Life on the Tracks

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Frank Henderson, Bookmarks, £7.99

Frank Henderson was an active Trotskyist all his working life and a militant car worker during the great revival of the British working class after the war. This account of his life, subtitled Memoirs of a Socialist Worker, shows that this was not an easy time despite the conditions of full employment that existed.

The two major influences in the working class were the Communist Party (CP) and the Labour Party. Frank shows how different these organisations were. The Labour Party had the allegiance of millions of workers. I am sure that Wolverhampton was the same as the East End of London where I lived. At election times Labour posters appeared in hundreds of windows in the working class districts.

The CP had built its influence in the engineering factories and other workplaces. Its shop stewards were well respected and could make a real difference. Frank shows the long decline of these organisations through the growing corruption of Labour councillors and the way the CP used up its treasure of support among the rank and file to win positions in the trade union bureaucracy. Frank's account of the fate of "Red Robbo", the sacked convenor at Longbridge, shows how the CP slowly died.

What is remarkable about Frank's life is his total dedication to the revolutionary traditions of Trotsky and the Bolshevik heritage during this difficult time. This tradition that we take for granted today was murderously persecuted by Stalinism before the war, and I can remember even in the 1960s getting a clip around the ear from Communist Party activists on demonstrations while selling the old Socialist Review. Keeping this tradition alive can only be done if you have a deep understanding of the politics and are passionate about the ideas.

An intellectual can write a good book or make a rousing speech but a working class militant like Frank has to battle for our ideas every day among his workmates. Being faced with dreadful events like the IRA bomb outrage or the rise of Enoch Powell's racism demands courage, but courage connected to a set of clear ideas and principles. I found great pleasure and pride reading Frank's account of his stand against the anti-Irish hysteria that followed the Birmingham pub bombing when at a mass meeting he made an anti-imperialist speech that undermined the reactionary demand to bring back hanging for terrorism.

Frank is that important link between the almost submerged Trotskyist tradition of the 1930s and 1940s and today. The two major political influences of the old Labour and Communist Parties have gone, and our tradition has managed to survive and grow. It is important to remember that Frank's past struggles have given us that chance for the future.