Beyond the Fragments?

09 October 2013

Review: by Joy Macready

2013 edition Authors: Sheila Rowbotham, Lynne Segal, Hilary Wainwright

Beyond the Fragments: Feminism and the Making of Socialism was a seminal book in the 1980s. It has been reissued with new essays by the original authors. Joy Macready looks at whether it holds answers for going beyond today’s fragments


On 30 August 1980, 3,000 mainly women activists gathered at Leeds University for the Beyond the Fragments conference, amongst them revolutionary socialists, feminists, anarchists, Labour members, community activists, trade unionists and students.

Only a year earlier Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s first woman prime minister, had defeated a Labour government discredited by its attempt to impose austerity on public sector workers, provoking a “winter of discontent”. Thatcher immediately launched a series of vicious attacks on the unions, driving up unemployment and deliberately deepening the recession. The first wave of anti-union laws was enacted.

The conference did not deal with that, or with how to resist it, but instead focused on the fragmentation of the left and the women’s movement, the main themes of the book of the same name written by Sheila Rowbotham, Lynne Segal and Hilary Wainwright.

What was central to the organisers was their rejection of the Marxist position on women’s liberation (based on Frederick Engels’ and Clara Zetkin’s class analysis) and of a revolutionary socialist programme to achieve it. Theirs was a reformist perspective, albeit one with a libertarian gloss.

At a time when the orientation of the women’s movement should have been firmly towards the class struggle that peaked in the Miners’ Strike of 1984-85, with its own huge involvement of women, the conference instead focused on the problems organisational methods, structures and so on.

Not that these questions are unimportant but, outside of the context of organising for action, such an approach necessarily ends up oscillating between utopian attempts to pre-figure a socialist society in the way that we organise our movement now, and concentrating on those small scale, localised reforms that are immediately achievable.

By focusing on individual experience, the authors and their co-thinkers also pushed into a distant future the working class struggle for state power, as the central strategic goal of revolutionary socialists. They rejected, and still reject, the need for revolutionary political leadership in the form of a vanguard party. These are replaced by a striving for “socialist”, pre-figurative forms under capitalism, through changed lifestyles, relationships and organisational structures.

Sheila Rowbotham, in a new contribution for the 2013 edition, acknowledges that the 1980 conference was a damp squib, but places the blame on small groups stymying a large gathering, not on its lack of a clear political strategy.

Many of these ideas are not new, coming mainly from libertarian and anarchist traditions; but they have recently resurfaced in debates on the left.

The Bolshevik tradition

Hilary Wainwright, speaking at a Left Unity event in London, said that the book was written as a conduit between feminism and the left, and came out of a frustration with the state of the left. The authors contended that the left could learn a lot from the women’s movement in terms of organisation and structure.

From their personal experiences of far left groups, particularly the International Socialists (now the Socialist Workers Party) and the International Marxist Group (IMG), they drew conclusions highly critical of the Leninist-Trotskyist method of party building, which they saw as being intrinsically hierarchal and undemocratic. They regarded “democratic centralism” as the main reason for the “bad culture” experienced by not just women within left groups but also by men in the rank and file membership.

Like similar arguments today, which developed during the crisis of the SWP in the wake of the leadership’s failure to deal with rape allegations, Beyond the Fragments jumps from these genuine painful experiences, and their systemic character within specific organisations, to blaming democratic centralism as their cause. This is quite a jump.

After all, what is democratic centralism? It is a method of organisation in which an issue is debated out openly and democratically; and then once a decision has been made, usually following a vote, it is put into practice by the organisation as a whole. When the task is complete and its results are clear, there is once more a democratic discussion to see whether the policy was right, or mistaken and with bad effects.

This same principle applies to the election of leading bodies; their personnel are chosen democratically and regularly reassessed and replaced if they are found wanting. In short, democratic centralism is just workers’ democracy in action. It is the centralism that is experienced in any strike and in any united action, when decisions are put to the test of practice with the organisation’s full and united strength. No serious organisation could implement in practice a policy that would mean carrying out several conflicting strategies at once.

In reality, many unions, parties and labour movement organisations violate these principles. A purely formal democracy may disguise the control of an entrenched bureaucracy. This has happened time and again in the trade unions but only the most individualist anarchist would reject trade unions altogether as a result. However, an opposite distortion can also occur; disciplined unity can break up into individualistic chaos and resulting impotence.

This divergence between theory and practice is certainly not unique to democratic centralism. Such a contradiction was recognised within the early women’s movement by Jo Freeman’s famous 1970 essay The Tyranny of Structurelessness, which showed how, in the name of avoiding having leaders, the women’s movement had produced informal elites (cliques) or “stars”, selected not by democratic means but as individuals whose access to the media, journalism, publishing and so on led to their becoming public figures.

Many have commented that a similar process repeated itself in the Occupy movement. Certainly, it was the case in the anticapitalist movements of the early 2000s. The mantra of leaderless movements, organised “from below”, does not escape this problem one little bit.

Rowbotham and Wainwright’s bad experiences in the IS/SWP and in the IMG (the predecessor of today’s Socialist Resistance and Socialist Action groupings) led them to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Both organisations violated the principles of democratic centralism. The IS did so by banning members’ rights to form factions, by closing down Women’s Voice, and by not allowing women members to caucus. And the IMG did so by glorifying the existence of permanent factions that obstructed unity in action. Neither represented a genuine expression of Leninism or Trotskyism.

Wainwright has retained these views consistently to this day, and they are reflected in her new essay in the reprint. Here she outlines her principles as:

“Prefigurative politics acting consistently with the values of the society you are trying to create and emphasis on process of change to draw on the sources of power we have ‘from below’, not focus on the end goal of winning government or making a revolution.”

Nevertheless, whilst she might downplay “winning governmental power”, the various projects she mentions to recommend her model in fact prove this is vital. Indeed, not one of them would have got off the ground without it.

The Lucas Aerospace shop stewards’ plan was funded and sponsored by Labour under industry minister Tony Benn. It was the Greater London Council (GLC) under Ken Livingstone that funded the various women’s centres in London. The Brazilian participatory budget process could take place only under a Workers’ Party (PT) state government in Porto Alegre. Indigenous autonomous organisations in Bolivia are flourishing under Evo Morales’ presidency.

When these mayors, ministers or their parties lost power, support for these projects was usually axed. They then generally collapsed, along with the movements that they were dependent on not only for funding and premises but also for political leadership.

In fact, this entire method requires someone go to the trouble of building a party and fighting and winning elections, in order to be in a position to carry out these partial, but certainly not insignificant, reforms.

Instead of dealing with these lessons of real political experience, Wainwright is content with tiny reformist utopias, including attempts to create what she calls, “glimpses of an alternative socialised market” whose “coordination and regulation do not require a single controlling centre.”

And if we want to transform society radically, to end exploitation and liberate women, we will need a party that can make a revolution. Here Lenin and Trotsky have more to teach us than Beyond the Fragments. All that the book can offer is a reformism from below, which is necessarily parasitic on reformism from above.

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