Promises of a Dream: Remembering the Sixties
Reviewed by Bill Mithoefer
Monday, December 31 2001, 11:47 AM
Most authors writing about the sixties begin the era around 1964 and end about a decade later. In Promises Of A Dream, however, Sheila Rowbotham begins as a lower middle class Leeds sixteen-year old in 1960, taking us with her through the protest movements of this over-hyped decade, and emerges in the burgeoning women's movement in London in 1969. Rowbotham pushes the boundaries of the autobiographical genre, using a fast-paced fictional narrative to seamlessly craft a socially astute account of her own ideological maturation. Rowbotham combines her coming-of-age story with an anatomy of a myriad of leftist organizations and a deep involvement with current Verso US editor Tariq Ali's International Socialist publication, Black Dwarf.
Promises opens with the author trying to escape the bland conservatism of her family life in Leeds, driving through the North Yorkshire moors searching for 10th century Norse Crosses, vowing "to live the new decade in ways that had never been known." But, as Rowbotham points out in the introduction, "the radical dream of the sixties was to be stillborn, for we were not to move towards the cooperative egalitarian society we had imagined. Instead the sixties ushered in an order which was more competitive and less equal than the one we had protested against."
By the time she was in the sixth form, inspired by the likes of Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk, Rowbotham and her high school friends created their own self-consciously bohemian social group. Subsequently, as the author writes, "other worlds came filtering into a large provincial city." Avant-garde jazz musician Joe Harriott played near the train station, while Rowbotham's clique sought out films at the local Leeds art house.
After initial encounters with Trotskyists at the Oxford Labour Club when she went off to college, Rowbotham encountered the legendary Marxist historian E.P. Thompson, working her way through his library of books on socialism while visiting his family during her time off. Thompson's groundbreaking piece of progressive social history - 1966's The Making Of The English Working Class - with its focus on how the British working class was very much a product of its own struggles, not just a reflex of post-feudal economic forces - inspired the young scholar because "[it] was actually far more aware of women's participation in radical politics than was customary at the time."
In 1964, after looking up "Young Socialists," in the phone book, Rowbotham describes how she joined the Labour Party Young Socialists, "one of the most intensely political Young Socialist branches in the country, where [she] was to learn about left politics in a very different way from Oxford." After she joins, Brian Smith, a "burly Liverpudlian," warns her away from the Trotskyists, "United Front, yes; Popular Front, no!" he says. She explains, "[it] would be easy to get this the wrong way round, and his tone suggested the consequences would be dire. Whatever did he mean?"
By 1967, Rowbotham's experience of being an educated female socialist allowed her to acquire a completely new feeling of marginalization. Rowbotham writes: "Only our kind who operate in men's world can acquire a marginality which makes it possible to ascribe limits and areas to the assumptions somehow inherited. We become in fact half men." This follows shortly after a frustrating encounter with surfers--"These global roamers had their own version of the Marxist International: instead of exchanging information about workers' struggles, they discussed waves in various parts of the world." Rowbotham is frustrated by their lack of acknowledgement of her presence. "Why don't they talk to me?" she asks her companion. He explains that "[in Australian surfer etiquette] if you spoke to a chick, it was assumed that you were coming on to her and that would be to insult the man she was with. The Australians might seem like rough diamonds; in fact, they were being studiously polite." As usual, Rowbotham draws hilarious analogies from seemingly disparate sources concerning the left's debasement of women.
In 1969, Jean-Luc Godard had decided to use Agit Prop - another group Rowbotham was involved with - in the film British Sounds. Through her involvement with the production of this film, the author finds herself increasingly irritated with what she regards as typically male modes of thought. "Why on earth did the pesky male mind jump so quickly from talk of liberation to nudity?" she writes. Adressing the legendary leftist director, Rowbotham tells Godard, "I think if there's a woman with nothing on appearing on the screen no one's going to listen to any words." Carefully choosing his words, Godard acerbically replies, "Don't you think I am able to make a cunt boring?"
Promises of a Dream is available from Verso