Sylvia Pankhurst - From Feminism to Left Communism

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2015 has seen the high profile mainstream film Suffragette, as well the announcement of a new biography of Sylvia Pankhurst.[1] The article we’re reprinting here originally appeared in World Revolution in 1980. At that time, very little was written about the life and politics of Sylvia Pankhurst and her own writings were difficult to obtain. As the article notes, those books that did deal with Sylvia tended to leave a large and unexplained gap from 1914 to the early post-war years; in other words, the period of her break with the Suffragette movement and her internationalist opposition to the war, which led her to enthusiastically support the Bolsheviks in the Russian revolution and to call for soviet power in Britain.

With the collapse of the Stalinist regimes and with the ensuing campaigns of the bourgeoisie about the ‘end of communism’, Sylvia’s enthusiastic support for Bolshevism and a soviet revolution became even more unpalatable. Instead we saw an effort by the liberal left to appropriate Sylvia as a feminist, a radical, a rebel, an anti-fascist, anti-colonialist and campaigner for world peace and social justice… Since the 1990s there has been a veritable wave of biographies and books about various aspects of her life and politics.[2] 2007 saw a festival in London to celebrate her life as a “crusader, artist and feminist”, with guest speakers including a former Labour MP, the celebrity academic Germaine Greer and the Ethiopian ambassador.[3] There was even 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 new biography by Rachel Holmes, with the title Sylvia Pankhurst: Feminism and Social Justice, must be seen in this context.

As we said in our article on the 2007 ‘Sylvia Pankhurst Festival’: “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 (…) 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!”

This article was first published in 1980, in WR 33 and 34. We think that the essential arguments in it remain valid today, even if certain approaches and formulations might be different if we had written the article more recently. Where terms or phrases seem to be more clearly erroneous, we have appended “Editor’s notes”

This series of articles [4] is an attempt to counter the distortions of the present day feminists and leftists who conveniently ignore the politics of Sylvia Pankhurst and the Workers’ Dreadnought, preferring the more respectable vision - in today’s terms - of heroic suffering in the cause of women’s rights.

It’s very noticeable how books dealing with Sylvia, or the Pankhursts in general, leave a large gap in her life over the war and post-war years. The Socialist Workers’ Party has even had occasion to try and claim Sylvia’s politics as part of their own tradition! (see Revolutionary Perspectives 16, the magazine of the Communist Workers’ Organisation). But Sylvia’s break with the suffragettes should not remain buried, for it shows a clear revolutionary critique of feminism. In these articles then, we want to draw out the implications of the rather fragmentary criticisms she made in her history The Suffragette Movement: an intimate account of persons and ideals (1931) and show the development of her politics.

In early 1914, Sylvia and the East London Federation of the Women’s Social and Political Union were expelled by Christabel and Emmeline Pankhurst from the Women’s Social and Political Union, the basic reason being the working class orientation of the ELF: 

You have a democratic constitution for your federation, we do not agree with that!. Moreover she (Christabel) urged that a working women’s movement was of no value; working women were the weakest portion of the sex, how could it be otherwise? Their lives were too hard, their education too meager, to equip them for the contest. “Surely it is a mistake to use the weakest for the struggle. We want picked women, the very strongest and most intelligent!” (Sylvia Pankhurst, The Suffragette Movement).

It was a split Sylvia had always tried to avoid and very much regretted at the time. However with the beginning of World War I it became clear to her how necessary it was. Although a thorough examination of the Suffragette movement is outside the scope of these articles, it is nevertheless necessary to look briefly at some of the important features of the movement, to see what this split was about and to see what the rejection of feminism meant for Sylvia Pankhurst.

The Women’s Social and Political Union

However in their demands for political equality, our feminists are like their foreign sisters, the wide horizons opened by social democratic learning remain alien and incomprehensible to them. The feminists seek equality in the framework of the existing class society; in no way do they attack the basis of this society. They fight for the prerogatives and privileges. We do not accuse the representatives of the bourgeois women’s movement of failure to understand the matter, their view of things flows inevitably from their class position” (Alexandra Kollontai, The Social Basis of the Women Question)

That Kollontai’s framework applies to the WSPU was made amply clear by its enthusiastic support for the war effort. In fact Emmeline and Christabel took to strongly criticising the British government for not putting enough effort into the fight against Germany, particularly over the use to be made of women. In their desire to further the cause of British imperialism they demanded the widespread placement of women in industry and the service sectors in order to free more workers for the trenches!

The origins of the WSPU stand in marked contrast with this blatant chauvinism that developed as the war years approached. Emmeline had in fact severed her connections with the Fabian Society because of its refusal to oppose the Boer War. The fact that the Pankhurst family had been involved in the Independent Labour Party in the late 19th century, and in the struggles of workers in the Manchester area, illustrates even more clearly the negative development undergone by the WSPU. It began to make explicit an opposition to the socialist movement and to the workers’ struggles; for example, citing its own harsh treatment at the hands of the state, the WSPU complained that the government, “instead of arresting the leaders (of the miners) were trying to come to terms of peace with them” (Emmeline Pankhurst, My Own Story, 1914). Another example is the campaigning it began in 1915, financed by industrialists, against the ‘Bolshevik’ shop stewards’ movement.

The WSPU was formed in 1903 while Emmeline was still in the ILP and indeed remained a very active member; even the name she chose for the organisation is indicative of her wider concerns at that time. However, with the subsequent concentration on the situation of women (as a sexual division of society rather than as one aspect of a class division), and on parliament as the means of social change, this relationship became more and more stormy, and in 1907 the final break occurred. Coinciding with it came a reorganisation of its members. From then on the WSPU’s activities were firmly controlled by Emmeline, Christabel and a select band, who demanded of its members an absolute adherence to its policies. This meant concentration on one object only - the vote. No member was allowed to fight for other social reforms or work for any other political party or even question the correctness of WSPU policies. The WSPU was to be “a suffrage army in the field.  It is purely a volunteer army and nobody is obliged to remain in it.” (Emmeline Pankhurst: My Own Story).

Its aim was simply political equality with men as it stood at that time and it even opposed the concept of full adult suffrage. This was not just a tactic, for while it sought to involve working class women, it also followed a conscious policy of attracting wealthy, middle, and upper class women to its leadership. Essentially the WSPU’s intentions were to use working class women to establish the rights of the “ladies” of society. This is how Christabel expressed it: “… the immediate hope of the nation is in those women who have managed to secure for themselves education and some economic independence and strength. Florence Nightingale, a woman of that class, did more for her country than the entire Labour Party has achieved or is likely to achieve. In this good day that has already dawned, we have not one Florence Nightingale alone, but a multitude of such women, happy in their own life and equipped mentally, morally and economically for the service of their country. It is they who are extending to the poorer and less fortunate women, the helping hand that will enable them to escape from the morass of poverty. It is they who can conceive a better social order and will show by what practical and constructive action that better order may be achieved.” (Christabel Pankhurst, The Suffragette, December 1913) 

Bourgeois politics without a doubt! This overt support of capitalism and the development of “sex war” politics followed naturally from the rejection of and opposition to a class understanding of society.

While the simple fact of a conflict with the state may prove nothing more than that bourgeois ideology can never produce a single view of the world, it is nevertheless obvious that a movement that took on such mass proportions as the “votes for women” movement cannot be written off purely because of the politics of the WSPU. It is clear that the basis of its strength lay not in the ideas of the WSPU, but in the general conditions imposed on women, and the intransigence of British capital in its refusal to accede to demands to improve the lot of bourgeois and petty-bourgeois women, let alone working class women. That the WSPU became the focus of this struggle is really a criticism of the workers’ movement for its failure to provide a clear political alternative.

There did exist, under the umbrella of the Suffragette movement, a few groups with a distinct working class orientation. But their preference for the false unity of all women and the “votes for women” slogan allowed the WSPU to become the figurehead and allowed its anti-working class ideologies to become so influential. That compromise for the sake of such unity is destructive is a lesson that Sylvia understood only after her expulsion from the WSPU, and is perhaps highlighted by the rapid development of her politics after 1914.

The East London Federation of the WSPU

The first steps in the rejection of this sort of compromise came in October 1912 when Sylvia began her activity in East London. Initially it was part of a bye-election campaign and a “Working Women’s Deputation” over a suffrage reform bill, but it so soon lost the full backing of the WSPU. By February 1913 the finance had been withdrawn but the ideas and the practice had been established and in May of that year the East London Federation of the WSPU was formed. Although it was a union of several branches of the WSPU, it had a definite and genuine orientation towards working class women and pursued a radically different practice to the mainstream of that organisation. The Federation began to establish links with organisations in the workers’ movement, in particular with the ILP, and supported and participated in mass demonstrations of the class. It was the very success of this work and the escalation of social conflict in the east end, amply portrayed in The Suffragette Movement, that made the break with the WSPU inevitable. In the end it is irrelevant that it was forced on the ELF by Emmeline and Christabel: the chains of compromise were being shattered anyway. In August 1913 Sylvia had called for the formation of a “People’s Army; an organisation men and women may join in order to fight for freedom and in order that they may fit themselves to cope with the brutality of government servants”.  If this organisation was never of major importance, the recognition of the class conflicts to come and the basic questioning of the existing social order prefigured the direction she was to take as the politics of the Women’s Dreadnought and Workers’ Dreadnought developed.

The first part of this article looked at the basis of Sylvia Pankhurst’s split with the official Suffragette movement, the WSPU. This part will look more closely at the development of her politics with most emphasis on issues relevant to feminism. (After the split her organisation was renamed the East London Federation of Suffragettes. This was the first of several name changes, but rather than dating and referring to all of them we will simply call the organisation by the more distinctive name of its paper, the Dreadnought.)

The Women’s Dreadnought

In March 1914 the first issue of The Women’s Dreadnought appeared. In it there is a long explanation of the group’s activity in the east end of London, from which the following shows the main ideas behind this activity:

The essential principle of the vote is that each of us shall have a share of power to help himself or herself and us all.  It is in direct opposition to the idea that some few, who are more favoured, shall help and teach and patronise the others. It is surely because we suffragists believe in the principle that every individual has a right to share both in ruling and in serving, and because we have learnt by a long and bitter experience that every form of government is tyranny - however kindly its intention - that we are fighting for the vote.” (Sylvia Pankhurst, WD, 8 March 1914)

It is unfortunate that Sylvia never made a thorough critique of the WSPU, for it means we must rely upon indirect criticisms such as in the first part of this quote. Nevertheless it makes clear the totally different orientation of the Dreadnought. Despite its initial illusions in the Suffragette movement (or rather the ‘power of women’) and the idea that the vote equals self-government, the important point is the emphasis on the goal of self-government. This is in total opposition to the views of the WSPU as seen in the first part of this article and to the fact that the latter only advocated illegal action because women were denied the vote (ie. denied constitutional action).

When World War I broke out Sylvia quickly denounced the chauvinist response of the WSPU. She regarded its support for the war as a betrayal of all the movement had fought for, but more importantly the significance of the division between women who opposed the war and those who supported it was not lost and was to be one of the factors which, over a period of time, cemented her break with feminism. While Emmeline Pankhurst wrote about the joys of seeing women at work, the Dreadnought opposed the war; and, although it saw no clear, practical way of stopping it, went beyond Emmeline’s superficial observations, and devoted much space in its paper to exposing the real and terrible conditions, at home and at work, that working class women were suffering.

In its early days the Dreadnought seems to have been very much influenced by the Independent Labour Party (ILP); its politics were basically pacifist and avowedly reformist, and the concentration on achieving votes for women remained. However, the Dreadnought rapidly became involved in wider social issues, mainly with the idea of helping women protect themselves against the conditions the war was imposing (indeed its activity in this field make quite an impressive list. including running a ‘Women’s Hall’ for meetings etc, running distress centres, a mother and babies’ centre and day nurseries). It was represented on local council relief committees but found these so unsatisfactory that it also ran its own relief schemes. This broadening of its activity certainly aided the radicalisation of its politics in the sense that the vote could no longer be seen as the only issue. The core of this radicalisation however came because of the group’s increasing opposition to the war and the strength of its working class orientation: it clearly pointed out that the situation of working class men and women was the same in Germany as in Britain and although its work was concentrated on women, it understood the fight as not against working class men but with them against the system.  Unsurprisingly it soon dropped the slogan of votes for women and began to call for votes for all men and women.

On this basis then, the socialist leanings of the group’ s politics came more and more to the fore as the war progressed and forced it to search for a better understanding of existing society and how to change it. It increased its links with the main socialist organisations and reported international workers’ struggles in its press. In fact its links with individuals and groups from other countries and the concern to report on what was happening abroad was evident throughout its life and was a great strength both for the development of the group’s politics and for the growth of its influence in Britain (other organisations in Britain suffered from rather a narrow-minded outlook in this respect). As early as 1914 the paper was quoting the anti-war writings of the Bolsheviks, Liebknecht and so on.  When, from 1916 onwards, the workers’ struggles began to escalate internationally, the Dreadnought was able to learn much from these events and to respond positively. The revolutions in Russia in 1917 in particular were a tremendous stimulation.

The Dreadnought supported them because it could see a positive attempt by workers to take control of society, to stop the war, and fight for a more rational and human society. The February Revolution quickly affected the group’s politics in two basic areas: firstly in the recognition of the importance of the mass strike, ie. the collective and aggressive struggle by workers in the factories and the streets, as the only way to put an end to the war and to bring down capitalism; and secondly, the significance of the soviet form of organisation as the means by which the working class can express its own interests and organise itself effectively for the class war. This also had further consequences in that the Dreadnought began to draw a more definite line between itself and the mainstream of the Labour Party (LP) and social democracy in general. Sylvia’s experiences with the suffragettes had obviously led to many criticisms of the LP but now these criticisms had been strengthened by the LP’s active support for the war, and when the ILP opposed the unilateral withdrawal of Russia from the war, the break between the ILP’s politics and its own was clearly made. In fact by then the group associated itself with the minority internationalists and revolutionaries in the old Second International.  It was beginning to make much stronger political criticisms of social democracy, even before the end of the war, suggesting the LP’s role of defusing and opposing a workers’ revolution.  Another consequence was that the Dreadnought began to define itself more clearly as a political organisation and to lose its character as a social welfare group. Partly this was because its support for Russia and its general radicalism drove away many helpers and financial sources, but it was also a conscious decision, for as Sylvia wrote later on: “... everyone of us would prefer to possess comfort and well-being as a right, than to have a modicum of it conferred as a charity, however gently, however sympathetically given.” (SP, ‘Autobiographical Notes’)

In just over three years the Dreadnought grew up from a workerist, reformist suffrage society into a fully-fledged socialist organisation. And if members were lost through this change, the group nevertheless grew from three or four branches in East London to almost forty throughout the country (although it’s true that its strength was always in London and Manchester).

The Workers’ Dreadnought

These changes in its politics were reflected by the change of the paper’s name to The Workers’ Dreadnought in June of 1917. During the next year or so the group, whilst rejecting the Labour Party and Parliament as means to make the revolution, held to the necessity for revolutionaries to participate and propagandise within these institutions. But the continuing development of its understanding of the way the working class revolution grows and the role of revolutionaries in this process led to the rejection of such activity.

The most important factor in the period The Workers’ Dreadnought existed was its involvement and relations with the Third International and its British wing, the Communist Party of Great Britain. The Dreadnought was an important voice, and indeed politically the clearest and most consistent group, in the attempt to create a united communist party. Unfortunately its relatively late development hindered its role in the unity discussions and its greater clarity could not achieve the level of political influence over the other organisations that it deserved. It is interesting to note here that although the Dreadnought was relatively small in comparison to the British Socialist Party (which was the largest group at that time), its paper outsold the BSP’s The Call. By the time the CP was finally cobbled together in early 1921 the Dreadnought was already well established on the left-wing of the International, but it was also at this time that the views of the left were coming under more and more attack and indeed outright suppression. The political and organisational immaturity of the majority of the CPGB made it particularly heavy-handed, and eight months later Sylvia was expelled and most of the ex-Dreadnought membership left with her. The formal reason for her expulsion was her refusal to stop the publication of the Dreadnought independent of party control. The rights and wrongs of this dispute are not really important; what does count is that underneath it was a refusal to capitulate to the development of opportunism in the Comintern.

Following this split the CP continued its practice of repressing the Left’s views, whereas the Dreadnought showed its concern for the communist movement as a whole by bringing the political differences to the fore. It explained and clarified its criticisms of the CP’s positions, showing the contradictions in them and pointing out the negative results of its increasing emphasis on tactics, as well as the more general analysis of the decay of the Russian Revolution. This aspect of the Dreadnought’s history will be dealt with in more depth in the next issue of WR.[5]

In the rest of this article we want to look more closely at other issues, more or less related to feminism, that are central to its experiences. We looked at details of the early years of the Dreadnought because of our concern to make the facts known, but also to look at things that are still relevant today. With hindsight the strengths that led the group to develop so positively are clear, but the ideas and practice that it rejected later on also hold lessons for all those who desire the emancipation of the working class. These facts are needed not in order to justify say, welfare work today, as a way to this emancipation but to understand the limitations of such ideas. Given what has just been said about Sylvia’s criticisms of the path taken by the Third  International it is immediately clear that they did not lead her to reject Marxism and the whole experience of the Russian Revolution but rather to search for an even clearer understanding of the way forward. So too today, condemning what Russia is now does not mean it should be equated with the original aims of the revolution. Many individuals have become involved in the feminist and libertarian movements out of a reaction against Russia (and also the CPs and Trotskyists) but in reality this is not because the latter are Marxist but because they are bourgeois. Their behaviour should not lead anybody to reject the potential of the working class.


Sylvia Pankhurst’s involvement in the WSPU before 1914 and her activities during the war years obviously meant she built up a vast amount of experience of working in Parliament, and of the struggle for reforms. In the end it did not lead her to be sucked once and for all into this circus. On the contrary, it led to a total frustration with the uselessness of it all.

We know that the breath of the Parliamentary intrigue, the breath of the Parliamentary Committee room, the entire atmosphere of the House of Commons and the jugglery of political parties, is antagonistic to the clean white fire of revolutionary Communist enthusiasm. Comrades who have not lobbied and sat in the gallery, hour on hour, day on day; who have not year by year, poured over the daily verbatim reports, and drafted and engineered amendments to Government Bills, cannot know the devitalising pettiness, the hideous imposture of the Parliamentary machine.” (SP, WD, 24 September 1921)

The rejection of parliament was not just out of boredom however;

“... those who have chosen the way of Parliamentary action reply that great masses of unconscious workers still have faith in Parliament. Quite so we answer, then we must undermine that faith; but appalled by the magnitude of the task of creating a body of conscious workers strong enough to effect any changes, the Communist opportunists propose to accomplish the revolution with crowds of unconscious workers. We, who believe that the revolution can only be accomplished by those whose minds are awakened and who are inspired by conscious purpose, have decided to shun the administrative machinery of Capitalism.  We have decided this because of the clear unmistakable lead to the masses which this refusal gives, a lead, surer and more effective, because it is a lead given by action, not merely by words.” (ibid.)

This last point really is very important: it is the core of abstentionism, because the fight for a new society is a fight for a new way of living and it means a new way of organising, a new practice. To reject the ways of capitalism must lead to a search for a better practice.

This leads us to the question of reforms and here lies the relevance of the above to feminism because for this movement so much emphasis is given to the apparently positive aspects of the bills that come through parliament. But if, as the Dreadnought did, you reject parliament as a means of change then the struggle for reforms must also be rejected.

This rejection was based on the practical experience of militants like Pankhurst, but must be placed in the context of the definitive end of the period of relative capitalist prosperity which had made lasting reforms possible. The clearest revolutionaries always fought against the corrupting influence of reformism on the workers’ movement, but more and more they were able to see that only revolution was on the agenda in the new period of decadence.


The following quote shows this link between parliament, reforms and feminism very clearly.  It answers why women (partially anyway) got the vote during World War I. Dismissing the legends about the usefulness of women during the war and the militancy prior to it, Sylvia goes on:

Does not Parliament begin instinctively to know itself a doomed machine? ‘Bolshevism’, only Socialism under another name, but actual Socialism, entailing transformation – not a mere patching up – of the social system, looms on the horizon.  When they are in trouble men call for the help of those they flouted. Outside the party game, the more active, independent women remain a discontented crowd of rebels; inside, is it not hoped that they will settle down in conformity with the rules?  In every country Parliaments are threatened and that mysterious unaccountable thing, the mass people’s will, surely and with growing velocity, move onward towards a newer social organism. Realising this the old fogeys of Parliament, and the powers behind them are saying: ‘We must do something to popularise the old institution; let us bring in the women’’’. (SP, WD, 2 November 1918)

There are two points worth emphasising here. Firstly, this remains exactly the use capitalism makes of ‘reforms’ in this period. Whether it is the voting qualifications as in this case, or the National Health Service or more recently the Equal Rights Amendment, they always involve to some degree the necessity of keeping the population, and especially the working class, passive. They are only a pretence of change, and the Dreadnought rightly condemned all ‘reforms’ as mere tinkering with a system that really requires destroying. This is true a hundred times over today. Secondly there is also an implicit rejection of any supposed ‘special qualities’ of women as a separate group. The ‘power of women’ apparently shown by the struggles of the Suffragettes was not a decisive factor, little more than an irritant: it’s when the men and women of the working class go on the move that capitalism begins to shake, because it’s the struggles of the working class that threaten the basis of the whole system.

In its early days the Dreadnought believed the remedy for every evil in society to be simply giving the vote to women.  It is exactly the same idea that motivates the feminists today (even if the vote is clearly no solution): if only women had more power then society would be a better place. But really what evidence is there for this belief? Despite all the supposed ‘reforms’ since World War I that have affected the situation of women and apparently allowed or achieved more freedom for them, are not the conditions of women still basically the same?

Give a man £5,000 a year to be Minister of Health, create a staff with £500 a year each, to throw the likes of us a few quinine pills! What’s the good of a Ministry of Health, while we live under the capitalist system?” (quoted in WD, 2 November 1918)

Perhaps not a comprehensive reply to this question but surely a revealing one! 

When the Dreadnought came to reject this idea it did so because it saw the idea of sisterhood simply covered over the very real material divisions between different groups of women. Not just between those who supported and those who opposed the war, but on every issue these groups have different interests at heart, ie. differing monetary and social ambitions. With this in mind the best that can be said about an attempt to unify women is that it is doomed to frustration.

“Women do not constitute an economic group; and for that reason they cannot under present conditions act together on world or national issues; for such issues involve economic considerations. In the onward sweep of human society, it is those that are swayed (directly or indirectly) by the same economic motivation that eventually find themselves marching under the same banner” (F. Connor, WD, 13 August 1921)

Certainly there are some aspects that cut across class boundaries and affect all women but without the cement of common economic conditions there can be no real unity. The basic truth is that bourgeois women and working class women live lives that are worlds apart and their reactions to this society are completely opposing.

It should be clear by now that when the Dreadnought embraced revolutionary politics it by no means ignored the question of women. Rather it took great pains to ensure that an intervention towards working class women was seen as an important part of the overall intervention of the revolutionary movement. On this question its concern was much the same as with its rejection of activity in parliament, the Labour Party and the unions: the rejection of reformism and reformist aims, and the establishment of a revolutionary practice. Its emphasis was on the self-organisation of the workers. For an example of this intervention, in an article entitled ‘Soviets  of the Street’, Sylvia Pankhurst compared the peace parties, which had sprung up on the ending of World War I and spread street by street throughout London, with the participation of Russian women in the soviets. The state tried to ban these parties but had been unable to prevent them spreading. The Church and the charity workers (today’s social workers?) who normally like to make themselves responsible for anything of this nature, were left “looking on in amazement”:

“The Soviet Revolution is coming, but working women ought not to wait until it is here to set up their street committees. These are the workshop committee of the mothers, for the streets and the houses are their workshops. They should start the Soviets of the streets as soon as possible ... The women must organise to protect themselves and their families and to help in the general struggle of the working class to conquer the power of government and to put an end to wage-slavery and poverty and the rule of the rich ... The first thing for working women to do is to organise; to hold their own street meetings and to set up their own soviets”. (SP, WD, 27 March 1920)

Today soviets are not an immediate possibility, but we are in a revolutionary period[6] and recently there has been a tendency for social struggles to escalate and indeed to form part of the massive strike waves that have taken place. So the call for working class women to actively participate in the self-organisation of the proletariat, outside of leftist and liberal leadership, remains a very important one.

Finally, at no time did Sylvia Pankhurst suggest the necessity for a separate women’s organisation. She recognised that working class women were confronted by their own specific situation, but this was part of the general class division of society, and if they took part in struggles resulting from this situation, overall their place was “marching alongside their working class brothers” towards the communist revolution. To reach this aim the need is for conscious men and women that are united. This is a consciousness of the entire social reality, not simply of sexual divisions. What lies behind this is her recognition that women’s emancipation can only come about with the communist revolution. Today’s leftists and feminists haggle over whether women’s liberation can come before or after the ‘revolution’, but let’s be clear, it’s not endless theorisations that change relationships.[7]

Look closely at the major workers’ insurrections and waves of struggle, and the change in the way proletarians treat each other is obvious. Collective participation in such struggles calls for new relationships because it is the success of the struggle that is the vital issue, and the need for effective organisation tends to overcome the sexual divisions that capitalism promotes.  Liberation for working class women and men is first and foremost a practical problem which is solved only by participating in the practical steps towards communist revolution, and creating a world human community.

The Workers’ Dreadnought disappeared in 1924. The fact that in her later life Sylvia Pankhurst did not remain part of the left communist movement should not lead anybody to dismiss the criticisms she made of feminism in this period of her life. The existence of the Dreadnought between 1914 and 1924 corresponds closely to the period of the revolutionary wave, a period when revolutionaries were at their strongest and clearest.  By the mid-twenties the revolutionary struggles of the class were on the decline and the choice for revolutionaries was more and more capitulation to the counter-revolution or disenchantment with politics. Very, very few revolutionary groups survived the twenties. If it is regrettable, it is also understandable and was in fact inevitable.[8]



[1] Suffragette is an interesting film in that it focuses on the experience of a group of working class women in the East End of London rather than middle class supporters. It powerfully portrays the brutal violence meted out by the democratic state against peaceful protesters and hunger-striking prisoners as well as its sophisticated surveillance of anyone suspected of political activity.

And yet, despite its setting, there is no mention of the wider workers’ movement or its struggles at the time, while Sylvia Pankhurst, who founded the East London Federation of the Suffragettes, is mentioned only once, and then only for her disagreement with the leadership’s policy of ‘direct action’, leaving the inference that she was either conservative or a pacifist. Crucially, by ending with the high profile death of the suffragette Emily Davidson in 1913, the film avoids dealing with the whole question of the war and the split in the Suffragette movement.

[3] See the ICC’s write-up of this event, Hands off Sylvia Pankhurst!

[4] The original plan was to produce three but only two appeared, in WRs, 33 and 34. They are presented here in a slightly edited version as a single article.

[5] Editor’s note: In fact this third article never appeared, but the role of the Workers’ Dreadnought group in the negotiations to form a Communist Party in Britain, and as part of the left-wing opposition within the Third International, is dealt with more fully in the ICC’s book The British Communist Left.

[6] Editor’s note: This was written in a period when massive struggles were taking place in Britain and elsewhere, giving the appearance of a continually growing and developing wave. As it began reflecting on the balance of forces between the classes, the the  ICC subsequently changed its characterisation of the historic course from a “course towards revolution” to a “course towards class confrontations”, in order to make it clear the revolutionary outcome was by no means fated in advance. But it is also in the process of criticizing remaining ambiguities which have left the door open to a linear, schematic vision of the class struggle and did not sufficiently recognise the difficulties, defeats and periods of retreat experienced by the proletariat since May ’68 and above all since the onset of the phase of decomposition at the end of the 1980s.

[7] Editor’s Note: This is true, but the real issue here is not so much theorisation per se but the bourgeois nature of such theorisation by leftists and feminists.

[8] Editor’s note: The disappearance of groups of revolutionaries in the period of the capitalist counter-revolution was not inevitable and some tiny groups did survive, even in Britain (see The British Communist Left). The real problem was the failure of Pankhurst and the Dreadnought group to recognize the depth of the defeat suffered by the working class in the revolutionary wave and of the need to  work as a fraction in order to draw the lessons. 



Communist Left in Britain