Sylvia Pankhurst’s activism during the First World War demonstrated her unwavering commitment to anti-imperialism – a thread running through all her activity for the rest of her life

Katherine Connelly, Sylvia Pankhurst: Suffragette, Socialist and Scourge of Empire (Pluto 2013), ix, 178pp.

Sylvia’s radicalism also created tensions in the Women’s International League (WIL), which emerged out of an international conference of women who wanted to see an end to the war, in the Hague in April 1915. (In Britain, 180 women, including Sylvia, had wanted to attend the meeting, but the government refused Sylvia a passport and then stopped shipping from crossing the North Sea.)

Sylvia was on the executive of the British branch, but the WIL voted against the WSF’s proposal that they call themselves the Women’s International Peace League, and rejected foreign women members and even wives of ‘enemy aliens’. Much of the leadership were women who had felt forced to leave the nationalist NUWSS in order to participate in the WIL, and although they were unhappy at the war they had accepted the notion of serving the nation in wartime and were unable to fully break with looking out for the interests of ‘their’ state and therefore rejected the notion of campaigning for peace on any terms. Sylvia, however, was moving in a very different direction; she spent the war reading ‘Karl Marx, Kropotkin, William Godwin, William Morris – all those who attacked the ethics of present society at its base took on a deeper meaning’, and developed an understanding of the war as driven by imperialism.68 In an article asking ‘What is a Pacifist?’ she answered ‘the true pacifist is a rebel against the present organisation of society’.*

Sylvia later explained her turn towards explicit antiwar campaigning as a consequence of a personally traumatic experience. In September 1915 she was devastated by the news that Keir Hardie had died. She felt that ‘the War had shattered him’, while George Bernard Shaw, the Fabian socialist, commented ‘I do not see what Hardie could do but die’ when ‘the Labour Party he had so painfully dragged into existence – should snatch still more eagerly at the War to surrender those liberties and escape back into servility, crying: “You may trust your masters: they will treat you well.” … This was what broke the will to live in Keir Hardie.’

Reflecting on Hardie caused Sylvia to dwell upon her own campaigning focus in the first year of the war. She explained her dilemma as an internal dialogue: ‘though I had spoken against the War, the greater part of my struggle had been waged for economic conditions. “Oh yes, I know this is a capitalist war; if capitalism were ended, wars would be no more; yet the politics of this War, in their callous wickedness; these you have not sufficiently exposed”.’ But though Hardie had been opposed to the war, he was primarily opposed to it from a moral standpoint; that he was unable to galvanise collective opposition was reflected in Sylvia and Shaw’s depiction of him as a broken, isolated individual.

Sylvia’s opposition to the war was motivated both by her commitment to the ethical socialism represented by Hardie, but also by a more scientific socialism which saw the war as fundamentally opposed to the interests of the vast majority of people. She was therefore able to identify ‘economic conditions’ where inequalities were intensified in wartime, which people could unite around and challenge. Though personally horrified by the war, Sylvia therefore never felt as isolated as Hardie did, and although she felt his influence as her emphasis changed, she did not in fact change her approach of working towards collective, popular resistance. Indeed, her move towards campaigning for peace coincided with a shift in public opinion against the war.

The enthusiasm for a war that would be ‘over by Christmas’ 1914 evaporated as it turned into a bloody war of attrition in which a single day could bring tens of thousands of casualties. The drive in 1915 towards conscription, introduced in 1916, reflected the fact that not enough men were volunteering to continue the war, while the intensified hardships on the home front, which Sylvia had identified as the basis of opposition, were translating into disillusionment in the war. The Dreadnought reflected this changing consciousness; in one instance in March 1916 it reported the reaction of striking women munitions workers in Newcastle who were told to go back to work for the sake of the soldiers: ‘A girl waved her hand and said: “Don’t mention the soldiers. England at 2ód. an hour isn’t worth fighting for!”’

The discontent was reflected in the increased numbers of strikes that broke out in 1915 and 1916; and then at Easter 1916 an uprising in Dublin against British rule was brutally crushed, and the leaders executed in prison. Sylvia was most affected by the execution of Connolly, whom she had spoken alongside in 1913, and whose socialism she felt was the greatest loss to the movement for Irish freedom ‘because his rebellion struck deeper than mere nationalism’.

Sylvia’s shift in emphasis, then, largely developed out of her own reading in this period and her identifying the opportunity that a change in popular consciousness provided for more explicit antiwar campaigning. In December 1916 she launched a peace campaign, holding demonstrations at the East India

Dock Gates and Victoria Park. The police made arrests claiming there was disorder, but Sylvia and other WSF members argued that they had largely sympathetic audiences and the disorder was exaggerated to give the impression the country remained overwhelmingly prowar and as a pretext to remove antiwar campaigners from the streets. Sylvia would later remember: ‘Peace, and the popular government of the world to end this capitalist system of ruthless materialism, stood out for me as the two great needs of the hour.’ This more explicitly socialist and anti-imperialist agitation would come to define her activity for the next few years.

The WSF’s rejection of a ‘national interest’ from the very start of the war, and their insistence on the particular, but international, interest of the working class, enabled them to develop a defence of women’s rights in wartime, which had been abandoned by other women’s organisations, and a more complete antiwar position than the international organisations working towards, but not for, peace. No wonder that the WIL chair Helena Swanwick found Sylvia ‘a very provoking colleague, owing to her habit of going her own separate way, even after she had joined others in hammering out an agreed way … like one of the hoops in “Alice’s” game of croquet, Sylvia had wandered off to another part of the field’.

Then, in March 1917, everything would change again. Elsie Lagsding found out while she was sitting in a socialist meeting – Norah Smyth came ‘rushing in and she said “the revolution’s started, it’s started”. They all sat and gaped at her, they thought she’d gone mad.’


* The term ‘pacifist’ was a much broader term in the early twentieth century than it is now. It did not mean the absolute renunciation of all violence, but it did entail demanding an immediate end to war. (See ‘Preface’ in Wiltsher, Most Dangerous Women, p. xii.)

This article is an extract from the chapter War and Imperialism (pp.83-6)

Katherine Connelly

Kate Connelly is a writer and historian. She led school student strikes in the British anti-war movement in 2003, co-ordinated the Emily Wilding Davison Memorial Campaign in 2013 and is a leading member of Counterfire. She wrote the acclaimed biography, 'Sylvia Pankhurst: Suffragette, Socialist and Scourge of Empire' and recently edited and introduced 'A Suffragette in America: Reflections on Prisoners, Pickets and Political Change'.