Back to the Fragments

A socialist-feminist classic appeared just as Thatcherism began pulverizing the Left. Today, should it be read as historical document or a blueprint for action?

Illustration by Daniel Haskett

Beyond the Fragments began life in 1979, as a pamphlet, and soon became the classic statement of socialist feminism in the form it took in Britain following the political explosion of May 1968. Its three authors — Sheila Rowbotham, Lynne Segal, and Hilary Wainwright — had spent much of the decade as members of organizations of the “libertarian” left such as the International Socialists, which in 1977 became the Socialist Workers Party. They were also centrally involved in the women’s liberation movement, and grew utterly frustrated by the male-dominated politics of both the Labour Party and Leninist groups.

They were not alone in such feelings. The pamphlet edition of 2000 copies sold out. A huge conference devoted to Beyond the Fragments was held in Leeds in 1980, by which time the authors had revised and expanded it into a book. They took pains to unpack the failings of leftist political groups, especially in Rowbotham’s mammoth central text “The Women’s Movement and Organising for Socialism.” But the essays were forward-looking as well, and posed several pivotal and interlocking questions:

How can both the Leninist and Labour left learn from the women’s movement? What forms of political organizing can adequately reflect the personal experiences of marginalized and oppressed groups without dismissing these experiences as secondary to class struggle, or as something to be sorted out “afterwards”? How is it possible to link up local organizing with national campaigns and movements? What’s the relationship between unions and smaller initiatives? Between feminism and the state? How to link up participatory forms with representative forms, and representative democracy with direct participation?

Now returning in its third edition, Beyond the Fragments may elicit a certain wistfulness in the reader as she imagines what it was like to be amid so much political enthusiasm. But the intense discussion of the book in recent months (conferences have been held on it in London and Manchester, and another is scheduled for September in Leeds, site of the 1980 event) is not driven by nostalgia alone. The urgency of going “beyond the fragments” of scattered and uncoordinated struggles has renewed with the economic and political crises. There is a yearning to pursue the unicorn of left unity — something perhaps mythical and certainly elusive.

At the same time, developments in the Socialist Workers Party make the book timely in another way. Since January, hundreds of members have abandoned the SWP following the revelation that rape charges against a senior party member were covered up by the leadership. His internal exoneration rather horrifically underscores many points that Rowbotham made in her lengthy critique of IS/SWP Leninism thirty-four years ago.

Her essay was also a loose set of descriptions and proposals for the kind of political organizing now often called prefigurative. “The attack against capitalist society should carry the future within the present,” in other words. “Thus there should be no hierarchy, no elites, no chair, no committees, no speakers and even no meetings in some cases. Or the meeting merged into and became life. Life thus became meetings!”

Certainly this vision has been criticized, then as now. Beyond the Fragments proved too wishy-washy for Leninists. The authors “retain all the tendencies toward reformism, integration, and retreat into lifestyle, which we attribute to them,” wrote Pete Goodwin in International Socialism in 1980. It is not focused enough on capitalism for some. As Elizabeth Wilson put it: “Although the dinosaur of capitalism lurks menacingly in the background throughout Beyond The Fragments to read the pamphlet is on the whole to enter a world in which the enemy is the democratic centralist party.”

Radical feminists consider it insufficiently feminist. “I fear,” wrote Cynthia Cockburn in a recent article for Open Democracy, “that in an important attempt to heal the divisions of the left it may marginalize those feminists who feel themselves to be not only anticapitalist but also antipatriarchal.” Besides, “why is a systematic analysis admissible for the mode of production but not for the sex-gender order?” At the same time, the authors seem too focused on daily political struggle for those who wonder how it relates to revolution. The difficulty with Beyond the Fragments, as Karen Margolis sees it, is that it elides the difference between the ongoing fight to change our present conditions of daily existence and the making of socialism.

That the book can stimulate so many objections, on so many points, is a tribute to the difficulty and the awkwardness of the questions it raises, and a sign of their continuing relevance. The problems in question have barely been faced, let alone resolved.

Relevance does not mean unmediated accessibility: there are gaps across the decades that require leaps, or bridging. In the new edition, Rowbotham begins her introduction by noting the puzzlement she felt at learning that young women at Occupy Wall Street found her original essay hard to understand.

Given the clarity of the piece, what might have changed in the interim that would introduce such difficulties? Rowbotham notes that references to the history of the Left that were once “part of a broadly shared radical culture” have now “faded from view.” While Rowbotham’s critique of Leninist organizing will be recognizable to many who have been members of such groups over the years, it may not necessarily resonate immediately with those who came to Occupy and other movements from non-Leninist places.

In many ways the deeper issue is an enormous change in historical context that might be summed up in a single name: Margaret Thatcher. Her rise to power hovers like an ominous cloud over the original essays. Their publication coincided, more or less, with her election as Prime Minister in May 1979; in a happier coincidence, her death earlier this year came just two weeks before the conference to celebrate the relaunch of Beyond the Fragments.

It was not only Thatcher herself that weighed like a nightmare on the progressive aspirations expressed in the book. There was also the Thatcherism of every Prime Minister that came after her. In the new edition, Lynne Segal explains that the 1990s were “largely a decade of gloom and mourning across a fragmented left and a dwindling labour movement. . . . In a sense . . . it was back to the fragments for most activists who remained politically engaged from the late 1980s.” Radicals could and did struggle to build coalitions. But “things fall apart for many reasons: sectarian squabbling, marginalisation, exhaustion, most often however, simply through defeat, through defeat after defeat which happened during the long years of Tory rule.”

Demoralization has not been the only effect. The socialist feminism espoused in various ways by the three authors has itself suffered at the hands of history and political fashion. Fragments offered extremely important reflections on the nature and role of the state for women — for as Segal put it in 1979, “women developed new theories of the welfare state because they came into contact with it more directly than men, in the form of welfare, nursery provision, education and health services.” But a radical critique of the welfare state cannot be pursued in the same way amid extreme ongoing privatiziation, the elimination of public-sector jobs (where women dominate the workforce), the slashing of benefits, and so on.

“The old anti-statism of some of the left,” said Segal at the book’s relaunch this spring, “is far too closely attuned to the dominant refrains of neo-liberalism promising to get government off our backs to be useful.”

A clear tension existed between the desire for autonomy and the need for state support. Wainwright tells of using “the local state against the national government” when she and Rowbotham worked at Greater London Council from 1982 to 1986, creating women’s refuges, self-run nurseries, and other resources. They were precisely the combination of institutional autonomy and progressive causes that have been destroyed by successive governments in the UK, Conservative and Labour alike. Even at the time, the possibility that such autonomy might be turned against their intentions was in the air. There seemed to be a contradiction, as Segal puts it, “between our emphasis on self-help and collective activity and the idea of self-funding.”

Now we live in a period when little or no public funding exists, and notions of the “Big Society” lead people to volunteer their labor for free, under the guise of “self-help” and “collective activity.” Apart from the grotesque spectacle of people volunteering to “clean up the streets” after the London riots of August 2011, another recent example saw one Brighton resident attempting to arrange a volunteer trash collection when sanitation workers were on strike — a proposal shouted down by some who carefully explained what scabbing meant.

The everyday practice of mutual support cannot take the place of social security, no matter how much successive governments try to spin the issue into one of “deserving” and “dependency.” And it remains true that women and men have often quite different relations to the state at the level of the everyday.

Reflecting precisely on this everyday practice — after all, “the ideas and politics of women’s liberation emerged out of precisely . . . small everyday moments of dismissive encounter” — Rowbotham identifies points of tension between the politics she believes in and the broader Left. If socialism (the non-feminist kind) failed to address “authoritarian social relationships, sexuality, daily life in the family and the conditions of reproduction,” that was, in part, because of its focus on work. As Rowbotham puts it, “it is still possible to find among Trotskyists an assumption that class consciousness comes solely from the experience of work.”

Segal’s 1979 piece “A Local Experience” briefly addresses her complaint against Wages for Housework, various iterations of which were springing up around this time (and have once again become popular). “We thought that this whole debate was perhaps not important,” she writes, “because whether or not housewives and other domestic workers produced surplus value, we were equally concerned to challenge the division of labor which consigned women to the home.” The primary concern for the Fragments project was the division of labor and the ideology that pushed an image of women linked to domesticity. But this left work as such largely undertheorized and the workplace as a site for organizing neglected. Peter Goodwin’s review in 1980 put it sharply: “What comes out again and again in Beyond the Fragments is the emphasis against politics at the point of production.”

One of the strengths of Beyond the Fragments, then and now, is that it captures so much of the significance and organizational self-reflection not only of Women’s Liberation groups and activity, but of black groups and LGBTQI groups, while highlighting an understanding of the need and difficulty of bringing these “fragments” together. As Wainwright wrote in her 1979 introduction, “If workers were simply up against bosses, women up against the sexual division of labour and sexist culture, blacks against racial oppression and discrimination, with no significant connection between these forms of oppression, no state power linking and overseeing the institutions concerned, then strong independent movements would be enough.”

At a recent event, Wainwright spoke about the next step. “Going beyond fragmentation now,” she argued, “would involve touching a diffuse but widespread distress which has arisen in response to the recurring short-termism which contemporary capitalism displays towards nature and the environment, human life, work, values, culture, and relationships.” In 1979, she had pointed out that “when the reactionary rhetoric of Tory ‘freedom’ can evoke such a groundswell of working-class support, socialists need to ask a few questions about our inability to translate the awareness of a vanguard of socialist activists into any lasting change in mass consciousness.”

The situation, it is clear, is not much different today. Contemporary attempts to go beyond the fragments in the UK (Coalition of Resistance, Left Unity, the People’s Assembly, and so on) are confronted not only with the right-wing government’s media-backed cruelty and imposed social division, but also the rise of parties from the anti-immigration UK Independence Party to the fascist English Defence League. For anyone wanting to unite in a way that goes beyond small groups and residual vanguardism, the situation is as tricky now as it was in 1979 — perhaps even trickier, as it becomes impossible to hold on to the notion that the Labour Party has any concern for humanity as such. Wainwright put her finger on the vicious circle long at work: “To turn the Labour Party into a socialist party there needs already to be a socialist party.”

If Beyond the Fragments made the Left look on itself from the standpoint of feminist criticism, it did so in a friendly and humble way: it was an exercise in reaching out, not only beyond the fragments, and not only to other left groups, whether Leninist or Labour, but into wider concerns that the Left had overlooked. Today there are indeed many people who desperately want a feminist, anti-racist, socialist party, and many who prefigure these politics in their daily lives just as the authors did several decades ago. The politics of austerity may smash the social order into something ever thinner and more brittle, but the fragments remain sharp and extremely dangerous.