Thesis report: Fiona Haig, ‘Reactions to the Soviet interventions in the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 amongst French and Italian Communist Party members in the shipbuilding towns of La Seyne and Monfalcone’


Thesis Report: Fiona Haig

Reactions to the Soviet interventions in the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 amongst French and Italian Communist Party members in the shipbuilding towns of La Seyne and Monfalcone (PhD, Portsmouth, 2012).

This thesis is an in-depth study of a specific and previously ignored aspect of French and Italian communism, that is to say, the impact of the Soviet actions in the Hungarian Revolution on the French and Italian Communist parties and their respective memberships at regional and local levels. It concerns itself with the lives and political engagement of comrades in these settings rather than with those of social, political and geographical elites, of which much is already known.  Its objective has been to determine the extents to which the ensuing turmoil, dissent and / or audible silences at national levels were replicated in these regional party strongholds and local communist communities. It can consequently be seen as a social as well as political project that has sought to make a pivotal contribution to the debates surrounding communist reactions to these landmark events and by extension to communist history per se in providing deeper, more faceted and more complete understandings of the issues involved. The unique synthesis of methodologies used for this research that includes oral history, micro history and the comparative, transnational approach, has allowed a number of firm conclusions to be drawn regarding a) reactions in our communities to the Soviet interventions in Budapest that year and b) the significance of these reactions as regards existing attitudes towards the Soviet Union amongst Western communists; the levels of faith within these communities in its raison d’être, policies, macro strategies; and inasmuch, the commitment of these ordinary communists to and objectivity vis-à-vis the state of the international communism at this critical conjuncture; and c) what this tells us about the movement as a whole. 


1956 is seen as having constituted not only a watershed for the Communist world, but a turning point in the Cold War. Stalin’s death three years earlier had unleashed a process that would result in calls for political and economic changes in the Soviet Union and across Eastern Europe. However, it was Khrushchev’s explicit references to the possibility of ‘different roads to socialism’ and ‘peaceful coexistence with capitalism’ at the XX Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) in February that year and, most importantly, his condemnation in a secret speech of Stalin and of the ‘cult of personality’ that had surrounded him that set in train a series of events and uprisings culminating in Hungarian Revolution in the autumn of that year. The Red Army’s involvement in these situations and in particular its ruthless suppression of events in Hungary, caused consternation across the world and confusion across certain sectors of an international communist community no longer sure of Soviet intentions, or indeed of its moral authority (although for the majority of the rank and file, this realization would come much later). [1] The lack of immediate and decisive opposition to these actions on the part of the Western powers reflected on the one hand their reluctance to force the issue by challenging Moscow directly and on the other, the way in which the events themselves had been overshadowed, to all intents and purposes, by the Suez Crisis.  It was this last episode that marked the crucial shift in the balance of power from Europe to the Superpowers, which dictated the course of history over the subsequent three decades.

Reactions …. examines and evaluates for the first time contemporary reactions to these momentous events in two culturally distinct, contextually comparable locations, via a series of inedita in-depth personal interviews with over fifty informants that make-up the representative samples of rank and file communists, mid-level cadres and regional Party leaderships in our Communist Party Federations in 1956. This oral testimony is supported by information obtained from an extensive and varied corpus of new documentary evidence including an incendiary but largely ignored collection of documents that is testimony in itself to a unique situation that existed at that moment. The study looks closely at how the issue of the Soviet interventions was handled by the PCF Var Federation (its regional seat in Toulon, eight kilometers from the region’s industrial hub and communist bastion La Seyne); and the PCI Federation of Gorizia (its regional [2] seat in the capital of the Gorizian Province, twenty five kilometers from its industrial hub Monfalcone) e.g. by their initiating, facilitating or closing debate in cells, sections and Federation Committees, and in the Party press. It highlights the extents to which and ways in which local and regional contexts affected the responses to our events.  It looks at Party cultures and at levels of critical awareness within the regional Party membership bodies as indicated by willingness to question the official ‘Party line’ in relation to developments that year and in particular to our landmark event.  In so doing, it automatically addresses the question of democratic centralism in the two Parties which, antithetically, did not function in the same ways at the regional levels, and in the Italian study,  evidently not across the national Party structure. On a deeper level, it identifies differences in understandings of ‘communist militancy’ per se, despite the international communist movement’s being, in principle, a coherent ideological and political entity.  

The French and Italian Parties were the largest and most important of the non-ruling Communist Parties (post 1933 and the disbanding of the German Party: KPD) and as such, central not only to national and international politics but also to Moscow, if for different reasons. [3] This makes a comparative study of regional responses to such an event a logical starting point.  Notwithstanding, despite their being the most prominent and influential of the Western Communist Parties after WW2, they did not share exactly the same ideological and operational blueprint, at least not in real terms. [4] Whilst it was not the first objective of this study to do so, its findings essentially support the ‘historical dichotomy’ theory much discussed by historians during the 1960s and 70s that makes the case that the PCF was the more sectarian, more Sovietophile Party and that the PCI was the more progressive, national-societal organization. The first claim has been substantiated in the context of the current research by detail-rich, example-rich, first-hand evidence that demonstrates the many ways in which what might be termed the ‘Jacobin centralism’ of the French Party structured responses across swathes of the membership (national and regional alike), and ruthlessly punished dissent. The second has been substantiated in that things were clearly ‘freer’ in the Italian organization, both at regional and at the national levels, nevertheless, and surely in part as a consequence of this greater freedom, things were also much more complex, as exemplified in particular by a) the different the responses to our events across and between the levels of the regional Party structure and b) the ultimately consensual way in which the issue of dissent across the regional Party membership was addressed and resolved c) the national Party’s relatively lenient handling of a matter of gross indiscipline on the part of its regional Party leadership in the Federation of Gorizia in connection with our events.

The most obvious convergence in the findings of this research was that despite the images beamed around the world in the autumn of 1956 of Soviet aggression towards, apparently, ordinary communists, far from triggering a crisis of conscience for the majorities of comrades in our case-communities, these events instead invoked an instinctive closing of ranks against the non-communist and especially the anti-communist world. In this regard, regional mirrored national pictures. However, there were differences in responses at the regional and local levels in the context of this study. What empirical evidence highlights is the consistency of the findings in the French study in that reactions to our events were, for the vast majority of Communist Party members in the Var Federation, to support the interventions automatically for a number of common / combined reasons; as opposed to the manifest differentiation in the findings of the Italian study, in that whilst it is true that reactions for the majority of communists in the Federation of Gorizia were, similarly, to support the interventions, this was for diverse reasons,  and there was a high profile minority and its followers that made an unequivocal stand against them.  

The French comrades’ support of the interventions can be characterized as instinctive, unquestioning and vehement, with only a handful of ‘intellectuals’ who openly opposed the interventions. [5] Nevertheless, within this majority there were also those who felt ambivalent, uneasy, who harboured reservations at the time but who chose not to voice them, at least not in public. On the other hand, an absence of trepidation on the part of ordinary communists in their reactions to our events was a marked feature of the prima facie evidence gathered for the Italian case-study. The Italians’ reactions were more composite, multifaceted, due in large part to a particular history and its myriad legacies in this multi-ethnic, pluri-lingual region (in the Twentieth Century alone it had changed flag five times: from the Austria-Hungarian to the Italian, Yugoslavian, that of the Allied Military Government and finally to that of the Italian Republic). Therefore things were more complex in the Italian than in the French study – but paradoxically they were also less problematic and the reasons for this lie in that very same historical experience. Stark political choices had been part and parcel of life in this contested border region for centuries and out of necessity its population had evolved as tenacious yet resourceful, adaptable, pragmatic communities. The fragmentary nature of Italian rule prior to a relatively tardy Unification and the protracted and piecemeal nature of that process once underway had led to a heightened importance of regional identities and affiliations across the peninsular, and although a counterintuitive notion, even communists tended to conceive of political praxis as intrinsically relevant to and measured in relation to its successes in immediate contexts. [6] Politics in these parts were forged rather than inherited.


Reasons for a strong showing of support for the Soviet actions that year on the part of ordinary communists in each case-community include: the Stalinist myth and its enduring power to compel; an unswerving trust in the Soviet Union and its leaders due to the role it had played in defeating Fascism; its successes as they saw it in creating socialism in the Eastern Bloc; a certain disregard for the Polish communists whom they considered to have neglected their own politicization, easily swayed by the pull of religion; the belief that the uprisings in Eastern Europe that year had been instigated or at the very least agitated by those working for or with the Western Powers; belief in the Soviet Union’s counter-revolution version of events in Hungary, especially in view of its Fascist past; these perceptions being informed and reinforce in the Communist press; an automatic belief in the Party press, especially as this was the only designated media form available to them; a commensurate mistrust of the mainstream media, an automatic disregard for the endless attacks from this quarter, which were particularly frequent and incisive at difficult moments; the need to support the Soviet Union at a time when loyalties were being put to the test; trust in the internal information flow of the Party and in cadres; the discriminatory and repressive policies of national governments following the war towards the Communist Parties and their memberships that only reinforced communist convictions etc.

Where there was open criticism of the Soviet interventions in the Var Federation,  reasons  include: the non-proletarian nature of the those questioning or protesting the interventions; a corresponding geographical distribution of dissenters that was outside the center of industrial concentration in and around the Forges et Chantiers de la Méditerranée (FCM) shipyards in La Seyne, including a group of intellectuals in the regional capital Toulon;  [7] and to a lesser degree a generational difference between comrades who had joined the Party at the Liberation and those of ideological and political long-standing who had joined during the Popular Front era. Where there was protest to the interventions in the Italian study it was for similarsocio-economic, geographical and in a more particular way generational reasons in that: the dissenters were lead by the regional Party elite who were seen by the rank and file as being or having become intellectuals; the Federation Committee was located in the regional capital Goriza and not the industrial heartland of the region in and around the Cantieri Riuniti Dell´ Adriatico (CRDA) shipyards in Monfalcone or il Monfalconese; this ‘dissident vanguard movement’ was made-up of individuals who had not themselves suffered at the hands of the pre-war Fascist regime and it did not therefore contain some of the most fervent Stalinists in the region. 

Because no one issue can be isolated in time or space, the study looks at key events and developments that year leading up to the Soviet interventions and in the core of the work it examines them assiduously from the perspectives of the informants and in relation to an extensive range of other sources. In so doing, it encounters and addresses such themes as macro vs. micro positions factors and dynamics as global issues affected ordinary lives in tangible ways and as local and regional as well as national issues and conditions informed perspectives and thus responses to the events in question; concrete vs. abstract concerns and understandings as more immediate problems for many communists in the post-war period overshadowed far-off events and developments, automatically taking precedence over the contextualization of and engagement with larger issues; and the question of human agency, that is to say, individual and collective understandings of political commitment and political action – the position of individual subjects vis-à-vis the political equation. [8] These themes are of course interrelated, however, for reasons of space, a brief description follows of the first of the themes as it presented in the context of the research. One such global issue that was particularly pertinent to France at the time was decolonisation – or not.


In 1956 the war in Algeria or as it was referred to by the French government the ‘public order exercise’ had escalated to the point at which it dominated French politics and indeed determined much of the country’s domestic and foreign policy. It also dominated the consciousness of every French citizen, as sons, fathers, husbands or brothers could be (and were) called to arms at any moment.  For our community things were all the more palpable as Toulon, the major French naval base on the Mediterranean, was a key point of departure and re-entry for troops, arms (and coffins) going to coming from North Africa.  By the spring of that year the ‘situation’ in Algeria was entering its second, more violent phase, giving rise to repeated call-ups for reservists as the year progressed as crisis followed crisis. Apart from its immediate implications, it was of course particularly injurious for ordinary communists on ideological and political levels, as this type of imperialistic project went directly counter to their Party’s, and therefore their own, most fundamental tenets. It was made all the more injurious to our community however due to the Party’s vote in favour of Special Powers in March that year for the purpose of ‘maintaining peace’ in its last and most important overseas interest. (Algeria was different, it was ‘part of’ France). This support for Guy Mollet’s Republican Front government had been in line with the Party’s doomed ‘New Popular Front’ campaign, which baffled  and  frustrated  the rank and file. Algerian issue inevitably informed reactions in our community to events that autumn because it was automatically seen in the wider terms of Western imperialism and as such inextricably linked to developments such as the British and French involvement in Suez. Viewed in this light, were the Soviet interventions in Budapest not justified? 

Another macro event that had had an instant and searing impact in the region had been the Tito-Stalin Split or la rottura in 1948.  This had decimated the Party in the region by immediately occasioning an analogous split between those who sided with Tito, i titini,  and those who sided with Moscow,  i coninformisti. The border town ofGorizia had been particularly affected by this development due to its sizable Slovenian population; 450 of the 600 members in the cells and sections in and around Gorizia quit the party this point. In 1956, those in the region inclined to take a more detached view of politics, that is to say the regional Party leadership, had seen the XX Congress in February through the prism of that particular episode. As a consequence, they had been monitoring developments since the Congress closely, whereas the rank and file, hard pressed to make a living in adverse circumstances had not yet grasped the full significance of the de-Stalinisation agenda nor, as a result, considered its implications.  The senior cadres saw Khrushchev’s de-Stalinisation process as a way of breaking free from the Cold War politics that had dictated politics in one respect or another in the region since 1945, and more particularly at that moment, as a way out of the political stalemate that had held the back in the region for almost a decade. In fact the process was already reaping rewards in the ‘thaw’ with Tito instigated by the new Soviet leader the year before and its mirror effects within the Federation of Gorizia, as those comrades who had quit the Party in 1948 were beginning to return the fold. What the Soviet interventions in October and November represented to these incumbents was a catastrophic de-railing of this process.  As they saw it, the Soviet actions that autumn were antithetical to the revolutionary new policies articulated in the XX Congress and as a result, they were reactionary in themselves;  and anything less than opposition to them on the part of one of the most advanced Communist Parties in the world, that is to say Palmiro Togliatti’s ‘New Party’ – was as antithetical. The Federation Committee was the only one in the country, and possibly in Europe, to produce a manifesto opposing the interventions, expressing solidarity with the Hungarian insurgents and reiterating the themes of XX Congress of the CPSU that was distributed to cells, sections and display publicly across the region. The minutes of Committee meetings at this time reveal even stronger feelings on the part of the senior cadres against the national Party stance at the time, and calling into question the competence and good faith of the Party leader himself.  These actions can only be described as revolutionary.


Therefore whilst in the French study,  regional responses to the Soviet interventions in 1956 were also those of the PCF at the national level, because at least on the surface, they had to be; in the Italian study, the PCI was effectively being outmaneuvered on its ‘progressive’ flank by one of its medium sized federations, in a far flung but strategically important location. The current thesis, by having revealed not only clear convergences in responses to our events across the multiple case-study but also many subtle, some distinct and indeed a number of astonishing divergences, has dispelled in the process any myth that post-war Western European communism was a ‘one size fits all’ phenomenon.  


[1]  For the majority of Western communists, the turning point in their loyalties towards the Soviet Union and its policies was its 1968 interventions in the Prague Spring.

[2]  For our purposes the term ‘regional’ will be used to refer to the then ‘Venezia-Giulia’ on the north eastern border of Italy, although whilst regions in Italy were set-out in the Constitution of 1946, they were not put into effect until the 1960s. In 1956 Venezia –Giulia comprised the Gorizian Province (with the town of Gorizia the provincial capital and Monfalcone as its second largest town and industrial centre) and the former Free Territory of Trieste (incorporated into Italy in 1954). In 1963, the region of Friuli-Venezia-Giulia (FVG) was instated comprising the Provinces of Gorizia, Pordenone, Udine and Trieste as the regional capital.  FVG is an autonomous region with a special statute due to its border location and particular history.

[3] France was simply more important than Italy in the sense of being a major player on the international stage despite, WW2, it was one of the last major colonial powers with a highly defined political self-awareness. Italy on the other hand lacked France’s status on the world stage and even a coherent national identity due to a very different historical trajectory. However it was important in geopolitical terms to both as it bordered on its north-eastern frontier with Eastern Europe and constituted a potential conduit for the ‘the long hand of Moscow’. It was also important in political terms precisely because of that lack of national identity. Both communism and traditional authority (bolstered by the lack of purging of Fascists within the public administration and forces of order post 1945) immediately vied to fill the political, social and cultural vacuum in the post-war period.

[4] Reasons for these respective conditions include: ideological heritage dating back as far as the French Revolution or to the Risorgimento;  each countries’ route to and conception of the ‘Republic’; the Jacobin centralist, prescriptive, highly organised, highly disciplined tradition as opposed to the fragmented Mazzini / Cavour interpretations of nationalism that ultimately resulted in a practical confederationist, liberal constitutionalism.

[5] The term intellectual here is used in its wider sense and in context, as it was used in France and Italy at this time to refer to professionals and white collar workers.

[6] It was Gramsci’s understanding of this phenomenon that informed aspects of his political thought (and in theory, Togliatti’s ‘New Party’) and ultimately made the contribution it did to Italian communism. What might be called this more subjective understanding of regional politics, reflects to an extent the more regional approach to politics in Italy as in general, and as opposed to the more centrist approach to French politics, (pre the 1980s in particular).


[7] Only one of the informants in this study, the Deputy Editor of the Communist Party organ in the regional capital Toulon, left the Party over Budapest, this was proportionate to the overall number of defections in the département that autumn. He was to pay dearly for his actions. He was banished from the communist community and denied his Resistance Record, proof of which was in the hands of the Party.


[8] On philosophical, ideological and of course political levels communist studies provide a particularly interesting template for these types of questions because in theory the rationale, structure and organisation of communism as a world movement provided the overarching ideological and political script that catered for and linked these counter positions, in each case. 


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