A bad year for Stalinists

Bruce Robinson reviews ‘Remembering 1956’, Revolutionary History Vol. 9, No. 3, edited by John McIlroy

“1956 was a memorable year – a horrible one for Stalinists and a good one for Trotskyists… For the first time, we Trotskyists saw a chink of light shining through the torn curtain of Stalinist lies. Instead of having to defend ourselves from the slanders hurled at us, we were able to approach bewildered Communist Party members with confidence.” Harry Ratner

The current issue of ‘Revolutionary History’ is largely concerned with the impact of the events of 1956 on the left, and particularly the Western European Communist Parties. An introductory article by John McIlroy details the history of the year and draws some conclusions on the lessons of 1956 for today’s left. There is material on the British CP, one of the smaller parties particularly hard hit by Hungary, and on the impact on the much larger French and Italian parties, which emerged in better shape.

Alongside this there is also consideration of the far left, particularly Trotskyists, and how far they were able to take advantage of the disarray in the CPs’ ranks. The Trotskyists were, as Ratner notes, handed undeniable confirmation of what they had been saying for years in the face of Stalinist slander — both with regard to the truth about Stalin’s rule and the counter-revolutionary and reactionary nature of the Soviet bureaucracy.

What were the events that had such an impact on a left previously frozen in Cold War bloc politics? First of all, in February there was Khrushchev’s secret speech to the 20th Congress of the CPSU denouncing Stalin’s crimes (attributed to the ‘cult of personality’) and detailing ‘violations of socialist legality’ and horrors long denied.

Then in Eastern Europe it would prove impossible to keep the lid on movements for change in the face of the expectations aroused by ‘de-Stalinisation’ and the economic pressures on the working class. The grievances of workers in Poznan in Poland spilt out onto the streets and when police fired on a demonstration on June 28th, 113 people were killed. A revolt in Warsaw in October brought back Gomulka, previously removed as a reformer. The Russians considered invasion but drew back both because they rightly considered Gomulka would remain loyal to the link with Moscow.

No such consideration was allowed to prevail in the case of Hungary where another previously sacked reformer, Imre Nagy, was brought back to power on the back of a popular uprising and an upsurge of workers’ councils. Nagy was less pliable than Gomulka and wanted to take Hungary out of the Warsaw Pact. (A fuller account of events in Hungary can be found in Solidarity 3/99). The subsequent Russian invasion and brutal repression showed the limits to which ‘de-Stalinisation’ and reform would be allowed to go.

Paul Flewers provides a detailed account of the initial British press response to the 20th Congress secret speech in mid 1956. This shows that among mainstream Sovietologists there were serious differences about the significance of Khrushchev’s speech and how far it signified the start of a thorough self-reform of Soviet society. While all could agree that the motivation of the bureaucracy was self-preservation, there was division between those who thought nothing essential would change and others who saw a potential for serious change within limits.

A similar spectrum of opinion could be found in the Labour Party and on the far left where it ran from the state capitalist Tony Cliff to Isaac Deutscher who wrote “In the long run, the party cannot remain half-slave, half-free… It is clear that the denunciation of the leader cult is only the outward symptom of a deep transformation of the regime.” Mainstream Trotskyism was not immune to this exaggerated view of the changes. Gerry Healy briefly held that the political revolution had begun in the USSR and that Khrushchev’s ally Mikoyan represented the “Reiss [revolutionary] faction” of the bureaucracy, while the Trotskyists of the International Secretariat believed that under the pressure of the masses the bureaucracy might be forced towards a revolutionary position. Revolutionary History includes an article by Ernest Mandel on the revolt in Poznan in which he wrote: “…for the first time since… 1948, an Eastern European Communist Party… openly disregarded the ‘advice’ of the Russian party… Its members couldn’t act otherwise. They felt on their neck the breath of two million workers on the threshold of revolt.” By the end of 1956 with the invasion of Hungary , such faith should have taken a bad knock (but didn’t).
In Britain, there was a clear ferment in the Communist Party during 1956, initially stirred by Khrushchev’s speech. The response of the leadership round Harry Pollitt was to accept Khrushchev’s criticisms of Stalin (though they had been shaken by them) but to try to brush over them by claiming that all deviations from the true road had now been dealt with and that the future was now bright. A sourer note not designed to quell discontent was struck by the ultra-Stalinist Palme Dutt who wrote of Stalin: “That there should be spots on any sun would only startle an inveterate Mithra-worshipper… Human advance moves forward, not only through unexampled heroism, but also with accompanying baseness with tears and blood.”

Even before Hungary the CPGB faced a crisis. By July, Edward Thompson and John Saville had set up a duplicated journal called ‘The Reasoner’ in defiance of party rules and there was widespread dissatisfaction with the state of party democracy. When it came to Hungary, the CPGB simply echoed the Soviet line justifying the invasion under the headline “New Hungarian Anti-Fascist Government in Action — Soviet Troops called in to Stop White Terror”, while refusing to print the truthful reports of their own Budapest correspondent, Peter Fryer.

The impact of Hungary was to see the CPGB’s membership fall by over a quarter from 33,095 in February 1956 to 24,670 two years later. Steve Parsons provides a breakdown of those leaving, disproving the leadership’s claim that they were intellectuals rather than workers. They included large numbers of full time union officials and members of union executives including in two CP-controlled unions: the Fire Brigades and Electrical Trades Unions. Another area of large scale loss was among Jewish members who had joined in the 30s and were shocked by revelations of anti-semitism under Stalin and in the 50s in Eastern Europe.

Many of those who left retired into private life or drifted to the right, while some other critics bit their tongues and stayed in the party. Of those who remained active to the left of the CP, there were two main currents that gained. The first emerged from ‘The Reasoner’ and the loose ‘Socialist Forum’ movement and has since been dubbed the ‘old New Left’. It published ‘New Reasoner’ and ‘Universities and Left Review’, which fused to form New Left Review in 1960. The New Left was a loose intellectual current.

The other tendency that gained was the Trotskyists around Gerry Healy, then pursuing deep entry in the Labour Party and known only as ‘The Club’. Healy won Peter Fryer to Trotskyism and they set up a publication, ‘The Newsletter’, which not only propagandised for Trotsky’s ideas but provided coverage of and a platform for the debates going on in the CP. A brief memoir by Harry Ratner, in 1956 a long-standing member of Healy’s group, recounts both their success in talking to dissident CPers and the problems they faced in recruiting them. Healy won over 200 ex-CPers, more than half workers, though many left within a few years finding Healy’s internal regime no better than that of the CP.

One of Healy’s recruits was Brian Pearce, whose exceptional evolution from dissatisfied CPer to Trotskyist is discussed in detail by John McIlroy. Pearce is of particular interest as a member of the CP Historians Group, which has received much attention as containing Edward Thompson, Christopher Hill, Eric Hobsbawm and other prominent academic historians. Prior to 1956, this group had not been of particular importance within the CP but the history of the party and the Soviet Union became major concerns as a consequence of Khrushchev’s speech to the point that the CP had set up an official Party History Commission of which Pearce was a member.

Pearce’s long-held doubts and suspicions crystallised into opposition in the course of ‘56. The cynical way in which Pollitt and others treated the history commission — it was to be 18 years before any official party history appeared — and problems with getting his articles published in official CP publications brought Pearce into increasing conflict with the CP machine. Revolutionary History contains Pearce’s articles eventually published anonymously in the New Statesman and Tribune, which document his political progression, together with correspondence with and between various CP functionaries regarding the disciplinary action taken against him. He was finally expelled by the end of 1957 but had been working with Healy’s group for some time by then, producing a stream of articles on the history of the CP published in Healy’s theoretical journal ‘Labour Review’.

Ranged against Pearce in the Historians Group (and implicated in the action against him) was Eric Hobsbawm, a party loyalist and subsequently a leading theoretician of Eurocommunist / Marxism Today tendency in the 1980s. As such Hobsbawm created a number of historical myths that underpinned the idea that there had been a long tradition of opposition to Stalinism within Western CPs, particularly the Italian. One of the heroes of these tales was Togliatti, leader of the Italian CP, who is presented as taking an independent path. Toby Abse demolishes this myth in an examination of his role in the Italian CP in 1956. Of particular interest is the first English translation of a letter from Togliatti to the CPSU, in which, in the brief period of the Russian withdrawal from Hungary, he urges a hard line, writing “the Hungarian government — whether or not Imre Nagy remains at its head — will move irreversibly in a reactionary direction.” Togliatti faced opposition for his loyalty to Moscow from the head of the CP-controlled CGIL union, a veteran CPer Guiseppe di Vittorio, who was concerned about the image of the union among Italian workers. Togliatti eventually easily regained control of the party and forced a recantation from di Vittorio, though at a cost of some 200,000 members, about 10% of the total.

The current Revolutionary History contains some useful material that makes clear how the events had an impact on the left, particularly in Britain. There is also some of less relevance such as an article that shows that the events of 1956 had little impact on CLR James and that he had even less impact on those events!

Despite the continued strength of some Western Communist Parties, 1956 did provide a “chink of light” for Trotskyists, not merely because of Khrushchev’s belated confirmation of what they had been saying for 25 years, but also because events in Poland and Hungary showed the power and creativity of working class revolt against Stalinism and Moscow’s determination to crush it ruthlessly. Nothing on the left would ever quite be the same again.