Paul Anderson, review of Sylvia Pankhurst: Porait of a Radical by Patricia Romero (Yale, £17.50), Tribune, 10 April 1987
Patricia Romero first came across Sylvia Pankhurst as a name on an impressive tomb in Addis Ababa. Romero writes that “as a feminist” she was enthralled by Pankhurst’s enthusiasm for the Ethiopian monarchy in the period from the thirties to her death in 1960. She decided to write a monograph on Pankhurst’s years in Ethiopia – but found that she couldn’t do that without understanding Pankhurst’s earlier lives: “the anti-fascist of the early thirties, the communist of the early twenties, and the suffragette and socialist of the nineteen-tens”. Hence this biography.
The problem Romero found, as she more or less admits, was that the Sylvia Pankhurst she felt she had to understand wasn’t half as interesting to her as she had hoped. Romero seems to have become first infuriated and then bored by her subject, and the result is a strangely unsympathetic and at times crass piece of work.
The crassness is nowhere more apparent than in the treatment of Pankhurst’s “communist years” (roughly 1917-24). For most of this period, Pankhurst was the most prominent representative in Britain of a spontaneist, anti-parliamentarian, revolutionary council communism. Inspired by the Bolshevik revolution, Pankhurst was a prime mover in the creation of a British Communist Party and participated in several founding meetings of the Third International in Europe. She and her political allies nevertheless gave voice to beliefs deeply rooted in the strong working-class “rebel culture” that had grown up in Britain during the early years of the century through a whole series of political struggles (and which has been rediscovered by Shiela Rowbotham and others).
Perhaps because of this rootedness in domestic radicalism, Pankhurst’s welcome for the Bolshevik revolution cooled rapidly as she became critical of the Russian communist leaders’ imposition of political strategies and organisational structures on western communists operating in conditions quite unlike those faced by the Bolsheviks in pre-revolutionary Russia.
She was particularly critical of the way the Third International advocated parliamentarianism and affiliation of the British communists to the Labour Party, and her paper Workers’ Dreadnought increasingly became the English language mouthpiece for left communist critics of the International’s “centrism” and “Bolshevisation”, including Gyorgy Lukacs, Amadeo Bordiga, Herman Gorter and Anton Pannekoek.
For her pains, she was attacked by Lenin in Left Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder, and eventually expelled from the Communist Party for refusing to accept party discipline. She kept Workers’ Dreadnought going for a while, and was involved in attempts to create a left-communist Fourth International (which, contrary to Romero, had nothing whatsoever to do with Trotsky), but in 1924 – broke, exhausted and disillusioned – she retired from the revolutionary left political scene.
Romero first of all fails to understand the British political context of Pankhurst’s actions in this period, goes on to fail to understand the international context, and camouflages her failings with some sloppy pop psychology. She quite apparently feels intuitively that Pankhurst’s left communism was wrong (which it may well have been) but has neither the inclination nor the expertise to get to grips with it, let alone give convincing reasons for her judgment.
Which is not to say that untangling the politics of the British revolutionary left in the period after the Great War is an easy task, or that the history of twenties left communism in Europe isn’t complex. But secondary texts that fill in the necessary background are available – Walter Kendall’s The Revolutionary Left in Britain and Russell Jacoby’s Dialectic of Defeat for starters – and it is scandalous that a professional historian has failed to consult them. Perhaps the moral is simbply that you shouldn’t write lives of people you find rather tiresome.