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

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


I want to begin to explore the challenge I think the women’s movement is making to the prevailing assumptions of how revolutionary socialists should organize. These involve how theory is conceived, how the· political organization sees its relationship to other movements, how consciousness is assumed to change, how the scope of politics is defined, how individual socialists see themselves and their relationship to other people, now and in the past.

I don’t see this as a matter of biological people, women, scoring off biological people, men. Feminism for me is a movement to assert the interests of women as a sex. But more than this it is a means of releasing and communicating the understandings which that subordination holds in check. The movement for women’s liberation is part of the creation of a society in which there are no forms of domination. This society cannot be separated from the process of its making.

Relationships between men and women have undoubtedly changed historically along with the great upheavals in which the production and reproduction of all the means of social life and material existence have been transformed by people in the past. This does not mean that sex-gender relations can be either dissolved into economic changes in how things are produced or seen as a function of biological difference. We know very little of the forms these relations have taken for most people in the past. But socialist feminists have begun to assert the need to look at the sexual division of labour and the power relations within kinship networks as they have appeared historically. We are not arguing then either for a biologically universal kind of relationship or for one which is totally contingent on change in the mode of production.

Rotalind Petchesky in ‘Dissolving the Hyphen’ stresses the need ‘to study concrete revolutionary situations in order to determine whether women, because of their particular material conditions, develop particular ways of fighting and organizing. If we understand that patriarchal kinship relations are not static but, like class relations are characterized by antagonism and struggle, then we begin to speculate that women’s consciousness and their periodic attempts to resist or change the dominant kinship structures will themselves affect class relations. ‘(12)

Felicity Edholm, Olivia Harris and Kate Young point out that we cannot simply assume that antagonism and struggle are constant. They ask, in ‘Conceptualising Woman’: ‘Under what conditions is it likely that women will not accept their situation as natural and “god ordained”?’

They suggest a hypothesis which it would be most useful to explore both historically and through anthropological studies of particular societies, ‘ … that this occurs when changes in the productive process bring the sex/gender system into contradiction with the sexual division of labour, when there is no longer congruence between the two, this incompatibility provides the potential for struggle and questioning, for sexual hostility and antagonism. The direction ,that such struggle takes, however cannot be “read off” in advance.'(13)

Potentially Marxism is a valuable means of understanding how historical transformations affect our lives and how we are both limited by these processes and help to make them. The existing shape of Marxism has itself been made by the forces and dilemmas uppermost for socialists in the past. The emergence of the women’s movement has shown the underdevelopment of Marxism on relations between sexes and the connection between this and women’s subordination within the left. It has meant that socialist women, both inside and outside left groups, have challenged the power of men to determine Marxism in their own image. The imperatives of feminism require that we make many aspects of Marxism anew.

The experience of feminism has been that the specific gender oppression of women requires an independent movement in order for us to develop and assert a new collective consciousness of being female, whether this is seen as separatist or autonomous. Bea Campbell has described in Red Rag how this autonomy was defined in practice from the start as autonomy from men. Implicit in this though was the assertion of sex-gender relationships as an area of social conflict neglected by socialism. This went beyond any definition of femaleness. In delineating what was specific to us as a sex we were necessarily transforming the boundaries of identity.

. .. feminism necessarily identifies both the subjective and objective condition of existence as problems of politics. In other words, the person became a political problem. This challenged a way of practising politics that treats revolutionary personnel as agents rather than subjects.

Feminism proposes that the lived relations of subordination, the way of being subordinated, must be a central problem for revolutioanry strategy. (It is not alone in doing that, but it is the most coherent and persistent of the ‘new’ politics.) This prompts a form that is about mass engagement, that is about a process of preparedness. (14)

A.How We Relate to Ideas

One aspect of the lived relation of subordination has been the exclusion of women from all generalizing concepts and f~om the dominant definition of culture. This is partly a shared subordination. Other forms of hierarchical relationship, around class and race for example, are also excluded. But women’s subordination is particularly internalized. It even appears in the words which express the hope of a new collective identity. It is not just a matter of ‘mankind’, but of ‘Liberty, Equality, Fraternity’. It is not only ‘chairman’, but ‘brotherhood’ and ‘yours fraternally’ as well. This language of the socialist and labour movement expresses the way men hjl.ve defined what is important within the radical tradition as well as in capitalist society as a whole. When women on the left began to criticize this language we were told we were just being petty. But the ideas and politics of women’s liberation emerged out of precisely these small everyday moments of dismissive encounter.

The women’s movement in challenging every aspect of men’s hold over culture, ideas and power has begun to illuminate the bias in the language which expresses the power to define how the world is understood and acted upon.

But the mere existence of a movement, though vital, does not end this cultural subordination because the values we are contesting are rooted in actual power relationships. It does, however, mean that the contours of oppression come into sharper relief and can thus be confronted.

A problem we share with other groups of people who are not powerful, the ignoble, unknown people, is how to explore and reveal our experience in the moment of transforming our culture. If we simply dwell upon our suffering and the ways we have shifted for ourselves, we can produce an idealized icon of the earth-mother, whore-with-a-heartof-gold or the madonna. We will not dissolve the existing assumptions about womanhood. On the other h3.;’1d, if we do not recognize and grow within the specific lived experiences of women we can just create another ideal, this time a feminist stereotype, which does not relate to real life and will not touch the heart.

In order to explore, we need good maps. (1 nearly wrote workmanlike!) We need to be able to take stock of the situation and communicate any- general principles to other wanderers. We have to establish certain staging posts to refuel and assess the journey. This means we have to sit back momentarily from our immediate response to the route and try to sum up the relationship of what we have travelled to the whole journey. Some of this will be from our experience, with information from other travellers’ tales and from any existing maps. Some will be speculation about the way things will be likely to go.

Our summation of the whole may be incomplete and imperfect, but we still need it in order to get our bearings. Even if we abandon this assessment subsequently, the attempt can still be decisive and the effort to be as accurate as we can is still vital if we are not to trundle down every dead end or take enormous detours.

It is this kind of activity 1 mean when 1 use the word ‘theory’. ‘Abstraction’ should help us to move when we wish and to settle in the best camping places. It should help us to communicate and spread experience, feelings, understandings and ideas and thus facilitate action. It should not be a series of coded sign-posts that only a small elite can de-code and which lead us round and round in circles.

I realize that ‘theory’ has a rather more weighty meaning on the contemporary left. It has a grand resonance which comes. from the towers of academia and the fossilized authority of sectarianism. Both these approach ‘theory’ as something unattainable except by the few. It becomes fixed, hanging above us in a kind of ahistorical space. But ideas come from our experience of our lives, from the past wisdom of others and from the movement for change. Our efforts to abstract upon our practice and history through theories of how to make socialism for example are not good for all time, to be handed on like dusty catechisms, repeated by rote as ‘correct thought’. They have no universal validity. If they serve more than their time, well and good. But this does not make them sacred texts; it makes them more fitting to be used and enjoyed and developed. 1 think that each effort of abstraction must be constantly re-examined, criticized, dipped back into experience, merge and be born again.

Because the process of abstraction requires a conception of yourself which can be generalized, there are enormous and serious difficulties in the relationship between groups of people who have been subordinated and theory. A movement helps you to overcome some ~f the oppressive distancing of theory and this has been a considerable and continuing creative endeavour of women’s liberation. But some paths are not mapped and our footholds vanish. The theorizing about organization remains in the quicksands. It is unclaimed territory still. 1 see what I’m writing as part of a wider claiming which is beginning. 1 am part of the difficulty myself. The difficulty is not out there. I feel the effort physically still in the act of writing this. I am stumbling in the dark. There is the floundering feeling 1 got in writing about women’s liberation before there was a movement to be part of in 1968. But this time I feel weights against thought. They press on my shoulders and on my breasts. I find myself catching my breath. A kind of helmet grows on my head. The words slither around and seem to slip onto the surface of my consciousness unless 1 make an enormous effort to remain within them. The difference is that 1 know such huffing and puffing is not a personal eccentricity but a social experience and this knowledge is something felt, not just something I understand intellectually.

When the women’s movement began it seemed that socialist ideas were external because mainly men made and defined them. It seemed that the fear came because we were women. This is broadly true within a culture in which men are still dominant but it needs qualifying. The existence of the women’s movement affects men as well as women. It is not just a matter of the ideas but the relationship to them. If men try and hold ideas differently they encounter a similar paralysis and panic which women know. We need to help one another through this-we are at separate ends of the same quicksands. Similarly if women are willing to accept a formal recognition, if we do not seek to overturn the whole relationship to theory we will be accepted grudgingly by the leadership of the male left just as we can be accommodated within a masculine bourgeois culture.

Yeats commenting on Maud Gonne’s involvement in the Irish movement provides an external unsympathetic description of the price women have paid even in relation to male-dominated popular movements.

Women, because the main event of their lives has been a giving of themselves, give themselves to an opinion as if (it) were some terrible stone doll … the opinion becomes so much a part of them that it is as though a part of their flesh becomes, as it were, stone, and much of their being passes out of life. (15)

It is a terrible cruel price and feminism has clawed a way through to ideas which do not involve this handing over of our beings because we are within them.

But a violent and painful struggle leaves scars which harden. We need to create as well as oppose. The implicit understanding of this has been one of the strengths of feminism. Creativity involves transformation by going beyond yourself. It is nurtured by the collective experience and knowledge of people now and in the past. One aspect of domination is the denial of such nurture. We cannot afford to be negligent of the understandings carried in past socialist ideas of how to organize because those ideas have been defined by men and tend to be held by small leaderships who train others in their image. Nor do we want to hand ourselves over to ways of thinking which turn parts of us to stone. We need- to bring the strengths of the feminist movement to bear on this wrenching agony. We have the experience of a living movement in which thousands and thousands of women have made and shared ideas with love. This is the source of a most extraordinary power.

B. And To The Past

Feminism requires an enormous interrogation of the past, just as other movements of people who are held down have sought a past which does not maintain their subordination, by exclusion or distortion. One aspect of this critical encounter must be with the history of the socialist and labour movements.

It is not only that we are persistently on the lookout for women. Socialist feminists have asked many questions which have come up because of the political practice and understandings which we have reached through feminism. We want to know, for example, what has been the relationship between socialist and feminist movements. We have asked how the way work is divided at different periods of capitalism has affected men’s and women’s involvement in radical organization. We are concerned with the interconnections of sex/gender relationships and production at various times and how this has affected people’s consciousness. We want to find out what kinds of socialist and labour movements have attracted large numbers of women or excluded them and why these have happened. We have asked have socialists imagined how women and men, men and men, women and women, children and adults might live together differently? How have socialists seen personal relationships in society as a whole, in their own lives and in their organizations? Did socialists believe that women’s liberation meant women should become like men; did they argue that women had specific qualities as a sex which men might acquire or develop; or did they imagine men and women contributing towards making a culture in which notions of ‘masculinity’ and ‘feminity’ would dissolve? How did relationships in the family combine with those of the community and work to make women and men socialists or join trade unions? How have women of different classes seen their potential liberation ? How have socialists regarded housework, woman’s control over her own fertility, the education of the young? Have their attitudes affected what they did in their own lives as well as for the socialist future? What differences are there between public programmes and personal practice within the socialist and labour movements?(16) These questions involve not only a reassessment of how the history of the left is seen. They are pointing towards a re-evaluation of what kind of contemporary socialist movement we need. They are inseparable from more general problems of how we understand class, kinship, community and consciousness.

For of course none of these political and cultural attitudes existed in isolation from the wider movement of society. For instance Joanna Bornat in ‘Home and Work. A New Context for Trade Union History’ focuses on men and women who entered the woollen manufacturing industry, in Colne Valley, West Yorkshire between 1900- 1910. She shows how they experienced home and work in their lives and how it affected their trade unionism. She points out that the conventional approach to trade union history only looks at work and the official version of activity. 1t draws attention away from the interrelationship between home and work in real life.

To say that capitalism needs the family is not the simple story of the exploitation of its members. It is also the story of how those members learn to survive and support one another within the constraints of the wage labour-capital relationship.

She says she is ‘arguing for an approach which seeks to understand men and women, their institutions and self-conceptions in terms of their living and working relationships’.(17)

She therefore examines the interconnection between class relations ~n.d ‘dependency’ by which she means ‘the unequal relationship between men and women maintained through social and economic means within the capitalist mode of production’.

This criticism of the artificial separation between work and everyday life is consistent with a general tendency in radical history away from the assumption that workers’ consciousness can be simply equated with the views of people at the centre of institutions-either trade unions or political parties. This is clearly most relevant for women, who have only rarely taken part in central organizational leaderships.

There has been a cumulative movement in Britain, roughly since World War Two, which has been undermining and overturning many over-simplified approaches to history among socialists: for instance E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class examined how people experience themselves as part of a class through politics, community life, work, culture, and religion. Though he touches on family relationships these are less developed. The topics which have come up in the ‘History Workshops’ and appear in the journal of the same name, explore further similar areas of experience. Working-class childhood, school strikes, relationships in the family, imperialism and motherhood, control over fertility are some examples. Attention is not only directed at heroic moments, the ‘peaks’ of confrontation but how the rest of life itself gives rise to opposing consciousness. Several strands apart from the New Left and the CP have contributed to this process of re-examination. The Solidarity group, for instance, has been involved in a sustained critique of Leninist interpretations of the socialist past; and some Labour Party and IS historians have begun to open up a less dismissive approach to syndicalism. For example, despite a tendency to isolate work as a source of consciousness, James Hinton’s The First Shop Stewards’ Movement provides us with an understanding of how changes in the labour process meant syndicalist ideas made sense to a particular section of the working class. These approaches to history have been affected by contemporary politics. ‘Rank and Filism’ can contribute to making radical historians suspicious of using only the official documents of trades unions. Faction fighting \nay make yet others distrustful also of the official versions of socialist organizations’ past. Oral history and personal papers might tell a different tale from the socialist newspapers and journals. Official organs could be revealing only what the editors think, not the movement. (The same is true, of course, of feminism.)

Socialist historians have become very wary of presenting the past of radical movements as a smooth progress towards a contemporary notion of enlightenment. If we approach the question of working-class organization by asking when have large numbers of women become involved, it is particularly evident that we do not see a steady march of enlightenment towards either Marxism-Leninism or the Labour Party. We can see instead a complicated process of loss and gain. Dorothy Thompson, for instance, comments on the participation of women in the early years of Chartism in the early 1830s. Towards the late forties they had disappeared and their involvement had been forgotten. She suggests part of the answer was a changing ideal of feminity which affected skilled working-class women, but also:

in moving forward into mature industrial capitalist society, important sections of the working class developed relatively sophisticated organizations, trade unions, political pressure groups, co-operative societies and educational institutions … In a variety of ways they were able to find means of protecting their position within an increasingly stable system. They left behind the mass politics of the early part of the century, which represented more of a direct challenge to the whole system of industrial capitalism at a stage in which it was far less secure and established. In doing so, the skilled workers also left behind the unskilled workers and the women, whose way of life did not allow their participation in the more structured political forms. These forms required both regularity of working times and regularity of income for participation to be possible.(18)

The trauma of Stalinism within the socialist movement has undoubtedly contributed to this wariness of a crudely progressivist picture in which the working class guided (of course) by correct ideas and the Party moves inexorably forward towards the sunset. This has made radical historians sensitive to understanding the meaning that ideas had for people in their own time, rather than imposing our ‘answers’. But it is clear from the feminist experience that ideas can have various meanings for different groups even within the same movement. By focusing on the specific relationship of women to radical organizations and thus readjusting how we see men’s position as well, socialist feminism can bring out the complexity of these different meanings.

But both the movement within radical history and the questions of socialist feminists remain curiously remote from much of the history which Trotskyist groups present as background to education articles or exposures of contemporary follies. I think this is less true in the Communist Party now, though 1 suspect that popular versions of history still retain some of the ‘sunsets’ of Stalinist days. But certainly it is still possible to find among Trotskyists an assumption that class consciousness comes solely from the experience of work. There is still a preoccupation with the moments of confrontation-1917 or the betrayals of the TV leadership aided by the CP in the General Strike, for instance. The problem of why workers accepted such leaders is evaded. The interior reality of socialist organization is rarely touched. The pastime of fishing for a pure Marxism-Leninism with the last word on all subjects is still with us. Leninists have the fish and know the fish, they just need to haul it in. So it becomes inconceivable that the Leninist approach to ‘the women’s question’ jettisoned many important understandings about prefigurative change, for instance, present within utopian socialism. It becomes absurdly hard to acknowledge that under Marx and Engels’ influence communists dismissed crucial questions about sexual oppression, control over fertility and the cultural subordination of women as a sex which other contemporaries in the socialist and feminist movement recognized. This is not to dismiss the inspired leaps made by Marx and Engels theoretically or to forget that Lenin was more sympathetic than some of the Bolsheviks towards women’s emancipation. It is not to deny that Trotsky paid more attention to cultural aspects of subordination though he stopped short at sexuality. But they were not omniscient. There is no reason to see them as the bee’s knees in every subject. It is worth noting the points at which the social democratic and Bolshevik approaches to ‘the woman question’ brought them into conflict with the incipient socialist feminism of the period 1890-1920s. It is also worth exposing the over-simplified caricatures of ‘bourgeois feminism’ which concertina-ed several kinds of feminism into one grotesque creature. Social-democrats, communists, anarcho-syndicalists and anarchists all had their own versions of these caricatures. They have been taken too much at face value by socialist women writing history. (I include myself here.(19)) They leave us with an unchanging polarity between bad ‘bourgeois feminists’ and good working-class women. This means we fail to recognize that there are different kinds of ‘bourgeois feminism’, that some working-class women and men supported ‘bourgeois feminist’ campaigns,just as many middle-class men and women became socialists. Any sectarian blunders of socialist organizing is completely obscured by the enormity of the crimes of ‘bourgeois feminists’. Conflict between working-class men and women appears as occasional prejudice. lts sources remain ideological rather than part of the material circumstances of their lives. This is not to say we should never look at feminist movements critically or that there were not real class differences in the way women saw their liberation. But we do not get to these by ignoring sex conflicts within the working class or by simply posing socialist women against feminists, by extracting only the conservative features of the feminist movement and implying that socialists had all the answers in particular conflicts with feminism.

This uncritical view of the socialist, labour and feminist past only serves to confirm contemporary complacencies. 1£ Marxists knew best not only now but in the past, we only need to provide a few modifying footnotes. The truth is already known, it just tends to get misplaced now and again. Once this is assumed, badly thought out actions in the past are passed on as issues of principle. This tendency already present within the Second lnternational appears in the Third International, to reach the most paralysing proportions under Stalin. But it is not only a feature of Stalin’s rule. It lingers even in the anti-Stalinism of the Trotskyist groups and the contemporary Communist parties.

So it is not really surprising that there has been a muffled combat going on since the women’s movement emerged in the late sixties between socialist feminists and the purveyors of orthodoxy in left groups about history. For the way the feminist movement is seen, the relationship of feminism and socialism historically, the actual similarities and differences within the working-class and middle-class women at various periods have a close bearing upon many of the arguments we have today.

We can develop our own understanding of our politics through a living relationship with the past. But not if we search for points of conflict which cap be raided for a ‘history shows us’ article or speech from which a fixed set of rules about how to organize now can be extracted.

C. The Power of Definitions and Icons

With this manipulative approach to history goes the power of definitions in left groups. I don’t mean by this the necessary effort we all make to define and distinguish different aspects of reality. I mean the false power which avoids and actually prevents us thinking about the complexities of what is happening by covering it up in a category. All references have to be in terms of the categories. Once named, historical situations and groups of people can be shuffled and shifted into neat piles, the unnamed cards are simply left out of the game. They don’t exist. The named are branded ‘ultra-leftist’ or pensioned off as dozy but harmless ‘progressive peoples’. Guilt is by association-the Stalinist use of ‘social fascist’ is the most notorious-but Trotskyists have their own hold over names. The game is rigged to dispose of the ‘baddies’. The slots for those labelled only come in certain shapes. So criticism of particular forms of organization has to be disposed of down one slot marked ‘anarchism’, questioning of a particular idea of leadership goes down into ‘spontaneism’, some baddies are stricken with a terrible hereditary disease and called ‘middle class’. They have only one chance of survival-join the something party. It all sounds absurd when it is put like this. It is an absurd activity. But nonetheless the power of naming is a real force on the left today. It deflects queries about what is going on. It makes people feel small and stupid. It is a part of the invalidation of actual experience which is an inhibiting feature of many aspects of left politics now. Part of its power is in the strange lack of self-consciousness which the left has towards its own values. The power of defining is reduced as soon as it is itself described. But the silences within the Leninist language of politics make it impossible to expose these hidden sources of power. They also make it hard to see that behind, for example, the Trotskyist approach to history, there is a personal vision. It is this vision which sustains certain concepts of consciousness, leadership, and the form which it is assumed that the struggle for socialism will take. It is a self-confirming system which is why it is peculiarly difficult to oppose within its own terms.

Individual intention, is constantly overridden in practice and sustained by the organization. These choices are rarely stated, the opponent is dismissed as ‘backward’ or ‘opportunist’ or whatever or becomes caricatured as morally evil behind the phoney objectivity of ‘reformist’, ‘centrist’, etc. This is a language you learn. It is part of the training about how to organize. The words are some of the tools of the trade. The names do have a fascination when you try to see through them to the diverse realities which they encapsulate. But even this delight is a trick. It channels the imagination and keeps thought straining between closely defined points. It has the pleasurable intensity of theological disputes over doctrine. The game is to see how deviously you can stretch the finite bits of elastic. But absorption in the game makes you deaf to the experience of other people and blind to their capacity for self-activity. This vesicatory rigour intimidates opposition and actually contributes to the fears we all have in a competitive capitalist society about our incapacity to think and act.

Although the Leninist left eschews discussion of its personal values and self-image, it nonetheless carries a version of what it means to be a socialist in images and assumptions. All kinds of dusty icons lurk behind the public face. We need to bring them to the surface. Once we have them out in the open we can examine whether this really is how we want to be and whether it is likely to make most people want to become’ socialists. For example, what about all those comparisons to nineteenth-century armies marching in orderly formation and retreating smartly at the officer’s command? Why is there such a horror of cosiness, as if cosiness were almost more dangerous than capitalism itself? Now it may well be true that at certain times we will all practise drill and that cosiness is inappropriate for some of the circumstances of conflict. But there seems to be an imbalance in the contempt it evokes.

The fear seems to be that cosiness means people get cut off from the ‘real’ politics. I think this should be put the other way round. If a version of socialism is insisted upon which banishes cosiness, given the attachment of most people, working-class men and women included, to having a fair degree of it around in their lives, this socialism will not attract or keep most people. Why should the ruling class have a monopoly of cosiness?

During the strikes against General Electric (GfC) in 1974, women at Heywood, Lancashire, made themselves a picketing base by occupying an empty house owned by the firm just outside the factory, putting in carpets and cooking apparatus and even decorated the mantlepiece with flowers. They inhabited the picket?(29)

It can after all make our conditions in life and in politics more warm and loving as the early socialists recognized in their fellowship evenings.

Values are carried not only in implicit attitudes but through the dark shadowy vision of the individual revolutionary. This individual militant appears as a lonely character without ties, bereft of domestic emotions, who is hard, erect, self-contained, controlled, without the time or ability to express loving passion, who cannot pause to nurture, and for whom friendship is a diversion. If this is our version of what it means to be a socialist, it implies that we see socialism as limited to a professional elect who can muster these eccentric qualities. Membership of this elect will for a start be predominantly male, for if it attracts a minority among men, it fits even fewer women. Left to carry the burden of a higher consciousness, members of this elect will tend to see the people around them as, at worst, bad, lazy, consumed with the desire for material accumulation and sundry diversionary passions; at best, ignorant, needing to be hauled to a higher level. In the hauling the faint-hearted fall by the wayside, the cuddly retire into cosiness and all the suspicions of the elect are confirmed. Being an elect they can rely on no one and being an elect means they have to do everything. And always the weight of the burden of responsibility, the treachery and insensitivity of everyone else is bearing down on them.

It’s a stark, bleak vision of sacrifice and deprivation which when stated explicitly appears to be a caricature. Nonetheless it strikes some chords of recognition on the contemporary left. It surely owes something to the strange things done to little boys in preparing them for manhood in capitalism. More particularly it presents in cameo a nostaJ.gic and romantic yearning for the pristine clarity which is seen as 1917. How often do we need to say we are not in Russia in the early twentieth century before it becomes a felt reality? The Tsar is dead!

That the imagery and icons of Bolshevism should be particularly precious to Trotskyists is not surprising. This historical placing of self was important for lonely fighters against both Stalinism and capitalism to hold close to a lived experience of revolutionary process. They would perish in the cold wilderness without it. Within Trotskyism the desire to return to the molten heat of the early Russian revolution has all the intensity of the need for survival itself. For the Communist Party it is different. Until recently their past was so cauterized by the revelation of the horrors of Stalinism, that they became historically benumbed. But Trotskyism stalked the crimes of Stalinism acutely aware of the need to hold the strategic entrances to the past. The years of betrayal sound their knell ‘In the year … and again in … and again in … Stalinism betrayed the working class and again the betrayers of the working class in .. .’ Until in an eerie way the heroic conscience only comes to exist as the opponent of the bad man. Ironically the historical preoccupation with the failures and treacheries of Communist Party leadership echoed the Communists’ own denunciation of the same aspects of social democracy.

Even the anarchists and anarcho-syndicalists have clustered round these high points where power is seen by them as becoming coercive. They have been more concerned with the corruption of the powerful-including the Communists and Trotskyists and their suppression of popular resistance. But in this critical emphasis on the leadership and on their moments of confrontation, they have nonetheless excluded most people, including most women from their version of his tory. The dramatic instances of conflict are extracted from their longer term context, the to-ing and fro-ing of resistance which is so evident when you focus on women’s lives.

So the women’s movement is contesting not simply at the level of programmes and constitutions, which is why we could never find adequate words to meet the aggressive question from men in left groups in the early days: ‘Well what is it that you want?’ The dispute is about an idiom of politics. (In this sense it is not only a dispute with Trotskyism.) It is about how we think about what we are doing; how we situate ourselves historically; how we see ourselves and one another in relation to the movement for change and how we see the forms in which we resist capitalist society. These open up fundamental disagreements about how you organize for socialism and what is the relationship of parties to other movements. They involve the power to define what is politics. Are left politics the preserve of professionals who hold the crucial interconnecting points? Have the rest of us merely to file under like in the game of ‘oranges and lemons’?

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