Book Review: Sheila Rowbotham et al., “Beyond the Fragments”

The collection of socialist feminist arguments and lectures collected in 1979 under the title Beyond the Fragments is due a re-read in our present times. After the crisis in the SWP and the lengthy debates on the relationship between Marxist organisation and the ‘social movements’, often as vituperative as they have been inconclusive, the need to go beyond the fragments of each individual movement and find resources for a common purpose is as great as ever. What is striking about this collection is therefore how little dated it is – the occasional reference to the influence of the CPGB or the rule of Callaghan’s Labour aside, most of it reads like it had been written last week. For this reason, it is worth revisiting especially the opening essay by Sheila Rowbotham, which takes up most of the book. While the other two essays, by Lynne Segal and Hilary Wainwright, emphasize also the practical and organisational significance of the women’s movement on the politics of the radical left, it is Rowbotham’s essay that most thoroughly gives a theoretical exposition of the flaws and failures of that radical left in taking up these lessons.

Rowbotham had spent some time in the IS or SWP – as it became after Cliff’s notorious ‘Bolshevik Turn’ – and also many years as a core figure in the women’s movement, and therefore had a good overview of the interaction, or lack thereof, between both movements. Her withering critiques of the practice of the SWP are not, however, to be seen as limited to that organisation. She explicitly identifies these as applying to all Trotskyist groups of that time (and indeed ours). The first question analyzed by Rowbotham is therefore this: “why should a group which had historically broken with both Stalinism and orthodox Trotskyism on the issue of socialist democracy and worker’s control be more incapable of digesting not only feminism but issues like gay liberation, radical psychology, struggles around cultural and community life and personal discussion of what it meant to be socialist?” (35) Indeed, Rowbotham – perhaps surprisingly for some now – acknowledges not just the IMG as a rival Trotskyist group to have been (incrementally) better, but also the newly ‘Eurocommunist’ CP, despite its reputation for stodgy traditionalism. Lest anyone think that this was simply a contingency of those times, it’s worth noting how in the crisis in the SWP and of the SWP’s leadership and authority, the loyalist faction resorted to using accusations of ‘feminism’ and ‘autonomism’ as insults.

Leninism and the social movements
Rowbotham’s answer to this locates it as inherent to the Trotskyist political project itself, and in particular in the ‘heterodox’ form it took within the IS ‘tradition’. While she rightly acknowledges the IS tradition’s own willingness to break from received ideas in the 1960s and 1970s, not just those of the CPs but also of the orthodox Trotskyist parties, this in turn led to a new kind of ossification that is still with us. This is the stagnation induced by the IS/SWP’s coasting on this notion of previous heterodoxy to refuse any self-examination: “This hardened into a refusal to talk about the politics of what they [the SWP] were doing within the left… The refusal to deal with dogma meant that in trying to go outwards they dismissed other socialists. In rejecting some of the obvious pretensions of orthodox Trotskyism, righteousness grew within. It was as if they had a special calling which was never stated and was somehow invisible. Their politics became those of the chosen elect. They could never do everything themselves but felt no one else could be relied upon to do anything worthwhile. Under this strain… there was no time to learn from new developments.” (36-37) This was under the immediate pressure of Cliff’s exaggerations about 1968 and the constant belief in the imminent arrival of ‘The Crisis’; imagine what it means for Trotskyist practice that this is still a good description of the SWP’s habitus today!

For Rowbotham, the sense that the more or less organically formed organisational practice of the women’s movement provided an alternative for the left to this attitude is perhaps the key intuition of the essay. Much of this is wrapped up in the process of oppressed and exploited people, who have always been told that they cannot and should not think, act, and organise for themselves, coming to develop the courage, confidence, and especially self-knowledge that is required to overcome this. She gives many examples of the activities of women in demonstrations (such as against Miss World), in the women’s centres, the National Abortion Campaign, and so forth. But here, too, there are important criticisms of left party organisation that are immediately relevant for our times. One important one of these, which probably all the Leninist parties share (though not just them), is the influence of the interpretation of their historical role for their political practice. Especially for the Trotskyists, with their self-image as the ‘eternal alternative’, this is true; but it was also for the CPs and their Petrine attitude that history would assure their victory. The result, as Rowbotham explains, was and is very negative for the ability to incorporate the ‘social movements’ or even any discussions about strategic orientation. “The game is rigged to dispose of the baddies. The slots for those labelled only come in certain shapes. So criticism of particular forms of organization has to be disposed of down one slot marked ‘anarchism’, questioning of a particular idea of leadership goes down into ‘spontaneism’… It all sounds absurd when put like this. But nonetheless the power of naming is a real force on the left today. It deflects queries about what is going on. It makes people feel small and stupid”. (66)

In fact, this is a kind of bad faith, a consciously partial self-reflection by the left organisations on their pretenses to being ‘steeled cadres’, whether of orthodoxy or heterodoxy making no difference: “All kinds of dusty icons lurk behind the public face. We need to bring them to the surface… For example, what about all those comparisons to nineteenth-century armies marching in orderly formation? Why is there such a horror of cosiness, as if cosiness were almost more dangerous than capitalism itself? (…) The individual militant appears as a lonely character without ties, bereft of domestic emotions, who is hard, erect, self-contained, controlled, without the time or ability to express loving passion, who cannot pause to nurture, for whom friendship is a diversion. If this is our version of what it means to be a socialist… membership of this elect will for a start be predominantly male, for if it attracts a minority among men, it fits even fewer women… The cuddly retire into cosiness and all the suspicions of the elect are confirmed. Being an elect they can rely on no one and being an elect means they have to do everything. And always the weight of the burden of responsibility, the treachery and insensitivity of everyone else is bearing down on them.” (68-69)

This is one of the best descriptions of the Steeled Cadre Syndrome on the left I have read, and indeed is just as applicable today as it was then – not even specifically to the Trotskyists, perhaps at least as much so to the ‘Marxist-Leninists’, the Maoists, and so forth, all the great movements with their ‘upholding’ and their military posture. The less these groups are able to engage in real fights to the death with the ruling class, the more they posture as if they do. Some of this description of the ideal steeled cadre, one may surmise, is based on a caricature of Lenin himself and his singularly obsessive character, as revealed in many biographies and depictions (hostile and friendly): his self-denial, his impatience, and his almost obsessively effective ability to put the single goal of revolution above all else. But even Lenin had his love for music and chess and his escapades with Inessa Armand; and for the likes of Lunacharsky or Kollontai, serious revolutionaries in their own right, this description goes even less. Besides, why always model ourselves after 1917? This is part of the self-imposed burden of both those wings of the left that see in it an image of the future, and those that define themselves in opposition to it. As Rowbotham puts it in frustration: “It presents in cameo a nostalgic and romantic yearning for the pristine clarity which is seen as 1917. How often do we need to say we are not in Russia in the early twentieth century before it becomes a felt reality? The Tsar is dead!” (69)

This goes for the Trotskyists as much as for the ‘M-Ls’, Maoists etc., precisely because of their oppositional role as the mirror image of the CPs. “Within Trotskyism the desire to return to the molten heat of the early Russian Revolution has all the intensity of the need for survival itself. They would perish in the wilderness without it.” Their endless history of ‘betrayals’ and denunciations of the “failures and treacheries of the Communist Party leadership echoed the Communists’ own denunciation of the same aspects of social democracy.” (70) But the same is true for the anarchist and ‘libertarian communists’: they simply add the Trotskyists to the same history of leaderships and betrayals, and in the process equally lose track of the social history of the great mass of the population. In all cases, ahistoricism and self-aggrandizement is the result. “The dramatic instances of conflict are extracted from their longer term context, the to-ing and fro-ing of resistance which is so evident when you focus on women’s lives.”

‘Democratic centralism’
But what then of democratic centralism? Going from the masses, to the masses? Is this not the guarantee of both organisational efficiency and of the incorporation of all popular concerns, so that Marxists can become in Lenin’s famous phrase ‘tribunes of the people’? The critique of the organisational form of ‘democratic centralism’ was a central concern of the New Left in the 1960s, although the Maoist turn (especially in the US) in the 1970s somewhat counteracted this. For Ralph Miliband it had “always served as a convenient device for authoritarian party structures”, and indeed the crisis in the SWP and the patent inability of the tiny democratic-centralist sects in the West to achieve anything has called it once again into question. Here, too, Rowbotham’s essay is quite to the point for us now as for then. “There has been something very funny indeed about it in practice”, she writes. “It is a curious fact that the hard core of the leaderships of these groups, despite a series of palace revolutions, manage to tuck themselves into the centre in perpetuity and that bits of broken-off leaderships resurface within the splinters.” (73)

Mixed metaphors aside, is this not an apt description of every ‘democratic centralist’ party in the West today? It could have been written about the UK SWP and its splinter, Counterfire; but equally about the ISO in the US or the Trotskyist parties of France, or about other ‘tendency’ parties. What stands out among pretty much every left organisation based on ‘democratic centralism’ is that their rate of leadership turnover is equal to or less than that of the sclerotic phase of the Soviet Union, and despite the vaunting of this democratic formula, much less than the turnover of the centrist and liberal parties. In fact, the consequences of strategic failure are much more severe for leaders of Labour or liberal parties than for the central committees of the Marxists, at least until the moment of purges or palace coups.

What about the votes of the members then? Rowbotham’s description could be any party today: “[The leaderships] have a permanent advantage against all incipient oppositions because they are at the hub of communication and can organize to forestall resistance quicker than people who are scattered in different branches and districts. Also they are known – better the devil you know! Even if it gets a bit hot at the top now and then, there is a loophole: the members – poor old things, tramping around and getting sore feet on their paper sales up and down all those concrete council-flat steps. They have a tendency to get routinized. Not the leadership. It is up to the leadership to spot when this is happening and leap out towards ‘the class’ to knock the members into shape. Whoosh – Superman! (…) Why isn’t democratic centralism binding on the leadership? Because the leaders know best. How else could they possibly be leaders? How does Superman leadership know when to go whoosh towards the advanced sections of the class? Because he is leader of course. Pop go the poor members. The cosy ones fall by the wayside… the intransigent form a small splinter replica. And the leaders go whoosh, whoosh all the way back to the centre… Soon they are safely ensconced again with the added authority of the patent they have out now on ‘the class’. No wonder leaders of Leninist groups have staying power.” (73-74) I defy you, on reading this, not to think of certain leading ‘comrades’ of our left parties today. That this is as relevant now as it was then, and indeed as well-phrased as it ever has been, cannot be seriously in dispute.

Identity, autonomy, and Marxist organisations
The effect of all this on the ability to incorporate the experiences, critiques and practices of the ‘social movements’, and especially those of the autonomous movements based on the identities of the oppressed and exploited – the women’s movement, gay movement, anti-racist movements and so forth – is devastating. Rowbotham does not, of course, claim that the magic key to organisation has or had been found by those groups. In reality, it is probably much healthier to doubt that such a key exists, or even if it does, whether it will ever be found and recognized in time. What these movements do have, however, is their autonomy and their leadership practices that precisely lack all the above political and historical attitudes. Many Marxist critics, especially those of a more ‘traditional’ bent, have criticized them for this. Indeed, the risk of fragmentation along the lines of identities is perhaps more real than could have been foreseen in the 1970s, and as the debates on intersectionality demonstrate, there is a constant need to invent theoretical and organisational forms and practices that do find a common ground between diverse humans in order to achieve general aims.

Rowbotham cedes, importantly, to the Marxists and the Marxist parties at least a better sense of what one might call overview: the ability to understand each specific form of oppression and exploitation and its relationship to the whole. (Indeed, this I think is what Lenin’s own argument for the party he led and its historical role was. Rowbotham reproduces some of the classic anti-Leninist arguments about the theory of consciousness as ‘coming from outside’, being brought into people’s activity by leaderships (Lenin) or bourgeois intelligentsia (Kautsky); but recent literature has shown this to be a caricature of the arguments of those times in the first place.) This also includes, perhaps, the ability to learn from other organizations and branches, something Lynne Segal describes as a major problem for her experience in libertarian Marxist feminist activism.

But more useful than those old arguments about Leninism is perhaps to conclude by looking more generally at the way this overview has nonetheless not been able to lead to better practice. A number of points should be mentioned here on the basis of this collection’s discussion of the experience of the women’s movement and its interaction the left parties. These are, in no particular order, the tendency to make everything into general and absolute abstractions or ‘principled differences’, rather than understanding lower level changes in consciousness or class composition and struggle; a tendency towards preferring a pretend certainty over acknowledging problems and unknowns; organisational conservatism, especially about one’s own ‘tradition’; a hostility to seeing the ‘everyday life’ as a site of struggle, oppression, and even exploitation (the latter owing more to social reproduction feminism, which the authors treat critically); the notion that political consciousness is a single thing in which one is more or less ‘advanced’; the tendency to think that one’s own party or organisation relates to the rest and outsiders as adults to children, especially when one thinks one is the ‘nucleus of the vanguard’ or the like; and internal, often unstated, hierarchies in favor of waged workers, skilled over unskilled, unionized over non-unionized, and so forth, which especially tend to exclude women.

To say that the autonomous movements have done a considerably better job of dealing with these issues than the Marxist parties have is also a call for the latter to actually look at and learn from these forms and practices of organisation, something especially the movements of women and people of color have been emphasizing since at least as long ago as when the book under discussion was written. But this has hitherto not really been done in a meaningful way. This is all the more a shame as the authors are under no illusions that the autonomous movements, or the movements on the basis of identity and against privilege (to put it in contemporary terms), do not have inherent issues of their own. Prefiguration, the notion that the movement to overthrow our present system(s) must have the attributes of the future society, has obvious practical limits of feasibility and is often more psychologically demanding still than the Leninist project already is. Moreover, the authors give prescient warnings about the way identity-based autonomous politics can become “a coercive consensus which makes it emotionally difficult for individuals to say what they feel rather than a source of strength”, or “an emotionally terrorizing morality”, shades of “emotional blackmail” and severe problems of communication with outsiders (which quickly becomes almost everyone).

These are no more illusory phenomena, and no more deserve to be sneeringly dismissed than do the problems of Marxist party-builders and their history in the West. Nor do I think politics needs to simply be reduced to these movements – we need not all become autonomists. The main lesson of the book is about the inability of the party-builders to learn from the women’s movement (and similar movements) precisely on the point they traditionally see as their strength, the question of organisational practice. Here, perhaps some of the identity movements also fall short, if probably not by nearly as much. What matters here is not so much to attack the one or the other, as to improve practices of communication and organisation. As Hilary Wainwright summarizes it: “There are many lessons to be drawn from the women’s movement which would help us as socialists to create structures, arrange meetings, debate with each other, plan tactics, take decisions in ways which draw new people into socialist activity, and which keep them involved far more effectively than in the past… The women’s movement, at its best, has taught us how to unite as a movement on the major practical issues of the day while debating and respecting each others political differences and frequently agreeing to differ and go our own ways without jeopardizing the single movement.” (252) To which Rowbotham adds: “Leninism does not know the answer. It merely asserts an ideal transcendence.” (87) This, I think, remains the organisational challenge for Marxism today in the age of identity.


Rowbotham reproduces some of the classic anti-Leninist arguments about the theory of consciousness as ‘coming from outside’, being brought into people’s activity by leaderships (Lenin) or bourgeois intelligentsia (Kautsky); but recent literature has shown this to be a caricature of the arguments of those times in the first place.)

It is a caricature of the positions taken by Lenin, Kautsky or any other serious revolutionary.
But it is far from being a caricature of the objects of Rowbotham’s ire, who differ of course, greatly from their predecessors in that they are almost innocent of serious political practice, or of associating with equals. They make sure of that which is why what they call “democratic centralism” is in fact a self perpetuating oligarchy.

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