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Book of the Month: Fenner Brockway's 'Inside the Left'

Fri 12th Mar 2010

Fenner Brockway, who died in 1988, was one of those quite rare figures, like Tony Benn, a man who began his political career as a principled socialist and remained so to the end of his life. His political career spanned most of the 20th century and for most of that time he was at the centre of progressive politics nationally and internationally. He was a founder member of the Independent Labour Party, as well as of the Movement for Colonial Freedom (now Liberation), War on Want and CND amongst others, and was an MP, on and off, for many years before entering the House of Lords in 1965. He was vehemently anti-war and spent several years in various prisons as a conscientious objector during the First World War.

His description of his treatment as a conscientious objector, spending time at his majesty’s pleasure in various Dickensian prisons, makes spine-chilling reading. He and his fellow ‘Conshies’ were subjected to draconian and petty rules, bread and water punishments for the slightest infringement and brutalisation – a number didn’t survive.

Spokesman Books is to be warmly congratulated for reprinting this treasure of a book, his first volume of autobiography. It should be on the reading list of everyone who is of the left; it should also be made compulsory reading for all prospective Labour MPs.

With an election looming, Brockway’s detailed portrayal of the political process, parliamentary manoeuvring and international shenanigans is still as insightful as ever.

He was a journalist as well as a socialist, so writes with eloquence and commitment. This is vibrant history seen through the eyes of a courageous, deeply humanitarian, perceptive and intelligent man who fought all his life on behalf of working people, for peace and justice. His book is littered with the names of the great, the good and not so good whom he not only met, but many he knew intimately. His portrait sketches of Ramsay MacDonald, Oswald Mosley, Ghandi, Nehru, Keir Hardy, Bernard Shaw, James Maxton, Lenin, Trotsky, Kautsky and many more are fascinating and illuminating.

His chapter on the role of parliament is a masterpiece of political writing. He reports how most elected Labour MPs soon succumbed to the seductive luxury of parliamentary life and signed up all too readily to the comfortable club that parliament was and still is, with its all-night bars cheap food, and expenses culture. It took a person with strong discipline and clear principle to resist the allure of an easy life, and very few managed to do so. He excoriates the numerous vain, power-hungry opportunists who have always bedevilled the movement by selling out when crunch time came. He himself refused dinner invitations from establishment people like Lady Astor, not out of vindictiveness or inverted snobbery but, ‘due to a realisation of the way in which social life associated with parliament blunts the sense of identity with the working class in their struggle’, as he succinctly put it.

His description of the second labour government in 1929 ‘being afraid to offer a real socialist programme,’ and kow-towing to the bankers, ‘preferring to manage capitalism instead of financing popular social legislation,’ sounds all too familiar. As a result, Labour suffered a humiliating electoral defeat shortly afterwards. Could we see history repeating itself this year?

What makes this book such a wonderful read is its insightful sweep of history, based on Brockway’s first-hand experience and involvement. Despite being a history of the 20th century, it has such a contemporary feel to it and his views and outlook are as relevant today as they were then.

Brockway worked tirelessly for a unified socialist movement both at home and abroad. He was saddened by the splits and mutual vituperation that characterised the left and would have liked to see Communists and other socialists working together rather than scrapping with each other. He highlights many of the weaknesses and how they came about, as well as being scrupulously honest about his own. The most tragic result of such divisions was seen in Germany where Hitler was able to gain power while socialists and communists fought each other on the streets.

I was privileged to meet and interview Brockway not long before he died and although he no longer exuded the energies of his youth, his fervent plea for justice and his abhorrence of war were as fiery as ever.

'Inside the Left' by Fenner Brockway is Published by Spokesman Books.
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