'and handed the white feather to every young man they encountered wearing civilian dress'. The WSPU was renamed the Women's Party and now demanded compulsory national service for women. (Conscription for men was not introduced until 1916!) Even when in 1916, Asquith was finally forced to concede the principle of full adult suffrage (to be introduced after the war), the super patriotic Women's Party actually opposed such a suggestion on the grounds that the most pressing priority was to enfranchise the men in the fighting forces. In a remarkable reversal the erstwhile militant supporters of women's suffrage now campaigned ardently against this very issue denouncing it as a ploy whereby Asquith was now, in Mrs. Pankhurst’s term, 'using the women to dish the men'.
The only consistency in their approach was their continued opposition to Asquith, whose days as Prime Minister were numbered. In 1915 The Suffragette, now renamed Britannia outdid almost every other chauvinist newspaper and periodical in its fervent (almost maniacal) support for a 'war of attrition'. To Britannia the first Russian Revolution of 1917 was a potential disaster. It was the occasion for Mrs.Pankhurst to travel to Russia and plead with the new Kerensky government to honour the Tsarist commitment to the Triple Entente (Britain, France and Russia) and remain in the war. Kerensky did not need persuading, but the Russian people did. The second (Bolshevik) revolution of 1917 was, for Mrs Pankhurst and Christabel a total abomination. It resulted in immediate Russian withdrawal and a separate peace treaty (Brest Litovsk), whereupon Mrs Pankhurst advocated armed intervention in Russia to defeat the Bolsheviks.
East London Federation of Suffragettes
Sylvia Pankhurst's decision to form a suffrage organisation in the East End of London was not motivated solely by her frustration with the WSPU, but more positively by her desire to create a mass women's movement. Only in such a movement 'could the gauge be taken ..which history itself had flung to us' and this would be accomplished 'not by the secret militancy of a few enthusiasts, but by the rising of the masses'.26 She chose the East End because 'it was the greatest homogenous working class area accessible to the House of Commons by popular demonstrations. The creation of a woman's (sic) movement in that great abyss of poverty would be a call and a rallying cry to the rise of similar movements in all parts of the country.’27 Hence her objective was “the building up of a movement independent in method and ideals from that in which my mother and my sister were engaged”.28 Moreover she felt that the traditional women's suffrage demand was perceived by women workers as a 'vote for ladies'. She wanted working class women to be fighters on their own account, free from the patronising attitudes of middle class women which however well intentioned served to place women workers in the role of victims thereby undermining their potential to liberate themselves.
The experience of the war together with Sylvia’s long standing commitment to the working class and labour movement had, resulted in a steady shift to the left of what was formerly the ELFS. Having changed its name in 1916 to the Workers’ Suffrage Federation, it re-named itself in 1918 as the Workers’ Socialist Federation (WSF). Similarly the title of the paper was changed in 1917 from the Women’s Dreadnought to the Workers’ Dreadnought. This reflected the revolutionary spirit in the rank and file of the labour movement as expressed in the steady growth and influence of Shop Stewards and Workers Committees, but above all else it reflected the profound impact of the Russian Revolution.
By June 1917, a report of the annual conference of the WSF announced that one of its chief tasks was to work for the abolition of capitalism “and for the establishment of a socialist commonwealth in which the means of production and distribution shall be deployed in the interests of the people.”29 The Workers’ Dreadnought was almost completely devoted to publicising and propagandising the socialist cause. Its tone and content were markedly different from that of previous years. It contained many articles of a theoretical Marxist nature written by the leading socialists of the day, as well as regular reports of labour movement activity both at home and abroad. A sense of urgency and dynamism pervaded the columns of the paper which increasingly reflected the heady, revolutionary spirit of the times. With a circulation of around 10,000, the Workers’ Dreadnought can be regarded as one of the most important anti-war, non-sectarian socialist papers in Britain, achieving an influential position by opening its columns to all shades of opinion on the left. Its role in this respect has been underestimated by labour movement historians, but clearly it was recognised at the time which may account for the fact that Siegfried Sassoon (later to achieve fame alongside Wilfred Owen and Robert Graves as an anti-war poet and author) chose it as the vehicle for his now famous statement “Finished With the War: A Soldier’s Declaration”.
Translations of speeches and articles by Lenin were printed regularly as were reports and analyses of the Russian Revolution, many of them written by the American socialist, John Reed in a series entitled “Red Russia”. Sylvia Pankhurst made a substantial contribution as one of the first propagandists for Bolshevism in Britain; founding the Peoples’ Russian Information Bureau. Her group, the Workers’ Socialist Federation, (WSF) was the first in Britain to affiliate to the Third International (Comintern) and Sylvia herself attended its 2nd congress in 1920. Indeed in his writings on Britain, Lenin makes no less than 10 major references to Sylvia Pankhurst – more than any other British revolutionary socialist. She and her group were part of the unity talks to form the Communist Party of Great Britain which she joined briefly in 1921.