Bill Hunter, Lifelong Apprenticeship: The Life and Times of a Revolutionary, Porcupine Press, London, 1998, pp440, £20.00
BILL Hunter grew up in County Durham in a mining tomes of a Revolutionary, Porcupine Press, London, 1998, pp440, £20.0
BILL Hunter grew up in County Durham in a mining town. As it happens, I visited Durham recently and had pointed out to me the former mines and steel-works, grassed over, returned to a pre-industrial age. In a museum village named Beamish, miners’ cottages and a school are preserved in a time warp as a tourist attraction, an unfitting end to a book which tells of working-class struggle.
Hunter came into contact with Trotskyism in 1939, when, sent to London under a Ministry of Labour transfer scheme, he met Harry Wicks and other members of the Balham Group. Joining the Independent Labour Party, Hunter became part of its Industrial Committee. Later, he returned to County Durham, and having become dissatisfied with the ILP’s pacifist position, Wicks’ inability to raise adequate support for opposition to the Moscow Trials, and the group’s inactivity, he joined the Workers International League, two of whose members in the North-East were T Dan Smith and Roy Tearse. Hunter was to become critical of the WIL in retrospect.
Hunter had some experience as a shop steward, and with the Second World War giving him the opportunity to be an active militant, he became a convenor in an aircraft factory. Militant industrial activity in wartime was very different to that in peacetime because the workforce had been largely directed into the factory, with many people never having previously worked in such an environment. Labour direction also removed the fear of unemployment. However, as made clear by Sam Bornstein and Al Richardson in Two Steps Back, militants and Trotskyists fighting for improved wages and conditions not only faced the bosses and the trade union bureaucrats, but the Stalinists, who acted as agents of the bourgeoisie once Russia had entered the war. Hunter presents his personal experiences of this period, together with those of his comrades.
In 1944, the two Trotskyist organisations in Great Britain, the WIL and the Revolutionary Socialist League, combined to form the Revolutionary Communist Party. The WIL had previously objected to the RSL on the grounds that it was moribund and buried in the Labour Party at a time of political truce. Hunter played an active rôle in the RCP, but a faction fight developed at the end of the war in 1945. The minority, led by Gerry Healy, called for entry work in the Labour Party, whilst the majority, which at this point included Hunter, opted for an open party.
In 1947, the International Secretariat of the Fourth International split the RCP into two sections, the minority around Healy working within the Labour Party, and the majority working as an open party. Hunter writes that ‘following this split the two sections lost sight of one another’. This surprises me, for I joined the RCP in 1947, and the minority comrades continued to attend the North London branch which met at the Co-op Hall in Seven Sisters Road, Islington, with a virulent faction fight dominating the business. The minority comrades also attended aggregates, and were seen at the party centre in the Harrow Road. I am also bemused by Hunter’s statement on page 168 that the minority documents may have been wrong in forecasting an immediate slump. Now, apart from the fact that an economic prognosis is extremely important as a guide to action, my memory is that in 1947 and onwards, the minority were not only predicting a slump, but declared that it had arrived, and that mass unemployment was not only imminent, but was here! This was at a time when local councils of all complexions were vying to outdo each other in the building of houses, new towns were under construction, and secondary education was being provided for all, as was the NHS and a range of welfare benefits! Moreover, demobilisation took place slowly (unlike after the First World War) to avoid flooding the labour market, and munitions factories were changing over to peacetime production. Bomb damage was being repaired. Certainly, factory and other crèches were shutting down in an attempt to encourage women to return to the home, but the prewar marriage bar for women was not reimposed. Nobody, apart from the Healy minority, could possibly compare this period to the 1930s slump.
With regard to faction fighting, Hunter refers on pages 230-1 to a document by the Healy minority which called Haston and the majority an ‘unprincipled clique’ which monopolised and misused the party apparatus. Following a fusion in 1949, Hunter asked Healy why he issued a document that could only harden the attitudes of the majority comrades, and was told that it had been sharpened up by the comrades in the US Socialist Workers Party. Hunter concludes that this indicated an impatience on the part of the SWP leaders, ‘and a desire for quick organisational results’, even though some pages back he praises them for their ability to build a Trotskyist organisation (pp168-9). Hunter also refers to the campaign that Healy subsequently ran against Joseph Hansen and other SWP leaders, during which he had written an article denouncing them as FBI and GPU agents, and attacked Harry Wicks for defending them. Ever wise after the event, he now unreservedly withdraws these allegations.
Hunter refers to the ‘crumbling away’ of the RCP, which he attributes to lack of contact with the working class. He ignores the vicious faction fighting inaugurated by the Healy minority, which led to Millie Lee typing and duplicating yards and yards of internal bulletins, for everyone was free to submit a bulletin for publication and distribution. This faction fighting stultified branch life, aggregates and general decision-making. The faction fight was so intense with the Healyites attempting to convince the majority, and especially new comrades, of the efficiency of the entry ‘tactic’ and the onset of the economic slump, that open work was very seriously hampered. Hunter is critical of Haston and others of the majority leadership, but who would not crack under such pressure, not only from the Healy minority, but from the International Secretariat of the Fourth International?
On page 232, Hunter boasts that several of the Healyites who went down the mines — Harry Finch having been conscripted as a Bevin boy — made some progress by winning Bob Condon, an ex-Stalinist checkweighman, to Trotskyism. He conveniently forgets that Condon wrote an internal bulletin, The Frog in the Pond, in which Condon attacked his so-called comrades, and revealed himself as anti-Semitic and his views as Managerialist.
In 1948, the RCP minority launched Socialist Outlook, followed by an organisation, the Socialist Fellowship, which both latched onto Aneurin Bevan’s differences with the Labour Party leadership. Again wise after the event, having become disappointed that Bevan had not proved to be a ‘revolutionary’ — he had, as Shadow Foreign Secretary, at the Labour Party Conference in 1956 opposed a resolution calling for unilateral nuclear disarmament — Hunter cites the Healyites’ next paper, The Newsletter, comparing him to Ramsay Macdonald, and accusing him of having ‘betrayed the hopes of those who idolised him’ (p376).
Returning to Socialist Outlook, Hunter writes on page 309 that ‘it was owned by the Labour Party Publishing Society with 1200 £1 shares in the hands of 500 or 600 shareholders, members of the Labour Party. A good number of these were not Trotskyists, but were sympathetic to the paper’s general fighting policies and its struggle against the right wing.’ Some time earlier, we in the RCP had criticised the Stalinist Daily Worker for becoming a cooperative, as we saw it as an abdication of the responsibility of the party. Hunter continues by stating that whilst the Labour MPs and union leaders associated with Socialist Outlook were far from being Trotskyists, and many of them had a history of flirting with the Stalinists in their ‘front organisations’, ‘this was the level of the development of the labour movement at the time’! He claims that ‘these people did reflect the thinking and outlook of thousands of ordinary members of the Labour Party and trade unions’. A block vote, I presume. For the Healyites, Labour Party and trade union politics were the whole world, and this is borne out by the jettisoning of Socialist Outlook in 1954 after the Labour Party conference had voted to ban it, ‘because carrying on would have brought the expulsion of those who were selling it inside the Labour Party’ (p326). As it happens, Hunter and his wife Rae, amongst others, could not avoid themselves being expelled.
At that time, the Hunters were members of the East Islington Labour Party. George Leslie and I were also members for some two years of this Constituency Labour Party, and its largely middle-class membership consisted of civil servants, teachers, small traders and white-collar workers — the type of Labour Party which assembled a committee to decide on whether to serve tea and biscuits, and then formed a sub-committee to decide on the brand of biscuits! Bill Jones, the agent, made no pretence that the party’s rôle was anything other than to fight and win elections in what was a parliamentary marginal seat. It is interesting to reflect that South-West Islington, at the time a much more working-class constituency, won elections for Labour with tremendous majorities, but was unable to maintain any ward organisation, and in this aspect was moribund. In 1952, Hunter was elected as a councillor to Islington Council, on which the representation was 100 per cent Labour. At that time, he and Rae were living in a flat above the Labour Party rooms in St Paul’s Road — above the shop, as it were! I am sure there were many issues on which Hunter could have campaigned in Islington and faced expulsion — such as on rent levels, on which he and other Healyites campaigned once they were expelled. However, he and Rae chose to await expulsion over the Socialist Outlook issue.
Happily, in 1956, Khrushchev’s ‘Secret Speech’ listing Stalin’s crimes provided the Healyites with an opportunity to recruit from the Communist Party. Hunter writes that the ferment resulting from Khrushchev’s speech ‘was found primarily among the British CP intellectuals’ (p333). Leaflets were issued, and members of the party were approached in person in order to win them to Trotskyism. With regard to the Soviet Union, Hunter cites Labour Review to the effect that the bureaucracy in the Soviet Union ‘must protect the nationalised property relations... since these are the soil that gives it life’, which must mean that the bureaucracy depended upon the nationalised property for its position, or that the nationalised property and the Soviet bureaucracy were interdependent — which could lead to a reassessment of the Soviet Union and the nationalised property forms. Hunter does not latch on to this, and on page 329 he says that, whilst engaged in a fight against the H-bomb, ‘we were against unilateral disarmament by the Soviet Union... The Stalinist degeneration had still not been able to eradicate the basic conquest of the Russian Revolution in the property forms.’ So we had the workers’ — or bureaucrats’ — bomb!
Hunter tells a wry story concerning the Stalinist leadership of the Electrical Trades Union. During the 1950s, Healy ‘built up a group of electricians campaigning for a democratic and fighting union’, with Hunter and Healy having held discussions with Frank Chapple and Les Cannon. Eventually, Chapple and Cannon charged the Stalinist leadership with ballot-rigging in the elections of union officials. They won the court case against the ETU leadership, but far from forming a fighting, democratic union, as Hunter laments, they imposed a bureaucratic pro-employer regime in the union far more rigid than that of the Stalinists.
The first chapters in this book are the most interesting, and a few questions are raised in other chapters which could well be discussed, such as Trotsky’s proletarian military policy, and the uprisings in Europe at the end of the Second World War which were put down by the imperialists and the Stalinists. Hunter also covers the arrests of Haston, Tearse, Ann Keen and Heaton Lee under the new wartime Regulation 1A(a) in 1944, although this latter is more fully dealt with by Bornstein and Richardson in War and the International. Chapter 18 tells of the founding congress of the Fourth International in 1938.
However, what I miss most in this book is any sign of a Marxist analysis, which would bring the book together, instead of its coming across as a number of separate chapters. Additionally, without any attempt at such an analysis, the book is peppered with texts from Healy’s journals, many of them written by Hunter himself, which for the most part I found both stodgy and turgid, or ‘sturgid’, as Lewis Carroll might have put it.
We are promised a second book covering the years from 1959 onwards. Let us hope that it at least makes an attempt to analyse the development of capitalism and the response of the various Healyite organisations and their tactics. For, as it is said: ‘Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.’