Thursday, October 06, 2011

Everything is Possible
Woman with imagination and vision, but no idle dreamer.

THERE was a capacity crowd in the hall at Congress House on Wednesday night, and I was one of the minority of males attending. A new feature-length documentary about a figure from early last century was having its screening at the SERTUC Film Club, SERTUC being the Southern and Eastern Region of the Trade Union Congress, but as I think the reversal of the usual sex balance might suggest, this audience was much more than "the usual suspects".
And it was a rewarding evening for all.

Sylvia Pankhurst: Everything is Possible tells the story of the battling sufragette and socialist who never surrendered her beliefs and principles, whether to brutality from State or pressure from Family, and never lost her feeling, often expressed in practical help, for humanity.

Born in Manchester, where her mother and father started a branch of the Independent Labour Party, Sylvia began studying at Manchester Art School in 1898, and in 1900 she won a scholarship to the Royal College of Art in London. In the film we see some of her work, depicting strong working women like some she might have known up north, with warmth, respect and admiration. But Sylvia was not one of those who stick at sentimentalising the oppressed while doing nothing to combat their oppression, and as she became more involved in the women's suffrage movement in London she decided to put her art to one side and concentrate on politics.

For Sylvia Pankhurst achieving the vote would never be an end in itself, and still less was she interested in raising a narrow elite of upper class women to take their place alongside men in a parliament maintaining wealth and privilege. As her repeated arrests and hunger strikes would show, it was not lack of courage that set her apart from the increasingly desperate actions taken by some sufragettes, but her insistance that the movement must involve the mass of women, and not just an elite of heroines - though a heroine she was.

What's more, while some working men still had no vote, she saw them as allies to be won, rather than competitors - whatever the backward attitudes of some union leaders, or the bizarre (to our modern ears) ideas of a self-styled marxist intellectual like Belfort Bax, who devoted his energies to opposing women's rights.

It was the First World War that shed sharp light on things. Like her friend Keir Hardie, Sylvia Pankhurst saw no glory in workers being sent to the trenches for rival imperialist powers and war profiteers. Unlike her mother Emmeline and older sister Christabel, she would not put aside her fight for equality to support the war effort, and getting more women into production, rather than parliament. But while her mother and sister waved the flag for Our Boys, it was Sylvia, based in London's East End, who helped to see their children were not neglected, with cost-price cafes, toy workshops where mums could earn a wage, creches, and mother and baby clinics in local pubs, one dubbed the Mother's Arms.

(Next time I stumble between the push-chairs and buggies parked in my local Wetherspoon by the mums who gather there with their ankle-biters to confer over brunch I will no longer grumble about what I thought was a modern-day development, having now seen the precedents shown in this film!)

All this was practical solidarity, not mere charity, and went with campaigning on rents and pensions, leading deputations of impoverished East End women to parliament, and editing the Women's Dreadnought, which eventually became the Workers' Dreadnought. It was Sylvia Pankhurst's paper, probably the first edited by a woman, which exposed things people were not supposed to know about, like British Army officers ordering 37,900 executions of conscripts. When an officer, Major Siegfried Sassoon, wrote A Soldiers Declaration, Against the War, it was the Dreadnought that published it.

If not many of us in Wednesday night's audience had known that, I would imagine fewer still of us realised before seeing this film that like James Connolly in Dublin before her, Sylvia Pankhust responded to police brutality by organising a people's army. We see them exercising with real rifles. Stirring times! No wonder by the Second World War our rulers were reluctant to trust the Home Guard with these, or that Sylvia Pankhust has yet to be given a place on a plinth outside parliament, or due mention in our school history books.

An enthusiast like many for the October Revolution in Russia, Sylvia Pankhurst was among the founders of the British Communist Party, though she was not unafraid to tell Lenin when she differed - notably on his advice to communists at the time to get in with Labour and take their place also in parliament. For his part, the leader of the Bolsheviks took Sylvia seriously enough to spend time arguing with her position in Left -wing Communism, an Infantile Disorder.

Sylvia Pankhurst's internationalism continued, in and out of the Party. She supported the dockers who stopped work loading a ship called the Jolly George in London, in 1920 because it was going to carry arms to Poland for use against the Soviet Union. (another piece of working class history we must be grateul to this film for restoring, when nowadays such industrial action is well outside what is legally permitted by our anti-union laws, and there's a danger of such precedents being erased from working class consciousness).

In the 1920s and 1930s, Sylvia Pankhurst was among the first to recognise the menace of fascism and fight against it, and she also assisted Italian and Jewish refugees. She and an Italian socialist Silvio Erasmus Corio set up home at Woodford Green in Essex, and their son Richard was born in 1927.

In 1935, Sylvia launched the Ethiopian News to support the resistance to Italian colonisation. After her partner Silvo died in 1954 she was invited by Emperor Haile Selassie to come and live in Ethiopia, where she founded the Social Service Society and edited a monthly periodical, the Ethiopia Observer. Sylvia Pankhurst died in Addis Ababa on 27 September 1960. The emperor ordered that she should receive a state funeral. Richard Pankhurst became a professor at the University of Addis Ababa and is an outstanding scholar on Ethiopian studies.

Richard and his wife Rita are among the people interviewed in this film, along with academics like Mary Davis. No less than 100 volunteers were involved in conducting the interviews and digging out all kinds of rare archive footage, photographs and documents, some from security files, to tell the story of Sylvia Pankhurst and try to explain her politics. In doing so they have not only brought an under-rated heroine to life and a well-deserved fresh attention, but contributed a missing piece to our picture of 20th century history.

Directors Ceri Dingle and Viv Regan from WORLDwrite, and reporter Saleha Ali who did much of the interviewing were available to discuss with the audience on Wednesday, and I see Ceri Dingle and Professor Mary Davis are due to discuss Sylvia Pankhurst: Everything is Possible on Sunday morning, October 9, when it will be shown along with a short fim about Ethiopia, at the Renoir cinema, in Brunswick Square, under the auspices of London Socialist Film Co-op.

The film is also available on DVD at £10 and well worth showing at your union branch, trades council, history or student society etc


Sylvia Pankhurst was one of first to recognise danger of fascism. An article from Workers Dreadnought;

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At 9:26 AM, Anonymous Ceri Dingle said...

An excellent review and synopsis of Sylvia Pankhurst's vital impact.Thank you. We should like to link to it on our website.


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