Beyond the Fragments: Feminism and the Making of Socialism

Three essays on revolutionary organisation by participants in the women's liberation movement of the 1970s. The essays criticise the organisational theory and practice of revolutionaries, particularly those of the various Trotskyist organisations which were then in their ascendancy.

Submitted by posi on February 8, 2011

They were originally published as a pamphlet by the Tyneside Socialist Centre and Islington Community Press in 1979 and reprinted in book form in 1980.


11 years 5 months ago

In reply to by

I see this was recomended reading for the forthcomming conference on 'Women, Socialism and Class Struggle' being organised by 'The Commune' and annoyingly I haven't been able to locate my orginal copy - not sure if more of the content is to appear here?

I did locate my orginal, fairly enthusiatic review, written in 'Solidarity for Social Revolution' in late 1979, based as it was on my experience of left groups at that time and other Solidarity members critical involvement in the womens liberation movement, (and a particular liking for some of Sheila Rowbothams historical work). But it was clear that whilst the book made some useful observations (from a feminist and libertarian viewpoint) on the organisational attitudes and practice of 'the left' that it did not move in any way towards a genuine understanding of, or commitment to, libertarian communism, being still stuck in it's own version of left wing capitalist ideology.

Somewhat harder criticism appeared in a later edition of the same magazine of both the book, and subsequent conferences inspired by the book, which correctly emphasised the participants desire to try and reform and reorganise 'the left' rather than go beyond it. Whilst I had some disagreements with that review this particular point was reinforced by my own experiences in follow up meetings in Manchester.

Is 'the left' as bad today as it was then and deserving of the same criticism from socialist feminists? - 'anarcho-feminists' would probably say it is, but I don't really know.

I do however know that 'the left' is still 'part of the problem' of capitalism rather than 'part of the solution' as Solidarity used to say.

There is at least an element of 'The Communes' currently sponsored re-examination of recent working class and left wing history that suggests it might try to do a little better this time round and actually strive to move beyond it's left wing origins - let's hope so.


11 years 5 months ago

In reply to by

Whilst it's good to see you've only posted up the "Foreword and Acknowledgements" I presume this is an unintentional mistake. However, it would be a genuine mistake to put this in the library. Basically, this is an expression of the desire of these women at the time to reform the Left rather than break with it. An attitude that seems to be present in The Commune nowadays. Spikemike's crtiticism is tame, as was Solidarity's apparent approval of it at the time.

This, from "Like a Summer With A Thousand Julys",is a far more appropriate critique:

Many of the new recruits were student 'radicals' in the late 60s who without a moments hesitation had joined moribund Trotskyist parties. From the mid '70s onwards most have begun to waken up to the utter irrelevance of vanguard parties derived from Lenin. There was even a hint of profounder insights: that working class uninterest in 'socialism' was more intelligent and egalitarian than the repentant vanguardist had previously given credit for. But to have continued in this vein may well have had disastrous (finally liberating) personal consequences raising searching questions about the State, power, the sort of job one was doing. As they had craftily slid around these thorny questions in the late '60s they were not likely to confront them in the mid to late '70s when the next installment of the mortgage was due. So they plumped for an 'independent' line which was neither one thing or the other uniting so to speak 'extra parliamentarism' with parliamentarism. Hilary Wainwright (joint author of Beyond the Fragments) has said as much in the ludicrously acclaimed 'political debate of the decade' when she and others from the 'far' left had got together with the Labour Party to thrash out their scant differences. 'The Labour Party' she said - 'lays too much emphasis on the State and on Parliament and is unable to develop extra parliamentary organizations' (The Times March 10'80).

Professional feminism is the enemy of proletarian feminism (but doesn't know it).

Foreword and Acknowledgements

Submitted by posi on February 8, 2011


Since it first appeared as a pamphlet, published by the Tyneside Socialist Centre and the Islington Community Press, Beyond the Fragments has sparked a wide ranging discussion of issues that have been lurking sometimes on but generally beneath the surface on the left: the relationship of the women's movement to the male-dominated left; the ways in which we organize for socialism and what we mean by socialism; how we encompass and make sense of the breadth of experience and struggles that have been part of the anti-capitalist movement in the last ten years; the contemporary validity of Leninist politics, etc.

This resonance itself has shown how fragmented the various movements have been and how important the issues at stake are in the making of socialism, particularly at a time when so many of the small gains that have been made are now under attack from all quarters.

This new edition is, partly due to that wide-ranging discussion and interest, an almost quite different book. While Sheila Rowbotham has only made minor changes to her piece, both Hilary Wainwright and Lynne Segal have considerably rewritten and reworked their contributions. Hilary outlines some of the wider problems that face all sections of the left. Drawing on the experience of militants from all parts of Britain she points out how the demands and insights of the women's movement are vital to any present or future socialist movement. As well, she argues that the loosely organized, but strongly supportive structures of the women's movement will be important in creating the kind of mass socialist consciousness that is an essential part of any socialist movement. Lynne, on the other hand, has expanded her piece in a way that has enabled her to draw out in more detail some of the ideas and feelings that emerged from her experience as a feminist active in a local area over the last eight years or so.

Taken together, the three parts of this book are now much more than one long article, an introduction and an 'appendix'. They are now three distinct, but complementary parts, reflecting slightly different concerns and preoccupations. As Hilary wrote in her introduction to the original pamphlet:

[blockquote]We have all travelled differing political journeys and it will be clear we do not come at the question of how we can think about organising from the same place . . . We have worked together on this because we feel the need to air actual political experiences, reassessing our politics by sharing these, not because we think we have the 'answer'. We feel that any genuine, new form of socialist organisation will have to grow from such a collective process.[/blockquote]


The contents of this book were written individually but became very much a collective project not in the sense of a shared complete agreement about all the ideas but in suggestions for clarification and development. We have also all needed one another's reassurance amidst doubts, exhaustion and despair. We are indebted to Jean McCrindle for being continuously part of this process.

Thanks also to Sally Alexander, Paul Atkinson, Kenny Bell, Huw Beynon, Bea Campbell, Luise Eichenbaum, Ralph Edney, Julian Harber, Jane Hawksley, Marsha Rowe, Vic Seidler, Sue Sharpe, Barbara Taylor, Chris Whitbread, Stephen Yeo, Roy Bhaskar and Karen Margolis for comments, criticism, ideas and sustenance. For help with particular points thanks to Juliet Ash, Bob Cant, Chris Goodey, Jeff Weeks.

Sheila's section originated in a talk for the Socialist Unity Symposium in Autumn 1978, which was later repeated at the Newcastle Socialist Centre and, with Lynne's account of her experience locally, at the Islington Socialist Centre.