Communist, internationalist and fighter for women’s rights: the legacy of Sylvia Pankhurst

Communist, internationalist and fighter for women’s rights: the legacy of Sylvia PankhurstSylvia Pankhurst: Everything is possible

Produced by WORLDWrite,

directed by Ceri Dingle and Viv Regan, 2011 DVD: £20, plus p+p

‘To British manhood: comrades, how much longer will you be willing to fight, work and pay for the war which the British capitalists are making on the working people of other countries?’ (Sylvia Pankhurst, Workers’ Dreadnought, May 1920)

After another International Women’s Day was marked in Britain by corporate lunches and lectures, with little to no talk of the capitalist crisis affecting women worldwide, the documentary Sylvia Pankhurst: Everything is possible proves the necessary antidote. It details Sylvia’s committed anti-imperialist, anti-racist, feminist politics, and her dedication to building a mass movement with working class women and men. It touches on her unique, and overlooked, contribution to communism and the politics of class struggle. We can learn crucial and inspiring lessons from her opposition to inequality, war, patriarchy and racism, and their cause – the system itself.

Made by volunteers from WORLDwrite, the film challenges the neat airbrushing of Sylvia from the history of the suffragette movement, which is dominated by her now more famous mother and sister; her revolutionary example is sidelined by the ruling class. The film remembers her growing opposition to, and break from the narrow focus of Emmeline and Christabel – votes for bourgeois women. Instead, Sylvia moved to the East End of London to work and agitate alongside working-class women. By setting up nurseries, and places to eat and work, tackling poverty, illiteracy and illness, women organised in their community. It was here that Sylvia founded, edited and sold the agitational and popular Women’s Dreadnought, later the Workers’ Dreadnought. Her deep concern with and belief in women was central to everything she did, concretely and theoretically; it was extremely rare for a woman to edit a paper in itself, but she understood the urgent need for more women to write, to speak of their experiences, to resist.

Her political contribution cannot be removed from the people she struggled alongside, and as contributor Alan Hudson says, ‘for her, the struggle for the working class as a whole and the struggle for women’s rights were always inseparable’. This meant militant struggle, which was met with brutal repression from the state. The film accesses old postcards and letters which show the force-feeding of women on hunger strike, a brutal practice which permanently damaged their health. Sylvia’s hunger and thirst strikes were a constant feature of her repeated times in prison; she would also refuse to sit down, walking until she collapsed. Safe-houses were used to defend women who had been temporarily freed for ill-health, part of a wide, organised resistance against violence at the hands of the police, courts and prisons within a chauvinist and patriarchal system. Her work in establishing the People’s Army in 1913, joined by over 1,000 women as well as men, was crucial to resisting police violence and preventing arrests.

Due attention is given to Sylvia’s extraordinary internationalism, and contributors speak movingly of its centrality to her life and work. Whilst her mother and sister abandoned the struggle for the vote in favour of the imperialist war effort, Sylvia continued to fight for women, and campaigned fervently against the war. The film documents her active support for the Bolsheviks, through her role as a key organiser of the ‘Hands Off Russia!’ Committee, and Councils of Action, as well as campaigning in the streets and writing powerful articles. She offered similar dedication and strength to the Irish struggle, which is unfortunately only mentioned in passing in the film. It explains that she was expelled from the Women’s Social and Political Union after speaking at a meeting calling for James Larkin’s freedom, but it does not stress that this was an important contribution to solidarity at the time, when the British TUC refused to show that support. It also fails to mention her support for the Easter Rising, again a radical and unique contribution to political struggle. Essentially, her internationalism marked her apart; she understood the need to campaign for solidarity with Ethiopia and connect struggles because, as commentator Mary Davis explains, she was quite right in believing the left wouldn’t be interested in a black, colonised country. Similarly, Davis continues, ‘her anti-racism led her to see the danger of fascism long before most people did’.

Understanding the relationship between women’s rights, the fight for socialism and against imperialism, she refused to isolate campaigns, or to limit her struggle to that of the majority of the left in Britain. The film briefly mentions her part in forming the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), but it is important to note that the audience does not hear more of her wider contribution to communist politics, both theoretical and concrete, and her defence of this. Similarly, whilst Davis mentions that Sylvia was expelled from the CPGB for refusing to give up the Workers’ Dreadnought, the film does not make clear the more central political point – that she was expelled for refusing to support its affiliation with the Labour Party. Sylvia argued this on principle, and the film is clear on her opinion – she saw the Labour Party as reformist, corrupt and destructive. When contributor Andrew Calcutt is asked why revolution didn’t happen in this period, his answer is simple: ‘Three words – the Labour Party’. Despite important political points being diluted, the film does ask pressing questions, too often ignored because of their political ramifications.

Crucially, the film does not shy away from the topics so readily avoided by many so-called feminist and socialist groups today. Instead, it introduces the economic basis of women’s oppression under capitalism, and includes, albeit historically, the need for organised, working class resistance. It is this combination which makes the documentary so important, and pressing. In a discussion at the end of a showing of the DVD in Newcastle, people raised the point of her inexhaustible commitment, strength and dedication, which is undoubtedly true. Yet more importantly, the documentary shows her trust in people, her understanding of the role of organised mass struggle, of using her abilities to reach more and more people, and the importance of defending people politically. This, and her outspoken internationalism, is her legacy; as imperialist intervention increases around the world and at home, police repression increases and women are hardest hit by the cuts, it reveals vital lessons and inspiration for resistance today.

Rachel Francis.

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism 226 April/May 2012