Monday, 17 September 2012

Revolutionaries for our time: Connolly, MacLean, Pankhurst

On Sunday 19 August, comrades of the Revolutionary Communist Group and supporters of Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! gathered in Leith, Edinburgh for a meeting on three major revolutionaries: James Connolly, John MacLean and Sylvia Pankhurst. 

All of these figures were centrally active in the working class movements of England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales in the period before the First Imperialist War of 1914- 1918. All were active in opposing that war: Connolly, who was born in Edinburgh and joined the socialist movement in Dundee, led the Irish working class in arms in Dublin in 1916. They proclaimed that they would serve 'neither King nor Kaiser' but would fight for Ireland's freedom from British rule. MacLean was sentenced and jailed at the Edinburgh High Court a few weeks after that Easter Rising. He had risen in prominence on the streets of Glasgow for battling to organise against the imperialist war. Pankhurst broke with her mother and sister over the suffragette movement's support for the war and based herself in East London, building political and practical support for working class women, including the relatives of conscripted soldiers drafted in to fight the British ruling class' war. As a socialist she had been with MacLean in Glasgow in the last weeks of his life organising with him amongst the unemployed.

The speaker's contributions covered the lives and enormous contributions of these courageous people and are available here... The meeting brought together people from Leith, Republicans from Glasgow, supporters of the Spanish miners, unemployed and students. The discussion showed that the event was no historical lecture but a collective endeavour to draw out the lessons of history for the working class today in order that we can prepare for the future to challenge the cuts, austerity and imperialist war.

Long Live Connolly!
Long Live MacLean!
Long Live Pankhurst!

1. James Connolly, his life and times

1) How do get from fighting for free speech in Dundee in 1889 to being shot in Dublin in 1916? Crudely, this was the life of our James Connolly but those 27 years were an incredible journey of revolutionary struggle for the rights of Ireland and the working class. Before his cruel execution Connolly told his distraught wife Lillie Reynolds:
   Hasn’t it been a full life Lillie? And isn’t this a good end?
   (Last conversation between James Connolly and Lillie Connolly, cited Nevin D, James Connolly, A Full Life
   Dublin 2005 p. 667)

2) James Connolly’s life was indeed a full and good life in the moral sense, a life of determined study, relentless organisation and decisive action. Yet what are we to make of another comment made at the time of the Easter Rising of 1916:

   The Socialists will never understand why I am here…They will all forget I am an Irishman
   (…unattributed, cited Reed D, Ireland: The Key To The British Revolution London 1984 p.59)

In that remark, in that statement, we are presented with the central question which faces all progressives in the era of imperialism. Understanding that categorical remark is the purpose of this introduction. This is an attempt to salvage the reputation of a socialism which appeared for Connolly to have repudiated the anti- imperialist struggle.

3) As Bernadette McAliskey said in her contribution to the recent Celebration of Resistance event in Derry on 26 July, James Connolly is not here now to explain things. He’s dead. For us that expression of apparent rejection of socialism needs to be satisfactorily – it is critical! - understood or we might as well pack up now.  

4) I recommend this comrades. When you’re landed with the responsibility of preparing these introductions there is a natural evasion, a hesitation, a doubt as to susceptibility of the subject to quick analysis and summation but then you are suddenly exposed to the abundance of all the  already existing material on Connolly. And become aware of how rewarding it is to read that material.

5) As one of our comrades David Yaffe frequently points out, many, many questions confronting us have already been answered by earlier writers and we make no apology for the many references to these works.

6) In C Desmond Greaves biography of Connolly we come across these observations in the introduction:

   Connolly entered political life just in time to witness the disappearance of the world in which he had been
   brought up...The hitherto accepted pillars of society, the landlord and the industrialist, gave way before
   the investor...Britain had ceased to be the workshop of the world...Instead came imperialism. The profits
   of empire were to perfume and spice British capitalism- and incidentally finance the bloodless liquidation
   of Irish landlords. Ireland became a financial colony.  
(Greaves C D, The Life and Times of James Connolly London 1960 p.27)

7) James Connolly joined the Socialist League in Dundee in 1889 at the age of 21. His introduction to politics was familiar to our comrades: Magistrates in Dundee had banned the holding of open air political meetings in particular areas of the town. The Social Democratic Federation, the Socialist League and Dundee Trades Council took up the challenge and called a protest meeting. With the right sort of numbers- 20,000 people- the crowd marched marched into the High Street to defy the bans. The socialist speakers were arrested but the campaign of defiance continued.

   An indignation meeting held immediately afterwards does not appear to have been interfered with. The
   police were trying their strength...a few weeks later the magistrates climbed down...Meetings were resumed
   in the High Street.
   (Greaves C D, op cit p.25)

8) In Donal Nevin’s biography, James Connolly, A Full Life, he has found an interesting picture of the young man, written by John Leslie of the Scottish Socialist Federation, the form of branches of the Social Democratic Federation in Scotland:

   I noticed the young man as a very interested and constant attendant at the open air meetings. Once when
   a very sustained and virulent personal attack was being made upon me and when I was almost succumbing
   to it, Connolly sprung upon the stool and to say the least of it, retrieved the situation. I never forgot it. The
   following week, he joined our organisation and it is needless to say what an acquisition he was...
   (Nevin D, op cit p.33)
8) Connolly was also coming into active politics just as the period of the 1890’s known as the “New Unionism” was beginning. Connolly actually had to postpone his wedding, like a certain Ernesto Che Guevara, due to the commitments of struggle! He and his brother John were the organisers of a proposed strike for reduced hours. The halls of the SSF in Dundee were to become organising centres of the “New Unionism” of the unskilled workers. As Greaves points out, there were so many strikes being organised in this period that it was impossible to distinguish between them.

9) A possible distinction that can be made is the emerging difference between the organisation and militancy of different sections of the working class. Between the unskilled and skilled workers. C Desmond Greaves makes the point that:
   The heart of Scottish socialism was Edinburgh. Notwithstanding Glasgow’s superiority in the numbers and
   industrial concentration of its working class...socialism won more influence at the outset among the
   unskilled than the skilled workers...a large proportion of these were Irish and, of those who joined the
   SDF, many had been members of the Land League.
   (Greaves C D, op cit p.28-29)

10) And it was to this Edinburgh- the city of his birth in 1868- that Connolly returned. Greaves is most useful in recognising and developing this central point about the different sections of the working class. In 1890 Connolly had secured- hardly the right term for casual, intermittent labour- work as a carter and their organisation and militancy was worrying the local Trades Council. This working class trade union organisation was to stand in direct opposition to the carter’s fight for an eight- hour day and it was down to Connolly’s organisation, the Scottish Socialist Federation, of which his brother John Connolly was secretary, to organise the demonstration on this issue for May Day in Edinburgh in 1893. The Trades Council did organise a speaker though, a “Labour” candidate from London who openly opposed the campaign for a reduction in hours and opposed Home Rule for Ireland. As Greaves states: “The old guard wanted no action at all”
(Greaves, op cit p. 36)

11) What we are trying to draw out here is a brief but important account of two sectors of the working class moving in opposite directions. A further wee example here of the perfidy of this trade union body: Connolly’s brother had been dismissed by the city council for speaking at the Edinburgh May Day demonstration.  While the Trades Council did complain, they eventually gave up any fight and John Connolly stayed sacked. The Trades Council would have represented thousands of workers in various trade unions and a threatening sign from them would have saved John’s job but again “The old guard wanted no action at all”!

12) In one of his first articles for “Justice” James Connolly shows that he was alive to what was going on:

   The population of Edinburgh…Even the working- class portion of the population seemed to have imbibed the
   snobbish would- be-respectable spirit of their betters and look with aversion upon every movement running
   counter to conventional ideas…Leith on the other hand is pre-eminently an industrial centre. The
   overwhelming majority of its population belong to the dis-inherited class…reasonably expected to develop
   socialistic sentiments much more readily than the Modern Athens.
   (ibid p. 39)

13) Connolly was plainly not interested then in trade union respectability and covering up injustice for the sake of “unity” in the labour movement. He denounced Glasgow Trades Council as happy to be associated with the Co-operative Society even though it paid less than union rates. Anything to keep the divie up! Divide and rule he fought against as well, exposing an attempt to split the workers according to nationality.  The Master Bottlemakers’ Association had refused to meet strikers because there were foreigners amongst their number. Connolly railed against this racism:

   It was all very well to employ a foreigner at starvation wages and so cut down the wages of the native- but
   to treat with the foreigner…Why it was preposterous!
   (ibid p. 40)

14) And what of Ireland? The Irish constituted a fair proportion of the electorate in municipal areas and the issue of
Home Rule for Ireland was calculated by respectable politicians as a means to secure votes. Posing as friends of Ireland and plotting secret electoral alliances with Labour candidates, the Liberal party endlessly connived to deliver this vote for themselves. Connolly was having none of it! An electoral article for his candidacy as a Socialist in 1894 in St. Giles in Edinburgh shows his fierce advocacy of the common class interests of Scottish and Irish workers:

   Perhaps they will learn how foolish it is to denounce tyranny in Ireland then to vote for tyrants and
   instruments of tyranny at their own door. Perhaps they will see that the landlord who grinds his peasants
   on a Connemara estate and the landlord who rackrents them in a Cowgate slum, are brethren in fact and
   deed. Perhaps they will realise that the Irish worker who starves in an Irish cabin and the Scots worker who
   is poisoned in an Edinburgh garret are brothers with one hope and destiny. Perhaps they will see that the
   Liberal Government which supplies police to Irish landlords to aid them in their work of exterminating their
   Irish peasantry, also imports police into Scotland to aid Scots mineowners in their work of starving the Scottish
   (Nevin D, op cit p. 39)

Coming third with 14% of the vote, Connolly’s analysis of the limits of the electoral contests is appropriate to today, he denounced the lack of difference between “the Liberal Tweedledee and the Tory Tweedledum” (Greaves C D, op cit  p.  51)

15) In the year of 1894, Connolly had also been expressing views about the class character of the nationalist movement in Ireland:
   As an Irishman who has always taken a keen interest in the advanced movements in Ireland…the Parnellites…
   (and)…the McCarthyites…are essentially middle-class parties interested in the progress of Ireland from a
   middle-class point of view
   (Nevin D, op cit p. 38)

His comrade, John Leslie, who had brought Connolly into the socialist movement 5 years before, had delivered a series of lectures in 1893 which were eventually published in pamphlet form as The Present Position of the Irish Question. Nevin gives full coverage to its arguments and it is undoubtedly the case that Connolly, having served in the British Army for 7 years during the Land League agitation combined his experience there with the powerful thesis of Leslie’s that Ireland’s salvation lay in its working people. That this class struggle for social, economic and political emancipation would liberate itself and, in the national struggle would, end imperialist rule by Britain. Nevin suggests convincingly that this contention was the origin of Connolly’s Labour in Irish History. Published in 1910 and written during Connolly’s years in the USA, it is a Marxist treatment, a materialist treatment of class and national struggle in Ireland under British imperialism.

16) Connolly never wavered from this argument and eventually was to advance it in arms directly against British rule in the Easter Rising of 1916. Thousands of pages have been written, millions of words have been spoken on this subject, on the relationship between national struggle and class struggle, between nationalism and socialism. Is it really that difficult, who has a problem with it?, is it a practical question? Or a matter of abstract theory or debate? A distraction, a diversion from class struggle, from socialism? Reading Connolly, of his life, of his commitment and action for the working class, there can be no doubt that he advanced in absolute clarity- in word and deed- the combined struggle of that class in Ireland to win socialism and defeat imperialism. Yet his statement about the “socialists not understanding why” he was there still needs explanation. Some say Connolly had despaired of Socialism as an ideology, as a force, and embraced nationalism belatedly but this is an unsustainable argument given the abundant evidence of his long standing commitment to a free Ireland and the arguments he was to make about the central role of the Irish working class in this struggle right up literally to the dawn of Easter Monday:

   We are out for Ireland for the Irish. But who are the Irish? Not the rack-renting, slum-owning landlord;
   not the sweating, profit-grinding capitalist; not the sleek and oily lawyer; not the prostitute pressman- the
   hired liars of the enemy. Not these are the Irish upon whom the future depends. Not these, but the Irish
   working class, the only secure foundation upon which a free nation can be reared.
     The cause of labour is the cause of Ireland, the cause of Ireland is the cause of labour. They cannot be
   dissevered. Ireland seeks freedom. Labour seeks that an Ireland free should be the sole mistress of her
   own destiny, supreme owner of all material things within and upon her soil. Labour seeks to make the free
   Irish nation the guardian of the interests of the people of Ireland, and to secure that end would vest in
   That free Irish nation all property rights as against the claims of the individual, with the end in view that
   The individual may be enriched by the nation, and not by the spoiling of his fellows.
   (James Connolly Selected Writings London 1973 p. 145. Cited Reed D, op cit p. 52-53)

Clearly our comrade had not abandoned socialism or the working class, although there are many who would like to see it that way! As David Reed has argued in Ireland: The Key To The British Revolution, Connolly was anticipating the lack of support from the “Socialists” of the time and in this he was again right. All the major organisations of the European left rejected the Rising of 1916. Some on the spurious grounds that it had nothing to do with socialist or working class struggle, some on the grounds of its timing, some because it was an armed campaign.

   The Scottish ILP weekly Forward uttered the empty abstraction, ‘a man can be a nationalist or an
   internationalist’…Socialist Review, journal of the ILP, announced in September 1916, ‘In no degree do we
   approve of the Sinn Fein rebellion. We do not approve of armed rebellion at all, any more than any other
   form of militarism or war’
  (Reed D, op cit p. 59)

17) In C Desmond Greaves’ account he suggests that a useful way of tackling Connolly’s life and works is to consider that his political life corresponded almost exactly to the period of the Second International, that is from 1889 to 1916. What does this mean, what was the Second International and why was it over by 1914?

18) We have to go back to the beginnings of the communist movement from 1848 with the publication of the Communist Manifesto in that year and the study and work of Marx and Engels on Ireland. We will shamelessly borrow from David Reed’s book, no accident that it was originally begun as chapters in our newspaper Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! entitled ‘The Communist Tradition on Ireland’. Cutting through the crap which the left, “The Socialists”, had continued to lay down about Ireland it was plain to see that Connolly was standing in a fine and principled position for socialism and national liberation right up to the Rising against British imperialism. The 1st International had been won to support for the cause of Ireland, huge demonstrations made up of working class English and Irish marched in 1869 for an amnesty for Irish political prisoners. Engels was to state later in 1888 that:

   The masses are for the Irish. The organisations and the labour aristocracy in general, follow Gladstone
   (Marx K and Engels F, Ireland and the Irish Question (MEOI) Moscow 1978 p.57. Cited Reed D, op cit p.11)

He had earlier exclaimed in 1867:

   …the London proletarians declare every day more and more openly for the Fenians and, hence- an unheard-
   of and splendid thing here- for, first, a violent and, secondly, an anti- English movement.
   (MEOI p. 155. Cited Reed D, p.13)

19) These revolutionary developments, caused by imperialism, were undermined by imperialism. Britain’s colonial and industrial monopoly meant that the respectable sections of the working class: skilled, on relatively high wages, in secure trades grew in influence and power. Aye, they had their trade unions to fight for their wages and conditions but on matters of “colonial policy”- as Engels remarked, they thought no differently from their masters. And why should they? Empire was “sweetening and perfuming capitalism”. “Socialism” was still advocated as a means of securing the fruits of their labour, as they saw it, but freedom for the colonies was a step too far now! Safe, respectable, electoral campaigning would secure the rightful status of the working man. Across Europe these socialist and labour parties, social democratic parties, constituted themselves as the Second International and became in some cases mighty organisations. The German Social Democratic Party had a million members, huge trade union affiliates, offices, newspapers, journals, full time staff, parliamentary deputies, the works!   The Socialists of the Second International considered that as all workers were deemed equal that expressions of nationalism undermined workers unity and encouraged national division. Opposition to imperialism and colonialism was not considered a priority, rather, the abstract “unity” of the working classes was advanced. Indeed socialists could not reject all colonial enterprises as certain” non- cultured peoples” need looking after!

20) Likewise with the issue of wars, of course the parties of the Second International opposed them. Resolution after resolution proved this. Yet by 1914 with the outbreak of the First World War those organisations had all run for their national flags. Having denounced nationalism as chauvinism and reactionary and divisive, here they were now on the recruiting platforms with the soldier and the priest and the trade unionist. Connolly challenged those who had derided Irish nationalism and who were now calling for the defence of their “nation”. Now it was he who properly asserted the unity of the working class and called for action to sabotage imperialist war.

   Should the working classes of Europe, rather than slaughter each other for the benefit of kings and
   financiers, proceed tomorrow to erect barriers all over Europe, to break up bridges and destroy the transport
   service that war might be abolished, we should be perfectly justified in following such a glorious example, and
   contributing to the final dethronement of the vulture classes that rule and rob the world.
   (Greaves D, op cit  p. 284)

21) It was not to be and Connolly made the decision that “England’s difficulty” would be” Ireland’s opportunity.” The Rising against Britain was on. The workers of Dublin and the revolutionary wing of the nationalist movement were united in the battle to attempt to break the connection with Britain in 1916. In doing so Connolly was doing what Lenin was also to urge in this period: to “turn the imperialist war into a civil war” for class struggle, for socialism. In Russia by 1917, that direction had matured into the Bolshevik revolution of October and the world’s first socialist state was born. Lenin had immediately recognised the historical significance of the Rising and understood and supported the motives and forces behind it. For him the Second International had repudiated genuine socialist struggle, had become a “stinking corpse” and was an enemy of the working people, of the masses. We shall end here with a final quote from Lenin:

   There is one, and only one, kind of real internationalism, and that is- working whole-heartedly for the
   development of the revolutionary movement and the revolutionary struggle in one’s own country, and
   supporting (by propaganda, sympathy and material aid) this struggle, this and only this, line, in every
   country without exception. 
   (James Connolly, Collected Works, Dublin 1987 Volume 1 pp. xiv)

James Connolly embodied this principle to the end. Long Live James Connolly!

2. John MacLean, lessons for today

1) Organiser of the unorganised
2) Defence of democratic rights
3) Internationalism and Anti Imperialism

In this short talk on the life and work of John MacLean I want to draw attention to three main areas (1) his organisation of the unemployed and other sections of the working class who not represented in the British trade union movement (2) his struggle in defence of democratic rights (3) and his internationalism and anti imperialist politics.

1)       John MacLean was a student, teacher and revolutionary.

As an organiser of the unorganised he was a popular figure amongst the poor in Glasgow in the early 1900s. His approach to combating poverty and the root of poverty - the capitalist system - was daring, creative and educational. MacLean could not only propose ideas he could put them into action and combined this action with theory. Whilst shaming middle class Christian church goers into giving their money to the poor he understood that charity could only provide a short term solution to the problems of the poor. The long term solution was an overthrow of capitalism. To this end he organised and gave lectures on Marxism and Marxist economics to working class people across Britain throughout his life.

His activism and willingness to take on the authorities was relentless. In 1910 he stormed the stock exchange in Glasgow leading a crowd of unemployed workers around the floor before marching back out. In the same year he supported women factory workers striking in defence of their living standards. In 1915 he supported rent strikes throughout Glasgow as working class communities fought attempts to increase the cost of housing. MacLean menaced the British Government as he called openly for the liberation of the poor from the shackles of poverty. In 1921 MacLean was sentenced to 12months in prison for telling the poor not to starve but to take food from the shops. During his trial he was asked why he had organised the unemployed; he replied 'because no one else would'.

The ‘no one else’ he was referring to was the British trade union movement and Labour Party. MacLean threatened to expose their refusal to unite with the poor at home and oppressed internationally against the British ruling class. Dominated mainly by old, white males, from skilled and middle class professions these privileged sections of workers were not interested in supporting and fighting for revolution. They were more concerned about defending their stake in the rotten system that gave them their privileges - British imperialism.

True to the words of the Russian revolutionary Lenin MacLean went beyond these privileged sections; ‘to the real masses' whose interests demanded a complete overthrow of capitalism and imperialism. MacLean was one of the few activists to take up the fight against the British ruling class and their agents within the working class movement.

            2) Another fundamental part of MacLean’s work was focused on the struggle to defend democratic rights. 

As the British Government moved to criminalise and limit protest against the first imperialist world war MacLean continued to organise. He believed as James Connolly and Sylvia Pankhurst argued that it was the task of each countries working class to declare 'war on the war makers', their ruling classes, instead of on each other. In 1915 he was jailed for 5 days for stating 'I have been enlisted in the socialist army for 15 years, the only army worth fighting for. God damn all other armies'.  He was centrally involved with setting up Free Speech Committees at this time to defend the right to protest against the war and this came with consequences. A number of progressive newspapers, including MacLean's 'Vanguard' were banned by the Government and MacLean was repeatedly arrested and imprisoned. In all he was imprisoned 6 times between 1916 and 1922. Charged with sedition in 1918 he was sentenced to 5 years The Defence of the Realm Act. While he was imprisoned attempts to drug his food forced MacLean to go on hunger strike. Torture by force-feeding was used against MacLean a number of times. Despite this physical and mental abuse the government could not break his spirit and each time he was released he went head first back into the struggle. The British Labour and trade union movement did not support him whilst he was in prison and refused to organise anything in his defence. It was only after calls for his freedom were made at home and internationally, which threatened to expose their inactivity, that  the trade union and labour politicians set up a campaign for his release. They knew that MacLean was out to change the world and they knew this change would strip them of their parasitic privileges. MacLean was their enemy.

3) Why an enemy – why would a communist be considered an enemy to the British trade union movement?

 It was because MacLean was not only an organiser of people in Britain he was fundamentally an anti imperialist. He combined calls for the release of political prisoners in Britain with calls for international solidarity with Irish Republican political prisoners and political prisoners in Spain (murder of anarchist Francisco Ferrer 1909 - p6 of pamphlet), the US and beyond. He opposed and exposed the 'Empire socialism' represented by the British trade union leaders on the Clyde shipyards who agreed to carry on war production as long the work was well paid. He repeatedly spoke out against the British occupation of Ireland and in support of the Russian revolution and despite never actually visiting Russia was appointed by Lenin the representative of the Bolshevik revolution in Britain. For MacLean the British Empire was not an opportunity to become wealthy - British Imperialism was an enemy to the oppressed internationally but also to the struggle of the British working class. The solution was to unite the struggles of the poor in imperialist countries with those of the oppressed internationally under the slogan 'workers of the world and oppressed peoples unite!’ In practice this meant calling for Irish, Indian and Egyptian independence from Britain on protests against the attack on living standards in Britain. The British ruling class were the enemy of the poor in Britain and oppressed abroad - a common enemy.

John MacLean died on 30 November 1923 due to poor health after going through another spell of imprisonment. He was 43 years old. His life and politics hold many lessons for us in today’s struggle to organise the unorganised against the cuts, to expose the inactivity and parasitic nature of the British trade union establishment who are refusing to break with the labour party and challenge the anti trade union laws, to defend democratic rights and most fundamentally to oppose British imperialism's ongoing attack on oppressed peoples abroad - in Ireland, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, Somalia and elsewhere.

The 'workers of the world and oppressed peoples must unite!’

3. Sylvia Pankhurst, a revolutionary life

It's about time we remembered Sylvia Pankhurst.  She was an artist, feminist, socialist, writer, editor, mother and revolutionary. Her unique contribution to anti-racist, anti-imperialist and socialist politics leaves inspiring lessons for us today, and we know they're needed.  We are seeing rising unemployment, increasing military intervention, cuts to benefits and services and increasing homelessness, with working-class women bearing the brunt of austerity. Capitalist crisis means poverty for 3.6 million children in Britain, and starvation for people around the world. Sylvia struggled against capitalism over 100 year ago, and I'm glad comrades here want to revive those lessons to continue to fightback.
Of course, her revolutionary contribution has been forgotten by the ruling class, who fill school history books with her now more famous mother Emmeline and sister Christabel. They were committed campaigners for the vote for women, but this only extended to women with property. Sylvia disagreed that this was where change was going to come from. Her move to the working-class East End of London signalled a break from her family. This break was confirmed when her mother and sister went on to abandon their call for votes at the start of the first world war in order to drum up support for the war effort itself, calling for subscription before the government. These are the suffragettes we're encouraged to remember.
Sylvia was steadfastly against the imperialist war.  She organised carefully against it at first, because the majority of young men from the East End were on the frontline, dying for the ruling class. The organisation she established, the East London Federation of Suffragettes, focused its efforts at first on setting up nurseries, and places to eat and work. Together, they struggled against poverty, illiteracy and illness that increased with war. They set up cheap restaurants, run by local women. Children were looked after in free communal nurseries. The community could eat, stay healthy and organise; alongside relief from hunger came real organisation, against exploitation at the hands of the ruling class, against the double-exploitation of women, and in time, against the war. Their actions were far from charity. It is from here that she organised delegations to demand the vote. Her actions on the street led to her frequent arrest. She started hunger and thirst strikes in prison, and was force-fed many times, which permanently damaged her health. She would also walk round her cell until she collapsed. She was not alone in this, and many militant suffragettes suffered at the hands of the state. She was one of the few who organised a defence against this, setting up safe-houses to defend women who had been temporarily freed from prison for ill-health. This was part of a wider, organised resistance against violence at the hands of the police, courts and prisons. She worked to establish a People's Army in 1913, so that activists could, in her words,' fit themselves to cope with the brutality of government servants'. It was joined by over 1,000 women as well as men, and was crucial to resisting police violence and preventing arrests. We need to take inspiration from this, as today we're not only talking about the brutality of the police, courts and prisons, but also their privatisation, about mega-companies set to profit from injustice and suffering.
Throughout these struggles, Sylvia moved to the left. Even from early public campaigns, she was clear that the vote was to be won, as she said, 'not by the secret militancy of a few enthusiasts, but by the rising of the masses.' She knew the need for agitating, of joining workplace struggles with the feminist movement; for her, the struggle was for the working-class; if the roots of oppression lay in capitalism, women's oppression could only be defeated with an end to class exploitation - in other words, a revolutionary overthrow of the state.
We can trace this in the agitational and hugely popular paper she ran and edited, the Women's Dreadnought, which in 1917 became the Worker's Dreadnought. It started as, in her words, "...a medium through which working women, however unlettered, might express themselves, and find their interests defended.", it became a revolutionary paper with a circulation of over 10,000. It was one of the very few, if only, papers to be edited by a woman. It was the first paper to employ a black journalist. It was non-sectarian, publishing a wide range of articles, from local workers struggles to support for international resistance to imperialism. This led to the offices being raided, articles censored by the state and arrest, but Sylvia continued to find ways to publish the paper. The writings of Marx and Lenin, deserting soldiers and rank and file workers reports, support for the Easter Rising, filled the pages. John MacLean wrote for the Dreadnought, urging workers to educate themselves. The paper was a weapon, against ruling class lies; a legacy we see so powerfully in the Black Panthers, for example, and one so necessary today with the disgusting control of the bourgeois media. The prisoners letters in FRFI are an inspiring example of ongoing resistance.
The paper became vital in sharing news from the Bolsheviks, and Sylvia was one of the first leaders to show any support for Soviet Russia. She was a key organiser of the 'Hands Off Russia!' committee, and started Councils of Action. Of course, she would not only write for the paper, but as with all campaigns, took to the streets! It was around this time that she made most of her contributions to communist politics. Her organisation was renamed the Worker's Socialist Federation by the time of the Third International, and it was the first organisation to affiliate with it. Throughout unity talks in 1919 between communist groups, and throughout her role in forming the Communist Party of Great Britain, she was clear; she did not believe in an alliance with the Labour Party, and saw it as a waste of energy to add to its fire, when it was not revolutionary. She saw parliament as limited at best, pushed by the masses, and a dead-end at worst. Here, its not Sylvia's individual contribution that is most important, but her commitment to the struggle of the working-class, her analysis of where change was going to come from, and where opportunism lies. This is a lesson too easily forgotten today by a lot of the left today.
Throughout her changing alliances, her commitment to anti-racism and anti-imperialism remained central, and she showed a unique understanding of the relationship between the oppression of women, racism, imperialism and fascism. Of course, she wasn't separate from the movements she was involved in, but she was one of the lone voices on the left at the time challenging imperialism. Many Left leaders were arguing for the use of the colonies to improve working conditions at home, to  better their lives and because they understood themselves as biologically and culturally superior to what they called the 'non-adult races'. Sylvia was arguing ahead of her time, publishing key articles from groups resisting empire in Africa. She published pieces on the exploitation of women in India, not calling for charity, but for revolution.
She campaigned for solidarity with Ethiopia, which whilst this became a more isolated focus at the end of her life, it began as an anti-imperialist, anti-racist campaign.  She was right to champion its independence, and also right in believing the left wouldn't be interested in a black country. Her anti-racism made her aware of the dangers of fascism before the majority of the left. Even fairly early into her anti-imperialist development, she was expelled from the Women's Social and Political Union for speaking at a meeting, alongside James Connolly, calling for James Larkin's freedom. Crucially, the British TUC refused to show such support. Not only was she there in opposition to imperialism, but also because, as she said, 'behind every poor man there was a still poorer woman'.
This sums up her main contribution. Her ability to link the struggles is the most important lesson to learn. People have often argued with us on the streets today, saying that if we talk about women's oppression, capitalism or racism in relation to the cuts, that people won't understand, or that it dilutes the struggle. Sylvia was charged with the same comments by people who refused to fight back then,who inevitably tied the struggle behind ruling class and limiting forces. To link inequality, war, patriarchy and racism is not to dilute the struggle, but to seek its cause; to challenge capitalism itself. Again, we can learn from Sylvia – her trust in people, and faith in the working-class learning and developing in struggle, her belief in organised working-class resistance. We can learn from her aim to reach as many people as possible on the streets and through the paper, and to defend those fighting back, politically and practically, in Britain and around the world. We must organise today, and take inspiration, come together to continue the against fight capitalism and austerity, and to fight racism and fight imperialism!

1 comment:

  1. Excellent analysis and content!

    Saoirse go deo!

    Fraternal greetings from:
    The Plough and Stars Blog