log in

  • Published in Book Reviews

Rachel Holmes’ monumental biography of Sylvia Pankhurst succeeds in capturing her energy and brilliance, and the relevance of her causes for today, finds Katherine Connelly

sylvia-pankhurst-lg.jpg
Rachel Holmes, Sylvia Pankhurst: Natural Born Rebel (Bloomsbury 2020), 976pp.

When she wrote her memoir of the suffragette movement, Sylvia Pankhurst explained:

My desire has been to introduce the actors in the drama as living beings; to show the striving, suffering, hugely hopeful human entity behind the pageantry, the rhetoric and the turbulence.i

Pankhurst’s vivid, detailed and human account, in scale and tone like a nineteenth-century novel filled with memorable characters and dramatic stories, became the defining history of that movement; the basis, for example, for the hugely influential 1970s TV series Shoulder to Shoulder that introduced a new generation to the suffragettes.

Rachel Holmes has achieved a similar feat in her monumental biography of Sylvia Pankhurst. Where other biographies have focussed on a particular part of Pankhurst’s huge contribution to social movements in the twentieth century (Barbara Winslow’s Sylvia Pankhurst: Sexual Politics and Political Activism and Mary Davis’ Sylvia Pankhurst: A Life in Radical Politics), or have written shorter accounts (Shirley Harrison’s Sylvia Pankhurst: A Crusading Life or my own Sylvia Pankhurst: Suffragette, Socialist and Scourge of Empire), Rachel Holmes’ book matches the scale, ambition and artistic spirit of her subject’s own writing.

If Pankhurst had thought about what her biography should look like, I think perhaps she would have hoped for one like this.

A rebel for our times

Holmes’ book brings us in gorgeous technicolour the scope of Pankhurst’s lifelong political activism as it interwove and sometimes painfully conflicted with her personal life. The suffragette movement, for which she is most famous, was just the start.

In 1914, Pankhurst was expelled from the militant Women’s Social and Political Union (by its leaders; her mother and older sister, Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst) for organising a working-class suffragette campaign in East London that made links with the labour movement and challenged the WSPU’s increasingly elitist and right-wing leadership.

As an independent organisation, Pankhurst’s East London group campaigned against the First World War, provided a wide range of social-welfare schemes for working women locally, and supported the Bolshevik Revolution. Pankhurst would brave a desperate trek across the Alps at night, and journeys clinging to small fishing boats in the freezing North Sea to participate in international communist debates.

Pankhurst was one of the first to identify the dangers of fascism (at a time when Winston Churchill was singing its praises), was a lifelong anti-racist and anti-imperialist, and spent the last twenty-five years of her life working for Ethiopian freedom and development.

It is to be hoped that like Pankhurst’s own The Suffragette Movement or Shoulder To Shoulder, Holmes’ Sylvia Pankhurst captures the imagination of a new generation who will find her campaigns for working-class emancipation, women’s liberation, her anti-racism and anti-imperialism urgently relevant. Many of Pankhurst’s demands speak directly to us. Calling for a national health service in the 1930s, she concluded: ‘Let the government come to the aid of the workers as it did to the aid of the bankers!’ (p.470). A demand that apparently never dates.

Other people

Holmes conveys the atmosphere of mass movements and covert political operations in which Pankhurst was involved. Exploring government files only released in 2014 (!), she reveals what it was like to be subject to the most intrusive surveillance whilst a hunger striker in prison – and how Pankhurst still managed to resist.

The extraordinary people she campaigned alongside and argued with are brought to life: Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst, Keir Hardie, Winston Churchill, Lenin and George Bernard Shaw continually re-emerge to challenge, inspire and antagonise. The book is filled with other wonderful characters whose lives Pankhurst touched. Nurse Hebbes, who first worked for Pankhurst in East London, became Marie Stopes’ first nurse.

Norah Smyth, who outran the police after burning down Viscount Harcourt’s country home, became one of Pankhurst’s dearest friends and captured her East London work in her extraordinary photographs beautifully described by Holmes. Suffragettes Daisy Parsons and Nellie Cressall became mayors and living legends in East London.

Eduard Sōrmus, the violinist who preached revolution in South Wales, was deported by the British government and later reappears flying across the sky of a Marc Chagall painting! Jomo Kenyatta, who frequented Pankhurst’s home in Woodford, later became president of independent Kenya. These stories, and many others besides, are a hugely important part of Pankhurst’s life, dedicated as it was to other people.

Courage

This approach also allows Holmes to locate Pankhurst within the wider political context in which she operated. In part, this reveals Pankhurst’s immense courage: she ‘knew intimately the price to be paid for taking sides’ (p.xvi). Pankhurst, Holmes reminds us, served more sentences in Holloway prison than any other suffragette, and by the end of 1913 she had suffered forcible feeding more times than any other suffragette prisoner. Holmes shows that the horror of hunger strikes and torture of forcible feeding had lifelong effects.

Many of her contemporaries lost their lives in their commitment to the causes in which Pankhurst worked with them. James Connolly, who Pankhurst stood alongside to great cheers in the Albert Hall in 1913, was executed by the British Army less than three years later. Rosa Luxemburg, the outstanding revolutionary Marxist who Pankhurst looked up to, was murdered by the proto-fascist Freikorps in 1919. Antonio Gramsci, to whose newspaper Pankhurst frequently contributed, died in one of Mussolini’s prisons in April 1937. Two months later, Italian exiles Carlo and Nello Rosselli, anti-fascist campaigners alongside Pankhurst, were murdered by fascists.

Pankhurst, who was on the Gestapo’s list of people to arrest upon a Nazi invasion of Britain, received death threats from fascists. She published these on the front page of her newspaper, but she wasn’t persuaded to lock her back door.

Connections

Holmes’ contextualisation of Pankhurst’s politics enables insights into the connections between the various causes she espoused. These were often dismissed as incongruous in range, or the result of her inability to work with others (one wonders if this would be described as leadership in a male political figure).

Author of the most recent biography of Eleanor Marx, Holmes regards the moment in 1896 when the thirteen-year-old Pankhurst met Marx as especially important. Marx played a crucial role in the socialist current in the British labour movement, the environment Pankhurst grew up in, and organised among working people in East London, as Pankhurst would just over twenty years later. Marx’s comrades were the first socialists that Pankhurst knew.

It is intriguing to speculate: if Marx had not taken her own life in 1898, what influence would she have had upon Sylvia Pankhurst as she agonised over how to defend socialist feminism against the increasingly socially conservative leadership of the militant suffragette movement?

Holmes carefully charts Pankhurst’s political development. She shows how Pankhurst’s disappointment with the Labour Party’s capitulation to nationalism with the outbreak of the First World War, and the example of superior grassroots democracy represented by the soviets in the Russian Revolution, led to this suffragette championing the Bolsheviks, and dismissing the parliament in which she had so recently fought for representation, as irredeemably bankrupt.

This was the backdrop to Pankhurst’s famous argument with Lenin, over the extent to which revolutionaries should work with parties that aspired to achieve change within the existing economic system. Lenin regarded this as a tactical necessity to achieve a platform among the millions of people revolutionaries should aim to win over and argued so in his pamphlet ‘Left-Wing’ Communism: An Infantile Disorder that critiqued Pankhurst’s arguments. For her part, Pankhurst regarded Lenin’s strategy as an inevitably doomed abandonment of principle.

Although noting the immense respect with which Lenin regarded Pankhurst (it is significant that her adherence to principle rendered her one of the communists who defended the Bolsheviks’ insistence on anti-imperialism), Holmes also detects sexism in his treatment of women. This reviewer would argue for a more positive assessment of Lenin’s commitment to women’s liberation, embodied in the immediate achievements of the October Revolution and, indeed, in his genuine efforts to convince Pankhurst politically.

On the other hand, while Holmes shows why Pankhurst drew the conclusions she did, she is rightly critical of her subject’s tactical and theoretical naivety in this debate: ‘There is no “pure” point from which to begin. To believe in this form of tabula rasa – in the possibility of starting again with a blank page – is the illusion of so-called ultra leftism’ (p.593).

In a similarly effective combination of criticism and understanding, Holmes explores Pankhurst’s espousal of the Ethiopian cause. For far too long, a sexist and historically untenable explanation has prevailed that lifelong republican Pankhurst was somehow enthralled by Emperor Haile Selassie who functioned as a ‘father figure’.

Holmes shows that Pankhurst’s defence of Ethiopia against Italy’s fascist invasion was based on principled anti-racism and anti-colonialism: demanding that western powers treat Ethiopia and its head of state like any other that experienced fascist occupation. Moreover, in contemporary criticisms of Ethiopia, Pankhurst could sniff colonial hypocrisy across continents. She asked of one American critic if ‘he recommends equalitarian communism for the USA as well as for Ethiopia’ (p.778).

By contrast, Holmes’ criticisms are principled and from the left: that on her first visit to Ethiopia, Pankhurst failed to offer ‘robust criticism of the extremities of luxury at the imperial palace’ (p.767) whilst many Ethiopians lived in dire poverty.

Refusing to excuse or overlook Pankhurst’s blind spots, Holmes nevertheless places her romanticised depiction of Ethiopia in the context of wider developments on the African continent. The British state was grasping for more territory and institutional Apartheid was established in South Africa. It was in this context that Pankhurst was ‘lending her elbow and pen to a monarchy committed to the African struggle for independence, the expanding global political movement against racism and the central symbolic figure in Rastafari ideology’ (p.769).

Sylvia Pankhurst: The Collected Works

One reason that so much of Pankhurst’s life work has been overlooked is because her life’s writings have never been published in full. Holmes’ book ends with a call for the publication of Sylvia Pankhurst’s Collected Works and surely anyone who reads this biography will agree.

Holmes has quoted extensively from Pankhurst’s unpublished writings. These reveal how sharp an observer Pankhurst was. Holmes herself writes compellingly on how Pankhurst, who trained as an artist, saw and reinterpreted the world. For example, we follow Pankhurst into prison where she sees the ‘broad arrow’ stamped on every item of prison uniform. As the official artist of the suffragette movement, Pankhurst turned that icon of degradation into one of militant defiance.ii

Pankhurst was no less an artist of the pen. Contained in this biography are stunning descriptions of Russia shortly after the revolution. Holmes quotes from the poems and almost completed play that Pankhurst painstakingly wrote out on prison toilet paper when she was denied writing materials. A collected works would bring these together with her books and less well-known journalism, for example a long and fascinating series on ‘women and fascism’.

Pankhurst now

Holmes’ biography has not come a moment too soon! The last year has proved in some ways a very painful and difficult one for the left, but also a time when the ideas Pankhurst held dear of the importance of self-emancipation and the reorganisation of society from below have been proved more urgent than ever.

Pankhurst suffered crushing disappointment in her political activism, not least experiencing the leadership of the labour and women’s movement abandon their struggles in favour of virulent nationalism in 1914. And yet, to quote Holmes,

‘To state that Sylvia Pankhurst was unusually resilient and possessed of almost magical reserves of optimism, hope and the physical and emotional energy required to support them would be an understatement’ (p.457).iii

In Holmes’ epic biography, Pankhurst continually reminds us of the importance of seeking radical potential in every change, however devastating.

Pankhurst ended her memoir of the suffragette movement with the words: ‘Great is the work which remains to be accomplished!’ Holmes’ biography can help inspire us to do just that.

i E. Sylvia Pankhurst, The Suffragette Movement (London: Virago Limited, 1977), Preface.

ii Another glorious detail Holmes provides here is that it was in fact illegal to reproduce the broad arrow without government permission! Decades later, in reference to putting up commemorations to the suffragettes in Parliament with his friend Jeremy Corbyn, Tony Benn would affirm the importance of never asking for permission.

iii Evidence of her energy endures to the final chapters, which recall Pankhurst going camping in Ethiopia in her late seventies.

Before you go...we need your help

Counterfire is expanding fast as a website and an organisation. We are trying to organise a dynamic extra-parliamentary left in every part of the country to help build resistance to the government and their billionaire backers. If you like what you have read and you want to help, please join us or just get in touch by emailing This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Now is the time!

Tagged under: Sylvia Pankhurst Feminism
Katherine Connelly

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'.

BLOG COMMENTS POWERED BY DISQUS

Help boost radical media and socialist organisation

Join Counterfire today

Join Now