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Beyond The Fragments: Feminism and the Making of Socialism

April 16, 2013 Leave a comment

Sheila Rowbotham, Lynne Segal and Hilary Wainwright.

Foreword and Acknowledgements
Introduction
The Women’s Movement and Organizing for Socialism, Part One
The Women’s Movement and Organizing for Socialism, Part Two: I
II
III
IV
V
(Notes and References)
A Local Experience
Moving Beyond The Fragments

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Beyond The Fragments: Feminism and the Making of Socialism (A Local Experience) by Lynne Segal

April 5, 2013 Leave a comment

This article was originally based on a talk given together with Sheila at the Islington Socialist Centre in August 1978. Since the first edition of Beyond the Fragments I have rewritten sections of it. The sympathetic comment and criticism of the first edition by my friends and comrades in Big Flame and by other independent socialist feminists have been of invaluable assistance to me in clarifying some of the ideas which appeared rather sketchily in the first edition. I am very grateful to all those who participated in this learning process with me.

_____________________________________

Certain political ideas and experiences are always more fiercely and critically debated than other on the left. The debate is usually confined within certain orthodox frameworks of discussion. The need for a revolutionary party and programme, the relation between party and class, and the nature of the working-class road to power, are among these classic debates. As the theses pile up on these important debates, the actual experiences of people as they consciously, and less consciously, participate in the struggle for a better life can disappear from history. And that is most unfortunate.

I believe we can learn useful, if limited, lessons from the activities of a group of people struggling for socialism, fighting for feminism, within their own small groups in one local area. I am writing as a woman with a libertarian feminist history, living in Islington since 1972. Islington is an inner suburb of London. It does not have any large industrial base, workers are mostly employed in the public sector, or in small factories. Like me, many people who live in Islington don’t work there. My political experience has been as a community activist; it is not based on the workplace.

I will be trying to draw on my experiences in the last seven years, not just in the women’s movement, but also as part of the libertarian left in London. It is a subjective account,. but I hope it will raise general issues concerning women and revolutionary politics and the problems we face. I was lucky in that I wasn’t around in England in 1969 and 1970 when the reaction of the whole of the left to women’s liberation was derisory and dismissive. Though I do clearly remember Sheila’s books being dismissed by left colleagues of mine at work, and declared both diversionary and reformist.

In 1970 a group of women organized a demonstration against the Miss World contest; some were arrested, and they later produced a pamphlet which explained what they had done. And this was just one of the things I remember that influenced and inspired me in 1972-because that pamphlet Why Miss World? not only talked of the humiliation of women as sex objects, but also of the lack of confidence and fear these women felt mounting the first protest against their own oppression. It wasn’t just that women felt frightened to protest politically, but that most of us found it difficult to speak publicly at all; we were used to relating passively and dependently to the world as presented to us by men. We were used to being dominated by men: it was hard not to want to be. And it really hasn’t been easy to change this, either then or since.

Libertarianism
For me, in many ways the ideas of the libertarian left and feminism did seem to be in harmony. I will try and explain this. First of all, they both seemed new. The libertarian politics of the seventies did not really owe much to the anarchism of the past. Though anarchism has a very long history, as old as Marxism, the student radicals of the 1968 generation were in the main not radicalized through the efforts of the ‘organized’ libertarian and anarchist groupings. I know this also from personal experience as I was a student anarchist in Australia in the early sixties but I took me a few years to begin to understand the political Ideas that came to prominence after May 1968.

Libertarian politics were more of a genuinely spontaneous upsurge of ideas which drew their inspiration from many different thinkers, from Marcuse, Che Guevara and the early Marx, to Laing and Vaneigem.(l) This upsurge was a product of capital’s period of boom, when everything did seem possible, when in the Western world capitalism’s main problem seemed to be how to keep buying all the goods it could produce. T~is led to the reaction against pointless consumption; ‘consume more, live less’. The emphasis was on the quality of life in capitalist society and this is why psychological writings seemed important, as did those of the young Marx when he spoke of the effect of alienated labour on the individual spirit and saw the division of labour itself as a stunting of human potential.

To those who had become active in 1968 it seemed a time when anything could happen. Looking back on it, we could say that from Vietnam we drew the lesson that American imperialism, despite its technology, was not invincible. Though I’m not sure that we were aware of this at the time, we only knew whose side we were on. We certainly felt politically inspired seeing a small nation fighting (th Beast’ to the death. From the mass workers’ struggles which occurred throughout France in 1968 and in Italy in 1969, people ,drew the lesson that the working class was prepared to fight for a better life, and that it had not been bought off by consumer durables. Students, for example, were inspired by the thought that they had a political part to play, and could act together with industrial workers, as happened in the worker-student alliances of May 1968, and the worker-student assemblies in Turin in 1969. So class struggle was once again on the agenda, and the class militancy which continued in Italy and in Britain in the early seventies showed how difficult it was for the ruling class to keep a grip on the situation in a period of economic boom. That the optimism of the early seventies and the militancy of workers’ struggles which inspired us then, have not been able to survive the capitalist economic recession of the mid seventies is something 1 will return to later on.

After 1968 the emphasis among the new largely ex-student libertarian left centred on the following issues. First, autonomy-which is not the same as individualism, but meant to us taking control over your own life. Libertarians believed that people could act to change the quality of their own lives; they were more than just the passive tools of historical forces. There was a deep suspicion of any organization that claimed to do things for or in the name of the people. ‘Power to the People’ was one of the slogans we were chanting, as we watched our friends arrested on demonstrations, or were hauled off ourselves. As we saw it, we were the people, up against the repressive forces of the state, in our attempt to change our lives now. This meant that we were slow to form any alliances with others in our struggle, whether it was to seek support from the organized labour movement or the organized left, or progressive forces in local authorities or the left of the Labour Party. We saw them all as intrinsically reformist and hostile to our attempts to control our own lives. This wasn’t inconsistent with their response to our activities.

Secondly, personal relations-you’ve got ‘to live your politics’. We argued that our social relations now must reflect or ‘prefigure’ the social relations we want to create after the revolution. We said that the desire to change your own life and the world about you now is an important part of building for socialism in the future. So we opposed the Leninist position that you couldn’t change anything under capitalism, you could only build an organization to overthrow it. We thought that there would be little reason for people to join a revolutionary movement unless it brought an immediate improvement in the quality of their lives, as against those who believed that you could make a split between public politics and private life. We were critical of those who might participate in some form of socialist politics and yet remain authoritarian and uncritical of their relation to their wives or their children at home; or to others in their work situation. We had in mind, for instance, the male militant who left his wife at home to mind the children while he did his ‘political’ work. We wanted our political activity to make room for those with children, and also to include the children.

Thirdly, you organize around your own oppression. You begin from your position as a woman, a squatter, a claimant, etc. This was linked to attacks on the nuclear family. We read both Laing and Reich, and were quite certain that we could never return to the restricted and restricting lifestyle of our parents. We saw that oppression, the power of one person to dominate and control the life of another, could be as much a part of personal social relations as of economic social relations. This led to an emphasis on collective living, collective childcare, and the setting up of nurseries.(2) The family was seen as the producer of neurosis and ‘the policeman in the head’ which leads people to collaborate in their own oppression.

Fourthly, the rejection of vanguards and any hierarchy of struggle. We rejected the idea that the industrial working class must be the vanguard of revolutionary struggle. Libertarians argued that all areas of life were of importance to revolutionaries. The traditional left was seen as only concerned with people at the workplace, not in the community. But libertarians always argued that people who worked at home, minded the kids, etc., were doing as important work as that done in the factories. This was expressed theoretically In a rejection of the Trotskyist left’s permanent illusion that capitalism was on the point of collapse, saved only by props like the ‘permanent arms economy’, as IS used to suggest.(3) We felt this underestimated the role of the state in stabilizing the economy, not just through economic measures such as investment policies but through the hegemony of state ideology, and ideas expressed at every level. We saw the capitalist state as far more resilient and flexible than much of the left had previously argued. So libertarians developed richer theories of the role of the state, and its hard and soft forces of repression, not just through the police and the army but via education, health, sex role conditioning, etc.(4)

Before most of the left we: emphasized work with youth. Though left groups did have their youth sections,libertarians were interested in practical work, setting up youth houses, youth newspapers, adventure playgrounds and free schools. This youth work was not only practical but also prefigurative in its stress on young people being able to experience a different situation and develop a sense of self-determination.(5)

We worked mainly in community politics, starting community papers, squatters’ and claimants’ groups, and trying to organize around housing. ‘Decent homes for all’ was the slogan we used, aiming in particular at the failure of local authorities to provide housing for single people.
The squatting movement, was reduced in strength as people could no longer bear to keep on moving, keep on facing the bailiffs, as they were bought off by councils with licensed short-life houses, and the number of empty houses declined. But it did nevertheless win certain limited victories. In Islington it eventually forced the council to change its policies and begin providing housing for single people: It introduced the notion of ‘shared singles’ to the housing bureaucracy, to add to their ‘family units’. (This can’t simply be dismissed as ‘reformism’ since struggles were not fought in a reformist way.)

This was the time of the ‘gentrification’ or middle-class take-over of working-class .housing in inner city boroughs like Islington. Landlords conspired with estate agents like Prebbles to ‘winkle’ tenants out of their homes_ There was a campaign against Prebbles by the Islington Tenants Campaign which picketed Prebbles’ office for many months until a historic high court judgement against them ~led that all non-industrial pickets were illegal. We did extensive research on the activities of the big property sharks like Raine, Freshwater and Joe Levy; and how the housing system worked in general until we felt we could understand what was going on.

We resisted all notions of revolutionary leadership. Living our politics meant sharing skills and breaking down all authoritarian relations now. We emphasized the creative aspects of politics, that it should be fun, and not dreary. All bourgeois social relations around work, the family, ‘pleasure’, possessions and relationships were challenged. This was perhaps why we supported those most oppressed by bourgeois society, prisoners, the homeless, claimants, etc., and believed that you could only fight back if you shared the material situation of the most oppressed. ‘When you’ve got nothing, you’ve got nothing to lose’ the tough ones sang along with Dylan. But misery does not always equal militancy, and those most oppressed are sometimes so smashed that it’s hard for them to fight back at all.

Feminism

Many of these issues which I’ve described as central to libertarian thought were also central to feminist thought.

First, the autonomy of the women’s movement was the crucial issue for women. Though left groups saw this as divisive, we were aware that their programmes of formal equality for women could conceal the actual subordination of women in their own organizations. Women had to organize their own fight against male domination; it could not be done for them.

Secondly, feminists always emphasized the importance of the personal and the subjective, the need for a total politics. By this we meant a politics that saw the links between personal life and the oppression of women at home, and the exploitation of men and women in paid work. Women demanded changes in the social relations between men and women now. We wanted to help to break down the isolation of women in the home, and to begin to change ourselves. We had to change ourselves, because the whole ideology of sexism ensured that we had always seen ourselves, and were seen by men, in ways which made us feel inferior and allowed men to dominate us. We spoke of our sexuality being defined and controlled by men, as well as the suppression of women’s sexuality in most hetero-sexual relationships. We supported the demands of lesbians, and the importance of women exploring their own sexuality. We knew that women’s sexual passivity and sexual objectification by men was linked to our feelings of powerlessness.

Thirdly, as feminists we organized around our own oppression. We also criticized the nuclear family, seeing it as the seat of women’s oppression. But we were not simply concerned with the repressive ideological role of the family but saw ,it as the place where woman do unpaid work, thus creating the basis for our social subordination in general. We argued that the way in which domestic labour, childcare and work are organized today will all have to be changed before there can be any real liberation for women. We saw that the Marxist analysis of capitalism and class struggle had not proved itself an adequate theoretical tool to conceptualize these changes. While the traditional left was slow to realize the anti-capitalist nature of women’s liberation, feminists were able to show how it was the unpaid work done by women in reproducing labour power and servicing the workforce that was essential to capitalist social relations. ‘Women in labour, keep capital in power’ was one of the slogans painted on the wall at the first women’s liberation conference held in Oxford in 1970.

More thoroughly than the libertarians, women developed new theories of the welfare state.(6) Women as mothers came into contact with the state more directly than men, in the form of welfare, nursery provision, education and health services. So it was more urgent for us to analyse the control of the state over our lives. We were aware that it was the inadequacies of these social services that created the burden borne mainly by women today. And we were aware that the provision which was available to us was not what we wanted. For example, women took up many issues in the field of health care. We demanded control over our reproduction. We exposed the way that doctors, who are mainly men, treat women’s specific illnesses with contempt. We publicized the way millions of women are regularly prescribed tranquillizers and other drugs by doctors instead of them examining the social causes of many women’s problems. Indeed, feminists were able to establish that the medical profession saw femininity itself as in some way pathological.7 The feelings of passivity, dependence and powerlessness, felt by most women today, are rightly seen by psychiatrists as opposed to mental health. But instead of these aspects of feminity being attributed to the oppressive socialization of women, reinforced in everyday life, they are wrongly seen by most doctors as natural to women. These are only a few of many such issues.

Fourthly, the women’s movement also rejected ‘stageism‘-the idea that women’s liberation could be put off until after the revolution.(8) We argued that our struggle against male domination, or patriarchy, was as central as the struggle against class oppression.9 We said that women’s oppression could not be reduced to class exploitation, that though interconnected with it, it pre-dated it and could continue after the smashing of capitalist class relations.

It was women who not only introduced many new issues into socialist politics, but also developed new forms of organization-ones which would enable us all to participate more fully in revolutionary politics. We introduced consciousness-raising groups, where all women could learn that their misery, isolation and feelings of inferiority were not simply personal problems but common to nearly all women and the product of material and ideological conditions. We introduced the small group as a more supportive and equal way of discussing things and working together. We wanted the experiences of all women to be respected and the movement to grow on this basis rather than through following general principles. We criticized the formal public meetings of the labour movement and the left where inexperienced and less confident women (and men) felt unable to contribute.

We were opposed to all forms of leaderism, and struggled for equality in all our social relations, because we were aware that the forms of dominance and subordination we were fighting could easily remain invisible, as they had been before. We knew that our struggle began with the need for women to believe that what we could contribute was important and valuable. Through writing, poetry, music and film we began to create a new feminist culture, as a part of changing our consciousness and because we knew that men have dominated every aspect of our life, including all areas of culture. We worked locally in the community, at a time when most of the left, apart from the libertarian left, was not interested in this.

Many of these ideas on the form and nature of political activity and organization can be illustrated by looking at some of the things which the women’s movement initiated in Islington in the early seventies. In August 1972, a group of women opened the first local women’s centre in York Way. This was one of the first women’s centres anywhere in England. The idea of having a centre was in itself different from the way in which most of the left organized. A leaflet from Essex Road Women’s Centre explained:

The Women’s Centre grew out of a need to meet and talk to other women about the particular problems that we all face. Many of us feel anxious that we alone are responsible for the problems we have-like loneliness if we’re stuck with our kids all day and can’t get out, finding a decent place to live, worrying about our health and our kids’ health, or worrying about work and keeping a home going as well.

By meeting and talking to other women we found that we are NOT alone in our problems. And when we find that we do share experiences, it’s not only a big relief, but it makes it easier to try and change things that need changing-whether it’s the planning of the street you live in, or whether it’s about contraception or childcare, schools, problems at work, etc. We think that women are in a really strong position to change things-because they are close to the root causes of the problems of day-to-day living, both in the house and at work.

So the idea of the centre was, firstly, as a place to meet and give real support to any women who were in some way trying to break out of their isolation, and, secondly, to allow us to build our confidence and strength that we as women could change things.

At York Way we began one of the first women’s health groups, taking up many of the ideas of the women’s health movement in the States, We were also active in the family allowance campaign, demanding that it be increased and paid directly to women. At about this time the Wages For Housework campaign Was started and began to demand wages for women working in the home. We agreed that it Was valuable to emphasize that qomestic work is work, important work which is undervalued and invisible because it is unpaid. All this was a revelation to some people on the left.

We too saw woman’s unpaid domestic labour in the home as central to her oppression, and also central to the reproduction and maintenance of the workforce (labour power) and thus to the maintenance of the capitalist social formation. There was a theoretical debate here, though we were not all aware of it. Wages For Housework, following the analysis of Mariarosa Dalla Costa.(10) argued that women’s work at home was not only essential to capital as we said, but it also produced surplus value-that is, it directly added to the profits which capitalists could make out of their labour force. Because if there were no housewives male workers would have to pay someone to look after them, and thus would demand higher wages. We thought that this whole debate was perhaps not important, because whether or not housewives and other domestic workers produced surplus value, we were equally concerned to challenge the division of labour which consigned women to the home.

It was the pressures of housework, the double shift for ‘working’ women, and our general servicing role which were the major causes of women’s isolation and exploitation at home and at work, as well as of our low self-evaluation and status. So the Wages For Housework campaign seemed wrong at a practical level, because their solution would institutionalize the division of work in the family. (Then are now ideas to implement such a suggestion in Italy and Canada.) It also seemed wrong at a theoretical level being simply the other side of the economism of tradition a Trotskyism, which sees the only way to get power in that class struggle as that of fighting for more and more money through a wages offensive.

We began to argue generally for the Socialization 0 housework, for more nurseries, playgrounds, and so on Here it wasn’t just that we widened the areas of political activity in which the left had been active, in order t< include women's needs. There was also the recognition of the need to have control over any gains we might make.

For instance, in the demand for nurseries, we didn't just demand money from the state for more nurseries, but helped to create more community-based, non-authoritarian, non-sexist relations in the nurseries we helped to establish. Val Charlton describes this in her account of the Children's Community Centre in North London which was opened in 1972 after feminists had successfully battled for council funding:

We are trying to break away from the traditional authoritarian mode of relating to children and are attempting to offer them as many choices as possible and as much independence as they can cope with. All activities are made available for children of both sexes but it’s not simply enough to treat all the children equally. The boys have frequently already learned their advantage and are quick to make capital of it. There has to be positive support in favour of the girls, who are generally already less adventurous.(11)

Also in 1972 a women’s Holloway Prison Support Group was set up, to campaign around women prisoners. We picketed Holloway Prison saying ‘Free our sisters, free ourselves. ‘ In 1973 we protested over the death through fire of Pat Cummings in Holloway Prison. We knew that most women are not in prison for crimes of violence. Petty crime, SS fraud, prostitution, etc., are the main reasons for women being sent to prison-often simply attempting to fulfil their social role of caring for their families on inadequate means. Yet, women prisoners are notoriously violent, mostly self-destructively violent-cutting themselves Ip and smashing their cells. Used to providing the caring and affection for just a few people, women in prison face he possible break-up of their families and loss of their children. Women face this more than men because women end to support men more than men support women.

In this vulnerable position, official ideology can easily work to persuade the woman in prison that she is not so much ‘criminal’ as maladjusted or sick-another role which women in our society, through powerlessness and training into passivity, are more likely to accept. in line with this, we tried to expose the fraud behind the rebuilding of Holloway Prison as more of a hospital, creating even greater isolation for the women inside. Over 50 per cent of women in Holloway are on drugs, indeed drugs are the only provision which women can freely obtain in Holloway. The new Holloway Prison, which places even greater stress on the therapeutic rehabilitation of women, simply encourages them to blame themselves for the predominantly material problems which landed them in there in the first place.

But York Way was not a good site for a women’s centre. It closed in 1973, and in February 1974 we opened a new women’s centre in Essex Road. Many women’s groups, campaigns and activities started at that women’s centre. The most successful was probably the health group, which produced literature on women’s health, did pregnancy testing, provided a woman,doctor for advice sessions, learnt self-examination, took health classes with school children, collected information on doctors and their treatment of women, provided information on abortion facilities, and, more generally, argued for the importance of preventive health care rather than simply curative medicine. Less successfully, we wrote and distributed leaflets on housing conditions and the isolation of women at home with children. We supported women’s struggles for better housing, and some of us were active in squatting struggles.

By 1975 many campaigns were being co-ordinated by groups originating from the women’s centre. 1974 was the beginning of the various cuts campaigns against the ever-increasing public expenditure cuts. We began campaigning to prevent’ the closure of our local Liverpool Road Hospital, and fought hard for it to be kept open as a community health resource. Some of us were active in the Islington Nursery Action Group, visiting nurseries to help unionize workers and also successfully pressurizing the Council, into abandoning its attempts to make cuts in nurseries, showing how the cuts hit women hardest.

The campaigns for ‘more and better services’ emerged at the same time as the government pressure for cuts. It was in November 1974 that the first government circular came demanding cuts. And that’s when a general cuts campaign started in Islington, with its first meeting held in December of that year, initiated by a group of militants, some inside and some outside the Labour Party. As a broad front campaign it was supported by community groups like the women’s centre, tenants’ groups, public sector workers and, in particular, by the many council-funded community service groups like law centres, Task Force and the Neighbourhood Forums. This was perhaps the first time that we got some relationship developing b~tween the libertarian and feminist milieu and the labour movement. But at this time it was an uneasy alliance. It was never given my real support by the Trades Council, which even came out and attacked the campaign after it had held a day of action. This campaign did not last. Today with the left in a stronger position in Islington there is more hope for the new anti-cuts campaign which is being formed.

The National Working Women’s Charter Campaign was aIso started at this time, holding its first delegate conference rl October 1974. It was never very popular with us at Essex Road. This was because of the dominance of the organized left in the Charter and their wrangles over leadership, and also because it was very schematic, being simply a list of demands, and because it was concerned primarily with women in the workplace. Marxists had always argued that woman’s liberation would be achieved through her full participation in waged labour. In this way they were able to subordinate women’s struggles to class struggle. And it was also in this way that they were able to dismiss the importance of organizing with housewives or the struggles of those many women marginal to the wage system, for example, prostitutes.

The Working Women’s Charter, a list of ten demands which would improve women’s situation in paid work, was originally put together by a subcommittee of the London Trades Council. It was seen by some women in left groups as an adequate basis for socialist feminists to organize from. Though the demands did include ones around contraception, abortion and nurseries it was not an adequate platform for the socialist feminist current of the women’s movement to base itself on. (And there have always been socialist feminists in the women’s movement despite the different setbacks we have faced in our attempts to organize ourselves. )

The Charter’s inadequacy stemmed from its orthodox reflection of the position that women’s oppression is due to her unequal share in class struggle. The demands did not even criticize the sexual division of labour, which is central to male domination. It is this sexual division of labour which ensures that even if women can go out to work they will in general have the lower-paid jobs and the lower-status jobs. The point is not just that women happen to be low paid, it is that they are overwhelmingly concentrated in ‘women’s jobs’. And these jobs which are available to women are low in pay and status precisely because they are ‘women’s’ jobS’.(12) The threat to male workers of more women entering a particular career, is that by their very presence in any large numbers, they lower the status of that work. The best-known example of this was the change over from male to female secretaries at the end of the nineteenth century.13 So even at work women are oppressed as much by their sex as by their class position.

The Working Women’s Charter was basically a trade union response to feminism, and it was good to get some response, but it shared the inadequacies of trade unionism towards women. Some of us did however support the Working Women’s Charter activities, although in fact local Charter groups interpreted and used the Charter in quite different ways-in Islington, women were involved in the local Nursery Action Group, in the Liverpool Road Hospital Campaign, in attempts to unionize workers at Marks and Spencers and elsewhere, and organizing a general meeting on women in Islington sponsored by the Trades Council. There were, however, many aspects of feminist struggle that the Charter could not incorporate. In 1975, the Working Women’s Charter was rejected by the Trades Union Congress conference. It had fallen between the two ~tools of feminist and labour movement politics, and in the ~nd could not survive.

In 1975 a local NAC (National Abortion Campaign) group was formed to fight James Whites’s anti-abortion bill. NAC was also organized as a national campaign. But once again many women were suspicious of the national structure, saying that it was not feminist. They saw it as dominated politically by the International Marxist Group ‘IMG), and objected to its main focus for activities being that of lobbying MPs, seeing this as reformist. Feminists often felt that any national campaigning structure gave women in left groups an advantage over them, in terms of determining policy, as they were more experienced in that form of centrally orgahized politics. This has always been a problem in the women’s movement, and one of the causes of the deep tensions between women in left groups and nonaligned women, even in the socialist feminist current of the movement. Outside of left groups we moved more slowly, each of us puzzling over the pros and cons of particular tactics, particular slogans, etc., most of us frightened to push ourselves forward, and therefore hostile to those women who already seemed to have all the answers on the questions of tactics and organization. Today I feel that, difficult as it is, we must all learn to overcome our fear of political differences and be prepared to argue through our politics.

But many women did become involved in local activity against the threatened restrictions on women’s access to abortion facilities, with stalls in the local market and elsewhere. We also organized colourful public protests against the Miss Islington beauty contest, describing the degradation, violence and restriction on women’s lives created by our status as sex objects for men. It· was especially when we challenged this area of men’s control over women, speaking of the daily rape and violence against women that we were most ridiculed in the local press and elsewhere. For it was here that we were most directly challenging the central ideology of male domination, a sexist ideology which not only attributes certain particular characteristics to women that enable men to dominate us, but also belittles and degrades those characteristics it sees as feminine.(14)

Together with the Arsenal Women’s Group and others we held a local conference to try to organize the women’s movement on. a local area basis. We were also actively involved in all the early socialist feminist initiatives at organizing in the women’s liberation movement. Many consciol’lsness-raising and study groups started at the centre, and a women’s self-help therapy group was formed, partly as a support for some women who had suffered severe emotional crises, but also because all the women involved saw mental health as an important issue. We saw that many of our deep anxieties and fears were a reaction to our powerlessness, and often because we could not receive any adequate nurturing from men. We were used to providing emotional support, but not to demanding and receiving it. This is behind the current emphasis on feminist therapy, and the creation of a Women’s Therapy Centre in Islington. We talked on women’s liberation at schools like Starcross, a local school for girls, and some women ran classes on women’s liberation for schoolgirls at the centre. A literacy class was set up for women. There was a group for women working in traditional men’s jobs, and, in fact, so many groups that I can’t remember them all.

But, despite all of the creativity and energy which originated from the women’s centre, it was always hard to keep it open to all women for more than a few hours a week, on Saturdays and Wednesday nights. And many women were only active in the centre for about a year, and would then drift off. It was often hard to get the new women who came along involved in the centre, and it was difficult to keep up any good communication between the different groups which did meet there.

Some of us wanted to obtain money for a paid worker at the centre in order to keep it open to co-ordinate and plan activities. But others rejected such an idea out of hand, believing it would be ‘selling out’ to obtain money from the local councilor the state, paving the way to our co-option by them. Women also feared that a paid worker would create a hierarchical structure. The first point came from our analysis of the state, which led us to see social workers, for instance, as the repressive ‘soft cops’ of the system. There seemed to be a contradiction between our emphasis on self-help and collective activity and the idea of state funding. Wasn’t the role of the social worker or the state-funded service centre to prevent people taking collective direct action to solve their problems by holding out the false promise of there being some individual solutions for people’s problems? But weren’t we just unpaid radical social workers anyway?

At that time we were less aware of the radical potential for militancy in the state sector workers, living out the contradictions of trying to provide a service for human needs while employed by a state tied to the profitability of capitalism. Many of these workers are very frustrated by the futility of their attempts to meet their clients’ needs. Some social workers, for .instance, were already referring people to squatting advisory centres and other groups committed to building struggles around particular issues. It is in the area of social services and the state that the threat to jobs through cuts and closures and rationalization can be most easily linked to wider possibilities for anticapitalist struggles, because they raise the question of people’s needs. Many health workers, teachers, etc., are aware that it is not just lack of resources that makes their jobs unsatisfactory. It is also the formal hierarchy and the rigid rules through which the state is organized that makes their jobs so difficult.

The current attack on the funding of so-called voluntary groups, for example, law centres, housing aid centres, and other radical advice centres is precisely because they have been able to provide the space for and have been effective in helping to organize struggles around people’s needs. The money that is being saved by such cuts is often quite negligible, the motivation for them is political. It may be true that these voluntary groups provided new jobs mainly, although not only, for the ‘radical professionals’, but I think that at Essex Road we were not as aware as we might have been of the contradictions over funding, and the possibilities of using it to ‘bite the hand that feeds you’.

With others I have thought more recently about some of these problems and think they need more analysis. The modern state is such a huge and complex organization, the situation being quite different from that in 1917 Tsarist Russia, from which so much revolutionary strategy derives. Then the state’s role was purely repressive, defending the interests of the ruling class. But the modern state has been formed by the ongoing compromise between the workingclass movement channelled into reformist political strategy and the capitalist class. The state spreads its tentacles throughout society. Nationalization, health care, education, care of the young and old, research, funding of the arts are some of the ways in which the modern state interpenetrates society in a way it never did before 1945.

For libertarians and many feminists, instances of the creeping hand of state control were everywhere, from community festivals to nurseries and old people’s homes. We tended to argue that the whole system was rotten, and it was useless to tinker with it. We were not wrong to emphasize the extent of this state control over our daily lives, but we were wrong to see the state in all its ramifications as a monolith, and not see that there could be contradictions in its development. This is particularly clear now that the Tory government is trying to sell off state services to the private sector as fast as it can – continuing the attacks on state welfare already initiated by’ the previous Labour government. Today it should be clearer that we must defend many existing state services, from the National Health Service (NHS) to school crossing patrols. It’s no longer simply a question of the overthrowing of the state, but of a strategy which fights for an expansion and transformation of the services it provides-not necessarily in a centralized form. This raises the whole issue of the nature of a socialist state, which we all need to think about, and which is crucial for us as women fighting the sexual division of labour which is basic to women’s oppression.

Today we need a more sophisticated analysis of reformism and the state, which, on the one hand, is not based on the traditional social democratic idea, and in a different way on the Leninist model, which sees socialism as nationalization plus state planning, nor, on the other, one which turns its back on the need for struggle to expand state provision. This means a strategy which both defends the welfare institutions of the state when they are under attack while arguing the need to go beyond them. On a small scale this strategy can be illustrated by the 160 women’s aid ‘refuges that have been set up over the last few years to enable battered women to escape from violent husbands. The National Federation Of Women’s Aid was able to obtain local state funding for refuges while insisting that the refuges should be run by and for women and should encourage self-help and independence. Similar examples, as Sheila shows, can be given of nursery victories where funding was provided and the people who fought for it retained control over the nurseries.(16)

But to return to my story, when our women’s centre was forced to close in late 1976, we had sufficient anxieties over whether we were going about things in the right way that few tears were shed. One woman, involved from the start, said, ‘That’s good, now we can start again, and build up another women’s centre.’ But we never did. For the next three years there was no broad-based open women’s liberation group in Islington, though we did have a national Rape Crisis Centre, women’s refuges, a NAC group, and other groups organized around particular issues as well as women’s consciousness-raising and study groups. Today there is a new women’s centre in Islington, but there is little continuity between our old women’s centre and the new one which is being opened. It is as though things are all starting again from scratch and I’m not sure that any lessons have been learned, or could have been learned, from which this new group of women can begin. Those feminists who were active around Essex Road have not become involved in the new centre, most of them saying, ‘Oh no, not the same problems allover again.’

Feminism and the Left

Meanwhile, the traditional left was belatedly trying to catch up with the energy of the women’s liberation movement. In particular they were impressed by the 40,000 strong pro-abortion march of 1975. They weren’t laughing at the ‘women’s libbers’ any more, though of course they did say we were all middle class, or at least that’s what their middle-class leaders were saying. I don’t feel in a position to give a complete analysis of the left’s position on feminism, but I want to give my impressions of the main left groups, ignoring the smaller groups and those that choose to dismiss feminism altogether.

The reason I want to look at the revolutionary left is not to engage in any form of sectarianism, but because as socialist feminists we accept that women’s oppression is an integral part of the capitalist system. As I’ve said, the subordination of women through the division of labour centred on the family is central to the maintenance and reproduction of the capitalist system of existing class relations of exploitation. But women’s oppression (like black oppression) is not simply just another aspect of class exploitation. All men do benefit from it, by having power over at least some women, however exploited they themselves may be. But we do realize that only a revolutionary transformation of capitalist society can overcome women’s oppression, class exploitation, and all forms of social domination. We know we must unite all those fighting their oppression with the struggle against class exploitation.

By the mid seventies, most of the Communist Party (CP) “Clid come officially to accept the need for an autonomous women’s movement. The CP argues that it wishes to make broad alliances with an autonomous women’s movement. Certain CP women have placed great emphasis on the importance of studying the ideology of women’s oppression, the ways in which women as well as men come to accept ideas of women’s inferiority and invisibility. They have also begun to theorize the role of the capitalist state as it organizes reproduction and maintains women’s subordination in the interests of the ruling class. Much of the official contribution of CP feminists has tended to be more of a theoretical and intellectual one, though many CP women do actively support NAC, and other feminist initiatives.

The intellectual contribution of CP feminists is consistent with the direction of the CP as outlined in their publication the British Road to Socialism. This direction encourages an ideological offensive against capitalist domination while doing little to build any form of mass working-class resistance. Indeed the CP often finds itself in the position of having to curb actual militancy, which potentially threatens its broad alliances with reformist leaders of the labour movement. For example, in Islington through their control of the Trades Council they have consistently failed to offer any practical support to the most militant industrial struggles which have occurred in the borough. And again, on the whole issue of unemployment they have failed to respond in any practical way to the five occupations which have occurred against redundancies, the largest being the occupation of Crosfields electronic factory in 1975 when 300 people were made redundant. They were also opposed to the industrial action of the Tyndale teachers in 1976 who were eventually sacked after a campaign was launched against their progressive education methods, supported by the Labour right of the council. These alliances are part of the CP’s general acceptance of a peaceful parliamentary road to socialism in accordance with what is now called ‘Eurocommunism’.

Thus women CP members could be given the space to develop an ideological critique whilst having little impact on their parties overall political direction. The Brit£sh Road to Social£sm does often mention the importance of the women’s liberation movement. But the political contribution of the women’s movement or of other autonomous movements as they ·affect the actual potential for a real revolutionary unification of the working class is not discussed.

Indeed, in the final analysis the British Road to Socualism does not depart from orthodox Marxist analysis. And this is an analysis which overlooks the significance of existing divisions within the working class, and the demands of the women’s movement and of the black movement that the fight against their ‘oppression must be an essential part of the struggle for socialism.

So the CP support for the autonomous women’s movement does not seem to have served to educate its leadership when they write:

Only socialism can overcome the basic contradiction from which every aspect of the crisis flows. Socialism replaces private ownership by public ownership. The basic contradictions of society are removed. [My italics. British Road to Socialism, line 465.]

It seems that CP women have been allowed to do what I hey wanted, while the CP leadership did what it wanted. Though even this situation of tolerance for feminism has begun to change within the CP today. As the CP and other left groups begin to scent the long-awaited revival of industrial militancy, feminists in the party will be told not Lo obstruct the ‘turn to the class’.

The International Marxist Group (the British section of the Trotskyist Fourth International), does appear to have a more consistent theory and practice in support of the need for an autonomous women’s movement.

Their weekly paper, Socialist Challenge, now takes the question of women’s oppression seriously. But while (‘(aiming to support the women’s liberation movement in its totality, there is still a strong tendency to reduce women’s oppression entirely to class oppression. For example, in 1978 a centre spread in Socialist Challenge which argued for women’s liberation made no analysis of women’s oppression as distinct from class exploitation. It gave no analysis of patriarchy.

The point about this is that while the IMG are prepared to accept women’s right to organize separately, they don’t seem to accept what we have to say on the limitations of orthodox Marxism.16 The way in which they want to integrate feminism and socialism is by adding on ‘women’s demands’ to their existing programme, adding on demands for nurseries, abortion facilities, etc. But again they do not seem to see the need for feminism to transform the whole nature of working-class politics and the left.

As feminists we argue that we are not simply fighting together with men against capitalism as a more exploited section of the class. We are also fighting against male domination now, which manifests itself in all aspects of life, both within and outside of the working class. (Black people of course have a similar theory about their oppression.) So women are central to the struggle against capitalist social relations not only in the workplace but also in the home. We are demanding that men change themselves, that they change their relations to women, and to children, and take on some of the nurturing and caring work which women have always done.

And this is the way in which we want to transform the nature of working-class politics, and overcome the divisions within the working class. It is presumably because of our talk about everyday life, about finding new, non-patriarchal and non-authoritarian ways of relating to and caring for each other that the women’s movement has been dismissed by certain leading members of the IMG as a ‘cultural movement’. The analysis is that because we are not simply making demands on the state, we are not making ‘political demands’. In 1977, John Ross, who sees the women’s movement as a social movement which can make political demands, stated that the issue of women’s rights to abortion nly became political when it began to make demands on the state.I7 Such an analysis obviously would be rejected by most feminists.

So while the lMG has accepted the organizational autonomy of the women’s movement, and indeed have now set up women’s caususes within their own organization, 1 don’t think that they accept the political autonomy of feminism as adding a new dimention to the nature of class politics. The fact that we believe that women’s oppression cannot be understood simply within the Trotskyist analysis of ‘the historic interests of the working class’ does not necessarily mean that we as socialist feminists ignore the working class and fail to prove ourselves true revolutionary socialists. The fact that some of us may not have joined a revolutionary organization which we feel has not adequately taken up and integrated the insights of feminism does not mean that we are not a part of the struggle to build one.

The Socialist Workers Party (SWP), the largest group in the Trotskyist tradition in- Britain and one which has broken from many orthodox positions of Trotskyism, does not accept the need for an autonomous women’s movement at all. Their basic attitude to the women’s movement is determined by the way they see themselves as the only ‘real revolutionaries’. This means that for the SWP, fighting for women’s liberation, like building the class struggle, is one and the same thing as building the SWP. If you accept the need for a revolutionary socialist perspective, then you join the SWP, they say. So they reject the need for either the organizational or the political autonomy of the women’s movement.

‘Class struggle is a form of warfare, and in warfare there has to be a single leadership,’ says Chris Harman from the central committee of the SWP, echoing Lenin, in What is to be Done? in 1902. So the need for any organizational independence of women is rejected. Women’s oppression is derived from capitalist exploitation, he argues, so they reject the need for a political independence for women organizing.18

When the SWP comes to write about the women’s movement, all that I have ever found are jibes about it being middle class. Thus Anna Paczuska, one of the SWP’s leading writers on women’s politics, dismisses the 1979 socialist feminist conference like this:

All we’ve got is a movement of middle class women, many in their thirties, polishing their memories for the glossy magazines, complacently surrounded by mortgages and monthly subscriptions to Which magazine … The movement is dying on its feet or rather in its Habitat armchairs. It is being choked to death by respectability, nostalgia and direct aid from the state and the Establishment. [Socialist Worker, 7 April 1979.]

The term ‘middle class’ is one of the favourite terms of abuse used by the SWP. Of course, they never bother to define the contemporary working class, or the position, for instance, of teachers. For the SWP, teachers are wor king class when they are in the SWP or are attending union meetings, but middle class when they attend a women’s liberation conference. I think that many workers would be surprised and insulted to learn that they have never had mortgages, magazines or comfortable furniture. It is true that we do need to distinguish a person’s class origin from their class perspective, but the SWP certainly makes’ no attempt to do so. As they are aware when it suits them, there is a real need to develop a new understanding of the working class which includes proletarianized white collar sectors such as teachers, technicians, etc. So why resort to mere hypocrisy?

In this piece and many others which have appeared in Socialist Worker the weekly paper of the SWP, and elsewhere, Anna shows herself to be not just ambivalent about but quite blatantly hostile towards the women’s movement. he is concerned to dismiss us and our activities altogether.

In a more recent article in which she is referring to the three of us writing this book, she comments:

They do not believe that the working class has the capacity or the creativity to win the struggle for women’s liberation. They have no trust so they separate off their struggles for themselves. [Socialist Worker, 18 August 1979.]

Here Anna is illustrating the SWP position, which 1 have referred to as the orthodox Marxist position, which takes no account of divisions within the class as barriers to class unity. Against this position, we argue that a strong and independent women’s movement, which seeks to understand and organize itself around the struggles of women, is a political necessity for changing the nature of the left and, more importantly, overcoming the divisions within the class and society.

Moreover statements made by Anna should not be seen as the voice of an individual-they represent the views on women of an overwhelming majority on the male-dominated Central Committee of the SWP. However, within Women’s Voice, the women’s magazine and organization started by SWP members,. the situation is more complex. The Central Committee of the SWP want Women’s Voice to be a ‘periphery organization’ of the SWP, organizing with working-class women, primarily in the workplace, in order to draw ‘the best of them’ into th SWP. However, many SWP women in Women’s Voice ar opposed to this position. They want a greater degree of independence for Women’s Voice as a sister organization of the SWP, and they do want to give mor;e importance to women’s struggles against all aspects of their oppression. Unfortunately, however, many of them still continue to dismiss the women’s movement as middle class and reformist, unorganized and unable to relate to working class women. It was this sort of attitude which led them a few years ago to organize a separate abortion demonstration after the official NAC one.

Contrary to this view, I believe that there are many women in the socialist feminist current of the women’s movement who do also want to locate their politics in the current situation and build a working-class base to the women’s movement. The SWP is not alone in holding this perspective, though they have perhaps done more about it. Although we may not get many working-class women along to our conferences and local meetings, many of the initiatives of the women’s movement in Women’s Aid, rape crisis centres, nursery campaigns, cuts campaigns like the one to defend the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Hospital in London, and others, clearly do involve working-class women. The women’s movement did mobilize in defence of the Trico women on strike for equal pay, and the Grunwick strikers who were demanding union recognition. Many feminists have been active in trades councils and tenants’ associations. We don’t deny that we have problems in developing a working-class orientation, but we think that it is politically wrong for Women’s Voice to dismiss the importance of the women’s movement and to deny what they have learned from it. Even the success of their new Women’s Voice magazine came after it began to model itself more closely on the women’s liberation magazine, Spare Rib, borrowing many ideas from that publication.

I also cannot accept the degree of workplace orientation of Women’s Voice which leads them still to accept a priority of struggle which places many of women’s central struggles against male domination at the periphery. Thus Lindsey German writes of women’s movement initiatives:

Working class women are related to in most areas where they are weakest (in battered wives’ homes or rape crisis centres) rather than where women are strongest (in unions and tenants’ associations) … [Socialist Review, November 1978.]

And ‘Reclaim the Night’ demonstrations, against the harassment and violence which women daily face in the streets, are referred to as ‘a “soft” issue’. There is an argument for considering where women are strongest. But in fact women are not strong in unions today, and are not getting any stronger, even, if their membership is rising numerically. We believe that the only way women in unions will get stronger is if they are supported from the outside by a strong women’s movement. It’s a dialectical process, which the SWP in spite of its Marxism, seem unable to see. Of course, ‘Reclaim the Night’ and NAC are helped by support from women in trade unions, and women in trade unions are helped by the support they can get from the women’s movement.

While Women’s Voice has shown itself at times to be effective in mobilizing support for women’s struggles, I think the priority which they place on recruiting to the SWP, and the fact that they accept the identification of joining their party with holding a revolutionary perspective, means that Women’s Voice could not itself become the focus for building a mass women’s movement.

What we have got to get right in the women’s movement, to confront the left and the labour movement, is the interplay between sex and class oppression. Not only are they both central, but they feed off each other. And they are not reducible either one to the other. Whereas the orthodox Marxist analysis puts class before sex, and Lindsey German writes: ‘The fundamental division is not between the sexes, but between those who produced the wealth in society and those who rob them of it’ (Socialist Review, September 1979) there are also ‘revolutionary feminists’ who put sex before class. They say: ‘Women’s revolution is the revolution. Sex struggle is the struggle .. .'(19) This is not the place to develop a critique of revolutionary feminism. Though I see a political theory which seems to write off half of humanity as a biological enemy as absurd. However, some of the issues revolutionary feminists have emphasized, those of rape, pornography and male violence against women are central to feminism and need to be taken up by socialist feminists and the socialist movement as a whole.

But I would argue now that it is not sufficient simply to talk of organizing around your own oppression, as libertarians and revolutionary feminists have done. For instance, although we are all oppressed as women, it is not true that we are all oppressed in the same way, even as women. Black and working-class women are oppressed in distinct ways, and we need to understand this in order to build solidarity amongst women. Without a more general perspective we won’t be a part of many of the most important anti-capitalist struggles today, struggles which involve women obviously, black struggles, anti-imperialist struggles, and the growth of the new working-class offensive that is needed in this period of ferocious Tory attacks on the working class. Feminists do need a socialist perspective, bu t a Marxism which does not base itself on feminism, which does not recognize that the division within the working class and society as a whole necessitates a strong and autonomous women’s movement, is not· what we call ‘socialist’. It will not liberate women.

Socialism in One Borough

The main left groups did not seem to have found adequate ways of integrating Marxism and feminism in their theory or practice. But by the mid seventies it was also becoming increasingly clear to me that there were problems and limitations in the political perspectives of many of us active simply within the women’s movement. Most of us did believe that full women’s liberation depended on the destruction of all hierarchical relations, of class, race, and sex. ‘There will be no women’s liberation without revolution. There will be no revolution without women’s liberation.’ The women’s. movement alone, however, didn’t seem to equip most of us with a full interpretation of modern capitalism, and the way things were moving in the struggle against it, both nationally and internationally.

A split remained between women’s politics which produced a clear understanding of personal relations and personal oppression in everyday life, and the politics of the left groups which seemed more able to produce an understanding of the world as a totality. This in turn reflects, of course, the traditional division between women’s concern about people and their feelings and men’s concern about practical matters and the big wide world. We could always take up the subjective side of struggles, but in some areas could not always go further than this. This was one of the reasons why towards the end of 1974 1 started shifting my energies more towards a local political paper, the Islz”ngton Gutter Press. This was a libertarian socialist and feminist paper which some of the women who set up the women’s centre had also worked on.

It was Our inability at Essex Road to get working-class women involved, as well as the fact that women who had established the centre were no longer enthusiastic about it, that led me to seek new political initiatives. But it had been the writings of, and the discussion in, the women’s movement that enabled me to get a clearer theoretical perspective on the world, or at least a real understanding of women’s subordinate place in it. Our activities at Essex Road did increase our confidence that we could contribute politically, and so we became more confident both emotionally and theoretically. I think this point is made more generally by the American socialist feminist Linda Gordon when she writes …

…once people do connect deeply felt personal problems to larger political structures, they often go on to make political sense out of the whole society rather quickly. This is- not merely hypothetical; many women in the last decade moved rapidly from complaintsaints about sexual relationships to feminism to socialism.(20)

Working on the Gutter Press gave us an understanding of the area we lived in. It took us several years to get to grips with the complexities of the local political scene. We began to understand some of the workings of the local state, and how local authority finance worked. We made more contact with local men and women. We learned more about housing problems in the borough, the various struggles for better services, the inactivity of the Islington Trades Council, and the activity of the small Labour left in trying to get more progressive policies adopted inside a Labour council.

We tried to make the links between the different struggles and activities we were reporting on; for better housing, and against the abuses of private landlords and property boom speculators, against the decline of local industry, for better education and for more space for youth, against racism, against sexism, against all welfare cuts and for control over services. We were not parochial in our approach to these issues, but always tried to place them ‘in a global perspective’ declaring ourselves interested ‘in what went on, in Hackney, in Haringey or even Haiphong’.

We had remained independent of any of the left groups because we didn’t want them to tell us what to do. We thought they were all authoritarian, hierarchical and male dominated. Though, of course, similar problems of professionalism and male’ domination cropped upcontinuously-on the paper. More importantly, we also knew that apart from Bjg Flame they. did not take seriously our politics which emphasized local work and attempts to organize on an area basis, which differed from their focus on industrial activity or particular national campaigns.21 We believed, and rightly I think, that their emphasis on recruitment and party building, and their reliance on launching national campaigns, could interfere with our attempts at sustained local organizing in a way which was open and sensitive to the particular activities and needs of all those engaged in any form of resistance or struggle. But we did also worry about becoming isolated as a small group producing a local socialist paper but not being accountable to any wider socialist grouping.

In May 1978, the Gutter Press organized a local socialist conference, partly to overcome our own feelings of isolation, and our own failure to grow as a collective and get more people directly involved in the paper. We also wanted to see if there were ways in which the paper could become more efficient in its attempt to provide support for and link different areas of struggle, by becoming more accountable to a larger grouping of socialists with a similar political perspective to ours. We wrote that we wanted, ‘to help stimulate enduring organizational links bridging the community and industrial struggles … We feel that it is possible to. create greater co-ordination and support between people involved in local struggles. In the absence of a militant Trades Council, which could do just such a job, we are looking for new possibilities of co-ordination.’ (Gutter Press leaflet, March 1978.) At the conference, which was attended by 150 people, we found that there were a large number of people, inside and outside of left groups, and inside and outside of the Labour Party, who were keen to set up a socialist centre in Islington. This socialist centre now meets weekly in a local pub, and is supported by most of the left, in particular by individuals in the Labour Party, the CP, the IMG, and Big Flame as well as by most socialist feminists and many non-aligned socialists.

The centre has organized many very well-attended and successful meetings, on Ireland, on feminism, on racism and on fascism, on struggles internationally and nationally, as well as attempts to understand the local situation in more detail and provide entertainment and pleasure. Evenings are planned to fit in with wider struggles; for example, a meeting on Ireland before or after a big Irish demonstration. It has therefore provided a useful base for meeting other local militants. It has increased the possibilities for more regular joint work when struggles arise, as well as providing political education, and entertainment which strengthens the growth of an alternative socialist and feminist culture. I think it was the consistent work done by the Gutter Press in establishing contacts and trust between militants that made the centre a real possibility in Islington. The paper collective has also now expanded, and become politically more diverse.

The socialist centre has therefore, in part, served to validate attempts made originally by those outside of the traditional left to find new ways of organizing. It is true, though, that at present the centre serves better as a focus for co-operation and discussion between the left than as a place for extending our base further within the working class. Some of us are hopeful that the support that we can give to people in struggle will begin to overcome this problem. Others are less worried about it. In fact, one of the most interesting, or perhaps most distressing, aspects of the centre is how clearly it often defines and separates the two groups of peuple, those most concerned with creating left alternatives a.o.d those most concerned with class struggle. Nevertheless, most of us still feel that the centre does create real possibilities for strengthening co-operation amongst socialists and feminists, as well as a way to reach out to working-class women and men in the area. This does not mean that. we reject more traditional forms of political work centred on the workplace and the unions.

Some Conclusions

In this last section I want to return to some of the problems created by the way we organized in the women’s movement and the libertarian left. As I have illustrated, we always emphasized the importance of local activity and tended to under-emphasize, and were suspicious of, national organization·. In national structures we felt women, in particular, couldn’t overcome the problems of male domination and leaderism and feel able to contribute their own experiences. This of course contrasts with the traditional revolutionary left who tend to have an overemphasis on national and international politics and to dismiss attempts at local organizing as mere localism. The national organization which the women’s movement has achieved is only around particular struggles, for example, NAC, Women’s Aid or WARF (Women against Racism and Fascism). But this leaves us with problems, even in linking up these particular struggles. How do we arrive at any overall perspectives, decide which activities to get involved in and evaluate the results of our work?

I think the final collapse of the Essex Road Women’s Cen tre and our failure to replace it are linked to the general problems which can occur for any loose network of small local groups. It’s not easy to work out where you are going on your own as a small group, or to work out where you have succeeded and where you have failed. It’s difficult for other people in other places to learn from your experiences, and for you to learn from them. We could have benefited from more regular exchange of experiences from other groups, comparing and contrasting our activities.

The problem of not really operating within an experience sharing and learning process is a difficult one. At a recent conference on women’s centres in July 1979 all the old debates and conflicts came up, as though for the first time. Were women acting as unpaid social workers? Should men ever be allowed in? Should centres be funded? Why was it hard to reach working-class women, and was this important?

Resolving the conflicts seemed to be as hard as ever. There was no agreement on how the centres fitted in to an overall strategy for achieving liberation. These recurring conflicts do seem to be a strong argument for some form of national organization. Though it is also true that national organizations can be slow to learn if they rely on old formulas and dogma seen as universally valid, instead of learning from new movements. For instance, issues like sexism, racism, national autonomy, and energy policies are all ones which the revolutionary left has been slow to take up. But the women’s movement does need some way of assessing its past effectiveness, and using this to develop future directions in less random ways.

At Essex Road we did learn that it was hard to extend our politics outside of ourselves, and to relate to local working-class women, but we never really knew what to do about this. It is not an easy problem to solve. But if you are trying to involve working-class women, you sometimes need to take up issues which don’t relate only to women, for example nurseries, housing, etc. Though you can carry a feminist perspective into these issues, you will need to go outside of your women’s group to do this, extending the base of your activity. Our lack of structure perhaps made it difficult for working-class women who were outside of our friendship networks, to know how to get involved. I know of one woman who used to walk past our women’s centre every day before she had fled from her violent husband, and never dared to come in. She now works at a women’s refuge, but in those days, not knowing who we were, it would have been difficult for her to have looked to us for support.

This is linked to another problem. Women correctly realized the importance of including a struggle around personal relations within the struggle for socialism, and argued that without this many women would not become involved at all. ‘The personal is political’ was a central slogan of the women’s movement. But this slogan did come to be interpreted in a very vague way, as though it meant that whatever you do, your actions have political significance. 1 don’t think that this was the idea behind the slogan. What it did assert was that there is a connection between how you choose to live and relate to people and the struggle for social change.(22) This was all the more obvious to women in that our training into inferiority and passivity made it even more difficult for us to struggle or to feel a part of a male-dominated left. We had to create new supportive structures if we were to feel confident enough that what we said and did in our struggle against patriarchy and capitalism was important. Women said that how we relate to each other in everyday life is a part of the struggle for socialism, and in this way socialism can begin to grow within capitalism itself, but the struggle against oppression remains to be fought and won.

Over the ten years since 1968, however, there has been a complex development in the often overlapping areas of libertarianism and feminism. It does seem that many libertarians have overstressed the prefigurative lifestyle element. This has led many of them to retreat from public political activity and class politics into rustic bliss, or mysticism, or whole foods or ghetto-ized co-ops. But these forms of retreat are not options which are open to many people; in particular, working-class people do not have the freedom to choose them. They are more trapped within the capital-labour relationship, both at home and at work, as they do what they must to support themselves and their families. But this withdrawal from consumer and urban life does have deep roots in English socialism (Carpenter, Owen, etc.) and it does maintain a visionary strand in the socialist movement that we can ill do without. It exists most clearly today in what is known as the ‘communes movement’. Some parts of the women’s movement have shown the same tendency, which others have characterized as ‘cultural feminism’, on the analogy of cultural nationalism.(23) Perhaps it is also possible to talk of a ‘cultural libertarianism’. These politics do show us the possibilities of new and better ways to live, but exactly how they relate to the building of a combative feminist and socialist movement is something that remains ambiguous both historically and in the present.

The preoccupation more with lifestyles than with building the women’s movement increased -in Islington once the women’s centre had closed. Because then it became less clear how women could help build a movement which was open to all women in their struggle for liberation. Women in their different groups, whether women’s groups or mixed groups or campaigns, found it more difficult to get support from each other. We became more isolated and have difficulty in responding to specific feminist issues as they arise. In Islington there are now moves from one local study group to change this, by organizing open discussions on women’s liberation locally. Obviously in many areas socialist feminist groups are working towards a similar goal. Nevertheless, I think it’s true to say that at least some women have lost some of the confidence they had in the early seventies in the struggle to build the women’s movement and have become even more suspicious of any overt political work.

Part of the problem is related to the general crisis of the profitability of capitalism, and the defeats of the working class. As I said at the beginning, the early seventies was still a period of economic boom. In these conditions it was clear that militancy did payoff. In many places people were able to fight for, and win, particular struggles, whether it was setting up a nursery, the funding of a youth project, improved housing conditions, or the establishment of a workers’ co-operative, such as the women’s co-operative at the shoe factory in Fakenham, Norfolk. People could feel more Optimistic about the possibility of changing their lives collectively, and feel that it was worth the effort of trying to do so.

In the women’s movement we did seem to be winning some of the things we fought for in the early seventies, even if in a deformed way. For instance the demands for women’s liberation did seem to get rid of some of the more superficial forms of women’s oppression. It is now becoming more and more acceptable that sexual discrimination in jobs, pubs and clubs is wrong, and its days may well be numbered. Though it is still clear that, despite equal pay, the relative position of women to men in the workforce, as the most exploited wage earners, was not changing very fast-in fact it has got worse since April 1978.(24)

But the economic recession of 1975 began to undermine the earlier forms of militancy, both in the workplace and the community. The ruling class-at first through a Labour government, and now with a Tory government-has been able to launch a general offensive against working-class organization. So we began to see unemployment rise, the thorough-going dismantling of welfare services, increasingly restrictive and racist immigration policies, and the continuousS expansion of state repression, seen daily in Northern Ireland but also used against any large-scale industrial or oppositional militancy whether at Grunwick, or in the housing struggles of Huntley Street in London, or in the anti-fascist demonstrations at Southall.

In this situation industrial militancy was on the retreat, forced back into more sectoral and negotiating tactics, as each group of workers tried to have themselves declared a ‘special case’. In this way they hoped to fight off the attacks on their living standards caused first of all through the ‘social contract’ (government-imposed limits on wage increases) and state expenditure cuts. Today, under the Tories, the workforce is being further disciplined primarily by the threat of unemployment as the state cuts its public spending even more drastically and reduces its subsidies to industry. This means that both in the workplace and the community, victories, whether local or national, have become much more difficult and there is an increasing demoralization amongst militants in all sections of struggle. So it is also becoming clearer that there cannot be local victories against the forms oppression is taking; for example, cuts in the NHS are nationwide. This is the reasoning behind the creation of national organizations such as ‘Fightback’ in the area of health care, campaigning both against all hospital closures and cutbacks and against low pay as well as for better services in general.

This means that it is forms of organization which have national and international perspectives and links which seem to be even more necessary for successful struggles today. It’s also true that, more urgently than ever, the current period demands that we ally with the traditional institutions of the labour movement. We need to understand the possibilities and the limitations of these institutions. The tendency in the past of libertarians and some feminists to by-pass these institutions (trades councils, union branches, etc.), which perhaps was never really justified, is quite definitely not possible today .. There is always the danger that these forms of national organization and these alliances can lead to a dismissal of the dimensions of struggle which libertarians and feminists brought into the political arena. A sense of urgency Can create a stronger pressure on the left to push aside the significance of the more personal areas of struggle. This danger will now be with us for a long time. And so the split between feminists and the traditional left remains, despite the attempts on both sides to build new bridges.

What I am wanting to focus on in this last section are three main problems which need a lot more thought. First, the relation between feminism and personal politics, and left groups and the general political situation. Secondly, the relation between local organizing and national organizing, and how this relates to the conflict between libertarians and feminists and the traditional left in the Current situation. Thirdly, how we move on to a perspective for building socialism which can incorporate both feminists politics and the new ideas and ways of organizing which have emerged over the last ten years.

The problem for both libertarians and feminists, focusing on the importance of local work and the need to build local organizations, is how to create a larger socialist and feminist movement. A movement, built from the base up, which could mobilize enough people to fight and win, not just anyone struggle-difficult as this is-but strengthen us so that the experience of each struggle is not lost but contributes to the next. Libertarians tried building a network of local groups to link up experiences and activity. There were three national conferences in 1973 and 1974. But there wasn’t the political will to maintain any national organization at that time. The libertarian rejection of vanguards meant that we could not really accept the necessity for any politically coherent central organization. But, we cannot assume that links will just happen spontaneously as they are needed.

Today the women’s movement also finds it difficult to take political initiatives, except in very specific areas such as fighting off attacks on women’s access to abortion. Yet right now we face an enormous ideological attack on all our recent gains. Women are under attack not just in our struggle for equal pay, for more nurseries and better health care (now all threatened by Tory cuts), but attacks on even more basic things, such as the threat to women’s right to maternity leave. This amounts to an attack on women’s rights to waged work at all, if we have young children. Thus we increasingly hear, as was argued recently in the House of Lords, that ‘unemployment could be solved at a stroke, if women went back to the home’. As a way out of the economic crisis, the ,ruling class! is seeking to strengthen the ideology of sexism to justify its attacks on the working class in general, and women in particular, thus revealing more clearly than ever the links between sex oppression and class exploitation.

In this deteriorating situation, it’s going to be harder for the women’s movement not to feel politically marginal, unless we can find ways of making alliances with all those in struggle, both women and men, to co-ordinate actions to defend women’s interests. We are not well organized in the women’s movement. Although the socialist feminist current is trying to organize regional networks, and has been quite successful in some areas, it has been less successful in others. The useful national socialist feminist newsletter Scarlet Women has not yet managed to serve as a co-ordinating focus. We know that socialist feminists are not a minority in the women’s movement-over a thousand women attended our last two conferences. But in the coming period we do need the support not just of a strong and autonomous women’s movement but of the general perspectives and priorities of the socialist feminist current within it. The structures we agreed to build at our last conference mean that we must put a lot more energy into developing our regional socialist feminist organizations, and use them to co-ordinate the different campaigns we are involved in.(25) This would enable Scarlet Women to be more effective as a national co-ordinator.

I think we are also going to have to go beyond a criticism of the left and labour movement forms of politics, however correct we are to say that they have failed to take up the issues of feminism except in a tokenistic way. We do have to relate to both the left and the labour movement, but only by insisting that they learn from what we have to say as feminists. The left will have to understand and criticize the way in which working-class organizations through the labour movement have consistently failed to fight women’s oppression. A wages offensive, for instance, is of little use to women unless it also recognizes the need for more nurseries, for a shorter working week, and actively seeks to change women’s position both at home and in the workforce. We need to argue, for example, that the struggle for a shorter working week is a crucial struggle for women because it allows men to share in the childcare and housework. A recent article in Red Rag makes this point as follows:

Implicit in our strivings of the last years has been an adaptation to the world of work, rather than an adaptation of that world to one that allows time for children, leisure, politics … (26)

This means that we insist that the labour movement takes into account the needs of women not just as waged workers, but also as housewives and consumers. At the same time we must strengthen our ideological offensive against the acceptance of separate spheres fo’r women and men on which our subordination rests.

For women who want to be active in left politics outside of the women’s movement, I think it is also true that male domination, elitism and passivity can exist in unstructured local groups and sectoral campaigns as well as in national organizations. People who are less confident, and less experienced at organizing, or who have less time,will find it harder to participate effectively in such groups. I have found that sometimes it can be even harder to combat ‘leaderism’ within the small group, as interactions are more likely to be seen in purely individual and personal terms, rather than as political manifestations. Nevertheless, we do need to find alternatives to the old structures of organizing used by the left and the labour movement, of large meetings and platform speakers which clearly silence people and do not encourage any sort of mass involvement.

There is no easy solution to the problem of creating new political structures which overcome rather than reproduce existing hierarchies of sex, class and race. For this reason most feminists could not take seriously any national organization which did not actively support the autonomy of groups to organize against theIr particular oppression, which did not realize that it had as much to learn from as to teach those in struggle, or one which ignored what women have said about how to organize, using truly egalitarian and supportive structures which build the confidence and participation of all involved. Alongside the need to organize in workplaces, I do think it’s important to build up open and active local, organizations which can increase left unity, and can be easier for people to participate in. I have in mind the sort of structures which have been developed in socialist feminist groups, community papers, socialist centres, and other community resource centres, which are different from those characteristically used by the left.

But for me today as someone wanting to be active both within and outside of the women’s movement, local organizations are no longer sufficient. I also want to be a part of an organization which is trying to build upon and generalize from different situations, and thus develop overall strategies. I don’t think that it is possible to build a single unified revolutionary organization in Britain in 1979, or that anyone left organization has all the answers. But revolutionary groups do have a vital role in helping to build the widest possible support for all areas of struggle, and the widest possible unity on the left.

What possibilities are there for combining socialist and feminist politics in a national organization which is not subject to the degeneration, splits and paranoias which plague all the left groups? Could such an organization work out a supportive practice in relation to the autonomous groups and activities which occur all around the country? We will not all agree on the answers. My own way to find out has been to join Big Flame, a group which in its theory and practice seems to put the class struggle before its OWn organizational development, which recognizes the need to fully support and help to build the autonomous Drganizations of women and other oppressed groups, and in 5eneral strives for a vision of socialism which includes a theory of personal politics. Time will tell whether I was right.

NOTES

1. It would be hard to draw up a list, but some of the most important books for us were Marx: Economic & Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 and The German Ideology. Marcuse: Eros and Civilisation and One Dimensional Man, Laing: The Divided Self, Reich: The Mass Psychology of Fascism and Vaneigem: The Revolution of Everyday Life. Henri Lefebvre, in The Explosion-Marxism and the French Upheaval attempts to give an account of what led up to the ideas and actions of May 1968.

2. See the discussion on libertarianism and personal life ‘Coming Down to Earth’, Paul Holt, in Revolutionary Socialism, no. 4, Autumn 1979.

3. This theory was outlined by Michael Kidron in Capitalism and Theory, Pluto Press, 1974.

4. This relates, as many people will know, to Althusser’s now famous essay on ideology, ‘Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses’ in Lenin and Philosophy, New Left Books, 1971, in which he argues that class relations are produced through two kinds of interrelated state institutions, the ‘repressive state apparatuses’ (the police, etc.) and the ‘ideological state apparatuses’ (in particular the education system which slots a person into their class position through a process whose operation is disguised from that person). Some Marxists today point out that Althusser is only a modern and vulgar variant of earlier Marxists like Gramsci and the Frankfurt School. Back in the thirties Gramsci was writing in his Prison Notebooks of the importance of ‘civil society’, referring to those institutions like the family and the media, which are not directly controlled by the state, but nevertheless playa crucial role in maintainir.g existing class relations and the capitalist state.

5. An attempt to do youth work in the local community in Islington from the base of a libertarian squatters’ group, is colourfully described in Knuckle Sandwich by Davi<! Robins and Philip Cohen, Penguin, 1978.

6. For example, Elisabeth Wilson, 'Women and the Welfare State', Red Rag, pamphlet no. 2,1974.

7. This is well illustrated by Barbara Ehrenreich and Diedre English in For Her Own Good, Pluto Press, 1979.

8. This concept is used by Barbara Ehrenreich in her excellent speech on socialist feminism in Socialist Revolution, no. 26, October-December 1975.

9. Patriarchy has been defined by Heidi Hartman as 'the systemic dominance of men over women', referring to the social structure and all the social relations through which men dominate women. ('The Unhappy Marriage of Marxism and Feminism: Towards a More Progressive Union' in Capital and Class, no. 8, Summer 1979.) There is a debate over the usefulness of this concept, because some people feel it does not explain the way in which women's subordination, though universal, is different in different societies. I do find the concept useful, but for a fuller discussion see R. Mcdonough and R. Harrison, 'Patriarchy and Relations of Production' in Kuhn and Wolpe, Feminism and Materialism, (Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1978), and Z. Eisenstein, 'Developing a Theory of Capitalist Patriarchy and the Case for Socialist Feminism' in Eisenstein, Capitalist Patriarchy and the Case for Socialist Feminism, Monthly Review Press, 1978, and P. Atkinson: 'The Problem with Patriarchy' in Achilles Heel, no. 2.

10. Mariarosa Dalla Costa, 'Women and the Subversion of the Community' in The Power of Women and the Subversion of the Community. M. Dalla Costa and S. James (Falling Wall Press, 1973). For a fuller discussion of this debate see Jean Gardiner, 'Women's Domestic Labour', New Left Review, no. 89, 1975.

11. Valerie Charlton, 'The Patter of Tiny Contradictions', Red Rag, no. 5, 1973.

12. See Mandy Snell 'The Equal Pay and Sex Discrimination Acts: Their Impact on the Workplace', Feminist Review, no. I, 1979.

13. See Mary Kathleen Benet Secretary: An Enquiry into the Female Ghetto, Sidgwick and Jackson, 1972.

14. Despite some claims to the contrary, radical and revolutionary feminists were not the only ones to talk about rape and violence against women. Though it is true that recently they have perhaps been the main impetus behind some of the large demonstrations on these issues.

15. Similar victories of this sort over a nursery, play space and other community facilities are described in Jan O'Malley: The Politics of Community Action, Spokesman, 1977.

16. The limitations of orthodox Marxism in its analysis of women's oppression has been discussed elsewhere, for example, in Rosalind Delmar's, 'Looking Again at Engel's "Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State" " in A. Oakley and J. Mitchell (eds.) The Rights and Wrongs of Women, Penguin, 1976 and Heidi Hartman, ibid.

17. John Ross, 'Capitalism, politics and personal life' in Socialist Woman, Summer 1977.

18. This account of the SWP's present position on women's politics and what is described as 'the crisis' in Women's Voice is obtained in part from detailed discussions with SWP comrades.

19. From the 'Revolutionary Feminist statement' to the Birmingham Women's Liberation Conference, 1977.

20. From 'Sex, Family and the New Right' in Radical America, Winter 1977/78.

21. Judging from the impact of the first edition of Beyond the Fragments in the Trotskyist press, where this section on local organizing was completely ignored in almost all the reviews, the ·situation has not changed very much. I had hoped that it might have.

22. Barbara Ehrenreich makes this point when discussing the importance of developing political morality, 'Toward a Political Morality', Liberation, July-August 1977.

23. See Brooke, 'The Retreat to Cultural Feminism', Feminist Revolution, 1975.

24. See 'Equal Pay: Why the Acts Don't Work', Jenny Earle and Julia Phillips, Spare Rib, no. 86, September 1979.

25. A discussion of the points of agreement which were reached at the Socialist Feminist Conference in March 1979 can be found in Scarlet Women,July 1979.

26. B. Campbell and V. Charlton, 'Work to Rule' in Red Rag, January 1979.

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

February 9, 2013 Leave a comment

A. The Problem of Democracy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

B. Leaders and Cadres

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

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

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

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

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

But they also said:

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

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

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

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

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

C. The Leninist Sleight of Hand

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

February 2, 2013 Leave a comment

Introduction

I want to begin to explore the challenge I think the women’s movement is making to the prevailing assumptions of how revolutionary socialists should organize. These involve how theory is conceived, how the· political organization sees its relationship to other movements, how consciousness is assumed to change, how the scope of politics is defined, how individual socialists see themselves and their relationship to other people, now and in the past.

I don’t see this as a matter of biological people, women, scoring off biological people, men. Feminism for me is a movement to assert the interests of women as a sex. But more than this it is a means of releasing and communicating the understandings which that subordination holds in check. The movement for women’s liberation is part of the creation of a society in which there are no forms of domination. This society cannot be separated from the process of its making.

Relationships between men and women have undoubtedly changed historically along with the great upheavals in which the production and reproduction of all the means of social life and material existence have been transformed by people in the past. This does not mean that sex-gender relations can be either dissolved into economic changes in how things are produced or seen as a function of biological difference. We know very little of the forms these relations have taken for most people in the past. But socialist feminists have begun to assert the need to look at the sexual division of labour and the power relations within kinship networks as they have appeared historically. We are not arguing then either for a biologically universal kind of relationship or for one which is totally contingent on change in the mode of production.

Rotalind Petchesky in ‘Dissolving the Hyphen’ stresses the need ‘to study concrete revolutionary situations in order to determine whether women, because of their particular material conditions, develop particular ways of fighting and organizing. If we understand that patriarchal kinship relations are not static but, like class relations are characterized by antagonism and struggle, then we begin to speculate that women’s consciousness and their periodic attempts to resist or change the dominant kinship structures will themselves affect class relations. ‘(12)

Felicity Edholm, Olivia Harris and Kate Young point out that we cannot simply assume that antagonism and struggle are constant. They ask, in ‘Conceptualising Woman’: ‘Under what conditions is it likely that women will not accept their situation as natural and “god ordained”?’

They suggest a hypothesis which it would be most useful to explore both historically and through anthropological studies of particular societies, ‘ … that this occurs when changes in the productive process bring the sex/gender system into contradiction with the sexual division of labour, when there is no longer congruence between the two, this incompatibility provides the potential for struggle and questioning, for sexual hostility and antagonism. The direction ,that such struggle takes, however cannot be “read off” in advance.'(13)

Potentially Marxism is a valuable means of understanding how historical transformations affect our lives and how we are both limited by these processes and help to make them. The existing shape of Marxism has itself been made by the forces and dilemmas uppermost for socialists in the past. The emergence of the women’s movement has shown the underdevelopment of Marxism on relations between sexes and the connection between this and women’s subordination within the left. It has meant that socialist women, both inside and outside left groups, have challenged the power of men to determine Marxism in their own image. The imperatives of feminism require that we make many aspects of Marxism anew.

The experience of feminism has been that the specific gender oppression of women requires an independent movement in order for us to develop and assert a new collective consciousness of being female, whether this is seen as separatist or autonomous. Bea Campbell has described in Red Rag how this autonomy was defined in practice from the start as autonomy from men. Implicit in this though was the assertion of sex-gender relationships as an area of social conflict neglected by socialism. This went beyond any definition of femaleness. In delineating what was specific to us as a sex we were necessarily transforming the boundaries of identity.

. .. feminism necessarily identifies both the subjective and objective condition of existence as problems of politics. In other words, the person became a political problem. This challenged a way of practising politics that treats revolutionary personnel as agents rather than subjects.

Feminism proposes that the lived relations of subordination, the way of being subordinated, must be a central problem for revolutioanry strategy. (It is not alone in doing that, but it is the most coherent and persistent of the ‘new’ politics.) This prompts a form that is about mass engagement, that is about a process of preparedness. (14)

A.How We Relate to Ideas

One aspect of the lived relation of subordination has been the exclusion of women from all generalizing concepts and f~om the dominant definition of culture. This is partly a shared subordination. Other forms of hierarchical relationship, around class and race for example, are also excluded. But women’s subordination is particularly internalized. It even appears in the words which express the hope of a new collective identity. It is not just a matter of ‘mankind’, but of ‘Liberty, Equality, Fraternity’. It is not only ‘chairman’, but ‘brotherhood’ and ‘yours fraternally’ as well. This language of the socialist and labour movement expresses the way men hjl.ve defined what is important within the radical tradition as well as in capitalist society as a whole. When women on the left began to criticize this language we were told we were just being petty. But the ideas and politics of women’s liberation emerged out of precisely these small everyday moments of dismissive encounter.

The women’s movement in challenging every aspect of men’s hold over culture, ideas and power has begun to illuminate the bias in the language which expresses the power to define how the world is understood and acted upon.

But the mere existence of a movement, though vital, does not end this cultural subordination because the values we are contesting are rooted in actual power relationships. It does, however, mean that the contours of oppression come into sharper relief and can thus be confronted.

A problem we share with other groups of people who are not powerful, the ignoble, unknown people, is how to explore and reveal our experience in the moment of transforming our culture. If we simply dwell upon our suffering and the ways we have shifted for ourselves, we can produce an idealized icon of the earth-mother, whore-with-a-heartof-gold or the madonna. We will not dissolve the existing assumptions about womanhood. On the other h3.;’1d, if we do not recognize and grow within the specific lived experiences of women we can just create another ideal, this time a feminist stereotype, which does not relate to real life and will not touch the heart.

In order to explore, we need good maps. (1 nearly wrote workmanlike!) We need to be able to take stock of the situation and communicate any- general principles to other wanderers. We have to establish certain staging posts to refuel and assess the journey. This means we have to sit back momentarily from our immediate response to the route and try to sum up the relationship of what we have travelled to the whole journey. Some of this will be from our experience, with information from other travellers’ tales and from any existing maps. Some will be speculation about the way things will be likely to go.

Our summation of the whole may be incomplete and imperfect, but we still need it in order to get our bearings. Even if we abandon this assessment subsequently, the attempt can still be decisive and the effort to be as accurate as we can is still vital if we are not to trundle down every dead end or take enormous detours.

It is this kind of activity 1 mean when 1 use the word ‘theory’. ‘Abstraction’ should help us to move when we wish and to settle in the best camping places. It should help us to communicate and spread experience, feelings, understandings and ideas and thus facilitate action. It should not be a series of coded sign-posts that only a small elite can de-code and which lead us round and round in circles.

I realize that ‘theory’ has a rather more weighty meaning on the contemporary left. It has a grand resonance which comes. from the towers of academia and the fossilized authority of sectarianism. Both these approach ‘theory’ as something unattainable except by the few. It becomes fixed, hanging above us in a kind of ahistorical space. But ideas come from our experience of our lives, from the past wisdom of others and from the movement for change. Our efforts to abstract upon our practice and history through theories of how to make socialism for example are not good for all time, to be handed on like dusty catechisms, repeated by rote as ‘correct thought’. They have no universal validity. If they serve more than their time, well and good. But this does not make them sacred texts; it makes them more fitting to be used and enjoyed and developed. 1 think that each effort of abstraction must be constantly re-examined, criticized, dipped back into experience, merge and be born again.

Because the process of abstraction requires a conception of yourself which can be generalized, there are enormous and serious difficulties in the relationship between groups of people who have been subordinated and theory. A movement helps you to overcome some ~f the oppressive distancing of theory and this has been a considerable and continuing creative endeavour of women’s liberation. But some paths are not mapped and our footholds vanish. The theorizing about organization remains in the quicksands. It is unclaimed territory still. 1 see what I’m writing as part of a wider claiming which is beginning. 1 am part of the difficulty myself. The difficulty is not out there. I feel the effort physically still in the act of writing this. I am stumbling in the dark. There is the floundering feeling 1 got in writing about women’s liberation before there was a movement to be part of in 1968. But this time I feel weights against thought. They press on my shoulders and on my breasts. I find myself catching my breath. A kind of helmet grows on my head. The words slither around and seem to slip onto the surface of my consciousness unless 1 make an enormous effort to remain within them. The difference is that 1 know such huffing and puffing is not a personal eccentricity but a social experience and this knowledge is something felt, not just something I understand intellectually.

When the women’s movement began it seemed that socialist ideas were external because mainly men made and defined them. It seemed that the fear came because we were women. This is broadly true within a culture in which men are still dominant but it needs qualifying. The existence of the women’s movement affects men as well as women. It is not just a matter of the ideas but the relationship to them. If men try and hold ideas differently they encounter a similar paralysis and panic which women know. We need to help one another through this-we are at separate ends of the same quicksands. Similarly if women are willing to accept a formal recognition, if we do not seek to overturn the whole relationship to theory we will be accepted grudgingly by the leadership of the male left just as we can be accommodated within a masculine bourgeois culture.

Yeats commenting on Maud Gonne’s involvement in the Irish movement provides an external unsympathetic description of the price women have paid even in relation to male-dominated popular movements.

Women, because the main event of their lives has been a giving of themselves, give themselves to an opinion as if (it) were some terrible stone doll … the opinion becomes so much a part of them that it is as though a part of their flesh becomes, as it were, stone, and much of their being passes out of life. (15)

It is a terrible cruel price and feminism has clawed a way through to ideas which do not involve this handing over of our beings because we are within them.

But a violent and painful struggle leaves scars which harden. We need to create as well as oppose. The implicit understanding of this has been one of the strengths of feminism. Creativity involves transformation by going beyond yourself. It is nurtured by the collective experience and knowledge of people now and in the past. One aspect of domination is the denial of such nurture. We cannot afford to be negligent of the understandings carried in past socialist ideas of how to organize because those ideas have been defined by men and tend to be held by small leaderships who train others in their image. Nor do we want to hand ourselves over to ways of thinking which turn parts of us to stone. We need- to bring the strengths of the feminist movement to bear on this wrenching agony. We have the experience of a living movement in which thousands and thousands of women have made and shared ideas with love. This is the source of a most extraordinary power.

B. And To The Past

Feminism requires an enormous interrogation of the past, just as other movements of people who are held down have sought a past which does not maintain their subordination, by exclusion or distortion. One aspect of this critical encounter must be with the history of the socialist and labour movements.

It is not only that we are persistently on the lookout for women. Socialist feminists have asked many questions which have come up because of the political practice and understandings which we have reached through feminism. We want to know, for example, what has been the relationship between socialist and feminist movements. We have asked how the way work is divided at different periods of capitalism has affected men’s and women’s involvement in radical organization. We are concerned with the interconnections of sex/gender relationships and production at various times and how this has affected people’s consciousness. We want to find out what kinds of socialist and labour movements have attracted large numbers of women or excluded them and why these have happened. We have asked have socialists imagined how women and men, men and men, women and women, children and adults might live together differently? How have socialists seen personal relationships in society as a whole, in their own lives and in their organizations? Did socialists believe that women’s liberation meant women should become like men; did they argue that women had specific qualities as a sex which men might acquire or develop; or did they imagine men and women contributing towards making a culture in which notions of ‘masculinity’ and ‘feminity’ would dissolve? How did relationships in the family combine with those of the community and work to make women and men socialists or join trade unions? How have women of different classes seen their potential liberation ? How have socialists regarded housework, woman’s control over her own fertility, the education of the young? Have their attitudes affected what they did in their own lives as well as for the socialist future? What differences are there between public programmes and personal practice within the socialist and labour movements?(16) These questions involve not only a reassessment of how the history of the left is seen. They are pointing towards a re-evaluation of what kind of contemporary socialist movement we need. They are inseparable from more general problems of how we understand class, kinship, community and consciousness.

For of course none of these political and cultural attitudes existed in isolation from the wider movement of society. For instance Joanna Bornat in ‘Home and Work. A New Context for Trade Union History’ focuses on men and women who entered the woollen manufacturing industry, in Colne Valley, West Yorkshire between 1900- 1910. She shows how they experienced home and work in their lives and how it affected their trade unionism. She points out that the conventional approach to trade union history only looks at work and the official version of activity. 1t draws attention away from the interrelationship between home and work in real life.

To say that capitalism needs the family is not the simple story of the exploitation of its members. It is also the story of how those members learn to survive and support one another within the constraints of the wage labour-capital relationship.

She says she is ‘arguing for an approach which seeks to understand men and women, their institutions and self-conceptions in terms of their living and working relationships’.(17)

She therefore examines the interconnection between class relations ~n.d ‘dependency’ by which she means ‘the unequal relationship between men and women maintained through social and economic means within the capitalist mode of production’.

This criticism of the artificial separation between work and everyday life is consistent with a general tendency in radical history away from the assumption that workers’ consciousness can be simply equated with the views of people at the centre of institutions-either trade unions or political parties. This is clearly most relevant for women, who have only rarely taken part in central organizational leaderships.

There has been a cumulative movement in Britain, roughly since World War Two, which has been undermining and overturning many over-simplified approaches to history among socialists: for instance E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class examined how people experience themselves as part of a class through politics, community life, work, culture, and religion. Though he touches on family relationships these are less developed. The topics which have come up in the ‘History Workshops’ and appear in the journal of the same name, explore further similar areas of experience. Working-class childhood, school strikes, relationships in the family, imperialism and motherhood, control over fertility are some examples. Attention is not only directed at heroic moments, the ‘peaks’ of confrontation but how the rest of life itself gives rise to opposing consciousness. Several strands apart from the New Left and the CP have contributed to this process of re-examination. The Solidarity group, for instance, has been involved in a sustained critique of Leninist interpretations of the socialist past; and some Labour Party and IS historians have begun to open up a less dismissive approach to syndicalism. For example, despite a tendency to isolate work as a source of consciousness, James Hinton’s The First Shop Stewards’ Movement provides us with an understanding of how changes in the labour process meant syndicalist ideas made sense to a particular section of the working class. These approaches to history have been affected by contemporary politics. ‘Rank and Filism’ can contribute to making radical historians suspicious of using only the official documents of trades unions. Faction fighting \nay make yet others distrustful also of the official versions of socialist organizations’ past. Oral history and personal papers might tell a different tale from the socialist newspapers and journals. Official organs could be revealing only what the editors think, not the movement. (The same is true, of course, of feminism.)

Socialist historians have become very wary of presenting the past of radical movements as a smooth progress towards a contemporary notion of enlightenment. If we approach the question of working-class organization by asking when have large numbers of women become involved, it is particularly evident that we do not see a steady march of enlightenment towards either Marxism-Leninism or the Labour Party. We can see instead a complicated process of loss and gain. Dorothy Thompson, for instance, comments on the participation of women in the early years of Chartism in the early 1830s. Towards the late forties they had disappeared and their involvement had been forgotten. She suggests part of the answer was a changing ideal of feminity which affected skilled working-class women, but also:

in moving forward into mature industrial capitalist society, important sections of the working class developed relatively sophisticated organizations, trade unions, political pressure groups, co-operative societies and educational institutions … In a variety of ways they were able to find means of protecting their position within an increasingly stable system. They left behind the mass politics of the early part of the century, which represented more of a direct challenge to the whole system of industrial capitalism at a stage in which it was far less secure and established. In doing so, the skilled workers also left behind the unskilled workers and the women, whose way of life did not allow their participation in the more structured political forms. These forms required both regularity of working times and regularity of income for participation to be possible.(18)

The trauma of Stalinism within the socialist movement has undoubtedly contributed to this wariness of a crudely progressivist picture in which the working class guided (of course) by correct ideas and the Party moves inexorably forward towards the sunset. This has made radical historians sensitive to understanding the meaning that ideas had for people in their own time, rather than imposing our ‘answers’. But it is clear from the feminist experience that ideas can have various meanings for different groups even within the same movement. By focusing on the specific relationship of women to radical organizations and thus readjusting how we see men’s position as well, socialist feminism can bring out the complexity of these different meanings.

But both the movement within radical history and the questions of socialist feminists remain curiously remote from much of the history which Trotskyist groups present as background to education articles or exposures of contemporary follies. I think this is less true in the Communist Party now, though 1 suspect that popular versions of history still retain some of the ‘sunsets’ of Stalinist days. But certainly it is still possible to find among Trotskyists an assumption that class consciousness comes solely from the experience of work. There is still a preoccupation with the moments of confrontation-1917 or the betrayals of the TV leadership aided by the CP in the General Strike, for instance. The problem of why workers accepted such leaders is evaded. The interior reality of socialist organization is rarely touched. The pastime of fishing for a pure Marxism-Leninism with the last word on all subjects is still with us. Leninists have the fish and know the fish, they just need to haul it in. So it becomes inconceivable that the Leninist approach to ‘the women’s question’ jettisoned many important understandings about prefigurative change, for instance, present within utopian socialism. It becomes absurdly hard to acknowledge that under Marx and Engels’ influence communists dismissed crucial questions about sexual oppression, control over fertility and the cultural subordination of women as a sex which other contemporaries in the socialist and feminist movement recognized. This is not to dismiss the inspired leaps made by Marx and Engels theoretically or to forget that Lenin was more sympathetic than some of the Bolsheviks towards women’s emancipation. It is not to deny that Trotsky paid more attention to cultural aspects of subordination though he stopped short at sexuality. But they were not omniscient. There is no reason to see them as the bee’s knees in every subject. It is worth noting the points at which the social democratic and Bolshevik approaches to ‘the woman question’ brought them into conflict with the incipient socialist feminism of the period 1890-1920s. It is also worth exposing the over-simplified caricatures of ‘bourgeois feminism’ which concertina-ed several kinds of feminism into one grotesque creature. Social-democrats, communists, anarcho-syndicalists and anarchists all had their own versions of these caricatures. They have been taken too much at face value by socialist women writing history. (I include myself here.(19)) They leave us with an unchanging polarity between bad ‘bourgeois feminists’ and good working-class women. This means we fail to recognize that there are different kinds of ‘bourgeois feminism’, that some working-class women and men supported ‘bourgeois feminist’ campaigns,just as many middle-class men and women became socialists. Any sectarian blunders of socialist organizing is completely obscured by the enormity of the crimes of ‘bourgeois feminists’. Conflict between working-class men and women appears as occasional prejudice. lts sources remain ideological rather than part of the material circumstances of their lives. This is not to say we should never look at feminist movements critically or that there were not real class differences in the way women saw their liberation. But we do not get to these by ignoring sex conflicts within the working class or by simply posing socialist women against feminists, by extracting only the conservative features of the feminist movement and implying that socialists had all the answers in particular conflicts with feminism.

This uncritical view of the socialist, labour and feminist past only serves to confirm contemporary complacencies. 1£ Marxists knew best not only now but in the past, we only need to provide a few modifying footnotes. The truth is already known, it just tends to get misplaced now and again. Once this is assumed, badly thought out actions in the past are passed on as issues of principle. This tendency already present within the Second lnternational appears in the Third International, to reach the most paralysing proportions under Stalin. But it is not only a feature of Stalin’s rule. It lingers even in the anti-Stalinism of the Trotskyist groups and the contemporary Communist parties.

So it is not really surprising that there has been a muffled combat going on since the women’s movement emerged in the late sixties between socialist feminists and the purveyors of orthodoxy in left groups about history. For the way the feminist movement is seen, the relationship of feminism and socialism historically, the actual similarities and differences within the working-class and middle-class women at various periods have a close bearing upon many of the arguments we have today.

We can develop our own understanding of our politics through a living relationship with the past. But not if we search for points of conflict which cap be raided for a ‘history shows us’ article or speech from which a fixed set of rules about how to organize now can be extracted.

C. The Power of Definitions and Icons

With this manipulative approach to history goes the power of definitions in left groups. I don’t mean by this the necessary effort we all make to define and distinguish different aspects of reality. I mean the false power which avoids and actually prevents us thinking about the complexities of what is happening by covering it up in a category. All references have to be in terms of the categories. Once named, historical situations and groups of people can be shuffled and shifted into neat piles, the unnamed cards are simply left out of the game. They don’t exist. The named are branded ‘ultra-leftist’ or pensioned off as dozy but harmless ‘progressive peoples’. Guilt is by association-the Stalinist use of ‘social fascist’ is the most notorious-but Trotskyists have their own hold over names. The game is rigged to dispose of the ‘baddies’. The slots for those labelled only come in certain shapes. So criticism of particular forms of organization has to be disposed of down one slot marked ‘anarchism’, questioning of a particular idea of leadership goes down into ‘spontaneism’, some baddies are stricken with a terrible hereditary disease and called ‘middle class’. They have only one chance of survival-join the something party. It all sounds absurd when it is put like this. It is an absurd activity. But nonetheless the power of naming is a real force on the left today. It deflects queries about what is going on. It makes people feel small and stupid. It is a part of the invalidation of actual experience which is an inhibiting feature of many aspects of left politics now. Part of its power is in the strange lack of self-consciousness which the left has towards its own values. The power of defining is reduced as soon as it is itself described. But the silences within the Leninist language of politics make it impossible to expose these hidden sources of power. They also make it hard to see that behind, for example, the Trotskyist approach to history, there is a personal vision. It is this vision which sustains certain concepts of consciousness, leadership, and the form which it is assumed that the struggle for socialism will take. It is a self-confirming system which is why it is peculiarly difficult to oppose within its own terms.

Individual intention, is constantly overridden in practice and sustained by the organization. These choices are rarely stated, the opponent is dismissed as ‘backward’ or ‘opportunist’ or whatever or becomes caricatured as morally evil behind the phoney objectivity of ‘reformist’, ‘centrist’, etc. This is a language you learn. It is part of the training about how to organize. The words are some of the tools of the trade. The names do have a fascination when you try to see through them to the diverse realities which they encapsulate. But even this delight is a trick. It channels the imagination and keeps thought straining between closely defined points. It has the pleasurable intensity of theological disputes over doctrine. The game is to see how deviously you can stretch the finite bits of elastic. But absorption in the game makes you deaf to the experience of other people and blind to their capacity for self-activity. This vesicatory rigour intimidates opposition and actually contributes to the fears we all have in a competitive capitalist society about our incapacity to think and act.

Although the Leninist left eschews discussion of its personal values and self-image, it nonetheless carries a version of what it means to be a socialist in images and assumptions. All kinds of dusty icons lurk behind the public face. We need to bring them to the surface. Once we have them out in the open we can examine whether this really is how we want to be and whether it is likely to make most people want to become’ socialists. For example, what about all those comparisons to nineteenth-century armies marching in orderly formation and retreating smartly at the officer’s command? Why is there such a horror of cosiness, as if cosiness were almost more dangerous than capitalism itself? Now it may well be true that at certain times we will all practise drill and that cosiness is inappropriate for some of the circumstances of conflict. But there seems to be an imbalance in the contempt it evokes.

The fear seems to be that cosiness means people get cut off from the ‘real’ politics. I think this should be put the other way round. If a version of socialism is insisted upon which banishes cosiness, given the attachment of most people, working-class men and women included, to having a fair degree of it around in their lives, this socialism will not attract or keep most people. Why should the ruling class have a monopoly of cosiness?

During the strikes against General Electric (GfC) in 1974, women at Heywood, Lancashire, made themselves a picketing base by occupying an empty house owned by the firm just outside the factory, putting in carpets and cooking apparatus and even decorated the mantlepiece with flowers. They inhabited the picket?(29)

It can after all make our conditions in life and in politics more warm and loving as the early socialists recognized in their fellowship evenings.

Values are carried not only in implicit attitudes but through the dark shadowy vision of the individual revolutionary. This individual militant appears as a lonely character without ties, bereft of domestic emotions, who is hard, erect, self-contained, controlled, without the time or ability to express loving passion, who cannot pause to nurture, and for whom friendship is a diversion. If this is our version of what it means to be a socialist, it implies that we see socialism as limited to a professional elect who can muster these eccentric qualities. Membership of this elect will for a start be predominantly male, for if it attracts a minority among men, it fits even fewer women. Left to carry the burden of a higher consciousness, members of this elect will tend to see the people around them as, at worst, bad, lazy, consumed with the desire for material accumulation and sundry diversionary passions; at best, ignorant, needing to be hauled to a higher level. In the hauling the faint-hearted fall by the wayside, the cuddly retire into cosiness and all the suspicions of the elect are confirmed. Being an elect they can rely on no one and being an elect means they have to do everything. And always the weight of the burden of responsibility, the treachery and insensitivity of everyone else is bearing down on them.

It’s a stark, bleak vision of sacrifice and deprivation which when stated explicitly appears to be a caricature. Nonetheless it strikes some chords of recognition on the contemporary left. It surely owes something to the strange things done to little boys in preparing them for manhood in capitalism. More particularly it presents in cameo a nostaJ.gic and romantic yearning for the pristine clarity which is seen as 1917. How often do we need to say we are not in Russia in the early twentieth century before it becomes a felt reality? The Tsar is dead!

That the imagery and icons of Bolshevism should be particularly precious to Trotskyists is not surprising. This historical placing of self was important for lonely fighters against both Stalinism and capitalism to hold close to a lived experience of revolutionary process. They would perish in the cold wilderness without it. Within Trotskyism the desire to return to the molten heat of the early Russian revolution has all the intensity of the need for survival itself. For the Communist Party it is different. Until recently their past was so cauterized by the revelation of the horrors of Stalinism, that they became historically benumbed. But Trotskyism stalked the crimes of Stalinism acutely aware of the need to hold the strategic entrances to the past. The years of betrayal sound their knell ‘In the year … and again in … and again in … Stalinism betrayed the working class and again the betrayers of the working class in .. .’ Until in an eerie way the heroic conscience only comes to exist as the opponent of the bad man. Ironically the historical preoccupation with the failures and treacheries of Communist Party leadership echoed the Communists’ own denunciation of the same aspects of social democracy.

Even the anarchists and anarcho-syndicalists have clustered round these high points where power is seen by them as becoming coercive. They have been more concerned with the corruption of the powerful-including the Communists and Trotskyists and their suppression of popular resistance. But in this critical emphasis on the leadership and on their moments of confrontation, they have nonetheless excluded most people, including most women from their version of his tory. The dramatic instances of conflict are extracted from their longer term context, the to-ing and fro-ing of resistance which is so evident when you focus on women’s lives.

So the women’s movement is contesting not simply at the level of programmes and constitutions, which is why we could never find adequate words to meet the aggressive question from men in left groups in the early days: ‘Well what is it that you want?’ The dispute is about an idiom of politics. (In this sense it is not only a dispute with Trotskyism.) It is about how we think about what we are doing; how we situate ourselves historically; how we see ourselves and one another in relation to the movement for change and how we see the forms in which we resist capitalist society. These open up fundamental disagreements about how you organize for socialism and what is the relationship of parties to other movements. They involve the power to define what is politics. Are left politics the preserve of professionals who hold the crucial interconnecting points? Have the rest of us merely to file under like in the game of ‘oranges and lemons’?

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

January 28, 2013 1 comment

I think it helps to say how you’ve entered a particular train of thought. Behind what I’m saying are four main political influences, the New Left of the late 1950s to early 1960s, International Socialism (now the Socialist Workers Party) from the mid 1960s to the mid 1970s, libertarian Marxism in the early 1970s, and the Women’s Liberation Movement since its beginnings in the late 1960s. Like all influences, the impact of these has not been linear or even. They have jostled together inside my head, pushing and lugging at one another for space. The nature of my involvement with them has not been at all the same.

When I began thinking of myself as a ‘socialist’ in 1962 the great upheaval in the Communist Party which had occurred in 1956 was still a persistent reference point. An event of six years before was for me at nineteen a distant happening. But the assumptions of what politics were about were still being set by CND and the New Left. 1956 appeared to me as the beginning of modern times. It was a break, just as 1968 was to be, a break to a later political generation.

The recoil from the Communist Party was part of my political inheritance but it was not part of my own political experience. This meant I rejected the possibility of a socialist renewal from within the CP intellectually, but I had no understanding of the inner life of communism before the impact of 1956. This was further complicated: by meeting throughout the sixties Young Communist League members, older Communist trade unionists and intellectuals who were shaken by the consequences of Hungary and later by Czechoslovakia, and increasingly open to discussion with socialists outside the CP. They were less dogmatic than the Trotskyists because they had no longer illusions about being omniscient. I always winced at the self-satisfied tone with which members of Trotskyist groups called all Communist Party members ‘Stalinists’, for I knew it didn’t fit. I felt Cold War anti-communism became mixed up in the stridency of anti-Stalinism. Somehow by over-shooting the mark Trotskyism blocked many aspects of the New Left resistance to Stalinism proper, which was not only a political system but a particular stance towards being a socialist.

There were other ambiguities which can be partly explained by being politically formed by the New Left of the late fifties without being actually part of it. The possibility of making an alternative left movement to the Labour Party and to Stalinism did not have any reality for me. The New Left as a practical movement of left clubs and centres like the Partisan coffee bar in Soho was waning by 1962. By the time I arrived on the left the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament was the ‘movement’ and its atmosphere was radical rather than socialist. Committee of 100 and a new left students’ journal were the first kinds of activity I encountered. Committee of 100 was far more exciting – this was the period in which Regional Seats of Government were being discovered and exposed. There was a feeling around that ‘direct action’ was the thing, not discussion of ideas. But CND itself was in the process of disintegration and when I left University in 1964 it seemed as if pressure on the left of the Labour Party was more realistic than the creation of an independent left movement.

Nonetheless the timing and shaping was rather important. For if I had become a socialist too late to be part of the first wave of the New Left, I was still deeply affected by an approach to politics which had not only broken with Stalinism but was quite alien to the assumptions of the then tiny Trotskyist sects. Indeed until I met Trotskyists in the Hackney Labour Party in 1964 they seemed simply odd with an inward, self-confirming intensity like evangelical religious groups. Even as I encountered Trotskyism and neo-Trotskyism (International Socialism) I was never quite of them. I could never be quite so sure somehow. They had all those certainties as if everything was known, the whole world and its history was sewn up and neatly categorized. How could anyone know so much? But what it was that I was or why I couldn’t be sure was quite unclear. In face of the clear-cut polarities which various Trotskyist groups shuffled between one another like counters I had only puzzlement. ‘Middle class’, they said. Forced to peel through class prejudice by their challenge I could acknowledge that it was partly this.

But class was only part of it because some of them were middle class too. It was also the legacy of New Left politics. The emotion of my socialism was too rooted in an interconnecting quest between circumstance and consciousness – consciousness and circumstance. Trotskyism’s emphasis on the ‘analysis’ of an unfolding objective crisis suggested the professional revolutionary going in, extracting the salient bits of reality and fashioning a programme accordingly. The New Left (the movement rather than the journal which kept the name) never seemed to have such detachment. We were all immersed in the real world. Our understandings flowed out of the actual movement of existence and dissolved back within it. Against the preparation for an externally developing ‘moment’ into which the professional revolutionary organization was to insert/inject itself was the conviction in the New Left that human beings could and would resist an unjust and inhuman society because it denied the possibility of creativity and love. We were all responsible agents of our destinies and must act in our lives. I could consequently never accept the notion of ‘training’ which was present in the Leninist tradition and important in Trotskyism.

In varying degrees the Trotskyist groups believed that personal feelings should be curbed and in some cases sacrificed – whereas the New Left in resisting Stalinism wanted to allow space for personal feeling as a source of humanity. It was assumed that personal relationships and values were to be respected and that Stalinism had denied and destroyed them. They were to be recognized as important in their own right even if they denied the immediate possibility of commitment to any organized resistance. In 1960 in ‘Outside the Whale’, Edward Thompson explored the sources of apathy and the personal anti-political rebellion among the young. He argued the radical potential of the response expressed in Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey. If love had become falsified perhaps it appeared better to shed illusions and seek honesty instead. But in the search for honesty we could rediscover the source of love in opposition to its caricature.

The anti-political find themselves once again in the arena of political choice. Because ‘love’ must be thrust into the context III’ power, the moralist finds that he must become revolutionary.1

The New Left stressed the possibilities of personal choice within particular contexts. It was not an abstract freedom, but it was an historical freedom. They did not assume that everyone had to make socialism by the same route. They did not insist on there being the one way to truth seems to me to be essential in the make-up of the Trotskyist groups in the 1970s. I think this arminianism was shared by most IS members in the 1960s and was one bond with the New Left. No single left group could claim with conviction any way to having absolute truth. They were after all so tiny. The pretensions of the Socialist Labour League (now the Workers Revolutionary Party) seemed simply grotesque to most socialists in the early 1960s. Unselfconsciously we read Kropotkin and Bakunin as well as Marx, Gandhi and G.D.H. Cole, Camus, Sartre and Emma Goldman. We bought Anarchy as well as Peace News, Sanity, Tribune and Labour Worker.

By 1964 when I left University it seemed as if people in the New Left were becoming less preoccupied with finding new forms for class struggle which the ex-CP members had sought, and were more involved in cultural analyses of popular working-class attitudes and customs. I did not understand then why it was important to study the relationships between the stereotypes of the media and consciousness. It just seemed rather owlish. I was too closely involved emotionally in the music of popular culture to want to study it. I knew nothing of the differences on the journal. While I was friendly with some of the group round the New Left Review after 1963, I could not understand how they could be socialists and not bother about being personally remote from working-class people. This made them very different from the initiators of the New Left.

So I joined the Young Socialists in Hackney Labour Party where I met Trotskyists who were in Militant and International Socialism. I could not see Trotskyism from outside anymore. I learned about Trotskyism from young, working-class people, many of whom came from left Labour families and remembered the anti-fascist struggle of the East End or quite violent confrontations with the law and state going back over several generations of trade unionism in class-conscious families. The precarious tradition of Trotskyism was strengthened because it combined with personal experience of class. I learned from them about theory (J.P. Cannon) and proletarian art (The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists). I was told you could never trust the middle class (me among others). I learned how to dissect Labour Party policy statements and argue (just about) with right-wing MPs about incomes policy. We had no illusions that the Labour Party leadership was going to bring us socialism. But we tended to underestimate the capacity of Labourism to exhaust left opposition.

Within the Labour Party Young Socialists I was drawn towards the International Socialism Group (now Socialist Workers Party) around 1966 and I joined briefly in the late 1960s. Its attraction to me and to other socialists influenced by the New Left was that it appeared to combine theoretical openness and flexibility with an orientation towards a grass-roots working-class politics. In the sixties IS seemed to be able to assimilate and learn from new movements while retaining an understanding of exploitation. This was important both in the student movements and locally for me in the Vietnam Solidarity Committee in Hackney. But before these, IS had supported various kinds of community action, a campaign about racialism in Islington and the organization of private tenants in Hackney which contributed to their involvement in the council tenants’ movement in the late sixties.

I Joined for about eighteen months, following a drive to recruit people who agreed very generally with their aims after Powell’s racist speech in 1968. A debate about organization was just coming to an end. I puzzled over various position papers in bewilderment. In a sense I’m still reeling, for ideas take years to sink in and grow out of me. Anyway in retrospect this argument seems to me to have been crucial. It involved discussion about the degree of autonomy local branches should have. The case for a centralized structure was eventually accepted. This debate came to be referred to as a closed issue – as if it had been settled. But its implications were critical for the course which IS was to take as an organization. Closing up on these issues was a mistake. It was implied there was no time for further discussion.

Martin Shaw, in his account of the history of IS, ‘The Making of a Party?’, comments that the political basis of the new ‘democratic centralism’ which was then accepted, “. . . was not fully understood either by many of the pre-1968 members . . . or by the new recruits’.2

This was certainly true in my case. In retrospect again this episode which remained mysterious to me for years was in fact an elaborate conjuring trick. Tony Cliff held the rabbit of Rosa Luxemburg’s criticism of the undemocratic features of Leninism and the dangers of the Party substituting itself for the working class in one hand. Then, in the twinkling of an eye, it had gone into the hat and out came a knotted scarf ‘democratic centralism’ and long Leninist tradition – more and more and more of it.

Martin Shaw points out that Cliff’s turnaround was reaction to the failure of May 1968. He says it was response which eclipsed any other ‘lessons’. This incident could be dismissed as simply an example of a ‘opportunism’ peculiar to IS or to Cliff as an individual. But I think it has more general implications. For the assumption that the end justifies the means we use in organizing need not only apply to recruiting on a fuzzy basis. It could be combined with a formally democratic internal regime but involve the tactic of entrism, a fundamentally deceitful operation which has contributed to great distrust of both the

Communist Party and Trotskyist groups. Or it might mean the covert control of front organizations or the use of smear tactics to defeat any opposition from non-aligned socialists.

Somehow there has passed into Trotskyism (and into the neo-Trotskyism of IS) the assumption that the manipulation of people is justified by the supposedly superior knowledge which leaders of revolutionary groups presume to possess of the end they believe they are pursuing. It is certainly possible to find justification for such a view in Lenin’s dictums on morality. But there was enough historical evidence for questioning these. The disastrous extension and intensification of such an approach to politics had been a crucial feature of the Stalinism which Trotskyism professed to oppose. Trotskyists have levelled precisely these kinds of criticism at the CP’s period of popular frontism for example. Yet Trotskyists can also still lack scruples about stacking the cards against a real process of discussion and learning for everyone before decisions were taken. Why should it be justifiable for Trotskyists and not for Stalinists?

It was not only a question of accepting a formal democratic process. It was a corrosion of the inner responses about how a socialist should behave. Awareness this was present actually within Trotskyism. The dissidents grouped around ‘Facing Reality’ argued in 1958 that contemporary Marxism was inhibited and cramped ‘by a habit of mind and a way of life’ which included ‘a psychology of leadership’. They maintained that,

The vanguard organisation substituted political theory and an internal political life for the human responses and sensitivities of its members to ordinary people. It has now become very difficult for them to go back into the stream of the community.3

I think this comment was to be curiously prophetic of the relationship which the Trotskyist leaderships were to have with the younger generation of socialists after 1968.

The energy which erupted in May 1968 was overwhelming. You could catch a glimpse of that extraordinary concentrated force of people’s power to dissolve constraining structures which must be the subjective experience of a revolutionary process. I resisted identifying too hopefully at first. I couldn’t bear the disappointment of defeat. But events pushed this reluctance away. The upsurge and its creativity were undeniable.

In a way there was too much to absorb. You couldn’t believe your own ears sometimes. Nothing seemed impossible. The experiences of 1968 opened your political eyes and ears. It revealed vulnerabilities within capitalist society which were making it possible to imagine socialism in different ways.

Capitalism was seen as claiming your whole being. We were all colonized and had to become total resisters. The focus was not only on production or even on a wider concept of class struggle but on oppression in everyday life particularly from the family and consumption. ‘The revolution’ must liberate the imagination. The opposition to capitalism was not only a power contest against an external system but against its inner hold. Not only the rational but the irrational was the sphere of this rebellion. There was a stress on subjective feeling and a suspicion of structures of any kind, including demands. ‘Don’t Demand – Occupy!’ declared Black Dwarf. The stress was on learning through doing and on the need for experience to be the source of theory. It was assumed that your politics were communicated not only through what you said but in what you did and how you did it. This led to the assertion that the attack against capitalist society should carry the future within the present. Thus there should be no hierarchy, no elites, no chairs, no committees, no speakers and even no meetings in some cases. Or the meeting merged into and became life. Life thus became meetings!

It is easy to cast a cynical eye backwards onto such utopianism. 1968 ‘failed’ so it can be dismissed I don’t believe it can. For unless we understand how such a politics came about, how it influenced the emergence of the women’s movement and crystallized within libertarian Marxism in the early seventies, we have no context in which to place the alternative assumptions about organizing which have been central to these movements. Aspects of these have persisted in innumerable community and cultural projects, communes, ecology, alternative technology, therapy and the growth movement.

In retrospect I think the late sixties were an enormously creative period which have been too easily dismissed in the quite different situation of the late seventies. The ideas which sprang up around the May Events deserve much more serious conscious consideration.

Nonetheless with the passing of time the weaknesses of many of the assumptions about organizing which have been bequeathed half consciously are apparent. The idea of oppression is both vague and rather static. It fixes people in their role as victim rather than pointing to the contradictory aspects of relationships which force the emergence of new forms of consciousness. The stress on the way capitalism devours our whole beings could lead to a fatalism once the initial voluntarist enthusiasm was exhausted. Similarly there is a problem inherent in the slogan ‘the personal is political’ for it tends to imply that all individual problems can find a short-term political solution. Thus a politics which asserted subjectivity could ironically become a means of reducing human beings to the functions they perform for capital. Notions of individual potential could thus be obscured and denied. The stress on total solutions and the fears of co-option could give way to despair and disillusion when the world went on in its hard old course. The conviction that organization should carry the future, breaking down all hierarchy and denying all skills, could become an inturned and moralistic network which excluded people. The alternatives could seem like the lifestyle of a sub-culture, almost a fashion coming out of an anti-fashionable stance. Perhaps it was some such combination of factors which contributed to that paralysis of libertarian Marxism as a challenge to the hegemony of the Trotskyist groups in the British left which is apparent from the mid seventies.

This paralysis, combined with the defensiveness against theory has left the situation open for both ‘workerism’ which disregards new movements at one extreme and the abstruse high theory which has become a form of practice among academic Marxists.

I think it would be illuminating to disentangle the continuities and differences between the New Left of the fifties and this second wave, the New Left of the late sixties/early seventies.(4) I suspect that in fact the New Left response to 1956 did not simply ‘end’ when the New Left Review changed hands, or ‘fail’ as Trotskyists imply. Instead the people involved went into quite diverse forms of activity in the course of which their cohesive similarities were fragmented and transformed but never completely dissolved. This process has never been examined in detail. Jan O’Malley, though, traces one strand of New Left development in Notting Hill. In her book The Politics of Community Action she describes the contribution made by people from the London left clubs in tenants’ and anti-racist groups before 1966. She also mentions their involvement with the London Free School, the Notting Hill Community Workshop in 1966, and their support for the May Day Manifesto’s statement in May 1967. This said that socialists needed to make a political movement which would make ‘democratic practice effective throughout the society by activity and locality rather than in some closed, centralized, ritualized place’.(5)

The use of the term ‘workshop’ echoed the community organizing of the American New Left. The Free School also prefigured the politics of the libertarians of the early 1970s. Libertarian Marxism in this period also stressed grass-roots community organizing which had been developing in Notting Hill since the late sixties. Perhaps some of the differences between this community politics of the mid sixties and libertarianism in the early seventies is the much greater influence of the ideas of the French Situationists and the Italian far left upon the latter.

Strands of the New Left in other areas could be traced within the Labour Party, Anarchist groups, in Solidarity, International Socialist groups, and trade unions in the mid sixties. From the late sixties they could be seen helping to create ‘History Workshops’, becoming involved in the Women’s movement, in left cultural movements and in radical intellectual work.

I could not attempt to unravel these strands myself for I feel personally that I am too stuck in a particular crevice somewhere between the two new lefts. I am close to both but belong to neither. I was too late for the fifties but too formed by the late sixties to be completely swept up in the student movement of the late sixties or the voluntarism of libertarian Marxism in the early seventies. So I was drawn emotionally towards libertarianism but remained intellectually full of doubt. Though I identified with the struggle to solve the actual problems presented by capitalism, without forcing everything back into the terms which Lenin, or whoever, had said things should be happening, I felt they were continually cutting corners and over-simplifying Leninism.

It’s frightening to set off on new journeys without any maps. Perhaps the hardest bit is deciding what to hang on to and what to shed. There seemed to be an atmosphere which would annihilate history as if the past was too compromised to be acknowledged. This has had a destructive effect in the American New Left and appeared in the left libertarian politics of the early 1970s. I suspect it has contributed to contemporary left attitudes towards history in opposition to ‘theory’. I felt distrustful of this, for while acknowledging many of their criticisms of the Old Left, was wary of what seemed like an extreme subjectivity. I was true that immediate feelings of the moment were ignored in the rituals of both the Communist Party and the Trotskyist groups. But, on the other hand, what of the strategic consequences of actions? Libertarianism seemed to dismiss these. The past is always part of the moment of the present whether we consider it or not.

So I had become an ‘old leftist’ by the early seventies. This meant I remained psychologically close to IS as a kind of reference point even after I left early in 1970. I think this was a situation shared by many socialists who were to varying degrees affected by the ‘old New Left’. The subsequent hardening of IS from around 1972 which intensified in the mid seventies propelled me (and some of them) into personal dissent. It has finally forced me to start confronting the differences between the impulse of the New Left and that tradition of revolutionary organizing of which IS was an idiosyncratic part – Leninism and Trotskyism.

My real involvement was with the emerging Women’ Liberation Movement but this closeness to IS meant I was forced to try and understand the leadership’s resistance in the early 1970s to discussing aspects of oppression which were not directly related to class exploitation. I went to the first IS women’s conference as an observer and identified strongly with the women arguing for women’s liberation. It was a particularly confusing situation because many of the first women’s groups outside London were started by women in or close to IS.

At first it seemed enough to put resistance to women’s liberation down to the bias of a male-dominated leadership – though the picture was never that simple as some women in IS opposed women’s liberation and some men supported it from the beginning. The effort to change the direction of IS and orientate towards working-class economic struggles also certainly contributed towards a dismissal of women’s liberation as middle class – the pot being disposed to call the kettle black. But by the mid seventies neither of these seemed adequate explanations for the greater overt sectarianism shown by IS than by the Communist Party or the International Marxist-Group to the women’s movement. Why should a group which had historically broken with both Stalinism and orthodox Trotskyism on the issue of socialist democracy and worker’s control be more incapable of digesting not only feminism but issues like gay liberation, radical psychology, struggles around cultural and community life and personal discussion of what it meant to be a socialist? Why should a group which had rejected dogma hold its ideas as moralistic defences? Ostensibly committed to learning from workers’ struggles, the initiator of rank and file groups, opposed to bureaucracy in the labour movement, IS baulked at extending these ideas into the wider issues of everyday life or at applying them within their own organization. Even the commitment to workers’ rank and file struggles and experience came to be narrowly defined in terms of recruitment. Looking at the tussles from outside it looked as if the various groupings in the leadership adopted a rhetoric about who could put in the best claim to be the interpreter of workers’ experience.

It is a mistake of course to expect a political process to be a smooth unfolding. People in the very act of breaking out of some forms of politics, protect their behinds tightly with the corners of the old covers. Perhaps the consequence of breaking from the tradition of the Communist Party and Trotskyism made it more imperative to hold onto a limited economic concept of class struggle. For strait is the way between the perils and blandishments of centrism, reformism, etc. Especially if you are petit bourgeois to boot!

But with this dismissal of new movements and democracy many aspects of the politics from which they had partially detached themselves grew up within yet another walled garden.

Critics within IS explained the strange twists of fortune and recessions of democracy as a series of coincidences which could be put right. But how many coincidences could you explain away? The same dilemmas seemed to be coming up about the relationship of a political organization to rank and file groups which had been held up by IS as awful warnings of the CP’s Stalinist sectarianism in the late twenties and early thirties. The experience of the women’s movement also indicated that the question of the connection of a political group to movements and campaigns could not be solved by the kind of political break IS had made with Stalinism and orthodox Trotskyism. This wasn’t deeper than the actions of IS. It involved the whole approach to being socialists.

In its early days IS really did try and break with sectarian traditions and with the windbag rhetorical rituals on the left. But this hardened into a refusal to talk about the politics of what they were doing within the left. Martin Shaw has described how IS members came to feel they were above sectarianism. But the refusal to deal with dogma meant that in trying to go outwards they dismissed other socialists. In rejecting some of the obvious pretentions of orthodox Trotskyism, righteousness grew within. It was as if they had a special calling which was never stated and was somehow invisible. Their politics became those of a chosen elect. They could never do everything themselves hut felt no one else could be relied upon to do anything worthwhile. Under this strain their ideas were held in abeyance. There was no time to learn from new developments. Increasingly their theories did not fit new realities outside IS so they stiffened into dogma and became defensive. Ideas and open debate became almost suspect as inherently middle class. They seemed to be regarded as a waste of time with ‘the Crisis’ upon us. The instinct towards criticism was to attack the opponents for their class or lack of activity. Paranoia mounted as secret internal documents inevitably leaked. If the circumstances of the mid seventies could produce this change, the mind boggles at what a civil war and famine would have done – Uncle Joe apart.

By the mid seventies I was being nudged into trying to understand why it should be that the politics of IS should end up this way. I know this need to understand is shared by those socialists who have been close to IS and who became critical of its development in the early 1970s. This experience cannot simply be shaken off. Our past is not an indulgence. A lot of people’s lives have been affected by their membership of IS/SWP – political faiths have been scarred much more deeply than the socialism of someone like me who was not a member for very long. Such negligence is never without its nemesis of cynicism and paralysis. The expelled members or people who left were erased from the memory of what is significant. Their opposing politics were constantly confused with moral failing. This has sinister echoes and has resulted in bitterness and waste. But the implications go even beyond this. I think that unless we try and understand what were the sticking points which limited IS’s move away from Stalinism and from orthodox Trotskyism we will not see what allowed this process to occur. This means we are back to square one with no guarantee we won’t repeat the same circle.

So I think the process of opening up what happened in IS and exploring its consequences for how we organize in the future is as important as a reassessment of the impact of the 1956 New Left and libertarian Marxism.6 I am aware that my preoccupation with IS/SWP may have a hermetic quality to people who have not lived any aspect of such an encounter. It may seem a strange, intense passion splashing around in the proverbial parochial duck pond. But I believe it has a significance beyond the political involvement of ex-members or members. For roughly a decade from the mid 1960s IS represented in Britain the main organizational hope that the Leninist and Trotskyist traditions could be renewed by a generation which had not been scarred by the horrors of Stalinism and the extreme isolation of the minority Trotskyist opposition. The renewal promised was to carry the revolutionary tradition of 1917 and yet face outwards to the problems of modern capitalism. I think this promise has proved to be illusory. However the existence of such a hope meant that many implications of the New Left challenge to Stalinism were evaded. Also, as Martin Shaw argues, the IS leaders did not really understand ‘the structural changes. . . which the student movement highlighted’.7 More than this though, they did not acknowledge the significance of the changes in consciousness which these developments involved. The insights of both movements could thus be absorbed, channelled and finally abandoned by the sectarian husk which had consumed them.

This has had a most confusing effect on the contemporary left in which the SWP can raise great dust storms while digging itself further into the sand. It means that the substantial problems raised by the New Left after 1956 and by the May Events in 1968, about how we should make socialism, have been almost completely obscured.

I suppose this effort to understand IS/SWP could be described as a continuing niggling external puzzle for me. An internal pull towards thinking about organization has been experiencing a completely different politics within the women’s movement since 1969. The differences between this kind of practice and socialist politics have seemed so great that it has been hard to compare them. I’ve increasingly felt this as a paralysing split. There is a danger that we might acquiesce to such a division, accepting one way of organizing for socialism and another for feminism. Given the existing balance of power between the sexes in society as a whole this would undoubtedly mean that our organizing as feminists became increasingly ghetto-ized.

In the women’s movement for nearly ten years there have been organizing assumptions growing, mainly communicated by word of mouth. The difficulty of translating these assumptions into a language which can touch current definitions of organization on the left have been enormous. This is partly because these have emerged from the practice of a movement in a piecemeal way. They challenge the left groups implicitly rather than explicitly. But also they cannot be contained within the accepted circumference of debate established by the male-dominated left. Coming partly from the experience of feminist women’s lives they reach continually outwards towards new forms of expressing defiance and resistance. This is a creativity which has not been shared by the left groups within the Leninist and Trotskyist traditions.

We have stressed for instance the closeness and protection of a small group and the feeling of sisterhood. Within the small group it has been important that every woman has space and air for her feelings and ideas to grow. The assumption is that there is not a single correctness which can be learned off by heart and passed on by poking people with it. It is rather that we know our feelings and ideas move and transform themselves in relation to other women. We all need to express and contribute. Our views are valid because they come from within us and not because we hold a received correctness. The words we use seek an openness and an honesty about our own interest in what we say. This is the opposite to most left language which is constantly distinguishing itself as correct and then covering itself with a determined objectivity. (This is not only true of Leninism but sometimes also of the opponents of Leninism. Here the name becomes inadequate to explain the problem. It becomes a problem within the use of the concept of science in Marxism itself.) It is very important to be able to say ‘I don’t know’ and ‘Nobody knows, we need to find out’ without being dismissed as stupid.

Our politics have tried to allow expression of vulnerability and openness to every woman’s feelings which consciousness raising at its best implies. We have rejected central organization, hierarchical structures and a leadership. This has not meant that we have no organization, for example, regional networks, women’s centres, conferences, publishing groups, theatre groups, folk and rock bands, film collectives, trade union caucuses, food co-ops are aspects of the women’s movement. The structures which have arisen have been seen as serving particular needs. The making and communication of ideas have been an extraordinary collective process in which thousands of women have contributed. The organizational initiatives which have been spread through the movement have been extremely diverse, involving women in quite different ways. The women’s movement has touched many areas of politics socialists have neglected and its hold goes deeper. It absorbs more of your being.

We’ve been close to our own weaknesses and pain in all this. It is hard to disentangle ourselves enough to make more distanced theoretical criticism while holding on to the realization of how creative our organizing has been. Though setting ourselves more exacting practical and personal standards in politics than the contemporary left, we nonetheless have found that criticism and differences bear too closely upon us for comfort. The distancing which is present in male-dominated groups is alienating. Yet it allows for the release of differences. The agony of division can be turned outwards rather than imploding the soul. Sisterhood can become a coercive consensus which makes it emotionally difficult for individual women to say what they feel rather than a source of strength. Consciousness raising can put too great a pressure on women to change by an effort of will alone. Feminist politics can become preoccupied with living a liberated life rather than becoming a movement for the liberation of women. Our lack of structure can make it difficult for women outside particular social networks to join. It can lead to cliquishness and thus be undemocratic. The stress on personal experience makes it hard to communicate ideas which have been gained either from the women’s movement in the past or from other forms of radical politics.

Awareness of these weaknesses has made some women join left organizations. Their problem is then that many of the understandings of the women’s movement are still unrecognized. Some women have opted instead for a pure theory which dismisses the vital importance of a politics in which subjective experience is always present. I can see how this response arises but I think it’s a denial of a crucial source of our creativity as a movement. The recent growth of socialist feminist groups carries the hope of an integration of ideas, personal feeling and activity. It has come from several sources. Within the women’s movement there have always been socialists and women who have become socialists so there is continuity with these earlier groupings of socialist feminists. But many women have also joined socialist feminist groups as exiles from Trotskyist and other left groups. For others the socialist feminist group is both their first women’s and socialist group. This means there is no longer an automatically shared background of movement politics.

The women’s movement has had a great reticence about blowing trumpets. For a woman like me familiar with the left this was one of the strangest things I had to learn. There was no bluffing but a careful, scrupulous examination of the minutiae of behaviour, with much exacting inner standards. On the left everything is a hurry and there is a pressure for results. Exemplary myths can substitute in the short term. I think the realism has been a long-term strength of the women’s movement. On the other hand, it sometimes becomes a self-denigration, a dismissal of what we have achieved. This is true of our attitude to activity and ideas but most particularly to organization. I think it’s important now to begin to assert explicitly understandings which have been passed on by word of mouth or even been implicit in how we’ve done things. For understandings which are not formulated explicitly have a way of vanishing like dust under a carpet of ‘correct’ ideas.

Our discussions of organization have dwelt on immediate problems, for example, the lack of structure, embarrassed silences in meetings, the relationship of co-ordinating centres like the London workshop to local groups. There is a shared understanding of the need for an independent movement, though some women interpret this as remaining completely separate from men and other movements while others see it as keeping our organizational autonomy but working with other groupings against a common opponent. Beyond these assumptions and understandings we have tried to solve organizational problems as they come up with the general aim of making situations in which all women can participate fully. Despite feminist interest in women’s history, we have not referred what we are doing much to past traditions of revolutionary organization. Leninist or otherwise. In this way the women’s movement has shared with libertarian Marxism a sense of beginning anew. This has meant we have avoided the dogmatism with which these traditions have become encrusted. But it has put us on the defensive in relation to people on the left who appear to have very clear versions of revolutionary tradition and ‘an analysis’ off pat. It has also deprived us of the valuable confidence which a sense of belonging to a complex culture of resistance brings to the labour movement. The growing numbers of women exiled from left groups could bring the positive aspects of these traditions into the women’s movement.

Our debates have been grounded in real conflicts but it has been difficult to generalize beyond the particular. We have no means of placing them in any context. Experience which is not theorized has a way of dissolving and slipping out of view, even when it belongs to the relatively recent collective memory of a living movement. We can retain attitudes and responses towards forms of organizing which we prefer but it is hard to pass them on or give them a more general validity.

I think the need to theorize our organizational experience using past traditions creatively is becoming more urgent, for as time passes it becomes impossible to communicate what happened or why decisions were taken by word of mouth. You can’t keep telling it like a story. ‘Well you see at the Skegness Women’s Liberation Conference we got everyone down off the platform. And then we had to do the same a few years later at the Mile End Women And Socialism Conference.’ It’s too long-winded and it means everyone is just going backwards and forwards, up and down the same hill. It evokes a vision of a small body of intransigent feminist old age pensioners still hauling Trotskyist women off platforms armed with a memory which is incomprehensible to most people. Without a theory you get stuck defending entrenched feelings. Making a theory gives you enough bounce to leap up in the air, meet critics head on and land on your feet with an alternative without getting too puffed. It gives you the advantage.

There has become more of a need for such leaps since we have been trying to work out how we approach issues like anti-fascism, Ireland, mass working-class confrontations like Grunwick, legal repression, or imperialism. Violent demonstrations, mass pickets, torture and the consolidation of the power of the state to suppress radical resistance internationally have stretched the response of feminist organizational structures which were devised for quite different kinds of politics.(8) There is strong pressure to simply dismiss the significance of the more intimate and personal areas of struggle. Instead I think we need to clarify the different kinds of resistance we are engaged in as feminists and develop a more strategic sense of opposition and alliance and new combinations of personal and public forms depending on the nature of the political issue.

One aspect of such a strategy would be a more worked-out understanding of what the feminist experience has taught us about how to organize and what aspects we feel are relevant for making socialism.

I think it would be to go down a blind alley if we simply presented this in terms of a defensive idealization of the women’s movement as ‘the alternative’ and a caricature of the ‘authoritarian male’ left. This puts an impossible weight on women’s liberation and lets men off the hook as they can leave it to women while presenting a more-feminist-than-thou facade. The women’s movement can’t carry some finished alternative, though the experience of an alternative practice and the search for different relationships within the political process can contribute a great deal. But despite its creativity, feminism, by definition, expresses the experience of one sex. It is necessarily partial. Moreover there are actual class and race biases as well. Women’s liberation has mobilized mainly women from a particular strata, teachers, social workers, librarians, journalists or clerical workers, as well as women working in the family. They are largely people involved in the communication of values and the administration and servicing of capitalist society. These are crucial places to contest. They give important insights into raw sensitivities apparent in relations of control between the sexes in these areas of capitalism. But many women are not included in this particular social relationship. While some manual working-class women have been involved and many others influenced by the women’s movement their experience has not been central to the emergence of the new feminism. There is a similar racial limitation. Feminists are predominantly white. Asian and West Indian women are in a minority. This has restricted the full understanding of lived similarities and differences in the predicament of women of various classes and races.

I don’t think the women’s movement or small groups of men and women can provide some neat alternative model out of a hat. The great historic force of Leninism is precisely that it has been created and used in revolutionary situations. It has worked up to a point and adapted to more complex situations than either anarchism or syndicalism. Nor is there any denying that Trotskyism’s origins in resistance to Stalinism when such opposition was tortuous and lonely make it a crucial source of revolutionary experience.

But there is no need to stop there. It must also be admitted that the Bolsheviks, even before Stalin, have a lot to account for, and that Leninism destroyed vital aspects of socialism even in creating a new kind of left politics. It was not only that revolutions have faced the most dire external circumstances. Leninist assumptions are actually weighted against the integration of many of the understandings present within pre-Leninist forms of socialism.9 The persistent traditions of anti-Leninism have not been mere intransigence. But they have

been limited to tiny sectarian groupings or abstract theory by the historical impact of Stalinism and this has affected how opposition has been expressed.

It feels now as if new light is being cast on these old disputes.

I have taken heart from the debates which have been going on internationally in the Communist Parties, from the discussions in Britain around Socialist Unity, Big Flame and the International Socialism Conference and articles in The Leveller and Socialist Register. I feel personally closest to the growth of the network of socialist feminist groups and the things written about the left in Red Rag, Gay Left, Lesbian Left and Achilles Heel as these are not the papers of any political organization and are concerned with the connection between socialism and sexual politics.

In a recent interview in The Leveller, ‘Recovering the Libertarian Tradition’, E.P. Thompson criticized ‘the unreconstructed Leninist and vanguardist strategies, which once again situate a sectarian leadership proclaiming themselves to be the embodiment of the proper revolutionary consciousness of the working people: and not inquiring very closely into what the actual demands and needs of the people are’.

He added that this was not ‘a blanket criticism of Leninism as such – Leninism was a specific product of very special historical circumstances’ which seemed to him ‘to be irrelevant to this country and this time, and which could often entail anti-democratic and anti-libertarian premises’.

He asserted the need for an ‘affirmative politics’ which could avoid the passions, hatreds and paranoia which flourished within the contemporary left and could include ‘an immense number of active supporters of the existing labour movements and Labour Party’.(10)

I see the growth of new forms of organizing within the women’s movement as part of such a larger recovery of a libertarian socialist tradition. I think that this requires a sustained re-evaluation of the tradition of Leninism, and in Britain, because of its particular influence, of Trotskyism.(11) I will confess to being a reluctant contributor to this process, for such a realization is still in its early days with confusion and doubt on one side and a more tenacious clutch of doctrinal purity on the other. While there is a growing muttering and mumbling among the dissatisfied it is still being met by a pother of rhetoric from the Trotskyist and neo-Trotskyist leaderships.

Not only fear at stirring the pother has restrained me but respect. Organizing ideas, male dominated and handed down from above or not, are laborious creations and root themselves through usage. There certainly are skills which need to be passed on. There are things you need to learn from people who know more. Everything does not pop up in our heads. I know I have learned from both Lenin and Trotsky. It would be prodigal to dismiss the depth of understanding which the Russian revolutionary tradition and the enormous upheaval of 1917 made possible. Leninist ideas have obviously been well tried and practiced sanctions. Whatever criticisms I’d make of Leninism there was always some friend in the Communist. Party or one of the left groups to explain Lenin hadn’t. meant it like that or he’d said something different. Sometimes I feel even naming the problem as Leninism is wrong. For I know that in all left organizations there are always people with complex understandings which are lived in many dimensions. So I’ve thought for years perhaps it was best to leave well alone whatever uneasiness I felt. Why tussle and worry when you have no worked-out alternative?

Now though, it seems to me to have become inescapably important to bring the real disagreements about how to make socialism which exist in the left and the labour movement out into the open in order to develop new understandings. We can best begin by examining our own political experience and see what might be generalized from that. We need to uncover what we have been actually doing without claiming an ascendant correctness or disguising weaknesses.

All this is just the story behind the main plot which in summary is: how I think some of the approaches to organizing which go under the headings of Leninism and Trotskyism are flawed; how I think the assumptions of what it means to be a socialist carried within Leninism and Trotskyism and which prevail on the left now block our energy and self-activity and make it harder for socialism to communicate to most people; why I think the women’s movement suggests certain ways of reopening the possibility of a strong and popular socialist movement.

I am not dealing systematically with the ‘works’ of Lenin or the works of Trbtsky, or the history of the Communist Parties, or Maoism’s specific application of Leninism. Nor am I tracing the origin and growth of the Fourth International or the disputes within Trotskyism which led dissidents like C.L.R. James, Raya Dunayevskaya, Michel Pablo and Tony Cliff himself to revise aspects of Trotsky’s thought. Absent are great chunks of debates which Leninists and Trotskyists have been chewing away at for years, for instance the question of state power, imperialism, the law of uneven development, the-theory of permanent revolution, and many more.

I am approaching Leninism mainly as it has appeared through the resurgent flourish of Trotskyist groups on the British left since the late sixties. I am focusing on the points of conflict which have developed between these Trotskyist forms of Leninism and the women’s movement. This is not because I don’t think there is much more to be said – but because I know I am not the one to say it. Hopefully other people will explore the ways in which these confrontations have occurred in other contexts and extend the implications of feminism into those areas of left debate in which we are still absent.

The general terms of these criticisms could not have been formulated without the experience of being in the women’s movement. But the specifics of what follows is me writing as an individual. I hope this might contribute to a more thorough discussion.

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

January 20, 2013 1 comment

The following post is the introduction (written by Hilary Wainwright) from the book Beyond The Fragments: Feminism and the Making of Socialism. Although originally printed in 1979, this is from the second edition “revised and enlarged”. The foreword and acknowledgements are already available on Libcom. By posting this introduction I hope to commit myself to post the rest of the book in installments, I will mostly be working on the scanning on Sundays and will post on Libcom once complete.

I’m going to go ahead and post the blurb before the introduction…

This is the most sustained argument for a reappraisal on the left of all its traditions that has yet to come out of the women’s movement in Britain. It is written by three women who have been active in both feminist and socialist politics. Whether from the experience of Leninist organizations, or of libertarian politics, each writer analyses the problems and contradictions of her own personal background.

The women’s movement not only suggests different ways of organizing for socialist politics, but also critically questions the way the left has integrated the insights of the women’s movement and confronted its own reproduction of authoritarian and hierarchical structures. The authors argue not just for a rhetorical acceptance of feminism, but for a redefinition of priorities, a new approach to theory and consciousness, and for an open and searching examination of past and present forms of organisation.

They do not offer ‘answers’ – indeed their distinct concern and emphases would make that impossible – but instead hope that their ideas will be discussed amongst socialist and feminists involved in a wide range of activities and hope that through their effort other people will be encouraged to speak their mind and communicate their understanding.

By Louis Mackay

By Louis Mackay

INTRODUCTION

Hilary Wainwright

After a decade of intense socialist agitation, more working-class people than ever in post-war years voted Tory at the last election. At the same time, fewer people than at any election since 1931 voted for the Labour Party. It seems then that as far as the mass influence of socialist politics is concerned, not only have we a long way to go, but in one respect at least we have not been moving forwards.

Of course, the way people vote does not sum up their consciousness. Many of those who did not vote Labour will undoubtedly have been active in militant strikes and demonstrations over the last few months. And a low vote for the Callaghan government was more indicative of the crisis facing the Labour Party than the failure of socialist agitation. But when the reactionary rhetoric of Tory ‘freedom’ can evoke such a groundswell of working-class support, socialists need to ask a few questions about our inability to translate the awareness of a vanguard of socialist activists in to any lasting change in mass consciousness. The inability applies both to socialists organized through the Labour Party and, in a different way to socialists organized in Leninist parties.

The flaw which they have in common is that they both are organized in ways more appropriate to seizing power – governmental power and state power respectively – than to the necessary preliminaries of raising and extending socialist consciousness and grass-roots organization among the majority of working people. In the former case the priorities of the electoral machine, the overriding imperative of retaining or gaining parliamentary/council power tends to suppress political debate and inhibit political involvement in industrial and social struggles. In the latter case, the pretensions and disciplines of democratic centralism tend to produce an arrogance and sectarianism which make the Leninist groups unable to contribute to and encourage the many sources of socialist initiative and activity. The Communist Party too has its own version of organizing for power before organizing to change consciousness, in its desire for trade union positions often at the cost of challenging the apathy and conservatism still prevalent on the shop floor.

We feel that the women’s movement has, at the very least, raised the consciousness, and encouraged the self-organization of thousands of women. In doing so it has also begun to challenge relations of power. If the left is to achieve the change in consciousness and the growth in self-organization which is a condition for resolving the problem of power, then there is much that socialists can learn from the women’s movement’s values and ways of organizing. For we cannot just put the problems down to ‘objective conditions’ like socialists tended to during the boom years of the fifties and sixties. In many ways objective conditions have never made socialism seem so necessary and so achievable. Capitalism’s self-justification as the natural means of meeting human needs and expanding human possibilities seems more obviously groundless than ever, with every structure of the economy out of joint with human needs (not just the ‘declining’ sections of industry as in the thirties). Health services are short of money while private corporations keep millions in ‘deferred’ – unpaid – tax; thousands are homeless with building workers on the dole; millions are spent on the technology of defence while cheap heating, nurseries, aids to the handicapped, preventive medicine, public transport systems, etc., still remain primitive; and so the list goes on, touching on everyone’s day-to-day experience. In such conditions the possibility of producing for need rather than profit, of planning production by working people rather than by the civil service or the corporations should seem more relevant than ever. Moreover, the means – or at least the groundwork – for achieving such a society, the organizations created by working people themselves, have grown in numbers and, with occasional setbacks, in strength, as the crisis has deepened. It’s not like the thirties when a socialist vision was there – whatever criticisms we may now make of it – but the strength was lacking. Not only have the traditional workers’ organizations, so far, retained their grass-roots strength but also oppressed groups which were previously passive or angry in isolation, women, gays, blacks and youth, have become militant and organized.

Why Go Beyond The Fragments?

Our concern in writing this book is with the forms of organization necessary to develop socialist consciousness out of this grass-roots industrial and social strength. Perhaps this concern in itself needs some justification. ‘Why go beyond the fragments?’ radical feminists, syndicalists and others might ask. After all, they might say, socialist organizations have not been spectacularly successful in fighting against inequality, arbitrary power, exploitation, racial, sexual and other forms of oppression. A wider political organization, they might add, blunts the power of the autonomous movements. Their conclusion is that the best chance of success for each movement is through the direct exertion of their own power.

There might be some logic in this if all the inequalities and sources of exploitation and oppression which the women’s movement, the trade union movement, the black movement, etc., are up against were separate, unconnected to each other. If workers were simply up against bosses, women up against the sexual division of labour and sexist culture, blacks against racial repression and discrimination, with no significant connection between these forms of oppression, no state power linking and overseeing the institutions concerned, then strong independent movements would be enough. But it is precisely the connections between these sources of oppression, both through the state and through the organization of production and culture, which makes such a piecemeal solution impossible.

For example, consider all the connections which lie behind the demands of the women’s movement. To win these demands there would have to be a massive shift from corporate profits to socially useful facilities (nurseries, abortion, day-care facilities, and so on) and from defence expenditure to expenditure on health and education; there would have to be a radical reorganization of work and control over work, to provide men and women with full opportunities for childcare and leisure, without jeopardizing job prospects; there would have to be a democratization of health and education and of the media, among other things, if women’s needs were to be met. The list of all the wider ramifications of women’s liberation could be extended, but from this list alone it is clear that our demands challenge all the priorities of the present-and previous-governments. Moreover they challenge the vested interests of the armed forces, the big corporations and hierarchy of the civil service. Changes of this sort affect and concern all the other movements of oppressed people, workers, blacks, youth, and so on. Unless women’s demands are integrated with the needs of these other groups then it is unlikely that women’s demands will ever get the support necessary to take on the powerful vested interests they are up against. For example, without incessant argument for an alternative which meets the needs of all oppressed and exploited groups, trade unionists in the private sector will see our demands for more social expenditure as a threat to their jobs; council house tenants will see our demands as competition for scarce resources, and so on.

So one problem is that of drawing up a common programme of political and social change, meeting the needs of all oppressed groups, and arguing for it among each group. The other problem is that of gathering together all the different sources of strength, uniting the social power of the community with the industrial power of those in production, and pitching this popular power against the existing state. This requires a strategy, based on the ideas and experiences of each movement, and drawing from the lessons of past struggles and from international experiences. The solution to these problems needs more than just ad hoc contact between the different movements. Neither is the merging of the movements any solution; there are good reasons for each movement preserving its autonomy, controlling its own organization. For women, blacks, trade unionists, gays, youth, and national minorities have specific interests which may sometimes be antagonistic to each other both now and probably in a socialist society. The solution lies in bringing together all those involved in the different movements and campaigns who agree on a wider programme of socialist change, based on the demands of the different movements in the context of organizing for social ownership and popular political power.

New Ways of Organizing

In organizational terms this could imply some sort of federal structure which provides a framework for united actions following from the fundamental principles on which revolutionaries could agree, for collective discussion of our differing experiences and traditions, and autonomy to take initiatives where tactical disagreements keep us apart. But this book is not about organizational prescriptions. It is rather intended to begin a discussion of the limits of traditional principles of revolutionary and social democratic organizations, in the light of the advances and insights made by recent movements, starting with the women’s liberation movement.

The method by which Sheila Rowbotham theorizes the problems of socialist organization is very different from that which has dominated discussions within and between left groups; though it is not hostile to these discussions. Her argument draws on a variety of past experiences of creating socialist organizations – including but not restricted to the Leninist tradition. It draws critically from the classic theorists of socialist organizations. But her central contribution is to theorize and give political credence to many of the organizational principles and insights of what most political organizations would treat as a ‘sectoral’ movement, of significance only within that ‘sector’.

Of course the struggles of the women’s movement are focused on a specific oppression: the oppression of women as a sex. But the women’s movement, like all other movements arising to resist a particular oppression, also has a wider significance for the way we organize as socialists. For every form of subordination suppresses vital understandings which can only be fully achieved and communicated through the liberation of the oppressed group itself. No ‘vanguard’ organization can truly anticipate these understandings. For example, no such organization had any real understanding of the subjectivity of oppression, of the connections between personal relations and public political organization, or of the emotional components of consciousness, until the women’s movement had brought these issues to the surface and made them part of political thought and action.

If a revolutionary movement is to be truly able to encourage, develop and guide the self-activity and the organized power of the oppressed then it must be able to learn from and contribute to these understandings. It must be organized in a way which can bring them together into a vision of socialist transformation. To a very large extent socialist politics should derive, and at times has derived, its main content from these understandings. But one reason why socialism has become so sterile and dead to most working class people in the post-war years is because it has not, until recently, become open to the understandings arrived at through the movements of oppressed groups and classes. The debates of political parties have, until the late sixties, tended to be seen as ‘above’ the concerns of specific movements, except insofar as an item might be added to a programme. In relation to this, Sheila quotes Fernando Claudin, who, in his book on Eurocommunism, pointed to this tendency in the Communist Party and other left parties:

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

In the past five years or so some process of learning and dialogue has gone on within the political organizations. But in general it has been limited to the specific ‘sectoral’ concerns of each movement. Fernando Claudin’s description still applies. For example, revolutionary organizations will readily admit that they’ve learnt about sexism through the women’s movement, racism through black organizations, etc. But when it comes to developing the principles of revolutionary politics, the principles or organizing which seek to overthrow capitalism as a whole, this has traditionally been the internal concern and monopoly of formally political organizations. Such a view had some justification at the time of mass socialist or communist parties as in Europe in the 1900s and the 1920s, when the vast majority of socialist activists in the various social and industrial movements, for example the shop stewards’ movements of that time, were also members of mass political parties. In these conditions the developments within the movements would have a direct political expression, and an influence on the shape of the political organization. New political initiatives and sometimes new political organizations would arise from debates and sometimes splits would be stimulated by the movements, but occurring from within these parties.

By contrast, one reason why socialists now have to make a much more conscious effort to theorize the understandings of these movements is because we do not have such a close relation to a mass socialist party. On the contrary, we are now faced with creating a socialist organization not primarily through debates, struggles and splits within existing parties (although that will be an important part of the process especially in relation to the Labour Party), but through the coming together of socialists based in the various ‘sectoral’ movements, the majority of whom are not members of any political party. For the radicalization which took place in the late sixties occurred against the background of a virtual political vacuum and a real discontinuity in the influence of the traditional workers’ parties, the Labour Party especially. The conditions of the boom were one factor: militant industrial organizations had grown accustomed to gaining partial victories without any active involvement in the Labour Party. And when the Labour Party returned to office it became so quickly integrated into the capitalist state, and the Labour left showed so little sign of activity that industrial militants, plus the new movements of students, women, and black organizations, were quickly thrown onto their own resources.

In this situation the women’s movement, solidarity movements with international struggles, many shop stewards’ combines or local action committees, the anti-fascist movement, theatre groups, alternative newspapers, militant tenants, squatters and community groups have themselves become a political focus. That is to say, the vast majority of people who became socialists – through many different routes – after the boom, tended to concentrate their energies on activities and organizations directly concerned with their own lives, experiences and skills. Many briefly passed through, worked with, or eclectically drew on the activities and ideas of the revolutionary groups (the IS and IMG especially). And these groups have at different times been very important catalysts and educators. But only a small minority of socialists have found either these groups, or for different reasons the Communist Party or Labour Party, to be an adequate political framework. The rest have applied and developed their socialism in more specific areas of struggle, building up ideas on broader ways of organizing from these limited and often localized experiences.

By pointing to the present strength of these fragmented working-class activities we do not want to imply that these are timelessly superior to a co-ordinated national organization. As Lynne describes later in this book, there are serious limits to, for example, isolated local organizations. She explores the question of organizing from her experience of the efforts of libertarian Marxists and anarchists to form non-hierarchical networks in the early 1970s. She shows the similarities and interconnections between libertarianism and some aspects of the women’s movement in this period. Both movements shared a basic openness to tackling dilemmas which faced people in their everyday life. She traces the development of these politics in the area of London in which she lives, through women’s centres and the Islington Gutter Press, which has shown itself to be among the most resilient and popular of the local papers which sprang up in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Such accounts of local radical activity are vital. Unrecorded they disappear even from the recent political memory.

Nonetheless, after spending eight years within the local movement of Islington radicalism she has become very aware of the real vulnerability and limitations inherent both in women’s community activity and indeed of an isolated localism which lacks political links to activity elsewhere. This slow but growing realization was behind her decision to join a small nationally-based group, Big Flame, last year.

At a more general level it is also obvious that the National Front could never have been so effectively challenged if it had not been for the national focus and leadership the Socialist Workers Party, as well as members of other organizations, in the Anti-Nazi League. Most industrial struggles, whether against government wage restraint or closures in a multi-plant company, require national – if not international – co-ordination. The women’s movement derives strength and support from being international as well. A mass socialist newspaper – which perhaps Socialist Worker or Women’s Voice could become if they were more open to rank and file organizations and less party recruitment papers – and a paper for the left, like Socialist Challenge, clearly require national co-ordination. And looking into the longer term, a revolutionary movement will only succeed through the overthrow of the national state machinery and its international supports. What I would suggest though is that in creating the wide network of links which make up a political rather than single issue movement, the local impetus will at this stage be crucial. When a new movement is not emerging only as a split from an existing, cohesive political party, people will tend to build these wider links with people they know and trust; and they will do so in ways that are close to their own experience. This will tend to mean that the possibilities in the localities, of going beyond the fragments, of creating the foundations of a revolutionary movement, will for a time be far greater than on a national level.

We have had occasional glimpses of what such alliances could be: a means of exchanging the understandings arrived at by different movements – industrial militants, for example, contributing their sharp sense of the material sources of working-class power, that flows from a detailed knowledge of how production is organized, or feminists challenging the competitive ego-tripping and ego-trampling arrogance which still erodes the collective strength and democracy of many trade union and socialist organizations (it afflicts feminist organizations too sometimes but at least we’re very conscious of the problem); a forum for political debate and discussion through which the truths and weaknesses of different traditions can be sifted and tested in relation to the contemporary problems; a focus for socialist culture and ideas, and a resource centre for organizing campaigns and struggles. It was partly from a desire to build on and improve on these beginnings that we decided to write this book.

The Insights of Feminism

In the three contributions which make up this book we discuss some of the difficulties which need to be overcome to create such a democratic, and united – albeit loosely – socialist organization out of those involved in all the fragmented movements, campaigns and political groups in which socialists are involved. We have written it because we feel the experiences of the women’s liberation movement have much to contribute to overcome the problems which hold back the growth of such an organization.

The women’s movement, arising as it does to resist an oppression which comes from inequalities of power and confidence in interpersonal relations, and from a hierarchical division of labour, has been intensely sensitive and self-conscious about inequality and hierarchy in the creating of its organizational forms. In this process the women’s movement has made important insights which are directly relevant to how we organize as socialists. Moreover, again because of the form of oppression which it confronts, the women’s movement has radically extended the scope of its politics and, with this, has changed who is involved in politics and how. Much of the oppression of women takes place ‘in private’, in areas of life considered ‘personal’. The causes of that oppression are social and economic, but these causes could only be revealed and confronted when women challenged the assumptions of their personal life, of who does the housework, of the way children are brought up, the quality of our friendships, even the way we make love and with whom. These were not normally the subject of politics. Yet these are the problems of everyday life, the problems about which women talk most to other women (and about which many men would talk more if they could). When the women’s movement made these issues part of socialist politics, it began to break down the barriers which have kept so many people, especially women, out of politics. Before the women’s movement, socialist politics, like all other sorts of politics, seemed something separate from everyday life, something unconnected with looking after children, worrying about the meals and the housework, finding ways of enjoying yourself with your friends, and so on. It was something professional, for men, and among men, for the shop steward or the party activist. The activities of the women’s movement have begun to change that as far as women are concerned. But it’s meant a different way of organizing, a way of organizing which does not restrict political activity to, ‘the professional’.

The insights of the women’s movement then do not simply concern the issue of ‘sexism’ in a socialist organization. They could contribute in general ways to creating a more democratic, more truly popular and more effective socialist movement than was possible before.

Answering the Criticisms

Since we produced the first edition of this book the issues raised have been debated at many meetings and taken up in reviews. We have received a large number of letters, more requests to speak than we can possibly manage and been involved in lengthy discussions.

In response to the first edition of Beyond the Fragments a lot of people would say, ‘It’s all very nice your talk of the need for a socialist organization that can both allow for the open expression of conflict between different groups and develop the particular understandings which these differences bring to socialism, but you don’t really say anything practical about getting there!’ That’s a true comment but there are good reasons. First, our limited experiences do not give us the grounds for confidence to arrive at such general practical conclusions. Secondly, we question the idea that you can really only step into the debate about political organization when you have a general solution, a clear way forward. There would never have been a women’s movement at all if we had accepted this approach. Often the inadequacies of traditional ways of organizing initially become apparent through very specific experiences. It is important that these are expressed and reflected on, partial though they be. If change and innovation to cope with new conditions, new problems had to wait for a new masterplan (or mistressplan for that matter!) the old ways would become ossified and there would be little chance of change. So we have written from our common experiences in the women’s movement and from the interaction of these experiences with our other particular involvements in revolutionary groups, in local socialist newspapers and socialist centres and in work with other working-class organizations. We have written in the hope that others would complete, develop or modify the picture from their different experiences; and that maybe out of that process would come a clearer way forward.

The discussions we have had since the first edition have not changed our view of these necessary limits of what we are doing. But they have made us see the need, first, to be more explicit about the general political assumptions behind our discussion of the insights of the women’s movement; secondly, to draw out more practically the general political directions in which our conclusions tend. Thirdly, we have become aware of the need to move outside arguments which are only about the revolutionary left, the women’s movement or local community politics and tackle the wider context of labour politics. So in ‘Moving Beyond the Fragments’ I try to draw together .some of the developments on the extra-parliamentary left and consider their relationship to the Labour Party and the contribution feminism has made and would make to them.

There has also been criticism that in Beyond the Fragments we did not discuss the nature of the state. We do not make it clear whether we think socialists should aiming to control it, change it, overthrow it and what will be our alternative. A full discussion of this requires several volumes! All we can do is make clear our basic assumptions.

The Women’s Movement and the State

The women’s movement has come repeatedly into conflict with the state. The force of the police has been used against for instance the ‘Miss World’ demonstrators in the early seventies; against women picketing during strikes, Irish women, Astrid Proll, ‘Reclaim the Night’ marchers. But on the whole, the areas of struggle have been around male-dominated definitions of the law, e.g., in relation to lesbian mothers and rape, and around the every day and apparently benign aspects of state power, some of which Lynne and Sheila describe – for example, conflict over social security, child benefit, for nursery provision against the attitudes in medical institutions toward women’s bodies and minds. In contesting the law women have been challenging important areas of power behind the ‘common sense’ of male-dominated capitalism. In demanding control over welfare, which because of women’s position in the family is such an immediate concern, the women’, movement has focused on an old problem for socialists. Socialists have tended to either emphasize the need to strike at the directly coercive force of the state or, obversely, to make demands as if the state were a neutral force. The women’s movements has been part of a new recognition which the welfare state has made possible. First, that we need the gains made by the working class and the feminist movements of the past. Secondly, that the existence of the gains makes possible new forms of resistance in which we can fight for control over welfare. Thirdly, that no improvement is ever finally ‘achieved’. For within a capitalist society, the original radical intention can be channelled or transposed into quite different purposes. For example, welfare networks can accumulate a considerable amount of information which is sometimes used against people. When the economic tide turns no legal or social gain are secure.

The practice of the women’s movement points toward the need for an understanding of how we are faced not simply with a coercive state with a military machine which we must destroy, but also with the complex ramifications of the law and welfare, and intervention in industry and the economy, in which movements of opposition to capitalism have established a certain-albeit limited-presence. This continuing process of everyday contestation is a crucial factor in weighting the balance of forces within capitalist society. To say this is not to argue that the making of socialism will not come up against coercion, but that struggle in areas in which the state power appears to many people to be legitimate is equally important. The women’s movement has contributed towards challenging how this legitimacy is defined – for example, in questioning the dominant notion of the family in social policy. It has also begun to search for forms of resistance which acknowledge that the social resources which modern capitalism has been forced to concede are needed by people, while insisting that these must be in the control of those who use them. This requires a strategy which does not simply oscillate between rhetorical repetition of the need to smash the bourgeois state and a policy of piecemeal demands for bits of social welfare, the proverbial crumbs from the rich man’s table, easily given or taken away at his discretion. We need instead to see our everyday struggle for control as part of the creation of a new form of political power based on local, regional and national assemblies of working people controlling all areas of social life, social services, production and distribution, internal order, external defence, and foreign trade.

Such a political system could only be achieved against such sources of extra-parliamentary power as the big corporations, the financial institutions, the institutions of international banking and trade, the leadership of the army and NATO and sections of the civil service. It could not be achieved in Britain alone or through parliament alone. As the experience of Labour governments demonstrate, the extra-parliamentary institutions we have just mentioned have a power which far outweighs the power of a majority government. This is especially true of countries like Britain, so dependent on international trade and investment and therefore on the ‘goodwill’ of international financial, trading and state institutions.

For socialists to win a parliamentary majority will be important, but only on the basis of, and accountable to, a strong extra-parliamentary movement able to confront the existing state apparatus and the financial interests it protects. For it is this movement which, having destroyed the coercive powers of the present state, will provide the basis of the new democratic form of political power. The exact form of the political organizations that will be capable of giving this movement a lead, fighting for its interests within the existing political system and organizing its defence against repression and violence, cannot yet be seen. It cannot be determined until the working class and other oppressed groups have developed a level of consciousness, sense of purpose and degree of self-confidence to re-make society. The purpose of socialist organization now should be to develop that consciousness together with a vision of an alternative society.

For this we need a very flexible and yet co-ordinated form of organization. It needs to be able to build on and make links between all the initiatives towards popular democracy and control which working people are already making, however limited and fragmented these initiatives may be. Such initiatives have a long history; no socialist organization can wipe the board clean and create only the initiatives that fit in with its own scheme. At this stage, for example, it might include strengthening initiatives which are taking place in political frameworks that are not in themselves revolutionary. For example, the socialists fighting within the Labour Party for the accountability of MPs to the extra-parliamentary labour movement have at one level a common cause with socialists who are seeking to strengthen the power, and develop the consciousness of Industrial organizations, women’s groups, black movements, and so on. The principle of parliamentary accountability is an important principle in strengthening the extra-parliamentary power of working people and their local organizations. It will be a necessary part of the organization which eventually emerges as the socialist alternative to social democracy.

So we do not see the ideas in Beyond the Fragments as a one-way communication about or within the women’s movement. We hope they will be discussed among groups of socialists involved in a whole range of activities and we hope that other people will be encouraged to speak their minds and communicate their own understandings by our effort.

The three of us have all travelled differing political journeys and it will be clear we do not come at the question of how we can think about organizing from the same place. Whereas Lynne has just joined a left group, Sheila had a brief connection to another, the Socialist Workers Party, and I had a longer involvement with the International Marxist Group. But we have all three been involved in the women’s movement. Through this we have come to agree on the questions that need to be asked, though we still argue about the answers.

We have worked together on this because we feel the need to air actual political experiences, reassessing our politics by sharing these, not because we think we have the ‘answer’. We feel that any genuine, new form of socialist organization will have to grow from such a collective process.