audacity
Sylvia Pankhurst Sylvia Pankhurst - Everything is Possible
WelcomePeopleEventsResearchBuy from us directSponsorsContacts





1. Shirley Harrison, Sylvia Pankhurst: Citizen of the World, London, Hornbeam Publishing, 2009

2. Alan Mumford, 'Did Cowards Flinch? - A Cartoon History of the Labour Party', London, The Political Cartoon Society, 2006, p 9 and 48

3. www.loc.gov

4. www.alicepaul.org

5. Ian Abley, 'Deluded Housing Minister John Healey celebrates the 1909 Planning Act', 10 December 2009, posted here

6. www.unionhistory.info

7. Introduction, Prolonging the Death Agony, Revolutionary Communist Papers Number 8, London, Revolutionary Communist Party, 1981, p 5

8. www.oxforddnb.com

9. Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Empire 1875 - 1914, London, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1987, p 108

10. Mary Davis, Sylvia Pankhurst, a life in radical politics, London, Pluto Press, 1999

11. Le Corbusier, translated by Frederick Etchells, Towards a New Architecture, New York, Dover Publications, 1986, p 288 and 289, first translated into English and published in London in 1931, first published as Vers une Architecture in 1923

12. Tim Black, 'A fitting tribute to the "forgotten Suffragette" ', 21 February 2011, Spiked!, posted on www.spiked-online.com

13. Richard Price, 'Sylvia Pankhurst's Germinal: work and play, organisation and the organic', presented at Modernism, Cultural Exchange and Transnationality: 2nd conference of the AHRC Modernist Magazines Project, 13 to 15 July 2009, Falmer, posted on www.sherpa.bl.uk

14. Women, Suffrage and Politics, The Papers of Sylvia Pankhurst, 1882-1960 , from the Internationaal Instituut voor Sociale Geschiedenis, Amsterdam , posted here

15. Owen Barder, 'Fifty years since the death of Sylvia Pankhurst, Ethiopians pay tribute ', 17 October 2010, posted on www.owen.org

16. Benito Mussolini, 'This will be the Century of the State', from The Political and Social Doctrine of Fascism, Washington, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 1935, p 5 to 17

17. Eric Solsten, editor, Austria: A Country Study, Washington, Federal Research Division of the Library of Congress, 1993

18. Berihun Assfaw, 'Sylvia Pankhurst: Citizen of the World - Her Struggle against Colonial Aggression in Ethiopia', 2007, posted on www.ethiosun.com

19. Melanie Phillips, The Ascent of Women: A History of the Suffragette Movement, London, Abacus, 2003


Sylvia Pankhurst - a dangerous cosmopolitan to be inspired by

Ceri Dingle, Viv Regan, and a host of film-making volunteers, Sylvia Pankhurst: Everything is Possible, London, Worldwrite, 2011, with further information posted here

Buy Sylvia Pankhurst: Everything is Possible, for £20.00 plus postage and packaging from Worldwrite

A wonderful film Sylvia Pankhurst: Everything is Possible features Sylvia’s son Richard Pankhurst, and his wife Rita. It is the result of a long period of hard work by the directors, Ceri Dingle and Viv Regan, and the many volunteer film-makers at WORLDbytes, a unique online Citizen Television channel set up and run by the education charity Worldwrite.

Sylvia Pankhurst is less well-known than her mother Emmeline and sister Christabel in the Women's Social and Political Union. Sister Adela even less well known, but more deservedly so. To many, including biographer Shirley Harrison, Sylvia was the most interesting of the Pankhurst women and, arguably, the most politically effective. (1) The WSPU was formed by the Pankhursts in 1903, with something of a socialist background.

While Emmeline may have initially accepted that the organisation might recruit working class women into the struggle for the vote, the WSPU abandoned early links with the labour movement in 1907. Britain has a long history of socialist thinking, and the labour movement had many aspects. Mostly reformist rather than revolutionary, there were many socialists who wanted nothing to do with the undoubted limitations of Parliamentary democracy. The Independent Labour Party was set up in 1893. Influenced by ILP leader James Keir Hardie, the Parliamentary Committee of the Trades Union Congress voted in 1899 to try to win "labour representation". The Labour Representation Committee formed on 27 February 1900 marks the start of the Labour Party in Britain, although it was not called that until after the 1906 General Election. (2)

The Pankhurst family led WSPU soon became a campaign for educated women of the upper social classes, who felt they were best able to handle the vote, equally with men. Sylvia openly disagreed, and in notable contrast, believed in universal suffrage for men and women of all social classes. As Everything is Possible brilliantly shows, Sylvia was bravely and imaginatively militant, but saw the struggle for women’s rights as part of a struggle for social emancipation in general. Women wanting the vote had to be part of the working class labour movement.

Sylvia Pankhurst arrested

Alice PaulThe WSPU made a similar political mistake to that made by the National American Woman Suffrage Association. Formed in 1890, NAWSA was the result of a merger between two rival factions - the National Woman Suffrage Association, led by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan Anthony, and the American Woman Suffrage Association, led by Lucy Stone, Henry Blackwell, and Julia Ward Howe. (3) The militant Suffragettes Alice Paul and Lucy Burns were widely critical of NAWSA as an elite campaign, (4) led at the time by Carrie Chapman Catt. At odds with NAWSA over tactics and goals, Paul and Burns broke away to form the National Women's Party by 1917. In the American Presidential Election of 1916 Paul had led the emerging NWP in a campaign against President Woodrow Wilson and other incumbent Democrats. Yet Paul failed to replicate the anti-war sort of internationalism that Sylvia articulated. That American experience is dramatised in Iron Jawed Angels, a 2006 film by Katja von Garnier, with details on www.iron-jawed-angels.com. Even a radical like Paul failed to argue for universal suffrage, equally for whites and blacks.

American campaigners against the Sufragettes

Racism dogged the labour movement in Britain just as much as in America. A century ago the working class was organising itself, striking in new ways, and it was very far from certain that this energy would be mis-directed through the developing reformism of the Liberal or the emerging Labour Party. London's population was over 7 million, and around a third of London’s workforce were women, a higher proportion than nationally. The WSPU were ignoring these women, and the politicised work force in general, calling for equal voting rights, but disregarding evident social inequalities replicated in all nations.

WSPU Suffragettes on a bus in 1908

London’s largest single source of jobs was the massive docks complex on the Thames. The dock workforce was many tens of thousands, mostly men, and mostly taken on daily as casual labourers. In 1909 the private companies that ran the Docks were brought together in a novel public trust, the Port of London Authority. As the exhibition at the Museum of London in Docklands shows, www.museumindocklands.org.uk, the Dock Strike of 1910 was hard fought, and must be seen in a period of working class militancy up to 1914 and the First World War. However the politicisation didn't go far enough, to generate organised opposition to the war itself, and to undermine the divisive ideology of patriotism that in Britain was so closely related to ideas of Empire, and race.

Sylvia worked politically, but as Everything is Possible shows, refused to ignore the harsh realities of daily life that most people faced. Living conditions in the major cities like London were terrible. Some socialists worked through the Liberal Party. When the Liberals were elected in 1906 the new Prime Minister Henry Campbell-Bannerman appointed the anti-war campaigner John Burns President of the Local Government Board. He championed the Housing, Town Planning, etc Act 1909 as Britain's first planning law. This not only made "council housing" possible, but was firmly against the building of basement and back-to-back houses. (5) Burns had been pivotal in the London Dock Strike of 1889, and around 1910 the place for Sylvia was the militant East End of London as Trade Unionism gained strength. The organisers of the pre-war strikes were hostile to the old leadership of the labour movement. (6)

David Lloyd George was the President of the Board of Trade after 1906. Campbell-Bannerman retired as Prime Minister in 1908 and was replaced by Herbert Henry Asquith. In the ensuing cabinet reshuffle Lloyd George was promoted to Chancellor of the Exchequer at the Treasury. Winston Churchill, who had defected from the Conservative Party in 1904, replaced Lloyd George at the Board of Trade. Lloyd George's 1909 budget has been called the "people's budget" since it provided for a system of National Insurance that was to be partly financed by land and income taxes. The budget was rejected by the House of Lords. This led to the Parliament Act of 1911, by which the Lords lost their power of veto.

The political establishment was consciously trying to forge an alliance with the labour movement. The strategy was known as "Lloyd Georgism". The reforms were crucial, as they allowed many of the labour movement leaders to argue the state was either neutral or benevolent. (7) A new liberalism had emerged in which the state was seen to be potentially socially progressive, even at war. (8) Sylvia was not so easily beguiled.

Sylvia Pankhurst being released from prison

Ignoring the labour movement, in 1912 Christabel began organizing an arson campaign, which she imagined would further the Suffragette cause. Attempts were made to burn down the houses of two members of the government opposed to women having the vote. These attempts failed, but a house being built for Lloyd George was badly damaged by Suffragettes. The WSPU arson campaign was escalated in 1913, and railway stations, cricket pavilions, racecourse stands and golf clubhouses were set on fire. Slogans in favour of women's suffrage were cut and burned into the turf. Suffragettes also cut telephone wires and destroyed letters by pouring chemicals into post boxes. Sylvia was never in any way opposed to militancy, but knew that only the actions of a mass movement could win universal suffrage, and lead to wider political successes.

Sylvia Pankhurst at a Suffragette breakfast meeting

Sylvia was determined to be much more politically effective. As the website www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk says, after being expelled from the WSPU, she became a member of the Workers' Socialist Federation in the East End of London. In March 1914, Zelie Emerson, a fellow member, suggested that Sylvia should start a socialist newspaper that focused on the problems of working women. Pankhurst agreed and together with a small group of women made plans to produce a weekly paper. Sylvia favoured calling it the Workers' Mate but the group preferred the title the Women's Dreadnought. The importance of such public political discussion is appreciated in Everything is Possible.

Sylvia Pankhurst speaking in the East End of London in 1912

The reforming Liberal Party had the support of Conservative and Labour Parties in the First World War. At least Burns had the strength of socialist character to resign on principle in protest against open hostilities, (9) but by 1914 he mattered little. His reformist damage was done, and the Independent Labour Party was an irrelevance, unable to oppose the British warmongering. Lloyd George remained Chancellor of the Exchequer through the early years. In 1915 he was appointed Minister of Munitions in Asquith's wartime coalition government. In 1916 he became Secretary of State for War, and increasingly critical of Asquith. At the end of that year, with support of the Conservative and Labour leaders, he replaced Asquith as Prime Minister. Lloyd George faced no opposition from the WSPU. At the outbreak of war the upper class women of the WSPU immediately abandoned the suffrage campaign. As Everything is Possible recognises, Emmeline and Christabel became ardent supporters of the "Great War", and urged all women to become so too.

As biographer and historian Mary Davis stresses in the film, Sylvia did not take the advice. She was utterly opposed to the devastating conflict. (10)

Published between 1914 and 1917, the Women's Dreadnought had established a wide readership far beyond London. The War was seen as a barbarous conflict between competing imperial elites, and Sylvia argued against workers killing other workers of other nations.

In 1917 the paper was renamed the Workers’ Dreadnought. Russians revolted, with mass mutinies of troops refusing to continue the war.

The Russian Revolution of 1905 is more nostalgic as a crisis than that of 1917. It was not so much 1905 but the revolutionary threat of 1917 that alarmed "radical" politicians. In Britain thought turned to post-war housing provision, for fear of "mutiny" amongst poorly housed workers returning home from the slaughter of the First World War. Charles Edouard Jeanneret, who would become Le Corbusier, was similarly alarmed enough at the possibility of working class revolution to write and organise around Vers une Architecture in 1923, which became the reformist architectural manifesto of Towards a New Architecture:

'Society is filled with a violent desire for something which it may obtain or may not. Everything lies in that: everything depends on the effort made and the attention paid to these alarming symptoms.

Architecture or Revolution.

Revolution can be avoided.' (11)

The "Khaki" General Election in December 1918 returned Lloyd George as Prime Minister, and he set about building "Homes for Heroes". Not what Burns had envisaged. Churchill became War Minister and Air Secretary, sending the Expeditionary Forces to help "White" Russians attack the Bolsheviks in the Soviet Union. However by 1922 Lloyd George had lost even his Conservative support. Churchill returned to the Conservative Party by 1923. The Workers’ Dreadnought was published until 1924, by which time the internationalist dynamic of the Red Revolution was lost.

Isolation set in. Communist revolutionaries had failed in Germany, and internationalists were marginal in the British labour movement, now dominated by the Labour Party. Sylvia's hope for the common ownership of the land, and all means of production and distribution in the control of workers, were dashed. Yet she saw the potential at the time, seeing that industry might be saved from capitalism for the good of the entire world.

Read her on http://libcom.org/tags/workers-dreadnought

Having effectively organised Britain's first Communist Party Sylvia was exceptional, but she worked with others for a common purpose. As Tim Black says, reviewing Everything is Possible for Spiked!, '... Sylvia’s internationalism, her willingness to identify her political struggle with the struggles of people thousands of miles away, shines through.' (12)

click here for Spiked Online

Sylvia's family and The Sylvia Pankhurst Memorial Committee have tried to get her remembered with a statue on Parliament Green, and their efforts are recorded on http://sylviapankhurst.gn.apc.org. But they also know her greatest legacy is her cosmopolitan world view.

Sylvia Pankhurst's little-known magazine Germinal was published from 1923 to 1924 as the Workers' Dreadnought was collapsing. It is more of a literary production as political prospects closed, but for Richard Price it showed her internationalism. Germinal shows a '... complex nexus of political, literary and artistic influences on Pankhurst, particularly the connecting of Arts and Crafts sensibilities with ideas of Revolution.' (13)

It was Sylvia's youthful ambition to become a painter. In 1900 she had won a scholarship to study design at the Manchester School of Art. There she was strongly influenced by the socialist artist Walter Crane. She travelled to Venice to study in 1902. In 1904 she had moved to study at the Royal College of Art in South Kensington. In 1907 Sylvia toured north through industrial England up to Glasgow in Scotland to paint and write articles about the condition of women workers. Sylvia's well observed paintings are beautiful, feature in Everything is Possible, and can be seen in the galleries on www.sylviapankhurst.com. She was interrupted by requests to support the WSPU at by-elections. She wrote widely and painted less frequently, such as this self portrait during a time in prison.

Sylvia Pankhurst - self portrait made while in prison

Universal suffrage, on an equal basis for men and women over the age of 21 was finally established in 1929. By the early 1930s Sylvia was increasingly concerned with the rise of beligerent nationalisms in Europe, and particularly Italian Fascism, as can be seen in her publication of Humanity in 1932. (14) This also explains why, when Sylvia died in 1960, she was in Ethiopia, and was given a full state funeral. (15)

Sylvia PankhurstA connection with Ethiopia began when Sylvia campaigned against the Italian invasion of what was called Abyssinia in 1935. The Daily Mail was an enthusiastic supporter of the invasion. Neville Chamberlain, Conservative Prime Minister from 1937 to 1940, recognized the King of Italy, Victor Emmanuel III, as Emperor of Ethiopia in 1938. He had reigned from 1900 and was maintained by Italian Fascism until 1946. Sylvia opposed the Italian colonialism, and the British occupation after the war. Sylvia had consistently accused Churchill in particular, and the House of Commons in general, of dealing with Fascists. Benito Mussolini's Fascists in Italy had sprung from the Fasci Italiani di Combáttimento, (16) and Adolf Hitler's Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei gained power in the midst of political weakness in Germany. (17)

None of the British press had time for her ideas. Also the British labour movement was more concerned with the Spanish Civil War, where republicans were losing to General Francisco Franco Bahamonde, and less about Ethiopia. Franco's Fascist government in Spain, backed by the German Nazis, was officially recognised by the British, French and then American governments in 1939. National establishments were variously supportive up to the point that hostilities between the major powers broke out again in Europe. What became the British Union of Fascists and National Socialists, led by Sir Oswald Ernald Mosley, 6th Baronet of Ancoats, and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, existed until 1940.

Sylvia's New Times and Ethiopian News was published between 1936 and 1956, and the Ethiopian Observer then until her death. (18) Sylvia was recognised by internationalists around the world, but as Mary Davis notes in Everything is Possible, she was unappreciated in Britain.

'I would like to be remembered as a citizen of the world', said Sylvia Pankhurst. (19)

To that end Everything is Possible perfectly promotes Sylvia Pankhurst's cosmopolitan sensibility, and also reminds us that it is necessary to work long and hard to be a dangerous cosmopolitan among many others.

Ian Abley 14.03.2011

This website is maintained by abley@audacity.org. All material is Copyright © 2000 - 2011 Audacity Limited where not copyright of the originator.