The Death of Jim Henderson, Australian CommunistI was greatly saddened a few weeks ago when I learned of the death here in Brisbane of Jim Henderson. He was in his nineties admittedly but Jim seemed to burn with a flame that I thought would take him well into the next century. He was a hard core remember of the Communist Party. A tireless organiser, Jim created a mass party structure in country Queensland among the rural workers. He also master-minded the only successful election campaign of a Communist, Fred Patterson, in a Western Democracy, I believe.
He led the pro-Moscow split in the sixties and formed the SPA. Lately he was part of the rebirth of the CPA when what was the CPA liquidated itself.
I attended Jim's ninetieth birthday celebration and he hit me for a paper sale and a contribution to the party. That was Jim's way to the very end. The cause was everything.
I once took part in a public debate with him around Afghanistan. I was in the ISO then and had the stupid Soviet Imperialism line. I know this might provoke Tony and Jeff but that line for me is just an excuse to avoid taking sides against the imperialist juggernaut of the Pentagon.
Jim was a school teacher when he was younger. A slight grey haired man with a heavily modified Scottish accent. He and I became reasonably close in his late eighties. He had a great interest in literature and film and encouraged me with my thesis on Left wing documentary films. He attended several talks I gave and though he would disagree with me in places he was always extremely courteous.
But I did not only begin this post to mourn his passing. He was trained in Vietnam and came back to Australia at the height of the massive Anti-War movement here. He carried the line directly from Ho Chi Minh, and that is what I would like to raise in a non-sectarian and non-confrontationist and truly open manner.
Jim's line was "End the War. Bring the troops home. The war is unwinnable."
Now I should say at the outset that I was not in Australia and did not take part in the rather bitter debates around the line. My good friend and Bookchinite anarchistic, Brian Laver, was here and did play a huge role in student politics. Jim and Brian clashed repeatedly I believe. Brian's line was "Food and military supplies to the Vietcong." For this he was threatened with a treason charge and only narrowly escaped being arrested and put away.
The Anti-War movement labeled Brian an "ultra" and denied him, when possible, a platform. I also believe he was physically threatened by Communist Party cadre.
So we had a battle of two lines, as it were. Now temperamentally I have always favoured the "ultra-left" camp. But what can one do when the Vietnamese themselves want the moderate line? Does one ignore them? And say we know best. There is of course here the old battle about the Popular Front that ex-Trots like myself cut our teeth on.
I have not asked Brian about this. But I know his answer. For him as an anarchist Ho Chi Minh's party would have lacked legitimacy. So he went ahead with his slogan of sending guns and supplies to people who did not want that. Of course this was in the name of a revolutionary group which did not exist. As far as I know there were not any anarchists in Vietnam.
So back to the present. Brian refuses to mourn Henderson. No compromise with Stalinism, is his line. I however have a different position. I am fully conscious of the excesses of the Stalinist regime. But I will not turn my back on people who have given a life time to the people's cause, however much I may disagree with the line at various times.
Once on a list far, far away Adam Rose, of the ISO, said that Lou Proyect and I were typical of those ex-Trots who cut the Stalinists too much slack because we overemphasized the abolition of private property. A fair comment in many ways. But as the Soviet Union spirals ever downwards into the cesspit of primitive capitalist accumulation, I think one can mount a considerable argument for placing a great deal of importance on the abolition of private property.
So that is it. A generation of Australian communists is passing away. The epithet "Stalinist" is used to disparage a life time of devotion to the working class. However the task of examining their contribution to the Left has only just begun. Those of us who hurl abuse on them would do well to remember that we have failed here in Australia to build anything like the Communist Party of Australia.
You meet all sorts of people on paper sale. There are the city loonies, thrown out of homes and onto the streets by Kennett's caring version of deinstitutionalisation. There are the fat businessman who become apoplectic as soon as they see the word "socialist" on the front page. Of course there are the young people, the city workers etc. quite a few of whom will stop to sign a petition at least. But the best people I've met on paper sale are the old Communists from the 30's.
For a start they walk straight up to you with purpose.. "How's it going mate, selling a few?"... they stand right next to you pockets in hand, surveying the people traffic..."What they need to do is wake up and get active", says my fellow conspirator, hands in pocket with a nod in the direction of the passers-by. "I used to sell a communist paper, you know. In the CPA, I was".
Then came a series of highly entertaining and hair-raising stories about the battles of the 30's. "Yeah, sometimes we used to nick the mainstream papers, throw away everything but the front pages, and insert our paper inside. We sold more that way". I raised my eyebrows and said nothing, but still lost in admiration.
I haven't seen anyone like that for a good 5 years. Its more than a pity - such invaluable links to the Australian struggles of the pasts will all be gone eventually. The militant minority movement, the free speech struggle, the unemployed workers union, all led by the CPA, all famous. The tragedy is that these fine communist militants were left, lost in the wake, as their party drifted inexorably to the right.
Being an anti-stalinist, does not diminish the achievements of the CPA militants, their commitment to the working class, and our desire to emulate them one iota. It is mischievous at best to suggest otherwise.
p.s: Our supposed "softness" on US imperialism did not stop us playing a leading role during the anti-Gulf war protests and the demonstrations against George Bush and the AIDEX arms fair in the early 90's
p.p.s: What is going on in Russia is an absolute tragedy - fascism is on the cards if the current workers movement doesn't continue to spread. But to think that the only option is to return to stalinist dictatorship....