Peter Fryer

Peter Fryer

Peter Fryer, the son of a Hull master mariner, was born on 18th February, 1927. H e won a scholarship to Hymers College in 1938. Initially he was an anarchist but inspired by the efforts of the Red Army during the Second World War he joined the Young Communist League in 1942.

After the war he worked as a journalist for the Yorkshire Post but now a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain, Fryer joined the Daily Worker in 1947. In 1949, Fryer covered the Hungarian Stalinist regime's show trial of Hungarian party leader, László Rajk. As Terry Brotherstone has pointed out: "In good faith, he reported Rajk's 'confession' - made with the promise of being spared, but resulting in his execution - as proletarian justice. So, when the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev's revelations about Stalinism at the 1956 Soviet Party congress were followed in Hungary by Rajk's cynical 'rehabilitation', Fryer's engagement with the CPGB's crisis was personal. The 'doubts and difficulties' shared by many members, for him meant confronting the part he felt he had played in Rajk's murder."

Pter Fryer was sent to Budapest in 1956 and reported the Hungarian Uprising for the newspaper. Fryer, who was critical of the actions of the Soviet Union, found his reports were censored. Fryer responded by having the material published in the New Statesman. As a result he was suspended from the party for "publishing in the capitalist press attacks on the Communist Party." The loyal Sam Russell was now sent to the country to report on the uprising.

James Friell condemned John R. Campbell, the editor of the newspaper for supporting the invasion. He told Campbell: "How could the Daily Worker keep talking about a counter-revolution when they have to call in Soviet troops? Can you defend the right of a government to exist with the help of Soviet troops? Gomulka said that a government which has lost the confidence of the people has no right to govern." When Campbell refused to publish a cartoon by Friell on the Hungarian Uprising he left the newspaper and the CPGB.

Over 7,000 members of the Communist Party of Great Britain resigned over what happened in Hungary. This included Peter Fryer, who later recalled: "The crisis within the British Communist Party, which is now officially admitted to exist, is merely part of the crisis within the entire world Communist movement. The central issue is the elimination of what has come to be known as Stalinism. Stalin is dead, but the men he trained in methods of odious political immorality still control the destinies of States and Communist Parties. The Soviet aggression in Hungary marked the obstinate re-emergence of Stalinism in Soviet policy, and undid much of the good work towards easing international tension that had been done in the preceding three years. By supporting this aggression the leaders of the British Party proved themselves unrepentant Stalinists, hostile in the main to the process of democratisation in Eastern Europe. They must be fought as such."

Fryer resigned from the Daily Worker and published a full account of the uprising in The Hungarian Tragedy (1956). He later became a member of the Socialist Labour League. Fryer co-edited the Labour Review until clashing with its leader, Gerry Healey.

Books by Fryer include The Battle for Socialism (1959), Oldest Ally, A Portrait of Salazar's Portugal (1961), Mrs Grundy, Studies in English Prudery (1964), The Birth Controllers (1965), Private Case - Public Scandal (1981), Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain (1984), Black People in the British Empire (1988), Aspects of British Black History (1993), The Politics of Windrush (1999), Rhythms of Resistance (2000) and William Cuffay (2005).

Peter Fryer died on 31st October, 2006.

Primary Sources

(1) Peter Fryer, Hungarian Tragedy (1956)

The troops in Budapest, as later in the provinces, were of two minds: there were those who were neutral and there were those who were prepared to join the people and fight alongside them. The neutral ones (probably the minority) were prepared to hand over their arms to the workers and students so that they could do battle against the A.V.H. with them. The others brought their arms with them when they joined the revolution. Furthermore, many sporting rifles were taken by the workers from the factory armouries of the Hungarian Voluntary Defence Organisation. The "mystery" of how the people were armed is no mystery at all. No one has yet been able to produce a single weapon manufactured in the West.

The Hungarian Stalinists, having made two calamitous mistakes, now made a third - or rather, it would be charitable to say, had it thrust on them by the Soviet Union. This was the decision to invoke a non-existent clause of the Warsaw Treaty and call in Soviet troops. This first Soviet intervention gave the people's movement exactly the impetus needed to make it united, violent and nation-wide. It seems probable, on the evidence, that Soviet troops were already in action three or four hours before the appeal, made in the name of Imre Nagy as his first act on becoming Prime Minister. That is debatable, but what is not debatable is that the appeal was in reality made by Gero and Hegedus; the evidence of this was later found and made public. Nagy became Prime Minister precisely twenty-four hours too late, and those who throw mud at him for making concessions to the Right in the ten days he held office should consider the appalling mess that was put into his hands by the Stalinists when, in desperation, they officially quit the stage.

With Nagy in office it would still have been possible to avert the ultimate tragedy if the people's two demands had been met immediately - if the Soviet troops had withdrawn without delay, and if the security police had been disbanded. But Nagy was not a free agent during the first few days of his premiership. It was known in Budapest that his first broadcast were made - metaphorically, if not literally - with a tommy-gun in his back.

(2) Peter Fryer, Hungarian Tragedy (1956)

Even the children, hundreds of them, had taken part in the fighting, and I spoke to little girls who had poured petrol in the path of Soviet tanks and lit it. I heard of 14-year-olds who had jumped to their deaths on to the tanks with blazing petrol bottles in their hands. Little boys of twelve, armed to the teeth, boasted to me of the part they had played in the struggle. A city in arms, a people in arms, who had stood up and snapped the chains of bondage with one gigantic effort, who had added to the roll-call of cities militant - Paris, Petrograd, Canton, Madrid, Warsaw - another immortal name. Budapest! Her buildings might be battered and scarred, her trolley-bus and telephone wires down, her pavements littered with glass and stained with blood. But her citizens' spirit was unquenchable.

(3) Peter Fryer, Hungarian Tragedy (1956)

Look at the hell that Rákosi made of Hungary and you will see an indictment, not of Marxism, not of Communism, but of Stalinism. Hypocrisy without limit; medieval cruelty; dogmas and slogans devoid of life or meaning; national pride outraged; poverty for all but a tiny handful of leaders who lived in luxury, with mansions on Rózsadomb, Budapest's pleasant Hill of Roses (nicknamed by people 'Hill of Cadres'), special schools for their children, special well-stocked shops for their wives - even special bathing beaches at Lake Balaton, shut off from the common people by barbed wire. And to protect the power and privileges of this Communist aristocracy, the A.V.H. - and behind them the ultimate sanction, the tanks of the Soviet Army. Against this disgusting caricature of Socialism our British Stalinists would not, could not, dared not protest; nor do they now spare a word of comfort or solidarity or pity for the gallant people who rose at last to wipe out the infamy, who stretched out their yearning hands for freedom, and who paid such a heavy price.

Hungary was Stalinism incarnate. Here in one small, tormented country was the picture, complete in every detail: the abandonment of humanism, the attachment of primary importance not to living, breathing, suffering, hoping human beings but to machines, targets, statistics, tractors, steel mills, plan fulfilment figures . . . and, of course, tanks. Struck dumb by Stalinism, we ourselves grotesquely distorted the fine Socialist principle of international solidarity by making any criticism of present injustices or inhumanitites in a Communist-led country taboo. Stalinism crippled us by castrating our moral passion, blinding us to the wrongs done to men if those wrongs were done in the name of Communism. We Communists have been indignant about the wrongs done by imperialism: those wrongs are many and vile; but our one-sided indignation has somehow not rung true. It has left a sour taste in the mouth of the British worker, who is quick to detect and condemn hypocrisy.

(4) Peter Fryer, Hungarian Tragedy (1956)

The crisis within the British Communist Party, which is now officially admitted to exist, is merely part of the crisis within the entire world Communist movement. The central issue is the elimination of what has come to be known as Stalinism. Stalin is dead, but the men he trained in methods of odious political immorality still control the destinies of States and Communist Parties. The Soviet aggression in Hungary marked the obstinate re-emergence of Stalinism in Soviet policy, and undid much of the good work towards easing international tension that had been done in the preceding three years. By supporting this aggression the leaders of the British Party proved themselves unrepentant Stalinists, hostile in the main to the process of democratisation in Eastern Europe. They must be fought as such.

They were Stalin's men. They did what he told them and they were dependent on him. To what extent is an open secret inside the Party. The famous programme The British Road to Socialism, for example, issued in February 1951 (without the rank and file being given a chance to amend it) contained two key passages, on the future of the British Empire and of the British Parliament, which were inserted by the hand of one Joseph Stalin himself, who refused to let them be altered.

These men remain Stalinists. But Stalinism has been revealed, both in theory and practice, as a monstrous perversion of Marxism. Leaders who still believe in it and still practise it cannot be trusted to go on leading, and cannot protect themselves from exposure by an appeal to the Communist principles they have grossly betrayed.

(5) Terry Brotherstone, The Guardian (3rd November, 2006)

The death of Peter Fryer aged 79, comes 50 years to the week since his honest reporting of Hungary's 1956 revolution for the Daily Worker (now the Morning Star) split the Communist party of Great Britain, and changed his own life. A loyal CP member since 1945, and a Worker journalist for nine years, he immediately wrote a short, passionate book Hungarian Tragedy in defence of the revolution - and was expelled from the party.

Fryer's book has been compared to John Reed's Ten Days that Shook the World on the Bolshevik uprising of 1917. A few days before he died, Fryer heard that Hungary's president had awarded him the Knight's Cross of the Order of Merit of the Republic, in recognition of his "continuous support of the Hungarian revolution and freedom fight".

Sent by the then Worker editor, Johnny Campbell, to report on a "counter-revolutionary" uprising, Fryer's loyalty was to communism, Marx's "truly human society", not to the CPGB's Stalinist line. Realising that he was witnessing a popular uprising of students and workers, he sided with the revolutionaries. His dispatches were savagely edited, then suppressed.

In 1949, Fryer had covered the Hungarian Stalinist regime's show trial of Hungarian party leader, László Rajk. In good faith, he reported Rajk's "confession" - made with the promise of being spared, but resulting in his execution - as proletarian justice. So, when the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev's revelations about Stalinism at the 1956 Soviet Party congress were followed in Hungary by Rajk's cynical "rehabilitation", Fryer's engagement with the CPGB's crisis was personal. The "doubts and difficulties" shared by many members, for him meant confronting the part he felt he had played in Rajk's murder.

Held up at a border town on the road from Vienna to Budapest, Fryer saw his first dead bodies - 80 people shot during a demonstration. It was his turning-point. Attending the election of a workers' council at a state farm was the last straw. An apology that it was taking all day because "we have absolutely no experience of electing people" made him think: "So much for 'people's democracy'."

In late October 1956 there was a lull which followed from the brief Soviet withdrawal and ended with the Soviet army's return to Budapest on November 4 to crush the revolution. During that period Fryer offered to edit an English-language paper, and he was proud to read, in a 1961 Hungarian emigré bibliography of the revolution that this was "of capital importance as regards the character of the insurrection: the only foreign journalist who decided to act for the sake of Hungary was a Communist".

Hungarian Tragedy played a big part in the CPGB's fierce internal discussions which followed the Soviet invasion and led up to its Easter 1957 Hammersmith congress. But the party proved irredeemable. By then Fryer was working with the Trotskyist "club" of Gerry Healy (obituary December 18 1989), for which he edited the weekly Newsletter and co-edited Labour Review. These publications represent one of the few attempts by British Trotskyists to engage in serious dialogue and for a while they attracted a wide range of authors.

The narrow-minded, and sometimes brutal, authoritarianism Healy substituted for Marxist politics soon drove Fryer away. For quarter of a century, he lived another life, writing on the history of Portugal, Grundyism, censorship, and, above all, black history and music.