By Lynn Segal published by Serpents Tail and reviewed for 3ammagazine
This is not autobiography or memoir in conventional form. Lynne Segal describes early in the book how autobiographical narration has become a means “for stabilizing one’s place in the world.” It can provide “an anchor to moor the vicissitudes of personal lives”, but, she says, it has lately conformed to a “zeitgeist largely disdainful of any broader analysis of the social and economic underpinnings of selfhood.”
The most vividly autobiographical writing is of her childhood and student years in Australia. In these chapters the shrewdness which is the great virtue of the book – and shrewdness is a virtue – is already evident, but also the joie de vivre of the Sydney libertarians is given legs. By the time she arrived in London in 1970 she had become the mother of a young son. Such responsibility as for many radical mothers made her less responsive to ideological bullshit than for many others at this time. Her arrival also coincided with the moment when the Women’s Movement had become self confident, or was becoming so. It should not be surprising that the dynamic of this movement should in large part come from women in the socialist, and more specifically, the libertarian socialist movement, by which I mean that which rejected the more usual Leninist politics of the time, a politics of the vanguard party. For such parties, there was no need for an autonomous women’s movement on the grounds that all would be well come the revolution, still seen mythically as a seizure of state power.
She talks of “discarding the old antagonism between ‘reform’ and ‘revolution’,” and then moves beyond simply discarding to how communal households “usually attempted to embody the libertarian catchphrase ‘live your politics’, “pre-figuring a vision of the social relations they hoped to see in the more egalitarian future.” The notion that the ends justify the means was overthrown, the means were integral to the ends, giving them substance, even when that meant living out contradictions. It was also a time when such communality made it easier and, I imagine, more pleasurable to be a single mother. It made it possible in her case to be both a mother, hold down a job in Further Education, and be politically active in hectic fashion. She is forceful in rebutting reactionary clichés that characterized feminism as being anti-motherhood, as they still do, the gains made by the Women’s Movement not being set in stone.
Its pioneering lifestyles did involve the living out of inter-personal conflicts, contradictions and extremisms. On this –so smugly mocked by people who have never wanted or had the courage to pre-figure the social relations of a more egalitarian future – she comments with a distinctly humanist shrewdness that “there are no political solutions to individual heartaches”, and that people in that milieu “who suggested that you could abolish jealousy through shedding individual ’possessiveness’ were to be avoided for their dogmatism, dishonesty or self-deception.”
This is particularly well described in a short story of Stef Pixner The Death of the Family. It is perhaps more suited to fiction, but the comparison does show up a weakness of the book in its description of this period which both for the writer and for the many women comrades of the time that she quotes, was the most fully alive. There is no feeling of what that hectic and political and social life was like. Everything is described analytically or with a broad brush. Thus when she writes “For a while, there was certainly dancing at this revolution”, with just the name mention of one feminist band, it just sounds smug. What was it like at all the benefits where people danced. Were they packed? Sedate? Wild?
All this would be fine, given what she has said about autobiography, if there was more of the social and economic underpinnings that were promised. This matters most when it comes to the change of mood and tempo of political activism, the reassessments and partial retreats from it. What we get is the bald statement that “the vibrant community activism of the 1970s faded rather fast as the political climate changed at the close of the decade.” Political climate? Is this simply Mrs/Lady Thatcher. It is understandable that the writer and her contemporaries, ten years older had other considerations and were tired. Wasn’t there a slightly younger generation of pioneer activists? If this is not the issue, and it is described in this way, what then were the economic and social underpinnings of this new climate and in what ways did it impinge on community activism? She leaves it very late to deal with what the American writer of her and my generation, Ed O’Reilly, calls disappointment management, but is then very much to the point: that it has become harder to “combat the further entrenchment of economic inequalities, while an ever more unregulated capitalism builds a culture of disdain for all those who are never likely to be winners in its competitive milieu.”
Her own shift away from that activism is well dealt with structurally. Quite reasonably the academic life becomes more important as it did for many people, maintaining as it did some autonomy in the long period of ideological Conservative rule. She succeeds though in making it feel like time out, by discussing radical historians an d theorists, and then the women writers who were important to her. She is sentimental about Eric Hobsbawm, rightly celebrates Raphael Samuel, and faces a reluctant disappointment with Stuart Hall. This reluctance is so prolonged that the disappointment is left in the balance, and comes from whether she can or cannot ditch class politics altogether. That academic feminism might have ditched it is an accusation she has already shown herself to be sensitive about in response to criticism from her friend Irene Breughel. This is balanced in the penultimate chapter of the book by that generosity, that space to disagree and remain friends, which emerges when it is the same Irene who gives Lynne Segal the encouragement to make courageous Jewish-Palestinian activist links.
With the women writers she discusses, the writing becomes more confident. She celebrates the heroism of Shelia Rowbotham as a Women’s Movement pioneer who took on the truly obnoxious sexism of the make left in the years before her own arrival in 1970. The disappointment with Doris Lessing is less reluctant. Lessing’s contempt for the younger generation of women and, as Segal sees it, men in general, naturally enough does not do much for the writing; how easily contempt becomes the clichés of stereotypes. “The rancorous envy she experienced coming from young women would seem , at the very least, to be mutual.” This is in sharp contrast to the honesty she finds in Simone de Beauvoir and her more conventional autobiography of an unconventional life. She, in contrast to Lessing, reprimands “the ageing woman for her delusions”, and, Segal says, her radicalism increased with old age. Which is a lead into her chapter on ageing, the ageing of women.
Here the analysis, sociological and personal becomes more heartfelt. It is not fun, not for men either believe me, but the stats seem to show a greater likelihood of loneliness for older women, and a ‘cultural neglect of their ageing libido’. But this is placed against the strong friendship networks that have powerfully lasted through the years, an honest discussion of modes of intimacy, and an incisive taking apart of the ideology of evolutionary psychology. She has also come out of this well, both in a new relationship and the way that for her, identity politics, opened the way to a humanist mode of geo-politics, being a Jewish woman actively against aggressive Zionism and how this support for Palestinians and Israeli conscientious objectors is what made her aware of her own Jewish heritage.
My problem with the book, apart from an overuse of judgemental adjectives and adverbs, is that despite her openness about the prime joy of intimacy and its sexual component is that it is a careful book. The effect is one of distance distancing which comes from a constant need to sum up histories, trends and contradictions. But this is set against the political and personal flowering from what might have been the depression of older age and political disappointment which offers a possible inspiration. And most of all there are moments when profound realities for those of us from that world pierce through the distanced effect., like the feeling that “I could have done better today.” Most of all for any of us who are parents when she says of her son Zimri, that she had “raised him for a different world, for the gentle world of our dreams – uncompetitive, compassionate and tolerant. He emerged as an adult into a culture and workforce that was its uncompromising antithesis.” I can only hope our children will still feel it was for the best.