Bill Hunter: The Life of a Revolutionary

September 4, 2015 12:00 am Published by Leave your thoughts

I was around sixteen years old when I first met British Trotskyist Bill Hunter, who recently died at the age of 95. Few words are adequate to describe such a phenomenal personality, who throughout all his life was committed to the cause for Marxism and in whose lifetime witnessed major global events, from the second world war to the fall of the Soviet Union.

When I first met Bill in the 1990s, the United Kingdom was in a state of political euphoria, Communism had failed, history was at an end and society was only made up of individuals. Germany was still coming to terms with its reunification, Poland as an independent state was still in transition and Russia was being laughed at for the behaviour of Boris Yeltsin. The main debates in political circles included the ongoing Israel and Palestine conflict along with growing concern for the impact UN imposed sanctions were having upon the Iraqi population after the first Gulf War. Meanwhile Cuba was also isolated and going through its own crisis, as a result of the fall of the Soviet Union, and many even questioned the ability of the Communist Party to retain power, while others wondered if the Soviet demise would weaken the Chinese ability to keep China together.

When I first met Bill in his Liverpool apartment, after the initial formalities were speedily set aside, we launched into a long political debate where all the above topics were vibrantly debated, along with Bill giving a detailed historical account of the Liverpool docks, the Militant Tendency and the Workers’ Revolutionary Party, of which Bill had been a founding and leading member of until its own demise in the middle of the 1980s. I found Bill’s empathy immense for those who suffered from the economic declines in Eastern Europe, in what was by that time the former USSR. He also expressed his anger at the decline of the high educational standards which people collectively received while living under Communism.

While Communist Parties around the world were quickly re-branding their associations to Moscow, Bill was one of the few people on the British left who, through the British section of Leon Trotsky’s Fourth International, was standing up and saying, those parties who claim to represent the working class needed to “start fighting” for the interests of that same working class. This same fight also applied to what Bill described as the “sharpening of tensions” from the triumphant Americans in the Cold War towards countries who had been within the political sphere of Soviet influence, where in particular the Arab League had been warned that the collapse of the USSR had created a political vacum which left all Middle Eastern countries “vulnerable to regime change”.

As many sought to dismiss the validity of Marxist practice through the fall of the Berlin Wall, Bill Hunter was everything but nostalgic or bitter about these events. Despite his age, he maintained an incredible archive which documented the activities of the international Labour movement, which he expressed his excitement at documenting for his book Lifelong Apprenticeship. That same excitement was also shown by Bill for his many articles and other publications, including a fascinating analysis of the political science behind the Trotsky-Stalin split where he explained the theory of Stalin’s Socialism in one country compared wih the Trotskyist belief in the Permanent Revolution. Bill’s passion for politics also gave birth to the publication of Forgotten Hero, where through the same commitment to his own theory and practice saw Liverpool’s blind Anti-Slavery activist Edward Rushton re-emerge out of the historical wilderness and onto Britain’s book shelves.

In many respects, Bill’s own descriptions of his early life brought back to life the childhood stories my own grandmother used to recall. Both were born and raised in the North East of England only three years apart. Bill Hunter like my grandmother was born into a world which lived in the immediate shadows of the Great War. Both children at the time of the Wall Street Crash, their lives were shaped in an environment of massive deprivation and as teenagers witnessed the growth of Fascism across Europe, with their adult lives really starting in the turbulence of World War Two. It would have been almost unimaginable to consider, after being raised in those circumstances, that out of the horrors of World War Two would come a total rejection of the conditions which followed the Great War and from which emerged a Welfare State, a National Health Service and nationalised industries. Even more unimaginable would be to directly witness the emergence of this “brave new world”, where the sun finally set on the British Empire and successful revolutions were staged in China, Cuba, Vietnam and Korea along with national liberation movements across the Middle East, north and central Africa, and Latin America.

In the last two years of his life Bill suffered from Alzheimer’s dementia but, according to his family, had fortunately retained much of his old personality. At his funeral service in Liverpool, while comrades, friends and relatives all sang the Internationale in honour of Bill Hunter’s belief that another world was possible and essential, one could only reflect on the current Middle East, the global economic crisis and our current world having the highest levels of displaced people since World War Two. It was upon this reflective gaze that I recalled Bill Hunter once saying; “another world was necessary”.


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This post was written by Hussein Al-alak

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