Classic book: Further fragments

As Beyond the Fragments by Sheila Rowbotham, Lynne Segal and Hilary Wainwright is set to be republished, Jane Wills looks at its significance

March 28, 2013
5 min read

More than 30 years since Beyond the Fragments (BTF) was originally published, it is being reprinted with one new chapter by each of the original authors. The old part of the book is a historic document: it reflects the state of the English left at the time. All three authors were then preoccupied with the institutional structures required to realise a socialism that reflected the creativity of the women’s movement while also securing the power to effect societal change. The new chapters reflect on the rationale for the original book, its subsequent reception and the political changes that have occurred since.

The original BTF represented a plea for the established left traditions of socialist organisation – focused on theory, the party (both Leninist or social democratic), the state, fixed notions of class and internal discipline – to embrace the energy and creativity of this new non-authoritarian grassroots politics to create a socialist society. BTF was part of a wider debate between the old and the new left during the 1970s. The authors wanted the new autonomous organisations to find a way of linking up together – moving beyond the fragments – in order to secure the power to make structural societal change.

Lynne Segal highlighted the key innovations of the post-1968 radicalism: autonomy and new forms of participatory democracy; the importance of personal relationships (‘living your politics’); learning from your own experience and action; and a related rejection of vanguardism. This new left developed alongside the women’s movement with its focus on consciousness-raising, individual creativity and expression and practical action. Writing today, Segal remembers ‘a myriad of local community resource centres, campaigning groups and radical trade unionists, all intermingled with the burgeoning women’s, gay, black and ethnic minority movements’. BTF reflected the extent to which this grassroots political creativity had to confront other forms of radical organisation.

With hindsight it is clear that the autonomous radical movements came to exert very profound influence over the cultural politics of the late 20th century without the need for any unity on the left, or indeed, even any left at all. On some issues, as illustrated by the contemporary Conservative Party’s commitment to gay marriage, the influence of autonomous identity politics stretches right across the political spectrum. Certainly, the energy of those times has gone on to effect social change, but alongside a dramatic decline in the left (and any talk of socialism).

Today’s political activists are even more wary of left-wing political parties than their radical forebears were in 1979. But this is not necessarily the case everywhere. Hilary Wainwright, in her new chapter, highlights experiences in Latin America and Greece where there are ongoing attempts to create new kinds of political parties rooted in, and learning from, local social movements. Sheila Rowbotham notes that BTF’s original focus on political parties may mean that today’s activists are likely to find much of the original book incomprehensible – albeit that political representation remains important – and to be fair, even in the late 1970s, relatively few people would have understood all of the detail about the Communist Party, the International Marxist Group, the Socialist Workers Party and Big Flame!

In her new chapter, Lynne Segal highlights the extent to which she and her co-authors under-estimated the challenges involved in getting people from new movements to connect to each other to effect structural change. Part of the challenge was that many of these people were already politicised; they already knew what they wanted to achieve and in many cases, they also had an ideological commitment to the way they would act. Without a genuine openness to the possibilities of working together, any shared arena would necessarily become a confrontational and sectarian affair.

So while BTF reminds us of the ways in which the post-1968 radicalism exemplified the power of relationships, the importance of personal experience and the potential of collective creativity, the question of what further elusive ingredients are necessary to realise an effective coalition for transformative political change still remains.

Over the past decade I have worked with the broad-based community organisation, London Citizens, comprising local groups that are committed to working together. In this form of politics relationships are forged over shared interests – for a living wage or genuinely affordable housing – and differences are put to one side. Being open to other traditions of organisation and being genuinely non-sectarian is essential to any success. To this extent, the women’s movement was right to focus on the practices of relationship-building. Such is the ground on which politics can and will move beyond the fragments of experience, identification and organisation.


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