From Fabian to fascist

October 23, 1996

Adela Pankhurst: The Wayward Suffragette 1885-1961
By Verna Coleman
Melbourne University Press, 1996. 198 pp., $19.95 (pb)
Reviewed by Phil Shannon

For a case study of political decay, few can match Adela Pankhurst. From militant suffragist in England early this century and one of the founders of the Communist Party of Australia, she wound up interned during World War II by H.V. Evatt as an active fascist sympathiser.

Verna Coleman's biography recounts each step of Pankhurst's political transformation. Born in 1885 in Manchester, she imbibed the middle class radicalism of her Fabian socialist parents, as did her equally famous sisters Christabel and Sylvia. With their mother, Emmeline, these women made up the "fighting Pankhursts", who gave the struggle for women's suffrage its energy and drive.

The Pankhursts formed the Women's Social and Political Union in 1903. It initially campaigned on a broad range of social and industrial women's issues as well as women's suffrage, but, under the influence of Emmeline and Christabel, the WSPU began to focus more narrowly on the vote for women, further restricting their goal to votes for women with property. The WSPU backed away from its socialist program and militant mass demonstrations of women in order to attract the support of supposedly influential women from the ruling class and the upper reaches of the middle class.

Adela (and her sister Sylvia), however, split from their family and remained militant and socialist. Adela was banished to Australia by her mother in 1914, where she joined the Australian suffragist Vida Goldstein's Women's Political Association, which, though not Marxist, opposed capitalism. Adela also opposed World War I on pacifist grounds and was active in Goldstein's Women's Peace Army, which opposed the war.

Adela discovered the IWW, became an organiser for the Victorian Socialist Party, was one of the 26 founders of the CPA in 1920 and married Tom Walsh, the firebrand Seamen's Union militant and official.

From the mid-'20s, however, the story starts to become tacky. Adela left the CPA, joined the ALP and began preaching "class cooperation". To cover her retreat, like others before her, she still claimed a socialist goal, maintaining that only arbitration and class cooperation would lead gradually to socialism.

The logic of class retreat, however, soon had its way. Adela formed, with funding and support from big business, the Australian Women's Guild of Empire, which, every bit as bad as it sounds, stood for anticommunism, the family, Christianity, the British Empire and opposition to contraception and abortion.

As her husband's militant union fire had also gone out by this time, they both drifted through the marsh of reformism and, before long, discovered the virtues of fascism. Fascism was a barrier to communism, said Adela, and Hitler and Mussolini provided decent workers' housing and had a legitimate parliamentary mandate. Adela railed against rich Jews and named her dog Adolf Benito. They fell in gooey love with militarist Japan, and in 1941 formed the Australia First movement, a conservative, nationalist, proto-fascist movement.

After being interned during World War II, Adela withdrew from active politics but did not renounce her conservative ways or show any contrition for her fascist views. She died in 1961, mourned by none except a few veteran suffragists.

These ingredients make a rich soup for a study of why some good socialists become rotten tories. Unfortunately, Coleman doesn't get too analytical. Indeed, there is an air of lurking admiration for Adela that quite minimises the enormity of her political decline. Coleman's analysis runs no deeper than the level of Adela's personal qualities, sympathetically treating her enthusiasm, originality, "forcefulness and courage" and independence (from, amongst other things in Coleman's view, the "straitjacket of the Marxist dialectic").

To what ends these qualities are put, however, is critical. No amount of explanation of Adela's "intense emotional style" or her "naive" support for fascism as an economic form of socialism, or sympathy for her good-hearted and sentimental concern for the poor, can excuse the activist choice she made for capitalism and then fascism. Coleman claims it is "hard to understand" why Adela could see through the "revolutionary Marxist myth" but not see through Nazism. It isn't. Adela's was a conscious act of political renegacy involving a clear class choice.

Whilst the turncoat phenomenon exists across all classes, the middle class is its favourite ground. Vulnerable, feeling squeezed between organised labour and big capital, without natural ties of class solidarity, the small employer and intellectual petty bourgeois tend to bend with the prevailing class forces. They can ally with a strong, insurgent working class (individuals from the middle-class professions sometimes becoming revolutionaries). During periods of capitalist hegemony, the middle class are notoriously anti-union. In times of economic crisis, they tend to respond to authoritarianism (they formed the mass social base of fascism).

Adela suffered from this curse of the middle class. From suffragist and Communist during the years of working-class struggle and socialist promise early this century, she swung right, during the crisis-ridden '30s, stopping at the way station of "class cooperation" before hitching up to fascism.

When she was part of the left, Adela retained her vaunted middle-class independence (verging on arrogance), which did not dispose her to an education in theoretical or organisational discipline. Her "homemade political philosophy", jerry-built from all manner of personal prejudices, could not withstand the ideological turbulence of the time. Coleman's biography provides the raw material for such an analysis, but the reader will have to do most of the work learning from, and cringing at, Adela's later years but admiring and learning from her better years, when the struggle for women's rights and socialism were engaged in as one.

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