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


Lifelong Apprenticeship

Bill Hunter
Lifelong Apprenticeship: Life and Times of a Revolutionary, Volume 1: 1920–1959
Porcupine Press, London, 2000, pp434

STUDIES of the history of the Trotskyist movement in the UK have benefited in recent years from a growth in the number of political autobiographies available. Harry Wicks, Harry Ratner, Alan Thornett and others have contributed major primary source documents to the record.

The political autobiography is a very difficult kind of book to write (and only a little easier to review seriously). Can it be anything more than a repository for recollections, to be worked over by the diligent, in search of nuggets of information with which to triangulate onto other records? To resolve the tensions between the political content of such a work and its intensely personal form is a task that challenges even the most skilled of writers – Trotsky’s My Life does not satisfactorily achieve the task, and is better remembered for its sketches than for its big picture. Voronsky’s published chapters, perhaps one of the best attempts at the form, cover only his early years in the movement, avoiding any problems with the Stalinist censors.

The revolutionary’s story will always be unfinished; there will always be a sense that the major tasks lie ahead, and not in what has been achieved. This makes it impossible to compose an autobiography as a rounded, finished work. The themes are stated, then contested by counter-themes, variations are developed, and the piece comes to an end, necessarily unresolved.

These problems are particularly acute in Bill Hunter’s book. Like Harry Ratner (and so many others), Hunter was a victim of Gerry Healy’s disruption of the most important attempt at building the revolutionary party in the UK. Unlike Ratner (and too many others), he remains convinced of the need for and the possibility of the revolution. Not for him the resigned minor key, the bleak decrescendo – he sets himself the task of making an honest political assessment of the lessons of his life. His record and contribution are such that he deserves to be reviewed with a method consistent with the scale of his objective. (This reviewer does not set himself up as having achieved such an aim.)

A Marxist revolutionary’s autobiography will be different from anybody else’s, for the same reasons that a revolutionary’s life is different from everybody else’s, but with an additional twist or fold of complexity. A bourgeois minister, or even a non-Marxist proletarian, might wrestle, with varying degree of success (and it is rarely done well) with the problem of extracting conclusions – ‘lessons’ – from the interactions between his life and his times, and his consciousness and his being. If this were all there was to be done, the Marxist autobiography would only have to deal with the problems of lack of historical resolution, and especially that the revolution appears as far away, or further, now than at the beginning of the story – more difficulties than enough for any writer.

But the Marxist is called upon to attack the same problem with an additional dimension – that of how to reflect upon the movement of his own consciousness, and to try to perceive its expansion and its simultaneous grasping of and impact on reality. He begins with an incomparable advantage – his recognition of the truly revolutionary potential of human consciousness, the most incomparable innovation in the whole of history; and the driving force from which all human qualities and weaknesses spring. But in itself, this is insufficient to allow the autobiographer to overcome the key problem – that of grasping and reflecting on the changes in his own consciousness when that consciousness is transformed by the very act of grasping itself. This is not a political but a literary problem, and is in fact a problem which cannot be solved in its own terms. It is hardly surprising that the autobiographies I have referred to bypass it.

In his Introduction, Hunter refers to his book both as an autobiography and as memoirs. It is in fact much more the latter than the former. Its points of interest are clustered around the political personalities and activities he encountered, much more than around the ways in which he responded to them, overcame doubts and irresolutions, determined upon actions and positions, and assessed them in retrospect.

Hunter’s account of his early involvement with the Wicks–Dewar group illustrates this difficulty well. With very little political background, he happened to hear Wicks attacking the Communist Party at a meeting, and made contact with them. (All of us live on the Damascus Road, of course, and chance events can assume enormous significance in every life.) With Wicks’ encouragement, he undertook a campaign of reading. It is impossible not to be amused at his description of barricading himself into his room to read Their Morals and Ours while a house party roared around him, but such adroit moments are too few in the book. What I wanted, but didn’t get from this section was to learn just what Hunter found convincing or attractive at this point in his life about the Wicks-Dewar group, and about Trotsky’s texts. He appears to assume that his readers share his enthusiasms, and came to their revolutionary convictions by a route so similar that the individual experience involved is insignificant.

This section is followed by the story of the origins of the Wicks–Dewar group, but disappointingly, this does not consist of original material, or even of recollected accounts given to him by the participants. Next come some personal notes about Wicks and Dewar themselves, which add something to the previously published materials.

Hunter gives an account of the group’s activity in the working class, which adds to what we previously knew by describing some of the agitation and propaganda that cannot be learned about from the group’s documents. But there is too little about how decisions were arrived at, or how and why Hunter and the group made the choices that they did. It is as if the group’s ideas and writings were sufficient to understand what happened and what they did. But if this were the case, why did the group never exceed a membership of between 25 and 30? It is essential to understand why some people joined, in order to understand why so many thousands more did not. (And my instinct is, when I am given rough membership numbers like that, to demand all the names that I can get from the informant. I don’t think I could put together more than 10 names of Wicks–Dewar group members from the information I have to hand.)

The first instance of some personal response to political reality is where Hunter describes (p. 39) his impatience with Reg Groves’ passivity as a leader. But this germ-cell does not develop into a consideration of how he dealt with the problem, politically or personally, nor of how to struggle with the imperfections of leaders. Perhaps this is too painful a territory for a former ‘Healyite’ to venture onto. Instead, his line of recollection is cut off with a political generalisation, to the effect that Groves ‘could not break from’ British exceptionalism and a certain opportunism. Probably this is so, but here Hunter appears to mirror Groves’ passivity with his own.

These discontinuities in styles of thinking pervade the book. Too frequently he turns aside from describing his own experiences; too frequently he arrives too quickly at a generalised political conclusion.

Sometimes the same process appears in reverse. In an excellent chapter in which he rehabilitates Morrow and Goldman against the sterile programme chanting of Cannon and Cochran, as well as ably defending the Greek section against Pablo, the first person singular pronoun appears only once, and then only to concede that he missed the significance of the discussion in the Revolutionary Communist Party.

Regrettably, Hunter has not been adequately served by those of his comrades who undertook the typesetting, proof-reading and other technical tasks in the production of the book. The indexing is particularly at fault. By page 200, it is one page out of register, and the error grows to three pages by page 400. There are altogether too many errors of syntax and spelling that the average home computer provides tools to detect. Among the sadder errors, Widelin, the hero of the wartime fraternisation with the German troops occupying France, becomes ‘Eidelin’. Brian Pearce is represented as ‘Pierce’, no doubt not for the first time. John Archer’s thesis is referred to as ‘unpublished’, without even a mention of the university at which it can be accessed. A missing comma on page 240 sent me searching for a ‘Dave Lawrence’, seemingly a brother of Harry Finch. The reference to page 157 in the index in respect of the very interesting figure of Jack Pemberton cannot be found, either there or on any adjoining page.

Hunter’s chapter on the end of the RCP provides a great deal of valuable primary material. He rebuts Bob Pitt’s account of the expulsion of Ted Grant with personal recollection of the events. This presentation of the evidence is preferable to his (too frequent) dismissive asides against Pitt’s important series of articles on Healy. The survivors of the Healy movement have now had over a dozen years since Clapham Ragnarok in which to digest and report on their experiences, and cannot justly complain if the best accounts do not take account of their knowledge. However, one cannot refuse to savour Hunter’s description of Pitt’s series ‘which strung incidents together one after another like cracked beads on a frayed string’. Rarely has the proverbial advice to glasshouse residents been so stylishly disregarded.

There are some instances of reticence in Hunter’s book that merit attention. These especially concern his decisions about which group to work in. We read nothing about why he stayed with the static Wicks–Dewar group when the Harber current (Militant/Revolutionary Socialist League) appears to have been much more dynamic. On the formation of the Workers International League, Hunter maintains that it was a question of Ralph Lee’s subjective or even ‘personal’ split. Here we have an echo of his caution in respect of Groves’ leadership. It would seem that for Hunter, as for so many, any question of how the leadership chooses to abuse its position is ‘subjective’, not even registering on his political seismometer. His decision to join the RCP in 1944, he writes (p. 136), resulted from discussions with V. Sastry, an RCP Central Committee member. But we do not learn what the content of these discussions was, nor what was convincing about the RCP’s positions at this time, nor even what was unsatisfactory about the Wicks-Dewar group at this time. By this time, Hunter had been associated with the Wicks-Dewar group for five years, but we learn nothing about the end of this political relationship.

Elsewhere, Hunter provides some valuable corrections and additions to the reports in Sam Bornstein and Al Richardson. His first-hand description of Jock Haston’s descent into uncertainty and doubt is pure gold. However, his section on Healy during the Second World War fails to mention the leadership’s flight into Hibernia, and the notorious Post Office book.

The discussion of the Proletarian Military Policy is disappointing, drawing entirely upon available documents, and not on personal recollections of the discussions at the time. It does reveal, however, that the discussion on the PMP hardly registered on the RSL membership, to such an extent that when he came to write his famous article on the war in 1958, he did not find it necessary even to mention the PMP. This contrasts starkly with Sam Levy’s references to the intense debate within the WIL, and is not entirely consistent with Harry Ratner’s account of the debates within the RSL on transitional demands and Air Raid Precautions.

Much could (and in my view should) have been written about the discussion on the nature of the East European states after the war. In this chapter, Hunter gives a too rare example of exactly how his political thinking developed, leading eventually to his important document The IS and Eastern Europe. I have always regarded this discussion as one of the great achievements of Trotskyism in Britain. The richness and breadth of independent thinking that flowed out of a small group with an overwhelmingly proletarian composition surpasses anything in the history of the movement in this country. Hunter, however, now takes a less enthusiastic view; he looks back on it as ‘academic’ and ‘abstract’.

To continue with a chapter by chapter commentary would exhaust the reader’s patience, not to mention the editor’s budget. While not hesitating to recommend this book for purchase by anybody who wants to form a conception of Trotskyism in Britain, some conclusion must be drawn. It is this – it seems to me that the revolutionary discipline of Hunter’s life has become a straightjacket that restricts his ability to write about his own experiences in a way that creates resonances with the reader. This is at odds with other aspects of Hunter’s life story. His book provides more than adequate evidence of his effectiveness as a workers’ leader in several workplaces. And nobody who has heard him speak could deny his ability to communicate convincingly. I await the second volume of this work keenly.

J.J. Plant

Updated by ETOL: 17.10.2011