Home > Beyond The Fragments > Beyond The Fragments: Feminism and the Making of Socialism (Moving Beyond The Fragments) by Hilary Wainwright

Beyond The Fragments: Feminism and the Making of Socialism (Moving Beyond The Fragments) by Hilary Wainwright

That going beyond the fragments is a problem for many socialists is very much a sign of our times. If we were socialists in the twenties we might be agonizing over whether we should join the Labour left through the ILP or whether we should join the Communist Party which anyway was trying to affiliate to the Labour Party, but there would be little doubt that the Labour Party, warts and all, was the way to go ‘beyond the fragments’.

Since the Labour Party became a party of government, and, more particularly, a party of reactionary government, joining the Labour Party is no longer the automatic choice of people looking for a way of changing society. In the absence though of any socialist alternative, with roots in the local labour movements, it does still offer many socialists a way of gaining a wider political influence than, say, involvement in the women’s movement can achieve. There are many socialist feminists who feel like Sally Alexander from Pimlico, London, that

After ten years in the women’s movement a lot of us felt the desire to take out feminist politics into the socialist movement The women’s movement had brought me closer to SOC} because our demands, even at their minimum, cannot be achieved without a fundamental reorganization of society. And feminism led me to a serious study of Marxism. In this way the urgent net for a socialist strategy was confirmed through my feminism. So for some time I hovered around, wanting to join a socialist p. The Communist Party seemed a possible option. But in their debates on the ‘British Road’ the Communist Party argued for policy of working with left Labour and changing the Labour Party. I thought it was better to join the Labour Party directly; Another thing was that I wanted to be involved in local politics, with socialists from other situations and experiences. The Labour Party offers that possibility. The local Labour Party is very divided but on the left I find a surprising number of people who are very militant socialists. They just would not have given the revolution groups a thought but they are just as deeply committed t~ socialism. A third factor which led me to join was a desire to understand this mammoth institution, and the extraordinary hold which it has. Having been at Ruskin College, involved with man~, active socialists in the Labour Party, I was always interested in this. For any historical relationship between the working class and: the socialist intelligentsia in Britain has taken place mostly within the Labour Party. It is the programme and organization of the Labour Party which have shaped the aspirations of much of the
socialist left and of the working class. As far as I can see, it will continue to do so.

Any discussion of new forms of political organization must take account of these peculiar staying powers and pulling powers: the Labour Party. For in the revolutionary euphoria which followed May 1968 and the Vietnam movement, occurring against a background of the Wilson government and the decay of the Labour left, it was too easy to sound the death knell of the Labour Party without taking these peculiar staying powers into account. As a result there is a danger of there being two lefts, inside and outside the Labour Party, split partly by generation, I partly by region, partly by educational and class background, rather than by politics. These two lefts are often in agreement about all the practical struggles of the day and about the general objectives of social ownership and a new popular form of political power. Yet the issue of whether someone is inside or outside the Labour Party holds back any unified political framework for common action, sustained political debate, and clarification of strategy and policy. However, there are now strong pressures at a local level and within national movements-e.g., in the anti-racist movement, among socialist feminists, etc.-for unity between Labour Party and non-Labour Party socialists. We will describe some of these later. These pressures are vital signs of the ways in which existing party political structures no longer reflect the reality of practical political alignments and struggles on the ground. The working-out of these pressures into new forms of socialist organization are held back partly by overdue respect for the old political structures and partly by the assumption that the only viable political form of organization independent of the Labour Party must even at this early stage be that of an alternative party. This latter assumption immediately precludes the possibility of a political alliance-more than unity on a single issue, single movement basis-between socialists inside and outside the Labour Party. In order to see the urgency of such alliances, to understand the problems they would be up against within the Labour Party, and to see how far the positive experiences of unity within, for example, the socialist feminist movement, have a wider application, we will look at three main problems concerning the Labour Party and socialists within in.

Labour Governments, the Labour Left and the Vision of Socialism

First is the way that Labour governments have killed the idea of socialism as a practical alternative and the way the .message of the Labour left has in effect got tarred the same brush. The first point is generally accepted socialists in or close to the Labour Party. John Bohanna, a shop steward at Ford, an active socialist, not in the Labour Party himself but from a strong Labour family, sums up way this has happened, what this has done to commitment of ‘ordinary folk’ to the idea of socialism:

Ater the war there was a vision of a real alternative, and not j among the activists. The people of this country returned a Labour government with a great majority in the hope that a new, and time positive, socialist society would be born. I don’t find anything like these feelings now. People just think its a choice between bad and the very bad, Labour or Tory. After the war the government did seem to carry out its manifesto promises, and what people thought would be the first concrete steps towards a just and fair society. All to the good. But by 1959 the Labour leaders: now out of office, began to argue that inequalities of class were no longer a problem. They tried to write Clause 4-for social ownership of production-out of the party’s aims. Yet to many party members this clause was the proof that it could be a party for the working class. Although these leaders were unsuccessful at time, ever since, the leaders’ policies have repeatedly conflicted with working-class needs. It’s very difficult now to see what good will come of a Labour government. Of course people can see some good fellers and women in the Labour Party; real tryers like Eddie Loyden. But they see the likes of them getting battered all the time so those that aim for socialism within the Labour Party become no more than the likes of Callaghan and Wilson in the eyes of ordinary folk. And everyone’s bleedin’ disgusted with them.

This moving away by the Labour Party (if it was ever anything different) from what people expected has meant that there are, less activists around the Labour Party than in my dad’s day. It’s strongly felt that there’s little worth in fighting for the Labour Party. So people take the easy way out and grab what they can; ignoring the wider fight for a society in which we can all have the opportunity to live a more fulfilled life.

Perhaps things will get revitalized now we are forced to fight the Tories. I can sense something on Merseyside. Attempts are being made by the left to set up industrial branches of the Labour Party in Fords and elsewhere. Its a good way of getting political debate on the shop floor. But I don’t hold out much hope of change in direction of the whole party. Still, although the arrow towards socialism has one shaft it has many heads, and socialists in the Labour Party are one of them.

What about the people who seem to get ‘battered’ all the time, those people busy organizing in the Constituency Party General Management Committees and at the party conference to turn the Labour Party into a real socialist party? Why cannot they reach out to would-be Labour voters and potential socialist activists to persuade them not to be misled by recent Labour governments? For these governments, it is argued, are not the real thing.

Somehow this argument has lost a lot of its appeal. The Labour left have not, since Bevan, been able to establish a credible and distinct identity from the leadership in the eyes of most working-class people. They’ve become compromised by their long association with the policies of the party leadership. In fact they often come off worse, for their message comes across via Labour Party debates as ‘more of the same’. Left and right have always tended to appear as just different ends of a spectrum of policies on state intervention. The debates between left and right in the Labour Party have normally been about more or less nationalization, and more or less state control.

This used to be enough to establish a distinct vision of socialism. Before the war when Labour’s ability to control the state machinery had not been tested, and when the state’s distance from production and economic life gave credibility to the idea that the state was a neutral instrument to be used for socialist ends, their vigorous advocation of Clause 4 provided a clear strategy and programme for socialism. It made sense to think of the state as ‘a sword atl the heart of private property’, as Bevan put it. People knew~ what socialism was, and in general they saw the Labour left” as its true representatives, even if they were wary of supporting them. But for the past thirty years people have” lived through and been brought up in an economy in which~ the state plays a leading role, differing little from govern- f ment to government. In this situation the policies of the Labour left, for slightly more state intervention (though not’ even as much as Bevan used to argue for) on more sociaI1, criteria, do not add up to an inspiring or even distinct alternative to the policies of the right.

A fresh and convincing vision would require a move away from the traditional framework of Labour Party debates, away from the issue of what an elected Labour government would do with the state-as if the state were as malleable as putty. It would require a move to confront the reality of private capital’s extra-parliamentary power and the constraints of international trade, both of which make the state so resistant to the good intentions of many parliamentary socialists. It would require a strategy for organizing the extra-parliamentary powers of working people, on an international scale.

The ‘Bennite’ Labour left which emerged out of the debris of the Labour governments of the sixties made some tentative moves in this direction by establishing ad hoc links, while in opposition, with a number of shop stewards’ committees and by pu tting greater stress on some form of workers’ control. But, at a national level at least, they are inhibited from developing this further. They are trapped in the contradictions created by their belief that the. way to implement their policies is to win power within the Labour Party. F or this they have to concen trate their energies on winning positions within Constituency Parties, getting policy resolutions to conference, and winning the support of trade union leaders in order to get conference support for a change in the constitution and in the leadership. At a local level much of this might well be compatible with developing the extra-parliamentary power of workers’ organizations. (Although it would require some improvisation on present forms of constituency organization to make close links with socialists outside the Labour Party possible.) But as a consistent national strategy it comes up against the purely electoral priorities of the party, the pressures for unity when the conflict comes to any kind of crunch, the reluctance of trade union leaders and officials to encourage or even allow industrial action on political issues-other than in defence of normal trade union organizing and bargaining rights.

In this way then, the left within the Labour Party cannot establish an independent credibility with-or even a means of communications to-the mass of working people. It is tied to a platform of politicians to whom fewer and fewer people are in fa..ct listening with any hope or expectation.

Can They Change It?

Is this just a temporary problem, a result of the left’s cramped, ineffectual tactics while the party was in government? Could there come a time when socialists in the Labour Party could remove the consensus politicians from this platform and turn the Labour Party into a socialist party able to confront the power of private capital through extra-parliamentary as well as parliamentary action? This is an important issue, for there are many thousands of active socialists, some actually members of the Labour Party, some just paying their political levy and canvassing election time, who are instinctively reluctant to create political alternative to the Labour Party. They feel that as the party of the working class, it could, as workers’ struggles grow and political consciousness is heightened become a socialist party. ‘The left has nearly won control over the NEC; with just a few more heaves we’ll have won control of the Party.’ Under the present government and with the struggle for succession to the Labour Party, leadership, these pressures for ‘one more go’ are intensifying.

Gertie Roche who has been active in the labour movement in Leeds for many years, in her union, community groups, the Communist Party and now the Labour Party sums up this feeling with a very cautious optimism.

I think history is made very slowly. People are slow to change their attitudes. They have an emotional involvement in something that concerns them and then it melts away. So I do not think [I the Labour Party will change quickly and do not expect very ! much from it. But people are pushing all the time. I watched the debate at the party conference today and we managed to get MPs made accountable for their behaviour. I think that’s a big step forward. There’s so little accountability in the public services.

I get angry when ,some of the people I work with on different issues attack me for being in the Labour Party. At least when you’re in the Labour Party you get listened to which is more than used to be the case with the Communist Party. I think we should stop fighting each other’s allegiances and get on with the issues. There are so many things that I find I can work together on with socialists and others outside the Labour Party-on women’s liberation, the cuts, supporting a centre like TUCRIC (Trade Union Information and Research Centre) in Leeds. I support the emphasis of these people on extra-parliamentary action. That’s very necessary, although the small amount of support you get can sometimes be depressing.

Before we talk then about the sort of socialist organization we need, and the contribution which feminism can make to it, we need to see the blocks which its development will come up against as far as the Labour Party is concerned, and why therefore organizing for socialism will eventually be based outside the Labour Party.

There are many factors which weigh heavily against the possibility of changing the Labour Party: the power and autonomy which the British Constitution gives to the moderate parliamentary leadership, the overwhelmingly electoral priorities of the party, and so on. It may seem as these problems could be overcome if the Constituency Parties won more formal power, giving them more say in electing the party leadership and drawing up the manifesto. But there is a virtually insuperable problem for the left in making much real headway even in this constitutional direction. The problem is inherent in the origins and basic make-up of the party. It lies in the overwhelming dominance of the unions, and the power of the trade union leadership to determine how this influence is exercised. Of course different unions will move to the left on specific issues and vote for generally left motions at conference. But to change radically the direction of the Labour Party would require trade union leaders, under pressure from their members, to actively commit themselves and a Labour government to overthrowing the economy and the state in which, despite Tory threats, they have such an established role and status. Of course we hope for a time, when the majority of trade unionists will be actively involved in achieving such a transformation, dragging their leaders behind them. But such mass socialist activity could not be built up, unless there were already a socialist organization giving a lead in the factories, offices and communities.

In this way, socialists trying to change the Labour Party are caught in a vicious circle. To turn the Labour Party into a socialist party there needs already to be a socialist party. And there are insuperable constraints to possibilities of such a party operating within the Labour Party. The constraints are especially strong as far as any left grouping making an open organized alliance with rank and file trade unionists against right-wing trade union leaders. At the first signs of such a threat the trade union leadership is able to use its power within the party, directly or behind the scenes, to mobilize rules and disciplinary powers against the left. This was one of the problems facing the Bevanites in the fifties when they gave support to dockers rebelling against the pro-Gaitskell T&GWU leadership. Benn and his supporters have similarly faced the wrath of right-wing trade union leaders when they have made common cause with shop stewards through unofficial channels. The left rarely resists such threats because to take on openly the trade union leadership in this way would jeopardize all their short-run ambitions of winning control over the party. This contradiction is likely to become increasingly apparent as the smouldering resentment and frustration of trade union members with their leadership flares up out of control.

The Communist Party’s national strategy of pushing the Labour Party leftwards is weakened by the same contradictions. For although it has the organizational independence to build up left oppositions within the unions, its considerable success in this is blunted by depending too much on national left leaders like, in the past, Scanlon and] ones who offer the illusion of a short cut to a left Labour government. In a few important localities, however, left Labour constituencies and left groupings in the unions are sufficiently strong and autonomous from national Labour and trade union leaderships to create an impressive and powerful alliance. South Yorkshire is the best-perhaps the only-example. Such a local alliance is one of the many heads of the arrow which John Bohanna talked about earlier. But it is not the basis for the single shaft.

Why Don’t They Split Then?

However we cannot leave the matter like this: we cannot leave the Labour Party socialists to stew in their own contradiction while we hurry away to build a separate party in the hope that one day they’ll~see the error of their ways. That would be to ignore all the important points of agreement between socialists inside and outside the Labour Party; and the strength which can be gained from ways of organizing that provide for both joint action and sharp debate.

Historically, in Western Europe any new socialist parties with a degree of mass influence have been created out of splits within a pre-existing mass workers’ party. However in Britain this scenario is slowed. down and blocked by the peculiarly ambiguous and deceptive structure of the British Labour Party, with its appearance of being the united, democratic party of the workers’ movement, giving full and free expression to every socialist view, concealing the reality of power in the hands of a well-protected parliamentary group, shielded as it is by the trade union leadership. Mainly because of its link with unions the Labour Party does not have the normal character of a political party. It is a hybrid of a radical party made up of individuals committed to a radical programme, a powerful trade union lobby, and a parliamentary leadership of professional consensus politicians. For while the left is continually being defeated by the practice of every Labour government (the professional consensus politicians), defeat and failure never seem conclusive, for, after all, ‘we won at conference’, ‘we are in control of the constituencies’ (the radical party)-it’s just 11 matter of putting on more pressure next time, of making the parliamentary leadership accountable. But the powerful trade union lobby working behin’d the scenes, with varying degrees of unity, makes success perpetually elusive. People are always leaving in disgruntled little groups, when they’ve had enough, and when one issue, entry into the Common Market, incomes policy, the cuts, etc.,. is ‘the last straw’. And many are no longer joining, because trying to change it, after fifty years of failure, seems a dead end, and there are better things to do. But these same people carryon paying the political levy, voting Labour and canvassing for Labour. Most of them could not really imagine setting up an alternative political party unless a major split took place in the Labour Party, even though they may be involved in all sorts of campaigns and projects which have little significant support from the Labour Party.

Some socialists wander in and out of the Labour Party, not out of any enthusiasm and hope for national change but through the absence of any other adequate political framework and the existence of many congenial and leftwing constituency parties.

Val Clarke, for example, who used to be in the IS (SWP) is now very active in the local Labour Party near Huddersfield, Yorkshire, not ,because of any confident belief that the Labour Party can become a genuinely socialist party but because

When we came here and got involved in campaigns on industrial issues, housing, and education problems, virtually all the main socialist activists were in the local Labour Party. That’s where socialist policies on all these issues were being thrashed out. Being outside the Labour Party meant we got all the discussion and information second hand. We could not influence things. And it would have been impossible to set up any alternative left focus. In a sense there was no need to, any militant who was any good was in the local Labour Party. This may not be typical, I recognize that, but Labour Parties like this must be taken account of when we talk about alternatives.

This blurred, indecisive quality of socialist politics in Britain is partly a product of local variations and partly of the ambiguous structure of the party. But it is also reinforced by the fact that when it comes to who should represent them in Parliament socialists and other radical activists have little political choice. This monopoly that is reinforced by the present electoral system gives Labour MPs and councillors an important hold on socialist militants whose campaigns and struggles can often be strengthened by having allies within the political system.

If then Labour Party socialists are unable to turn their local socialist politics into an effective national strategy and socialist party, and yet if the inevitable postponement of the final outcome of debate within the Labour Party and the wider trade union movement makes conditions for an alternative party extremely unfavourable, how and from where will the sort of socialist organization we referred to earlier be created?

Filling the Vacuum

Ever since the growth of CND, and then the movements which grew up in the late sixties and early seventies among students, trade unionists, women, blacks, gays, and, more recently, youth, there has been a growing force of people, inside and outside the Labour Party, who are impatient with the fruitless reliance on a Labour government, who are organizing directly for control over political and industrial decisions, and who are contesting the state in almost every sphere. But, partly as a result of the ambiguous features of the Labour Party, partly because of the pro-Stalinist record and present-day lack of internal democracy of the Communist Party, and partly because of the sectarianism of the revolutionary left, these activists do not have a political voice which expresses their grass-roots strength. That is, we are without a sustained way of organizing beyond our specific oppressions and experiences. We lack the means to develop a general theory and programme for socialist change from these varied experiences. And we do not have adequate ways of convincing people of the wider political changes which need to be fought for if their specific demands and needs are to be met. Our fragmented movements and campaigns are that much weaker without this political focus and back-up. This will become more and more painfully obvious as a strong, determined Tory government makes isolated victories more difficult. Many of the socialists involved in such movements and campaigns are instinctively aware of these weaknesses. As a result, here is a growing tendency to develop and make explicit he wider political implications of whatever movement or project socialists are involved in. Some people thought that he pressure of the political vacuum on the left would draw much activists towards the banner of a new socialist party. Instead, it has tended to induce people to make the wider links, elaborate the more general policies and theories, relate the cultural alternatives, through a whole variety of industrial, community, and cultural organizations. In effect left-wing trades councils, socialist resource centres, socialist women’s groups, theatre groups, left bookshops, militant shop stewards’ committees often carry out, in sum, the functions of a socialist party but without the co-ordination and long-term perspectives of a party. It is as if the different parts of a piece of cloth-a political organization-were being woven creatively and with ad hoc contact between the weavers, but without anyone having a master plan. Though occasionally we need, from different points of view, to stand back and see where we’ve got to, where the cloth is weak and where the pattern is becoming blurred.

This sounds all very well, and perhaps a bit overoptimistic. Where are the signs of these developments? It is not a uniform picture and no one person could draw it. We can only outline certain indications from our own experiences.

In some areas, for example, trades councils have come to act increasingly like socialist alliances, taking up militant socialist positions, directly critical of the Labour and trade union leadership, and through -their subcommittees organizing together local women’s groups, unemployed youth, active tenants’ groups, socialist research workers, with the relevant local trade unionists. In Coventry, for instance, the Trades Council has played a leading role over housing in fighting the -council and private building companies, in giving practical support for the demands of the women’s movement, in. organizing anti-imperialist campaigns, in organizing anti-racist campaigns; and, more recently, in rethinking socialist policies towards state intervention in industry, in the light of Labour’s rationalizations and closures. The Trades Council in Newcastle has played a similarly political role, in addition, taking a strong stand against British imperialism in Northern Ireland. On Tameside in the North West the ‘Trades Council set up what began as a cuts committee but which for a period became the focus for all sorts of different issues-abortion, ~ti-racism, unemployment, and so on.

The Hull Trades Council is launching a weekly newspaper which is likely to become one focal point for socialist activity in the area. There are many other examples from trades councils throughout the country. The point here is not that trades councils have taken an occasional militant stand. There’s nothing new in that. What has developed in the last ten years or so is a pattern of trades councils which act pretty consistently as socialist organizations, as consistently, that is, as the limits of being a trade union body will allow. We shall return to these limits later.

Another indication of the strongly felt need to reach beyond our own problem and shape a more general political perspective is the development of widely supported socialist tendencies within the women’s movement and the gay movement which play an active role in trade union struggles, e.g., organizing contingents on the Grunwick mass picket, organizing against racism and fascism, and playing a leading role in fighting the cuts. Along with this, these groups have considerably deepened and extended Marxist theory and socialist policies.

There are similar, though less developed signs coming from a number of tenants’ organizations, in which there is a strongly felt need to make more effective links with industrial workers, and women’s groups. For example, there is the work of the Socialist Housing Activists Workshop which brought together activists in local and regional tenants’ movements with socialist research workers to produce the ‘R,ed Paper on Housing’, a set of proposals for socialist policies on housing that is being discussed in places where there is a reasonably strong tenants’ group, like Tyneside, Cardiff, Liverpool and Coventry. The activities and policies of the National Tenants’ Organizations also reflect a strong socialist influence, the effect of an alliance of socialists from different localities and different political tendencies.

Similar developments can be seen in organizations connecting industrial issues and the interests of workingclass communities. Since the late sixties there have been numerous local industrially-based organizations, formed over one issue but developing to take on many others, and acting almost like a political alliance for many of the activists concerned. For example, in South-East London an organization was formed from different shop stewards’ committees and union branches during the fight against the closure of A.E.!. Woolwich. Its purpose was to campaign against closures and redundancies in the area more generally. But very soon it was taking on incomes policy, racism, and all the other issues that socialists campaigned over at that time. As Jim Coughlin, its chairman, said

It really became a political focus at the time; local right-wing MPs like Mayhew and Marsh could see that. They did their best to stop us being represented at important meetings. But for a period SELAC [South East London Action Committee Against Closures] provided a very militant forum and propaganda organization.

In Speke, on Merseyside, a few years later, the Speke Area Trade Union Committee (SATUC) brought together industrial and community-based militants to fight on the single issue of no. redundancies on the Speke estate, but the committee got involved in other matters as well.

Maureen Williams, a member of SATUC describes its origins, political potential and the problems it faced:

It was set up in early 1975 as a direct outcome of the fight to prevent the closure of a local factory. From there we got involved in a wide range of disputes in Speke where jobs were at stake and we were asked to help. Al it developed SATUC took up wider issues. We had speakers on Chile and Portugal and sent delegates to conferences on these issues. After a year or so members of the committee actually got involved in fighting a rent rise and joined a community picket of the town hall. This was very different to when I had first raised the issue and been met with disinterest or considered diversionary. Within eighteen months members were prepared to fight-even if only as individuals and not as representatives of -;heir organizations. SATUC also got involved in organizing conferences on health and safety at work and unemployment.

Late in 1977 our activity began to diminish. As a committee we were totally dependent on whether or not a fight was going on on the industrial estate. If workers did not fight redundancy we couldn’t. In a sense we fell between two stools. On the one hand we were too much a trade-union-based and -orientated body, with delegates and finance from branches and shop stewards’ committees, to carry on as a militant alliance when active support from the branches began to dwindle. On the other hand we were too unorthodox to get support from trade union officialdom. Many trade union officials were outright hostile to us.

SATUC did have potential as a political alliance. Various socialist organizations were in it, left Labour, IS, Big Flame, as well as unaligned ‘lefties’, but to develop in this way we would have had to clarify our relationships to the Labour Party, the trade unions and the shop floor. [The Garston Labour Party (and many local union branches) are left wing and we needed to work with them rather than appeal’ as a complete alternative.] We also would have needed to reassess ourselves as ‘political’ rather than militant to protect jobs’. Neither of these items was ever seriously on our agenda.

Another radical movement in which many people are developing and extending a socialist perspective and organizing more closely with working-class organizations is the movement of radical technologists and environmentalists. This ‘movement’ covers a multitude of sins as well as many creative and highly political advances. While some have remained interested only in individualistic improvements in the quality of middle-class life, others like the British Society for Social Responsibility in Science, the Socialist Environmental and Resources Association have become increasingly concerned to link their critique of capitalist technology with the working-class organizations which alone have the power to fight for alternatives. The initiative of the shop stewards in Lucas Aerospace in drawing up and fighting for products which used and modified modern technology to meet social needs and to enhance rather than destroy the skill of the worker was an important catalyst in this.

This initiative by the Lucas Aerospace Combine Committee is itself an illustration of new ways in which activists are building on their own resources and organizations to meet the new political needs that no single socialist organization fulfills. The combine committee brings together trade unionists from all sorts of political traditions but it was, and still is, faced with the problems of structural, technological unemployment to which no one political organization has an answer. The idea Of fighting around specific proposals for socially useful production, for skill-enhancing instead of skill-reducing work came from a belief in the political power of independent combine committees. That is, the power of shop-floor and technical workers to take on management over the highly political issues of investment, the purpose of production, and the nature of the labour process. Of course no combine committee can take on these issues alone. The Lucas Aerospace stewards make this clear in the introduction to their plan where they deny the possibility of ‘islands of socialism in a sea of capitalist exploitation’. But the principles> behind workers’ plans for production according to need have been taken up, modified and developed by other shop stewards’ committees; for example, in power engineering, in so~e sections of the armaments industry, to a small extent in shipbuilding, the rubber industry, and elsewhere. And th,e tentative beginnings of organized links between these shop stewards’ groups is taking place.

Another rather different process of politicization has been going on among Marxist academics, many-but by no means all-of who·m are increasingly sensing the need for their work to be engaged with socialist, political, community, and industrial organizations. There is a sense of unease about the sort of theory produced without the discipline, the stimulus and the constraints of interaction with political movements. Discussions at the Conference of Socialist Economists have come increasingly to concern issues of strategy and working-class politics; many of its members on a local level are working with trade unionists, tenants’ and women;s groups. The History Workshop Journal explicitly sees its work as closely related to the wider socialist movement; it gives special support to, for example, locally-based publishing projects, like Strong Words in the North East, Centerprise in East London and others in Brighton and elsewhere. These local publishing projects have begun to recover and inspire critical working-class writing as part of the tradition of workers’ self-education through which working-class people develop their consciousness and creativity. State research is another example of the growth of research and writing with a political urgency and purpose. State Research is a collective of journalists and researchers which investigates policing, intelligence and the military. Through a bi-monthly publication it spreads its findings to the activists who come up against these parts of the state, arid to the wider media, sympathetic MPs, etc. New Left Review in its debates on nationalism,revolutionary strategy in the West, socialist opposition in the East and on the substantive implications of materialism has served to highlight fundamental problems facing the development of a coherent socialist practice.

The women’s liberation movement has been an important catalyst in many of these moves towards a richer unity of theory and practice. Its insistence on theoretical work which is accessible and relevant to the growth and strengthening of the movement has produced a selfconsciousness about the political purpose and practical process of theoretical work which was rare. A recent editorial in Fem£n£st Rev£ew, a theoretical journal produced by a collective within the women’s movement reflects this:

In our first issue we said that our intention in publishing Feminist Review was to contribute to the political development of the women’s liberation movement by providing a space where ideas could be discussed and information exchanged. To do this we stressed the importance of the accessibility of the material we publish; but accessibility isn’t just a question of language and presentation, although these are very important issues. Equally important is the process of discussion between readers, contributors and the editorial collective.

Feminists have taken these sort of principles into many of the projects just mentioned above, with good effect.

An important consequence of this ad hoc politicization is that many so-called ‘sectoral’, ‘single issue’ or ‘merely local’ campaigns, movements, and organizations have been created on the basis of consciously socialist values. This does not mean that such organizations are, or necessarily will ever be, fully socialist in their policies or ways of organizing. What it does mean, however, is that behind specific labels ‘the women’s movement’, ‘alternative press/bookshops’, ‘tenants’ action groups’, local and national ‘shop stewards’ combine committees’, ‘trade union and community resource and research centres’, there is often-not always-a wealth of ideas, experiences, and ways of organizing which are of direct political relevance to the creation of a socialist organization.

Socialist Alliances

But before we discuss how these advances can best be built on, we need to be aware of the limits of _ this ‘organic’ way in which the political vacuum has been filled. The problems vary, but they all become apparent at times like the last five years when there is no massive tide of class struggle sweeping everything along with it. At such times the trades councils and shop stewards’ bodies which have tended to become more of a left alliance than a trade union organization are in dangeI’- of becoming isolated from their mass membership, and consequently unable, when things come to a crunch, to show any real industrial strength. Trades councils do not suffer so obviously as a result, because they have long-established roots which can survive failures and isolation. Though they do come up against attempts by the TUC to restrict the scope of their activity, and sometimes the national TUC can enlist the support of the Regional TUC to keep the trades councils in check. The unofficial industrial bodies we have mentioned like on Merseyside or in South-East London are more dependent on being able to deliver some practical goods to the membership. If the organization begins to move too fast, more at the tempo of a political organization, it loses .its base. And unless the leading members are conscious of its potential as a political alliance, it loses its rationale and disintegrates, as happened on Merseyside and in South-East London. In addition, because such bodies are essentially trade union bodies, they cannot usually allow for the political debate and education necessary to develop a united political strategy and programme. This in turn leads to political misunderstandings, the predominance of personal hostilities, splits, and falling away of political initiatives.

Within campaigning movements like the women’s movement, the tenants’ movement, radical technologists, and so on, the problems facing socialists are different. They mainly concern the difficulties of socialists making the necessary links beyond their own movement with other trade unionists and other community-based groups when they are not in any party or, when, as is usual, the links need to go beyond the small circles of existing socialist parties. The same problem arises in elaborating policies which need to take account of wider working-class interests beyond the movement initially concerned. For example, socialists in the tenants’ movement on Tyneside are trying to develop pressure to extend the direct labour force. For this they need to make contact with building workers and trades councils and sympathetic sections of the Labour Party. The activists irivolved can see very clearly how very much easier and more effective the whole campaign would be if the socialists involved in all the different organizations affected were in the habit of meeting with each other, discussing policies, reaching some common understanding of the problem and its wider context. As Kenny Bell, one of the activists involved, put it:

For tenants as consumers the issue of who does the repairs and the building and what control tenants have over it is really important. In this way they have a clear interest in expanding the direct labour force. But there’s been so much rundown of the direct labour force in Newcastle, jobs are so insecure, wages and conditions so bad, that many building workers are glad of a job in the private sector. So creating the links, putting over the argument about the potential of direct labour isn’t easy. We need to be working closely with socialists in the building trade. But it’s difficult to make that contact out of the blue. It is much easier if there is some tradition of wider contact between socialists in the different unions and campaigns. The Tyneside Socialist Centre’s network has been useful and also the various resource and information centres. The socialist centre has also been helpful as a way of clarifying ideas about strategy. But we need to build a lot more on that.

Similarly with, socialist feminists in the National Abortion Campaign wanting to make contact with hospital workers and other trade unionists. Small numbers of socialists across the sectors are in organized contact with each other, through being in the CP, the SWP or the IMG, but this nothing like covers even the majority of the activists who would/could be politically united and be very much stronger for it.

Experience of these sorts of problems has, in several localities led to socialists from different campaigns, movements, unions, and from different political tendencies, creating local s9cialist alliances, forums, or centres. In Hounslow, for example, the need to provide a focal point for socialist activists in the area arose from the experience of the thirteen-month occupation of Hounslow Hospital. The occupation had demonstrated to many of those involved the possibilities of a new way of organizing; Karl Brecker, Chairman of the shop stewards’ committee at the West Middlesex Hospital, describes this:

To sustain such a long occupation we. had the problem of raismg people’s political awareness, and therefore of taking political discussion beyond minimal agreement on action, without allowing sectarian differences to destroy the cohesion of the occupation. It took a long time to work this through; but gradually people learnt to debate with, and yet respect, each other’s views. It wasn’t a matter of yielding your opinions into a mish-mash. And gradually people learnt how to speak and discuss in a nonsectarian way. They had to. There were a lot of hospital workers at the meetings, not in any political organization, who would not tolerate the sort of rejection of people’s views because they are members of another organization, which often goes on in sectarian circles.

The other thing that was important was the ways that all the time we had to break down hierarchies and make people feel involved. The whole occupation would have disintegrated unless the normal divisions such as those between ancillary workers and nursing staff were broken down. We had to make sure people did not feel put down, that their personal problems were recognized, and that they were given support. The influence of the women’s movement was important here.

The occupation became a base; a centre for other campaigns and struggles in the area. It became a sort of school for activists, learning how to do leaflets, and so on. It was used by the firemen in their strike, by the NUJ, also by some Labour Party socialists who stood in the local elections on a no cuts, no unemployment platform.

Many of us felt that with all this that we had created something different, it stronger way of organizing, and we did not want to lose it once the occupation was over. We thought we should build on this experience modestly. That’s why a group of us set up the Hounslow Socialist Forum in the third week of January this year. We hold meetings every fortnight, on topics which put local issues into a broader context. Forty of fifty local activists turn up from all the main socialist organizations as well as a lot of independent socialists. People use it as a place to get support for campaigns and local disputes. We meet at the Labour Hall. We have not thought about premises, or anything more ambitious yet. We need to move slowly, as people get used to working together and we define the areas of agreement and debate.

On Tyneside in 1975 a socialist centre was set up initially for educational, cultural, debating and general propaganda purposes. But since the centre was bringing socialists together-albeit in a haphazard way-it began to take on a more practical role: organizing anti-fascist leafletting, helping to provide support for strikes, initiating local campaigns and debates around political issues such as the deportation of Agee and Hosenball, the oppositions in Eastern Europe, workers’ plans for socially useful production, British investment in Southern Africa and support for the Zimbabwean Liberation movements. Then for a year or so it became overwhelmed by the practical problems of maintaining and improving the only socialist bookshop and book service in the area. But it is now re-emerging from this, stronger perhaps as a result of the very practical, material responsibilities that this entailed, and able to strengthen united action against the Tories and to extend debate about policies and strategy. Its constitution provides for the representation of affiliated political tendencies (e.g., the SWP, and the CP), trade union organizations and other movements on the Centre’s co-ordinating committee. It has regular general meetings of individual supporters and representatives of organizations. Working groups take more specific responsibility for the Centre’s projects, like the bookshop, the bulletin and meetings.

In Islington a similar sort of alliance and forum was created out of a conference called by the Islington Gutter Press in early 1978. The conference was attended by activists in local campaigns against racism, on women’s groups, in unions (mainly the public sector) in the Labour Party, the CP, IMG, SWP and Big Flame. This conference elected a Socialist Centre committee which now organizes regular Sunday evening debates, educational meetings, and socialist cultural events. At their last conference they decided to look for premises, and also to play a more active role in supporting strikes and campaigns. Lynne’s piece in this book describes this in more detail.

In Hackney too, meetings of socialist and radical activists to learn from one another and discuss common problems and different views have begun. The existence of a local alternative paper, bookshop and cafe as well as a trades council building with a pub and meeting rooms help in communicating this development.

There are many factors which could make for these local socialist alliances. In some areas like Tyneside and Merseyside, Clydeside, parts of Yorkshire, the steel towns, and indeed, increasingly, just about everywhere beyond Westminster, the stimulus could be the real threat of decline and collapse.

In most such areas some kind of official campaigns against the threat usually grind into motion. But after ten years or more of decline in some regions, many socialists have learnt from the campaigns of the past. They have witnessed the demoralization which comes from relying on these leaders, from the futility of their lobbies, their token demonstrations, and their reluctance to agitate and argue among the membership and the community for something more. Such socialist activists are increasingly aware of the need to come together to take more militant initiatives and to elaborate policies of more a socialist content than the ‘grab what we can get. for this region’ sort which often dominate official campaigns. Alec McFadden, a former member of the Communist Party, now in no political organization, Treasurer of Newcastle Trades Council and an organizer of the Trades Council Unemployed Centre summed this up from his own experience:

We can’t just unite vaguely against the Tories like we did under Heath and leave it at that, like the TUC is talking about now. Though that was necessary, it wasn’t enough. It meant we weren’t ready to deal with the policies of the Labour government, we had not got alternative policies and we had not got the strength to act independently when MPs, officials and the like wouldn’t fight.

We need to get real socialists together in the area, to build upa fight, yes, but also to prepare for the future. It can’t be a matter of uniting for unity’$ sake. If it’s just that, we’ll be back to the same sort of Labour government as before. We’ve got to prepare alternative policies. I learnt that from the closure of Tress [part of Fairey, owned and closed by the NEB of which McFadden was AEUW convenor] and from the failure of the campaign to keep Vickers Scotswood open. The socialists involved should have got together more and worked things out, to give a lead.

The way such alliances might come about will vary tremendously according to local conditions. Sometimes under the pressure of the onslaught from the Tories and the hopelessness of official campaigns, the local branch of the strongest left-wing organization or left Constituency Labour Party might set an alliance in motion. It might break with the normal customs, and making its discussions the forum for socialists, in other smaller organizations or unaligned.

In other areas the experience of successfully working together over some nationally-initiated campaign might lead people to seek ways of establishing that unity on a more permanent, wider political basis. Or there might already be some form of uni ty, a local socialist newspaper, a shared resource centre, a bookshop, socialist club or centre, which can be built on to create a more· active political alliance. Whatever the process, the signs are that .conditions for such alliances-ad hoc and loose though they may be-are especially favourable at a local level. There are many reasons for this, one is closely related to what was said earlier about the nature of debates within, and splits from, the Labour Party. Because of the endless postponement of decisive conflicts in the Labour Party; because of the poverty of political debate within most constituency and ward Labour Parties; because of the absence of a mass circulation socialist paper, the left in Britain has not been through a common process of debate on strategy and programme-even of the kind which precedes major splits from socialist and communist parties on the Continent. As a result there is a lack of agreement or even discussion of strategy and programme between any sufficiently strong groupings at a national level to determine nationally the framework of unity at a local level. At a local and regional level however there are plenty of opportunities, first, for unity around the major practical problems of the day; also around socialist projects like bookshops, socialist trade union information and research centres, resource centres, alternative newspapers. So many of these projects are quite beyond the resources of anyone political organization. (F or example, the SWP could not sustain any socialist bookshop outside London and Glasgow, although they tried.) Their success, though, is vital to the creation of a popular socialist party. There is a peculiarly restrictive notion of unity which holds back revolutionaries from creating these sort of alliances. It is argued that if unity goes much beyond specific issues or within particular unions then it will either suck away our energies in endless argie-bargies with other left groups, or it will be so wishy-washy as to be useless and passive. Yet we have found in the women’s movement and among socialist feminists that it is possible to have a single unifying framework within which we unite to act where we agree, e.g., abortion, equal pay, nurseries, fascism, and other issues, and within which we have useful debates over things on which we go our own ways. This can work if you are not defensive about debate and argument and do not see it as ruling out unity On other issues, etc. The unity will have to be vague and loose to begin with. But in developing the basis for political unity one vital function such alliances could perform would be to provide exactly the forum for political debate and education which is so lacking nationally. Without the (re)building of this groundwork of political debate and socialist culture, related to problems and differences encountered in practical struggle, national political co-ordination is bound to flounder.

The pace at which these local socialist alliances coalesce and develop, the dialectic between them, and, emergence of a national socialist organization, cannot be laid down in advance. A revolutionary upheaval in Italy or Spain, for example could rapidly extend people’s horizons for united socialist advance far beyond the local or regional level.

The Revolutionary Groups

Isn’t this all a bit ramshackle? Wouldn’t it be much simpler, clearer and ultimately more effective to encourage everyone to join one of the revolutionary groups/parties and hope that through proving itself in action, this organization will eventually encompass the activists, some of whose diverse projects we have just sketched? The problem with much a solution is not ‘Leninism’ as a theory of the class !1ature of the state. Nor is it what follows from this in terms of a need to destroy the coercive state machinery and establish a new form of democratic political power. Neither s the organizational condition for such a transformation, a mass revolutionary organization based in the movements of he working class and other oppressed groups in question. The problem is rather- with the way in which most of the existing revolutionary groups seek to establish such a mass evolutionary organization. One of the main problems lies in the leap they make from a belief in the need for mass socialist organization to the conclusion that they are the infant stage (SWP), or the nucleus (IMG) of such an organization. They therefore take on the essential structure and features of the central leadership which they hope one day to be. Like the Elizabethan children who were dressed up like full-grown adults, the result at worst is absurd, puffed up and very constricting! Perhaps the problem can be more seriously elaborated by applying Marx’s basic principles on the relation between revolutionaries (Communist) and the rest of the workers’ movements.

As he puts in in The Communist Manifesto:

They [Communists) do not setup any sectarian principles of their own, by which to shape and mould the proletarian movement … The Communists are, on the one hand, practically, the most advanced and resolute section of the wor king-class parties of every country, that section which pushes forward all others; on the other hand, theoretically, they have over the great mass of the proletariat the advantage of clearly understanding the lines of march, the conditions, and the ultimate general results of the proletarian movement.

The major revolutionary’ groups in Britain tend to make the mistake of assuming that it is they alone (and their close contacts) who are, in Marx’s phraseology, the Communists. In fact they are merely a small section though with a specific and important contribution to make-of those who are, at the grass-roots, giving a political lead to workers and other oppressed groups. The mass of ‘Communists’, are the socialist activists whose diverse projects and struggles 1 have just sketched. Some are in other workers’ parties, some are in none, but, as already argued, they are none the less socialist for that. In this way then the ‘vanguardist groups’, though alert, in abstract, to the dangers of substituting for the class, tend all the time to substitute themselves for the diverse emerging vanguard of that class.

This criticism applies most directly to the Socialist Workers Party. The International Marxist Group, a much smaller organization, but none the less, an influential one, does not make such a claim. It conceives of itself as merely :he nucleus of a future party which will be formed through 1 lengthy process of united fronts, splits and fusions with )ther organizations. This leads them to put more emphasis m projects aimed at unifying the left (e.g., the initial launching of Socialist Challenge around a basic programme >n which many socialists not in the IMG could agree, similarly with the idea of a united electoral alternative to he Labour Party, organized through ‘Socialist Unity’).

However, their attitude to the way in which a correct programme is developed weakens their ability to make these projects anything much more than ways of slightly widening their own ‘periphery’ of contacts and supporters. ‘heir model is premised, correctly, on the belief that the creation of a socialist society is, above all, a conscious political process, not an outburst of irrationality or the unintended effect of thousands of uncoordinated decisions. ‘here is therefore, they argue, a need for a scientific pproach to politics. So far so good. Their model, however, f such a scientific approach is based on far too monistic

view of scientific development. For they do not lerely fight for their own beliefs as we all do; they also ~gue that their own internal processes of democratic iscussion, and decision-making are the processes through hich a scientific socialist politics is elaborated. Of course, ley assume in this that their members learn from their involvement in wider struggles and campaigns. But the process of synthesis goes on within the IMG. Such a notion flies in the face of the way that all other scientific ideas develop, that is, through a process of more or less structured contestation and of diverse but ‘co-ordinated experimentation. Of course the development of a science of practical politics differs from other sciences in that its practice does not involve artificial experiment but human struggles. But in a way this makes the substitution of the processes of theoretical/political debate and practice of one political tendency for the possibilities of co-ordinated debate and action of the wider socialist involvement,even more disastrous. It seems to flow from the assumption that there is one timeless organizational interpretation of the concept of democratic centraJism. Ironically, it is Ernest Mandel, a leading theoretician of the Fourth International (of which the IMGis the British section), who points to the real political significance of this concept when he says:

The essence of democratic centralism is not really organizational, but political, or bettex:, socio-political. The immediate experience of workers [we should add ‘and other oppressed people’-H. W.] is always partial and one-sided. Real workers, as opposed to idealized ones, are active in one factory, in one branch of industry, in one city. The lessons they draw from their immediate experiences are therefore always partial. The spontaneous activity of the working class, while it may be quite varied, is always fragmented and therefore always tends to lead to fragmented consciousness. The essential function of democratic centralism is to overcome that fragmentation by centralizing the experience of the working class as a w}:lOle, drawing the proper lessons from it, and organizing a strategy that can unify the proletarian front in its battle for state power. [Revolutionary Marxism Today, New Left Books, London, 1979, p. 222.]

No single organizational form is implied by such a process. Neither is there any justification for making the logical leap from a belief in the IMG’s ideas to the conclusion that it is only through the processes of democratic discussion in the IMG or the Fourth Interrlational that an adequate programme can develop. The forms of organization which provide the most favourable :onditions for a scientific socialist politics will vary. For !xample the forms required in a period when the majority )f socialist activists have come from a variety of different lOlitical traditions and experiences rather than mainly ‘rom, say, a split in a previous mass party (as was the case vith the Bolsheviks who came from a split within the ~ussian Social Democratic Labour Party) are likely to be ‘ery different from those required when there is the sort of lolitical homogeneity which is usually produced by such a ommon political experience and debate.

The extent of the pluralism of political tendencies and Durces of socialist inspiration and vision then will ary, as with all forms of scientific development. When a ominant theory of socialist changes collapses in the face f economic and social problems that it can no longer “plain or resolve, and when no alternative has matured I previous contestation with the dominant view, then iere is likely to be tremendous variety in the attempts to II the vacuum. Especially when the objective problems “e’ urgent and there is a periodic groundswell of mass :tivity in response to them. This, in effect, is the situation e have described earlier, with the decline of left formism. Out of this diversity can then come new lutions, greater agreement, and greater strength. But only

we create a new way of organizing through which to rry out sharp, principled debate between the diverse lditions and move men ts, and at the same time to achieve lity in action on the major issues of today. We are not arguing that revolutionary groups should dissolve themselves, as some have done in Italy, into an illusory idea of an undifferentiated mass movement. In any mass socialist organization \\~ich is eventually created out of the fragments, there will always be different political tendencies with some degree of national organization of their own. Among other thiJlgs, these tendencies are in a sense carriers of the revolutionary traditions of the past; they have kept those traditio~s alive in periods where there was no wider layer of socialist militants. Learning from, debating with and developiJIg the traditions which these revolutionary groups apply to contemporary problems will be vital to the process by which a sociali.st organization is woven together.

At present the componentS of such a mass organization are far from reaching the,political cohesion and the clear understanding of the lines of march to which Marx refers, and for which he has providea the markers. The revolutionary groups could be impoitant catalysts in overcoming these weaknesses; they have ~t least mulled over the lessons for the present, of the marJ1es of the past. But their ideas are inevitably limited. They ~ave been able to develop only the bare bon~s of a strategi and programme for socialist revolution in the modern capitalist world. As small organizations emerging onli in the last ten years from discussion groups, their polities are, not especially ‘advanced’ on most of the issues which have come to the fore in these ten years in new and complex ways: sexual politics, the contemporary institutions of ideology and bourgeois culture; the massive extension of state intervention in production; the extent and form of the recession; the new forms of technology and its impact on workers’ living and working conditions, and so on. This is partly because of the major gulf between the last period when revolutionaries in Britain could achieve any significant hearing-the 1940s-and the period 1968 onwards when thousands of militants began to search again for socialist alternatives. When this happened, the revolutionary organizations were not in any position, either in terms of organizational strength or in terms of the richness and breadth of their analyses, to provide an overall political leadership. The result has been many centres of socialist initiative and analysis, of leadership, of political growth.

The unwillingness of the groups to fully recognize this and adopt a more humble political stance towards these many foci of socialist activity has reduced their capacity to influence and catalyse these initiatives towards a more co-ordinated political movement. It has also reduced their capacity to work together.

Once these groups had, as they saw it, made the leap from being propaganda/discussion groups to being fullyfledged democratic centralist parties, or embryos of such, the contradiction between their grandiose conceptions of themselves and the reality of political life on the ground, in the localities and in the various movements and struggles often became too much for many members or possible members to accept. I remember sensing this very sharply when I was a member of the IMG while being very involved in the women’s movement. At first we in the IMG used to prepare our ‘interventions’ as if we really could, and had a duty to, give an overall political lead to the movement. This Soon seemed too absurd to carry on, not because we were a politically isolated vanguard trying to convince a mass of ‘backward elements’, but because all sorts of other socialist feminists had developed better ideas and initiatives along similar lines. Gradually our rather ridiculous pretenslOns were abandoned by many of us active within the movement. We continued to benefit from the sustenance of the political tradition and analysis which the IMG represented and from the contact it provided with socialists involved in other activities. But for us this became a basis for working on one or two issues without any wider pretensions. In this way we probably made a much more valuable contribution, and we worked much better with other socialists and feminists. But we were not acting as the revolutionary leadership of the women’s movement, neither were we aspiring to it. We just became one of, or part of one of, the many sources of leadership and initiative. Neither were we acting according to strictly democratic centralist norms. Sometimes it would be a help to convince the IMG to take a national initiative, e.g., support for the Working Women’s Charter. Sometimes we would just work out and test out in the movement our own ideas and then feed them back into the IMG. We did not feel bound by the discipline of the IMG; on anyone issue we felt as if we might just as well work with another political tendency if their ideas seemed better. We felt accountable to IMG only in the sense of the comradeship of being accountable to people with whom you share ideas and with whom you carry out collective projects. In other words, so long as the IMG recognized its limits as one socialist grouping among many, and always likely to be so, then being a member of it was a source of strength. But whenever it puffed itself and the Fourth International into something more, into an embryonic party with all the pretensions that go with it, then it became a problem.

This over-estimation of their own importance became a problem not only for the real contribution which members organizations. If the two groups controlling the papers were to drop- their party pretensions and recognize that they are botn tendencies in essentially the same political movement, re sources could be combined-and with others, like Big Flame and unaligned revolutionaries-to produce both an effective popular socialist paper and a paper of debate and analysis for the left. Such papers, not tied to any particular group, would also benefit from a much better relation with the independent socialist and broadly radical newspapers which are produced in numerous localities.

The Relevance of the Women’s Movement

All this Concern with the Labour Party, with local socialist alliances, with national socialist papers must at first sight seem along way from feminism. But women have a strong vested interes~ in the success of the socialist movement. And after organizing ourselves for some years we feel we’ve got things to say about all the wider organizing and agitating which needs to be done if we are to create a truly democratic and egalitarian society.

The movement that feminists and socialist feminists have succeeded in organizing may not have achieved many effective legislative; and industrial changes. But it has increased the strengti} and confidence of thousands of women, both those working in the home and those earning a wage, both in white’collar unions and in manual unions. It has drawn into political activity many of the millions of people who have always considered politics wasn’t for them, it was for the politicians. In other words, the women’s movement, in all its diverse ways, through all its different political tendencies, has helped to give women the power to organize ourselves to fight for control over the decisions by which our lives are shaped. And that surely is what soC£alist organ£zatz’on should most centrally be about, for all oppressed and exploz’ted people.

Some might say that the objectives of the women’s movement are very specific and limited, that, for example, it takes on the state in only marginal ways and over issues on which some concessions can and will be granted. Whereas, by contrast, a socialist organization has a far more fundamental, difficult task. The corollary of this is that the organizational forms of the women’s movement may be appropriate for its specific tasks but organizing for socialism requires something very different. Not much can therefore be learnt from feminism. In a crude sense this contrast has some truth in it. A socialist organization will have to take on many issues and problems which do not now confront the women’s movement. We are not holding out the organization of the women’s movement as a complete model on which the left should base itself. But the women’s movement has made an absolutely vital achievenent-or at least the beginnings of it-which no socialist :hould ignore. It has effectively challenged, on a wide cale, the selfsubordinat£on, the acceptance of a ~econdary ole, which underpins most forII}s of oppression and :xploitation. This may not be confronting the state-though he women’s movement does plenty of that-but unless such

self-subordination is rejected in the minds of men, of the nemployed, of blacks, gays, and all other groups to which ocialists aim to give a lead, there will never be much chance f confronting the existing state with a democratic socialist alternative.

The ways in which the women’s movement is achieving lis then have a wider relevance. From the point of view of arning from the women’s movement it is the values which underlie our organizations which are important. The particular organizational forms have relevance only to the specific purpose they were created to fulfil. The values underlying our ways of organizing have been ones which pu t emphasis on local control and autonomy; on small groups within wider co-ordinating structures; on local centres and social and cultural activities; on relating theory to practice; on discouraging forms of procedure and of leadership which make others feel inadequate or uninvolved; on recognizing that different views on strategy and tactics come from some real experience and are worth listening to and discussing. Sheila and Lynne explain these ways of organizing in detail and point out the contrasts with more traditio1}al ways.

These values have created a groundwork on which national and regional structures, co-ordination, theoretical debate, and self-disciplined national action around an agreed programme of demands have been built. They have led to the creation of a movement with many focuses of initiative and leadership and a movement which combined unity with the existence of many different political tendencies. Such unity is not a matter of complacent tolerance. After periods of conflict and mistrust, the movement builds on the distinct contributions of different political views. For example, the movemen”t gained a lot of its ability to influence the trade unions, to get trades councils to set up women’s subcommittees, to involve union branches in actively campaigning for the demands of the movement from women in or close to the lMG and the CPo Recently Women’s Voice has been a strong influence in many areas in adopting a more aggressive, outward-going approach in many of our campaigns. ,

These ways of building a movement are not specific to women. They have been a necessary part of the women’s movement because the subjective experie~ce of political organizing, whether it is ‘off-putting’ or involving, whether it builds up your sense of your own power to change things or makes you feel powerless, is so vital to whether or not women become active. Distant national structures over which you feel little control, formal procedure which does lot seem to achieve anything, rigid notions of the correct .ine which suppress hesitant disagreement and questions, :heoretical debates which do not shed light on practice, :olidarity based on abstractions with little commitment to :ach other-none of these could have moved women to :ast off their passivity and self-subordination. And this .robably applies to a lot of working-class men as well.

There are many lessons to be drawn from the women’s lovement which would help us as socialists to create tructures, arrange meetings, debate with each other, plan :l.ctics, take decisions in ways which draw new people into )cialist activity, and which keep them involved far more ffectively than in the past. Another shift which the lessons f the wornen’s movement would produce would be a -eater respect for initiatives which people are already tking in a socialist direction. I have tried to show in this !ece how important this recognition is at the present age of creating a more co-ordirtated socialist movement It of the fragments. It has been the experience of the omen’s movement which has made us sensitive to these eas of growth. Finally, the women’s movement, at its :st, has taught us how to unite as a movement on the aJor practical issues of the day while debating and respect- 5 each others political differences and frequently agreeing

differ and go our own ways without jeopardizing the 19le movement. If the left could achieve that, at least at a local level, we’d be a long way towards showing people that there could be more than a choice between the ‘bad and the very bad’; there could be real alternatives which they will have a hand in shaping.


Thanks to all those friends and comrades with whom I have argued about and discussed these issues, especially those in the Tyneside Socialist Centre.

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