Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

'Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution.' Georg Lukács

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Remembering October 1956 # 1

The Anglo-French invasion of Egypt coupled with the Hungarian Revolution in October 1956 marked a crucial moment politically internationally, but also in Britain - and particularly for the Left. Already papers and journals and books are coming out, (see for example the latest issue of Revolutionary History) and so I thought in this post I would just highlight some of the material that has come out this week.

Among many other articles in the History Workshop Journal (probably subcribers only I'm afraid), Rod Prince describes what it was like to be a member of the Communist Party who was also doing military service during early 1956:

'While the twin military onslaughts in 1956 on Egypt and Hungary both occurred in the week covering the end of October and early November, in each case there had been earlier indications of the subsequent conflicts. The first came from Moscow in February, with the report to the Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union by Nikita Khrushchev, the party's First Secretary, in which he denounced malpractices by the former leader, Josef Stalin; in the case of Egypt, the event which led to the autumn invasion was the nationalization of the Suez Canal, announced on 26 July.

The Khrushchev speech caused ferment in Communist parties outside the USSR, including the British party. I was at the time in the second year of compulsory military service, stationed in Colchester, and it had not taken long to make friends with members of the party branch there. At a meeting held in Ipswich to discuss the speech the main speaker, Emile Burns, sought to downplay the issue and to justify the traditional Stalinist line; this effort produced an audience outbreak of muttering, quickly rising in volume.

Unable to make himself heard, Burns paused in his address and turned to the chair of the meeting, Michael Barratt-Brown, evidently to ask what was going on. Silence fell in time for us to hear Michael's reply: ‘They say you're talking balls, Emile’.'

Meanwhile, in the New Statesman, Anthony Howard describes how as a 22 year old fresh out of the National Service infantry officer cadet school he was sent to Egypt where he didn't actually do any fighting as such but 'Morale-building sessions, known as "battle-warmers for the troops", took place each morning when middle-aged majors with clipped moustaches and uncomfortable recollections of tours in the pre-1954 Canal Zone waxed eloquent about what "a nasty customer Johnnie Gyppo could be".' Nice to see that a casual racism towards the enemy is a constant factor in colonial wars past and present...

Yet the fact that the Suez War had been such a criminal disaster helped lead to the birth of the peace movement around the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament which took off in mid-1958. Back in the HWJ, Michael Wolfers describes his experience in the Combined Cadet Force (CCF) for an annual camp in the summer of 1956:

'The event that came upon us so mysteriously in the summer of 1956 had a profound influence on my school contemporaries. By virtue of a rather conventional and antiquated educational system we were largely conservatives with a small c. We had a benign trust that government was doing the right thing for our country, although we might disagree on the small print. That trust was broken by the Suez affair. We saw that government had failed to adapt to Britain's changing role in a changing world, where imperialism was no longer meaningful or desirable, where the independence of Ghana in March 1957 was symptomatic and emblematic of the new dispensation...I returned to my home in London at Easter 1959. I was just in time to go on Easter Monday to Trafalgar Square to witness the arrival of the column of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament marching from Aldermaston. Ahead of the main banner with its cluster of radical clergy, politicians and activists were four unknowns familiar to me: they were close school friends who had gone on to university ahead of me. They were a clear signal that our generation had found a new and more thoughtful direction.'

Yet perhaps most striking was the crisis that overcame the British Communist Party during 1956 - particularly after Russian tanks were sent in to crush a national upsrising led by Workers Councils in Hungary.

Jean McCrindle describes how she came to join the First New Left:

I joined the Communist Party aged eighteen in the spring of 1955, a few months before I was due to go to the University of St Andrews, and I left a year and a half later, weeks after Soviet tanks had crushed the Hungarian uprising. I was part of the early exodus of 10,000 Communist Party members – not all of them ‘bloody intellectuals’ as King Street, HQ of the British Communist Party, officials often called the non-proletarian members of the Party. Unlike some of my friends I didn't wait to see whether the British Party, at its emergency Congress in 1957, would declare an end to its forty-year dependence on the Soviet Union's ideological carapace. I was so appalled at the sight and sounds of unarmed students and miners being killed and brutally dispersed by the Soviet army – the mighty army, or in this case air force, I had, as a small child, sung praises to at my mother's knee,

Fly higher and higher and higher, our emblem the Soviet star
And every propeller is roaring, defending the USSR

The Daily Worker's correspondent in Budapest, Peter Fryer, initially reported frankly what he saw – workers and students on the streets in revolution calling for an end to Soviet domination and the Hungarian Party's subservience to it. It was thrilling to read his reports which were so obviously truthful to what he was witnessing.

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At 9:17 pm, Anonymous isakofsky said...

I was with my CP parents in Trafalgar Square to call for Britain out of Suez, when one of their Party comrades appeared and announced 'They've gone in. The tanks have gone in.' I was ten years old and thought that he meant that the tanks had gone into Port Said or Cairo or somewhere. Then he said, 'They're in Budapest' and I had no idea what they were talking about. I could see that it was utterly traumatic for the cluster of CP-ers I was looking up to (hoho) all around me.


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