Workers Vanguard No. 883

5 January 2007


Chronicler of Hungarian Revolution

Peter Fryer


Peter Fryer, a British Marxist writer and former revolutionist, died on 31 October 2006. His was a rich, complex life. He was born the son of a Hull master mariner in 1927 and won a scholarship to Hymers College in 1938. In his youth, like many of his generation, Fryer was inspired by the efforts of the Red Army during the Second World War, as the Soviet forces fought against and finally prevailed over the forces of fascist barbarism in Europe. In 1942 he joined the Young Communist League, the youth group of the Stalinist Communist Party (CP), which, however, also supported Britain and the other “democratic” imperialist powers in the war. As a member of the British CP, Fryer became a journalist for the party’s Daily Worker in 1947. He was sent to Budapest in 1956 and reported on the Hungarian uprising.

Fryer wrote in Hungarian Tragedy (1956):

“I saw for myself that the uprising was neither organised nor controlled by fascists or reactionaries, though reactionaries were undeniably trying to gain control of it. I saw for myself that the Soviet troops who were thrown into battle against ‘counter-revolution’ fought in fact not fascists or reactionaries but the common people of Hungary: workers, peasants, students and soldiers.”

His truthful accounts of the Hungarian events led to Fryer’s expulsion from the CP. His eyewitness reports established him as a communist determined to tell the truth to the international working class. Fryer’s dispatches, written initially for the Daily Worker, which censored them, contradicted the line of the Stalinist hacks and bourgeois propagandists that the Hungarian workers were engaged in an anti-Communist, pro-capitalist uprising. Fryer’s reports caused an uproar in the ranks of the CP, which lost one-third of its 30,000 members. Similar upheavals took place in Communist parties internationally. In Britain, some of the CPers simply retired from politics, while others embraced anti-Sovietism. But Peter Fryer led the way for some 200 former CP militants and intellectuals, as well as a layer of industrial workers led by Brian Behan, to be won to Trotskyism (see article, page 6).

Fryer and other former CP cadres were attracted to the literary Trotskyist orthodoxy of Gerry Healy’s group, then known as “The Club,” which would become the Socialist Labour League (SLL). The Healy organization’s formal Soviet defensism and the fact that its publications relied heavily on Trotsky’s writings were the basis of this reputation. In contrast, Tony Cliff’s organization (now the British Socialist Workers Party) failed to grow at the time. Cliff’s group had been expelled from the Fourth International in 1950 for its cowardly capitulation to its “own” bourgeoisie and refusal to defend the Soviet Union, North Korea and China during the Korean War. Such craven anti-Sovietism was repellent to CP members radicalized over the Hungarian events.

As a member of Healy’s organization, Fryer wrote impressively in defense of Trotskyism, editing the weekly Newsletter and contributing to the journal Labour Review. His 1957 article “Lenin as Philosopher” is a coherent explanation of dialectical materialism that we continue to use today as an educational tool for our own party and youth comrades. As Fryer wrote, dialectical materialism “is above all else a tool in the hands of the working class for use in refashioning society, and whoever blunts the keen edge of this tool, no matter how slightly, is doing a disservice to the working-class movement” (Labour Review, September-October 1957).

Criminally, the valuable acquisition of former Stalinist cadres by the Trotskyist movement was squandered by the Healy outfit. The founding cadres of the Spartacist tendency were impressed from a distance by the SLL’s nominal orthodoxy, represented by its 1961 document The World Prospect for Socialism, and Marxist propaganda, but were unaware of Healy’s methods and his adaptation to the Labour Party “lefts” (see “Spartacist and the Healyites,” Spartacist [English-language edition] No. 36-37, Winter 1985-86). The orthodoxy of the SLL, which later declared itself the Workers Revolutionary Party (WRP), was increasingly belied by opportunist practice. In the mid 1960s, the Healyites embraced both the Maoist “Cultural Revolution”—an unusually degrading and violent falling-out between sections of the Chinese Stalinist bureaucracy—and the totally classless concept of an “Arab Revolution.”

The Healyites’ political banditry would find full flower in, among other things, their conciliation of oil-rich Arab despots, including sordid financial dealings, the hailing in their press of the 1979 execution of 21 Iraqi Communists by the Ba’athist regime, and right-wing Labourite, anti-Soviet provocations against British miners’ leader Arthur Scargill on the eve of the miners’ heroic 1984-85 strike. All this was overseen by a brutal internal regime. This situation led to the spectacular implosion of the WRP in 1985. We wrote in “Healyism Implodes” (Spartacist [English-language edition] No. 36-37, Winter 1985-86):

“Healy is a political bandit, and the organization he built is an outfit of cynical charlatans at the top. If that were all, we would simply be enjoying the excruciating problems of the WRP leaders, who have it coming. But there is a tragic side to all this: the damage that has been done over the years to thousands of sincere young people who joined the WRP because they hated capitalism and wanted to take part in the fight for socialist revolution. The WRP’s posture of ‘Trotskyism,’ utterly fraudulent though it is, is not without meaning for many members. And Healy/Banda’s organization has frequently done a competent job in exposing the reformist scum and centrist confusionists who people the British left; hence, the WRP is widely seen as the ‘hard Trotskyists,’ the alternative to class-collaborationist betrayal. Now the members in the main feel profoundly betrayed, as indeed they have been. We urge them not to turn away in shock and despair from the ideals of socialism, but instead to seek to understand what has happened.”

Peter Fryer’s departure from the Healy group predated the upheaval in the WRP by over 25 years. Fryer initially walked out amid internal turmoil accompanying Healy’s launch of the SLL in February 1959. While not signalling an end to Healy’s opportunist adaptation to the Labour “lefts,” the SLL’s founding was an abrupt departure from the Healy group’s years-long “deep entry” work in the Labour Party. Fryer was disgusted by the bullying of members and lack of political debate on this “turn.” His “Open Letter to Members of the Socialist Labour League and Other Marxists” (19 September 1959) expressed anger “that a turn of this magnitude should have been carried through without a national conference and without the production and discussion of documents.”

Fryer wrote to us in a 17 December 1985 letter, responding to our “Healyism Implodes” issue of Spartacist, that “after two and a half years’ close daily work with Healy, I had reached the conclusion that he was a gangster and that I could no longer continue to associate with him.” Characteristically modest, Fryer also noted:

“No doubt it would have been better to stay in and fight. But I had been exhausted by the bitter struggle in the Communist Party—my expulsion and unsuccessful appeal—and the gruelling work of building The Newsletter and the SLL. I simply didn’t have the stomach, or the energy, or the appetite for a further bitter fight against a further set of cynical and unscrupulous opponents. And, I frankly admit, I was more than a little afraid of Healy whose favourite method with dissenters was, in those days, a knock on the door by him and his thugs at two o’clock in the morning.”

—“What Happened to Peter Fryer,” Spartacist (English-language edition) No. 38-39, Summer 1986

After the WRP’s implosion, Fryer wrote a column for Workers Press, the newspaper of Cliff Slaughter’s group, which was a WRP offshoot that continued to uphold the anti-Sovietism that marked Healy’s latter period. But the Peter Fryer we honor, in contrast, had written powerfully in advocating the Trotskyist position of unconditional military defense of the Soviet Union. An article he wrote on the 40th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution declared:

“The Soviet Union remains a working-class conquest despite the temporary exclusion of the working class from the seats of power. Forty years ago the chain of capitalism was snapped; the distortions and deformations that have attended the building of a socialist economy are unfinished business for the workers to settle; and in settling this overdue account they need neither help nor advice from the imperialists. From the proletariat of the rest of the world, however, they need the utmost fraternal help and understanding. The principle of international working-class solidarity imposes on us in 1957, no less than in 1917, the pre-eminent duty of defence of the Soviet Union and of its planned economy.”

The Newsletter, 7 November 1957

In addition to the literary contributions to Marxism noted above, Fryer leaves a rich legacy of other writings. His best-known book is Staying Power (1984), a history of black people in Britain. Other works unmasked bourgeois hypocrisy about sex, such as Mrs. Grundy, Studies in English Prudery (1963) and Private Case—Public Scandal (1966), an indictment of the British Library for keeping its collection of erotic publications secret. Fryer’s 1993 pamphlet Lucid, Vigorous and Brief: Advice to New Writers is immensely valuable for aspiring Marxist journalists. Peter Fryer was also an accomplished jazz pianist.

We will miss Peter Fryer and will not forget his powerful words in Hungarian Tragedy:

“We joined the party to help emancipate mankind, not only from exploitation, but from its concomitant as long as class society exists: ignorance. We joined because we wanted to help bring the light of science and humanism into the darkness of men’s minds, to end forever the deception of our fellow men by the obscurantist ‘golden lies’ and ideological illusions with which class society veils its true nature and its crippling and stunting of people. We joined because we wanted to contribute to the enlightenment of our fellow-men, to bring them the richest and most precious of all gifts: the truth. The truth about human society and their place in it and what they themselves can do, together, to leap from the kingdom of necessity into the kingdom of freedom.”