Socialist historians met in London last week for a conference on 1956, a key year which saw the Suez crisis and a workers’ revolution in Hungary. Stan Newens, the former left wing Labour MP, was a young activist in London at the time. He spoke to Socialist Worker about the impact of that year on working class people.
“It’s hard to generalise about working class life in the 1950s,” says Stan. “I lived a fairly conservative family life. What I was doing was very humdrum – my wife and I were going out to work each day, going home and digging the garden, going out to meetings and going to see her parents and my parents.
“Everybody in the 1950s was experiencing a better standard of life than they had grown up with. Living standards were rising – that’s why when the Tory prime minister Harold Macmillan said, ‘You’ve never had it so good’, it struck a chord.
“The Labour government of 1945 transformed life for a very large number of people in Britain. There was full employment. Houses were built.”
This general experience of rising standards of living meant that Stan’s decision to become a conscious socialist and get politically active was an unusual one.
“The number of people who were conscious socialists was small,” he says. “I joined the Labour Party in 1949 in North Weald, a village outside Epping in Essex. When I went to my first meeting there were about half a dozen people there and they suggested I join the General Management Committee.
“I felt honoured – but within three months they had all left and I was North Weald Labour Party! I had to reorganise it myself.”
The early postwar years also saw a few working class people start to go to universities. Stan attended University College London, a key experience in forming his politics.
“There was a small group there called the Revolutionary Socialist Society. I went to a debate about whether Russia was socialist or state capitalist. I met Chanie Rosenberg and she said I should meet Tony Cliff – he was a formidable character.”
Stan became a member of the Socialist Review Group, a forerunner of the Socialist Workers Party founded by Cliff , which at that time worked within the Labour Party.
The group developed a perspective that consistently called for workers’ power from below and opposed the ruling classes of both the West and the Eastern Bloc.
This rising politicisation came to a head on 4 November 1956 with a huge demonstration in Trafalgar Square against the British, French and Israeli attack on Egypt, known as the Suez crisis.
“The demo was called by a campaign which had been formed against intervention in Suez by Victory for Socialism and by the Movement for Colonial Freedom, of which I’m now the president,” says Stan.
Shortly before the demo the Labour Party threw its official weight behind it.
The Socialist Review Group decided it would produce a leaflet for the 4 November demonstration, and the group’s distinctive political perspective was reflected in the leaflet’s design.
It was doubled sided, with one side calling for a protest against the Russian army’s invasion of Hungary to put down a workers’ uprising there, and the other calling for industrial action to stop the “naked slaughter” of the British attack on Suez.
“We had the idea of distributing a leaflet calling for industrial action,” says Stan. “Drafting the leaflet was a cooperative venture.
“I took it and got it duplicated. To have access to a good duplicator back then wasn’t easy. But I was a constituency Labour Party officer, so I had that and we turned them out there.
“I also had a car and brought the leaflets down to London, staggered out with the box and met the Socialist Review people who were going to distribute them.
“As soon as I’d got there someone came up, took a leaflet and said, ‘What’s this?’ before calling over to his workmates. These were dockers who took the leaflets off us and started to distribute them around.”
The demonstration was much larger than anyone expected. “We had grossly underestimated the size of the demonstration. When the students came marching in it was just fantastic.
“Up to that time, I’d thought students had been a pretty poor lot politically. But it really caught their imagination that Britain was going to go to war.
“There were some students against the Korean war between 1950 and 1953, but it was nowhere near the same scale. They were clever with the Korean war – they masqueraded it as a United Nations (UN) action, and people said, ‘Oh, we’ve got to support the UN.’
“It was like what they did with the Afghanistan war. Tony Blair and Jack Straw were trying to get the UN in on the Iraq war– but the French stuffed them, and good on them for doing that!”
Several papers from the 1956 conference held last week are available online. Go to www.londonsocialisthistorians.org