By Jan Nielsen
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Beyond the Fragments

This article is over 8 years, 7 months old
Sheila Rowbotham, Lynne Segal and Hilary Wainwright
Issue 381

Beyond the Fragments has been republished virtually unchanged 34 years after its original publication in 1979. Sheila Rowbotham, in her new introduction, explains why: “When an American friend recently gave my section of Beyond the Fragments to young women occupying Wall Street, they found it hard to understand”.

It is therefore useful for us to remind ourselves of the context of the original publication.

1979 had seen the election of Thatcher and the lowest Labour vote since 1931. This was not surprising given the abysmal record of the Labour government, but it did represent a shift to the right. We characterised this period as the beginning of the “downturn”. A key question was how the left should respond to these new and much less favourable circumstances? Beyond the Fragments almost exclusively addressed its answer to the ex-student radicals of the ’68 generation and to some extent the leadership of revolutionary left groups at the time. The subtitle of the book “feminism and the making of socialism” was an indication of their way forward. The argument was that the left had to reappraise their traditional forms of organisation in the light of the experiences of the women’s movement.

Sheila’s article was the most important and it is no accident that it was the one circulated at Occupy. In it, she took on the left and particularly organisations like the SWP who look to the ideas of Lenin and the Bolsheviks. This involved a tirade against dogma, political certainty, hierarchy and the inability of vanguard organisations to connect with ordinary people.
There was nothing new about the arguments she used. Duncan Hallas, in a review at the time put it this way:

“There is a quasi-libertarian trend which provides most of the substantial arguments for Beyond the Fragments. There is nothing peculiarly feminist about them. Most of the arguments they use were put up long ago by Proudhon against Marx himself…Nowadays these arguments are called anti-Leninist although most of them were advanced before Lenin was born”

For all of the authors and their supporters the best way forward was building the Bennite Left of the early 1980s. This was the alternative put at the “Debate of the Decade” which followed hot on the heels of the books publication. The trajectory that this book took the participants in failed to prevent a Labour Party that left the miners to be defeated and then refashioned itself around the leadership of Tony Blair. It is this failed project that the participants choose not to refer to or examine 34 years later on.

Today there are new radical movements like Occupy, Syriza and the forthcoming People’s Assembly which would do well to learn the lessons of the pull of a movement that does not have political strategies or answers but leased to the dead end of reformism. You can’t blame the supporters of the ideas of Lenin today for this.

Beyond the Fragments is published by The Merlin Press, £14.95

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