Six decades ago a year of crises and struggles shook the postwar status quo, helping reshape the world of the 20th century.
In his new book 1956: The World in Revolt, author Simon Hall argues that the year ranks as one of the main “turning points and watersheds” in 20th century history.
He told Socialist Worker, “A lot of the book is about the different struggles waged across the world for greater freedoms. They were for more liberal Communist regimes in Eastern Europe, racial equality in the US or independence struggles in the old colonies.
“It’s also the story of the way these forces clash with guardians of status quo. In most cases the people with power retain power—they are ruthless and successfully push back in the face of unprecedented challenges.
“It shows that political change is messy and unpredictable. But it’s the outcome of those clashes that have consequences with real significance.”
The 1950s aren’t always seen as a time of radical change. But for Hall, 1956 was the harbinger of struggles and social changes that reached their high point a decade or more later.
“The 1950s suffer because they fall between the drama of depression and war and the glamour of the 1960s,” he said. “But that decade was much more significant than that.
“I think it’s no coincidence that its ten years after the Second World War, and the promise of greater freedom and equality embodied in that Atlantic Charter that all of the Allies signed up to.
“But a lot of the promises aren’t delivered. In the colonial world the British and French are reluctant to give up their power, even though the charter was taken seriously by people living in those colonies.
“In the US its claims aren’t really meaningful for African Americans–there’s no real progress with getting rid of segregation.
“In Eastern Europe the communist states that were built were Stalinist police states and were quite unpopular. There was the feeling that ‘people’s democracies’ hadn’t delivered good enough living standards and freedoms.
“There was a frustration that the kind of world that was promised hadn’t been created—that came to the surface and exploded in 1956.”
It’s this explosion that would impact on the struggles of the 1960s.
The first of what Hall calls the “three main historical forces at work” to break out in 1956 was “the revolt against institutionalised white supremacy in the United States and South Africa”.
“In the US in particular it was a key year in the emergence of the Civil Rights Movement,” he said.
In December 1955 Rosa Parks had been arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a segregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama.
In response Civil Rights activists, including Martin Luther King, launched a bus boycott. It eventually forced the Supreme Court to rule segregated buses unconstitutional in December 1956.
Hall said, “In 1956 the Civil Rights struggle sees the emergence of what was at least in public the ‘non-violent approach’.
“But that came up against an organised segregationist movement known as Massive Resistance. It was aimed at marshalling Southern whites for an all-out defence of segregation.”
“That meant no compromise, no token desegregation, the use of every weapon to hold the colour line. That fight played out over the next ten years.”
At that time many activists critical of capitalist states in the West looked to Soviet Russia and its client regimes in eastern Europe as an alternative.
But far from being socialist or communist societies run by workers, these were brutal dictatorships where workers were just as exploited.
And 1956 saw the first uprising by workers in one of the most hardline regimes, Hungary.
Up to 20,000 students and others marched through the capital, Budapest, on 23 October. They demanded “independence from foreign powers”, “democratic socialism” and “rights of free men”.
These demonstrations quickly spread and grew into an armed insurrection. People forced hardline rulers to resign and began running things through provincial councils. In Budapest workers set up a workers’ council—in Russian, a “soviet”.
Hall said, “Hungarian students first took to the streets partly out of solidarity with protests that had happened a couple of weeks before in Poland.
“The Polish press had become prolific during the period of opening up and many of their articles were read in Hungary. They encouraged many Hungarian intellectuals and reformers to debate the same sort of ideas—it was one of the triggers of what happened in Hungary.”
Economic stagnation in Russia and the death of long term dictator Joseph Stalin were already causing problems for Soviet rulers.
In 1953 new Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev made a “secret speech” denouncing Stalin’s “cult of personality”. He introduced minor reforms he hoped would solve their problems.
But this opened up the regimes to more radical criticism. Hall said, “Across Eastern Europe you can see people responding to the secret speech, but then also to events in neighbouring countries.”
It was Khrushchev the “reformer” who sent in Russian tanks to crush the uprising and installed a new Hungarian leadership.
But despite its ultimate failure, for Hall the revolution meant “1956 was a watershed for international communism.
“As the historian Eric Hobsbawm said, the Bolshevik Revolution created an international communist movement and 1956 ended it,” he said. “That’s incredibly significant for the history of the 20th century.”
Thousands of people did resign from the official Communist parties that backed the Soviet regimes. But many became part of building a new left that sought to rediscover the genuine communist tradition.
Hall said, “The other theme in 1956 is the pushback against the colonial rule and the European empires.
“The war in France’s colony Algeria intensified, while Morocco, Tunisia and Sudan all won independence in 1956.”
In particular, the Suez Crisis of 1956 “revealed the limitations of British power before the world”.
Egypt’s nationalist president Gamal Abdel Nasser, who had seized power from the Western-backed king four years earlier, nationalised the Suez Canal in July 1956. This had been an economically and strategically central shipping route for the British Empire, and was increasingly important for Europe’s oil imports.
Its nationalisation threatened to set a precedent for other movements and regimes that wanted to shake off colonial domination and develop their own economies.
Israel invaded Egypt’s Sinai region in late October, followed closely by Britain and France. But the Egyptian army, while beaten, was able to shut down the canal.
Britain and France’s governments were humiliated when the US president Dwight Eisenhower intervened to stop the invasion only days after they joined it.
British prime minister Anthony Eden resigned in January 1957, while his French counterpart Guy Mollet limped on until June.
Hall said, “This was really important because it’s essentially when the US replaced Britain as the major power in the Middle East.” And that had consequences that go right down to current day.
“The US was rhetorically and I think ideologically against colonialism, in that it opposed formal empire.
“But it was perfectly happy to use informal power and shape the world in own image using its military resources and the cultural power it tried to wield as well.”
Eisenhower feared the invasion could threaten the US’s attempts to stop the Soviet Union from gaining allies and extending its reach in the Middle East.
“So Eisen-hower was prepared to humiliate Britain and France, but that meant the US took Britain’s place.
“The following year he proclaimed the ‘Eisenhower Doctrine’, which made the US the guarantor of ‘peace and security’ in the Middle East,” said Hall.
“When you look at the headlines today there’s a lot of resonance with 1956.
“The Middle East is a hotbed of Western intrigue and popular frustration, and there’s the inability of the West to deal with that.”
Meanwhile in South East Asia, the US was also beginning to replace the French Empire which formally ended its rule of “Indochina” in 1954.
In Vietnam resistance forces had defeated the French, but imperial powers divided the country.
The North was ruled by Ho Chi Mihn’s Communist Party and the South by the Catholic despot Ngo Dihn Diem.
“Under the Geneva Accords there were supposed to be nationwide elections that would lead to the reunification,” said Hall.
“But Diem unilaterally decided they were not going to happen. So 1956 is important in the creation of the fiction that there were two Vietnamese states.
“It’s also the year that the US took on a much bigger military role and started sending ‘military advisers’.
“It was a step on the road to the US’s disastrous military involvement in South East Asia.”
For Hall, the “three strands” of anti-racism in the West, democratic struggles in the East and rebellion in the old colonies are “all important in their own right”.
But he argues that 1956 is significant as the moment when “they all intensified” and “people drew inspiration, connections or were reacting to things happening elsewhere”.
“Martin Luther King caught the sense of 1956 being a year of revolution,” argue Hall.
“He talked about how all these struggles were part of a general upsurge of people’s movements—and these would shape the next ten years.”
For example, “In Britain the Suez Crisis undermined the establishment. “The people in charge saw themselves as being competent and almost infallible—but they clearly were not.
“Not only did they lie by secretly colluding with the Israelis, they ended up getting Britain into a terrible pickle.
“That helped to fuel what became later the end of deference and to socially and culturally push Britain towards more that spirit that you had in the 1960s.”