“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 1974 when I was a student member of the International Socialists (IS, was a 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 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.
IS students such as myself 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 the 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 never 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 World War Two), most socialists got along with Frank and for many years joined him for Saturday 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 comrade who was later expelled and went on to found the IS “Left Faction” opposition and the “Workers Power” group. Dave told me how he arrived at Frank’s home and was immediately confronted by the following:
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 in 1991) 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 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 a beginning to get a bit vague);
2. As a member of the AWL, my differences with the SWP had by then 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.
• Frank’s autobiography Life On The Track, based upon interviews by Matt Perry, is available from Bookmarks.