The following article is Pat’s polemic, which is still very relevant, against Sheila Rowbotham’s 1979 article “The Women’s Movement and Organising for Socialism”, published in the well-known collection, Beyond the Fragments.
A noticeable feature of the last few years has been the number of people who have rejected the Leninist conception of the party and looked for other forms of organisation. This rejection has been particularly prevalent within the women’s movement where such ideas were able to gain acceptance partly because of the left’s initial hostility to the movement.
The socialist-feminist current which appeared during the time of the Working Women’s Charter Campaign laid down its aim as producing a synthesis of socialism and feminism. For some time the ideas of the socialist-feminist current remained vague; the book entitled Beyond the Fragments, and particularly the essay by Sheila Rowbotham, is to be welcomed, for in some ways it makes the task of coming to grips with the criticisms that many socialist-feminists (and others) have of the left easier.
Sheila Rowbotham’s article is written from a viewpoint in which the class struggle is largely absent. Her polemic against Leninist forms of organisation takes the form of a struggle for libertarianism against authoritarian forms of organisation. Her rejection of the need for a revolutionary party flows from her dismissal of the need for a revolutionary theory and a rejection of scientific Marxism.
Although she sometimes sees the need for organisational structures, she consistently dismisses the political role of the party; and although she warns against extreme subjectivism, she nevertheless raises subjectivity to the highest level and sees it as the guiding force for political activity.
For Sheila, Leninism can’t provide guidance for building an organisation because it excludes the experience of women’s and the working class’s struggle. It negates the politics of experience which the women’s movement encapsulates. A necessary precondition for properly relating to the working class is, according to Sheila Rowbotham, an open and flexible approach to other people’s subjective experiences.
Sheila Rowbotham’s anti-Leninism and anti-Trotskyism flow from her experience of left organisations. However, one of the problems of the essay is that the criticisms of Leninism and Trotskyism become difficult to disentangle from her criticisms of particular organisations. Therefore, the lack of democracy within the International Socialism Group (now SWP) is proof that Leninism is inherently undemocratic. Its turn to democratic centralism in the late 1960s is given as the reason for its inability to take up the question of women's oppression, not its underestimation of the political role of the party and its workerist attitudes. Sheila Rowbotham is unable to understand this because the importance of the political programme is the very thing she dismisses herself.
Sheila Rowbotham joined the International Socialism Group in the l960s when it had a loose federalist structure. The reasons she cites for doing so are specificially its political openness and flexibility. Organisational and political flexibility is needed to respond quickly to the class struggle. However, sometimes it can be used as an excuse not for providing a lead to the class but for tail-ending it and capitulating to backward and chauvinist ideas. Sheila rejects the idea that democratic centralism can provide flexibility and the maximum unity in action, so that political theories can be tested in struggle. She does not see that the absence of such unity leads to inertia and a lack of political focus.
Such a disciplined and unified political approach can only be achieved, of course, by the maximum of accountability and democracy possible. Democracy is absolutely vital to a well-functioning political organisation. Without it political debate is stifled and political lessons remain undrawn.
Sheila replaces political theory by an almost religious and mystical belief about subjective experiences. Talking about the women’s movement, she says:
“We have stressed for instance the closeness and protection of a small group and the feelings of sisterhood. Within the small group it has been important that every woman has space and air for her feelings and ideas to grow. The assumption is that there isn’t a single correctness which can be learned off by heart and passed on by poking people with it. It is rather that we know our feelings and ideas move and transform themselves in relation to other women.
“We all need to express and contribute... Our views are valid because they come from within us and not because we hold a received correctness. The words we use seek an honesty about our own interest in what we say. This is the opposite to most left language which is constantly distinguishing itself as correct and then covering itself with a determined objectivity."
Sheila Rowbotham appears to believe that the less well thought-out ideas are and the more spontaneous the better. Difficulties are experienced by women because of our conditioning, particularly in analysing ideas and articulating our thoughts. However, the last thing we need is to glorify these difficulties and mystify them under the guise of sisterhood.
Sheila Rowbotham sees subjective experiences as being pure and honest. However., she never questions where this subjectivity comes from in reality; subjective attitudes can be extremely dangerous and reactionary.
Also, her emphasis on building pre-figurative forms of society in our everyday lives comes dangerously close to lifestyle politics and a concept that we don’t have to fight for socialism — living it is good enough.
Sheila’s search is not for revolutionary theory but for a moral standard for the left. Honesty and love are stressed above all else. What is meant by these terms is never defined.
Sheila Rowbotham’s critique of the far left is not only that they are too politically intransigent and not open enough. She believes that Leninist forms of organisation no longer fit the British situation. In fact she reiterates the old right wing argument about “the seeds of Stalinism” being inherent in Bolshevism:
“But there is no need to stop here. It must also be admitted that the Bolsheviks, even before Stalin, have a lot to account for, and that Leninism destroyed vital aspects of socialism even in creating a new kind of left politics.” She quotes approvingly E P Thompson’s dictum “Leninism was a specific product of very special historical circumstances which seemed to be irrelevant to this country and at this time and which could often entail anti-democratic and anti-libertarian premises.”
Sheila Rowbotham never defines what these special circumstances are or what is meant by democracy.
Her belief that the Leninist party is inherently undemocratic and unable to incorporate the ideas of the women’s movement is given further weight by her criticisms of Marxists’ inability to fully understand the nature of women’s oppression.
“Under Marx and Engels’ influence communists dismissed crucial questions about sexual oppression, control over fertility and the cultural subordination of women as a sex which other contemporaries in the socialist and feminist movement recognised. This is not to dismiss the inspired leaps made by Marx and Engels theoreticaliy or to forget that Lenin was much more sympathetic than some Bolsheviks towards women’s oppression. It is not to deny that Trotsky paid more attention to cultural aspects of subordination though he stopped short at sexuality. But they were not omniscient.”
It is undoubtedly true that Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky didn’t write the last words on women’s oppression and that there were people who had a much deeper understanding of how female sexuality is repressed and who fought for gay rights. However, any attempt to weigh up the Bolsheviks’ contribution to the fight for women’s liberation has to be seen in a historical context.
They mobilised thousands of women workers to fight for their liberation, and achieved a revolution which did more for women’s rights than anything previously. The wealth of material that survives from this period, particularly concerning the building of the mass communist women’s movement in Russia, has been borrowed by many left organisations and by many feminists in helping them to work out a strategy for women’s liberation.
Her critique of the Bolsheviks and the Leninist party leads her to demand an autonomous women’s movement; she means more than the recognition of the need for women to organise separately. Her idea implies a struggle for women’s rights which is separate and distinct from the struggle for workers’ power. She criticises the linking of the mass communist women’s movement to the party:
“But the outcome of the debate around the organisational power of women’s sections in Communist Parties had been partly preempted by the approach which had prevailed from the 1890s in the Second International towards the women’s movement of the day. The oversimplified and sectarian dismissal of all autonomous forms of feminism with the insistence on the Social Democratic Parties as the only place for women’s agitation isolated many socialist women from the more radical currents within feminism. This necessarily curtailed their capacity to question the Marxist theory of the ‘woman question’ or to challenge the hegemony of the male leaderships of the Social Democratic Parties. The tighter discipline of the Bolsheviks and the acceptance of democratic centralism cut off the possibility of appeal outside the parties. Under Stalin of course all forms of inner party democracy in the Soviet Union perished and with them the women’s sections. This had international implications”.
The mass communist women’s movement was fighting to build a revolutionary movement of working class women; it was largely successful. Sheila seems to be suggesting that they should have been less concerned with this aim and more concerned with relating to sections of the radical feminist movement in Russia who undoubtedly hid their petit-bourgeois reformism under a veneer of radicalism.
Their hostility towards the Bolsheviks was not because their ideas on sexuality were a little limited, but because they were working class revolutionaries. Does Sheila Rowbotham's reference to the male leaderships of the Social Democratic Parties also mean that there is something called men’s politics and women’s politics and that male politics have a greater tendency to be suspect?
The German Social Democratic Party was reformist, but was it because Karl Kautsky was a man? Was it because Rosa Luxemburg was a woman that she was revolutionary?
Note also the jump from Bolshevism to Stalinism as if one was the logical extension of the other. Sheila Rowbotham does acknowledge elsewhere in her article the problems of isolation and backwardness that the Russian Revolution faced, but primarily she attributes the degeneration to the Bolsheviks’ pernicious forms of organisation.
It is quite noticeable how much more sympathetic Sheila Rowbotham is towards the ideas expressed in Eurocommunism:
“Eurocommunism has opened up the issue of autonomy in a different context from the classical stress on the party in Leninism. Its supporters stress the need to make alliances rather than the vanguard role of the party. This expresses actual changes in practice of which the British Road to Socialism was a part. It involves a different approach to the transition to socialism. This means that many feminists in Britain regard their membership of the Communist Party and the women’s movement as less contradictory than belonging to either Trotskyist groups, who believe (with tact or without it) that they should play a vanguard role, or to the Socialist Workers Party whose version of the vanguard amounts to themselves plus a well screened working class in struggle. I think the radical importance of Eurocommunism is that it opens up the possibility of rethinking together a strategy of socialism in advanced capitalism which includes members of the CP.”
The criticisms of the party and the dismissal of political theory have as their basis the rejection of the revolutionary role of the working class. All the stuff about learning from experience, cosiness, and love hides a hard reformist kernel.
Sheila Rowbotham emphasises time and time again that the personal is political. But she seems to mean more by this than how we relate to each other and the need to take up all forms of oppression. She primarily sees socialism as something that grows out of us and which we build in our everyday lives — it is not something that we have to fight for and strive for by a political struggle.
Eurocommunism can adapt to feminism and to the ideas of the autonomous women’s movement because it dismisses completely the central and revolutionary role of the working class. The working class becomes just one of the allies of the women’s movement and part of the broad democratic alliance. All of it is linked to a thoroughly reformist strategy that the road to socialism will be accomplished peacefully and through the ballot box.
The working class and women play the role of voting fodder and their struggle is relegated to the needs of the Parliamentary strategy.
The tragic part of it [all] is that Sheila Rowbotham ends up implicitly supporting the political current which above all others stifles and destroys the self-activity of the working class [although Sheila Rowbotham has remained a committed socialist - Ed.]. Its anti-Leninism ends up with the most authoritarian and undemocratic procedures. And at the end of the day the belief that self-activity is politically central is still held primarily by those who relate to the Trotskyist tradition — the very tradition that Sheila Rowbotham is so antagonistic towards.