Bill Hunter, Trotskyist 1920-2015 Obituary

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12/07/2015 by socialistfight

BillHunter1
Bill Hunter as a young man

Bill Hunter, Trotskyist 1920-2015 Obituary by Gerry Downing

This obituary seeks to follow the Marxist tradition, it does not seek to gloss over differences but only to tell the truth about Bill as I knew and understood him. It is therefore a partisan political document and I make no apologies for that. But I think you cannot pay tribute to a serious Trotskyist like Bill Hunter without assessing his weakness as well as his strengths. GD

Bill Hunter died on 9 July, following a fall in his Liverpool home. The introduction to his autobiography, Lifelong Apprenticeship – Life and Times of a Revolutionary gives the following biographical details:

“This is a political autobiography with a difference. Born into the Durham working class six years before the 1926 General Strike, Bill Hunter has stayed loyal to his class and dedicated his adult life to the fight against capitalism, and against capitalism’s apologists in the Labour Party and Communist Party.
A Trotskyist from the age of 18, a factory shop steward at 21 and a borough councillor at 32, Bill Hunter has taken some hard knocks – including bureaucratic expulsion from the Labour Party in 1954. Here he recalls these battles with humour, anecdote and documentary evidence.
These pages are crowded with thumbnail sketches of Trotskyist and working class fighters of the period before, during and after the Second World War: Harry Wicks, Hugo Dewar, Reg Groves, Gerry Healy, Ted Grant, Tony Cliff, John Lawrence and the stalwart dockers’ champion Harry Constable. There is an affectionate portrait of Bill’s lifelong companion Rae. The book’s heroes are the rank-and-file dockers, engineering workers, and miners in whose struggles Bill played a part, either directly as shop steward or as editor of the lively left-wing journal Socialist Outlook (1948-54).” [1]

The earlier Socialist Appeal (1941-46) was an excellent Trotskyist newspaper. I have in front of me the Supplement of Mid-July 1943 where they battled against the Stalinists and fully  supported the strike wave sweeping Britain then, the Durham miners, Tyne welders, etc. Bill reported on those strikes in Lifelong Apprentice: “Working days lost by strikes, which fell to 940,000 in 1940, rose to 1,530,000 in 1942, 1,810,000 in 1943 and 3,710,000 in 1944. By the beginning of 1944 the government was faced with the prospect of a general strike throughout the coalfields. In the last months of 1943 there had been a wave of strikes, most of them in defence of young workers who had been conscripted for underground work”

The Trotskyist waged a bitter battle against state and the Stalinists, who were scabs and strike-breakers in those days. Bill was in the forefront of those struggles in those years.

Ted Crawford remarked, in relation to the material he posted online from those days:

“After a lapse nearly sixty years it has acquired a rich ripe comic flavour. But readers will appreciate that this was not always so funny. The injunction that “They should be treated as you would treat a Nazi” or “Treat him as you would treat an open Nazi” could only be considered in the desperate war year of 1942, when many people had lost loved ones or had their homes destroyed, to be an incitement to murder any Trotskyist or indeed any ILPer.” [2]

Four of them, Jock Haston, Roy Tearse, Heaton Lee and Ann Keen were jailed in 1944 for “furthering an illegal strike” with the full support of the Stalinists.
The article on page 4, From support of British Imperialism to justification of Hitler exposes the politics of the Daily Worker during the pact with Hitler. But the Daily Workers was slow to understand the political significance of that Hitler-Stalin pact of 23 August 1939 and continued to support British imperialism’s war on fascism. Not until 7 October did the diktats of the Kremlin seep through and then the tale was spread the leaders Pollitt and Campbell had been overturned by the EC majority, none of whom had indicated a single line of opposition up to then.

The new policy in line with the Stalin-Hitler pact which rejected the Popular Front since 1935 and after the invasion of the USSR in June 1941 and demanded in effect surrender to Hitler.

The new line was elaborated on 7 October and in a poster they issued:

“The continuance of the war is not in the interests of Britain, of France, of Germany. End this war before it has brought death and destruction on millions and millions of people, before the flower of our youth is slaughtered.” [3]

The Socialist Appeal indicated its agreement with this but not with the line that peace should be established on Hitler’s terms rather that the British working class should fight to overthrow capitalism in Britain and then go to the assistance of the German and Soviet workers. Not so the Daily Worker.

In the Daily Worker, preparing the change of line, they headlined on 2 and 3 October, ““it’s not too late” – Moscow view of peace offer to Europe”, and “Opinion Grows in Favour of ‘Serious Consideration’.”

The advice of George Bernard Shaw and Sir Stafford Cripps were canvassed on 14 October and Willie Gallacher opined that, “We must face up to whatever peace terms there are”. Then the articles concludes with the infamous Daily Worker editorial of 1 February 1940, commenting on Hitler’s speech a few weeks before:

“Hitler repeated once again his claim that the war was thrust upon him by Britain. Against the historical fact there can be no reply. Britain declared war attempts were made to end the war. But the Soviet German peace overtures were rejected by Britain. All through these months the British and French Governments have had the power to end the war. They have chosen to extend it… War should never have been declared on September 3, there should have been negotiations and peace talks” .

This article boils over with anger at the class treachery of the Stalinist in the midst of the war, it alone stands as a great tribute to that courageous generation of Trotskyists militants who were jailed in Britain and the USA, executed by Stalinists and Nazis in continental Europe and the USSR and still fought with everything they had for the revolutionary socialist future they absolutely believed in.

Jock Haston, close collaborator with Bill, in the days of Socialist Appeal (1941-46)

In 1946 Jock Haston and Bill, representing the British RCP, tried to amend the resolutions of a conference of the Fourth International in Paris because they recognised that Stalinism had emerged from the war strengthened and that an economic crisis was unlikely in the near future. But Ernest Mandel and Michel Pablo, backed by the SWP in the USA, defeated these correct amendments and the catastrophic imminence of revolutionary crises and the third world war prevailed.

Following the internal struggles in the RCP Gerry Healy emerged the winner with the franchise of the FI granted by J P Cannon and Bill went along with him. The split in 1953 between the British, French and US sections and the majority led by Pablo and Mandel was not a clean cut affair. This is our assessment of it:

“Whilst it is true the IC opposition to Pablo was not an orthodox Trotskyist ‘alternative’ nevertheless the nature of the struggle forced the IC to advocate an opposition to liquidationism as Bill Hunter’s document, Under a Stolen Flag shows albeit only when an ultra-Pabloite opposition (advocating total capitulation to Stalinism) emerged in both the UK, France and the US (Cochran/Clarke in America Lawrence in Britain, the Lyon opposition in France). However it did contain many elements of a struggle for the Trotskyist Transitional Programme, despite the political degeneration of its central leaders, Cannon, Healy, Moreno and Lambert. It did assert the need for independent revolutionary parties based on that programme to lead successful socialist revolutions to open up the path to world revolution embarked on by Lenin, Trotsky and the Bolsheviks in 1917. And whilst it is true that neither side “represents, in any way, a continuum of authentic Trotskyism” nonetheless some within the IC as a whole did represent a left centrist opposition to Pablo which informed and inspired future generations of Trotskyists in their struggles against centrist leaderships who were of the same opportunist/sectarian variety.
Remember the date Bill Hunter’s Under a Stolen Flag was written: 1957. We have the evidence of the Socialist Labour League’s internal regime at the time from the 1959 resignation letter of Peter Fryer. It is outrageous to propose that the following extract could describe a party or regime which represented the continuity of Trotskyism:
“We who came into the Trotskyist movement from the Communist Party, hard on the heels of the experience of Hungary and our struggle with the Stalinist bureaucracy in Britain, were assured that in the Trotskyist movement we would find a genuine communist movement, where democracy flourished, where dissenters were encouraged to express their dissent, and where relationships between comrades were in all respects better, more brother and more human than in the party we had come from. Instead we have found at the top of the Trotskyist movement, despite the sacrifices and hard work of the rank and file, a repetition of Communist Party methods of work, methods of leadership, and methods of dealing with persons who are not prepared to kotow to the superior wisdom of the “strong man”.”  [4]

My personal contacts with Bill were in the internal party struggle after the expulsion of Gerry Healy in 1985. In the initial period, from about October 1985 to January 1987 an open party regime obtained, we were free to discuss and dissent and examine whilst the Workers Press was under the editorship of Dave Bruce and international work was largely guided by Chris Bailey and Simon Pirani encourage me and other to begin serious work in the trade unions and Ireland. However the old central leaders with their old methods and prejudices gradually re-established themselves during that period. Bill played a great progressive role during that period until, having expressed misgivings about the relations being established with Nahuel Moneno and his LIT party in Argentina, he was sent on a trip to Buenos Aires to discover the truth. And he found it and came back with it, totally convinced. Simon Pirani now became a totally convinced Morenoite and Cliff Slaughter was also on board. But I, and some other, recognised that replacing Healy with a new guru, Moneno, was simply re-adopting the political methods of the past and closing down the period of openness we had had since the expulsion.

I therefore sought out the details of the politics of Moreno and his group and there were plenty political organisations willing to supply the details. When I presented these to the Central Committee and conferences I was howled down. Once during a heated meeting in late January 1987 I arose and stridently denounced the politics of Moreno and the LIT to a largely hostile audience. As I was speaking someone entered the room and whispered in Bill Hunter’s ear. Bill rose and addressed the meeting in a solemn tone; “comrades, I have sad news to tell you. Nahuel Moreno is dead…” A big section of the meeting turned to look accusingly at me as if I had contributed to his death by my denunciations.

Nahuel Moreno (April 24, 1924 – January 25, 1987)

But perseverance meant that it was impossible to ignore these problems, particularly one that sticks in my mind is their characterisation of WWII as a “great democratic revolution”, a more Stalinist formulation you could not hope to find. And this at a time when we were also trying to ally with Michel Varga, from the explicitly Stalinophobic Lambert tradition in France. Something had to give and it did, as I explain in the following passage from my book WRP Explosion. It contains some harsh judgements, but such were the political battles of the time:

“But nothing was to prepare us for what happened at the next meeting of the CC. This opened in high drama. Cyril Smith was in tears. He said he had resigned from the WRP the previous night but now retracted that. He would fight on! He sobbed:
“Geoff Pilling, you pulled a dirty centrist trick on me”.
What had happened was, to accommodate Smith’s objections, Pilling had co-authored a resolution with him, basically proposing to hold a series of meeting on the politics of the LIT and, having agreed to the politics, then to fuse with them. Then this ‘dirty centrist trickster’ got rid of Smith on the pretext of sending him to speak at an RCP meeting and called in Perez who inserted a section which said ‘let’s declare that we will fuse with the LIT after the discussions’. The positions seemed very close, one saying ‘let’s pretend to discuss the politics of the LIT and then join’ the other saying ‘let’s cut the crap and declare the outcome of the discussions before they take place’.
Four warring ‘factions’ now emerged on the CC. On the right were Pirani, Hunter, Simmance, Martin Ralph, Frank Fitzmaurice and the honorary CC member Perez, who opined at this meeting that quantity engenders quality. Hunter obviously believed this and proceeded to produce even more defences of Moneno. This group knew no real discussion of the politics of the LIT was possible so were opposed to it. On the centre right were Dot Gibson, Bob Archer and Pilling who basically agreed with the right but thought they would not get away with it. On the centre left were Cyril Smith, Charlie Pottins, Keith Scotcher, Phil Penn and Mike Howgate. They were responding to the disquiet in the membership over the issues raised by the oppositionists in the WRP and on the Preparatory Committee. They knew they were politically ruined if they prostituted themselves in the manner demanded by Pirani. The future IF with Richard Goldstein were on the left.
I should say there was a fifth, silent ‘faction’. Slaughter and his trade union bureaucrats were in none of the three factions. In revolutionary terms a political cipher Slaughter awaited the bounce of the ball, the outcome of the extremely hostile confrontation that was now taking place between the two centre ‘factions’ , before he decided what to do.
The Pilling ‘faction’ feared that the actions of Smith would ruin their chance of international glory, the Smith ‘faction’ feared that the actions of Pilling would give the game away. The Hunter/Pirani ‘faction’ longed for International glory also but without the home base of the WRP it was not enough for Pirani and Simmance. The inability of any of them to proceed on the basis of their own professed political beliefs and principles marked them all as inveterate centrists. The only thing that united the IF on the left was their scorn of this type of dissimulation at this point.
Slaughter proposed a resolution, which basically supported Smith and this, was carried. The split with the LIT was now inevitable because the discussion on the politics of the LIT was to go ahead. Pirani had lost his bid for the Party leadership on the basis of the LIT franchise and so deserted the sinking ship. As ever, Pirani abandoned his supporters as soon as he saw that he was in a minority. Having ratted on the left he was now about to re-rat on the right.” [5]

I met with Bill later in his home in Liverpool in 2007 or 2008 when I was in the CPGB Campaign for a Marxist Party and he told us he had fought the LIT line of welcoming the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and had reversed the position within the International group. Whilst accepting this I can only observe it is possible to reverse some positions which relate to the past but reverse methodology of the LIT he did not as is evidence by their appalling support for the imperialist-sponsored attacks on Libya, Syria and Ukraine. However these positions did cause a split in the LIT British group, the ISL. These comrades did say that they had talked to Bill and that he had supported their position. But he was not really compos mentis in his latter years so it is not possible to confirm that, but I think it must be true.
So in conclusion Bill Hunter certainly represented the best of his generation as a revolutionary Trotskyist since the age of 18 and as a principled fighter in the war years and after. His 1957 Under a Stolen Flag is a principled defence of Trotskyism against Pablo but it also contained the weakness I have analysed elsewhere, for instance it is weak on what was wrong with Pablo before he explicitly capitulated to Stalinism, thereby indicating his own accommodation to Gerry Healy. His rank and file work amongst the dockers is legendary and all serious Trotskyists should study the  Merseyside Dockers, and Women of the Waterfront. Women of the Waterfront Dockers’ Wives – Sue Mitchell and Doreen McNally. The introduction is a masterpiece of Marxist analysis of the class struggle and the interview shows two courageous women class fighters, the real working class heroes in Bill estimation and in that of all serious Trotskyists. [6]

WOMEN OF THE WATERFRONT

Books by Bill Hunter

They Knew Why They Fought – Unofficial struggles & Leadership on the Docks 1945 – 1989
Lifelong Apprenticeship – Life and Times of a Revolutionary
Forgotten Hero – The Life and Times of Edward Rushton. Liverpool’s Blind Poet, Revolutionary Republican & Anti-Slavery Fighter
Harry Constable – an introduction to his ‘Memoirs’.
This is book one of two under the title of ‘History As Told by Those Who Made It’.

Notes

[1] Lifelong Apprenticeship – Life and Times of a Revolutionary, http://www.billhunterweb.org.uk/books/autobiog.htm                                                                                                                          [2] Comintern History Archive. Clear Out Hitler’s Agents , https://www.marxists.org/history/international/comintern/sections/britain/clear-them-out/index.htm
[3] Peace or war? (poster), Warwich Digital Collections, http://contentdm.warwick.ac.uk/cdm/ref/collection/tav/id/3202
[4] On the Continuity of Trotskyism: Programme vs. Struggle? No, Programme via Struggle!, By Gerry Downing, 29 November Chapter 12, No question of Principle, https://socialistfight.files.wordpress.com/2013/08/wrp-explosion-by-gerry-downing.pdf 2011, https://socialistfight.com/2014/02/07/977/
[5] Gerry Downing WRP Expolsion, https://socialistfight.files.wordpress.com/2013/08/wrp-explosion-by-gerry-downing.pdf
[6] Merseyside Dockers, and Women of the Waterfront, Dockers’ Wives – Sue Mitchell and Doreen McNally http://www.billhunterweb.org.uk/interviews/History_as_Told.htm
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