Skip to main content

Inside the Left by Fenner Brockway

Morning Star, Monday 22 March 2010
Reviewed by John Green

Many today will not remember the legendary Labour MP Fenner Brockway, who died in 1988.

Hopefully, this reissue of the first volume of his autobiography by Spokesman Books will make him better known to a new generation.

Like Tony Benn, Brockway was one of those rare figures who started early on as a principled socialist and remained so to the end of his life.

His political career spanned the bulk 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, among other organisations, of the Independent Labour Party (ILP), the Movement for Colonial Freedom - now Liberation - War on Want and CND.

He became an MP for the ILP at a very young age and, after its demise, for the Labour Party. Vehemently anti-war, he spent several years in various prisons as a conscientious objector during the first world war.

His description of the treatment he and other "conshies" endured makes gruesome reading.

They were subjected to draconian and petty rules, bread and water punishments for the slightest infringement and were so brutalised a number of them didn't survive.

His reporting of the General Strike is a masterpiece of historical documentation.

Brockway writes with eloquence and commitment. This is history seen through the eyes of a courageous, deeply humanitarian, perceptive and intelligent man who fought all his life on behalf of working people and for peace and justice.

But Brockway was not just a journalist. He took an active part in organising and supporting the strikers.

He campaigned lifelong for unity of the left and was never blindly loyal to his party. The people he met and knew intimately reads like a political Who's Who of the great, the good - and not so good.

His portrait sketches of Ramsay MacDonald, Oswald Mosley, Gandhi, Nehru, Keir Hardy, Bernard Shaw, James Maxton, Lenin, Trotsky, Kautsky and many more are fascinating and illuminating.

But with an election looming, this book should be made compulsory reading for all prospective Labour MPs because Brockway's detailed portrayal of the political process, parliamentary manoeuvring and international shenanigans is still as insightful as ever.

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.

Doesn't that sound incredibly contemporary?

Brockway 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 the Establishment, 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 so succinctly put it.

His description of the second Labour government in 1929 as "being afraid to offer a real socialist programme and kow-towing to the bankers" and "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 in a few weeks time?

So despite being a history of the 20th century, Brockway's work has such a timeless feel to it that his views and outlook are as relevant today as they were then.

He would have liked to see communists and other socialists working together rather than scrapping with each other and he highlights many of the weaknesses and how they came about.

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.

If you want to experience a vivid journey through recent history and learn from it, this is the book to read.

Inside the Left: Thirty years of platform, press, prison and parliament

is available to BUY NOW from Spokesman Books.


Popular posts from this blog

'Not as dumb as he looks' - Muhammad Ali on Bertrand Russell

In his autobiography The Greatest: My Own Story, Muhammad Ali recounts how Bertrand Russell got in contact with him, and their ensuing correspondence:

For days I was talking to people from a whole new world. People who were not even interested in sports, especially prizefighting. One in particular I will never forget: a remarkable man, seventy years older than me but with a fresh outlook which seemed fairer than that of any white man I had ever met in America.
My brother Rahaman had handed me the phone, saying, ‘Operator says a Mr. Bertrand Russell is calling Mr. Muhammad Ali.’ I took it and heard the crisp accent of an Englishman: ‘Is this Muhammad Ali?’ When I said it was, he asked if I had been quoted correctly.
I acknowledged that I had been, but wondered out loud, ‘Why does everyone want to know what I think about Viet Nam? I’m no politician, no leader. I’m just an athlete.’
‘Well,’ he said, ‘this is a war more barbaric than others, and because a mystique is built up around a cham…

Jeremy Corbyn: Internationalist at Work

Another featured article from the latest issue of The Spokesman comes from the 2011 edition of J. A. Hobson's Imperialism. Jeremy Corbyn penned the book's foreword, which we reprint here under the title 'Internationalist at Work'.
As a separate point of interest, we also include this comparative image of the logo of publication The Week, circa 1960s, and Corbyn's recent campaign logo. Cut from the same cloth? 

Internationalist at Work
J. A. Hobson wrote his great tome at a different age. His thoughts were dominated by the zenith of the British Empire and the Boer War. The outcome of the war demonstrated Britain’s then ability in sustaining global reach, since Elizabethan times, but also its extreme vulnerability. At home the poor physique of working class soldiers led to Haldane’s investigation into working class health and living conditions. The difficulty in containing the rebellious Boers, and the huge opposition to the war, encouraged further doubts about the whol…

Keywords: Art, Culture and Society in 1980s Britain

Tate Liverpool: Exhibition 28 February – 11 May 2014
Adult £8.80 (without donation £8) Concession £6.60 (without donation £6)
Help Tate by including the voluntary donation to enable Gift Aid

Keywords: Art, Culture and Society in 1980s Britain, is a new take on how the changes in the meaning of words reflect the cultural shifts in our society. This dynamic exhibition takes its name and focus from the seminal 1976 Raymond Williams book on the vocabulary of culture and society.
An academic and critic influenced by the New Left, Williams defined ‘Keywords’ as terms that repeatedly crop up in our discussion of culture and society. His book contains more than 130 short essays on words such as ‘violence’, ‘country’, ‘criticism’, ‘media’, ‘popular’ and ‘exploitation’ providing an account of the word’s current use, its origin and the range of meanings attached to it. Williams expressed the wish some other ‘form of presentation could be devised’ for his book, and this exhibition is one such int…