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1956 a year of revolt and revolution

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Fifty years ago political life was turned upside down as crisis rocked both the British empire and the Russian bloc. Ian Birchall looks back and traces the birth of the new left
Issue 1982
A Hungarian revolutionary commands respect in Budapest. The streets were littered with the bodies of the hated secret police
A Hungarian revolutionary commands respect in Budapest. The streets were littered with the bodies of the hated secret police

There are years when everything changes at once. Conflicts built up over a decade or more suddenly explode and the entire political landscape is transformed. For the British left, 1956 was one of those years.

Since the end of the Second World War there had been more or less full employment. The fear of joblessness that haunted workers before 1939 had disappeared.

For many working class homes, though far from all, living standards were slowly rising. Cars, television sets and foreign holidays were within reach for at least some working people.

Greater self confidence among workers was reflected in the growth of shop steward organisation in industry. Acting independently of the right wing bureaucrats, local trade unionists were able to improve wages and conditions.

It was sometimes said that the best strike was one that was won before the full time official could get there and confuse matters. And when the spectre of unemployment did return, there was a militant response. During 1956 threatened redundancies at several major car plants led to strikes to defend jobs.

Culturally too, things were changing. A new generation of young writers — stereotyped by the press as “angry young men” — were attacking convention and looking at class and sex in a new way. Rock and roll, denounced by respectable society as “jungle music”, offered a new style for a generation in revolt.

But two fundamental certainties still dominated British political life. The first was that Britain was still a major imperial power. School classrooms, and many homes, had a map on the wall in which the countries of the British empire were marked in red.

Though India and Pakistan had achieved independence in the 1940s, Britain still ruled half of Africa and claimed to be a world power — part of the “Big Three” that had won the war, along with Russia and the US. Particularly important was the Middle East, in an age when oil was becoming more and more central to economic life.

The second certainty was the Cold War. In 1945 the world had been divided into two “spheres of influence”, the Russian and the American.

While both sides flung the word “democracy” around in an increasingly meaningless manner, it was generally acknowledged by friend and foe that the Russian bloc was “socialist” because it had a centrally directed economy.

So those on the British left who opposed US and British imperialism almost inevitably found themselves in the Russian camp.

The British Communist Party was small (30,000 members) and had little influence on mainstream politics — its two MPs from 1945 were long gone. But its members were at the heart of shop steward organisation, and its view of the world influenced a section of the Labour Party membership.

Of course information about the reality of Russian society, the labour camps and the show trials, had been available since the 1930s — the later plea that “we didn’t know” about this was quite untrue.

But since such information was mainly spread by the right wing press, those who saw the hostility of that press to working class struggle deduced that it was lying about Russia too.

As Peter Sedgwick, a socialist activist who left the Communist Party in 1956, later put it, “Any eyewitness could have compared the Communist Party’s Daily Worker with the newspapers of ‘the capitalist press’.

“Such comparisons would be made by workers engaged in labour disputes and by participants in a host of other struggles, repeatedly over many years, and always to the advantage of the Daily Worker.

“Two visions of reality, one reflecting the standpoint of the rulers, the other faithfully reporting the struggles of the ruled, contended in mutual exclusion, many newspapers against one, millions of bank notes against the shillings of the Fighting Fund. Two visions, two versions. Two media, two messages.

“This being so, thousands of Daily Worker readers, drawn from circles of political allegiance well outside the ranks of the Communist Party itself, were also inclined to give its reportage the benefit of the doubt when its version of fact clashed with that of its unfriendly competitors on other matters—the Soviet Five Year Plan, say, or the trials in Eastern Europe.”

Separate processes

The tiny groups who rejected both Western imperialism and Stalinism numbered at best a couple of hundred. But in the course of 1956 two separate processes came to a head.

In the Third World a new generation of nationalist leaders was emerging. In Egypt, where British policy had been based on friendship with the corrupt monarchy, a coup in 1952 led to the emergence of Gamal Abdul Nasser.

Nasser was no socialist — he jailed Communists. But he wanted to develop Egypt into a strong, modern economy. In June 1956 he announced that Egypt was nationalising the Suez Canal, the main sea route to the Far East which ran through his territory.

Since the canal had been dug by the brutally exploited labour of Egyptian workers, he had an excellent case.

But that case was unacceptable to the British Tory government, headed by Anthony Eden. And Eden was encouraged in his determination to stop Nasser by Guy Mollet, France’s nominally socialist prime minister.

France was facing a growing national liberation struggle in its north African territory of Algeria. The situation was difficult — many reservists and conscripts were resisting being sent to Algeria.

But rather than recognise that the national liberation struggle had real support, Mollet preferred to believe it was being whipped up from “outside” by the Egyptian regime. He and Eden plotted military action against Nasser.

British and French forces began to bomb Egypt on 31 October, then landed troops in the country on 5 November. The excuse was to prevent conflict between Egypt and Israel — in fact the whole thing had been planned in advance with Israel.

The operation was both brutal and inept. The Tory novelist Simon Raven, then a young army officer, described it as “a process of collusion worthy of a fifth-rate brothel keeper”.

The US, which had opposed military action, called a halt, threatening to wreck Britain’s fragile economy. Didn’t Britain and France know who was running the world nowadays? Military action was ended after a couple of days, and by the end of December the humiliated foreign troops had left Egypt.

The Labour Party, more loyal to the US alliance than the Tories, opposed military action, holding large meetings under the slogan “law not war”. But Labour and the TUC made it quite clear that protest would remain limited to mere protest, and hence to ineffectiveness.

There were calls from trade unionists for industrial action, but these were blocked by the bureaucracy. The only strike was a one-hour stoppage in Crawley.

Nevertheless the Suez debacle was the end of the road for Britain as a “great power”. Eden was replaced by the more pragmatic Harold Macmillan. The maps with the red patches went into the dustbin.

But if the British empire was in trouble, so was the Russian empire. Stalin had died in 1953 and there was a sharp struggle for the succession eventually won by Nikita Khrushchev. He recognised that the repression and slave labour camps of the Stalin period no longer served Russia’s needs.

In February 1956 Khrushchev made his so called “secret speech” denouncing Stalin’s crimes. Few speeches were less secret — in Britain the full text was published in the Observer in June.

Khrushchev had been far too involved in Stalin’s regime to make any real criticism of it. So he explained that Stalin had been a very nasty man — undoubtedly true, but no real explanation of how such a nasty man had managed to exercise supreme power in a so called socialist society.

But the speech left questions throughout the world for those who had previously accepted the Moscow line. In Poland workers in Poznan went on strike in June.

The strike developed into an insurrection, but it was suppressed with over 100 deaths and the Polish regime managed to contain the situation.

In Hungary things took a more radical course. In the last week of October students, then workers, took to the streets and clashed with the hated political police. Rapidly workers began to form their own organisations. Peter Fryer, the Daily Worker’s correspondent in Hungary, described the process:

“In their spontaneous origin, in their composition, in their sense of responsibility, in their efficient organisation of food supplies and civil order, in the restraint they exercised on the wild elements among the youth, in the wisdom with which so many of them handled the problem of Soviet troops, and, not least, in their striking resemblance to the workers, peasants and soldiers councils which sprang up in Russia in 1905 and 1917, these committees were at once organs of insurrection — the coming together of delegates elected by factories and universities, mines and army units — and organs of popular self government which the armed people trusted.”

Khrushchev could not tolerate this. Russian tanks were sent into Hungary and, at the cost of thousands of lives, the Hungarian workers were battered into submission.

But though the Russians restored “order”, the lessons were clear. A so called socialist state was in direct conflict with real working people. And those workers were not powerless slaves, as some Western theorists had claimed, but offered an example of fightback to their Western counterparts.

As Tony Cliff wrote in December 1956, “In victory or in defeat the Eastern European revolution will have blazed the trail for the new consolidation and spreading of the ideas of ­independent, revolutionary and democratic socialism.”

Torn apart

The British Communist Party was torn apart by the spectacle of “socialist” tanks crushing workers councils. As Communist historian Edward Thompson enquired with anguish: “But where is my party in Hungary? Was it in the [government] broadcasting station or on the barricades?”

After a stormy congress in Spring 1957 about a quarter of the Communist Party’s members left. The claim by the leadership that these were all “intellectuals” was a lie — just like the current Labour leadership’s claim that only those who attend dinner parties oppose war in Iraq. Many of the party’s best industrial militants quit.

Some moved quickly to the right, but others were anxious to rediscover a genuine Marxist tradition. As Jim Higgins, one of the industrial militants who left at this time, put it, “For those who had for years struggled through Stalin’s clotted prose, to read Trotsky was akin to finding a clear mountain spring after a lifetime of drinking from a puddle in a stable.”

Perhaps a couple of hundred joined the Trotskyist Socialist Labour League — sadly most of them were driven out again by the group’s undemocratic practices. Many more became involved in forums and discussion groups, and the launching of new publications.

This eventually leading to the founding of New Left Review, which in its early issues was a lively, campaigning magazine. There was a real effort to rediscover Marxism as a method of critical enquiry, rather than as a set of dead dogmas.

The impact was felt far beyond small political circles. Many of those looking for a new political home were involved in building the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND).

Those outraged by Hungary did not become endeared of the US — they remembered that only two years earlier the US had overthrown a progressive government in Guatemala.

And the Suez debacle had made the notion of Britain as an “independent” nuclear power simply grotesque. CND grew rapidly, despite the fact that till 1960 it was opposed by what was left of the Communist Party.

At Easter 1960 100,000 joined the Aldermaston march — many of them young people entering politics as a new age was beginning. In the autumn of 1960 the Labour Party conference, against the pleas of its leaders, voted for British nuclear disarmament.

There were many twists and turns ahead, but the idea that there was no alternative to Washington and Moscow was — like the maps of the empire — consigned to the dustbin for ever.

Timeline: Imperialism in crisis

14 February

The 20th conference of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union opens.

Party leader Nikita Khrushchev makes his “secret speech” denouncing Stalin, which was first published in Britain by the Observer on 10 June.

12 March

France’s National Assembly, including the French Communist Party, votes to give prime minister Guy Mollet special emergency powers to put down the uprising in Algeria.

By May conscripts and reservists called up were demonstrating and refusing to board trains.

28 June

Strikes and riots break out in the city of Poznan in western Poland. The uprising is brutally put down by the country’s Communist regime headed by Wladyslaw Gomulka.

26 July

The Egyptian nationalist leader Gamal Abdul Nasser nationalises the Suez Canal, directly challenging British and French imperial interests in the Middle East.

23 October

Students at the Technical University in Budapest, Hungary, start demonstrating for political reforms. They are swiftly joined by soldiers and workers.

The demonstration reaches some 100,000 at which point the Hungarian security police open fire.

The demonstrators arm themselves and besiege police headquarters, triggering the 1956 Hungarian revolution.

29 October

Israel invades the Gaza Strip and Sinai Peninsula in Egypt as part of a secret plan drawn up by Britain, France and Israel to regain control of the Suez Canal.

Following the plan, Britain and France “offer” to help separate the Israeli and Egyptian armies. Nasser refuses, which Britain and France use as a pretext to start bombing Egypt on 31 October.

4 November

The Russian army invades Hungary to put down the revolution using air strikes, artillery bombardment and some 6,000 tanks.

Despite fierce resistance from workers, the Russians set up an occupation government on

10 November.

Over the next few years some 1,200 revolutionaries and sympathisers are executed.

5 November

British paratroopers invade Egypt to seize the canal, meeting stiff resistance from Egyptian nationalist forces.

The occupation drags on until US president Dwight Eisenhower intervenes, forcing a humiliating ceasefire and withdrawal on Britain and France.

Occupation troops leave on 23 December.

London Socialist Historian Group conference on 1956, see events.

Peter Sedgwick’s 1971 article “A Day in the Life of the Fifties” paints a brilliant picture of the pre-1956 left. You can read it online at

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