The 1956-7 crisis in the British Communist Party and the Trotskyists

Collected from AWL website

Peter Fryer reported for the Communist Party's Daily Worker from Budapest during the Hungarian workers' revolution of 1956. His reports were suppressed because they told the truth about what was happening. The CP's support for the Russian invasion which suppressed it, led Fryer to break politically with the Communist Party of Great Britain and the Stalinism it embodied. He became a Trotskyist and joined the organisation led by Gerry Healy. He wrote these reports for The Militant (USA), October-November 1957.

Part 1

The Militant, Oct 28 1957

A year has passed since the Suez adventure and the Hungarian Revolution, and this seems a convenient point at which to undertake a review of the ferment inside the British Left which began with the Twentieth Congress and which those events of a year ago greatly intensified.

Such a review demands several articles, for the ferment touches the industrial workers in the British Communist Party, embraces the socialist forums, finds vociferous and often brash expression in various student publications, and has been bubbling merrily away inside the Labour Party. There is also need for some discussion of the new Marxism that is one of the most encouraging results of this ferment: of how the Marxist movement looks to one particular ex-Communist Party member, and of the general prospects that cross-fertilisation and gathering of forces that is called (though I for one abhor the word) "regroupment."

COMMUNIST INTELLECTUALS

It is commonplace that the ferment began amongst the intellectuals in the Communist Party. And since the more recent evolution of some of the original rebels has been in some respects disappointing, it is important to understand who they are and what they were rebelling against. John Saville, Christopher Hill and E. P. Thompson (there are others, but these are the best-known names) are brilliant historians who are just emerging in their own profession as men capable of solid, fruitful, original and mature work.

Inside the Communist Party they were outraged last year by the sickening tale of cruelties and lies spelled out in the Khrushchev speech; but this merely brought to a head a long history of deepening frustration. They could not step outside the strict limitations imposed by the Stalinist guardians of ideological and cultural orthodoxy. Now this was true of many artists and writers of the same generation. Names like Paul Hogarth and Randall Swingler spring to mind.

One after the other two communist cultural magazines, Our Time and Arena, began by giving such men great scope; they were consequently very successful magazines. Emile Burns, responsible for the party's "cultural work", feared the independent creative thought that found expression in their columns, pulled tight on the reins, made sweeping change in the editorial boards and in the character of these magazines. One after another their circulations slumped and they collapsed. So did Modern Quarterly, later renamed Marxist Quarterly. To glance through the bound volumes of this periodical is to see the deadening hand of Stalinist orthodoxy gradually extinguish every vestige of original thinking, till the magazine sickened and died.

And so when Saville and Thompson brought out The Reasoner and now The New Reasoner they were not merely or primarily providing a channel for fresh political thinking; they were challenging Stalinism "on the cultural front," as we used to say, and doing so very successfully.

The New Reasoner has now turned into the kind of eminently readable assortment of heterodox views, ably expressed, with emphasis on cultural topics which the intellectual rebels felt the party could and should have brought out long ago. This is its great strength. But at the same time it is a serious limitation; for the "new reasoners" are not all that interested in searching political and historical analyses: nor are they all that interested in serving the workers' movement and helping to build it. Therefore their general trend (and this is not a label, but a statement of fact) is towards the Right.

For the critics who are content to think without acting The New Reasoner teems with ideas, good, bad and indifferent. It is an ideal magazine for the bedside table. But the workers in the Communist Party, who were slower to join the anti-Stalinist revolt than the intellectuals, are not satisfied with thinking; they want to act, too; and The New Reasoner does not set out to educate or advise them or build a movement.

COMMUNIST WORKERS

An intellectual can get out of the party and be reasonably content with his study or his local forum, as many have been. A politically-minded worker needs organization as he needs air, and leaving the party is for him no light step, just as joining it was no light step in the first place. Very often the party attracted him as an organization for waging the class struggle on the job and the struggle against Right-wing influence in the trade union branch room. However disgusted he may be with Stalinism, nationally and internationally, he frequently sees no alternative to the Communist Party in his own particular factory, and is anxious not to weaken the only system of organization he knows.

This dilemma is heightened by the unquestionable successes of the Communist Party in certain key unions since the turn to trade union work in the early thirties. Persistent work has brought a number of younger men to the position where they will almost automatically take high union office. Desire to assist in giving such apparent blows to the Right-wing bureaucracies in the unions makes; many militants. anti-Stalinists in their practice and outlook, hesitate before breaking with the party.

But the shameful record of the Stalinist leadership in a number of recent disputes tends to counteract this. On the London docks the Communist Party group has committed suicide by opposing militants and militancy. In the building trade (Britain's third-largest industry, and one of her most exploited') a whole group of prominent Communist Party militants loyal to Marxism and to militancy, has broken away. .And in the Electrical Trades Union there are real possibilities of new defeats for the Stalinist leadership at the hands of ex-Communist Party members who have certainly not swung Right.

All this adds up to a promising beginning of a really militant rank-and-file movement in the British trade unions, led by Marxists, which will be tested and strengthened in the future battles. The more the Marxist workers coming out of the Communist Party get down to solid work in their industries the greater the attractive power they will have for the comrades they leave behind. I have watched the development of some of these comrades in recent months, and I have seen apathy turn to enthusiasm, dismay transformed into determination, as they came to realize that there can be a communist movement outside the Communist Party, challenging the claim of Dutt, Pollitt, and Gollan to be the sole ordained leadership of the British workers.

BUREAUCRATS STRIKE BACK

For the leaders of the British Communist Party, who, unlike their American counterparts, have clung together as a body of ''angry old men," this development is their biggest headache. Hence their sudden new attack on the "Trotskyites" in the Daily Worker and at the recent London district congress of the young Communist League. Hence their theory that as the class struggle sharpens in Britain the Communist Party will inevitably and automatically extend its influence - a doubtful proposition, for inside and outside the party most workers have a pretty good idea of what Stalinism means in practice. (One prominent woman member of the party said in conversation this week: "I take six copies of the Daily Worker every day, and I get up at six every morning and sell them outside the local factory. I usually sell two. The morning the Daily Worker splashed "Hungarian Emigre Returns" across its front page I didn't sell one. The workers just don't want to know.")

Hence, too, the desperate effort to get out a "theoretical and discussion magazine" at all costs - Marxism Today, as deplorable a 32-pages of stodge as I have ever seen in my life, four of its five articles reprints and the whole eloquent testimony to the thread-bare poverty of the party's intellectual life.

Let no one think the ferment is over inside the party. Each new twist and turn in the line sets fresh layers worrying, thinking, questioning, criticizing, defying orders to write humiliating analyses of their "doubts and difficulties." There is a constant trickle of resignations - some, disgusted with politics, to the Right or into complete inactivity, torpor or cynicism, living exhibits of what havoc Stalinism can wreak in individuals; others, refreshed and reinvigorated by their fight against the leadership, joining with fellow-Marxists to lay the foundation for great new developments.

Part 2: Where British Former CPers Are Going

Nov 4 1957

At a rough estimate, about half those who have resigned from the British Communist Party since the Twentieth Congress of the CPSU - or have quietly failed to re-register - have dropped all political activities and discussion for the time being. The rest have been engaging in discussions - always lively, sometimes fierce, often repetitive, but by and large fruitful - among themselves and with other Marxists.

The chief arena of these discussions is the local socialist forums which began to spring up spontaneously a year or so ago, and which are still coming into existence, though at a far slower rate now. The victims of emotional shock and bewilderment, unable any longer to rationalize out of existence their "doubts and difficulties" (as we used to call them patronizingly) sought clarity and understanding and the fresh, clean air of unfettered discussion.

CAPITALISM NO HAVEN

To many this air was so heady after years of living in an intellectual cage that they began flying rapidly in a Rightward direction. Some of these are still seeking the blissful panaceas of the John Stracheys and the other latter-day Bernsteins. Others however discovered that Contemporary Capitalism is scarcely the made-to-measure haven from the storms of class struggle they took it for; that the renunciation of Stalinism is not something negative, but means for a serious socialist a more profound, rewarding and exciting study and creative application of Marxism than they had hitherto dreamed possible.

The forum discussions if they had done nothing else, would have been valuable in this respect alone: that for hundreds of us (though not for all by any means yet) they unlocked the door to a section of the library where we had never dared to venture before. Some of us had not even known of its existence - or, if we had, we accepted glib assurance that the contents of this section were merely political pornography, designed by "fascist agents" to confuse and corrupt simple working men.

And these forbidden books, now being read in Britain on a wider scale than ever before, turn out to be solid, meaty, forceful, brilliant pieces of Marxist analysis, polemic and scholarship wrought by men and women who carried the lonely torch of Marxism honourably through the darkness for a generation. Well, the torch has kindled others, in Britain at any rate, and its liberating flame is burning more and more brightly, shedding vivid light on our current problems, educating a new generation. But of this I will write more later.

To return to the forums. They conform to a pattern: about 15, 20 or 30 people, perhaps as many middle-class as working-class, gathered in a private home one evening a week, or more commonly one evening a fortnight, to relish and learn from the clash, shock and thunder of widely differing viewpoints.

Now a development of a similar type, but hardly a forum in the sense of a place where intimate discussion takes place, has been organized in central London by the editors of Universities and Left Review, a new journal which, highly publicized and highly successful, reflects the present ferment on the Left to the extent that intellectuals are involved in it. This is its positive side.

Its weakness (shared by The New Reasoner) is that the views of working-class militants, of those who have refused to disarm themselves by casting aside Marxism, find little or no expression in its columns. The "U&LR Club" is attended by some 20O to 500 people, mostly young people, and a high proportion of them students who flock to hear speakers on political and cultural subjects. The alert and contentious atmosphere is reminiscent of the Thirties, of the Left Book Club and Solidarity with Spain.

While many of the contributions embody the illusions bred by twelve years of full employment and prosperity, the success of the U&LR club does mark the end of the bored, cynical, "couldn't care less" postwar apolitical phase among thinking young people in Britain; it shows that the "Angry Young Men" who refuse to be committed politically and who express inchoate resentment at the vapourings and failures of their elders are even now giving place to a reawakening of interest in socialist politics.

In their development the local forums have now, as it seems to me, reached a kind of watershed. This was brought out very clearly at the conference of the London socialist forums last weekend. Broadly speaking, there are two general trends within them. There are those who see the forums, as the beginnings, if not of a new political party with its own program, aims and discipline, at any rate of a definite "forum point of view" distinct from that of any other organization and not conterminous with a Marxist point of view.

On the other hand, there are those who feel that by definition the forums are places where people of different views exchange them and. in the course of such exchanges clarify their ideas and attain a better understanding" of the tasks now facing British socialists. These latter would add that while the forums ought most definitely to continue as independent discussion centres, any attempt to turn them into independent centres of political leadership would mean their ceasing to exist as forums, and hence would substantially reduce their attractive power for the next wave of Communist Party members coming into conflict with Stalinist practice and theory.

Most of those adhering to this second view, which won the day at the conference, have now made up their minds that the place for Marxists to work is inside the Labour Party, where they have the best opportunity for helping the British workers (whose political expression the Labour Party is) to generalize from their experiences and to see more clearly the road ahead.. To the first trend of opinion the forums are a happy hunting ground for sects whose attempts to "capture" the forums are an amusing field of study.

The second trend has succeeded in getting written into the constitution and aims of the forum movement (in London, at any rate) a guarantee that no section can "capture" the forums, and that they will remain forums. If the discussions lead to a majority of participants finding their way into the British Labour Party in order to strengthen the fight of the Left in face of the employers' and government attack on the workers, then that is all to the good.

Part 3: C P Heads Bar Members from Socialist Forums

25 November 1957

Since I began this series of articles on the situation in the British left there have been some interesting developments inside the Communist Party, which deserve mention before I pass next week to a final article summarising the prospects before British Marxists. For six months after the Easter Congress of the party this year the attitude of the leadership to the "Opposition" was extraordinarily muted, hesitant and delicate. The only expulsion whatever was that of your London correspondent, and the leadership could scarcely have avoided expelling him.

The only other disciplinary action, as far as is known, was the "downgrading" from a district committee a member who was wicked enough to reveal some of its proceedings to The Newsletter. In May the leadership put out a turgid "political letter" which made a vague reference to participation in Socialist Forum discussions being incompatible with party membership.

EXPULSIONS BEGUN

Now, however, the kid gloves have been peeled off, and the witch-hunt has begun inside the party in earnest. In one branch in Kent, on the outskirts of London, three members have been expelled and two suspended for calling a meeting at which two prominent comrades who resigned from the party would be invited to state their case.

In the northern manufacturing centre of Leeds, following the downgrading of four members for a similar offence, the area committee has recommended to the district committee (a higher body) that three others - they signed a circular inviting CP members to hear a "delegate's report on the recent Labour Party conference" be expelled. And a Londoner who has played a prominent part in the Socialist Forum
movement since its inception, Brian Pearce, has been asked by the. CP's London district secretary to make a statement which the committee would discuss when it considered "what action should be taken."

Pearce's reply was to send the correspondence to The Newsletter, an act which will probably not endear him to the leadership, with the comment: "Whoever else may be trying to 'capture' the Forums, nobody can say the Communist Party is. (So far as I know, none of the other socialist groups bas seen fit to forbid its members to take part in Forum discussions. King Street's [CP headquarters] obscurantist anxiety to keep its rank and file in a mental ghetto suggests a certain lack of confidence somewhere, in spite of Sputniks."

FEAR MARXIST CRITICS

And indeed, at the back of these new sanctions being imposed on critics is the fear of contact between the ordinary party member and, not just any old. critics of Stalinism, but Marxist critics. Now this is a very important distinction. It was ridiculously easy for the Stalinists to point to the wayward political development of the New Reasoner school of critics, to impress on working-class communists their abandonment of class struggle in their desire for a non-class, abstract humanism. Not that the Stalinists have taken up the polemical cudgels against Thompson, Saville and Co. in their press. But much is said in the branch room that it is not opportune to put in writing. And the flight to the right of some of the more important intellectual critics had been a useful weapon for King Street.

What really worries the leaders, and is going to worry them more and more, is the existence of a coherent, articulate, well-informed and principled criticism of Stalin from the left, which members might listen to in the Forums. So they are doing everything they can to seal off their members from such contamination.

Hence the spectacle of a party whose general secretary's rare literary pronouncements include a recent one with the title "End the Bans!," a party which protests volubly against the Labour Party leaders' list of proscribed organizations, itself using the device of proscription to protect its members from ideas!

INTERNAL OPPOSITION

Not that the Stalinists are altogether successful these days. I know of one faction working inside the Communist Party in London which is distinguished from previous groups, now dispersed, by: (a) Its almost exclusively working-class composition; (b) The readiness of at least some of its members to do some practical work as well as discuss what's wrong with the party. The influence which Marxist ideas and a Marxist evaluation of Stalinism, both historically and in its present-day practice, have on the faction's participants.

This group issues a duplicated bulletin, and uses it to spread information about bureaucratic methods, of "disciplining" critics and to encourage a concerted campaign of resistance. Within this faction there are those who believe the British CP can be transformed into a genuine Communist Party, and there are those who disagree, feeling that the ultimate object of the faction must be to take as many Marxists as possible into the Labour Party. But the immediate practical activity of partisans of these two views is clearly identical, since the issue can 'he resolved only in the experience of concrete work against the Stalinist leadership.

It would be silly to overemphasise the strength and influence of this group, or of the "Left Oppositition" groups at work In Leeds, and in the London Young Communist League. But the fact that they exist, despite the exodus of thousands from the party in the past twelve months, shows that the ferment continues, and that consistent and patient work to persuade dissidents that there is a very different kind of communism, both in theory and in practice, from the Stalinist perversion of it, does get results.

SLANDERS A'PLENTY

The Stalinists, if they lack ideas and arguments, do not lack labels and slanders. The dissenters are branded as "anti-party." This accusation comes from gentlemen under whose direction the party has lost thousands of its most active and self sacrificing members. It comes from "defenders of the Soviet Union" whose 40th anniversary celebration meeting in London last weekend was attended by a mere handful of the hard core, who foregathered in a hall very much smaller indeed than the venues of past years' celebrations.

It comes from leaders whose daily newspaper confesses that the response to its Fighting Fund last month was so poor that the paper is faced with "one of our deadliest deficits." These, one would have thought, are the "liquidators." The road to a powerful and influential communist movement in Britain lies through the exposure of these men, whose bankruptcy is steadily becoming apparent to more and more of their followers.

Part 4: The Marxists In Britain

And now to sum up. In the midst of all the confusion of resignations and declarations, expulsions and polemics, one fact stands out: that rich possibilities now exist for rearing, training and educating a strong and influential Marxist movement in Britain. The streams are. flowing together: Communists disillusioned with (Stalinism; Bevanites disillusioned with Bevan; trade unionists who see the need for militant and principled leadership, political as well as economic, if the Tory offensive is to be beaten back).

From Communist Party, Labour Party and workshop floor alike there is coming forward the advance guard of a new, Marxist leadership. The task is to forge this precious cadre, to weave these streams together in one sturdy movement, to assimilate into a harmonious team, these different backgrounds and experiences, to raise the ideological level of these workers who want to be communists.

APPARENT CONFUSION

The Marxist alternative to Stalinism in Britain still has, as it seems to me, one foot in the past, even as the other foot is poised for an enormous forward stride. The ex-Communist Party member is bewildered and dismayed by the multiplicity of groups, each claiming to be more r-r-revolutionary than its competitors, each bawling its lungs hoarse selling literature at the entrance to public meetings, each carrying the banner of "real" Marxism. His immediate reaction is to ask why on earth these groups are not united. As soon as he begins to separate the sheep from the goats, however, he realizes that a purely organizational solution to what is a fundamental political problem would not advance the cause of Marxism very far.

The fact must be faced that some of these groups are in reality no more than vestigial remnants of a stage in the history of the British Trotskyist movement that quite evidently is over and done with. No ex-Communist Party member, who shares in the moral responsibility for the persecution and vilification of the Trotskyists in past years (even if he never participated in the beatings-up) can point a finger of scorn at these groups for their sectarianism, their dogmatism, their unwillingness to learn, their insistence that every syllable in their journals shall be scrubbed till it is doctrinally pure. Stalinism made these groups what they are, down to the last 'Long live-!' of their Third Period Cominternese.

AS EAGER TO LEARN AS TEACH

But there are Trotskyists and "Trotskyists" in quotation marks. The Marxist who is seeking a movement soon learns that. And he comes to the genuine Trotskyist movement with all the ardour of a thirsty man who finds a stream of clear water. Here are Marxists who have kept traditions alive without turning them into dogma. Who do not use the fact that Trotsky was right on so many issues as an excuse for any new Great Man theory. Who, above all, are as eager to learn from the new adherents they are winning as they are willing and able to teach them something.

Whose approach to people, therefore, is improving all the time, since it takes into account the conditioned-reflex prejudices and misunderstandings that come from years of believing in lies.

Examine the past year's issues of Labour Review, for instance, and you see how the new Marxist movement is sprouting forth in Britain out of a soil made fertile by what are essentially Trotskyist ideas and analyses. Four out of five of the contributors to these first six issues are either members of the Communist Party (these write under pen-names) or were in the party until quite recently. On the editorial board, whose meetings I have attended since last March, I have met only two other persons who were Trotskyists before 1956. The old and new go forward together on Labour Review, their common task the creative application and consequent enrichment of Marxism.

And so strong is this combination that .Labour Review, without a single tremor, could open its columns to a long, detailed and closely-argued attack on Trotskyism, which a member of the editorial board (himself a member of the Communist Party!) answered in the same issue. This kind of fundamental discussion is unknown in the Communist Party, which has nipped the tender buds of discussion that appeared for a. brief period a year or so ago.

"We are not afraid of discussion," a leading British Trotskyist said to me a little time ago. "We are sure we have the right answers and the better arguments. That is not the same thing as saying we know all the answers! We are learning all the time - in the process of building a movement."

LABEL LOSES TERROR

And in this process of building a movement the "label" of Trotskyism is losing its terrors. There are many who think that as the Trotskyist analysis comes to be recognized as the only valid Marxist analysis, the word Trotskyist will tend to fall into disuse (just as one uses 'Leninist' rarely, and 'Engelsist' not at all). Be that as it may, the Trotskyists' willingness (a) to enter into serious debate and b) to learn, is making a steady impact.

I have no dramatic successes to record. But it is a sober fact that the Marxists whose activity is conducted inside the Labour Party are the only organization whose work in relation to the Communist Party crisis has been consistent and serious, and the only organization which has won new members as a result. Most of these new members are militant workers, many of them with splendid records on. the job. Their contribution to the new Marxist movement in Britain is no less valuable than that of the smaller number of historians, economists, journalists etc. who are grouped round Labour Review.

I use the word "new" without any intention of denigrating the past. The comrades who stuck to their principles when the rest of us were dazzled and misled by Stalinism laid a solid foundation. Theirs was the helping hand a year ago. The hand had books in it. Now we and they are starting to build together on this foundation, so that there can be more helping hands, more books, more journals, more activity, and the growth and consolidation of a well-equipped revolutionary leadership.