Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 8 No. 2


Bill Turner (1926–2001)

BILL Turner died in Whipps Cross Hospital on 29 June 2001. I first met Bill in 1964. The Woolwich Marxist Study Group, a small band of dissident Communists, was holding a series of public meetings and had leafleted the area. Two older men – we were all youngsters – turned up. One was Archie Armstrong, who had been at the Communist Unity Convention in 1920, and the other was Bill. I recall Bill roundly berating the speaker, whose subject was Syria as a workers’ state. Bill thought it was anything but.

Bill’s roots were in Cavan, where his people were travellers. He never knew his father, and he was brought up by his grandmother. They came to rural East Anglia, from where he was called up for military service. He joined the Royal Artillery as an anti-aircraft gunner. His gunnery was not improved by the strength of the cider where he was stationed.

Like many bright working-class kids, his university was the public library (he claimed to have read Marxist literature while still at school) and later the public meeting. Considered potential officer material, he had to work hard to fail the exam. At the war’s end, he was disciplined for possessing leaflets which compared the incoming Attlee government with Kerensky’s government in 1917. On leave in London, he had bought a copy of the New Leader, the paper of the Independent Labour Party. This was his introduction to organised socialism.

Bill went to sea as a stoker, and lived for a while in Canada. In the 1950s, he took part in demonstrations against the Soviet invasion of Hungary and the Anglo-French invasion of Suez. By the 1960s, he was active in the movement against nuclear weapons.

We lost touch for a while, but we met again at a meeting in Lewisham, where he had come to win support for a militant demonstration on May Day. The official demonstration was on the first Sunday in May. We also met at a meeting organised by the ILP to oppose the closure of the AEI factory in Woolwich.

The Vietnam War was raging, and Bill and I were active in the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign. Bill represented the ILP on the ad hoc committees which organised the massive demonstrations in London. We would meet in the Lamb and Flag in Covent Garden, where assorted revolutionaries gathered on Sundays. After long discussions, I joined him in the ILP.

Bill was active in Tower Hamlets contesting local elections. He never won, but always did better than the Communist Party and the Mosleyites. He became London and Southern Counties Organiser of the ILP, and was elected to its National Administrative Council.

Bill was a libertarian Marxist and advocated a ‘libertarian vanguard’, which would avoid both the chaos of the anarchists and the bureaucratic centralism of the would-be Bolshevik sects. Sadly, he never theorised this. His libertarianism brought him into conflict with more orthodox and authoritarian comrades, such as Mike Baker of the Marxist-Leninist Organisation of Britain. Having been denounced in the Healyite press as a poisonous centrist, Bill was attacked in the MLOB’s Red Front. Despite this, Bill had an amazing ability to work with comrades of all stripes, including such eccentrics as Sid Rawle. Maybe the polemic had an effect, as Mike Baker later abandoned Stalinism and became a Council Communist.

A bitter debate was raging in the ILP as to whether or not the party should rejoin the Labour Party. Bill satirised the pro-Labour group in his Janus column in the Socialist Leader. Asked why he had chosen this name, he replied that some said he was two-faced, while others said he spoke out of his arse. The ILP was also divided over Ireland. The pro-Labour elements supported the Officials, while Bill and I supported the Provisionals.

Bill was a true internationalist. When the Italian Left Communist Bordiga died in 1970, Bill’s was the only obituary in the British left press. He also attended the ‘Red Europe’ conference organised by the Fourth International in Belgium.

Bill was also a staunch anti-racist and anti-fascist. After Enoch Powell’s ‘rivers of blood’ speech, he helped organise community defence in the face of racist attacks. At an anti-fascist meeting in Welling, he stood in as a speaker at the last minute. The National Front turned up in force and was spoiling for a fight, but Bill faced them down. He narrowly escaped injury where a car full of fascists drove into a demonstration in Croydon.

After an altercation with the police and a short spell in Brixton, where he suffered the liquid cosh in the form of the major tranquilliser Largactil, Bill left for the Netherlands. There he was active in the movement of solidarity with the Irish struggle, and he did much to keep alive the memory of Henk Sneevliet, a founder of Dutch Communism who became leader of the Revolutionary Socialist Party, at one time a fraternal party of the ILP. Sneevliet was murdered by the Nazis.

On returning to Britain, Bill became active in the Greenwich Action Group on Unemployment, helping to set up similar groups up and down the country. However, nothing like the pre-war National Unemployed Workers Movement emerged. Many groups became clients of local authorities, and collapsed when funding was withdrawn. He went with GAGOU on a delegation to Derry, where he suffered a CS gas attack. Ironically, he had campaigned against chemical weapons, including leafleting the area where CS was packaged.

Bill was also a member of the Socialist Secular Association, which had been set up to oppose those in the secularist movement who fawned on right-wingers like Professor Flew. Bill played a part in the republication of FA Ridley’s classic Socialism and Religion.

Having joined the Labour Party in Blackheath when he returned to East London, he became Political Education Officer and then Secretary of Leyton and Wanstead Labour Party. After a conflict with the Revolutionary Internationalist Group, an entryist group, he became inactive. When I last discussed politics with him he was very disillusioned with Blair, and was thinking of joining the Independent Labour Network. He also talked of publishing a new socialist paper and of buying a computer to produce it on. Sadly, this never materialised.

In 1968, Bill had been involved in the Karl Marx memorial pub-crawl as a fund-raiser for the Vietnam Solidarity Committee. Of the seven who finished the course, three were ILPers, Bill amongst them. Some of his comrades will be repeating this world historic event, a fine tribute to a comrade who loved the drink and the craic, who thought that capitalism already imposed too many restrictions on people, and that if socialism wasn’t about more freedom then it wasn’t worth having.

Terry Liddle

Editor: I also treasure fond memories of Bill. The Karl Marx Memorial Pub-Crawl, which I, Bill and another sorely missed comrade, Peter Ross, floated, won us international publicity, and made a lot of money for the funds of the Vietnam Solidarity Committee.

Updated by ETOL: 16.10.2011