Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Before the dancing by Ian Walker (New Society 4 September 1980)

An Ian Walker New Society article from 1980, which is an impressionistic account of his attendance at The Beyond The Fragments Conference in Leeds.

Sometimes I wish I had access to the full archive of the New Society magazine, because I'd be intrigued to read the letters page of the New Society in response to the piece. I'm sure it generated a heated response from readers and attendees alike because at times it does read a bit like a 1980s updating of Orwell's famous 1936 passage of "One sometimes gets the impression that the mere words "Socialism" and "Communism" draw towards them with magnetic force every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, "Nature Cure" quack, pacifist, and feminist in England." 

I've read enough of Walker's writings to know that he wasn't just a journalist standing on the outside mocking the left. He was part of the left heart and soul . . . even if he was all too well aware of its foibles. And the foibles are all too apparent to anyone who's ever attended such a conference: it reads like every 'unity' conference I've ever attended, where you're supposed to leave your sectarianism at the door but everyone spends half the day muttering under their breath about 'that sectarian opportunistic reformist wanker over there' and the Sparts - or the ICC - don't get the conference memo and the only unity achieved is the rolling of eyes at the mock outrage and pre-prepared impromptu intervention from the cadres with the steely gazes and the humourless personas.

It (almost) makes this SPGBer seem like a fully-rounded human being. For that I salute them.
Before the dancing

Standing room only in second class on the 7.45 from Kings Cross last Saturday morning. The steward serving out coffee and sandwiches wants to know what's ging on? "Usually it's a quiet run," he says, flicking some sweat from his brow. Bad luck for him that his train, due to arrive in Leeds at 10.01, is perfectly timed for the start of a day event billed as "a non-sectarian gathering of socialists from different campaigns and organisations," and entitled Beyond the Fragments. The conference of the book after an original pamphlet by Sheila Rowbotham, Lynne Segal and Hilary Wainwright.

Are the leninists willing to learn from the women's movement? Can local campaigns be drawn together? What chance of a broad-based movement supplying a new opposition to unemployment, the cuts, the cold war? These questions travel as far as Leeds on the high-speed train. A newsagent near the station wants to know if it's raining in London? Pouring. "Then there'll be no play in't Test."

Outside the refectory at Leeds University, a long queue waiting to pay the £2 registration fee, for which you get a red card and a green folder full of duplicated sheets. Read it later. After some 1,500 delegates have shuffled along the corridor into the main hall, the plenary opens with a warning that some local fascists may show up after lunch when the pubs shut. Volunteers needed for stewarding. "Don't worry. You won't be asked to give your life for the Fragments."

An organiser, Amanda Baird, names some of the feminist, eco, community and revolutionary groups involved in setting up this event. "She doesn't include the Communist Party," says a woman behind me. "Fucking shitbag. How's that for non-sectarianism?"

People look both expectant and suspicious, while Lynne Segal talks about the problems of moulding the Fragments into a movement for socialism. The problem seems even more acute while the next speaker, Mike Fleetwood of the South Wales association of tenants, is bitterly parodying leninism: "One, two, three. Stop the Jubilee, right? . . . The main point of production where the contradictions of capitalism are found in their most characteristic form, right?" The heckling gets too loud for him to continue. Fragments have sharp edges.

Now standing under the red-and-yellow NUCLEAR POWER? NO THANKS sticker is Mike Cooley from Lucas Aerospace, which has pioneered work in socially useful technology. "It's often said," he bigins, "that socialists are fuddy-duddy middle class, or nutty feminists. You can't say that about the 15,000 workers at Lucas." Sheila Rowbotham looks horrified. Hundreds groan.

The plenary over, people disperse to workshops. Like a rolling stone, by Dylan, plays over the public address system. That single entered the charts on 28 August 1965. The great majority of people here look to be between 25 and 40 and a lot of those who identified with Dylan, against their parents, must be parents themselves now. It will be a common enough observation during the day that the Fragments are white and middle class. But do they also need a transfusion of younger blood? Do slumps keep the campuses quiet at night-time?

This campus, for today, will house the spirit, as well as the personnel, of '68. Meeting before lunch are 23 different workshops, catering for most political currents and interests. I choose the one on socialism and culture. "No one sang at Grunwicks," laments the folk singer, Leon Rosselson. A more heated exchange is going on up in the balcony, at the workshop on collectives.

A bit too much to get through in one day: that's the consensus at the queue for lunch (brown rice, salad, cheese, an apple), which costs 60p. A bloke who has just arrived stands shaking the rain from his anorak. "So you missed the workshops?" someone asks him.

"Well, I've just got back from France. I couldn't possibly face sitting around in a workshop."

With the Liberation Films crew, who are making a video of today's events, I take a ride up to the over-fives creche at the Adult Education Centre. In one room, four kids are watching Enchantment, starring David Niven, on BBC2. In another, ten children stand in a circle listening to a woman holding a rubber ball. "My name's Barbara," she says. "I thought we'd just start off by playing a few games."

"Do you know how to play killer? Can we play killer?" asks a Geordie lad. Paul. "Later on, perhaps," replies Barbara, who goes round, asking everyone their name. Paul mocks the boy and girl called, respectively, Finnegan and Priscilla; then proceeds to ruin the game by hurling the ball hard round the room.

This afternoon the adults' workshops are all addressing the questions: how to help each other? what is there in common? what to do after today? In a seminar room, round the corner from the creche, eight men and eight women sit chatting. A portrait of the madonna and child hangs over a stone fireplace.

"What drives us together," tentatively begins one man, "is a sense of growing desperation about what his happening, knowing we can't afford to go on disputing things when we know the only effective resistance is by acting together. What brings us here is a shared sense of discontent and that's all. There aren't many common threads to it at all." Everyone nods.

"Let's perhaps hear something from those who haven't yet spoken." Silence. A woman says she'll only talk when the camera has gone. The crew pack up.

Back at the refectory, women in overalls are preparing the tea and biscuits to be served up at 4.30. In the bar, closed for another hour, the caretaker is carting away empty barrels of beer.
"I think it's gone very well," he says. "It's all business. The beer and orange juice in particular: we've sold pints and pints of orange juice."

Does he know what is meant by all this Beyond the Fragments? "Well," he shuffles around a bit. "I think they're more to the right than they are to the left. They're spread all over the country and they've decided to get together. I think it's a good idea, like."

One of today's themes which has brought people together, it seems, is Poland and there is an expectant hush now as Wiktor Mosczynski, in daily contact with the KOR dissidents in Warsaw, we are told, takes the microphone. "Last night, ten members of the KOR were arrested. The government is attempting to split the intellectuals and the dissidents from the working class."

A toddler is lifted high in the air by his mother, so he can see the speaker, who has the bit between his teeth, "All the different fights of the different groups in Poland. Intellectuals who can't get books published. Peasants forced to give land back to the state. Catholics who can't find work. Young married couples who will spend 15 years on the waiting list for a flat." The Fragments are to send a message of solidarity. "That text will get to the striking workers at Gdansk and to the imprisoned members of the KOR."
Events in Poland are inspirational but, in truth, international solidarity has always been more painless. An official from the Right to Work march thanks everyone for raising £35. "The one thing," he says, "that can unite us, is the Tories."

"I've sat through this movie before," says a bloke next to me. From this point on, perhaps people are tired, the Fragments seem to start falling away from each other under a crescendo of heckling and accusations. One group of women feel that this whole event was premature, and that feminists have been forced to surrender the initiative to socialists.

It takes about 15 minutes for Hilary Wainwright (whose father, the Liberal MP, is letting the Fragments camp in his garden), struggling against the noise, to propose the simple motion, that conference agrees in principle to do it again sometime.

Behind Hilary, a man in a black leather jacket clenches a fist at everyone around him. He spits on the floor in front of a man carrying a baby. A few more men in black leather sidle over to join their comrade. Hilary Wainwright finally manages to get the conference to vote on her proposal, which is overwhelmingly carried.

The plenary ends in confusion with people from the floor shouting, "Off, off, off," football crowd-style, at the leather-clad anarchist causing the disruption. He in turn screams, "The real enemy is the Communist Party, the Labour Party, the trade unions and the rest of the state. It has to be smashed." He waves a fist in the air, then pulls on black leather gloves.

Holding up copies of Spartacist Britain to the people streaming for the exits is another dogmatist with no time for the Fragments. "Just another roadblock," she says. "A lot of people turning up just to see old friends. Tired, disillusioned ex-leftists." Like all the Spartacists, she supports the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, "We hail them, the Red Army. We didn't ask them to go in. But once they arrive, yes, we hail them."

The Fragments have, for all the final chaos, been in friendly collision. It used to be fashionable on the left to look angry, hard-bitten, depressed. Now the thing is to be nice and warm, wear your personal politics on your smile. And still there's the dancing to come.
4 September 1980

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