Sylvia Pankhurst: Anti-racist, anti-imperialist

Sylvia’s decision to take up the cause of a little-known (in England) African country might have seemed odd to contemporaries and has been largely ignored by British historians ever since.  However, it was much appreciated by Black activists in Africa, the West Indies, Britain, and America – and can only be understood in the context of her anti-racism and anti-imperialism which had already surfaced earlier on, writes Mary Davis

Although widely known as a socialist feminist champion of women’s suffrage, the second half of Sylvia Pankhurst’s life, from 1935 to her death in 1960, was devoted to the cause of the liberation of Ethiopia.  Her decision to take up the cause of a little-known (in England) African country might have seemed odd to contemporaries and has been largely ignored by British historians ever since.  However, it was much appreciated by Black activists in Africa, the West Indies, Britain, and America and can only be understood in the context of her anti-racism and anti-imperialism which had already surfaced earlier on. This was allied to her understanding of the dangers of fascism in general and Italian fascism in particular.

Thus, when Italy invaded Ethiopia in 1935, Sylvia embarked upon a course drawing these strands of her thought and activity into a campaign which was to absorb her for the remainder of her life.  In May 1936, she launched the first edition of the New Times and Ethiopia News (NT&EN), a weekly paper whose aims were to champion the cause of Ethiopia, to combat fascist propaganda, to campaign for British aid, and to step-up and maintain the economic sanctions imposed on Italy by the League of Nations. The first issue went to press on the very day that Italian troops entered Addis Ababa.  The paper reached a circulation of 10,000 by the end of the year, and at its height it sold 40,000 copies weekly. This included an extensive circulation throughout West Africa and the West Indies where “it was widely quoted in the emerging African nationalist press.” The paper was also published (occasionally) in Amharic and clandestinely distributed in Ethiopia. It remained in circulation for 20 years.

Sylvia’s decision to concentrate her energies on Ethiopia was taken because it would otherwise have been largely ignored. Ethiopia was very significant for Black people worldwide.  It was, until 1935, the only African country to have escaped from the domination of European imperialism. As such, it was a beacon in the anti-colonial struggle. Ethiopia was, according to Ras Makonnen, the “Black man’s last citadel.”

This was clearly shown when, as a response to the Italian invasion, mass protests were organised in almost all Britain’s West Indian colonies, provoking fear in the British Colonial Office that “native unrest” would be stirred in colonial Africa.  Tellingly, Hesketh Bell, a former governor of Uganda, expressed the issue thus:

“The fact that the coloured inhabitants of a distant West Indian island, remembering their African ancestry, should appear to feel so deeply this attack by a White power on the only remaining negro nation shows how widely spread and vigorous can be the influences of race and colour.  While the rise of feeling of racial antagonism in the West Indies is unfortunate, the development of such an attitude among the teeming population of our vast African territories would be a misfortune of the first magnitude.”

Ethiopia’s role in galvanising “the influences of race and colour,” was plainly apparent in the Black communities of Britain and the USA.  In anticipation of the Italian invasion the International African Friends of Abyssinia (IAFA) was formed in 1935.  Although this was a short-lived organisation, it involved many prominent Black activists including Jomo Kenyatta, C. L. R. James, Amy Ashwood Garvey (ex-wife of Marcus Garvey), and George Padmore.

It is clear that Sylvia not only had an understanding of the significance of Ethiopia for Black people, but that she also understood the importance of reasserting African values against the imperialist counterculture. As a result, she consistently supported efforts to challenge the White notion of Black racial inferiority. The paper ran a regular column entitled ‘Africa for the Africans’ which was very popular and was often reprinted together with many other NT&EN articles in such influential African papers as the Comet and the West African Pilot.

Sylvia’s paper also gave space to anti-racist initiatives. As early as 1936 it carried an article on ‘African education’ which argued that “Historical books on Africa ought to be written by Africans and ought to aim at developing the ‘national ego’ of the African instead of dwelling on intertribal wars”. Later in the same year the paper published a letter from Marcus Garvey, the Black American leader, protesting against films like Sanders of the River, Emperor Jones,and Green Pastures which, according to Garvey, were “calculated to create prejudice against the Negro Race.”

The contribution made by the paper was noted by many Black people and can be summarised by Ras Makonnen who commented that it: “continued for many years to be the most authoritative single source on the Ethiopian question.  In particular, it seldom failed to document the many pro-Ethiopian meetings in England and to note Black participation in them.”

In 1937, Padmore and I.T.A. Wallace Johnson founded the International African Service Bureau (IASB). The IASB itself was a product of the Ethiopian solidarity movement, being an outgrowth of IAFA. The IASB lasted for seven years, until 1944.  It was the longest surviving of all the Pan-African associations formed during this period. It merged, in 1944, with the Pan-African Federation, the organisation which was largely responsible for the convening of the 1945 Pan-African Congress.  Thus, in a very real sense, Ethiopia was the theoretical and practical catalyst for the further development of the anti-racist and anti-colonial struggle. The motto of the IASB was “Educate, Co-operate, Emancipate – Neutral in nothing affecting the African people.” Sylvia was a member of the IASB committee of associates for a time – the only woman among six men, who included Victor Gollancz (publisher and founder of the Left Book Club) and the lawyer, D. N. Pritt. The first issue of the IASB monthly journal, International African Opinion, singled out the Ethiopian struggle as the catalyst which has “awakened Black political consciousness.” It argued that Ethiopia had shown that “all Negroes everywhere are beginning to see the necessity for international organisation and the unification of their scattered efforts.”

Her activities on race and empire were not confined to Africa.  Indian writers, for example S. N. Ghose, wrote for her paper, the Workers’ Dreadnought. In 1926, Sylvia published a lengthy tome on India in which she identified with the growing struggle for Indian self-rule (Swaraj) in its revolutionary civil disobedience phase (1918–22) led by Gandhi, who had displaced the more moderate leadership of the Indian National Congress. The British government, fearful of losing the jewel in the imperial crown, attempted to restore their dominance first by coercion (in the form of the Amritsar Massacre 1919) and then by ‘consent’ via the Government of India Act of 1919. Sylvia sought to expose the 1919 Act as an undemocratic sham – a view unpopular at the time since it was widely perceived as a wise concession smoothing the way to “responsible” government.

When Sylvia Pankhurst died in 1960 in Ethiopia, she was given a state funeral.  Accolades to Sylvia on her death show that although her work on Ethiopia, informed as it was by anti-racism and anti-imperialism, passed largely unnoticed in Britain, it was widely appreciated by Black people in Ethiopia, in Africa generally, and in the diaspora. W.E.B. DuBois, arguably one of the most important Black leaders of his day, expressed the view of Black radicals in the following tribute he paid to Sylvia following her death:

“I realised […] that the great work of Sylvia Pankhurst was to introduce Black Ethiopia to White England […].and to make the British people realise that Black folks had more and more to be recognised as human beings with the rights of women and men.”

Professor Mary Davis is a Labour Historian. She has, from a Marxist perspective, written, broadcast and lectured widely on women’s history, labour history, imperialism and racism. She was awarded the TUC Women’s Gold
Badge in 2010 for services to trade unionism. She currently serves on the Morning Star Management Committee, the Sylvia Pankhurst Memorial Committee and is Secretary of Marx Memorial Library

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