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A Pioneer of Socialist Feminism

Sylvia Pankhurst: Sexual Politics and Political Activism
By Barbara Winslow
University College London Press, 1996. 236 pp., $37.95 (pb)

Review by Phil Shannon

Strife and controversy have reigned over the bones of Sylvia Pankhurst, daughter of Emmeline, and sister of Christabel and Adela, in the famous English suffragist family.

Radical feminists have flinched from Sylvia's cooperation with men in the cause of female suffrage and women's liberation. Bourgeois feminists have disowned Sylvia for her involvement in socialist politics and the formation of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB).

Stalinists in the CPGB have vilified her for her "ultraleftism". Anti-Leninists and ultraleft purists have claimed her, as have the followers of Haile Selassie, the authoritarian monarch of Ethiopia.

This mixed heritage is indicative of the complex and contradictory politics of Sylvia Pankhurst. Fortunately, Barbara Winslow's new biography lays an excellent foundation for doing Sylvia full political justice.

Born in Lancashire in 1882 into middle class semi-comfort and Fabian semi-radicalism, it was not long before Sylvia had helped to form, in 1903, the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) to campaign for votes for women.

Ten years later, the WSPU was splintering. The WSPU had begun to limit its demand for female suffrage to the same property basis as men's, which would deny most working-class women the vote. Sylvia rejected this, as she also rejected the dictatorial leadership of the WSPU by Emmeline and Christabel.

Sylvia also rejected the anti-men stance of the WSPU and its patriotic support of the first world war, the issue which split both the WSPU and the Pankhurst family in 1914. Whilst Christabel and Emmeline were turning Tory and bundling Bolshevism, sexual intercourse, strikes and venereal disease into a unified male conspiracy, Sylvia was leading the East London Federation of Suffragettes (ELFS) which Winslow describes as a "radical, militant, working class, feminist organisation".

Admitting men, but led by women, the ELFS organised working-class women to fight for their rights, including the vote, as part of the struggle for socialism. The ELFS organised mass actions -- marches, demonstrations, heckling of Liberal Party politicians.

The capitalist state recognised a serious enemy in Sylvia: by 1919, she could chalk up 15 arrests and nine hunger, thirst and sleep strikes, to her credit for seditious advocacy for the vote, against war and for socialism.

A 700-strong ELFS People's Army, composed mainly of working-class women, supported by union dockers, provided self-defence against the police.

Sylvia and the ELFS moved ever leftwards from their contact with the labour movement, and drew revolutionary conclusions from the war, the Irish struggle for national independence, the Russian Revolution and the Labour Party's failure on all three. The ELFS became the WSF, at first the Workers' Suffrage Federation (1916) and then the Workers' Socialist Federation (1918).

Sylvia's paper, the Women's Dreadnought, later renamed Workers' Dreadnought, continued to report on matters of importance to women -- suffrage, home workers, sweated industries, food prices and hat-pin abortions -- but also began to examine these issues within an overtly socialist, and rudimentary Marxist, framework.

In addition to the WSF's support for the trade union and shop steward movements, and for the concept of workplace soviets as the heart of socialist democracy, Sylvia also carried out community organising around food, housing, child-raising and domestic work through "social soviets", which would involve the unemployed, children, the retired, the unemployed, housewives and others of the working class who were not in paid employment.

Cost-price public restaurants were set up, a pub was turned into a maternity and child-care centre, a shoe factory and a toy factory were established and run on workers' control and equal pay principles.

These "pre-figurative communist projects", whilst trying to emulate the community committees and the Bolshevik goal of socialising women's domestic labour which followed in the wake of the revolution in Russia, were not a political success.

Many were financed by Sylvia's wealthy suffragist supporters and operated as a disguised form of charity instead of working-class women's self-activity. None of them won recruits to the WSF, or involved them in wider political activity.

These communal experiments were also unable to break free from a "gendered division of labour" -- the staff of the communal restaurants and baby clinics were female, based on an assumption that men's sphere was the factory, women's was the home and family, and never the twain would meet.

More tangible success came with Sylvia's work on solidarity with Russia and the anti-intervention campaign. She set up the People's Russian Information Bureau, which played a significant part in the refusal by dockers and coal heavers to load and fuel the ships taking munitions to be used against the young Soviet republic.

By now, Sylvia was recognised by the international Marxist left as one of the best revolutionary militants in England. Tragically, her socialist path veered off into the graveyard of ultraleftism from around 1920.

A passionate supporter of soviets as a superior form of democracy to parliament, and a strident opponent of the Labour Party, in which she was supported by Lenin, she began, in an "unnecessarily rigid" manner, to oppose on principle any participation in elections or affiliation to the Labour Party, and she began to downgrade the importance of trade union work, counterposing soviets to trade unions.

Lenin criticised Pankhurst for the ultraleft inability to consider tactically the use of bourgeois tools such as elections for revolutionary ends, as ways to connect with and advance a working-class consciousness permeated with reformist illusions.

The authority of Lenin, and his pamphlet, Left Wing Communism: an Infantile Disorder, sealed Sylvia's fate, with some justification, within the English communist left.

Her parting shot to the CPGB, however, carried equal justification. Expelled for refusing to renounce her right to operate as a left-wing tendency in the party, she declared that the CPGB "is at present passing through a sort of political measles called discipline which makes it fear the free expression and circulation of opinions within the party".

The party control that may have been forced on the Russians by sheer circumstance, and hardened into a fatal political blood clot by a Stalinist takeover of a revolution stifled by international isolation, was not a recipe for other Communist parties in different environments.

Cut adrift from the working class and mainstream communism, Sylvia became more ultraleft. The tiny propaganda sects she formed withered. Demands for the abolition of the wages system rather than for wage rises won her no hearing from workers and were part of the "totally unrealistic" perspective of proposing maximalist demands in a non-revolutionary period.

Following her withdrawal from politics in 1924, "financially, politically and emotionally exhausted", Sylvia re-emerged as an anti-fascist, anti-imperialist activist in the 1930s.

Her political disorientation became worse from 1935, however, when her opposition to the Italian fascist invasion of Ethiopia degenerated into an uncritical worship of the exiled Ethiopian emperor. In 1956, she went to Addis Ababa where she served as his political adviser until her death in 1960.

Sylvia Pankhurst's is an extraordinary life, carefully researched and well told by Winslow. Critical of Sylvia's failures, Winslow is profoundly sympathetic to both parts of Sylvia's socialist feminism, which Winslow sees as a vital project for today, particularly one informed by Sylvia's efforts to involve men and women in working class self-activity for a democratic socialism.

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