Sylvia Pankhurst and the House of Lords

Sylvia Pankhurst and the House of Lords

There is a campaign to put a statue of Sylvia Pankhurst, the great suffragette leader and radical campaigner, on College Green in Westminster, outside the House of Lords. This is being resisted by the reactionary old codgers in the Lords.

Here’s the Guardian report:
‘The words "Sylvia Pankhurst Memorial Committee" do not have a ring of militant fervor, and yet to achieve its aims, members may need to adopt some of the tactics of its namesake. The Lords Administration and Works Committee - a bunch of hereditary male peers - has refused to allow a statue of the pioneering suffragette to be erected in Westminster. For those who believe that Pankhurst was the greatest feminist of her generation, this is an insult to the sisterhood.’

Sylvia is someone I massively admire (when I added the “heroes” section to my link list over to the right earlier this year, I made sure to include her), so you might expect me to support this campaign.

New Labour MP Vera Baird says
‘”Sylvia was the greatest democrat of all the suffragettes... "The statue should stand near to the parliament she worked and suffered for. It is a disgrace that these unelected peers fail to see what pride and inspiration women would get from such a great memorial."’
In fact, I think that it is an insult to a woman who had nothing but scorn for the parliamentary system. This is the woman Lenin wrote his dirty little pamphlet “Left-Wing Communism: an infantile disorder” about, attacking her for refusing to subordinate her unruly East End movement to the Labour Party’s parliamentarism. Her break with the official suffragette movement led by her mother and sister was partly about her disillusion the narrow, parliamentary conception of democracy that animated the official suffragettes. She didn’t work and suffer for parliament; she worked and suffered against it.

Her mainly working class organisation, the East London Federation of Suffragettes (ELF), soon renamed itself the Workers Suffrage Federation and later the Workers Socialist Federation. (She broke with her mother Emmeline and sister Christabel’s WSPU because of their support for terrorism – an arson campaign – which Sylvia saw as fundamentally undemocratic.)

During World War I, ELF’s newspaper took on the controversial name The Women’s Dreadnought, later changed to Workers’ Dreadnought. Most of the suffragette leaders agreed to put their campaigning on hold for the duration of the war and threw their weight behind the national effort. In contrast, Sylvia Pankhurst and her East London comrades campaigned against the imperialist war.

The Dreadnought was strongly supportive of refugees and asylum-seekers in Britain. In August 1914, when war was breaking out, the Woman’s Dreadnought wrote on
“the unfortunate plight of Germans and other foreigners who are in England at this time. We in East London know that many of these people have lived with us as friendly neighbours for years. Some of them are political refugees, who, because they have dared to try to get reforms in their own autocratically governed countries, have been obliged to fly here for safety. Let us preserve our self-control at this trying time, and endeavour to see that these people are not to bear the blame of the wrongs which are being done in this war.”
This passage is very characteristic of the politics of the Dreadnought. Defence of asylum is based less on the liberal ideology of rights than on a humanist politics of neighbourliness, empathy and everyday life, and a down to earth appeal to an East End “neighbourhood nationalism” or “militant particularism”.

Pankhurst’s support for asylum rights – which emerged from a radical liberal context – took on a new place in her political thought as she rapidly shifted towards a communist position. This shift can be narrated through her immersion in the East End, both in the world of white working class women in areas like Bow (where she lived) and Hoxton, and in the world of the Jewish community. She lived with a shoe-making family named the Paynes in Bow from 1909; her circle of close friends were working class women like Charlotte Drake, ex-barmaid, labourer’s wife and mother of five, Melvina Walker, ex-ladies’ maid and docker’s wife, and Mrs Cresswell, mother of six and wife of a paint factory worker.

Her day to day engagement with the life-struggles of working class people reconfigured her politics from a liberal grammar of rights to an orientation to material needs: housing issues, food supply issues, workplace issues. The ELF’s opposition to the war was focused on the politics of everyday life, not on abstract pacifist principles. They campaigned against food rationing, organized rent strikes and called for the commandeering of empty homes for the newly homeless.

Pankhurst initially welcomed the 1917 revolutions in Russia. Her close links with Russian refugee activists in London meant she was well informed about the flowering of freedom from Tsarist dictatorship and the subsequent spontaneous emergence of new forms of working class democracy.

But from a very early date, she came to distrust Lenin and his methods, and refused to align her movement with the newly formed Communist Party in Britain. She saw Lenin’s essentially authoritarian and anti-working class character very early on.

From the 1920s, tiring of her struggle with Leninism, she devoted most of her energy to fighting that other great evil of the twentieth century, fascism. With her much younger Italian lover, Silvio Corio, she opened a tearoom in Woodford and had a son, Richard. They organised solidarity with the resistance to Mussolini’s dictatorship and then fought against the Italian fascist invasion of Ethiopia. After Corio's death Pankhurst settled in Addis Ababa with her son. She died there in 1960, passing away from coronary thrombosis during her regular nap one September afternoon. She was buried in a place reserved for the heroes of Ethiopia, the Emperor, Haile Sellassie, attending the ceremony.

Links: Sylvia Pankhurst - Suffragette and class fighter, Libcom Library Panhkurst pages, Socialist History Project: Communists and the Labour Party, Anarchist Communism in Britain, The Movement for Workers Councils in Britain, German/Dutch Communist Left (scroll down for Syliva).
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Keywords: suffragette, East End, suffragettes, women's movement, suffregette, Mussolini, sufragette