the impact of 1956 on CLR James and the movement for colonial freedom. The third election victory of Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana forced the British to concede a date for independence. Eric Williams’s People’s National Movement formed a government in Trinidad and Tobago. James wrote, “North Africa is boiling…the permanent revolution is on its way once more. Not the permanent revolution of 1848 or 1917, but of 1956.”

Anne Alexander describes the experience of Communists in Egypt. Nasser needed a popular resistance movement to fight the invasion. He released Communists from prison, and in just five days in November a million small arms were distributed. Nasser knew the Communists were the best people to organise the working class to withstand the invasion. At the heart of Egyptian Communist theory was the idea of a “democratic dictatorship of all the classes struggling against imperialism and feudalism”. This meant that the Communists were ill placed to challenge Nasser’s leadership—after the war he locked them all up again.

Hungary did not hit every Communist Party in the same way. Tobias Abse describes the impact on the massive Italian Communist Party. Although the party openly wobbled, by 5 November its leader Palmiro Togliatti could write, “It is my opinion that a protest should have been made against the USSR if, having been invited to intervene a second time, it had failed to do so.”

The ideological ferment in Britain is described by a number of contributors. The Communist Party Historians group brought together some of the best minds in the party. David Renton shows them struggling to break from the stagnant political method of Stalinism. In July 1956 John Saville and EP Thompson launched a journal for dissident Communists named the Reasoner, and refused to halt publication when told to by the party. The “New Left” was born.

But the ideological break was, for many, incomplete. While breaking with the methods of Stalinism, they tried to hold on to the idea that the “Communist countries” remained more progressive than the West and continued to believe that Leninism led to Stalinism.

For many readers of International Socialism the impact on the Trotskyist movement in Britain will be of interest. Neil Davidson, Paul Blackledge, Paul Flewers and Stan Newens each show a number of people going further than Thompson or those who formed the New Left Review. Some of the best people who left the Communist Party became involved with the small Trotskyist movement. Peter Fryer and others were drawn to the largest group at the time, led by Gerry Healey. Stan Newens describes a frenetic year of activity alongside other comrades in the Socialist Review Group.

The Trotskyists offered a far-reaching critique of Stalinism, but one key question divided them. Was Russia a “degenerated workers’ state” in which state ownership of the means of production meant some elements of socialism remained? Or was it “state capitalist” as the Socialist Review Group and, later, this publication argued?

Attempting to defend the degenerated workers’ state theory meant attempting to explain how the Eastern European countries, now duplicating the Russian economic and political model, had advanced beyond capitalism without the active participation of the working class. Hungary in 1956 highlighted some of the problems with this position.