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

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

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 how.to 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.

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