Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Women's History Month-The Pankhursts-Suffrage and Socialism

March Is Women's History Month

The following is an article originally from Women and Revolution, Summer 1976 that may be of interest to the radical public. I have addressed the subject of the Pankhursts elsewhere in this space so google for my take on this fascinating and contradictory family.

The Pankhurst-Suffrage and Socialism

In 1894 Emmeline Pankhurst and her husband, Dr. Richard Marsden Pankhurst, who had been moving in the direction of socialism for some time, joined the tiny, newly formed Independent Labour Party (ILP) of Britain. Mrs. Pankhurst was initially too shy to speak in public, but, encouraged by her husband—a longtime radical who had founded the Women's Suffrage Society of Manchester when Emmeline was only a child of seven—she eventually began giving talks at socialist meetings. After his death in 1898 she continued to be an active member of the party and served as an ILP member of the Manchester School Board.

It was not until 1903 that a small group of ILP women met in Mrs. Pankhurst's home and formed the male-exclusionist Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) and not until 1907 that the WSPU initiated an independent election campaign, with Mrs. Pankhurst declaring that although she had, been "loyal to Socialism on every point," she would surrender her ILP card if forced to choose.

Sheila Rowbotham, a supporter of the British International Socialists, has concluded from this early history of Emmeline Pankhurst and the WSPU—a history which has recently been much popularized by the book and television series Shoulder to Shoulder— that "there was a close connection between feminism and socialism in the early years of this century and the divorce between the two was long, painful and protracted."

Nothing could be further from the truth. The counterposed ideologies of feminism and socialism came into conflict in England, as elsewhere, very early (see "Feminism vs. Marxism: Origins of the Conflict," Women and Revolution No. 5, Spring 1974). Only the relative social quiescence of turn-of-the-century England obscured for a brief time the contradiction between revolutionary socialism and reformist feminism and permitted the rise of the "socialist-feminist" illusion. But with the impending war and the sharpening of class antagonisms, women found that they were, indeed, forced to choose. As one "socialist-feminist" of the period, who had labored in vain to link the autonomous feminist movement to the socialist movement, complained: "...the women's party...is branded by many as a middle class affair, possessing no fundamental connection with the Labour movement...."

By the outbreak of World War I, when the WSPU, in a paroxysm of chauvinist exuberance, changed the name of its newspaper from the Suffragette to Britannia, while at the same time the East London Federation of Suffragettes, headed by Mrs. Pankhurst's left-leaning daughter Sylvia, changed the name of its newspaper from The Women's Dreadnought to The Workers' Dreadnought, the implications of the choice had become inescapably clear. And when, a few years later, Mrs. Pankhurst journeyed to Russia in a last-ditch effort to save the crumbling Kerensky government from the Bolsheviks, while Sylvia made the same trip shortly thereafter in order to meet with the victorious Lenin and hammer out a revolutionary strategy for England, the consequences of this choice were carried to their logical conclusion.

The story of Mrs. Pankhurst and her daughters is the history of "socialist-feminism" split asunder in the face of social crises. Those who subscribe to this illusion in our own time would do well to study this history with great care. Contemporary socialists and feminists are already driven apart by the necessity of choosing between solidarity with women of all classes or solidarity with workers of both sexes; between "affirmative action" for women or defense of the hard-won union seniority system; between the autonomous organization of women or the leading participation of women as cadres of the vanguard party. The sharpening of the class struggle will demolish any remaining ambiguities and will expose the "socialist-feminist" fraud for what is is—an excuse for reformists to capitulate to backward social consciousness.

The Fork in the Road

Dr. Pankhurst had often said to his children, Christabel, Sylvia, Adela and Harry: "My children are the four pillars of my house!" Harry, frail from birth, died in 1910 at the age of 20, leaving only three, but it was not until 1914 that it became clear that the house could not stand at all.

The younger daughters, Sylvia and Adela (Adela emigrated to Australia in 1912), had always found it difficult to separate the fight for women's emancipation from the broader radical struggle of which their parents had been a part.

In 1912, despite the disapproval of her mother and her older sister Christabel, who were at the height of their power and notoriety as leaders of the militant suffrage movement, Sylvia took the struggle for' women's liberation to the poor East End section of London.

Although her East London Federation was still formally affiliated with the WSPU, it displayed an increasing sympathy toward the working-class movement, a sympathy which was openly confirmed when Sylvia appeared on a speakers' platform with ILP representative George Lansbury and Irish Marxist James Connolly, demanding the release from prison of Irish labor leader James Larkin. The Daily Herald commented;
"One great result of the militant Suffrage Movement has been to convince many people that the vote is not the best way of getting what one wants...every day the industrial rebels and the Suffrage rebels march nearer together."

The Daily Herald was wrong. Far from indicating closer collaboration between worker militants and feminists, Sylvia's Albert Hall appearance was the last straw which severed forever the links between the East London Federation and the WSPU.
Summoned to WSPU headquarters-in-exile in Paris, Sylvia was informed that the East London Federation must become a separate organization at once. The WSPU, Christabel explained, did not want to be mixed up with Lansbury, who was campaigning to extend suffrage not only to female "householders," as the WSPU was, but to all men and women. Furthermore, she said, "You have a democratic constitution for your Federation; we do not agree with that." (The WSPU was administered autocratically by Mrs. Pankhurst and her elder daughter, the members having no vote.) And finally, she said, campaigning among working women was a waste of time, since they were the least powerful of their sex. The WSPU had adopted a conscious policy since 1907 of recruiting upper-class women.

Although all parties to the split declared publicly that the new development was an "extension" of the women's movement, the Daily Sketch (7 February 1914)
raised the question:

"What are the views of Miss Sylvia Pankhurst which are 'not those of Miss Christabel Pankhurst'?"

and observed:

"It is said that Miss Sylvia Pankhurst has for a long time adopted a militant policy of her own without consulting headquarters. One point of difference is that Miss Christabel Pankhurst has issued instructions that the W.S.P.U. was to be kept independent of all political parties, while the movement led by her sister has assumed strongly Socialist sympathies. Most of Miss Sylvia Pankhurst's supporters are avowed Socialists, and Miss Pankhurst has been working in close alliance with Mr. George Lansbury and other leaders of Labour in Bow and Bromley and adjoining constituencies. "Miss Sylvia Pankhurst also established her 'People's Army' for repelling police brutality, a departure from the Union policy. A third point is that the 'Army' is open to both men and women, while the W.S.P.U. excludes men."

—quoted in Midge Mackenzie (ed.). Shoulder to Shoulder


Upon the outbreak of World War I, Mrs. Pankhurst immediately suspended all activities of the WSPU and called upon its members to serve "their" country in any
capacity they could. (Their "sister" feminists in other belligerent countries were receiving the same advice.) Despite its well-known history of militancy and anti-government terrorism, the WSPU, like all reformist organizations, was interested not in destroying the existing order but only in achieving a more privileged position within it. There was no sense in continuing to fight for the vote, said Mrs. Pankhurst, when there might no longer be a country to vote in.

In 1915, at the request of Lloyd George, then minister of munitions, and with a government grant of £3,000, the WSPU organized a huge and highly successful "Women's Right to Serve" demonstration in London for the purpose of overcoming the resistance of trade-union leaders to the mass influx of women into industry at lower wages than men. Throughout the war the feminist leaders continued to serve their government by carrying on a vigorous, often racist, pro-war campaign. Hun-hatred was whipped up in the pages of Britannia—now bearing the dedication "For King, For Country, For Freedom"—which ran detailed atrocity stories and scurrilous attacks on anyone in favor of peace and on the Foreign Office, which, according to Christabel, was riddled with pro-Germans. Suffragettes took to the streets not to fight for the vote but to bestow "white feathers of cowardice" on able-bodied men who were not in uniform.

In 1915, with the financial backing of several prominent industrialists, the WSPU initiated an "industrial peace" campaign. With the blessings of the government, veterans of the suffrage movement, including Mrs. Pankhurst, Christabel and other feminist luminaries such as Flora Drummond and Annie Kenney, toured the areas of the greatest industrial unrest—the north of England and the mining districts of south Wales, in particular—denouncing "Bolshevik" shop stewards for fomenting class war. They appealed to women workers and to the wives of workers, on the grounds that they were more practical and less vulnerable to foreign ideas than men were, to see to it that the men were not led astray by the dangerous ideas of socialists.

Sylvia, meanwhile, was becoming more radical. She had continued, although with Waning enthusiasm, to agitate for universal adult suffrage. In fact, many ex-WSPUers who were disappointed with the WSPU's abandonment of the struggle for suffrage, as well as those with socialist or pacifist sympathies, switched their allegiance to the East London Federation at this time. But as Sylvia's political consciousness developed, the suffrage issue seemed less all-consuming than it once had, and The Workers' Dreadnought began to concern itself with a much wider range of social problems—the inadequacy of government allowances to servicemen's wives, the plight of old-age pensioners, the wages and conditions of women workers, the starvation of the poor.

Sylvia not only denounced these evils and led deputations to government ministries to protest them, but, with the help of a handful of volunteers, pioneered
a number of neighborhood social services—maternity and infant clinics which provided free medical care and free milk, a day care center for working mothers, a toy
factory to provide jobs for those who objected to 'manufacturing weaponry and a Cost Price restaurant which provided cheap meals to the poor and free meals to the destitute.

At the same time/in the press and on the street, she relentlessly attacked the inter-imperialist war, demanded peace and openly denounced her mother's "bloodthirstiness." After one such anti-war demonstration on 8 April 1916, Mrs. Pankhurst, then touring the United States on behalf of the war effort, sent the WSPU a terse cable saying: "Strongly repudiate and condemn Sylvia's foolish and unpatriotic conduct. Regret I cannot prevent use of name. Make this public."

Revolution in Russia

The February revolution in Russia aroused deep concern in England that Russia might withdraw her troops from the war. On June 1, Mrs. Pankhurst requested the permission of Lloyd George, now prime minister, to visit Russia "to explain to the Russian people the opinions as to the war and the conditions of peace held by us as patriotic British women, loyal to the national and Allied cause." Permission was granted.

She met with Kerensky, the head of the Provisional Government, and advised him to take a firm line with the Bolsheviks. She reviewed the Women's Battalion of Death and pronounced it "the greatest thing in history since Joan of Arc." Created by Kerensky in a final, desperate attempt to provoke an outburst of patriotism and shame men into fighting, the battalion was to be the last defender of the Winter Palace against the Bolsheviks in October. She also intended to hold a series of mass outdoor meetings to inspire women and persuade them to fight to keep their wavering men in the war, but the government permitted her only to address small gatherings of upper-class women in private homes and to give press interviews. To one journalist from the newspaper Novoe Vremia she complained:

"".. From the very beginning of my public life I was in the ranks of Socialists, together with my husband. But I soon found how narrow were the interests with which I was concerned. I thus devoted myself to the cause of women. I consider that as a revolutionist, who has been sixteen times in prison, I deserve the sympathy of those people who have been at the head of the revolution in Russia." —quoted, Ibid.

She did, in fact, have the sympathy of many government officials. Statesmen and ambassadors called on her, prominent families welcomed her and the bourgeois press devoted considerable space to her visit. "Her patriotism," rhapsodized one journalist, "is impersonal and nationalistic, able to lift the soul to the highest summits of morality. She is a new woman."

At the series of meetings arranged for her, she spoke to the ladies of Petrograd about the Women's Battalion of Death. If these women were willing to risk their lives on the battlefield, she said, then the women remaining at home should be willing to risk their lives on the streets. Whenever a Bolshevik orator called for a separate peace or the cessation of fighting, an educated woman ought to oppose such sentiments. Furthermore, women ought to storm the Soviets all over Russia and force the men to support Kerensky and the Provisional Government in rallying the army to defeat the Germans (this despite her privately expressed opinion that Kerensky was a weakling and that only General Kornilov could save the situation).

She was in Moscow when the Bolsheviks took power, an event which she characterized as the disastrous madness of the illiterate masses deluded by the "machinations of German agents." Realizing that there was no further hope of Russia's assistance in the war, she returned to England where she demanded armed intervention into Russia to help "loyal" (to capitalism) elements there to restore order and resurrect the war effort. In 1918 and 1919, again with the backing of the British government, she toured the United States and Canada, then at the height of a hysterical red scare, lecturing on the evils of Bolshevism, which, she argued, was closely related to venereal disease, both being the results of a mistaken and promiscuous flouting of traditional decencies.

If Mrs. Pankhurst viewed Bolshevism as a debilitating disease, Sylvia saw it now as a "pure white flame," burning the old regime to the ground and clearing the way for a new society.

Since 1917, Sylvia had been admonishing the East End poor to follow the example of their Russian brothers— to rise up and smash the government, form themselves into Soviets and prepare for the real struggle which was just beginning. Invited to address the Irish Women's Franchise League in London, she startled her audience by advising them to forget about tinkering with parliamentary reforms and to propagandize instead for the seizure of farms and factories and for the establishment of workers Soviets. Although Irish nationalism like the suffrage movement might appear revolutionary, she warned, it was, in fact, riddled with reaction.

The stated aim of her East London Federation of Suffragettes—now renamed the Workers' Socialist Federation (WSF)—was international working-class revolution. "I am proud," she declared, "to call myself a Bolshevist."

Although sometimes pelted with garbage by hostile East Enders, she found a ready audience among the miners in south Wales, the midlands and the north of England and among the dockers and factory workers of "red" Clydeside.

In July 1919 Sylvia set out her political views in a long letter to Lenin: The Labour Party, which was full of Christian Socialists like Lansbury and pathetic office-seekers like Ramsey McDonald, had proven itself untrustworthy. There was no point in looking to Parliament even for significant reforms; the working class must form its own instruments of government. Only her own Workers' Socialist Federation, the Shop Stewards' Movement and the South Wales Socialist Society, she wrote, could be counted on not to compromise.

Lenin's reply, although tactfully phrased, was critical. While the Shop Stewards' Movement, which had direct contact with the workers and could stimulate and 'exploit strike actions, seemed promising, he was afraid that the other groups, including the WSF, were too small, too intellectual and too bourgeois. To undermine socialist solidarity and obstruct the formation of a unified Communist Party over the issue of whether or not to affiliate with the Labour Party and participate in
Parliament would be a mistake and a sign of political immaturity. "We Russians," he concluded, "who have lived through two great revolutions, know the importance of carrying on Soviet propaganda from inside the bourgeois parliaments."

Sylvia was not persuaded. She not only refused to take part in a communist unity conference scheduled for July 1920 but announced in The Workers Dreadnought one month beforehand that the WSF had changed its name to The Communist Party (British Section of the Third International), an act which was openly rebuked by Lenin.
Left Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder, which appeared shortly thereafter, was an extension of Lenin's argument with Sylvia, although the "parliamentarian controversy" to which it addressed itself had important implications for the future of communism in Germany and Italy as well as Britain. Good intentions, he asserted, were not sufficient; politics was an art that had to be learned. British communists, he maintained, should apply for affiliation with the Labour Party. "Comrades Sylvia Pankhurst and William Gallacher [a Scottish shop steward] are mistaken if they think that this is the betrayal of communism, the abandonment of the struggle against social traitors. On the contrary, the communist revolution stands to gain a great deal by it."

Knowing that Lenin's position was certain to be discussed at the Second Congress of the Third International scheduled to begin in Moscow on July 15, Sylvia was determined to attend and argue her case. Denied visas by the embassies of the countries through which she had to travel, she crossed the Arctic Sea in a small fishing boat and arrived in Moscow only a few days before the conference was to end. Sylvia's biographer David Mitchell describes the confrontation:

"Lenin sent for her almost immediately to take part in the Commission on English Affairs then sitting in the Kremlin.... Lenin's charm worked powerfully upon her. He greeted her eagerly, and seemed 'more vividly vital and energetic, more wholly alive, than other people.'... The picture of an arrogant, bureaucratic bully which she had formed vanished in the presence of the original. The pathos and courage of the revolution, too, was pressing upon her, changing her perspective. Trotsky had just returned from the still active Polish front. The White invaders were still on Russian soil. Sylvia understood the need for discipline.... The great clash did not take place. For the moment, Sylvia was utterly disarmed. "Lenin gave her the place of honour on his right at the committee table. She and Gallacher restated their objections to his thesis. Lenin bantered them. Why so heated? It was only a question of tactics, of the most expedient way to put principles into practice.... If the decision to affiliate to the Labour Party and infiltrate Parliament proved wrong, it could always be changed. Left wingers like Sylvia would be needed to keen a close watch on the 'tacticians' and see that first principles were not swamped in a sea of expediency. "Sylvia could not quarrel with this. Lenin was able to announce to the conference, assembled in the Throne Room, that agreement was now complete: even the British, even Sylvia, had seen reason. Delegates sprang to their feet singing the Internationale, seized Lenin and hoisted him on their shoulders. 'He looked/ wrote Sylvia, 'like a happy father among his sons.'"

—David Mitchell, The Fighting Pankhursts

But unity did not last. In a Dreadnought editorial in August 1921 Sylvia again attacked the Communist Party of Great Britain for reformism and opportunism and ridiculed Zinoviev's optimistic estimate of the effectiveness of communist nuclei in the trade unions. "Let us hear from you, O communist nuclei," she taunted. Shortly afterward she received a letter from the party executive committee demanding that she cease using the Dreadnought to subvert party unity. She responded that controversies within the international communist movement were signs of healthy development and that by studying and participating in them members would grow in knowledge and political experience. But the Workers Dreadnought was not an internal bulletin, and the public airing of all controversies taking place within the fledgling Third International served only to increase its vulnerability.

Unable to come to terms with this elementary requirement of democratic centralism, Sylvia was expelled. Her failure to grasp the necessity for party discipline was, in reality, part of a larger failure to understand the essential role of the vanguard party, stemming from a deep-seated social-workerist fantasy that with sufficient energy, courage and sacrifice she could substitute herself for the party. "I do not regret my expulsion," she wrote."... I desire freedom to work for communism with the best that is in me. The party could not chain me."

King, Christ or Communism?

The Dreadnought ceased publication in 1924, and Sylvia and her companion, Silvio Corio, retired for a time to suburban Woodford Green where she wrote books and articles while earning her living as proprietor of a small cafe. But three years later, after Christabel had abandoned politics entirely to await the second coming of Christ and Mrs. Pankhurst, following a successful career as a paid anti-communist agitator, announced her intention to run for Parliament as a Tory, Sylvia was still able to say (in a letter to the editor of the socialist periodical Forward, January 1927):

"... For my part I rejoice in having enlisted for life in the socialist movement, in which the work of Owen, Marx, Kropotkin, William Morris and Keir Hardie, and such pioneering efforts as those of my father, Richard Marsden Pankhurst,...are an enduring memory.... I feel it is incumbent upon me, in view of this defection, to reaffirm my faith in the cause of social and international fraternity...."

Mrs. Pankhurst's "conversion" to Toryism was the subject of much controversy, but she saw no inconsistency whatever between conservatism and feminism. The general strike of 1926, she told reporters, had convinced her that anyone who had the true interests of women at heart must stand firmly behind Stanley Baldwin's Conservative government. The class war, "that foreign importation," must be replaced, she said, by unity and cooperation between labor and management; and women, in defense of the institutions in which they were now included and in defense of their families, would see to it that the Labour Party was never allowed to form another government. Speaking at the Ladies' Carlton Club, she proclaimed:

"I joined the Conservative Party because I believe that today there are only two parties—the Constitutional Party, represented by Mr. Baldwin and the Conservatives, and the Revolutionary Party. If you can only convince the ordinary woman that her home is threatened, her religion is threatened, and even her security in marriage is threatened, then we shall have her support...." —Mitchell, op. cit.

Indeed, in the absence of a revolutionary leadership struggling for women's freedom through proletarian revolution, women's atomization in the home and isolation from the productive process make women a backward section of the working masses. History offers numerous examples of the mobilization of women by the forces of reaction through the manipulation of their fears concerning the welfare of their homes and families. Mrs. Pankhurst's own "industrial peace" campaign had been a case in point.

Pillars of the British Empire

Fabian socialist George Bernard Shaw, annoyed by Sylvia's incessant attacks on the Labour Party, had once advised her to stick to her welfare projects and forget politics, since she "could not even convert her mother and Christabel." Now these notorious "militants" (Mrs. Pankhurst had been fond of introducing herself to American audiences as "what you would call a 'hooligan'") had been "converted" into pillars of the British Empire.

Sylvia, it is true, went through a number of political transformations, as well, and ended her days as an esteemed supporter of the "Lion of Judah," Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, but these changes necessitated her breaking with Lenin, with the Communist International and with the ideology of international proletarian revolution, whereas her mother and elder sister were able to embrace king and Christ, respectively, without breaking from a single feminist position!

Feminism leads at best to some broader variant of reformism. In the case of the two best-known feminists in British history, Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughter Christabel, it led in a logical and traceable line directly to right-wing imperialism and the church. •

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting post. It put to words, what I thought.

    This weekend I'm probably going to a Forum on Women's Day sponsored by a local Maoist group Freedom Road Socialist Group. In most of our political work, we end up fighting with them. It takes the form of procedural items. Tactics flow from program. At the forum, atleast they can be talked to politically.