Sylvia Pankhurst on Socialism

October 9, 2018

‘Sylvia Pankhurst on Socialism’

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Sylvia Pankhurst
on Socialism

Published by The Socialist Party of Great Britain
52 Clapham High Street, London SW4 7UN
October 2018
ISBN 978-1-909891-16-6

Estelle Sylvia Pankhurst

Sylvia Pankhurst and Socialism

The Pankhurst name is mainly associated with the Suffragette Movement, as Christabel Pankhurst and her mother Emmeline (“Mrs Pankhurst”) were the most prominent leaders of the Votes for Women movement in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Christabel’s younger sister, Sylvia (born 1882) was also involved in the suffrage campaigns, but in addition she came to adopt ideas and aims which are of more interest to those who advocate a socialist world.



The Pankhursts’ Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU),
formed in 1903, supported votes for women on the same basis as
that which obtained for men at the time, i.e. based on a property
qualification. Whatever its intention, given the situation where most
property was held in the name of husbands rather than wives, this
would have had the effect of enfranchising only a relatively small
number of women, and clearly only rich women. Sylvia Pankhurst,
however, came to support the more democratic position of general
adult suffrage. Along with other suffragettes, she met many women
from London’s East End while serving time in prison for suffragette
activities, and was impressed by the courage these women
showed in enduring the appalling prison conditions.

In 1912 she moved to the East End herself and became an early
practitioner of a kind of “community politics”. Most men living there
did not have the vote either, so the standard WSPU demand was
of little local relevance. The East London Federation of the WSPU
took on wider social concerns than just the vote, but Sylvia was
expelled from the WSPU by her mother and sister, who could not
tolerate any other source of power in the organisation. In 1914 she
set up the East London Federation of the Suffragettes, with its
paper the Woman’s Dreadnought, which she edited.

The ELFS supported adult suffrage, but also organised nurseries
and cheap restaurants during the First World War, as well as
defending workers of German origin who were attacked by
jingoistic mobs. It was renamed the Workers’ Suffrage Federation
in 1916, though this new name still failed to reflect its true range of
interests, and the following year its paper became the Workers’
Dreadnought. The paper’s anti-war stance and its coverage of
strikes earned it an influence far beyond the East End.

The Bolshevik Revolution in Russia had an enormous impact on
Pankhurst and the WSF (as on the Left in general), and much of
their energy was redirected towards defending the new state and
opposing Allied intervention against it. The WSF name was
modified to Workers’ Socialist Federation, and soviets or councils
were now seen as the preferred means of organisation. Pankhurst
proposed household soviets, so that “mothers and those who are
organisers of the family life of the community” should be
represented—a useful reminder that not everyone would be
included in work-based bodies.

The WSF has been praised in fulsome terms:
“From 1918 to 1921, the Workers’ Socialist Federation was a
unique revolutionary organization. It challenged the male
domination of socialist politics, for even though its all-female
membership changed over time to admit men, women continued
to be the major leaders and activists. The WSF campaigned on
a whole range of women’s issues (such as women’s and
children’s health care, schooling and domestic work) and also
participated in workers’ struggles in the East End, as well as in
struggles nationally and internationally”

(Barbara Winslow: Sylvia Pankhurst: Sexual Politics and
Political Activism).

As the examples show, though, these activities were reformist, not

Along with the Socialist Labour Party and the British Socialist
Party, the WSF was one of the groups involved in the unity talks to
set up the Communist Party of Great Britain. Having gone over to
full-scale admiration for soviets, Pankhurst opposed the pro-
parliamentary sections in the unity talks. She argued not just that
parliament could not be used for “revolutionary” purposes (which
was generally agreed), but that it could not be used by
revolutionaries for any purpose. Accordingly, the WSF withdrew
from the unity talks to form the strangely-named Communist Party
(British Section of the Third International) in 1920. The aim of this
move – widely condemned at the time as jumping the gun – was to
persuade the British Left to adopt anti-parliamentarism and reject
affiliation to the Labour Party.

Pankhurst’s stance was attacked by Lenin in the chapter on Britain
in his “Left-Wing” Communism, an Infantile Disorder. He quoted
Pankhurst as saying that the Communist Party must not
compromise. Not so, said Lenin: it was essential to help the
Labour leaders defeat the Tories and Liberals, so that workers
should see the results of a Labour government. The cause of
Communism, he went on, would be furthered, not betrayed, by
calls for workers to vote Labour, as a Labour government would
soon lead to disillusion. These ideas are purely opportunist and
dishonest and, of course, the events foreseen by Lenin failed to
materialise. But his views did foreshadow the compromises and
lies that have been typical of Bolshevik groups.

Pankhurst and the CP(BSTI) were, however, convinced by Lenin’s
arguments, and most of the organisation’s branches joined the
new CPGB soon after it was founded, though she continued to
produce the Workers’ Dreadnought as a separate paper. The
“unified” CP, however, was anything but unified, and when the
Dreadnought began publishing the views of oppositionists within
Russia as well as arguing the anti-parliamentary line, the CPGB
and their Moscow masters objected. In September 1921, once she
had been released from a prison sentence for sedition and refused
to hand the paper over to CP control, Pankhurst was expelled. She
now set up the Communist Workers’ Party, which had the aim of
abolishing the wages system, but this never amounted to anything
much and it collapsed by 1924, when the Workers’ Dreadnought
also ceased publication. Her later career is of little moment – she
joined the Labour Party in 1948, and died in Ethiopia in 1960, after
exposing Italy’s invasion of the country and becoming an admirer
of Emperor Haile Selassie.

However, Pankhurst’s views for a time during the early twenties
were of great interest. She could never be accused of consistency,
but she did propagate the view that Socialism/Communism meant
a moneyless, classless community, and that what was being built
in Russia was capitalism, not any variety of socialism. She
explicitly described the New Economic Policy, introduced there in
1921, as “reversion to capitalism”. And consider these extracts
from her writings:

“Our aim is Communism. Communism is not an affair of party. It
is a theory of life and social organisation. It is a life in which
property is held in common; in which the community produces,
by conscious aim, sufficient to supply the needs of all its
members; in which there is no trading, money, wages, or any
direct reward for services rendered” (1923).

“The Russian workers remain wage slaves, and very poor ones,
working, not from free will, but under compulsion of economic
need, and kept in their subordinate position by a State coercion
which is more pronounced than in the countries where the
workers have not recently shown their capacity to rebel with
effect” (1924).

To the extent that the Left pay attention to Sylvia Pankhurst today,
she is usually derided as a sectarian “ultra-leftist” who placed
inflexibility and loyalty to her own organisation above the idea of
unity. But she is better seen as someone who saw through the
unprincipled and dishonest tactics of the Bolsheviks and their
British followers, and who realised that Russia was not undergoing
a transformation to Socialism. Her opposition to using parliament
for revolutionary purposes was a mistake, caused by her
overwhelming enthusiasm for the supposed successes of the
soviets in Russia. She deserves, however, to be remembered as
more than just an object of Lenin’s criticism.

Book Review:
Sylvia Pankhurst: A Life in Radical Politics. By Mary Davis, Pluto Press.

Sylvia Pankhurst, one of the daughters
of the famous suffragette leader Mrs (Emily) Pankhurst, will have done at least one thing for modern feminists: drawn their attention to the complexity of the votes issue before 1914.

Most people will probably think that the suffragettes who chained themselves to railings, knocked off policemen’s hats, etc were demanding universal suffrage,
i.e. votes for all adult men and women.

Actually – and this was a conscious
policy decision by the Women’s Social and Political Union to which they belonged – they were campaigning for “Votes for Women on the Same Terms as then obtained for Men”.

But before 1914 not all men had the vote; owing to a property qualification, admittedly fairly low, only about 70 percent of them did. To have extended
the vote to women on these terms would (according to one figure
quoted by Mary Davis) have enfranchised less than 8 percent of
women. Nearly all married women would have remained vote-less
as their family’s “property” was in the name of their husbands.

The WSPU was aware of this and was prepared to go along with it.
This meant that what their militant tactics aimed at was, in the
contemporary phrase, “Votes for Ladies”, votes for rich women. In
other words, they were not democrats who were campaigning for
votes for all women but, whether intentionally or not, people whose
policy would have strengthened the political power of the
propertied class by increasing the proportion of capitalist voters at
16the expense of working-class voters. No wonder the Socialists of
the time opposed them, as did many ordinary democrats.

However, not all suffragettes were in the WSPU and not all of
those in the WSPU favoured this policy aim, Sylvia Pankhurst
among them. In fact she fell out with her mother and elder sister
over the issue and was expelled from the WSPU in 1914. Her
branch became the independent East London Federation of
Suffragettes (ELFS) which pursued a different strategy, of
including working class women and demanding universal suffrage.

When the war broke out, the WSPU went super-patriotic. The
name of their paper was changed from The Suffragette to Britannia
and they began, as Sylvia Pankhurst put it, to hand “the white
feather to every young man they encountered wearing civilian
dress”. She moved in the opposite direction, opposing the war. In
1916 the ELFS changed its name to Workers Suffrage Federation
and in 1917 its paper Woman’s Dreadnought became Workers’
Dreadnought; in 1918 the WSF became the Workers Socialist
Federation. The WSF was one of the organisations involved in the
founding of the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1921.

Pankhurst, however, was by this time an anti-parliamentarian (so
much for votes, for men as well as women) and was opposed to
the new party seeking to be affiliated to Labour. For this she was
denounced by Lenin as an “ultra-leftist”. She lasted only six
months in the CPGB before being expelled.

The Workers’ Dreadnought continued to appear until 1924 and
was a valuable source of information and documentation on the
opposition groups in Russia, including those who argued—as
indeed did Pankhurst herself—that Russia was heading for state
capitalism not socialism. Mary Davis records that in 1923
Pankhurst set up a rival unemployed organisation to that of the
CPGB, “the Unemployed Workers’ Organisation (UWO), whose
slogan, ‘Abolition of the Wages System’, was supposed to expose
the ‘reformist’ nature of the demand of its rival – ‘Work or Full
Maintenance'”. This could only have been a gesture, but one
Socialists can appreciate.

By 1924 Pankhurst had tired of the working class and radical
working-class politics and reverted to being essentially a single-
issue reformist. She remained a feminist (deliberately choosing to
become “an unmarried mother”) advocating such reforms as the
introduction of maternity benefit. In 1948 she joined the Labour
Party. But from the 1930s on her main centre of interest became
Ethiopia. She championed its cause against fascist Italy and came
to be a friend of Emperor Haile Selassie. In 1956 she went to live
in Ethiopia where she died four years later at the age of 78 and is
buried there.

It has been reported (The Times, 18 August) that Gordon Brown is
supporting the idea that the vacant plinth at Trafalgar Square
should be filled by a statue of Sylvia Pankhurst. Evidently, he is
unaware that she once advocated the abolition of the wages
system and money. Still, come to think of it, better a statue to
someone who held this view however briefly than to some

Introducing The Socialist Party

The Socialist Party advocates a society where production is freed
from the artificial constraints of profit and organised for the benefit
of all on the basis of material abundance. It does not have policies
to ameliorate aspects of the existing social system.

The Socialist Standard is the combative monthly journal of the
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1904 and infuriating and exasperating political opponents in equal
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producing articles on ancient wars as cover for the Party’s
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In the 1930s the Socialist Standard explained why capitalism
would not collapse of its own accord, in response to widespread
claims to the contrary, and continues to hold this view in face of
the notion‘s recent popularity. Beveridge‘s welfare measures of the
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expense‘ of production, and Keynesian policies designed to
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the view that banks create money out of thin air, and explains why
actions to prevent the depredation of the natural world can have
limited effect and run counter to the nature of capitalism itself.

Gradualist reformers like the Labour Party believed that capitalism
could be transformed through a series of social measures, but
have merely become routine managers of the system. The
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under a one-party dictatorship. Both failures have given socialism
a quite different — and unattractive — meaning: state ownership
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courses were followed, the results would more properly be called
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democracy in which free and equal men and women co-operate to
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Object and Declaration of Principles

This declaration is the basis of our organisation and, because it is
also an important historical document dating from the formation of
the party in 1904, its original language has been retained.


The establishment of a system of society based upon the common
ownership and democratic control of the means and instruments
for producing and distributing wealth by and in the interest of the
whole community.

Declaration of Principles

The Socialist Party of Great Britain holds:

1. That society as at present constituted is based upon the
ownership of the means of living (i.e. land, factories, railways, etc.)
by the capitalist or master class, and the consequent enslavement
of the working class, by whose labour alone wealth is produced.

2. That in society, therefore, there is an antagonism of interests,
manifesting itself as a class struggle between those who possess
but do not produce and those who produce but do not possess.

3. That this antagonism can be abolished only by the emancipation
of the working class from the domination of the master class, by
the conversion into the common property of society of the means
of production and distribution, and their democratic control by the
whole people.

4. That as in the order of social evolution the working class is the
last class to achieve its freedom, the emancipation of the working
class will involve the emancipation of all mankind, without
distinction of race or sex.

5. That this emancipation must be the work of the working class

6. That as the machinery of government, including the armed
forces of the nation, exists only to conserve the monopoly by the
capitalist class of the wealth taken from the workers, the working
class must organize consciously and politically for the conquest of
the powers of government, national and local, in order that this
machinery, including these forces, may be converted from an
instrument of oppression into the agent of emancipation and the
overthrow of privilege, aristocratic and plutocratic.

7. That as all political parties are but the expression of class
interests, and as the interest of the working class is diametrically
opposed to the interests of all sections of the master class, the
party seeking working class emancipation must be hostile to every
other party.

8. The Socialist Party of Great Britain, therefore, enters the field of
political action determined to wage war against all other political
parties, whether alleged labour or avowedly capitalist, and calls
upon the members of the working class of this country to muster
under its banner to the end that a speedy termination may be
wrought to the system which deprives them of the fruits of their
labour, and that poverty may give place to comfort, privilege to
equality, and slavery to freedom.