Remember and Reflecting: 1956

Eric Aarons

Remembering, 1956 was a troubled and traumatic year. Reflecting, it was a crucial and still resonating turning point, signifying the need for a new, viable vision of radical social change, and practical ways for achieving it.

In early February of that year General Secretary Nikita Khrushchev made two major reports to the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. The first outlined the Party’s plan to economically outstrip the United States and other capitalist countries in 20 years, which would signify, he claimed, the transition from socialism to its higher stage of communism.

The second was a wide-ranging denunciation of Stalin in which Khrushchev confirmed the faking of the 1930s trials, the murder of many leading communists whom Stalin regarded as rivals, the dismissal or execution of many leaders in the Red Army, and the imprisonment of millions of often uncomprehending ordinary people in labour camps where huge numbers died.

Uncharacteristically, this session of the Congress was closed to delegates from other countries by decision of the Politbureau, Khrushchev and Mikoyan dissenting. The speech itself was never officially released, though at the time oblique references to it in speeches by other Soviet leaders were published, and rumours, naturally were rife. Not until July 5 did the full Report appear, in translation, in the New York Times. The source was a Khrushchev aide, Konstantin Orlov, who dictated it from memory to a western press correspondent, John Rettie, almost certainly on Khrushchev’s behalf.

The reasons for the secrecy were never to my knowledge disclosed, but were probably due to differences about the project among the leadership, a means to temporarily bypass an unwelcome barrage of questioning that would have come from the foreign delegates and, most important, of avoiding a possible eruption of unaccustomed political activity by Soviet people, unpredictable in its outcome.

Whatever the fact, those foreign delegates and the parties they represented suffered acute embarrassment, and the press had a field day recycling with relish their previous stories. These, most parties and their members — certainly most of us in Australia — had regarded as being plain lies or, at the very worst, vast exaggerations of events in a life and death struggle against class and international enemies for the victory of socialism.

The Central Committee of the Communist Party of Australia (CPA) met on the weekend of February 18-19, completely uninformed, but in a short


article of February 22 headed “Wait for Authentic Reports on Congress” warned that people should not fall for press scare stories of attacks on Stalin. Just as disoriented as everyone else, I shortly afterwards asked General Secretary Lance Sharkey why we weren’t saying anything about it. He replied that he was waiting for some indication from the CPSU as to what kind of response to make, an explanation that I accepted.

A short report of a speech by the Secretary of the Austrian Communist Party in Tribune of March 14 stated that criticisms of Stalin had been made at the Congress, and that collective leadership in the previous 15 — 20 years had been eliminated with “everything concentrated on Stalin”, though “in no way denying or belittling Stalin’s great service to Communism.” Tribune of April 11 briefly reported a Pravda article on the Cult of the Individual and its condemnation by Marx, Engels and Lenin. The May 2 issue noted the rehabilitation by their own parties of a number of leaders of European communist leaders executed in the early 1950s. The same article also quoted Pravda as attributing the announcement of the rehabilitation of several Red Army commanders executed in the 1930s to “the latest of a series of articles on the Stalin Cult in the Soviet magazine Questions of History”. The CPSU’s long June 30 resolution “The Stalin Question” appeared in full in Tribune of July 18. On June 27 Tribune had briefly reported a long interview [by the magazine
Nuovi Argumento} with Italian Communist Party leader Palmiro Togliatti, the full text of which appeared in the August 1956 Communist Review. Togliatti made it clear that the analysis could not be left where it was, and raised some questions about the Soviet social system, for which the CPSU’s resolution criticised him.

While developing in a confusing manner, the matter came to centre around two opposing reactions: on the one side were those who were persuaded that the criticism of the Cult was an adequate “Marxist-Leninist” explanation of the revealed faults and assurance of their correction, and who thought that emphasis should be put on the positive sides of the 20th Congress — that is on the Report about the building of communism, and the pronouncements that capitalist and socialist countries could coexist, that world war was no longer inevitable, and that peaceful transition to socialism was possible.

The other reaction held that it was essential to deepen the Marxist analysis as to how such a grave departure from principle could come about, why no one had spoken out against what was happening, and also had begun to raise queries about less savoury aspects of general Soviet life such as treatment of artists, scientists, dissidents and restrictions on general democratic rights.

I cannot recall the date, but I clearly remember a meeting of over 50 members chaired by Party President Richard Dixon. Discussion was proceeding critically, but quite seriously and soberly, when Lance Sharkey entered, chastised the meeting for verging on becoming anti-Soviet and effectively put an end to the proceedings.

By July, when the New York Times account appeared, the first view had prevailed in the Australian Party, and a campaign conducted against the opposing view. Pressure was put on members to “endorse the line”, with some, notably Jack Blake, refusing to do so. The leadership also opposed reproduction of the “unauthorised” New York Times version, and when Jim Staples did so, he was expelled, as were people associated with Helen Palmer and her journal Outlook, and others.

Tribune of July 25 published a long resolution of the CPA’s Political Committee “Lessons of the Cult of the Individual” which declared the CPSU’s resolution on the Cult to be “a thoroughly Marxist document which gives a satisfactory explanation” and warned that party decisions had to be observed by all.

I have dealt with my own personal reactions and role in supporting that decision in my 1993 memoirs What’s Left? in a chapter appropriately headed “Failed Test”. In no way wishing to mitigate that judgement, I will nevertheless refer to the stand of the Chinese Party as I now proceed to the second part of our discussion — reflections on 1956.

Of course the issues the Twentieth Congress raised could not be fully resolved by debate or put to rest by decisions. In October, Hungary produced a democratic uprising, basically promoted by the Stalinism from which its people and many leaders had directly suffered.

I in fact had some advance notice of brewing trouble, but its scale was completely unexpected, I think by everyone. My partner at the time, Esther Taylor, a clothing trade worker and long-time party member, became one of three Australian delegates to a World Federation of Trade Unions conference on working women to be held in Budapest in June. On return, she told me of the sullen crowds watching with hostility as the delegates travelled to the conference in the official big black cars. However, in line with the custom at the time, she did not mention such negatives in her report-back meetings.

The uprising was clearly a major blow to the socialist cause, to which there was no ready believable reply – certainly not the Soviet military intervention on the spurious grounds that it was organised by remaining Hungarian fascists with German support. False evidence was manufactured, and a government acceptable to the Soviet Union installed. However, I believe to be true the view that Khrushchev had contemplated withdrawing Soviet troops after the uprising, but had succumbed to Chinese pressure to intervene.

The Chinese Communist Party had issued in April a statement “On Historical Experience Concerning the Dictatorship of the Proletariat” [published in July Communist Review].This went much deeper than the Soviet material on the Stalin Cult, among other things making a more considered analysis of Stalin’s strong and weak points, concluding that the good outweighed the bad, and that too much emphasis on the latter would help the class enemy. Recently returned from three years in China, their opinion weighed particularly heavily with me in finally supporting the party decision. In December the Chinese issued a new and longer statement: “More on the Historical Experience of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat” [published in February 1957 Communist Review], which repeated and enlarged on their earlier material, and extensively discussed the intervention in Hungary, with clear endorsement of it.

But despite the verbal stress on the “unbreakable unity of the socialist countries and communist parties” and our wishful thinking to the contrary, the two major socialist countries were not just drawing apart, but becoming antagonists.

Before continuing with this theme I should mention that we were given some respite from internal and external troubles by Nasser’s nationalisation of the Suez Canal in July. This was followed by typical imperialist behaviour with Britain, France and Israel invading, then the US warning them all off in its own interests. British Prime Minister Anthony Eden collapsed and had to resign.

But the Soviet-China dispute escalated, Mao Zedong declaring that the atom bomb was a “paper tiger.” Khrushchev refused to carry out a previous agreement to supply a bomb and technical information about it. The Soviets withdrew their aid and experts from China, and border incidents erupted.

In April 1960, on the 90th anniversary of Lenin’s birth, the Chinese published a booklet Long Live Leninism. Using Yugoslavia’s leader Tito as codeword for Khrushchev and co., this raised the dispute to the theoretical level, signifying China’s claim to be the foremost defender and exponent of “Marxism-Leninism” – in effect a claim to world leadership of the communist movement. [ trend had already been intimated in the two articles on the dictatorship of the proletariat, which claimed that Mao had all the strengths those documents attributed to Stalin, and none of the weaknesses. See my article in Australian Left Review, October-November 1969 analysing the Cultural Revolution]

Being closer to both the Soviet Union and China than practically any other country, the CPA was then faced with the problem of either following one of them, or neither or making up our own minds. Hesitantly at first, but with increasing determination we did the latter. Aided by a change in leadership in 1966, we took the course of de Stalinisation, of full independence, of thinking for ourselves, of not taking Marxist propositions as immutable truths, and of seeking an Australian way towards socialism.

This process reached a first peak in 1968 with our forthright opposition to the invasion of Czechoslovakia and free discussion of the theoretical issues involved. It culminated in the dissolution of the Party in March 1991. This recognised that the revolutionary impulse generated by the 1917 revolution, and initially reinforced by the Chinese revolution, had exhausted itself, and that new objectives and methods in seeking social change had to be sought.

Before concluding I point to the sorry fact that instead of overtaking capitalist countries in 20 years from 1956, by the end of that period the Soviet economy was a basket case, and its culture and political system reaching a state of collapse. China, by changing after the end of the Cultural Revolution, has made great progress economically. But it is not yet clear where it is going politically, socially and culturally.

As for myself, just on half a century after 1956, and after long reflection, much reading and many discussions, I have produced a book, What’s Right? My hope is that it will stimulate discussion contributing to the development of a contemporary and viable Left vision for the future, and ways in which it might be pursued.