First published in International Socialism 2:9, Summer 1980.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
It is now something like a year since the publication of Beyond the Fragments by Sheila Rowbotham, Lynne Segal and Hilary Wainwright. It has had, on the face of things, a striking success. Extensively reviewed by just about every publication of the far left (the SWP’s included), critically welcomed by Marxism Today, hailed as ‘the book we have all been waiting for’ (and they meant it!) by the Leveller, its first edition had sold out in months. (No mean achievement for a book published by little more than the authors themselves and without any visible national organisation to push it).
A second expanded edition rapidly appeared, a definite vote of confidence by its new, far more established, publishers, Merlin. The sales continued, and continue, apace. So did the public attention. Jill Tweedie used the whole of her column in the Guardian to ‘celebrate the publication of a book which speaks up for the ordinary person oppressed by the theories and jargon of organised politics.’ And by the time of the Debate of the Decade between the revolutionary and the Bennite left, the revolutionary side of the platform included Hilary Wainwright, alongside the established orators of the Leninist left, Paul Foot and Tariq Ali. Chairperson Peter Hain introduced her as co-author of that ‘seminal book of socialist theory.’ No one audibly demurred. Far far from it. In what turned out to be a rather dismal evening it was the Beyond the Fragments team (the other two authors spoke from the floor) who got the warmest, if not the loudest, response.
Like it or not, Beyond the Fragments has had a success which we cannot ignore and is not going to go away. And that success is not due to some magical Pied Piper quality. It is due to the fact that it speaks to and for a real audience of some substance. An audience which was not brought into existence by its publication, but existed well before it, and whose views the book articulates.
Now of course that is true of any left wing best seller. For example, the most obscure books of Althusser and his epigones, have sold, and continue to sell, in their thousands, regardless of their intellectual merit, because they mean something to a certain group of people.
In Althusser’s case it is a sub section of the academic establishment, who twenty years ago would have survived off a diet of Talcott Parsons, but now that the post-war boom has ended need something theoretically more radical to satisfy their professional craving for obscurantism. It might be tempting to dismiss Beyond the Fragments in the same way. But it would be wrong. Beyond the Fragments appeals to its audience far more directly. It appears to speak the language of activity, not passive resignation into ‘theoretical practice’. It appears to speak the language of the base not the ivory tower. So who does it speak to? And what does it say?
Beyond the Fragments is subtitled Feminism and the Making of Socialism, its three authors are all women, all draw much of their argument from the women’s movement and the book has often been reviewed as if it was a contribution to the debate within the women’s movement.
Yet, in fact, Beyond the Fragments is by no means addressed to feminists alone. Rather it presents itself as speaking to a far wider range of local activists, both male and female. At two points in the book Hilary Wainwright gives a list of organisations whose activists I think she would like to feel the book was addressing:
‘In effect left wing trades councils, socialist resource centres, socialist women’s groups, theatre groups, left bookshops, militant shop stewards committees often carry out, in sum, the functions of a socialist party but without the co-ordination and long term perspectives of a party.’ (p. 224) 
‘... industrial militants, plus the new movements of students, women, and black organisations, were quickly thrown onto their own resources. In this situation the women’s movement, solidarity movements with international struggles, many shop stewards’ combines or local action committees, the anti-fascist movement, theatre groups, alternative newspapers, militant tenants, squatters and community groups have themselves become a political focus. That is to say the vast majority of people who become socialists – through many different routes – after the boom, tended to concentrate their energies on activities and organisations directly concerned with their own lives, experiences and skills.’ (p. 9)
I must admit that I am extremely unhappy with much of the theory and supposed history with which Hilary surrounds these statements. But let that pass. The statements do contain the important truth that (not merely after the boom but during it) most socialists have devoted their energies to activities and organisations of a fragmentary and do-it-yourself nature.
But, given that, there does immediately seem something rather unbalanced about undifferentiated lists which can include at one point ‘militant shop stewards committees’ and at another ‘left book-shops’ and ‘theatre groups’. I mean no insult to the comrades who sell books or perform plays, far from it. But the fact of the matter is that (both during and after the boom) overwhelmingly the most important activities and organisations to which people who became socialists have devoted their energies, have been those of the work-place and the trade union movement. It is not just that the majority of people who became socialists have concentrated their energies in these fields (which is also true). But that, with several hundred thousand shop stewards and twelve million trade union members, those who have done so have stood in an organised and day to day relationship with the vast majority of the population who periodically engage in class struggle and who, if we are to win, must become the socialists of tomorrow.
It is the activists engaged in these fields who personed the flying pickets which closed Saltley coke depot and Hadfields steel works and every day engage in countless other unsung struggles. Compared with this sphere of activity and organisation, some of the other things on Hilary’s list seem pretty puny.
Now once that point has been made another becomes pretty obvious. Beyond the Fragments was not being read on the steel picket lines nor was it being passed around among militants at Longbridge seeking for some way forward after the Derek Robinson debacle. That is a simple fact of observation. But it might also be added that it was not being read by these people precisely because it had very little to say to them.
Whether the authors wish it or not (Hilary, I suspect, wouldn’t like it, the other two I’m not so sure of) the audience of Beyond the Fragments is a far narrower one. If you want it summed up in a phrase I’ll use the hackneyed but suggestive one ‘The children of ’68’. (Perhaps ‘grand-children’ might be a better word, as only a minority of them lived politically through that heady year).
What do I mean by this?
The student revolt of 1968 changed the parameters of student politics. And, for all the ups and downs since, has kept them changed. And the radicalised students left their colleges to become members of expanding and increasingly proletarianised professions – teachers, social workers, journalists and so on. It was among these that the ‘new movements’ (apart from the black movement – but then the Beyond the Fragments audience is an overwhelmingly white one) were born. Particularly the women’s movement.
Sheila Rowbotham bears this out: ‘Women’s liberation has mobilised mainly women from a particular strata, teachers, social Workers, librarians, journalists or clerical workers, as well as women working in the family’. (p. 45) (Just two qualifications here: not all clerical workers, but their upper ranges, not all women working within the family, but women from the self-same strata, working within the family.) The same strata have provided the bulk of the personnel for the new community politics, in many cases as the professional employees of the expanding local state agencies. The same strata have personed the theatre groups and socialist bookshops on Hilary’s lists.
Now these strata are not unimportant (and, incidentally, interest declared, I came from them). After all some ten per cent of the appropriate age group now pass through higher education. But they do have some special characteristics. In our more impatient or unguarded moments we Leninists have tried to point to these by describing the strata as ‘middle class’.
Lynne Segal, in particular, objects strongly to this. (p. 186) She has a valid point. Most of these strata, from whom Beyond the Fragments audience is drawn, are workers, they sell their labour power. (I say ‘most’ because as you go up the hierarchies then the concept of ‘white collar worker’ can be stretched into absurdity). Not only are they workers, they have also increasingly adopted one of the more visible working class characteristics of joining unions and going on strike (and, incidentally, in this respect they have shown themselves distinctly open to the ideas and activities of us Leninists).
But having said that, you also have to say something else (the point we were trying to make when we talked about ‘middle class’). They are a relatively privileged minority not only of the whole of the working class (half of which is still manual), but also of the white collar working class (the bulk of which consists of routine clerical workers, not professionals). This relatively privileged minority not only finds itself separated from the rest of the working class by culture and tradition. It is also, by virtue of its relatively privileged social position, particularly pressured in its politics towards ghettoisation and retreat into ‘life style’. Sheila Rowbotham notes this phenomenon in respect of the women’s movement: ‘Feminist politics can become preoccupied with leading a liberated life rather than becoming a movement for the liberation of women.’ (p. 412)
She notes it. But nevertheless it is precisely on such pressures that the appeal of Beyond the Fragments in this particular strata is based.
But why should a book which codifies and generalises these pressures in these strata have taken until 1979 to appear – more than ten years after these strata burst upon the political scene? An even more puzzling phenomenon when you consider that it was also from these strata that the initial recruits to Leninist politics after ’68 were drawn.
The book suggests an explanation of its own: it took that long to see through the Leninist ‘sleight of hand’. And the book delights in quoting from the ‘exiles’ from Leninist politics. Indeed two of its authors are such ‘exiles’ (Hilary Wainwright from the IMG, Sheila Rowbotham from IS).
I don’t think this explanation works. For one thing ‘exiles’ constitute only a tiny minority of the Beyond the Fragments audience, most of whom have never been in Leninist groups. For another most of the ‘exiles’ are not particularly interested in Beyond the Fragments, having dropped out of politics altogether, moved into straightforward reformism, or, (perhaps a majority) have become a bit tired but bear the Leninists no particular hostility, and may well get a second wind. And finally, as both the success of the SWP-led Anti Nazi League and the continued vitality of SWP-led rank and file groups in some professional unions both show, when it comes to action Leninism still has as much attraction as ever even within the strata we are talking about.
I’ll offer an alternative explanation.
Both Sheila Rowbotham and Lynne Segal testify to the explosive impact of ’68: a time where everything seemed possible to the radicalised student or, a bit later, the radicalised professional. We went our different ways, some (like me) to ‘build the revolutionary party’, others to squat, create the women’s or gay movements or whatever. But in a rising movement they seemed less important. 1970–74 buoyed up everyone. The libertarian, community and feminist currents existed and grew then, and so did the Leninists. The other currents did not share our preoccupation with industrial struggle. But the industrial struggle was growing, and the other currents at least half enthused over it and did not turn too harshly against the Leninists.
Five years of Social Contract and Labour Government put paid to that. We Leninists lost ground as the industrial struggle declined (though not quite as catastrophically as is sometimes made out, and ground that we in the SWP have recovered in the last couple of years). We got tired. But then so did everyone. For those years were also not ones of growth of the ‘new movements’. Everyone suffered as the trade union struggle declined.
But it was we Leninists who were out on a limb so far as the radicalised professional strata were concerned. For our politics by its very nature aims at the sky. For the ‘new movements’ it was far easier to legitimise narrowing of horizons and retreat towards lifestyle: succumbing towards those pressures to which their social position made them more vulnerable and from which tiredness (the ‘crisis of militancy’ they called it on the Continent) and the decline of an alternative working class focus now removed their defences.
So, in my view, Beyond the Fragments is a phenomenon of five years of downturn. And its appeal is because it legitimises trends in the radicalised professional strata produced both by this downturn and their own social position.
A harsh judgement? Well to see if there is anything more to it we will have to examine the book’s argument to see if it really does offer more.
It is to that I will now turn. But in doing so there is a problem. The book glories in its tentativeness. ‘They do not offer any “answers”,’ the blurb on the back proudly announces, ‘indeed their distinct concerns and emphases would make that impossible ...’ (Note, by the way, how the word ‘answers’ appears in inverted commas, as if the concept itself was a figment of the deranged Leninist imagination).
It is also the work of three separate authors, each making separate contributions, each with different political emphases and each with their own recipe for not being completely pinned down. Lynne Segal, after all, is only recounting her own personal experiences in Islington. Sheila Rowbotham has been suspicious of certainty for nearly twenty years. And Hilary Wainwright spends most of her time throwing compliments out to all and sundry. But there is an argument there. Not all of it, perhaps, shared by all the authors. But each part of which is necessary to the plausibility of the other. The argument goes basically like this: Firstly, and most virulently, that Leninism has failed and is beyond hope of redemption. Secondly that the real prospect of a socialist future lies in the ‘new movements’, both in their practice and the lessons they have to teach us. Thirdly that there is some way of going beyond the existing limited and local nature of these movements other than Leninism or reformism.
I will take a look at each of these arguments in turn.
The argument against Leninism is the central message of Beyond the Fragments. True there are some apparent hesitations. Lynne Segal, after all ends up joining Big Flame because ‘I also want to be part of an organisation which is trying to build upon and generalise from different situations and thus develop overall strategies.’ (p. 206) And Hilary Wainwright quite characteristically gives us the following amazing throw-away:
‘The problem... is not “Leninism” as a theory of the class nature of the state. Nor is it what follows from this in terms of the need to destroy the coercive state machinery and establish a new form of democratic political power. Neither is the organisational condition for such a transformation, a mass revolutionary organisation, based in the movement of the working class and other oppressed groups in question.’ (p. 240)
They are important hesitations, and I will return to them later. But the centre-piece of Beyond the Fragments is Sheila Rowbotham’s long essay, The Women’s Movement and Organizing For Socialism. Not only is it more than half the book, it is also easily the more powerfully written part. If there is an unconscious division of labour in Beyond the Fragments then Sheila Rowbotham is the hard cop, while Lynne Segal and, even more, Hilary Wainwright, are the soft cops. That anyone should take any notice of Hilary and Lynne’s sweet reasonings is entirely dependent on Sheila’s bludgeoning. And Sheila Rowbotham is quite explicit in her anti-Leninism:
‘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 ...’ (p. 49)
And that’s a very tame synopsis!
Now I said that Sheila Rowbotham’s piece was the more powerfully written part of the book. And this is important. Because it has a certain style which in some ways carries more import than the content of its argument, it is a self-consciously personal presentation, apparently starting from her own political experience, emphasising feelings and emotions, and one that draws on a wide variety of political traditions and experiences. An honest and open style, then? Far from it. It is riddled with dishonesty and closing off of argument, from beginning to end.
Firstly, the wide variety of political experiences and traditions cited amount, on the slightest examination, to simply throwing anything available (especially the kitchen sink) at Leninism regardless of the details or implications of the material concerned.
Let me give two examples:
(1) Early on Sheila presents us with the following quote made by the ‘Trotskyist dissidents’ of Facing Reality in 1958: ‘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.’ Sheila comments: ‘I think this was to be curiously prophetic of the relationship which the Trotskyist leaderships were to have with the younger generation of socialists after 1968.’ (p. 29)
Very nice. People were thinking Sheila’s way in 1958. Move on to the next argument.
But hang on a minute. Let’s take the quote seriously. Facing Reality was written by three ex-Trotskyists under the pseudonyms of Lee, Chalieu and Johnson. They were in fact Raya Dunayevskaya [actually Lee was the pseudonym of Grace Lee Boggs – CH], Paul Cardan [real name Cornelius Castoriadis – CH] and C.L.R. James. Raya Dunayevskaya is the author of the flawed but useful Marxism and Freedom, but her political practice has been confined to being the super-star editor of that distinct non-growth area of American left politics News and Letters. Paul Cardan is best known in Britain as the theoretical guru of Solidarity, a group which has belied a certain early promise to survive on the margins of irrelevance. And C.L.R. James may be the author of the excellent Black Jacobins, but he long ago wound up his organisation as having no purpose and entered old age as simply an eminent left academic. So, if the quote really is ‘curiously prophetic’, it is so about its libertarian authors.
Now contrast them with some of the people they were writing about. For instance Sheila’s favourite ‘Trotskyist dissident’, Tony Cliff. Sheila can paint on him all the warts she likes, but is she really going to try and pretend that he ‘found it difficult to go back into the stream of the community’ after 1968? Compared with her libertarian heroes and heroine he leapt in like Mao into the Yangtse! Otherwise how on earth did he manage to build IS/SWP after ’68?
In other words, if it means anything, Sheila’s quote proves the exact opposite of the purpose it was wheeled out for.
(2) Later on Sheila gives us this little political morality tale:
‘Faced with the opposition of women and workers in Lotta Continua, an Italian revolutionary organisation, Adriano Sofri, its founder and undisputed leader, made a self-criticism. He said democracy involved not only formally contesting theories of organisation 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 paternal legitimation in a sense of responsibility. There was a strange case of history repeating itself. He compared the confrontation that he faced with 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”.’ (p. 78)
Lovely, not all ‘Leninists’ are beyond seeing the error of their ways, not even general secretaries!
But again, hang on. What about the before and after of this supposedly instructive confession?
The before is that perhaps the key incident that led to the crisis of Lotta Continua was their sending their mainly male stewards to fight their way into a large women-only demonstration. Now, Sheila Rowbotham may believe a lot of strange things about the SWP, but does she really believe that this is our style?
And the after is that Lotta Continua, an organisation of over 10,000 people, dissolved itself by leaving only its paper to run itself, responsible to no-one. Does Sheila think that was a step forward for the Italian revolutionary movement?
Sofri’s self-criticism and the fate of Lotta Continua may be a cautionary tale for soft maoists (and their former British admirers like Big Flame) but it hardly provides aid and comfort to Sheila’s argument.
These two examples are not isolated. They are two typical examples of Sheila’s method. Anything is useful so long as its anti-Leninist from the Spanish CNT to the Eurocommunists. Context and implication go to the winds.
The second feature of Sheila Rowbotham’s style is her method of recording her personal political experience. It’s a strange one. You see Sheila objects to the Leninists preventing ‘us thinking about the complexities of what is happening by covering it up in a category.’ (p. 65) Dismissing opponents as ‘baddies’ by labelling them as ‘ultra-leftist’, or harmless, as ‘progressive peoples’, etc.
Now to my knowledge these are not expressions commonly used in Socialist Worker. But let’s leave that aside. People can be ‘ultra-leftist’ and on the other hand the expression can be used as a casual term of abuse. (Although I’m not very aware of us regularly doing so in the SWP, but if Sheila wants to accuse us of this let us argue about it – but, please, with examples!)
If Sheila was really concerned about this sort of thing she’d be very careful about the sort of language she uses. Far from it. Her essay is peppered with sentences like these:
‘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.’ (p. 48)
No examples, so isn’t this merely ... ‘a pother of rhetoric’?
‘For the assumption that the end justifies the means we use in organising, 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 Communist Party and Trotskyist groups. Or it might mean the covert control of front organisations or the use of smear tactics to defeat any opposition from non-aligned socialists.’ (p. 28)
No examples, so isn’t this merely... ‘smear tactics’?
So beneath the method of revelation from personal political experience, run double standards, which on the one hand warn you off the Leninist arguments as just another attempt to box you into categories, and on the other, protect any scurrilous anti-Leninist jibe, as a bit of personal experience. It’s a method which is calculated to block off political argument.
And so even more is the third feature of Sheila’s style, the emphasis on individual emotions. It sometimes becomes quite grotesque.
For example she paints her own largely imaginary picture of the ‘shadowy vision of the individual revolutionary ... lonely, hard, erect, self-contained, etc.’ which we Leninists supposedly have. ‘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.’’ (p. 69. My emphasis) Phhew! How am I to get out of that without psychotherapy? But I just wonder what Sheila’s reaction would be if we argued back in kind?
Far from being ‘new’ politics this psychologising has a rather old pedigree. It used to be the property of anti-Communist professors deep in the recesses of Cold War academia, correlating CP membership with infant bed-wetting. It is tragic and shameful that Sheila should revive it. But it fulfils the same function with her as it did with them – again to block off political argument. To make Leninist politics not wrong but pathological.
I said that the style of Sheila Rowbotham’s pained tirade against Leninism carried more impact than content. And I must confess that when I try to examine the content I am struck even more forcibly by this. For example the argument that Leninism leads to Stalinism, and that therefore Trotskyism of necessity shares Stalinism’s vices recurs periodically in her essay. But always fleetingly, and always with the proviso that of course Sheila understands the traditional arguments against the thesis. So the Leninist reviewer is left to patiently set out again the (very worthy) old arguments only to be told at the end of their labours that of course we understood that before. But the mud has already stuck.
Sheila Rowbotham is very fond of accusing the Leninists of ‘sleight of hand.’ But as she swiftly shuffles the anti-Leninist pack (with, incidentally, a good deal more than 52 cards) while constantly telling us that she really isn’t playing cards anyway, I can’t help thinking that the accusation might be rather better directed towards her.
Duncan Hallas has made a brave stab at summing up the content in this way:
‘There is a quasi-libertarian trend which provides most of the substantial arguments for Beyond the Fragments. There is nothing peculiarly feminist about them. Most of the arguments they use were put up long ago by either Proudhon or Bakunin against Marx himself. They are the arguments of the (male dominated) nineteenth century anti-Marxist left. Nowadays these arguments are called anti-Leninist although most of them were advanced before Lenin was born.’ 
He’s right. They are on the whole old arguments. And they for the most part have very little specifically to do with feminism.
However two of them are spun out at sufficient length and with sufficient new gloss from the Rowbotham style to be worthy of special attention. They are roughly that: (1) Leninists form a closed, elitist hierarchy; and (2) Leninists make an unjustified claim to omniscience.
To these two is added an argument that does have some apparently specifically feminist content, namely that (3) Leninists have failed in their encounter with the women’s movement. Let’s look at these three arguments in turn, because, unless you happen to be swung by the supposed fact that ‘a sure sign of a leader of a Leninist political group is a tendency to look past your eyes and over your head when they are talking to you’ (p. 130)  or the ominous profundity that ‘the psychology of theoreticians does not come within the scope of Leninism’ (p. 130) they constitute the spine of Sheila’s anti-Leninist argument.
(1) It must first of all be made clear that Sheila Rowbotham’s concerted snipings against the supposed, closed, elitist, hierarchy of Leninism contain one great big red herring: the notion of the ‘professional revolutionary’.
‘Feminism,’ says Sheila, ‘has implicitly questioned the 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 ... The emphasis on training professionals has been particularly important in the Trotskyist groups ... Within Leninism there is a tension between the concept of leadership as the training of political administrators and theoreticians and leadership as a process of learning to act in local and immediate struggles ... IS/ SWP now place greater emphasis on the creation of a leadership through practical experience than the orthodox Trotskyist groups. But despite this organisational 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.’ (p. 25)
The same concern with professional revolutionaries is repeated elsewhere. (e.g. p. 30)
Pause and reflect for a moment. A professional revolutionary, if words are to mean anything, is someone who gets his or her livelihood from their revolutionary activity. In the SWP we call them full-timers. (And, interest declared again, I’m one.)
Now pause again and reflect on the following facts. In the SWP full-timers are a small minority of the total membership (a few dozen out of around 4,000). This was the case with the Bolsheviks and is obviously the case in any Leninist organisation.
In the SWP no special training is given to full-timers, and no special training is devoted to preparing people to be full timers. (Come to think of it, perhaps there should be!)
Most of the full-timers in the SWP spend most of their time precisely engaged in ‘the immediate local problems of political agitation’. Indeed that is a very large part of the job description.
Those that do not are engaged in technical functions (journalists etc.) which are directly geared to ‘the immediate local problems of political agitation’ through regular day to day contact with our comrades.
I could go on. But to cut a long story short Sheila’s obsession with the ‘professional revolutionaries’ is a pure and simple hogwash; they simply do not have the pride of place in our theory and practice she claims.
Why it can be advanced at all is because it stands as a convenient surrogate for the ever so slightly less implausible viewpoint which she advances more directly elsewhere. We have already got some of the flavour of this. Lets look at it in full.
Leninist organisations, she claims, have a ‘dark shadowy vision of the individual revolutionary. This individual militant appears as a lonely character without ties, bereft of domestic emotions, who is hard, self-contained, controlled, without the time and ability to express loving passion, who cannot pause to nurture, and for whom friendship is a diversion.’ (p. 68) (We have already heard her profound psychological explanation for this supposed ideal type.)
‘Dark and shadowy’ the vision certainly is. For one very simple reason. It is the product of Sheila Rowbotham’s imagination. Again, pause for a moment and reflect. ‘Lonely’? Don’t we in fact idealise the exact opposite when, on the one hand, we time and time again emphasise the utility of comradeship among our members and, on the other hand, the necessity of their constant relationship with their workmates. In fact our ideal Bolshevik is the most gregarious of individuals.
‘Without ties’? Really? Then how come our idealised Bolshevik is the shop steward ‘rooted in the workplace’.
‘Self-contained’? Then how come we are always arguing that the individual militant needs the back up of the party?
‘Bereft of domestic emotions’? Has Sheila Rowbotham actually met any SWP members? Or perhaps this is Sheila’s way of arguing the surprising case for a feminist that we should all observe the norms of the capitalist family a bit more closely?
Sheila’s supposed ideal type, far from being based on the years of tortured personal observation it purports to be, is in fact a simple rehash of that old piece of character assassination against the left beloved of jingoistic fiction from Conrad’s The Secret Agent to the spy-novels which herald the new cold war.
Its sole grain of truth is contained in those words ‘hard, erect, controlled.’ Those I won’t quarrel with in the same way. Of course they are intended as a slander. The reader is supposed to shudder with visions of machismo and misanthropy. But in a distorted way
they do express some of the qualities of our ideal Bolshevik: namely a consistent, organised determination to wage the struggle for socialism and to use reason to make sure that struggle is effective.
That is what Sheila really objects to, and to that accusation we are proud to plead guilty.
(2) ‘Proud to plead guilty’. I really shouldn’t have said that if I hope to get anywhere with Sheila Rowbotham. Because, you see, I’m saying we are right. And that makes me guilty of the second cardinal Leninist sin: the unjustified claim to omniscience.
Sheila hammers this supposed sin from the beginning to the end of her essay. On its third page she recounts her early encounters with the SWP (then called IS). ‘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 history was sewn up and neatly categorised. How could anyone know so much?’ (p. 23) She continues in praise of the (old) New Left, ‘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...’ (p. 25) She devotes a whole section (entitled Where does Consciousness come from? (p. 29)) which starts with Lenin’s much quoted (chiefly by anti-Marxist academics out for an easy ride) remark in What is to be done that ‘Class political consciousness can be brought to the workers only from without,’ and goes on to pursue the question of where the ‘without’ gets it from with fervour of an Oxford philosophy tutorial. (I remember them well, ‘How do we know the kettle in the corner exists?’)
I could go on – and on – with the examples. For Sheila ‘It is very important to be able to say “I don’t know” and “Nobody knows, we need to find out”.” (p. 40) And that, apparently, we benighted Leninists are unwilling to do.
For a very good reason, Sheila. Because we have every reason to believe we do know one or two things.
We know, for instance, that the state is an organ of the ruling class, that it cannot be taken over by the working class and that for the working class to take power it has to be smashed.
We know this, not because we have plucked the idea out of thin air, but because we have learned it from the experience of history, and contemporary history only confirms its correctness.
Now of course not everyone agrees with us. Far from it. Salvador Allende didn’t agree, with, we would argue, rather disastrous consequences. Tony Benn doesn’t agree. And, if Tony Benn succeeds in ushering in the socialist commonwealth through a left Labour majority in the House of Commons, then we’ll quite happily admit that we were wrong.
But, don’t you agree Sheila, for the moment the odds seem distinctly stacked against that? And for the moment, given that the matter is of some importance, isn’t it rather more responsible of us to stick to our ‘certainties’ and argue them loud and clear? Or are we just supposed to go along with the comforting belief that ‘not everyone has to make socialism by the same route’ until another Chile proves where some of those routes lead?
And the same goes for our other ‘certainties’: about the role of the trade union bureaucrats, the nature of the self-styled ‘socialist’ countries, the revolutionary role of the working class, and so on. They are not plucked out of thin air. They’re grounded in hard reality. And they are of desperately real practical importance.
Sheila may disagree with some of them. Many do. But in which case she should say so. Then we can argue about them.
But she doesn’t care to this, so ‘I don’t know, nobody knows, we need to find out’ becomes ‘I don’t know, how can we know and therefore we’ll just leave judgement to everyday prejudice and fashion’ (which, by and large on the left, is created by people, like Tony Benn, who are very certain of what they are doing but very willing to go along with the crusade against dogmatism and certainty).
Elsewhere Sheila takes a slightly more subtle tack. She acknowledges that in Leninist theory the party learns from the working class, but in practice that doesn’t get us out of our problems because ‘There is still a belief that it is the party, itself, which will decide what it wants to learn’. (p. 113) We are sneaking our old dogmatism and certainty in through the back door, you see.
But hang on a moment. Let’s look at that Leninist sin again: we decide what we want to learn. Doesn’t everyone? Doesn’t any learning from experience mean assessing and selecting from that experience? Otherwise you just bow down before it. If the Bolsheviks had not decided what they learned from the working class during the First World War then they would have gone along with its intense jingoism at the war’s beginning. Obviously that is not the sort of ‘learning’ Sheila Rowbotham wants. But again it is the logical consequence of the assault she wages on certainty.
At the end of her essay she delivers the following warning: ‘These Leninists are difficult to counter because at their most superficial they have a surface coherence, they argue about brass tacks and hard facts.’ (p. 148)
We do indeed. So, surely, should anyone, with a case to argue. For Sheila to specifically warn her readers off this feature of our arguments is again simply an attempt to block off political argument – this time behind the dark cloak of irrationalism.
(3) Finally, the one apparently distinctively feminist element in Sheila’s anti-Leninist argument: the allegation that Leninism has failed in its encounter with the women’s movement.
‘Leninist organisations have made piecemeal concessions to the women’s movement and the gay movement under pressure. They have been affected also by the contradictory pulls in modern capitalism which have led to questioning certain areas of control in everyday life. But they have resisted the implications of these social changes and movements as a more general challenge to their notion of politics.’ (p. 146)
Now note some rather contradictory things about the opening of this argument. It is acknowledged that the women’s movement has had some effect upon us. And elsewhere Sheila has to unwillingly admit the fact, even when she is slagging us off over it. For example: ‘[The SWP’s] definition of class struggle has emphasised production and until recently dismissed serious consideration of feminism by concentrating on women as workers or wives of workers.’ (p. 107) Note the ‘until recently’ (presumably things are not quite the same now). Note also ‘concentrating on women as workers or wives of workers’. (We weren’t neglecting them anyway.)
One of Sheila’s co-authors is rather less grudging in her acknowledgement. Hilary Wainwright argues that Socialist Worker can in its own way be ‘very good’ ‘as a popular socialist paper arguing the basic case for socialism, for workers’ control, or women’s liberation (recently), and putting over a consistently strong attack on racism.’ (p. 248, my emphasis).
Yes, the women’s movement has had a profound effect on us which none of us can or should want to deny. It has meant that we carry the fight on the question of women’s oppression into all fields of our political activity. It has meant that there is an on-going fight against sexism in our organisation. It has meant that we have extended our fields of activity to issues which just over a decade ago would scarcely have entered our political vocabulary.
Now you may not like all that we have done here or the ways we try to do it. We ourselves have had and will no doubt continue to have numerous disagreements over it.
But that is not really what Sheila’s criticism is all about. Remember that, for her, these are only ‘piecemeal adaptations’ which don’t challenge our ‘notions of politics’.
And that will remain so whatever we do in the women’s struggle. The tone of Sheila’s comments makes that clear. ‘Oddly enough’ she says elsewhere in her essay ‘the whole issue has loomed a bit closer since most of the left became rather ominously polite to the women’s movement.’ (p. 100) Why ‘ominously’? Is that meant to mean that the more we do (however much of an ‘advance’ it is) the more we’ve kept women’s liberation ‘in its place’ by waging the fight for it as part of the general fight for the liberation of humanity and with same methods?
I think this is Sheila’s drift. For the ‘notion of politics’ she wants to challenge is that which, in her words, sees ‘the “Party” as the means by which the working class can take power and these “means” have a utilitarian narrowness.’ (p. 146) What Sheila wants is ‘changes now in how people can experience relationships in which we can both express our power and struggle against domination in all its forms.’ (p. 146)
She’s right. It is a very different notion of politics. It’s one that in abandoning the notion of politics as a means to an end, the revolutionary transformation of society by the working class, puts in its place the notion of simply ‘experiencing relationships in which we can express our power and struggle against domination’ but without a strategy for conquering it. It is not a new notion of getting to socialism, but the notion of a permanent opposition carefully cultivating its crevices in a rotten world.
The anti-Leninist thrust of Beyond the Fragments would appear very cold, snide and negative if it was not presented against the backdrop of ‘local activity’ and the ‘new’ movements: in other words the famous ‘fragments’ themselves. They pop up throughout Sheila Rowbotham’s essay, but it is above all Hilary Wainwright and Lynne Segal who sing their praises.
You will remember that I argued in an earlier section (The audience) that you have to be a bit careful of the extent of the list of fragments that particularly Hilary Wainwright sometimes gives; lists that extend way into the workplace and the trade union movement by including ‘shop stewards combines’ and ‘left wing trades councils.’
After reading Sheila Rowbotham any doubts I may have had on this point can be safely put away. For Sheila, ‘I know I really do feel a closeness and love towards women I have known within women’s group situations which is quite different from the experience of socialist branch meetings. This collective experience has been a vital force in the women’s movements strength. I see no reason why it should be gender bound.’ (p. 134) Indeed not. And Sheila obviously thinks this sort of thing is a key aspect of the ‘new’ movements. But no-one, absolutely no-one, could possibly attribute ‘closeness and love’ generating qualities to even ‘left wing’ trades councils! They are a quite different ball game, the world of work and trade unions.
And what comes out again and again in Beyond the Fragments is the emphasis against politics at the point of production. It’s not only that ‘over-emphasis’ on it is repeatedly criticised, (e.g. pp. 96, 110, 162, etc.) It’s also the almost total neglect of workplace and trade union politics in the personal experiences which it is the authors method to recount. We never have Hilary, Sheila or Lynne at their trade union branch, or arguing politics with their workmates. Indeed we never even discover what jobs they have. The nearest we get is Lynne Segal: ‘Like me, many people who live in Islington don’t work there. My political experience has been as a community activist; it is not based on the workplace.’ (p. 158) End of story.
So the fragments that form the positive backdrop to Beyond the Fragments’ anti-Leninism are essentially non-workplace based. They are the arenas of ‘community’ or ‘personal’ politics. Are they really as vibrant as the Beyond the Fragments’ authors would sometimes like to claim?
Surprisingly enough it is the Beyond the Fragments’ authors themselves who provide enough evidence for an opposite assessment.
Take for example the structureless ‘participatory democracy’ which has had a vogue in the women’s movement and is set up as an alternative to the supposed hierarchies of Leninism. We’ll leave the comment to Sheila Rowbotham:
‘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 emotional blackmail or a conviction of the need to intervene can do so without being checked by any accepted procedure.’ (p. 76)
Or Lynne Segal:
‘... I think it is also true that male domination, elitism and passivity can exist in unstructured local groups and sectoral campaigns as well as in national organisations. People who are less confident, and less experienced at organising, or who have less time, will find it harder to participate in such groups. I have found that sometimes it can be even harder to combat “leaderism” within the small group, as interactions are more likely to be seen in purely individual and personal terms rather than as political manifestations.’ (p. 205)
Or take the relationship of these ‘new’ movements to the mass of the working class. Sheila Rowbotham:
‘While some 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.’ (p. 45)
And Lynne Segal on her experience with the Essex Road Women’s Centre:
‘Our lack of structure perhaps made it difficult for working-class women who were outside of our friendship networks, to know how to get involved.’ (p. 197)
‘It was our inability at Essex Road to get working-class women involved, as well as the fact that the women who had established the centre were no longer enthusiastic about it, that led me to seek new political initiatives.’ (p. 192)
But despite these failings do the ‘new’ movements nevertheless retain a new dynamism? Lynne Segal, particularly, reveals no.
Again, she is writing about the Essex Road Women’s Centre (and its successor):
‘Today there is a new women’s centre in Islington, but there is very little continuity between our old women’s centre and the new one which is being opened. It is as though things are all starting again from scratch, and I’m not sure that any lessons have been learned or could have been learned, from which this new group of women can begin. Those feminists who were active around Essex Road have not become involved in the new centre, most of them saying, “Oh no, not the same problems all over again”.’ (p. 180)
‘The preoccupation more with lifestyles than with building the women’s movement increased in Islington once the women’s centre had closed ... Women in all their different groups, whether women’s groups or mixed groups or campaigns, found it more difficult to get support from each other. We became more isolated and have difficulty responding to specific feminist issues as they arise ... I think its true to say that at least some women have lost some of the confidence they had in the early seventies in the struggle to build the women’s movement and have become even more suspicious of any overt political work.’ (p. 199)
Now it must be stressed that Sheila and Lynne still retain the faith in the ‘new’ movements. These are the only asides for them.
But they are sufficiently revealing (and there are others) to paint a picture of a ‘movement’ which lacks all the qualities which would in fact be necessary for them to sustain the political position they argue on any other grounds but faith. The ‘fragments’ they love have, they reveal, not solved the problems of democracy they attribute to the Leninists but have at the same time sacrificed effective organisation. They do retain all the tendencies toward reformism, integration and retreat into lifestyle, which we attribute to them. They have failed to break out of the limited (lower professional white collar) strata which spawned them. And they have suffered from the downturn of the late Seventies to an if anything greater extent than the Leninists. It’s a bleak picture made all the bleaker by Lynne and Sheila’s self-conscious abstention from the politics of the workplace.
But the title of the book is not In Praise of the Fragments, it is Beyond the Fragments. And the ‘Beyond‘ is important if the book is to play its role of rallying standard. A book which says quite openly ‘Don’t worry: carry on as you are’ is not going to set the world on fire.
Given that, my initial reaction is to look to the Trades Description Act. Because Sheila Rowbotham certainly ends up perilously close to suggesting that all we can or should do is to cultivate those little crevices in the rotten world where ‘we can meet person to person (and) learn from one another without reference or resentment ...’ (p. 147). There is very little in her essay to indicate why she should not eventually pursue this to its logical conclusion, which is precisely the politics of lifestyle.
Lynne Segal is a bit different. In general rather more hard headed about the realities of the fragments, she ends up, as I have already noted, joining Big Flame because ‘I also want to be part of an organisation which is trying to build upon and generalise from different situations and thus develop overall strategies.’ (p. 206) It’s very much a grafted on conclusion. And it would be altogether much more convincing if she advised the rest of us to join. She doesn’t. For that would of course blow the whole anti ‘sectarian’, anti-organisational appeal of the book sky high.
It would appear that she is trying to run with the fox and hunt with the hounds. And the only thing she says in defence of this is that Big Flame puts ‘the class struggle before its own organizational development.’ (p. 206) Quite how it performs this odd contortion we are not told.
I’ll suggest how: it’s because Big Flame, after its libertarian origins and a number of years flirting with the Italian left (particularly Lotta Continua) at its most maoist and unlibertarian, is now trying to rerun the movie (suitably censored) of the disintegration of the Italian left here. It’s not an appealing prospect. Nor, I think, a project liable to great success. Because, you see Big Flame does not offer anything to the Fragments audience, it is simply a tiny and varied cross section of that audience organised as a sect.
So we are left with Hilary Wainwright as the only one of the authors who makes a half credible stab at proposing a route ‘Beyond’. There are some very revealing things about the route she proposes. First of all she has to reintroduce the politics of the workplace and the trade union movement. To maintain any plausibility in a route to smash capitalism you have to do that. That is why the shop stewards committees which have been excised from the political world of Sheila and Lynne reappear as Hilary tries to explain how to ‘move beyond the fragments.’
Secondly she has to reintroduce the need for a mass Leninist party. I’ve already quoted her on that. Remember ‘the leninist theory of the state’, the ‘need to destroy the coercive state machinery’ and ‘the organisational condition for such a transformation, a mass revolutionary organisation based in the movements of the working class and other oppressed groups’; all these are ‘no problem’, ‘they are not in question’! (p. 240) And all this after 135 pages of Sheila Rowbotham! This is running with the fox and hunting with hounds with a vengeance.
The only problem, in Hilary’s eyes, is that the building of such an organization has to be put off to some unspecified future. Why? Why not just encourage people to join one of the existing revolutionary groups, like for instance the SWP?
Because, you see, we make a leap ‘from a belief in the need for mass socialist organization to the conclusion that we are the infant stage.’ So ‘like the Elizabethan children who were dressed up like full-grown adults, the result at worst is absurd, puffed up and very constricting!’ (p. 241)
Funny, but when it comes down to the asides, Hilary is full of praise for Socialist Worker or Women’s Voice, full of praise for our role as ‘catalysts and educators.’ She is most insistent that she does not want us to dissolve.
In fact all in all she is a bit too friendly. Because that friendliness goes along with a friendliness to all and sundry. Like for instance a number of socialists she quotes who have made their own individual entry job into the Labour Party. They have problems, yes, but somehow ‘we cannot leave the Labour Party socialists to stew in their own contradiction while we hurry away to build a separate party in the hope that one day they’ll see the error of their ways.’ (p. 221) So what Hilary proposes is the vision of a mass party in the dim and distant future, and the recommendation that for the moment we get on with what we are each doing and be nice to each other.
And the link she proposes between this present and the future is the building of ‘socialist alliances’. That is the one half solid route to ‘Beyond’ that Beyond the Fragments contains.
‘The way in which these local alliances might come about will vary tremendously according to local conditions.’ Sometimes ‘... the local branch of the strongest Left-wing organisation or left Constituency Labour Party might set an alliance in motion’ or’... some nationally initiated campaign might lead people to seek ways of establishing that unity on a more permanent, wider basis. Or there might already be some form of unity, a local socialist newspaper, a shared resource centre, a bookshop, socialist club or centre, which can be built on to create a more active political centre’ (p. 238)
On the face of it an attractive prospect. Unity always is. And two of the authors of Beyond the Fragments are already involved in such local ‘socialist alliances’: Hilary Wainwright in the Tyneside Socialist Centre, Lynne Segal in the Islington Socialist Centre.
There are just two, quite devastating, problems.
The first is pointed to by Lynne Segal in another of her revealing asides. Of the Islington Socialist Centre she writes ‘It is true, though, that at present the centre serves better as a focus for co-operation and discussion between the left than as a place for extending our base further within the working class.’ (p. 195) In other words this (the most successful of the ‘socialist alliances’) is a place for the left to huddle together to keep warm.
And what follows from huddling together to keep warm? You ignore important political differences lest someone should get thrown out in the cold. And that is revealed in much written about events at Hilary’s Tyneside Socialist centre  in which another leading socialist centre member voted with the right wing on the issue of the Labour Party leadership and Hilary resisted moves for the Socialist Centre to condemn him, because this would break up the alliance.
So the only positive proposal contained in the book for going beyond the fragments turns out to be both inward looking and of necessity having to make practical political concessions to reformism.
No wonder that the much written about socialist centres have when it comes to the crunch, done singularly little about, for example, organising solidarity for the steel workers. It has by and large been left to the much maligned Leninists to do mundane things like that.
So where are the ‘fragments’ going? What in reality does lie beyond? In a few cases it could be the sort of aggressive, nihilistic, and above all elitist autonomism which has gained some currency in France and Italy. All three authors would be appalled at the prospect. And I think they can sleep easy on this score. They (especially Sheila) may have inadvertently done some of the irrationalist spade work for such a current, but its prospects for the moment in Britain are happily tiny.
Far more likely is that the assault Beyond the Fragments wages on the hard faced Leninist politics with our ‘obsession’ with workplace struggle will simply be used as a ‘theoretical’ prop for dropping one rung further out of the struggle and trying to cultivate one’s own lifestyle. And if the need for a national political alternative is felt then Tony Benn is ready smiling in the wings to satisfy it. He’s quite willing to make the overtures. Remember Peter Hain’s remarks about ‘the seminal work of socialist theory’ at the Great Debate. Remember his indulgence from the chair.
Do the authors like the prospect? I’m sure that at the moment they don’t. But if they really want to avoid it they shouldn’t throw quotes from the Eurocommunists around with such gusto, present feminists who have gone into the Labour Party as just doing their own valid thing or close off the Leninist counter arguments with quick jibes of ‘How can you be so certain’.
Of course there is another alternative for people who take the title of the book seriously, but are willing to be critical of the contents. For people who really want to go beyond the fragments. For people who are genuinely proud of their local activity but who want to make it more effective in the here and now, and more effectively linked to the struggle for a socialist future. For people who, faced with cuts and falling wages and racism in their colleges and offices, are finding themselves looking once again at the politics of the workplace.
But, you see, it’s called the Socialist Workers Party. If you are one of these people and there are many, I’d like to ask you to join, but that would be committing the first sin in the book – recruitment. I’d like to argue with you about why you should join. But then that would be arguing ‘brass tacks and hard facts.’
It’s a pity. Because we need each other.
1. Page references after quotes refer to Beyond the Fragments, second (expanded and revised) edition, London 1980.
2. Socialist Review, no. 4, 1980, p. 11.
3. We are trying to do systematic empirical research on this. Findings will be published in a future issue of this journal.
4. See the correspondence on this subject in Socialist Challenge, April 10 and 24, 1980.
Last updated on 20.8.2013