Red Ellen: The Life of Ellen Wilkinson, Socialist, Feminist, Internationalist
(Harvard University Press)
US: Oct 2016
The life of someone dedicated to improving society is checkered with innumerable crises of choice. When multiple struggles intersect—sexism and economic injustice, say, or misogyny and racism—do you prioritise one over the other? When progress for some comes at the expense of status quo for others, do you swallow your ideals and seal the deal? Do you choose pragmatism over ideals and integrity?
When divisions emerge within a progressive movement, how should a progressive organizer respond? With compromise, in the hopes of keeping the movement united and strong? Or with militancy, recognizing that a movement only half-heartedly committed to profound social change is inevitably letting down some portion of those relying on it?
When your own movement, or party, diverges more and more sharply from your deeply held beliefs, how should you respond? Go with the flow, in the hopes of influencing it from within? Challenge and confront those around you, and those in charge, at the risk of being ostracised and marginalised? Break off and stay true to your own ideals, even if it means you no longer have the same voice and platform you once did?
Is it better to be a rebel with a cause, or a reformer with a platform?
The history of progressive struggle is littered with such choices, and as history reveals, some choices worked out well; others did not. Or did they? History is hindsight, as they say, and invariably written from the winning perspective. Perhaps being more militant during that general strike, or taking a more radical stance during that election campaign, or being more of a rebel during that national convention, would have brought greater gains. Perhaps we’ll simply never know. What if Lenin had thrown in his hat in 1905, run on a platform of mild reform and retired as roommates with Kerensky in the Tsar’s old age home? What if Britain and America had sent arms shipments to help the Spanish Republican government defeat Franco’s rebels and brought an end to the spread of fascism in the early ‘30s? What if the British Labour Party, after its election at the end of the Second World War, had decided to push through the wholesale shift to socialism they had once promised?
We shall of course never know. But examining the lives of those who faced such choices, and examining their decisions and actions, at least helps us better recognize these choices when we face them ourselves. It doesn’t give us the answers, but it does help remind us that there is no single correct answer, or formula to follow. Sometimes the radical choice pans out, despite the apparent odds. Sometimes the reformist compromise is the wise option. Sometimes what seems the sensible compromise becomes the mistake we forever regret.
Ellen Wilkinson—‘Red Ellen’—lived a life defined by such choices. Raised amid working-class poverty in Manchester, from her early fiery days as a labour organizer to her final days as cabinet minister in Britain’s postwar Labour government (she died while serving as Education Minister), her life was a succession of constant choices between rebellious idealism and reformist compromise.
Wilkinson’s father was an ardent Methodist who brought her to political and religious meetings with him when she was young, but she fell into socialism on her own. At the age of 16 she volunteered for a mock election at school, and was assigned the role of candidate for the Socialist party. She won, without knowing much about socialism, but proceeded to teach herself and was soon attending meetings of socialist and labour organizations.
Wilkinson’s first job was with the Manchester Society for Women’s Suffrage. At this time—around the outbreak of the First World War—women’s suffrage and labour politics were closely entwined, as labour unions and factions of the Labour Party were among the few political institutions to endorse and fight for women’s suffrage. The twin causes of women’s political emancipation and economic equality were seen as deeply entwined, and although Ellen fought passionately for both during her career, it was the struggle for economic equality that absorbed much of her direct energy, and the young Ellen was soon employed as a labour organizer for a trade union (the Amalgamated Union of Cooperative Employees).
It was a heady time for labour organizing. For years, the craft unions had organized skilled craftspeople (trained through apprenticeships—the descendent of the guild system) into organizations to safeguard their wages and status. Yet the new industries relied heavily on ‘unskilled’ labour—workers who could be hired, trained and applied to a task in a mass, disposable fashion. Some iconoclastic organizers had a radical idea: organize the unskilled labourers, too! The very notion of it caused outrage in many corners, including trade union corners. Organize the unskilled? The idea sullied the whole principle of craft unions for skilled trades!
Wilkinson, needless to say, was among the radicals, and some of her earliest labour organizing involved efforts to unionize entire industries and workplaces, not merely the skilled craftspeople. This often involved challenging established unions which clung to the old ways, and encroaching on their ‘turf’. No matter: many of the ‘unskilled’ workers whose exploitation Wilkinson sought to end were women, particularly as the First World War progressed. Indeed, her militant confrontations with unions that acted exclusively and refused to recognize some of the newer groups of workers she was organizing created controversies that nearly cost her her job.
Wilkinson was, early on, a radical among radicals in her electoral politics as well. She attended the founding meeting of the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1920. Her biographer, Laura Beers, argues her early support of Communism was the result of “Ellen’s impatience with inaction and gradualism and her optimistic belief in building a brave new world on the ashes left over from the war. For the past year and a half she had witnessed the failures of incremental reform, from the weakness of the trade boards to the timidity of the trade union leadership. Ellen was a doer, not a talker. The Communists were ‘taking a stand for the new time,’ and she was determined to take a stand alongside them.”
Yet Wilkinson’s relationship with the Communists was a brief and tumultuous one. The Communist International (Comintern) was critical of women’s organizations that united women of all classes—such as the Women’s International League, a peace movement—instead of focusing on class struggle. Many communist and socialist women left the League when the Comintern signaled its disapproval, but not Wilkinson, who remained heavily involved in the peace movement for years (she would eventually turn on it drastically in the wake of the Spanish Civil War, and became one of the louder voices for re-armament and mobilisation to face the growing fascist threat, at a time when rearmament was still unpopular among both politicians and the general public).
Despite her enthusiastic early support, Wilkinson left the Communist Party just as she began seriously entering electoral politics. She was first elected—while still a Communist Party member—to Manchester’s municipal government in 1923. Yet she had her eye on Parliament, and her decision to leave the Communist Party came at a time when serious rifts were emerging between it and the Labour Party (which later forbade joint membership in the two). Was her decision to leave an effort to secure a Labour candidacy, as some say? Or was it a sincere disillusionment with Communist tactics? Either way, she left and went on to win a seat in the 1924 national election, becoming Labour’s only female MP.
Other difficult decisions lay ahead as well. In Parliament, Wilkinson rapidly fell in with a group of more radical socialist MPs (mostly Scottish) and proceeded to fight for causes such as women’s full suffrage (only women above the age of 30were permitted to vote at this time) and equal pay. Yet in 1928, when women activists in the Labour Party were fighting for Party endorsement for birth control education, Wilkinson sided with the (primarily male) party leadership, which opposed such proposals out of concern over the impact of pro-birth control resolutions on the Catholic vote. Again, historians have debated her motives, but Beers argues “at the end of the day, she was a political pragmatist, and she was also ambitious… here was her chance to move from the radical fringe to the centre of the party. She was not willing to expend the little political capital she had accrued fighting what she recognized to be a futile battle against the established policy of the party on birth control… Ellen and many others were willing to sacrifice the women’s interests to their hopes of finally securing a parliamentary majority.”
The next several years were tumultuous ones for Wilkinson and the world alike. Out of Parliament, she continued her activism unabated, from labour unionism to women’s rights to internationalism. She traveled widely, learning from American strikers, helping to fight for Indian self-government, supporting the Spanish Republican government against Franco’s fascists, and publishing coverage of the ominous Nazi rise to power in Germany. Beers offers a meticulously researched chronicle of Wilkinson’s remarkable life in a tumultuous era, and what the account lacks in terms of narrative—it’s more scholarly than engaging—it more than makes up for in the impressive scale and detail provided of Wilkinson’s colourful and exciting life.
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