Over the last few days the Guardian has been carrying features on aspects of the Hungarian Uprising. Today’s article How Soviet tanks crushed dreams of British communists shows how the Communist Party of Great Britain was in effect destroyed on the streets of Budapest - over a quarter of its membership left in disgust. While it retained some influence in the Trade Union movement into the 1970s it was never again a significant political force.
On Sunday November 4 1956, the British Communist party executive committee convened for a highly charged session. New from Budapest was getting worse. Soviet forces were moving into the city, using tanks to shell rebel strongholds. The party paper, the Daily Worker, had been sticking to the official line about "counter-revolution" and "fascist activities". A few minutes away thousands of protestors were gathering in Trafalgar Square to demonstrate against the Anglo-French attack on Egypt. By rights, the comrades should have been protesting against the aggression in the Middle East. But they were preoccupied with their own problems.
They knew their condemnation of Eden's response to the Suez Canal nationalisation would ring hollow when the Red Army was mowing down Hungarian workers. However, general secretary John Gollan set a defiant tone by insisting that: "Imperialism was trying to regain ground. If the rebels won, it would be a victory for reaction and Hungary would become a fascist base with a dagger pointed at the socialist countries. The Red Army was therefore right to intervene."
Gollan was backed by Rajani Palme Dutt , the party ideologue (and a fanatical Stalinist) and the executive committee agreed, with just two dissenting voices, a statement that "the action of the Soviet forces in Hungary should be supported by communists and socialists everywhere".
1956 had already been momentous year for British Communists: the party had been shocked by the revelation of Nikita Khrushchev's secret speech to the 20th Soviet Communist party congress in which he had exposed and condemned Stalin's crimes. But it was events in Budapest that pushed thousands of communists over the edge towards Trotskyist groups, the Labour party, or out of politics altogether.
The party’s paper, the Daily Worker reflected the crisis among the rank and file. Reporter Peter Fryer had been sent to Budapest to report on the situation. It was expected that Fryer would contradict the “blood curdling” reports in other papers of Russian tanks shooting down Hungarians. These hopes were short-lived. Fryer completely contradicted the party’s analysis that the uprising was a "fascist-reactionary" attempt to destroy socialism and restore capitalism. Two of his three dispatches were spiked and the third heavily edited.
"The events in Hungary, far from being a fascist plot, were a revolution by the vast majority of the people against the despotic rule of the Stalinist bureaucracy," Fryer wrote later. The Daily Worker played up reports of lynchings (mostly of the AVO secret police) and of communists being beaten to death. Fryer resigned and sent his letter of resignation to the Manchester Guardian. Nineteen Daily Worker journalists resigned in solidarity and communists were reduced to reading the Daily Telegraph to find out what was happening.
By January 1957, the party had lost 9,000 members (a quarter of its membership , including historian EP Thompson, author Doris Lessing and leaders of the Fire Brigades Union and the Scottish miners - a quarter of its total strength. Others kept their heads down and stayed Chimen Abramsky, was a member of the international secretariat. His wife, Miriam, left the party straight after Hungary, but he hung on. "I was totally naive and utopian to believe I could change the party line from within, but I was knocking my head against a brick wall." Abramsky left in 1958 in solidarity with Hyman Levy who was expelled for an unauthorised pamphlet on anti-semitism in the USSR.
Historian Eric Hobsbawm, is often asked why he stayed in the party "longer than most". He answered in his book, Interesting Times: "I belonged to the generation tied by an almost unbreakable umbilical cord to hope of the world revolution, and of its original home, the USSR. For someone who joined where I came from and when I did, it was quite simply more difficult to break with the party than for those who came later and from elsewhere." Pride played its part, too.
Hungary 1956 uprising Communist Party