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

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

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.

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