Monday, 27 January 2020

1956 and All That (2006)

1956 and All That
Written By: The Editor
Date: January 2006
Published In LSHG Newsletter Issue 26: Lent 2006  

1956 was of course where we came in. By 'we' is meant the modern left as recognisable to anyone who has been on any of the Stop the War demonstrations since 2001.

That is why it is worth recalling the 50th anniversary of the events of that year with a conference. At this historical distance some more historical clarity may shed on some of those events. It might also be hoped that in understanding where we came from, we might also gain some insights into what we are now, what we have achieved and what- a lot- remains to be done.

Writing the introduction to David Widgery's The Left in Britain 1956-1968- itself published 30 years ago this year- Peter Sedgewick noted in 'Farewell Grosvenor Square' that 'the story of the British left from the 1956 split in the CP up till the growth and disintegration of the Vietnam Solidarity movement is the record of a political adolescence'.

It is worth recalling some of the main events of 1956. Firstly Khruschev's Secret Speech, on 25th February 1956, detailed the crimes of the Stalin era and started a period of turmoil on the left. A 26,000 word summary was published in the UK in The Observer, then a liberal paper, on 10th June. Secondly Britain, France, and most importantly, Israel, invaded Eqypt, following Nasser's nationalisation of the Suez Canal. Then as now, it was about oil. Unlike now, America did not appreciate the action of the British Prime Minister Eden. After initial support the Labour Party managed a number of demonstrations under the slogan 'Law not War', but the left was behind demos in Trafalgar Square. At the protest in Whitehall on November 4th 1956 there were 27 arrests and The Times reported that amongst the demonstrators there were a 'great many young people, including students'.

While Ben Gurion claimed that Nasser was a 'fascist dictator', Eden argued that he was a 'Communist dupe'. Tory Minister Anthony Nutting, who resigned over Suez, reported that Eden had told him that Nasser had got to go, or he would. These proved to be fateful words.

Then there was Hungary. What happened there is a matter of argument still. There are those who believe that there was a genuine threat of counter-revolution. Fascists there certainly were in Hungary 1956, but the dominant mood was one of a workers council organised revolt against Stalinist rule. The Russian tanks went in and thousands of workers died.

Who said the 1950s were boring?

It didn't end there. 1956 was also the year of the film Rock Around the Clock and the 'rock and roll riots' in cinemas. Youth culture and rebellion that was to provide such a potent source of recruits for the left had arrived. In Cyprus Archbishop Makarios was arrested and the French were in Algeria.
The impact was huge on their side and ours. The British excursion at Suez ended in withdrawal and disaster. The Tory Prime Minister, Eden, found he was ill, and departed. On the left the impact of Khruschev and Hungary on the Communist Party, then a significant organisation, was equally earth shattering.

The CP's Daily Worker correspondent in Hungary, Peter Fryer, told the truth, later captured in Hungarian Tragedy. He was expelled. Separately the historians Edward Thompson and John Saville were producing the dissenting CP bulletin the Reasoner. The final issue, in November 1956, carried an article by Thompson, Through the Smoke of Budapest, which began 'Stalinism has sown the wind and now the whirlwind centres on Hungary’. Thompson and Saville departed the CP and the British New Left was born. The Times reported both developments.

In Cardiff the South Wales miners, representing 100,000 members, met to decide if they should strike over Suez. In the end they decided on protests and found time to pass a resolution demanding self determination for Hungary as well.

The impact on the CP was dramatic. 11 journalists left the Daily Worker. Membership of the Young Communist League declined from 3,500 in 1955 to 1,387 in 1958.

In short a conference about events 50 years ago is obeying the injunction of the old Communist Party Historians group that socialist historians should seek to become historians of the present day too

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