What’s In a Name?

Recently I was speaking to my friend JMP (who just gifted me a much welcomed copy of the 10th anniversary edition of Andrea Dworkin’s Intercourse), of the amazing blog M-L-M Mayhem!, and my partner about this blog and its name. I was surprised to find out that neither of them had ever heard of the name before and were unaware of the history associated to it. Upon hearing the history of the name they insisted that I write an entry about it and the key person that inspired it. By the way of a detour I will explain how this blog came to be named The Workers Dreadnought and the reasoning behind it.

I must admit that I am not a great fan of the Pakistani-British ex-Trotskyist Tariq Ali and his politics,  however one must give credit where it is due. Ali in his memoir, Street Fighting Years, writes regarding the formation of Black Dwarf (1968-1972) – a radical newspaper – that Ali was an editor of, that at the first meeting

“[n]ames were bandied around, but none were approved. Christopher Logue volunteered to go to the British Museum and search relentlessly until he had forgotten a long-forgotten radical paper of the previous century whose name we could recover … The following week, at a smaller gathering, Logue returned triumphant from his labours in the British Museum. He had found a name with a history.” (p. 200)

Thus, when I was starting this blog – which is a successor to another short-lived blog that I had start several years prior – I decided that I too would find a name of a radical newspaper from the previous century which had been long-forgotten and whose name I could recover. I thus turned to the history of the communist movement and found in the annals of communist history, The Workers Dreadnought, the paper produced by the socialist anti-imperialist feminist Sylvia Pankhurst.

Pankhurst is a noteworthy figure in my mind for several reasons including the fact that she was one of the key figures in the Suffrage movement that reoriented the movement towards working-class women, who hitherto had been overlooked by the movement due to its initial upper-class background and tactics (the early Suffragette movement only sought to gain the right to vote for upper-class women and relied on petitions and political influence within the ruling-class coterie); she is an embodiment of a Marxist politics that is sensitive to other oppressive relationships besides that of a crude workerism and serves as a firm rebuke to those feminists that see Marxism and feminism as being irreconcilable and thus silence an entire Marxist Feminist tradition; her principled stand against parliamentarism; and her practiced internationalism especially her one-woman solidarity campaign for the anti-imperialist struggle of the peoples of Ethiopia against the fascist Italian forces; and her objection to the institution of marriage and the taking of the husband’s name.

The Workers Dreadnought was initially titled, Women’s Dreadnought, and was the newspaper of the Workers’ Socialist Federation (which itself was founded initially as the Women’s Suffrage Federation). After Pankhurst founded the Communist Party of Great Britain (British Section of the Third International), distinct from the Communist Party of Great Britain on a principled opposition to revolutionary parliamentarian, the newspaper was adopted by that erstwhile organization. The CPGB(BSTI) was dissolved shortly thereafter into the CPGB at the insistence of the Third International which deemed their anti-parliamentarianism insufficient grounds for the existence of two separate organizations. Pankhurst herself was soon expelled from the CPGB for refusing to hand over the newspaper, and went onto drift away from communist politics by the mid-1920’s due to the inability of the Left Communists to coordinate effectively although she remained a fervent anti-imperialist and anti-fascist as demonstrated by her support for the Ethiopian cause and the Republican struggle in Spain.

Pankurst is particularly important as I have always believed that the Marxist tradition, due to its own racism, sexism, homophobia etc, has been very good at silencing aspects of its history that trouble the mainstream narrative to produce a conservative Marxism. Indeed, the history of the 3rd International and International Communism has been carefully expunged of its racial, sexual, gender, ethnic etc diversity and the sole noteworthy figures  that emerge are Reed, Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, Bukharin and Zinoviev. Pankhurst, Roy, Kollontai amongst many others have been removed from the annals of history. This has resulted in the Marxist movement consistently taking several step backwards in questions around ethnicity, race, gender, sexuality and thus in its ability to understand and mobilize class. And thus it becomes incumbent on those of us who which to engage in and practice a revolutionary Marxism to recuperate all of these tendencies that have been purged from our fold. I do not wish to argue that if we simply mine through the history of the communist movement that we will find all of the answers to our contemporary political problems but that within the communist movement there exist the beginnings of politics that could help solve our contemporary theoretical and practical problems. Indeed, it is within the work of Kollontai and Pankhurst that we find an initial radical Marxist critique of marriage and sexuality that remains a blind spot in the works of most Marxist theorists and activists. It is through Pankhurst we can see how the struggle for women’s rights itself furthers the class struggle and that the two are not opposed.

The final aspect about which I wish to comment (and believe me in this post I have overlooked many key aspects of Pankhurst’s and The Workers Dreadnought’s politics which are redeemable) is Pankhurst’s opposition to revolutionary parliamentarism. I have to admit that I agree with Pankhurst and the Left Communist tradition (although I must admit that I disagree with much of this traditions politics), against Lenin that parliamentarism and entryism is a political dead end for revolutionary politics, although I must add a caveat that they did not – in countries with established democratic systems. I think that the strategy of either revolutionary parliamentarism and entryism is a failed one, as has been demonstrated repeatedly in the last 90 years of its practice, and does not take into account the particularism that not only Lenin attributed to it and the experiences of the revisionist practice of the ‘peaceful transition to socialism’. This is a very large topic needless to say, and I cannot and will not attempt to delineate a full-fledged critique of Lenin here, but must suffice by saying that 1) the particular conditions and experiences  in a brutally repressive monarchist Russia are distinctively different from those that we are experiencing today (i.e. democratic reforms was something that large sections of the working-class wanted and needed to be delivered to gain the trust of the masses – this is something that I think must be taken into account in the context of Nepal as well – whereas today in most advanced imperiaist countries and established ‘democracies’ like India the working-class is not interested in parliamentary politics and engage in widespread abstentionism due to political disenchantment with the democratic process); 2) that the electoral mechanisms which Lenin has in mind have ceased to largely exist such as a public space for political rhetoric and ideas (especially in a political climate of spin doctors, multi-million dollar ad campaigns etc); 3) that the particular conditions that existed in England in the 1920’s i.e. a militant and active stewards movement inside the Labour Party, do not exist either in most countries and where it does exist must be organized into a communist party; and 4) the attempts have miserably failed and has resulted in either parliamentary cretinism or in expulsion (with ever-smaller factional numbers) for example what happened in the Labour Party and the GPGB in England itself!

It has been noted that the first time is tragedy and the second time farce, this blog is indeed farcical in relation to the glorious history that The Workers Dreadnought had. However, I hope that this blog serves in a small way of reminding communists of our own history, as obscure or troublesome as it may be, and reconstructing a Marxism worthy of the name.

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3 thoughts on “What’s In a Name?

  1. Glad to read the background on the name. There is so much in the history of communism that has been forgotten (sometimes willfully) that needs to be recovered.

  2. I completely agree. The only problem I find with much of this historical retrieval is that it often ends up in the realm of Marxist trivia and Marxology, rather than an active attempt to rethink the contours of a revolutionary practice and theory. Perhaps one of the reasons I find the RCP(USA)’s claim to having synthesized the experiences of the ‘first wave’ of communism to be laughable is that it is not apparent they have altered their pantheon of revolutionary activists and theoreticians.

  3. I am looking for a text by Mary Richardson, titled ‘Letters of Fire’, published in “Women’s Dreadnought” on April, 25, 1914. Any ideas of where I could find it?

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