Radical Lives: Sylvia Pankhurst

by Daniel Whittall

15 December 2014

Born in Manchester in 1882, Sylvia Pankhurst is a central figure in the historical intersection of struggles against class, gender and racial discrimination. Pankhurst’s attention to class dynamics infused her radical feminism – now well-known enough to have been integrated into the opening ceremony of the London Olympics – but her analyses of global political shifts, less well known, were attentive both to the transformations of modern capitalism and to the growing threat of the far right particularly in the inter-war years.

What did she do?

In 1907, in her mid-20s, Sylvia Pankhurst toured Scotland and northern England to study the working practices of women workers and making a series of paintings depicting women at work. Pankhurst wrote a series of articles about the women, some published in the magazine Votes for Women, others in broader periodicals such as the London Magazine. She depicted the awful conditions in which many of them worked, but also the stoicism they displayed in their work and the way they learnt to cope with their difficulties. Pankhurst also included biting social analysis of the wider degrading circumstances of the women’s lives, emphasising the “hideous disregard of elementary decencies in housing and sanitation” that she found at her first stop, Cradley Heath in Staffordshire.

pankhurst - women at work

In many ways, the 1907 tour encapsulates the concerns that defined Sylvia’s activism until her death in 1960. Amongst other achievements, Sylvia founded and edited four newspapers, wrote and published 22 books and pamphlets, as well as founding and participating in a variety of political organisations centred around overcoming or contesting class and gender prejudice, or establishing international solidarity campaigns.

What were her ideas?

The breadth of Sylvia Pankhurst’s political involvement is astonishing. An early member of the Women’s Social and Political Union, she became estranged from it when it became clear that its brand of feminism was hostile to socialism, and to the labour movement more broadly.

Pankhurst’s commitment to both struggles at once marks her thinking and activism out, especially in an era when both the labour and feminist movements often viewed one-another as participating in separate struggles. Indeed, such was the extent of this split that the Pankhurst family’s local branch of the Independent Labour Party refused to admit women members. Leading members of the ILP visited the Pankhursts’ home, and explained whilst there that the class struggle superseded the struggle for women’s rights.

Pankhurst fought a lifelong struggle to reconcile the two movements, and to combine with struggles against racism and imperialism. She campaigned against the First World War, met and corresponded with Lenin, and fought to raise awareness of the Italian invasion of Abyssinia in 1935 as part of a wider effort to draw attention to the threat of fascism.

The rise of fascism was a preoccupation of Pankhurst’s since witnessing fascist violence on a trip to Italy in the early inter-war years, and a series of articles in her weekly anti-fascist newspaper The New Times and Ethiopia News during the 1930s proceeded to map the growth and development of fascism around the world. A constant thorn in the side of the British state, files in The National Archives demonstrate that even in 1948 officials were continuing to wonder how they might go about “muzzling the tiresome Miss Sylvia Pankhurst.”

What is her legacy?

Sylvia Pankhurst’s appearance in the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics testifies to the way in which ‘established opinion’ has taken to her life-story. Although her feminist campaigning is often remembered, far fewer people know of her writings on fascism or imperialism, or are familiar with her wide-ranging journalism and writings on the overcoming of class prejudice. Yet Pankhurst was an avowed communist, who saw early on the need for propaganda and educational work to advance leftist causes. Not for Pankhurst were the vanguardist politics of a Leninist party leading the masses to freedom. As she wrote in 1918, “there can be no communism until the masses desire Communism and act Communism.”

Pankhurst was alert to the ways in which technological advancement brought with itself the potential for reduced working hours and increased time to be devoted to broader pursuits, and argued forcefully for communism on these grounds. In her short article ‘Future Society’ she wrote, “some who recognise the present system is bad … lack the imagination to realise the possibility of abolishing all the institutions of Capitalist society.” As a consequence, she urged the need to abolish money in order to see the waged system of exploitation and expropriation collapse.

In 2012, some embraced Pankhurst’s legacy and marched against austerity on the grounds that it was harming the interests of women. Sylvia no doubt would have appreciated such a movement. But she would perhaps also have urged it to go further: to argue not just against the oppression of women but to identify the ways in which such gendered prejudice was part of an exploitative system whose oppression fell on all workers, though unequally dependent upon their class and racial status and position within the global hierarchies of capital accumulation.

Though she identified class prejudice as a central antagonism, Pankhurst showed no bleary-eyed enthusiasm for the labour movement. As she told the Second Congress of the Communist International in 1921, the Labour Party’s political structures had ‘ossified’ and “the trades unions which belong to it … are also bureaucratic, ossified organisations.”

“It is impossible,” she stated, “to remain inside the party and change this organisation in any way.”

Recent years have seen a variety of new works on Sylvia Pankhurst, with some rich insights as a result. Yet Mary Davis’s statement in Sylvia Pankhurst: A Life in Radical Politics that it would be wrong to presume Pankhurst to be an ‘icon’ and “a repository of truth, wisdom and unerring political judgement” remains important. Sylvia Pankhurst certainly made misjudgements, alienated potentially important allies, and at times put her considerable efforts into projects the fruits of which were minimal. Nevertheless, her abiding commitment to changing the world, and her attempts to articulate the intersections of class, gender and racial oppression and the fight against them marks her out as a thinker and activist who could be read with great profit by the activists of today.

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