By Susan Carlyle and Sean Matgamna (reposted from Workers’ Liberty)
The development of industrial society threw masses of women into the factories. Whole industries, like the cotton industry, had a majority of women and children workers, existing in terrible conditions of super exploitation; as Marx put it in Capital, “Robbed of all that had previously been considered necessary for life”.(1)
Middle-class women, on the other hand, were thrown into the home. Whereas previously such women, wives of artisans and so on, had taken part together with their husbands and children in production, now they became ladies of leisure, locked into the home. They were deprived of education — that is, deprived of the possibility of acquiring the professional qualifications necessary to break out of the home.
The political and legal position of women was basically one of a denial of citizenship. Women were shut out from most of “the rights of man and the citizen” won by men over hundreds of years in great historical events like the English (mid-17th century) and the French (end of the 18th century) revolutions. The bourgeois revolution largely passed even bourgeois women by. Bourgeois women had far fewer formal rights than proletarian men.
Not only were women denied the vote; their general legal situation until the end of the 19th century must seem scarcely believable today.
Married women had almost no legal existence. On marrying, the woman passed from being her father’s property to fall under her husband’s authority, her property and earnings automatically passing to him. She could not enter into contracts, sue or be sued. This system was called “coverture”; essentially, it was the absorption of the woman’s legal identity into her husband’s citizenship rights, as a subordinate part of them and of him.
Until an Act in 1857 removed that right, a husband could get a writ of habeas corpus to compel anyone sheltering his runaway wife to deliver her up to him, and he could unleash the full vengeance of the law against a refusal to comply. It was not until the Married Women’s Property Act of 1882 that a woman gained possession of her own earnings. Until 1891 a husband had the right to kidnap and imprison his wife.
Until 1857, divorce was only possible through a very expensive private Act of Parliament. The Act of 1857 allowed the husband divorce on grounds of adultery; the woman was required to prove him guilty of the rape of another, of sodomy, of bestiality, or of adultery in conjunction with incest, bigamy, cruelty or desertion.
In the early industrial period, proletarian women as well as all other proletarians were deprived of the vote. Bourgeois and aristocratic women, members of the classes that did have full citizenship, were pointedly and brutally discriminated against compared to the men of their class, and many felt and resented it.
To a very considerable extent, the struggle of women throughout the 19th and into the 20th century was a struggle to catch up with the citizenship rights achieved by the men of the ruling class and with those elements of citizenship won by men in the great bourgeois revolutions. It was not until 1944 that women in France achieved the vote, and in Switzerland not until 1971!
To alleviate and to change the condition of gross inequality, the vote became a focus for action — a tool to be grasped, a lever to open up other changes. For proletarian women, as we shall see, the vote was also seen as a lever to achieve general social legislation in the interests of the working class.
The vote was extended piecemeal to broader layers of the population, radiating from the bourgeoisie outwards. Very few countries in Europe could be described as representative democracies, in terms even of a purely male electorate, until after World War I. In Germany, for example, the Reichstag was elected on an unequal suffrage, in which the vote of a worker had less weight than other votes, and, anyway, did not have real power.
In England, the first mass working class movement in history, Chartism, was organised in the 1830s and ‘40s around demands for the vote. Even after the end of Chartism, suffrage agitation continued to be a major part of the concern of the labour movement, of the trades unions associated with the radical wing of the Liberal Party.
In the last third of the 19th century, the political labour movement in countries such as Germany, Austria and Belgium took shape to a serious degree around a struggle for the vote.
In Britain, bourgeois democracy was far from fully developed. Not only did the House of Lords, an unrepresentative, hereditary, caste institution, have an absolute veto over the elected House of Commons, the electorate for the Commons itself was limited. As late as 1911 only 59% of Britain’s adult male population had the vote (that is, some eight million out of a total population of 41 million), and there were seven different types of franchise in operation. Adult sons living with families, male lodgers, the fathers of families living in lodgings — all these were disenfranchised. The demand that all adult men should have the vote was politically important until after World War I.
The labour movement, under the influence of John Stuart Mill liberalism, was generally in favour of adult suffrage, advocating a vote for all males and females over 21. But it was not usually willing to fight very seriously for the rights of women.
In this situation, a recurring issue in the women’s rights movement was one of the relationship between non-working-class women struggling for citizenship and proletarians of both sexes who were also struggling for citizenship. For women demanding the vote, the question was continually posed of how to relate to the demand for adult suffrage. Should suffragists strive to attain citizenship rights for all disenfranchised women and in alliance with disenfranchised men? Or would they demand only the inclusion of women possessing the required property qualifications in the existing differential suffrage?
This issue became the focus of a sharp class differentiation within the women’s suffrage movement.
The early women’s suffrage movement
In 1867 John Stuart Mill attempted in the House of Commons to move an amendment to the Second Reform Act which gave the vote to large numbers of non-bourgeois men living in towns — to include women in its provisions. It was defeated. Thereafter, from 1870 to 1878, and from 1884 onwards — save 1899 and 1901 — there were Private Members’ Bills to grant women suffrage on the same basis as men.
In 1884 Gladstone threatened to abandon the County Franchise Bill — which did for the rural electorate what the Reform Act of 1867 had done for the cities and towns — if an amendment granting votes to women was carried: 104 Liberal MPs pledged to women’s suffrage turned tail. In 1897, a Bill was passed by 71 votes; in 1904, by 114; in 1908, by 179. These votes, usually on first readings, came to nothing because the government would not provide time in the House of Commons to get the Bills through. In addition, from 1886 to 1905, the Tories, with one short break in the 1890s, were continually in office.
The suffrage movement had a continuous existence from the 1860s, being particularly strong amongst the advanced Liberals of Manchester, where the National Society for Women’s Suffrage was led by Lydia Becker, a Manchester Liberal. In 1888, a secession created the Central National Society for Women’s Suffrage, consisting of those who did not stand politically neutral and were willing to admit women’s suffrage groups linked to the Liberal Party. In 1889 a Women’s Franchise League emerged, also linked with the radical wing of the Liberal Party. Richard and Emmeline Pankhurst hived-off, when Lydia Becker backed a Tory MP, Forsythe, who moved a limited womens’ suffrage Private Member’s Bill, which included a clause that read: “…providing that nothing in this Act shall enable women under coverture to register or to vote”, thus excluding married women. In 1890 Lydia Becker died and was succeeded by Millicent Garrett Fawcett, who was more “advanced” and more militant. In 1897, 16 suffrage societies united in a National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies.
By 1909 the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies had 70 member societies. By 1913 it had 400 affiliated organisations, making it one of the biggest women’s suffrage movements in the world.
From its inception in 1868 the Trades Union Congress came out for women’s suffrage as part of its demand for adult suffrage. In Lancashire, a working women’s suffrage movement developed, which demanded universal adult, male and female, suffrage.
The dispute between advocates of universal suffrage and advocates of extending the existing system to a small stratum of women who possessed the required property qualification was fierce and often bitter. It is still echoed in the work of some historians who falsely accuse socialists and labour movement advocates of universal suffrage of hostility or indifference to winning the vote for women. The posthumous reputation of the Marxist Social Democratic Federation (from 1912, the British Socialist Party), which fought for universal suffrage, still suffers unjustly from the still resonating echoes of that old dispute.
The existing Parliamentary franchise disenfranchised perhaps one in every two working-class men, as well as all women in elections. Suffrage societies that advocated extending the vote to women on the same basis as men, therefore proposed a reform that would leave the big majority of working-class women still without the vote. The viewpoint of the advocated of universal suffrage was expressed like this by Mary MacArthur, organiser of the Women’s Trade Union League:
“We have… a tremendous suffrage movement in England, but unfortunately the sympathisers of that movement are mainly middle-class, leisured women. They are asking for the suffrage on a limited basis, a basis that would not enfranchise the women we represent. If the Bill was passed, not 5% of the women we represent… would get the vote.” (Daily Herald, 4 November 1913; cited in Winslow.)
According to Sylvia Pankhurst (The Suffragette Movement, p.416), the members of the suffrage movement were always very middle-class.
The opposition to women’s suffrage
To understand the opposition to the vote for women, one thing needs to be grasped: people then took the vote more seriously than it is taken now. The vote and formal democracy had not yet been fully domesticated and tamed; the bourgeoisie had not yet got used to living with them. Advocates and opponents of votes for women expected that there would be social consequences to granting women the vote.
The opponents of women’s suffrage were both numerous and powerful. They consisted of professional party politicians, unoccupied “men about town”, naval and military officers, and the brewing interest, which was closely linked with the Conservative Party.
Not only was there a general conservative resistance to the enfranchisement of women, there were also specific fears of what women would do with the vote. It was feared that there would be drastically puritanical social reforms which would interfere with the liberties of men, especially temperance legislation and severe punishment for sex offenders — causes that were vocally very much an aspect of the women’s movement both in Britain and America. It was feared that in a war-like world, the women’s vote would be a vote placing peace before the interests and imperatives of the Empire. This was a consistent theme from anti-suffrage propaganda, that women, not being warriors, could not be responsible custodians of the Empire. It may indeed have influenced the future extreme chauvinism of both militant and non-militant suffragists in World War I.
There was also “radical” opposition to women having the vote, on the continent and probably amongst sections of the Liberal Party in Britain.
Where some opponents feared women’s suffrage as they feared all radical demands to extend the suffrage, sections of the left feared that women, granted the vote, would be a tool in the hands of the churches and of reaction. Such attitudes infected the socialist movement or inhibited it.
This was so even in Belgium, where, to gain the suffrage, the labour movement had resorted to revolutionary tactics. A series of general strikes had in 1893 forced manhood suffrage on the ruling class (which then cheated by using a plural voting system as counter-balance). The Belgian Labour Party had a demand for adult suffrage in its programme. In 1902, during a struggle against the plural voting system for men, it abandoned the immediate demand for women’s suffrage as the price of an alliance with the Liberal Party, which, above all, feared clerical power.
(Opposition to such politics was part of the work of the left wing of the European socialist movement. Rosa Luxemburg, commenting on the betrayal of women workers by the Belgian socialists, pointed out that unless the socialist movement could rouse up the women there could be no socialist transformation of society. Rosa Luxemburg, “On the Belgian General Strike”, Permanent Revolution No.1, spring 1973.)
Such “radicals” paralleled from the other side the sort of position the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) — which abandoned working-class women — was to adopt on the question of adult suffrage.
Richard Marsden Pankhurst, a Manchester barrister of a radical liberal and then socialistic persuasion, was active in the suffrage movement as early as the 1860s. In 1870 he drafted a Bill to give women the vote on the same terms as men according to the 1867 Act. It passed a second reading in the House of Commons, after which Gladstone stopped it going further.
This Bill was the basis of the subsequent private members’ initiatives until Becker and Forsythe amended it to exclude married women in the 1880s. Together with Emmeline Goulden, whom he married in 1879, he was active on such questions as the agitation that secured the Married Women’s Property Act in 1882.
In the 1880s, the Pankhursts moved to the left, until they finally broke with the Liberal Party. When the Independent Labour Party (ILP) was founded in 1893, they became prominent members. Richard Pankhurst was one of 28 candidates from the ILP who contested the 1895 General Election, standing for Gorton in Manchester. He died in 1898.
Emmeline Pankhurst continued in the same activities and was elected as a member of the National Administrative Council of the ILP. She was a close friend of Keir Hardie, the pioneer of independent (from the Liberal Party machine) working class representation in the House of Commons.
In fact, the Pankhurst family was saturated with the general socialism of the ILP and what is interesting is not so much that Sylvia Pankhurst retained, as in fact she did, these basic attitudes, and deepened and developed them, but that Emmeline and Christabel veered sharply away from the labour movement under the influence of the politics they developed in the course of the agitation for women’s suffrage that they undertook after 1903.
The Women’s Social and Political Union
Founded on October 10 1903 by half a dozen women meeting at the Pankhursts’ house in Manchester, the WSPU emerged against the background of a strong and growing suffrage movement, that included a working class based movement in Lancashire. Its militancy was a response to long pent-up frustration at decades of repeated victories for First Readings of House of Commons Bills to give women the vote that led nowhere. Its perennial slogan reflected that experience: “The vote this year.” Its programme, like that of all the non-working-class suffrage societies, was for immediate extension of the suffrage to women on the existing property basis and irrespective of all considerations about adult suffrage; soon it would counterpose such demands to adult suffrage.
Christabel Pankhurst’s first mentors on the question of women’s suffrage were Eva Gore-Booth (sister of the Irish socialist-nationalist, Constance Markievicz) and Esther Roper, who in 1897 had founded the North of England Women’s Suffrage Society. The NEWSS was distinguished from most other suffrage societies affiliated to Millicent Garrett Fawcett’s National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies by a concentration on recruiting working-class women. It prefigured what Sylvia Pankhurst would do in east London. Christabel Pankhurst would turn violently away from such concerns.
The early WSPU women — the Pankhursts, Mrs Despard, Mrs Cobden-Sanderson, etc. —were all members and supporters of the Independent Labour Party. Keir Hardie, founder of the ILP, gave the WSPU encouragement and support, found it money and premises, and agitated for its demands in Parliament. Hardie found for Mrs Pankhurst the Pethick-Lawrences, rich ILPers with much resources to devote to the WSPU. According to one commentator, “Without the support of Keir Hardie the WSPU could never have flourished as it did” (Antonia Raeburn).
The essential, new, feature of the WSPU was that as a body originating in the labour movement it focused on votes for women now on the existing class-biased basis, as distinct from adult suffrage. This implied from the beginning a turn away from the labour movement.
The second new feature was militancy. The Pankhursts had been involved in militant activity as early as 1892 in their conflict over votes for married women. Sir Alfred Rellit secured a place for a Bill to enfranchise spinsters and widows, and at a St Janus Hall meeting in support of it, the National Women’s Franchise League stormed the platform of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies. In 1904, six months after the WSPU was inaugurated, Mrs Pankhurst protested outside the House of Commons after one more Women’s Suffrage Bill had been “talked out”.
In the autumn of 1905, Mary Kenney and Christabel Pankhurst protested at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester at a Liberal election meeting, demanding to know what the Liberal Party intended to do for women’s votes if they won the imminent election. They were imprisoned briefly, bringing welcome notoriety and publicity to both themselves and the cause. This action inaugurated the policy of vigorous pursuit of Liberal leaders and MPs, insistent questions and demonstrations at their meetings and, in general, harassment. The membership of the WSPU grew as Liberal women became disaffected by their Party’s conduct in office from January 1906.
Something over 1,000 women were jailed for militant action in the period up to World War I. But the suffragettes, as the militants became known, in distinction from the suffragists, were never more than a small minority of those women organised and active to get the vote.
The watershed in Britain and for the fortunes of the WSPU was the election of a Liberal government at the end of 1905 and the formation of the Campbell-Bannerman government. It aroused great expectations and rapidly disappointed them.
Campbell-Bannerman himself favoured votes for women but he was not prepared to fight to make this a government measure. He received a deputation of suffragists — from suffrage and co-operative societies, temperance workers, Conservatives, Liberals, socialists and trade unionists — claiming to represent 260,000 organised women, but nothing came of it. Herbert Asquith, Home Secretary and, after 1908, Prime Minister, was the main opponent inside the Cabinet of votes for women; he may have been influenced by some of the considerations influencing radical opponents, though he was no radical.
The Great Unrest
Soon after 1906 Britain entered a prolonged crisis, culminating on the eve of World War I in a serious threat of civil war over Irish Home Rule. These were the years of the “labour unrest”, and of a widespread “militancy” by other groups. The WSPU was shaped by and in that situation.
The election of the Liberal government triggered a Constitution Crisis in which the Liberal Government decided to break once and for all the power of the House of Lords to veto the decisions of the elected chamber, and did so in a bitter conflict in 1909-10.
The Catholic Irish had been pressing for Home Rule, and since 1886 the Liberals had been committed to it. The 1906 government was to wait until it had lost its majority before in 1912 introducing a new Home Rule Bill. When it did so it provoked a revolt, not only from the Ulster Unionists but also among big sections of the Tory Party. They encouraged the Ulster Unionists to arm and drill, and backed their declaration that they would not be bound by the enactments of the government in London or the government it might set up in Dublin.
They encouraged officers in the army to refuse to obey orders. In fact, they behaved as “revolutionaries of the right”: Lenin commented from afar that they had given a good lesson to the English workers on how to treat the constitution with revolutionary contempt.
Others, from Irish nationalists to Dublin strikers to the east London suffrage movement led by Sylvia Pankhurst, would take the militancy of the Ulster Unionists as a model and organise their own private armies.
The labour movement was disappointed with the performance of its newly independent MPs, of whom 40 were elected in 1906. They became a tail of the Liberal Party in the Commons. This experience, together with the fact that real wages were falling in this period, generated a wave of industrial militancy, the so-called “labour unrest” which was often of a revolutionary syndicalist temper. The great general workers’ unions thrown up after the “match-girls’” and dockers’ strikes of 1888-9 had fallen into the control of self-serving non-militant leaders.
It was against this background of crisis, militancy, extra-constitutional activity and a Liberal government that had disappointed its supporters and then had increasing difficulty in coping with its Tory opponents, losing its overall majority in 1910, that the WSPU campaign unfolded, first as militant action at meetings of opponents of votes for women and in the streets, and then as sabotage and petty terrorism.
WSPU breaks with the labour movement
Of the existing political parties, the Labour Party was the only one committed to votes for women. The first annual conference of the Labour Representation Committee in 1901 unanimously passed a resolution for adult suffrage, that is, manhood and womanhood suffrage.(2) As we have seen, in an electoral system that discriminated against working-class men and would, with votes for women “on the same basis as men”, continue to discriminate against working-class women, the middle-class suffragists had not a great deal to offer the majority of proletarian women.
The WSPU attracted a traditional working class taunt against middle-class suffragists — that what they wanted was not votes for women but “Votes for Ladies”. Sylvia Pankhurst admitted: “The influence of that taunt militating against real support of the suffrage movement in working class circles was ever a strong undercurrent.”
Whether or not to support extensions of the suffrage on the existing basis became an urgent issue in the labour movement.
In 1905 Emmeline Pankhurst argued within the ILP that the women who had the municipal franchise were 90% of them working women (and therefore not automatically anti-Labour). In 1905 and at the three subsequent Labour Party conferences, attempts by Keir Hardie to win support for immediate extension were defeated in favour of calls for universal suffrage: to support that, they felt, would be to compromise or betray the cause of disenfranchised working-class women and men. A linked controversy was what attitude the labour movement should take to a promised Liberal government Bill to enfranchise all men over 21 if it did not include also provisions for extending the vote to women on equal terms: to support it would be to betray working-class and other women.
The Women’s Labour League was founded at about the same time as the WSPU. At its conferences it consistently passed motions in favour of universal suffrage. At the WLL annual conference in 1912, a motion was passed calling on the Parliamentary Labour Party to vote against any enfranchisement Bill which did not include women. At the Labour Party’s 1912 annual conference, Arthur Henderson moved a similar motion, which was carried by 919,000 votes against 686,000 votes (of which 600,000 were miners’ votes).
The immediate cause of friction between the labour movement and the WSPU, and the occasion of Mrs Pankhurst leaving it (that is, leaving the ILP), was the fact that the WSPU declared war on the Liberal government which the Labour Party was, in fact, supporting (the nascent Labour Party still had many Liberal ties).
The WSPU demanded that the government should sponsor a Franchise Bill and embarked on a campaign of disrupting meetings to coerce the government. Militant women were assaulted and jailed. As their bitter conflict with the government developed, from 1906 onwards, the WSPU demanded that all friends of women’s suffrage should make war on the Liberal government and subordinate every other consideration to getting votes for some women immediately. They demanded that the Labour Party should consistently vote against the government in a spirit of sabotage.
The model here was the tactics associated with Charles Stewart Parnell. The difference was that Parnell had a phalanx of disciplined MPs and a mass movement of Irish nationalist electors behind him, whereas the WSPU had no such level of support.
Christabel Pankhurst became increasingly convinced that votes for women would come from the Tory Party. Her precedent was 1867, when Disraeli’s Tories “dished” the Liberals by jumping over their heads and bringing in the Second Reform Act. Determination to oppose the government in everything, backed up by such beliefs as to who would actually give the vote to women, led the WSPU eventually to demand that their friends including supporters of the Labour Party, should vote Tory as being the strongest anti-Liberal force.
The labour movement left a great deal to be desired when it came to fighting for women’s rights. Many leaders paid only lip-service to votes for women. At least one ILP leader, Philip Snowden, openly opposed giving women the vote. But the labour movement certainly did not push out Mrs Pankhurst. On the contrary, it responded initially with very great tolerance. Towards the end of 1906 the WSPU, led by members of the ILP, with Mrs Pankhurst still a member of the National Administrative Council of the party, campaigned on a negative policy and refused to declare themselves in any way in favour of a Labour vote.
They stated that so long as votes were cast against the government, they cared not to whom they went. In 1906 the WSPU broke its links with the ILP.
At the Belfast Labour Party Conference of 1907 a motion to support women’s suffrage on the existing franchise was lost by 605,000 to 268,000. Conference wanted nothing short of adult suffrage. Keir Hardie only managed to keep a personal right not to have to vote in Parliament against votes for women on a limited suffrage by threatening to resign. The Easter 1907 ILP Conference, however, voted in favour of the motion defeated at Belfast.
Moves to censure Mrs Pankhurst at the ILP 1907 Conference were defeated by the ever-tolerant Keir Hardie. He told Conference that it must choose whether or not to retain some of the ILP’s most valuable women members. Nevertheless, Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst resigned from the ILP in the same year.
There was a fundamental logic to this separation, flowing from the fundamental political character of the WSPU and the type of suffrage it demanded. It was possible to conceive of a fight for the vote for all women in alliance with the labour movement and the masses of unenfranchised men. For the labour movement, many of whose men and all of whose women were without the vote, to be enthusiasts and activists for “votes for ladies” was, from a working class and a working-class woman’s point of view, quixotic nonsense.
The limited suffrage to which the WSPU was committed indicated a different type of alliance: not with the working class but with aristocratic and bourgeois women.
For there were powerful and influential forces in society who, though bitterly opposed to adult suffrage, could be approached and allied with to achieve a limited suffrage. Some sections, though a minority, of the Tory Party, even though they were inveterate enemies of the adult suffrage advocated by the labour movement, supported the inclusion of women in the existing system of franchise.
Eventually, the WSPU developed a bitter animosity towards the Labour Party. In turn, some in the Labour Party, specifically Labour leader Ramsay MacDonald, attacked the militants for their militancy. The militants replied that women could not be expected to behave according to the polite rules of a democracy which for political purposes did not recognise their existence. But the most bitter WSPU attacks were directed at those, like Keir Hardie, who were wholly on the side of the WSPU.
The initiating radicals in the WSPU became so focused on the injustice to women within the existing system that their previous conception faded of the injustice of the system as a whole. Thus, the WSPU that had originated amongst ILP women quickly became a body of rich, middle-class and aristocratic ladies.
Sylvia Pankhurst and the WSPU
Sylvia Pankhurst, born in 1882, was 15 when her father died; to remain true to his ideals seems to have been her personal driving force for much of her life. Something her father said to her remained her guiding idea: “If you do not work for others, you will not have been worth the upbringing.” Her youth was passed in the ILP and in typical socialist movement activities such as the Clarion Cyclists’ Clubs and free speech fights to establish the socialists’ right to hold outdoor, street corner meetings — which involved conflict with the police.
She was influenced in both art — she was an artist — and politics by William Morris. Whereas Christabel Pankhurst, born in 1880, set the pace for Mrs Pankhurst in the turn away from the labour movement after 1907, Sylvia’s emotional and intellectual roots were much more firmly planted in labour movement soil. Sylvia Pankhurst chose, as a recent biographer, Barbara Wimslow, puts it, to “fight not just for one political reform on behalf of a select group of women, but for full social, political and economic emancipation”.
She took part in the militant activities of the WSPU from the beginning. In 1906, together with Annie Kenney, she set out to organise in London for the WSPU. For the opening of Parliament in 1906, they organised a big demonstration to the Palace of Westminster. They worked with the Marxist feminist Dora Montefiore, a member of the Social Democratic Federation, who would be a founder member of the Communist Party in 1920, who was already organising for the WSPU in London. Four to five hundred women from the East End of London turned out, mobilised by labour movement supporters of the WSPU, some of them carrying red flags. They were taunted by servant-employing bystanders. “What about the washing?” and “Why don’t you darn the old man’s socks?” were some of their jibes. After that Sylvia focused on her art studies at Chelsea, but she took part in propaganda stunts at meetings, was jailed, and went on hunger strike repeatedly.
Sylvia herself described one of many such occasions. In 1913, “I had been forcibly fed for five weeks and only secured release by walking up and down my cell for 28 hours, staggering, falling and fainting, a horrible ordeal I shudder even now to recall. She [Mrs Pankhurst] was shocked when she saw me emaciated in the extreme, with eyes horribly bloodshot, like cups of blood.”
In 1912 the WSPU turned to what became known as “secret militancy”. This was in fact small-scale terrorism. They started a campaign of bombings, window-breakings, art-gallery picture-slashings, and so on.
In consequence, hundreds were jailed and there was a very great deal of repression. WSPU headquarters declared this newly destructive militancy alone of value; the public, converted as far as it could be, must now be terrorised into compelling the government to give the vote.
Repression, imprisonments, breaking-up by the police of meetings followed. Most of the leaders — Christabel Pankhurst was in exile in Paris — existed under the regime of “Cat and Mouse”. After a hunger strike ordeal like that which Sylvia describes above, they would be released on a short licence of perhaps a few days to recover their strength, to be arrested and incarcerated again at the government’s whim, usually when they tried to continue the struggle. “The suffragette movement was being driven underground”, explained Sylvia a quarter of a century later.
She herself disagreed with the terrorist turn. While fully in favour of the older militancy, she felt that, contrary to the assumptions of the WSPU HQ (that is, Christabel and Mrs Pankhurst), “propaganda was more than ever important.
Next, she asked him to consider the position of married women: “Any rise in the price of rents, foods and other household commodities affects us women vitally, and we need not point out that these are intimately bound up with the question of free trade versus protection, which bulks so largely in the political programme of today”.
And Parliament constantly dealt with questions of care and protection of children “and more and more with every item of our daily lives”. In deciding questions like the Insurance Acts and questions connected with sickness and maternity benefit, “we claim that our point of view should be represented”.
She went on: “The position of working-class women is one that we all feel deeply. Our husbands die on the average at a much earlier age than do the men of other classes. Modern industrialism kills them off rapidly both by accident and by overwork…. we are left often with a family of young children to support… The Poor Law has treated us mercilessly. It is hated by every poor woman. In many cases outdoor relief is altogether denied to the widow, as it is to the deserted wife, and only the Workhouse is offered, which means separation from the children. Where out-relief is given it is surrounded by the most humiliating conditions, which cause us, as self-respecting women, very great indignity and distress.”
Without women, Parliament was unfit to legislate on “questions of morality” and the white slave trade [prostitution], which were rooted in the social and political status of women. Women were taxed but had no voice in these questions.
“We women of east London are much concerned with regard to social conditions in our district. There is very great poverty around us and rents are high. There is much unemployment amongst men and a very large proportion of the wives are the principal breadwinner, though they are both the childbearers and keepers of the home.” Women in the home were as much wage earners as those in the factory, and they gave a child-bearing service to the state. “They have the greatest of all reasons to desire [the state’s] security and welfare. In our opinion our country, especially in districts like east London, is in many ways grossly unfit to receive the children that we bring into the world. We feel that we have a right to help in improving the conditions under which we and our children live.” Some dismissed representative government, and thought the vote useless, but the Prime Minister could hardly be amongst their number.
“The demand which we have come to make to you today is one that we believe has not hitherto been made by any women’s suffrage deputation… It is the form of the franchise which you have declared your intention of establishing for men in the near future. It is the one for which your party is said to stand — a vote for every woman over 21.”
She claimed that they had mass support behind them. Organised labour throughout the country had for long been making this demand. Where popular unrest existed, she said, all great statesmen knew that the remedy was to remove the cause. If Asquith himself had fixed objections to votes for women she asked him to act in the tradition of Wellington who brought in Catholic Emancipation  against his own personal convictions when the good of the country demanded it, as did Robert Peel when he repealed the corn laws .
She ended with an appeal for the “political prisoners”.
Women and men fight for the vote
This summary of Julia Scurr’s speech allows us to get a clear view of how the vote question appeared to the members and supporters of the ELFS, and also a view of their general political outlook and concerns. It shows the gulf that separated them and their demand for the vote from the “ladies” of the WSPU. While the WSPU went off on a petty terrorist campaign, Sylvia Pankhurst built a mass movement of women and men that became a powerful force. While the ELFS concerned itself with the things Julia Scurr outlined, Christabel Pankhurst was making crazy propaganda that “75-80% of all men” had gonorrhea, deliberately infected women and opposed votes for women for fear of legislation (The Great Scourge, 1913).(3)
Yet Julia Scurr’s message and the ELFS’s approach was not unique to the ELFS. On the contrary, it was from a stock common to working class groups concerned for the suffrage, in Lancashire for example. Even the WSPU from the beginning had attempted to present its demands in terms of the needs of working women. Groups like the Women’s Labour League and the Women’s Co-operative Guild all approached the suffrage question in this way.
Where the ELFS differed was in that it roused large masses of women and men into active support of a group of WSPU women, most notably Sylvia Pankhurst, but others such as Nora Smyth as well, practising WSPU militancy and in conflict with the police. Great masses of men and women flocked to the meetings, organised to protect them from the police and to prevent them arresting Sylvia. And the democratic structure of the ELFS allowed the radical suffrage demands appropriate to the self-interest of the ELFS constituents to find full expression.
In addition, the alliance with the labour movement, despite the initial frictions, and the active support of men like George Lansbury and dockers’ leader John Scurr, and of local women who had been formed politically during dockers’ strikes and who now developed as effective mass agitators, led the ELFS to broaden the base of its concerns: the demand for the vote was closely and explicitly linked with the social purposes for which the members and supporters of the ELFS of both sexes wanted to use the vote.
For the ELFS, the vote was a means to ends which were generated from the social conditions of the East End. Increasingly, especially when war intensified the problems of the supporters and members of the ELFS, the Federation began to address itself directly and to evolve do-it-yourself approaches to some of the “ends”, the social problems. In this way it evolved into an organic part of the working class East End community and labour movement in the early war period.
From its inception, the ELFS combined the labour movement attitudes and concerns that the founders of the WSPU — except Sylvia — had moved so far away from, with the attitudes, techniques, methods and the heroically militant spirit of the WSPU. One might say that it was a higher dialectical synthesis, combining the strength of both WSPU militancy and the broader-based suffrage concern of the labour movement, with Sylvia as a charismatic catalyst. The personal quality over and above those of the other WSPU militants which allowed Sylvia Pankhurst to play this role was the fact that neither in her feelings nor in her thoughts had she broken, as did her mother and Christabel, with the working class movement.
Sylvia Pankhurst’s own account of what she thought she was doing is worth quoting: “I was anxious… to fortify the position of the working women when the vote should actually be given; the existence of a strong, self-reliant movement amongst working women would be the greatest aid in safeguarding their rights on the day of settlement. Moreover, I was looking to the future; I wanted to rouse these women of the submerged mass to be, not merely the argument of more fortunate people [surely a reference to the WSPU], but to be fighters on their own account, despising mere platitudes and catchcries, revolting against the hideous conditions about them, and demanding for themselves and their families a full share in the benefits of civilisation and progress” (Sylvia Pankhurst, The Suffragette Movement pp.416-417).
It is impossible not to be reminded here of the spirit in which socialists — Sylvia’s friend, James Connolly, for example — involved themselves in national liberation movements. (And indeed when Connolly and his friends proclaimed the Irish Republic they also proclaimed universal suffrage — something whose radicalism is less apparent now than in 1916). In the fight for a “bourgeois revolution” for women, Sylvia stood for and with the submerged proletarian women — for their immediate interests and their ultimate emancipation.
In March 1914 Sylvia and her comrades started The Women’s Dreadnought, which (with a change of name to Workers’ Dreadnought in 1917) she was to publish until 1924. It was part of the attempt to develop the ELFS into a powerful mass organisation. It reported on the struggles for the suffrage and also on labour struggles under titles like “What a strike means to the woman at home”. It ran reports on the experiences of women as trainee nurses, jam-makers, etc. Gradually, it broadened its scope until it became a general left socialist newspaper in World War I.
No public recriminations were entered into with the WSPU. Activities of the WSPU, including the small-scale terrorism (for example, the bombing of empty houses, such as one being built for Lloyd George), were reported sympathetically. On the first anniversary of Emily Davidson’s death under the hooves of the King’s horse at Epsom racetrack, Sylvia wrote: “Oh deed majestic! oh triumphant death” (Women’s Dreadnought, 16 May 1914). The Federation even began to organise its own “People’s Army”, consisting of both men and women, in line with the fashion for private armies set initially by Edward Carson’s Ulster Volunteers. The People’s Army, like the Irish Citizens’ Army set up by Jim Larkin in Dublin during the 1913-14 lockout, protected east London suffrage demonstrations. It was a sort of organised counter police force against the police. A sweated trades exhibition was held. And always demonstrations, meetings and conflicts with the police — which eventually began to recoil from repeated clashes with the numbers that the ELFS was able to bring on to the streets armed with sticks.
By August 1914, when war started, the ELFS was firmly anchored in the working class East London community and proclaimed itself part of the labour movement. Women’s Dreadnought explained that, in the May Day procession 1914, “the ELFS procession will follow the labour procession to the park… We women of the East London Federation are workers and we mean to demonstrate on the day on which the workers all over the world hold a festival of Labour”.
The legend is that the WSPU won the vote. That is not at all clear. When women eventually got the vote (women over 30), they got it as part of a package that expanded the franchise for men — many of the soldiers in the trenches had no vote. On the eve of war, when Prime Minister Asquith had met the delegation of working-class women from the East End, Pankhurst was on hunger strike. He told them: “If change has to come, we must face it boldly and make it thoroughgoing and democratic.” A few days earlier Lloyd George told Sylvia Pankhurst that he would introduce a Private Member’s Bill in the next session and resign if it was not passed. Then war intervened.
Politically, in World War I Sylvia Pankhurst was broadly part of the pacifistic, non-doctrinal, emotional, socialist left whose spirit was best expressed by Keir Hardie. Hardie was Sylvia’s political mentor (and, for a decade, lover). We shall see by what stages she developed beyond Keir Hardie.(4)
The vast majority of the British labour movement supported Britain at the outbreak of the war. The Labour Party did and so did the trade unions. Sections of the Independent Labour Party (now one of a number of socialist societies affiliated to the Labour Party) including both Ramsay MacDonald and Keir Hardie, denounced the war on pacifistic and liberal cosmopolitan grounds; and not always consistently at that. Their position essentially was one of harking back to the conditions of an earlier stage of pacifistic, free trade capitalism, whose passing was vividly demonstrated by the World War itself. The stand taken by Women’s Dreadnought placed it broadly in the latter’s company.
Women’s Dreadnought carried a long article, written by Sylvia (from Dublin): “War — at home and abroad”. The “Home” war was the shooting down of Irish nationalists at Howth outside Dublin, when they openly attempted to copy Ulster Unionist Edward Carson style gun-running, just before war broke out.
“Europe indeed is rattling back to the barbarism that should be passed and gone. It is many years since the machinery for settling international disputes was created, but arbitration has not even been attempted…” Democracy is discarded “and our people plunged into war with as little choice or foreknowledge as is allowed to those who live under the most absolute of old despotism”. Her conclusion: “All the women of the world need votes. They need a powerful voice in moulding the policy of nations… The men-made governments of Europe rush heedless on to war” (Women’s Dreadnought, 8 August 1914).
This was the same tone and message — except for the comment about votes for women — as Keir Hardie and Macdonald adopted. It was quite a long way from the reaction of the revolutionaries, and very far from Lenin’s response. Specifically, it lacked any view of imperialism and of the relationship of the war to a new stage of capitalism; it lacked any appreciation of why the labour movements in most countries followed their native ruling classes to war, despite many pledges to do otherwise.
Like the WSPU, the ELFS abandoned militancy on the vote question at the outbreak of the war, probably because it could hope to have little impact against the background of the cataclysm that was engulfing Europe. Unlike the WSPU, the ELFS did not abandon agitation for the suffrage: on the contrary, the search for a workable form of representative democracy was to be a central part of the politics of the ELFS and its successor organisations up until Sylvia decided she had found it in workers’ councils (soviets).
Under the impact of war, the Federation immediately broadened its activities and launched a campaign for a programme of immediate action to protect working class families from such consequences of the war as rising food prices. The Federation now stepped up its direct concern with achieving immediately some of the ends for which its supporters had wanted the vote.
The ELFS set to work organising a delegation to Lloyd George and Asquith to make the following demands:
1. Food supplies to be controlled by the government during the war so that all may feed or starve together: “To make sure that the food supply is properly controlled we demand that working women should be called into consultation in fixing the price to be charged for food, and the way in which the food shall be distributed.”
2. Committees with government power to provide employment for men and women at trade union rates, with equal pay for men and women.
3. That there be a moratorium on debts of working people.
4. That working women should be placed on all committees for fixing food prices, and for providing employment and relief.
5. Immediate women’s franchise: “That [women] may help in minimising, as far as possible, the horrors of war” (Women’s Dreadnought, 15 August 1914).
During the war, millions of women workers moved into the factories to replace men gone to the trenches. Unskilled, unorganised, and without a tradition of organisation, they were particularly vulnerable to exploitation. Women’s Dreadnought ran exposés of the conditions they suffered, and of the deteriorating social conditions. For example, in Sheffield, where large numbers of women moved into the factories, the infant mortality rate almost doubled immediately. In 1913, it was 11,912; in 1915, it was 22,281. The Dreadnought tried to raise a fightback against these conditions. It attacked other features of wartime, such as the “stupid” persecutions under the enemy aliens regulations.
Sylvia Pankhurst organised cost-price restaurants and other social amenities. The ELFS took part with labour organisations in rallies. Women’s Dreadnought used the conditions of war to plug away for votes for women: for example, a cartoon showed a woman in the trenches, shells exploding all around her and the caption “Does she deserve the vote?” (Women’s Dreadnought, 14 November 1914).
The Workers’ Suffrage Federation
On 18 March 1916, the ELFS announced in the Women’s Dreadnought that it had changed its name to the Workers’ Suffrage Federation (WSF). The WSF’s object was to secure human suffrage, a vote for every woman and man of full age . It explained how the new organisation differed from the old suffrage and suffragette movements. This was Sylvia Pankhurst settling some of the account with the old, middle class suffrage movement:
“They refuse to set themselves free to say that universal suffrage must be introduced for all, and hold, instead, to the merely negative course of opposing universal suffrage for men until women are enfranchised.
“The unsatisfactory result of confining suffrage propaganda to the idea that two million women possessing the present property qualifications shall be given the vote, is clearly demonstrated by the fact that when the last Government Franchise Bill, which would have given practically manhood suffrage, was before the country, a large proportion of the members of women’s suffrage societies were not prepared to agree to womanhood suffrage at the same time.
“The suffrage question can never be disposed of until the entire adult population is enfranchised” (Women’s Dreadnought, 18 March 1916).
The WSF supported the struggles of the conscientious objectors, and the fight against conscription. They held anti-war meetings at the gates of the East London and other docks. In April 1916, 10,000 people took part in a demonstration against conscription. The WSF campaigned for peace. In 1917 they picketed the Labour Party Conference, (Labour MPs were in the government). The WSF made connections between the industrial strength and militancy of the working class movement, now giving rise to the shop stewards movement, and the fight against war. For example, on 15 September 1916 Women’s Dreadnought said that the recent miners’ strike showed how to fight conscription and that conscription could be opposed by the force of organised labour: “Organised labour has declared against conscription… but what will organised labour do if the government takes steps to introduce it?” (Women’s Dreadnought, 15 September 1916).
Sylvia Pankhurst looked at the issues facing the labour and socialist movement with the eyes and spirit of a “militant”.
The same militancy and contempt for legalistic inhibitions were dominant when the British government used fierce repression in the wake of the Dublin uprising of Easter 1916. Women’s Dreadnought was foremost of the British socialist papers sympathetic to the insurgents in denouncing the government and exposing its repressions. It carried on-the-spot reports of conditions in Dublin, written by an 18-year-old, Patricia Lynch.
By 1917 the WSF was campaigning for a new People’s Charter, modelled on that of the 1830s and 40s, under the slogan “Peace. Socialism. Votes for all!”. Advertisements had the following message: “Stop the hideous slaughter by ending the war! Down with profiteering! Secure food and necessaries for all! Not votes for some but adult suffrage! Down with the House of Lords!” (Women’s Dreadnought, 26 May 1916).
By 1917 the WSF had spread outside London, where there were 10 branches listed, to Birmingham, Bradford, Durham, Doncaster and other places in the provinces (Women’s Dreadnought, 24 February 1917).
The Workers’ Suffrage Federation and the Russian Revolution
The Russian February Revolution that overthrew the Tsar had an enormous impact on Britain, and on the WSF too. There was almost universal enthusiasm for it. The Government and its supporters welcomed the fall of the decrepit and inefficient monarch, in the hope that now the war would be vigorously prosecuted by the new government. Liberals and socialists welcomed the fall of an age-old tyranny. Socialists welcomed the prominence of socialists in the leadership of the revolution. In the labour movement there was great enthusiasm for workers’ councils (soviets) which had erupted all across Russia and in fact held much of the power relinquished by the Tsarist state.
In June 1917, at a Convention in Leeds, 1,150 delegates from labour movement bodies adopted a resolution calling for the formation “in every town, urban and rural district of Councils of Workmen’s and Soldiers’ delegates for initiating and co-ordinating working class activity”.
Soviets were seen as a supplementary form of democracy, not as something counterposed to parliamentary or bourgeois democracy; not as the specific form of working-class democracy, of working-class rule, nor yet as the best organisational form for an aggressive working class offensive to take state power. Soon, in Russia, the working class soviets would find themselves counterposed to bourgeois democracy in the form of the Constituent Assembly, and, led by the Bolsheviks, they would not hesitate to strike down the weak Russian bourgeois democratic institutions and establish the more democratic soviets. Sylvia Pankhurst would stick with the soviets.
The new form of democracy must have seemed especially attractive to the editor of Women’s Dreadnought, who had formulated what was needed like this in January 1917: “The two great questions of the day are peace and an equal share of the power to decide the issue of war and peace for every one of us.”(5)
The Annual General Meeting of the Workers’ Suffrage Federation held in May 1917 transformed the organisation into the Workers’ Socialist Federation, and decided to change the name of the paper to the Workers’ Dreadnought. The following resolution was passed:
“That this Conference, realising that the existing system of society is irreconcilable with the freedom and the just demands of the workers, urges the WSF to work for the abolition of that system, and the establishment of the socialist Commonwealth in which the means of production and distribution shall be employed in the interests of the people.”
More useful for assessing the state of the political development of the WSF, and of Sylvia Pankhurst, are the other declarations of the Conference, on war and peace. It declared its opposition to all wars and for the abolition of armies and navies. All the belligerents in the war fought for capitalist interests, and nothing else: “The war is in its every aspect antagonistic to the workers of the world, to popular and personal liberty and to the general welfare of humanity.”
The WSF demanded peace negotiations, no annexations and no indemnities. But, “while private competitive trading continues, the danger of war will not be entirely wiped out. What was needed to guarantee peace was an International Council to settle disputes (to be elected on an adult suffrage basis from the various nations; decisions of the International Council to be ratified by the national Parliaments). As well as this there should be established international free trade, spheres of influence should be abolished, there should be internationalisation of trade routes and narrow seas, and freedom of the sea” (Women’s Dreadnought, 26 May 1917).
This was a programme for, in effect, world government. As such, and seemingly looked to as the way out of the bloody morass in which the world had landed, it was a utopia: for how were these things, the reversal of the actual trends dominant in the world, to be achieved? In so far as the answer to that question might be that the working class would achieve this as part of its fight for socialism, the programme is remarkable for its lack of attention to the working class struggle, and its strategic and tactical problems. All that was said above about the response of the Dreadnought, Keir Hardie, etc., in 1914 would still be relevant to this programme.
The 1917 WSF Conference passed resolutions on the suffrage question stating “that no franchise measure will be acceptable to the working class unless it includes complete adult suffrage”. It called for an end to plural voting in local elections, where business premises carried an extra vote, and of property qualifications. It pledged the WSF to campaign with others, especially socialist and labour bodies whose programme includes adult suffrage, on a democratic basis.
It also demanded democratic reforms to (a) establish the referendum as a normal part of political life, (b) establish the right of popular initiative in starting legislation, (c) a system of recall and re-election of ministers and judges by referendum vote (Women’s Dreadnought, 26 May 1917).
These proposed democratic reforms would in some aspects merely have brought Britain to the level of such a bourgeois democracy as that of America. But the general “package” probably amounts to an initial WSF attempt to assimilate the experience of Soviets to its still prevalent concerns with Parliament.
Perhaps most striking in general are the number of points the 1917 resolutions have in common with the radical platform on which Richard Pankhurst had stood for election in the year 1883.6
The Workers’ Suffrage Federation had now taken its place with the British Socialist Party, the Socialist Labour Party and others as one of the galaxy of militant socialist organisations in Britain. In April 1917, it had 300 members. When it changed its name to the “Communist Party, British Section of the Third International” in June 1920 it had 150 members.
When the February Revolution occurred Sylvia Pankhurst had responded with a sharp and perceptive question: whose Russian revolution? The October 1917 Revolution proclaimed unambiguously whose Revolution it was: that it was a workers’ revolution and that the working class had taken power.
The Bolshevik government proclaimed itself ready to make peace immediately, published the secret treaties of the Allies and appealed to the workers in the belligerent countries to turn the war into civil war against their rulers. Lenin now had the ears of many millions throughout the world, war weary millions ready to draw revolutionary conclusions from their experience of the bloody impasse in which world capitalism had been bogged down for over three years.
The militants and the left rallied to the Bolshevik Revolution; those who wanted to emulate Lenin and Trotsky attempted to learn from them. The militant doctrines of the class struggle were proclaimed with a starkness and a vigour that had long been absent in the west European labour movement; to many militants who had been on political wavelengths similar to that of Sylvia Pankhurst, the vigour and the starkness seemed appropriate to the times.
Sylvia Pankhurst welcomed the October Revolution unambiguously. She proclaimed that the Revolution had been brought about in order that the workers of Russia might no longer be disinherited and oppressed as they had continued to be after the February Revolution.
“Our eager hopes are for the speedy success of the Bolsheviks of Russia: may they open the door which leads to freedom for the people of all lands…” (“The Lenin Revolution — What It Means for Democrats”, Workers’ Dreadnought, 17 November 1917).
The WSF and the small “DeLeonite” sectarian organisation, the Socialist Labour Party, were the only groups on the British militant left which gave the October Revolution a complete and unreserved blessing, and tried to assist the Bolsheviks by their own revolutionary activity in this country.
Sylvia declared: “I am proud to be a Bolshevik.” The defence of the Revolution — “Hands off Russia” — in propaganda, and in attempts to organise working class action to stop intervention by capitalist armies to strangle the revolution, became the central activity for Sylvia for the next two years. In 1920 her work in the East End helped persuade dockworkers to refuse to load ammunition for Poland’s war with Russia onto the ship Jolly George.
With a certain arbitrariness, perhaps one can take as marking Sylvia Pankhurst’s definitive transition to Lenin-Soviet-Communism the events at the beginning of 1918 when the Russian soviets suppressed the Constituent Assembly.
The Constituent Assembly, elected before the October Revolution, had a majority hostile to the Revolution and to the policies of the majority that had been elected out of the vast network of workers’, soldiers’ and peasants’ councils that covered Russia. The majority party in it, the Social Revolutionaries, had just split into Left and Right, with deputies on Right and Left in inverse proportion to the support for Left and Right policies on the land question. The left would enter into a coalition with the Bolsheviks. When the Constituent Assembly met, the question arose: which was the sovereign power, Soviets or Constituent Assembly? The Soviets, under the leadership of the Bolshevik Party, answered that they were, and proceeded to dismiss the Constituent Assembly.
For Sylvia Pankhurst, who had fought so hard for Parliamentary democracy, it may have been the point where she made her mind up definitively about the Russian Revolution. She gave the Bolshevik-led Soviets complete support in their action.
She wrote: “The old bourgeois parliamentarianism has seen its day that is unable to cope with the tasks before socialists”. The Revolution created the Soviets “as the only organisation of all the exploited working classes in a position to direct the struggle of those classes for their complete political and economic emancipation.
“But some people complain that the Soviets only represent the working classes… and if they are to rule then the opinion of other classes will be ignored. Yes, that is so; and that is what the Bolsheviks desire.
“To those who object we need only ask but one question: are you socialist?
“If you are not a socialist, of course, you object to a system which gives all power to the workers; we understand the ground of your objection, and realise that until you are converted to socialism your objection cannot be overcome.
“But if you are a socialist you must recognise that under socialism everyone will be a worker, and there will be no classes save the working classes to consider or represent. Under socialism no-one will live on profits and dividends drawn from the labour of others; there will be no leisured classes.
“As a representative body, an organisation such as the All Russian Workers’, Soldiers’, Sailors’ and Peasants’ Council is more clearly in touch with, and more directly represents, its constituents than the Constituent Assembly or any existing Parliament.” (“What About Russia Now?”, Workers Dreadnought, 26 January 1918).
Let us look back along the road Sylvia Pankhurst had travelled. The WSPU and its characteristic tactics of militancy, and then small scale terrorism against property, developed from a sense of outrage at the reactionary inertia which kept women disenfranchised, despite the fact that there was a variable but more or less perennial House of Commons majority platonically committed to votes for women.
Its focus on the form of women’s suffrage deemed most acceptable to most members of the social and political establishment, with the intention (on the part of the ILPers who started the WSPU) of first establishing the principle of votes for women, inexorably led it away from the labour movement. The nascent Labour Party got caught in the crossfire between the WSPU and the Liberal government, to which the Labour Party chose to tie itself. The social and political background of most of the women attracted by the WSPU’s specific combination of limited immediate suffrage demands and militancy, bourgeois and aristocratic women, and women who did not have a socialist or labour movement background, led to the transformation of the WSPU into an organisation alienated from the labour movement, and ultimately hostile to its concerns and aspirations.
Sylvia Pankhurst, by starting to organise a mass agitational propaganda campaign at the point where the WSPU moved to petty terrorism, and by focusing on the East End of London, began a process which reversed for her section of WSPU activists the trajectory of the WSPU. The turn to proletarian women led her to centre her concerns on the fact that votes for these women were inseparable from their social concerns. That led to increasing involvement and concern with the daily problems and struggles, as such, of the East London proletariat, and, inevitably in the circumstances, not just those of women. Adult suffrage implied organising men too, in an area where most men did not have a vote. The turn to the general problems brought socialism to the fore, and that led to a complete broadening of the Federation’s concerns: for women alone could not transform society. The movement was first to proletarian women and then to the proletariat.
Rooted in the east London community and labour movement, and subscribing to the ideas of the Keir Hardie segment of the labour movement, Sylvia’s evolution during the war was part of, and characteristic of, the development of a trend of socialists who learned to look to industrial direct action militancy, when that showed its strength and power in resistance to wartime conditions (with the Labour Party, the “political wing of the movement”, in the government). The terrible slaughter for four years hardened a bitter resolve to finish off the capitalist system as quickly as possible. They turned with hope and enthusiasm to the Russian Revolution and set out to re-educate themselves politically on the basis of Russian experience and the politics of those who led the revolution.
To judge by the positions taken by her paper and by organisations in which she was the most influential figure, Sylvia Pankhurst was, in her basic political outlook, a consistent radical democrat until 1917/18. The ideas and proposals, and even the implied conception of the world, in the initial “programme” of the Workers’ Socialist Federation owed more to the rationalist world outlook of the liberal Enlightenment than to Marxism. In 1917 Lenin and his supporters were with bitter invective denouncing similar notions as utopian. And, indeed, they were utopian in the prevailing world conditions: the point at issue for socialists was how to get out of and beyond those conditions.
In addition to her basic underlying ideas, there was Sylvia’s wholehearted commitment to the working class and reliance on its victory as the only way to ensure human progress; and her belief that society must be reorganised on socialist lines so as to satisfy the fundamental needs of the majority. Yet, though the WSF was a militant socialist organisation, its politics at its formation had no more than elements of Marxism. Its eclecticism and dependence on the ideas of left-wing liberalism was, of course, not unique on the British far left then.
Sylvia’s political concern remained centrally, though not exclusively, focused on problems of democracy. Her first words at the outbreak of war had commented on the practical emptiness of the democracy of the parliamentary system. At the beginning of 1917, the central question, linked with the problem of peace was presented by her as one of getting an effective mass democracy. As the attempt to assimilate the experience of Soviets to the British Parliamentary system in the programme of the WSF testifies, her concern with effective democracy was still focussed on Parliamentary forms as late as mid-1917. A few months later at the beginning of 1918, Parliament was removed from the equation under pressure of the unfolding in Russia of the sort of mass working class struggles which Sylvia hoped for in Britain as the culmination of struggles already in being, and which had already, during the war, partly displaced her focus from votes to direct action.
In 1918, when she sided with the Soviets against the Russian Parliament, she in fact chose, under the pressure of events and her deep-rooted impulse to side with the workers and their struggles, a new form of democracy — soviet as distinct from parliamentary democracy. It was the form of democracy which, through recallability of delegates, most eliminated the separation of electors and legislature. At the same time, it was a network of mass organisations for struggle. It was the most developed political form of the sort of mass working class struggles Sylvia had been committed to even before the war. And, of course, the Soviets of 1917/18 enfranchised women completely and drew them into political action.
Sylvia Pankhurst’s conviction that the Soviet was the best form of representative democracy and answered the problems which she had spent much of her life grappling with was a major element in her evolution to communism, and to the specific, anti-Parliamentarism on principle, communism which she embraced.
In mid-1918 Sylvia Pankhurst started the Russian People’s Information Service, with Bolshevik money, and launched into a great campaign in defence of the October Revolution.
She belonged to the ultra-left wing of the Communist International. Once she had embraced the Soviets as the best system of popular democracy, she turned her back completely on Parliament, opposing in principle any working class involvement in bourgeois parliaments or in electoral activity. She refused an invitation to contest a Sheffield seat for the Labour Party in the 1918 election.
Thus, when the Communist International had to concern itself with going beyond propaganda for the soviet system, and find ways to develop working class political activity within the bourgeois political system as a means of building up and educating support for an eventual transition to a system of soviet democracy, Sylvia Pankhurst found herself much out of sympathy with tactical manoeuvrings, and, essentially, with involvement in the bourgeois political system.
Her method had been — up and straight at ’em! Now, paradoxically, that meant confinement to mere propaganda for soviets. Sylvia was part of the Council Communist current associated with the names of Anton Pannekoek and Herman Görter. Lenin wrote a pamphlet against them, amongst others, in 1920, Left Wing Communism: A Disorder of Infancy. Her comrades and Sylvia were in many ways close to syndicalism.
Retrospectively, they sided with anarchists who had been opposed to the whole course of development of the working class movement in the 40 years before 1914. They opposed not only participation in bourgeois parliaments — that is, effectively, in politics — but also trade unions. They were against fighting for reforms.
Sylvia Pankhurst broke with the Communist International in 1921 and was a founder of a “Fourth International” led by Herman Görter, which seems to have gone out of existence in a few years. (Van Dere Lubbe, who stood in the dock with Dimitrov at the Reichstag fire trial in 1933 and was found guilty and beheaded, was a council communist.)
In a dispute about control of Workers’ Dreadnought, she was expelled from the Communist Party of Great Britain, in September 1921. She continued to publish Workers’ Dreadnought until 1924; but now what had been a splendidly alive paper was a very dull, rather “literary”, review. In 1921 she published the platform of the “Workers’ Opposition” in Russia, which said much of importance about the way things were going, but had no solution (its leaders, Shlyapnikov and Alexandra Kollontai, author of the platform, went over to Stalin in the mid-20s). Sylvia Pankhurst moved out of east London after 12 years in 1924. She had her first child in 1927 at the age of 45. She then wrote a book about mothers and children, advocating reforms. She was no longer a council communis. Thereafter she wrote a number of valuable books on the history of the suffrage struggle.
In the 1930s, she returned to a sort of politics as an anti-fascist campaigner in the Popular Front period, and especially as a champion of Ethiopia, invaded by Mussolini’s Italian armies in 1935. She started a paper, New Times and Ethiopia News in 1936, that survived for 20 years. She allied loosely with the “anti-fascist” Communist Party, but also with dissidents to the left of the party, such as the black ex-CP militant George Padmore.
She denounced the Moscow Trials; and she sided against the anarchists and the POUM of Barcelona in May 1937 during their battle with the Stalinists, saying that these victims of Stalinism should have waited until General Franco was defeated…
For her last quarter century she was a devotee of the Emperor Haile Selassie, who from 1935 to 1942 was an exile in Britain.
Selassie gave his personal name Ras Tafari to Rastafarianism, whose devotees made a god of this Christian king of an ancient, feudal African state. Sylvia Pankhurst, one could say, was amongst the first rastas! She was a tireless propagandist for Ethiopia, championing, amongst other things, its right to control Eritrea.
There may have been elements of rejection of capitalism in her devotion to feudal Ethiopia. Here Sylvia’s political fate was a variant of the fate of so many of her contemporaries and ex-comrades, like Harry Pollitt, who became General Secretary of the Stalinised CPGB, who looked to the USSR and to Stalin’s and other bureaucratic dictatorships as the hope of the socialist future, embracing a reactionary, historically regressive anti-capitalism. If there is anything good in Sylvia’s variant of it, it is that she can’t have told herself that Ras Tafari represented either socialism or the future of humanity.
She died in Ethiopia in 1960, aged 78.
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