Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History

The case of Fenner Brockway

Fifty years ago the third and most grotesque of the Moscow trials was staged. Once again the small forces of the Trotskyist movement were mobilised against the mighty propaganda machine of the Kremlin, the communist parties and their venal fellow travellers.

This was to be expected. But to make matters worse, the attempts to refute the allegations made against Trotsky in all of the trials were hampered by those who, whatever their political differences with Trotsky, may have been expected to have defended him against the Stalinists’ slanders. One such character was Fenner (now Lord) Brockway, a leading member of the Independent Labour Party, who refused either to support the Dewey Commission in Mexico or the British Committee for the Defence of Leon Trotsky. His refusal to take a firm stand against the slanders did not, however, spare the ILP’s co-thinkers in Spain, the POUM, from being massacred by the GPU.

The following critique of Brockway’s evasions was written by Hilary Sumner-Boyd under the pen-name of Charles Sumner, and appeared in the July 1937 edition of the British Committee for the Defence of Leon Trotsky’s Information Bulletin. Sumner-Boyd was secretary of the Committee and a leading member of the Marxist League.

At its annual conference in March, the Independent Labour Party passed a resolution on the Moscow trials which stated that “It is imperative that there should be an impartial investigation by representative socialists who have the confidence of the working class”, and that the investigation “should analyse both the detailed evidence given at the trials and the full reply which it is understood Leon Trotsky intends to publish shortly”. It is greatly to be feared that one member of the national council of the ILP at least – Fenner Brockway – has not been loyally carrying out this resolution. The subject at issue, which in the last analysis involves the character of the present government of the Soviet Union and the prospects of the world revolution, is so important, and the instructions of the annual conference of the ILP so clear, that it is necessary to establish the facts definitely in order that the members of the ILP may judge the matter for themselves.

Fenner Brockway’s connection with the proposed enquiry into the Moscow trials has all along been extremely ambiguous. In August, directly after the Zinoviev trial, the New Leader (28 August 1936), of which Brockway is the responsible editor, wrote: “We think it is the duty of the International Working Class Movement to appoint a Commission of Investigation. It should visit Trotsky in Norway, and also ask permission to visit Moscow and examine the evidence given at the trial.” A few months later, however, Brockway refused to sign the Open Letter (Manchester Guardian, Herald, etc., 1 December) appealing for such a Commission of Enquiry, although it bore the signatures of Brailsford, Horrabin and other working class leaders. Brockway has, moreover, consistently refused to have anything to do with the British Trotsky Defence Committee, which exists for the purpose of furthering an investigation of this kind. Apparently Brockway recoiled before the virulent campaign of slander carried on by the Communist Party against all who dared to question the evidence presented at the trials.

Then came the United Front Agreement, the programme of which expressly forbade all criticism of the Soviet Union and the policy of its Government. At this point Brockway's conduct, as it appears, became positively disingenuous. It seemed likely by this time that the efforts of the Committees in various countries, and especially in America, for an investigation into the trials, would be rewarded by the establishment of an International Commission of Enquiry. Brockway hastened to write to Norman Thomas, leader of the Socialist Party of the United States and a member of the American Trotsky Defence Committee, urging that a Commission of Enquiry be established, not to investigate the Moscow trials, but to examine “the role of Trotskyism in the working class movement”. An investigation of the Moscow trials, according to Brockway, would “merely arouse prejudice in Russia and Communist circles”!!! Now at the same time that he was making this preposterous proposal to Thomas, he also wrote to George Novack, secretary of the American Committee, proposing a Commission to enquire “into the charges against Trotsky”. Thus to the Committee officially Brockway makes one proposal, while to Thomas privately he makes a quite different and incompatible one. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that in this case Brockway was playing a double game. (The implications of Brockway’s proposal to Thomas are fully examined in Trotsky’s article which appears in this Bulletin.)

In spite of Brockway’s efforts to draw a red herring across the path, an International Commission of Enquiry was shortly afterwards established. Towards this Commission of Enquiry Brockway has consistently taken up an equivocal and dishonest attitude. He has himself perfectly expressed this in a letter of 9 April to the British Committee, in which he says: “We are prepared to collaborate with the Enquiry, but don’t use the word ‘endorse’ as that would be going too far”. Thus he does not “endorse” the Commission with which he is “collaborating”! This is the most frivolous temporising, unworthy of any serious revolutionary. It is cleat that Brockway is once again taking shelter behind his well-known opportunism: if in the future he thinks it advantageous to come out strongly against the Moscow trials, he can always point to his “collaboration” with the Commission; if, on the other hand, he continues to flirt with the Communist Party, he can declare that he never “endorsed” the Enquiry.

In order to elucidate the position as far as possible, the British Committee on 1 May addressed to Brockway the following questions:

1. Is the ILP and the International Bureau prepared to send a delegate to the Commission? If not, in what concrete forms do these organisations envisage their ‘collaboration’. 2. Are the ILP and the International Bureau prepared to accept the verdict of the Dewey Commission? (An impartial enquiry whose verdict is not unequivocally accepted by the organisations which ‘collaborate’ with it, is of course completely useless.) 3. As part of its ‘collaboration’ is the ILP prepared to give the widest publicity within its power … to the proceedings and the report of the Commission?

For nearly a month no reply was forthcoming. Then on 28 May, Brockway wrote and answered the first two questions in the negative, the third not at all – and at the same time doing his best to maintain his opportunist position by offering to “provide evidence” to the Commission. Except for the testimony of a few individuals like Maxton, Paton and Smith, which has already been given, it is difficult to see what “evidence” the parties adhering to the International Bureau could give. This offer is clearly a sop.

One reason only is offered why the International Bureau is unwilling to support the Commission of Enquiry (which Brockway persists in calling “American” as contrasted with “International”, presumably in order to make it appear less representative, although its personnel is in fact international). The reason given is that ”a disastrous mistake has been made in initiating the enquiry through a committee which describes itself as a ‘Committee for the Defence of Trotsky’” since this will present an “argument to those who condemn Trotsky which it will be impossible effectively to meet”. This contention is at once specious and disingenuous. To begin with, it is untrue that the Commission was initiated by the American Trotsky Defence Committee. The Commission was organised by the co-operative action of all the national Committees for an enquiry into the trials. Such committees exist not only in New York and London, but also in Paris, Antwerp, Prague and other European capitals. Since Brockway attaches so great an importance to the name, we ask him to note that the French Committee is called the Committee for an Enquiry into the Moscow, Trials, while those in Prague and Antwerp are known as Committees for Justice and Truth. In addition to these special committees, the American Socialist Party – affiliated to the Second International – and the Italian-American Anarchists also took an active part in setting up the Commission. When it had been agreed that the enquiry should be held in New York – in order to be within easy reach of the chief witness, Trotsky – the major part of the work of organising the Commission inevitably fell upon the American Committee, aided by the Socialist Party and the Anarchists. The fact that the enquiry is being held in the USA also explains the great preponderance of Americans serving on it, just as the personnel of its sub-commissions in Europe is largely composed of European representatives of working class organisations. Thus Brockway’s assertion that the Commission was initiated by the American Committee is simply false

Even supposing, however, that it were true, the contention that because it is called a committee for the defence of Trotsky it would provide “an argument to those who condemn Trotsky which it would be impossible effectively to meet” is utterly dishonest. In the first place, any commission of enquiry into the Moscow trials, as Brockway himself has pointed out, “will merely arouse prejudice in Russia and Communist circles” – and in all other circles which are willing to condemn Trotsky unheard. Secondly, how could this argument be more effectively met than by the International Bureau and its affiliated parties officially taking part in the enquiry, and thus giving it a still broader and less “partisan” basis? If Brockway and the Executive Committees which he represents were sincere in their desire to “collaborate” with the Commission and to get at the facts behind the trials, this is clearly the course they would have pursued. Thirdly, it is surely irrelevant by whom the Commission is initiated. The guarantee of its impartiality, and the criterion by which the working class movement will judge it, are to be found, first, it its own personnel – and Brockway himself was compelled in the New Leader for 9 April to pay the highest tribute to the unchallengeable probity and passion for justice of the members who had so far been decided upon – second, in the full reports of its public proceedings and examination of evidence, and third in its final summing up and verdict. To judge it on any other grounds is the part of the enemies and not the friends of truth. Finally, the verbal objection to the name “Committee for the Defence of Trotsky” is sheer casuistry. Neither logically nor psychologically does it imply a conviction of Trotsky’s innocence, but only a conviction that he may be innocent – and this is obviously required of any impartial committee. It is an age-old principle of civilised justice that no one is to be adjudged guilty until he has been given the opportunity to state his case before a properly qualified body, that is, before he has had a chance to present his defence. Even those who plead guilty are in civilised countries allowed defending counsel. But Trotsky has pleaded not guilty; and there are those – though apparently Mr Brockway is not one of them – who are not convinced that the case against him was proved beyond reasonable doubt at the Moscow trials, and who are therefore anxious to hear him state his case and to act in his “defence” in order to arrive at whatever may ultimately prove to be the truth.

These considerations are so clear that they cannot have escaped the subtle mind of Fenner Brockway. It is greatly to be regretted that he chose to disregard them and to act in a way that is at best cowardly and at worst dishonest. Now the GPU has transferred its activities to Spain and threatens the life of Brockway’s political allies in the POUM, Brockway has gone to their defence. But if he had come out courageously in support of the investigation into the Moscow trials, and had used his influence to secure for the Commission of Enquiry the support of the ILP and the International Bureau, it is more than possible that the GPU would not have dared, in the face of the indignation of the revolutionary working class, to use in Spain the methods which have brought about the Russian Thermidor.

Charles Sumner

Updated by ETOL: 28.6.2003