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Issue 54, March 2001

Sylvia Pankhurst: A life in radical politics

By Mary Davis, Pluto Press, 1999, £10-99
Reviewed by Katrine Williams

MARY DAVIS' book gives a summary of Sylvia Pankhurst's full life, placing it in its historical context. It is good to finally have a book that concentrates on Sylvia herself rather than being overshadowed by her mother and sister, Emmeline and Christabel, campaigning for the vote.

Sylvia took a conscious decision to ally herself with working class women and men struggling to change society. Davis shows the advanced ideas that Sylvia had for her time in the context of a number of labour movement leaders expressing misogynist, racist and pro-imperialist ideology.

Davis emphasises that the rift between Sylvia and her mother and sister was political. Sylvia was finally expelled from her sister Christabel's suffrage organisation after she spoke at a rally of 10,000 in the Albert Hall in support of the Dublin lockout, together with James Connolly. The political differences showed up even more starkly during the First World War when Emmeline and Christabel took a chauvinist pro-war stance. Davis demonstrates the importance of Sylvia's anti-war campaigning and the fact that she patiently discussed with her organisation - the East London Federation of Suffragettes - the role of imperialism and convinced them of these ideas by 1915. Sylvia also campaigned to relieve the increased misery of the working class women left behind. Davis examines the practical questions that Sylvia addressed, such as the need for equal pay for work of equal value and that male trade unions should be opened up to women members, as well as the support services that Sylvia initiated in the East End - two communal cost-price restaurants, a toy factory, a day nursery, and mother and baby clinics.


Davis shows the key role that Sylvia played in popularising the ideas of socialism through editing the weekly paper, the Workers Dreadnought. She consistently promoted internationalism and championed the cause of the Russian Revolution. This work contributed to the refusal of the East London dockers to load the Jolly George, the munitions ship bound for Russia. Sylvia's organisation was the first to affiliate to the Third International and Sylvia was one of the founders of the Communist Party in Britain.

However Davis correctly points out Sylvia's limitations. The socialist forces discussing the formation of the Communist Party were very small and divided. Sylvia raised the tactical questions of participation in elections and affiliating to the Labour Party as matters of principle that she would not budge on. Lenin dealt with the issues she was raising, with others, in Left Wing communism: an infantile disorder. As Davis points out Sylvia's errors were very much due to her impatience with the workers' organisations and her lack of theoretical understanding. She was very much an individual campaigner used to working in her own organisation. She soon came up against the leadership of the Communist Party and was expelled when she refused to hand over the Workers Dreadnought to party control.

Davis deals with Sylvia's consistent anti-racist and anti-imperialist approach. She was one of the first to see the dangers of fascism with Mussolini's march into Rome. Davis defends Sylvia's championing of the Ethiopian cause for the last 25 years of her life as consistent with her anti-racist campaigning work. Sylvia launched another weekly paper, the New Times and Ethiopia News, on the day Italian troops entered Addis Ababa. Very few socialists took up the cause of Ethiopia at the time as most attention was being given to Republican Spain. Davis sees Sylvia taking up this campaign because few others were and the fact that Sylvia saw the lack of support as tantamount to racism. Importantly Sylvia also exposed Britain's imperialist role over Ethiopia. When the country was liberated from fascist control the British occupied it, using the favoured divide and rule tactic of splitting Eritrea and Ogaden from Ethiopia, until 1954.


Davis' book is a useful one to read to find out more about the historical role Sylvia played in a very accessible way. Although covering her mistaken tactics in some areas, Davis makes it clear that Sylvia made a great contribution to the labour movement at the time especially in her tireless campaigning for women's' rights and against racism.

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