RIP Frank Henderson, 1925-2009

January 5, 2010 at 10:33 pm (good people, history, Jim D, SWP, trotskyism, unions, workers)

“It is not easy to persist in the struggle, to hold on, to stay tough and fight it out year after year without victory; and even, in times such as the present, without tangible progress. That requires theoretical conviction and historical perspective as well as character. And, in addition to that, it requires association with others in a common party” – James P. Cannon, ‘Trade Unionists and Revolutionists’, 1953.

I cannot precisely remember when I first met Frank Henderson, but it must have been in 1972 or ‘3, when I was a student member of the International Socialists (‘IS’, forerunner of today’s SWP) in Birmingham. IS had just made its “turn to the class” and succeeded in recruiting quite a few industrial militants in important workplaces like like the various Lucas plants then dotted around Birmingham, and the various British Leyland (‘BL’) plants. IS had even managed to recruit some convenors and senior stewards like Arthur Harper at Leyland Drews Lane and Larry Connolly at Lucas Shaftsmoor Lane. The IS was beginning to challenge the Communist Party for dominance on the left of the AEU – then the main engineering union. It all went wrong shortly afterwards, but that’s another story.

My point is that us IS students were treated as second class citizens at that time, while  the IS worker -militants were fawned upon. Not surprisingly, the IS workers tended to be a quite arrogant bunch who didn’t have much to do with us students. Frank Henderson – a rank and file militant and shop steward at BL Longbridge – was the exception. He happily associated with us students and freely shared his anecdotes, experiences and witty observations without a trace of the arrogance and bluster that characterised many of the IS workers at that time.

So impressed was I with Frank that when I found myself in the leadership of a student occupation at Birmingham University, I made a point of inviting Frank to address a meeting of occupying students on the theme of (something like) “Student – Worker Unity.” Frank was not a great orator, but his humour, sincerity and quiet passion won over that audience – and won us several recruits to IS as I remember.

A year or two later I started work at Longbridge. By then I’d been expelled from IS and was a member of what’s now the AWL. Nevertheless, Frank was a warm and supportive comrade, giving me loads of advice and inside information. There was never the slightest suggestion of factional  hostility, even though he’d stayed with the IS when I and many others (including the comrades who’d recruited him) had been expelled. I worked closely with Frank for about five years at Longbridge and came to regard him not just as a comrade, but also as a friend. People I’ve met from the Labour Party in Wolverhampton (where Frank and his brother Tommy -also a socialist – lived) have told me a similar story: that whatever the factional differences (apart from Stalinism, which Frank hated, having been beaten up by them in WW2), most socialists got along with Frank and for many years joined him for Saturaday afternoon chats/debates in a Wolverhampton pub, where Labour councillors sat in awe of this veteran Trotskyist.

I believe Frank was recruited to IS in about 1970 or ’71: by then the IS was selling ‘Socialist Worker’ on the gates every week at Longbridge. They were also advertising Tony Cliff’s book ‘The Employers’ Offensive’, and Frank (who’d been buying ‘Socialist Worker’ on the gates for some time), sent off for a copy. He said later, “I thought this was a fair test for them: if they just send me the book they cannot be serious, but if they are serious comrades they will come round and argue the toss with me.”

That’s exactly what happened. The IS comrade who visited Frank was Dave Hughes  – a middle class intellectual who was later expelled and went on to found the IS ‘Left Faction’ opposition and the  ‘Workers Power’ group. Dave once told me how he arrived at Frank’s home and was immediately involved in something like the following exchange:

Frank: “Hello. Who are you?”

Dave: “I’m Dave Hughes from the International Socialists.”

Frank: “Ah: I have a bone to pick with you lot.”

Dave  (expecting something about Measured Day Work or the internal goings on of the Sheet Metal Workers’ Union): “Well, we don’t know that much about Longbridge at the moment, but we want to learn…”

Frank: “No…it’s nothing to do with any of that: I notice that you lot call the Soviet Union state capitalist; I think It’s more correctly defined as a degenerated workers’ state.”

Dave (who himself died a few years ago) told me that Frank then feigned a loss of interest in IS – another test – before eventually joining. Dave  (prior to that first meeting)  hadn’t the slightest idea that he was dealing with someone who’d been a member of the Trotskyist Workers International League during WW2.

I last saw Frank a couple a years ago, speaking at a meeting on local history organised in Birmingham by the SWP. I hadn’t seen or met him for over twenty years prior to that. I decided not to go over and re-introduce myself, because:

1/ I wasn’t sure whether he’d remember me (though still articulate and witty, he was clearly by then an old man and beginning to get a bit vague) ;

2/ As a member of the AWL, my differences with the SWP, which during the time at Longbridge had been ‘tactical’, had by now  become very sharp and hostile and I didn’t  particularly want an embarrassing confrontation  with someone who’d once been a friend.

I now regret my failure to re-introduce myself to Frank: whatever our factional differences, he was an inspirational figure and also a really warm and kindly bloke. He taught me a hell of a lot about socialism and humanity.

Farewell, comrade!

NB: Frank’s autobiography “Life On The Track” , based upon interviews by Matt Perry, is available from ‘Bookmarks’

6 Comments

  1. Dave A said,

    Frank was indeed one of the good people. A few additions.

    I first got to know Frank after moving to the Black Country as a then supporter of the IMG, the predecessor of the Socialist Organiser group, in the mid 1970s. His reputation preceded him as the SWP member who was a well-respected trade union militant and a long-standing trotskyist. It was an open secret that he was an orthodox trotskyist not a state cap.

    For the three decades or so that I knew him on and off, he always acted as a loyal member of the SWP. Perhaps in Wolverhampton SWP branch meetings – which I have never refused entry to, whetere as a supporter of the IMG, or later of Workers Power then Permanent Revolution – his would be the voice of experience from the back of the room explaining the latest tactic but perhaps giving greater emphasis on the need to work with other socialists and militants than Cliff would stress. Any more explicit acknowledgment of his trotskyist orthodoxy came only in chats after any other SWP members had left the pub, and then only when talking about historical questions.

    That’s not a model of democratic centralism I would subscribe too any more. But Frank carried it out with integrity – another of his characteristics which made him attractive as an individual and effective as a militant.

    Frank had at least two brothers: Tommy and Chuck. All three were socialists, working class autodidacts, and nice guys. Tommy became General Secretary of a small, Black Country based sheet metal workers union – it has around 1,000 members, so General Secretary was probably a grandiose title for one and only full-time employee.

    At one time I was a regular at the Saturday lunchtime sessions Jim describes. The debates often got passionate but never uncomradely except when we were verbally putting the knife into a stalinist or an out and out careerist – or an open class enemy.

    The Labour councillors who were in awe of Frank were themselves former trotskyists. They had been in the RCP with Frank after the war. At some point during the long years that they trotskyists had been carrying out deep entry into the Labour Party, Frank had himself had a spell as a Labour councillor.

    The reminiscences at these sessions would regularly turn to their shared experiences of being beaten up by the stalinists, and then of being invited to a CP branch meeting in 1956 to explain what was going on in Hungary.

    Frank had been increasingly unwell in recent years. Together with my own poor health, it meant I only saw him occasionally. I think that every time we did get chance to talk for more than a few minutes, he would ask whether I knew what was happening to people on the left he had known and liked or respected, but had lost touch with, sometimes decades previously.

    If it was someone who had since become a reformist, a bureaucrat, or in Jim’s case a supporter of the AWL, Frank would not hold back from political criticism of what they had become. But I don’t remember a single time where he didn’t also stress the contributions they had made to the class struggle, albeit sometimes long ago.

    The last time I saw Frank I sold him a copy of Permanent Revolution magazine which included an obituary I’d written of Ted Grant. The focus of the obituary had been on the positive contributions Grant had made to trotskyism especially in the post-war period in Britain and the Fourth International. Frank, who had broken politically from Grant decades ago, gently rebuked me for still underestimating Grant’s contribution. He then took the sting out of the criticism by an anecdote about what Grant’s inability, at that time, to finish major political documents unless he was locked in a room by the rest of the RCP leadership.

    Many of the the rank and file working class miltants that I had the privilege of knowing who were from Frank’s generation, left Labourites or pure trades unionists as well as trotskyists, were nice guys. Almost all were guys. Almost all had made many sacrifices themselves for their political activity.But almost all, including Frank, also had wives who were nice women, who were not politically active themselves but had also had a lifetime of sacrifice to support their husband’s political activity. Behind almost every Frank Henderson there was a Frieda Henderson.

    Frank stood out in comparison to these other socialists of his generation in two ways. The discussions over a couple of pints of Banks’s might get heated at times, but anyone who listened could always come away having learned something new. And unlike many working class militants of his generation, Frank stayed on the shop floor to the end of his working days.

    One of the last links with a generation has gone. He will be greatly missed.

  2. Dave A said,

    A couple of corrections to my previous long comment:

    The present day successor group to the IMG is of course Socialist Outlook, not Socialist Organiser.

    Frank’s wife is Freda Henderson

    Socialist Worker now has an obituary at http://www.socialistworker.co.uk/art.php?id=19898

  3. voltairespriest said,

    Dave;

    I’ve forwarded your email as per your request, apologies that I didn’t see it before.

  4. Matt said,

    While we’re on the subject of corrections, the USFI’s British section is now actually called Socialist Resistance: http://socialistresistance.org/

    Don’t worry, Dave, they’ll probably have changed it to something else next year!

  5. Neues aus den Archiven der radikalen (und nicht so radikalen) Linken « Entdinglichung said,

    […] Hinweise bei Poumista … ansonsten sei an zwei im Dezember verstorbene Revolutionäre erinnert Frank Henderson (1925-2009, Nachruf auf Shiraz Socialist) und der österreichische Lnkskommunist Robert […]

  6. Jim Denham said,

    Dave A and others have asked for details of Frank’s funeral. I’ve just received thie following:

    Subject: Frank Henderson (last of brothers) died new year’s eve.

    Longbridge steward SWP/IS 38yrs obituary on socialist worker website

    Funeral 3.45pm Fri. 15th January Bushbury crematorium

    Nick Kelleher, Secretary, Wolverhampton, Bilston & District Trades Union Council, P.O.Box 2917, Wolverhampton WV2 2YA

    http://www.wolvestuc.org.uk

    info@wolvestuc.org.uk (01902 686613 (ans. m/c) mobile ( 07932 797139 Skype: wolverhampton.bilston.tuc

    Bushbury Crem is just outside Wolverhampton.

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