A pioneer socialist feminist

CHRISTINE THOMAS reviews a new biography of Sylvia Pankhurst, a major figure in the working class movement of the first decades of twentieth century Britain.

Sylvia Pankhurst: Natural Born Rebel

By Rachel Holmes

Published by Bloomsbury, 2020, £35

Rachel Holmes, author of Eleanor Marx: A Life (reviewed in Socialism Today No.186, March 2015) has once again chosen a subject she clearly finds sympathetic in her recent, extensive, biography of Sylvia Pankhurst. In fact, she immediately makes the link between the two female protagonists, crediting Eleanor Marx with having a formative influence on the 13 year-old Sylvia Pankhurst, who heard her speak in Manchester in 1896. Sylvia is portrayed as a principled, determined and brave fighter. A woman born into a middle-class family prepared to stand up for and put herself on the standpoint of the working class. A feminist, anti-racist, anti-imperialist and, for a brief period, revolutionary communist, who sacrificed her obvious talent as an artist and finally broke with her own family to fight for the causes she believed in.

Sylvia is best known as a campaigner for women’s suffrage, although having a much more famous mother (Emmeline) and sister (Christabel) her contribution to the fight for the vote has often been overlooked or obscured. It has to be said, however, that despite its length, this latest biography adds little to the existing literature on the subject. Even less attention has been paid over the years to her community and anti-war campaigning during the first world war, and her involvement in the foundation of the Communist Party of Great Britain, including her political debates with Vladimir Lenin. Here Rachel Holmes’ grasp of the political issues involved are weak and superficial, and she allows her sympathy for Sylvia Pankhurst as an historical female figure to override factual accuracy and criticism of her political positions.

Nevertheless, the fact that this biography has been published allows a new generation to become acquainted with Sylvia Pankhurst and a discussion to be opened up on her life and times.

Gender and class

The interrelationship between gender and class was central to Sylvia’s activism. Emmeline Pankhurst was an active member of the Independent Labour Party (ILP), as were most of the female founders of the Women’s Suffrage and Political Union (WSPU – or suffragettes) when it was first formed in 1903. They envisaged the WSPU as a union of women affiliated to the ILP fighting for votes for women. In the political context of the first decade of the twentieth century, this demand meant a limited franchise, as there was a property element to the existing male franchise that excluded many working-class men. Living in Manchester, all of the Pankhursts had initially been impacted by the struggle of the working-class suffragists in and around the mill towns of the north west. Unlike the conservative, middle-class leaders of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), which brought local suffrage unions together nationally in 1897, those working women mainly campaigned in the mills and the factories, taking their demands for the vote into their trade unions and the labour movement.

The main demand of the labour movement was for adult franchise. Many leaders and activists counterposed this to the demand for women’s suffrage, which they viewed as a demand for enfranchising middle-class women while excluding working-class men. On the other hand, prominent male labour leaders like Keir Hardie – first leader of the Labour Party and Sylvia’s lover for many years – and George Lansbury were totally supportive of women’s suffrage. The working-class suffragists argued that even extending the existing limited franchise would have granted the vote to a sizeable number of women workers. For them, the vote was not posed merely as a question of equal rights, but as a weapon for materially transforming the lives of working-class women. This was a viewpoint that was shared by both Sylvia Pankhurst and Hardie.

Sylvia was, in fact, the only one of the three prominent Pankhurst women to firmly maintain the link between women’s suffrage and the working-class movement. As another biographer Mary Davis puts it, Sylvia viewed the liberation of women as “indissolubly connected to the wider struggle to end class exploitation”. Imprisoned for the first time in 1906, at the age of 24, and shocked by the dire conditions that women were forced to endure inside Holloway, she emerged after two weeks determined to campaign for prison reform. As a consequence, she clashed with her sister who demanded that the WSPU be a single-issue campaign focused solely on obtaining votes for women. As Rachel Holmes explains, Christabel believed from an early stage that the needs and concerns of working-class women could be deferred until after the vote was won.

Sylvia, however, consistently emphasised the interests of working-class women and the importance of involving them in the campaign for the vote. In 1907 she embarked on a tour of female workplaces in Britain, sketching and painting the lives and terrible working conditions of women workers. Similarly, in her tours of the USA in 1911-12, she was more concerned with the strike of female garment workers in Chicago than the social events organised by her hosts, and attended the funeral of the 146 women killed in the fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York.

On her return from the US, she focused the attention of her campaigning on the working-class women of the East End of London, employed in the abysmally-paid, atrocious working conditions of the sweated industries, living in horrendous housing and giving birth to large numbers of children who had a high chance of dying in infancy. It was these women who she set out to organise in the East London Federation (ELF) of the WSPU.

Individual action or mass struggle?

The gulf between Sylvia’s vision of how the campaign for the vote should be organised and that of Emmeline and Christabel, grew ever wider, until she was finally expelled from the WSPU in 1914. And in those divergences there are many lessons to be drawn for the organisation of social movements today. There is no doubt that the WSPU was extremely successful in attracting and mobilising tens of thousands of women in the struggle to obtain the vote, and that many of those women showed exceptional personal courage in the face of police brutality, sexual violence and torture. None more than Sylvia, who was to endure more force-feeding than any other activist. Over a period of 18 months from 1913-14, she was imprisoned 13 times, brutally force fed twice a day, refusing not just to eat but to sleep too. Rachel Holmes chillingly catalogues the state repression that the suffragettes suffered at the behest of the Liberal government. Sylvia was so debilitated by her experiences that on occasions she was carried to meetings on a chair or a stretcher following her release from prison.

As Sylvia and countless other suffragettes were making these personal sacrifices for the cause, Christabel was running the WSPU from the comfort of exile in Paris. The decision to move from mass protests and rallies and heckling government ministers to more individualised direct action, involving stone throwing and window breaking, in the first instance, was taken from above without any democratic involvement of rank-and-file activists. In 1907, the organisation’s constitution had been scrapped and its democratic structures shut down.

Unelected and unaccountable, Emmeline and Christabel ran the movement as if they were waging a war deploying their own personal army. Rachel Holmes attributes the change in tactics and targeting of property to a desire to more easily escape the sexual violence the women were experiencing on protests at the hands of the police. More likely, as Mary Davis writes, it resulted from frustration and impatience at the government’s lack of action in equalising the franchise, especially after Herbert Asquith, a fierce opponent of women’s suffrage, became leader of the Liberals in 1908.

The new tactics, and the subsequent arrests and brutal treatment of the suffragettes in prison, heightened the publicity the movement attracted, but they also gained a momentum of their own. Each stunt had to outdo the one that went before, with the escalation eventually leading to serious individual acts of arson and destruction.

Sylvia was opposed to both the lack of democracy and accountability in the movement and the new turn, although she only voiced her criticisms publicly after the struggle for the vote had ended: “I would rather have died at the stake than say one word against the actions of those who were in the throes of the fight”. But for Sylvia, the old methods of struggle had not been exhausted: “The movement required not more serious militancy by the few, but a stronger appeal to the masses to join the struggle”.

If the WSPU orientated to the labour movement, Sylvia argued, “everything would develop faster”. But the WSPU turned its back on the labour movement in 1907, after the recently formed Labour Party failed to vote at its national conference in favour of women’s suffrage. Rather than engaging in the painstaking work necessary to win over the party and the trade unions, the WSPU leaders impatiently looked for shortcuts.

Expelled from the WPSU

As a consequence, the organisation became dominated by middle-class women and increasingly moved in a separatist direction. “The men must paddle their canoe, and we must paddle ours”, declared Christabel. “Ours is not a class movement at all. We take in everybody – the highest and the lowest, the richest and the poorest. The bond is womanhood”. But for Christabel the support of educated middle-class women was far more valuable than that of the working-class women who Sylvia was campaigning hard to win to the movement. Links with the workers’ movement risked alienating Conservative women.

Sylvia herself was finally expelled from the WSPU for speaking on a platform alongside the Irish revolutionary socialist James Connolly at a rally of over 10,000 people in the Albert Hall in support of the workers locked out by the bosses in Dublin, and to demand the release from prison of James Larkin, leader of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union.

In 1912 the Labour Party changed its position on women’s suffrage and the NUWSS, which had also evolved in the face of government betrayal over the vote, and due to pressure from working-class women, began to give support to Labour candidates in elections. A year later, the TUC also backed the franchise for women. This was against the backdrop of the fight for Home Rule for Ireland, and one of the most militant periods in the history of working-class industrial struggle in Britain – in which, wrote Leon Trotsky, the shadow of revolution was hanging over the country.

But it was precisely at that time that the WSPU instructed its tens of thousands of dedicated supporters to treat Labour candidates in elections no differently from Liberals and Tories, and moved towards furtive individual acts of destruction. Women had to wait until the end of the war to obtain the vote, and then it was only granted to those over 30, and with a property qualification. The full franchise wasn’t won until 1928.

Rachel Holmes writes that Sylvia Pankhurst “entered the first world war a socialist and reluctantly militant reformist and Labour–supporting suffragist and emerged from it a left-wing revolutionary communist”. She came out immediately in opposition to the war: “This war, like the Boer War and all the others we have known, is fought for material gains”. Initially, the East London Federation was divided over whether or not to support the war. But Sylvia was convinced, correctly, that the experience of war itself would shift the thinking of the women of the East End, and in 1915 the ELF adopted a clear anti-war position.

While her sister and mother ceased all suffrage campaigning, turning instead to nationalistic, jingoistic support for war conscription, Sylvia continued to agitate for women’s suffrage amongst the women of the East End. At the same time, she spoke at anti-war meetings organised by the labour movement, supported strikers, and campaigned against both the material hardships that working-class women were suffering due to the war, and the effects on them of the repressive war legislation that was implemented by the coalition government.

The ELF members expended a great deal of energy attempting to bring some relief to the economic suffering of local working-class women. They set up cost price restaurants, day centres and nurseries, mother and baby clinics – and even a boot and shoe factory, and a toy factory, as an alternative to the Queen Mary ‘sweatshops’ which gave work to unemployed women on poverty wages.

Rachel Holmes quotes one activist who in 1917 complained that the East London Federation of Suffragettes (ELFS) – as the organisation had become in 1916 – seemed to be more like a “charity organisation with suffrage tacked on”. There is no doubt that political activism can become barely distinguishable from charity if the primary focus is on acts of social relief or ‘mutual aid’, divorced from a broader strategy of how to achieve fundamental social and political change. But the local welfare provision that Sylvia and the ELFS were involved in did form part of a wider political engagement, which, as Rachel Holmes points out, was evolving in a revolutionary direction.

They fought for both local and national government to raise wages and provide welfare services, and only stepped in when they got no response in order to save working-class women and their children from immediate destitution. The co-operatives the ELFS created did not break even financially and could not survive economically for any length of time. Sylvia was aware of their limitations in a capitalist environment: “We believe that the co-operative millennium cannot be reached until capitalism is overthrown by the workers”.

Defender of the Russian revolution

On just how capitalism was to be overthrown Sylvia was unclear, but the explosive events of the war, both nationally and internationally, had a profound effect on her political outlook. With the trade union leaders declaring an industrial truce, and the Labour Party leaders supporting the war coalitions, the increasing war-time industrial militancy became expressed through the unofficial rank-and file shop stewards’ movement. Sylvia supported the strikes of engineers, dockers and miners, speaking at meetings on the Clyde and elsewhere, as well as the rent strikes organised by working-class women in Glasgow.

Her organisation also gave its backing to the less well-known strike of women workers on London transport for equal pay. The ELFS’s paper the Woman’s Dreadnought – which reflecting the organisation’s political evolution became the Workers’ Dreadnought in 1917 – in addition to reporting on all of the strikes taking place, carried articles from leading international Marxists such as Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht, John McLean, Lenin, Trotsky and other Bolshevik leaders.

In fact, Sylvia Pankhurst was one of the first political figures in Britain to support the Bolsheviks after the February 1917 Russian revolution, calling for the overthrow of the Kerensky government and the formation of a workers’ government based on the soviets. The Dreadnought gave its full backing to the subsequent October revolution and the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly, and in 1919 the Workers’ Socialist Federation (WSF) – another name change had taken place the year before – voted to affiliate to the recently formed Communist International. Sylvia rightly considered the soviets to be a more democratic and representative system than the existing parliaments with their franchise weighted against the working class and representatives free from recall between elections. “The old bourgeois parliamentarianism has seen its day” she declared.

This was true in Russia, but Sylvia made the mistake of believing that the soviet system could be directly transposed to Britain, irrespective of the objective political situation there. She didn’t understand that soviets cannot be created as potential organisations of political power merely through the will of revolutionaries, but instead develop through the experience of struggle in a revolutionary or pre-revolutionary period. In the 1918 general election she was still calling on people to vote Labour, declaring that “we shall be at the elections, but only to remind the workers that capitalism must go”. But she rapidly adopted an ultra-left, abstentionist position, directly counterposing the soviet model to the parliamentary system, and rejecting the necessity of standing workers’ candidates or voting in elections.

Her position was undoubtedly influenced by the support that the Labour leaders had given to the war, but also by syndicalist ideas – the belief that militant strike action would be sufficient to bring about fundamental political change – which were very strong amongst workers involved in the rank-and-file strikes during the war. She was also in contact with political parties with similar views in Europe, facilitated by her partner, the Italian anarcho-socialist Silvio Corlio.

Debating with Lenin

Sylvia’s ultra-leftist ideas brought her into political conflict with Lenin. Here Rachel Holmes is on dodgy ground. Viewing everything through the prism of gender Lenin is portrayed, without any supporting evidence, as a misogynist bully, who wrote the pamphlet Left-Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder in April 1920 specifically to belittle and politically control Sylvia Pankhurst. This is clearly nonsense. Ultra-leftism was a political trend in the international revolutionary movement of which Sylvia Pankhurst was just one of the proponents. In Left-Wing Communism, Lenin also directs his arguments against Willie Gallagher, a leader of the revolutionary shop stewards on the Clyde, as well as the, mostly male, ultra-left revolutionaries in other countries such as Germany and the Netherlands.

Drawing on the experiences of the Bolsheviks in Russia, Lenin argued that boycotting parliament was a tactic which could be correct in some circumstances but not in others. So, in a period in which the revolutionary tide was rapidly rising, and an insurrection and the formation of an alternative revolutionary government was a real possibility, as in 1905 in Russia, a boycott was the right call. But in 1907 and 1908, when the tide was ebbing, it was a serious mistake to boycott the Duma assembly established by the Tsar, despite its reactionary character.

Revolutionaries would be wrong to assume that just because they believe that something is obsolete the masses have drawn a similar conclusion. Marxists cannot base themselves only on the most advanced sections of the working class, but must also take into account the consciousness of the more inert workers. Changes in outlook are brought about “by the political experience of the masses, and never propaganda alone”.

It was true that the leaders of the Labour Party were, as Sylvia Pankhurst argued, pro-capitalist and would betray the workers once in power. But despite its leadership, the Labour Party had the affiliation of the major trade unions – who held decisive power within the structures of the party – and was increasingly seen by workers as their own party. In Britain, workers had not yet been through the experience of the Labour Party forming a government. This, explained Lenin, was an experience that workers would have to go through, and by going through it with them the revolutionaries would better be able to expose the Labour leaders’ real political nature and therefore help workers to more rapidly move in a revolutionary direction.

Sylvia and the CP

This political debate was taking place as the small revolutionary groups in Britain were involved in unity negotiations to form a single communist party. But they were still conditioned by syndicalist ideas, and previous propagandistic and sectarian methods of political work.

They were divided over two main questions – participation in parliament and affiliation to the Labour Party. The largest of these groups, the British Socialist Party (BSP), with around 6,000 members, agreed with Lenin both on participating in parliament and on a future united communist party affiliating to the Labour Party – of which the BSP was already an affiliate – although, as Lenin insisted, maintaining the right to free and independent communist activity. The Socialist Labour Party, the second largest, with about 1,000 members, and mainly based in Scotland, was divided.

Sylvia Pankhurst’s Workers Socialist Federation was the smallest of the groups, with a few hundred members mainly, although not exclusively, in the East End of London, now including both women and men. Its main strength was the Workers’ Dreadnought which had, for the WSF’s size, an impressive circulation of around 10,000 copies a week. With the South Wales Socialist Society, which had its roots in the South Wales coal mines, the WSF took the most ultra-left position opposing both participation in elections and affiliation to the Labour Party.

Following an extremely dangerous voyage to Russia to attend the second congress of the Communist International, Sylvia returned apparently in agreement that her organisation – which in a sectarian move had changed its name to the Communist Party (British Section of the Third International) – would dissolve itself and enter the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), whose inaugural conference was held in September 1920. Sylvia was imprisoned from October 1920 to May 1921 – for ‘inciting mutiny’ in the pages of the Workers’ Dreadnought – during which time her organisation had effectively collapsed into the CPGB.

Sylvia’s brief membership of the Communist Party came to an end when she was expelled in September 1921 for not agreeing either to the Workers’ Dreadnought officially becoming a paper under the political control of the CPGB, or to disband it. Instead, she wanted to continue to edit the paper as a forum to publicly air her growing political disagreements with the Communist International, rather than pursue them within the party itself.

Over subsequent years Sylvia was a convinced anti-fascist – grasping very early on the significance of the coming to power of Mussolini in Italy – and anti-imperialist. In particular she threw herself into support for the anti-colonial struggle in Abyssinia/Ethiopia which, until Mussolini’s invasion in 1935, had been the only independent state in Africa besides Liberia. Yet, although for most of her life she had fought bravely against poverty and injustice, she was totally uncritical about the extravagant and authoritarian rule of Ethiopia by Emperor Haile Salassie.

Sylvia Pankhurst died in Ethiopia in 1960, having spent the last four years of her life there. It was an extremely eventful life, definitely worthy of study, with many of the themes relevant to today in a new era of tumult. But the premise must be that it is viewed critically and within its real political context.