Socialist Equality Party (UK)
The Historical and International Foundations of the Socialist Equality Party (Britain)

The 1956 intervention into the Communist Party

103. The split in the Fourth International took place at a time of gathering crisis within world Stalinism. Now, the significance of the issues involved in the struggle against the Pabloites emerged into the open. The sudden death of Stalin in March 1953 led to the outbreak of factional warfare within the Soviet Politburo. The ousting from power and execution of Lavrenti Beria, head of Stalin’s secret police, was aimed at shoring up the bureaucracy’s parasitic position within Soviet society by lifting the constant threat of arrests and executions from over the state and party apparatus. But the machinations of the bureaucracy were threatened by a more dangerous challenge from the growing discontent of workers in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.

104. In June 1953, a rising by the East German working class was suppressed by Soviet military forces. In its aftermath, a section of the bureaucracy sought to project a “reform” course. At the 20th Congress of the CPSU on February 25, 1956, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev delivered his “secret speech” in which he acknowledged some of Stalin’s crimes. His main claim was that the majority of the party leadership had remained loyal to the principles of Bolshevism, blaming everything on a “Cult of Personality” developed by Stalin.

105. While Pablo and his supporters hailed Khrushchev’s speech as the beginning of a process of self-reform by the bureaucracy, the Healy tendency seized the opportunity to clarify the counter-revolutionary character of Stalinism. For all the problems the British movement confronted materially in the aftermath of the split with Pablo, it intervened energetically into the ranks of the CPGB, publishing a series of pamphlets and circulating copies of Trotsky’s The Revolution Betrayed. Healy travelled the country visiting CPGB members, urging dissidents to demand of the leadership a full accounting of Stalin’s crimes.

106. On October 23, 1956, Hungarian workers and youth rose up against the Stalinist regime. When demonstrators were killed, workers began to arm themselves and formed workers’ councils. The movement was bloodily suppressed by Russian troops, with the loss of 20,000 lives. The CPGB denounced the uprising as “white terror” and “fascism”, leading to an exodus of thousands of members. When dispatches from Hungary by Daily Worker correspondent Peter Fryer were censored and suppressed, The Club circulated his material and organised a series of meetings for him to address. During a special congress of the CPGB, held in April 1957, The Club published a daily bulletin. Interventions were made at meetings organised by the Socialist Forum, an umbrella grouping, at which Healy patiently explained the meaning of recent events, and urged a study of the history of the Soviet Union and the writings of Trotsky.

107. Healy’s group was the only tendency to make any gains from the crisis in British Stalinism. The CPGB retained a core of support amongst those who were indifferent to the revelation of the crimes perpetrated by Moscow, and whose membership of the party was based upon agreement with its reformist nationalism and opportunist manoeuvring in the trade unions. The majority of dissidents either dropped out of politics, or found their way into the Labour and trade union apparatus. But those forces genuinely animated by the ideals of Lenin and the Bolsheviks found a new home in the ranks of British Trotskyism. Those recruited included leading intellectuals, the most important of whom was Cliff Slaughter.

108. In January 1957, the Labour Review was re-launched to deepen discussion on the crisis of Stalinism and the way forward for the socialist movement. This was followed in May that year with the publication of a weekly newspaper, the Newsletter. The Labour Review described the type of Marxist movement it intended to build:

“Not a group of embittered doctrinaires without roots or perspectives or the ability to learn from their mistakes; not a coterie of well-meaning university Dons and writers who have something to say on every subject except the class struggle taking place under their noses; not a party paying lip-service to Marxism but in fact dominated by whichever faction happens to be in control in Moscow. No, the Marxist movement to whose construction Labour Review is dedicated will be rooted in the pits and workshops and on the building sites; it will unite the efforts of workers for whom ‘intellectual’ is not a dirty word and intellectuals who have no dearer wish than to serve the working class in struggle; it will carry forward those traditions of revolutionary ardour, discipline, steadfastness and internationalism to which the word ‘Bolshevik’ is properly applied, and will marry them, in new conditions, to all the best traditions of our native working-class struggle. The Marxist movement in Britain will be the worthy heir to the Chartists, the Clydeside strikers, the councils of action, the Communist Party of 1920-24, the national minority movement, the Marxist groups of the 30s and the Revolutionary Communist Party of the 40s.”[1]

109. The Labour Review conducted a theoretical offensive against Stalinism, and the various ideological trends that emerged from its collapse, which became collectively known as “Western Marxism”. Foremost amongst them was the publication New Reasoner, which in 1960 became the New Left Review. Founded by former CPGB historian E.P. Thompson, its supporters claimed to be developing a “humanist” and English version of Marxism that repudiated Lenin’s theory of the vanguard party, which was blamed for the emergence of Stalinism.


Cited in Gerry Healy and His Place in the History of the Fourth International, David North (1991), Labor Publications, p. 30.