On 17 July 1930, Archibald Fenner Brockway, a leading member of the Independent Labour Party (ILP), stood on the floor of the House of Commons and attempted to raise the question of the massive scale of repression unleashed in India by the Labour government. After prime minister Ramsay MacDonald had twice refused to allow time for a discussion, Brockway rose for a third time and asked, “Is the right honourable gentleman aware that 60,000 Indians are in prison for demanding the freedom that he himself has claimed for them?” He protested to the Commons speaker against the adjournment of the chamber “while this injustice is being done in India” and refused to sit down. MacDonald proposed his suspension from the Commons. However, while the suspension vote was being taken, John Beckett, Labour MP for Peckham, joined Brockway’s protest by walking off with the ceremonial mace. Both men were escorted from the building by the police.1
In his first volume of his autobiography, Inside the Left, published in 1942, Brockway reflected on the character of the Parliamentary Labour Party that voted overwhelmingly to suspend him and Beckett. As far as he was concerned, the shock and outrage expressed by many Labour MPs over Beckett’s particular act of defiance merely showed “how deeply they had fallen into idolatry to the institutions of the capitalist state. They regarded Beckett’s action as sacrilege.” This response was all down to the way “in which parliament tended to blunt a keen sense of the class struggle”. He had seen “Labour MPs falling for the glamour of the social life of the other side, steadily leaving their own class behind them”. These politicians were “becoming conditioned by the amenities and atmosphere of the class that exploited the very men and women whom they had been sent to the House of Commons to represent”. Even so, he still found it hard to get his head around how it was that Labour MPs, “many of whom had, at one time or another, been leading figures in their localities in the struggle of the working class”, were “so docile and servile” in the Commons. Alcohol was a factor—he saw Labour MPs and ministers visibly drunk in parliament, something that would have got them the sack in any factory or office. Brockway later spent three years in prison for opposing the First World War and, by the time he wrote his memoir, he had also spent three years in the Commons. He concluded that he “saw character deteriorate in parliament more than in prison”.2 The situation is, of course, even worse today.
To the Trotskyist movement of the 1930s, the ILP looked like (and indeed was) a classic “centrist” organisation—a categorisation we will explore in more detail later. It is, however, important to note that what stands out today is the radicalism and militancy of the ILP. Indeed, Brockway’s determination to raise the question of repression in India derived from his internationalism and anti-imperialism. He demonstrated particularly enthusiastic support for the struggle for Indian independence. He wrote a book, The Indian Crisis, published later that same year, which exposed the reality of British rule, including the scale of the crackdown authorised by the Labour government. In this work, he describes how the arrest of Mohandas Gandhi provoked “hartels (a general stoppage of work) in every large city of India”. He wrote of the “amazing proportions” of the civil disobedience movement in Mumbai where, according to the British press, “one million persons went to the beach to defy the salt laws en masse”. Hundreds of people were arrested over the succeeding days, provoking more demonstrations: “A quarter of a million people marched repeatedly through the streets.” There were strikes where “the millhands stopped work to a man, almost all the Indian shops were shut down, the students left their colleges and the children left their schools”. These protests were replicated in Calcutta, Delhi, Chennai, Lahore, Allahabad and other Indian cities. The Labour Party government in London was facing “a national uprising” against imperial rule in India.
Most serious was the struggle in the city of Peshawar (now in Pakistan’s northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province) in April 1930. Troops fired on protesters here in what has become known as the Qissa Khwani massacre. Officially, the British soldiers killed 30 people, but Indian sources said 125 were killed and hundreds more were wounded.3 Protesters were machine-gunned by armoured cars careering through the streets as well as by rifle fire. Brockway provides a graphic account of the massacre:
When those in front fell down wounded by the shots, those behind came forward with their breasts bared and exposed themselves to fire, so much so that some people got as many as 21 bullet wounds in their bodies… A young Sikh came and stood in front of a soldier and asked him to fire at him, which the soldier unhesitatingly did, killing him. Similarly, an old woman, seeing her relatives and friends being wounded by the troops, came forward, was shot and fell down wounded.
Bands of rebels outside the city were bombed from the air, with around “6,000 bombs being dropped in one day”. A platoon of Indian soldiers refused to fire on the protesters, and 17 of them later received sentences, with one man condemned to transportation for life and the others given between three- and 15-years imprisonment. As Brockway points out, “These severe sentences were no doubt imposed in order to deter other Indian soldiers.” He makes absolutely clear his admiration for these men and the stand they took, looking forward to the eventual triumph of “the Indian proletarian movement” and the formation of a “revolutionary government” in the country.4 At the time, the ILP was still affiliated to the Labour Party, and nothing could have been further from Labour Party policy. The Labour leadership would have been horrified by the very idea of such a revolutionary government; indeed, there were men standing trial in India, the so-called Meerut prisoners, for advocating what Brockway proposed.5 In his 1942 memoir, he had written about how stunned he had been by the scale of the repression presided over by the Labour government: “Within six months, 60,000 Indians were imprisoned.” He was “shocked that a Labour government should besmirch the record of the British working class in this way”, and he “took all parliamentary opportunities to protest”.6
Class war in the House of Commons
Brockway’s loud protests against this colonial repression and his defiance of parliamentary etiquette, which led to his suspension from the Commons, were part of the attempt by a handful of ILP MPs to carry the class struggle into the legislative chamber. They refused to be bound by parliamentary rules and conventions, which were intended to make members of the ruling class feel at home while the people who elected them went hungry, living in appalling slums and in poor health, ground down by the injustices of class oppression and exploitation. On 27 June 1923, in a Commons debate on public health and the increasing rates of tuberculosis among children in Scotland, Glaswegian ILP parliamentarian James Maxton made clear that the cuts that were being made, including those to the children’s milk grant, “condemned hundreds of children to death”:
I call it murder. I call the men who initiated this policy murderers…a cold, callous crime perpetrated in order to save money. We are prepared to destroy children in the great interest of dividends.
Maxton refused to withdraw the word “murderer”, and three other ILP MPs, all representing Clydeside constituencies, repeated it, leading to their suspension from the chamber. MacDonald, who was then leader of the opposition, and the Labour front bench abstained on the vote. Despite all this, not only did Maxton refuse to apologise to the Commons, but he reiterated that in his opinion, “Every MP who took part in that shameful decision to cut the milk grant to the local authorities, and therefore caused the death of children, was, in fact and in deed, a murderer. These statements are true.” In response to claims that his conduct undermined public respect for parliament, Maxton insisted that “throughout the country today there is very little respect for the Commons” because so many MPs were nothing more than “canting hypocrites and humbugs”. He warned that as long as “such men are more perturbed over a breach of etiquette than they are over the destruction of a child’s life, there will be scenes and suspensions”.
MacDonald, according to future ILP general secretary John McNair, was outraged “by such an affront to the sacred, gentlemanly procedure of parliament”.7 He was determined to show the British ruling class that Labour could be trusted to protect elite interests and run the country in a safe and conservative fashion, but Maxton and his ilk were always causing trouble. Even worse, Maxton and his ILP comrades launched a campaign outside parliament, demanding their reinstatement, speaking at meetings across the country and leading demonstrations. The stance they had taken was popular with many workers, and large numbers of rank and file Labour Party members rallied to their cause, much to the dismay of Labour’s leaders. If necessary, their campaign would culminate in forcing their way back into the Commons. On Monday 30 July, they were prevented from entering by the police, but they returned the next day, accompanied by “many supporters…eager to lend a hand”. At this point, the suspensions were lifted; MacDonald and Conservative prime minister Stanley Baldwin had retreated in the face of the growing protest movement.8
Another instance of class struggle on the floor of the Commons revolved around John McGovern, the ILP MP for Glasgow Shettleston. On 7 July 1931, he protested in the chamber about a ban on public speaking on Glasgow Green and the jailing of three speakers. His suspension from the House was proposed by Philip Snowden, Labour’s first chancellor of the exchequer, but McGovern refused to leave. When a number of attendants attempted to physically remove him, other ILP MPs came to his assistance. Maxton jumped on the back of one of the attendants. The House was suspended while a ten-minute struggle took place, with McGovern at “the centre of a tug of war”. While under suspension, McGovern announced his intention to speak on Glasgow Green. A huge crowd of supporters assembled for the event, and the heavily outnumbered police decided to allow it to go ahead, but McGovern and other speakers were all subsequently served with summonses and prosecuted. Soon after, due to his heavy involvement in unemployed workers’ struggles in Glasgow, McGovern was arrested again when the police attacked a demonstration on Glasgow Green. He later described how “the mounted and foot police advanced and began batoning right and left. Three policemen seized me, and the officer at my back kicked me on the spine.” The working class resisted, and the fighting continued into the next day. McGovern was held in custody for weeks until just before the October 1931 general election. He stood as an ILP candidate, but Labour ran an official candidate against him (even though the ILP was still affiliated to the party). McGovern later fondly remembered how “the people of Shettleston chased the Labour candidate down public streets where he was rescued by the police and put on a bus. I gained a fine victory and the Labour candidate lost his deposit”.9
Clearly, McGovern, Maxton, Brockway and the handful of other militant ILP parliamentarians were nothing like the calibre of Labour MPs we are used to today. Inevitably, we are left asking what these left-wing ILP members were doing in the Labour Party. The experience of the 1929-31 Labour government, which attempted to stabilise British capitalism at the expense of the working class, led them to ask that very same question themselves, and the ILP voted to disaffiliate in July 1932.
The politics of the ILP might seem peculiar to us. It was reformist but very much rooted in the class struggle in a way that is almost inconceivable today. So, what was the particular character of these politics, and how did the ILP’s ideas and practice develop in the course of the 1930s? In this article, we shall explore these questions by looking at the life and struggles of Archibald Fenner Brockway.
The class struggle and reformism
Brockway, the son of missionaries, had been born in India in November 1888. In summer 1907, aged 18, he joined the St Pancras branch of the Marxist Social Democratic Federation (SDF) in London. He promptly found himself supporting workers on strike; shop assistants at a large draper’s in nearby Kentish Town had walked out. Brockway “volunteered for picket duty…handing leaflets to customers and trying to dissuade them from buying”. It was here he had his first experience of police interference, when they moved the pickets on—a “first lesson on the way in which the forces of the state are used to protect the interests of the possessing class”. He soon broke with the SDF, and he briefly withdrew from political activity, but he was pulled back to the socialist cause by the terrible poverty he saw around him in London. One experience in particular always remained with him. A 12 year old girl fainted in the street; “her clothes were ill-kempt, her face like marble”. The girl was taken to hospital, and Brockway was later told that her illness was in fact “starvation”. Her stomach was “absolutely empty”: “She had no food for three days except for some tomatoes that she had picked up under a barrow in Chapel Street.”
In November 1907, Brockway joined the ILP. He had been won over after hearing a speech by Keir Hardie, who had been the ILP’s first chairman from 1894 until 1900. Brockway was to remain a member until just after the Second World War. In his own words, “Socialism had become the passion of my life”.10 The ILP that he joined was a left-reformist organisation and had affiliated to the Labour Party in 1906, but it had many members who were absolutely committed to the class struggle and saw the election of socialist MPs as a way of carrying that struggle into the House of Commons. Of course, this was not the way in which the Labour Party was to develop. Far from waging the class war, Labour became wholly committed to class peace. The working class was to be reconciled to its subordinate position within capitalism in return for some amelioration of the conditions of its exploitation.
The class struggle was central for Brockway. As late as 1949, in Bermondsey Story, his biography of Alfred Salter, the veteran ILP activist and MP for Bermondsey, he still portrayed the ILP’s politics as being very much rooted in the class struggle. Reflecting on Salter’s attempts to build a political base in Bermondsey, a major industrial district in southeast London, he records his despair about the possibility of socialist politics ever making headway there. Then, “in…August 1911, the miracle happened. The whole population of Bermondsey struck for better conditions.” Thousands of women, men and girls walked out of Bermondsey’s factories, even though they “had tabled no demands…could not even voice their grievances and few of them belonged to a trade union”. Yet, though these workers “knew nothing of how to run a strike”, they did know that “the conditions of their existence were intolerable, and they would no longer put up with them without protest”. Strikers “at one factory after another sent deputations to ILP headquarters to ask for leadership and help”. Most of the strikers were women, and the National Federation of Women Workers became heavily involved in the uprising. Ultimately, the workers won:
At nearly every workplace important concessions were won. Wages were increased by amounts varying between 3s to 9s a week, in many factories piece work was abolished, and everywhere the strikers were enrolled in the trade unions.11
There was still considerable work to be done building the ILP in the area, but it had made its mark and won over key militants.
World war and class war behind bars
In the years up to the outbreak of the First World War, Brockway worked as a journalist on the ILP newspaper, The Labour Leader, and he was its “responsible editor” by 1912. As a determined opponent of militarism and imperialism, he threw himself into resisting the war when it came. Reflecting on the ILP’s relations with the Labour Party just after its disaffiliation in 1932, Brockway made the point that “the ILP and the Labour Party pursued opposite policies” during the war:
Labour supported the war and entered the national coalition government. The ILP resisted the war, and 6,000 of its members were imprisoned by a government in which the Labour Party had representatives.12
Brockway was one of those 6,000 jailed ILP members. In November 1914, he founded the No Conscription Fellowship, an organisation rallying people who intended to refuse to fight. According to a recent account, this “developed into one of the most efficient and effective organisations the British peace movement has ever had”. The Fellowship published and distributed over “a million copies of its pamphlets and leaflets”, and it launched its own newspaper, The Tribunal, in March 1916. The paper “reached a circulation of 100,000 at its peak”.13
Campaigning against the war often involved considerable personal risk. On one occasion, Brockway was badly beaten by five men who were only deterred from throwing him into a canal due to the intervention of a passer-by. In his biography of Salter, Brockway also tells how news got out of a planned pro-war vigilante attack on the Bermondsey ILP Institute. Arthur Gillian, an engineering worker, undertook the defence of the building. Gillian “was a militant rather than a pacifist opponent of the war” and took with him “the iron leg of a child’s cot”. The vigilantes smashed every window and broke into the building with the intention of burning it down, but Gillian was waiting for them. As they entered, “He laid them out one after another… It was 3am before the attackers retreated, carrying with them several bleeding and unconscious figures.” Salter, “a tower of strength to the No Conscription Fellowship”, was furious, making clear he would rather have had the ILP Institute burned down than defended by force. He told Gillian that if the police prosecuted him, “You will get only what you deserve”.14 Gillian had to leave the area. The contradictions in ILP politics are clearly shown by such episodes.
At the end of July 1916, Brockway spent ten days in Pentonville Prison for refusing to pay a fine imposed for distributing anti-conscription leaflets. Soon after, he was himself conscripted, but he refused to serve and was subjected to court martial. He spent the next 28 months in prison; the last eight were in solitary confinement. He was released in April 1919, five months after the end of the war.
Incarceration failed to put an end to the campaigning of Brockway and other ILP prisoners. Instead, they continued to fight against the war as well as against their prison conditions (in his own particular case, Brockway fought for a vegetarian prison diet, which was a battle he won). Inevitably, Gillian was one of those jailed for refusing to fight, and he spent 22 months in Wormwood Scrubs Prison, where he put his trade union experience to good use by becoming the unofficial secretary of the local branch of the National Union of Police and Prison Officers.15 James Maxton spent a year in Calton Prison in Edinburgh for helping to organise strikes in the Clydeside shipyards, and his cell “became a centre of socialist propaganda”: “He was able to persuade the warders to form a branch of the Police and Prison Warders Trade Union and induced a number of them to become members of the ILP”.16
Brockway’s organising on the inside was similarly impressive. Held in Walton Prison in Liverpool, he produced a twice weekly newspaper, The Walton Leader, on “about 40 toilet paper pages”. It was placed in the toilets every Tuesday and Thursday. Prisoners who had paid the subscription fee (four sheets of toilet paper) queued to read the newspaper, leading the prison authorities to investigate the meals provided on Mondays and Wednesdays in case they were causing digestive problems. The Walton Leader covered Russia’s February Revolution in 1917, pointing out that it “was not a genuine socialist revolution”. In its pages, Brockway later went on to celebrate “the Bolshevik…triumph in October”. He later remembered how excited everyone was by the call from the Leeds Convention in June 1917 “to establish workers’ and soldiers’ councils in this country”. The conference was heavily shaped by the ILP. Yet, as Brockway explained, “Our hopes were exaggerated; we saw the revolution coming to Britain and our prison doors being opened by comrade workers and soldiers”. Instead, his role in producing the prison newspaper eventually earnt him six days of bread and water in a punishment cell.
Brockway went on to lead a revolt against conditions in the prison, with an elected committee of prisoners drawing up new rules and regulations that they adhered to for ten days before the prison authorities broke the protest. He was then transferred to Lincoln Prison, where he spent the next eight months in solitary confinement. Locked up for 23 hours a day, he endured a punishment diet for the first month, which nearly killed him. He was tremendously excited by news of the outbreak of the revolution in Germany in November 1918, especially “the socialist revolution in Bavaria”.17 At the end of his sentence, in a classic display of bureaucratic irony, he received documents notifying him of dishonourable discharge from the army and a warning that any attempt to re-enlist would lead to two years in prison.
The 1920s: fighting at home and abroad
Once Brockway was released from prison and recovered from the physical toll it had taken, he once again threw himself into socialist politics. He was appointed as the ILP’s representative on the executive of the reformist Second International. When he attended his first congress of the Second International in 1925, he was “shocked” by the hostility shown towards the Soviet regime, which he ascribed partially to the influence of “refugee Mensheviks”. The ILP called for the unification of the Second International and the Communist International (“Comintern”), which the Bolsheviks had founded in 1919 in order to spread world revolution. However, the Comintern rejected any such merger.
Brockway was also one of the British delegates at the conference in Brussels that founded the League Against Imperialism (LAI) in February 1927. This congress was attended by 174 delegates, with a majority from countries under colonial rule. In his speech to the conference, Brockway made clear the ILP’s support for the liberation of India, and he ended with a declaration of solidarity with the workers and peasants of China, who were fighting British intervention at that time. Chinese delegates joined him on the stage and, when he joined hands with “a Chinese comrade…the whole audience—black, brown, yellow and white—rose and roared its applause.” Brockway was appointed the LAI’s first international chairman. However, this caused some problems for the ILP because the initiative for setting up the LAI had come from the Comintern and Willi Münzenberg, a key publisher and propagandist in the Communist Party of Germany (Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands). Brockway came under attack from all sides on the executive of the Second International, and it was decided he should stand down as LAI chair, with Maxton replacing him. At the LAI’s congress in Frankfurt am Main in July 1929, Maxton “strongly spoke against the imperialist policy of the Labour government” that had only just been installed in power.18 By now, however, the Comintern had adopted the ultra-sectarian politics of the Third Period, and Maxton and his ILP comrades were condemned as just so many “lackeys of social fascism”. Maxton was expelled from the LAI. Brockway was also secretary of the No More War Movement, “an anti-capitalist, anti-militarist peace group” that was established in 1921 as a successor to the No Conscription Fellowship.19 This organisation was affiliated with War Resisters’ International and carried on a continual agitation against war.
Although Brockway’s internationalism was always central to his politics, he was also active on the home front of the class war. In August 1920, he was one of the ILP delegates at the national conference of the Councils of Action that threatened a general strike if Liberal Party prime minister David Lloyd George government intervened against Soviet Russia in the Russian Civil War—a threat that played a crucial role in preventing such intervention.
Brockway also played a role in the 1926 General Strike, which was sparked by the desire of Baldwin’s Tory government to crush the trade unions, beginning with the miners. On 4 May, when the General Strike broke out in support of the miners, Brockway was charged with producing the northern edition of The British Worker, the newspaper of the Trades Union Congress (TUC), in Manchester. He claimed that the paper was “produced under workers’ control”, adding “I have never worked more happily.” This experience convinced him that public ownership without industrial democracy was not equal to socialism.
The General Strike was absolutely solid and getting stronger by the day, but then the TUC leadership called it off on 12 May. When word of the sell-out got out, “None of us in Manchester could believe the news. The workers in Lancashire were absolutely solid.” The strike committee initially refused to believe it, dismissing the news as “fake”, and then the conviction grew that the government must have surrendered. When the reality and scale of the betrayal became clear, everyone was appalled. Brockway recalled that, instead of the mood of the working class collapsing, “the temper of the workers” in Manchester was “more militant than ever… There was no thought of going back to work.” Workers “were bitter against the employers, who were everywhere victimising the local strike stalwarts”, as well as being “bitter against the TUC’s general council”. For a while, the anger at the betrayal was so great that it “looked as though the end of the strike might be the beginning of the revolution”. Yet, the revolution never came to pass. The left lacked sufficient strength to challenge the union leaders and provide an alternative leadership that could have continued the fight.
Brockway offered his explanation of the betrayal:
The strike was led by people who did not believe in it. They, rather than the workers, cracked. Of course, a general strike must be revolutionary; it is of necessity a conflict between the workers and the capitalist state.
The TUC leaders called off the strike as soon as they realised this fact. The miners were locked out for another nine months, and the ILP threw itself into the solidarity campaign by “collecting money, food and clothing for the relief” and “by the production of the miners’ weekly lockout paper, The Miner”. When the miners finally went down to defeat, the result was “a serious demoralisation in the working-class movement”.20
The Cook-Maxton Manifesto
In the aftermath of the defeat of the miners, and in response to the TUC’s embracing class collaboration, Maxton and the leader of the miners’ union, Arthur James Cook, produced a joint manifesto addressed “To the Workers of Britain”. It was published in June 1928.21 The document still speaks to the concerns of those left wingers remaining in the Labour Party today (despite the best efforts of the Kier Starmer leadership to drive them out). Maxton and Cook wrote:
For some time, a number of us have been seriously disturbed as to where the British labour movement is being led. We believe that its basic principles are: (1) An unceasing war against poverty and working-class servitude. This means an unceasing war against capitalism. (2) That only by their own efforts can the workers obtain the fullest product of their labour.
These were the principles, they insisted, upon which the Labour Party had been founded. However, under the leadership of MacDonald, they had seen “a serious departure from the principles and policy that animated the founders”:
We are now being asked to believe that the party is no longer a working-class party, but a party representing all sections of the community. As socialists we feel we cannot represent the views of capitalism. Capitalism and socialism have nothing in common. As a result of the new conception that socialism and capitalism should sink their differences, much of the energy that should be expended in fighting capitalism is now expended in crushing everybody who dares to remain true to the ideals of the movement.
The document ends with a call to arms still wholly relevant today:
Conditions have not changed. Wealth and luxury still flaunt themselves in the face of the poverty-stricken workers who produce them. We ask you to join the fight against the system that makes these conditions possible.22
The manifesto drew a very mixed reception even from many on the left. This included Brockway, who thought Maxton was testing the water for the establishment of a new breakaway socialist party. Others believed Maxton was working towards unity with the Communist Party, although their embrace of the Third Period dogma propagated by Stalin ended any prospect of such a convergence.
In any case, it soon became apparent that most Labour supporters, including ILP members, still believed the Labour government would introduce measures to protect and benefit the working class and were prepared to give MacDonald a chance. Labour’s performance in office would be worse than even Maxton thought possible. In the May 1929 election, when MacDonald was installed as prime minister for the second time, Brockway was elected MP for East Leyton in northeast London.
The Labour government of 1929
With the onset of the Great Depression in 1929, the Labour government faced two alternatives: making workers pay for the crisis or making the bankers pay. Brockway argued that the new government “should introduce its socialist programme and stand or fall by it”. It had to “concentrate at first on the more urgent needs of the workers”. The government was reliant on Liberal Party support to get legislation through, and Brockway expected that “the Liberals would no longer acquiesce…when the cost of social legislation would have to be met by the heavy taxation of the rich”:
The bankers would also begin the game of sabotage. Good: then would come the moment for challenging capitalism itself by a measure to nationalise banking and finance. A better opportunity for raising the slogan “The people versus the bankers!” could not be desired than the issue of financing popular social legislation.23
His naivety can be excused to some extent by the fact that this was only the second Labour Party government—although only to some extent. MacDonald was wholeheartedly committed to convincing the ruling class that a Labour government could be trusted to look after their interests. If this meant the working class had to make sacrifices, so be it! The great majority of Labour MPs were in full support of this approach, even though MacDonald would ultimately go too far even for them. Any criticism from the ILP left was greeted with considerable hostility. Maxton certainly had low expectations of MacDonald from the very beginning and was scathing in his indictment; the government was saying to the ruling class that they “will be allowed to carry on capitalism with our active assistance and support”. He pointed out there was a “tremendous gulf between the poor and the rich, a gulf that is widening”.24 At the very least, he insisted, a Labour government should act immediately to prevent working-class families from starving and thus also remove the fear of starvation. Suppressing the scourge of starvation was the bare minimum and should be treated as an emergency, he argued, but nothing was done. A couple of months into MacDonald’s period in office, Maxton asked, “Has any human being benefited by the fact that there has been a Labour government in office during the past two months?”25 The situation was to get considerably worse. All this has, of course, a terrible contemporary resonance due to Starmer’s absolute commitment to MacDonaldism (or, as it is known today, New Labour).
As we have already seen, Brockway protested strongly against the Labour government’s use of repression in India, but he and other left-wing ILP MPs, led by Maxton, also fought for an improvement in provision for the unemployed at home. This became all the more urgent as the number of unemployed workers rose from just under 2 million in June 1930 to 2,500,000 by December. In June 1931, the numbers reached 2,700,000, more than one in five of the workforce. Absolutely predictably, the MacDonald’s government choose to make the working class, particularly unemployed workers, pay for the crisis. The ILP soon effectively found itself in opposition to the Labour Party government.
Writing in his 1942 memoir, Brockway argues that the ILP should have broken with Labour at that point and that “a break with the Labour Party was inevitable”. He contends that the ILP should have taken this step when Labour was in power, thus making clear its opposition to the government’s attack on the working class. At the insistence of the bankers and financiers, MacDonald and his chancellor, Philip Snowden, tabled huge cuts, which were accepted by a majority of the cabinet. However, this result was not good enough for MacDonald, who wanted unanimity. Thus, in November 1931, MacDonald, Snowden, colonial secretary James Henry Thomas and a few others joined the Tories in a National Government. This new government slashed unemployed benefit by 10 percent and drastically cut the pay of workers in the public sector. Nonetheless, it was not the great majority of Labour MPs, who had supported MacDonald right up until his defection, that was blamed for all this. Instead, the Labour left, and in particular the ILP (who had warned against this course of events), were held responsible. The ILP was in the process of being driven out of the Labour Party when it voted to disaffiliate at a special conference in July 1932.
“Revolution must replace reform”
According to Tony Cliff and Donny Gluckstein’s history of the Labour Party, the ILP “tore itself apart” in the wake of the disaffiliation and thereafter fell into “serious decline”. The big problem was that the break from Labour was done not “in order to build a new movement on the basis of separate politics, but chiefly to preserve the independence of its left-reformist parliamentarians”. Amid the malaise, “Membership plummeted from 16,773 in 1931 to 11,092 in 1932, and just 4,392 in 1935”.26 However, this description does not do justice to the political integrity and impact of those who broke away from Labour. The politics of these socialists went on to be heavily influenced by the struggles of the 1930s both at home and abroad, particularly the rise of fascism across Europe and the outbreak of the Spanish Revolution.
On the home front, Brockway, who had lost his Commons seat in the 1931 general election, was producing numerous articles and pamphlets. He also wrote a substantial book, Hungry England, which was published in paperback by the left-wing publisher Victor Gollancz in 1932. The ILP printed Brockway’s chairman speech to the special conference that had voted to disaffiliate as a pamphlet, which was entitled The Coming Revolution. This detailed the betrayals of the MacDonald government to devastating effect. It chronicled the events leading up to MacDonald’s defection, examining the scale and significance of the capitalist crisis, and concluded that, in these circumstances, “Socialists must revolutionise their policy to face the new situation.” Brockway warned of the Nazis’ rise in Germany and celebrated the anti-imperialist struggle in India and China. He also stressed the socialist example of Russia, where “there are no unemployed”. The great danger was that the working class would be gripped by despair, in which case the capitalists would move in the direction of “the corporate state”: an authoritarian managed capitalism “ruled by political and economic power in the foreground, but with military power behind”. One thing was clear to Brockway—anyone who still thought that parliamentary majorities were enough to introduce socialism was “living in a fool’s paradise”:
Socialist legislation would undoubtedly meet with resistance, not only from the House of Lords (a minor obstruction) but from the aristocratic, plutocratic, financial and capitalist class generally. Organised action by the working class in the country would almost certainly be necessary to support the political action of their representatives in parliament.
Brockway envisaged a socialist majority in the House of Commons trying to introduce socialism by act of parliament and inevitably meeting extra-parliamentary opposition, whereupon the workers would have to take to the streets. Yet, he also recognised that the revolution might not start in parliament: “The initiative in the decisive struggle will come rather from the country than from parliament.” This might be provoked “as a result of a breaking point in the lowering of working-class conditions” or “as a result of threatened war or war itself”. Another European war “would inevitably end in social revolution”. In the revolution to which Brockway looked forward, “The main method will not be armed conflict, but action by the working class to take control over industry by their disciplined strength.” Workers would need to break with the politics of gradualism and prepare for the eponymous “coming revolution”.27 Politically, all this was a remarkable step forward. However, it still did not involve a recognition of a need for a revolutionary party rooted in the workplaces and able to confront and overthrow the power of the capitalist state.
The Coming Revolution was soon followed by another pamphlet, Socialism at the Crossroads: Why the ILP Left the Labour Party. Here, Brockway made clear that experience had shown it would be impossible to transform Labour into a socialist party. The 1924 Labour government “was not socialist”, and the 1929-31 administration had been concerned only with “continuity and slavishly followed practices and policies reflecting both the snobbery and injustices of capitalism”. This second Labour government “accepted the ultimatum of the capitalists in parliament” so that “it would only be allowed to remain in office so long as it administered capitalism”. It had thus “ignominiously surrendered to the dictates of the City of London… It became the instrument of the financial interests at the expense of the needs of the workers.” Brockway’s indictment was remorseless: ‘The Labour Government imprisoned some 60,000 Indians who were demanding self-government… Throughout its period in office, it maintained the scandalous trial of working-class organisers in Meerut.” It was thus unsurprising that “the Labour government reduced the standard of life of the workers in order to maintain the unearned income of the possessing class.” Indeed, Labour had made changes to the benefit rules that resulted in “the denial of benefit to 200,000 unemployed persons.” All this could not just be blamed on MacDonald and Snowden; it was the responsibility of the great majority of Labour MPs who had supported the MacDonald leadership right up until it formed a government with the Conservatives. Brockway urged his readers to “look at the realities of the present situation”:
World capitalism has broken down. Its decay has gone so far that we cannot hope to transform it into socialism by gradual reforms from within. The policy of gradualism and collaboration with the capitalist class is not only incapable of making an advance towards socialism. It is also incapable of defending the working class from losses in the class war that the possessing class is now waging so ruthlessly. Under such circumstances, common action with the capitalist class, either on the political or the industrial field, is treachery to the working class and to the cause of socialism.
Not only was reformism finished, but it was also impossible to “unite in one party those who are striving to overthrow capitalism and those who are seeking to prolong it”. The working class had to “break with the policies of reformism. Then they must unite on a policy of revolutionary socialism”.28
The same year, Brockway’s Hungry England appeared. This was a substantial book that recounted his travels through England, Scotland and Wales, reflecting on the terrible poverty he had seen and the suffering it inflicted on millions of adults and children. Capitalism had to go. Hungry England was a powerful precursor to George Orwell’s 1937 book, The Road to Wigan Pier.29
In 1933, once again through Gollancz’s publishing house, Brockway published a book-length indictment of the international arms trade, The Bloody Traffic. The book ends by urging mass resistance in the event of war or the threat of war. He reminded his readers that, in 1920, “every section of the British labour movement was represented in a great national conference that decided, if war were declared against Russia, not a train should run, not a wheel in an engineering shed should turn, no coal should be dug—industry would stop dead. Faced by such action on the part of the workers, no government could conduct a war.” Hopefully, such a struggle in the future would see “the end, not only of a particular war, but of the economic system from which wars come”.30 At the same time, he was also editing the ILP weekly newspaper, The New Leader, which in spring 1935 was selling some 37,000 copies a week.
The International Committee of Independent Revolutionary Socialist Parties
The ILP’s break with the Labour Party also had an international dimension. Brockway, in particular, had seen the rise of the far right in Europe at first hand. He visited Germany on a number of occasions and did a speaking tour in 1932 in his capacity as chairman of the International Committee of Independent Revolutionary Socialist Parties, an association of organisations that was later known as the International Revolutionary Marxist Centre. At this time, “The struggle with Hitler was speeding to a crisis.” Brockway said that what he saw in Germany “filled me with foreboding”. Many homes and shops were covered with swastikas and the streets were full of “uniformed stormtroopers..shouting, ‘Heil Hitler!’.” Among the places that he spoke was the radical-left stronghold of Breslau, which was then a German-majority city in Lower Silesia but today is part of Poland and called Wrocław. Brockway’s speech in the city took aim at the disastrous policies of the two main political forces inside the German working class: the Social Democratic Party (SPD; Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands) and the Communist Party. He criticised the SPD “for their compromising coalition with the undependable liberals” and scolded the Communists for their splitting tactics, which tarred the Social Democrats as “social fascists”. Brockway appealed for workers’ unity in a socialist offensive as the only method for defeating the Nazis. The meeting was chaired by Ernst Eckstein, the local leader of the Socialist Workers’ Party of Germany (SAPD; Sozialistische Arbeiterpartei Deutschlands), which was an affiliate of Brockway’s International Committee of Independent Revolutionary Socialist Parties. A year later, “Eckstein was dead, one of the first victims of the Nazi terror.” He had been arrested and very publicly transported through the streets, “an object of vicious hatred, both as a socialist and a Jew, to the Nazi crowds who lined the pavements jeering and reviling him”. He was imprisoned in the Breslau-Dürrgoy concentration camp and was dead within a week, aged 36 years old. Even before the full horror of the Nazi Party’s seizure of power, every meeting that Brockway addressed required “elaborate precautions” in order to “guard against attacks by Hitler’s drilled thugs”. In Leipzig, in particular, the fascist brownshirts were driven off only “after a fierce fight”.31
The International Committee of Independent Revolutionary Socialist Parties, according to Brockway, was established by the ILP, Germany’s SAPD and the left of the Dutch Social Democratic Workers’ Party (Sociaal-Democratische Arbeiderspartij). It also involved the Polish Jewish Labour Bund, the Polish Independent Labour Party, the French Proletarian Unity Party (Parti de l’Unité Prolétarienne) and the Norwegian Labour Party (Arbeiderpartiet). Over time, it “developed contacts in 20 countries, including India and the colonial world”, making “affiliations in Sweden, Holland, France, Spain, Italy, Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Greece, the United States and Palestine”. In his 1942 memoir, Brockway wrote that those involved were “revolutionaries not as a matter of theory but in their lives”. As examples of the calibre of the people involved, he singled out Angelica Balabanoff (a Russian activist who was secretary of the Comintern between 1919 and 1920), Heinrich Brandler (a former leader of the Communist Party of Germany) and Paul Frölich (the biographer of Rosa Luxemburg). He also names German Marxist theorist August Thalheimer, French militant Marceau Pivert and the leader of the Spanish Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification (POUM; Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista), Joaquín Maurín.32 The International Committee was certainly not reformist; it can best be characterised as embodying centrism, a concept to which we will return. In any case, whatever our taxonomical description of this organisation, Brockway’s work within it and his many other political activities had made him a person of considerable interest to MI5.33
Roosevelt’s New Deal
Before we go on to look at the ILP’s involvement in the Spanish Revolution, it is worth briefly considering Brockway’s response to the early days of President Franklin D Roosevelt’s New Deal in the US. Brockway toured the country for three months towards the end of 1933 and the following year published an account of his visit, Will Roosevelt Succeed? A Study of Fascist Tendencies in America. The book considered the impact of Roosevelt’s 1933 National Industrial Recovery Act, asking whether the corporatist direction of the US state pointed towards fascism. Brockway thought not—at least for the moment. Instead, he reported the Act had encouraged “not only a revival of trade unionism but an epidemic of strikes”. He stayed in Paterson, New Jersey, “where 30,000 workers are on strike”, and he spoke at a strike meeting in the city. Indeed, there was “hardly a town without its strikes”. In Detroit, Michigan, where he once again spoke at a strike meeting to great applause, the tool and die makers’ union “grew from a dozen men to 30,000” in less than six months. The strike leader was actually a British immigrant and a former member of the ILP. When Brockway visited New York, he saw “outside many of the large stores…men and women carrying posters announcing strikes. One meets these trade union pickets every 100 yards or so.” He also saw the heroic efforts being made to break the “tyranny” of the mine owners in Western Pennsylvania. Despite Brockway’s enthusiasm, this was all before the great general strikes in Toledo, San Francisco and Minneapolis in 1934 that really shifted the balance of class forces. Certainly, this working-class revolt was encouraged by the National Industrial Recovery Act. However, as he points out, sometimes strikes were actually provoked by the worse conditions and lower wages imposed by the National Recovery Administration that had been set up by the Act. Indeed, this was the case in the Paterson strike.
There were two other factors that he thought had to be considered when evaluating the likelihood of the US going fascist. The first was the fact that in “any dispute the military guard and the police resort to violence almost as a matter of course”. He recounts an attack by troops on a farmers’ demonstration: “They shot gas bombs at the crowd and clubbed them, old and young, men and women alike.” In other countries such an attack “would have been described as a fascist outrage. But such things are a commonplace of US disputes.”
The second factor was racism. Brockway writes of the horror of lynching. While he was in the US, the governor of one state “actually commended a crowd of lynchers who had stormed a jail, strung two young men to a tree and set their clothes on fire, after soaking them in kerosene”. Black workers had not benefitted from the National Recovery Act, which they sometimes called the “Negro Replacement Act”. He compared the strength of racism and white supremacy in the US “with the same racial superiority as the British regard the population of India”. The “slave-owning mentality remains… An American fascism might easily reintroduce slavery.” There were also “dangerous currents of antisemitism”. One factor working against the development of fascism was the sturdy independence of young US women, who would never accept the restrictions fascism imposed on their gender.34 If a serious attempt was made to impose fascism across the country, Brockway expected the country to break up, with many areas, particularly in the North, resisting. In the end, he left open the question of whether fascism was coming to the US. In 1942, looking back on the visit in his memoir, he still criticised Roosevelt’s New Deal for not dealing with “the fundamental causes of capitalist crisis” and for “being in many respects grotesque”. Even so, Roosevelt’s administration compared favourably with “the incompetent futility of the Labour government in Britain”. The most important aspect of the New Deal, however, “was the stimulus that it gave to trade union organisation and action”.35
Among the US socialists Brockway met during his visit, he was particularly impressed by former Communist Party leader Jay Lovestone. Having driven out the Trotskyists from the US Communist Party, Lovestone and his supporters were themselves expelled (despite being in a majority). Their crimes were aligning themselves with Nikolai Bukharin in the struggle for power in the Soviet Union and opposing Stalin’s Third Period turn. Lovestone was a leading figure in the Bukharinite International Communist Opposition. Another of the International Communist Opposition’s adherents admired by Brockway was Maurín, who went on to become POUM leader by 1936. A good case can be made that Brockway was always politically closer to the Right Opposition associated with Bukharin in the Soviet Union than to the Trotskyist Left Opposition.
The Spanish Revolution
There is insufficient space here to provide a history of the Spanish Revolution, but it will suffice to say that it exercised a powerful influence over Brockway and his contemporaries. The ILP aligned itself with its sister party, the POUM, raising money for its cause and running a propaganda campaign of meetings, film shows and publications in its support. It even recruited volunteers to fight in the POUM militia. Brockway resigned from War Resisters’ International at this time, with his letter of resignation making clear that if he were in Spain, “I should be fighting with the workers”.36 The ILP urged the completion of the socialist revolution in Spain and inevitably found itself engaged in a bitter conflict with the Communist Party and the Comintern. The Comintern had by now abandoned the sectarian politics of the Third Period, instead adopting the Popular Front policy. Popular Frontism involved abandoning revolutionary politics altogether and seeking an alliance with anyone and everyone prepared to defend bourgeois democracy against fascism. Anything that might alienate potential allies, including those on the right, was now condemned. From being condemned as “social fascists”, the ILP soon found itself condemned as “Trotskyite fascists” by Stalin’s loyal followers in Britain. In Spain itself, the Communists undertook to roll back the revolutionary gains that the working class had made, suppressing any resistance to this counter-revolutionary policy by repression and murder. The decisive episode in the struggle was the rising in Barcelona in May 1937, which was followed by the suppression of the POUM and the murder of its leader, Andreu Nin, by the Communist secret police. Many POUM members were imprisoned, and ILP volunteers, including John McNair and George Orwell, fled the country.
Soon after the failure of the May insurrection, the ILP published a pamphlet, The Truth About Barcelona, which was written by Brockway. Here he celebrated that the workers of Barcelona had not just defeated the fascists, but had taken over the city in July 1936. They had taken “possession of their factories and workshops, of the railways and trams, of the telephone service and the broadcasting station, of the hotels, the cinemas and the theatres. Everywhere workers’ committees were formed.” There was a situation of dual power in many parts of Republican Spain with the Popular Front government. On one side stood the workers’ committees, dominated by the anarchists. On the other stood the POUM. Brockway criticises both the POUM and the anarchists for agreeing to participate in the Popular Front government at this time. For the POUM this was “a considerable departure in its policy”; the POUM had “opposed the Popular Front, because it based its policy on the Marxist theory of class struggle… Consequently, it was against an alliance with capitalist parties or participation in a coalition government that included capitalist parties.” To now join such a government was a big mistake, preparing the way for “the restoration of the power of the capitalist state machine”. Brockway continued:
Marxist principles should have provided a warning. Marx taught that the workers’ revolution will require new instruments of administration and that these instruments must be based, not on the structure of the capitalist state, but on the organisations of the working class. What has subsequently happened in Barcelona proves how accurate was the analysis of the founder of scientific socialist theory.
The pamphlet goes on to chronicle the rolling back of the working class’s revolutionary gains as the Communists grew in strength and set about restoring the capitalist state. This process was accompanied by the relentless slandering of the POUM. In the end, the Communists provoked a spontaneous uprising in Barcelona, and “the POUM sought to give it direction” in the circumstances they had been handed. “For two days, the workers were on top.” Although the rising ultimately failed, Brockway remained confident that the revolutionary spirit of Barcelona’s workers was already recovering from the setback and that the POUM was getting stronger. This was, to say the least, somewhat over-optimistic. He was, however, quite right when he absolutely insisted that events in Spain had demonstrated that the Communists were no longer revolutionaries because the Comintern had become “an instrument of the foreign policy of Soviet Russia”:
That foreign policy aims at an alliance of the so-called democratic capitalist nations against Germany. The first objective is to win Britain as an ally, but Britain will not become an ally if Russia or the Communist International encourages a revolution in any country where British capital is invested.
Brockway compared the rising in Barcelona with the so-called July Days in Russia in 1917. The Spanish Popular Front government, he argued, was playing the same role Alexander Kerensky’s government had played in Russia. Indeed, the Kerensky government provided a model for the Popular Front administration. In Barcelona, it was the POUM that had “fulfilled the historic role that the Bolsheviks fulfilled in Moscow in 1917. The Communists took the role of the Mensheviks.” A crucial difference, however, was that the Communists were Mensheviks who had learnt Stalinist methods. Unlike Lenin, then, when Nin was arrested, he was tortured to death by his captors.
The Truth About Barcelona ends on a fiercely optimistic note, reporting that everywhere workers “are turning not only from the reformist policy of the social democrats and Labourists, but also and emphatically from the opportunist policy of the Communists”. They were instead turning “to a leadership that bases itself on the class struggle”. In Britain that leadership was the ILP. Brockway looked forward “with confidence to the triumph of the Spanish workers—a triumph which will not only shatter fascism, but lay the foundations of the new workers’ state of socialism”.37 In fact, the Communists not only succeeded in destroying the POUM and crushing the anarchists, but General Francisco Franco and his fascist allies went on to triumph. Back home the ILP found itself increasingly isolated, slandered and maligned by the Communists and their fellow travellers. Moreover, it was losing members.
When they disaffiliated from the Labour Party, Brockway and his comrades had envisaged the ILP replacing the Communist Party as the dominant force on the left outside Labour. They would work with members of other organisations, including the Communist Party, but the politics of first the Third Period, and then of the Popular Front, were leading nowhere—and certainly not towards socialism. The ILP would, Brockway proclaimed, provide revolutionary leadership.
With this in mind, the ILP played an important role in opposing Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists, including at the Battle of Cable Street on 4 October 1936. This episode was subsequently hijacked by the Communists, but the ILP was heavily involved and, according to Brockway, “by a chance, our propaganda had a bigger effect”. On the day before the BUF march was due to take place, the ILP called for “the workers to fill the streets in their hundreds of thousands”. This plea then featured on the front page of the most popular London evening newspaper, The Star, and every newsagent in the East End had a poster for the edition outside, reading “ILP Calls on Workers to Stop Mosley”. Brockway personally took part in the protest and “in one police rush was knocked over and trampled on a little”. He telephoned the Home Office from Gardiners Corner, where the main confrontation took place, warning that, if the fascist march was allowed to go ahead, “there would be bloodshed and…the responsibility would rest with the home secretary”.38 In the event, the scale and determination of the anti-fascist protest was such that Mosley’s march was called off. The ILP soon after published a pamphlet celebrating the victory, entitled They Did Not Pass: 300,000 Workers Say No to Mosley.
In 1938, Brockway attempted to provide a statement of the ILP’s political position in the light of developments in Spain in a new book, Workers Front. He explained the ILP’s failure to supplant the Communist Party as a result of the subsidy the Communists received from the Soviet Union. In 1937, the Communist Party had a membership of about of “about 10,000”, and the ILP had “a similar membership”. However, the ILP had “only a skeleton staff at head office, one weekly newspaper, one monthly journal and three paid organisers”. In contrast, the Communist Party “has paid organisers in most of the large centres of Britain…a daily newspaper (on which the loss must be very heavy), an elaborate monthly journal and officials in a dozen subsidiary organisations”. All this was paid for by the Comintern. Presumably, this was one of the reasons the party leadership subordinated itself to the Soviet Union, enthusiastically supported the Moscow Trials and threw Marxism overboard in favour of the Popular Front. Brockway was convinced that the “betrayals…of the last three years” would have caused “doubt and dismay” among ordinary Communist Party members, many of whom were “genuine revolutionary socialists”.
Workers Front was just over 250 pages long and was dedicated to Joaquín Maurín and his wife, Jeanne Lifschitz. The first chapter dealt with the crisis of capitalism, which was followed by a chapter examining the weaknesses of the international working class in the face of this crisis. Brockway described the British labour movement as “probably more demoralised than any in the world”, apart from those in Italy and Germany. Although British workers were, he insisted, ready to fight on the shop floor, the union leaders stood in the way. “The spirit of class action”, nevertheless, lived on in Britain, which had been shown in February 1935, “when the mass action of British workers compelled the National Government to withdraw its new unemployment regulations”. Brockway was convinced that, had the National Government intervened on Franco’s side and “bombarded Barcelona and Valencia”, in all likelihood, “The class struggle would have become nakedly apparent in Britain as well.” What was urgently needed to turn the tide was a “revolutionary socialist party”, which “must base itself on the class struggle and…aim at the overthrow of both the economic and political structure of the capitalist state”.
Brockway’s book was absolutely emphatic about the hollowness of reformism: “The hope that capitalism can be transformed to socialism through the means of the capitalist state—its parliaments, civil service, armed forces, judiciary—is an illusion.” Instead, the capitalist class had to be defeated “through workers’ councils, or soviets…and in the last resort, if necessary, through their own workers’ army…responsible to their councils”. He could not have been clearer. Incredible as it might seem, in 1938, very much in response to events in Spain, the ILP was advocating a 1917-style revolution in Britain, with itself playing the role of the Bolsheviks. Brockway argued that the Communist Party could obviously not play this role; it was a tool of Stalin’s regime, and its policies and actions were intended to further the interests of Russian foreign policy rather than those of the working class. The dramatic abandonment of the ultra-sectarian Third Period turn in favour of the Menshevik Popular Front had been astonishing. He wrote, “History has not shown a more complete volte face.” (Of course, this was still before the Hitler-Stalin Pact of 1939.) The Popular Front meant, “The class struggle against capitalism is to retire in favour of an all-class coalition for ‘democracy’.” The result was always going to be disaster, a fact already demonstrated, according to Brockway, in France. There the Popular Front government had saved capitalism during the great wave of sit-in strikes in summer 1936. Now it was being even more clearly and more brutally demonstrated by events in Spain.
Brockway devotes four of Workers Front’s chapters (some 75 pages) to the Spanish Revolution: “The Popular Front in Spain”, “Socialist revolution or capitalist democracy?”, “The retreat from the social revolution” and “The counter-revolution”. In the chapter on counter-revolution, he describes how the POUM’s central council (composed of 40 members) was arrested as well as around 400 local officials and activists. Many foreign socialists working and fighting alongside the POUM were also imprisoned, and the organisation’s newspapers were suppressed. All this was “carried out by the secret service police, of which the Communists had taken control and…organised on the model of the Russian OGPU”.39 The Communists had effectively destroyed the POUM. As far as Brockway was concerned, even if Franco was defeated, it would be very unlikely that parliamentary democracy would be restored. More likely was some kind of “capitalist dictatorship”. He still ended on an optimistic note, though, looking forward with “absolute confidence to the coming of the day when the Spanish workers and peasants will rise in unity and strength. “Learning from the mistakes of this tragic period”, the working class “will be satisfied with nothing less than the social justice, equality and freedom that only the overthrow of capitalism can bring”.
Brockway went on to urge that those organisations to the left of the Comintern should come together, specifically mentioning the International Bureau for Revolutionary Socialist Unity (as the International Committee of Independent Revolutionary Socialist Parties had become known), the Bukharinite International Communist Opposition, the Anarchist International and the Trotskyist Fourth International.40
Although Brockway hoped for some kind of “revolutionary socialist unity” at the international level, he also believed that, in Britain, it was the Labour Party’s working-class members and supporters who had to be won over: “Without their support, revolutionary socialists cannot hope to achieve success.” He still believed “the ILP was correct in leaving the Labour Party in 1932”, not least because his organisation had “now founded itself firmly on the basis of the class struggle”. The quality of the membership had improved because the ILP no longer attracted the “political careerists” who saw it as a useful “stepping stone to parliament and to office”. Affiliation to Labour was not a question of principle, however, but one of tactics, and he did not rule it out in the future. Yet, for this to happen, Labour would have to change. It would need to accept that the ILP could work inside it while opposing just about every Labour policy and action as treachery against the working class and against socialism, although in “a comradely spirit”. Rejoining Labour would only be possible if the ILP could retain a “revolutionary socialist policy”; indeed, any weakening of its commitment to the class struggle “would be a backward step rather than an advance”. In any case, reaffiliation was not going to happen any time soon, which was demonstrated by the Labour leadership’s suppression of the Socialist League, an offshoot from a group of ILP members who had opposed disaffiliation in 1932. The League dissolved itself in May 1937 in order to avoid the expulsion of its members from Labour, underlining the lack of political freedom within the party. What Brockway urged instead was unity on the left in the form of “a revolutionary workers’ front”.41 It is worth once again making the point that the ILP was actually losing members throughout this period.
“A left-centrist party”: Brockway and Trotsky
The activities of British Trotskyists inside the ILP have been chronicled and examined elsewhere.42 We shall concern ourselves here with Leon Trotsky’s direct interventions: first, his attempts to influence the organisation and, then, his condemnation of it. In August 1933, Trotsky wrote to the ILP newspaper, The New Leader, to thank it for publishing a speech he had made on the Russian Revolution as a pamphlet, entitled In Defence of the October Revolution. He did, however, take exception to James Maxton’s foreword, which he thought was, perhaps unwittingly, “in favour of the Stalinist faction”. The reluctance of the ILP leadership to condemn the Stalinists—not just for the foreign policy transmitted through the Comintern, but also for their brutal imposition of a bureaucratic dictatorship inside the Soviet Union itself—would become a running sore, made worse once Stalin’s Great Purge got underway.
Later that year, the British Trotskyist newspaper, The Red Flag, published an article by Trotsky called “Whither the ILP”. Trotsky’s article noted that since the break with the Labour Party, the ILP “continues to move leftward” and, indeed, that the “deep social crisis of British capitalism pushed the ILP sharply towards the left”. He went on to warn of the danger posed by the Communist Party, even in the weakened state it had been left in by the Third Period policy, and he called on the ILP to “save the workers’ movement in Britain” from Stalinist misleadership. Yet, he argued, this could only be done if the ILP freed itself “from all unclarity and haziness with regard to the ways and methods of the socialist revolution and by becoming a true revolutionary party of the proletariat”. The ILP would need to decisively break with the Comintern and to settle accounts with reformism—at the moment, it was in what Trotsky termed “an intermediary position”.43
Soon after this, The Militant published a new article by Trotsky, “The ILP and the New International”, on 30 September 1933. Trotsky praised the ILP for having “shifted decisively to the left, to communism”, but once again took exception to their refusal to accept that the Comintern “is lost to the revolutionary movement”. He proceeded to chronicle the Comintern’s betrayals for the benefit of the ILP’s members, making clear that the Communists had “a direct responsibility” for the Nazi takeover in Germany. The decisive question in Britain, however, was the trade union bureaucracy. Trotsky insisted:
Capitalism can continue to maintain itself only by lowering the standard of living of the working class. Under these conditions trade unions can either transform themselves into revolutionary organisations or become lieutenants of capital in the intensified exploitation of the workers.
Accordingly, “the most important task of the revolutionary party became the liberation of the workers from the reactionary influence of the trade union bureaucracy”. The ILP relied on rhetoric about workers’ councils rather than undertaking serious work in the trade unions. In a letter to British Trotskyists at much the same time, Trotsky described the ILP as “a left-centrist party”, with its various “factions and shadings” laying at “different stages of evolution from reformism to communism”. The great weakness of the ILP was in “the area of theory”, where it “is completely hopeless”. Still, Trotsky urged revolutionaries to enter the organisation. By January 1934, he was concerned about the ILP’s loss of members, ascribing partial responsibility to the leadership’s lack of political clarity as well as its centrism and failure to unambiguously embrace the road of revolutionary. He ended a letter to The Militant by warning, “The ILP of Britain must place itself right now under the banner of the Fourth International or it will disappear from the scene without leaving a trace”.44
Trotsky would become increasingly critical. In 1936, the Workers International League published a 16-page pamphlet written by Trotsky, entitled The ILP and the Fourth International: In the Middle of the Road. This had been first published as an article in the New International, the US Trotskyist journal, in December 1935. Here Trotsky welcomed the ILP’s tendency to evolve “from pacifism towards proletarian revolution”, but argued “this development has far from reached a rounded-out programme”. Indeed, “The leaders of the ILP have apparently halted in the midway and keep marking time”. The organisation had become “a second grade Communist Party” despite his best efforts “to arrive at an understanding with the leaders…by means of several articles and letters” over the previous two years. He accused them of committing “the sin of revolutionary phrase-mongering” on the question of the general strike. Regarding the ILPs relationship with the Labour Party, he stated very bluntly that the ILP would be “doomed to impotence” without “a strong faction in the trade unions and, consequently, in the Labour Party”. He urged the ILP to join Labour, taking care to hide their activities from “the police vigilance” of TUC general secretary Sir Walter Citrine “and his agents”. Revolutionaries had to work both inside and outside the Labour Party; only in this way could they succeed “in winning over tens and hundreds of thousands of workers”. As for the ILP’s support for unity at the international level, this was just empty rhetoric and was compromised by its attitude towards the Stalinised Comintern. Indeed, “The leaders of the ILP turn out to be backward provincials in the sphere of the questions of the world movement.” Until the ILP leaders “blow up their bridges to Stalinism, their internationalism will remain semi-platonic in character”. He ended by calling upon the ILP to work out a fully-formed “Marxist programme”, look towards “the mass organisations” (that is, the trade unions and the Labour Party) and join the Fourth International.45
By the summer of 1936, Trotsky had given up on the ILP, despairing of Brockway for giving in to Maxton even when he knew Maxton was in the wrong. By now, as far as Trotsky was concerned, the next upsurge of working-class unrest in Britain “will drive the last nail into the coffin of the ILP”. He went on, “The ILP is not a mass organisation, but rather a propaganda organisation, and since their propaganda is centrist and not revolutionary, this dying corpse must be completely swept away during a working-class resurgence.” Revolutionaries had to abandon the ILP and join Labour, which was a mass party. Trotsky’s fury towards Brockway over the International Bureau for Revolutionary Socialist Unity’s refusal to support the International Commission of Inquiry into the Moscow Trials, also known as the Dewey Commission, due to insufficient impartiality was excoriating and absolutely justified. Although Trotsky’s dismissal of Brockway as “Pritt Number Two”—a reference to the pro-Soviet Labour MP for Hammersmith, Denis Pritt, who defended Stalin’s purges and show trials—was just abuse, his substantive points in an article for the Socialist Appeal newspaper on 18 September 1937 were spot on. The article reminded Brockway: “The gangsters of the OGPU in Spain murdered Nin… Nin was an opponent of mine. Fenner Brockway, on the contrary, considered Nin a co-thinker.” The failure of people such as Brockway to take a decisive enough stand against Stalinism had made such crimes possible. Instead of a commission to investigate Nin’s murder, Trotsky wrote, Brockway proposed one that would investigate “my political activity”.46 Meanwhile, Brockway’s relations with the British Trotskyists had become increasingly combative.
Leaving aside relations between Trotsky and Brockway, the description of the ILP as a left-wing centrist organisation was completely accurate. It had certainly moved to the left after disaffiliation from Labour and in response to the rise of fascism. However, although it had adopted the rhetoric of socialist revolution, it had not transformed itself into a revolutionary party. The ILP functioned primarily as a propagandist group. Even though it recognised that any attempt at transition to socialism would meet with resistance (indeed, quite likely armed resistance), it still effectively relied on a spontaneous working-class response to crush this capitalist intransigence. In regard to its relationship with Stalinism, the ILP was critical of the Soviet regime and very publicly opposed the Moscow Trials, calling down upon itself the full repertoire of Communist Party slander—including the claim that it was a Trotskyist organisation. Yet, it failed to grasp the actual character of Stalin’s dictatorship (though, then again, so did Trotsky). All this must be acknowledged, but it should also be remembered how far to the left the ILP moved and that Brockway played a crucial role in this.
Brockway remained a member of the ILP throughout the Second World War, which the organisation opposed as an imperialist war. He finally resigned from the ILP in 1946, having given up on any hope of socialist revolution. He had by now decided that disaffiliating from the Labour Party had been “a stupid and disastrous mistake” and accordingly rejoined.47 He was actually offered a peerage but refused, saying, “I always wanted to abolish that undemocratic institution”.48 He was elected to the House of Commons in 1950 and held his Eton and Slough seat until 1964.
Brockway was still very much on the left, but had given up on the class struggle. Instead, he helped to found the campaigning anti-poverty charity War on Want, the Movement for Colonial Freedom (now called Liberation) and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. He was a fierce opponent of, and campaigner against, racism. This was certainly a factor in him losing his parliamentary seat in 1964; Smethwick, where the infamous “If you want a n****r for a neighbour, vote Labour” slogan was deployed, was not the only constituency in which racism helped the Tories to victory. Nazi activists from Colin Jordan’s National Socialist Movement covered Brockway’s London home in racist slogans and swastikas.
A good indication of the impact of Brockway’s embrace of Labourism on his politics is provided by his response to the Mau Mau insurgency in Kenya in the early 1950s. Having looked forward to the creation of a “revolutionary government” in India in 1930, he now condemned “the infamy of the Mau Mau”. In 1953, he published a pamphlet, entitled Why Mau Mau? An Analysis and a Remedy, via the Congress of Peoples Against Imperialism. The opening sentence read, “All of us deplore Mau Mau and abhor its methods.” He went on to make clear how shocked he was “to find some Africans reverting to methods of witchcraft and terrorism”. Brockway was now all for moderation and persuading the colonial authorities that reform was necessary rather than fighting them. He made clear his support for “the measures necessary” to defeat the Mau Mau rebellion, although he did warn against treating all members of the Kikuyu ethnic group as if they were Mau Mau supporters, particularly the moderate nationalists whose cause he supported. Whereas he had condemned the repression unleashed by the Labour government in India in 1930, once he had rejoined the party, he completely failed to hold Clement Atlee’s Labour government to account. Indeed, Atlee’s government was actually to blame for provoking the Mau Mau insurgency by failing to make concessions to the nationalist movement in Kenya and crushing the trade union movement in the colony. Incredibly, Brockway remained silent about the banning of the East African Trade Union Congress (EATUC), the arrest of its leaders and the violent means used to break the general strike protesting against these measures in May 1950. The strike involved over 100,000 workers and lasted nine days. Hundreds of strikers were arrested. Many others were subsequently victimised, and EATUC general secretary Makhan Singh was placed in detention for the next eleven years.
Brockway’s silence on these matters marked a massive change in his political perspective. The ferocity of British repression unleashed against the Mau Mau was at a level not seen since the suppression of the 1857 Indian Rebellion, but Brockway never got to grips with the full horror of the British repression. Despite this, even the mealy-mouthed complaints and protests voiced by him and a handful of other Labour MPs managed to outrage both Conservatives politicians and the white settlers in Kenya. The temper of the times is shown by the fact that despite his condemnation of the Mau Mau, even his support for moderate African nationalists was enough to put his life in danger from settler vigilantes when he visited the colony during the so-called Kenyan Emergency. Later, when the Labour government under Harold Wilson was supporting the US war in Vietnam, Brockway declined to throw his support behind the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign, which was led by revolutionaries, as he undoubtedly would have in the 1920s and 1930s; instead, he became chair of the moderate and Communist Party-backed British Council for Peace in Vietnam, a Popular Front-style project of the kind he had once rejected and opposed. He remained on the left and was a supporter of Tribune newspaper, but the class struggle had been replaced by responsible moderation in the here and now. Socialism was something to be referenced, but always to be achieved only at some undefined point in the future.
Incredibly, Brockway accepted a peerage awarded by Wilson’s government, even though he was “theoretically a republican”. How far he had moved away from the class struggle is perhaps best shown by his account of the House of Lords in his 1977 memoir, Towards Tomorrow. The book claimed the Lords was “one of the friendliest places I know”, though he admitted his worries that “this climate of friendliness (everyone called me Fenner) was undermining my principles”. Ultimately, he did not think his concerns were justified, although he was even on “amicable terms” with the likes of Tory reactionary Quintin Hogg, Lord Hailsham. The contrast with his assessment of the conduct of Labour MPs in the Commons in 1930 could not be starker. Still, he had little time for the Wilson government, which he regarded with “amicable scepticism” (“I gave them qualified support”, he explained), although this is still a long way from his militancy in the 1920s and 1930s. Towards Tomorrow fails to mention the Labour government’s breaking of the 1966 seafarers’ strike; had it had taken place in the 1920s, Brockway would have condemned Wilson for betraying the working class. That said, aged 83 years, he was one of the speakers on the platform in Derry on 30 January 1972 when the Parachute Regiment carried out the Bloody Sunday massacre, killing 14 unarmed civilians during a march for Catholic civil rights. He was “dragged…down flat on the lorry”. According to Brockway, civil rights leader Bernadette Devlin ordered him “to slide to the ground and, bending low, to follow her to a nearby friendly home. My last memory of the scene was of a priest waving a white handkerchief, tending to a wounded man in the empty square”.49
Brockway died in April 1988, campaigning till the end.
John Newsinger is the author of numerous books, the latest of which is Chosen by God: Donald Trump, the Christian Right and American Capitalism (Bookmarks, 2020).
1 Although Brockway moved, as we shall see, further to the left during the course of the 1930s, Beckett moved to the right, joining Oswald Mosley in the British Union of Fascists and embracing the most vicious antisemitism. He later broke with Mosley and set up the National Socialist League alongside William Joyce in 1937. Joyce went onto become “Lord Haw-Haw”, the notorious Nazi radio personality who broadcast propaganda from Berlin to British wirelesses between 1939 and 1945.
2 Brockway, 1942, pp205-206, 220 and 222-223. Brockway penned four volumes of autobiography, with the last three written once he had rejoined the Labour Party after the Second World War. Although he remained on the left, the class struggle was no longer central to his politics in this later period. His 1977 volume, Towards Tomorrow, published after he was made Baron Brockway, still celebrated the solidarity shown in the 1926 General Strike in Britain. However, it had nothing to say about the great miners strikes of 1972 and 1974. It was similarly silent on the awesome struggle against the 1971 Industrial Relations Act, symbolised by the release of the Pentonville Five (see Light and Prevost, 2022). The class struggle was now no more than a noise off-stage, even if Brockway still proclaimed his support for socialism.
3 More recent estimates put the number of murdered protesters at around 400 people.
4 Brockway, 1930, pp150-159.
5 The British authorities initiated a controversial court case against 33 left wingers, including three white people, for their supposed participation in a Communist International-inspired plot to overthrow imperial rule in India. The trial, which took place in Meerut, Uttar Pradesh, focused on trade unionists organised around the railways. Ultimately, 27 people were convicted, with very harsh sentences passed down.
6 Brockway, 1942, pp204-205 and 207.
7 McNair, 1955, pp120, 122 and 123.
8 According to William Knox’s 1987 biography of Maxton, he did apologise and was only then allowed to return to the Commons—see Knox, 1987. Former Labour prime minister Gordon Brown’s book about Maxton pretty much dismisses the whole episode as really nothing more than “a highly effective publicity stunt”—Brown, 1986, p129. Neither of these biographers took the matter about which Maxton was protesting, the small issue of children’s lives, very seriously, and they are instead more concerned with political positioning. Brown was still a left-wing Labour MP when he wrote his biography, and he was yet to join Tony Blair’s wholehearted embrace of neoliberalism and Thatcherism, which became the basis for New Labour. More recently, Brown, who is still a Labour MP, was privately advising Tory prime minister Rishi Sunak, with whom he has “struck up an improbable friendship”—Gye, Singh and Vaughan, 2022. At the same time, Brown is also a key figure in Keir Starmer’s revival of New Labour. For more on Brown’s trajectory, see Newsinger, 2007.
9 McGovern, 1960, pp71, 73 and 75. McGovern recalled that some Labour MPs put down a resolution to deprive him of his salary while he was suspended from the House of Commons: “We soon heard the end of that proposal when I stated that, when I got back, I would put down a motion to fix a time clock for members and urge payment by attendance.”— McGovern, 1960, p72. In 1952, McGovern, by now a Labour MP once again, campaigned for Tony Cliff, the future founder of the International Socialists and the Socialist Workers Party, to be allowed to return from Ireland to Britain. This was his last progressive act. See Higgins, 2012.
10 Brockway, 1942, pp19, 21 and 23.
11 Brockway, 1949, pp45-47. Salter was a committed pacifist but nevertheless supported the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. He wrote, “The excesses of the revolution were distasteful, and I regretted even the assassination of the Tsar and his family. But some excesses were inevitable and they were few until the counter-revolution began. The loss of life was far less than in the French Revolution and far less than might have been expected considering the tremendous change that was effected: the sweeping away of the entire capitalist system.” In the late 1930s, however, he opposed any attempts to stop the British Union of Fascists (BUF) marching in London. In autumn 1937, when the Bermondsey Trades Council voted to organise opposition to a BUF march in the area, he resigned as treasurer and condemned the left’s adoption of “fascist methods”. Shamefully, another BUF march the following year went unopposed after Salter carried the day. When it came to strikes though, Salter was still “on the side of the men every time”. His support for the 1937 London busmen’s strike was wholehearted and uncompromising. As Brockway puts it: “He felt their grievances as though they were his own.”— Brockway, 1949, pp158, 205 and 206.
12 Brockway, 1932a, p2. In this pamphlet, Brockway explains the reason the ILP did not consider disaffiliation at that time was that it could operate freely within the Labour Party, even in open defiance of Labour policy. This changed after the end of the First World War.
13 Smith, 2017, p22.
14 Brockway, 1949, pp61-62 and 68.
15 Gillian became general secretary of the small but militant Chemical Workers’ Union in 1924. He was still an ILP member and a supporter of the Communist Party’s National Minority Movement network of militant trade unionists.
16 McNair, 1955, p68. The National Union of Police and Prison Officers took successful strike action in August 1918, and its membership increased to some 50,000 by the end of the year. The following year, the government decided to break it, undermining the union through a combination of the stick of intimidation and the carrot of a substantial pay rise. Once the union had been weakened in this way, the government provoked a strike. It then sacked all 2,366 strikers, including 68 warders at Wormwood Scrubs Prison. The sacked strikers also lost their pensions. The Labour Party repeatedly promised to reinstate the strikers but, of course, never actually did so.
17 Brockway, 1942, pp98, 114 and 115.
18 McNair, 1955, p183.
19 Smith, 2017, p65.
20 Brockway, 1942, pp190-194.
21 For more on Arthur Cook, see Paul Foot’s An Agitator of the Worst Kind: A Portrait of Miners’ Leader A J Cook (Bookmarks, 1986). See also Cliff, 1986.
22 McNair, 1975, pp171-172.
23 Brockway, 1942, p198.
24 McNair, 1955, p190.
25 McAllister, 1935, p203.
26 Cliff and Gluckstein, 1996, p168.
27 Brockway, 1932b, pp9-13.
28 Brockway, 1932a, pp3-7. Emphasis in original.
29 For a discussion of Hungry England, see Newsinger, 2022.
30 Brockway, 1933, pp287-288.
31 Brockway, 1942, pp280-283. The year before, he had undertaken a speaking tour in Poland for the Bund (the General Jewish Labour Union in Russia and Poland; “Algemeyner Yiddisher Arbeter Bund in Rusland un Poyln” in Yiddish) and the Polish Independent Socialist Labour Party (Niezależna Socjalistyczna Partia Pracy). These meetings had to be defended against the Polish Communists, who were prepared to use violence to prevent Brockway, a British “social fascist”, speaking to the Polish “social fascists”. In Germany, of course, this kind of Stalinist sectarianism was to play a crucial role in Hitler’s rise to power.
32 Brockway, 1942, p284.
33 According to historian David Caute, Brockway had in fact been of some interest to MI5 since 1916. He was “the subject of five MI5 files extending from 1916 to 1960”—Caute, 2022, p13.
34 Brockway, 1934, pp27, 58, 59, 65 and 172-175.
35 Brockway, 1942, p229.
36 Prasad, 2005, p170.
37 Brockway, 1937, pp3, 5, 12 and 14-15.
38 Brockway 1942, p270-272.
39 The Joint State Political Directorate (OGPU; Объединённое государственное политическое управление) was the state intelligence service of the Soviet Union between 1923 and 1934.
40 For the ILP’s international connections in this period, see Cohen, 2007, pp166-170
41 Brockway, 1938, pp24, 23, 35, 60, 72, 85, 123, 145-146, 147, 148, 189-191, 204, 214-215, 222, 223 and 254.
42 See Bornstein and Richardson, 1986a and 1986b.
43 Trotsky, 1974, pp67, 69 and 72.
44 Trotsky, 1974, pp87-88.
45 Trotsky, 1936, pp2, 12 and 16. The third volume of Trotsky’s writings on Britain, which includes the pamphlet, also reprints an interview he gave to the New International, clarifying the arguments he had put forward in the article—Trotsky, 1974, pp116-127.
46 Trotsky, 1974, pp148-151.
47 Brockway, 1977, p107.
48 Brockway, 1963, p43.
49 Brockway, 1977, pp242, 244 and 248.