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Remembering Fenner Brockway

Fenner Brockway – lifelong socialist and anti-war activist who co-founded War on Want, the CND, and the Movement for Colonial Freedom – was born on this day in 1888. Jeremy Corbyn speaks to Tribune about the debt we owe his memory.

Fenner Brockway, British Labour politician and anti-war activist, on 8 October 1963. (John Bulmer / Popperfoto via Getty Images)

On Thursday 1 July this year, as the hot summer of industrial action rumbled onwards, the anti-colonial campaigning organisation Liberation hosted a talk on ‘Britain and the World: No to Neocolonialism’ in London’s Hamilton House, delivered by former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. The talk was the inaugural Fenner Brockway Memorial Lecture.

A lifelong anti-militarist and anti-colonial activist, Fenner Brockway (1888-1988) represented a bulwark for the anti-imperialist left in Britain throughout his storied career. A longtime leader in the Independent Labour Party, and editor of its paper The New Leader, Brockway upheld an internationalist socialist politics from his anti-conscription activities during the First World War, for which he was repeatedly imprisoned, through his support for Indian independence in the India League, and into his move from a pure pacifist politics to support for militant resistance to fascism in Spain. While imprisoned as a conscientious objector, Brockway was kept away from the other prisoners, the guards fearing his powers of oratory.

Like the ILP, Brockway enjoyed a complex relationship with the Labour Party. He was variously in and out throughout his politically active years, but served twice as a Labour MP, in Leyton East (1929-31) and Eton and Slough (1950-64). In his latter post, Brockway became renowned for his advocacy for anti-race discrimination legislation and defence of Commonwealth migrants.

But it was in the post-war years, as independence struggles across the globe grew, that Brockway really became a leading figure for the anti-colonial cause in Britain. A prominent co-founder of both the international anti-poverty campaigning group War on Want in 1951, named after a book written by Harold Wilson, and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in 1957, he was also the first chair of the Movement for Colonial Freedom, founded in 1954 to expose British colonial atrocities like the ongoing repression in Kenya and support anti-imperial independence movements. In 1970, marking a shift in its mission from opposition to colonial rule specifically towards broader support for struggles against imperialism, apartheid, and neo-colonial exploitation, the MCF’s name was changed, at Brockway’s prompting, to Liberation. These decades saw Brockway write regular columns on colonialism and anti-colonialism in Africa, often featured in Tribune.

Fenner Brockway after racist graffiti was daubed over the front of his house in Highgate, London, 11 May 1958. Brockway had proposed parliamentary legislation to criminalise racial discrimination. (John Franks / Keystone / Hulton Archive / Getty Images)

Brockway, Jeremy Corbyn explained in his lecture, ‘saw the struggles of the working class in this country […] and the struggles of people against colonialism and imperialism and exploitation as part of the same struggle.’ Born in Kolkata, and becoming a vegetarian and a socialist at approximately the same time, Brockway lived a ‘fascinating life’, Corbyn continued, campaigning for the British labour movement to stand ‘in solidarity with those struggling for the independence of colonies around the world’ at a time when ‘the role of the Labour Party wasn’t always quite as good as many historical observations claim it to have been’.

I think we should be grateful to Fenner for all that he did in his life. . . I think it’s important we should try and understand the life that he led, the abuse that he received from the mainstream media in this country, and the way he was never bowed by it. He always gloried in the solidarity that he got from the working class communities he represented, just as much as he did from people in other countries, and trade unionists in various colonies around the world.

It was a given among many late nineteenth century trade unionists, Corbyn explained, ‘that you had to be internationalist’, as capital itself found it easier and easier to permeate national boundaries. This conviction found expression in alliances Keir Hardie, [Jean] Jaures, Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht, and others built across Europe in the form of ‘a serious and very powerful anti-war movement,’ Corbyn continued. But, as epitomised by Labour MPs’ drowning out of Hardie’s Commons speech against the war in 1914 with the national anthem, the labour movement in Britain has also historically exhibited pro-imperialist and pro-militarist national impulses, conflicting with that internationalist commitment. ‘Ever since that time, there’s been a very fundamental debate in the labour movement about national interests versus international. And I think that debate is still relevant today as it ever was.’

Many ‘brilliant Labour MPs’ throughout history, Corbyn lamented, have maintained passionate support for social reform domestically while remaining ‘largely so silent on international issues’, or even outright supporting British imperialism. Despite his ‘immense respect for what the post-war Labour government achieved in this country’, the Islington North MP offered a frank condemnation of the Attlee government’s foreign policy record, detailing how British troops (alongside released Japanese POWs) crushed postwar anti-colonial mobilisations throughout Asia, maintaining British rule in Malaya and French and Dutch rule in Indochina and Indonesia respectively. The foundation by Brockway and his co-thinkers of successive anti-colonial campaigns, including the MCF, was intended to combat this combination of apathy toward and active support for colonialism within the labour movement.

Fenner Brockway as a young man, circa 1910. (George Grantham Bain Collection / Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons)

It’s difficult to overlook the similarities apparent between Corbyn and Brockway as political figures. Both have been voices for peace, anti-imperialism, and internationalism, often decidedly against the grain of Labour politics, just as both have been participants within a longer shared tradition of anti-colonial politics in Britain—one, Corbyn himself noted while speaking to Tribune after the lecture, ‘going back to Hugh Richards and many conscious trade unionists in the nineteenth century who were opposed to imperialism and colonialism, and before that opposed to slavery.’

Corbyn explained that Brockway was ‘a huge influence’ upon his own thinking as a fledgeling socialist. Having joined the Labour Party and CND whilst in school, Corbyn’s conception of anti-colonialist politics was deeply shaped by his two years teaching in Hugh Shearer’s Jamaica, and subsequent two travelling through a Latin America embroiled in revolutionary and counterrevolutionary struggles. ‘When I lived in Jamaica I started exploring African history,’ Corbyn recalled, and was particularly influenced by Guyanese Marxist Walter Rodney’s work on Europe’s underdevelopment of Africa.

Corbyn recalled the anger on the island on the day of Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech. ‘Remember, people in Jamaica had been recruited to work in London transport and the National Health Service by Enoch Powell and others, and then Enoch Powell made that disgusting Rivers of Blood speech against any migration into Britain.’ The insistence of a group of students that they would ‘look after’ him during a predicted anti-British backlash following the speech, Corbyn added, ‘taught me […] something about solidarity’.

A personal connection sustains the parallel. As a teenager in the 1960s, Corbyn only knew Brockway ‘as a name […] because of the racist attacks on him in Eton and Slough’, he said, having earlier recalled his mother’s upset at Brockway’s defeat to an immigrant-baiting Conservative election campaign in 1964 which blamed the Labour MP for Indian immigration to the constituency. But he would go on to personally engage with Brockway through War on Want and Liberation, particularly when the latter helped to found the Chile Solidarity Campaign following the military coup against Salvador Allende’s socialist government in 1973.

Among the former Labour leader’s recollections of the veteran anti-colonialist was a ‘beautiful memory’ from shortly before his death at 99 in 1988, when Brockway had offered to hold the young MP’s baby son while Tony Benn fed him. Through the years, Corbyn had come to know the veteran anti-colonialist, who, he added, always referred to him as ‘young man’, and whose powers of oratory remained unparalleled into his later years:

I just remember the days when Fenner was around, speaking at local Colonial Freedom events. And I remember him coming to an event in Highbury one afternoon in somebody’s garden. And he made a wonderful, very long speech to the extent the neighbours were disturbed. You could see them poking their heads over the wall, and then they decided that they quite liked it. So, they then got stepladders to come up near to the wall and go have a look and see what was actually going on.

In the twenty-first century, transnational campaigns like Black Lives Matter and the unionisation of platform workers challenging ‘the new techno-exploitation of the new working class’ from Bogota to London represent, for Corbyn, modern instantiations of this politics of international solidarity, which socialists following in the tradition of Fenner Brockway should uphold. Just as Brockway knew that formal national independence alone under the continuation of a global capitalist system was not enough, so too should campaigners today stand militantly against all forms of neocolonialism and racist oppression internationally, following the guidance laid down by figures like Fenner across a lifetime of political struggle.

‘As ever,’ Corbyn’s lecture concluded, ‘it’s international solidarity that matters; as ever, it’s information and sharing that information that matters. As ever, it’s about listening to each other and marching down that road together to try to create that better world. Fenner did that all his life. We have to do the same.’