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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.

Maurice Brinton interview (1990)

January 5, 2013 Leave a comment

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Interview with Chris Pallis (aka Maurice Brinton) produced by Agora International during the Cerisy Colloquium. He talks about the importance of Cornelius Castoriadis’ (aka Paul Cardan)’s ideas in his break from Trotskyism, and the ‘Solidarity’ group, of which he was the most prominent member.

Source: Agora International