Revolutionary Lives: Sylvia Pankhurst Suffragette, Socialist and Scourge of Empire

By Katherine Connelly, Pluto Press, 2013, 148pp

Reviewer: Joseph Adams


Katharine Connelly, a writer and a member of Counterfire, a centrist organisation in Britain has written a useful and informative account on the life of Sylvia Pankhurst, a suffragette and principled reformer who fought for women’s rights and socialism. It has serious political weaknesses which I will comment on.

Sylvia Pankhurst was born in 1882 to a bourgeois middle class family. The family would be very active in the campaign for women’s suffrage. The 1880’s, as Frederick Engels remarked, was a revolutionary period amongst the working class in Britain. It was the birth of the new ‘unionism’. “A year after the match women, the gas workers struck swiftly followed by the great dock strike which galvanised hundreds of thousands of workers into activity and a wave of strike action across the country”. [1]

Pankhurst was always interested in art which she used to highlight the suffragette movement. “Sylvia’s vocation from a very early childhood was art”. [2] The Pankhurst’s were progressive petit bourgeois reformers and both Richard and Emmeline Pankhurst entertained socialists and a variety of left leaning reformers. “The house was a centre for many gatherings of socialists, Fabians, anarchists, suffragists, free thinkers, radicals, and humanitarians of all schools”. [3]

In 1906 the Labour Representation Committee led to the formation of the Labour Party. From the very beginning Sylvia would turn out to be the best of the Pankhurst’s politically with her advocation of socialism, her mother and sisters although calling for votes for women were prepared to form reactionary political alliances. “On the 10th of October 1903 Emmeline invited local women to her house where they formed the Women Social and Political Union WSPU to campaign for votes for women”. [4] Many young women workers joined the WSPU and the campaign started with prison sentences because of militancy by the suffragettes. Connelly comments about the links with the suffragette campaign and the labour movement in Britain. “The early suffragette in London was thus heavily influenced by the traditions of the Labour movement”. [5] There was a clear difference between Sylvia and her sisters and mother over the direction of the campaign. Connelly shows how Sylvia wished the campaign to be directed in a more political direction involving socialists and the working class movement. “Sylvia’s resistance to the WSPU’s political trajectory was also reflected in her personal life. Sylvia fell in love with the Labour leader Keir Hardie”. [6]

Sylvia was marginalised through this period and Connelly shows that opposition to the direction of the WSPU was carried out by individual actions. “Throughout this period Sylvia’s opposition to the WSPU leadership took a very individual form abandoning the honorary secretary’s position on her own terms or refusing to sign the pledge over her relationship with Hardie”. [7]

The period from 1910 through to 1914 was the period in Britain of great class battles involving a very militant and emerging working class. Connelly shows these developments in connection with the struggle of suffragettes and the role of working class women. In 1910 was the great dock strike but the WSPU leadership took a reactionary view and failed to appreciate the importance of the working class movement. “Instead of denouncing the employers who had plunged working-class families into intolerable poverty, Votes for women blamed the workers fighting back for the increased burden the strike imposed on their wives”. [8]

Sylvia on the other hand supported the great unrest in 1912 and 1913 where there were great mass mobilisations of workers in strike movements around the country. Connelly comments on Sylvia’s role. “Sylvia argued for a return to demonstrations to win back public support”. [9] The suffragette movement carried out arson attacks, breaking shop windows and when arrested to engage in hunger strikes in prison. More and more Connelly shows how Sylvia Pankhurst with her socialist views identified with the working class movement and particularly with working class women from the east end of London. The Dublin lockout of 1913 led by James Larkin and James Connolly showed the fighting spirit of the working class but they were cruelly betrayed by the emerging bureaucracy led by Ben Tillet a Dockers leader and hundreds of Dublin workers and their families were left to starve and face defeat. Sylvia now fought back against the reactionary leadership led by her mother and sister Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst. In 1914 the Women’s Dreadnought was launched and in 1916 a new movement led by Sylvia Pankhurst was formed. “The women’s hall became a centre for industrial unrest strikes especially for women and some them lasting a few days were breaking out on all sides of us”. [10]

Connelly also shows Sylvia Pankhurst’s opposition to imperialist war. In 1914 the first imperialist war started and true to form most of the opportunist leaders of social democracy flocked to support the war. “Some sections of the Labour and women’s movement became militarily pro war including Ben Tillet and Willie Thorne “. [11]

Sylvia Pankhurst’s political views would move towards communism and a split with her sisters and mother on the direction of the suffragette movement. The Bolshevik revolution of 1917 led by Vladimir Ilyich Lenin and Leon Trotsky ignited a spark in the working class movement in Britain. Sylvia, as Connelly shows, became closer and closer to the emerging communist movement in Britain with all of its weaknesses. Sylvia’s movement was now called The Workers Suffragette Federation and worked closely with the British Socialist Party and others who would be the nucleus of the Communist Party of Great Britain. “In this period the WSF worked closely with the British Socialist party particularly those members who saw the relevance of the February revolution for the revolutionary anti-war propaganda in Britain”. [12]

The early communist organisations in Britain suffered from syndicalism and ultra-leftism which commentators like Brian Pearce and Michael Woodhouse have identified. Connelly to her credit identifies these strands in the emerging Communist movement in Britain. “However the different strands of discontent failed to come together. They were profoundly influenced by syndicalism which argues that the working class is won to revolutionary change through industrial action alone”. [13]

Woodhouse and Pearce show that the patient work of Lenin and Trotsky over the unity negotiations in the communist Unity convention of 1920-21 was important in trying to persuade both syndicalist and ultra-leftists like Sylvia Pankhurst that work in Parliament and the Labour party was crucial to win sections of workers to communism. “The British Communist party remained for its first year or two of existence little more than an amalgamated and enlarged version of the propagandist sects which had preceded. It took the moral pressure of Lenin himself to bring about the fusion of the various sects into a single party in the first place”. [14]

Pearce and Woodhouse identify this ultra-leftism which found its expression in Pankhurst and Willie Gallagher. “The persistent leftism of the West European Communist parties in this period found its supreme expression in the so called March action 1921 in Germany”. [15]

In his book Left Wing Communism an Infantile disorder Lenin pays particular attention to Lefts like Pankhurst in Britain, Bordiga in Italy, and Wynkoop in Holland. Lenin addressed their opposition to parliament and work in social democratic organisations. “ It undoubtedly follows that the British Communist party should participate in parliamentary action , that they should from within parliament help the masses of the workers to see the results of a Henderson and Snowden government in practice”.[16]

Lenin further comments “For revolution is impossible without a change in the views of the majority of the working class and this change is brought about by the political experience of the masses”. [17]

Connelly shows that Pankhurst like many of the ultra-lefts failed to understand the Marxist method, its flexibility and its understanding of the changing nature of society. Pankhurst would remain an idealist with fixed unchanging views who failed to understand the dialectical method. “But in 1919 Sylvia like many of others involved in the negotiations believed compromising ideologically by forging a party with those whom she disagreed with was too high a price to pay”. [18]

Lenin unlike Pankhurst had prepared ideologically for the Bolshevik revolution during the dark period of reaction by studying and understanding the dialectical method. During 1908 he prepared the party for revolution. Connelly appreciates Lenin’s method with comments about Pankhurst’s weaknesses. “However Sylvia allowed her fetishation of soviets to obstruct her from others in a revolutionary party”. [19]

In 1920 Pankhurst together with JT Murphy and Willie Gallagher travelled to Moscow to attend the Congress of the Third International. Lenin hoped to convince and change the minds of the Ultra Lefts on this question, but due to their extreme sectarianism Lenin was unable to change Pankhurst’s mind and in 1921 Pankhurst was expelled. Connelly gives the details.“In September 1921 Sylvia was summoned to a meeting where she refused to hand over control of the Dreadnought and was immediately expelled from the Communist party”. [20]

Pankhurst for the rest of her life would remain outside the revolutionary movement, although she continued to oppose fascism during the Second World War. She spoke at platforms both denouncing Fascism and the emergence of Stalinism. She remained an armchair critic and adopted what she thought were anti-imperialist positions. Connelly correctly comments about Pankhurst’s perceived anti-imperialism which consisted of speaking against wars and imperialism but failed to fight in the working class movement against imperialism in Britain. As many Marxists have said ‘The main enemy is at home’. “She thought that underdeveloped countries where there was no social democracy would be more revolutionary than the working class in Western Europe”. [21] This of course was pure idealist nonsense; it means of course that you yourself in practice would continue to remain an armchair critic. Criticising Pankhurst Connelly comments “However she suggested no ways in which British workers could support Indian workers”. [22]

For the rest of her life Sylvia Pankhurst campaigned for bourgeois nationalism which she claimed was anti-imperialism. She also campaigned for independence for emerging nations in Africa and would be a fervent supporter for Ethiopian Independence and a supporter of Haile Selassie, a bourgeois nationalist who would later refer to himself as Emperor and rule Ethiopia after Ethiopia gained Independence. Pankhurst moved to Ethiopia in 1956 and died there in 1960. Connelly comments “Some Historians have failed to understand how Sylvia a republican could have worked so willingly with the Emperor of Ethiopia”. [23]

Katharine Connelly has made an important contribution to our study of this period but as a centrist she tends to make a few idealist assumptions about this period. The book in the series of Revolutionary Lives is welcome in that it sheds a light on potential historical figures who have contributed to the revolutionary tradition. Sylvia Pankhurst made a useful contribution in her fight against oppression, and her principled struggle in the working class movement. She attempted to play a significant role in the development of communism in Britain but remained a petit bourgeois middle class reformer. In the end she supported reactionary bourgeois nationalism instead of striving to fight in the workers and communist movement in Britain. She departed to have a more comfortable life in Ethiopia.



1-13 Katharine Connelly: Revolutionary Lives: Sylvia Pankhurst, Pluto Press, pages 6, 8, 9 , 18, 31, 37, 44, 53, 63, 68, 82,83, 92, 99, and 100.

14-15 Michael Woodhouse and Brian Pearce: A History Of Communism In Britain, Pluto Press, pages 158 and 159

16-17 V.I. Lenin: Left Wing Communism – An Infantile Disorder, Pluto Press, pages 104 and 105

18-23 Katharine Connelly: Revolutionary Lives: Sylvia Pankhurst, pages 101, 102, 115, 122, and 138