The day I stopped being a Stalinist
One Communist veteran recalls the impact of the Hungarian revolution on the British left.
As I walked back from the podium to my seat in the audience, screams of ‘Trotskyist!’ hit me from all sides. Communist Party comrades who had been my friends hurled abuse at me, their faces screwed up with hatred. By the time I got back to my seat I was shouting back, telling them that, like the AVO (Hungarian secret policemen) who were then swinging on lamp posts as a result of people’s anger, their time on the end of a rope was nearing. I would not recommend this as a way to win political arguments.
The scene was the old Liverpool Stadium in 1956; the Liverpool District Committee of the Communist Party of Great Britain had organised a meeting to discuss the Hungarian uprising. In my intervention I had called for the Soviet troops to get out of Hungary, and demanded we pledge our full support for the Hungarian workers and students in their attempt to replace Stalinism. On returning to my seat I heard a member of the District Committee describe me from the platform as a Trotskyist provocateur. The shepherd had spoken and the witless sheep responded as the followers of Stalin, myself included, had always done in the past. The magic word was Trotsky, the revolutionary bogeyman of Stalinism.
Only a short while before, my wife and I had picked up the Sunday Observer and read the CIA-provided copy of Nikita Khrushchev’s ‘secret’ speech at the 20th congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), in which the new Soviet leader had revealed the horrors of Stalin’s rule since the death of Lenin. Stalin had organised the killing of nearly all the old Bolsheviks involved in the October Revolution of 1917 (including Leon Trotsky of course), and then filled the gaps with his toadies who crept on their bellies to fulfill his commands, in Khruschev’s case dancing a strenuous Russian dance for Stalin’s amusement.
Reading that speech put us all in the dumps. I had joined the party in 1951, recruited by my wife Elsie who had been in the Young Communist League. The years we had spent struggling for the Communist cause and arguing the case for workers’ revolution had been made a mockery of. What were the British party leadership and the intellectuals doing whilst all this was happening? We could understand such Fabians as GD and H Cole falling for it. But could proper Communists such as Harry Pollitt, Willie Gallagher, R Palme-Dutt, Gordon Matthews and John Gollan have been there and still not seen it? What had gone wrong?
Then the skies burst asunder. Sensing the weakening of Stalinist rule the Hungarians rose up, and set up workers’ and students’ councils in an attempt to take political power and gain self-determination, hanging a few secret policemen as they found them.
The Daily Worker was the paper of the CPGB. Its correspondent in Hungary, Peter Fryer, wrote an accurate description of the uprising, revealing the fact that Dr Edith Bone, a CPGB delegate to Hungary, had been imprisoned by the AVO, declared a Trotskyist and kept in solitary confinement for many months. To his credit Brian Behan on the Central Committee of the CPGB turned on the party leaders. ‘Dr Edith Bone,’ he said, ‘had more value in her little finger than the lot of them put together.’ Pollitt and the other CPGB leaders had never mentioned her name, just replaced her. (‘Keep the Moscow gold coming, so we can print our paper and pay our wages.’)
How little had changed became clear in the next installment of the Hungarian drama, when Khruschev, the supposed critic of Stalin, sent in the Red Army to crush the Hungarian resistance under its tank tracks. It wasn’t just Stalin who had been a Stalinist, they all were – and what a craven lot the British leaders were, raised on Stalin’s milk. Peter Fryer’s credentials were withdrawn by Stalin’s puppets in the CPGB, and he was forced to flee back to Britain ahead of the Soviet tanks.
The Liverpool meeting had shown to me the real character of the Communist Party, run by a small clique of officials with a large number of followers, many of whom only read the Saturday edition of the Daily Worker, never mind sold it. They used to say ‘If Stalin is so bad for us why do the bosses hate him so much?’ As Eric Morecombe would say: ‘There’s no answer to that!’. Other than one worked out through years of struggle and study.
Thousands of us decided we were finished with the official Communist movement after Hungary 1956. But many continued to struggle in different ways for a revolution against capitalism, though circumstances were heavily weighed against us. (For my part I decided that, having been branded a Trotskyite, I ought to go and read what that anti-Stalinist had to say – a real eye-opener.) Looking back on those days, one of the events we can remember with pride is the struggle of the workers and students of Hungary in their attempted revolution, and how it lit up the skies.