Chris Harman on 'the danger of movementism'
'The downturn has also had an effect on the attitudes of activists within revolutionary organisations in many countries. They have seen sudden upsurges in one issue movements while the mass of workers have continued to retreat in the face of capitalist offensives. This was the case with the riots of the ‘marginali’ in Italy in 1977, the growth of the anti-nuclear power movements in France and Germany in the late 1970s, the anti-racist struggle in Britain in 1977 and 1978, the peace movement of the early 1980s. It has been easy to draw the conclusion that you can forget about the working class and just concentrate on these movements.
These movements have drawn into political activity new layers of people. But because the working class as a whole has not been fighting, winning these people to a revolutionary Marxist perspectives has been very difficult.
Often, instead of the revolutionary left winning new people from these movements the reverse has happened – these movements have won members of the revolutionary left to their non-working class approach. Revolutionaries have begun to make concessions to the idea that the movements’ goals can be achieved without working class action.
The situation has been made worse by the inevitable pattern of such movements. They can rise very quickly, precisely because their participants are not rooted in production. But the same lack of roots means they do not have real power. And so the movements begin to go into terminal decline the moment they have reached their peak. They rise like a rocket and drop like a stick.
Revolutionary socialists who put their faith in such movements receive an initial boost, only then to suffer all the demoralisation that comes with the decline.
Then all the pressure is on the movements’ activists to move to the right. They make concessions to existing society because they find they cannot achieve their goals by fighting it. Revolutionaries who have made concessions to the arguments of the movements get drawn along by this rightward pull. It is bad enough dissolving your politics into a movement that is dynamic, enthusiastic and growing. It is even worse doing so in a movement that is tired, demoralised and increasingly inward looking...
You cannot resist the pressures driving former activists to the right unless you start off with a very clear understanding of the limitations of all one issue movements, however vital the issues they try to fight over. You have to be insistent that they cannot win their demands unless they connect with the struggles of the mass of workers. And that means arguing loudly and clearly for a revolutionary socialist organisation that makes such connections, in theory and in practice...
Of course, we are on the side of the peace movement against the military establishment; but this does not mean we drop our very hard criticism of the ideas of E.P. Thompson. In the same way, we are on the side of all women who challenge their oppression, but we don’t hold back from relentless struggle against the mistaken ideas of middle class feminism.
Nothing is more dangerous than to put forward verbal formulations that hide the difference between revolutionary Marxists and such people.
It is here that we in the British SWP disagree profoundly with revolutionaries who have put forward organisational formulae which, in our view, are designed to bridge the unbridgeable – the idea of a unified revolutionary party on the one hand and the separatist notions of much of the women’s movement.
They speak of ‘an independent women’s movement’ which ‘must be part of the overall working class movement’, of a movement which is distinct but not separate’ from the revolutionary party, so that ‘we organise independently but are part of the wider socialist movement’.
Such formulations are extremely obscure. Does ‘independence’ mean independence from capitalist society, from reformism or from the ideas of revolutionary Marxism? If it doesn’t mean independence from Marxist ideas, is the revolutionary party then allowed to intervene inside the ‘independent movement’? If not, how does it fight the influence on women’s struggles of bourgeois and reformist ideas?
Does the formulation mean that revolutionary socialists have to organise working class women separately from working class men? If so, it is extremely dangerous indeed. For it means organising them separately from the main struggles of the working glass – struggles which usually involve both women and men (although in different proportions in different industries).
You end up organising working class women in the places where they are least likely to experience the power of collective action and to gain the confidence to challenge the system and its ideas, including the ideas that they have to be subordinate to men. You focus on the home or the community, the places where women tend to be most atomised and isolated, not on the factory or office where they begin to discover collective, class strength.
At best you involve yourselves in movements that are on the up but then find yourself trapped inside them without any other arena for struggle, when they are on the down. You drift into the view that this is the ‘independent women’s movement’, that has to be sustained as a question of principle, regardless of the number of people it really mobilises. In the process you demoralise both yourself and any women contacts.
Revolutionaries who attempt to operate such a perspective can hardly avoid being infected by the attitudes which prevail in what remains of the women’s movement – attitudes which see ideas changing through consciousness raising not through struggle, which substitute personal politics for fighting the system, and which lead to greater and greater passivity...'
Chris Harman, 'Women's Liberation and Revolutionary Socialism', 1984. Edited to add: Video clips from Chris Harman's memorial meeting are on the SWP website