Hands off Sylvia Pankhurst!

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What do the following have in common: a former Labour MP and local mayor; celebrity academic Germaine Greer, author of feminist classic The Female Eunuch; and the Ethiopian ambassador to London?

They were all speakers at a recent event to celebrate the life of Sylvia Pankhurst as a "crusader, artist and feminist"!

The Sylvia Pankhurst Festival held on 8 July included a series of talks and an exhibition in the Essex suburb of Woodford Green, where she lived for over 30 years. Members of Pankhurst's close family were also present, including her son, Doctor Richard Pankhurst, and the speakers included the local author of a recent biography (Shirley Harrison, Sylvia Pankhurst, a Maverick Life 1882-1960), and others with personal stories of her life.

Over the last 10 years or so there has been an effort by the left of the bourgeoisie to appropriate Pankhurst and gain official recognition for her, as a pioneer of the vote for women, an anti-fascist, anti-colonialist and indefatigable campaigner for world peace. There has even been a campaign, supported by Labour baronesses and former union bosses in the House of Lords, to erect a statue of her outside the Houses of Parliament (!). The holding of the Festival has to be seen in this context.

During her long political life, of course, Sylvia Pankhurst was all of these things (she died in 1960 in Ethiopia, and was given a full state funeral by her friend Emperor Haile Selassie), which is why the left can appropriate her in the first place. But they can only do this by suppressing or distorting her experience as a proletarian revolutionary, and in particular her defence of left-wing communist positions against parliamentarism and the Labour Party in the period from 1917 to 1924.

The Festival's speakers, while referring to her support for the Russian revolution, her visit to Moscow to attend the Third International and meet with Lenin, and her eventual expulsion from the British Communist Party, were coy about the positions she defended in this significant period of her life, preferring instead to praise her "contributions to human rights and campaigning for peace". Germaine Greer's presentation was at least more radical in language, pointing to the ‘limitations' of the women's movement and of the struggle for the vote, and arguing passionately that Pankhurst deserved to be more than a footnote to history. But Pankhurst the left-wing communist was still notable for her absence.

So not surprisingly, when it came to a debate on Pankhurst's legacy, the presence of the ICC at this event was very much as the ghost at the feast. A WR sympathiser intervened to affirm that Pankhurst was indeed not a footnote to history, as shown by the existence today of communist organisations like the ICC, and the modest contribution it has published on the history of the British Communist Left which contains some of her writings. To the re-emerging revolutionary minorities in the period after May '68, the re-discovery of the positions defended by the left-wing communists and of their criticisms of the Bolsheviks was crucial in re-forging the link with the past struggles of the working class. In Britain, for example, the revolutionary ex-shop stewards of the Workers' Voice group on Merseyside in the 1970s re-published many texts by Sylvia Pankhurst and the Workers' Dreadnought group, bringing them to the attention of a whole new generation of revolutionaries for the first time.

Finding herself unexpectedly in the face of living rather than dead revolutionaries, Greer swiftly backtracked, remarking that, yes well, of course back in the 1970s we all thought there was going to be a revolution, but capitalism won, didn't it? Thus she added to the bourgeoisie's lies about the ‘end of communism' (and in so doing consigned Pankhurst's own struggle for communism to the dustbin). Asked a question from the floor about whether there were any regimes today that Pankhurst would see as progressive, Greer warmly wished Sylvia was alive so that they could both go to ... Cuba! (If Sylvia came back as a left communist she would not be impressed with the state capitalist regime that is Fidel's island paradise). In response we pointed out that even in 1920 Pankhurst had been critical of the Bolshevik regime in Russia, and although we can never know what positions she would defend today, the real lasting value of Pankhurst's politics was her intransigent defence of the need for the working class to abolish the institutions of the capitalist state.

To the bourgeoisie, Sylvia Pankhurst is to be remembered as a feminist, a leftist or a liberal. To the proletariat, while not disguising the facts of her abandonment of revolutionary politics and subsequent betrayals, she is someone who, under the influence of the class struggle, broke with bourgeois politics and was won over to communism; greeting the Russian revolution as a practical hope for abolishing capitalism and creating a better world, she threw in her lot with the proletarian cause and for a period of her life gave to it all her energies and commitment - despite brutal treatment by the same democratic state that now tries to appropriate her to its own, alien cause. Thanks to the stubborn determination of Pankhurst and other, less well known working class militants (many of them women), the weak but authentic voice of left-wing communist opposition was heard in this country, leaving behind a body of writing that was to become a source of strength and learning for a new generation of revolutionaries fifty years later, of which the ICC remains an organisational expression today. This is the real legacy of Sylvia Pankhurst; this is the legacy communists defend today; and this is why we say to the left and liberal servants of the bourgeoisie: hands off Sylvia Pankhurst!

MH August 2007