1956 was a year of war, revolution, and disillusionment – a year after which nothing could ever be quite the same again, writes Neil Faulkner

The 1948 war and the creation of Israel had been a catastrophic defeat for Arab nationalism. The effect was felt across the Middle East as corrupt, reactionary, puppet kings came under massive pressure from below.

The junior officers of Arab armies provided the most effective expression of this popular discontent. They had been at the cutting-edge of military failure in 1948. They had good reason to favour reform and modernisation. And because of their professional role, they were organised as a national force.

Amid rising mass protests, on 23 July 1952, an organisation called the ‘Free Officers Movement’ carried out a military coup in Egypt and ended the rule of King Farouk. The most important figure in the movement was Colonel Gamal Abdul Nasser.

Nasser became a dictator, but his programme of land reform, state-capitalist development, and strident attacks on Zionism and Western imperialism made him popular at home and a beacon of Arab nationalism across the Middle East.

Three years after coming to power, Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal. In November 1956, the British and the French responded with an invasion of Egypt in alliance with Israel.

The invasion was a political disaster for the imperial powers. It provoked a storm of rage in the Arab world and mass protests at home. A demonstration called by the Labour Party and TUC turned out to be the biggest in London since the war and ended with clashes between protestors and police outside the prime minister’s residence.

The US used the hostile reaction to pull the plug on the operation, threatening to cut off the funding on which the British economy depended. Its aim was to displace Britain as the major imperial power in the oil-rich Middle East.

The Suez Crisis destroyed any lingering illusions about the British Empire: it was clearly in a state of terminal decline. Nasser’s standing in the Arab world, on the other hand, soared to new heights.

Events yet more dramatic were unfolding at the same time on the other side of the Iron Curtain.

Stalin had died in 1953. His dictatorship had claimed many victims at the highest levels, so the Russian ruling class took the opportunity to rein in the apparatus of terror. Stalin’s police chief was taken out and shot.

A struggle for power inside the bureaucracy erupted onto the public stage in February 1956 when the new Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev denounced the crimes of Stalin at the 20th Party Congress. Stalin, he said, had murdered thousands, deported millions, and proved cowardly and incompetent in the crisis of the German invasion of June 1941.

The shockwave was immense. The Stalinist propaganda machine had smothered the smallest whisper of dissent for a quarter of a century. Suddenly everything was in question. Perhaps all was not well in the ‘socialist motherland’? Perhaps some of the criticisms were not just ‘capitalist lies’?

Discontent had been growing inside the Soviet empire since 1953. In June of that year, building workers on a giant construction site in East Berlin had walked out on strike when told they would have to work harder for the same pay. When they marched through the city, tens of thousands joined them.

The following day, the whole of East Germany was gripped by a general strike. In some towns, demonstrators ransacked party offices, attacked police stations, and broke open the prisons.

In July, revolt also broke out at the giant slave-labour camp at Vorkuta in the far north of Russia itself. Within five days, 50 pits had stopped work and 250,000 miners were on strike.

Both risings were crushed by Russian troops. But the need for reform was clear, and within two years, 90% of the millions held in the gulags had been released. Khrushchev’s speech at the 20th Congress had a context.

The re-opening of debate and the first tentative moves towards reform are always moments of danger for dictatorial regimes. Hope for change, long dammed up, can suddenly swell into a torrent.

In Poland, memories were still fresh of the long night of Nazi occupation and of the high hopes of freedom and prosperity engendered by the war’s end. The death and subsequent denigration of the dictator had rekindled these hopes.

In June 1956, like the workers of East Berlin three years before, the workers of Poznan stopped work, marched through the city, and were soon battling the police, releasing prisoners, and seizing arms.

The insurrection was contained, but rather than crush the movement outright, a section of the bureaucracy that favoured limited reform manoeuvred for power. Wladyslaw Gomulka, an independent-minded Communist leader jailed under Stalin, was released from prison and formed a new regime.

The Russians threatened to invade, but were persuaded to back off. Gomulka addressed a mass rally of 250,000 enthusiastic supporters. What had begun as a working-class revolt had been turned into a bureaucratic coup. The ‘Polish Spring in October’ – as it was called – merely gave power to the reformist wing of Poland’s state-capitalist ruling class.

Events in Hungary played out very differently. Poznan and the Polish Spring were the detonators of a great working-class revolution in the heart of Europe.

On 22 October 1956, students at the Budapest Polytechnic Institute drew up a 14-point manifesto calling for democracy, free speech, the release of prisoners, the withdrawal of Russian troops, and an end to compulsory state levies of peasant farm-produce.

The following day, the students marched to present their demands. As they did so, they were joined by tens of thousands of workers. In the evening, as they converged on the radio station, they were fired on by the secret police.

Workers armed themselves with guns from sports clubs. Soldiers handed their weapons to demonstrators. Across the city, and then across the country, power was seized by popular committees and armed militias.

Peter Fryer, covering events for the British Communist Party paper The Daily Worker, reported that the new democratic bodies were like ‘the workers’, peasants’, and soldiers’ councils which were thrown up in Russia in the 1905 Revolution and in February 1917… They were at once organs of insurrection – the coming together of delegates elected in the factories and universities, mines and army units – and organs of popular self-government which the armed people trusted.’

A section of the Hungarian ruling class attempted to regain control in the same way as Gomulka had done in Poland – by riding the tiger of popular revolt. But the movement was too powerful. Events had moved beyond government reshuffles.

On 4 November, Russian tanks rolled into Budapest. The city was turned into a war zone, as working-class suburbs were reduced to rubble, and thousands of Hungarians died fighting the invaders from street to street.

The Greater Budapest Central Workers’ Council – playing the role of the Petrograd Soviet in 1905 and 1917 – ordered a general strike which paralysed the city for a fortnight.

In November 1956, Budapest was under a dual power. The worker’s council organised essential supplies, distributed bread, maintained health services, and manufactured weapons. The authority of the newly installed regime of Janos Kadar, by contrast, rested on the turret of a Russian tank.

But the workers could not win against 3,000 tanks and 200,000 troops – not without the revolution spreading to other parts of Eastern Europe. The strike was defeated, the workers’ council suppressed, and 350 oppositionists, including Nagy, were executed.

Even so, the collaborationist Kadar regime remained fragile. As it struggled to regain control, it was forced to raise wages (by 22% on average), and to promise ‘democratic elections … in all existing administrative bodies …’

The events of 1956 had cracked the Stalinist monolith. The real Marxist tradition of revolution from below and workers’ self-emancipation had been reborn on the streets of Budapest. Tens of thousands of left activists across the world were forced to reconsider their political allegiance.

In East Germany, 68% of those purged from the Communist Party for their part in the 1953 uprising had been members before 1933. The old revolutionaries had fought with their class. The suited apparatchiks of the new ruling class had remained at their posts.

Peter Fryer’s reports from Budapest were spiked. He resigned from The Daily Worker and was then expelled from the Communist Party.

He was not alone. In the immediate aftermath of the Hungarian Revolution, the British party lost 7,000 of its members, a fifth of the total, including many leading intellectuals and trade unionists.

As Stalinism crumbled, a ‘New Left’ began to form. And as activists re-crystallised into new groupings, they were drawn to a number of competing ‘anti-Stalinist’ political traditions.

Many of these, like Stalinism, were themselves delusionary. Maoism was one (see MHW 93). Another was taking shape in the obscurity of a remote mountain range on a distant Caribbean island.

It was to produce an inspirational and iconic figure who seemed to personify revolutionary idealism in a world scarred by exploitation and injustice: Che Guevara. We turn next to the Cuban Revolution of 1959.

Neil Faulkner

Neil Faulkner is a freelance archaeologist and historian. He works as a writer, lecturer, excavator, and occasional broadcaster. His books include ‘A Visitor’s Guide to the Ancient Olympics‘ and ‘A Marxist History of the World: from Neanderthals to Neoliberals‘.

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