This post is the thirteenth in an occasional series. This site already contains a large number of documents produced by Big Flame or its members. Most can be found in the 30 posts in Episodes in Big Flame History series. Each post contains links to documents which relate to its theme. Links to the same documents are also listed on the website’s Publications page , this time sorted by type – pamphlets, journals, newspaper, internal documents.
First, some brief context. The 1970s were a time of political activity amongst school students, as it was in many other spheres. The School Action Union, founded in January 1969, organised a London Schools strike in May 1970. The Little Red Schoolbook was published in English in 1971, and attempts were made to sell it outside school gates. There were explosions of activity in particular schools, for example a strike in Stepney in 1971 when a teacher, Chris Searle, was sacked for publishing children’s poems. By the mid 1970s the School Action Union had gone, but there was the more moderate National Union of School Students (NUSS).
Big Flame had very few members under 18 (though on the other hand, it would have had very few over 30). On the contributors to the debate discussed below, three give their ages. They were 24, 19 and 14. It was mostly the case of people in their twenties trying to support struggles of those younger than themselves. Merseyside Big Flame was involved in the youth movement Rebel (initiated by the International Socialists, but in Liverpool there was the odd situation of IS having expelled all their Rebel members as part of a factional struggle). BF Local Groups which gave particular emphasis to youth interventions were those in Birmingham and Leeds. Other Local Groups tried to support the formation of branches of the NUSS. Some BF members had links with an organisation formed by school students called Youth Liberation. Activity around school students was supported at the 1976 Big Flame Conference, but within three years seems to have petered out.
Within Big Flame, there was a debate between two positions. One side went under the name of the “Youth Group”. There is no readily available label to apply to the critics of this position, many of whom worked as teachers.
The Youth Group
I have chosen to represent this position with three documents:
The Needs and Struggles of Youth Internal Bulletin May 1976. This seems to the document which kicked off the discussion in BF.
An Anti-Report to the Education Commission Report 1976 Conference Document. The Education Commission report to Conference to which this was a response mentioned only teachers and students in higher and further education.
The Youth Question: Where are we now? Internal Bulletin March 1978. This document was written following a BF National Secretariat reply to a draft leaflet from Youth Liberation. Unfortunately I have seen neither of these items. The article is still interesting without reading them. It is a much more cautious statement of the position, taking some account of the criticisms set out in “The Youth Question in Big Flame” (see below).
The points made in these and other documents are:
- Revolutionary organisations do not take working class kids seriously. A strong emphasis on youth is required.
- There is a role for older people supporting children. However they should aim to work themselves out of a job, to increase the self activity of youth and create an independent youth movement. Parallels are drawn with the struggles of women and black people.
- Children face oppression at the hands of parents and teachers who have institutionalised power over them. These divisions are glossed over by others in BF. Many working class fathers take out their frustrations from work on their children. There is a parallel between the role of a teacher and a foreman.
- Attempts to seek unity with school children are often very patronising seeking to incorporate them in anti-cuts campaigns, but taking no notice of their demands e.g. over school uniforms and the cane (corporal punishment in state schools was not abolished until 1989).
- Cuts campaigns which seek to preserve things as they are do not interest children who are anti-school. This takes the form of truancy and pissing off teachers.
Critics of the Youth Group
Whilst there was a lot of common ground between the members of the Youth Group, it is less clear how much their critics had in common, and whether it is even fair to suggest their was an alternative position. I have only been able to locate two significant documents.
What has Big Flame got to offer Youth in Leeds? Internal Bulletin December 1976. This is in part an angry response to a leaflet distributed to school children by someone from the Youth Group who was a member of the same BF Local Group. Again, I haven’t seen the leaflet. However, the document also attempts to raise some general issues beyond voicing concerns about the leaflet.
They argue that the Youth Group in presenting things in terms of an oppressor/oppressed have no understanding of the complexity of the role of a parent. That a blanket anti-adult perspective denies the efforts of progressive teachers (note: these were the days before extensive central control over the form of education). The talk of autonomy for youth is seen as “separatism”. There is a role for adults who do not try to dominate. The article doesn’t develop this argument and set out a version of autonomy for youth which is distinct from the ones BF supported for women and black people.
The Youth Question in Big Flame Internal Bulletin December 1976. This is a more theoretical polemic against the Youth Group position. It builds its case by quoting extensively from a document which presented the Youth Group arguments in their purest form (“Some Last Minute Notes on the Youth Question”) which is not one of those I selected to illustrate the discussion.
- Argues that the Youth Group approach is ultra-leftist, taking no account of the actual consciousness of school children. Struggles cannot be created from nothing.
- Disputes the notion that BF should support youth as the least powerful. Even if it is possible to quantify levels of powerlessness, which he doubts, this is not the way the organisation has decided how to intervene. Car workers, for example, are part of the potential vanguard because of their advanced place in the developing capitalist production process.
- Disagrees with an approach that sees any form of rebellious activity by pupils as essentially correct.
- Rejects the simple equation of schools with capitalist brainwashing with no scope for socialist teachers.
- There are issues like the victimisation of a pupil or the sacking of a teacher where there is scope for unity.
- Criticises the notion of autonomy as applied to youth, while, again, not being that explicit about his alternative perspective.
Finally, for a public discussion of youth issues by Big Flame, it is worth taking a look at an article which I previously included in the Episodes in BF History post on the BF Journal: Youth Politics & Youth Culture Revolutionary Socialism No2. Spring 1978.
Thoughts and Questions
Reading the debate, I wonder if the two positions were as far apart as their proponents believed they were (despite the occasional stark statement or angry denunciation on both sides). I would like to be able to ask Youth Group supporters if they really thought children could be brought up without parents at times exercising some sort of authority, or education being provided without at times students doing things they would rather not do. The real issue is what sort of authority, and when should it be used. Similarly to be able to press the critics of the Youth Group to go beyond an abstract recognition that students will have their own agenda. How can they be persuaded of the importance of unity against cuts, and how can their demands be supported when the likely result is a clash between teachers and their superiors (heads, governors, local authorities, etc).
I think this mid 1970s debate is till relevant today for the issues it brings to the fore:
- How can you transfer the analogy of one form of oppression or power relation to another, whilst being aware of the differences?
- How should socialists decide where they intervene? Does the notion of the most oppressed make sense, and how significant criterion should it be?
- How can socialists work with school students without using them for their own purposes, which is so frequently the case?
- Big Flame compared to other political groups saw actions like sabotage at work as more significant in understanding the work process. Is this the same as celebrating purely negative actions like truancy and annoying teachers?
- Because a group of people experience a form of oppression or are at the wrong end of a power relation are the ways they perceive the experience necessarily right? In what ways is it right to criticise them, whilst remaining supportive?
- To what extend was the understanding of the parent-child and teacher-student relationships sometimes advocated too simplistic, and what would a more complex account look like?
- To what extent can you develop a strategy around a handful of very radical people you come across? This last issue is one which has much broader application than just school students.