Fenner Brockway

Fenner Brockway

Archibald Fenner Brockway, the son of Christian missionary, was born in Calcutta on 1st November 1888. While being educated at the School for the Sons of Missionaries at Blackheath he became interested in politics. He worked for the Liberal candidates for the 1905 London County Council elections.

After leaving school he worked at the offices of Quiver, a monthly magazine published by Cassells. He retained an interest in politics and in the 1906 General Election, worked as a Liberal sub-agent in Tunbridge Wells.

Brockway also began to read the work of left-wing writers such as William Morris, Robert Blatchford, George Bernard Shaw, H. G. Wells and Edward Carpenter. He also found work on the Daily News and in 1907 he was sent to interview James Keir Hardie. Brockway spent an hour listening to Hardie's views on a wide range of different subjects including his experiences as a child working in a colliery. He later recalled that he went to Hardie "as a Young Liberal and left him a Young Socialist".

Brockway joined the Social Democratic Federation, but left after a few months as a result of hearing a speech made by one of its leaders, Harry Quelch. Brockway transferred his allegiance to the Independent Labour Party (ILP). He also attended Fabian Society meetings and was particularly impressed by a lecture by George Bernard Shaw on How to Achieve the Superman.

As a staff reporter on the Christian Commonwealth, each week Brockway was allowed to interview a radical thinker. This enabled him to meet people such as William Anderson, Edward Carpenter, H. G. Wells, and George Bernard Shaw. Anderson was impressed with Brockway and invited him to become assistant editor of the ILP newspaper, The Labour Elector.

In 1913, the twenty-five year old Brockway was promoted to editor of the Labour Elector. Brockway was a pacifist and strongly opposed British involvement in the First World War. Initially this hurt circulation but within a year the sales of the Labour Elector had gone from 40,000 to 80,000.

When the First World War was declared Fenner Brockway and Clifford Allen formed the No-Conscription Fellowship (NCF), an organisation that encouraged men to refuse war service. The NCF required its members to "refuse from conscientious motives to bear arms because they consider human life to be sacred." As Martin Ceadel, the author of Pacifism in Britain 1914-1945 (1980) pointed out: "Though limiting itself to campaigning against conscription, the N.C.F.'s basis was explicitly pacifist rather than merely voluntarist.... In particular, it proved an efficient information and welfare service for all objectors; although its unresolved internal division over whether its function was to ensure respect for the pacifist conscience or to combat conscription by any means"

Other members of the NCF included Bertrand Russell, Philip Snowden, Robert Smillie, C. H. Norman, William Mellor, Arthur Ponsonby, Guy Aldred, Alfred Salter, Duncan Grant, Wilfred Wellock, Maude Royden, Max Plowman, John Clifford, Cyril Joad, Alfred Mason, Winnie Mason, Alice Wheeldon, William Wheeldon, John S. Clarke, Arthur McManus, Hettie Wheeldon, Storm Jameson and Duncan Grant.

In August 1915 the Labour Leader office in Manchester was raided and Brockway was charged with publishing seditious material. The government lost its case but soon afterwards bookshops in Manchester and London were raided and material produced by the Independent Labour Party were seized. So also was an anti-armament play that Brockway had written called The Devil's Business.

In 1916 Fenner Brockway and Clifford Allen were arrested for distributing a leaflet criticizing the introduction of conscription. When they refused to pay their fines, they were sentenced to two months in Pentonville Prison. Soon after being released, Brockway was re-arrested under the Military Service Act. As if he were a traitor, Brockway was held for one night in the Tower of London. He was later transferred to a dungeon at Chester Castle and finally served his sentence in Walton Prison in Liverpool. Brockway continued to write, and after meeting a soldier imprisoned for desertion, wrote an account of the Battle of Passchendaele. The article was discovered and Brockway was sentenced to six days on bread and water.

Fenner Brockway, like most other conscientious objectors, was not released from prison until six months after the First World War came to an end. Brockway had been replaced by Katharine Glasier as editor of the Labour Leader, and so he concentrated on his work as organizer of the India League (an organisation campaigning for Indian Independence) and chairman of the No More War Movement. During the 1926 General Strike Brockway became editor of the TUC newspaper, the British Worker.

In the 1929 General Election Brockway was the successful Labour Party candidate at East Leyton. Brockway opposed the formation of the National Government and as a result lost his seat in the 1931 General Election. The following year Brockway and the Independent Labour Party disaffiliated from the Labour Party.

With the arrival of Fascist dictators in Europe he began to have doubts about the political merits of pacifism. He was involved in organising resistance to Francisco Franco in Spain and Adolf Hitler in Germany. As he pointed out: "If I were in Spain at the moment, I should be fighting with the workers against the Fascist forces."

Brockway was a supporter of the International Brigades during the Spanish Civil War and in the summer of 1937 visited Barcelona. He met George Orwell and reported that the "Communist Party newspapers contain wildest attacks on POUM as a Fascist organisation and demanding the death penalty. He also had discussions with Francisco Largo Caballero who told him that the "Communist Party is using every means to destroy its political opponents, not refraining from manipulating justice and power over the police."

Brockway's experience of the Spanish Civil War had an impact on his pacifist views: "There is no doubt that the society resulting from an anarchist victory (during the Spanish Civil War) would have far greater liberty and equality than the society resulting from a fascist victory. Thus I came to see that it is not the amount of violence used which determines good or evil results, but the ideas, the sense of human values, and above all the social forces behind its use. With this realisation, although my nature revolted against the killing of human beings just as did the nature of those Catalonian peasants, the fundamental basis of my old philosophy disappeared."

Brockway also supported Britain's involvement in the Second World War. He later wrote: "It was in all my nature opposed to war. I could never see myself killing anyone and had never held a weapon in my hands. But I saw that Hitler and Nazism had been mainly responsible for bringing the war and I could not contemplate their victory. In a sense, the Spanish Civil War settled this dilemma for me; I could no longer justify pacifism when there was a fascist threat."

After the war Fenner Brockway rejoined the Labour Party and in the 1950 General Election won at Eton & Slough. In the House of Commons Brockway was a member of the left-wing group Tribune Group led by Aneurin Bevan. Brockway disagreed with Bevan on the issue of nuclear weapons and in 1958 joined with Bertrand Russell, Victor Gollancz, J. B. Priestley, Canon John Collins and Michael Foot to form the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND).

Barbara Castle, Anthony Greenwood, Fenner Brockway andTony Benn organizing a petition against Apartheid in South Africa
Barbara Castle, Anthony Greenwood, Fenner Brockway and
Tony Benn organizing a petition against Apartheid in South Africa

Brockway's left-wing views upset some of his constituents and he lost his seat in the 1964 General Election. Brockway accepted a life peerage and gave selective support to the Labour Government (1964-1970) in the House of Lords. During this period Brockway was also chairman of the Movement for Colonial Freedom. He continued to campaign for world peace and was president of the British Council for Peace in Vietnam and chairman of the World Disarmament Campaign (1979-88).

Brockway wrote over twenty books on politics. This including four volumes of autobiography: Inside the Left (1942), Outside the Right (1963), Towards Tomorrow (1977) and 98 Not Out (1986).

Fenner Brockway died on 28th April 1988, six months before his 100th birthday.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) In 1907 Fenner Brockway interviewed James Keir Hardie for the Daily News.

He told me how he had gone down the mine as a boy, wished to be a journalist, taught himself shorthand with a pin on a slate, organised the first miners' union at this pit of virtual slavery; how how he was nominated as Liberal Parliamentary candidate but turned it down because he was a working man. He told me of his formation of the Scottish Labour Party, how he became a Socialist after meeting European miners' leaders, how he initiated the Independent Labour Party in 1893 and was elected to Parliament for West Ham. He described how he worked to win the Trade Union Movement to political independence and his gratification when Labour was returned as a group in 1906, and then, his voice warming, explained what Socialism meant to him, his confidence in its triumph, and his belief that by international action the workers of Europe would prevent war. I cannot convey the depth of his ringing Scottish accent as he declared his faith. I went to him as a Young Liberal and left him a Young Socialist

(2) Fenner Brockway was an active supporter of votes from women. In his autobiography Towards Tomorrow, he commented on the tactics that were used.

It was ironical that Lloyd George, when he gave the vote to women in 1919 (though even then not on the same terms as men) declared that they deserved it for their war service and this was widely accepted as the explanation of their success in 1919. I regard this as a myth. I believed they would have won the vote earlier and on better terms if there had been no war. If the General Election due in 1915 had taken place there is little doubt that the supporters of women's suffrage would have been in a majority in the House of Commons.

(3) Fenner Brockway was sent to prison in 1916 for refusing to be conscripted. He was one of the most popular speakers at public meetings organised by pacifists during the First World War.

Every individual gives loyalty to something which counts more than anything else in life. In most men and women this supreme allegiance is inspired by national patriotism; if their Government becomes involved in a war it is a matter of course they will support it. The socialist conscientious objector has a group loyalty which is as powerful to him as the loyalty of the patriot for his nation. His group is composed of workers of all lands, the dispossessed, the victims of the present economic system, whether in peace or war.

(4) In 1916 Fenner Brockway was imprisoned for refusing to be recruited to the armed forces.

After a brief stay at Scotland Yard I was taken to the Tower of London and locked in a large dungeon where there were twenty or so prisoners, mostly sitting or lying on a sloping wooden platform, which I learned was a communal bed, running the length of the longer wall. Six of the prisoners, still in civilian clothes, were objectors.

I was to be taken to Chester Castle and my wife travelled to Chester with me. The Cheshire Regiment did not have a good reputation for its treatment of objectors. The previous week the newspaper had carried reports of how George Beardsworth and Charles Dukes, both subsequently prominent trade union leaders, had been forcibly taken to the drilling ground and kicked, punched, knocked down and thrown over railings until they lay exhausted, bruised and bleeding. I was a little apprehensive.

(5) Fenner Brockway was the editor of the British Worker during the 1926 General Strike.

The General Strike failed because the TUC never believed in it; the Government forced it on them by the impulsive Downing Street action. It was said the strike was beginning to break, but in most industrial centres the problem was not to keep the workers out but to keep the exempted workers in. The betrayal of the miners was the worst consequence. Under the leadership of Yorkshire Herbert Smith, the chairman, dour and of few words, and of Welsh Arthur Cook, the secretary, extrovert and of many words, they decided to carry on alone. I came to admire Cook greatly. In contrast with many union leaders he never left the rank and file. During the nine months' struggle he refused a salary, taking the lock-out pay and nothing else. He was loved by his men, and never spared himself, travelling night after night from coalfield to coalfield. Admittedly he failed and the miners were driven back to work at cruel wage reductions. Admittedly a shrewder negotiator might have gained a better result earlier.

(6) Martin Ceadel, Pacifism in Britain 1914-1945 (1980)

Spain proved an even more damaging blow to socialist "pacifism" than Abyssinia. Striving to keep the W.R.I. pacifist, Runham Brown predicted stoically to Ponsonby on 27 September 1936: In these days of crisis may will depart from us but we shall be proved right and ultimately we shall win. Our job is to keep our Movement steady. We now have to face a more difficult position raised by the Spanish War. Some like Fenner Brockway will leave us, but we shall go on.

Spain did, indeed, complete Brockway's gradual process of realization, which had begun with the Russian revolution and was later considerably furthered by the political and economic crisis of 1931, that the absolute socialist pacifism which had led him to found the N.C.F. in 1914 was, in reality, an extreme socialist pacificism.

(7) Fenner Brockway, Inside the Left (1942)

I had long put on one side the purist pacifist view that one should have nothing to do with a social revolution if any violence were involved... Nevertheless, the conviction remained in my mind that any revolution would fail to establish freedom and fraternity in proportion to its use of violence, that the use of violence inevitably brought in its train domination, repression, cruelty.

(8) Fenner Brockway, Inside the Left (1942)

There is no doubt that the society resulting from an anarchist victory (during the Spanish Civil War) would have far greater liberty and equality than the society resulting from a fascist victory. Thus I came to see that it is not the amount of violence used which determines good or evil results, but the ideas, the sense of human values, and above all the social forces behind its use. With this realisation, although my nature revolted against the killing of human beings just as did the nature of those Catalonian peasants, the fundamental basis of my old philosophy disappeared.

(9) Fenner Brockway, Towards Tomorrow (1977)

The war forced on me a dilemma. I was in all my nature opposed to war. I could never see myself killing anyone and had never held a weapon in my hands. But I saw that Hitler and Nazism had been mainly responsible for bringing the war and I could not contemplate their victory. In a sense, the Spanish civil war had settled this dilemma for me; I could no longer justify pacifism when there was a Fascist threat. It had not quite settled it. I was prepared to defend the workers' revolution in Barcelona, but I had no wish to defend Britain's capitalist regime or its imperialist government. I had to compromise. I could not oppose the war unreservedly as I had in 1914, but I would cooperate in civilian activities, and I would work for the ending of the war by Socialist revolution - democratic one hoped.

(10) Fenner Brockway, Towards Tomorrow (1977)

Hitler triumph had it not been for the epic resistance of her people to the Nazi invasion. Stalingrad was immortal. Churchill's greatness one had to recognise. I did so profoundly as I listened to his broadcast welcoming Russia as an ally despite his hatred of invasions. My thoughts were continually with my associates in France, Belgium, Holland, Norway, typifying many others in their courageous resistance. We were never invaded, never occupied, but our men and women, British and Commonwealth, held fast when all seemed lost. America's intervention was decisive. At rare moments one could escape from tension to be philosophic and recognise that a similar courage, however bad the cause, was shown on the other side. One could also contemplate on the tragedy that all this heroism, all this acceptance of suffering, was directed to war.

Towards the end of the war the mood of the people began to change. They had demonstrated national unity against Nazism, but they became increasingly alive to Britain's social inequalities and injustices. The wives of soldiers began to tell of letters expressing a growing resentment among servicemen of the class division between officers and the ranks and of a rising anger against injustice in a society which they had been fighting to defend. Our dream of Socialism after the war was becoming real; we glimpsed the gathering clouds but we did not foresee the storm which would sweep the Churchill Government away when peace came. That was to surprise us all.