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

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

A. The Problem of Democracy

If there was an ideal equal relationship between organizations and movements we should just pool our strengths and weaknesses and get on with it. Unfortunately it is not that simple. Bolshevism has a particularly long and sinister record in these matters which I think it’s too easy to foist off onto Uncle Joe. More immediately the left groups have often been wrong in the last ten years or so but this seems only to make them more certain they hold the most complete understanding. This absurd paradox might begin to be cleared but for an enormous reluctance at the centre of organizations to say simply that they were wrong, that they have learned this of resisted that out of fears and misconceptions. These seem obvious enough things for human beings to say, not as a great beating of breasts and tearing of hair but as a basis for working together as equals, But it seems to me that a Leninist approach to organization (and here the name is important) is inconsistent with such equality, regardless of the intention of individual Leninists.

For although Leninist and Trotskyist groups acknowledge the need to learn from the working-class movement, I think that secretly they feel deep down they already know better? What else could distinguish the member from the ‘contact’? Along with this inner assumption there is an acceptance of hierarchy within the organization itself. If members know better than non-members then the leaders know better than members and the world is felt to be an orderly place. Why else would they be leaders-mere staying power? The thought brings a rash of intolerable anxiety. Away with it-such psychologizing leads into the black holes of cynicism.

But there is democratic centralism, that wonderful device without which it would be impossible for everyone to do everything at the same time. We know the enemy all right. Here is real socialist democracy, none of your liberal nonsense. And haven’t we learned from the crimes of Stalinism? Don’t we allow factions even. Don’t we just!

Democratic centralism was one of the issues raised in 1956 by the men and women who left the Communist Party to form the New Left. They argued that it was inherently undemocratic. Behind the versions of democratic centralism in the Trotskyist groups and the neo-Trotskyism of the SWP now is the conviction that it is a neutral form which can be adapted in a non-Stalinist context. With this goes the belief that the basic problem of making socialism is primarily the making of a leadership through the creation of an ‘efficient’ organization.

Richard Kuper. in ‘Organization and Participation’ questions the separation between efficiency and democracy. He pointed out the way in which Leninist groups still tend to reduce the criteria of success to an old-style managerial concept of efficiency at the expense of democracy, long after the real managers have caught on to the ‘efficiency’ of limited forms of participation.

He believes that ‘it is ludicrous to believe that we can reduce the goal of the party to a simple formulation about a decisive act-the conquest of state power’.

As for the ‘efficiency’ of democratic centralism he says that the question of the degree of centralization we might decide is necessary, depends on our assessment of the nature of the task in hand. It requires also that we have a very general kind of agreement. If that is not present ‘democratic centralism’ is merely a tool to quell opposition. Richard Kuper argues that when it is presented as an absolute rule the concept itself tends to provide a structure which is ‘uniquely vulnerable to a certain kind of degeneration and one extraordinarily difficult to regenerate’. (21)

Whether we argue for a more generous or a more scrupulous interpretation of democratic centralism, or a more relative concept of the relationship between centralism and democracy, or whether we believe with Ralph Miliband that it ‘ … has always served as a convenient device for authoritarian party structures'(22) and should be simply dumped, we have to concede that the evidence of this century indicates that it is not a ‘neutral’ form. There has been something very funny indeed about it in practice. This has not only been a feature of Stalinism but of the more recent experience of the Trotskyist groups in the last decade. For instance it is a curious fact that the hard core of the leaderships of these groups, despite a series of palace revolutions, manage to tuck themselves into the centre into perpetuity and that bits of broken-off leaderships resurface within the splinters. They have a permanent advantage against all incipient oppositions because they are at the hub of communication and can organize to forestall resistance quicker than people who are scattered in different branches and districts. Also they are known-and better the devil you know!

Even if it gets a bit hot at the top now and then, there is a loophole. The members-poor old things, tramping around getting sore feet on their paper sales up and down all those concrete council-flat steps, getting calloused hands lassoing elusive ‘contacts’ over the balconies. Well they have a tendency to get routinized. Not the leadership. It is up to the leadership to spot when this is happening and leap out towards ‘the class’ to knock the members into shape. Whoosh-Superman! Poor old members they look on with awe. Some get a bit grumpy. Why isn’t democratic centralism binding on the leadership? Because the leaders know best. How else could they possibly be leaders? Whoosh goes Superman again, only doing his duty. How does Superman leadership know when to go whoosh towards the advanced sections of the class? Because he is leader of course. Pop go the poor members. The cosy ones’ fall by the wayside to seek comfort in discussion circles while the neurotic ones disappear to be cuddled in therapy groups. The intransigent form a small splinter replica. And the leaders go whoosh, whoosh all the way back to the centre.(23)

Soon they are safely ensconced again with the added authority of the patent they have out now on ‘the class’. No wonder leaders of Leninist groups have staying power. They are further legitimated by the respect in Leninism due to leaders and by the assumption that just as the members know better than non-members leaders know better than opposing members. The factions can stand up democratically and be counted. They can thus be rapidly isolated. But even if the opposition is based within a campaign, a movement, a trade union or community activity, there is a strong possibility that the leaders’ position will prevail. The individual member will face a split loyalty between a commitment to an autonomous group and the organization. The theory says the Party must be more important. The choice is either to get out of the organization (which seems from within to be leaving socialist politics itself), to ignore the centre (in which case democratic centralism has proved unworkable), or to accept the line. So however unsectarian this socialist may be, he or she has very stark choices and a political ideology which sanctions accepting party discipline more than helping to develop the self-activity of other people.

I am not trying to assert against this that the women’s movement has found the answer about how we should organize. Though it is certainly worth noting that the women’s movement has found a means of remaining connected while growing for a decade, and that shifting and spontaneous initiatives have been taken by an extremely large number of women within the movement. But I am arguing that the form in which you choose to organize is not ‘neutral’, it implies certain consequences. This has been ‘l growing recognition on the left since the late sixties. If you accept a high degree of centralization and define yourselves as professionals concentrating above everything upon the central task of seizing power, you necessarily diminish the development of the self-activity and self-confidence of most of the people involved. Because, for the women’s movement, the development of this confidence and ability to be responsible for our own lives was felt to be a priority, this became part of the very act of making a movement. The enormous weight of the inner passivity which was the result of the particular nature of the subordination of the women who became involved meant that the effort to struggle, both against the personal forms of men’s control and our oppression within capitalist society, became inseparable from the struggle against the ways in which these had become internalized. We had to learn to love ourselves and other women so we could trust one another without falling back 0n men. We inclined consequently towards small groups, circles rather than rows, centres as information and research services, open newsletters. The attempt to avoid individual women being is0lated as exceptions, either as spokesperson or as freak, the need for our own movement and the feeling of sisterhood came from this understanding.

I am not suggesting that such concerns are unique to women or that such forms are biologically determined. Indeed 1 believe that the problem of how people can overcome the passivity, self-ha!red and lack of trust which is peculiar to modern capitalism is crucial for making a socialist movement-which is not to say that recognizing this as central solves the problem of how to do it.

Basically the women’s movement accepts a form of ‘participatory democracy’ which has a long tradition from democratic religious groups to the American New Left of the late sixties and the anti-authoritarian currents in the student movement. The problems about participatory democracy are evident. If you are not able to be present you can’t participate. Whoever turns up next time can reverse the previous decision. If very few people turn up they are lumbered with the responsibility. It is a very open situation and anyone with a gift for either emotional blackmail or a conviction of the need to intervene can do so without being checked by any accepted procedure. Participatory democracy only works if everyone accepts a certain give and take, a respect for one another’s experience, a desire and need to remain connected. If these are present it can work very well. If they are not it can be a traumatic process. We have lived these difficulties in the history of women’s movement conferences and the arguments about the Workshop Centre and Women’s Day March. Despite obvious inadequacies though, ‘participatory democracy’ does assert the idea that everyone is responsible equally and that everyone should participate. 1 t concedes no legitimating respect for permanent leaders or spokespeople.

It has been modified in the practice of the women’s movement by women bringing in other concepts of how to organize from tenants’ groups, trades councils, trade unions or from the Labour Party, the CP and from Trotskyist and Maoist groups. Sometimes these have been met with a defensive suspicion and dismissed simply as male dominated. But in cases when the women’s movement has been stronger and more confident we have been able to meet these ideas and recognize the validity of some of their criticisms. The resilience of the women’s movement has been partly because of this openness. In practice what we have been doing is adapting several forms of organizing to fit the· particular circumstances we are engaged in. This does not remove the dangers of ‘substitutionism’, or centres losing contact with local groups, or small groups of people doing all the work, or people not knowing what other people are doing. All the problems of democracy do not magically disappear. But it does make for an approach to organization which is prepared to test forms and discard or select according to the situation rather than asserting a universally correct mode. It also means that the ‘movement’ is perpetually outwards. As women encounter feminism they can make their own kinds of organizing depending on their needs. It is this flexibility which it is extremely important to maintain. It means that, for example, groups of women artists or groups of women setting up a creche or on the subcommittee of a trades council can decide for themselves what structure is most useful.

The women’s movement shares with the ‘anti-authoritarian’ movements of the late sixties a commitment to a notion of democracy which does not simply recognize certain formal requirements of procedure. Obviously the danger of this is to reject completely any understanding of how these formal procedures have historically come to be used. When the dust of the first rush of enthusiasm settles it is often handy to have them. But if we simply respond to this by dismissing ‘anti-authoritarian’ movements as naive and just ignorant of the ‘correct’ political procedure, we miss an insistence which carries a deeper meaning of democracy. Faced with the opposition of women and workers in Lotta Continua, an Italian revolutionary organization, Adriano Sofri, its founder and undisputed leader, made a self-criticism. He said democracy involved not only formally contesting theories of organization which left politics to the professionals. It involved examining his own inner sense of being a professional. It meant uncovering in public his own capacity to survive and not be frightened by political opponents. He could no longer take refuge in the objectivity of the socialist theoretician. His desire for power could no longer assume a paternal legitimation in a sense of responsibility. There was a strange sense of history repeating itself. He compared the confrontation that he faced to his own opposition, with others, to the Communist Party leadership in 1968. This was ‘not a conflict over political line, but a conflict over what politics was all about’ .(24)

The encounter of the left groups with women’s liberation, gay liberation and men’s groups in Britain over the slower time scale of a decade has also been such a conflict and has assumed a particularly sharp form in relation to the political assumptions of Leninism held by Trotskyist groups.

B. Leaders and Cadres

Feminism has implicitly questioned the whole notion of the professional revolutionary who is cut off from other people and the training of revolutionaries which has been a feature of Leninism and Trotskyism. It is evident that if politics are to be the domain of professionals, most women will be excluded. The emphasis on training professionals has been particularly important in the Trotskyist groups presumably because their isolation was so extreme that for a long time they could do little else. But it was important in the early days of the CP and persists still in the upper ranks of the Communist Party. Within Leninism there is a tension between the concept of leadership as the training of political administrators or theoreticians and leadership as a process of learning the ability to act in local and immediate struggles. Both the Communist Party’s general approach in Britan and lS/SWP now place greater emphasis on the creation of a leadership through practical experiences than the orthodox Trotskyist groups. But despite this organizational power still tends to accrue with the political administrators at the centre of parties who are necessarily cut off from the immediate local problems of political agitation.

There was an awareness of the problems of permanent leaders in the pre-Leninist socialist movement which seems to disappear in the 1920s or become implicit. The Miners’ Next Step (1912), for example, listed what could be the immediate short-term advantages of leaders but pointed out how the acceptance of permanent leaders also took away from people their capacity to develop initiative and responsibility.

I think it is foolish to deny that you must train people in particular skills of that certain kinds of knowledge which we need take time to develop. We need also to recognize the value of experience in agitation in which individuals can have decisive effects and of differences rather than inequalities in our abilities to do various things. But the recognition of the whole range of capacities for leadership people can develop is not the same as training leaders.

Members of Newsreel described their approach to this in the context of a film collective:

The problem politically … is how to separate bourgeois notions of ‘skill’ and ‘talent’-which are always used to divide people, to create hierarchies,. to- make some people feel superior or to assume more power than others-from the very real differences of skill and experience and inclination which we do have that aren’t only expressive of our conditioning, but of our individual creative selves which need nourishing …

But they also said:

… we recognise different capacities as skills which go entirely unrecognised in the bourgeois media; the ability to relate to people. to express feelings directly; to recognise and express differences and personal needs; to take care of one another. These skills are often also unrecognised on the left.(25)

When you bring in this much wider concept of political ability the Leninist notion of training becomes absurd and even the definition of learning through agitation appears too narrow.

Opposition to individual leaders emerging in the women’s movement has come from the same understanding that the rank and file trade unionists who wrote The Miners’ Next Step in 1912 expressed as the danger of passivity. Women, having such a far-reaching struggle against the hold of men’s authority have been loathe to circumscribe this within a new female hierarchy. Also women’s liberation recognized from the start the impossible pressures on a woman acting as an individual. Individual women could be both absorbed as exceptions and . devoured as victims. Sisterhood extends the notion of collectivity which is present in solidarity. It’s not merely the public act of being together consciously, it is the personal care and love without which growth and creativity are impossible. The women’s movement in recognizing it was not just what you said and did but how you said and did things which transmitted your politics, extended the scope of practice. Within this approach to politics the significance of a training for leaderships shrinks. The capacity to initiate such a myriad of transformations can be encouraged, tended, reared, nurtured, developed but not simply trained.

The problems which have arisen out of this resistance to making a movement with no clear hierarchy are well known. The danger of informal leadership structures has been much discussed in the women’s movement internationally. The fraught relationship between collective sisterhood and individual self-expression has been a paralysing and sometimes agnoizing experience. There is also a more personal, informal, female version of leadership through an oppressive kind of mothering which smothers rather than smashes opposition.

Despite these real difficulties, the women’s movement has still created ways of organizing in which leadership has been much more widely dispersed than in left organizations. Groups of women have taken initiatives but these have varied considerably in the decade or so of our existence. Individual women have synthesized ideas but the sources of these ideas have been innumerable discussions and the shared experience of hundreds of women. These initiatives and ideas have flowed and combined in countless shapes and forms which make it impossible to locate a single leadership of the women’s movement. It has meant that the women’s movement has been able to grow organically in areas of life in which it is difficult for Leninist groups to ‘inject’ themselves into. It implies a politics in which the very process of radicalization carries the necessity of taking initiatives in many aspects of our lives. If this is not to be an impossible and soul-breaking ideal it requires the conscious creation of cultural forms and a personal vision of politics. I think the women’s movement experience of this spreading and transformation of the idea of leadership is vital for the making of socialism.

C. The Leninist Sleight of Hand

Values, attitudes and forms of organizing are thus carried and recreated by people in the ways in which they associate. We learn not only from what is said or what we read but from our relationships with other people. This process does not mysteriously stop when we desire to associate in order to create a socialist society.

Our encounters with other people in capitalism are not free, open and equal. But there are different degrees of inequality, distance and coercion involved. These differences in degree make it possible to imagine how things might change. They force the cracks which open to illuminate the soul.

If our imagination is to be sustained by our associating, the ways we meet and co-operate and feel towards one another must develop not from our experiences of the most repressive and authoritarian encounters, but from our understandings of more loving, free ways of connecting to others and acting.

A vital feature of Lenin’s concept of the Party is based on its Supposed capacity to bring together, spread and transcend the limited, uneven notions and experiences of an alternative to capitalism which are present in the various sections of the working class and among the groups of people who support them. Now this is obviously a real and enormous problem. We are limited and cut off by our specific experiences of oppression and by the conflict of interests between us. The ·disagreement is about how this can best be overcome.

Let’s pretend for a moment that there was a revolutionary party in real life which did bring together all the elements most ‘advanced’ or developed in their opposition to capitalist society. Why does it follow from their bringing together in this pretend ideal party that their limitations are transcended rather than partially reflected and reproduced? If there is no conscious acknowledgement of the need to create and develop political forms which seek to overcome inequalities, and release the full”potentialities of all socialists, what is there to prevent power consolidating with the powerful but moral strictures? How can the real antagonisms which are the source of division between oppressed people in capitalism disappear within the Party? Isn’t this assuming that the Party is an island?

If we descend from the ideal party in the sky to more earthly groups and parties, the prospect is even more gloomy. Central committees scurry like a lot of white rabbits through a series of internal and factional documents and the smaller the party the greater the hurry. In such circumstances the pressure to neglect inequalities within the organization in pursuit of the ultimate goal are great. But the theory of what a Leninist Party should be leaves hardly any space to help people participate more equally much less to develop their potential. Without any theory or structure it seems to me idealistic folly to expect ‘the Party’ to overcome rather than simply reflect and harness these inequalities( of power which we are opposing in capitalism.

The argument used against these criticisms is always to deny that ‘the Party’ or ‘parties’ should be places where people experience anything other than the relationships which dominate capitalism. This gruesome state of affairs is presented as being necessary for the working class to take power. Though it is not the working class who are to be relied on to reach this conclusion but ‘the Party’, which by a process like apostolic succession inherits Lenin’s words. The criticisms he made of the non-Bolshevik strands in the Russian revolutionary movement are cited as vindication. These sources of dispute were undoubtedly present in the whole process internationally of Bolshevization which brought the new Communist Parties into line with Lenin’s concepts of organization. And these arguments about the nature of political organization were certainly there in conflict between the Communist Party and some members of the left of the Independent Labour Party between the wars. Ironically the original Trotskyists in Britain were perhaps closer to the left of the ILP in their criticism of the CP than Trotskyist groups would now acknowledge. (26)

This issue has involved a continuing argument between anarchists and communists. It was present in different ways in the New Left after 1956 and in the libertarian Marxism of the early 1970s. The black, gay and women’s movement have been bringing the criticism more closely home, because they have raised inequalities actually within Leninist organizations. They have demanded that changes have to be made now. These changes involve examining how real life inequalities as opposed to ideal interpretations are disregarded and perpetuated within socialist parties. They have argued that it is not enough to declare that people should not be ‘prejudiced ‘. The socialist organization has to create forms of associating and relating which actively seek to overcome the sexism and racism within it. It has become more and more difficult to dismiss these demands as ‘utopian’. Not only do they involve a loss of membership, but they come up again and again.

Now the problems of relationships within the Party have been discussed by Leninist organizations in the past though not in these terms. They have been seen as particular deformities which arise and have to be dealt with as they emerge. The emphasis in the Communist Party historically has been on the relationships between workers and middle-class intellectuals (mainly men). More recently it has been a tortured and painful area in the Socialist Workers Party, because of .. the effort to change the class basis of this organization. Both the Communist Party and the Socialist Workers Party have relied formally upon political education and informally upon guilt to try and curb the confidence of middle-class intellectuals. Sometimes it has been used by one group of middle-class administrators against another, or by the permanent administrators against intellectuals who might challenge the central bureaucracy. It has also been used, more understandably, by working-class people as a defence against being made to feel ignorant and humiliated by the intellectuals’ use of theory as a form of power against them. But whatever the reasons this negative control through the public orchestration of personal guilt has a terrible record and disastrous ramifications. It is certainly not caused by Leninism. For instance, guilt between blacks and whites, women and men, gays and heterosexuals bedevilled the American New Left in the late sixties and early seventies. Leninism serves in fact to hold the extremes of this negative response to power relations at bay. But this is not the same as providing a solution by going directly to the sources of the antagonisms producing guilt and allowing them free expression which implies trusting the imaginative capacity of human beings to enter one another’s predicaments and learn from the attempt.

The inequalities between men and women within ‘the Party’ have not been given the same continuing scrutiny as class or race. But the whole issue of relationships of the sexes and the position of women within the Party were the subject of debate in the Soviet Union and in the International Communist Movement in the 1920s and early thirties. These were far-ranging in their implications despite the tendency to dismiss sex-gender conflicts as cultural or superstructural problems.

But the outcome of the debate around the organizational power of women’s sections in Communist Parties had been partly pre-empted by the approach which had prevailed from the 1890s in the Second International towards the women’s movements of the day. The oversimplified and sectarian dismissal of all autonomous forms of feminism with the insistence on the Social Democratic Party as the only place for women’s agitation isolated many socialist women from the more radical currents within feminism. (27) This necessarily curtailed their capacity to· question the Marxist theory of the ‘woman question’ or to challenge the hegemony of the male leaderships of the Social Democratic Parties. The tighter discipline of the Bolsheviks and the acceptance of democratic centralism cut off the possibility of appeal outside the parties. Under Stalin of course all forms of inner party democracy in the Soviet Union perished and wit~ them the women’s section. This had international implications.

The position of gay socialists has a much murkier record. A formal tolerance has been the best response. Homosexuality and lesbianism have either been defined as personal questions or regarded as diversionary decadence before the emergence of the recent movement for gay liberation. On this point the educators really had to be educated.

Not until the 1960s when the black question was raised by the growing militancy of American blacks and revolutionary movements in developing countries was the power relationship between autonomous movements and socialist organizations seriously contested. 1n the course of this confrontation the need for autonomous movements of self-definition was clearly asserted. This was to be a decisive influence on the emergence of the women’s liberation movement.

We have no clear alternative of how to combine the advantages of autonomous movements with the strengths of a more general combination. But at least we must now recognize it as a problem to face. Leninism does not ‘know’ the answer. It merely asserts an ideal transcendence.

There remains then no effective guarantee within Leninism that the groups who are in a dominant position in capitalism won’t bring their advantage into ‘the Party’. Worse there is an effective sleight of hand which conceals this inherent tendency in the assertion of the ideal of the Party transcending the interests and vistas of its sections.

This does not imply that we should deny that people can become stuck in their own grievances and not see the wood for the trees. There is always the temptation to attack the people in the same boat as you, as this takes the least effort and involves the least risk. The argument is about how to overcome this. We need a form of organization which can at once allow for the open expression of conflict between different groups and develop the particular understandings which all these differences bring to socialism. For if every form of oppression has its own defensive suspicions, all the movements in resistance to humiliation and inequality also discover their own wisdoms. We require a socialist movement in which there is freedom for these differences, and nurture for these wisdoms. This means that in the making of socialism people can develop positively their own· strengths and find ways of communicating to one another what we have gained, without the transcendent correctness which Leninism fosters.

The attitude towards power relations within socialist organizations has an important bearing on how such an organization will relate outwards.

Indeed opposition within the Communist Party was caught within this dilemma. Trotskyism was born in the realization of the need to combat Stalin’s silencing of democratic criticism among the grass-roots of the Bolshevik Party. But Trotsky retained the assumption that the reconstituted (Trotskyist) Communist Party must be the hegemonic authority. Though both Lenin and Trotsky argued at various times that the Communist Parties must learn from workers’ struggles, this was still in the terms of the director consulting the workforce. The heresy of Trotskyism, like the more conservative branches of protestantism, was limited to the claim of being the rightful church. The vital issue of democratizing the relationship between the reconstituted ‘Party’ and other left groupings and popular movements was not made. Though this has been a rumbling subject for concern among breakaway libertarian currents within Trotskyism it has never been resolved because Trotskyism has been confined to a minority sectarian tradition. The clash between the contemporary women’s movement and the Trotskyist groups has again brought this whole issue to the surface.

  1. No comments yet.
  1. No trackbacks yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: