Sylvia Pankhurst: The Real Meaning of the Revolutionary Years

A review article of Sylvia Pankhurst: Sexual Politics and Political Activism by Barbara Winslow (published by UCL Press).

For anyone espousing communist politics today the appearance of a book which deals seriously with Sylvia Pankhurst’s political progression from militant reformist (suffragette) to revolutionary and left-wing communist is of more than passing interest.

Unfortunately, as the book’s title suggests, the author herself is not really aware that this is what she has elected to do in recording Pankhurst’s years of “political work in the East End of London”. As it happens Pankhurst’s time in the East End (1912-24) spanned some of the most traumatic years of capitalism’s existence, a period which even bourgeois historians have come to recognise as an historical watershed.

War and Revolution: The End of the Old World Order

The years immediately preceding the 1st World War were distinguished by intense class struggle which in Britain presented the capitalist class with the biggest challenge to its rule since Chartism. The World War itself - the barbaric culmination of imperialist competition - brought the biggest human carnage the world had ever seen. As well as shaking the very foundations of the existing political and social order, the war undermined bourgeois self-confidence in its ‘civilising mission’ and automatic right to rule. For the working class throughout Europe the reformist scenario of socialism evolving naturally and peaceably out of capitalism was shattered. With the notable exception of Russia and Serbia, Socialist Parties in all the warring countries abandoned any pretence that they would oppose workers killing each other for the sake of the national interests of their own capitalist class. As with the Social Democratic Party (SPD) in Germany, the Labour Party promised to support the war effort. Apart from a few token demonstrations called by the pacifists in the ILP as war was declared, Labour gave full support to the War. In 1915 Ramsay MacDonald, a pacifist, resigned the leadership (though not his seat in parliament), not in order to protest at his party’s endorsement of war, but so that he could have an easy conscience about Labour MPs joining the wartime coalition governments. There was no objection from those MPs to the passing of the Munitions Act which outlawed strikes on war work (accepted by the TUC) or the various additions to the Defence of the Realm Act (DORA) which gave the state almost unlimited power against anything it interpreted as a possible threat to the “war effort”. Yet, as the dead piled up in their millions on the battle fronts and life for a working class subject to military discipline and material hardship on “the home front” became intolerable, the necessity for a truly civilised way of organising the human community became increasingly obvious.

The Russian Revolution of February 1917, which overthrew the Tsarist autocracy, offered the possibility of a way forward to the rest of Europe’s war-weary working class. It demonstrated that there was a practical alternative to bourgeois rule, to capitalism’s organised mass butchery of worker by worker and governments whose basic aim was to protect the bosses who were flagrantly profiting from the war. That alternative was soviet power - direct government by workers themselves through a system of nation-wide councils composed of directly elected and recallable delegates. At first the soviets deferred to the provisional government hastily set up by ex-Tsarist ministers who thought that nothing much would change inside Russia except that there would be a parliament as in the other Allied states. The Bolshevik, October Revolution of the working class which overthrew the bourgeois provisional government and which finally took Russia’s “workers and peasants in uniform” (Lenin) out of the war confirmed the revolutionary potential of the soviets. That potential, however, could only be fully realised once the soviets in Russia became part of a network of, first a European-wide socialist republic and eventually a world-wide socialist community. But if the survival of soviet power in Russia depended on its extension throughout Europe the prospect of such a revolution occurring was that much greater once European workers had the example and inspiration of the Russian Revolution before them. Indeed the mutinous situation in the German fleet had already been taken into account by the Bolshevik leadership when timing the October insurrection. After October mass strikes spread through the major cities of the old Austro-Hungarian empire, Vienna and Budapest, to Berlin and other German cities. When the 2nd All-Russian Congress of Soviets issued a peace decree calling for a “just, democratic peace without annexations and indemnities” and followed by the publication of the Tsar’s secret deals with the Allies on how they intended to share the imperialist spoils European workers’ disillusion in the war aims of their respective governments increased. But the European soviet revolution still did not occur. Instead of “issuing a few revolutionary proclamations to the peoples of the world” and then shutting up shop as he had supposed, Trotsky, as People’s Commissar for Foreign Affairs, was obliged to sue for separate peace terms with Germany at Brest-Litovsk. In Berlin metal workers responded by striking against the terms of the Treaty and in Kiel sailors formed their own council (or soviet) and appealed to the international working class to join them in putting an end to the war. By November 1918, when Germany’s military leaders finally signed the armistice (1) they did so because they had no choice - the revolution had arrived. Workers’ councils had appeared throughout the land and the Kaiser had already abdicated. But it was a revolution without a communist party that could give a clear political lead to the working class on how to establish and maintain soviet power. As yet the largest group of communists, the Spartacists, were still inside the left social democratic party (USPD). Just as Social Democracy had supported the war, it was the Social Democrats of right and left who undermined the workers’ revolution in Germany right from the start. So, while tens of thousands of workers in Moscow celebrated the beginning of the world revolution and the end of their own isolation the Social Democrats in the council of workers and soldiers delegates in Berlin adopted a revolutionary vocabulary, confirmed that Germany was now a “socialist republic” and proposed the appointment of an Executive Committee of “people’s commissars” (six Social Democrats) which was duly ratified. On the same day Ebert, one of the most reactionary SPD leaders and now chairman of the “people’s commissars”, made a deal with Groener, Chief of the Army, for a mutual fight against Bolshevism.

The story of how Social Democracy saved German capitalism by a combination of armed force and political weakening of the revolutionary movement from within cannot be retold here. But as the revolutionary wave reverberated throughout Europe so too was this echoed by the leftward shift of social democratic parties anxious to divert the class movement onto safe “constitutional” capitalist ground. In Italy the Socialist Party was one of the first to declare its formal allegiance to the newly-formed Communist International (1919) while in practice it did its best to undermine just about everything it stood for in a sea of confusion and deliberate procrastination. Serrati, for instance, refused to expel the right-wing parliamentarists who openly opposed the idea of workers destroying the capitalist state apparatus and establishing their own rule on the completely different basis of direct soviet democracy. Indeed, the columns of the Party paper blurred the issue even further by endless debate over what the role of soviets or councils really was. During the Biennio Rosso or Red Two Years (1919-20) of, at times insurrectionary, class struggle in Italy the PSI leadership refused to condone it. When mass strikes broke out in Piedmont and Turin, culminating in the famous factory occupations, the Party leadership did its best to deprive the movement of any revolutionary significance by declaring that this was not a political but an economic issue which was the province of the trade unions!

Labour Aids the British Ruling Class

In Britain the ripples of the revolutionary wave were weaker but they were there all right - and so was Labour, ready to stem the tide. News of the February Revolution in Russia reached the British working class at a time of growing disillusion with the war and the working conditions imposed by what was in effect industrial conscription. Since the TUC was working hand in glove with the government to prevent strikes it was up to rank and file workers to organise on their own account. 1917 saw the revival of the workers’ committee movement which had first appeared in 1915 amongst the shipyard and engineering workers on the Clyde. This time the hub of what came to be known as the shop stewards’ movement was in Sheffield - where nearly 45,000 workers were employed in arms factories - but it was a movement which extended throughout Britain’s main engineering centres. The government began to get the measure of its strength in May 1917 when it announced the abolition of the Trade Card scheme exempting skilled workers from military service. For three weeks there were strikes all over the country, involving 200,000 workers. In itself it was a sectional issue and the Trade Card scheme was duly abolished. Even so, anti-war feeling was growing amongst the working class, encouraged by news from Russia where the Provisional Government was under pressure from the workers’ soviets to demand an immediate peace without annexations or indemnities. This was the signal for Labour to make a shift to the left in order, not only to try and maintain working class commitment to British imperialism’s war aims, but to reduce the possibility of a more political movement developing that would threaten the British state. Thus, the Leeds Convention of over 1,000 anti-war ‘socialists’ held in July was dominated by Labour Party bigwigs and trade union leaders moving resolutions to express British working class support for the Russian Revolution (Ramsay MacDonald MP), for the Russian Provisional Government’s war aims (Philip Snowden MP) and for the establishment:

in every town, urban, and rural district, Councils of Workmen and Soldiers’ Delegates for initiating and co-ordinating working class activity in support of the policy set out in the foregoing resolution, and to work strenuously for a peace made by the peoples of the various countries, and for the complete political and economic emancipation of international labour.

W.C. Anderson MP

Behind these high-sounding phrases there was nothing remotely revolutionary. Since the Russian Provisional Government’s aim was to continue the war on the Eastern front what the working class in Britain were really being called on to do was keep up their support for the war on the Western front. The call for the formation of workers and soldiers councils was more to head off the possibility of a more serious initiative than anything else. Certainly the mover of the resolution had nothing “subversive, not unconstitutional” in mind and nothing practical came of it, which is unsurprising since Anderson also asked the assembled delegates “not to discuss too much the mere method by which it will be done”.

Rather than busy themselves with setting up workers’ councils Labour leaders were regrouping round the Party’s newly-drafted War Aims Memorandum (MacDonald) - essentially taken over from the Union of Democratic Control and designed to cut the feet from under the growing anti-war movement by redefining the Allied war aims in suitably democratic terms - and drafting the party’s first-ever constitution (Sidney Webb and Arthur Henderson). This latter, as Pankhurst put it in The Workers’ Dreadnought,

... is so vaguely drawn that Mr Sidney Webb, a member of its Executive, is able to describe it as embodying: “A Socialism which is no more specific than a definite repudiation of the individualism that characterises all the political parties of the past generation.” (2)


No matter. In the winter of 1917-18, with growing war weariness and strikes of skilled and unskilled workers spreading, news of the second Bolshevik Revolution reached Britain’s workers. The Labour Party was now ready to pose as being both in favour of a ‘democratic’ peace and as socialist. On January 5-6th 1918 a joint conference of shop stewards and Amalgamation Committees (syndicalist propaganda bodies) enthusiastically declared solidarity with the November Russian Revolution and in addition to discussing fighting the government’s new Man Power Bill, decided that delegates go back to their workplaces and sound out the possibility of strike action to stop the war. As James Hinton summarises,

During the last weeks of January 1918 it was touch and go whether or not the munitions workers would erupt into a political strike, demanding immediate peace negotiations on the Bolshevik terms of no annexations, no indemnities.

The Labour leaders sensed this no less than the Prime Minister, Lloyd George. At the same time as the shop stewards were discussing strike action to stop the war Lloyd George spoke to a conference of trade union leaders and endorsed Labour’s newly articulated war aims.(3) This prepared the ground for the Labour Party Conference a fortnight later to make no bones about backing the Government and for a wholehearted appeal for "restraint" on the part of the working class - notably led by that recent advocate of soviets, Sheffield left-wing MP W.C. Anderson, who argued that:

A terrific industrial upheaval at the present moment might be dangerous from the standpoint of a democratic People’s Peace... (4)

The combination of Left and Right capitalist propaganda seems to have done the trick. Just as today, imperialist war was now being waged under the banner of the pursuit of peace. When the National Council of shop stewards met in the last week of January the call for a co-ordinated national strike against the war did not come. Although the Clyde Workers Committee and London shop stewards were in favour [and organised protest meetings in the Albert Hall and Glasgow], significantly it was the report that Sheffield workers were opposed to a political strike that was the decider. Ironically and tragically, this was while Trotsky was stalling at Brest-Litovsk and 400,000 Berlin munitions workers were being forced back to work after striking for peace along...

the principles formulated by the Russian People’s Commissioners in Brest-Litovsk. (5)

Towards a Communist Party in Britain

Even before the creation of the 3rd International, this failure of the working class movement as a whole to move on to political and potentially revolutionary ground in 1918 was the impetus for Britain’s divided revolutionary minorities to begin to move towards regroupment. The first step came from the BSP (British Socialist Party), itself by no means a clear revolutionary organisation, when its annual Easter conference in 1918 decided “That the time has arrived for the co-operation of all active Socialist forces” and started to make overtures towards the much more consistently revolutionary SLP (Socialist Labour Party) and the ILP (Independent Labour Party), Labour’s non-trade unionist left-wing which at the most generous could only be described as “Centrist” ("Socialist in word and chauvinist in deed”, Lenin). After the war the process received further encouragement from the formation of the Communist International - which called on European revolutionaries to break from Social Democracy and form communist parties - and from the resurgence of the class struggle. (In simple terms of strike days, there were more strikes in 1919 than for the whole of the four exceptionally militant years before the war put together.) By now Sylvia Pankhurst, on behalf of the Workers’ Socialist Federation (WSF) was playing a leading part in what arguably should have been a deeper process of clarification over what is socialism and how it can come into being but which became a protracted and labyrinthine set of negotiations around how far the new party could use parliament and the unions and, above all, the issue of affiliation to the Labour Party.

By the time unity was achieved (with the Leeds Unity Convention of January 1921) it was minus the contribution of one of Britain’s best known revolutionary Marxists, John Maclean, and without a large part of the SLP. Within six months the CPGB (Communist Party of Great Britain) had expelled Pankhurst. By now the revolutionary tide had ebbed. In Russia a working class decimated by civil war and famine was left without support and with the soviets virtually emptied of genuine political life. As counter-revolution stared the Bolsheviks in the face they became more and more desperate to break Russia’s isolation, even as the Party itself became the vehicle of the counter-revolution by virtue of its control over the state. With the introduction of the NEP (New Economic Policy) in 1921 Lenin acknowledged that this was state capitalism. At the same time the first moves to ban critical voices from inside the Party were made with the 10th Congress resolving on the immediate dissolution of all groups with platforms - a resolution aimed specifically at the Workers’ Opposition which was demanding freedom for the trades unions. Bolshevik desperation was reflected in the growing opportunism of their tactics adopted by the International. At the 3rd Congress Communist Parties in Europe were urged to “go to the masses” and transform themselves into mass parties in part by winning over the leaderships of the trades unions. This was followed by the call to build the “united proletarian front”. Any ambiguity as to what Moscow might mean by this was removed by the time of the 4th Congress which ratified the “workers’ government” slogan and encouraged agreements with Social Democracy, the very current whose parties had been recognised “beyond doubt, as the class enemies of the proletariat” at the founding Congress.

Pankhurst Moves Away from Reformism...

This changing historical context needs to be spelled out because without it Pankhurst’s political journey remains incomprehensible, even to the most sympathetic biographer. For readers who don’t know Pankhurst’s story, she began political life alongside her famous mother and sister in the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) an organisation which they had helped to found in Manchester in 1903. The WSPU aimed to win votes for women on the same terms as men. Although this would exclude the majority of working class women, the WSPU, like the Pankhursts themselves, was linked to Labour via the ILP [Independent Labour Party]. After moving to London in order to take a more influential part in the women’s suffrage movement, the older women left the ILP which was ambivalent about votes for women [1906] and concentrated more and more of their efforts on winning over rich bourgeois and aristocratic women to “the cause”. The WSPU as a whole, however, maintained the ILP connection while Sylvia herself remained committed to a characteristic ILP idealist socialism as well as to the increasingly militant female suffrage movement. She chose to work more with the WSPU in the East End of London and developed close links with local ILPers, including George Lansbury who lost his parliamentary seat in 1912 after running on a female suffrage ticket without the support of the ILP/Labour as a whole - which officially supported adult suffrage, although doing little about it. This was the signal for the elder Pankhursts to break completely with the ILP/Labour, to stipulate that no WSPU member appear on a platform with men, and to abandon work in the East End. It also signalled a rupture with Sylvia who resolved to continue working inside the working class and set up her own East London Federation of Suffragettes (ELFS). In the run-up to the 1st World War Pankhurst immersed herself in the class struggle as she fought for female political equality, a fight which she brought to working class women and which she made part of the struggle for socialism. In so doing she provoked further wrath from her feminist mother and sister who eventually expelled the ELFS from the WSPU after Sylvia spoke at a workers’ rally in the Albert Hall. This had been organised to support striking workers and the release of Jim Larkin, in prison on hunger strike, during the 1913 Dublin lock-out. Amongst others on the platform with Sylvia Pankhurst was James Connolly, founder member of the SLP who would later be summarily executed by the British army in the aftermath of the 1916 Easter Rising. It was after this political breach, in March, 1914, that Pankhurst published the first edition of the ELFS weekly newspaper, The Woman’s Dreadnought,

to deal with the franchise question from the working woman’s point of view. (6)

The rupture with Emmeline and Christabel became final with the outbreak of the 1st World War in 1914 when, as Winslow puts it, the WSPU “almost overnight” became “vociferously patriotic” and the suffragette movement collapsed. The ELFS too suffered a haemorrhage of members but a core remained with Sylvia Pankhurst who took up a pacifist anti-war stance. Pankhurst was no marxist and she did not have the clarity of a John Maclean or the SLP about the imperialist nature of the war and its significance for the working class but she held to the spirit of the 1907 and 1912 anti-war resolutions of the 2nd International. In December 1914 the Dreadnought printed an article by Karl Liebknecht arguing that the war was caused by an imperialist struggle over the world market and Winslow maintains that Pankhurst was behind all the anti-war demonstrations in London during the first two years of the war. (The biggest was in April 1916 when a WSF phalanx marched the six miles from Bow to Poplar and on to Trafalgar Square as part of a demonstration of 20,000.) By this time “WSF” stood for “Workers Suffrage Federation” and was expanding its forces beyond the East End of London. Pankhurst herself was becoming more involved with the class struggle throughout the country and developed closer relations with other revolutionaries, notably John Maclean and the SLP. However, her world view was still essentially social democratic - with the attainment of full democratic rights within capitalism seen as the key to both ending the war and the establishment of socialism itself. Over the next two years that world view was to dramatically change under the impact of the Russian Revolution and the revolutionary wave that followed in its wake.

The response of the WSF to the February Revolution in Russia was to change the name of its paper to The Workers’ Dreadnought (28th July 1917). The same edition ran an article giving news of Russian workers’ and soldiers’ councils and calling for similar organisations to be formed in Britain. However, the social democratic outlook did not disappear overnight. It wasn’t until May 1918 that the Workers’ Suffrage Federation became the Workers’ Socialist Federation and not until July that “Votes For All” finally disappeared from the Dreadnought’s banner. (Replaced by “For International Socialism”). Ironically, given her own confusion, Pankhurst’s idiosyncratic welcome for what she termed “the Lenin revolution” suggests that she herself had just begun to realise the value of having a clear socialist programme.

...the Russian Socialists are now heading straight for Socialism, and for years past have been busily hammering out the programme and learning confidence in themselves and in it. The educational value of a programme ... is very great ...Without the knowledge that such study will bring them, revolution would only mean a change of master... The Russian problem is our problem: it is simply whether the people understand Socialism and whether they desire it.

As it was, Pankhurst’s own understanding of socialism was being revolutionised by the reality of the class struggle and from the wider political horizons that contact with international revolutionaries brought. By the time almost universal suffrage was granted in Britain she was questioning its value: “Is it possible to establish Socialism with the parliament at Westminster as its foundation?”, she asked in the Dreadnought in February 1918. At the general election at the end of the war - when the working class were “rewarded” for their loyalty to British imperialism with the right to vote - she commented:

We hope nothing from this election, save that it may serve to spur the workers on to abolish Parliament, the product and instrument of the capitalist system, and to establish in its place Councils of Workers’ Delegates, which shall be the executive instruments for creating and maintaining the Socialist community.

Workers’ Dreadnought, 14th December 1918

.... Becomes a Revolutionary Internationalist

Like other revolutionaries in Britain, notably the SLP with its leanings towards industrial unionism and links with the shop stewards’ movement, Pankhurst began to see workers’ committees as potential soviets. In early 1918, the WSF established close relations with the London shop stewards of the ASE (Amalgamated Society of Engineers). At that point not only was a strike against the war on the agenda but rocketing food prices and the dire shortages which brought endless queuing caused the shop stewards to seriously consider taking over supplies and distributing food via the workers’ committees. The stewards formed a National Food Vigilance Committee with the avowed aim of obtaining “the effective control of the production and distribution of all foodstuffs”. (7)

Winslow notes in passing that Pankhurst was a member of this committee when it met on January 12th in Battersea Town Hall and "pledged to strike" towards this end [p.111]. The government recognised the threat to its authority and quickly introduced rationing to avoid the threat becoming a real challenge. (8)

However, this was not the end of the workers’ committees or the WSF’s continued association with the movement, reflected by regular reports in the Dreadnought. When the WSF changed its name and adopted a new constitution in May 1918 it committed itself to the abolition of capitalism and the parliamentary system which would be replaced by workers organising on an industrial basis and building up a National Assembly from local workers’ committees.

At the same time Pankhurst was developing links with the revolutionary movement outside of Britain and using the Dreadnought to publicise news and political articles on issues of international significance for the working class. Reports on the German Revolution, news of Liebknecht and Luxemburg’s deaths, soviets in Bavaria, the Winnipeg Soviet, the Italian Socialist Party and the class struggle in Italy, were interspersed with articles by John Reed on the structure of the soviet state, Bukharin on soviets or parliament, Lenin and Chicherin addressing British workers, Pannekoek on the Dutch Communist Party ... and much else. She also quickly realised that workers needed to know more about revolutionary Russia apart from hostile reports in the bourgeois press and from Labour Party apologists like Sidney Webb and in July 1918 set up the People’s Russian Information Bureau (PRIB), a precursor of the “Hands Off Russia” movement which urged workers to oppose Allied military intervention against the Revolution. Pankhurst could also boast that the Dreadnought was the first in Britain to welcome the formation of the 3rd International and in 1919 she wrote four articles for its official journal, Communist International. The last of these, Winslow states, was printed anonymously. It was Pankhurst’s letter to Lenin on the impossibility of revolutionaries participating in elections and parliament. As Lenin argued in his reply, the issue in itself was a secondary one which did not justify delaying...

the formation of a big workers’ Communist Party in Britain out of all the trends and elements, listed by you, which sympathise with Bolshevism and sincerely support the Soviet Republic. (9)

At heart, though, the debate in Britain was not simply about the ability of a really revolutionary party to send “revolutionary propagandists, such as Karl Liebknecht” to parliament but about commitment to the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat and abolition of parliament in favour of a soviet (or council) system. It was precisely this commitment that the BSP (British Socialist Party) leadership had not been able to give the WSF when they had discussed merging their two publications in May 1918. It was not until October 1919, after a full balloting of its membership, that the BSP, which was affiliated to the Labour Party, decisively came out in favour of joining the 3rd International. Before then it was revolutionaries like John Maclean, the SLP and then Pankhurst herself who were seen as the kernel of a future revolutionary party in Britain by Lenin and the Bolshevik leadership. In fact the WSF had already pronounced itself for the 3rd International and adopted the title of Communist Party only to delay the use of the name pending the outcome of the unity negotiations...

in order that the new united party, which is hoped will eventuate, may adopt the title Communist Party as its own.

Workers’ Dreadnought, 21-06-1919

In the meantime Pankhurst embarked on a political trip through Europe. By October she was in Bologna addressing the Italian Socialist Party and speaking on behalf of Bordiga’s abstentionist fraction against Serrati:

It is difficult for me to understand how you can possibly make propaganda to win seats in parliament - a body which you mean to abolish in a few months - when you ought to be absorbed in the work of revolutionary preparation and when the most urgent need is to convince workers that the time for Parliament has passed.

Quoted p.142, from a translation of the report in Il Comunismo

From Italy Pankhurst went on to a meeting of the West European Secretariat of the International in Frankfurt. February 1920 saw her alongside J.T. Murphy of the SLP and two BSPers at the founding conference of the short-lived “ultra-left” Amsterdam Bureau of the International. Here Pankhurst met fellow anti-parliamentarists, Herman Gorter and Anton Pannekoek. Presumably [because Winslow does not clarify] she also helped to draw up the resolution to British communists on non-affiliation to the Labour Party, a resolution accompanied by an “appeal to our English friends to unite on the basis of no affiliation with the Labour Party” (10), which conflicted with Lenin’s view and hastened the dissolution of the Bureau.

... Opposes Affiliation with Labour

Back in Britain the question of communist regroupment became reduced to one of affiliation or otherwise with the Labour Party. The decision of the Amsterdam Bureau was outweighed by the fact that Lenin was in favour of affiliation and that the Russian Party’s financial and organisational weight was behind unity on the widest possible basis - i.e. with the BSP, the largest of the groups which had come out in support of the Communist International but the one which retained the heaviest social democratic baggage. The fact that the BSP was affiliated to the Labour Party no doubt encouraged Lenin in his illusion that it was possible for a Communist Party to work within Labour without losing political independence. Even so, Lenin’s desperation in 1920 that communists in the West maintain links with the masses led to opportunism, as his arguments in Left-Wing Communism show. Dividing up constituencies, supporting Labour so that it can have a trial run in office and thereby “prove” to the masses that it is anti-working class (the “support of a rope for the hanged man” argument still used by the capitalist left today), were not the same as using parliament as a revolutionary platform, they were a step back from the very raison d’etre for the formation of the 3rd International, i.e. That:

An essential condition of victory ... is that the proletariat make a break not only with the outright lackeys of capital and the hangmen of the Communist revolution, such as the right-wing social democrats, but also with the ‘centre’ (the Kautskyites), which abandons the proletariat at the critical moment to compromise with its avowed enemies. (11)

Pankhurst, who, like the SLP, was prepared to accept the tactic of the Communist Party using elections and parliament for revolutionary propaganda, could not accept Lenin’s new argument. It is worth quoting Pankhurst at length here to show that her arguments were not always the semi-anarchistic or syndicalist one of the corrupting effect of parliamentarism or the need to do away with leaders and led.

The social patriotic parties of reform, like the British Labour Party, are everywhere aiding the capitalists to maintain the capitalist system; to prevent it from breaking down under the shock which the Great War has caused it, and the growing influence of the Russian Revolution. The bourgeois social patriotic parties, whether they call themselves Labour or Socialist, are everywhere working against the Communist revolution, and they are more dangerous to it than the aggressive capitalists because the reforms they seek to introduce may keep the capitalist regime going for some time to come. When the social patriotic reformists come into power, they fight to stave off the workers’ revolution with as strong a determination as that displayed by the capitalists, and more effectively, because they understand the methods and tactics and something of the idealism of the working class.
The British Labour party ...will, in the natural development of society, inevitably come into power. It is for the Communists to build up the forces that will overthrow the social patriots, and in this country we must not delay or falter in that work. We must not dissipate our energy in adding to the strength of the Labour Party; its rise to power is inevitable. We must concentrate on making a Communist movement that will vanquish it. The Labour Party will soon be forming a Government; the revolutionary opposition must make ready to attack it. (12)

As usual with Pankhurst, hers was not just an argument based on theory but on her own experience of the Labour Party. In 1918, for instance, she had been the mover of a resolution at the Labour Party Conference, ironically on behalf of the BSP, demanding that Labour withdraw from the coalition government. [Of course it did nothing of the kind and, as we have seen, the Labour Conference acted to undercut any revolutionary content to the workers’ movement.] Later, in July 1919, Norah Smythe and Melvina Walker of the WSF received notice of expulsion from Poplar Trades Council after the WSF had presented itself at a Labour Party rally in Victoria Park with a truck bedecked with ‘Welcome to the Soviets’ slogan. As Winslow admits,

[WSF experience] belied Lenin’s belief that it would be possible to work as revolutionaries in the Labour party.

Her criticism that Pankhurst’s “position led her into the trap of asserting pure principles from the sidelines” can therefore only mean that the principles should have gone. Pankhurst herself, however, realised that communists can influence workers in the Labour Party without affiliating to it:

To influence the workers who are today in the Labour Party, it is not necessary for the Communist Party to ally itself with the Labour Party; that they are susceptible to outside influence has been proved time and again - by Lloyd George, as well as by the workers’ advance guard...


... Comes Up Against Lenin

For these reasons then, when the BSP refused to accept unity on anything but an affiliation with Labour basis the WSF withdrew from the unity negotiations and called its own conference. The outcome was the merger of the WSF with seven other smaller groups to form the CP(BSTI) - Communist Party, British Section of the Third International. The seven conditions for membership were published in the Dreadnought on July 10th. They were acceptance of,

  1. The complete overthrow of capitalism.
  2. The class struggle.
  3. The Dictatorship of the Proletariat.
  4. The Soviet or Revolutionary Workers’ Council System.
  5. Affiliation to the 3rd International.
  6. Refusal to engage in parliamentary action.
  7. Non-affiliation to the Labour Party.

Now not only was non-affiliation with Labour made a defining issue but also parliamentary abstentionism altogether.

The next issue contained news of the formation of the Communist Workers’ Party of Germany (KAPD), organisation of Herman Gorter and the German Left Communists which had been expelled from the Communist Party (KPD) for rejecting participation in parliament and the trades unions. (13)

Shortly afterwards Pankhurst set off for Moscow and the 2nd Congress of the International to argue her case against Lenin. Whether the reason for this precipitate action was to try and force the International into accepting communist unity on non-affiliation terms or whether from the start Pankhurst was thinking of organising as a faction inside the new Party, Lenin was unimpressed and condemned the formation of the CP(BSTI). His Left-wing Communism: an Infantile Disorder, with arguments against both the German Left and Pankhurst, was already in circulation and distributed to all the delegates at the 2nd Congress. (Not “later” as Winslow says.) It was Gorter who famously took up the task of replying to Left-Wing Communism (and serialised in Workers’ Dreadnought) but if Pankhurst had expected support from the German Left at the 2nd Congress she was disappointed. When she arrived the KAPD’s delegates had already left. Typically, Winslow mentions this but makes no comment. Strangely, Pankhurst apparently made no links with Bordiga who was also at the Congress. But then in contrast to Pankhurst, he was persuaded that abstentionism is not a principle for defining a communist party, and suggested the final two points of the 21 conditions for membership of the International, precisely in order to ensure that the forthcoming split from the PSI would mean the formation of a Communist Party without Serrati’s Centrists.

... Joins With the German Left Against the Third International

In any event the Executive Committee of the International (ECCI) gave the British delegates four months from their return to Britain to get a unified Communist Party together. Most of the CP(BSTI) agreed to join, although some didn’t because the 21 conditions for admission to the International were not available in English and had to be accepted on trust. Pankhurst herself was serving a prison sentence for sedition in the run-up and during the unity conference but she thought she had secured a future for the Dreadnought by maintaining it as a publication outside of the control of the new Party,

giving an independent support to the Party from a Left Wing standpoint.

WD 22-01-1921

After her release she was asked to give up control of the Dreadnought to the CPGB Executive. When she refused to do so she was expelled. A month later the Manifesto of the Fourth, Communist Workers’ International (KAI) appeared in the Dreadnought along with an announcement of its intention to form a Communist Workers’ Party in Britain, the counterpart of the KAPD:

Since the Third International is firmly bound to the Soviet government and the Russian Party; since a Moscow Executive wholly dominated by Russian policy controls the action of all the National Parties affiliated to the Third International; since every day this policy becomes less revolutionary, the rise of a Fourth International has become inevitable.

Workers’ Dreadnought 8-10-1921

But if it is true that Russian policy was daily becoming less revolutionary, what seemed obvious to the German Left and Sylvia Pankhurst from their own experience, was not yet actually true for the International as a whole: The Moscow Executive did not yet control the action of all the national parties. The Executive of the young Communist Party of Italy (PCd’I), for example, was dominated by Bordiga and the Left who constituted the vast majority of the membership. While Pankhurst was declaring that:

We are happier in the young rebel Fourth International than we should be in the Third, which has gone back on itself into a premature decay.

WD 07.01.1922

... inside the Third International Bordiga and the Italian Left were beginning their resistance to the Moscow and KPD version of the united front and workers’ government slogans. (14)

In fact it was not until the completion of the process of “bolshevisation” in the Comintern that the Moscow Executive was in full control of the “national parties”. By then the prematurely declared 4th International had sunk into oblivion under the weight of its own confusions and the growing isolation imposed by the encroaching counter-revolution. The Dreadnought, the Communist Workers’ Party, and Sylvia Pankhurst shared this fate.

So long as it lasted - until mid-1924 - the Workers’ Dreadnought published reports on the class struggle world wide and acted as a mouthpiece of proletarian opposition, albeit increasingly confused, to the state-capitalist counter-revolution in Russia and the policies which flowed on from this. Winslow does not enlighten us about Pankhurst’s links with the KAPD and the KAI although the Dreadnought is full of articles such as Gorter’s World Revolution and Communist Tactics, and news from the KAPD in Germany. A glance at the contents of the Dreadnought also reveals that apart from Pankhurst’s effort in Britain in 1921-22, there were attempts to form Communist Workers’ Parties (or later on, Communist Workers’ Movements! as opposition to the word “party” clearly became a fetish): in Holland and South Africa (November 1921), Russia (November 1922), Austria (October 1923) as well as contacts with sympathisers in central Europe and beyond. The Dreadnought was also an important, if not the only, source of information on communist and other opposition groups in Russia. Regular articles appeared from Kollontai and the Workers’ Opposition group - which aligned with the Russian CWP in 1923 - as well as Miasnikov’s Workers’ Group Manifesto and a report on the imprisonment of anarcho-syndicalists in Russia later the same year. One of the last articles published by the Dreadnought was a letter protesting about the imprisonment of Miasnikov and other left communists in Russia. No wonder that the paper remained proscribed reading for CPGB members! Politically, however, it was losing its way.

... Faces Political Isolation

Winslow points to the increasing number of historical and literary articles, ranging from studies on Chartism to Ezra Pound’s (!) poetry and a serialisation of Zola’s Germinal; as well as the first signs of Pankhurst’s future interest in Esperanto. Interspersed with all this were anarchist and sometimes syndicalist articles including the platform of Ruhle’s anti-party breakaway from the KAPD’s General Workers’ Union.

As Winslow notes, by 1924 the political confusion was reflected in the Dreadnought’s masthead. “International Socialism” had been replaced with “Going To The Root”. Winslow attributes the confusion to Pankhurst’s growing isolation from the working class which she puts down to Pankhurst’s sectarianism. It is legitimate for communists today to debate the historical question of whether she should have submitted to party discipline and given up Workers’ Dreadnought in return for a chance to put forward the views of the left to the CPGB membership and either force a debate or expose the gagging of debate. In fact, Winslow quotes from a prison letter of Pankhurst’s (to an unknown person) which shows that she was considering this option:

[it] might be best to join it to consolidate the Left Wing, and then if there were no prospect of changing the policy to come out of the party.


Clearly, however, she wasn’t banking on having to give up the Dreadnought. There is no doubt that she was in breach of party discipline here - although, as Raymond Challinor, the historian of the SLP points out, it was a discipline not invoked against R. Palme Dutt when he set up his own paper, Labour Monthly. The new Communist Party was not prepared to allow a left-wing faction, even if Pankhurst hadn’t already announced the possibility of a new, “left wing” international before she was formally expelled! Moreover, the best elements of a potential “left opposition” were also outside the CPGB - i.e. the majority of the SLP and John Maclean. Strangely, though, the majority of Pankhurst’s own organisation, the CP(BSTI), who had joined the CPGB as Pankhurst had recommended from prison, remained there and were not exactly vociferous when she was finally expelled. Winslow informs us that in the run-up to the final unity conference there was considerable unease and acrimony inside her own organisation over the role of the shadowy Italian anarchist, Silvio Corio (15), in the financial and political running of the Dreadnought and the associated Agenda Press. Basically the membership were questioning why someone who was not a member of the organisation and not a communist should have such a key role, even acting as editor, up to the point that:

by a unanimous vote it was decided to repudiate the Workers’ Dreadnought as the official organ of the CP(BSTI) and also to institute a boycott of the WD and the Agenda Press.

Edgar Whitehead, National Secretary of the CP[BSTI] was given the job of writing to Pankhurst in prison, thus:

I would therefore ask you to remove from the Dreadnought ... the intimation that the Dreadnought is the official organ of the Party.

16-01-1921, quoted p.168

This serious “anomaly” once again raises the question of how far Pankhurst was ready to submit to any sort of collective discipline and, like the almost casual way she aligned with the German Left and the KAI, betrays her lack of understanding of the full significance of what she was doing.

A Biographer Who Thinks Socialists Should Manage Capitalism

However, if today’s revolutionaries criticise Pankhurst for her political irresponsibility, with the benefit of hindsight, they recognise that she would have still had to face political isolation given the retreat of the working class movement. Not so Barbara Winslow. This latest of her biographers is critical from a different angle: socialist feminism. From this stance Winslow cannot understand that Pankhurst the revolutionary wanted to remain so, despite the period of working class retreat which, perhaps surprisingly, she recognised as early as 1921. Winslow notes that:

Pankhurst pointed out in the Dreadnought that, because of the economic depression and the defeat of the working class movement, revolutionary activity was becoming more or less impossible.

Her response? Pankhurst should have been “searching for actions that would be possible within these circumstances” [p.178]. By this she means the revolutionary programme should have been abandoned altogether. This is the real basis of her criticism of the Communist Workers’ Party which she rebukes as demonstrating that Pankhurst was “seriously out of touch with political reality” because it continued to call for soviets. If true, this was a serious misjudgement but then Winslow thinks advocating abolition of the wages system is also rather barmy.

Curiously, while Winslow regards with bemusement Pankhurst’s refusal to break her isolation by joining her old comrades in the Labour or Communist Parties she shows that Pankhurst and the CWP in 1923 were still in touch with what was going on in the class struggle. In that year the Dreadnought published the manifesto of the Unemployed Workers’ Organisation. This had been formed by G.A. Soderberg who had split from the Communist Party. The UWO had a similar programme to the CWP and was critical of the CP-backed National Unemployed Workers’ Committee Movement, led by Wal Hannington. Winslow remarks in astonishment that:

Instead of the NUWCM’s slogan “work or maintenance at union rates”, the UWO offered the more revolutionary “abolition of the wage system”.


In a few months the UWO grew dramatically in the East End at the expense of the NUWCM, leading Hannington to acknowledge that they were the “largest and strongest movements in the country”. Winslow gets herself tied in knots when she tries to illustrate the sectarianism of Pankhurst and her ilk with the tale of what happened to 200 or so UWO protesters when they demonstrated at the Poplar Board of Guardians for a restoration of the winter coal allowance and an increase for single people. Following the tradition of John Maclean in Scotland, the protesters went along to the Council meeting, locked themselves in the building and occupied the Council chamber. The outcome? Their demands were refused and the police were called to forcibly oust them. Forty were seriously injured. A typical episode in the class war: The only difference being that the Chairman of the Board of Guardians, Edgar Lansbury, was a Communist Party member; the Guardian who moved that the police be called, A.A. Watts belonged to the Communist Party; the mayoress who seconded the motion, Julia Scurr, was in the ILP; ditto her husband and mayor of Poplar, John Scurr, who later on told a meeting of unemployed workers in Poplar Town Hall that cutting unemployment relief was the only way to keep the rates down. For Pankhurst the incident confirmed,

The result of working class representatives taking part in the administration of capitalist machinery is that working class representatives become responsible for enforcing the regulations of the capitalist system itself.

Workers’ Dreadnought 23-10-1923, quoted Winslow p.181

Exactly so. Winslow tries all ways to wriggle out of this conclusion: There must be other ways than calling the police - as if that would alter the effect of cutting allowances; the Poplar councillors “were and are known and respected for their determination to equalize the disparity between rich and poor” (16) and thus “the UWO was wrong in its assessment” [p.182] of them - so a reputation shouldn’t be allowed to stand in the way of the concrete facts, which were that this CP/Labour Council was cutting relief for the unemployed. We dwell on this because it shows that, long before Blair and New Labour’s open rejection of socialism, even Labour and CP councillors who genuinely wanted to do their best for the working class could not escape attacking workers when they became involved in administering capitalism. Resisting attack by capital and the state is one thing, trying to reach a peaceful accommodation with the attacker is another. Moreover, the author’s comments spell out what is implicit throughout the book - socialist feminism is in reality capitalist reformism.

This is why the author is patently more comfortable with Pankhurst’s early East End years. Indeed the first part of the book, which is much better researched, gives us a glimpse of a previous era when there was a thriving working class movement and the distinction between reform and revolution was blurred by a general sense that the working class would one day benefit from the fruits of human progress. As Pankhurst put it as late as 1916:

...the battle for human suffrage is part of the great struggle for upward human evolution, in the course of which dominance and compulsion, exploitation and poverty will be abolished.

p.101, from The Woman’s Dreadnought

The fact that within a year of “setting up shop” in the East End the WSF/WSPU could organise a demonstration of thousands for Women’s May Day, 1913 (which incidentally had the support of “a large number of dockers”) is testimony to a fundamental difference, not just in political climate but in working class political life, vis-a-vis today. This was a time of twice weekly meetings, open air addresses to workers at the East India Dock gates, thousands taking part in demonstrations and rallies and a chance for Pankhurst to air her views in papers like the Clarion, the Merthyr Pioneer or the Glasgow Forward (ILP). The enormous intensification of the class struggle before the 1st World War is not really taken on board by Winslow but something of it comes through in her account of the Suffragettes’ activities in the East End: the “People’s Army” for self-defence against the police, modelled on Connolly’s Irish Citizen’s Army and drilling every Tuesday after the Bow Federation meetings; the no-rent strikes - for Winslow anachronistically demonstrating “women’s power as consumers” but in reality a widespread tactic used by the working class during strikes and lock outs.

Once “the war, the Easter Rising and the Russian Revolution overturned Pankhurst’s world” (p.104) Winslow is increasingly out of her depth. She presents us with a garbled narrative which passes over key issues with astonishing banality. The second half of the book bears the hallmark of half-forgotten notes written up twenty-five years on, the purpose of which is not clear. Empirical errors abound. Typical is the mistake Winslow makes right at the start of this section, when the Woman’s Dreadnought was renamed Workers’ Dreadnought. Winslow has the SLP welcoming the change with a quote from Solidarity. The only trouble is, Solidarity was the paper of the London shop stewards’ committee, not the SLP whose paper was the Socialist. Similar mistakes recur again and again: footnotes which don’t match the text; stupid misspellings - when Togliatti becomes Togliofli you really wonder how far the author knows what she’s talking about; and endless inaccuracies - such as Bordiga being a lawyer when in fact he was an engineer - which add up to a very unreliable piece of historical writing.

... The Question of Soviets

Although these constant errors are irritating they are as nothing compared to the unsystematic way she portrays Pankhurst’s political development. Partly this stems from the author’s own lack of interest in and even hostility to, her subject’s changed political perspective. (A hostility encouraged by another “socialist feminist”, Sheila Rowbotham, who wrote the Labourist Foreword to the book and whom Winslow thanks for political suggestions and reminders of her own “sectarian lapses” of which we can only guess.) Also - and not unconnectedly - it is due to her desire to show that everything Pankhurst did was a step forward for “socialist feminism”. Take the question of soviets (workers’ councils). Pankhurst is credited with elaborating the concept of the “social soviet” at the beginning of 1920 from “the germ of an idea” she had at the Leeds Convention in 1917 - when she proposed that the term “Councils of Workmen’s and Soldier’s Delegates” be made, in Winslow’s words, “non-gender specific” and that in addition to Workers’ and Soldiers’ there should be added Housewives’ Councils. It is to Pankhurst’s credit that she fought against the assumption that the working class was entirely made up of men but at the time of the Leeds Convention there was more than this to clarify about soviets: nobody, including Pankhurst, really understood what soviets actually were. Winslow forgets that in June 1917 Pankhurst was still a suffragist, demanding “votes for all”. We know that the example of soviet power in Russia opened Pankhurst’s eyes - and not only hers - to the means by which the working class could administer a future socialist society but even as the Dreadnought defended the Bolsheviks’ dissolution of the constituent assembly in Russia, the suffrage name and banner remained.

From early on the WSF had had links with syndicalism in one form or another. (Tom Mann had been a family friend of the Pankhursts and as early as January 1914, before the Dreadnought came into being The Syndicalist gave Pankhurst space to publicise ELFS preparations for a rent strike.) Clearly Pankhurst the suffragette did not share the syndicalists’ reduction of the struggle for socialism to a struggle for workers’ control over industry. Equally clearly, her original conception of the political struggle was a social democratic one of conquering the capitalist state via parliamentary means and transforming it into the “socialist commonwealth”. In this sense she shared the syndicalist illusion that the capitalist state would evaporate out of existence and despite the apparent clash of political and non-political methods of fighting Pankhurst had close relations with the syndicalists from early on. We have mentioned that when the workers’ committee movement revived in 1918 Pankhurst saw it as a confirmation of the possibility of creating soviets in Britain and that she was part of the Vigilance Committee whose calls in early 1918 for the workshop committees to take over food distribution were pre-empted by the government’s introduction of rationing. But what was the effect of this, or the failure of the workers’ committees to take up the political aim of stopping the war, on Pankhurst’s political thinking? Winslow keeps us guessing. All she gives us is a spurious “feminist” significance of how Pankhurst’s work...

closed the gap between traditional women’s concerns - i.e. food distribution - and those of the predominantly male trade unionists.


But the real significance, surely, is that the workers’ committee movement was the spur behind the Workers’ Suffrage Federation changing its name to the Workers’ Socialist Federation at its annual meeting in May 1918 and for the adoption of (in Winslow’s words)...

workers’ control with soviets, or workers’ committees, elected at local, national and international levels, [that] would render parliament unnecessary [amongst its] significantly more revolutionary [resolutions].

In fact the WSF had adopted a new constitution which clearly was influenced by syndicalism and reflects the organisation’s increasing overlap with the workers’ committee movement, not just in London’s East End: Winslow herself informs us that from March 1918 to March 1919 W.F. Watson’s “Workshop Notes” on industrial unionism and workshop committees throughout the country were a regular feature in the Dreadnought; while the East London Committee...

headquartered at Pankhurst’s address at 400 Old Ford Road, was to all intents and purposes identical with Harry Pollitt’s River Thames Shipbuilders and Ship-repairers’ Committee (RTSSC)

and that Pollitt himself was in 1919

district secretary of the Boilermakers’ Union and a member of the WSF.

It would be surprising if the news she reported on the formation of soviets in Hungary and Bavaria in 1919 or the articles from marxist theoreticians like Bukharin’s “The Soviets or Parliament” (5th April), had not at least awakened in Pankhurst the need to be more clear about what soviets really were. Even so, in April 1919 the Dreadnought’s new set of basic principles still echoed the syndicalist vision of a “World Federation Of Workers’ Industrial Republics” - not social soviets or soviet socialist republics. Winslow also tells us that during the factory occupations in Turin articles by Pankhurst were appearing in Gramsci’s L’Ordine Nuovo [The New Order] and that:

[ she] saw the factory council movement as a far more developed expression of the workers’ committee movement in Britain and therefore judged it to be revolutionary, considering the councils to be the forerunners of the soviets.


This is not a description of someone who has realised the limitations of seeing soviet power as an extension of workers’ control over production. She may well have had a clearer vision of communist society than Gramsci’s image of “a world organised on the model of a large engineering works” (L’Ordine Nuovo 05-06-1920) but, like him, she was far from clear about the need for a concerted political struggle to overthrow the capitalist state.

By 1920, when she published “A Constitution for British Soviets” Pankhurst had indeed gone beyond seeing soviets as synonymous with workers’ committees. Here, however, she was not unique and, as Winslow is obliged to acknowledge, her ideas on the “social soviet” were part of a broader process of clarification on the nature of soviet power by the political militants who were still active in the shop stewards’ movement. The significance of the term lay not only in its inclusion of “household soviets” but in the recognition that soviets will not be based solely on factory committees but will have a territorial base in working class communities. Her “constitution” outlined a tiered soviet system of delegates from households, industries and other workplaces, such as public health and educational institutions - in other words the whole working class. By the end of 1919 the workers’ committee movement had declined dramatically as strikes were broken or settled, unemployment and victimisation of workplace militants grew and, above all, the trade unions once more took control of “collective bargaining”. In the main it was the political militants who were left and who were forced to confront the fact that the rank and file movement had:

  1. shied away from a political confrontation with the state in 1918 and
  2. that the workers’ committees had not spontaneously developed into soviets.

Despite the post-war strike wave over economic demands which followed on the 40 hours struggle on the Clyde in early 1919 and which coincided with widespread strife and mutinies in the army and navy (even including a strike in the police force in May 1919), no co-ordinated general strike had materialised, much less a revolutionary programme for the overthrow of capitalism. The syndicalist vision of the industrial struggle leading through the general strike to the establishment of “industrial democracy” and the end of capitalism had been proven wrong. The militants of the Shop Stewards’ and Workers’ Committee Movement were forced to address the need for political organisation. As they did so they began to confuse the attempt to revive the workers’ committees - this time in the shape of territorially based “social soviets” - with the establishment of a communist party: a party whose local branches would be the soviet. In one sense this was simply a reflection of the reality of the situation - the workers’ committees had been virtually reduced to a political minority who were now requesting affiliation to the 3rd International. However, it betrayed a deeper confusion over the distinction between the mass organs of the whole working class and the organisation of the politically conscious workers whose task is to give a political direction to the soviets when they exist (and to keep alive the communist programme when they do not). This confusion was resolved for the SS&WCM at the 2nd Congress of the International where their delegates argued that it was unnecessary to form a Communist Party in Britain since the Shop Stewards already represented the political vanguard of the class. This was rejected on the grounds that, unlike the political party, membership did not require political commitment and was open to anyone who was a worker. Their request for affiliation was thus turned down and the shop stewards eventually agreed to affiliate to the Red Trades Union International [September 1920] whilst applying for individual membership to the Communist Party which many of them now worked towards. (17)

... The Influence of the German Left

But where did this leave Pankhurst? As we have seen, despite the influence of syndicalism on the WSF, she did not deny the need for a Communist Party and in June 1919 [i.e. before the 1920 formation of the CP(BSTI) had even declared itself to be the Communist Party only to decide a week later that since:

the national Executive Committee has entered into negotiations with other organisations for the formation of a united Communist party [the] Committee recommends that the use of the name Communist Party adopted at the WSF annual conference be delayed during the progress of these negotiations, in order that the new united party, which is hoped will eventuate, may adopt the title Communist Party as its own.

Workers’ Dreadnought, 21-06-1919

This does emphasise Pankhurst’s propensity to act unilaterally once she was convinced on an issue, without seeing that, as well as being politically clear, the communist minority has the key task of bringing as many workers as possible to it in order to unify the class movement and take it forward to a conscious and concerted revolutionary struggle for power. There was undoubtedly an affinity between Pankhurst and the German Left that lay in their downplaying of the organisational role of the party. It was connected to the partially syndicalist, partially councilist views of both of them. It is an affinity not explored by Winslow whose treatment of the international aspects of Pankhurst’s revolutionary years is less than adequate. At the Bolgona Congress of the PSI she has Pankhurst being influenced by Bordiga’s conception of a “rigid, proletarian uncompromising communist party” but proceeds to demonstrate this with a quote from Workers’ Dreadnought which patently echoes the words of Gorter,

The Communist party must keep its doctrine pure, and its independence from reformism inviolate; its mission is to lead the way without stopping or turning by the direct road to Communist Revolution. Do not worry about a big Communist Party yet; it is better to build a sound one. Never let us hesitate, lest we should make it too extreme.(18)


In truth Winslow’s garbled peddling of the academic Leftists’ distortions of Bordiga’s views are not worth dwelling on. If she’d really wanted to find out what Pankhurst had learned from Bordiga she would have done better by going back to the Dreadnought itself where there was a report on the Bologna Congress which included a discussion with Bordiga on the relationship between party and soviets. Clearly, though, Pankhurst had stronger ties with the German Left but how those ties developed, their import in terms of the International or even for Pankhurst’s own political development is hardly broached. Thus, it is not clear from Winslow’s cursory account [less than a dozen lines] that when Pankhurst attends the “ultra-left” conference in Amsterdam this was actually a meeting of the Western Bureau of the International, the significance of which escapes her. The Assistant Professor of History makes no mention at all of how this Bureau was dissolved by Moscow (on behalf of the Executive Committee of the International), before the 2nd Congress; how this was part of an attempt to prevent the fracturing of other European Communist Parties along the anti-parliament/anti-trade union line that had occurred in Germany and how it was directly connected to the regroupment that was underway in Britain. (19)

As for the 2nd Congress itself, Winslow is more concerned with Pankhurst’s adventures on her journey and what food was served up in the Kremlin than the political debate. The cursory couple of pages are limited to the British delegation’s debate on affiliation with Labour - even then managing not to mention Gallagher’s famous shift to Lenin’s position. There is no mention at all of the wider debate on parliamentarism and Bordiga’s change of position on abstentionism. Neither is an explanation offered for the absence of the KAPD. If there had been it would have shown that the KAPD was hardly the “pure” communist party that Gorter made it out to be.

Having gone to Moscow early before the Congress to argue for a special place for the KAPD in the International, Gorter and two delegates of the KAPD, Jan Appel and Franz Jung, found themselves challenged about the reactionary National Bolshevist tendency round Wolffheim and Laufenburg in Hamburg and the anti-party position of Otto Ruhle, another prominent KAPD spokesman. Gorter and his comrades had to admit that they were not even aware of the pamphlet, Communism Versus Spartacism, that Wolffheim and Laufenburg had recently issued. Similarly, they also did not know that Ruhle was denying the need for a political party altogether. As Appel and Jung admitted in their report of the meeting, they were made to...

wonder even or whether we really are a single coherent organisation.

They managed to get a special place for the KAPD at the expense of an agreement which included the expulsion of both the National Bolshevists and Ruhle and a promise to seek reunification with the KPD. When the KAPD delegates to the Congress proper arrived they promptly rejected this agreement - one of them happened to be Ruhle! Although the ECCI (Executive Committee of the International) later withdrew the conditions Ruhle and his comrade decided not to take part in the proceedings anyway. Both Ruhle and the National Bolshevists were expelled in 1920, Ruhle to concentrate on forming his own brand of industrial unions (AAU-E), but it was not the end of divisions in the KAPD. The council communism that was inherent in the KAPD - where, according to Gorter, the proletarian masses were more important than the leaders and where the party would merge into the industrial union “as the revolution approaches its goal” - led to the KAPD’s disintegration as the class struggle subsided and the unitary organisations that had been created disappeared. (20)

For what remained of the German Left the rise of a party dictatorship in Russia came to be seen as the cause, rather than the consequence, of the defeat of the revolution.

The Real Significance of Sylvia Pankhurst

It is symptomatic of the author’s lack of interest in Pankhurst as a Left Communist that she tells us virtually nothing about the KAPD or the international groups which came together under the umbrella of the KAI and whose reports filled the pages of Workers’ Dreadnought for its last three years of life. The book fizzles out with a few pages on The Red Twilight followed by a paltry conclusion which absurdly undermines the theme of the whole book. Now we are told that:

For all her shortcomings, [Pankhurst] should be remembered as an anti-racist, anti-imperialist and anti-colonialist at a time when very few people shared her ideas.

Even the “socialist-feminism” is only appended as an after-thought... What Winslow is really saying here is that Pankhurst’s years in the East End, the very subject of her book, were merely an incidental prelude to a very different Pankhurst who returned to political life almost a decade later: Pankhurst the bourgeois democratic anti-fascist who had abandoned the class struggle. supported British imperialism in the 2nd World War, offered advice to Churchill about Ethiopia, her latest “progressive” cause, and who ended her days supporting the Emperor Haile Selassie’s attempts to re-create the ancient Ethiopian empire by taking over Eritrea and Somalia in the name of national self-determination.

For revolutionaries in Britain today, however, Pankhurst’s East End years - when she became transformed by the impact of events from a social reformist to a revolutionary - are still of telling significance. They are confirmation of how a revolutionary situation (even if in Britain this was only a faint echo of events in Russia and central Europe) can transform someone’s whole political outlook and at the same time a reminder of the limits of spontaneity: a coherent movement to overthrow capitalism has to be consciously organised and given a programmatic content. Unlike many of her erstwhile comrades who joined the CP, Pankhurst never pretended that nationalisation was a step towards socialism. Rather, she leaves us a vision of communism based on the direct working class democracy of the soviets or workers’ councils, a vision she came to understand has no meaning so long as the capitalist state remains in place. Her 1923 critique of the programme of the Communist Party of Ireland - Communism Versus Reforms - could be a starting point for a critique of the state capitalist Left today. If Pankhurst underestimated the role of the political party in the struggle to overthrow capitalism this is something for her political descendants to clarify - those who today understand that the point of departure for revolutionary work is the recognition that the age of reformism is passed, that there is no going back to accommodation with Labour whose role is to enmesh the working class in the running of capitalism and prevent the revival of an independent class movement.

Pankhurst was not a marxist nor a theoretician. Above all she was an activist and as such was unprepared for the period of counter-revolution and working class retreat that made her desire to take “the direct road to socialism” impossible. Given her links with communist opposition groups in Russia, she saw early on that capitalism was “still in the ascendant” in Russia and she made no bones about arguing that the Bolshevik party should have given up power rather than “haul down the flag of Communism”. This was the self-righteous response of a moral crusader, not someone who was prepared for the long struggle of clarifying what had gone wrong or surviving as a political minority by swimming against the stream. Even so, had there been more communists ready to admit with Pankhurst in 1924, in one of the last issues of the Dreadnought, that:

If we pretend that the present regime in Russia is Communism, is actually the sort of life towards which we are striving, those who observe its shortcomings will naturally tell us that our ideal is a very faulty one. (21)

“Capitalism or Communism for Russia?”, 31-06-1924

it may not have taken half a century for the revival of communist forces in Britain.

As for the hackneyed “women’s movement” questions that the author suggests Pankhurst grappled with in the preface to the book, they are not exactly central to the story she tells. Like the book’s conclusion they appear to be tagged on as an afterthought. Still, they can be answered very easily on the basis of what she has told us of Pankhurst’s East End years. “How and in what way may a women’s movement be divided along class lines?” Well, Pankhurst found that that women of the WSPU were divided in terms of wealth, property and their means of daily survival just as society in general is divided into classes. She herself had to make a conscious effort to go over to the cause of the working class. “What is the relationship between feminism and peace?” The short answer is, none. Again, the WSPU gave up its fight for the vote when war broke out and Christabel and Emmeline Pankhurst turned out to be complete jingoists. To argue that some women were against the war hardly shows that women are somehow innately pacifists. How can the struggle for women’s liberation and socialism be reconciled? Women’s liberation will come when humankind as a whole is liberated from private property relations by the struggle for socialism - a struggle which can only be conducted by the whole working class, regardless of gender. As Alexandra Kollontai framed it for the 1st Congress of the Communist International,

The dictatorship of the proletariat can be achieved and maintained only with the energetic and active participation of working women.

Whatever else the story of Pankhurst and the WSF tells us, it shows that Pankhurst knew that the struggle for a new society has to include women. The distinction between socialism and women’s liberation so dear to modern feminists would not have entered Sylvia Pankhurst’s head.

Communist Workers’ Organisation
from Internationalist Communist 18 [Winter 2000]


(1) Ludendorff had told the Kaiser the war was lost on August 9th.

(2) From, ‘The Lenin Revolution: What it Means to Democracy’, reprinted in A Sylvia Pankhurst Reader ed. Kathryn Dodd, Manchester University Press, 1993. The 1918 Labour Party Constitution of course contains the famous (or infamous) Clause IV which has been abandoned by New Labour and which present-day labourites held up to prove there was something socialist, and therefore something for workers to defend about Labour. For our repudiation of this, see ‘Clause IV Debate - Defend Socialism, Scrap Labour’ in Workers Voice 76. Available from the group address.

(3) A summary of this speech can be found in A.J.P. Taylor’s English History 1914-45 [Pelican 1975] p.137. In a footnote on p.160 he points out the War aims speech was not just to satisfy Labour. It was also "in part an answer to the Bolshevik programme of no annexations and no indemnities. [and] designed to forestall President Wilson’s enunciation of the Fourteen Points which followed a few days later." This only bears out how worried the political spokesmen of the British bourgeoisie were and confirms our main point here, that Labour and the Government came together to ward off the working class movement developing into a serious threat to the British state.

(4) James Hinton, The First Shop Stewards’ Movement [George Allen and Unwin, 1973] p. 259.

(5) The Kings Depart, Richard M. Watt [Pelican 1972] p.160.

(6) Quoted from ‘Our paper: The Woman’s Dreadnought’, 8.3.1914, in A Sylvia Pankhurst Reader, ed. Kathryn Dodd, Manchester University Press, 1993, p.48.

(7) Workers’ Control, ed. Ken Coates and Tony Topham, Panther 1970, p.119.

(8) Hinton, op.cit. p.236.

(9) Lenin on Britain, Progress Publishers, Moscow. p..363.

(10) Quoted p.189 in Lazitch and Drachovitch, Lenin and the Comintern, Stanford Univ. 1972.

(11) ‘The Platform of the Communist International’, reprinted in Theses, Resolutions and Manifestos of the First Four Congresses of the Third International, p.44. Humanities Press, 1980.

(12) From ‘Towards a Communist Party’, Workers’ Dreadnought 21.2.20, reprinted in Dodd op.cit. p.95.

(13) The KAPD was formed in 1920 from the 35,000-42,000 Opposition Communists who had been expelled the previous autumn from the official Communist Party, the KPD, for refusing to accept a reversal of the Party’s anti-parliament and anti-trade union stance. When the KPD called for an end to a workers’ uprising and reached an agreement with the Social Democratic government after a right wing putsch had been defeated by the working class, the KPD[O] decided to form a new party.

(14) See CWO pamphlet, Platform of the Committee of Intesa, 1925 for more on the resistance of the Italian Left.

(15) Corio had written an article for the Dreadnought as early as 1917, when he was associated with the anarchist journal, Freedom. He was also a printer and typesetter and later became more involved with the Dreadnought, being paid a weekly wage to handle the production of the paper but unsigned articles (he was on the run form the Italian police) also continued to appear. After the demise of the Dreadnought he and Pankhurst lived together.

(16) It was a reputation based on the 1921 jailing of 29 Poplar councillors when they refused to hand over Poplar’s portion of the local rates to the London County Council on the grounds that boroughs such as Poplar had to pay out proportionally so much more in poor relief. Some of the councillors were members or supporters of the ELFS/WSF (Winslow p.126). By 1923 at least three of them, Julia and John Scurr, Edgar Lansbury were CP councillors.

(17) Hinton op.cit. pp.324-5.

(18) c.f., Gorter, for example in his Open Letter to Comrade Lenin which was serialised in Workers’ Dreadnought from March-June 1921:

In Western Europe we wish first to build very firm, very clear and very strong (though at the outset perhaps quite small) parties, kernels, just as you did in Russia. And once we have those, we will make them bigger. But always we want them to be very firm, very strong, very “pure”. Only thus can we triumph in Western Europe.

(19) The main reason advanced for the dissolution of the Amsterdam Bureau was that it tolerated a so-called National Bolshevist tendency in its midst - i.e. the Hamburg section of the KAPD whose leading lights, Heinrich Laufenberg and Fritz Wolffheim, were arguing in 1919 that the German proletariat should create a red army that would be open to freikorps volunteers and fight a “Jacobin war” against the Western Allies to redress the Versailles Treaty. They also happened to have led the opposition against Levi’s reversal of the KPD’s position on participation in unions and parliament. See “The KAPD and National Bolshevism” in Revolutionary Perspectives 10 for more details.

(20) Winslow is wrong about the KAPD never affiliating to the 3rd International. In December 1920, after the expulsion of the National Bolshevists and Ruhle’s tendency, it was given a seat on the ECCI and was part of a liaison committee to work towards reunification with the official Communist Party (now the United Communist Party of Germany, [VKPD]). The KAPD used the Congress to criticise the Comintern’s policy of work in the unions and parliament, arguing that:

The methods of the old workers’ movement in Germany were correct, but now it is the method of direct struggle that is necessary... to reject parliamentarism and the trades unions is now a question of principle for communists.

When the KAPD refused to merge with the VKPD their request for a place in the International as sympathisers was refused. After turning down an offer of a half hour space to address the Congress, the KAPD finally left the 3rd International.

(21) The article accompanied an appeal from the Workers’ Group of Russia on news of Miasnikov’s imprisonment. For the full version, see Revolutionary Perspectives 15, available from the CWO address.