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Julie Waterson

Left redundant

(July 1986)

From Socialist Worker Review, No. 89, July/August 1986, pp. 31–32.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Friends of Alice Wheeldon
Sheila Rowbotham
Pluto Press £4.95

ALICE WHEELDON was sentenced to ten years hard labour in early 1917 for allegedly plotting to kill Lloyd George by poisoning him.

She, along with her daughter and son-in-law, served two years of their sentences, being released as an ‘act of clemency’.

But Alice Wheeldon did not live long. Suffering the effects of ill-treatment in prison, she died in early 1919 from a fatal dose of the flu.

Sheila Rowbotham, in her book, attempts to trace the history of the Derby socialist feminist and to establish the political milieu in which she operated.

In doing so Rowbotham conveys, although often disjointedly, the various trends, theories and practices within the labour movement at the time Britain was plunged into the First World War.

This was a period when hundreds of thousands of workers throughout Britain defied the patriotic calls of their rulers by striking and demonstrating to defend their hard-fought-for conditions. In the early part of her book Rowbotham manages to express, with some feeling, the existence of a mood to challenge and change.

In delving into Alice Wheeldon’s background we find a whole range of people challenging the status quo. Suffragettes, pacifists, Irish Republicans, socialists and syndicalists all combine in an alliance against the state.

But Rowbotham denies us any real insight into why these strands, and the strength of feeling against the system, did not combine and converge into creating a new society.

The book would have been strengthened by having a serious examination of the difference between the British Socialist Party and the Socialist Labour Party. [1] A critical analysis of what the divorce between economics and politics meant, not only in organising revolutionary opposition during the war, but also for the tasks facing the Communist Party – which united almost every militant throughout the country in 1921.

Instead the British Socialist Party is largely ignored, the formation of the Communist Party glossed over and the Russian Revolution almost scorned at.

This does not stop her spending most of the book berating today’s revolutionaries, mostly those of us who identify with the aims and objectives of the Russian Revolution and Leninist forms of organisation.

For Rowbotham socialism is about developing new forms of relationships, of having a ‘wider vision’ of a new society. Moreover she identifies the period as one in which ‘the making of socialism involved change in the here and now ... The socialist tradition never abandoned such concerns, but they ceased to be central and passionate and vehement. So we have to labour to reconstruct socialism as a vision of freedom.’

The problem of the ‘left’, according to Rowbotham, is the inability to see how both Labourism and Communism (presumably the traditions of the Russian Revolution) are redundant forces because ‘neither strategy led socialists to put detailed thought into how the existing state was to be dismantled and socialised’.

So what are these alternatives? They are ‘about extending the experience of democracy, not just about voting the Labour Party in or seizing state power through revolution’. In other words, building co-operative movements, campaigns for childcare facilities etc. and putting demands on the state in the here and now. Not as a step towards getting rid of this system, but as a means of reforming it from within.

Rowbotham’s book may talk of revolution – but it is only talk. Her revolutionary politics are confined to rhetoric while her reformism shines through like a blinding light.

Note by ETOL

1. In the printed version this is “Scottish Labour Party”, but in the context “Socialist Labour Party” makes more sense.

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Last updated: 28 February 2020