Back to the fragments

Lynne Segal, one of the authors of the seminal 1979 socialist-feminist text Beyond the Fragments, reflects on its lessons for today

May 3, 2013 · 21 min read

‘Crisis? Blame the baby boomers, not the bankers.’ The economic analyst Anatole Kaletsky, writing in The Times at the start of 2010 with Irish banks on the point of collapse, was searching for scapegoats. ‘It’s all their fault,’ journalist Neil Boorman announced on the BBC home page a few months later, again denouncing ‘my generation’. Representing the new coalition government, David Willetts was fanning these media assaults via his book, The Pinch: How the baby- boomers took their children’s future – and why they should give it back. What fun! These public figures could combine their hatred of the ‘sixties’ generation with attacks on a group increasingly entitled to state benefits, now reaching retirement. As history is turned on its head, revisiting the past becomes a necessity.

What had we done, my post-war generation? Clearly, today many young people’s prospects are bleak, blocked by the austerity measures imposed by a government that has done nothing to lift Britain out of recession. However, to blame the post-war generation for the effects of the type of policies that a significant number of us fought hard against merely forecloses any useful analysis of the past or the present. It also undermines the efforts of those of my generation still trying to continue what we began, looking around for and sometimes finding younger voices to support, despite the platitudes of the moment that mock such efforts.

We certainly need to reflect upon whether more could have been done to prevent some of the worst outcomes of the present. But this has to begin with us wondering how best to remember and make use of the diverse and conflictual histories of political radicalism.

This brings me to the re-issue of Beyond the Fragments, more than a generation after it was first launched at the close of the 1970s. Back then, it was the women’s movement that exerted the strongest influence on my life, and that of its other authors, Sheila Rowbotham and Hilary Wainwright, as well as most of my friends. Yet our feminism was never separate from attempts to make sense of the broader political landscape.

As all of Sheila Rowbotham’s writing carefully records, women’s liberation emerged directly out of the left, at the close of the 1960s. In Women, Resistance and Revolution (1972) she highlights the grand hopes of those days, a time when feminists not only hoped to try to encompass the struggles of women everywhere, but also to help provide a transformative vision for building a fairer, more egalitarian world, for people generally: ‘Women’s liberation brings to all of us a strength and audacity we have never before known.’ It did indeed.

For much of the 1970s, feminists were active on all fronts, organising for better conditions in the workplace, persuading any men in their lives to share in the joys and labour of childcare and housework, or campaigning to improve what then still felt like our own local ‘communities’. Wherever I looked, feminists were prominent in radical print shops and newspapers, setting up nurseries and playgroups, working in law centres, anti-racist campaigns, or targeting women’s needs specifically in creating and staffing battered women’s shelters, rape crisis centres, or joining campaigns such as the Working Women’s Charter or the National Abortion Campaign. Tasks and projects grew endlessly, alongside women’s vibrant cultural life recorded in magazines such as Spare Rib, or the new feminist publishers, especially Virago and the Women’s Press.

But the mood had darkened by the close of the 1970s. Faced with the imminent triumph of the right under Margaret Thatcher in 1979, the immediate problem, we thought, was how to draw upon feminist thought to help build socialism, creating stronger bonds of solidarity between the diverse activist and movement politics of the previous decade and the array of organised left groups of the time. Today, as vulnerable people everywhere are devastated by welfare cuts, we are in an even worse moment and the obstacles we face have grown formidably.

Direct action today

Yet the obstacles have not prevented resistance. In sudden flurries of activity, grass-roots dissent is back on the political agenda. Rebellion, occupations, civil disobedience, all returned in force some years ago. Some date it from the massive demonstration in Athens in 2008, or the Arab Spring beginning December 2010, soon followed by massive gatherings of Portuguese and Spanish Indignados, and further Greek street riots the same year as Occupy movements appeared in New York, London, Sydney, and other cities around the world, late 2011.

The most unexpected and instantly inspirational were the Arab insurrections in Tunisia and then the Egyptians in Tahrir Square. The sudden coming together of unemployed graduates, slum-dwellers, union activists, faith groups and feminists, were all at once projecting a host of new dissident voices around the world, many of them talented Arab women’s voices, demanding true democracy and a fairer share of their country’s resources, beyond any restrictions of gender, religion or class.

Over 800 protesters were killed and tens of thousands injured in Egypt alone, but their continuous acts of civil defiance quickly overthrew their dictatorial and corrupt ruler. What has followed is more troubling, as economic disorder and political confusion remain, with conservative forces and new elites emerging, supported by the military. Nevertheless, these uprisings helped to spur the resurgence of protest movements around the globe in the context of the continuing catastrophic effects of the financial crash of 2008.

Occupy Wall Street was thus only one of many rebellions in recent years, eager to reclaim the city, with excellent access to global resources for spreading the word that it is possible to imagine and practice ways of living differently. No sooner was the occupation in Zuccotti Park violently ejected than people set up camp in many other cities around the world.

In London, prevented from settling outside the London Stock Exchange, protesters pitched tents outside nearby St Paul’s cathedral, remaining there for seven months before facing eviction, with tents appearing, if increasingly sporadically, ever since. The goals of these protests were many, to expose corporate greed and social injustice, the lack of affordable housing, the influence of corporate lobbyists on government, as well as environmental pollution globally.

‘You can’t kill an idea’, was the viral message circulating globally at the height of the occupations. The idea, indisputably, is that there is something rotten in the state of corporate finance and global capitalism: ‘We stand in solidarity with the global oppressed and we call for an end to the actions of our government and others in causing this oppression’, Occupy London declared. ‘You can’t kill an idea’, activists hope, and some their most sympathetic supporters with a voice in the media agree. This is because of the role of the web, and the instant communications that can keep protest alive.

Such is the view of the British economic journalist Paul Mason, who believes the new global revolutions are now unstoppable because ‘the near collapse of free-market capitalism combined with the upswing of technological innovation’ has resulted in ‘a surge in desire for individual freedom and a change in human consciousness about what freedom means.’ The instant access so many have to the amazing resources of web knowledge and communication, he and others argue, can sustain protest as never before.

Yet he is also aware of the dangerous lack of connection between the protesters and any mainstream politics, noting that most of the people he interviewed were hostile to ‘the very idea of a unifying theory’, set of demands, or shared pathway. Mason simply hopes that the movements’ justified moral outrage at things as they are, with a tiny elite getting ever richer as billions globally get poorer, will somehow combine with their networking skills to help realize their vision of a fairer world, while believing that ‘the future hangs in the balance.’

Sustaining resistance

There is a point to growing old: we have a past. So one thing I can say at once is that that the imaginative excitement often unleashed in direct action against perceived injustice, simply being on the scene when you hope, rightly or wrongly, that this moment of collective resistance might leave its mark on history, often permanently changes consciousness. Contrary to clichéd opinion, most rebels, young or old, do not significantly shift their political outlook, though they may well become disillusioned.

Nevertheless, a couple of decades after the initial confidence of movement politics in the 1970s – following three Tory victories and our multiple defeats – the political mood had reversed. Thatcher had successfully targeted all forms of resistance and participatory democratic structures wherever they appeared. Thus, the second thing I know is that, sadly, ideas do fade. In different ways and for a multitude of reasons, in changed contexts dissident ideas are accommodated, distorted or muted completely. Certainly, the priority individuals give to activism, along with the fighting spirit of a movement, shifts – especially, perhaps, a movement as volatile, diffuse and vulnerable to attack as the Occupy movement, once the sanctioned forces of law and order move against it.

Of course it is tiresome to hear, even to say, but to succeed movements like Occupy or the Indignados must manage to reach out not just in the heat of action, but to build coalitions that survive and have impact upon government policies once reality bites and fragmentation and exhaustion set in. With or without jobs, a myriad of personal and shared responsibilities take their toll on rebellious spirits. Beyond spontaneous sites of struggle, the question shifts to whether or how ‘democracy in action’ can be preserved to form a coherent and intelligible opposition. If we really believe in the possibility of a fairer distribution of the world’s resources, and less environmentally polluting uses of them, protest must be preserved and somehow, at least some of the time, made to cohere into something more enduring that can keep pushing for change, attempting to influence those who are in some way close to the levers of power.

Can it be done? The question is all too familiar. This was exactly the issue that motivated Sheila Rowbotham, Hilary Wainwright and I in writing Beyond the Fragments, facing the triumph of Thatcher in the UK, Reagan in the US the following year, and wanting to forestall the installation of what would soon become the deregulated economic model known as neoliberalism that has brought us to the mess we are in today.

At that time, we were writing from what we thought we had learned as a result of more than a decade of activism in different sectors of the then still flourishing radical left, with our own shared feminist, anti-capitalist, socialist perspectives. Today, that economic regime we opposed is itself in continuous crisis, evident in the threatened implosion of the eurozone and the imposition of harsh anti-austerity measures visibly destroying the lives of many of those in greatest need, while also failing to generate what its own mantra of market expansion and ‘growth’ requires. This makes it a perfect time to look back critically at the impact, legacy and, let me say right away, frequent failure of our own often thwarted attempts to move beyond the fragments.

Movements and coalition-building

As David Graeber points out, the consensus-based direct democracy favoured by the Occupy movement adheres to anarchist principles, though it may not name them as such. It is not seeking to change the world through gaining state power or working through existing political or juridical institutions, but rather embracing forms of prefigurative politics, setting up its own alternative kitchens, libraries, clinics and networking centres, alongside other forms of mutual aid and self-organisation. From my visits to Occupy these were often impressively efficient. This movement, with its self-organisation and consensus, is thus busy doing what traditional anarchists have always tried to do, to begin building ‘a new society in the shell of the old’.

1970s feminists, by and large, also shared a belief that self-organisation and collective action could begin to transform everything, from personal lives to workplace conditions, social policy and the law, while impacting on culture generally. For a while, this seemed to work. Retrospectively, however, it is clear that part of the success of feminism related to broader economic change. With government and market priorities allowing the decline of Britain’s industrial base in favour of the expansion of the financial and service sectors, women’s position in society was shifting. Given its influence and success, neither the mainstream nor the left could afford to ignore feminism altogether. It is of course this confidence that enabled us – three women – to think we might make an impact on the left’s ways of organising, promoting both alliance and autonomy, in forums that could encourage the creativity of all who became involved.

Yet, for all feminism’s successes, the close of the 1970s was already a confusing time for many feminists in Britain and elsewhere. Indeed, it was the very success of the movement that intensified the divisions within it. It was this same success that led to us writing Beyond the Fragments during the run up to the general election that would usher in the momentous upheavals of Margaret Thatcher’s decade in power. We hoped that feminist ways of working, at their best, might help broaden and regenerate the left. This broad left would be stronger, we argued, if it were genuinely supportive of the multiplicity of grassroots struggles, instead of either disdaining or attempting to direct them. Conversely, those grassroots struggles would be stronger if they obtained genuine support from a broader left.

We knew that the shared energy and close friendships built up in the small groups most feminists preferred, with their openness and attempts not to impose any ‘party line’, worked well for bringing more people into politics. Such informality fostered individual creativity and encouraged those shifts in identity and sense of agency that bring confidence to hitherto marginalised groups, enabling alliances (or confrontations) with others in the political arena. In this outlook, it was also important not to try to ‘colonise’ or impose our own views on others still finding their voice, and needing time and space to work out their own analyses and preferred forms of resistance when confronting what were usually hitherto unseen hierarchies of privilege and authority (however blatant once they came into view).

Yet this same strong, ideally relaxed, sense of collectivity and bonding could also leave some women feeling distanced from the effects of its more hidden premises, leaving them suspicious of the imagined joys of ‘sisterhood’. Relatedly, the lack of prescribed structures of leadership in no way precludes certain controlling individuals, or simply the most charismatic, sharp or ebullient of people, from becoming dominant figures, whether they wish to or not. Early on, this is exactly what Jo Freeman argued in her widely read, much anthologised essay, coining the now familiar phrase ‘the tyranny of structurelessness’ to describe her experience of the unwitting bullying and hidden mechanisms of control in the women’s movement in the US.

Thus, while we wanted to hold on to the importance of supporting the autonomous struggles of a fluid plurality of voices, with their differing imaginative resources and modes of dissent, we also longed to forestall the conflict that so often arose when shared collective identifications focused upon their most specific needs and goals. Being able to see oneself as part of some larger left formation seemed the only way of attempting to combine the potential strength of movement politics into a broader, more resilient struggle for egalitarian ends – if that left platform could manage to allow as much space as possible for the airing of both our differences and our points of unity.

As soon as it was published, the interest triggered by the initial slim pamphlet Beyond the Fragments generated a noisy conference of almost 3,000 people in Leeds the following year. As we have heard, over the years Beyond the Fragments did apparently influence feminist groups and trade union activists in various places, including India, Turkey and even the Brazilian Workers Party, to name a few. I saw a recent article by Pam Currie, a leading member of the Scottish Socialist Party, citing Beyond the Fragments for its emphasis on tackling sexism in political parties.

Looking back, I think we were right to suggest that many feminist priorities, such as stressing ties between the frustrations of personal life and the need for political change, or focusing on working locally, while supporting women’s struggles globally, did play a significant role in the political achievements of the 1970s. As it turned out, however, with certain very significant exceptions, especially in the early 1980s, we were over-optimistic in imagining that people with similar but far from identical political goals and ways of organising could work together and agree on common action. The recurrent antagonism disrupting the final session of the Beyond the Fragments conference in Leeds in 1980 underscored this. Some feminist groups and other individuals voiced their forceful opposition to our calls for greater ties with the organised left; members of left groups rejected the importance we gave to direct action and autonomous ways of working over democratic centralism and ‘party’ building.

Defeats and retrievals

What happened next? Or as many from left and right both like to ask, ‘who was to blame’ for the defeat of progressive forces by the close of the 1980s? No story is linear. With the right in power, not just in Britain, but in a Britain insistently welcoming the increasingly belligerent hegemony of the right in the US, it would be exceptionally hard for the left to manage to shift the overall political direction and increasingly difficult to agree on the best strategies to pursue.

Significant struggles were still being waged in the early 1980s, evident in the widespread support for the year-long miners’ strike against pit closures in 1984. This was a battle determinedly instigated by Margaret Thatcher, with extraordinary levels of police mobilisation and the orchestration of all possible media demonisation of the miners’ leader, Arthur Scargill. However, the defeat of that strike in 1985 significantly weakened the British trade union movement – a once-united National Union of Mineworkers had been one of its strongest members. Meanwhile, the years of Ken Livingstone’s Greater London Council and other left councils provided another broad-based, creative surge of resistance to Thatcher, often drawing directly on the ideas of Beyond the Fragments. Nevertheless, in hindsight there are more difficulties than we had expressed in using feminist insights to help surmount the challenge of building radical left coalitions that genuinely make space for spontaneity and autonomy.

As indicated above, the real strengths of the outlook, methods and achievements of the women’s movement in the 1970s were tied in with inevitable limitations. Encouraging autonomy and bringing all the divisions between women around sexuality, race, class, heterosexism and so on out into the open was important for women’s liberation. However, before long it began to destroy any notion of women’s cosy unity. Thus, for instance, while poverty and racism were constant preoccupations of women’s liberation, feminist groups remained largely white and predominantly middle class. This meant that by the close of the 1970s, division was more apparent than unity in many feminist gatherings, as newly empowered groups of women expressed their sense of marginalisation within the movement itself.

Nevertheless, whatever our distinct differences, what few of us could predict then was the extent of the subsequent selective incorporation or mainstreaming of key feminist demands by the state and corporate capital. Attending to some of women’s struggles for equality while ignoring others would launch one tier of professional women even as other women, especially ethnic minorities and poorer women everywhere, were grappling with most of the old problems that women had always faced: juggling paid and unpaid labour in a landscape where violence against women, sexist and racist behaviour, though now officially condemned, remained deeply entrenched. Thus one partial success of feminism, allowing more women into professional elites, could be aligned with the intensification of divisions between women in ways that were barely conceivable in the egalitarian politics we fought for.

However, in my view it was not primarily conflictual internal dynamics that destroyed the early energies of grassroots movements, feminist or otherwise. Those who felt sidelined in the heyday of movement politics regrouped into new clusters in which they could work. The chief problem was the ruthless and unyielding forces soon confronting activists of any progressive stripe in Thatcher’s Britain. The internal divisions within feminism were real enough. But even as new groups kept appearing within feminist spaces, what was disappearing was any forward motion towards the more egalitarian or caring world most once desired. The world was moving in the opposite direction.

As economic survival became more precarious for many, the social networks sustaining progressive thought and practice withered. The public mood shifted, gradually becoming more aligned with Thatcher’s (and then New Labour’s) increasingly hegemonic anti-welfare, market-driven culture. The level of political activity that grassroots struggle demands usually withers in unfavourable conditions, and this certainly happened to the confidence needed for initiatives at left unity. There would nevertheless be many other attempts in the decades that followed to try again, never free from the difficulties faced by that first conference in Leeds. Indeed, it is the same strategy that emerged at a global level at the close of the 1990s with the sudden upsurge of interest in the World Social Forums. Those working hard to create unity and pursue change through flexible consensus and networking, however, are still beset by dangers on all sides. Coalitions are always threatened by both conflicting movements and invasive vanguards.

Cherishing autonomy, building alliances

Turning back to that paradoxical moment in 1979, when we worked together on Beyond the Fragments, I know I am returning to another world: a time when commitments to equality, direct democracy and the need to develop and share the skills and imagination of everyone made sense to the people we knew. Context is always critical. Yet it is as evident now as it was 40 years ago that we are drawn into collective resistance in a multitude of different, unpredictable ways. It is rarely established political parties, mainstream or radical, confident in their certainties of the best way forward, that bring new groups into politics. It is rather any number of shared personal issues and collective identifications in specific cultural contexts. Conjunctures are critical, but certain insights remain.

So, despite so much change over the decades, my own thoughts today are not so far from my position a generation ago. If we hope to see a new and more vibrant left again, we need to support and try to connect both the multiplicity of expressions of direct action as well as any emerging, genuinely democratic and inclusive coalitions of resistance against contemporary corporate capital and the environmental pollution that comes in its wake. We need today, as yesterday, direct action, movement politics and any coalition of resistance to seek diverse ways of influencing national government.

The old anti-statism of some of the left is far too closely attuned to the dominant refrains of neoliberalism, promising to ‘get government off our backs’, to be very useful. In the UK, with our still unchanged electoral system, this means once more helping to strengthen left Labour (whether from inside or outside the party). Or perhaps, as some are doing, trying to strengthen the left forces within the Green Party, working for a safer environment as well as a more egalitarian and peaceful world. Different strategies are possible and the most effective hard to gauge.

Returning more cautiously to where I began, this leaves me welcoming the direct action of today, while also hoping as strongly as ever for some consolidation of the diverse forms of resistance into a more challenging left coalition – so long as that coalition, whatever its inevitable failings, tries to remain as open and democratic as possible.

FREE when you become a Friend of Red Pepper: Beyond the Fragments latest edition

Red Pepper is volunteer led and we rely on your support to be here. We strive to counter right-wing myths, to provide a space for debate across the left and to put forward alternatives ideas for a more just society. Please support independent media at this crucial time while we face environmental crises and the destruction of the welfare state, become a Friend of Red Pepper today.

In return, you’ll receive a subscription to the magazine plus invitations to events. To claim your free book email to arrange delivery.

Review – You’re History: The Twelve Strangest Women in Music

Lesley Chow argues for a new kind of music criticism that re-evaluates women musicians and "meaningless" music, writes Rhian E Jones

Rojava’s everyday democracy

Drawing on first-hand experience in Rojava, Ramazan Mendanlioglu explores how radical decentralisation and self-administration look in practice

Review – Misbehaving

A new edited volume emphasises that the personal is political and highlights the power of spectacular direct action, says Alice Robson

A feminist municipalist manifesto

Municipalism can learn from feminism how to reclaim politics and redistribute power, argues Laura Roth of the Feminisation of Politics Network

In Chile, a feminist green wave rises

As Chile rewrites its Pinochet-era constitution, feminists are seizing the opportunity to legally enshrine women's reproductive rights. Carole Concha Bell reports

Review – Skint Estate by Cash Carraway

Cash Carraway's memoir is a powerful recollection of working class struggle. Her story is a quiet call to arms, writes Jessica Andrews

Want to try Red Pepper before you take out a subscription? Sign up to our newsletter and read Issue 231 for free.