Monday, 27 January 2020

Book Review - 1956 and All That (2007)

1956 and All That
Written By: Ian Birchall
Date: September 2007
Published In LSHG Newsletter Issue 29: Autumn 2007 

1956 and All That Keith Flett (editor) (Newcastle, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2007. ISBN 9-781847-181848

1956 was an important turning point. The Suez adventure reshaped British imperialism’s place in the world; the Hungarian rising reshaped the British left. In these twelve papers, taken from a London Socialist Historians’ conference in February 2006, Keith Flett has collected some valuable material about the events of that year. Taken together with Revolutionary History 9/2 (“Remembering 1956”) and the various articles in International Socialism 112, these provide a valuable resource, both to counter the myths of mainstream history and to encourage further research.

Nigel Willmott’s opening chapter usefully places the Hungarian rising in an international context – though one wonders if his claim that the USA at this time was a “reluctant imperialist” would have received much credence in Guatemala. He also stresses the importance of the workers’ councils – crucial when one recalls that Eric Hobsbawm recently wrote a major article on Hungary in which workers’ councils got no mention. (See London Review of Books, 16 November 2006 and subsequent correspondence.) From the narrower standpoint of the writings of CLR James Christian Hogsbjerg links Hungary to the struggles in the colonial world. Stan Newens recalls the Trafalgar Square demonstration against Suez and how he distributed 6000 leaflets defending the Hungarian rising and calling for industrial action against Suez.

Most of what has appeared in Britain about Suez takes a British viewpoint. Anne Alexander gives a fascinating account of the Egyptian left at the time of Suez. She shows the courageous popular resistance, but also how Nasser manipulated the Communists – and how the Communists let themselves be manipulated. Mike Haynes makes a creative application of the theory of state capitalism in studying the Hungarian working class prior to 1956. Toby Abse analyses the role of Italian communist leader Togliatti in 1956 and demolishes claims that he was some sort of anti-Stalinist.

The other six papers all deal with the impact of the Hungarian crisis in Britain. Paul Flewers gives a carefully documented account of press reactions to the Khrushchev “secret” speech, examining the “rival schools of thought” which believed either that nothing would change in Russia, or that there would be real progress towards democratisation. Both were sadly inadequate. David Renton gives a useful account of the CP Historians’ Group, showing that it contained many different currents. Perhaps he underestimates the extent to which even the best of the group continued to work within a Popular Front framework even when they had broken with Stalinism.

Terry Brotherstone looks at the particular contributions of Brian Pearce and Peter Fryer, while two papers look at the work of Alasdair Macintyre. Neil Davidson examines his often forgotten Marxist writings of the early sixties, while Paul Blackledge looks at his views on the place of morality and freedom in Marxist thought. Alan Woodward considers the “libertarian” response to Hungary, under which label he includes both classical anarchists and the followers of Castoriadis in the Solidarity group. There is some interesting new material here - but I wonder how happy Alan would have been in Castoriadis’s “libertarian” organisation, which at one point proposed to expel anyone who missed two consecutive meetings.

Keith Flett’s Introduction takes up some other issues not covered in the collection, for example the New Left’s “disdainful” attitude to rock’n’roll, a topic deserving further study. I would take issue with his claim that Anthony Crosland’s The Future of Socialism showed the “first stirrings” of New Labour. Crosland was a right-winger in his day, but he believed in the redistribution of wealth and greater equality. Today he would be on the far left of the Labour Party.

Flett deserves our thanks for editing this valuable book. Unfortunately it could have been even better. A number of errors have been left uncorrected: the opposition faction in the Socialist Labour League took its name from Stamford in Lincolnshire, not Stamford Hill [71]; the Comintern was not dissolved when Russia entered the war, but two years later [100]; the Communist Party did not participate in the French Popular Front government of 1936 [125].

Inclusion in the index seems to have been decided in a purely random fashion, and there are far too many misprints. [If this is the standard of proof-reading provided by “Cambridge Scholars”, God help the rest of us.] But don’t let these nitpicking criticisms from a born pedant put you off buying this very useful little volume.

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