A rebel against rebels

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Sylvia Pankhurst was, by any standards, a rebel. Born in Manchester in 1882, she was the daughter of Emmeline and sister of Christabel and Adel. Like them, she was an active and headline-grabbing participant in the struggle for women’s suffrage in early twentieth-century Britain. For example, in just one six-month period in 1914 she was imprisoned nine times for suffragette protests. She was also a left-wing socialist, and then a communist, yet she was expelled from both her family-run WSPU and the official international communist movement, or Third International, headed by the Bolsheviks: a rebel against rebels. In addition, she was on the other side of the barricades from the mainstream British labour and suffrage movements in opposing participation in the Great War. And she had some unconventional episodes in her private life. She became a lover of the married Labour leader Keir Hardie when she was 22 and he was 47, the affair lasting eight years until 1912. Long after Hardie’s death, in 1927 she gave birth to Richard, whose father she refused to name.

All of this is well known and discussed by her several biographers. But that is not the case in any substantial way with respect to her activity and writings on the Irish revolution as it developed from 1916 to 1921. This is a pity, because here, too, compared with both her family and many of her British left-wing contemporaries, she was exceptional. To that revolution she was a critical friend, and more friend than critical.


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