A partisan, but always willing to criticise

Still with us in our hearts

Fred Carpenter December 28 1952 - May 18 2023

In the days before Covid, when the CPGB held its weekly Communist Forums face to face, Fred Carpenter would often show up (sometimes a few minutes late) with his backpack. He would listen quietly, sometimes making a comment, often not.

It was when we went for a drink afterwards that Fred came alive. He loved being among political friends, even if not in the same organisation. Fred had friends in different political groups, and was always calm and polite. But on questions that he considered critical for a good communist, he was implacable. He expressed his ideas with passion, and was always easy to follow. But he was not tolerant of renegades or people he considered to have ‘sold out’.

I remember once sitting next to him, both of us drinking tea, when he told me angrily what so-and-so said about a certain issue. He got more and more angry and finally said: “I’m never going to have another conversation with him. I’ve had it. Never again!” But, of course, by the following week he would indeed have another conversation with the same person and all would be well. He was never angry for very long.

Fred was not raised in a leftwing family and his relationship with his father - a working class Tory - was not a good one. They were on different sides, when it came to the Vietnam war, for instance. Because he was of working class stock, his schools did what was usual, even if pedagogically stupid, in those days - treating the boys as if they were unintelligent and only fit for factory fodder.

Fred was noticed by his peers though. When he felt strongly about something, his was a voice to reckon with. He was a strong and impromptu speaker and was elected president of his student union at the FE college he went to.

Jack Conrad recalls how he first met Fred in a sociology A-level class back in the early 1970s, where the lecturer, a former member of the International Socialists, was talking about class. Jack remembers him saying: “There are only two classes - the working class and the middle class.” Two hands immediately shot up - Jack’s and Fred’s - and both made a similar comment: “What about the ruling class?” The answer was “Oh, you can forget them - there are so few of them.” The same two hands went back up …

Fred wanted to join a group on the left back in the days when it was a little more influential than it is today. He spoke to someone from the ‘official’ Communist Party, but was not impressed by what he was told, and he ended up joining the International Marxist Group (those of a certain age will remember the IMG). The fact that the IMG was the British section of Ernest Mandel’s Fourth International was very important for Fred. He was above all an internationalist.

One difficulty for Fred was that he felt many groups, not least the IMG, were ‘middle class’. He was genuinely working class without being a workerist. Fred did not go to university, choosing instead to immerse himself in a job in the local Apsley paper mill, where he was elected shop steward and represented his union on Hemel Hempstead trades council.

One of his finest hours came during a visit to the town by a certain Roland Moyle, Labour’s health minister in the late 1970s. Despite some initial opposition from Reg Dearing - trades council secretary and a member of the ‘official’ CPGB opposition - Fred managed to convince other delegates that a good idea would be to call a one-day strike against Moyle’s proposal to close the existing, dilapidated, local hospital … and build another one in another town. The strike was a brilliant success. Thousands came out and thousands attended an open air protest meeting.

At that time, in towns such as Hemel Hempstead, the different left groups would often inhabit the same pubs, albeit sitting at different tables. There was much debate. Fred was able to recruit not a few from other organisations. Bringing over a small group from the SWP was a real feather in his cap.

The differences were interesting, Fred recalled. During the Vietnam war, for instance, the ‘official’ CPGB carried posters saying ‘Peace in Vietnam’, while the IMG’s read ‘Victory to the Vietcong’. While the troubles were at their height in Ireland, similarly, the IMG was saying ‘Victory to the IRA’, while the ‘official’ CPGB called for ‘Peace in Ireland’.

Of course, the CPGB was much bigger than groups such as IMG, SWP and Workers Revolutionary Party. It had plenty of shop stewards and convenors, even factory branches. But revolution was fashionable in the late 1960s and well into the 1970s. A trend-setting minority wanted to appear to be very r-r-revolutionary. But besides the poseurs there was a layer of real revolutionaries. Amongst them Fred Carpenter.

The times themselves were formative: abroad there was Cuba, Civil Rights in America, Vietnam, Palestine and Ireland. At home striking against Labour’s Industrial Relations Bill, derailing the Tories’ Industrial Relations Act, the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders work-in and two miners’ strikes - the last of which brought down Ted Heath’s government. Britian was said to be ‘ungovernable’.

Fred was always his own man and was no-one’s yapdog. In the IMG he was an oppositionist. After the IMG fell apart, in 1982 Fred eventually found his way to Socialist Resistance (today’s Anticapitalist Resistance).

Apart from politics, Fred’s passion was music. Not so much classical (although he knew the major classical composers), but music he considered to come from working people - blues, jazz, folk, punk, rock, etc. He knew more about groups and individuals in those genres that anyone I have ever met or heard speak as an ‘expert’. He could give chapter and verse on who was influenced by whom (the Beatles by early blues, South African jazz being a melding of early jazz and African rhythms, etc). He could tell you who entered and left which group or band during the 1970s-90s. He listened to music constantly and would hand me CDs with his favourites on them. Even professional musicians were impressed by his knowledge.

Someone once said to him, with a certain disdain, that, since most jazz did not come with words, it could not be political. After an incredulous 10 seconds, Fred tried to explain the historical role of jazz. It is not easy to explain such questions to someone who does not understand much about music, but Fred certainly showed his expertise. I am not sure that the person involved was convinced, but I was certainly impressed.

A little while back it was suggested that Fred present a session at the CPGB’s Communist University, he was very much up for that. The only difficulty we foresaw was that he knew so much and was so enthusiastic that we would have difficulty getting him to stick to an hour for his talk.

He did not like living in London and wanted to live in the country or somewhere near the sea. I would take him for rides in my car, especially in his last few years, so he could at least see outside the city. But Fred’s health began to fail in the last couple of years of his life.

His closest friend, Gerry Downing of Socialist Fight, visited him regularly, brought him food and was a constant help, especially when he was in hospital. But Fred died very suddenly. I had spoken to him a couple of days earlier and, while he sounded a little tired, he was still happy to talk - as usual, mostly about music. Gerry was the person who found Fred in his flat after he died.

Fred Carpenter was a close friend of mine and someone I was in awe of and admired so much not only for his dedication to Marxist politics, but for his passion for and knowledge of music. Jack recently described him as a working class intellectual - someone with a passion for ideas who could motivate people. We will soon have an event celebrating his life and achievements, to which all of his friends of whatever political persuasion will be invited.

Where I come from, people sometimes use a Spanish phrase which declares that a stalwart fighter may have gone, but will not be forgotten. The phrase is “Presente!” - still here! That is how I and many of his friends will always see Fred: someone who will always be present in our hearts - and with us in our political struggle.

Fred Carpenter, presente!