28 September 2020

Tragedy of Sylvia Pankhurst

On June 19 1920, Sylvia Pankhurst took the lead in setting up the so-called “Communist Party – British Section of the Third International” (CP-BSTI). Edgar Whitehead was its secretary, TJ Watkins the treasurer and Pankhurst herself took up the role of editor of Workers’ Dreadnought, its official paper.

The formation of the CP-BSTI was opposed by the Third International, not just because of the new formation’s ultra-leftist political template, but also the simple fact that the overwhelming majority of communists in Britain were uniting to create the Communist Party of Great Britain – a huge gain for the working class of Britain. Despite this (or perhaps, because of it), Lenin saw to it that the recalcitrant Pankhurst was issued with an invitation to attend the Comintern’s 2nd Congress. Along with Willie Gallacher, she had to give special branch agents the slip and smuggle herself, via Norway, into Soviet Russia. Lenin obviously thought that Pankhurst and Gallacher could be cured of the ‘infantile disease of leftism’.

When she eventually pitched up in Moscow. Pankhurst found herself – and Willie Gallacher – the target of Lenin’s famous anti-leftist polemic.1

The debates and votes at the 2nd Congress saw the ‘left’ communists decisively defeated. However, while comrade Gallacher returned to Britain a convinced Leninist and a fierce partisan of the communist unity project represented by the fledgling CPGB, Pankhurst stuck to her leftist views, still dismissing it as the “CPGB (British Socialist Party)”.2 Nevertheless, the momentum towards unity was unstoppable.

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”. 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. At its Cardiff conference on December 4-5 1920 it not only agreed to unity, but voted by 15 to three to accept the theses and resolutions of Comintern’s 2nd Congress.

Pankhurst was not able to vote against, as from October 20 she had been in prison – charged with inciting members of the armed forces “to mutiny and lawlessness”. From her prison cell, she made her views on the supposed “non-communists” in her own organisation abundantly clear.

By now, her stubborn sectarianism was pulling her in the direction of an individualistic and rather eccentric political stance. For instance, she styled herself as the head of a “left” trend in the CPGB and threatened to use her paper, the Workers’ Dreadnought, for her narrow, factional ends. Her political moorings were becoming shaky, as the tide of events began to flow strongly against her.

She was released from gaol in May 1921, by which time the Leeds convention had already taken place. The former CP-BSTI secretary, ET Whitehead, sent her an official letter repudiating Workers’ Dreadnought as an organ of the Communist Party. Over the summer of 1921 Pankhurst resumed editorship and in August, desperate for funds, the paper was turned into a £1-a-share corporation. This was the last straw and the CPGB broke all links with her. After a brief lash-up with Herman Gorter, the Dutch ‘left’ communist, Sylvia Pankhurst drifted out of working class politics.

She ended her days in Ethiopia, dying in September 1960, a friend and devotee of the emperor, Haile Selassie.

William Sarsfield

Are we in the Third International?

Workers’ Dreadnought October 9 1920

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 defended in full by the present congress, and defended in full by the Communist Labour Party of Germany [Communist Workers Party] and also partially by the Communist Party of Switzerland, by the organ of the west European secretariat of the Communist International, Communismus in Amsterdam and by several of our Dutch comrades: further, by certain communist organisations in England, as for instance, the Workers’ Socialist Federation. Also by the IWW 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?

Unity and Workers Dreadnought

Workers’ Dreadnought January 15 1921

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. The left bloc should have its own conveners, 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


  1. The English title of Lenin’s forensic polemic has gone into history as Leftwing communism: an infantile disorder. In fact – as Lars Lih points out – “The standard translation of the subtitle is most misleading in tone, since ‘infantile disorder’ sounds like a dismissive sneer. The Russian original, detskaiabolezn, means ‘childhood disease’ and refers to mumps, measles and the like. A translation that brings out Lenin’s point better than the standard one is: ‘Leftwing’ communism: a symptom of growing pains. The anarchist or syndicalist rejection of the party principle is treated as the passing mistake of a rapidly maturing, but genuinely revolutionary, spirit” (Weekly Worker June 6 2012).↩︎
  2. The British Socialist Party was the largest component part of the new CPGB. The implication Pankhurst was striving to give with her belittling “CPGB (BSP)” jibe was that not much had really changed. The existing BSP had ‘rebranded’. Big deal. In truth, despite the fact the BSP did indeed provide the bulk of members of the new organisation, what had been created was a qualitatively higher form of working class organisation in Britain.↩︎

Return to the ‘Formation of the CPGB (1920)’ series