By Sheila McGregor
Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 360

Sylvia Pankhurst

This article is over 10 years, 6 months old
Issue 360

Artist, suffragette, revolutionary, editor and anti-colonialist, Sylvia Pankhurst was a truly exceptional woman whose life has long been overshadowed by her more famous suffragette sister Christabel and her mother Emmeline.

Worldwrite, an education charity based in London, have produced a truly exceptional documentary about Sylvia’s life. They have succeeded in bringing together archive material about Sylvia’s life and contributions from writers, historians and archivists, Sylvia’s son Richard and a local publican from Tower Hamlets, to recount the life of this remarkable woman. The story they tell is of the battle for women’s suffrage, brutally opposed by the British state.

Today’s protesters will not be surprised at the brutality, even if the practice of force-feeding used against suffragette hunger strikers does not happen today. The debate about the “heroism of the few” versus the mass movement of the working class is a discussion that will find an echo in current debates about the role of the working class movement.

This documentary is also a celebration of the tradition of struggle and resistance in the East End of London. It presents Sylvia’s view that the struggle against oppression – in this case for women’s emancipation – is inextricably linked to the struggle of all workers for liberation. The struggle for democracy is at the heart of any such project.

Since Sylvia’s aim was emancipation she was quickly drawn to the success of the Russian Revolution and became the first workers’ leader in Britain to champion solidarity with the Bolsheviks. As the first woman editor of any newspaper, Sylvia employed the first ever black journalist in Britain, Claude McKay, on the Workers’ Dreadnought, which reached a circulation of 10,000 in the East End. It was a voice for working class solidarity at home and abroad and the vehicle the poet Siegfried Sassoon chose to publish his “Soldier’s Declaration” against the First World War in 1917.

Although Sylvia Pankhurst ceased to be at the centre of working class politics after her expulsion from the Communist Party, she continued to campaign as a socialist against the rise of fascism in Italy in the 1920s and for Ethiopian independence against Mussolini and later Britain in the 1930s and 1940s. After the Second World War she clearly saw the importance of the anti-colonial struggle, with the likes of Nkrumah becoming visitors to her home in Redbridge.

The analysis throughout the film is clear and incisive, the interviews informative and delivered with real passion. The old film footage shows both the real struggles’ for democracy a hundred years ago and the poverty of working class life. It reveals a tradition of linking the struggles for democracy, for women’s emancipation and for working class liberation that the current government, and sadly the Labour Party, would like to remain buried.

As workers once more begin to organise against attempts to throw us back to an era without public services, this film is a superb reminder of how we need to organise that fight.

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