Home > Beyond The Fragments > Beyond The Fragments: Feminism and the Making of Socialism (The Women’s Movement and Organizing for Socialism, Part One) by Sheila Rowbotham

Beyond The Fragments: Feminism and the Making of Socialism (The Women’s Movement and Organizing for Socialism, Part One) by Sheila Rowbotham

I think it helps to say how you’ve entered a particular train of thought. Behind what I’m saying are four main political influences, the New Left of the late 1950s to early 1960s, International Socialism (now the Socialist Workers Party) from the mid 1960s to the mid 1970s, libertarian Marxism in the early 1970s, and the Women’s Liberation Movement since its beginnings in the late 1960s. Like all influences, the impact of these has not been linear or even. They have jostled together inside my head, pushing and lugging at one another for space. The nature of my involvement with them has not been at all the same.

When I began thinking of myself as a ‘socialist’ in 1962 the great upheaval in the Communist Party which had occurred in 1956 was still a persistent reference point. An event of six years before was for me at nineteen a distant happening. But the assumptions of what politics were about were still being set by CND and the New Left. 1956 appeared to me as the beginning of modern times. It was a break, just as 1968 was to be, a break to a later political generation.

The recoil from the Communist Party was part of my political inheritance but it was not part of my own political experience. This meant I rejected the possibility of a socialist renewal from within the CP intellectually, but I had no understanding of the inner life of communism before the impact of 1956. This was further complicated: by meeting throughout the sixties Young Communist League members, older Communist trade unionists and intellectuals who were shaken by the consequences of Hungary and later by Czechoslovakia, and increasingly open to discussion with socialists outside the CP. They were less dogmatic than the Trotskyists because they had no longer illusions about being omniscient. I always winced at the self-satisfied tone with which members of Trotskyist groups called all Communist Party members ‘Stalinists’, for I knew it didn’t fit. I felt Cold War anti-communism became mixed up in the stridency of anti-Stalinism. Somehow by over-shooting the mark Trotskyism blocked many aspects of the New Left resistance to Stalinism proper, which was not only a political system but a particular stance towards being a socialist.

There were other ambiguities which can be partly explained by being politically formed by the New Left of the late fifties without being actually part of it. The possibility of making an alternative left movement to the Labour Party and to Stalinism did not have any reality for me. The New Left as a practical movement of left clubs and centres like the Partisan coffee bar in Soho was waning by 1962. By the time I arrived on the left the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament was the ‘movement’ and its atmosphere was radical rather than socialist. Committee of 100 and a new left students’ journal were the first kinds of activity I encountered. Committee of 100 was far more exciting – this was the period in which Regional Seats of Government were being discovered and exposed. There was a feeling around that ‘direct action’ was the thing, not discussion of ideas. But CND itself was in the process of disintegration and when I left University in 1964 it seemed as if pressure on the left of the Labour Party was more realistic than the creation of an independent left movement.

Nonetheless the timing and shaping was rather important. For if I had become a socialist too late to be part of the first wave of the New Left, I was still deeply affected by an approach to politics which had not only broken with Stalinism but was quite alien to the assumptions of the then tiny Trotskyist sects. Indeed until I met Trotskyists in the Hackney Labour Party in 1964 they seemed simply odd with an inward, self-confirming intensity like evangelical religious groups. Even as I encountered Trotskyism and neo-Trotskyism (International Socialism) I was never quite of them. I could never be quite so sure somehow. They had all those certainties as if everything was known, the whole world and its history was sewn up and neatly categorized. How could anyone know so much? But what it was that I was or why I couldn’t be sure was quite unclear. In face of the clear-cut polarities which various Trotskyist groups shuffled between one another like counters I had only puzzlement. ‘Middle class’, they said. Forced to peel through class prejudice by their challenge I could acknowledge that it was partly this.

But class was only part of it because some of them were middle class too. It was also the legacy of New Left politics. The emotion of my socialism was too rooted in an interconnecting quest between circumstance and consciousness – consciousness and circumstance. Trotskyism’s emphasis on the ‘analysis’ of an unfolding objective crisis suggested the professional revolutionary going in, extracting the salient bits of reality and fashioning a programme accordingly. The New Left (the movement rather than the journal which kept the name) never seemed to have such detachment. We were all immersed in the real world. Our understandings flowed out of the actual movement of existence and dissolved back within it. Against the preparation for an externally developing ‘moment’ into which the professional revolutionary organization was to insert/inject itself was the conviction in the New Left that human beings could and would resist an unjust and inhuman society because it denied the possibility of creativity and love. We were all responsible agents of our destinies and must act in our lives. I could consequently never accept the notion of ‘training’ which was present in the Leninist tradition and important in Trotskyism.

In varying degrees the Trotskyist groups believed that personal feelings should be curbed and in some cases sacrificed – whereas the New Left in resisting Stalinism wanted to allow space for personal feeling as a source of humanity. It was assumed that personal relationships and values were to be respected and that Stalinism had denied and destroyed them. They were to be recognized as important in their own right even if they denied the immediate possibility of commitment to any organized resistance. In 1960 in ‘Outside the Whale’, Edward Thompson explored the sources of apathy and the personal anti-political rebellion among the young. He argued the radical potential of the response expressed in Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey. If love had become falsified perhaps it appeared better to shed illusions and seek honesty instead. But in the search for honesty we could rediscover the source of love in opposition to its caricature.

The anti-political find themselves once again in the arena of political choice. Because ‘love’ must be thrust into the context III’ power, the moralist finds that he must become revolutionary.1

The New Left stressed the possibilities of personal choice within particular contexts. It was not an abstract freedom, but it was an historical freedom. They did not assume that everyone had to make socialism by the same route. They did not insist on there being the one way to truth seems to me to be essential in the make-up of the Trotskyist groups in the 1970s. I think this arminianism was shared by most IS members in the 1960s and was one bond with the New Left. No single left group could claim with conviction any way to having absolute truth. They were after all so tiny. The pretensions of the Socialist Labour League (now the Workers Revolutionary Party) seemed simply grotesque to most socialists in the early 1960s. Unselfconsciously we read Kropotkin and Bakunin as well as Marx, Gandhi and G.D.H. Cole, Camus, Sartre and Emma Goldman. We bought Anarchy as well as Peace News, Sanity, Tribune and Labour Worker.

By 1964 when I left University it seemed as if people in the New Left were becoming less preoccupied with finding new forms for class struggle which the ex-CP members had sought, and were more involved in cultural analyses of popular working-class attitudes and customs. I did not understand then why it was important to study the relationships between the stereotypes of the media and consciousness. It just seemed rather owlish. I was too closely involved emotionally in the music of popular culture to want to study it. I knew nothing of the differences on the journal. While I was friendly with some of the group round the New Left Review after 1963, I could not understand how they could be socialists and not bother about being personally remote from working-class people. This made them very different from the initiators of the New Left.

So I joined the Young Socialists in Hackney Labour Party where I met Trotskyists who were in Militant and International Socialism. I could not see Trotskyism from outside anymore. I learned about Trotskyism from young, working-class people, many of whom came from left Labour families and remembered the anti-fascist struggle of the East End or quite violent confrontations with the law and state going back over several generations of trade unionism in class-conscious families. The precarious tradition of Trotskyism was strengthened because it combined with personal experience of class. I learned from them about theory (J.P. Cannon) and proletarian art (The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists). I was told you could never trust the middle class (me among others). I learned how to dissect Labour Party policy statements and argue (just about) with right-wing MPs about incomes policy. We had no illusions that the Labour Party leadership was going to bring us socialism. But we tended to underestimate the capacity of Labourism to exhaust left opposition.

Within the Labour Party Young Socialists I was drawn towards the International Socialism Group (now Socialist Workers Party) around 1966 and I joined briefly in the late 1960s. Its attraction to me and to other socialists influenced by the New Left was that it appeared to combine theoretical openness and flexibility with an orientation towards a grass-roots working-class politics. In the sixties IS seemed to be able to assimilate and learn from new movements while retaining an understanding of exploitation. This was important both in the student movements and locally for me in the Vietnam Solidarity Committee in Hackney. But before these, IS had supported various kinds of community action, a campaign about racialism in Islington and the organization of private tenants in Hackney which contributed to their involvement in the council tenants’ movement in the late sixties.

I Joined for about eighteen months, following a drive to recruit people who agreed very generally with their aims after Powell’s racist speech in 1968. A debate about organization was just coming to an end. I puzzled over various position papers in bewilderment. In a sense I’m still reeling, for ideas take years to sink in and grow out of me. Anyway in retrospect this argument seems to me to have been crucial. It involved discussion about the degree of autonomy local branches should have. The case for a centralized structure was eventually accepted. This debate came to be referred to as a closed issue – as if it had been settled. But its implications were critical for the course which IS was to take as an organization. Closing up on these issues was a mistake. It was implied there was no time for further discussion.

Martin Shaw, in his account of the history of IS, ‘The Making of a Party?’, comments that the political basis of the new ‘democratic centralism’ which was then accepted, “. . . was not fully understood either by many of the pre-1968 members . . . or by the new recruits’.2

This was certainly true in my case. In retrospect again this episode which remained mysterious to me for years was in fact an elaborate conjuring trick. Tony Cliff held the rabbit of Rosa Luxemburg’s criticism of the undemocratic features of Leninism and the dangers of the Party substituting itself for the working class in one hand. Then, in the twinkling of an eye, it had gone into the hat and out came a knotted scarf ‘democratic centralism’ and long Leninist tradition – more and more and more of it.

Martin Shaw points out that Cliff’s turnaround was reaction to the failure of May 1968. He says it was response which eclipsed any other ‘lessons’. This incident could be dismissed as simply an example of a ‘opportunism’ peculiar to IS or to Cliff as an individual. But I think it has more general implications. For the assumption that the end justifies the means we use in organizing need not only apply to recruiting on a fuzzy basis. It could be combined with a formally democratic internal regime but involve the tactic of entrism, a fundamentally deceitful operation which has contributed to great distrust of both the

Communist Party and Trotskyist groups. Or it might mean the covert control of front organizations or the use of smear tactics to defeat any opposition from non-aligned socialists.

Somehow there has passed into Trotskyism (and into the neo-Trotskyism of IS) the assumption that the manipulation of people is justified by the supposedly superior knowledge which leaders of revolutionary groups presume to possess of the end they believe they are pursuing. It is certainly possible to find justification for such a view in Lenin’s dictums on morality. But there was enough historical evidence for questioning these. The disastrous extension and intensification of such an approach to politics had been a crucial feature of the Stalinism which Trotskyism professed to oppose. Trotskyists have levelled precisely these kinds of criticism at the CP’s period of popular frontism for example. Yet Trotskyists can also still lack scruples about stacking the cards against a real process of discussion and learning for everyone before decisions were taken. Why should it be justifiable for Trotskyists and not for Stalinists?

It was not only a question of accepting a formal democratic process. It was a corrosion of the inner responses about how a socialist should behave. Awareness this was present actually within Trotskyism. The dissidents grouped around ‘Facing Reality’ argued in 1958 that contemporary Marxism was inhibited and cramped ‘by a habit of mind and a way of life’ which included ‘a psychology of leadership’. They maintained that,

The vanguard organisation substituted political theory and an internal political life for the human responses and sensitivities of its members to ordinary people. It has now become very difficult for them to go back into the stream of the community.3

I think this comment was to be curiously prophetic of the relationship which the Trotskyist leaderships were to have with the younger generation of socialists after 1968.

The energy which erupted in May 1968 was overwhelming. You could catch a glimpse of that extraordinary concentrated force of people’s power to dissolve constraining structures which must be the subjective experience of a revolutionary process. I resisted identifying too hopefully at first. I couldn’t bear the disappointment of defeat. But events pushed this reluctance away. The upsurge and its creativity were undeniable.

In a way there was too much to absorb. You couldn’t believe your own ears sometimes. Nothing seemed impossible. The experiences of 1968 opened your political eyes and ears. It revealed vulnerabilities within capitalist society which were making it possible to imagine socialism in different ways.

Capitalism was seen as claiming your whole being. We were all colonized and had to become total resisters. The focus was not only on production or even on a wider concept of class struggle but on oppression in everyday life particularly from the family and consumption. ‘The revolution’ must liberate the imagination. The opposition to capitalism was not only a power contest against an external system but against its inner hold. Not only the rational but the irrational was the sphere of this rebellion. There was a stress on subjective feeling and a suspicion of structures of any kind, including demands. ‘Don’t Demand – Occupy!’ declared Black Dwarf. The stress was on learning through doing and on the need for experience to be the source of theory. It was assumed that your politics were communicated not only through what you said but in what you did and how you did it. This led to the assertion that the attack against capitalist society should carry the future within the present. Thus there should be no hierarchy, no elites, no chairs, no committees, no speakers and even no meetings in some cases. Or the meeting merged into and became life. Life thus became meetings!

It is easy to cast a cynical eye backwards onto such utopianism. 1968 ‘failed’ so it can be dismissed I don’t believe it can. For unless we understand how such a politics came about, how it influenced the emergence of the women’s movement and crystallized within libertarian Marxism in the early seventies, we have no context in which to place the alternative assumptions about organizing which have been central to these movements. Aspects of these have persisted in innumerable community and cultural projects, communes, ecology, alternative technology, therapy and the growth movement.

In retrospect I think the late sixties were an enormously creative period which have been too easily dismissed in the quite different situation of the late seventies. The ideas which sprang up around the May Events deserve much more serious conscious consideration.

Nonetheless with the passing of time the weaknesses of many of the assumptions about organizing which have been bequeathed half consciously are apparent. The idea of oppression is both vague and rather static. It fixes people in their role as victim rather than pointing to the contradictory aspects of relationships which force the emergence of new forms of consciousness. The stress on the way capitalism devours our whole beings could lead to a fatalism once the initial voluntarist enthusiasm was exhausted. Similarly there is a problem inherent in the slogan ‘the personal is political’ for it tends to imply that all individual problems can find a short-term political solution. Thus a politics which asserted subjectivity could ironically become a means of reducing human beings to the functions they perform for capital. Notions of individual potential could thus be obscured and denied. The stress on total solutions and the fears of co-option could give way to despair and disillusion when the world went on in its hard old course. The conviction that organization should carry the future, breaking down all hierarchy and denying all skills, could become an inturned and moralistic network which excluded people. The alternatives could seem like the lifestyle of a sub-culture, almost a fashion coming out of an anti-fashionable stance. Perhaps it was some such combination of factors which contributed to that paralysis of libertarian Marxism as a challenge to the hegemony of the Trotskyist groups in the British left which is apparent from the mid seventies.

This paralysis, combined with the defensiveness against theory has left the situation open for both ‘workerism’ which disregards new movements at one extreme and the abstruse high theory which has become a form of practice among academic Marxists.

I think it would be illuminating to disentangle the continuities and differences between the New Left of the fifties and this second wave, the New Left of the late sixties/early seventies.(4) I suspect that in fact the New Left response to 1956 did not simply ‘end’ when the New Left Review changed hands, or ‘fail’ as Trotskyists imply. Instead the people involved went into quite diverse forms of activity in the course of which their cohesive similarities were fragmented and transformed but never completely dissolved. This process has never been examined in detail. Jan O’Malley, though, traces one strand of New Left development in Notting Hill. In her book The Politics of Community Action she describes the contribution made by people from the London left clubs in tenants’ and anti-racist groups before 1966. She also mentions their involvement with the London Free School, the Notting Hill Community Workshop in 1966, and their support for the May Day Manifesto’s statement in May 1967. This said that socialists needed to make a political movement which would make ‘democratic practice effective throughout the society by activity and locality rather than in some closed, centralized, ritualized place’.(5)

The use of the term ‘workshop’ echoed the community organizing of the American New Left. The Free School also prefigured the politics of the libertarians of the early 1970s. Libertarian Marxism in this period also stressed grass-roots community organizing which had been developing in Notting Hill since the late sixties. Perhaps some of the differences between this community politics of the mid sixties and libertarianism in the early seventies is the much greater influence of the ideas of the French Situationists and the Italian far left upon the latter.

Strands of the New Left in other areas could be traced within the Labour Party, Anarchist groups, in Solidarity, International Socialist groups, and trade unions in the mid sixties. From the late sixties they could be seen helping to create ‘History Workshops’, becoming involved in the Women’s movement, in left cultural movements and in radical intellectual work.

I could not attempt to unravel these strands myself for I feel personally that I am too stuck in a particular crevice somewhere between the two new lefts. I am close to both but belong to neither. I was too late for the fifties but too formed by the late sixties to be completely swept up in the student movement of the late sixties or the voluntarism of libertarian Marxism in the early seventies. So I was drawn emotionally towards libertarianism but remained intellectually full of doubt. Though I identified with the struggle to solve the actual problems presented by capitalism, without forcing everything back into the terms which Lenin, or whoever, had said things should be happening, I felt they were continually cutting corners and over-simplifying Leninism.

It’s frightening to set off on new journeys without any maps. Perhaps the hardest bit is deciding what to hang on to and what to shed. There seemed to be an atmosphere which would annihilate history as if the past was too compromised to be acknowledged. This has had a destructive effect in the American New Left and appeared in the left libertarian politics of the early 1970s. I suspect it has contributed to contemporary left attitudes towards history in opposition to ‘theory’. I felt distrustful of this, for while acknowledging many of their criticisms of the Old Left, was wary of what seemed like an extreme subjectivity. I was true that immediate feelings of the moment were ignored in the rituals of both the Communist Party and the Trotskyist groups. But, on the other hand, what of the strategic consequences of actions? Libertarianism seemed to dismiss these. The past is always part of the moment of the present whether we consider it or not.

So I had become an ‘old leftist’ by the early seventies. This meant I remained psychologically close to IS as a kind of reference point even after I left early in 1970. I think this was a situation shared by many socialists who were to varying degrees affected by the ‘old New Left’. The subsequent hardening of IS from around 1972 which intensified in the mid seventies propelled me (and some of them) into personal dissent. It has finally forced me to start confronting the differences between the impulse of the New Left and that tradition of revolutionary organizing of which IS was an idiosyncratic part – Leninism and Trotskyism.

My real involvement was with the emerging Women’ Liberation Movement but this closeness to IS meant I was forced to try and understand the leadership’s resistance in the early 1970s to discussing aspects of oppression which were not directly related to class exploitation. I went to the first IS women’s conference as an observer and identified strongly with the women arguing for women’s liberation. It was a particularly confusing situation because many of the first women’s groups outside London were started by women in or close to IS.

At first it seemed enough to put resistance to women’s liberation down to the bias of a male-dominated leadership – though the picture was never that simple as some women in IS opposed women’s liberation and some men supported it from the beginning. The effort to change the direction of IS and orientate towards working-class economic struggles also certainly contributed towards a dismissal of women’s liberation as middle class – the pot being disposed to call the kettle black. But by the mid seventies neither of these seemed adequate explanations for the greater overt sectarianism shown by IS than by the Communist Party or the International Marxist-Group to the women’s movement. Why should a group which had historically broken with both Stalinism and orthodox Trotskyism on the issue of socialist democracy and worker’s control be more incapable of digesting not only feminism but issues like gay liberation, radical psychology, struggles around cultural and community life and personal discussion of what it meant to be a socialist? Why should a group which had rejected dogma hold its ideas as moralistic defences? Ostensibly committed to learning from workers’ struggles, the initiator of rank and file groups, opposed to bureaucracy in the labour movement, IS baulked at extending these ideas into the wider issues of everyday life or at applying them within their own organization. Even the commitment to workers’ rank and file struggles and experience came to be narrowly defined in terms of recruitment. Looking at the tussles from outside it looked as if the various groupings in the leadership adopted a rhetoric about who could put in the best claim to be the interpreter of workers’ experience.

It is a mistake of course to expect a political process to be a smooth unfolding. People in the very act of breaking out of some forms of politics, protect their behinds tightly with the corners of the old covers. Perhaps the consequence of breaking from the tradition of the Communist Party and Trotskyism made it more imperative to hold onto a limited economic concept of class struggle. For strait is the way between the perils and blandishments of centrism, reformism, etc. Especially if you are petit bourgeois to boot!

But with this dismissal of new movements and democracy many aspects of the politics from which they had partially detached themselves grew up within yet another walled garden.

Critics within IS explained the strange twists of fortune and recessions of democracy as a series of coincidences which could be put right. But how many coincidences could you explain away? The same dilemmas seemed to be coming up about the relationship of a political organization to rank and file groups which had been held up by IS as awful warnings of the CP’s Stalinist sectarianism in the late twenties and early thirties. The experience of the women’s movement also indicated that the question of the connection of a political group to movements and campaigns could not be solved by the kind of political break IS had made with Stalinism and orthodox Trotskyism. This wasn’t deeper than the actions of IS. It involved the whole approach to being socialists.

In its early days IS really did try and break with sectarian traditions and with the windbag rhetorical rituals on the left. But this hardened into a refusal to talk about the politics of what they were doing within the left. Martin Shaw has described how IS members came to feel they were above sectarianism. But the refusal to deal with dogma meant that in trying to go outwards they dismissed other socialists. In rejecting some of the obvious pretentions of orthodox Trotskyism, righteousness grew within. It was as if they had a special calling which was never stated and was somehow invisible. Their politics became those of a chosen elect. They could never do everything themselves hut felt no one else could be relied upon to do anything worthwhile. Under this strain their ideas were held in abeyance. There was no time to learn from new developments. Increasingly their theories did not fit new realities outside IS so they stiffened into dogma and became defensive. Ideas and open debate became almost suspect as inherently middle class. They seemed to be regarded as a waste of time with ‘the Crisis’ upon us. The instinct towards criticism was to attack the opponents for their class or lack of activity. Paranoia mounted as secret internal documents inevitably leaked. If the circumstances of the mid seventies could produce this change, the mind boggles at what a civil war and famine would have done – Uncle Joe apart.

By the mid seventies I was being nudged into trying to understand why it should be that the politics of IS should end up this way. I know this need to understand is shared by those socialists who have been close to IS and who became critical of its development in the early 1970s. This experience cannot simply be shaken off. Our past is not an indulgence. A lot of people’s lives have been affected by their membership of IS/SWP – political faiths have been scarred much more deeply than the socialism of someone like me who was not a member for very long. Such negligence is never without its nemesis of cynicism and paralysis. The expelled members or people who left were erased from the memory of what is significant. Their opposing politics were constantly confused with moral failing. This has sinister echoes and has resulted in bitterness and waste. But the implications go even beyond this. I think that unless we try and understand what were the sticking points which limited IS’s move away from Stalinism and from orthodox Trotskyism we will not see what allowed this process to occur. This means we are back to square one with no guarantee we won’t repeat the same circle.

So I think the process of opening up what happened in IS and exploring its consequences for how we organize in the future is as important as a reassessment of the impact of the 1956 New Left and libertarian Marxism.6 I am aware that my preoccupation with IS/SWP may have a hermetic quality to people who have not lived any aspect of such an encounter. It may seem a strange, intense passion splashing around in the proverbial parochial duck pond. But I believe it has a significance beyond the political involvement of ex-members or members. For roughly a decade from the mid 1960s IS represented in Britain the main organizational hope that the Leninist and Trotskyist traditions could be renewed by a generation which had not been scarred by the horrors of Stalinism and the extreme isolation of the minority Trotskyist opposition. The renewal promised was to carry the revolutionary tradition of 1917 and yet face outwards to the problems of modern capitalism. I think this promise has proved to be illusory. However the existence of such a hope meant that many implications of the New Left challenge to Stalinism were evaded. Also, as Martin Shaw argues, the IS leaders did not really understand ‘the structural changes. . . which the student movement highlighted’.7 More than this though, they did not acknowledge the significance of the changes in consciousness which these developments involved. The insights of both movements could thus be absorbed, channelled and finally abandoned by the sectarian husk which had consumed them.

This has had a most confusing effect on the contemporary left in which the SWP can raise great dust storms while digging itself further into the sand. It means that the substantial problems raised by the New Left after 1956 and by the May Events in 1968, about how we should make socialism, have been almost completely obscured.

I suppose this effort to understand IS/SWP could be described as a continuing niggling external puzzle for me. An internal pull towards thinking about organization has been experiencing a completely different politics within the women’s movement since 1969. The differences between this kind of practice and socialist politics have seemed so great that it has been hard to compare them. I’ve increasingly felt this as a paralysing split. There is a danger that we might acquiesce to such a division, accepting one way of organizing for socialism and another for feminism. Given the existing balance of power between the sexes in society as a whole this would undoubtedly mean that our organizing as feminists became increasingly ghetto-ized.

In the women’s movement for nearly ten years there have been organizing assumptions growing, mainly communicated by word of mouth. The difficulty of translating these assumptions into a language which can touch current definitions of organization on the left have been enormous. This is partly because these have emerged from the practice of a movement in a piecemeal way. They challenge the left groups implicitly rather than explicitly. But also they cannot be contained within the accepted circumference of debate established by the male-dominated left. Coming partly from the experience of feminist women’s lives they reach continually outwards towards new forms of expressing defiance and resistance. This is a creativity which has not been shared by the left groups within the Leninist and Trotskyist traditions.

We have stressed for instance the closeness and protection of a small group and the feeling of sisterhood. Within the small group it has been important that every woman has space and air for her feelings and ideas to grow. The assumption is that there is not a single correctness which can be learned off by heart and passed on by poking people with it. It is rather that we know our feelings and ideas move and transform themselves in relation to other women. We all need to express and contribute. Our views are valid because they come from within us and not because we hold a received correctness. The words we use seek an openness and an honesty about our own interest in what we say. This is the opposite to most left language which is constantly distinguishing itself as correct and then covering itself with a determined objectivity. (This is not only true of Leninism but sometimes also of the opponents of Leninism. Here the name becomes inadequate to explain the problem. It becomes a problem within the use of the concept of science in Marxism itself.) It is very important to be able to say ‘I don’t know’ and ‘Nobody knows, we need to find out’ without being dismissed as stupid.

Our politics have tried to allow expression of vulnerability and openness to every woman’s feelings which consciousness raising at its best implies. We have rejected central organization, hierarchical structures and a leadership. This has not meant that we have no organization, for example, regional networks, women’s centres, conferences, publishing groups, theatre groups, folk and rock bands, film collectives, trade union caucuses, food co-ops are aspects of the women’s movement. The structures which have arisen have been seen as serving particular needs. The making and communication of ideas have been an extraordinary collective process in which thousands of women have contributed. The organizational initiatives which have been spread through the movement have been extremely diverse, involving women in quite different ways. The women’s movement has touched many areas of politics socialists have neglected and its hold goes deeper. It absorbs more of your being.

We’ve been close to our own weaknesses and pain in all this. It is hard to disentangle ourselves enough to make more distanced theoretical criticism while holding on to the realization of how creative our organizing has been. Though setting ourselves more exacting practical and personal standards in politics than the contemporary left, we nonetheless have found that criticism and differences bear too closely upon us for comfort. The distancing which is present in male-dominated groups is alienating. Yet it allows for the release of differences. The agony of division can be turned outwards rather than imploding the soul. Sisterhood can become a coercive consensus which makes it emotionally difficult for individual women to say what they feel rather than a source of strength. Consciousness raising can put too great a pressure on women to change by an effort of will alone. Feminist politics can become preoccupied with living a liberated life rather than becoming a movement for the liberation of women. Our lack of structure can make it difficult for women outside particular social networks to join. It can lead to cliquishness and thus be undemocratic. The stress on personal experience makes it hard to communicate ideas which have been gained either from the women’s movement in the past or from other forms of radical politics.

Awareness of these weaknesses has made some women join left organizations. Their problem is then that many of the understandings of the women’s movement are still unrecognized. Some women have opted instead for a pure theory which dismisses the vital importance of a politics in which subjective experience is always present. I can see how this response arises but I think it’s a denial of a crucial source of our creativity as a movement. The recent growth of socialist feminist groups carries the hope of an integration of ideas, personal feeling and activity. It has come from several sources. Within the women’s movement there have always been socialists and women who have become socialists so there is continuity with these earlier groupings of socialist feminists. But many women have also joined socialist feminist groups as exiles from Trotskyist and other left groups. For others the socialist feminist group is both their first women’s and socialist group. This means there is no longer an automatically shared background of movement politics.

The women’s movement has had a great reticence about blowing trumpets. For a woman like me familiar with the left this was one of the strangest things I had to learn. There was no bluffing but a careful, scrupulous examination of the minutiae of behaviour, with much exacting inner standards. On the left everything is a hurry and there is a pressure for results. Exemplary myths can substitute in the short term. I think the realism has been a long-term strength of the women’s movement. On the other hand, it sometimes becomes a self-denigration, a dismissal of what we have achieved. This is true of our attitude to activity and ideas but most particularly to organization. I think it’s important now to begin to assert explicitly understandings which have been passed on by word of mouth or even been implicit in how we’ve done things. For understandings which are not formulated explicitly have a way of vanishing like dust under a carpet of ‘correct’ ideas.

Our discussions of organization have dwelt on immediate problems, for example, the lack of structure, embarrassed silences in meetings, the relationship of co-ordinating centres like the London workshop to local groups. There is a shared understanding of the need for an independent movement, though some women interpret this as remaining completely separate from men and other movements while others see it as keeping our organizational autonomy but working with other groupings against a common opponent. Beyond these assumptions and understandings we have tried to solve organizational problems as they come up with the general aim of making situations in which all women can participate fully. Despite feminist interest in women’s history, we have not referred what we are doing much to past traditions of revolutionary organization. Leninist or otherwise. In this way the women’s movement has shared with libertarian Marxism a sense of beginning anew. This has meant we have avoided the dogmatism with which these traditions have become encrusted. But it has put us on the defensive in relation to people on the left who appear to have very clear versions of revolutionary tradition and ‘an analysis’ off pat. It has also deprived us of the valuable confidence which a sense of belonging to a complex culture of resistance brings to the labour movement. The growing numbers of women exiled from left groups could bring the positive aspects of these traditions into the women’s movement.

Our debates have been grounded in real conflicts but it has been difficult to generalize beyond the particular. We have no means of placing them in any context. Experience which is not theorized has a way of dissolving and slipping out of view, even when it belongs to the relatively recent collective memory of a living movement. We can retain attitudes and responses towards forms of organizing which we prefer but it is hard to pass them on or give them a more general validity.

I think the need to theorize our organizational experience using past traditions creatively is becoming more urgent, for as time passes it becomes impossible to communicate what happened or why decisions were taken by word of mouth. You can’t keep telling it like a story. ‘Well you see at the Skegness Women’s Liberation Conference we got everyone down off the platform. And then we had to do the same a few years later at the Mile End Women And Socialism Conference.’ It’s too long-winded and it means everyone is just going backwards and forwards, up and down the same hill. It evokes a vision of a small body of intransigent feminist old age pensioners still hauling Trotskyist women off platforms armed with a memory which is incomprehensible to most people. Without a theory you get stuck defending entrenched feelings. Making a theory gives you enough bounce to leap up in the air, meet critics head on and land on your feet with an alternative without getting too puffed. It gives you the advantage.

There has become more of a need for such leaps since we have been trying to work out how we approach issues like anti-fascism, Ireland, mass working-class confrontations like Grunwick, legal repression, or imperialism. Violent demonstrations, mass pickets, torture and the consolidation of the power of the state to suppress radical resistance internationally have stretched the response of feminist organizational structures which were devised for quite different kinds of politics.(8) There is strong pressure to simply dismiss the significance of the more intimate and personal areas of struggle. Instead I think we need to clarify the different kinds of resistance we are engaged in as feminists and develop a more strategic sense of opposition and alliance and new combinations of personal and public forms depending on the nature of the political issue.

One aspect of such a strategy would be a more worked-out understanding of what the feminist experience has taught us about how to organize and what aspects we feel are relevant for making socialism.

I think it would be to go down a blind alley if we simply presented this in terms of a defensive idealization of the women’s movement as ‘the alternative’ and a caricature of the ‘authoritarian male’ left. This puts an impossible weight on women’s liberation and lets men off the hook as they can leave it to women while presenting a more-feminist-than-thou facade. The women’s movement can’t carry some finished alternative, though the experience of an alternative practice and the search for different relationships within the political process can contribute a great deal. But despite its creativity, feminism, by definition, expresses the experience of one sex. It is necessarily partial. Moreover there are actual class and race biases as well. Women’s liberation has mobilized mainly women from a particular strata, teachers, social workers, librarians, journalists or clerical workers, as well as women working in the family. They are largely people involved in the communication of values and the administration and servicing of capitalist society. These are crucial places to contest. They give important insights into raw sensitivities apparent in relations of control between the sexes in these areas of capitalism. But many women are not included in this particular social relationship. While some manual working-class women have been involved and many others influenced by the women’s movement their experience has not been central to the emergence of the new feminism. There is a similar racial limitation. Feminists are predominantly white. Asian and West Indian women are in a minority. This has restricted the full understanding of lived similarities and differences in the predicament of women of various classes and races.

I don’t think the women’s movement or small groups of men and women can provide some neat alternative model out of a hat. The great historic force of Leninism is precisely that it has been created and used in revolutionary situations. It has worked up to a point and adapted to more complex situations than either anarchism or syndicalism. Nor is there any denying that Trotskyism’s origins in resistance to Stalinism when such opposition was tortuous and lonely make it a crucial source of revolutionary experience.

But there is no need to stop there. It must also be admitted that the Bolsheviks, even before Stalin, have a lot to account for, and that Leninism destroyed vital aspects of socialism even in creating a new kind of left politics. It was not only that revolutions have faced the most dire external circumstances. Leninist assumptions are actually weighted against the integration of many of the understandings present within pre-Leninist forms of socialism.9 The persistent traditions of anti-Leninism have not been mere intransigence. But they have

been limited to tiny sectarian groupings or abstract theory by the historical impact of Stalinism and this has affected how opposition has been expressed.

It feels now as if new light is being cast on these old disputes.

I have taken heart from the debates which have been going on internationally in the Communist Parties, from the discussions in Britain around Socialist Unity, Big Flame and the International Socialism Conference and articles in The Leveller and Socialist Register. I feel personally closest to the growth of the network of socialist feminist groups and the things written about the left in Red Rag, Gay Left, Lesbian Left and Achilles Heel as these are not the papers of any political organization and are concerned with the connection between socialism and sexual politics.

In a recent interview in The Leveller, ‘Recovering the Libertarian Tradition’, E.P. Thompson criticized ‘the unreconstructed Leninist and vanguardist strategies, which once again situate a sectarian leadership proclaiming themselves to be the embodiment of the proper revolutionary consciousness of the working people: and not inquiring very closely into what the actual demands and needs of the people are’.

He added that this was not ‘a blanket criticism of Leninism as such – Leninism was a specific product of very special historical circumstances’ which seemed to him ‘to be irrelevant to this country and this time, and which could often entail anti-democratic and anti-libertarian premises’.

He asserted the need for an ‘affirmative politics’ which could avoid the passions, hatreds and paranoia which flourished within the contemporary left and could include ‘an immense number of active supporters of the existing labour movements and Labour Party’.(10)

I see the growth of new forms of organizing within the women’s movement as part of such a larger recovery of a libertarian socialist tradition. I think that this requires a sustained re-evaluation of the tradition of Leninism, and in Britain, because of its particular influence, of Trotskyism.(11) I will confess to being a reluctant contributor to this process, for such a realization is still in its early days with confusion and doubt on one side and a more tenacious clutch of doctrinal purity on the other. While there is a growing muttering and mumbling among the dissatisfied it is still being met by a pother of rhetoric from the Trotskyist and neo-Trotskyist leaderships.

Not only fear at stirring the pother has restrained me but respect. Organizing ideas, male dominated and handed down from above or not, are laborious creations and root themselves through usage. There certainly are skills which need to be passed on. There are things you need to learn from people who know more. Everything does not pop up in our heads. I know I have learned from both Lenin and Trotsky. It would be prodigal to dismiss the depth of understanding which the Russian revolutionary tradition and the enormous upheaval of 1917 made possible. Leninist ideas have obviously been well tried and practiced sanctions. Whatever criticisms I’d make of Leninism there was always some friend in the Communist. Party or one of the left groups to explain Lenin hadn’t. meant it like that or he’d said something different. Sometimes I feel even naming the problem as Leninism is wrong. For I know that in all left organizations there are always people with complex understandings which are lived in many dimensions. So I’ve thought for years perhaps it was best to leave well alone whatever uneasiness I felt. Why tussle and worry when you have no worked-out alternative?

Now though, it seems to me to have become inescapably important to bring the real disagreements about how to make socialism which exist in the left and the labour movement out into the open in order to develop new understandings. We can best begin by examining our own political experience and see what might be generalized from that. We need to uncover what we have been actually doing without claiming an ascendant correctness or disguising weaknesses.

All this is just the story behind the main plot which in summary is: how I think some of the approaches to organizing which go under the headings of Leninism and Trotskyism are flawed; how I think the assumptions of what it means to be a socialist carried within Leninism and Trotskyism and which prevail on the left now block our energy and self-activity and make it harder for socialism to communicate to most people; why I think the women’s movement suggests certain ways of reopening the possibility of a strong and popular socialist movement.

I am not dealing systematically with the ‘works’ of Lenin or the works of Trbtsky, or the history of the Communist Parties, or Maoism’s specific application of Leninism. Nor am I tracing the origin and growth of the Fourth International or the disputes within Trotskyism which led dissidents like C.L.R. James, Raya Dunayevskaya, Michel Pablo and Tony Cliff himself to revise aspects of Trotsky’s thought. Absent are great chunks of debates which Leninists and Trotskyists have been chewing away at for years, for instance the question of state power, imperialism, the law of uneven development, the-theory of permanent revolution, and many more.

I am approaching Leninism mainly as it has appeared through the resurgent flourish of Trotskyist groups on the British left since the late sixties. I am focusing on the points of conflict which have developed between these Trotskyist forms of Leninism and the women’s movement. This is not because I don’t think there is much more to be said – but because I know I am not the one to say it. Hopefully other people will explore the ways in which these confrontations have occurred in other contexts and extend the implications of feminism into those areas of left debate in which we are still absent.

The general terms of these criticisms could not have been formulated without the experience of being in the women’s movement. But the specifics of what follows is me writing as an individual. I hope this might contribute to a more thorough discussion.

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