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.
What Would “Red” Ellen Do Under a Trump Administration?
As the world wobbled toward war, and she found herself drawn back into electoral politics, Wilkinson’s own radicalism wobbled as well. Ardently convinced through first-hand experience in Spain and Germany that the fascist threat loomed above all others, she supported a premature proposal for a coalition government to face the fascists with a united British front. The proposal was rejected by her party, and those who supported it were seen as traitors to the party. The others were driven out or left on principle, yet Wilkinson opted for damage control, instead: “despite her sympathy for their ideas, Ellen believed the international situation was too precarious to risk losing her influence within the leadership,” writes Beers.
Wilkinson also supported Winston Churchill’s rise to power; despite their stark political differences on most other issues, they shared an analysis of the dire and overarching threat posed by fascism. When Churchill was eventually put in charge of a coalition government, he in turn reached out to Wilkinson to become one of the two female ministers in that government.
Wilkinson’s role in that government has also been scrutinized by historians. The ardent former trade union organizer supported and defended government restrictions on labour rights and strikes during the war; she also defended controversial government policies like the suppression of the Communists’ freedom of speech (early in the war) and the release of British fascist leaders from prison. Ambitious sell-out? Or was she merely focused single-mindedly and pragmatically on the goal of winning the war and defeating fascism?
When Labour broke from the coalition government and won the 1945 election, Wilkinson was appointed Education Minister, and continued to stoke controversy through her final months. In some respects she fought tenaciously for radical improvements to the school system, including a proposal to increase the length of mandatory schooling from age 14 to age 15 (this would necessitate thousands of additional teachers and space and resources for almost half a million additional students, just as the war was ending). Her own colleagues sought to undermine or delay the initiative repeatedly and right to the bitter end, hoping to divert scarce material resources from building the necessary additional schools to rebuilding the country’s industry, shattered by the war.
Wilkinson persevered with militant dedication. She sought to guarantee provision of a free hot meal and glass of milk to every student (recalling her own poverty-stricken childhood and the impact malnutrition had on her classmates), but a debate broke out over whether it would be paid for by the central government or by local municipal authorities. Although she agreed the local authorities should pay for it through taxation, she also pragmatically realized they wouldn’t — that they would cut corners or simply not fulfill the obligation — and that if children were to be fed the government would need to pay for it. The argument turned bitter but again she persevered.
On the issue of eliminating fee-charging private schools, however, which she and her Party were purportedly opposed to, she balked. Many consider it a lost opportunity to have created a truly public school system and eliminate the class inequalities that were perpetuated by private schools.
So her career as a radical is a checkered one; how “Red” she truly was remains a matter of perspective and debate. Was she a radical tamed by the pursuit of ambition? Or one who compromised in the more pragmatic hopes of building a slightly better world, after years of witnessing the world pursue a series of terrible turns for the worse? Did she — and her Labour Party — hesitate and balk at changes that could have truly transformed and improved their society? Or did their realism and willingness to compromise bring about improvements that would otherwise never have been possible in the real world?
Such debates and ideological struggles permeate politics as much today as they did during Red Ellen’s lifetime.
The most recent and resonant example of this struggle is the United States presidential election. In many ways it, too, was a struggle over the politics of radicalism. In this respect, it was resonant in some ways to that faced by Weimar Germany before the war, as right-wing radical Nazis campaigned against left-wing radical Communists, and the inaction of moderate parties and political actors meant they were ultimately eclipsed by the struggle between radical actors. Both ‘sides’ in the recent US election — Republican and Democrat — were faced with a choice between pursuing radical politics or pursuing more moderate politics. The Democrats, faced with a choice between the moderate Hillary Clinton and the more radical Bernie Sanders, opted on the side of caution, rejected radical politics, and lost the election. The Republicans, as a party, wound up endorsing (with many key moderate Republicans dragged headlong despite their intentions) a politics of radicalism, and it won them the election.
The lesson is not that radical politics always works, but that sometimes it does. Much as scholars and pundits try to come up with explanations or overarching theories, the fact is that politics, like human activity more broadly, is situational and difficult to predict with any certainty. The consequence of individual moments of choice, therefore, becomes profoundly important.
Wilkinson’s life bears witness to the importance of radical politics, but also to the importance of situational choice: choosing when to adopt a radical stance and when to compromise. What some considered to be inconsistent behaviour on her part might be better read as her fundamental strength: the ability to make a decision grounded in her core ideological and political beliefs, but reflecting an analysis of the moment and the situation. It also shows the importance of autonomous thought and choice in this process. Many social justice organizers are hesitant to challenge the hegemony of the organizations and movements in which they work, fearful that they could be seen as disloyal, untrustworthy, or unreliable. For some this arises out of a sense of ambition — not wanting to threaten one’s future prospects for advancement within a movement. For others, it arises out of insecurity; an inability to trust one’s own instincts and convictions when they appear to be at odds with everyone else’s. For still others it arises out of the simple and understandable desire not to be constantly on the outside, fighting against the very people one is supposed to be acting in solidarity with.
Yet as Wilkinson’s career testifies, a desire and willingness to challenge the very movements one is a part of is a quality that is both important for individual integrity and movement integrity. It forces movements to have those hard debates about what is right and what is expedient; about whether a movement is leaving people out and becoming co-opted or whether it’s adhering to its fundamental values and principles. ‘Red Ellen’ had the ability to be fiery and confrontational, and this no doubt helped bolster her personal strength in these debates. Yet an important consequence of her challenging the movements she was part of is that it kept those movements (at least partially) honest, and therefore relevant to the people whose lives they sought to improve (and in the case of the Labour Party, to the electorate whose votes they sought).
For American Democrats now trying to come to terms with the prospect of a Donald Trump presidency, there will now be a time of deep reckoning as they reflect on their role and purpose moving forward. There will be significant battles to be fought during the next four years — to retain as much of progressive civil society as possible while delaying the spread of regressive politics — but there will also be a broader reflection on why Democratic politics failed to resonate with voters or to inspire voters to participate in the election. The legacy of Sanders’ campaign will be to have retained a radical presence within the Democratic Party, which in light of the failure of Clinton’s politics of moderation, might offer a route for change.
Some will, of course, argue that Democrats need to pursue moderation now more than ever, in order to avoid being completely marginalized by an electorate that voted on the right. Others will argue that Democrats need to pursue radicalism now more than ever, in order to avoid being marginalized by an electorate that voted for radical change. Only history will show whether we have made the ‘right’ choices. But it also teaches us that it is these choices, not an inevitable march of history, that truly matters.