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.
His best-known book, Staying Power (1984), on the black presence in Britain was followed by Rhythms of Resistance (2000), which makes a significant contribution to the study of the impact of African music in Latin America.
The son of a Hull master mariner, he won a scholarship to Hymers college in 1938. The young Fryer was impressed by the local Communist party’s opposition to Sir Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists. But he was an anarchist until, inspired by the Red Army, and “a patriot of the Soviet Union”, he joined the Young Communist League in 1942.
He also gravitated towards journalism notably at the Yorkshire Post. But his CP membership and the paper’s Tory politics proved an unstable mix and on the last day of 1947 he joined the Daily Worker.
In the late 1980s the expulsion of Gerry Healy from what had become the Workers’ Revolutionary Party allowed Fryer to return to the political dialogue left unfinished 30 years earlier. Fryer wrote a splendid column for the often rather earnest weekly Workers’ Press.
In his last few weeks, he had a success as a pianist playing blues at the Caipirinha jazz bar in Archway, north London.
He is survived by Norma Meacock, his partner, and their son, two daughters and three grandchildren.
Peter Fryer, journalist, born February 18 1927; died October 31 2006
Last updated on 15.1.2012