An analysis of Sylvia Pankhurst's role in the conflicts surrounding the emergence of the British Communist Party.
In this issue of our english-language review "Communism" we're starting a new heading "Workers' Memory" - just like we've been republishing for several years already in our French and Spanish reviews other important and often old texts from the workers' movement that today are difficult to find. We consider this to be an essential part of our struggle to revitalise the communist movement. Our aim is not to simply republish something that once existed - we are not curators of some "proletarian" museum - nor to try to proove that we are the rightfull heirs of a communist current of the past; on the contrary, often our criticism of our predecessors' activities will be very severe in view of the many insufficiencies, the many concessions to social-democracy that often persisted.
The only school we learn at, is history; i.e. not the different representations of history that society may have produced, but the history made and lived by our class and by the exploited classes from the past - the history of their heroic, vital but also limited struggles that the proletariat will be finally capable of bringing to their ultimate term: communism.
Communism for us isn't a condition that has to be created, nor an ideal to which reality should conform. We call communism the real movement of abolition of the present situation. The conditions of this movement result from the premises that already exist in today's society.
This means that today's proletarian struggles are directly linked, in their very substance, in their determinations, to the struggles our class waged throughout the past. More so, one of the premises of today's struggle is the struggle of the past: it is only because of today's struggles that the proletariat can "exhume" the many experiences - of incommensurate value - of the elder generations of proletarian militants; and it is only owing to these experiences that today we can go beyond the limits that locked up and defeated the movement yesterday. Our class struggles (and we refuse to mystify that class knowing how it were real men and women who fought to give strength, to give body to our class!) made possible for all the fundamental determinations of the communist movement to become clear: it is through the sweat and blood of millions of anonymous militant workers that our class experienced how we got defeated each time we abandoned our autonomy to engage in compromises, in policies, in fronts with our class enemy; how we got defeated each time we submitted ourselves to the forces of democracy and nationalism!
In order to "exhume" the revolutionary struggles of the past, it is important not to confound or identify the very essence of these struggles, their intrinsic subversive character (antagonistic to capital) with the different formalisations that were produced by this movement in an attempt to centralise it, to built it up into a force capable of acting organically as a whole so as to kill the capitalist monster. The history of the revolutionary uprisings of our class throughout the years 1917-1923 is not just the history of the Third International!
We musn't neglect the many efforts made by the bourgeoisie to ignore, to falsify the history of society by concealing all signs of communist struggles. It is only normal that the bourgeoisie falsifies and hides the historical process where the proletariat acts as an autonomous force of the destruction of capital: this way the bourgeoisie expresses the terror it feels when it's getting confronted once more with the terrible forces created by its own domination and by its system of misery. The lies and filth poured on our struggles are not just the result of the bourgeoisie's machiavellian conspiracy against the communist movement, but first of all they are the result of the class interests of the bourgeoisie that make it incapable to see or understand a reality that is going beyond its proper system of commodity-production, that is antagonistic to its proper logic of profit and value.
Lies and filth on the miners' strike; lies and filth on the proletarian struggles in South-Africa; lies and filth on struggles in Perou, in Argentina,... In the same way all informations on struggles from the past are systematically deformed, hidden, falsified! Deformed the positions of the KAPD, hidden the revolutionary struggles of our class in Patagonia, falsified fundamental texts by Marx, Engels and other revolutionaries... not to mention the documents that remain locked up in Moscow until... the year 2000, by what time the Kremlin promises to publish the complete works by Marx and Engels!
This way the communist movement gets travestied as a movement for democracy, for peace, for progress! Never will the bourgeois show how communism destroys democracy, destroys progress, destroys frontiers while building up its own community according to its proper needs - today's only need being to fight for the destruction of what is destroying us! -
Republishing texts, criticizing struggles from the past like we start doing here in this new heading, is part of this fight.
Little is known, in Britain itself but even more so on the continent, about the British left. As a proof for this stands the fact that the british left is almost always identified with the "Workers' Dreadnought" (1) and that the latter is often identified with Sylvia Pankhurst, who, undubitably, took a prominent part in its activities. Even so, we hardly know anything about the real activities and positions of neither the "Workers' Dreadnought" nor Sylvia Pankhurst.
In this article, as a first contribution, we'll try to outline the main landmarks in the development of the Pankhurst group, followed by the reprint of "Communist Party: Provisional Resolutions towards a Programme" published in the 3rd of July, 1920 issue of the ''Workers' Dreadnought".
Sylvia Pankhurst if often remembered for her part in the campaign for Universal Suffrage. Her group, uptill 1917, was called "The Workers' Suffrage Federation" which published a paper: the "Women's Dreadnought". This group stemmed from radical feminism. Under the influence of the deepening sufferings caused by the war and of the struggles that responded to this, Pankhurst soon became interested in the "social" question and the group started participating in different strike movements.
It was only at its annual conference in May 1917 that the Workers' Suffrage Federation decided to change the name of its newspaper to the "Workers' Dreadnought". But even so, in spite of this new name and in spite of the adoption by the conference of a programme referring more explicitly to the cause of "socialism", the group remains clearly on social-democratic and pacifist positions: "Peace! Socialism! Votes for all! Stop the Hideous slaughter by ending war! Down with profiteering! Secure food and necessaries for all! Not votes for some but Adult Suffrage! Down with the House of Lords!"
At this stage the "Workers' Dreadnought" is merely a radical appendix of the left fraction of the bourgeoisie: in an editorial on the Labour Party, the W.D. calls upon this party to become "an out-and-out Socialist Party, with a vigorous policy of attack on the present system..."
It'll be only later on, mainly through the radicalization of events in Russia, in Germany and likewise in most other countries (2) and because of the W.D.'s capacities to remain attentive to the real developments of the proletarian struggle, that the W.D. manages to turn its back to its own past, to the policy of reform of the capitalist world and move from a critical point of view on the question of parliament and the Labour Party, to a subversive position on these issues. Leftists prefer to obscure this evolution and its importance for the revolutionary movement (in Britain, but also internationally); they praise Pankhurst only as a reformer, refusing to admit how she broke with her original feminist and reformist engagement, adopting a line of principled struggle against reform and reformists.
We can witness the first weak signs of this evolution from 1918 onward. In an editorial of January, 26th 1918 Sylvia Pankhurst, who had been one of the very first in Britain to hail the events in Russia, defends the Soviet system and supports the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly by the Bolsheviks (3). She argues that the parliamentary system would be unable to cope with the task of establishing socialism, and that the Soviet system is far more democratic than any parliament. This very ambiguous position on the role of parliament and on the real meaning and function of democracy (and the non-understanding of communism as being the negation of democracy) continues to coexist with the "Votes for all" slogan on the front page of the paper untill July 1918 when "Socialism Internationalism, Votes for all!" was dropped and replaced by "For International Socialism" and when at the same time the annual conference voted to change the name of the organization to "Workers' Socialist Federation" (W.So.F.).
The next important step was made in an article of November, 2nd 1918 on the Labour Party and parliament. Sylvia Pankhurst states in a much more radical tone that "the expected general election interests us only so far as it can be made a sounding board for the policy of replacing capitalism by socialism and parliament by the workers' councils" and as a matter of fact in December of the same year, Pankhurst turns down the offer of a parliamentary candidature for the Hallam division of Sheffield and campaigned instead for the abolition of capitalist parliaments and the establishment of councils of workers' delegates. From now on the "Workers' Dreadnought" will start taking a clear and definite stand on parliament, on parliamentarism as well as on the Labour Party, positions on which it will find itself soon in contradiction with Lenin and the Third Communist International. This, in return, will force the "Workers' Dreadnought" to take more and more its responsibilities in view of the development of the communist movement, and the subsequent tasks that devolve upon its militants. As a matter of fact, untill then, one of the main characteristics of the Pankhurst Group was that the group based itself on its own direct experience, without really trying to analyse more thoroughly the very foundations of the communist movement (nor of capitalist society), and without really trying to link up with other expressions of the communist movement, from the past as well as from other origins or countries (4); untill then the W.So.F. had mainly been a simple group of activists, correspondents, readers,... around a newspaper, this paper being a mere reflection of the workers struggles of that time.
Towards a united party?
On the 14th of June 1919 the W.So.F. holds its annual conference. On recommendation of a delegate from the CI (founded a few months earlier) the group adopts the title of "Communist Party" and its Executive Committee is instructed to take steps towards linking up with other communist groups in Britain. The new communist party declares itself in favour of the power of workers councils and of the CI; against parliament and against the Second International. A few weeks later, the newly founded party decides NOT to call itself "Communist Party" for the moment so as not to prejudice the unity negotiations with other groups: the old name W.So.F. is restored: "As instructed by the Annual Conference at Whitsuntide, the National Executive Committee has entered into negotiations with other organisations for the formation of a united Communist Party. The Committee recommends that the use of the name Communist Party adopted at the W.So.F. Annual Conference be delayed during the process of these negotiations, in order that the new united party, which is hoped will eventuate, may adopt the title Communist Party as its own."
These negotiations will continue for one year. During this year the W.D. gives a more international dimension to its debates and Pankhurst's activities themselves got more and more determined by as well the need for clarification of her own programmatical positions and at the same time the need for an international centre of struggle: this all led up to her moving closer to the left fractions of the communist movement.
Pankhurst assisted the Conference of the Italian Socialist Party. In W.D. of November, 8th 1919 we find a report on the Congress of the Italian SP, which mentions the Abstentionist Fraction, followed by a discussion with Bordiga (the official spokesman of the Italian Abstentionist Fraction) regarding his position on the relationship between Party and Soviets. Against Bordiga, who underlines the importance of the party as a safeguard of the positions and historical interests of the proletariat, the W.D. takes a more "educationist" stand in favour of workers learning through the soviet experience. We haven't got this article in our possession, so we can't really criticize it: nevertheless we want to stress the reactionary illusion that lays behind all "educationist" theories. This theory, according to which communists should "educate" workers i.e. make them see and understand their class situation and consequently the need for communism, is just another variety of the democratic theory of councilism: the conception of the conquest of consciousness of a large majority of workers (through councils) as a determinant condition for revolution. Historically this theory has always served to never understand a revolutionary situation nor the particular tasks that derive from such situation, has always served to... wait, to delay,... to stop the movement pretending that the masses are not ready yet for revolution, that the masses won't understand,... in fact, the REFUSAL of violent struggle, the REFUSAL of armed insurrection, the REFUSAL of a communist revolution and the triumph of democracy! As far as the "Italian" position on the question of the party is concerned, we just want to mention that Bordiga, as one of the most reputable spokesmen of the Italian left, SUBMITTED his action, somewhat against his own formal positions on the question of the party, but for the sake of (formal!) discipline, to the orientations of the Third International.
Straight after having assisted to this conference, Pankhurst travelled to Berlin to attend the meeting that set up the West European Secretariat of the Comintern (February 1920); she then travelled to Amsterdam for the first meeting of the West European Sub-bureau of the Third Communist International. This sub-bureau played a most important role in the struggle of the left fractions against the social-democratic positions that to a large extend characterised the Third International from the very beginning and that were to draw it irresistibly towards the reformist quicksands and to make it an instrument, from the 2nd Congress onward, in the hands of counter-revolution (5). The Amsterdam Conference of the bureau committed those present to "no compromise with the bourgeoisie or social patriotic parties, with parties of the Second International or with agents of capital within the labour movement." On Pankhurst's initiative the Bureau voted a resolution that recommended the preparation of the proletariat to a general strike in case a revolution should come about in one country. The bureau declared itself against working in parliament or trade-unions. Just before its closing down, the bureau issued a statement against affiliation to the Labour Party. It was for all these reasons that Moscow disavowed the Amsterdam bureau it had set up six months earlier in an attempt to break russian isolation by preparing a conference of West European communist parties. The suppression of the bureau was announced on May, 15th 1920. Its activities were transferred to Berlin, where the KPD was powerful enough to control the orientations of the bureau.
What kind of unity?
During the unity-negotiations, most of the socialist groups of Britain declared themselves in favour of the overthrow of capitalism and the establishment of communism, the dictatorship of the proletariat, the soviet system and affiliation to the Third International. But as soon as these general principles require a more concrete application, i.e. when it comes down to refusing parliamentary action and affiliation to the Labour Party, these points prove to be real obstacles to communist unity in Britain. As we have witnessed so often, the more radical groups defending the interests of capital, agree to nearly everything insofar it allows them not to change the very basis of this system.
If the South Wales Socialist Society agreed with the W.So.F. on the matter of parliament and affiliation to the Labour Party, the other two main participants to the unity talks, the Socialist Labour Party and even more so the British Socialist Party, by far the most important group, rejected the W.So.F.'s programme, favouring parliamentary action and, as far as the British Socialist Party was concerned, affiliation to the Labour Party.
On June, 26th of the same year, the W.D. announces the foundation of the Communist Party around the W.So.F.'s programme, i.e. against parliamentarism and against affiliation to the Labour Party. What had happened is that Pankhurst preferred to initiate the formation of a communist party, be it a small one, on a principles basis (6) rather than sacrificing these principles for the sake of the ephemeral immediat succes brought by the foundation of a much larger, but unprincipled and in fact submitted to capital's needs, "communist" party. Already on February, 21st 1920 in an article on the problems of regroupment in Britain "Towards a Communist Party" Pankhurst stated that she was ready to go ahead to form a "left-wing" communist party if no principled regroupment with other parties could take place! Now, nevertheless, apart from the W.So.F. seven other small communist groups supported the formation of the new Communist Party, that declared itself the British Section of the Third International (BSTI) at a conference in London on June, 19th 1920.
So the "Workers' Dreadnought" now became the "organ of the Communist Party" and started publishing the Party's provisional programme. It are these provisional resolutions that we're publishing. It is obvious to us that, except from the position on parliament and affiliation to the Labour Party, that the "Workers' Dreadnought" as far as all other questions are concerned (workers' democracy, councils, nationalizations, unions, judges in communist courts (!)) remains locked up in a social-democratic vision of the communist movement. On other occasions we will criticise these positions; here we just want to show how in spite of these many social-democratic positions, that to a large extend reflect the still dominant influence at that time of social-democracy on important fractions of the proletariat, namely in Britain, that the "Workers' Dreadnought" nevertheless moved dynamically towards a more and more internationalist practice of rupture with these forces of conservation of the capitalist system. This evolution of the "Workers' Dreadnought" itself is a clear disavowal of its own pretention as communists to be the "licensed" holder of "the knowledge", "the consciousness", "the communist ideology or science" without which the proletariat, the real movement could not get anywhere!!!
Five weeks later, on the first of August, 1920, the British Socialist Party, together with part of the Socialist Labour Party formed the Communist Party of Great Britain (already in the denomination itself we can distinguish Pankhurst's internationalist orientation from the nationalist position of the official communist party, the CPGB): they adopted a programme of affiliation to Labour and of parliamentary action.
At this same time, the Comintern declared itself openly in favour of tactical "devices" always more clearly in opposition to the general principles of communism. In April, 1920 Lenin had completed his pamphlet "Left-wing communism, an infantile disorder" (as a preparatory text for the second Congress) that laid down the tactics of affiliation and parliamentarism as the right policies for british communists to bring about the revolution. In his pamphlet, Lenin tried to justify and explain, very dialecticaly, how it is right for the proletariat to vote into government its future butchers, the british Noske! Pankhurst's position was that "as social-patriotic organisations of other countries, the Labour Party will inevitably come to power through the natural course of development of society. The task of communists is to organise the forces that will overthrow the social-patriots, and we musn't delay this action in our country, nor hesitate. We musn't waste our energy by increasing the strength of the Labour Party: its rise to power is inevitable. We have to use our forces to create a communist movement that will defeat this party. The Labour party will soon be forming a government. The revolutionary opposition must make ready to attack it." (Quoted from Lenin's "Left-wing Communism").
Pankhurst went to Moscow to defend the communist positions at the second Congress of the C.I. (July/August 1920). She didn't stand alone: delegates from different other countries also defended the same programme of intransigent struggle against capital. We know the left positions got defeated at this congress: to the contrary, the infamous 21 conditions that, amongst other things enjoined trade-union work and parliamentary activity as conditions for membership of the C.I. were adopted (7).
Just like left groups in other countries, the CP (BSTI) now faced a choice: maintaining its communist principles at the risk of returning to a state of relative isolation, or abandoning these principles for the sake of remaining in the mainstream of the international proletarian movement, knowing that this movement, and its main formal organ, the Third International, instead of clearly defining and fighting the class enemy, started to compromise, to negotiate, to trade,... with it. In the face of the prestige of Lenin, of the Third International and also because in the end the "Workers' Dreadnought" group surely reckoned that all thing considered, that the points of agreement between itself and the Third International, that the positive positions of the C.I. prevailed over the points of disagreement - and after much internal acrimony (1/3 of its members resigned!) - the CP (BSTI) at the Leeds Unity Convention on January 1921 decided to abandon its principles on parliamentarism and on the question of affiliation, and to enter the CPGB. On January, 22nd the "Workers' Dreadnought" announces that is is no longer the "organ of the Communist Party" now that the united CP has been formed. Pankhurst, who at that time was in jail on a charge of sedition, did not take part in these final unity negotiations: from prison she recommended that the CP (BSTI) enter the CPGB as an opposition group. And as a matter of fact, the "Dreadnought" declared itself to be an independant organ, giving an independant support to the Party from a left wing point of view. Released from prison in May 1921, Pankhurst apparently pursued this struggle without compromises, since she got expelled from the party only four months later (on September 1921) following her repeated forthright condemnations of CPGB and Comintern policies. But starting from then, the "Workers' Dreadnought" didn't succeed in maintaining its activities, became less and less influential to finally disappear in 1924.
1. We know of at least one other group (from Glasgow) that during this same period took up positions (in its papers "The Spur" 1914-1921 and "The Commune" 1923-1928) close to those of the "Workers' Dreadnought"; this group sent delegates to the 3rd Congress of the Communist International in Moscow, where they were contacted by the german left (KAPD).
2. Indeed, it was an international wave of revolutionary action that was challenging the old world - important class movements took place in Patagonia, in Mexico, in India, in China, in the Middle East,...
3. We don't know exactly what informations communists in England or elsewhere got on the events in Russia. The need for the bourgeoisie to destroy and falsify all historical process where the proletariat acts as the real subject of history (and no longer as pure object) and the isolation which confined most revolutionary action to national boundaries (i.e. the inexistence of an international center of struggle) explain the ignorance that often prevailed as to what was really happening in Russia and everywhere else. Often revolutionary action is taken in solidarity with what is supposed to be happening elsewhere, proletarians referring in an enthusiastic way to what they want to happen, to what they can see as a necessity!As far as the Constituent Assembly goes, it seems that the Bolsheviks only dissolved it in January 1918, after having organised elections for it (elections after the victorious October insurrection!!!) when this assembly started organising openly the counter-revolution. Even so, the Bolsheviks only decided to dissolve this assembly because they were being forced to by more radical fractions of the proletariat. (On this subject, see L. Shapiro: "The Bolcheviks and their opposition 1917-1922").
4. This also explains the preponderant influence of Sylvia Pankhurst on the evolution of the group: she - just like the group - "came" to communism when communism was strong enough to impose itself, but moved away from it again as the communist movement got defeated.
5. We cannot analyse in this introduction the very complex process of degeneration of the CI. The CI, founded very late (the first congress took place in March, 1919) as an attempt to break the isolation of Soviet Russia, soon revealed itself to be nothing else but a centre for the defence of the interests of the russian bourgeois state abroad. This was the result, not of some betrayal, but in the first place of the many weaknesses - i.e. the social-democratic orientations that persisted and that had never been criticized but on a formal basis - that characterized the Third International from the very start. This situation materialised the weaknesses of the whole communist movement of that period. If we insist on the revolutionary contribution of the left fractions (that emerged in most countries: Bulgaria, Mexico, Italy, Spain, Luxembourg, England, Belgium, United States, India, South-Africa, Poland, Germany,...) it is precisely because of their efforts to denounce and clarify the counter-revolutionary nature of the very fundamentals of social-democracy, of the Second International as an organ, from its very origins, for the reform of capital. In this introduction we just mention some of the facts that illustrate the process of degeneration of the CI.
6. We can draw a parallel here with what happened in France with the first and ephemeral Communist Party founded in May 1919 by Péricat and Lepetit but that soon disappeared at the end of the same year.
7. It was the Italian left that insisted that another condition be added to the 20 already existing conditions, which stipulated that no party could claim membership to the Third International if it didn't accept these conditions! Pretending fighting this way against centrist and right-wing parties, reality has shown that these conditions were actually used against the left positions. As a matter of fact, these conditions stated clearly that to be a communist, one had to vote, to agree to parliamentary and union activity, to support "all movements of emancipation in the colonies'',...