21 October 2006

How Soviet tanks crushed dreams of British communists

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.


beakerkin said...

A great post on a fitting subject.

Jim Jepps said...

can I recommend Tibor Fischer's "Under the frog" a very funny and well written fictional account of the years that led up to the people rising up against a "Workers' government".

Pete said...


Thanks for linking with my blog. I've done likewise.

Great post. I recall a similar dilemma for Australia's hard left during the Falklands War - over choosing "imperialist Thatcherite" Britain or sweet little "admittedly fascist" Argentina. I think most hard left in Australia puzzled for days and then opted for Argentina but a substantial minority supported Britain.


jams o donnell said...

Glad you like it Beakerkin. I didn't feel able to write about the uprising itself but the Guardian article basically reflects what I always felt about the fallout here in the UK.

It's bloody good isn't it Jimjay. I must dig out my copy and give it another read

There was a lot of that here too Pete. I was, to say, less than happy about the war but there is one person who carries the blame for it and that was Galtieri. Much as I loathed Thatcher the Argentinian junta was infinitely worse.

That leftists would choose to have supported a regime that torture and murdered their comrades filled me with disgust

Agnes said...

that was 50 years ago. Quite a lot of support still going around, isn't it?
Stupid or disgusting or both?

jams o donnell said...

It beats me that anyone continued to support a bunch of bankrupt stalinist scumbags like Dutt after Budapest. The purges in the USSR were veiled to a great exttent but what happened in Budapest was in plain sight of the world.

There are precious few stalinists here. Looking at the Guardian article you have people like Arthur Merron "...So I felt the Soviet Union was 100% right in going into Hungary to stop this counter-revolution" but he is 94 and willl be dead soon

You have the likes of Fuckwit, sorry, Dermot Hudson the KFA Juchebox and one or two othere. Perhaps we are fortunate here.

Agnes said...

'The purges in the USSR were veiled to a great extten" - not really. But one doesn'talk about skeletons, now do we? They knew it, especially after 53. If you ask me, many knew before that, and continued supporting it after 56, and after the executions. And not only Dermot F. Hudson.When did the executions stop? And many were in jail, not only in Hungary, still in the 60's.

What scares me most is that whatever happened, and whatever they would do, they would get that support.

beakerkin said...


This is not as surpising as you presume. There were Jewish Communists who defended Communism after the Nazi Soviet pact in the USA and even Poland itself.

One demented relative was rewarded for his faith in Marx with a gunpoint trip to Siberia. He was promptly made into a neo-slave and then used every family connection to emigrate.

People forget that Western Poland was invaded by the Soviets first.
A series of roundups executions and deportations took place before the Nazis got there. The Nazis killings later dwarfed those of the Soviets.

Needless to say this relative was cured of his Marxism and went on to become a slum lord.

jams o donnell said...

What can we do, Red? It is like dealing with cultists, Except this cult was bigger and far more vicious that anything someone like Hubbard or Koresh could create.

Indeed the Soviets did invade Poland (I think you mean Eastern Poland). It was officers they captured then who were murdered at Katyn.

Why am I not surprised that your relative changed his political stance after a trip to the Gulag!

Agnes said...

" It is like dealing with cultists" - it's not LIKE. It is dealing with cultists.

beakerkin said...


Is the book End of Commitment available in the UK? I am reading it now and just shaking my head. The more I read, the more certain I am Toynbee was 100% correct. We are dealing with faith and there is a certain deliberate blindness to failure.

jams o donnell said...

I had not heard of this book but it is available here

beakerkin said...

It is hair raising reading, but one has to think about the obvious permutations. The book analyzes how Communists reacted to the fall of the Soviet Union. Some of the names will be familiar others will be foreign.

It is one of the book one has to read and think for a bit and read again.

jams o donnell said...

Thanks, I'll look out for it

Pēteris Cedriņš said...

Beakerkin, sounds like a fascinating book -- thanks for the recommendation.

Jams, "precious few Stalinists," perhaps -- but a pretty varied spectrum of support for Soviet oppression was always a problem on the British left... looking beyond loudmouths like Galloway, there are gentleman like Seumas Milne, currently the comment editor at The Guardian; he was the business manager of Straight Left, the organ of a faction of the CPGB that supported the Soviet invasions of Czechoslovakia and Afghanistan.

To what degree have such persons changed their tune? Excuse me if I'm rather doubtful. Galloway very obviously hasn't ("I think the disappearance of the Soviet Union is the biggest catastrophe of my life"), whilst Milne "manages to get the Soviet death toll down by almost a factor of ten by excluding the man-made famines of Lenin and Stalin," as Bryan Caplan noted.

I agree with Redwine -- the Purges were only veiled if one wanted (needed) them to be. The fact that not a few people still equivocate when confronted with Soviet horror underscores that. Hey, even in my town, a Labour stalwart flies over from England to march with the Red-Brown scum on May Day.

Roland Dodds said...

Wonderful post James, and some interesting points in this comments section as well.

While I can not speak for the left in Britain, here in the States there are plenty of individuals who deny any wrong deed the Soviet Union placed on its people. The countless number of times the Soviet Union burned its supporters around the world makes me wonder how anyone, even the most ardent communist, could still have sympathy for the regime.

jams o donnell said...

Which Labour stalwart is that Peteris?Hmm I wasn't aware about Seumas Milne's past but it explains a lot.. I always thought he was a wanker.. Not quite Galloway league but still a wanker.

With Budapest there was absolutely no way that anyne could draw any veil over procedings. Yet people still chose to believe the cant that the uprising was perpetrated by reactionaries.. How does on deal with cultists?

Thanks Roland. It really beats me too but perhaps they have absolute andunshakeable faith that not evidence to teh contrary will ever shake...

Again what can you do???