Our home page displays a definition of socialism by Sylvia Pankhurst. Who was she?

The women of the Pankhurst family are famous for the prominent roles that they played in the British ‘Votes for Women’ or ‘Suffragette’ movement of the early 20thcentury. The first organization of the Suffragettes, the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), was founded in 1903 by Mrs. Emmeline (Emily) Pankhurst and her two older daughters Christabel and Estelle (Sylvia). Her youngest daughter, Adela, was also active in the movement before emigrating to Australia in 1914.

Over time a split emerged between the ‘official leadership’ – the two older Pankhurst women, Emily and Christabel – and the two younger ‘dissidents’ – Sylvia and Adela.

One area in dispute was the suffrage itself. In the early 20thcentury women did not have the vote in Britain but nor did many men. Only men who owned some property had the vote. The WSPU campaigned for women to be given the vote on the same basis as men. But as most property was held in the name of husbands rather than wives this meant enfranchising only a few wealthy women. Sylvia, by contrast, supported general adult suffrage – votes for all women and all men.

Sylvia developed a concern for other social issues and especially for the plight of the poor – concerns not share by her mother and older sister. In 1912 she moved to London’s East End and in 1914, after being expelled from the WSPU, set up the East London Federation of Suffragettes (ELFS). The ELFS organized nurseries and cheap restaurants, supported strikes, and defended workers of German origin from mob attack. It opposed the war and adopted socialist positions. Meanwhile the Suffragettes of the WSPU posed as super-patriots and pinned white feathers on men in civilian dress.  

In 1916 the ELFS changed its name to the Workers’ Suffrage Federation, which in 1918 became the Workers’ Socialist Federation (WSF). Men were now allowed to join, though women continued to be the main leaders and activists.

Below I reproduce two of Sylvia’s published articles on socialism. The first article is taken from the journal of the WSF, Workers’ Dreadnought. The second comes from the One Big Union Bulletin, a periodical of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW or ‘Wobblies’).   


Article No. 1: A gospel of abundance 

Socialism means plenty for all. We preach a gospel not of want and scarcity but of abundance.

Our desire is not to make poor those who today are rich, in order to put the poor in the place where the rich now are. Our desire is not to pull down the present rulers in order to put other rulers in their places.

We wish to abolish poverty and provide abundance for all.

We do not call for limitation of births, for penurious thrift and self-denial. We call for a great production that will supply all, and more than all the people can consume.

Such a great production is already possible, with the knowledge already possessed by mankind.

Today production is artificially checked, consumption still more so.

How is production checked?

Production is checked by private ownership of land, the means of production and transport. In Scotland large areas of agricultural land are turned into deer forests. In every English county numerous large private parks are kept for the pleasure of single families. Production on farms is limited because farmers lack capital to enable them to employ the labour and materials necessary to work their land fully. Landowners with capital find more profitable means of employing their capital than in agriculture or stock raising. Country landowners refuse to build cottages on their estates in order to preserve their own privacy. Landowners in and around towns raise the price of land until it becomes prohibitive for the purpose of building houses for any but the rich. Plots remain vacant for years until they are bought for factories or cinemas.

Production is also limited by inability to secure raw material owing to carefully organized cornering of supplies by persons who make money by such immoral practices, and by inability to pay the prices demanded for raw material.

Production is deliberately limited in order to secure high prices for short supplies, and because the market in which the produce can be sold at a profit is limited.

Production is to a minor extent limited by wage-workers in order to keep up the price of labour.

Consumption is cruelly limited by lack of means to purchase.

Our cities teem with people lacking the decencies and necessaries of life because they cannot afford to pay. Even Mr. Neville Chamberlain, a Tory Minister of Health, has admitted that a large proportion of the population of this relatively prosperous country is herded together under conditions that are scarcely human.

Entire nations are plunged into scarcity under which the poor die of starvation and even the middle and professional classes are reduced to hunger because the whirligig of finance has reduced the exchange value of the currency of such nations.

Capitalism offers no hope of ending this reign of poverty.

Millions of men and women, trained in the arts of production and transport, are unemployed, factories stand idle or run at half speed, land lies fallow, shops and warehouses teem with goods for which there are insufficient purchasers.

The majority of the population is not engaged in productive work. The greater part of the non-producers is employed in the buying, selling and advertising of the commodities produced by the minority. A large number of non-producers is employed in administering insurance doles, pensions, Poor Law relief and charity to the unemployed and to those whose wages do not suffice to maintain them. A considerable minority is living on rent and dividends drawn from the labour of the producers. This minority includes the people with a small unearned income just large enough to maintain them, and also the very rich who keep hundreds of persons uselessly employed in waiting upon them, who monopolize thousands of acres of land for their pleasure-grounds, and who sometimes consume inordinate quantities of manufactured goods to satisfy their insatiable desire for artificial pleasure and extravagant display.

This is the private property system.

We wish to replace it by Socialism.

Under Socialism the land, the means of production and transport are no longer privately owned: they belong to all the people. The title to be one of the joint owners of the earth, its products and the inheritance of collective human labour does not rest on any question of inheritance or purchase; the only title required is that one is alive on this planet. Under Socialism no one can be disinherited; no one can lose the right to a share in the common possession.

The share is not so many feet of land, so much food, so many manufactured goods, so much money with which to buy, sell, and carry on trade. The share of a member of the Socialist Commonwealth is the right and the possibility of the abundant satisfaction of needs from the common store-house, the right to be served by the common service, the right to assist as an equal in the common production.

Under Socialism production will be for use, not profit. The community will ascertain what are the requirements of the people in food, clothing, housing, transport, educational facilities, books, pictures, music, theatres, flowers, statuary, wireless telegraphy – anything and everything that the people desire. Food, clothing, housing, transport, sanitation – these come first; all effort will be bent first to supply these; everyone will feel it a duty to take some part in supplying these. Then will follow the adornments and amusements: a comfortable, cultured and leisured people will produce artistic and scientific work for pleasure, and with spontaneity. Large numbers of people will have the ability and the desire to paint, to carve, to embroider, to play, and to compose music.

They will adorn their dwellings with their artistic productions, and will give them freely to whoever admires them.

When a book is written the fact will be made known, and whoever desires a copy of it, either to read or to keep, will make that known to the printers in order that enough copies may be printed to supply all who desire the book. So with a musical composition, so with a piece of statuary.

So, too, with the necessaries of life. Each person, each household will notify the necessary agency of the requirements in milk, in bread, and all the various foods, in footwear, in clothing. Very soon the average consumption in all continuous staples will be ascertained. Consumption will be much higher than at present, but production will be vastly increased: all those who are today unemployed, or employed in the useless toil involved in the private property and commercial system, will be taking part in actual productive work; all effort will be concentrated on supplying the popular needs.

How will production be organized?

Each branch of production will be organized by those actually engaged in it. The various branches of production will be coordinated for the convenient supply of raw material and the distribution of the finished product.

Since production will be for use, not profit, the people will be freely supplied on application. There will be no buying and selling, no money, no barter or exchange of commodities.

Workers’ Dreadnought, July 28, 1923            


Article No. 2: The Future Society

The words Socialism and Communism have the same meaning. They indicate a condition of society in which the wealth of the community: the land and the means of production, distribution and transport are held in common, production being for use and not for profit.

Socialism being an ideal towards which we are working, it is natural that there should be some differences of opinion in that future society. Since we are living under Capitalism it is natural that many people’s ideas of Socialism should be coloured by their experiences of life under the present system. We must not be surprised that some who recognise the present system is bad should yet lack the imagination to realise the possibility of abolishing all the institutions of Capitalist society. Nevertheless there can be no real advantage in setting up a half-way-house to socialism. A combination of Socialism and Capitalism would produce all sorts of injustice, difficulty and waste. Those who happen to suffer under the anomalies would continually struggle for a return to the old system.

Full and complete Socialism entails the total abolition of money, buying and selling, and the wages system.

It means the community must set itself the task of providing rather more than the people can use of all the things that the people need and desire, and of supplying these when and as the people require them.

Any system by which the buying and selling system is retained means the employment of vast sections of the population in unproductive work. It leaves the productive work to be done by one portion of the people whilst the other portion is spending its energies in keeping shop, banking, making advertisements and all the various developments of commerce which, in fact, employ more than two-thirds of the people today.

Given the money system, the wage system is inevitable. If things needed and desired are obtainable only by payment those who do the work must be paid in order that they may obtain the means of life. The wages system entails such institutions as the old-age pension, sick and unemployment insurance and widow’s pensions, or the Poor Law, and probably plus the Poor Law. These involve large numbers of people drawn from productive work to do purely administrative work. Thus useless toil is manufactured, and the burden of non-producers maintained by the productive workers is increased.

Moreover social conditions are preserved which are quite out of harmony with Communist fraternity. The wage system makes the worker’s life precarious. The payment of wages entails the power to dismiss the worker by an official or officials.

So long as the money system remains, each productive enterprise must be run on a paying basis. Therefore it will tend to aim at employing as few workers as possible, in order to spend less on wages. It will also tend to dismiss the less efficient worker who, becoming unemployed, becomes less efficient. Thus an unemployable class tends to grow up.

The existence of a wage system almost inevitably leads to unequal wages; overtime, bonuses, higher pay for work requiring special qualifications. Class distinctions are purely differences of education, material comfort and environment.

Buying and selling by the Government opens the door to official corruption. To check that, high salaried positions are created in order that those occupying them have too much to lose to make pilfering and jobbery worthwhile.

One Big Union Bulletin, August 2, 1923