The tragedy of Sylvia Pankhurst

Sectarianism led to putting individual projects before party

As we have seen, Sylvia Pankhurst had become increasing alienated from the negotiations that led to the formation of the CPGB.[1] In a pre-emptive sectarian attack, she took the lead in setting up the so-called ‘Communist Party - British Section of the Third International’ on June 19 1920. This had Edgar Whitehead as secretary, TJ Watkins as treasurer and herself - an undoubtedly talented journalist - as editor of Workers’ Dreadnought, its official organ.

The CP-BSTI involved a scattering of individuals from the South Wales Socialist Society and Socialist Labour Party rumps, but was essentially little more than Pankhurst’s Workers’ Socialist Federation rebranded. The formation of the CP-BSTI was therefore an act of political vandalism, timed to wreck a unity process that involved the overwhelming mass of communists in Britain. Of course the Third International was totally opposed to her move.

Yet in spite of this, or maybe because of it, plus her well-known leftist attitude towards electoral work and affiliation to the Labour Party, Lenin ensured that Sylvia Pankhurst was able to give special branch agents the slip and be smuggled via Norway into Soviet Russia. Arriving during the course of Comintern’s 2nd Congress, she found herself and Willie Gallacher - also a delegate from Britain - targets of Lenin’s anti-left-communist polemic.[2]

The debates and votes at the 2nd Congress saw the left communists decisively defeated. However, while Gallacher returned to Britain determined to unite all communists into the CPGB, Pankhurst stuck to her ‘infantile’ views, still dismissing the CPGB as “Communist Party (British Socialist Party)”.

Nevertheless, the momentum towards unity was unstoppable and was to create a qualitatively higher form of organisation, not simply the BSP augmented. At its national inaugural conference in Gorton, Manchester, the CP-BSTI voted to “join the conference proposed by the executive committee of the Third International”.

Are we in the Third International?

Our statement in last week’s issue, that the Communist Party is part of the Third International, is challenged by W McLaine of the Communist Party (BSP). We quote, therefore, from the theses governing this question, which was carried by the Second Congress of the Third International:

“The Second Congress of the Third International considers as not correct the views regarding the relations of the party to the class and to the masses, and the non-participation of the communist parties in the bourgeois parliaments and reactionary labour unions, which have been precisely refuted in the special resolutions of the present congress, and advocated in full by the Communist Labour Party of Germany[3] and also partially by the Communist Party of Switzerland, by Kommunismus, the organ of the West European Secretariat of the Communist International in Vienna, and by several of our Dutch comrades; further, by certain communist organisations in England, as, for instance, the Workers’ Socialist Federation. Also by the International Workers of the World[4] in America, the Shop Steward Committees in England, and so forth.

“Nevertheless, the Second Congress of the Third International considers possible and desirable the immediate affiliation of such of these organisations which have not already done so officially ...”

The congress having passed this resolution, the executive of the Third International declared that a new United Communist Party should be formed in Britain, and asked the delegates from the two Communist Parties, the English Shop Stewards’ and Workers’ Committees, and the Scottish Workers’ Committee to recommend the following proposal to their respective parties. This the delegates from the respective parties, including those of the Communist Party (BSP), unanimously agreed to do; not a protest was raised from any quarter. The proposal is, that within four months, a conference shall be called, at which shall assist the two Communist Parties, the English and Scottish Workers’ Committees, the Welsh Unofficial Industrial Committees, and Communist Movement, and any other communist organisations desirous of being represented. A committee of two representatives of the societies above named is to make the arrangements for the conference.

The Communist Party at its Manchester conference decided to accept the call of the Third International to take part in this proposed conference. Is the Communist Party (BSP) also prepared to do so?

Workers Dreadnought October 9 1920, Vol 7, No 29

The CPGB did press for unity, and from August 1920 to January 1921 a series of meetings and discussions took place to that end. The majority of the CP-BSTI were obviously sincere in their desire for unity; indeed at its Cardiff conference on December 4-5 1920 it not only agreed to unity, but voted 15 to three to accept the theses and resolutions of Comintern’s 2nd Congress, including the stand against leftism. Pankhurst was not able to vote against. Since October 20 she had been in prison, charged with inciting members of the armed forces to “mutiny and lawlessness” - something she did not deny. From prison she made her views known on the supposed “non-communist elements” in her own organisation. More than that though, her sectarianism was leading her to put her individual projects before the party. She imagined herself at the head of a ‘left’ faction in the CPGB and threatened to use her paper, the Workers’ Dreadnought to these narrow ends.

Unity and the Workers’ Dreadnought

Dear comrades

On January 29 and 30 a conference of the Communist Party (BSTI), the Communist Party of Great Britain, Scottish Communist Labour Party, and others, will be held with the object of merging into a united party.

If I were free to attend this conference, I should advocate the formation of a united party under the following conditions:

1. That the leftwing elements keep together and form a strong, compact left bloc within the party. Lenin advised this when I discussed the question with him in Moscow, and I think the advice is sound.[5] The left bloc should have its own convenors, and its own special sittings prior to party conferences, to decide its policy. In the Italian Socialist Party, the right, left and centre sections hold their special sittings each evening during the party’s conference week, in order to formulate the policy for the next day’s session. The policy is thus classified and hammered out. The same procedure should be followed here by our left bloc. The activities of the bloc will not be confined to party conferences. Every district will have its left bloc, working to mould the policy of the party, to act as the ‘ginger’ group and give the lead.

2. The left elements should insist that the constitution of the party shall leave them free to propagate their policy in the party and in the Third International as a whole.

3. The entire executive of the party, and all the officials, should be elected at the inaugural conference, and thereafter at party conferences. This is a question of vital importance. All officials and members of the executive should be subject to recall by a special party conference, called on the initiative of one-third of the branches.

I believe that a united party ought to be formed. I have not changed my view that there are elements in the Communist Party of Great Britain (BSP), which are not revolutionary, not communist, and which belong in spirit to the Second International. In the Communist Party (BSTI), there are also in my opinion, non-communist elements.

I believe that the interests of communism can best be served at this juncture by forming a united party and fighting to make it a genuine Communist Party, and to expel from office all those who are not communist revolutionaries.

When the Communist Party (BSTI) merges in the new united Communist Party, as I believe it will, or if the Communist Party (BSTI) should split into separate factions, the conditions under which I placed the Workers’ Dreadnought at the disposal of the party as its organ will have ceased to operate.

The Workers’ Dreadnought will then become an independent organ, giving an independent support to the Communist Party from the leftwing standpoint. The paper will be run by those who are now responsible for it, until my release from prison.

E Sylvia Pankhurst

Workers’ Dreadnought January 15 1921, Vol 7, No 43

Pankhurst’s own CP (BSTI) comrades must have been disturbed by this undisciplined threat and it probably encouraged them to press ahead with unity with other communists.

Communist unity

A further meeting was held in Leeds on Saturday, the last of the committee appointed to organise the convention to establish a united Communist Party. Those present included A MacManus and A Inkpin, representing the Communist Party of Great Britain; JV Leckie and J Maclean, representing the Communist Labour Party; and R Beech and T Watkins, representing the Communist Party (BSTI).

The Unity Convention was definitely fixed to be held at Leeds on Saturday and Sunday, January 29 and 30. Representation will be of branches of participating organisations, as well as of independent communist groups willing to join the unity party on the basis of one delegate for the first 25 members and one delegate for additional membership above 25. Voting at the conference will be on the basis of one vote for every 25 members represented. Notices convening the conference will be issued this week and all inquiries and applications for delegates’ credentials should be addressed to Albert Inkpin, 16 King Street, Covent Garden, London WC2.

Workers’ Dreadnought January 15 1921, Vol 7, No 43.

When Sylvia Pankhurst was finally released in May 1921, the Leeds convention had taken place. Former CP-BSTI secretary ET Whitehead sent her an official letter repudiating Workers’ Dreadnought as an organ of the Communist Party - during Pankhurst’s imprisonment it had been run as a factional journal by her faithful friend, Nora Smythe. From here on in it was downhill all the way for Pankhurst and her sectarian project. Over the summer of 1921 she resumed editorship and in August, desperate for funds, the paper was turned into a £1-a-share corporation along the lines of today’s Morning Star. As a result the CPGB broke all links with her and after a brief lash-up with Herman Gorter, the Dutch left communist, Sylvia Pankhurst drifted out of working class politics altogether. She ended her days in Ethiopia, dying in September 1960 a friend and devotee of the ‘Lion of Judah’, the emperor Haile Selassie - a truly bizarre and tragic end for a highly talented, charismatic former partisan of the working class and communism.


  1. Weekly Worker October 21 2010.
  2. See Leftwing communism and Speeches at the 2nd Congress.
  3. The Communist Workers Party.
  4. The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW or the Wobblies) exists today as a syndicalist sect with a claimed membership of something like 12,000 internationally, but at its peak in 1923 it boasted some 100,000, and could mobilise the support of perhaps 300,000 other workers for specific actions.
  5. Obviously, this was a complete fabrication.