Suffragism or communism?

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Faced with the torrent of “celebration” about how women (or some women) were given the vote in 1918, we are pleased to publish this short response by a comrade who has moved close to the views of left communism – and thus to the ideas of Sylvia Pankurst in 1918, who exposed the granting of the vote as a deception aimed at stemming the tide of revolution that had been provoked by the horrors of the First World War[1]. ICC


The Workers’ Socialist Federation began life as the East London Federation of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), the primary organisation for women’s suffrage led by Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst. In contrast to the WSPU, the East London Federation was disproportionately composed of working-class (as opposed to middle-class) women, and open to men. Sylvia Pankhurst was therefore concerned with social reforms and industrial action for the improvement of the dire conditions of the working-class, whilst the WSPU privileged [propertied] women’s suffrage above any other cause and aimed to appeal to middle-class women. The working-class and reformist nature of the East London Federation led to its expulsion from the WSPU in 1914.

During the First World War, most of the international, women's suffrage movement – e.g. the WSPU in Britain, or National American Woman Suffrage Association in the US – rallied to the support of their countries’ war efforts, engaging in patriotic/nationalist, pro-war sloganeering. The war exacerbated the poverty and hardships of the working-class in East London, and Sylvia Pankhurst tried in vain to alleviate the suffering of workers through charity, lobbying for reforms and co-operatives.

The Russian revolution led to a radical alteration in Sylvia Pankhurst’s politics. When Pankhurst changed the name of her organisation from the “East London Federation of Suffragettes”, to the “Women’s Suffrage Federation”, to “Workers' Suffrage Federation”, and finally the "Workers' Socialist Federation", and the name of her paper from Women’s Dreadnought to Workers' Dreadnought, it illustrated this shift in her politics, away from ‘women’ (an interclassist category), towards working-class women, finally to the working class in general, and her ultimate rejection of the politics of reformist suffragism in favour of communism.

By 1918/9, Pankhurst recognised that it was pointless, and in fact reactionary, to campaign for suffrage amidst a world, proletarian revolutionary wave. At a time when the very existence of parliaments and nation-states was put into question by the revolutionary working-class, whether or not the working-class, or women, or middle-class women, should have the right to vote in elections to capitalist parliaments had simply lost all relevance. Parliaments were no longer a site of meaningful, political contestation for the proletariat, the future was to be found in the form of territorial soviets (workers' councils).

“The Communist Party, believing that instruments of capitalist organization and domination cannot be used for revolutionary ends, refrains from participation in Parliament and in the Bourgeois Local Government system. It will ceaselessly impress upon the workers that their salvation lies not in the organ of the bourgeois “democracy,” but through the Workers’ Soviets.

The Communist Party refuses all compromise with Right and Centrist Socialism. The British Labour Party is dominated by Opportunist Reformists, Social Patriots, and Trade Union Bureaucrats, who have already allied themselves with capitalism against the workers’ revolution at home and abroad. The construction and constitution of the British Labour Party is such that the working masses cannot express themselves through it. It is affiliated and will remain affiliated to the Second International, so long as that so-called International shall exist.” (The Communist Party: Provisional Resolutions towards a Programme, 1920)

This great public campaign around celebrating suffragism, and the attempt to portray Sylvia Pankhurst as a suffragette, rather than the anti-parliamentary communist she became, is part of a ruling-class ideological offensive: to recuperate what can be recuperated, to cover-up what can't be recuperated, to rewrite history, leaving-out all the revolutionary bits. In general, undermining the historical memory of the workers' movement in the centenary years of the worldwide, revolutionary wave of 1917-23.

Why is the ruling-class so loud in its celebration of the Representation of the People Act 1918, as some great moment in British history? Why does the ruling class portray suffragettes as national heroes? What would the left communist Sylvia Pankhurst have thought about this national celebration of suffragism?

“It is interesting to observe that the legal barriers to women’s participation in Parliament and its elections were not removed until the movement to abolish Parliament altogether had received the strong encouragement of witnessing the overthrow of Parliamentary Government in Russia and the setting up of Soviets.

Those events in Russia evoked a response throughout the world not only amongst the minority who welcomed the idea of Soviet Communism, but also amongst the upholders of reaction. The latter were by no means oblivious to the growth of Sovietism when they decided to popularise the old Parliamentary machine by giving to some women both votes and the right to be elected.” (Workers’ Dreadnought, 15th December 1923)

Is it not the case that all those celebrating suffrage are falling for democratism?

“Even were it possible to democratise the machinery of Parliament, its inherently anti-Communist character would still remain. The King might be replaced by a President, or all trace of the office abolished. The House of Lords might disappear, or be transformed into a Senate. The Prime Minister might be chosen by a majority vote of Parliament, or elected by referendum of the people. The Cabinet might be chosen by referendum, or become an Executive Committee elected by Parliament. The doings of Parliament might be checked by referendum.

Nevertheless, Parliament would still be a non-Communist institution. Under Communism we shall have no such machinery of legislation and coercion. The business of the Soviets will be to organise the production and supply of the common services; they can have no other lasting function. ” (Pankhurst, 1922)

Craftwork, 12.2.18



Votes for Women