British Universities Film & Video Council

moving image and sound, knowledge and access

Sylvia Pankhurst, Everything is Possible

… some of the film’s most useful insights come from the reminiscences of Sylvia’s son, Richard

What this means here is that Everything is Possible emerges as a somewhat uncritical account of its subject. This is a shame, given that Pankhurst was such an argumentative and controversial figure – not only within the women’s suffrage movement, but on the Left. We learn about her expulsion from the Women’s Social and Political Union, for example, simply as an effect of her uncompromising socialism, while broader consideration of the internal politics of the suffrage movement and the tactical strategies it adopted in pursuit of success on the single issue is not addressed. Her later expulsion from the Communist Party for being once again out of step is handled in much the same way; Sylvia, it seems, is a visionary heroine beyond criticism.

Matters are perhaps not helped by the talking heads chosen to embellish the script with academic authority. Mary Davis, the most frequently used commentator, is also Sylvia’s most recent uncritical biographer, and would appear to have shaped much of the film’s narrative structure. Two further academics also make appearances however, Alan Hudson (an Oxford educationalist and political analyst) and Andrew Calcutt (culture editor at Living Marxism and lecturer on journalism and popular culture at the University of East London). Neither are historians by profession and their occasionally simplistic commentary (Hudson on the East End: ‘People here now have no understanding of what is meant by sacrifice for international solidarity’, or on Churchill’s opposition to Bolshevism: ‘The British working class said no, let’s give it a chance’) doesn’t do as much as it might to explore the historical ambiguities of abstractions like ‘working class’.

Calcutt even tells us, without challenge, or any suggestion that some historians might disagree with him, that it was only the spoilers in the Labour Party that prevented a British revolution. These may be perfectly tenable arguments, but they are presented here more as helpful information than as debating points and the problem of ‘working class’ conservatism and nationalism is never entertained for a moment. The film is, perhaps, a little old fashioned in this sense, its positivism recalling Geoffrey Best’s famous critique of Edward Thompson’s Making of the English Working Class in 1963, a book, said Best, that gave ‘too little account of the flag saluting, foreigner hating, peer respecting side of the plebeian mind’.

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