Archive for March, 2013

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

March 25, 2013 Leave a comment

1. E.P. Thompson, ‘Outside the Whale’, The Poverty of Theory, Merlin Press, 1978, pp. 31·2

2. Martin Shaw, ‘The Making of a Party?’, Socialist Register 1978, Merlin Press, p. 11 o.

3. Grace C. Lee, Pierre Chalieu and J.R. Johnson, Facing Reality, Correspondence Detroit, 1958, pp. 130-1.

4. Two books which deal with the history of this period do not disentangle the similarities and differences. David Widgery’s The Left in Britain 1956-1968 (Penguin, 1976) has an implicit movement within it towards the emergence of International Socialism as the hidden denouement of the left after the book ends. Nigel Young’s An Infantile Disorder? The Crisis and Decline of the New Left (Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1977) contrasts the American and British New Left.
He assumes that all aspects of Marxist politics before 1956 in Britain belonged to the dark ages, and sees the fact that the British labour movement had survived during the fifties as a disadvantage which prevented the emergence of a genuinely ‘new’ left. He appears to have little sense of political ideas developing through the clash and interconnection of different traditions in which people can learn to respect one another’s cultural political heritage.

5. Jan O’Malley, The Politics of Community Action, Spokesman, 1977, pp. 25, 29-32.

6. See, for example, Conference of International Socialists on Revolutionary Unity Documents, February 1978. Two of these were published: Richard Kuper, ‘Organisation and Participation’, Sociaiist Review, july/August 1978; Julian Harber, ‘Trotskyism and the IS Tradition’, Revolutionary Socialism, no. 2; Richard Gombin’s The Origins of Leftism (Pelican, 1975) is useful to compare the British left groups with France.

7. Shaw, ‘The Making of a Party’, p. 107, op. cit.

8. See Rose Shapiro and Tricia Deardon,’No Leaders, No Dogmas: Getting Personal about Politics’, The Leveller, no. 14, April 1978.

9. See, for example, Fernando Claudin’s account of the Communist International, The Communist Movement: From Comintem to Cominform, Peregrine, 1975.

10. E.P. Thompson interviewed by Terry Ilott, ‘Recovering the Libertarian Tradition’, The Leveller, no. 22, January 1978, p. 20.

11. F or a discussion of Trotskyism as an identifiable political tradition see Geoff Hodgson, Trotsky and Fatalistic Marxism, Spokesman Books, 1975. Jim O’Brien’s summary of the histories of American Leninist groups makes for an interesting comparison with Britain. Jim O’Brien, ‘American Leninism in the 1970s’, New England Free Press, 1979. (This article originally appeared in the November 1977/February 1978 issue of Radical America. .

12. Rosalind Petchesky, ‘Dissolving the Hyphen. A Report on MarxistFeminist Groups 1-5’, in Zillah R. Eisenstein (ed), Capitalist Patn”archy and the Case for Socialist Feminism, New York, Monthly Review Press, 1979, p. 386. (For discussion of these problems see the Feminist Review, Red Rag and Scarlet Women.)

13. Felicity Edholm,Olivia Harris and Kate Young, ‘Conceptualising Women’, Critique of Anthropology (Women’s issue), Vol. 3, nos. 9 and 10,1977, p.126.

14. Bea Campbell, ‘Sweets from a Stranger’,Red Rag, no. 13, p. 28.

15. W.B. Yeats, Memoirs (ed. Denis Donogue), London, Macmillan, 1972, p.192.

16. On women’s consciousness and relationship to radical organizations in the past see, for example: Barbara Taylor, ‘The Woman Power’, in Sue Lipschitz, Tean”ng the Veil; Gail Malmgreen, Neither Bread nor Roses: Utopian Feminists and the English Working Class 180~1850, PO Box 450, Brighton, SUssex BNl 8CR, John L. Noyce (60p + postage); Ingrun LaFleur, ‘Adelheid Popp and Working Class Feminism in Austria’, Frontiers. A Journal of Women’s Studies, VoL 1, no. 1, Fall, 1975, University of ‘Colorado; Jill Liddington and Jill Norris, One Hand Tied Behind Us, London, Virago, 1978; Temma Kaplan, ‘Other Scenarios, Women and Spanish Anarchism’, in Renate Bridenthal and Claudia Koonz (eds.), Becoming Visible: Women in European History, Boston, 1977; Anne Boboff, ‘The Bolsheviks and Working Women, 1905-1920’, Radical America, Vol. 10, no. 3, May-June 1976.

17. Joanna Bomat, ‘Home and Work. A New Context for Trade Union History’, Radical America, Vol. 12, no. 5, September-October 1978, p.54.

18. Dorothy Thompson, ‘Women and Nineteenth Century Radical Politics’, in Ann Oakley and Juliet Mitchell (eds.), The Rights and Wrongs of Women, Penguin, 1974, p. 137.

19. I think now that Women: Resistance and Revolution, in asserting the existing involvement of women in revolutionary movements tends to dismiss the various currents within feminism from the late nineteenth century as well as the involvement of women in non-revolutionary organizations like the Independent Labour Party or the Women’s eo-operative Guild So while it challenges women’s position in socialism, it does not raise the relationship of socialist organizations and the feminist movement. Also, because it was written just as the women’s liberation movement was emerging in Britain (1969-71), it inclines towards seeing the particular understandings of the new contemporary movement as a synthesis with answers that evaded movements in the past. Ten years after, the strengths of past movements are more apparent am! it is possible to have a perspective on the modern movement which enables us to see our weaknesses as well as our gains.

A much clearer example though of the uncritical acceptance of a simple polarity between socialism and feminism appears in an otherwise useful introduction: Barbara Winslow, A Short History of Women’s Liberation Revolutionary Feminism, (USA, Hera Press, no date). Although recently reissued the bulk of this pamphlet dates from the early period of the women’s movement too.

For an example which rushes enthusiastically into the same trap see Anna Paczuska’s ‘The Cult of. Kollontai’, Socialist Review, December 1978/January 1979. This eccentric effort purports to be attacking a ‘cult’ which is the creation of the author’s own imagination, while herself adopting an uncritical stance to Kollontai’s sectarian approach to feminist organizations.

20. Bea Campbell and Sheila Rowbotham, ‘Women Workers and the Class Struggle’, Radical America, Vol. 8, no. 5, September-October 1974, p.63.

21. Richard Kuper, ‘Organisation and Participation’, Socialist Review, July-August 1978, p. 36.

22. Ralph Miliband, ‘The Future of Socialism in England’, The Socialist Register 1977, Merlin Press, p. 50.

23. For a recent example of whooshing see Chris (Super) Harman, ‘For Democratic Centralism’, Socialist Review, July-August 1978, p. 39.

24. Adriano Sofri, Italy 1977-78: Living With an Earthquake, Red Notes pamphlet, no date, p. 95. See also the criticisms made by women in Lotta Continua of the leadership’s response to feminism.

25. ‘Newsreel Five Years On’, Wedge, no. 3, Winter 1978, p. 41.

26. See Reg Groves, The Balham Group: How British Trotskyism Began, Pluto Press, 1974.

27. See, for examples of this, Hal Draper and Anne G. Lipow (eds.), ‘Marxist Women versus Bourgeois Feminism’, The Socialist Register 1976, Merlin Press,179-226. Draper and Lipow seem to be unaware that the political contribution of the women’s movement and the work of feminist historians can enable us to unravel various strands of feminism ‘and quite different relationships between women and radical movements which do not involve setting the leading women in German social democracy upon a pinnacle of correct socialist consciousness. The documents they translate are nonetheless useful for tracing how Marxist positions on ‘The Woman Question’ emerged.

28. Paul Thompson and Guy Lewis, The Revolution Unfinished: A Critique of Trotskyism, Big Flame pamphlet, 1978, p. 23.

29. See Temma Kaplan, Anarchists of Andalusia 1868-1903, Princeton, 1977, pp. 86-7, 135-67. On the contemporary relevance of anarchism for feminist organizing see Lynn Alderson, ‘Anarchism and the Women’s Liberation Movement’, CatcaU, Issue 6,july 1977.

30. See E.P. Thompson, Wl1liam Moms: Romantic to Revolutionary, Merlin Press, 1977, and Emma Goldman, Living My Life, Dover, 1970.

31. See Elizabeth GUrley Flynn, The Rebel Girl: An Autobiography, New York, International PUblishers, 1973,

32. Alix Holt (ed.), Selected Writings of Alexandra Kollontai, Allison and Busby, 1977, p. 208.

33. Ibid., p. 215.

34. See Linda Gordon, Woman’s Body, Womans Right, Penguin, 1977, chapter 9, on birth control and American socialism and syndicalism, and Sheila Rowbotham, A New World for Women: Stella Browne, SOCialIst Feminist, Pluto Press, 1977.

Veronica Beechey in ‘On Patriarchy’, Feminist Review, no. 3, points out this dualism in some contemporary uses of the word.

35. See, for example, Emma Goldman, ‘Woman Suffrage’, in The Traffic in Women and Other Essays on Feminism, \Yith a biography by AIix Kates Shulman, US, Times Change Press, 1970, pp. 51-63; Lily Gair Wilkinson, Revolutionary Socialism and the Women’s Movement, SLP, c.1910; and Women’s Freedom, Freedom Press, c.1914; Bruce Dancis, ‘Socialism and Women in the United States 1900-1917’, Socialist Revolution, no. 27, Vol. 6 no. 1, january-March 1976; Alexandra Kollontai, ‘The Social Basis of the Woman Question’, in AIix Holt (ed.), op. cit.

36. See Sam Aaronovitch, ‘Eurocommunism: A Discussion of Carillo’s Eurocommunism and the State’,Marxism Today, july 1978.

37. See Carl Boggs, ‘Marxism, Prefigurative Communism and the Problem of Workers’ Control’, Radical America, Vol 11, no. 6 and Vol. 12, no. 1, November 1977/February 1978.

38. On the need for the organizations on the left to learn from the women’s movement see: Margaret Coulson, ‘Socialism, Politics and Personal Life’, in ibid.; Frankie Rickford, ‘The Development of the Women’s Movement’, Marxism Today, July 1978; Celia Deacon, ‘Feminism and the IS tradition’, Conference of International Socialists on Revolutionary Unity Documents, February 1978.

The East London Socialist Feminist Group Conference Paper 1978 discussed the need for us to also look at general problems of socialism, not only women’s issues.

39. Bob Cant in Documents, op. cit.

40. Fernando Claudin, Eurocommunism and Socialism, New Left Books, 1978, p. 125.

Margaret Coulson makes the same point in criticizing John Ross’s article on ‘Capitalism, Politics and Personal Life’. He confines women’s liberation to a social sphere, trade unions to the economic and politics to the revolutionary party. She says, ‘his formula blocks us off from understanding the processes involved in the development of politics’. (Margaret Coulson, ‘Socialism, Politics and Personal Life’, Socialist Woman, October 1978.

41. Red Collective, ‘Not So Much a Charter, More a Way of Organising’, mimeograph, 1974. (The Red Collective were a small group of men and women concerned to relate socialism and sexual politics.) This statement is quoted in Barbara Taylor, ‘Classified: Who Are We? Class and the Women’s Movement’, Red Rag, no. 11, p. 24.

42. See. for example, Case Con, Women’s Issue, Spring 1974, and London Educational Collective in Women and Education, no. 2, 1973-4, on Rank and File’s resistance’ to takin gup women’s subordination in education.

43. V.L Lenin, What is to be Done? quoted in Carmen Claudin-Urondo, Lenin and the Cultural Revolution, The Harvester Press, 1977, p. 69.

44. Ibid., p. 71.

See also Lindsay German, ‘Women and Class’, in Socialist Review, no. 5, September 1978, and the reply by some Hackney Socialist Feminists, ‘Feminism Without Illusions’, in Socialist Review, no. 7, November 1978.

45. V.I. Lenin, What is to be Done? quoted in Carmen Claudin-Urondo,

Lenin and the Cultural Revolution, The Harvester Press, 1977, p. 70.

46. Ibid., p. 7 O.

47. Ibid., p. 72.

48. Claudin, The Communist Movement, p. 630, op. cit.

49. E.P. Thompson, ‘The Poverty of Theory’, p. 352, op. cit.

50. Ibid., p.364.

51. Ibid., p. 363.

52. Dorothy Thompson, ‘Women and Nineteenth Century Radical Politics’, op. cit., p. 122.

53. Unofficial Refonn Committee, The Miners’ Next Step, 1912, Pluto, 1973, p. 27.

54. All the left organizations have sought to encapsulate the implications of the women’s movement within the terms of equal rights 01′ concrete demands and campaigns, ‘issue politics’. They were distrustful of the emphasis upon challenging and transforming relationships and upon the COnsequences of this approach to politics. They preferred the language of ‘rights’ and ‘discrimination’ to that of ‘liberation’. Liberation has tended to be suspect and has been sorted away under ‘culture’ which has dubious middle-class connections and might even be a mere creation of an over-heated feminene imagination! I think these anxieties have affected not only the leaderships of left groups but socialist women within and without them. Personally it has been the continuing practice of the movement which has helped to shift some of the nervousness for me.

Amanda Sebestyen makes a similar point in Cat Call, Issue 3, July 1976.

55. Paul Atkinson, ‘The Problem With Patriarchy’, Achilles Heel, no. 2, 1979, p. 22.

56. Zillah R. Eisenstein, ‘Developing a Theory of Capitalist Patriarchy’, in ed. Eisenstein, Capitalist Patriarchy and the Case for Socialist Feminism, New York, Monthly Review, 1979, p. 7-8.

57. See Vic Seidler, ‘Men and Feminism’, Achilles Heel, no. 2, 1979 (this is part of a longer MS on self denial, sexual politics and the left to be published soon).

58. Sarah Benton, ‘Consciousness, Classes and Feminism’, Red Rag, no. 12, p.27.

59. Linda Gordon and Allen Hunter, ‘Sex, Family and the New Left:

Anti-Feminism as a Political Force’, Radical America, Vol. 11, no. 6; Vol. 12, no. 1, November 1977/February 1978. (This article is also available in pamphlet form published by the New England Free Press, 60 Union Square, Somerville, Mass. 02143.)

60. Introduction, Rape Crisis Centre First Report, p.I.

61:. Not so much a Nursery … , Market Nursery, Hackney, London, 1977, p.22.

62. On NAC see Ruth Petrie and Anna Livingstone, ‘Out of the Back Streets’, Red Rag, 00. 11; Roberta Henderson, ‘Feminism is not for Burning’, ‘Speculations’, in Cat Call, Issue 2, April 1976; NAC and its Lessons for the Socialist Feminist Movement, document, Socialist Feminist Conference.

63. Unofficial Reform Committee, The Miners’ Next Step, p. 12.

After this was finished I read two articles which are arguing along similar lines from rather different starting points. If you are interested in following some of the ideas through either in terms of strategy of the women’s movement and socialism or in terms of working-class community organising, see: Nancy Hartstock, ‘Feminist Theory and the Development of Revolutionary Strategy’, in ed. Capitalist Patriarchy and the Case for Socialist Feminism, op. cit., and Kathy McAfee, ‘City Life: Lessons of the First Five Years’, Radical America, Vol. 13, no. 1, January-February 1979.

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

March 25, 2013 Leave a comment

Prefigurative Political Forms

It has become evident that the power of capitalism to survive cannot be challenged only by demanding gains of quantity, or even simply questioning the quality of life. We need political forms which consciously help people to overcome the continual mining of our capacity to resist which is characteristic of modern capitalism. Socialists have been learning this in the last two decades but it goes completely against the grain of a Leninist approach to socialist organization. How can we struggle for prefigurative changes through an organization which reproduces the· relationships of power dominant in capitalism?

The right, being part of how things are, often grasps the significance of the connection between areas of control more thoroughly than the left. In education, for example, left groups have supported comprehensive schools and opposed streaming and authoritarian teaching methods, but also have been quite capable of using exactly these authoritarian approaches to their own ideas of political education and propaganda. Similarly, sections of the left have developed a theory which is critical of bureaucracy within the trade union movement while remaining blithely unselfconscious about the effects of bureaucratic power in revolutionary organizations. Force of circumstance in modern capitalism has been bringing socialists into confrontation in areas of control which throw into question the internal relationships within left organizations. This process is making it harder to caricature the struggle to make new kinds of relationships which can be the, means of growth and transformation in the making of socialism, as a mechanical and arbitrary utopianism. We do not seek isolated and impossible alternatives to the way of the world. We need to strengthen and give space and substance to the positive understandings which come from all our ,experiences of resisting capitalism.

The slogan ‘the personal is political’ has been important in the women’s movement. Its appearance indicates how shifts in the relationships of gender have affected the terms in which notions of individual identity can be seen in modern capitalism. These are shifts which socialists need to explore more fully. Specifically in relation to the question of organization though, the slogan implies a very different view of practice and consciousness than is current on the left. This involves both the forms of activity which are regarded as important and our approach to relationships within the movement for change.

Two obvious examples of forms of activity which have been important in the women’s movement are consciousness-raising groups and self-help groups of various kinds like women’s health, Women’s Aid, Rape Crisis centres.

The consciousness-raising group assumes that our consciousness is changed in the realization that we share a common predicament, this has been the aspect of consciousness-raising which the left groups are now prepared to accept and in the case of the IMG extend to men. But the other aspect of consciousness-raising is that we experience a different kind of relationship with other women than we knew before. The ideal is an openness and trust, a recognition of other women’s experience as well as our own. In practice we know consciousness-raising groups can become frustrating, as for example it is difficult sometimes to make general connections from personal experience. People feel other women know more than them, and are holding back. Mysterious silences appear in the meeting. It is sometimes hard to assert individual personal experience against a collective consensus which may appear because of hidden power structures. There are unstated ideological assumptions or an emotionally terrorizing morality. So consciousness-raising groups, like other political forms, are not magic. But they are still part of a crucial process of learning and feeling towards alternative relationships from those which predominate in capitalism. I know I really do feel a closeness and love towards women I have known within women’s group situations which is quite different from the experience of socialist branch meetings. This collective experience has been a vital force in the women’s movement’s strength. I see no reason why it should be gender bound.

Self-help groups emerged in the community politics of the New Left in America and have become an important form of organizing in the women’s movement.

Linda Gordon and Allen Hunter comment on the American experience:

The model of collective self-help, while not in itself a socialist strategy, strengthens the connection between personal and social change. In the best of cases, self-help groups combine consciousness-raising with material aid and an opening to a new community of people; thus providing not only the ideas but some or the connditions for adopting a less passive stance towards the world. The self-help model is a way of dealing with the fact that politics often becomes a part of one’s life only when a political problem is directly experienced.(59)

Everyone knows there are enormous problems involved in doing this. Nonetheless the political experience gained from these very diverse activities is a crucial part of learning to resist in the process of changing ourselves. The Rape Crisis Centre in Britain for example is concerned with providing practical help to raped women. It is also a collective effort to overcome the fears within women and a sense of ourselves ls victims. They point out that a raped woman has been victimized but ‘this is not her total identity, she does not remain the “passive subject of attack” as implied by the word “victim” ‘. One of the aims of the Centre is ‘to help ourselves, as women, to become aware that we do not have to accept the identity given to us by the society’.(60)

One of the objections which the CP and the Trotskyist groups made to self-help projects as they first emerged in the women’s movement in Britain, with close political links to libertarian Marxism, was that they evaded the necessity of making demands on the state. They eased the pressure on the social provision we had to force ou t of capitalism. They were middle-class projects, not popular demands. Supporters of self-help projects replied that making demands on the state did not leave you with control ‘over the kind of social provision you needed. This issue of control has been very important in women’s health groups against the bureaucratic formality of the National Health and against a male-defined concept of medicine. It has also come up in the question of nursery provision. How could we simply demand nurseries when we were insisting on the need to transform gender relationships from the beginning?

In certain areas of women’s health and in the growth of community nurseries this has been a really fruitful collision in which two quite different assumptions of organizing have learned from one another. For example the Tower Hamlets abortion centre which is part of the National Health System is sensitive to the needs and feelings of women and firmly committed to women’s right to control their own fertility. Here the health workers themselves have been influenced by the women’s movement. Community nurseries allow for more democratic participation from parents, are committed to non-authoritarian nonsexist childcare and are partly financed by the council. A Hackney mother describes the effect on her of the local community nursery:

I found attitudes at the nursery were very different from those of the school. Everyone was encouraged to take an interest in how it was run-for the sake of the children. At that time I didn’t understand that our nursery was different from any other nursery, such as those run and controlled by the council. Now of course I realized the nursery was different and it was up to us-the parents-to take all decisions about how the place was to be run.. Problems were met and overcome not by them, but by us. Gradually I was drawn into helping. I liked the idea because I am a very independent person.(61)

I am not suggesting that the idea of mutual self-help is new or limited to the women’s movement in the last decade. Indeed it has an ancient genealogy from the creation of friendly societies and co-operatives to the cycling clubs, Workers’ Esperanto groups, nurseries and Socialist Sunday Schools of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Mutual self-help was an integral part of the creation of a new culture of fellowship in the movement towards a Socialist Commonwealth. Moreover there has been a recent growth of an enormous variety of forms of self-help which relate to personal and social problems, like playgroups, One o’Clock clubs, Gingerbread, Parents Anonymous, Alcoholics Anonymous, Stigma along with voluntary organizations from the Samaritans, Citizens Advice to radical therapy and co-counselling. There has been a similar development of community projects, the lav. centres for example. These movements assert the possibility of people changing themselves, and helping one another through co-operating. They are concerned about our social lives. Some carry an alternative to the monopoly of the state over welfare and question the partiality of the law Some of the forms of organizing in the women’s movement relate to these self-help groups and can best be seen within this more general context. I am not suggesting that we car evolve to socialism through self-help or that all forms of self-help are necessarily radical or that self-help cannot coexist with a new form of labour reformism. It is evident that the coercive power of the state must be contested that several class interests can use similar forms of organizing and that some strands of the right can assert self-activity as well as the left. With the active support working-class people in a community, mutual self-he I) forms provide a potential means of distinguishing between the coercive aspects of the state machinery and those activities of the state which are necessary to people in their everyday life. They raise the possibility of welfare control Self-help community activity is not a substitute for the equally important radical struggles within the welfare stilt sector. But they can indicate ways of questioning the rill of professionals and the means of creating more direct forms of control over welfare resources.

There is of course a very old argument between anarchists and socialists about how we regard the state and whether we should make demands on the state. In one sense it is obvious that we cannot ignore the power of the law or the need for welfare provision. On the other it is true that laws which workers or others have fought for can be interpreted against them, that welfare reforms which were the result of past victories can circumscribe resistance. In one sense there is no absolute solution within capitalism.

But it is possible to approach the problem without simply falling into the acceptance of either polarity. If the anarchists close their eyes and wish the state would float away, Trotskyists present the state as a big balloon. If we all blow hard enough it goes pop. When it does not go pop the answer is we must blow harder. The trouble is we tend to burst before the state, which is nowadays a most wiggly and wily, stretchy monster. More dialectical dealings are suggested in the recognition that past gains need not simply contain present militancy and that they have contributed to important shifts in power within society. These shifts allow people to develop the confidence and the space in which mutual self-help groups, therapy and community politics have grown. The women’s movement itself has :merged partly out of certain fissures in the relationships of power.

Within the women’s movement self-help forms can be seen to be directed towards several aspects of resistance. Some are specifically against men’s hold over women as a ex and the consciousness which this relationship of l1equality and possession generates. Women’s Aid Centres and rape crisis centres are two examples. They provide a leans of protection against women’s encounters with male violence and a means of sustaining our resistance. Though they are in practIce also linked to work and housing conditions, to the law as well as to our ideas of sexuality and of masculinity and femininity and are thus issues which must affect men as well as women. Other forms of self-help organizing are not aimed against the hold of men as a sex but primarily against the power of the state to determine and distort work and kinship relations, for example claimants’ unions and community nurseries. Indeed men are involved in these as well as women. The struggle against men’s hold over women and against the state are not identical. Different forms of power relationships are involved. The state in capitalism still basically expresses the po\ver of an elite of ruling-class men. From this power their women derive a certain though not equal privilege. Nowadays the ruling class in the modern state in order to retain this power have had to make concessions to pressure from workers and other subordinated groupS including women. Feminism has been a force along with the labour movement in the making of the welfare state. But of course there remain great inequalities in people’s power to define and secure welfare, as well as differences of interest within the working class between men and women, black and white, skilled and unskilled, because of their differing social circumstances. However men as a group do not have equal degrees of power over state policy. The struggle for welfare rights and legal changes cannot be seen as primarily against men. Indeed as in the work situation there are shared interests in combining resistance.

It has been the strength of feminism that in beginning with the particular circumstances of everyday life it is possible to move towards the interlocking relationships of power which contain not only women but men as well. This is certainly limited by the particular class composition of the women who have been most radicalized by changes within relations in capitalist society and by the absence of a mass socialist movement in Britain which can complement the organizational initiatives and activity of an autonomous movement. Nonetheless this has been a significant and valuable. breakthrough which urgently requires a more general means of development.

Feminism has also been the main organizational form through which the idea of prefigurative politics has begun to influence the contemporary left. Consciousness raising, therapy and self-help will imply that we want change now. They are involved in making something which might become a means of making something more. They do not assume that we will one day in the future suddenly come to control how we produce, distribute and divide goods and services and that this will rapidly and simply make us new human beings. They see the struggle for survival and control as part of the here and now. They can thus contribute towards the process of continually making ourselves anew in the movement towards making socialism.

The women’s movement has played a vital part in challenging the politics of deferment. From the start feminists have said some changes have to start now else there is no beginning for us. This was not initially expressed as a theoretical position but as a practical need. For example, women in the student movement in the late sixties pointed out that the structure of meetings made it impossible for nearly all the women and many men to participate. Women with children said, ‘We want creches at meetings otherwise it is impossible to come.’ Women’s liberation also involved obviously changing relationships at· home. Feminist consciousness was not seen as isolated from how we make love or from our intimate selves. It was not merely an item to be included in a programme.

It was harder to go on from the practical need to its full implications. This has been a problem in the women’s movement, and has perhaps contributed to the recent interest in theories of consciousness which emphasize the strength of the hold of circumstance against the earlier stress on voluntarism. ‘I will change and no one shall stop me’ has shifted to ‘Why do I change so slowly?’

There is not a simple one to one connection between various forms or power. Our consciousness of ourselves in fucking cannot be neatly transferred to our activity in a union. branch, any more than change in the mode of production automatically changes men’s attitudes to women. We have to struggle in several dimensions, which involves a fundamentally different attitude to ourselves in relation to other people and thus to our politics. This is a long-term project!

But to say that change is more complicated does not mean that we have to accept a fatalism that denies personal change is possible. The personal is political even though people are more personal than any form of politics can express.

On the left the slogan ‘the personal is political’ has become rather an embarrassment as if everyone had heard it all before. But hearing and doing are different matters. The questions remain. How do the form of meetings reflect much deeper relationships of power for instance? How can we confront these not by merely altering the forms but changing the relationships? For example the creche might appear nowadays but remain a child-parking place. It is not necessarily seen as a living part of the political practice of socialism or, sadly, always of feminism. Nonetheless all these creches have had and will have an influence on how our children experience the socialist and feminist movement. This is as important at least as what happens in most meetings. But it is rarely acknowledged as part of the main business of socialism or even feminism. Theoretically the connection between changes in power relationships in the family and within left groups has remained sotto voce. In the left there are still plenty of Dads who rule OK, and remain relatively unruffled. I mean not the fathers of children but the founding fathers of left groups. Feminism is rather more vigilant but we all carry a Dad and Mum boss in us. In other words, the implication of challenging sex-gender relationships has only partially become a critique of power relations within radical organizations and movements.

It is important that we remember radical politics are also personal affairs. Feminists have argued that the personal is political and that this has implications’ for how you organize. It is possible however for socialists to interpret this narrowly. Under pressure ‘personal’ subjects like rape or abortion can be taken up but in the terms of an existing public politics. The forms of organizing around these issues are simply transplanted from the parliamentary pressure groups, the factory meeting or the committee room. Not that these experiences are invalidated. There are certainly strengths and resources which left groups can bring to feminist campaigns. But- the exchange has to be between equals and the learning process’ two-way. The strangled antagonism which appeared in the National Abortion Campaign came out of this feeling in the women’s movement. It was nonetheless difficult to assert the unspoken understandings about organization and the lived encounter we knew with a different kind of politics when the public world of politics loomed so large and men and women in left groups saw the argument in terms of efficiency (themselves) versus inefficiency (the women’s movement). Feminists responded by being suspicious of NAC because it included men.(62) There has been an obvious difference between the relationship of men and women in left groups to the women’s movement, and this has influenced how they work politically. There is an immediate link between left group women (Leninists included) and feminists because they are all affected by their social predicament. Socialist women have been changed by feminism. Nonetheless, I think it cannot be seen simply as a male/female split, but is in fact a political argument about organizing. Some men feel as alienated as many feminists from vanguard assumptions of organization. There are also many socialist women who believe in the Leninist approach to organizing.

There is a missing element here. It goes beyond simply applying established forms of organizing to the areas of personal oppression which feminism has revealed. We need also to question the approach to what the left defines already as public politics. I think it is hard to see this from the vantage point of either the ‘women’s movement or the male-dominated left. It emerges from the politics of men who have been both driven and encouraged by feminism to explore and expose the areas in which men of different classes and races are reared for various forms of domination and submission. This means disentangling the distortions in how men reach manhood which contributes, for instance, to the appeal of fascism, or’ to soldiers’ obedience to their officers even when it means killing someone of their own class, or makes it possible for a trade unionist to be economically militant yet look down on labourers, blacks, apprentices and women. To bring it closer to home, it also involves looking at how people relate personally to left groups. The connection of personal and public politic: involves not only making personal questions political, it means approaching ‘public’ politics personally as well.

A negative short-term consequence of the resistance of socialists to sexual politics has been to alienate many men from all existing forms of left politics. This has tended to leave men’s groups stranded within purely personal forms of politics. Socialist men have been caught between two stark options in ways that socialist feminists have been able to avoid through the women’s movement. The only compromise possible has been individual participation on the left combined with a separate existence in men’s groups. But this reinforces the existing male split between public and personal. An example of the different political predicaments of men and women affected by feminism has been the experience of radical therapy. It has been easier for women involved in Red Therapy to go outwards through the connection with the women’s movement. There has been a much greater gap and in some cases strong hostility towards both men’s and mixed consciousness-raising and therapy groups in the socialist movement. This enforced isolation breeds its own kinds of paralysis and defensiveness.

Nonetheless the positive potential of the sexual politics which has radicalized men as well as women lies in developing an understanding of how our personal experience of gender is bound up with the politics of class and racial struggles and indeed in our very assumptions of what it means to be a socialist. The inspiration for this understanding was feminism .. But such an integration cannot obviously be the work of the women’s movement alone.


It has required a big argument on the Leninist left to take up even one aspect of ‘personal’ power relationshipsthe question of inequality between men and women within socialist organizations themselves. The feminist movement has challenged this reproduction of inequality within the left. After nearly a decade sexism (like racism) is now admitted to exist even within left parties themselves by most organizations on the left. This used to be denied or it was said that it was utopian to expect anything else until after !iOcialism. The ground has shifted because men and women affected by sexual politics have been saying both inside and outside socialist groups that we can’t wait. We have to find effective ways of struggling against these inequalities for they are not only wrong in themselves, they paralyse many socialists and restrict our communication with many people who can see little difference between socialist and right·wing organizations. They also block understandings vital for the making of socialism.

However the implications of this recognition are still not followed through. The assumption within left groups has continued to be that the remedy for inequalities was the exhortation to improvement. It is presumed that within the organization itself change can be a result of an effort of pure reason. It is true that we can change our minds when confronted with ‘facts’ and argument. But they are inadequate on their own to touch th~ full extent of the problem. This emphasis on reason and will is the reverse side of the coin to the fatalism which denies the possibility of prefigurative change before socialism. Leninists are saying at once no change is possible and yet all changes necessary can be made by political education in the Party.

Feminists have been urging the need for a form of politics which enables people to experience different relationships. The implications of this go beyond sex.gender relationships, to all relationships of inequality, including those between socialists. Leninist organizations have made piecemeal concessions to the women’s movement and the gay movement under pressure. They have been affected also by the contradictory pulls in modern capitalism which have led to questioning certain areas of control in everyday life. But they have resisted the implications of these social changes and movements as a more general challenge to their notion of politics. The notion of organization in which a transforming vision of what is possible develops out of the process of organizing questions some of the most deeply held tenets of Leninism. The weight of Leninist theory (Gramsci apart) and the prevailing historical practice of Leninism is towards seeing the ‘Party’ as the means by which the working class can -take power and these ‘means’ have a utilitarian narrowness. Other considerations consequently have to be deferred until the goal of socialism is reached. But socialist feminists and men influenced by the women’s movement and gay liberation have been saying that these are precisely the considerations which are inseparable from the making of socialism. These involve considerable disagreement about the meaning of socialist politics and what it means to be a socialist.

So I don’t believe it is a matter of adding bits to a pre-existing model of an ‘efficient’ ‘combative’organization through which the working class (duly notified and rounded up at last) will take power. You need changes now in how people can experience relationships in which we can both express our power and struggle against domination in all its forms. A socialist movement must help us find a way to meet person to person-an inward as well as an external equality. It must be a place where we can really learn from one another without reference or resentment and ‘Theory’ is not put in authority.

This will not just happen. It goes too deeply against the way of the world. We really cannot rely on Commonsense here. We need to make the creation of prefigurative forms an explicit part of our movement against capitalism. I do not mean that we try to hold an imaginary future in the present, straining against the boundaries of the possible until we collapse in exhaustion and despair. This would be utQpian. Instead such forms would seek both to consolidate existing practice and release the imagination of what could be. The effort to go beyond what we know now has to be part of our experience of what we might know, rather than a denial of the validity of our own experience in face of a transcendent party. This means a conscious legitimation within the theory and practice of socialism of all those aspects of our experience which are so easily denied because they go against the grain of how we learn to feel and think in capitalism. All those feelings of love and creativity, imagination and wisdom which are negated, jostled and bruised within the relationships which dominate in capitalism are nonetheless there, our gifts to the new life. Marxism has been negligent of their power, Leninism and Trotskyism frequently contemptuous or dismissive. Structuralist Marxism hides them from view in the heavy academic gown of objectivity. For a language of politics which can express them we need to look elsewhere, for instance, to the utopian socialists in the early nineteenth century, or to the Socialist League in the 1880s, or Spanish anarcho-syndicalism. We cannot simply reassert these as alternatives against the Leninist tradition. There are no ‘answers’ lying latent in history. But there is more tl encourage you than meets the Leninist eye. We have to she, completely the lurking assumption that Leninism provide the highest political form of organizing and that all othe approaches can be dismissed as primitive antecedents or a incorrect theories.

It has been difficult in the last decade for us to brinl together our political experience. The versions of Leninisrr current on the left make it difficult to legitimate any alter native approaches to socialist politics which have been stumbling into existence. These Leninisms are difficult to counter because at their most superficial they have a surface coherence, they argue about brass tacks and hard facts. They claim history and sport their own insignia and regalia of position. They fight dirty-with a quick sneer and the certainty of correct ideas. At their most thoughtful intensity they provide a passionate and complex cultural tradition of revolutionary theory and practice on which we must certainly draw. Socialist ideas can be pre-Leninist or anti-Leninist. But there is no clear post-Leninist revolutionary tradition yet. Leninism is alive still whatever dogmatic accoutrements it has acquired. The argument is about the extent of its usefulness for making socialism now.

I know that many socialists who have lived through the complicated and often painful encounters between sexual politics and the left in the last few years believe we must alter Leninism to fit the experience gained in sexual political movements. I have been edged and nuzzled and finally butted towards believing that what we have learned can’t be forced into the moulds of Leninism without restricting and cutting its implications short. Moreover the structures of thought and feeling inherent in Leninism continually brake our consciousness of alternatives. If Stalinism made it impossible to challenge aspects of Leninism, the growth of Trotskyist and neo-Trotskyist groups since 1968 has postponed this by appearing to provide the solution. 1 don’t see the way through this as devising an ideal model of a non-authoritarian organization but as a collective awakening to a constant awareness about how we see ourselves as socialists, a willingness to trust as well as criticize what we have done, a recognition of creativity in diversity and a persistent quest for open types of relationships to one another and to ideas as part of the process of making socialism. In the long term I think we need new forms of socialist organizing which can grow from such a practice and bring together these efforts towards a different politics. The spirit in which we could make such an organization (or organizations) cannot be the distinguishing correctness which Leninism has fostered; I find the spirit of The Miners’ Next Step more appropriate. The authors said the pamphlet was ‘the best product of our time and thought, which we freely offer as an expression of our oneness of heart and interest as a section of the working class. Do what you will with it, modify or (we hope) improve, but at least give it your earnest consideration.'(63)

After this was finished I read two articles which are arguing along similar lines from rather different starting points. If you are interested in following some of the ideas through either in terms of strategy of the women’s movement and socialism or in terms of working-class community organising, see: Nancy Hartstock, ‘Feminist Theory and the Development of Revolutionary Strategy’, in ed. Capitalist Patriarchy and the Case for Socialist Feminism, op. cit., and Kathy McAfee, ‘City Life: Lessons of the First Five Years’, Radical America, Vol. 13, no. 1, January-February 1979.

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

March 23, 2013 Leave a comment

A. Where Does Consciousness Come From?

Lenin argues in What is to be Done? in 1902 that the working class, bogged down in their day-to-day economic struggle and without culture (in the sense of education and knowledge) could not understand and act upon the interconnection between their exploitation at work and the political form which secures this, the state. So he maintained that,

Class political consciousness can be brought to the workers only from without, that is, only from outside the economic struggle, from outside the sphere of relations between workers and employers.(43)

The Party, as vanguard, is presented as the means of combining the revolutionary potential of the working class and the scientific knowledge necessary to plan revolution which is to be brought into the Party by the intellectuals.

Carmen Claudin-Urondo sums this up in her book Lenin and the Cultural Revolution.

This vanguard, the Party, thus realises, in the persons of its professional revolutionaries’, its ‘full-timers’ in the service of the revolution, the symbiosis of social being of the proletariat and ill consciousness, and embodies the reconciled identity of the historical class and the class as a concrete reality.(44)

Lenin was arguing against a reliance on the working class becoming spontaneously revolutionary in the context of a period of Tsarist repression and he was to shift the emphasis between party and class later. Indeed the Bolsheviks had great difficulty in even keeping up with the working class in the making of the revolution. But he did not fundamentally reformulate the theory of consciousness present in What is to be Done? This theory is an essential part of the case for a Leninist Party. The polarization is presented as being between the conscious knowledge of the Party and the ‘instinctive urge’ or the ‘elementary instinct’ of the workers in movement. This may change the immediate course of action chosen by the Party but it still cannot (within the terms of Leninism) fundamentally transform the nature of the revolutionary organization itself.

The issue of the ascendency of the Party and conflict between the Party and autonomous movements of workers and of women had arisen within the Second International. The conflict itself was not created by Lenin. However, Lenin’s emphatic assertion of central direction over self-activity and self-direction gave the concept of the monolithic Party a much greater authority because the Bolsheviks had led a successful revolution. Fernando Claudin in The Communist Movement traces how this emphasis was put into effect internationally and how it was to harden under Stalin.

The claim that the Party ‘knows best’ persists even when t is said that the Party (or parties) must learn from autonomous movements. There is still the belief that it is the Party, itself, which will decide what it wants to learn. The Party is presented as soaring above all sectional concerns without providing any guarantees that this soaring will not be in fact an expression of the particular preoccupations of the group or groups with power within it. It is claimed that the Party is separate from the relations within capitalist society merely by being the revolutionary Party. Yet it is also claimed that any attempt to change relations within the Party is utopian. So how do they become separate and distinct? Or what makes Leninists different from other people? Within Leninist terms it is a closed debate. Leninists are different because they are members of the revolutionary Party. The Party is ascendent because it holds the correct scientific understanding. (Other Leninist parties are not ascendent because they are only pretending to have the correct ideas. They will be found out in time.) Now correct ideas can certainly be tested in practice to make sure that they are correct and may need a few hasty adjustments en route to the conquest of state power. But they are basically there (but only in the Revolutionary Party).

So where did they come from in the first place? Lenin and the Bolsheviks? They must have got them from their own lives and times. So personal and historical factors creep into scientific understanding. What else creeps in? Kautsky, the German social democrat hovers in this dawn revolutionary science.

For, like Kautsky, Lenin saw socialist consciousness as essentially the knowledge of certain theoretical truths with which the Party educates and trains its members. Although the test of this knowledge/consciousness is the experience , of agitation and class struggle it cannot be derived from experience. The notion of agitation is also narrow in scope. It does not touch inner subjective forms of consciousness.

When it comes to the personal hold of ideas, Lenin and Trotsky recognized there was a problem but presumed emotional responses will change after socialism.

There was disagreement among the Bolsheviks about the need to make explicit the creation of new forms of organizing to meet the problem but these took place after the revolution. They were not seen as part of the transition to socialism.

For Lenin the lessons of consciousness through struggle remain generally subordinate to the leadership of the Party. Here he broke with Marx’s view of consciousness and adopted the position of the German social-democrat Kautsky who argued that socialism and class struggle arose side by side. He went on from this historical observation upon the circumstances of the late nineteenth century to announce this as a ‘law’ of Marxist organization, which Lenin accepts. According to Kautsky: ‘Modern socialist consciousness can arise only on the basis of profound scientific knowledge.’ He goes on to say it was the bourgeois intelligentsia who possessed this knowledge/ consciousness, not the working class.

Thus socialist consciousness is something introduced into the proletarian class struggle from without and not something that arose within spontaneously. . . The task of Social-Demeocracy is to imbue the proletariat [literally saturate the proletariat] with the consciousness of its position and the consciousness of its task(46)

But where then does this consciousness of the bourgeois intelligentsia who join the Party come from? It is in fact a circular argument. Their consciousness comes from knowledge. So the consciousness of the intellectuals comes not from their lives and relationships like other people but from the pure development of Thought. By possessing these intellectuals (suitably tamed to make sure the development of Thoaght does not go against the interests of the working class, as defined by the Party), the Party possesses Thought. The working class cannot become the revolutionary class without this superior knowledge which the Party possesses. Crudely then the Party has to nab the intellectuals, discipline them and guard the working class from any contenders who might mislead them with incorrect thoughts (variously defined at different times as bourgeois feminism, syndicalism, anarchism, Trotskyism, centrism, etc.).

Carmen Claudin Urondo points out in Lenin and the Cultural Revolution that this ‘makes class consciousness dependent necessarily on socialist theory and the latter a pure product of culture’.(47)

Culture is defined here in its narrow sense of high culture. This means that organizational forms workers create only have a revolutionary validity when they are under the authority of the Party. Anarcho-syndicalist arguments contested this. But they do not raise the question of. the relationship of the Party to other autonomous movements which arise, for example, among black people, women, and gay people. The emergence of these movements has called into question the whole relationship of the Party and autonomous movements ancl with this the view of how consciousness is formed.ti Equally the experience of Stalinism has made thinkers an4! historians within the new left tradition re-examine the differences between Marx’s view of consciousness and Lenin’s theory. It was no longer possible to simply equate the consciousness of workers with the revolutionaryl political organization.’

Fernando Claudin, for example in The Communist Movement points out that Lenin was forced to quote Kautsky because he was breaking so decisively from Marx.(48) Marx had not argued that conscioµsness and knowledge could be equated in this way as if socialist thought was the sole source of wisdom. He believed that, we make our consciousness in the process of making” ourselves and changing the world, within the limits of the particular historical circumstances in which we find ourselves. A dogmatic adherence to Leninism has effectively blinkered many socialists not only to Marx’s views but to unfolding contemporary understandings.

E.P. Thompson shows in ‘The Poverty of Theory’ that Marx’s view of consciousness has since been developed in relation to particular historical contexts and within non-capitalist societies. Thus historians and anthropologists working in the Marxist tradition,

· . . have insisted that ideas, norms and rules be replaced within the mode of production, without which it could not be carried on for a day; and on the other side by cultural materialists who have insisted that the notion of a ‘superstructure’ was never materialist enough.(48)

This exposes the model of a tidy trade union consciousness arising from the economic struggle as both mechanical and unreal. It simply does not fit our understanding of reality. For in the last decade the process of both women’s and men’s involvement in trade unions had not been simply a response to conditions at work but part of a wider process of radicalization. It also makes nonsense of the view that socialist theoretical consciousness is derived purely from an objective scientific knowledge. The people doing the deriving, however intellectual they might be, are still people expressing in various ways their understanding of the world in which they find themselves. In Leninism thought comes from thought which means there is no room to.o.qualify certainties with the historical experience which might reveal how actual people arrived at Leninist ideas or might lead them to seek alternatives. By disguising the process which went into the creation of ideas they are protected by a timeless inviolability. The clear separation of the Leninist Party from everyday consciousness can be artificially secured and the Leninist concept of the Party can thus hold out the trump card of being the only means by which the particular experiences of exploitation and oppression can become generalized. But the trump card is part of a neat confidence trick. Again we can question this with reference to the process through which many people have become radical in the last few years. In the case of the women’s movement, for example, many women have become involved in socialism through feminism without, indeed often despite, the intervention of parties. Equally many socialist women have come to shed the assumption that they already had the answer by the questions raised why feminism and the experience of being in a movement which is continually pressing against and dissolving removed ideas which pretend they do not have people inside them or behind them.

E.P. Thompson also argues that there is a missing dimension. Marx neglected the particular ways in which not only handle our experience through our consciousness but through our ‘culture’. Culture is being used here in the broad sense in which intellectual culture combines with vocabulary of norms, values, obligations, expectations, taboos, etc.'(50)

There is thus not a simple opposition between the theoretical knowledge which is the monopoly of the Party and an undeveloped instinct for rebellion among workers (or other subordinated groups). There is another significant aspect of people’s consciousness.

They also experience their own experience as feeling and they handle their feelings within their culture, as norms, familial and kinship obligations and reciprocity, as values or (through more’, elaborated forms) within art or religious beliefs. This half of culture (and it is a full one-half) may be described as affective and moral consciousness.(51)

This restores real men and women, the relationships in which they find themselves, and their efforts to change these and their feelings about their situation, themselves and other people. It connects theoretically to movements which have been concerned to change feelings and desires. gay liberation, feminism and the black movement.

The implication of these views of consciousness is to dislodge the superior relationship of the Party to the movements of the working class and to other radical I autonomous movements. They also break down the separation between movements and the monolithic concept of ‘the Party’. It becomes impossible to regard ‘the Party’ or socialist organization as a kind of red zone from which professional revolutionaries sally forth with a superior knowledge untouched by culture themselves to insert, inject, imbue or saturate and drown other movements. Even Gramsci’s version of this relationship which stressed the need for working-class intellectuals within the Party and the existence of forms of leadership within ‘spontaneous’ movements is also being contested. For he still assumed that these leaders within spontaneity were necessarily confined within the dominant assumptions about the world. Without the Party, and hence theory, they could not transcend ‘common sense’. But the women’s movement, gay liberation or the cultural self-definition present in movements of racially subordinated groups have required that changes in feeling and desire become part of the movement of resistance. They have been assailing those elements within the ‘common sense’ of society which deny and oppress them. This process of transforming what is taken for granted has come from the interior. ‘The person’, to echo Bea Campbell again, has become a ‘political problem’ – including persons within the revolutionary parties. The ‘lived relation, of subordination’ is to be contested wherever it is to be found.

B. How Does Consciousness Change?

How then do people come to see the possibility of socialism? How do we conceive and imagine a completely different society, involving not only change in the external structures but an inner transformation of our consciousness and our feelings? How do we begin to connect our own experience to other people’s? There is no clear simple ‘theory’ of how such changes might take place. There is no straightforward, complete alternative to Leninism as an organizing idea and as a historical practice. But it is possible to open up certain entrances which people have made in other movements. They have become rather silted over and unfrequented but they are still there.

Historically many radical movements in the past havd\ raised the connection between changing our consciousne ,ui and making a new culture with opposing values. This was . vital aspect of Owenite socialist feminism, for example. Irt:’J attacking the hold of religion the Owenites began to maket their own marriage ceremonies. In contesting the values of capitalism they created their own schools. Similarly the Chartists called their children after radical heroes.

The Morning Chronicle commented in 1849 that in Middleton, Lancashire

. .. a generation or so back, Henry Hunts were as common as blackberries-a crop of Feargus Q’Connors replaced them, and latterly there have been a few green sprouts labelled Ernest Jones.(52)

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries socialists understood this need for a protective culture. They extended the ideas of the labour movement, of ‘brotherhood’, ‘solidarity’, ‘fellowship’ and ‘comradeship’ into their relationships within socialist organizations. ‘Brotherhood’, though gender-bound, has a warmth which ‘comrade’ with its echoes of commissars and ice picks lacks. ‘Solidarity’ carries most immediately the strength of being solid. But it has also had an interpretation which involves conscious individual commitment. In the words of The Miners’ Next Step, the document produced by South Wales miners, influenced by revolutionary syndicalist ideas, in 1912, ‘Sheep cannot be said to have solidarity.'(53) Workers had a vision of a new kind of community, which was partly sustained by their resistance to capitalism but also moved towards the future co-operative commonwealth.

It helps to remember that there were these other kinds of socialism, as well as anarchism, which stressed the transformation of values and relationships in the process of making the new world. We need to be able to learn what we can from them just as much as from the Bolsheviks. And on the creation of a new culture as part of the transition to socialism they have more to say than Leninism.

Discussion of the quality of relationships was common in the early British socialist movement. Becoming a socialist meant for many people a spiritual rebirth. Socialist culture, particularly in the Socialist League, the Clarion cycling clubs and choirs and the Independent Labour Party, but even at a local level in the Social Democratic Federation, was a means of sustaining the faith as well as transmitting socialist values. People used the word ‘fellowship’ to describe their sense of community within the socialist movement. These understandings of the personal, spiritual meaning of becoming a socialist were quite alien to Leninism. The growth of the Communist Party as the revolutionary party meant that such discussions were no longer central to the socialist experience. I don’t think they ever died out altogether, even in the Communist Party itself. They ceased however to be explicitly recognized and accepted. They did not belong to the new pantheon of ‘correct’ ideas which Leninism brought as a theory of organization. Instead they lived on as part of a twilight oral tradition which was passed on by working-class socialists. I think that the shock of 1956 and the post-war disintegration of older forms of working-class politics in both the Communist Party and the Labour Party weakened this oral tradition of the personal meaning of socialism. From 1968 many of the informal links of communication were severed.

For the post ’68 generations on the left it seems that these old understandings have little resonance. This was just at the moment when an awareness began to grow that the personal meaning of socialism needed to be recreated anew.

I feel sadness at this apparent loss. But I know too that there is a false security in sentimentalizing the demise of all aspects of this culture. While implicit values are an important means of surviving in a hostile world, without becoming theoretically explicit and part of a new order they are forced to seek some form of accommodation. So although the labour movement has carried an implicit opposition to reproducing hierarchy and a partial assertion of different forms of relationship these have coexisted with less democratic values. Not only have the terms in which they could be expressed been predominantly male, reflecting the importance of workers in jobs like mining and the docks in the labour movement, but a vital source of working-class male dignity has been bound up with having a skill. Although revolutionary socialists have always opposed craft elitism in theory, the reality has been that these workers’ resistance to economic threats to skill have often also vitally contributed to the political vanguard organization of the wo.rking class against capitalism. Thus the destruction of skills, an important area of creativity allowed to some workers, has been countered by a passionate assertion of manhood within the cultural assumptions of the labour movement. Economic militancy, class pride and confidence, political involvement in revolutionary and shop-floor organization have combined to make workers like printers and engineers ‘advanced’ in the Leninist sense. But groups like these have also been extremely suspicious of the threat of women and the unskilled generally.

In one sense the militancy of skill is a “ital opposition to the degradation and paralysis of exploitation. But it also contains our perception of dignity as a characteristic of masculinity and skilled work. It closes in on itself and becomes exclusive. Not only does this vision of militancy fail to reach most women as workers, as they are mainly among the unskilled, but it cannot reach beyond the confines of wage work to question the apportioning, scope and circumstances of our whole lifetimes. In relation to the family it has a paternal conservatism. It implies that the man must be the sole provider for the family, pass on his trade tQ.. his son and keep a stern eye on his apprentice. Responsibility merges with possession and authority. The exclusive~ conservative features of this concept of militant dignity have become clearer because it has not only been under attack because of the influence of feminism. Within capitalism the continuing dissolution of the older forms of craft skill and the imperatives of inflation which require the exploitation of both men and women’s capacity to labour have combined with changing ideas of how men and women, young and old sho,-!ld interact personally. No one is completely certain any more that a man should be master in his own home. It has been difficult for Leninists to grasp the significance of these developments because of the lack of attention to personal responses and the implicit nature of the dignity carried within this male class pride.

The terms in which consciousness and culture have been discussed in the contemporary women’s movement do not provide an intact alternative organizational model to set against the ‘partial’ view of the male-dominated labour movement. But the particular circumstances of the women who have become radicalized by feminism in the last decade contribute towards connecting certain aspects of consciousness. Splits between work and home or between the very process of their partial dissolution. Young women swept into the educational expansion, thrown out into the expanding welfare service sector in significent numbers were cut off from the lives and values which most of their mothers had known and communicated to their daughters in western capitalism. This was intensified by the startling intervention of technology in women’s biological destiny. Despite the real problems about the coil and the pill they did mean that women could with much greater reliability for the first time in history assume that heterosexual intercourse did not mean they chanced getting pregnant. This represented a most dramatic break with the past experience of women of their bodies. Yet these changes coincided with the growth of media stereotypes of femininity and an ideological emphasis on the family and the psychological responsibility of the mother for the child. Women found themselves vulnerable in the public world of work and then expected to readjust to the private sphere of isolated child care as many nurseries had been closed after the war. These uneven and awkward shifts which appeared in modern capitalist society were factors in forcing a new feminist consciousness which questioned the demarcations set by men upon the personal and the political. For example it is evident that our views and feelings about trade unions come from our home, our sex, our community, from the media, from legal judgements as well as from our work and class. Equally it is clear that our vision of sexual relationships comes from the personal lived relationships we have with our family, our friends as well as our class or our knowledge of other times and other societies. For women, quite unrevolutionary steps like speaking at a meeting, writing a pamphlet, joining a union or even a football team immediately open up other wider issues of authority. They question the relation of public and private spheres. They involve immediately notions of gender and concepts of ·human nature. Apparently straightforward actions are easily seen to relate to deeper power relations. They extend the immediate issue into a myriad of questions about human existence and the society in which we live. The women’s movement has never been comfortable with only demanding more or simply equality with men, in the sense of equal rights, or even accepted the terms in which Marxists saw the ‘woman question’. Instead it has probed the rela~onship of power which exists between the sexes. It has thus helped to extend our concept of how power is passed on and held in a crucial area of everyday life. The personal is political here in the sense that the dominant male definition of ‘what is left politics?’ excludes crucial aspects of this power struggle between the sexes.(54)

A complex understanding has grown. up through the practice of the women’s movement of the interconnecting nature of different forms of power relationships. For instance the campaign for a woman’s right to choose freely whether to have an abortion or to have a child raises immediately control over her own fertility and maternity which leads to the more general issues of man’s sexual hold over woman, of human beings’ relationship to their bodies and the importance of sexual pleasure. All four aspects of the question have been neglected by Marxism. But the campaign also involves an argument about laws and parliament, about a democratic and social medical service, an extensive system of childcare facilities, about the power of the state to determine population policy, about how decisions about investment in contraceptive technology and medical research are made and in whose interests. It implies a discussion about the strategy of a campaign both to pressurize Parliament and to transform the relationship to the body.

I think the implicit recognitions about how our consciousness emerges from the interrelationship of the power relationships which have come from our practice as a movement are actually more complex than the concept of . ‘oppression’ can express. When the black movement in the late sixties, followed by women and gay people asserted the idea of oppression which could include the cultural and personal experience of being subordinated as a group as well as economic and social inequalities, it was an important corrective to the emphasis within the left on class and economic exploitation. When all these movements went on to argue for autonomy and the people involved insisted that they understood their own situation best, this was an essential form of resistance to oppression being reduced by the left to an economic or equal rights issue and spoken for by ‘professionals’ who claimed they knew better than the people involved in the movements. But arguing in terms of a series of separate ‘oppressions’ can have an ironic consequence. We can forget that people are more than the category of oppression. ‘Each of us lives these conditions but is at the same time more than them.'(55) Movements which initially stressed self-activity and self-development can come to distrust their own origins and reduce human potential to a total, determining, fatalistic state of oppression if this is ignored. We thus have the means of seeing people as victims but not the means of seeing the sources of power which all subordinated groups have created. Equally we do not experience a single defining relationship of subordination in our lives any more than we possess trade union consciousness. We live within a complexity of relationships. This means we have certain sources for comparison and contrast. We can imagine how relationships might be different. We are capable of myopia about other people’s culture and experience. But we are also able to extend our understanding and feelings towards others in the past as well as the present.

Zillah Eisenstein in Capitalist Patriarchy and the Case for Socialist Feminism describes how Marx’s theory of alienation could provide us with a more dialectical approach to women’s subordination.

The theory of alienation and its commitment to ‘species life’ in communist society is necessary to understanding the revolutionary capacity of human beings … Reality for Marx is more than mere existence. It embodies within it a movement towards human essence. This is not a totally abstract human essence but rather an essence we can understand in historical contexts … Without this conception human beings would be viewed as exploited in capitalist relations, but they would not be understood as potentially revolutionary … When extended to women this revolutionary ontology suggests the possibility of freedom exists alongside exploitation and oppression, since woman is potentially more than what she is. Woman is structured by what she is today-and this defines real outer limits of her capacities or potentialities. This of course is true for the alienated worker .•. By locating revolutionary potential as it reflects conflicts between people’s real conditions (existence) and possibilities (essence), we can understand how patriarchal relations inhibit the development of human essence. In this sense, the conception of species life points to the revolutionary potential of men and women.(56)

If we think about our experiences in the light of these ideas we can grasp the actual complexities of how we develop a critical consciousness about our predicament, how we – imagine alternatives and relate these to other people’s lives as well as our own. I know from my own political experience that innumerable men and women have in fact changed as part of such a process in the last decade or so. This has sometimes been outside political parties, sometimes within one organization or several. But it has not been the work of any creature called ‘the Party’ for the simple reason that no such creature exists. More particularly, for several years I have taught a Workers’ Education Class in social history. At various tiIlles we have drawn upon our own experience and members of the class have talked about how they became interested in socialist or radical politics and how the women’s movement has affected them. The extraordinary diversity of influence upon even people within roughly the same age group, the combination of private and public experience which had brought them together even simply to study the history of radical movements, was a salutary lesson for anyone attempting the history of a social movement. They made nonsense both of the mechanical notion of trade union consciousness and the static categories of certain limited forms of oppression. In fact we all have some such experience and understanding in our lives but it is always difficult initially to hold on to these and put them against a ‘theory’.

The recognition which was present within pre-Leninist radical movements of the importance of making values and culture which could sustain the spirit and help to move our feelings towards the future, has been reasserted by the women’s movement. This means we can begin to think again about the problem of how we move towards socialism. Leninism has been particularly weak in relation to the actual transition to socialism. Although Eurocommunism raised the problem of the transition, it is not preoccupied with the creation of new forms of power and consciousness but of how to occupy and inhabit the existing institutions. The experience of sexual political movements suggests that not only can gains we make shift the balance of power relationships significantly but that the existence of radical movements concerned to make a new culture and to release and develop the potential of subordinated groups, can also touch and begin to transform not only the ideas and feelings of people within them but of those outside. They bring with them different ways of interpreting, and perceiving the world.(57)

They also reveal a dimension of consciousness which has been missing from socialism and certainly from Leninism. We can recognize and comprehend intellectually without wanting something to change. We can be opposed to hierarchy and elitism and yet feel superior. We can oppose men’s control politically and then feel deserted when it is not asserted in our own lives. We can resist being treated as an object and yet still want to be desired in this way, as this remains our means of valuing ourselves. These dimensions of transformation have been a vital part in the practice of the contemporary women’s movement.

Sarah Benton in ‘Consciousness, Class and Feminism’ in Red Rag describes how the women’s movement has approached our emotional resistances to changes which we may consciously desire.

It’s not enough for the individual woman to ‘know’ she is possessed or dominated; in order not to be possessed or dominated, indeed in order not to want to be, there must be an alternative culture in which such values are seen to be dominant and to be practised (in however erratic a way) in relation to which she can define herself.(58)

This understanding has been central for. women because of the circumstances of our particular oppression as a sex. But its implications are not limited to the politics of the women’s movement. This personal approach to consciousness is relevant in the ways in which dominance appears in left organizations and to limitations present in the contemporary labour movement’s resistance to capitalism. For example, a middle-class man who becomes a leading theoretician may also be quite inept at relating openly to people. Indeed he may have become a theoretician initially out of this shyness and loneliness. But the psychology of theoreticians does not come within the scope of Leninism! In time indeed isolation will be increased by responsibility for other people. It will be encased within this concept of the role of a leader. The justification of such a personal distance will always be of course service to the Party. It will be further accentuated by his need to be invulnerable because he expresses only what is objectively true, not what he personally feels. But this necessarily restrains his relations with other people. A sure sign of a leader of a Leninist political group is a tendency to look past your ey’es and over your head when they talk to you. Either they are taking a long objective view which does not involve encountering you, or they are looking for more prestigious ‘contacts’ in the shape of a shop steward or so. They quite forget how to meet person to person because they always have a thick wadding of more important purposes stuffed under their belts. This does give them an unreality but it also gives a certain power. They are untouchable andapart. This is of course just like leaders in the public world of government and institutions like the trade union movement. The pattern is reproduced. There are informal cultural correctives to this process in the labour movement. But men who are shop stewards and convenors can become locked and isolated by a sense of their need to prove their manhood which removes them from other people, excludes women and makes co-operation between people as equals difficult. These personal characteristics of organization may be privately noted by Leninists but they do not belong to the public discussion of politics. In a consciousness-raising situation (or in a radical therapy group) this source of power in removed objectivity is dissolved. It becomes irrelevant and the personal unhappiness behind it can be revealed. The idea (though it hasn’t always been the reality) of a consciousness-raising group is that you can be vulnerable and open without being destroyed because you are protected by the group. Feminists have called this sisterhood, which carries a more intimate notion of democracy than the trade union ‘brothers (and sisters)’.

In fact the very act of me writing this has been affected by such a personal tremor in the pattern of feeling-my own involvement in a women’s group formed to discuss our relationships and feelings towards our fathers. I struggled against the hold my father had over my life desperately and when he died twelve years ago I was still too scarred to open up to my feelings about him. Over the last few years I have been searching to understand and know him as a person rather than as the projection of my resistance to his authority. I saw obscurely that unless I could spiritually meet my own father person to person, I would continue to simply react against and oppose all forms of authority rather than confront and contest them in the open. Talking and listening to other women in a consciousness-raising situation has helped to shift some of my fear. As I was able to open to some of my affectionate feelings towards him and to respect him within his own life and times rather than in his disastrous relating to me, he became not an object of dread, anger and humiliation but a muddled and uphappy human being. This has released a source of courage and made it possible to evade the authority and dread which theories of organization have always held for me. It has become possible to translate the general understanding within the women’s movement, that we are all equally responsible for making ideas and ways of resisting a society we oppose, into thinking critically about theories of organization which have always held a particular terror for me.

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

March 19, 2013 Leave a comment

A. Autonomy and Power

I think there is a certain tension inherent in any encounter between a group of people who are organized for a particular purpose and people who are less clearly associated. Thus a movement like women’s liberation can be viewed suspiciously by groups of women involved for instance in a strike or a community project because they might fear that their needs will be used by a political organization and consumed in slogans with which they do not agree. But this distrust can be made worse or diminished depending on how it is approached. I know this is individually understood and acted upon by many members of Leninist and Trotskyist groups. But I also think that there is a general tendency within the Leninist approach to organizing which is inclined to dismiss these recognitions of their own members and an inclination to look elsewhere for ‘mistakes’. So it is mysteriously someone else who is responsible for ‘substitutionist’ politics which deny the validity of actual struggles.

It has been an issue of great contention in the conflicts between the women’s movement and left groups (particularly with the Socialist Workers Party in the National Abortion Call1paign). It has been a source of considerable rancour between the left groups and a whole series of newspapers, journals and single issue campaigns in the last decade. I don’t think it can be seen only as a feature of our recent experience or explained away as the peculiar aberrations of the contemporary left. I believe that the Leninist tradition, with its emphasis on the intervening role of the Party and the superior understanding of the Party has historically intensified these weaknesses in the left. A conflict has been built into the very way the Leninist Party functions, quite regardless of the individual militant’s intention. This approach is like insisting on scaling a mountain up its sheer face instead of finding an alternative route and then explaining away any casualties as unfortunate accidents.

The power relationship between ‘the Party’ and other movements has a particularly vexed history within the Bolshevik tradition. The dire circumstances of the Soviet revolu tion obviously contributed to this. But I think it is too facile to say this has only been a feature of the Stalinist distortion of Leninism, which lets Trotskyism too neatly off the hook. There is certainly an instructive tension within Lenin’s and Trotsky’s writing in which the starting point is circumstance and both a movement towards the centralized control of the Party and awareness of the danger of substituting the Party for working-class activity are present. But in practice it has been impossible for the Communist Parties to maintain the precarious balance necessary for this dialectical transformation. Trotskyism has had a tinier practice within which it has preserved a Leninist concept of ‘the Party’ like a pickled onion in a jar. But jars can get left on dusty, unused shelves. Criticizing Mandel’s The Leninist ]heory of Organisation, Paul Thompson and Guy Lewis’ say in The Revolution Unfinished?: ‘It never situates relations between party and class in changing conditions of struggle, but rather in absolutes of consciousness, spontanteity, the party and the like.'(28)

Granted that times have been hard but surely one of the points about a theory of organization is that it must find ways of surviving the bad times? Perhaps it’s not that the Leninist theory of this relationship has not been practised or interpreted in its tull complexity but that approach itself is flawed?

The problem for feminists and men affected by feminism is that none of the various left traditions which have been critical of Leninism are concerned specifically with the significance of sex-gender relationships. So they have not worked through the implications of the need to transform these for a theory of organizing. The anarchists have certainly held a commitment in principle to connecting a critique of authority relations in the family to society and to the forms of organization for change. But as anarchist feminists have recently pointed out, the personal practice of these interrelationships of power for women have proved more complex.

Moreover, as Temma Kaplan has shown in her study of anarcho-syndicalism in Spain, within this particular strand of anarchism there has been a further tension which relates closely to the involvement of women. There was a persistent pull in the anarchist movement in the 1880s between communalist forms of resistance which implied making prefigurative forms for everyday life like utopian socialism and the emphasis upon the union (syndicate) which was restricted to workers’ control over production.(29)

I think that the emphasis upon trade unionism, workers’ control and the stress on. work as a source of dignity rather than upon the values of a co-operative social life or upon a general concept of human creativity was becoming more marked in anarcho-syndicalism in the early years of this century. The preoccupation with direct a,ction focused on work and the general strike of wage-earners was the main revolutionary tactic. The relations of production were certainly the central issue for both those left groupings in social democracy which were later to develop theories of Council Communism and the Workers’ Opposition in the Bolshevik Party. They believed that a general release of self activity would follow strengthening workers’ control over production. This meant that factory councils were seen not only as a necessary defence but as a prefiguration of future relationships. So they did not equate workers’ consciousness and power with the central authority of the Bolshevik Party. On the other hand the shift to the organization of production made this area assume a priority which had not been present in libertarian forms of Marxism like the Socialist League in Britain in the 1880s or the Anarchist-Communism of Emma Goldman in America.(30)

It was as if the actual development and consolidation of capitalist society actually wrenched apart and shattered earlier visions of the transformation of life itself. For though there are interesting historical connections between these dissident traditions of the early twentieth century and socialist women-for example Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, who worked with the American anarcho-syndicalists the ‘Wobblies’,(31) Sylvia Pankhurst, who Lenin berated for ‘infantile leftism’, and Alexandra Kollontai, who was part of the ‘Workers’ Opposition’- the theoretical integration of socialism and feminism remained barely developed. Kollontai especially made a valiant and remarkable effort in opposing the deterministic emphasis in contemporary Marxism upon objective scientific laws of change and also in realizing the need to develop the idea of workers creating a new culture beyond work into every aspect of social and political life. She saw communal housing, sexual unions in which women retained an autonomous identity, co-operative nurseries, as forms through which people could begin to experience truly democratic communist relationships. But not only was she in a minority in this emphasis in the Bolshevik leadership, she did not clearly question the sexual division of work between men and women. The implications of this for a challenge to all kinds of hierarchy and coercion which has been so important in the politics of the women’s movement in the last decade were crucial absences in her thought. She struggled, just as we have struggled, for a language to describe the sexual and personal forms of men’s control over women. She stumbled towards trying to connect these to the need to release all human beings’ ‘potential for loving’.(32) She glimpsed the extraordinary transformation of consciousness which this would require and the consequent need for multiple cultural transitional forms. She also noted that the oppressive atmosphere which was beginning to stifle debate in the Bolshevik Party was bound up with personal political behaviour. It was transmitted and sustained through apparently trivial incidents and encounters. She wrote in the document The Workers’ Opposition for the 1921 Congress, ‘If only comrades would cease to consider it necessary to jump heavily on anyone who says anything that is at all new, would cool their “polemical” ardour somewhat, and top building every molehill into a “deviation” or “principled difference” .'(33)

The contemporary women’s movement has begun to uncover the pattern of similar tiny moments of constraint in resisting women’s subordination. But Kollontai’s remarkable if fragmented vision flickered into darkness as the Bolshevik revolution was tragically overwhelmed by its enormous internal problems and its isolation in a hostile capitalist world.

Certain historical connections also existed between this syndicalist influenced left and those socialist feminists who argued for women’s control over their sexuality and fertility before the First World War. Margaret Sanger, who was influenced by the American Left Syndicalists, the Wobblies, as well as the anarchist-communist Emma Goldman, argued for birth control in the same terms as workers’ control. Similar arguments were later used by Stella Browne in Britain. They have also appeared again among socialist feminists now.(34) The problem is that this sets up as significant two poles of struggle, production (economic) and reproduction (biological) which become the keys to workers’ and women’s emancipation. This misses out the ways in which these are inseparable from political, legal, cultural and ideological forms of struggle. It creates again a primacy of particular spheres of activity and it assumes that workers are all men and that men have no relationship to reproduction. It makes it possible to see the inadequacies of a simple base-superstructure model. But it is difficult within the terms of this polarized connection of workers’ control and feminism to present a different view of how we come to consciousness.

Anarcho-syndicalists and left-wing communist tendencies were inclined to be more dismissive of attempts to change laws in capitalist society than both social democrats and Leninists. Indeed this was the source of Lenin’s irritation with what he called ‘infantile leftism’. This meant that within the parties of the Second International the ‘right wingers’ were sometimes more sympathetic to working with autonomous feminist organizations for the suffrage than the lefts. So precisely those anarchist and left socialist women who were prepared to argue for workers’ self-determination or woman’s control over her body tended to become isolated in practice from the more radical currents within feminism.(35) This made it even harder to transcend the detachment of the relations of production from a critique of social relationships as a whole.

As an undercurrent alternative to Leninism ideas of workers’ control have had a strong influence on the left in Britain. When the Communist Party was formed, syndicalism and the decentralized approach of the Guild Socialists were significant influences. In the I920s and thirties there were various kinds of rank and file movements. Since 1956 there have been a series of reassessments on the left of the ideas of workers’ control which have contributed towards the formation of the Institute of Workers’ Control, the emphasis placed by the International Socialists on linking to shop stewards and on rank and file movements, and Big Flame’s analysis of the changing role of shop stewards. After May 1968 in Germany, Italy and France there was also a great revival of interest in non- Leninist traditions on the left. This undercurrent of syndicalist-influenced leftism with its stress on grass-roots struggle against bureaucracy has coincided with the growth of the women’s movement. Indeed they have certain things in common. Both emphasize autonomy against the central control of the Party (or parties) and self-activity against a leadership. Both are asserting the need to make some changes now. There are obvious parallels with the period before the First World War.

But again feminists have often found themselves at odds with the stress on workers' control. For it obviously excludes women working in the family just as it excludes ther groups who are not on the cash nexus, children or old people for example. It also tends to disregard areas of life which are crucial in women's lives, around welfare legislation for instance, or around personal and sexual relationships. It does not illuminate the interconnection between different forms of power which men's groups, the gay movement and women's liberation have begun to discover. It.leaves us with a very limited understanding of how we come to be critical of our situation in the world. By focusing on class struggle at work other aspects of power relationships become of secondary importance. There is also a tendency to see workers possessing a true consciousness intact underneath the encrustment of treacherous leaders and the beguilements of ,the leaders. (This can be transplanted to women.) Once the crust is cut off the true consciousness becomes apparent. This implies that,the people cutting the crust off are somehow not part of the problem.

Feminists have pointed out that not only does the emphasis on work exclude women but that the whole approach is presented in terms of the male workers' situation and that the attempt to argue for women's liberation in terms of a syndicalist stress on production sets up a split between the 'real' world of economics and the 'unreal' sphere of consciousness. The latter is always sec?ndary. Even the modification which argues for women's control of her body along with workers' control only attaches a 'biological' material struggle to the economic.

Many feminists in rejecting the inadequacies of the syndicalist approach have sought an answer in an assertion of an orthodox Leninism or accepted Leninism with 'various additions, particularly Gramsci's concept of hegemony and Althusser's notion of the relative autonomy of the superstructure.

Several practical implications follow from this. It appears that a solution to the questions raised by the women's movement about the role of the Party and about consciousness already almost exists. We need simply a more sophisticated version of Lenin which we can find, it is argued, in more orthodox Trotskyism, in the Communist Party, or, vaguely, in an imaginary ‘Party’. The stress on self-activity shared by the new left, by libertarianism, and by the syndicalist influences upon IS/SWP, as well as the women’s movement, is obscured again. The emphasis on our personal involvement in making ideas and understanding movements fades in the face of ‘a science’. This means we cannot become self-critical about ‘our own partialities. We are no longer open to the wider movement of society which might make us discard our theories and rediscover a new means of abstracting upon our reality. ‘Theory’ is once again asserted as ‘above’ experience rather than as an integral part of it. If the notion of a true consciousness beneath the crust is avoided, it is at the expense of a picture of human beings, who are merely the sum of the functions they perform for capital or ‘patriarchy’. Hopelessly entrammelled in capitalist and/or patriarchal ideology we are helpless again before the ascendent sometimes even imaginary ‘Party’ and the ‘Theory’ it has tucked safely away in some inaccessible and lofty pinnacle.

The variations on this approach do not reveal, much less solve, the actual problems of power, they merely lead us back to the Party as the ‘answer’. The understanding of the inadequacies within the syndicalist opposition to the central authority of the Party is accurate. But the elaborate evasion presented as an answer defuses the implications of the women’s movement on the left groups.

This is perhaps one of the reasons that feminists within the International Marxist Group and the Communist Party have had much greater scope for manoeuvre than women within the Socialist Workers Party. But the conflict has been postponed, not removed.

Eurocommunism has opened up the issue of autonomy in a different context from the classic stress on the Party in Leninism. Its supporters stress the need to make alliances rather than the vanguard role of the Party. This expresses actual changes in practice of which the British Road to Socialism was a part. It involves a different approach to the transition to socialism.36 This means that many feminists in Britain regard their membership of the Communist Party and the women’s movement as less contradictory than belonging to either Trotskyist groups, who believe (with tact or without it) that they should play a vanguard role, or to the Socialist Workers Party, whose version of the vanguard amounts to themselves plus a well-screened working class in struggle. I think the radical importance of Eurocommunism is that it opens up the possibility of rethinking together a strategy for socialism in advanced capitalism which includes members of the Communist Party. But I don’t think feminism can be grafted onto it. There seems to be little explicit recognition within Eurocommunism, either of the nature of sex-gender relations or of the need to, challenge the forms of relationships within the Party as a cen tral part of the process towards the transition to socialism.(37) The view of how such a transition will occur does not involve a real transformation of the institutions of power relations. As an alternative to Lenin’s strategy of conquering them, Eurocommunism aspires to move in and inhabit them. The practice of politics seems to move even closer to the bourgeois parties in accepting the existing terms of power within capitalism. True, there is the promise of a more equal relationship between the Party and autonomous movements. But what are the guarantees for us non-Party masses? What if the Party line changed in the course of the transition to the transition? As the saying goes, ‘the proof of the pudding will be in the eating’. But we would look well to be extremely wary as we munch. The leadership of Communist Parties are tough, well-seasoned cooks who do not give much spare change away in the pud. It seems unlikely that they would concede to an autonomous women’s movement the power they have withheld from several generations of workers.

However it is over simple to assume that the ascendency of ‘the Party’ and the view of consciousness which this involves are simply imposed by the leaderships. This would imply that if feminist women gained the leaderships the problem would be solved. In fact personal ways of seeing, assumptions about organizing and political attitudes are part of the culture which people make within political organizations. Feminists within left groups and parties have thus been engaged not only in an argument about the policy of leaderships, about what is said in programmes or even what is done, but how things are done.

For example it is interesting that IS/SWP should have had the most stormy relationship with the women’s movement because in certain ways IS/SWP was itself critical of how things were done in the Communist Party and the Trotskyist groups. They were opposed not only to the manipulation of announcing popular fronts or rank and file movements, which you made sure you then controlled, they were suspicious of paid professional trade union
officials and critical of sham ‘labour movement’ shells which failed to express spontaneous movements. They also believed that intellectuals should have no special privileges. Indeed quite the reverse – they should do more of the donkey work as their jobs were easier. There could not he separate spheres for intellectuals and workers. Thus the fact that they denied that the Soviet Union was a socialist or even a workers’ state gone sour was based on the relations of production. And this difference led implicitly to the possibility of holding other assumptions about relations within our own socialist movement. These involved the self-image of being above sectarianism.

But these assumptions stopped short at certain points and the women’s movement was one of them. Conflict was more immediately in the open because there was no internal organizational means of holding the movement at bay.

In the case of the International Marxist Group, it was possible to draw on Leninist ideas, while the Communist Party had a historical practice which included considerable experience in keeping uppity movements in their place. This allowed feminist women a little more space to argue. But it did not mean that the organization saw itself being transformed by the women’s movement. It was clear (to both the IMG and the CP) that sectional movements do not hold general briefs on how to organize. So the argument has tended to be more within the organizations in which feminist women have demanded a different, more democratic relation to an autonomous movement. They have argued the need for the left groups to learn from the women’s movement.(38) This has both contributed towards and been strengthened by a genuine concern among the membership, particularly in the Communist Party, not to repeat the disastrous record of the past. However it has not seriously rattled the leaderships into changing their concepts of a socialist organization and questioning their own roles within it. Nor has the influence of the women’s movement on the left extended into a critique of all the areas of inner personal and political practice which are part of the cultural life of organizations.

Oddly enough, the whole issue has loomed a bit closer since most of the left became rather ominously polite to the women’s movement. Now I know that after all these years we should resist the temptation to a wry ‘that we should be so lucky’. I mean, I know it’s an ‘advance’ even though it feels like so many years. But I don’t think we should be satisfied. We don’t want a limiting kind of acceptance which would be a new keeping us in our place, do we?

It would be ironic, wouldn’t. it? The autonomy of the women’s movement and gays might be recognized, the right to have gay and women’s caucuses on everything granted, the specifics of sexual politics could be allowed more regular space in left papers. But the ideas of what socialism is and the relationship to these ideas would remain the same.

Bob Cant noted this in his talk for the conference of ex-IS members:

They have failed to understand that sexual politics is not just about sexual practice but is also intermeshed with questions of power, ideology and’ culture. 39

This failure, which is not of course peculiar to IS/SWP, seems to me a refusal to learn openly from the last decade. It means that dogmatism has found a reasonable face because the pressures from feminists, gay people and men affected by feminism have become impossible to ignore. It is harder to explain such suspicions. It seems to many people, even those profoundly affected by sexual politics, that you are never satisfied. The discontented are left muttering and cantankerous. But this .is not perversity, because the disagreements are about the power relationships within the movement for change. They do not only involve the acceptance of sexual politics. They require a different kind of socialism.

Fernando Claudin in his book on Eurocommunism pointed to the tendency in the Communist Party and other left parties…

to regard overall political action as a private reserve and to try and restrict other organisations-the trade unions, organs of grass roots democracy, the women’s movement etc.-each to their own ‘specific problems’, preventing them from taking initiatives in relation to major general questions.(40)

B. Vanguards and Consciousness

It is not difficult to demonstrate that Lenin’s notion of the vanguard was not devised to give comfort to bossy socialists bu t to illuminate the strengths and weaknesses of the forces of resistance to capitalism. In theory, it provided a means of channelling for the greatest effect all the elements in struggle, not only the economic conflict of workers against employers bu t all the experience of social and cultural struggles. The idea was to bring the strengths of the most ‘advanced’ to the assistance of the less developed through the Party.

According to one curren t version of this Leninist intention, ‘advanced’ consciousness by definition finds its way into ‘the Party’. This internal definition of the vanguard tends to be a characteristic of Trotskyism. It becomes a tautology. The ‘Party’ is the expression of advanced consciousness therefore advanced consciousness is to be found in the Party. The circle is unbroken by reference to actual circumstances and it is difficult to break once the Trotskyist group has announced its coming out as the ‘Party’. Though under pressure individual members in more open groups like the IMG will concede in broad-minded moments that owing to the imperfect confusion of the times some bits of advanced consciousness may go astray and lurk temporarily in movements, before mouldering into centrism, or even find a berth through some gross misunderstanding among the rank and file of the Communist Party. But the force of their thinking is still towards vanguardism assuming primacy.

In the attempt to break with this narrow and internal idea of the vanguard various attempts have been made to locate the vanguard in struggles outside the Party. This was an argument internationally within Trotskyism after the Second World War. On the Italian left after 1968 some socialists argued that the workers in struggle are the vanguard rather than the Party. In America by the early 1970s the vanguard was up for grabs. Everyone claimed to be the vanguard-blacks, women, gays. In fact they all fell out with one another over this.

This notion of the vanguard assumed it applied to either the most oppressed or the most foolhardy and illustrates the problem in defining the vanguard in terms of whoever is struggling.

In Britain the Socialist Workers Party has evolved its own peculiar combination of these. There seems to me to have always been considerable tension within the theory of IS/SWP between the feeling that the membership are the most advanced elements-else what are they doing joining?-and the conviction that the working-class in economic struggle is the vanguard. This tension partly comes from the awareness both of the dangers of self-appointed vanguards and out of an understanding that the act of struggle in itself is not automatically going to be for socialism, or even for the working class as a whole. In practice though this IS/SWP notion of class struggle has tended to be narrower than that of either the US libertarian Trotskyists or the Italian socialists who stressed a wider concept which invplved more aspects of everyday life.

Criticisms of the Leninist idea of the ‘vanguard’ have tended to assume that the attempt to assess consciousness itself was at fault. I think this needs shifting into a different area of dispute. The argument is really about who has the power to define how the estimation is made and the acknowledgement that none of us are the embodiment of the pure abstract reason of correct ideas. Our estimation will be affected by our own circumstances. Another source of confusion in any discussion of the Leninist concept of the vanguard is that there are several interpretations current on the left at present, quite apart from the cruder forms of practice which are based on a ‘we knows you know’ attitude rather than Leninism.

So in reaction against Leninism there was a tendency in both the American New Left and among British libertarians to dismiss the very attempt to assess consciousness as inherently elitist. Less clearly this dismissal of the problem has been present in the women’s movement.

The trouble is that if you disregard all attempts to work out who is likely to stick their neck out in particular circumstances and who can sustain attack in particular places you are left wide open. Without any historical and social estimation of different kinds of consciousness you are left with only static categories of the oppressed. You have no means of deciding how various sections are likely to respond to change. As your oppressed constituency is both enormous and inert and as there is no difference between the oppressed category and conscious politics there is nothing to stop you acting on their behalf. There is not even the awareness that is present within Leninism of the dangers of ‘substitutionism’. Here a sleight of hand appears in an over-generalized concept of a static condition of oppression. A politics of example by self-appointed small groups has often been the undemocratic consequence of a critique of differentiation as elitist. This has bedevilled marchism historically and was a paralysing feature of libertarian Marxism in the early 1970s. It has been a rumbling source of confusion in the women’s movement.

Instead of examining the actual social composition of our movement and the forces and experiences which have radicalized certain groups of women, the feminism of the women’s liberation movement can be presented as the consciousness of women in general. This makes it impossible to begin to work out the relationship of the movement to women not already involved. Their absence is in fact being dismissed and explained away. They need simply to be reached and enlightened by the propaganda of the movement. Any opposition they might make is because they have been hopelessly brainwashed by men. Under a ‘false’ non-feminist consciousness sits a ‘true’ natural feminism in every woman. Feminists just need to plumb the depths of this well of common sense to reach what every woman knows. It is true that every woman knows but we happen to know somewhat differently depending on our circumstances and the openings created by the process of change. We need to examine what is specific as well as what is shared by women in differing situations. If circumstance and consciousness are concertina-ed we fold an abstract category ‘Woman’ into a particular historical movement which has emerged out of changes in the life of some women.

Thus if we are to distinguish the various ways in which women approach their situation we need to understand the different nature of the power relationships which enmesh us. This means that we do not present relations in the family simply as the equivalent of relations on the cash nexus, or assume that the condition of a sex is the same as class relations. It also means we need to assess very carefully changes in class composition and their impact on women’s consciousness.

Some socialist feminists in America have been drawn to analyses of class in which professional, service, administrative and communications workers are equated with the working class. This recognizes the emergency of new kinds of work closely connected to the welfare of people and the communication of values’ which have become crucial areas in modern capitalism. It also focuses on the radicalization of men and women in these jobs. But it makes it difficult to understand the specific ways in which changes in class composition have affected various groups differently. In Britain the emotive force of class has led to similar elliptics in practice. For example the IS Rank and File groups and Working Women’s Charter tended to emphasize the similarity between white collar trade unionists and manual and lower-grade service workers. They were all trade unionists. This was important to assert against the traditional suspicion in the trade union movement of white collar workers and the dismissal on the left of women. But this meant that other important power relationships were dismissed. These were in fact vital to an understanding of consciousness which could avoid fatalism, a notion of an intact true consciousness or an external vanguard bringing understanding. The ‘Red Collective’ pointed out in a criticism of the Charter in I974 that the simple assertion of a common trade unionism denied ‘… the experiences that brought these women into women’s liberation, and the difficulties they must meet in their jobs as “handlers” of people which ought to make them aware of other divisions, based on a hierarchical division of labour’.(41)

While resistance to ‘handling’ was certainly part of the personal experience of women in local Charter groups and also in the rank and file of ‘Rank and File’, it was not accepted as part of. the theory of organization and
consciousness of the IMG and IS who had hegemonic positions in these groupings. So individual understandings were passed over as by the way. But in fact the women’s movement and the whole process of radicalization among people in these jobs were providing vital clues to the puzzle of oppose modern capitalism and how to go about a mOre complex assessment of consciousness.(42)

The women’s movement has broken the circle in the concept of a vanguard Party by questioning the criteria used in assessing the meaning of ‘advanced’ and ‘backward’ and arguing that this assessment is not a neutral and objective process but a matter of subjective interest. This argument in Britain has meant a particularly acute confrontation with the SWP because their definition of class struggle has emphasized production and until recently dismissed serious consideration of feminism by concentrating on women as workers or the wives of workers. Although there was never complete acceptance of these priorities it was more difficult for those IS women, who accepted the basic terms of reference of their organization, to contest them than for women in the IMG or the CP.

The dispute between women’s liberation and the lSI SWP came to be polarized as economic versus personal struggles. Even though many women in IS/SWP pointed out that women workers or the wives of strikers might also be people who were overwhelmed and lonely in the home, struggling to assert themselves in sexual relationships, troubled by how to relate to their children, these dilemm remained by-the-way. Similarly the development of a wid range of campaigns within an increasingly activist women’ movement in the mid seventies did not crack this polariza. tion. It was sustained by the self-image of ISjSWP as th people who were really doing something. It has made for a particularly fraught encoun ter between feminism and th organization which potentially held a more open concept of the vanguard role of the party.

Women in IMG and the CP could invoke the need to regard the vanguard as encompassing the broad movement of what Marxists call ‘layers’. Women could be accommodated then as a significant layer and even allowed a few of their own peculiarities because of the effect on them of a floating monster called ‘ideology’. Within the Communist Party a strong sense of past crimes with a tendency for a low-key approach to the vanguard Party gave feminists considerable scope.

So the same polarization has not occurred with either the Communist Party or the International Marxist Group. But nonetheless suspicion still festers between them and the women’s movement and the full challenge of feminism is muffled rather than resolved.

The women’s movement’s criticisms of the ways in which the Leninist left assess activity and the manner in which consciousness changes have come not from a completed theory of organization but from the experience of a particular group of women’s lives. The wide-ranging areas of women’s oppression, the complexity of the subordinated relationship with men, and the deep personal hold of women’s sense of secondariness have combined with significant changes in class composition and social relations.

It is not enough for left groups to simply widen the range of subjects which can be discussed in their publications or meetings – the crucial question is what significance is given to these subjects and how is that estimate reached? If a political or economic scale is used the same judgements of advanced and backward forms of consciousness can be retained with a few sexual political frills. But if you take into account other kinds of struggle like resistance to the domestic control of the state which has been part of a wide range of community. politics or the emotional personal challenge to sexual domination, the old scale of measuring consciousness becomes ungainly because you are moving in several dimensions at the same time. People can be so hackward and so forward at the same time that the scale on’t work any more. There is no way of marking I nnsciousness off on a straight line to assess it in this clear and simple way.

Of course Leninism recognizes that consciousness is uneven. But this still assumes that it can reach one level. The notion of the vanguard suggests a tough poky thing moving in the same direction at the same time. The approach to consciousness in the women’s movement has uncovered covered many aspects of experience neglected by socialist politics but it also has the awareness that formal theoretical or practical public abilities are not the only important areas of growth. Our personal relationships with our ramilies and friends, how we connect to other women in the movement and our inner spiritual and sexual life are never separate from our feminism. Indeed as we resist subordination most strenuously in one area it has a way of creeping up on us from some completely different direction.

The feminist approach to consciousness perceives its growth as many-faceted and contradictory. The model of lhe vanguard doesn’t fit into this way of thinking. It’s not even like trying to put a square peg into a round hole. It’s like dropping it down a well. The criteria used for ‘advanced’ and ‘backward’ elements can no more be applied to this more complex view of political consciousness than a spirit-level can be used for assessing an electrical current. This does not mean that we should abandon the attempt to estimate the consequences of different forms of consciousness at various times. But it means we need a much more delicate kind of socialist theory to gauge them. The Leninist approach simply blots out immense but fragile processes of transformation.

Left organizations, particularly since the Bolsheviks, have assumed a kind of pyramid of levels of activity. Near the top are struggles for political power and conflict at the workplace. Community struggles follow, traditionally seen mainly as the housing question and tenants’ movements. After them education, welfare and cultural issues may be considered with an optional cluster of sexual politics, ecology and what not under a rather dusty heading of ‘quality of life’.

Feminists have criticized these levels, arguing particularly against the over-emphasis on wage work, which excludes many women. (In Britain this argument has been mainly with the SWP but it has arisen with other left groups as well.)

The problem can’t be solved by recognizing demands for a changing quality of life and just widening the areas of activity. Both the IMG and SWP for example are quite prepared to do this. We also need to challenge the notion of consciousness which is behind this approach to activity. For consciousness is also being chopped up into categories of significance. The women’s movement has enabled us to understand that such divisions do not reach the roots of oppression. Presenting consciousness in the compartments of political, economic, cultural, social, personal, makes it impossible to begin to see how the different forms feed and sustain one another. Feminism has shown how consciousness spills over these boundaries. I don’t think this need imply ~that particular groups of socialists should not make certain forms of activity a priority given resources of time, energy and skill, and the forces of opposition. For example it would be evidently absurd to expect that the possibilities present for women in a democratic capitalist society would be the same as the narrower options for resistance under fascism. It is not an absolute moral principle which is involved but the power to challenge the criteria in which priorities are decided.