It originated as the East London Federation of the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU, better known as the Suffragettes). The East London Federation was founded by Amy Bull and Sylvia Pankhurst in 1913, and differed from its parent organisation in being democratic and including men, such as George Lansbury.
By this point, Sylvia had many disagreements with the route the WSPU was taking. She wanted an explicitly socialist organisation tackling wider issues than women's suffrage, aligned with the Independent Labour Party, based among working class people in the East End of London. She also wanted to focus on collective workers' action, not individual attacks on property.
These and other differences, including personal ones, led to Sylvia's expulsion, along with the East London Federation, from the WSPU. In early 1914, they renamed themselves the East London Federation of Suffragettes (ELFS) and launched a newspaper, the Women's Dreadnought.
At first, the group campaigned for universal suffrage and agitated among parliamentarians, with the assistance of Keir Hardie. But with the outbreak of World War I, they began also to attack participation in the war, supporting the positions of the Zimmerwald Conference. This view initially lost the group support, but they began work to ameliorate suffering in the East End.
The ELFS got a chain of cost price restaurants set up, and itself set up a toy factory, free clinic and Montessori nursery. They also agitated for widow's pensions and dependent's allowances.
As public opinion turned against the war, the group gained new support, and its newspaper increased its circulation. To reflect its now broader political positions, in March 1916 it renamed itself the Workers' Suffrage Federation (WSF). Similarly, the newspaper was renamed the Workers' Dreadnought.
The WSF supported the 1916 Irish Rising and became a leading proponent of improved social welfare while continuing agitation for a universal franchise. As such, it opposed the Franchise Bill which ultimately gave women in Britain the vote in general elections as the restrictions on women voting were much stricter than those on men.
The party enthusiastically supported the October Revolution of 1917 and renamed itself again, this time as the Workers' Socialist Federation. It was the first British party to affiliate to the Third International and lead campaigns against the British government's anti-Bolshevik activities with the slogan "Hands off Russia". It also began working with the South Wales Socialist Society (SWSS) and the London Workers' Committee.
Sylvia Pankhurst had become disillusioned with parliamentary politics, particularly after the death of Keir Hardie, and instead championed soviets. This led some syndicalists and anarchists to join the group. With the aim of forming a united British Communist Party, in April 1918 the WSF opened merger negotiations with the largest far left group in the country, the British Socialist Party (BSP). Although this engendered a co-operative relationship, the negotiations broke down, as the BSP would not countenance withdrawal from the Labour Party. Pankhurst attempted to convince Lenin of her positions, but he supported the proposed Communist Party tactically affiliating to Labour.
In June 1919, the WSF and BSP joined with the Socialist Labour Party (SLP) and SWSS in broader negotiations. They agreed the main points of unity, but Pankhurst still foresaw difficulties in any subsequent party which would engage in Parliamentary action, and initiated an alternative conference, inviting the SLP, SWSS and the Communist League but not the BSP.
The conference was held in June 1920 but was attended only by WSF members, some local groups and independents. It agreed to form the Communist Party (British Section of the Third International) (CP(BSTI)) and voted to boycott future unity meetings. Instead, it attempted to interest the SLP in a merger. They proposed opening discussions with the Socialist Party of Great Britain and the British Section of the International Socialist Labour Party, but then withdrew, leaving the exercise a failure. However, the CP(BSTI) did gain influence in the Scottish Communist Labour Party and the tiny Communist Party of South Wales and the West of England was formed on their platform.
The BSP had meanwhile formed the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB). Lenin called on other communists to join the new party, and the CP(BSTI) was one of the groups covered in his work Left-Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder. Although Workers Dreadnaught was openly critical of this pamphlet, Pankhurst attended the Second Congress of the Comintern, where Lenin personally persuaded Sylvia that her objections were less important than unity, and that it would be possible to maintain an anti-Parliamentary opposition within the CPGB. Pankhurst called a conference, inviting the English Shop Stewards' and Workers' Committee Movement, the Communist Labour Party, the Scottish Workers' Committee and the Glasgow Communist Group. She was imprisoned in September, but with the support of Willie Gallacher, all the groups at the conference bar Guy Aldred's Glasgow Communist Group agreed to merge with the Communist Party of Great Britain in January 1921.
After a period, Pankhurst was instructed to place the Workers' Dreadnought under the control of the party, which she refused to do. In particular, she criticised the Communist Party members of the Poplar Board of Guardians for agreeing to reduce outdoor Poor Law relief, which was cited as the reason for her expulsion from the CPGB in September 1921. While the idea of democratic centralism, newly accepted as the governing principle for the CPGB, would seem to suggest that she was in breach of discipline, Labour Monthly continued as the personal organ of R. P. Dutt and even received subsidies.
Pankhurst reorganised her group of supporters around Workers Dreadnought, and began criticising the admittance of trade unions to the Red International of Labour Unions, and warning that they felt the Bolsheviks were beginning to "slip to the right". The group affiliated to the left communist Communist Workers International (KAI) and announced its intention to form a Communist Workers Party. No national group was formally constituted, and they later referred to the network as the Communist Workers Group although it was now a very small party and dissolved itself in June 1924.
1913: Sybil Smith
1913: Sybil Thomas
1914: Evelina Haverfield
1915: Edgar Lansbury
1916: Norah Smyth