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One step forward

(June 1989)

From Socialist Worker Review 121, June 1989, pp. 26–27.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The Past is Before Us: Feminism in action since the 1960s
Sheila Rowbotham
Pandora £15.00 hardback

“I SEE the liberation of women as inseparable from the creation of a society which is not structured on oppression and competition, though this is not to trust in the ideal future to deliver freedom without autonomous struggle in the here and now. I am a socialist feminist – although I do not conceive of socialism as a fixed set of dogma but as a process of political creating formed from the movement of people against inequality, injustice and humiliation.”

A major new book by one of the founders of the women’s movement in Britain is something of an event, especially when its subject matter is the history of the movement itself. Certainly this is Sheila Rowbotham’s most important work since Beyond the Fragments came out ten years ago.

Whereas that book was greeted by the Guardian woman’s page as an exciting new project, The Past is Before Us has so far caused very little stir. Where it has been reviewed, the reaction of other feminists has often been lukewarm.

The reason lies in part in the sort of political message Sheila Rowbotham puts across. The introduction, which contains the passage quoted above, states clearly her commitment to a socialist feminism which is concerned with more than “one form of subordination.”

This is in itself remarkable. The trajectory of those feminists who once called themselves socialist has largely been to the right in recent years. They have drifted towards embracing patriarchy theory, adopting the idea that “male power” – backed by male violence – is the key mechanism of women’s oppression.

The crisis of the women’s movement from the late seventies onwards had a particularly severe effect on socialist feminists. They felt defensive in the face of more aggressively separatist feminists. And because their major critique of socialism seemed very often to comprise of attacks on left groups and their male domination, they felt disarmed when it came to any strategy for women’s liberation.

An editorial in Feminist Review written by socialist feminists in 1982 complained that:

“Socialist feminists as a group have initiated relatively little political activity and have been at the forefront of few campaigns although individual socialist feminists have been politically active. The November 1980 socialist feminist conference on imperialism, although important, also had the effect of minimising women’s struggles in this country and of discouraging organisation.”

Faced with decline and inertia, socialist feminists joined the Labour Party. The political development represented a move away from women fighting directly for their own liberation. Beyond the Fragments was, whatever the intentions of its authors, a useful recruiting agent for the Labour Party.

However, the experience of ten years of Thatcherism has had a contradictory effect. Although many on the left have accepted the ideas of new realism, abandoning any real hope of change through struggle, there has also been resistance to this development.

The Past is Before Us represents part of that resistance. The book is a statement of continuing commitment to socialist feminism.

What polemic there is in the book is aimed at those who want to pull the original aims of the women’s movement towards radical feminism or at the theorists of separation. Sheila Rowbotham is critical of theories of the family which explain oppression in terms of violence, domination or submission. She regrets developments in the women’s movement which have led to increased acceptance of such ideas.

“An attempt to understand the ambiguity in relations between men and women, and to explore the economic, social and psychological factors that contributed to dependence and control in the family, was displaced by a much starker portrayal which symbolically polarized relations between men and women. Instead of actual relationships between human beings, inherently evil and inherently good forces confronted each other. Implicitly, violence in the family was presented as the reality behind the false ideal.”

Again, she attacks the “common-sense” of many feminists on the question of the “male trade unions”. Bea Campbell’s critique of the unions shows

“a peculiar passion ... reserved for a polemic against a particular economistic image of class militancy which is continually equated with male domination. This feature is shared by much feminist writing on trade unions from this period. There is an elision here. Certainly there have been historical connections and certainly demands for higher wages cannot solve all social ills. But by the mid-1980s what had begun as a critique was in danger of becoming a frozen stance. A beleaguered and battered labour movement was being depicted as if it was still as strong as it had been in the previous decade.”

These arguments are very important. They put forward an alternative to those dominant even among socialist feminists in recent years, and they at least attempt to link ideas of feminism with those of the working class movement. Sheila Rowbotham’s attacks are mainly reserved for those to die right of her.

Although she mentions and quotes from the publications of many left groups over die past twenty years, she does so in a non-sectarian way and does not attempt to score points against those (Leninist organisations like the SWP, for example) with whom she disagrees.

The Past is Before Us is, therefore, very much in tune with the sorts of arguments put forward by her co-author of Beyond the Fragments, Lynne Segal, in her attack on radical feminism, Is the Future Female? Both reflect the sorts of politics put forward by the Socialist Society and the recent Chesterfield Socialist Conferences. A recent issue of the Socialist Society’s magazine Interlink carried an article by Lynne Segal bemoaning those moving to the right who had used Beyond the Fragments for their own ends.

But the strengths of the book shouldn’t blind us to its weaknesses. It is worth talking about two: one appears to be a question of style but in reality both are questions of politics. The first problem is the way the book is written. It contains a lot of original source material from leaflets and long; forgotten publications, which give some of die flavour of the early women’s movement. The material is grouped around various subjects and themes such as sexual politics, the family, the unions and paid work.

The chapters tend to overwhelm with detail, rather than enlighten. The consciously non-polemical style of the writing adds to this problem. It makes the book feel much less weighty or engaging than, for example, Is the Future Female? or indeed Beyond the Fragments. This style is not accidental, but stems from the idea that one cannot be too certain or dogmatic about political ideas. Its effect is to blunt the ideas which are being put across.

The second and much more fundamental problem is the nature of socialist feminism itself. Sheila Rowbotham’s message is that socialism has been transformed by the advent of feminism in the past twenty years. Yet most feminists’ view of the transformation is one sided. They see feminist influence as a totally positive thing, yet it clearly has had a number of negative effects.

It has, for example, denied that class struggle is the key means of transforming society. It accepts that trade unionism is male dominated and therefore will not help women. Any who doubt that feminist ideas can be used by the right of the Labour movement should look at the relative ease with which they are incorporated by Neil Kinnock or John Edmonds.

Sheila Rowbotham recognises this.

“Nearly two decades on it is incontrovertible that there are many feminist visions of the future we seek. There remain divisions of right and left, and there are differences between women based on class and race, for example.”

But she has no clear idea how the problem can be overcome. The difficulty is that socialist feminism has always attempted to cross organisation based on class with organisation based on gender. Class organisation has been dismissed by most feminists in recent years. But attempts at gender organisation have ended in diversity and division as class differences come to the fore.

Sheila Rowbotham recognises that we can no longer speak of a single women’s movement. This is clearly true in terms of both politics and organisation. What does exist is a form of cultural feminism based on lifestyles and academia rather than activity and struggle.

She also recognises that “women’s liberation has raised questions that range beyond feminist organisations”. What this seems to be arguing for is a new socialist organisation, rather than a new women’s movement.

“The growth of a women’s liberation culture in the widest sense has not, as we have seen, solved the problem of how this social force can change the existing framework of political power.”

Implicit in this is a rejection of much of the (especially recent) history of die women’s movement, in favour of some sort of socialist organisation.

But her view of socialist organisation draws on Utopian socialist and libertarian traditions, which stress pre-figurative forms of organisation, and therefore fit quite well with the idea of separate and autonomous organisation. The problem with these theories however, is that socialism and women’s liberation remain at the level of good ideas. There is no understanding of how they can be achieved. Again the conclusion of the book recognises this:

“It is a new combination of Utopia and strategy that is wanting. If the women’s movement has been hotter on Utopias than strategies, the reverse has been true of modern socialism. It would seem to me an element of exchange might be helpful.”

Yet it is precisely revolutionary organisation, the Leninism which Sheila Rowbotham finds so unappealing, which has been able to combine both a vision of the future and an understanding of the need to organise around immediate issues.

The women’s movement on the other hand, through not understanding the need to organise on the basis of class, lost its ability to organise seriously on the day to day issues. As a consequence it has also lost what inspiration it gave in its early days.

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