Draft Text for Speech at Launch of Bill Hunter's first volume in Liverpool on February 10, 1998
Comrades and Friends,
We would do right to find a way to show Porcupine Press how much we value their latest initiatives. Within a few weeks, they manage to produce, not merely Bill's book, but another one as well, of the same kind, the kind that working people need, but which do not appeal to bourgeois publishers. The second one is Alan Thornett's second volume about the long struggle in the Cowley plant of the car-workers against their employer and his allies in the apparatus of their unions.
Bill makes clear that he can speak for himself. What he does is to bring back to light the hidden history of the struggles of working people, not in any romantic way, and we await his second volume with keen interest. We need to know, without expecting a final judgement, how it could come about that the Socialist Labour League, the founding of which at the end of the 1950's with such promise and at the centre of the genuine left, as Bill describes it at the end of his book, could by the mid-seventies have disrupted its international connections, driven out its principal industrial base and doomed itself to collapse in the face of the problems which the miners' strike presented. What are we to make of Healy's politics, and of the influences which, after such a good start, led him down those paths to destroy what he had worked so hard to build?
But that is not Bill's business, or ours, today. He writes history as it needs to be written. That does not mean that we have to agree with every detail of what he writes. It does mean that what he writes makes general sense. There are things to be added to what Bill says. I have written some of them in the little pamphlet on the literature stall. These are often things that he could not possibly have known. Yet they fit in with his general scheme. He brings out the inner connections, the reasons why things happened as they did, and the limits within which human choices could influence them. He talks about the personages concerned in a political way. explaining what they did, when and where and, as far as possible, what their political aim was. He never presents as "good" people those with whom he agreed, or those with whom he disagreed as "bad.", a term which he reserves for conscious traitors.
Anyone who wants to see that method demonstrated on a broader canvas should study Trotsky's "History of the Russian Revolution". You have a treat in store. Of course, he describes that time how our side won, but he clearly shows why things happened the way they did, and how the given situation and the intervention of different people influenced what happened. Marx warned us a long time ago against denouncing comrade so-and-so personally for a defeat, without getting to the bottom of the situation and detecting what political mistakes, as opposed to personal ones, had been made.
Bill's first volume would have commanded respect at any time for its wealth of information and for the method by which he presents it. But today it commands a special authority, because it comes at the right time, when we most feel the need of it.
We who from the 1930's onwards were closely influenced by the work and the ideas of Trotsky consistently defended the conquests of the workers and peasants of Russia in the October Revolution of 1917. We welcomed the abolition of private ownership of the means of production in large-scale industry. We saw how superior a planned economy, despite bureaucratic distortions, could be to the anarchy of capitalism. We saw our own political ancestry in the foundation and the first five years of the Third, Communist International. Until 1933 we were members of its British section, and we began there what we have tried to do since to build organisations which could help the working people to defend their political independence from bourgeois politics, to defend their past gains and their democratic rights, to advance their demands, and in this way to build the section in Britain of the revolutionary international.
For these reasons, we resolutely fought the slander that we were "allies of Hitler". In the later 1930's onwards, we said that the demands by the leaders of the Communist Party for a Popular Front government to include right-wing Labour-ites, Liberals and Churchillian Tories, was a fraud, and would lead to disaster, as it did in France and Spain. We explained that international campaign against Trotsky and the Trotskyists, for which the notorious and now-discredited "Moscow Trials" provided the theme, was to hide what the Popular Front really meant, a capitulation to the bourgeois opponents of Hitler.
We tried even back in the 1930's to warn that these were signs of a growing crisis in the USSR, that the privileged bureaucratic minority, who had appropriated the power and most of the fruits of the revolution, were leading the USSR to disaster, to the destruction of its degenerated workers' state by capitalism, with the real gains of October lost, if we could not, despite the policies of Stalin, help to get workers' governments in Western Europe which could defend the Soviet people.
The Second World War was never our war. We never promised that an Allied victory would open up a new era of peace and prosperity. On the contrary, we pointed out that the very fact of two world wars was strong evidence that the whole period in which we are living is one of the death-agony of the capitalist mode of production. We helped working people during the war to defend their trade union agreements and their democratic rights, for their brothers and sisters in the armed forces to come back to. These questions, as we know, had something to do later on with the divisions in the old Communist Party.
All this is in Bill's book. It ends at the end of the 1950’s, at an important turning point. Hugh Gaitskell, who saw himself as a future Prime Minister in the Blair mould and was pioneering "New Labour", became alarmed at our progress and, especially, our rising influence in the Labour Party Young Socialists. The apparatus obediently drove out of their positions and of membership of the Labour Party some of our leading people, in conditions in which we could not help the majority of the rank and file to understand what was at stake. We took up the challenge. The Socialist Labour League was founded to deal with the task which faces us today here, that is, to operate in two fields at once. We needed our own centre, our own press and our own "open" programme. At the same time, we needed, against the opposition of Labour's political police, to develop the real contradictions between the aspirations of working people in the Labour ranks and to enable them to rid themselves of their illusions and become aware of the true political character of the Labour leadership.
We had survived losing our paper in 1954. We had played our role in the Merseyside struggles in 1955. We had supported the building workers on the Shell-Mex site in 1958. Already for the first time apart from a few months in 1944, thousands of working people became aware that we existed. The forecasts and warnings that Bill wrote in our press often turned out better than those of the pundits. It goes without saying that we never had the least illusion, either that we would win the entire Labour Party to Marxism, or the slightly more sophisticated illusion that, by some miracle, we would drive out the right-wing and its body-guard, the apparatus, and replace them at the head of the Labour Party, which would then play the role of a revolutionary party and carry through the seizure of power.
At the same time, we wanted the rank and file of the Labour Party to know that we were not "splitters", that we were ready to work alongside them, in order to test by experience what a future Labour government would be like. We did not demand that, in advance, they accepted what we thought would happen. Moreover, we knew that it is impossible to tell in advance how far reformists will go, when the heat is on them, except to lead the handover of power to the working class. The seizure of power and creation of a workers' state - that is another matter altogether.
One of the most interesting features of Bill's book is that he does not present the Labour Party in the most usual, superficial way, as a monolithic, unchanging reactionary mass, but as a living, contradictory reality, as the main arena in which the class forces conflict politically, those who are the agents of the bourgeoisie and those who defend the interests of working people, without by any means usually understanding the broader implications of what they are doing.
I felt proud of the Socialist Labour League at the end of the '50's, and never more than when our demonstration marched through North Kensington in London, where the landlords were ripping off the black people newly arrived from the Caribbean, and the Tories had taken off rent control by the 1957 Rent Act, under banners reading "Black and White! Unite and Fight!”, and black and white working men and women marched shoulder to shoulder
In 1989, we all remember, the bourgeois press was gleefully declaring that Communism is dead. For some people, of course, it was, but not for us. Today their tone is not quite the same. They look sadly at the state of the world. They wring their hands at the mess the people in charge manage to make of advanced methods of production, by which they cannot make profit for themselves otherwise than in speculation, let alone provide the great majority of the human race with the chance to experience the minimum material basis for an existence that is civilised even by today's standards, not to mention the un-interrupted threat of a war that could reduce us all to barbarism and perhaps to ashes. The idea peeps out that, perhaps, there might have been something in Marxism. Marxism perhaps, but not Communism, never Trotskyism.
When we say Marxism, who are we talking about? We mean US, who are here. We mean the people we can influence, with whom we can work, in that never-ending struggle to put everything we know to work in deciding the great question: What should we do next to help working people to free themselves from the exploitation of the owners of big property and even to save our race from extermination, by asserting the independent interests of the working people?
Of course, this crisis does not exist exclusively in the heads of journalists. Today it is part of the political education of millions of working people from Korea and beyond to Britain. We can agree that the leader ships and the apparatuses of the mass-organisations generally have gone over to the side of the bourgeoisie. But this has the result that today, at every level, the development of the employers' attacks is making people realise that the organisations are in danger of being either destroyed or taken prisoner.
Blair's "New Labour Party" is one case in point. Going on as it is, it may cease to be a Labour Party at all. The trade unions, if Blair has his way, are to be involved at a secondary level in managing the exploitation of their members, and to lose their independence to represent their members What kind of future does this offer for trade union staffs, let alone the activists and militants?
How otherwise can we explain that the AFL-CIO in USA was officially represented recently at the conference which the International Liaison Committee organised in San Francisco to oppose the North American Free Trade Agreement? How otherwise can we explain that the serious opposition in the French Communist Party was represented at the recent Berlin conference, where our delegates met them?
Our business, as we know, is, when we admire a good idea, to put it to use. Given the terrible crisis with which humanity and the labour movement is faced, it would be a mistake if we were, with our background and our particular experiences, not to listen attentively, and take account of the views of other tendencies, which have other analyses than ours, but, though they have different origins and experiences from ours, draw near to us on the common ground of defending the class-independence of the organisations.
This challenge is implicit in Bill's book. Here in Britain, can we unite a broad, democratic movement of the separate tendencies which are being driven into opposition, each in its own way, to Blair, his policies and his regime? A European Committee against Maastricht was formed at the recent Berlin Conference, and the comrades who were there can tell everyone about it. The obstacle which the dockers faced was that Bill Morris refused to oppose the anti-trade union laws. That in itself is not a Liverpool question, or even a British question. The truck drivers in France were on strike recently, and all the majesty of the European Union descended on them in the person of Neil Kinnock, who told them that they must not go on strike because they were interrupting international trade!
Let us now look at some of the other questions, alongside the central one of trade union freedoms, which raise opposition to Maastricht and to the European Union. Child Labour, the reform of welfare, the Minimum Wage and Tax Credits, the defence of the NHS and, last but not least, where all the promised new jobs coming from and what kind of a life do they promise? That does not include such other questions as war in the Middle East and the project to divide Ireland permanently. (2)
These problems are not really different from that of the Liverpool dockers, are they; they just look different. Bill Morris may or may not be speaking the truth when he says that he can't put on the pressure to get the jobs back, because the Tory laws do not let him. But of one thing we can be certain. We have now a Labour Government, with the biggest majority in history. What stops Bill Morris, or anyone else, from exercising, completely legally and democratically, his constitutional rights to organise a serious, nation-wide campaign to persuade Blair to repeal the Tory laws? When it is put that way, to the man in the street and the people in the local Labour Party, they will naturally ask, what stops Morris? The answer is that he is relying on Blair to protect him, and refrains from rocking the boat. But what stops Blair? He is getting ready for the unions to be put into the strait-jacket of the corporate state, and take away their in dependence to decide for themselves whether they can support strikes or not
Every time we get the same answer. It is Maastricht and the "convergence criteria for the Single currency” and behind them the International Monetary Fund and the bankers. They demand that unions must be curbed and, at the same time, that there must be still more privatisation and that public spending and borrowing must be reduced still further. [3)
Bill has posed clearly one of the problems of locating ourselves in the rising but very confused movement which we can detect. In the Labour Party there are people, mostly with illusions, but getting suspicious about what they see, who need people who understand the way they think and feel and can help them to deal with what they do not yet understand. Our people have a job to do, in the ranks down below in the Labour Party, using the language there that the people understand.
This meeting tonight is hardly the place to go into great detail. I can tell you, though,that it will not have a lot to do with our experiences of the Labour lefts in the past, and the quadrilles that people danced in the Parliamentary Labour Party. We can expect to meet new people, being impelled to think the new thoughts that until now were unthinkable. They need us to help them.
There is nothing "un-principled" about joining the Labour Party for such a tactical reason as testing what can be saved from Blair's regime. If there were a fascist coup, we would not leave it un-defended. In fact, this is a good way, for people who hate the Labour Party's leadership of betrayers, to express hatred of them in practical ways.
But the fact is that today the going will not necessarily be easy. We are talking about an operation of a rather special kind, managed by people who can keep their mouths shut, and not leave things to chance. The party's political police exist precisely to divide up, buy off, head off and generally confuse Blair's critics. You cannot be heard saying everything you want to say, or be seen doing everything you want to do. Some of our people may well get thrown out. What makes the job difficult only goes to show how important the opposition think it is. We have to persist until the job is done. Of course, there are some comrades who have a talent for this kind of work.
It is possible to start without denouncing Blair. What is hard is, at this stage, to convince people in the Labour Party to act in a political and not a personal way, because they tend to react as if Blair had insulted them personally. How can we get them to think politically? The government has the biggest majority in history. Should we not get together to make an appeal signed by numbers of people, that would carry more weight, for him to repeal the anti-trade union laws? Can we not see what he says? What stops him?
When it is a matter of welfare reform, why hit the weakest? Let us suggest other ways to him, both through the Policy Forums and in independent petit ions. Why can’t he impose special taxation on the gigantic incomes that people are making in the City of London out of speculation? Can't we do in peace-time what we would do in war?
A campaign to get Maastricht repealed, as we can see, is really a campaign on all the fronts and about all the grievances, up to an including the aid which we mobilise internationally.
Comrades, these are the reflections which Bill's book inspires. It is an excellent book, and I highly recommend it. I hope that it may help, in its own way, to get off the ground a united movement of protests, petitions, meetings, demonstrations and interventions in Parliament and local councils to see how far an organised instrument may be forged to break up "New Labour" and to replace it in the leadership of the workers' movement by a leadership which asserts the class-independence of working people. As an old Trotskyist, a founder-member of Trotsky's Fourth International and now a member of the Fourth International re-proclaimed in 1993, “I promise gladly to do what I can to help.”
(1) hoping and trying to learn how
(2) We cannot tell yet what sort of protest the real plans of Clinton and Blair for the people of Ireland or the people of Iraq will arouse. I hold the opinion, personally, that we should oppose further efforts by "New Labour" to liberate themselves from the pressure from the unions and further weaken the links between the Labour Party and the affiliated unions.
(3). We can agree on these fundamental things. We would not be here if we did not agree that the workers' organisations ought to be politically independent of the bourgeoisie. But we still have to find out exactly what that means.
(JA manuscript on the top of this leaflet “This is the speech that was interrupted in the middle”)
Public launch of:
The Life and Times of a Revolutionary A Life Long Apprenticeship, Volume 1 (1920-1959) by Bill Hunter
Speakers: Bill Hunter, Mike Cardin (Liverpool Dock Worker's Shop Steward) and others.
7pm Tuesday 5 10th February The Unemployed Centre Hardman Street, Liverpool
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 for the independence of the working class 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, during and after the second world war: Harry Wicks, Hugo Dewar, Reg Groves, Gerry Healy, Ted Grant and 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).
This is a major contribution to understanding the development of Trotskyism in Britain. It is Bill Hunter's second book which follows his success with his account of the dockers' historic struggle in the Blue Union - "They Knew Why They Fought".
Lifelong Apprenticeship shows Hunter's part in the international struggles of the Fourth International struggles of the Fourth International against capitalism and Stalinism, and includes an inside account of the Trotskyists' response to the 1956-57 crisis in the Communist Party. It ends with the launching of the Socialist Labour League in 1959. Bill Hunter is now working on a second volume covering the years since 1959.
The book has 450 pages with an extensive cross-referenced index which was done by Peter Fryer.
Special offer £15.00 for Volume 1 and £2.50 P&P - or buy at the meeting.
They Knew Why They Fought, is still available £5 and £1 p&p
Cheques: Living History Library PO Box 9, Eccles SO, Eccles, Salford M30 7FX
JA typescript reporting on what happened at the book launch
I think that the original intention of holding a meeting in Liverpool to launch Bill Hunter's book on February 10 was overtaken by time. In the event, no one had planned what happened, in my opinion. It was attended by about 70 comrades most closely associated with support for the dockers. It appears that, when the strike ended, there was a meeting at which a large number of people said that they wanted discussion of a wide range of political problems. The February 10 meeting did not actually devote much time to the more subtle features of Bill's book or my comments on it, but it expressed, sometimes almost in hysterical speeches, a frustration with a back log of debate about such questions as: "What is the meaning of the fact that no workers anywhere took sympathetic strike action to support the dockers?" Bill did what he could to answer this, as did I, but many of the contributions were much more about the speakers' subjective anxieties and un-resolved problems than signposts towards solutions.
On a personal note, I got the impression that neither Sue Mitchell nor Doreen were pleased to see me. Doreen was in the chair; she interrupted my prepared speech and finally cut me off in the middle with the excuse of lack of time. In fact, the meeting, which started at 7.30, went on until 10, and everyone had their chance to speak. The fact was that both Bill and I declared politically the reasons why Trotskyists have been hostile to Stalinism, not in any polemical way, but recognising that very many devoted workers for their class had chosen the road of the CP. There was a generally "leftist trend” in the discussion. Since a local group attached to the LIT is the only organised political force there except the SLP, this is hardly surprising. One young comrade took to the notion of combining "open" work with an "entry" into the Labour Party and I managed to give him our stuff and my name and address as he was leaving the meeting
After Doreen cut me off, I listened to the contributions from the floor. Not a word throughout the whole meeting was said about Berlin by anyone but me. Doreen once mentioned that she supported the ILC, but that was all.
I think that what the contributions from the floor conveyed was a dissatisfaction, hardly conscious but none the less real, with the local political leadership of the supporters of the dockers in their strike - hence, presumably with the SLP.
The conclusion which I draw is that we consider drawing on other forces, e.g Unison and/or the people that Donna spoke to, to mount a report back meeting on Berlin, where we get Nolan and the others on the platform and they have got to speak. My own contribution was to speak last before the meeting broke up? I thanked them for inviting me, reminded them that after a big struggle it was not unusual for the people concerned to feel the need for discussion, that this had happened many times before, and that feeling the need for discussion would be the first stage, after which they would find that they needed information, for, example, about world history since 1945, which somebody had appealed for. If so, Bill and I would be available. This was well received, and Mike Garden spoke very kindly to me afterwards.