Tuesday, 19 November 2013

"Sylvia Pankhurst – suffragette, socialist and scourge of empire"

This excellent book from Katherine Connelly examines the life of political activist Sylvia Pankhurst from her early days in the suffragette movement to fighting colonialism and fascism in the 1930s and 40s.

One of the particular strengths of this book is that the author appears grounded in the struggle of progressive movements. As a result, she manages to bring home just how parallel many of the battles fought by Sylvia Pankhurst are to the world today.

An early feature of the book is the split between Sylvia and her mother Emmeline and sister Christabel Pankhurst over the way in which women’s suffrage is to be attained. 

All three women are part of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), however, Emmeline and Christabel wanted an elitist approach that saw middle class and upper class women in the vanguard. They were to act on behalf of other women, the working classes not being up to the task.

In the longer term this saw Christabel and Emmeline support the war and back the Conservative Party. Indeed, Emmeline was set to stand for the Conservative Party when she died in 1928.

In contrast Sylvia favoured working class organisation in the labour movement. So women’s suffrage was but part of the wider struggle for working class rights.

So Sylvia founded the East London Federation of Suffragettes that proved more effective, mobilising working class women, working with new unionism and securing the first meeting with Prime Minister Herbert Asquith in 1914.

Sylvia was not the one stop shop that her sister and mother represented, seeing the need for struggle from the grass roots up. The book includes detail of her numerous imprisonments and a vivid description in her own words of how her jaws were forced apart when being forcibly fed while on hunger strike in prison.

Sylvia was anti-war, seeing the suffering that the conflict brought on working class people generally and women in particular.

She was early to point out through the newspaper, the Dreadnought, how the war merely benefited the wealthy in society.

Sylvia grew quickly disillusioned with the Labour Party which she saw as a reformist rather than revolutionary body. This disillusion reached a height at the outbreak of World War I, with Labour MPs so whole heartedly supporting the war.

Sylvia was an early supporter of the Russian Revolution, believing that the soviets based in the working class movement were the way to bring about real change. They were setting up an alternative government not seeking to tamper round the edges with an already moribund Parliamentary system. She fell out with Lenin over the method of approach to bringing about socialism in Britain. 

The Russian leader seeing a role for the likes of the Labour Party and Parliamentary action as part of the road to bringing socialism to the masses. Ironically, Sylvia then took an isolationist approach, similar to that adopted by her sister and mother in the WSPU toward other movements, refusing to have anything to do with organisations that were not committed to a wholesale type revolutionary approach. This led to her not supporting the Poplar rates strike in 1921 that saw Labour councillors like George Lansbury going to prison.

The author though while highlighting the inconsistencies of some moves by Sylvia, further points to her far sightedness in seeing the fascist threat long before most people. 

So while many in the British ruling class seemed to welcome the ascent of Mussolini to power in Italy in 1922, Sylvia warns of the upcoming dangers of appeasing fascism. 
She was proved right.

The final phase of Sylvia Pankhurst’s life focuses on her anti-colonial struggle, particularly in relation to Ethiopia. She had a strong tie to the country, arguing against the 1920s invasion which Britain allowed Mussolini to undertake. Sylvia spent her final few years in Ethiopia up to her death in 1960.

This is an excellent overview of the life of Sylvia Pankhurst which manages to unlock many of the problems of working class struggle for the first half of the 20th century. The author’s understanding of struggle in a working class context makes the book that much more accessible and relevant to what is happening in our society today. An excellent read.  

* Published by Pluto Press, £13

see: Morning Star - 25/11/2013

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