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After Beyond the Fragments

At a discussion in Manchester this summer, Alice Robson shared her experience of activism as a woman and how Beyond the Fragments is crucial reading for the new generation of feminists on the revolutionary left.

9 to 11 minute read

A pro-abortion demonstration in Washington DC, 13th November 1989 (Credit: Duke University Archives)

As Sheila Rowbotham says at the start of her original essay in Beyond the Fragments, it helps to say how you’ve entered a particular train of thought. I became involved in politics over a decade ago, through student activity. I was not really aware of feminist politics at my university, though studying history led me to read about the first wave feminist movement which sparked a wider interest in women’s history and in feminism.

Soon after university I was excited about the possibilities of getting further involved in politics, but didn’t find it easy. I went to a few feminist meetings, but liberal feminism was of little interest. I knew that Trotskyism was not for me; I liked the opportunity for learning that educational meetings provided, until I realised that anyone attending who did not agree with the party line was generally shouted down. Being put down by men, however, I found to be not limited to the Trotskyist left. I lacked confidence, found speaking in meetings difficult, and considered writing a leaflet or article to be beyond me.

Feminist Fightback showed more promise. I do not hold them up as a perfect organisation – far from it – but there are two main reasons why this is where I put my political energies (in addition my union branch). The first is that actions and discussions are underpinned by an understanding of gender, race and class as interconnected. The second is the importance placed in how we do politics, not just what we do.

‘That book’ and learning from history

People visiting our house sometimes look at the bookshelf and ask ‘why do you have so many copies of that same book?!’ ‘That book’ is the original Beyond the Fragments. The reason is that when a friend and I first read it a few years ago we bought almost all the copies available on Amazon because we thought it was important that other people of our political generation read it too.

Recent events in the Socialist Workers’ Party intensify the relevance of the book, particularly Sheila Rowbotham’s critique of Leninist forms of organisation. It’s certainly a historical document, a snapshot of the British left at a particular time, but is far from being a historical relic. As a new generation of feminists on the revolutionary left, learning from the history of our movement is crucial. We need political mentors. Though some groups today trace their political lineage elsewhere, or perhaps dwell exclusively in the present, for me personally, and in Feminist Fightback, the impact the Women’s Liberation Movement made on the British left is a foundational part of our own political heritage.

When I talk about learning from history, I don’t mean that you can find out all the answers (or perhaps any concrete answers at all) from a book like this one, but rather that reading the experiences of people involved in the movement at a different time can help to clarify your own thoughts, allowing you to connect with similar experiences across time, as well as the inevitable reflections on the significant differences in the contexts that different historical periods provide for doing politics.

Feminism as part of the class struggle

One theme that unites the three distinct essays in Beyond the Fragments is that of feminism as part of class struggle. This runs counter to academia’s subsequent theorising of ‘social movements’ such as feminism as being in opposition to ‘old-style’ class politics. It is also not the kind of feminism that we see represented in the mainstream press, on Women’s Hour, or in the bookshops. As Hilary Wainwright wrote in the original introduction, we might be able to organise in isolation if all the sources of exploitation and oppression we face were separate and unconnected to each other. But, she writes ‘it is precisely the connections between these sources of oppression, both through the state and through the organisation of production and culture, which makes such a piecemeal solution impossible.’

‘Our feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit’

In Feminist Fightback we describe our approach to feminism as ‘intersectional’, meaning that we see all forms of oppression as interconnected. Solidarity between different struggles for liberation is an essential part of this, but the analysis goes further. The oppressions which all these groups face are structured by each other. Capitalism only works because it is racist and sexist. An intersectional approach looks at capitalism historically, seeing oppression on the basis of gender, race and class as being shaped by the violent transition to capitalism, and re-shaped with capitalism’s periodic restructuring of itself.

This perspective underpins our activism and how we approach the issues we work on. To give one example, one of the areas we have been working on throughout the life of the collective is ‘reproductive freedoms’. This perspective emerged in north America in the 1970s in response to campaigns for access to abortion which Women of Colour, socialist feminists and disabled feminists identified as frequently ignoring race, class and disability, for example not engaging with the huge issue of sterilisation abuse.

Some campaigns even perpetuated racist and classist discourses, for example making arguments in support of abortion on the grounds that it was cost effective for limiting numbers of welfare recipients. Over the past few years, we have sought to situate the action we have taken for women’s access to free, safe and legal abortion in this broader perspective of reproductive freedoms – that is to think about what is necessary for women to make the choice of whether or not to have a child. This includes connecting with and participating in struggles around health care, childcare, sex and relationships education, immigration controls and welfare.

I think this intersectional approach to feminism is gaining some ground – attempts by former Tory MP Louise Mensch to pan it in The Guardian last week are one sign of that.  The recent feminist occupation of The Women’s Library was significant in bringing together people of all genders who shared an explicitly ‘intersectional’ approach. The organising of the occupation brought together a group of feminists who had not worked together previously, and the occupation itself very many more.

In the discussions there, I found it really interesting that there needed to be no argument over the structural connectedness of inequalities and oppressions and the way they are exacerbated by the austerity regime. Though the eviction cut discussions short, this seemed to be a given, and the term ‘intersectional’ was used repeatedly, particularly by younger feminists.  ‘Our feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit’ was written on one of the banners hanging on the front of the library.

The politics is in the process

The occupation of the Women’s Library is also an example of an action where the importance of how we do politics was foregrounded from the start. Direct action can still be a pretty macho affair, and though the occupation involved people of all genders, the planning and the taking of the building was led by women. Meetings in the occupation were participatory, with decisions made by consensus. Working groups were formed to take on particular areas of work – and for once it wasn’t just women being responsible for food and cleaning.

The idea that the ‘politics is in the process’ has been foundational to the development of Feminist Fightback. Many of us in the collective had come into politics through student politics or the organised left – hierarchy, sectarianism and aggressive interventions were a part of that experience. Many of us shared anxieties and a lack of self confidence about our engagement in politics. Organising in a different way wasn’t a theoretical consideration; it was a necessity if we were to continue being involved.

Over the years we have moved towards more explicitly libertarian structures in our organising:  making decisions by consensus, running participatory workshops, exploring radical pedagogical strategies, skill sharing, collective writing. This is an imperfect process, but I think these practices, and most importantly the emphasis we have put on care and trust within the collective, have helped in making politics something we enjoy doing rather than dread. Perhaps the most important thing I have gained from Beyond the Fragments is the confidence it gave me in asserting that it’s not just what we say and do, but how we say and do things that is crucial for movement building. Our political practice needs to prefigure in some way the changed social relationships for which we fight.

Engagement with ‘the state’

One thing that strikes me when I read the book is the difference in the context in which that fight is taking place. Reading Sheila and Hilary’s accounts of working in the Greater London Council before its dissolution in the early 1980s is a stark reminder of the changed nature of the state and of a very different view of society. As Sheila writes in the introduction to the new edition, the framework socialist feminism grew up in the 1970s was one where assumptions that society as a whole was partly responsible for the well-being of individuals, and that a greater degree of equality made for a better society, were widespread. These assumptions were, to quote Sheila, ‘the bed rock from which the idea of “going beyond” sprang’.

We live in different times. The original Beyond the Fragments references the change that was already underway – attacks on state welfare, privatisation of state services. The intensification and normalisation of such change is the context we live and struggle in today.  It is hard to know how to start grappling with the question of engagement with ‘the state’. Against a background of growing cuts and privatisation in the late 1970s, Lynne argued that state services need to be defended, and that libertarians and feminists had been wrong to see the state as a monolith:

‘It’s no longer simply a question of the overthrowing of the state, but of a strategy which fights for an expansion and transformation of the services it provides – not necessarily in a centralised form.’ she wrote. In our struggles against cuts today, how can we make sure the fight isn’t just about defending existing and often unsatisfactory public services, but becomes a struggle for a better way to organise our society and our lives? Our struggles against austerity in our communities and in our workplaces (for workers in the public sector the two may be one and the same) need to involve a collective imagining of alternatives.
I think in a small way this has been useful in our organising: in campaigning against cuts to nurseries in Hackney and Children’s Centres in Tower Hamlets we have had a broader discussion about the form and organisation of childcare: how do we want children to be cared for? But getting funding by the state and having genuine community control, as with the nurseries and the Children’s Community Centre described in the original Beyond the Fragments – is a demand which seems like something of a now quite distant past.

At the same time, the libertarian idea of controlling our own institutions and supporting each other through mutual aid, has been effectively co-opted by neo-liberalism. In the UK this comes through the Big Society, with its plans for Free Schools, volunteer-run libraries and self-organised adult learning groups. Of course, such attempts threaten the jobs of workers in these workplaces, and are a way of cutting services. However, this perverted version of community autonomy is appealing to many precisely because of their dissatisfaction with the services they receive.

Beyond the Fragments and Feminism in the age of austerity

I don’t want to end on a note of pessimism. It’s exciting to be part of conversations where feminism is being discussed as part of a set of explicitly anti-capitalist politics. So much of media and academic representations of the so-called resurgence of young feminism focuses either on liberal feminist attempts to get more women running top companies, or cultural activism fixated on banning lap dancing clubs and pornography.

But, as I mentioned earlier with regards to The Women’s Library occupation, there is a hint that – on the ground – feminism which takes issues of gender, race and class seriously may be gaining in strength. This is possibly because of the onslaught of cuts, which makes this form of feminism not just a nice idea but something which speaks to the reality of women’s lives.

We’ve got a serious struggle ahead of us and we need to hold on tight to the history of our movement as a source of strength and guidance. But we are living in a new stage of capitalism and a much changed political landscape, which requires us to ask new questions and develop new ideas and modes of organising. I hope this discussion can be a part of that process.

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