STRUGGLE FOR WOMEN’S EMANCIPATION
Correspondence between Sylvia Pankhurst and V.I. Lenin
Compiled from Marxists Internet Archive
Pankhurst, E. Sylvia (1882-1960)
Sylvia Pankhurst, and sister of Adela, above, were born in Manchester, the daughters of Dr. Richard Pankhurst and Emmeline Pankhurst. Both their father, who did political work as an attorney radical lawyer, and mother, were major influences on Sylvia’s commitment to socialism.
Sylvia was a talented artist by training but during her schooling also became involved in the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), founded by her mother in 1903, and in which her sister, Christabel, was also very active. In 1906 she served her first prison sentence for her political activities–in her life she would endure several brutal prison sentences involving hunger strikes and forced feedings. She also did work for the Labour Party and became and was closely associated with Kier Hardie, the leader of the party in the House of Commons. In 1911 her book The History of the Women’s Suffrage Movement was published. Her writings include 22 books and pamphlets, and numerous articles including the launching of four newspapers.
Sylvia disagreed with the WSPU (popularly known as the Suffragettes) when they turned from a socialist programme. She was expelled by them in 1914, by which time they had abandoned the cause of suffrage as well. As a pacifist, she also disagreed with their complete support of WWI. She turned to the Labour Party to do party work and started the weekly paper, The Women’s Dreadnought, (later The Worker’s Deadnought) geared for working-class women. The paper was strongly against the war, and during this time she joined Charlotte Despard to form the Women’s Peace Army. As a suffragist, Sylvia founded and built the East London Federation of Suffragettes, which campaigned for the vote and for feminist social change in the 1912-1920.
Sylvia attended the Second Congress of the Communist International in August 1921, where she identified herself as part of the Left. In the 1930s, As an anti-racist and anti-fascist, she supported the republicans in Spain, helped Jewish refugees who fled from Nazi Germany and campaigned against the fascist Italian occupation of Ethiopia. She was involved for more than 3 decades in agitation issues, which included the cause of Ethiopia, where she would live that last four years of her life.
Letter to Lenin
27 October 1920
Source: The Guardian.
The situation is moving in a revolutionary direction more swiftly, but of course we are far away yet. The prices of necessaries are rising, but the cost of living is not totally supposed to have risen this month. Unemployment is now acute, and the unemployed are restive. One of Lansbury’s meetings was broken up by members of my party because he advised peaceful methods, and the crowd supported the young dockers, seamen, and others of my party who opposed him. Unemployed march to factories, enter them, make speeches, and speak of using them. Ex-soldiers arm and drill. Do not exaggerate these things – they are not formidable yet.
Unemployed smashed windows and stole jewels last Monday, when the London Mayors led them to Westminster. The Communist parties alone are neither big enough nor bold enough to rise to the occasion …
In Coventry a member of our party, Emery, leads a campaign for setting aside a factory to work for Soviet Russia, the factory to be controlled by the workers. In ‘The Dreadnought’ I tried to set a bolder policy and should be discussing it with my executive this afternoon, but I was arrested last Thursday and am under £2,000 bail not to meet, or communicate with any of our people responsible for publishing the paper till my trial on Thursday, so I can only communicate indirectly.
I expect six months’ imprisonment. I considered a hunger strike, but I am afraid that weapon is destroyed now since the Government is letting the Irish hunger-strikers die.
I find all the Communist parties, except Gallagher’s Scottish Communist Labour party, disinclined for unity. Parliamentarism and the tameness of the B.S.P. crowd are sore points with our party, and I would have had a hard struggle to bring them round. Now I shall not be there, it seems.
I have done less than I should in seeing people, because I have had a most terrible struggle since I returned home. Our press where our paper is printed was suffering because ‘The Dreadnought’ owed money. Whilst I was away an account ran too long, and a creditor got a writ of payment against us in the court. Then all the creditors took fright. On my return the brokers were in twice in one week, and I have been fighting the situation ever since.
The Third International in Moscow heard my plea when I was there, and promised relief. It does not come. This week the South Wales mining comrades sent for 6,000 extra copies of ‘The Dreadnought’. I borrowed paper from the ‘Herald’. At present I have no paper for next week. It is not pleasant to go to prison so!
With Communist greetings.
Lenin’s Letter to Sylvia Pankhurst
Written: 28 August, 1919
First Published: September 1919; Published according to the manuscript
Source: Lenin’s Collected Works, 4th English Edition, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1972 Volume 29, pages 561-566
Translated: George Hanna
Transcription/HTML Markup: David Walters & Robert Cymbala
Copyleft: V. I. Lenin Internet Archive (www.marx.org) 2002. Permission is granted to copy and/or distribute this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License
To Comrade Sylvia Pankhurst, London
August 28, 1919
I received your letter of July 16, 1919, only yesterday. I am extremely grateful to you for the information about Britain and will try to fulfil your request, i.e., reply to your question.
I have no doubt at all that many workers who are among the best, most honest and sincerely revolutionary members of the proletariat are enemies of parliamentarism and of any participation in Parliament. The older capitalist culture and bourgeois democracy in any country, the more understandable this is, since the bourgeoisie in old parliamentary countries has excellently mastered the art of hypocrisy and of fooling the people in a thousand ways, passing off bourgeois parliamentarism as “democracy in general” or as “pure democracy” and so on, cunningly concealing the million threads which bind Parliament to the stock exchange and the capitalists, utilising a venal mercenary press and exercising the power of money, the power of capital in every way.
There is no doubt that the Communist International and the Communist Parties of the various countries would be making an irreparable mistake if they repulsed those workers who stand for Soviet power, but who are against participation in the parliamentary struggle. If we take the problem in its general form, theoretically, then it is this very programme, i.e., the struggle for Soviet power, for the Soviet republic, which is able to unite, and today must certainly unite, all sincere, honest revolutionaries from among the workers. Very many anarchist workers are now becoming sincere supporters of Soviet power, and that being so, it proves them to be our best comrades and friends, the best of revolutionaries, who have been enemies of Marxism only through misunderstanding, or, more correctly, not through misunderstanding but because the official socialism prevailing in the epoch of the Second International (1889-1914) betrayed Marxism, lapsed into opportunism, perverted Marx’s revolutionary teachings in general and his teachings on the lessons of the Paris Commune of 1871 in particular. I have written in detail about this in my book The State and Revolution and will therefore not dwell further on the problem.
What if in a certain country those who are Communists by their convictions and their readiness to carry on revolutionary work, sincere partisans of Soviet power (the “Soviet system”, as non-Russians sometimes call it), cannot unite owing to disagreement over participation in Parliament?
I should consider such disagreement immaterial at present, since the struggle for Soviet power is the political struggle of the proletariat in its highest, most class-conscious, most revolutionary form. It is better to be with the revolutionary workers when they are mistaken over some partial or secondary question than with the “official” socialists or Social-Democrats, if the latter are not sincere, firm revolutionaries, and are unwilling or unable to conduct revolutionary work among the working masses, but pursue correct tactics in regard to that partial question. And the question of parliamentarism is now a partial, secondary question. Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht were, in my opinion, correct when they defended participation in the elections to the German bourgeois parliament, to the constituent National Assembly, at the January 1919 Conference of the Spartacists in Berlin, against the majority at the Conference. But, of course, they were still more correct when they preferred remaining with the Communist Party, which was making a partial mistake, to siding with the direct traitors to socialism, like Scheidemann and his party, or with those servile souls, doctrinaires, cowards, spineless accomplices of the bourgeoisie, and reformists in practice, such as Kautsky, Haase, Däumig and all this “party” of German “Independents”.
I am personally convinced that to renounce participation in the parliamentary elections is a mistake on the part of the revolutionary workers of Britain, but better to make that mistake than to delay the formation of a big workers’ Communist Party in Britain out of all the trends and elements, listed by you, which sympathise with Bolshevism and sincerely support the Soviet Republic. If, for example, among the B.S.P. there were sincere Bolsheviks who refused, because of differences over participation in Parliament, to merge at once in a Communist Party with trends 4, 6 and 7, then these Bolsheviks, in my opinion, would be making a mistake a thousand times greater than the mistaken refusal to participate in elections to the British bourgeois parliament. In saying this I naturally assume that trends 4, 6 and 7, taken together, are really connected with the mass of the workers, and are not merely small intellectual groups, as is often the case in Britain. In this respect particular importance probably attaches to the Workers Committees and Shop Stewards, [These words are in English in the original.—Editor] which, one should imagine, are closely connected with the masses.
Unbreakable ties with the mass of the workers, the ability to agitate unceasingly among them, to participate in every strike, to respond to every demand of the masses—this is the chief thing for a Communist Party, especially in such a country as Britain, where until now (as incidentally is the case in all imperialist countries) participation in the socialist movement, and the labour movement generally, has been confined chiefly to a thin top crust of workers, the labour aristocracy, most of whom are thoroughly and hopelessly spoiled by reformism and are held back by bourgeois and imperialist prejudices. Without a struggle against this stratum, without the destruction of every trace of its prestige among the workers, without convincing the masses of the utter bourgeois corruption of this stratum, there can be no question of a serious communist workers’ movement. This applies to Britain, France, America and Germany.
Those working-class revolutionaries who make parliamentarism the centre of their attacks are quite right inasmuch as these attacks serve to express their denial in principle of bourgeois parliamentarism and bourgeois democracy. Soviet power, the Soviet republic—this is what the workers’ revolution has put in place of bourgeois democracy, this is the form of transition from capitalism to socialism, the form of the dictatorship of the proletariat. And criticism of parliamentarism is not only legitimate and necessary, as giving the case for the transition to Soviet power, but is quite correct, as being the recognition of the historically conditional and limited character of parliamentarism, its connection with capitalism and capitalism alone, of its progressive character as compared with the Middle Ages, and of its reactionary character as compared with Soviet power.
But the critics of parliamentarism in Europe and America, when they are anarchists or anarcho-syndicalists, are very often wrong insofar as they reject all participation in elections and parliamentary activity. Here they simply show their lack of revolutionary experience. We Russians, who have lived through two great revolutions in the twentieth century, are well aware what importance parliamentarism can have, and actually does have during a revolutionary period in general and in the very midst of a revolution in particular. Bourgeois parliaments must be abolished and replaced by Soviet bodies. There is no doubt about that. There is no doubt now, after the experience of Russia, Hungary, Germany and other countries, that this absolutely must take place during a proletarian revolution. Therefore, systematically to prepare the working masses for this, to explain to them in advance the importance of Soviet power, to conduct propaganda and agitation for it—all this is the absolute duty of the worker who wants to be a revolutionary in deeds. But we Russians fulfilled that task, operating in the parliamentary arena, too. In the tsarist, fake, landowners’ Duma our representatives knew how to carry on revolutionary and republican propaganda. In just the same way Soviet propaganda can and must be carried on in and from within bourgeois parliaments.
Perhaps that will not be easy to achieve at once in this or that parliamentary country. But that is another question. Steps must be taken to ensure that these correct tactics are mastered by the revolutionary workers in all countries. And if the workers’ party is really revolutionary, if it is really a workers’ party (that is, connected with the masses, with the majority of the working people, with the rank and file of the proletariat and not merely with its top crust), if it is really a party, i.e., a firmly, effectively knit organisation of the revolutionary vanguard, which knows how to carry on revolutionary work among the masses by all possible means, then such a party will surely be able to keep its own parliamentarians in hand, to make of them real revolutionary propagandists, such as Karl Liebknecht was, and not opportunists, not those who corrupt the proletariat with bourgeois methods, bourgeois customs, bourgeois ideas or bourgeois poverty of ideas.
If that failed to be achieved in Britain at once, if, in addition, no union of the supporters of Soviet power proved possible in Britain because of a difference over parliamentarism and only because of that, then I should consider a good step forward to complete unity the immediate formation of two Communist Parties, i.e., two parties which stand for the transition from bourgeois parliamentarism to Soviet power. Let one of these parties recognise participation in the bourgeois parliament, and the other reject it; this disagreement is now so immaterial that the most reasonable thing would be not to split over it. But even the joint existence of two such parties would be immense progress as compared with the present situation, would most likely be a transition to complete unity and the speedy victory of communism.
Soviet power in Russia has not only shown by the experience of almost two years that the dictatorship of the proletariat is possible even in a peasant country and is capable, by creating a strong army (the best proof that organisation and order prevail), of holding out in unbelievably, exceptionally difficult conditions.
Soviet power has done more: it has already achieved a moral victory throughout the world, for the working masses everywhere, although they get only tiny fragments of the truth about Soviet power, although they hear thousands and millions of false reports about Soviet power, are already in favour of Soviet power. It is already understood by the proletariat of the whole world that this power is the power of the working people, that it alone is salvation from capitalism, from the yoke of capital, from wars between the imperialists, that it leads to lasting peace.
That is why defeats of individual Soviet republics by the imperialists are possible, but it is impossible to conquer the world Soviet movement of the proletariat.
With communist greetings,
P.S.—The following cutting from the Russian press will give you an example of our information about Britain:
“London, 25.8 (via Beloostrov). The London correspondent of the Copenhagen paper Berlingske Tidende wires on August 3rd concerning the Bolshevik movement in Britain: “The strikes which have occurred in the last few days and the recent revelations have shaken the confidence of the British in the immunity of their country to Bolshevism. At present the press is vigorously discussing this question, and the government is making every effort to establish that a “conspiracy” has existed for quite a long time and has had for its aim neither more nor less than the overthrow of the existing system. The British police have arrested a revolutionary bureau which, according to the press had both money and arms at its disposal. The Times publishes the contents of certain documents found on the arrested men. They contain a complete revolutionary programme, according to which the entire bourgeoisie are to be disarmed; arms and ammunition are to be obtained for Soviets of Workers’ and Red Army Deputies and a Red Army formed; all government posts are to be filled by workers. Furthermore, it was planned to set up a revolutionary tribunal for political criminals and persons guilty of cruelly treating prisoners. All foodstuffs were to be confiscated. Parliament and other organs of public government were to be dissolved and revolutionary Soviets created in their place. The working day was to be lowered to six hours and the minimum weekly wage raised to £7. All state and other debts were to be annulled. All banks, industrial and commercial enterprises and means of transport were to be declared nationalised.”
If this is true, then I must offer the British imperialists and capitalists, in the shape of their organ, the richest newspaper in the world, The Times, my respectful gratitude and thanks for their excellent propaganda in behalf of Bolshevism. Carry on in the same spirit, gentlemen of The Times, you are splendidly leading Britain to the victory of Bolshevism!
 This refers to the Inaugural Congress of the Communist Party of Germany, held in Berlin from December 30, 1918 to January 1, 1919. Despite the speeches by Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg proposing participation in the elections to the National Assembly, the Congress, by a majority vote (62 against 23) adopted the decision not to participate in the election campaign.