Workers' Socialist Federation

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Workers' Socialist Federation
LeaderSylvia Pankhurst
Preceded byWomen's Social and Political Union
NewspaperWorkers' Dreadnought
IdeologyLeft communism
International affiliationCommunist Workers International

The Workers' Socialist Federation was a socialist political party in the United Kingdom, led by Sylvia Pankhurst. Under many different names, it gradually broadened its politics from a focus on women's suffrage to eventually become a left communist grouping.

East London Federation of the WSPU[edit]

It originated as the East London Federation of the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU, better known as the Suffragettes). The East London Federation was founded by Dr Richard Pankhurst and Emmeline Pankhurst in 1893,[1] and differed from its parent organisation in being democratic and including men, such as George Lansbury.[2]

By this point, Sylvia had many disagreements with the route the WSPU was taking. She wanted an explicitly socialist organisation tackling wider issues than women's suffrage, aligned with the Independent Labour Party, based among working class people in the East End of London. She also wanted to focus on collective workers' action, not individual attacks on property.[2]

East London Federation of Suffragettes[edit]

These and other differences, including personal ones, led to Sylvia's expulsion, along with the East London Federation, from the WSPU. In early 1914, they renamed themselves the East London Federation of Suffragettes (ELFS) and launched a newspaper, the Women's Dreadnought.[2]

At first, the group campaigned for universal suffrage and agitated among parliamentarians, with the assistance of Keir Hardie. But with the outbreak of World War I, they began also to attack participation in the war, supporting the positions of the Zimmerwald Conference. This view initially lost the group support, but they began work to ameliorate suffering in the East End.[2]

The ELFS got a chain of cost price restaurants set up, and itself set up a toy factory, free clinic and Montessori nursery. They also agitated for widow's pensions and dependent's allowances.[2]

Workers' Suffrage Federation[edit]

As public opinion turned against the war, the group gained new support, and its newspaper increased its circulation. To reflect its now broader political positions, in March 1916 it renamed itself the Workers' Suffrage Federation (WSF).[2] Similarly, in July 1917, the newspaper was renamed the Workers' Dreadnought. From the start of 1917, it adopted a new aim: "to secure Human Suffrage, namely, a Vote, for every Woman and Man of full age, and to win Social and Economic Freedom for the People".[3]

The WSF supported the 1916 Irish Rising and became a leading proponent of improved social welfare while continuing agitation for a universal franchise. As such, it opposed the Franchise Bill which ultimately gave women in Britain the vote in general elections as the restrictions on women voting were much stricter than those on men.[2]

Despite its evolving position, during much of 1917, the party remained focused on campaigning for universal suffrage, and welcomed the February Revolution in Russia largely on the basis that it would introduce an Assembly on this basis.[4] The party enthusiastically supported the October Revolution of 1917.[2] When, in January 1918, the new Bolshevik government in Russia dissolved the Assembly, the group now welcomed its replacement by the All-Russian Workers', Soldiers', Sailors' and Peasants' Council and now argued that Soviets were the most democratic form of government.[5]

In May 1918, the party's conference agreed to again rename the group, now as the Workers' Socialist Federation, reflecting its growing opposition to Parliamentarism. The group supported the Socialist Labour Party's (SLP) three candidates at the 1918 United Kingdom general election, along with independent socialists David Kirkwood and John Maclean, and permitted individual members to campaign for Labour Party candidates.[6]

At the party's conference in June 1919, it voted to ignore all future elections, and also to follow the advice of the Third International by opening discussions with other socialist groups with the aim of forming a single communist party.[7] As a result, it organised meetings in London later in the month, which were attended by the WSF, SLP, British Socialist Party and South Wales Socialist Society.[7] Pankhurst wrote to Lenin, asking for his support for the party's opposition to standing in elections; to her disappointment, he argued that this reflected a "lack of revolutionary experience", although he also stated that the issue was a secondary one, and should not prevent the WSF from becoming part of a new communist party.[8] While not changing its views, the WSF accordingly deprioritised this policy in the hope of furthering the unity negotiations.[9]

During this period, the WSF led campaigns against the British government's anti-Bolshevik activities, with the slogan "Hands off Russia".[2] It also began working with the London Workers' Committee.

By June 1920, it had become apparent that the unity negotiations would not satisfy all the participants, as they were unable to agree whether the new communist party should attempt to affiliate to the Labour Party. The WSF instead called an "Emergency Conference", inviting all the socialist parties which opposed affiliation to Labour: the SLP, SWSS and various local organisations.[10]

Communist Party (British Section of the Third International)[edit]

The conference was held in June 1920 but was attended only by WSF members, some local groups and independents. It agreed to form the Communist Party (British Section of the Third International) (CP(BSTI)) and voted to boycott future unity meetings. Instead, it attempted to interest the SLP in a merger. They proposed opening discussions with the Socialist Party of Great Britain and the British Section of the International Socialist Labour Party, but then withdrew, leaving the exercise a failure. However, the CP(BSTI) did gain influence in the Scottish Communist Labour Party and the tiny Communist Party of South Wales and the West of England was formed on their platform.

The BSP had meanwhile formed the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB). Lenin called on other communists to join the new party, and the CP(BSTI) was one of the groups covered in his work Left-Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder. Although Workers Dreadnaught was openly critical of this pamphlet, Pankhurst attended the Second Congress of the Comintern, where Lenin personally persuaded Sylvia that her objections were less important than unity, and that it would be possible to maintain an anti-Parliamentary opposition within the CPGB. Pankhurst called a conference, inviting the English Shop Stewards' and Workers' Committee Movement, the Communist Labour Party, the Scottish Workers' Committee and the Glasgow Communist Group. She was arrested in September, but with the support of Willie Gallacher, all the groups at the conference bar Guy Aldred's Glasgow Communist Group agreed to merge with the Communist Party of Great Britain in January 1921.

After a period, Pankhurst was instructed to place the Workers' Dreadnought under the control of the party, which she refused to do. In particular, she criticised the Communist Party members of the Poplar Board of Guardians for agreeing to reduce outdoor Poor Law relief, which was cited as the reason for her expulsion from the CPGB in September 1921. While the idea of democratic centralism, newly accepted as the governing principle for the CPGB, would seem to suggest that she was in breach of discipline, Labour Monthly continued as the personal organ of R. P. Dutt and even received subsidies.

Communist Workers' Party[edit]

Pankhurst reorganised her group of supporters around Workers Dreadnought, and began criticising the admittance of trade unions to the Red International of Labour Unions, and warning that they felt the Bolsheviks were beginning to "slip to the right". The group instead advocated grouping together Industrial Unions under the auspices of the "All-Workers Revolutionary Union": intended as "One Big Union" which would unite all workers in a struggle against capitalism.[11] This achieved little, but in 1923 the party formed the Unemployed Workers' Organisation, modeled on the Industrial Workers of the World. Initially, this attracted numerous former members of the National Unemployed Workers' Movement, including its whole Edmonton and South West Ham branches. By the start of 1924, it claimed 3,000 members, mostly in London but also with a branch in Leeds.[12]

The group affiliated to the left communist Communist Workers International (KAI) and announced its intention to form a Communist Workers Party. No national group was formally constituted, and they later referred to the network as the Communist Workers Group although it was now a very small party and dissolved itself in June 1924.

Honorary Treasurers[edit]

1913: Sybil Smith[13]
1913: Sybil Thomas[13]
1914: Evelina Haverfield[13]
1915: Edgar Lansbury[13]
1916: Norah Smyth[13]


  1. ^ Elizabeth Crawford, ‘Bull , Amy Maud (1877–1953)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 accessed 1 January 2017
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i Mary Davis, Sylvia Pankhurst (Pluto Press, 1999) ISBN 0-7453-1518-6
  3. ^ M. A. S. Shipway, Anti-Parliamentary Communism in Britain 1917-1945, vol.1, p.26
  4. ^ M. A. S. Shipway, Anti-Parliamentary Communism in Britain 1917-1945, vol.1, pp.27-28
  5. ^ M. A. S. Shipway, Anti-Parliamentary Communism in Britain 1917-1945, vol.1, p.30
  6. ^ M. A. S. Shipway, Anti-Parliamentary Communism in Britain 1917-1945, vol.1, pp.31-33
  7. ^ a b M. A. S. Shipway, Anti-Parliamentary Communism in Britain 1917-1945, vol.1, p.35
  8. ^ M. A. S. Shipway, Anti-Parliamentary Communism in Britain 1917-1945, vol.1, pp.36-37
  9. ^ M. A. S. Shipway, Anti-Parliamentary Communism in Britain 1917-1945, vol.1, p.42
  10. ^ M. A. S. Shipway, Anti-Parliamentary Communism in Britain 1917-1945, vol.1, pp.43-44
  11. ^ M. A. S. Shipway, Anti-Parliamentary Communism in Britain 1917-1945, vol.1, p.56
  12. ^ M. A. S. Shipway, Anti-Parliamentary Communism in Britain 1917-1945, vol.1, pp.236-237
  13. ^ a b c d e Elizabeth Crawford, The women's suffrage movement: a reference guide, 1866-1928, p.185