Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Sylvia Pankhurst: suffragette, socialist and scourge of empire

Kate Connelly’s book on Sylvia Pankhurst is a fascinating slice of (largely hidden) history that offers a somewhat different, and more radical, perspective on the suffragettes than the familiar narratives. It also asserts a more central place in the early-20th century British left for Sylvia Pankhurst than we might normally find.
An age of unrest

The first quarter of the 20th century has a unique place in the history of the British left. It was a time of turmoil and upheaval unlike any other. The great global events of the First World War and the wave of popular uprisings and revolutions which both ended and followed it naturally had a tremendous impact.
But even prior to those events there was the Great Unrest – a wave of workers’ unrest in the few years before the war – a mass campaign for women’s suffrage, and the struggle for Irish home rule. Trade unions grew on a larger scale than at any other time, with whole new sectors of the workforce being unionised, shop stewards movements becoming powerful and a change in the whole nature of trade unions away from the old model of craft unions for skilled workers.

The years immediately following the First World War witnessed strike action at an even higher level than during the Great Unrest. It was only with the defeat of the General Strike in 1926 that this era of militancy and upheaval was decisively ended. Socialist organisations like the Socialist Labour Party, British Socialist Party and later the Communist Party emerged, while the Labour Party made breakthroughs in working class political representation.

The movement for women’s right to vote ebbed and flowed, but at peaks was a mass movement with huge social reach. Although middle class women tended to dominate the leadership, there was a powerful current of working class women fighting for suffrage. The movement was subjected to ferocious state brutality and media-led moral panics. Suffragette activists displayed great personal courage, underpinned by the social solidarity and support of being part of a larger movement.
The question of the vote – for working class men and for women – was part of a larger set of struggles over economic, social and political struggles. Part of the significance of Sylvia Pankhurst is the way her life story and politics fused the struggle for suffrage with these other revolts and movements. Through her story we get a powerful sense of the whole world I outlined above, of the debates which took place, and of the dramatic changes which affected society.

A life in the movement
The Pankhurst family famously split in different directions, with Sylvia’s mother Emmeline and sister Christabel rejecting class politics, backing the British war effort, attacking the left and – after 1917 – becoming virulently anti-Bolshevik. This book shows how these differences were representative of substantial political differences in the movement, and traces the increasingly separate directions the different Pankhursts (all of whom had earlier played leading, and courageous, roles in the movement) travelled in.

I was amazed - and even rather awed - to discover quite how much Sylvia Pankhurst did, how many different campaigns and organisations she established. She was much, much more than a suffragette, though her contribution to that particular movement was immense. This reflected phenomenal personal energy and a deep political commitment, but also breadth of vision and the versatility to adapt to changing circumstances.  She was a formidable organiser, campaigner and public speaker, but also for substantial periods a prolific writer and editor.
During the First World War Sylvia Pankhurst promoted a consistent anti-war stance but was also active in struggles over a range of social and economic problems affecting working class people – in particular women – in east London. The issue of the vote was not so central during this time, but was still viewed as part of a larger struggle for emancipation which fused equality for women with the interests of the working class. The vote, for Sylvia Pankhurst, was a means to an end not an end in itself; and the movement for the vote was itself a democratic upsurge that, at its best, could serve a whole range of extra-parliamentary causes.

The book traces the radicalisation that happened in not only Pankhurst’s thinking and activity, but the broader trends this reflected. This was especially so between roughly 1914 and 1920, after the suffragette movement had peaked and Pankhurst’s energies were mostly directed elsewhere. The Russian Revolution was a huge inspiration and source of political lessons, in particular the radical working class democracy of the soviets and the (ultimately short-lived) emancipation of women. It also prompted new opportunities for socialist organisation in Britain, with the launch of the Third International and a widespread desire to generalise the Russian experience. The debates and difficulties in this experience are summarised succinctly in the book. 
The significance of Sylvia Pankhurst  

As someone with an interest in the history of this country’s revolutionary left, I am particularly pleased to see Sylvia Pankhurst getting due credit for the important role that her east London organisation played in the radical left of the time. This has often been underestimated. It is an experience that doesn’t neatly fit with the version of the Communist Party’s emergence preferred by historians in the Communist tradition, while socialist writers outside that tradition have perhaps viewed it as an interesting local case but not grasped the national significance of Pankhurst’s organisation (which went through a number of versions).

The account of the Workers' Dreadnought, a really remarkable socialist paper that seems to have captured the voices and experiences of working class people, enriches our understanding of the socialist press of the time, rightly giving it a more central role. The book doesn’t avoid criticisms of particular positions or decisions Pankhurst took, but the dominant impression is of ceaseless activism and an extraordinary contribution to a number of causes. On the biggest issues of all –the need for revolutionary change, the centrality of class, the emphasis on self-activity and mass movements, the significance of the Russian Revolution – Sylvia Pankhurst got it absolutely right.
The book also covers elements of Pankhurst’s life, from the 1920s onwards, of which I previously knew almost nothing. She was a formidable anti-fascist and anti-imperialist campaigner – in fact she was a pioneer in this country in taking the fascist threat seriously, in analysing fascism, and in actively opposing it. She wrote about Italian fascism and the rise of Mussolini, and became a hugely dedicated opponent of Italian intervention in Ethiopia and the way that Britain tacitly supported it because its own imperialist interests were not threatened. This dimension of Pankhurst’s life story ensures that the book is a rounded and thorough political biography.

I hope the book sparks off further interest in, and discussion about, the movements of the first few decades of the 20th century, especially the role of socialists and the attempts to link different issues and struggles together. Sylvia Pankhurst’s life is certainly fascinating in its own right, but it also captures many of the concerns, debates and developments in a uniquely important period in British working class history.


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