Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 1 October 1999

One of the hardy perennials of British socialism has been the complaint that the establishment reinvents radicals as respectable ‘characters’ just as soon as they lose their ability to stir things up – most often, after they die.

It happened to Keir Hardie, Aneurin Bevan and Eric Heffer, and it has seemed about to happen to Tony Benn since at least 1983. When they were at the height of their powers, the Tory press treated them as lower than vermin. Dead or past it, however, they became loveable rogues, celebrated by their one-time mortal enemies for their brilliance in parliament, their extraordinary wit and their touching charm.

I always thought this retrospective rehabilitation of the awkward squad was a prerogative of the Tory right. But now new Labour is playing the same game. A campaign to erect a statue of Sylvia Pankhurst outside the Houses of Parliament has won the support of chancellor Gordon Brown and a gaggle of ultra-moderniser Blair babes.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all in favour of Sylvia getting a statue. She was an important figure in early-20th-century British politics. She played a heroic role in the movement for women’s suffrage. She was courageous in her opposition to the 1914-18 war. In the early 1920s, her paper Workers’ Dreadnought took a bravely independent and critical line, publishing many of the leading dissident voices of continental European and Russian Marxism – among them Alexandra Kollontai, Gyorgy Lukacs, Herman Gorter and Anton Pannekoek.

But she was not a new Labour sort of person. Indeed, she was for a significant period of her life an out-and-out revolutionary, too left-wing even for the Communist Party, let alone the (very old) Labour Party.

Pankhurst was one of the first people in Britain to rally to the Bolshevik revolution in 1917 and one of the first to argue for a British revolutionary socialist party to emulate the success of the Leninists in Russia. In 1918, she and her tiny Workers’ Socialist Federation walked out of the Labour Party, declaring themselves opposed to parliamentarism and in favour of revolution.

She then played a major part in setting up a pro-Bolshevik propaganda office in London, the Russian People’s Information Bureau, with money from Russia – which makes her one of the first recipients of the Moscow gold that sustained British communism whenever it fell upon hard times.

In 1920, after Lenin created the Comintern, the WSF renamed itself the Communist Party (British Section of the Third International), taking a radical anti-parliamentarian line – much to the consternation of Lenin, whose diatribe Left-wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder was directed in part against her.

When the Communist Party of Great Britain was formed with Lenin’s approval a few months after the CP (BSTI), Pankhurst argued for her group to join and push it further to the left. She was expelled in 1921 for repeatedly criticising the party leadership in the pages of the Dreadnought – and for the next three years used the paper to denounce the CPGB and the Labour Party as lacklustre reformists.

Pankhurst’s anti-parliamentarianism was unequivocal. As she put it in the Dreadnought in 1921: “The establishment of the communist life entails a complete breach, both in practice and ideas, with capitalism and its machinery. The parliamentary system is the characteristic machinery of the capitalist state . . . Parliament must be overthrown with the capitalist system if the proletarian revolution is to succeed; there must be a clean break wit the old institutions of government; the revolution must create its own instrument . . . The Soviets are destined to provide both the organisational machinery of communist society and to act as the instrument of proletarian dictatorship during the transitional period during which, while capitalism has been overthrown, the dispossessed owners have not yet settled down to accept the new order.”

Some dismiss Pankhurst’s left communism as an aberration – and it’s true that her achievements as a revolutionary pale into insignificance next to her successes as a feminist campaigner. There was no British revolution, and the Dreadnought expired in 1924 for lack of funds.

But at the time the authorities took her very seriously. For a few years after the first world war, the notion that Britain might erupt in revolution did not seem so far-fetched. Pankhurst was kept under constant Special Branch surveillance and was gaoled for sedition after the Dreadnought called for British soldiers to mutiny.

I rather like the idea of a dangerously subversive anti-parliamentary communist gazing out over College Green. But it’s even better that it should be supported by politicians whose policies make those of Ramsay MacDonald and Pankhurst’s other reformist enemies look almost revolutionary. Gordon has a sense of humour after all, it seems.

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