Source: Marx Memorial Library (MML)
The outbreak of the First World War in 1914 propelled the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) away from feminism in favour of patriotism. It suspended its activities on the suffrage in order to focus attention on the war effort, leaving the anti-war East London Federation of Suffragettes (ELFS, the organisation founded by Sylvia Pankhurst) as almost the only active group in the suffrage campaign. Christabel (Sylvia’s sister) returned from her self-imposed exile in Paris to campaign against the ‘German Peril’. Both she, her mother and their supporters toured the country drumming up support for the recruitment campaign ‘and handed the white feather to every young man they encountered wearing civilian dress’. The WSPU was renamed the Women’s Party and now demanded compulsory national service for women. (Conscription for men was not introduced until 1916!) and their paper ‘The Suffragette’ was renamed ‘Britannia’. It outdid almost every other chauvinist newspaper and periodical in its fervent (almost maniacal) support for a ‘war of attrition’. To ‘Britannia’ the first Russian Revolution of 1917 was a potential disaster. It was the occasion for Mrs.Pankhurst to travel to Russia and plead with the new Kerensky government to honour the Tsarist commitment to the Triple Entente (Britain, France and Russia) and remain in the war. Kerensky did not need persuading, but the Russian people did. The second (Bolshevik) revolution of 1917 was, for Mrs Pankhurst and Christabel a total abomination. It resulted in immediate Russian withdrawal and a separate peace treaty (Brest Litovsk), whereupon Mrs Pankhurst advocated armed intervention in Russia to defeat the Bolsheviks.
All this was in sharp contrast to the anti-war, socialist feminist position taken by Sylvia Pankhurst. The experience of the war together with Sylvia’s long-standing commitment to the working class and labour movement had, resulted in a steady shift to the left of what was formerly the ELFS. Having changed its name in 1916 to the Workers’ Suffrage Federation, it re-named itself in 1918 as the Workers’ Socialist Federation (WSF). Similarly, the title of the paper was changed in 1917 from the Women’s Dreadnought to the Workers’ Dreadnought. This reflected the revolutionary spirit in the rank and file of the labour movement as expressed in the steady growth and influence of Shop Stewards and Workers Committees, but above all else it reflected the profound impact of the Russian Revolution which was wholeheartedly supported by the WSF.
By June 1917, a report of the annual conference of the WSF announced that one of its chief tasks was to work for the abolition of capitalism “and for the establishment of a socialist commonwealth in which the means of production and distribution shall be deployed in the interests of the people.” The Workers’ Dreadnought was almost completely devoted to publicising and propagandising the socialist cause. Its tone and content were markedly different from that of previous years. It contained many articles of a theoretical Marxist nature written by the leading socialists of the day, as well as regular reports of labour movement activity both at home and abroad. A sense of urgency and dynamism pervaded the columns of the paper which increasingly reflected the heady, revolutionary spirit of the times. With a circulation of around 10,000, the Workers’ Dreadnought can be regarded as one of the most important anti-war, non-sectarian socialist papers in Britain. Translations of speeches and articles by Lenin were printed regularly as were reports and analyses of the Russian Revolution, many of them written by the American socialist, John Reed in a series entitled “Red Russia”.
Sylvia Pankhurst made a substantial contribution as one of the first propagandists for Bolshevism in Britain; founding the Peoples’ Russian Information Bureau. Her group, the Workers’ Socialist Federation, (WSF) was the first in Britain to affiliate to the Third International (Comintern) and Sylvia herself attended its 2nd congress in 1920. Indeed, in his writings on Britain, Lenin makes no less than 10 major references to Sylvia Pankhurst – more than any other British revolutionary socialist. She and her group were part of the unity talks to form the Communist Party of Great Britain which she joined briefly in 1921. The maquette of Sylvia Pankhurst pictured above will be erected as a full-size statue in Clerkenwell Green in 2018.