Ian Bullock on Socialism and Democracy in Britain
Brighton Branch of the Historical Association, 3 February 2004
My subject tonight has become much more topical since I agreed with Marilyn to do this piece. Since I've always believed that history as much about the present as the past, this seems like a good time to be considering the life of Sylvia Pankhurst. At the end of November I received s letter from the Sylvia Pankhurst Memorial Committee asking me, which I did, to urge my MP to lobby the House of Commons Accommodation and Works Committee which was to consider on 10 December the proposal to site a statue of Sylvia on College Green outside the Houses of Parliament.
Westminster Council gave planning permission some time ago, but the committee of the House of Lords equivalent to the Works Committee rejected the site. I duly contacted my M P – in fact both Brighton MPs – and did as asked and was pleased to receive an e-mail from the Memorial Committee which reported
The letters poured in and we are so delighted to be able to say that they voted by four votes to two for the statue to go on College Green.
They have asked the House of Lords Committee to reconsider its decision.
Then I received another circular – this is the first page of it [pass round] – about the House of Lords committee meeting – with a call for more lobbying – to which of course I responded.
The best idea I can give you of what the statue will look like is the colour photo of the maquette on this card from Ian Walter's, its sculptor. The question that is bound to arise in the mind of anyone not well acquainted with Sylvia Pankhurst's career is 'why put up a statue to her? What did she do that's so remarkable?'
That's the first thing I shall try and address – very sketchily – this evening. The second is to revisit the aspect of her career that interests me most and the one that I've written about – her transition in the First World War and the years immediately following it from a radical women's suffrage campaigner to not just a revolutionary communist – but to a dissident – so called 'Left-Wing' Communist. In both cases I shall draw on work published since 1992 when the book I edited with Richard Pankhurst appeared. [Show book]
So why put up a statue to Sylvia Pankhurst? Part of the answer can be deduced from looking at the list of sponsors. With very few exceptions – of which the most appropriate to mention in our present surroundings must be Manchester High School for Girls – the corporate sponsors (and no doubt most of the individuals too) are from what most people would regard as the political Left – broadly speaking. Sylvia's mother, Emmeline, who ended life as a prospective parliamentary candidate for the Conservative Party, and her sister Christabel – whose politics evolved even further to the Right, already have their statues. Justice demands, the argument might be, that the Left wing member of the family, who arguably did as much if not more for the cause of 'votes for women' should also be commemorated. But with or without a statue outside Parliament, what did Sylvia do that is worth remembering? I'm going now to outline the main episodes of her life picking out just a few aspects that seem to me of some continuing significance.
She was born in 1882 in Manchester. Her father – after whom she was later to name her son – Richard Pankhurst, was a lawyer who devoted much of his time to radical good causes to the detriment of the family finances. By the 1890s he'd moved on from radical Liberalism to socialism and was active in the ILP – the Independent Labour Party formed by Keir Hardie and others in the early part of the decade. His sudden death when Sylvia was 16 was traumatic for her - and she remained devoted to his memory and to what she perceived as the contemporary applications of his principles for the rest of her life. She regarded the rightward move of her mother and elder sister as a betrayal of his memory.
Her education was pretty chaotic, conducted mainly by family and friends; today her parents would have been in serious trouble with the authorities although she did attend Manchester High School for Girls for a while as you will have already guessed. She had a talent for drawing and painting and having won a scholarship to the Royal College of Arts she set out on a career as an artist. Her activities as an art student are the subject of the first chapter by Hilary Cunliffe-Charlesworth in the book. Some idea of her art can be gathered from the examples on the covers and in the illustrations of the books – and the postcard – I'm circulating. Given her artistic contemporaries included the likes of Picasso and Matisse, I don't think anyone would claim that she was a very original or radical painter. The only real point of interest is, I think, her subject matter. The pictures of women workers in boot factories, spinning mills, pottery works and so on are of at least some documentary interest as well as being quite pleasant if otherwise quite conventional paintings. For more on this see Jackie Duckworth's chapter in the book.
But she was to abandon her career in art – though not her interest in it - as a result of being drawn into greater and greater involvement with the Suffragette organisation founded and led by her mother and sister – the Women's Social and Political Union. To begin with she concentrated on being artist and designer for the movement – decorating halls for meetings and designing the WSPU membership card [Hold up and circulate] – but was soon working full-time in the suffragette campaign. In this she played a prominent part which included frequent imprisonments, 9 hunger strikes and two fund-raising and propagandising trips to the United States.
But what was most notable about her suffragette career was her expulsion – by her sister and her mother – from the WSPU. This came about because Sylvia refused to completely sever links with the ILP and the socialist movement generally and because – to Emmeline and Christabel's horror – she insisted on organising among working class women in the East End of London.
Expelled, she continued with her own East London Federation of Suffragettes, which achieved some small success when on the eve of the War in June 1914 – and after a hunger strike by Sylvia outside Parliament - not too far in fact from where it is proposed to site her statue – Prime Minister Asquith agreed to see a deputation of working women – but not Sylvia – and showed signs of softening his opposition to votes for women assuring them that if as he put it 'change has to come' he was determined it should be what he called 'thorough going and democratic in its basis.' Les Garner deals with all this with great insight in the 1992 book.
During the war years the East London Federation went through a bewildering series of transformations – with consequent changes and usually reductions of membership at each stage to the Workers' Suffrage Federation, then The Workers' Socialist Federation. Then after the War there was the Communist Party (British Section of the Third International), the Communist Workers Party. Less confusingly the weekly paper she edited – a bundle of which is what she is seen carrying in the statue, – simply changed from being the Woman's Dreadnought to the Workers' Dreadnought, though even that can confuse because of the change from singular to plural. I shall simply refer to it as the Dreadnought. To give you more than this outline would make my head ache - and worse might have a similar effect on you. But there are a few things we can highlight without risking injury.
Although Sylvia didn't rally to the war effort like her mother and sister, she was not immediately the outspoken opponent of the war that she became later. To begin with she and her organisation concentrated on trying to mitigate the effects of the war on – especially – the women of the East End by creating a kind of micro-welfare state. There were two Cost Price Restaurants to provide cheap meals, an old pub – the Gunners Arms – turned into a day centre and nursery and renamed the Mothers Arms, and co-operative boot and toy factories as well as many other local initiatives and campaigns. In her book, Sylvia Pankhurst. Sexual Politics and Political activism, published in 1996, [hold up and circulate] Barbara Winslow – seems now to see all this as something of a diversion from real politics with Sylvia and Co becoming a 'feminist social welfare organisation'. She has a point. But it's worth considering the possibility that even though the Federation was operating on a very small scale its example and continual agitation and campaigning may have contributed to the rather better efforts of the British state on the 'home front' in the Second World War. And it is evident that during more recent decades much radical social and political energies have been concentrated in 'social welfare organisations' – like Shelter for example and in single issue campaigns. Sylvia Pankhurst wasn't the first to pioneer such an approach – but her contribution was not totally insignificant.
By 1917 Sylvia's opposition to the war was very public and very militant. It is in itself significant that it was the Dreadnought that first printed the now famous letter of Siegfried Sassoon protesting against the 'war of aggression' As for Sylvia, one local example will provide the flavour of it. She was a featured speaker at a huge 'Mass Meeting to Celebrate Russian Freedom' later characterised by the local press as the 'anti-patriotic meeting' at the Salvation Army Congress Hall (now rebuilt) at the back of the Level. I have a poster of it – given me years ago by Andy Durr (who you may have encountered in any number of contexts including his spell as mayor a couple of years ago). It hangs in my stairwell as you can see from these photos.
One of the biggest unofficial strikes in British history with about 200,000 strikers in was raging in 48 industrial towns. At the meeting Sylvia urged the audience not to be taken in by the argument that the strikes would mean fewer British munitions and more British casualties. 'The truth is,' the Brighton Herald reported her as proclaiming 'that the more guns you send out the more men will be killed. It does not matter to me what kind of men they are: they are all members of the human race; they are our brothers'.
I shall be returning to Sylvia and Communism later. So I'll confine myself to two points about this stage of her career. The first is that she has a good claim to be both the first in and the first out of orthodox Communism in this country. She was one of the first to support the Bolsheviks before the 'October Revolution', her organisation declared itself to be a Communist Party 14 months before the foundation of what we must think of as the Communist Party – the Communist Party of Great Britain, in August 1920 and she was formally expelled by that organisation in September 1921. The second is that before this in 1920, when Lenin made a blistering attack on the dissident Communism that Sylvia Pankhurst exemplified, the whole of the section on Britain was based on the writings of Willie Gallacher and Pankhurst herself in a single issue of the Dreadnought. This was the famous diatribe 'Left-Wing' Communism, an Infantile Disorder.
She managed to keep the Dreadnought going until 1924 after her organisation turned its back on her and merged with the Communist Party while she was serving her last jail sentence for breaching the draconian Defence of the Realm Act. She then migrated to Woodford where for a while she eked out a living running a teashop – of all things – and then concentrated more and more on writing her highly personal histories of The Suffragette Movement and The Home Front which covered the war years. She intended there to be a third volume called In the Red Twilight but that was never completed. She was to return to political campaigning in a big way in the mid '30s.
But in the meantime there are 4 things I think particularly worth noting. The first is her opposition to racism at a time when that was by no means standard issue for people on the Left or in the feminist movement – or indeed any where else. Barbara Winslow tells us how she was attacked by American Suffaragists during one of her visits to the United States for speaking at a black college in Tennessee and she comments 'Speaking to African-American audiences, Pankhurst was unique among suffrage activists in both Britain and the United States' In the Dreadnought period she used the Jamaican poet, Claude Mackay who was later part of the Harlem Renaissance as a correspondent as well as a black sailor called Reuben Samuels. In his autobiography, A Long Way From Home Mackay tells of being horrified by the racism in Lansbury's Daily Herald the only socialist daily paper of the period, which headlined stories about protests against the deployment of black colonial troops by the French in the occupation of Germany with 'Black Peril on the Rhine' and similar. In the last few weeks – looking for quite different things – I chanced upon similar material in the ILP paper Labour Leader which also supported the campaign against the use of such troops which was presented as a threat to the women of Europe. But Mackay had only praise for Sylvia Pankhurst and the Dreadnought. Mary Davis in her 1999 book Sylvia Pankhurst. A Life in Radical Politics has several more excellent examples of Sylvia's opposition to racism at this time and both she and Barbara Winslow rightly put a great deal of emphasis on the relative novelty of her attitude to race in the early 20th century.
The second thing is not unrelated. Sylvia Pankhurst was one of the earliest public opponents of Italian fascism in Britain. She founded the Women's International Matteotti Committee named after the M P murdered on Mussolini's orders and when George Lansbury, (him again) with whom she had been and probably still was friends, made a speech to ex-service trainees in June 1923 she reported it like this in the Dreadnought: I hope you can follow it. There's a quote from Lansbury with a comment from Pankhurst in parenthesis in the middle. I'll wave a hand to indicate the brackets!
'If I were Mussolini' (observe, by the way, pacifist Mr Lansbury does not shrink from comparing himself with the renegade murderer) I would put a tax on every able-bodied man in the country…
My third noteworthy instance is more personal. Even today it can be considered hazardous for a woman to embark – especially for the first time – on pregnancy at the age of 45. But that's what Sylvia did in 1927. But what scandalised her mother and elder sister, along with much of 'respectable' opinion, was that she and the child's father – Sylvia's partner, as we would say today, since 1917 – he was Silvio Corio, an exiled Italian anarchist – were not married. And instead of keeping quiet about the whole business, she insisted on celebrating the birth of her son Richard in articles in the press. In 2004 it is commonplace and generally accepted for unmarried women – with or without partners – to have children, but in 1927 she was decades ahead of her time.
And she was three years later in 1930 when she published Save the Mothers. The subtitle is self-explanatory. A plea for measures to prevent the annual loss of about 3,000 childbearing mothers and about 20,000 infant lives in England and Wales. That was the fourth thing I wanted to note before turning to the final 25 years of her life between 1935 and 1960.
This final part of her life was centred on Ethiopia. We need now to remind ourselves that the late 19th century 'scramble for Africa' had left Ethiopia – with the rather special exception of Liberia - as the last remaining country in that continent outside the empires of the various imperial powers who had so swiftly carved it up. Famously, it had defeated the Italian attempt at conquest in 1896. So famous in fact that Sylvia's son Richard used 1896 as his P 0 Box number in Addis Ababa, because, he said, it was the only date in Ethiopian history that people from elsewhere knew.
As I've already noted, Sylvia – partly no doubt because of the insights and access to opponents of the regime through her relationship with Silvio Corio – was from the very start fully aware of the dangers posed by Mussolini's fascism. When in the mid thirties Mussolini invaded Ethiopia – then known in Britain as Abyssinia – employing poison gas and the well-documented bombing of Red Cross ambulances and other atrocities in the process – she felt the need to keep the issue in the public eye at a time when, with Hitlers's rise to power and remilitarisation of the Rhineland, the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, and much else, it might easily have been quickly forgotten.
The result was a new paper which she managed to continue for 20 years – from 1936 till 1956 – The New Times and Ethiopia News. This not only reported and commented on the Italian onslaught against the almost defenceless Ethiopians but functioned as a general anti-fascist organ – urging resistance against Hitler and Franco as well as to Mussolini. Not that Ethiopia was ever forgotten and some editions were translated into Amharic and smuggled into the country. The enterprise was sufficiently successful for her to open a New Times Bookshop in Farringdon Street London in the spring of 1939 and for Mussolini to himself to attack Sylvia in the Popolo d'Italia.
With hindsight, the doom of the British – and other European empires – following the Second World War looks inevitable and totally predictable. But this was not the case in the war years themselves. Sylvia was suspicious of British intentions after Ethiopia was liberated from Italian occupation. She suspected that the intention was not to restore Haile Sellassie, the exiled Emperor, but to somehow maintain British rule there. It was this fear – in addition to her sensitivity about race prejudice that lay at the root of one of her stranger - for her at least – campaigns. As part of a wider – and ultimately successful – effort to get the British Government to formally recognise Ethiopia as an ally – she spent months pestering the BBC to include the Ethiopian national anthem in its regular Sunday evening radio recital of 'National Anthems of the Allies.'
Many have found it at least odd that Sylvia Pankhurst should become more or less a protégé of the exiled absolute monarch of Ethiopia – which she did. She visited the country in 1944 and 1951 and in 1956 two years after Corio's death she went to live there permanently. The The New Times and Ethiopia News was replaced by the Ethiopia Observer which she edited until her death at the age of 78 in 1960. She was buried in grand style in Addis Ababa – regarded as a hero of the country. More on all this is to be found in Richard Pankhurst's own contribution to the book which deals with her involvement with Ethiopia.
Very odd – for a republican, socialist, and one time 'Left Communist' and – as I shall argue a consistent striver for democracy. But is it that odd? It was not until 1954 that full sovereignty was returned to Ethiopia when the British 'reserved area' was finally handed back. For Sylvia the story of Ethiopia was one of resistance to imperialism – Italian and British. That was what immediately threatened. Democratising the independent state could wait; the pressing priority was to restore and safeguard its independence. Besides, clinging to inflexible principle as she had done as a 'Left-Communist' had simply resulted in the movement she was part of dwindling away to practically nothing with little to show for its efforts. Older, sadder but perhaps wiser, she was able to make a difference by adopting a less uncompromising approach.
As to the statue – which is where we started from – leaving aside all the many other contributions made by Sylvia – a tiny selection of which I've touched upon – my feeling is that if anyone deserves to have a statue on College Green, Sylvia, who got up the noses of not just one but two – of the 20th centuries major dictators – first Lenin and then Mussolini – sufficiently for them to fly into print to attack her, surely has a strong claim. For anyone who wants to do their own research on Sylvia Pankhurst, the final chapter of our book by Wilhelmina Schreuder, who was the original archivist of the Sylvia Pankhurst Papers at the International Institute of Social History in Amsterdam, gives an excellent introduction to the sources. And the good news is that the papers have now mysteriously appeared on microfilm in Sussex University Library. I stumbled on them only last week when doing my homework for tonight. So unlike me 20 years ago, you don't need to go to the Netherlands to read them.
I now want to focus for the final part of my presentation on the area which interests me most – though I hope you'll agree that there is plenty to interest in all stages of her career. I came to my own interest in Sylvia Pankhurst via an unusual route. I had previously researched what eventually was published in 1996- with Logie Barrow – as Ideas of Democracy in the British Labour Movement 1880-1914 and I wished to carry on my investigations into the period of the Great War and the Russian Revolution. The Dreadnought happened to be handily available on microfilm in Sussex University Library – so I decided to start with that. What eventually became my contribution to the book Richard Pankhurst and I edited was originally intended as an article.
But in the meantime I met Richard Pankhurst and Rita – his wife – twice. On the first occasion in the mid '80s, the fact that there was no biography of Sylvia came up in conversation and I learned that an American, Patricia Romero, was in the final stages of rectifying this. The second time I met them was at a meeting that launched the Sylvia Pankhurst Society – which seems to have run into the sand in the meantime – though of course there is the Memorial Committee. The Romero book was now out – but to everyone's disappointment and in some cases anger. Should you wish to know what I thought of it please read my review in History Workshop Journal 26, Autumn 1987 – bearing in mind that it's only on rare occasions I get to write a review and my instinct is to try to find positive things to say. That was very difficult in this case.
Discussing the Romero book , it became evident that though Richard and Rita knew several people who had written or were writing or might be persuaded to write about particular aspects or episodes of Sylvia's life, no-one felt up to taking on the whole of her life as a biographer – to produce a better book than the one we all despaired of. Who has the expertise in the British suffrage movement, the British and international socialist and communist movements, and the history of Ethiopia – with preferably some knowledge of early 20th century British art and art education to attempt such a thing.? It is noticeable that neither Barbara Winslow – who also contributed on Pankhurst during the War years to the Bullock/Pankhurst book – or Mary Davies – [Show and circulate] who have produced interesting books on Sylvia most recently – attempted to cover her entire career and concerns. My suggestion back then was that instead of a biography we could group together a series of essays covering the main stages of Sylvia's life – including one on the Ethiopian phase by Richard himself. And that's what we did.
My contribitution, as I've said, tried to trace how she moved from being a radical suffragist – agitating for votes for women – including the working class women of the East End she worked with, to being not just a Communist – but the target for Lenin's attack in the famous pamphlet as a "'Left Wing' Communist". Before revisiting my own arguments I'd like to look at what my successors – for both of whom this period of Sylvia's career is crucial and central – make of this.
In my account I show how Sylvia saw the Russian Revolution, in her own words as 'the first ray of dawn after a long and painful night' – she's referring to the horrible and distressing war of course; how she was a very early supporter of the Bolsheviks – long before October/November 1917 – although, along with virtually everyone else in Britain she knew very little about them; how, again like many others on the Left, she was attracted to the idea of soviets or workers' councils and participated in what's usually known as the Leeds Soviet Convention at the beginning of June 1917 attempting with partial success to get important changes of language incorporated into its proceedings – 'Workers' rather than 'Workmen' in the title of the proposed – but virtually stillborn – Councils of Workmen's and Soldiers Delegates' and the addition of 'and Housewives' – Councils of Workers, Housewives, and Soldiers Delegates, she would have called them.
All this, with much excellent additional detail and analysis, is covered in Barbara Winslow's book. Where we somewhat part company is on the question of the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly. This is her account:
When the Bolsheviks came to power in October-November 1917, Pankhurst welcomed the socialist revolution and defended the Bolshevik dissolution of the Constituent Assembly, a turning point in the Russian Revolution, acknowledged as such by its supporters internationally. It divided moderates from revolutionaries, social democrats from communists, because it marked a clear rejection of any form of parliamentary democracy. Thus, Pankhurst's defence of the Bolsheviks moved her even further leftward.
I'm not happy about what to me is the uncritical acceptance of labels and descriptions - that were certainly used at the time and subsequently – as though they pose no problems [Such as should we call the Bolshevik seizure of power 'the socialist revolution'? What about people who saw themselves, and were seen, as anything but 'moderates' and often in fact as 'revolutionaries' who opposed the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly in January 1918?] But I wouldn't argue with the substance of it. But she goes on
This position did not, however, represent that much of an abrupt change in her politics, for it was consistent with her belief in soviets or workers' councils as the new form of revolutionary government. Pankhurst quoted from the Bolshevik decree, which stated that 'the old bourgeois parliamentarism has seen its day' … and that soviets were the only organisations of the'exploited working classes'…
For me, this is skipping far too lightly over the crucial turning point in the relationship of Pankhurst, and many many others, to the Russian Revolution. In her case it was what set her off inexorably in the direction that led to 'Left Communism', the consequent criticism of her by Lenin, and eventually to her departure from 'orthodox' Communism and brave but ultimately futile attempts to promote her own brand of 'Left Wing' Communism between 1921 and 1924. In my piece I detailed how right up to the last moment the Dreadnought was reporting the Constituent Assembly elections and the fact that 'the various Socialist parties command a vast majority in the Russian Parliament' in a wholly positive manner. I commented that 'In all this there was absolutely no suggestion that the Assembly represented a now superseded bourgeois form of democracy' I went on in a sentence I will come back to and try to explain a little later. 'If such a form was to be transcended it would be by the most direct forms of democracy – the referendum, initiative and recall.' I then looked at how she initially defended the Bolsheviks' actions in dissolving the Assembly. I had Pankhurst quoting the same Bolshevik decree as in the Winslow book, but I also showed that she was unclear – and admitted as much – about how the obvious question – 'If the assembly was an old form of bourgeois democracy why did the Bolsheviks go ahead with it after their seizure of power?' should be answered. And I quoted enough of her own words to show how she related what she saw as Soviet democracy to the ideas of syndicalist and other influential trends of Left wing thought that saw a workplace-based democracy as inherently superior – as well as more 'working class' – than one based on 'geography' in the form of parliamentary constituencies. All this is I think important in understanding Sylvia Pankhurst's transition from suffragism to – not so much Bolshevism as sovietism.
I should add at this point that Mary Davis, whose book, Richard Pankhurst in his Foreword to it describes as 'a work of analysis rather than a biography' does not really deal with this episode at all, although she has some very interesting things to say about the relationship between Pankhurst's feminism and her socialism, and a lot of detail and analysis of the convoluted story of the 'Communist Unity' proceedings in Britain which eventually culminated, as anyone who can cast their mind back to Walter Kendall's seminal Revolutionary Movement in Britain in 1969 will recall, in the formation of the Communist Party of Great Britain. There's also some interesting stuff about the early years of international Communism in relation to Pankhurst.
So what's my 'line' – after revisiting Sylvia? In her book Patricia Romero presents Sylvia's life as a series of abrupt changes of the kind usually described as 'going off at a tangent.' Traumatised by her father's early and sudden death, and dedicated to being faithful to his memory she then fell under a series of substitute father-figures – Keir Hardie, then Lenin and finally Haile Sallassie, on each occasion abandoning previous beliefs and concerns to pursue the new enthusiasm. Well, there may be something in this – though I suspect not very much.
Like most of us Sylvia Pankhurst was not always the most coherent thinker, nor did she behave with total consistency. But within the normal latitudes that have to be allowed for in anyone's life, there seem to be pretty stable threads running through it. The main one was her commitment to equality. Hence her feminism, anti-racism, anti-fascism, anti-imperialism and of course her socialism – including her 'Left Communism.' Intrinsic to her notion of equality - and that of most of her socialist contemporaries in Britain, and of course elsewhere at least up the advent of Leninism – was the most far-reaching, the most genuine democracy.
Exclusion from political participation was only one way in which women were denied equality but the Suffragette movement seemed to her the most effective means to struggle for it. However, equal citizenship meant, minimally, the vote for all women – and for the not inconsiderable minority of men excluded from the franchise at the time. Hence her concentration on work in the East End, her expulsion from the WSPU and eventually her espousal of what she and her organisation called, rather oddly, 'human suffrage', a formulation I suspect was intended to avoid the negative connotations – of the more usual term at the time, adult suffrage for people from a Suffragette background – please ask about this later if this is puzzling.
But that did not mean that she believed that a satisfactory state of democracy might be achieved simply by the adoption of universal franchise. In my 1992 chapter, I documented how in February 1917 she seconded a motion at the London Labour Council for Adult Suffrage which in addition to 'the speedy enactment of adult suffrage' called for the establishment of the Referendum, Initiative and Recall, how the annual conference of her organisation that June reiterated support for these devices, including 'the recall and election of Ministers and Judges by referendum vote' and resolved that its own resolutions would have to be ratified by referendum of the membership.
Enthusiasm for what was seen as 'direct legislation' by means of referendum and initiative – that's to say the ability of a certain number of citizens, as in Switzerland and some American states – to put forward propositions to be decided by referendums – had a long if spasmodic history in the British – and indeed the French and other – socialist movements. It had been taken up with considerable sustained advocacy by the very successful – in relative terms – socialist weekly the Clarion especially in the second half of the 1890s.
But Sylvia's inspiration seems to have been American, perhaps in part as a result of her two visits to the USA. Bear in mind that between 1898 and 1918 no fewer than 19 American states adopted the referendum and initiative and another 3 just the referendum. The inclusion of the recall- which usually went together with the referendum and initiative in the American context (bear in mind the recent recall of the governor of California featuring Arnold Scharzenegger ) – in Pankhurst's demands suggests a transatlantic inspiration and a passage I quote in the book from the Dreadnought, again in 1917 in which she refers to 'such essential democratic institutions as the Initiative, Referendum and Recall, institutions which are all actually in being in the Western States of the USA' seems to me to confirm this.
Even after her defence of the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly in Russia – and consequently the beginning of her journey towards a position where 'soviets' were seen as the only truly authentic form of democracy – she criticised both the Labour Party's manifesto and G D H Cole's Guild Socialist programme for failing to include referendum, initiative and recall. And there are other references in the Dreadnought in 1918 to these devices as 'useful machinery in any scheme for a socialist community' and as 'the most direct and democratic means of popular expression' which I also gave. None of this is picked up by either of the more recent writers on Pankhurst. But I still believe it to be crucial in understanding Pankhurst's thinking at this time.
Not that it was by any means confined to her. At the ILP annual conference in May 1919, for example, we find the Urmston branch urging 'the establishment of the referendum and intitiative' which the branch considered ' … to be the really democratic method.' And at the beginning of 1920 in a letter to the ILP paper Labour Leader Joseph Southall described parliament as , 'a very defective instrument of democracy.' 'Clearly, then, ' he concluded,' there must be a change of some sort if the people are to be masters in their own house. I am inclined to favour the Referendum, but whether it be this or a Soviet or Syndicalist institution, some change is necessary'
That the same assumed virtues of directness should be transferred from the referendum to the soviet system – even in the ideal form Sylvia Pankhurst and others imagined it existed in Russia – or could exist – may seem odd given the many levels intervening between the constituent and the ultimate national level, but she was by no means unusual on the Left in doing this – however naïve it may now seem. In 1992 I quoted a passage in which she claimed that 'the All-Russian Workers', Soldiers and Peasant Councils' was 'more closely in touch with and more directly represents its constituents than the Constituent Assembly or any existing parliament' because delegates were constantly reporting back and receiving instructions from those who elected them.
A little later, I explained, with suitable supporting evidence, how the apparent problem from any democratic standpoint of the disfranchisement of the 'bourgeoise' under the soviet system was conjured away by regarding exclusion as entirely voluntary. Any such individual could get a job, make a contribution to society and gain full democratic voting rights. Perfectly fair in terms of Pankhurst's notion of morality.
It was precisely her genuine belief in 'soviet democracy' that got her into trouble with Lenin and later – following his lead – the British Communist Party. If, as she believed, only a soviet system was truly democratic how could you as a Communist – as Lenin demanded – put up candidates in, seen from this perspective, undemocratic parliamentary elections and affiliate to a Labour Party embedded in the parliamentary system? To do so was surely totally inconsistent and likely to confuse and demotivate precisely those whose support you were seeking. But that was the substance of her 'infantile disorder' according to Lenin.
So her democratic principles – interpreted in this 'pure soviet' way – led her out of orthodox Communism and into the virtual political isolation of the dissident or 'Left-wing ' Communist movement, that not exactly flourished – but kept its head just above water – for a few years in the 1920s. Later, as I've already suggested, the priority of facing down the threat of fascism led to a far less purist position, which led in turn to her espousal of the Ethiopian cause where the immediate task was not to promote democracy – soviet, bourgeois or otherwise – but to resist fascism and an imperialism that would make the possibility of democracy and progress even more remote.
My conclusion, therefore, remains much as it was twelve years ago. While not totally consistent – let alone totally persuasive as far as I am concerned – in all her positions, they do not seem to me wildly inconsistent. Nor, disappointingly, have either of the writers on Sylvia Pankhurst's career at this time, though both books are well worth reading, added anything to the understanding of the problem with which I am most concerned. My explanation still satisfies me. It was always likely to, wasn't it? But the real question is, does it make sense to you or anyone else?
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