The rising tide of discontent

In Issue 43 (March 2011) Red Banner published these articles by Sylvia Pankhurst for the first time since they originally appeared in 1919.

Our last issue discussed the political career of Sylvia Pankhurst, fifty years after her death (Maeve Connaughton, ‘Sylvia Pankhurst: Communism and universal fraternity’, Red Banner 42). We follow up now with two articles Pankhurst wrote for The Voice of Labour, published by the ITGWU in Dublin. They appeared in the issues of August 23 and September 6 1919 respectively. The paper was suppressed by the British government later in September, along with others, for advertising Dáil Éireann’s National Loan. These articles have never been published since.

The Rising Tide of Discontent in England

(Our readers will welcome Sylvia Pankhurst’s appearance amongst the regular contributors to The Voice. The founder and editor of The Workers’ Dreadnought, London, will find herself in good company with our correspondents Rosmer, Paris, Wynkoop, Amsterdam, etc.1 The story of the Bolshevik £6,000,2 which she did not (unfortunately) receive, will only add to her already high and well-deserved reputation amongst the Irish workers. This sturdy English revolutionary is putting up a splendid fight in England on behalf of the Soviet Republic of Russia, and her work on behalf of the Soviet Republic of England is bearing fruit from day to day. One of the most militant of the militants in Suffragette days, founder and secretary of the Workers’ Socialist Federation (Communist Party), organiser of the People’s Russian Information Bureau, London, and friend and champion of the Social Revolution everywhere, England as well as Ireland included, Sylvia Pankhurst’s fortnightly articles in the Voice will help to build up the Workers’ Republic in her country as in ours. —Ed.)

We are now seeing in Britain a remarkable growth of unconscious revolutionary feeling amongst the masses. In many places the dis­charged soldiers seized the occasion of the Peace Celebrations3 to manifest their discontent by rioting; at Luton they even burned down the Town Hall. The discharged men have good reason for discontent. The majority are discharged without pension, and large numbers of them find it impossible to obtain employment, whilst many have left the Army with health greatly impaired. Men who are scheduled by the authorities as slightly disabled, and granted small pensions on which it is impossible to exist, are often quite incapable of working.

The police strike is symptomatic of the great change coming over the spirit of the working class. That the men struck though they were warned that to strike would mean dismissal, and in spite of some sops in the direction of increased wages and pensions, is remarkable, and so is the fact that their strike took place suddenly and without warning. The sympathetic strike by the railway workers on the London and South-Western Railway is very important.

In this country the sympathetic strike weapon has hitherto seldom been used, though it has long been advocated. In the terrible Dublin strike of pre-war days, the British workers were implored by their Irish comrades to use it, and its use would undoubtedly have achieved a sweeping victory for the workers, and have relieved conditions of most appalling sweating. But the appeal was disregarded, and the Irish strikers were beaten.

British trade union leaders are still firmly opposed to the sympathetic strike, and the mass of the rank and file have hitherto seemed incapable of nerving themselves to strike on any question not of primary importance to themselves.

Bakers all over the country are striking against night work. The Yorkshire miners, in spite of all negotiations, still remain on strike, and very significant is the fact that the men who pump water from the pits struck with the rest. This has never been the case in any previous trade dispute. It shows a disregard for the employers’ property not hitherto shown. Members of the general public are manifesting great sympathy with the police strikers, and in some cases police on duty have been mobbed.

All this unrest, I must repeat, is in the main unconscious. The people who are defying authority have not realised, as yet, that they desire to change the system, but the fact that many of those who are striking or rioting have not formulated definite reformist demands shows that they are dissatisfied with the whole system, and have no faith in any particular panacea.

Meanwhile the gulf is growing between the official labour leaders, both Parliamentary and trade union, and the rank and file. Mr J H Thomas MP, Secretary of the National Union of Railwaymen, during the war opposed conscription and profiteering, and retained popular­ity long after Henderson, Hodge, Barnes,4 and those who openly supported the policy of the Government had lost it.

Thomas has now made the declaration in Parliament that he is prepared to support the Government in using the troops and all its resources against strikers whose action interferes with the public services, food supplies, and so on. He says that any Government must do that, and that he would do it himself were he Prime Minister.

In that utterance he clearly shows himself to be opposed to the social revolution. This is not the first time that he has made that clear, but on no previous occasion has he made a statement so certain to cause a cleavage between himself and the railway workers. His utterance will provoke much discontent in the National Union of Railwaymen, and as all discontent leads to a quickening of thought and ultimate increase of class consciousness amongst the workers, this means a step forward.

The ‘Down Tools’ policy against Russian intervention is making headway.5 It will be remembered that the response made by British official labour to the appeal of D’Aragona of Italy6 and the leaders of the French Confédération Générale du Travail was an almost negative one; it was agreed to hold some meetings, but a general strike was tabooed by the leaders, though the Southport Conference, by a 2 to 1 majority, had declared for direct action to be used against intervention in Russia. Though the strike was not officially declared, the London District Committee of Dockers advised its members not to work on 21st July, and the appeal was responded to by a large section. Northampton, South Wales, and other places also made a good response, but in the main, the official ban had its effect. How tragic that British labour should just now seem to be getting to the point of making a stand against intervention when news has come that the Hungarian Soviet has fallen!7

We comfort ourselves with the thought that the Hungarian Soviet Republic was always precariously placed, and that the Russians, owing to the great size and resources of their territory, are in a much stronger position, having maintained it for the greater part of two years.

Nevertheless, we feel considerable anxiety, as Churchill8 definitely told the British House of Commons, on July 29th, that the Govern­ment will continue to send munitions and supplies of all kinds to the counter-revolutionaries in Russia, and as his statement that the British troops are being withdrawn from North Russia and the Caucasus has been made with so many reservations and loopholes, and with so much vagueness, no reliance can be placed upon it. In any case, the promise of withdrawal is not to take effect before the winter, and Churchill openly states that he hopes the Soviets will have fallen before that time arrives.

Practically it comes to this: British troops will be withdrawn from Russia when the counter-revolutionaries can do without them. That is Churchill’s policy, and of course, he speaks for the Cabinet; the unity of Cabinet responsibility is a constitutional fact.

The French workers, whose general strike was called off by the leaders of the Confédération Générale du Travail, should note Churchill’s statement that France “has a larger body of troops on the western frontier of Bolshevism than we have employed even at the present time in all the various theatres”. He added: “The Japanese have a large army—a substantial army—the largest allied army concerned in Russian affairs, which is in Siberia, and is distributed along the Siberian railway. The Americans have a substantial force on the Siberian railway, and I observe from the daily papers that President Wilson, last week, informed the Senate that it was intended to keep it there.”

The report that the British Revolutionary Socialists have to make regarding our country is that, though things are moving very slowly here, they are definitely moving, and that Lenin is right when he says that the revolutionary virus has already reached the country.9


Russia and Divided Action

London, August 21

At the present time, one of the most important questions before us is the Allied attack on Soviet Russia and on the Communist Movement in Europe generally.

In his speech on Government policy to the House of Commons on August 18th, Mr Lloyd George made an astonishing statement. He said that whereas the Government had promised to withdraw the British troops from Russia before the winter, he had received an urgent demand from the Second International meeting at Zurich, that British soldiers should be retained in the Caucasus, on the ground that the Turkish soldiers would massacre the Armenians unless British soldiers were there to prevent them.11

Unfortunately, Mr Lloyd George’s statement is only too true, for the Second International has actually passed such a resolution. This is a calamitous mistake in policy, and it is hardly possible to believe that the leaders of the Second International could be so ignorant as not to realise its exceedingly dangerous effect.

Possession of the Caucasus gives to the British, not merely control of the great oil wells at Baku, for lack of which the people of Soviet Russia have suffered untold hardships, both domestic and industrial; it also provides an important point of vantage for control of the Black Sea, the Caspian Sea, and the Sea of Azof, and gives British warships the power to bombard and blockade the Communists, and to cut them off from access to the sea.

Besides that, British occupation of the Caucasus is an immense advantage to General Denikin, who is at present the most formidable and successful enemy of Soviet Russia. Whilst the British are in the Caucasus, there will be no difficulty in bringing Denikin munitions, and in sending troops and reinforcements to him.

As for the people of the Caucasus, they have been rising against Denikin for some time past. The Circassian Press Bureau on July 11th stated that a grave struggle was going on between Denikin and the North Caucasian Republic. The Circassian Government had addressed a strong protest to the Allied representatives, urging that it had taken part neither for nor against Russia, but had assisted any who had taken refuge within its territory. The Circassian Govern­ment, therefore, claimed that Denikin’s army should entertain no aggressive designs towards its people. But nevertheless, Denikin had ordered the Circassian Government to furnish him with troops, the people of Daghestan, for example, having been asked to supply three regiments of cavalry, three of infantry, and three squadrons of artillery, all fully equipped. The Circassian Prime Minister had declared that all the Circassian peoples must unite in fighting against Denikin.

During the last few days, it has been reported in the British Press that the Allies have ordered the Circassian people to assist Denikin. Nevertheless, we have had this absurd resolution by the Second International, and we have Mr Ramsay Macdonald12 saying that “some of us are frightened by the excesses of the Bolshevists”. Really, it seems almost to require a surgical operation to make some people look at anything from any point of view other than that of the Government!

There is a healthy tendency amongst the British workers to take a stand against the Russian intervention, but this tendency is baulked at every point by old-fashioned officialdom. The Bristol Dockers, many months ago, were the first to show signs of taking direct action on the part of the Soviet Republic. They refused to load munitions going to Russia. Both soldiers and sailors have also shown great disinclination to go to Russia, and their wages have been greatly raised on that account. Sailors are paid £2 2s a week extra, beyond the already increased pay, during their period of service in Russia.

There is said to have been trouble at the Naval Base at Rosyth (Scotland) and on board the battleship Galatea, bound for Russia. It is now reported in the Avanti13 of 11th August that English sailors have mutinied at Baku, demanding their immediate return to this country.

The Southport Labour Party Conference passed, by a 2 to 1 majority, a resolution declaring in support of direct action for political purposes, and especially against intervention. The Triple Alliance of mine, railway and transport workers, at its meeting shortly afterwards, followed this up by resolving that its constituent bodies should take a ballot whether to down tools on this subject. No report has been given of the ballot, but rumour has it that as far as the vote has gone, it gave an overwhelming majority for ‘down tools’. The ballot has been stopped by the Executive, which has decided that the matter must be discussed at a further conference. The men who have done this are:— J H Thomas MP, T C Cramp (Railwaymen); Robert Smillie, W Brace MP, Frank Hodges (Miners); J Sexton MP, Harry Gosling, Robert Williams (Transport Workers).

Cramp, Smillie, Hodges and Williams are all believed to favour direct action to stop the intervention. It is strange that they should have allowed a definite resolution of the Conference to be set aside in this way, especially when the ballot had already begun. The forthcoming conference will disclose what has caused them to give way, but the fall of the Hungarian Soviet should warn us that recriminations and explanations which take place after the event are of small avail.

Replies to Parliamentary questions indicate that important personages in this country strongly support the Archduke Joseph and the Rumanians, who violently overthrew the Hungarian Soviet and who, as reported the other day, massacred three hundred Soviet officials. There is much rivalry as to who shall form the permanent Government in Hungary, and each of the rivals has its group of supporters here. It is safe to assume that whatever Government is established will be thoroughly reactionary until the people again rebel and set up Soviets.

The reason given for the stoppage of the Triple Alliance ballot by the Times (and the Times has probably repeated the argument of some reactionary Trade Unionist) is the small support which has been given to the police in their strike for the right to form a trade union; but such an explanation is hardly an honest one, as the officials of all the trade unions have ordered their members not to strike in support of the police. Indeed, the police have real ground for complaint against a number of the Labour officials who, for several months, were urging them to act boldly, and promising support to them should they strike. Some of the officials of the London Trades Council were especially active in this direction, but when the strike actually came about they had nothing to say.

In Liverpool the rank and file have given considerable support to the police. A Negotiations Committee of Trade Unionists has been set up, and is urging a three days’ general strike; but Sexton, the Secretary of the Dockers’ Union, which is, of course, tremendously important in that large seaport, has set himself against this, in common with all the other Trade Union leaders.14

It is rumoured, though the Government has denied the intention, that legislation will shortly be introduced to make it illegal to strike without giving seven days’ notice. I am of opinion that such legislation will appear shortly, but the response given to the proposal has led the Government to consider the announcement premature.

Another great source of discontent in this country is the refusal of the Government to carry out its pledge to adopt the proposals in regard to the nationalisation of the mines contained in Justice Sankey’s Report. Mr Lloyd George, of course, evades the issue, by saying that the pledge only referred to the preliminary report, but this excuse is not taken seriously.

The Government has decided instead to adopt a report presented by Sir Arthur Duckham, which provides for a trustifying of the coal industry in various geographical areas.

At each colliery, a pit committee to be set up, with the manager as chairman, and each main class of workmen employed in or about the mine. The pit committee to meet at definite intervals, and to be content to discuss and make proposals on:—
(a) Safety of the mine;
(b) Conditions of working;
(c) Improvement in methods;
(d) Comfort and well-being of the workers whilst in the mine or colliery premises;
(e) Any dispute that may arise, other than wages disputes.

The manager to have complete control of the running of the pit.

“The workers,” Mr Lloyd George says, “will be given represen­tation on the Committees dealing with discipline, but not with management.” “That,” he says, “is impossible.” The scheme fails by a long way to meet the demands even of official Labour, to say nothing of the demand for socialisation of the industry advanced by the Communist rank and file.

The Industrial Committee of the South Wales Socialist Society has just compiled an elaborate scheme for the socialisation and workers’ control of the mining industry, which has been printed and will be circulated in enormous quantities throughout the coalfield, and indeed, throughout the British Isles. A big propaganda in support of the scheme has already begun, and will give a great impetus to the general movement for socialisation, especially as the miners are looked up to by every other section of workers, because of their fighting qualities and the substantial victories they have already achieved.

The miners can hope for nothing from the Parliamentary Labour Party, which has neither the will nor the power to support them.

At the annual Conference of the Scottish Mine Workers on August 13th, Robert Smillie said:—

If the Prime Minister and the Cabinet allow their capitalist friends to frighten them and prevent the finding of the Coal Commission from being carried out, I feel it will be the duty of organised labour, and certainly of the miners, to use their industrial power to force the hands of the Government.

We should like to be sure that Smillie means this seriously. Un­fortunately, it has become a habit with many people to talk loudly of future strikes and to oppose every strike when the moment for action arrives.

The Government has admitted that the Secret Service costs £200,000; it cost £50,000 in 1914.

A part of this money has been spent on attempts to bribe shop stewards, and on sending spies into the Socialist Movement. The police from their headquarters in Scotland Yard now send out Press bulletins containing libellous statements about Communists and others who they wish to discredit, and police officials hold weekly meetings with the Press.

The Government’s Anti-profiteering Bill15 will make no differ­ence at all, and the Government accepted a Labour Party amendment on the ground that it was merely a manifesto.

These are very dark days. We Communists have a hard struggle before us, but the number of people who desire a complete change of system, and not some mere tinkering reforms, is growing.



  1. On the same page as Pankhurst’s article appeared an article by Alfred Rosmer, a leading member of the Committee of the Third International which helped to found the Communist Party of France the following year. It was also announced that David Wijnkoop, president of the Communist Party of Holland, would write for The Voice of Labour.
  2. Recent press stories had tried to create a scandal around money that British socialists were supposed to have received from the Soviet Russian government.
  3. While the war ended in November 1918, the Treaty of Versailles that formally ended it wasn’t signed until 28 June.
  4. Arthur Henderson, John Hodge and George Barnes had all been Labour ministers in the wartime coalition government of David Lloyd George. Barnes remained in the coalition even though Labour had withdrawn at the end of the war.
  5. The British government was providing military support to those trying to overthrow the Soviet Russian government, and some British trade unionists were threatening industrial action to stop them.
  6. Ludovico D’Aragona was the leader of the General Confederation of Labour.
  7. The Soviet Republic of Hungary was proclaimed in March, but over­thrown by the Romanian army on 6 August. Archduke Josef August of Austria became head of state, before a military dictatorship was established.
  8. Winston Churchill was Secretary of State for War.
  9. In a speech on 9 December, Lenin had said: “we already see that Britain, France, America and Spain have been infected with the same disease and are fired with the same flame as Germany, the flame of the universal and world-wide struggle of the working class against imperialism”.
  10. While Pankhurst never used her first name Estelle, she used its initial when signing her work.
  11. The organisation of the Second International had collapsed during the war, although reformists organised in the International Socialist Com­mission were attempting to revive it. The meeting referred to actually took place in Lucerne.
  12. Treasurer of the Labour Party.
  13. Paper of the Italian Socialist Party.
  14. While the police strike was solid in Liverpool, it won little support from policemen elsewhere, who had won pay increases and the establishment of a Police Federation as a result of a strike the year before. The 1919 strikers were dismissed from the force.
  15. The Profiteering Bill gave the Board of Trade powers to investigate complaints of excessive profits.

Sylvia Pankhurst: Communism and universal fraternity

In Issue 42 (December 2010) Maeve Connaughton explored the life and ideas of a remarkable revolutionary.

It is now fifty years since the death, in Ethiopia, of a remarkable figure in a long line of brilliant, if flawed, English socialist revolutionaries. Sylvia Pankhurst was born in Manchester on 5 May 1882 (coincidentally, Karl Marx’s last birthday). Her parents Richard and Emmeline were noted advocates of unpopular liberal causes, in particular legal equality for women. Emmeline Pankhurst has gone down in history as the mother of the suffragette cause, founding the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1903 to win women the vote, and her children were all heavily involved in its work.

While the suffragettes succeeded in forcing the issue on to the political agenda, political divergences began to appear, even within the Pankhurst family itself. The WSPU had originally identified with the labour movement, the Pankhursts having all been early members of the Independent Labour Party, but Emmeline and her eldest daughter Christabel moved to break this link, attempting to set votes for women above divisions of left and right. Sylvia, on the other hand, was focussing more and more on the situation of working-class women, seeing the vote as a means to ending their oppression. Her activism in poor districts of east London presented an image that her mother and sister were eager to leave behind—and their increasingly autocratic control left little room for an effectively autonomous branch of the WSPU.

What finally brought their disagreement to an open breach was the Dublin lockout—a struggle that itself drew on the example of the English suffragettes. The hunger strike later employed by repub­licans in the war of independence was of course resorted to by James Connolly while imprisoned in 1913, but he in turn was following the widespread use of the tactic by the suffragettes he so steadfastly supported. Sylvia Pankhurst had repeatedly refused food during her frequent imprisonments and been subjected to the barbarity of being held down and forcibly fed through a rubber tube, as well as the cruelty of being temporarily released under the ‘Cat and Mouse Act’ only to be re-arrested after slight recovery. Like other suffragettes she had gone in disguise to speak at meetings while banned from doing so, a method which inspired Jim Larkin’s celebrated appear­ance at a proclaimed meeting on Bloody Sunday. Sylvia Pankhurst spoke at a mass meeting in London in solidarity with the Dublin strikers, but supporting labour unrest in Ireland was the last straw for Christabel Pankhurst particularly. She and her mother summoned Sylvia to a meeting where they informed her that she and the other east Londoners were no longer part of the WSPU.

They renamed themselves the East London Federation of Suffragettes (ELFS) and carried on putting the needs of women workers to the fore. Sylvia edited their paper, The Woman’s Dreadnought, whose title ironically alluded to the warships then frantically being built. When the war they were built for broke out in 1914 the split in the women’s movement grew wider still. While the WSPU suspended its activity and solicited unquestioning support for the war effort, the ELFS acted to defend the interests of working women regardless. They set up a clinic in east London to look after the health of women and children, a restaurant that provided food at cost price, a nursery, and a toy factory that paid women well above the pittance available in other local workplaces. The Woman’s Dreadnought increasingly opposed the war and met harassment from the authorities.

The government moved towards granting the vote to women, but only to those who met certain age and property qualifications. The ELFS demanded the vote for all women, and for those men who were still excluded by restrictions. In 1916 it became the Workers’ Suffrage Federation, and the following year its paper became The Workers’ Dreadnought. The impact of the revolution that overthrew Russian tsarism in March 1917 was clear, but the second Russian revolution that November was more momentous still. WSF now stood for the Workers’ Socialist Federation: voting for parliaments paled into insignificance beside Pankhurst’s determination that the capitalist system be ended.

Her vision of the society that would replace it was an expansive one:

Communism entails the creation of an altogether new attitude of mind towards all social relationships, and the development of a host of new habits and impulses. In discarding our purse and our financial anxieties and calculations, in removing the dependence of the propertiless upon the propertied, we shall change the entire configuration of life. Communism will create for us a great fraternity, a great trustfulness, arising from a great security, an abundant enthusiasm for productive labour, because such labour will benefit all, and all will share responsibility for it. …they will be free co-operators, producing, inventing, studying, not under the compulsion of law, or poverty, or the incentive of individual gain, but from deliberate choice and with an eager zest for achievement. Communism will provide the material and spiritual conditions which will make voluntary co-operative labour possible.

This could only be achieved when those who work controlled the labour process. But “whatever promises may be given in regard to workers’ control of industry are worthless, so long as the actual ownership and control of the purse are in the hands of the private employer or the State”. Workers themselves had to take economic charge of the workplaces and political charge of society in general. This would mean “a local, national and international system, built up on an occupational basis, of which the members shall be but the delegates of those who are carrying on the world’s work; and shall be themselves workers, drawn, but for a space, from the bench, the mine, the desk, the kitchen, or the nursery; and sent to serve the needs and desires of others like themselves”—a system of workers’ councils or soviets, to use the term popularised by the Russian revolution.

Pankhurst’s communism reinforced her commitment to the emancipation of women. She emphasised that women working in the home would represent themselves through “a system of house­hold Soviets” with guaranteed representation at all levels of the soviet system. Housework would become a social responsibility, with communal facilities for childcare, cooking and cleaning giving women a chance to escape from domestic toil:

Communism and Soviets will liberate mothers from their present economic enslavement and drudgery. They will share like others in the wealth of the community, elect their own representatives to the Soviet. The introduction of communal housekeeping will open them opportunities for leisure, recreation, and education hitherto unknown.

Those deprived of their riches and privileges in a socialist revolution would undoubtedly fight tooth and nail to hang on to them. The revolution would have to dispossess them politically as well as economically, with those striving to bring back the capitalist system being deprived of the right to organise and publish. “With this limitation only, the discussion of ethical and economic ideals and principles of administration and social organisation will be un­restricted, and the press will be entirely free.” This dictatorship of the working class could only be a passing expedient:

The dictatorship, so far as it is genuine and defensible, is the suppression by Workers’ Soviets of capitalism and the attempt to re-establish it. This should be a temporary state of war. Such a period will inevitably occur, we believe, because we do not believe that the possessors of wealth will submit to the over­throw of capitalism without resistance.… Once, however, the war is over, once the capitalist and his allies have given up any serious attempt to re-establish capitalism, then away with dictatorship; away with compulsion.

The genuine democracy of workers’ councils would have to replace the sham democracy of parliament. So, in contrast to the Labour Party, elections could never be a central focus: “The real work for the Socialist revolution must be done outside Parliament.” Indeed, Pankhurst rejected the idea that socialists could make any use of it at all. A socialist party, she proposed, “believing that instruments of capitalist organization and domination cannot be used for revolutionary ends, refrains from participation in Parlia­ment and in the Bourgeois Local Government system”. Rather than waste their time on parliamentarism, they should be building up the alternative in time for revolution: “the machinery of the Soviets must be prepared in advance. In all the industries and services, revolutionary workers, who are habitually at work there and know the ropes, must be prepared to seize and maintain control.”

This became the subject of heated discussion as the scattered groups of socialists in Britain discussed setting up a united commun­ist party. As well as rejecting any parliamentary involvement, Pankhurst and others argued against those who wanted the new party to seek affiliation to the Labour Party. She engaged in public correspondence with Vladimir Lenin on these issues, and made an arduous journey to Moscow to have it out at the Communist International congress, as well as privately debating with Lenin.

She lost the argument there, and with good reason. Parliament was an instrument of capitalist organisation and domination, of course, but so were rifles and factories, and she rightly argued that these could be turned into instruments of socialist resistance and communist production. Revolutionary workers setting up soviets in advance would mean no more than a tiny minority would be represented in them: workers’ councils would have to arise from a revolution itself. In the meantime socialists would be right to utilise elections and parliament as far as possible as platforms for their ideas.

The Communist International was right in the abstract about affiliation with Labour: if revolutionaries could operate freely in that party, reaching a larger audience without compromising their politics, then they should. But in practice, the British communists and their allies in Russia overestimated their strength. Labour could easily and repeatedly turn down their application to affiliate without suffering any backlash. Instead of pursuing the lost cause of affiliation, perhaps they would have been better off differentiating themselves more definitely from the Labour tradition.

While Pankhurst was in Moscow the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) was founded, without the WSF. “Do not worry about a big Communist Party yet;” she had written, “it is far better to build a sound one.” The WSF did join the new party soon after, but Pankhurst continued to publish the Workers’ Dreadnought. One article reported on discontent in the British navy, leading to the paper’s office being raided and its editor charged with inciting mutiny. “Capitalism is a wrong system of Society, and it has got to be smashed”, she told the court, “—I would give my life to smash it.” She was sentenced to six months in prison.

Soon after her release she was summoned to a meeting with the CPGB leadership, which unhappily echoed her meeting with Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst in 1913. The party leaders told her they could no longer tolerate the Workers’ Dreadnought as an independent paper: she had to either hand it over to the CPGB executive, with an editor and policy of its choosing, or close it down altogether. She was willing to consider any suggestion they might have regarding the Dreadnought, but “I said that I believed in the usefulness of an independent Communist paper which would stimulate discussion in the movement on theory and practice”. Unlike the official party press, she had reported the views of the left-wing opposition in Russia and the Communist International: “Such controversies are a sign of healthy development; through them the movement grows onward towards higher aims and broader horizons; by studying them, by taking part in them, the membership will develop in knowledge and political capacity.” She had no problem with party discipline, but believed it should be directed rightwards rather than leftwards:

A Communist Party can only preserve its communist character by using its discipline to prevent Right opportunism and laxity from entering the Party; it must insist that acceptance of Communist principles and avoidance of reformism be made a condition of membership; that is obvious. On the other hand, the Communist Party cannot afford to stifle discussion in the Party; above all, it must not stifle the discussion of Left Wing ideas; otherwise it will cramp and stultify itself, and will destroy its own possibility of development.
I stated that in my opinion every member of the Party should be allowed to write and publish his or her views, and that only in cases where those views prove to be not Communist should the question of a member’s fitness to belong to the Party be brought into question.

But, she concluded, “The Communist Party of Great Britain is at present passing through a sort of political measles called discipline which makes it fear the free expression and circulation of opinion within the Party.” The leadership informed her that they had no option but to expel her from the party.

“I desire freedom to work for Communism with the best that is in me”, Pankhurst insisted, and continued to publish the Workers’ Dreadnought. She drew attention to the decay of the revolution in Russia, addressing a letter to Lenin:

With deep regret we have observed you hauling down the flag of Communism… making peace with Capitalism and reaction.… It seems that you have lost faith in the possibility of securing the emancipation of the workers and the establishment of world Communism in our time.

The 1917 demand for workers’ control had been dropped in favour of centralised management of workers. Soon after Lenin’s death she maintained that “the Russian workers remain wage slaves, and very poor ones, working, not from free will, but under compulsion of economic need, and kept in their subordinate position by a State coercion”.

She had little in the way of an alternative policy to offer, however. Lenin, she accused, preferred to compromise with capital­ism “than to stand by Communism and fall with it if need be”, and going down with the communist ship seemed to be the best suggestion she could come up with. For all her practical activism, Pankhurst’s conception of socialists’ role always had an apostolic aspect to it: “The Communist Party must keep its doctrine pure, and its independence of Reformism inviolate; its mission is to lead the way, without stopping or turning, by the direct road to the Communist Revolution.”

The shortcomings of such a strategy are clear in her criticism of a programme put forward by the Communist Party of Ireland early in the civil war of 1922-3. In place of their demand that the Dáil be allowed meet to hold the Free State government and army to account, she called for “The abolition of Dáil Éireann and the present local governing bodies” and “The summoning of the Soviets (Workers Councils)” that didn’t exist. Instead of confiscating ranchers’ land for the landless, she demanded “The abolition of all private property in land”. To the call for nationalisation of the banks, she countered with “Closing of banks and abolition of money.” Ireland should get ready “to maintain itself without intercourse with capitalist Governments and capitalist trade, and to hold out as a self-contained, self-sufficient community until the people of other countries become Communist”. Pankhurst was in effect presenting communism as an immediate demand, without any bridge between it and present-day struggles, and turning her own political isolation into a virtue for others to emulate.

The international retreat from revolution left her with no space to operate. In 1924 the Workers’ Dreadnought closed, and so did the revolutionary period of Pankhurst’s life. She devoted herself to writing, telling the history of the suffragette movement and her own part in it. A book highlighting the continuing dangers faced in child­birth and the need for radical reform of maternity care showed her continued concern with the lives of working-class women.

As fascism grew in power through the 1920s many were complacent, but Pankhurst was to the fore in pointing out the danger. Fascism was, she wrote to her unperturbed friend George Bernard Shaw, “a manifestation of capitalism which it creates when it finds itself in difficulties, to protect itself from the rising power of the workers… a capitalist dictatorship”. Anti-fascist campaigning brought her back into politics, culminating in opposition to the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1935. She established a newspaper condemning Mussolini’s occupation and the acquiescence of other governments in it. When the British captured Ethiopia from Italy in the second world war, she condemned their refusal to allow the country full independence. Official files show how much of a nuisance the British government saw in her, while the Nazis had her down on a list of people to be imprisoned when they occupied Britain.

Her championing of Ethiopia’s cause (accompanied with a disturbingly uncritical stance towards its emperor Haile Selassie) made Sylvia Pankhurst a national hero there. In 1956 she accepted an invitation to move to Addis Ababa, where she died on 27 September 1960. Her own words are a good epitaph: “Let me be counted among the citizens of the world who own no barriers of race or nationality, whose hopes are set on the golden age of universal fraternity we believe to come.”