Socialist Worker

Frank Henderson 1925-2009: A remarkable and revolutionary life

by Matt Perry
Issue No. 2183

Frank Henderson (left) sells Socialist Worker on a picket line

Frank Henderson (left) sells Socialist Worker on a picket line


I first came across Frank Henderson in the Wolverhampton branch of the SWP in 1987.

I was a student at the Poly. He was a quiet bloke who sat at the back of the meetings. It was only after a few months that I got to know him.

He would explain socialist politics in an accessible manner, using his life experiences to illustrate a point and raise a smile.

He told a brilliant anecdote and was very patient teaching younger members about Marxist politics.

Frank had a remarkable life. He directly experienced the Coventry blitz. He was in Italy and Greece during the Second World War and encountered those countries’ partisan movements.

He saw the last days of British rule in Palestine, the early days of Algerian independence and was at the battle of Saltley Gate in the 1972 miners’ strike.

He was part of the revolutionary left during the Second World War and was called up into the British army. He became a Labour councillor and was a Longbridge shop steward during the heyday of trade union militancy.

Born in 1925, Frank spent his early years in Wolverhampton and Coventry. His father was a skilled worker in the West Midlands metal working industry.

Frank was 14 when the Second World War broke out. This roughly coincided with the beginning of his working life.

Apart from his time in the army, he worked in engineering factories until he was 65.

In 1941 he and his brother joined the Workers International League, a small Trotskyist organisation. Frank had a real thirst for ideas and devoured the Marxist classics in his teens.

He was genuinely a working class intellectual – what Antonio Gramsci called an “organic” intellectual.

After his call up, Frank arrived in Italy during the summer of 1945. The Italian Communist Party was still a member of the coalition government and the taste of victory against fascism was still sweet for the partisans.

In Greece, Frank’s next posting, there was a similar mix of popular anti-fascist resistance clashing with the power politics of the Allies.

Frank was then sent to Palestine.

Awareness

As for the Trotskyist movement, the youthful and energetic Workers International League that Frank had joined in 1941 merged with other groups to form the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP).

After the war the Trotskyist movement fragmented into competing factions over the class nature of Russia.

Sticking to his beliefs, Frank became a Labour Party councillor at a time when the party was a vibrant, mass organisation able to deliver reforms at a local level.

It was an organisation with real roots in the working class and there was political life inside its structures.

Frank joined the International Socialists (the forerunner of the Socialist Workers Party) in 1971.

He helped to build a factory branch at Longbridge, the Birmingham car factory. These were heady days of working class militancy.

The six-week miners’ strike of 1972 was the first national strike in the coal industry since 1926. It used mass and flying pickets outside coking plants, power stations and steel works.

The crucial moment in the dispute was the closure of the Saltley Gate coking depot in Birmingham. Frank was part of the mobilisation of engineers that forced the police to close Saltley.

It was an embarrassing defeat for the then Tory government.

The moment he was most proud of, however, was when he and the other comrades at Longbridge stood out against the atmosphere of anti-Irish witch-hunting after the Birmingham pub bombings in 1974.

He said that he would not have done it without the International Socialists.

In the wave of militancy against the Tory government of Edward Heath, the International Socialists had transformed from a largely student organisation of under 1,000 members to one that was four times the size – and contained a strong working class element.

It initiated a national rank and file movement and established factory branches where it had sufficient members, such as at Longbridge.

Frank kept his job when the management at Longbridge tried to smash trade union organisation. He helped to keep trade union organisation alive in the most difficult of circumstances.

Committed

Through all of this, Frank remained committed to revolutionary socialism and to the party.

Frank’s health had been up and down since his retirement after decades on the track at Longbridge. He suffered a brain tumour last year and passed away on New Year’s Eve.

The loss of Frank saddens many of us – former colleagues from Longbridge, those involved in the rank and file movement from the 1970s and comrades from the Wolverhampton branch.

Our thoughts are with his friends and family, especially his wife Freda and his son Paul.

It was a real privilege to know Frank and to record his memoirs. This is how he concluded his book Life on the Track:

“I have seen a lot of shifts and changes in the socialist and trade union movement, but nothing persuades me of a need to change my basic ideas. Globalisation has spread only misery and death across the world.

“That fact that capitalism appears to be heading into a slump strengthens my feeling that I was right to fight for a socialist future and that there is only one future for the world.

“I am proud to have played a full part in the struggle for socialism, without which there will be no future for the majority of the world’s people. I just wish I was a young ’un.”

Life on the Track: Memoirs of a Socialist Worker by Frank Henderson is available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to » www.bookmarksbookshop.co.uk


Article information

Obituary
Tue 5 Jan 2010, 18:00 GMT
Issue No. 2183
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