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Workers Vanguard No. 895

6 July 2007

The Suffragettes, the Russian Revolution and Women's Liberation

Spartacist League/Britain Educational

(Women and Revolution pages)

We print below an edited and expanded version of a presentation given by comrade Julia Emery of the Spartacist League/Britain at a dayschool in London on 15 April 2006. It was first printed in the SL/B newspaper, Workers Hammer No. 195 (Summer 2006).

For many activists around the world, the British Suffragette movement represents one of the high points of women’s struggles, bringing women out on the streets in large numbers for militant and even heroic actions in support of the right of women to vote. Today, those who want to fight for women’s liberation would do well to study the lessons of the fight for women’s suffrage in the early 20th century. The story of the suffrage movement is the story of a movement which split into two camps—feminist and revolutionary socialist—in the face of social crises, centrally the wave of class struggle in Britain known as the “great unrest,” followed by World War I and the Russian Revolution. Before I talk about the Suffragette movement, I want to say a word about our attitude to the fight for women’s liberation.

We differ from feminists in that they consider the main division in society to be that between men and women. For us Marxists the fundamental division in society is the class division. Under capitalism the division is between the bourgeoisie, owners of the means of production, and the working class who sell their labour power. Winning liberation for women requires a workers socialist revolution to overturn capitalist property relations. While we fight to defend every gain won from the ruling class through hard struggle, our perspective is to build a revolutionary workers party that champions the interests of all the oppressed based on the understanding that the entire capitalist system must go and workers states must be established internationally. Only the advance to a socialist society will liberate women from their oppression and lay the basis for full integration and equality for women in society.

As Marxists we recognise that the special oppression of women is rooted in the institution of the family. Friedrich Engels in The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State (1884) traced the origin of the institution of the family and the state to the division of society into classes. When human society developed the capacity to produce a social surplus beyond what is needed for basic subsistence, a ruling class was able to form, based on private appropriation of that surplus. With the emergence of private property the family became the necessary instrument to ensure that property would be inherited by the true biological heir, requiring women’s sexual monogamy and social subordination. Engels called this the “world historical defeat of the female sex.” Under capitalism the family serves as the instrument for raising the next generation of wage slaves and for inculcating bourgeois moral values, training youth to obey authority and to accept the social order.

The proletariat alone has the potential power to overthrow the system of capitalism, because of its organisation and its role in production. Women’s participation in the proletariat gives them the social power to fight alongside their male co-workers for revolutionary change in society. In a socialist society the institution of the family as we know it will be replaced and household labour will be performed by collective institutions. The emancipation of women is the task of the working class as a whole and, to this end, we intervene into the working class and social struggle with our programme, fighting for women’s liberation through socialist revolution. Our press regularly publishes articles under Women and Revolution mastheads in our quadrilingual journal Spartacist and also in the press of ICL sections. I recommend comrades read the early Women and Revolution articles we wrote about the Pankhursts, who were prominent leaders of the Suffragette movement (“The Pankhursts: Suffrage and Socialism,” in Women and Revolution No. 12, Summer 1976 and “Sylvia Pankhurst and the Workers Movement,” in Women and Revolution No. 17, Summer 1978).

British Capitalism and Women’s Oppression

At the beginning of the 20th century, it was still relatively uncommon for women to continue in paid employment after marriage. A woman once married was considered the property of her husband and her primary role was to look after the household and raise children. The origins of the Suffragette movement lay in the Independent Labour Party (ILP) which was founded in 1893. The ILP was instrumental in the formation of the Labour Representation Committee and affiliated to the Labour Party when it was formed in 1906. The Labour Party was what Lenin termed a bourgeois workers party, having a pro-capitalist programme and leadership but a mass working-class base. Emmeline Pankhurst and her husband Dr. Richard Marsden Pankhurst joined the ILP in 1894. The Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) was formed in October 1903 by Emmeline Pankhurst and other ILP women as a male-exclusionist group to campaign on the single issue of women’s right to vote “on the same terms as that agreed or may be accorded to men.” Thus it upheld the class bias of the Third Reform Act of 1884 which contained a property qualification, leaving roughly a third of men, predominantly from the working class, disenfranchised.

The WSPU engaged in a crescendo of protests, ranging from marches, speeches and breaking windows to arson and martyrdom. Their members suffered constant police harassment, beating, imprisonment, brutal force-feeding and even death in the fight for parliamentary reform that would allow women the elementary right to vote. The WSPU broke with the ILP in 1907 when Emmeline and her daughter Christabel insisted that WSPU members could not support any other party until women had won the vote. In particular, they were keen to win the support of rich conservative and upper-class women. This class prejudice meant that WSPU members were prohibited from campaigning for the ILP, which mobilised manual labourers and which many in the WSPU had actually worked to build. Sylvia Pankhurst, also the daughter of Emmeline, in 1912 founded the East London Federation of Suffragettes, which was affiliated with the WSPU but based on the working-class constituency of East London. It was founded in the context of the “great unrest” from 1910 to 1914, a period marked by major industrial struggles including by miners, railwaymen and other transport workers. This period also saw protests for women’s suffrage as well as agitation for Home Rule in Ireland which was then under British rule.

In Britain, trade-union membership had increased threefold since the 1889 dockers strike while wages had decreased by 10 per cent between 1910 and 1912. The capitalists tried to maintain their profit rates by decreasing wages, provoking massive outbursts of class struggle. It’s very common among reformists on the left to argue that the history of the Suffragettes, and particularly of Sylvia Pankhurst, shows that feminism and socialism are very closely intertwined. A leading exponent of this view during the 1970s was Sheila Rowbotham of the International Socialists, precursor to the [British] Socialist Workers Party (SWP). Rowbotham’s book Hidden from History (1973) argues that “there was a close connection between feminism and socialism in the early years of this [20th] century, and the divorce between the two was long, painful and protracted.” Three decades later the SWP’s Paul Foot wrote that “the division among many WSPU supporters can be exaggerated. In many cases, support for the WSPU overlapped with a growing conversion to socialist organisation” (The Vote, 2005).

In fact, nothing could be further from the truth: the Suffragette movement confirms that the ideology and social programme of feminism is counterposed to the perspective of socialist revolution. Both may have seemed compatible at the beginning of the 20th century, when there was relatively little social struggle. But the sharpening of class antagonisms and the outbreak of imperialist war, followed by the Russian October Revolution in 1917, exploded this myth and forced all those fighters for women’s liberation to choose: feminism or the programme of socialist revolution. The impact of these tumultuous events was reflected in the Pankhurst family and Sylvia was won to communism as a result of the October Revolution.

The polarisation within the Suffragettes over whether to take the side of the working class was evident in 1912 when troops were sent to break a strike in London docks, in which the strike leaders had been jailed for calling on troops not to shoot the workers. In the WSPU’s paper Votes for Women Christabel Pankhurst attacked the right of workers to strike and said, “We would ask the Government if they propose to make the organisation of strikes punishable by law.” The WSPU protested that “this offence was more serious than any committed by the Suffragettes and should have been more seriously punished.” In contrast Sylvia Pankhurst’s East London Federation displayed increasing sympathy towards the workers movement.

In 1913 the working class of Dublin, led by socialist leaders James Connolly and Jim Larkin, were locked out by the Irish bourgeoisie in an attempt to smash the transport union. Sylvia Pankhurst’s solidarity with the embattled workers in Ireland caused a split in the Suffragettes. On 1 November 1913 she spoke on the platform at a meeting in London’s Albert Hall, alongside left-wing ILP representative George Lansbury and James Connolly. Connolly and Larkin campaigned for concrete acts of solidarity by the unions in Britain, as opposed to simply providing money and fine speeches, but their demands were rejected by the social-chauvinist Labour and trade-union leaders in Britain and the Dublin workers were defeated. As a consequence of Sylvia Pankhurst’s appearance at this meeting she was immediately summoned to the WSPU headquarters in exile in Paris and told by Christabel that the East London Federation must become a separate organisation at once.

The existing legislation excluded manual workers—who were the base of the Labour Party—from voting and Christabel Pankhurst shared the British ruling class’s contempt for manual workers and didn’t want any taint of association with Lansbury, who campaigned not just for votes for women householders but for all men and women. Christabel considered the East London Federation’s working-class base a liability and said that working women were “the weakest portion of the sex,” adding: “Surely it is a mistake to use the weakest for the struggle” (quoted in The Suffragette Movement by Sylvia Pankhurst, 1931). Therefore in March 1914, the East London Federation began publishing its own newspaper called Woman’s Dreadnought. At the time Sylvia Pankhurst was opposed to the split. Despite her misgivings about some of the WSPU’s tactics, particularly arson, what distinguished the East London Federation from the WSPU was its class composition and sympathy, but its programme was not substantially different. Sylvia had in reality created a proletarian auxiliary to a bourgeois feminist movement.

Feminism Turns to Jingoism

However, things changed very fast with the outbreak of World War I. Mary Davis, who wrote a biography of Sylvia Pankhurst, said that “the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 propelled the WSPU away from feminism in the direction of patriotism” (Sylvia Pankhurst, 1999). This is not the case. Feminism is perfectly compatible with patriotism. Because feminists see the fundamental division in society as being between men and women, they seek to build a movement to fight for a better position for women within the existing capitalist order. It therefore follows logically that when that order is threatened, feminists loyal to bourgeois society will mobilise to defend it.

When World War I broke out, Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst immediately suspended all activities of the WSPU and called on members to serve “their” country. Feminists in other belligerent countries lined up in the same way with their “own” bourgeoisies. The WSPU changed the name of its paper from Suffragette to Britannia and it bore a dedication, “for King, for Country, for Freedom.” It also took to the streets to hand out “white feathers of cowardice” to any able-bodied men found on the streets. The WSPU actively called for national service for women and conscription for men even before the government introduced it in 1916. This was not the first time these feminists took a clear side with the bourgeoisie: in 1915, they toured areas of great industrial militancy, particularly in the north of England and the mining areas of South Wales, to denounce “Bolshevism.”

Sylvia Pankhurst, by contrast, was not caught up in the outbreak of jingoism that followed the start of the war. She consistently attacked the war, demanded peace and denounced the WSPU’s bloodthirstiness. She continued to campaign for adult suffrage, but as her political outlook moved to the left she embraced broader questions, particularly poverty and class oppression. Her paper Woman’s Dreadnought was renamed Workers’ Dreadnought and carried articles dealing with a wide range of social issues, including inadequate allowances for servicemen’s wives and poor working conditions. Many of her followers were amongst the poorest women in East London, where starvation was rife, and so there was relatively little flag-waving compared to the country as a whole. She led demonstrations and deputations to the government to protest working conditions, but also pioneered neighbourhood relief programmes, which included maternity and infant clinics providing free medical care and milk, a day-care centre, a toy factory and a “Cost Price” restaurant. The strength of her organisation, the East London Federation, lay in the fact that she tied the question of wartime working conditions to a campaign against the war itself.

When on 4 August 1914 the German Social Democratic Party (SPD)’s parliamentary fraction voted for war credits for the German government, Lenin concluded that the Second International was dead as a force for socialist revolution. The majority of the social-democratic parties including the British Labour Party had taken the side of their “own” bourgeoisie. Exceptions to this were the Bolshevik Party, as well as socialists such as Karl Liebknecht in Germany, while in Scotland workers leader John Maclean was imprisoned for agitating against the war. For Lenin, the treachery of the official “socialist” parties signified the need for a political split with social democracy, as an essential part of building parties that would lead the working class to the overthrow of their own bourgeoisie. He concluded that a new, revolutionary international had to be built. These lessons were tested and confirmed by the Bolshevik Party’s struggle to successfully lead the October Revolution.

Bolshevik Revolution Laid the Basis for Women’s Liberation

The Bolshevik Revolution proved definitively that the road to women’s emancipation was through socialist revolution. The greatest victory for the working class and oppressed masses to date, the revolution smashed tsarist/capitalist rule and the Bolshevik-led soviets (workers and peasants councils) seized power. Land was taken from the landlords; industry was soon collectivised and the new workers state took steps to establish a planned economy. The revolution sought to bring women into full participation in economic, political and social life, and brought enormous gains to working women. The new workers state gave women a level of equality and freedom unparalleled anywhere in the world at that time—sweeping away centuries of patriarchal and religious power. Civil marriage was established, divorce was allowed at the request of either partner and all laws against homosexuality were abolished. However, the Bolsheviks also understood that emancipation of women, and indeed of the toiling masses, requires an end to scarcity and poverty and therefore could not take place within the confines of an impoverished workers state. Rather it necessitated a vast leap in the development of the productive forces, which in turn required the extension of the revolution internationally, particularly to the more advanced capitalist countries such as Germany.

Lenin’s Bolsheviks attached great importance to the establishment of the Third International, which was founded in 1919 for the purpose of building communist parties in all countries. The Bolsheviks’ revolutionary experience was generalised and codified in the 21 “Conditions of Admission to the Communist International” which aimed for hard splits from the social-patriots and reformists among the parties seeking affiliation to the Communist International. Under the impact of the Russian Revolution, the positions of those on either side of the split in the Suffragette movement were carried to their logical conclusions. After the February Revolution, Emmeline Pankhurst, with Prime Minister Lloyd George’s agreement, travelled to Russia to persuade the Provisional Government leader Kerensky to honour the tsarist commitment to the Triple Entente and stay in the war. After the Bolshevik Revolution, she called on the British government to intervene militarily against the workers state.

Not so Sylvia Pankhurst, who called on workers to support the Soviet form of government and strongly welcomed the October Revolution. In 1916 the East London Federation of Suffragettes had been renamed the Workers’ Suffrage Federation. In 1918, following the Russian Revolution, it was renamed the Workers’ Socialist Federation (WSF) and its stated aim was the formation of workers soviets and international working-class revolution. The WSF paper reported on the 1916 Easter Uprising in Dublin and Sylvia Pankhurst, who was sympathetic to the Irish liberation struggle, was very saddened by the execution of Connolly by the British imperialist rulers. The Workers’ Dreadnought had frequent articles and speeches by Lenin and reports from the Russian Revolution, including many by the American communist John Reed, which were run under a series called “Red Russia.” The paper was internationalist in scope, reporting on the labour movement in Germany as well as the importance of the anti-colonial struggle, including in India.

A Franchise Bill was introduced in Britain in 1917 and signed into law in early 1918. The Russian Revolution, which was welcomed by millions of workers across Europe, played a decisive role in the achievement of votes for women in Britain. The bourgeoisie granted this concession in the face of the Russian Revolution and massive class struggle between 1917 and 1920. According to Sylvia Pankhurst herself:

“Undoubtedly the large part taken by women during the War in all branches of social service had proved a tremendous argument for their own enfranchisement. Yet the memory of the old militancy, and the certainty of its recurrence if the claims of women were set aside, was a much stronger factor in overcoming the reluctance of those who would again have postponed the settlement. The shock to the foundations of existing social institutions already reverberating from Russia across Europe, made many old opponents desire to enlist the new enthusiasm of women voters to stabilise the Parliamentary machine.”

The Suffragette Movement

While Emmeline Pankhurst supported the Franchise Bill, the WSF opposed it because it only gave the vote to women over the age of 30 and included a property qualification. These restrictions were not lifted until 1928 when women got the vote at the age of 21 on the same terms as men.

“Hands Off Russia!”

Sylvia Pankhurst was a member of the steering committee of the Hands Off Russia Committee, a mass campaign for defence of the fledgling Soviet state. The campaign was particularly effective in the East London docks. There is a story that I like. In 1920 there was a rumour that some ships were being loaded with weapons destined for the Polish front against Soviet Russia. The WSF and the Hands Off Russia Committee were very active in campaigning against this and when they found out that munitions were being loaded they went down to the docks to argue with the dockers not to load these weapons. They didn’t seem to be getting much of a response and Harry Pollitt, who at the time was a member of the WSF (and went on to become a leader of the Communist Party of Great Britain), says an old dock worker tapped him on the shoulder and said, don’t worry, we have this situation in hand. Shortly thereafter, the rope broke and the entire cargo ended up sinking into the North Sea.

The Hands Off Russia campaign led to strikes by London dockers, who refused to load the Jolly George ship in 1920 with munitions bound for Pilsudski’s nationalist forces in Poland to fight against the Soviet Army. Dockers and railway unions throughout Britain also refused to load munitions. As some 350 “councils of action” sprang up throughout the country, the Labour and trade-union leaders sought to maintain control of this upsurge. They established a national council of action and threatened a general strike to stop military intervention against Soviet Russia, which forced the British ruling class to call it off.

The Need for Communist Parties

Despite the failure of revolutions in the rest of Europe with the receding of the postwar revolutionary wave of 1918-19, there were continuing political crises and outbreaks of tremendous class struggle in Europe. In Germany in March 1920, the right-wing Kapp Putsch against the SPD government was defeated through a nationwide general strike with the armed mobilisation of the workers. 1920 was a year of massive strikes in Italy culminating in factory occupations in August and September. Also the Red Army had just repulsed Pilsudski’s forces in the Ukraine and was advancing towards Warsaw, posing the possibility of revolution in Poland and the direct linking up with the German proletariat. The Communist International anticipated continuing revolutionary opportunities and a major task of its Second Congress in July and August 1920 was the formation of effective communist parties to take advantage of them.

British capitalist rule was profoundly shaken at the time. In 1919 the country was on the verge of a general strike; however the capitalist order was assured by the treachery of the Labourite leaders of the rail, coal and steel unions—the Triple Alliance—who refused to undertake a revolutionary confrontation with the government. That same year Belfast experienced a near-general strike that united Catholic and Protestant workers. Shortly afterwards troops were sent to Glasgow to quell massive workers’ protests there. Workers leaders John Maclean and Willie Gallacher were arrested and the troops were not tested out.

In this context the Labour Party positioned itself to derail the growing upsurge of working-class struggle inspired by the Russian Revolution and to channel it into support for parliament. To this end, in 1918 the Labour Party adopted “Clause IV,” a nominal commitment to “common ownership of the means of production” as a deliberate ploy to deceive the working class into believing socialism could be achieved through parliament. Historically, the strategic task for revolutionaries in Britain has been to split the Labour Party, winning its working-class base to the programme of authentic communism. During 1919-20, unity negotiations took place between those groups in Britain who supported the call to form a communist party and to affiliate to the Communist International—the British Socialist Party, the Socialist Labour Party, the South Wales Socialist Society, and the WSF. Sylvia Pankhurst was one of those whom Lenin described as “ultra-lefts.” These also included Willie Gallacher, leader of the Scottish shop stewards’ movement and of militant workers’ struggles on Clydeside during World War I. It quickly became clear that their disagreements were one of the main obstacles to forming a united communist party in Britain.

Sylvia Pankhurst, after campaigning for women’s suffrage, had come to believe that revolutionaries should refuse on principle to participate in parliamentary activities like voting or running for parliament, nor should they affiliate to the Labour Party. Lenin understood that some of the best fighters in Britain shared these positions. In large part this was conditioned by the betrayals of social democracy—the Labour Party and Trades Union Congress (TUC) had declared an industrial truce during the war, while supporting military recruitment as well as measures like the Treasury Agreements and the Munitions of War Act. These included no-strike agreements and hiring of semi-skilled and women workers at lower wages.

Tactics Towards Labour

While seeking to exclude the social-chauvinists, the Communist International sought to win over subjectively revolutionary leftists, particularly syndicalists, and to convince them of the need for revolutionary parties dedicated to taking power. Sylvia Pankhurst founded her own Communist Party (British section of the Third International) in June 1920, a move that was strongly rebuked by Lenin who was critical of her for placing tactical considerations above the formation of a united communist party. Lenin’s “Left-Wing” Communism—an Infantile Disorder (1920), an extension of his arguments with Sylvia Pankhurst, argued that communists should advocate critical support to the Labour Party in the upcoming elections and also affiliate to the Labour Party, to win over its working-class base to form a communist party. Several million workers had become members of the Labour Party as a consequence of joining trade unions which were affiliated to Labour.

Lenin argued for communist propaganda and tactics, including participation in the Labour Party and in parliament among other arenas, as a necessary step to dispel those illusions and to win the working class over to an understanding of the need for the dictatorship of the proletariat. This debate continued at the Second Congress of the Communist International, which was attended by both Sylvia Pankhurst and Willie Gallacher. Lenin’s intervention was decisive and at its foundation the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) adopted his position. Sylvia Pankhurst agreed to join the new CPGB and argue for her positions inside. However, she insisted on continuing the publication of her own newspaper Workers’ Dreadnought and refused to bring it under party control. She printed articles critical of the party and Comintern policy and by taking differences outside the party she only served to make the fledgling Comintern more vulnerable. She was expelled because she refused to accept this elementary requirement of democratic-centralism, after which she drifted away from communism. Workers’ Dreadnought ceased publication in 1924 and Sylvia Pankhurst ended up a follower of Emperor Haile Selassie in Ethiopia, where she died and is buried. While this meant breaking with communism, her sister Christabel on the other hand quit politics to await the second coming of Christ while her mother became a staunch Tory. Neither had to break with a single one of their feminist positions.

As a revolutionary party capable of challenging the capitalist order, the CPGB was stillborn. The sterility of the Communist Party and the absence of a real Leninist tradition in Britain have been key negative conditions enabling Labourite reformism and illusions in parliamentarism to maintain hegemony in the workers movement. Unlike in the early American Communist Party, there was no faction fight against Stalinism in the CPGB, which in turn accounts for the subsequent absence of a strong Trotskyist tradition in Britain. Trotskyism, in fact, had to be imported. We trace our revolutionary continuity through James P. Cannon and the American Socialist Workers Party. Cannon was a leader of the early American Communist Party who was won over to Trotskyism from the time of the Sixth Congress of the Comintern in 1928. He struggled to crystallise a Trotskyist party, initially from within the ranks of the Communist Party which, like the rest of the Comintern, succumbed to the bureaucratic degeneration of the Soviet Union that began in 1923-24.

This degeneration was conditioned by the failure of revolutions elsewhere, particularly in Germany in 1923, the isolation of the impoverished workers state with a predominantly peasant population and the decimation of the proletarian vanguard in the civil war. The bureaucratic caste led by J.V. Stalin came to power, which rolled back many gains of the Bolshevik Revolution, not least for women who were encouraged back into the family and the home. But despite this political degeneration the Soviet Union remained a workers state. Even at the time of its destruction by counterrevolution in 1991-92, the Soviet Union provided many advantages for women, such as state-supported childcare institutions, full abortion rights, access to a wide range of trades and professions and a status in many ways far ahead of many advanced capitalist societies today. We fought for unconditional military defence of the Soviet Union against imperialist attack and against capitalist restoration from within, and for proletarian political revolution to oust the Stalinist bureaucracy. The Spartacist League/Britain and the Spartacist Group Ireland are the British and Irish sections of the International Communist League (Fourth Internationalist), and we seek to reforge the Fourth International as part of the struggle for international proletarian revolution worldwide.


Workers Vanguard No. 895

WV 895

6 July 2007


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