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Lindsey German

Picking up the pieces

(September 1979)

From Socialist Review, No. 14, September 1979.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Beyond The Fragments
Sheila Rowbotham, Lynn Segal and Hilary Wainwright
Second printing forthcoming from the Merlin Press. £1.25

‘Publishing event of the year for all of us pondering the problems of “the way forward” must be Beyond the Fragments, by Sheila Rowbotham, Lynn Segal and Hilary Wainwright. “The movement for socialism must accept an autonomous feminist movement. And it must itself be changed by the demands and insights of that movement”, say the authors. Well, every once in a while, someone sits down and draws together all the things that we’ve all been thinking about and puts them down in one book, which then becomes our book. So it is with Beyond the Fragments. It’s absolutely essential reading for any socialist, whether feminist or libertarian (and, for Leveller readers, it really describes what the Leveller is, or should be all about).’
The Leveller, August 1979 issue.

Many socialists and would-be socialists are seeing this book as the answer, the way out of the fragmentation of the left, the solution to building a new socialist movement. In fact this book, written by three socialist feminists, is none of these things, although it is a significant contribution to the debate.

The author of the main essay The Women’s Movement and Organising for Socialism is Sheila Rowbotham, who puts forward three main aims for the book:

‘How I think some of the approaches to organising which go under the heading 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 most people; why I think the women’s movement suggests certain ways of reopening the possibility of a strong and popular socialist movement.’

The aim of the book is to take the experience of the Women’s movement and to generalise from it on the question of building socialist organisation and socialism, in other words to see the women’s movement as a model for socialist organisation.

It is impossible to take up all the points raised in the book. Many of them are examples of personal experiences to which it is impossible to reply; many others contain distortions and, in one or two cases, dishonesty, which aren’t worth replying to point by point. The aim of this review is to look at the propositions Sheila advances and to look at her strategy for socialism. The first question is whether leninist and trotskyist approaches to organisation are flawed as Sheila says. By this she is referring to the emphasis that Leninists put on the workplace as the centre for organising the working class ‘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 trade union leadership aided by the CP in the general strike for instance. The problem of why workers accepted such leaders is evaded.’

Sheila feels that firstly the workplace is not the sole or even major source of class consciousness, or secondly that it is wrong to focus on the major events in history as the means of developing and changing consciousness. Her analysis is of course typical of the women’s movement in that it seeks to justify methods of organising outside the workplace and the whole concept of consciousness raising.

Yet what is the reality? Class consciousness can be and is derived from many complex sources. It derives from the whole pattern of people’s lives – their culture, background and so on. But that is not the key question. We know that most people do not grow up with revolutionary, or even reformist, socialist consciousness. So the problem is, how does consciousness change?

What is it that transforms the ideas of tens of thousands of workers and makes them challenge the whole of bourgeois society, instead of being dominated by bourgeois society’s ideas. Some individuals change their ideas by reading or by argument on a one to one basis. Most do not. Most people change their views when their own preconceived ideas come into conflict with reality. That usually only happens when they are involved in activity which is out of the ordinary – strikes, elections, evictions etc which begin to show to them the way in which society works – and their power to change society rather than be passive spectators.

Examples abound of changes in consciousness – on a very wide scale; Portugal 1974/5, Iran for the last year, France 1968. Or, on a more modest scale, a whole series of strikes involving firemen, hospital workers or lorry drivers, with many of those striking not part of traditionally strong sectors.

Now of course that change of consciousness isn’t static. Unless those workers see a clear alternative to present society, and unless they think that alternative can be won, they can easily sink back into accepting the old ideas. The role of revolutionary socialists has always been to try to provide a view of that alternative and show how it can be won.

That is why Leninists place emphasis on the ‘high points of history’ as Sheila calls them; that is where large numbers of people change their consciousness in ways that cannot be done on an individual basis. That too is why the emphasis for Leninists has to be on the workplace.

Not only is the working class the only class with the power as a class to change society, but also the way in which workplace organisation encourages collectivity means that the potential for workers binding together to fight common grievances is greater, and that the potential to change consciousness is also greater.

The second area where Sheila seeks to prove that leninist and trotskyist forms of organisation do not work is where she tries to show ‘how leninist and trotskyist assumptions of what it means to be a socialist block our energy and self-activity and make it harder for socialism to communicate to most people.’ Here she focuses on two things; democratic centralism and the concept of leaders and cadres.

Sheila argues that democratic centralism is not a neutral form to be adopted in certain circumstances, but is inherently undemocratic. She cites as evidence of this the Communist Party, and the arguments of those who left the CP in 1956. She continues:

‘If you accept a high degree of centralism 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.’

Yet it is clear that Sheila doesn’t really understand what democratic centralism is all about. She is right about one thing: democratic centralism is not neutral. The concept as formulated by the Bolshevik Party and by Lenin could not for them be separated from the type of organisation that they were trying to build. For them, the party did not represent the class, nor was it a substitute for the class. The party learnt from the class, from class struggle, and also tried to lead the class, through developing its theory and practice in relation to the experiences of the class.

The only form of organisation which could fit such a party was democratic centralism. Democracy had to exist for maximum debate of the issues facing the class, centralism to try to obtain the maximum unity in practice, to implement the democratically decided perspectives of the party.

That form of organisation doesn’t fit any other type of party. If you try to substitute for the class then the experiences of the class don’t matter to you anyway. If you believe that party and class are synonymous then there is no need for centralist organisation. It is no wonder that CP members in 1956 felt that their manipulative and substitutionist party was not democratic – they were right. Neither was it democratic centralist, nor was it Leninist. It had a high degree of centralisation, and no democratic debate. The neutrality of democratic centralism is a nonsense, as is the idea of applying the form to organisations which are non-Leninist. The alternative which Sheila puts forward is that of participatory democracy. She herself condemns this form of organisation.

‘The problems of 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 the gift for either emotional blackmail of a conviction of the need to intervene can do so without being checked by any accepted procedure.’

Despite all this, she claims that ‘it does assert the idea that everyone is responsible equally and that everyone should participate. It concedes no legitimating respect for permanent leaders of spokespeople.’

Yet there are leaders in the Women’s Movement and in other participatory democracy bodies like NAC. They are usually women who have some time to spare for working in the group, a certain level of education and articulacy, and sometimes a certain recognition through being journalists, writers and so on.

These people are seen as representing, as speaking for, the movement as a whole, both inside and outside it. There is therefore a legitimating respect for permanent spokespeople. I would far rather argue about and vote for people I wanted to represent my views.

A further point which needs to be taken up; do revolutionaries and the structures of their organisations put people off? Do they stop workers – or anyone else from joining the socialist movement? As far as I can see, most working class people regard most socialists and members of the women’s movement as a little odd. That is hardly surprising in a non-revolutionary period, particularly in a country where political consciousness is fairly low.

Yet what prevents them from joining is not that. Rather it is the fact that the gap between what we are arguing and what most workers perceive as the reality of their lives is large. That can change very quickly. But that is the problem. Sheila, by posing the problem as the behaviour or attitudes of revolutionaries is actually falling into the dangerous misconception that if we appeared ‘nicer’ or more ‘normal’ more people would become revolutionaries. It simply is not true.

Sheila’s third proposition is that the women’s movement suggests certain ways of reopening the possibility of a strong and popular socialist movement. She criticises the party for trying to manipulate spontaneous struggles and for having a fixed concept of the vanguard. As earlier, she feels that there is an obsession with the workplace.

Most movements erupt spontaneously. Any number of contributing factors may trigger off a movement, or a strike, or a revolution. They may be the most unexpected things. Often those spontaneous upsurges do not come from sections of traditional trade union militants or from the political party. It is often true that such a movement or upsurge may take party members – who have argued with their fellow workers so long they feel nothing can change them – by surprise, and that their consciousness may lag behind.

This process of course makes total nonsense of a fixed or permanent vanguard. In such situations the leadership of the class becomes a very fluid thing. But such situations do not last forever. So it is no good socialists merely cheering on some sections of the class which have suddenly shown the will to fight, whether against the boss or against the state.

The role of the party is to absorb the experiences of these struggles, to learn from them and to generalise from them. For socialists the question is not who is going to erupt next, but how do we weld together different sections of the class in order to advance the fight against capitalism.

The position of Sheila and the women’s movement is instead to tail these struggles, not to advance them.

What then is Sheila’s strategy for socialism?

‘The recognition which was present within pre-leninist radical movements of the importance of making values and culture which could sustain the spirit and help to move our feelings towards the future, has been reasserted by the women’s movement. This means we can begin to think again about the problem of how we move towards socialism. Leninism has been particularly weak in relation to the actual transition to socialism.’

She quotes Sarah Benton in Red Rag approvingly.

‘It’s not enough for the individual woman to “know” she is possessed or dominated, indeed in order not to want to be, there must be an alternative culture in which such values are seen to be dominant and to be practised.’

What Sheila is arguing for is a ‘prefigurative political form’, one which contains at least something of the socialist future we want, ‘such forms would seek both to consolidate existing practice and release the imagination of what could be.’

It seems to me that this form of organising, whatever its other points, contains two serious misconceptions. Firstly it allows for a large amount of individual choice. Most workers, men and women, do not have the choice as to where they live or work, or spend their leisure time. Such choice is not open to them.

Secondly the idea could only work if you believed in a war of attrition against capitalism. That brings us to the question of state power. Can socialism be the minds of more individuals, by building counter-hegemonic blocks, or by taking over certain sectors of society without challenging the capitalist state at a global level? What will happen then? Will this war of attrition continue, or will the capitalist class attempt to smash any emergent socialist movement?

I believe the latter, which is the experience of revolutions throughout capitalism, culminating in the bloodbath of Chile. It is not enough for workers to assert their rights – they also have to wrest control of society from those who possess it at present. They have to seize the factories and destroy the institutions of the state. They have to smash the army and the police and anything else that fights for the old order.

Workers will have to build their own organisations, their own society, on the ruins of the old. All that requires determination, organisation and a clear idea of what workers have to do, and the lengths to which the ruling class will go to hang on to their power.

Sheila doesn’t accept any of this. She doesn’t accept the need to organise in this way to take control. Nor does she appear to recognize the centrality of taking on the state in order to achieve socialism. She believes in a form of organisation which simply tries to change ideas, and doesn’t recognise that the working class has to show itself capable of leading in order to build up the confidence of itself and of other oppressed sectors of society to win.

It is because she never comes to terms with this problem that in the end the only strategy she has for socialism is one which does not go beyond the reform of individuals within capitalist society.

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