Beyond the Fragments: the book’s relevance today
In the second of our series of transcribed talks from the recent Beyond the Fragments eventSara Boyce looks at the lessons of the book today, asking how the left can move beyond its all-too-often white, male and middle class demographic and political focus.
I think there are two facets to this; I’m to talk in relation strictly to left groups. Let me say that left organisations consist of people from wider society and whether you like it or not these people come with a lot of the bias that exists within wider society, unless it is challenged practically, left organisations simply emulate that culture. This is across the board on various issues including that of women. And just by including progressive rhetoric, you have not changed your practices, however I will outline later why I think left groups tend to do this. In fact much of the experiences told in Beyond the Fragments sounded very familiar to me. This is ridiculous thirty years on.
In left organisations, and I am largely speaking about those more ‘traditional’ organisations, that questions relating to feminism have largely been ignored and in Beyond the Fragments numerous examples of this are given; in fact many organisations are even openly hostile to the idea of having to answer questions about feminism. This I find particularly odd considering these groups willingness to subsume class politics to support nationalist struggle in the assumption that any attempt at revolution against a state is one which is positive, but that an attempt by women that is international in character is considered one that only benefits bourgeois women, even if a class analysis is brought into it and the women clearly define themselves as Marxist feminists.
The hostility comes from the issue which feminism presents these groups on their organisational form and practice. Traditional democratic centralist groups are sexist in nature, and whilst you can argue that the Bolsheviks were progressive for their time, this does not mean anything for its contemporary relevance. It is a model which concentrates skills, control and ideas to a very small number of people. Democratic centralism really does believe in the philosophy of “father knows best”. We now have the capability to communicate with each other quickly and easily; where it has become easier to share skills, are these organisational models really necessary? These models were developed in era when communications were occurring via post; we can now exchange ideas and information almost instantaneously through email, or phone with multiple contributors.
Democratic centralism is based on an idea of politics which lies solely within the sphere of government, not our everyday lives. The term “the personal as political” is one that is truly revolutionary because it understands that to take control of our lives and liberate ourselves we must fully take control of our own governance. We must realise that state institutions are the mediator between the economy and the masses, their existence is to maintain a balance of power tipped towards a small minority of the population, how can this model be used to spread power. We do not want to develop a form of existence which just replicates our current reality however tries to distribute wages and services more equally, that just traps us in essentially regulating our own exploitation. Sheila Rowbotham wrote in Beyond the Fragments about how the left should look to a “transformation not simply of circumstances, but of being and relating.” 1
The other issue is one that challenges their own politics and does suggest they may not be as revolutionary as they thought. The ideas which Maria Rosa Della Costa provided in Women and the Power of Subversion in the Community provided an analysis of how women had been specifically exploited under capitalism rather than this occurring “naturally” as part of historical oppression of women. She explained that housework was essential to surplus value and in maintaining capitalist relations, showing the extent to which capital had subsumed our everyday lives. It is not just the wage relation and our lives at work which are shaped by capital, but those within the home and our social relations. How can a model which focuses on the worker, and ignores the wider societal issues which have been produced in capitalism liberate women when only looking at one aspect of their exploitation? How can it liberate anyone when we all experience our exploitation differently?
I understand that because there is no text by Marx which espouses this view, many groups have declined to accept a feminist Marxist narrative – clearly we have failed to kneel at the altar of Marx and pay our respects, instead we choose to dance on his grave by questioning the all-encompassing theory. While I am a communist, failure to update the critique of capitalism is one of the biggest failures on the left. Traditionalist groups say we must focus on giving women the ability to enter into work and therefore increase their exploitation. Once women are part of the wage relation it is reasoned they will be able to join in with their male comrades in fighting in the labour struggle. For organisations interested in abolishing work, they often like focus on the positives of it (e.g. right to work), why would you ask someone to expand the amount of time they are exploited?
Whilst it’s true that without the work place women are left out of an opportunity to struggle and to organise which, in itself, develops confidence and allows you to liberate yourself, this can be created outside of the workplace, and at the moment I think the opportunities for labour struggle are fairly low and there is little liberating aspect in working in trade unions. The reason the trade unions fail engage people is because they take control rather than allowing the bulk of members, who are the ones affected, to choose their action. They simply act as pressure release valve, negotiating the situation for the benefit of management. How many stories do we hear where the union has failed to listen to the bulk of its members and has made innumerable concessions that its members did not expect.
I can see why these groups have issue with feminism; women’s liberation was subsumed by capital and incorporated to reduce its revolutionary potential. It has now been twisted to sell us lifestyles, clothes, make up and chocolate. If feminism had actually been taken on board and its revolutionary potential realised maybe we could have a gained a little more for wider society not just women. The failure to look at the more complicated dynamics in our society is a huge reason why the narratives left groups provide are disconnected from wider society, exploitation has become more subtle, women’s position in society is more engrained – we have the freedom to access the workplace, but we will have to work twice as hard to be seen as a good worker while also under constant fear of how our sexual relationships can affect our position, whether in being seen as immoral, or being seen as too committed to your home life.
When you look at most left organisations ask why it is white middle class male dominated? Membership of organisations is hardly representative of the population, yet supposedly these organisations should appeal largely to the most exploited by capitalism. And this gets worse as you go up the ranks. The model puts actual barriers to women, often the barriers are said to be language or how organisations’ political focus. Both answers I find insulting, as if we are too stupid to understand these concepts, or engage with politics. The truth is that these organisations can be very alienating, the narrative they sell you have no relation to your real world experience. You are not asked to engage, you are asked to consume and regurgitate, not only that but what you’re asked to consume barely challenges the model of society we exist in. This failure to challenge will always lead to regressive groups where discrimination will continue to occur because they cannot understand its causes and will fail to acknowledge their discriminatory practices because revolutionaries are always on the right side of the argument.
I hope that these points will lead to a wider discussion and reflection on our practices and not just on women, but on our entire practice as an organisation.