Justice. 14 December 1907

Social Democratic (S.D.F.).
Manifesto on the Question of Universal Adult Suffrage.

Source: Anon, Justice, 14 December 1907, p.7;
Transcribed: Ted Crawford.

The recent International Socialist Congress, and the first International Socialist Women’s Congress, both held during August of this year in Stuttgart, passed resolutions binding all Socialist men and women to organise active propaganda for the obtaining of full Adult Suffrage, without distinction of sex. The resolution further condemned any agitation on the part of Socialists for any limited measure of Women’s Suffrage, which, if carried, would continue to deprive the women of the people of political liberty; and they reaffirmed the principle “That it is the duty of Socialist parties of all counties to agitate most energetically for the introduction of Womanhood Suffrage.”


In pursuance of the policy dictated by these resolutions, carried at both International Socialist Congresses, the Executive of the Social-Democratic Party consider the moment suitable for a re-statement of the Socialist position as regards the democratic basis of the franchise; and at the same time call upon all branches of the party to give the question of Adult Suffrage special prominence in their educational and revolutionary propaganda.

Adult Suffrage appears in our programme as one of the immediate reforms demanded by Social-Democrats because we claim the right of every adult man and woman to a voice in the government and administration of the country; and we base that claim on the oppression and exploitation to which wage-earners, both men and women, are subjected. We deprecate any attempt in the struggle for this right to set sex against sex; but we urge men and women workers to agitate for full political rights, in order to get possession of that constitutional weapon, which, used by the proletariat with intelligence and solidarity, will help to overthrow the capitalistic system, and establish in its place a Co-operative Commonwealth.


There are several reasons besides the International mandate for making, at the present time, a strenuous effort to force the Liberal Government to bring in an Adult Suffrage Bill. First the Liberal Party are pledged by their Newcastle programme to the principle of Adult Suffrage; and Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman has, more than once, told the advocates of the limited measure that, while fully comprehending the disabilities under which disfranchised women suffer, the electoral reform which has his sympathies is that of Adult Suffrage for all men and women. Adult Suffrage is being pressed forward as a measure of immediate reform by Socialists in many European countries, notably in Hungary and in Holland, in both of which countries the Governments, in response to democratic agitation, are bringing in measures of universal suffrage, including of course votes for all women, and the eligibility of women for Parliament. In Finland this democratic reform was carried last year, as a result of Social-Democratic and Radical agitation. Another reason is that the recent agitation among the English women, basing their demand for representation, not on democratic and revolutionary principles, but on a worn-out middle-class theory of a “property qualification,” has confused the minds of many Socialist women and men, and has disclosed the anomalous position of working women agitating, suffering and going to prison for the sake of an electoral reform, which, if carried, would not only fail to enfranchise them politically, but would, through giving further representation to propertied interests, rivet still faster the chains of their economic and social thraldom.


In order to explain how such a state of things has come about in England, we must go back in history to 1819, when a mass meeting of nearly l00,000 persons was held in St. Peter’s Fields, Manchester, under the chairmanship of Henry Hunt, one of the reformers and agitators, who, stung by the sight of the misery of the people (over-burdened as they were by taxation after the Napoleonic, wars, starved, uneducated, politically inarticulate) helped to lead a movement in the North of England, which should strike at the root of the evil by obtaining Universal Suffrage and Vote by Ballot. At this historic meeting (as shown by an old engraving, dedicated to “Henry Hunt and the Female Reformers of Manchester and the adjacent towns”) men and women stood side by side on the, platform, erected in the centre of the Fields, and demanded, among other measures of reform, Universal Suffrage, with which demand many of the banners carried by women were also inscribed. This orderly meeting of citizens was broken up by a detachment of Manchester Yeomanry Cavalry, and a troop of the 15th Hussars, who rode down shrieking men, women and children, and slashed at them right and left with their sabres, killing 54, and seriously injuring 600. This massacre of peaceful citizens (worthy of an Asquith) was known as the battle of Peterloo; and it seems, for a time, to have had the desired effect of curing English women from asking out loud and in democratic tones for political rights. The next, and all subsequent women’s demands, from the petition signed by 1,499 women, and presented to the House of Commons by John Stuart Mill in 1866, to Mr. Dickinson’s illogical measure of 1906, have all been undemocratic in spirit and in method; and if reform had been granted; based on any of these varying demands, property interests throughout the country would have been strengthened, and democracy would have been the loser. Meanwhile our Australian and New Zealand colonies, where Manhood Suffrage had already been granted, gave, after a short agitation on the part of the women, full Womanhood Suffrage. Many English women who show their interest in political questions by belonging to one or the other of the orthodox political parties, or to one of the three branches of the Socialist Party, have lately started a more militant campaign for political representation with the object of gaining public support and sympathy for their propaganda; but they still continue to base their demand traditionally on the whispered middle-class woman’s request that her bricks and mortar may be represented.


The result has been that working women in their thousands have been induced by the cry of “Votes for Women” to sign petitions in favour of a Bill never explained to them, which would only obtain the vote for comparatively few women, whose influence would be in the main anti-democratic. The gradual extensions, of the original Reform Bill of 1832 have produced registration laws based on seventeen different franchises, which accomplish admirably the object for which their class-conscious propertied framers intended them – namely, to keep as many wage-earners as possible off the register, and to render it as difficult as possible for the unprivileged to get on. Plural voting gives everywhere an undue preponderance to property interests, while the household, lodger, latchkey, policeman- cubicle and other fancy qualifications keep alive a horde of overpaid revising barristers and their hangers-on, in whom is vested the right of decision as to whether a man shall or shall not be a voter. The whole position is so absurd and contradictory that the only way of clearing the ground of privilege, precedent, and property interest is for the wage-earners to force the hand of the present Government by propaganding and demonstrating for Adult Suffrage.


English Socialists must therefore date back their movement traditionally to the public demand in 1819 by men and women reformers for Universal Adult Suffrage; and they must, while acknowledging that the militant women suffragists of our own time have helped to bring the question of women’s political disabilities to the front, point out that the movement has lacked vital force because it was not backed, and never could be backed, by the mass demand of the proletariat. As shown by the annual Congress of the Labour Party at Belfast, that mass demand for Adult. Suffrage can only be obtained from a class-conscious proletariat. At that Congress a large majority of the workers rejected a resolution asking them to support the Limited Measure for Woman Suffrage, and declared themselves pledged to the demand for votes for all women and all men.

If any Socialist women, who have been working strenuously in the past for a measure which, under misapprehension of the whole situation, they hold would enfranchise “a majority of working women, still believe the repeated assertion that the advocates of Adult Suffrage only desire to lead the country on to Manhood Suffrage, the Executive of the Social-Democratic Party would remind them that in England, of all countries, such a betrayal would be impossible. There are as the Adult Suffrage Society states in its appeal, to democracy, “Two forces able to prevent the adoption of Manhood Suffrage. First, the Labour and Socialist movement pledged to Adult Suffrage; second, the members of Parliament pledged to Women’s Suffrage.” Further on in their appeal they add “Those women who are sincere in their demand that all women shall have the vote, have nothing to lose and everything to gain by broadening the basis of their demands.”


The Executive of the Social-Democratic Party call therefore on all loyal Socialist men and women to cease to associate themselves with the middle-class propaganda of “Votes for Some Women,” and to join in an active and militant propaganda for Adult Suffrage and Votes for All Women. Speakers on the subject can be obtained from the Adult Suffrage Society, 122, Gower Street, London; and literature, such as Clara Zetkin’s pamphlet on “Womanhood Suffrage,” and the leaflets and pamphlets of the Adult Suffrage Society, should be sold and distributed. In this way, and in this way only, can Socialists bring themselves into line with the International Suffrage propaganda; and in this way only can Socialist women comrades keep in democratic touch with their Continental Socialist sisters, who are fighting with their men comrades the same enemies of class domination and capitalism.

Chandos Hall, 21a, Maiden Lane, London, W.C., November, 1907.