Even when they become history, most revolutions prove divisive. Russia's October revolution may have occurred nearly ninety years ago, but it still divides right from left, and various shades of the left from each other. The French revolution may seem like a distant event today, but it still brings historians to the boil.
The Hungarian rising of 1956 is one of relatively few revolutions that is claimed by commentators and historians of the left and the right. On its fiftieth anniversary, the great revolt against Stalinism has been celebrated by figures as different as creepy US palaeocon Pat Buchanan, who sees it as a symbol of resistance to the evils of Marxism, and Trotskyist outfit the Committee for a Workers' International, which finds in the workers' councils of insurgent Hungary the revival of a revolutionary socialist tradition muzzled for decades by Stalinism.
The wide appeal of the Hungarian revolution today has a great deal to do with the tragic fate it suffered in 1956 and 1957. The revolutionaries were never able to construct the new, post-Stalinist society they talked about, and so their cause has become a sort of screen onto which all manner of interpretations and counterfactual speculations can be projected.
Even in 1956, the Hungarian revolution resonated far beyond Hungary. It had a calamitous effect on the Stalinised Communist Parties of the West, driving members from their ranks and into the amorphous and unstable new political groupings sometimes referred to by historians as 'the Old New Left'. One of the organisations most affected by Hungary was the Communist Party of Great Britain, which lost a third of its 21,000 members in 1956 and 1957.
The dearly departed included some of the most outstanding intellectuals in Britain, people like EP Thompson, Christopher Hill, Rodney Hilton, John Saville, and Doris Lessing. Others like Eric Hobsbawm remained inside the party as 'internal émigrés', alienated from and furtively hostile to the party leadership. The Communist Party Historians Group, whose work in the decade after the Second World War transformed the study of English and world history and still inspires reverence today, never recovered its lustre after 1956.
Here is a letter, originally intended for the Daily Worker but published in The New Statesman in late November 1956, which presaged the flight of intellectuals from the Communist Party of Great Britain. It's been referenced many times, but as far as I know has never been republished. The list of scholars and writers at the bottom of the letter does not include John Saville and EP Thompson*, who were by November 1956 facing expulsion from the party for publishing an 'illegal' cyclostyled bulletin of discussion, The Reasoner, which had prompted by the crisis in Stalinism. The list does include the esteemed and eccentric Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid. In 1956 MacDiarmid was not a member of the Communist Party - he had apparently been eased out because of his fervent Scottish nationalism - but in 1957 he would announce that he was rejoining, at a time when many of the signatories of the letter were leaving, because of the party's support for the suppression of the Hungarian revolution. You work it out.
SIR, - the following letter was sent to the Daily Worker on November 18. As it appears it will not be published there, the signatories would be grateful if you could find space for it.
"All of us have for many years advocated Marxist ideas both in our own special fields and in political discussion in the Labour movement. We feel therefore that we have a responsibility to express our views as Marxists in the present crisis of international Socialism.
"We feel that the uncritical support given by the Executive Committee of the Communist Party to Soviet action in Hungary is the undesirable culmination of years of distortion of fact, and failure by British Communists to think out political problems for themselves. We had hoped that the revelations made at the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union would have made our leadership and press realise that Marxist ideas will only be acceptable in the British Labour movement if they arise from the truth about the world we live in.
"The exposure of grave crimes and abuses in the USSR, and the recent revolt of workers and intellectuals against the pseudo-Communist bureaucracies and police systems of Poland and Hungary, have shown that for the past twelve years we have based our political analyses on a false presentation of the facts - not on out-of-date theory, for we still consider the Marxist method to be correct.
"If the left-wing and Marxist trend in our Labour movement is to win support, as it must for the achievement of Socialism, this past must be utterly repudiated. This includes the repudiation of the latest outcome of this evil past, the Executive Committee's underwriting of the current errors of Soviet policy."
Not all the signatories agree with everything in this letter, but all are in sufficient sympathy with its general intention to sign with this reservation.
CHIMEN ABRAMSKY, E.J. HOBSBAWM, HYMAN LEVY, ROBERT BROWNING, PAUL HOGARTH, JACK LINDSAY, HENRY COLLINS, GEORGE HOUSTON, HUGH MacDIARMID, CHRISTOPHER HILL, V. G. KIERNAN, RONALD L. MEEK, R. H. HILTON, DORIS LESSING, E. A. THOMPSON
*Or is he? Is 'E.A. Thompson' a misspelling of EP Thompson? I've never really tried to find this out, but it would be odd if EP Thompson had signed the letter without John Saville. A quick google search for 'EA Thompson British communist' finds a fellow of that name being cited in an academic paper by Rodney Hilton, the historian of medieval England who was a friend of EP's and a signatory of the letter. Anyone want to help me out here?