The year that saw the erection of Laurence Bradshaw's powerful monument to Karl Marx in Highgate Cemetery also shook the international Communist movement to its foundations.
In February, at the 20th congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, general secretary Khruschev exposed some of the crimes and abuses of the Stalin period. Many Communists around the world were shocked to learn that violations of socialist democracy and human rights had taken place on such a scale. In fact—as CPSU and state archives were to confirm—millions of Soviet citizens had been incarcerated in the late 1930s for sabotage or subversion, hundreds of thousands executed and whole peoples accused of disloyalty and deported from their homelands.
Anti-Communist propagandists in academia and the mass media quickly inflated the number of deaths to twenty or thirty million and more, adding the real or imagined casualties of war, famine, disease and anything else that could be blamed—rightly or wrongly—on the Soviet system.
In Britain, the Communist Party held its 24th congress in March in a mood of bewilderment and disbelief. Party leaders reported the undoubted economic, social and cultural advances being made in the Soviet Union, which were shifting the world balance of forces towards socialism and colonial liberation. The positive role and legacy of Stalin was emphasised, while criticisms were made of a 'cult of personality' deemed to be safely in the past.
But as details of Khruschev's revelations gained widespread circulation, a growing number of CP members demanded more information and debate. Those involved in producing the monthly Jewish Clarion reacted sharply to reports of anti-Semitic policies in the Soviet Union. Even Palme Dutt was compelled to concede that 'criminal misdeeds' had occurred in the pre-war period. Pollitt fell ill, to be replaced as the Party's general secretary by John Gollan.
In July, the CP executive committee appointed a commission to consider how inner-party democracy might be improved, although pressure to drop democratic-centralism for a more social-democratic type of organisation was resisted. A number of academics including EP Thompson and John Saville published a factional journal of dissent.
Mass protests in Poland and then Hungary indicated significant discontent with economic and social conditions in the 'People's Democracies', which reactionary elements wanted to transform into a challenge to Communist rule and the socialist system itself.
For a short time, the headlines were grabbed by Britain's military escapade—in league with France and Israel—to stop Egyptian president Nasser nationalising the Suez Canal. Communists held hundreds of workplace and public meetings to mobilise mass opposition to the war alongside the Labour left.
Then Soviet armed forces intervened in Hungary to protect the socialist state. Britain's CP and the Daily Worker echoed the Soviet leadership's initial justification and then its self-criticism for being too provocative. But the Red Army's withdrawal at the end of October was followed by brutal killings of Hungarian party and state officials. The new government in Budapest announced an end to the one-party system and then Hungary's withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact.
When Soviet troops and tanks returned to crush 'counter-revolution' after heavy fighting, their action was supported by the British CP.
Khruschev's revelations together with these events in Hungary prompted thousands of members of all kinds to leave the Party, including the Daily Worker's chief correspondent in Budapest, militant trade unionists and prominent intellectuals. Membership fell from 33,095 in February 1956 to 26,742 in 1957. Although a significant proportion of this 20% drop in membership was actually due to the stricter enforcement of Party rules relating to activity and dues payments.
It was shortly after this crisis in the international Communist movement that the CPSU recommenced financial assistance to the CP in Britain. It continued until 1979, when the latter ended the arrangement. The amounts were small in comparison with the funds raised by the Party's own members. That they did not 'buy' the loyalty of the British CP would be demonstrated by later events. In any case, Communists have always been at least as ready as the capitalists and their states to extend international solidarity.
For many Party members, the class struggle at home provided reason enough to stay put. An economic downturn had begun to bite, prompting the British Motor Corporation to sack 6,000 workers at Longbridge without notice or pay. The shop stewards' committee, led by Communists, responded by calling a six-week strike which secured its objectives.
This was an historic victory because, firstly, workers would henceforth expect consultation and notice over dismissal; and secondly, BMC workers from each plant sent their representatives to a combine committee—an invaluable mechanism for coordination and solidarity.
The dispute also demonstrated that in the bus industry, the docks and now the Midlands car industry, workers at shop-floor level were prepared to defy the TGWU ban on electing Communists to office. It came as little surprise when Britain's biggest union turned left and elected Frank Cousins as its general secretary.
Throughout the 1950s, the CP economic committee insisted that post-war 'Keynesian mixed economy' capitalism had not and could not abolish crises. While right-wing Labour intellectuals proclaimed the end of crisis, mass unemployment and of capitalism itself, the Communist Party warned that the ruling class still wanted a 'reserve army' of the unemployed to moderate wage demands and undermine strong trade unionism.
Professor Maurice Dobb was in the vanguard of theoretical work in areas of Marxist political economy, including problems of planning and distribution in capitalist, 'market socialist' and the centrally planned Soviet economies. John Eaton and Sam Aaronovitch analysed the role of rival state monopoly-capitalisms in the formation and development of the European Common Market, showing that the capitalist monopolies continued to fight to maximise market share and profit in their home economies as well as in the colonies and semi-colonies.
Almost alone on the left, CP economists highlighted the increasingly predominant role of the City of London in shaping British ruling class economic and political policy, especially as British transnational corporations lost ground to US, French and German competition in the developing world. The Party also helped uncover the ongoing trend to monopoly in the British economy, now being driven by US transnationals—not least in the motor industry.
In his political report to the 25th party congress in 1957, John Gollan called for a new, independent foreign policy for Britain—one which 'ends subservience to the United States, insists on the withdrawal of American troops and outlaws nuclear weapons, brings about a European Security system, finishes with the colonial wars, and makes Britain a force for new international understanding'.
Later that year, Aneurin Bevan's rejection of unilateral nuclear disarmament at the Labour Party conference angered many on the left. However, like Bevan and the CPSU, the CP in Britain regarded multilateralism as the key issue because it alone could abolish the world's two biggest stocks of atomic weapons.
Nevertheless, the Party quickly came to see the value of British unilateralism as a lever to push the US into an agreement with the Soviet Union. Communists helped turn the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament into a mass movement after its formation in 1958. Cousins helped win the Labour Party conference for its policy two years later, although the right-wing leadership under Hugh Gaitskell soon reversed the decision.
The Notting Hill riots of 1958 laid bare the ugly racism instilled by empire. Prejudice was mixed with resentment at government-sponsored mass immigration from the Caribbean, as black workers filled low-paid jobs and sub-standard accommodation. White youths went on the rampage.
Back in 1952, the Party's 22nd congress had condemned propaganda about Britain being 'flooded' by foreigners and pointed to the 'flagrant and shameful forms of racial discrimination' suffered by immigrants from the colonies, demanding that 'colour bars' against them in employment, housing, pubs and clubs be made a criminal offence. A couple of years later, the CP published a Charter of Rights and distributed 150,000 leaflets and pamphlets which proclaimed 'No Colour Bar for Britain'.
Now, in 1958, Britain's Communists mobilised to resist racist thuggery and urge working class unity. Trinidad-born Claudia Jones, a member of the Party's international committee and editor of the West Indian Gazette, not only played an outstanding role in that struggle. She inspired the local black community to celebrate their heritage and culture the following year. The Notting Hill carnival was born.
The Communist Party's black and ethnic minority members tended to be either seafarers in port cities such as Liverpool and Cardiff, or overseas Communists domiciled in Britain. For decades, its best-known black member was the famous Manchester boxer Len Johnson, banned from fighting for a British title by his colour and a frequent local council candidate in Moss Side.
Towards the end of 1959, the Party responded to an appeal from the African National Congress to campaign for the boycott of goods from apartheid South Africa. Anger at the Sharpeville massacre transformed the initiative the following year into the Anti-Apartheid Movement. Its headquarters were located in the second Ruskin House, Croydon.
The CP opposed the 1961 Commonwealth Immigration Bill which exempted the white 'Old Commonwealth' from any controls. Working with the Movement for Colonial Freedom, it helped establish the Coordinating Committee against Racial Discrimination, drawing in the Indian Workers Association and similar Pakistani and West Indian bodies.
Attempts by followers of Sir Oswald Mosley and neo-Nazi Colin Jordan to rebuild a fascist movement also met Communist-led opposition. During a confrontation in Manchester in summer 1962, Betty Askins floored Mosley with a handbag full of coins from her market stall. Meanwhile, Communists brought together trades unionists and Jewish community leaders to set up the North and East London Anti-Fascist Coordinating Committee. Maurice Ludmer and Gerry Gable collaborated with left Labour MPs to launch the first run of Searchlight magazine.
By the late 1950s and early '60s, British manufacturing industry was feeling the strain of under-investment and increasingly fierce competition from the US, West Germany and France. British monopoly capitalism concentrated its interests still further in the City of London, financial and property speculation and the export of capital overseas.
As British imperialism's command of colonial markets and cheap imports weakened, it fought desperately to ensure that countries only gained their independence on terms favourite to British capital.
Britain's Communists celebrated heartily when long-time comrade Cheddi Jagan was re-elected chief minister of British Guyana in 1961. He had previously been removed militarily by the British colonial authorities. Despite winning the largest share of the votes in 1964, he was dismissed from office for a second time.
Alan Bush, banned from the BBC during the war, added an opera about the Guyanan freedom struggle ('The Sugar Reapers') to a repertoire which included 'The Men of Blackmoor' (about the Northumberland and Durham miners) and 'Wat Tyler'. They were performed to great acclaim in the German Democratic Republic and other socialist countries, but largely boycotted by the musical establishment at home.
In Britain, meanwhile, a new ruling class offensive had been launched against CP influence in the unions.
Communist leadership in the Electrical Trades Union had gained unprecedented terms, conditions and union facilities for electricians and apprentices. Disgruntled ex-Party members backed by employers, TUC general secretary Vic Feather, the BBC, Catholic Action, the Economic League and other shadowy right-wing outfits, charged ETU officials with ballot-rigging. In 1961, a High Court judge found the union's general secretary Frank Haxell and other CP members guilty of using 'fraudulent and unlawful' means to win an election.
The Party's executive committee condemned such practices, which were more often used by the right wing against Communists and the left. The new leadership of the ETU went on to ban Communists and their allies from office, crushing all dissent and ruthlessly manipulating organisational and electoral arrangements on a scale undreamt of by Haxell and his comrades.
Despite a new wave of anti-Communist frenzy in the mass media, Party membership continued to revive—not least as a result of militant campaigning against high council rents, slum landlords and 'Rachmanism'. Tenants' leader Don Cook was a major target for eviction following a mass rent strike in the London borough of St. Pancras in 1960, where the leader of the council and six of his colleagues had been expelled from the Labour Party and joined the CP. Police laid violent siege to Cook's flat, workers struck in solidarity and 14,000 people marched on the town hall.
In local elections the following year, 450 Communist candidates achieved 100,000 votes and raised the Party's tally of councillors to 28.
Also in 1961, the Tory government imposed a statutory pay pause. This provoked widespread trade union defiance. Workers in the engineering, shipbuilding and motor industries struck for better wages and conditions. In January 1962, the CP executive committee pointed out: 'The ruling class sharpens its weapons for survival in a new and very important stage in the long-drawn-out crisis of British monopoly capitalism'.
During the first-ever national strike in the electricity supply industry, Communist Charlie Doyle at Battersea Power Station was attacked by the Daily Mirror as 'the most hated man in Britain'. He was used to the hatred of the ruling class, having been hounded out of the US during the McCarthyite madness.
But Communist efforts in train drivers' union ASLEF failed to secure united action with the NUR against the Beeching Plan to slash Britain's railway network.
Party recruitment received a boost from the revival of Soviet prestige, due not least to the Sputnik space programme and cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin's orbit around the Earth. Many Communists were very active in the British-Soviet Friendship Society and similar bodies, building links between workers and their families here and in the socialist countries, organising exchange visits between trade union and cultural bodies, selling Soviet Weekly and promoting mutual understanding where the British ruling class promoted fear and antagonism.
The CIA-backed 'Bay of Pigs' invasion of Cuba and then, in 1962, the so-called 'Soviet missile crisis' could be pointed to as further evidence of US aggression and nuclear recklessness. Although the US ended its military blockade of the island, an economic embargo has continued to the present day—testimony to US determination that the peoples of Latin America should not see Cuba as a socialist alternative to imperialist domination, military dictatorship, debilitating poverty and untreated disease.
By 1963, British CP membership had returned to pre-Hungary levels. They were barely affected by the departure of small groups of 'Maoists'. The Chinese Communist Party's new line denounced Soviet 'social imperialism', rehabilitated Stalin, dismissed the possibility of imposing 'peaceful co-existence' on the imperialist powers and identified 'Third World' peasants and 'first world' students as the revolutionary forces to replace the 'bourgeois' industrial working class. Britain's CP disagreed with these propositions, clearly but in terms which looked forward to the restoration of unity in the world Communist movement.
Although Communists fared well in British municipal elections the following year, the Party's 36 General Election candidates were squeezed between a reinvigorated Labour Party and a boycott by the mass media.
Towards the end of 1964, YCLers in Manchester and Clydeside sparked an all-out strike for the Apprentice Youth Charter. Condemned by envious Trotskyists, the movement won improvements for young workers in their pay and procedures.
Labour prime minister Harold Wilson survived for two years with the slenderest parliamentary majority. But it was long enough to indicate that behind the rhetoric about peace, higher pay and productivity (harnessing the 'white heat of the technological revolution') lurked the usual social-democratic commitment to NATO, nuclear weapons and pay restraint. In September 1965, the government appointed a royal commission into the role of trade unions and a Prices and Incomes Board to impose wage controls.
At the Communist Party's 29th congress, John Gollan urged members to put aside Cold War isolationism. The CP was ready to 'talk to anyone now, and consider any proposal, to reach the aim of a united left movement'. The immediate task was, he insisted, to 'halt the swing to the right and force the Government to the left'.
Within the British labour movement, the scope for unity on the left was expanding rapidly, especially between the Communists and the Labour left. Broad left alliances developed within the trade unions, as Palme Dutt's Labour Monthly carved out a distinctive position as a magazine of left unity.
The growing number of white-collar and women workers reflected changing patterns of industry, work and employment. Trade unionism advanced in these sectors as the decline in coal, steel, shipbuilding and other traditional industries began to accelerate. In 1966, the Daily Worker changed its name to the Morning Star in a bid to broaden its appeal.
That year, too, Labour increased its majority at the General Election to 96. Prime Minister Wilson treated this result as the green light for an assault on trade union strength in the workplace. This was judged essential if company productivity and profits were to turn upwards.
In May, Communist seafarers and their allies in the 'Reform Movement' succeeded in pressing their union's notoriously collaborationist leaders into calling a strike. The main aim was to reduce the standard working week in the industry from 56 hours to 40.
Utilising reports gained from MI5 bugs at CP headquarters in King Street, London, Wilson accused a 'tightly knit group of politically motivated men' of plotting to bring down his government. He named the Party's new industrial organiser Bert Ramelson and Dockers' leader Jack Dash as among the masterminds. The TUC withdrew its support for the dispute two days after Wilson's speech. The strike was settled after six weeks with agreement on a 42-hour week and a substantial wage rise, but not before the government had declared a state of emergency.
Almost immediately, a national wage freeze was announced across the whole economy with TUC support. Prices continued to rise despite the pledge to control them as well, as millions of workers experienced a fall in their living standards. Communists responded by setting up the Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions. Pay controls were later relaxed, but further battles over trade union power and the cost of living became inevitable.
Around the world, imperialism was reacting viciously to the advance of revolutionary and progressive movements. In Indonesia, US-backed General Suharto organised the slaughter of half a million Communists. Massive American military intervention in Vietnam tried to shore up a succession of military dictatorships in the south against the Communist-led National Liberation Front.
Young Communists took to high streets across Britain, collecting for medical aid to Vietnam. The Vietnamese NLF made clear its view that the solidarity movement here should concentrate on breaking the Labour government's political support for US policy, helping to force the imperialists to negotiate for peace and withdrawal. Even so, the far left in Britain preferred to raise the slogan 'Victory to the NLF!'
The US and its allies killed more than two million civilians in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos before the peace talks began and the forces of popular sovereignty triumphed.
Britain's Communist Party unreservedly opposed Israel’s ‘six-day war’ in 1967 against its Arab neighbours. Backed by US and British imperialism, Israel illegally occupied the Palestinian territories of Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem, together with Egypt's Sinai Peninsula and Syria's Golan Heights. The CP paid a heavy price in terms of lost support among Britain's Jewish communities—but as nothing compared with the cost of the war to the Palestinian people.