Big Flame

1970-1984

WEBSITE TEMPORARILY SUSPENDED – WE WILL BE BACK

Posted by archivearchie on February 12, 2014

BF LogoAny returning visitors to this site will have noticed that it is a very long time since there have been any new posts.

 Work was halted on the website to allow us to completely focus on writing a book about Big Flame. For far too long progress was very slow. Now things have picked and we should complete the writing this year (though there will be another gap before the publisher brings the book out). For our latest plans for the book see “A Book about BF” – second from the right in the menu at the top of the page.

When the book is out of the way, our intention is to resume posting documents from the Big Flame archive on this site (many have already been scanned).

In the meantime there is a sufficient range of documents already uploaded to this website to keep even the most enthusiastic researchers busy.

The best way of starting to take a look at the series of posts entitled “Episodes in Big Flame History”, which run through the life of the group in roughly chronological order. To see these posts go to “BF History Series” – fourth from the left in menu at the top of the page.

Other previous posts can be accessed via the “Index of Site Contents” – third from the right in the menu at the top of the page.

Alternatively if you want to start from a list of Big Flame publications, go to “List of BF Publications” – third from the left in the menu at the top of the page.

 

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LOTTA CONTINUA Part 3 (Related Political Organisatons no 2)

Posted by archivearchie on May 24, 2011

I posted on this site a brief review of the history and positions of Lotta Continua. I then followed this up in Lotta Continua Part 2 by making available some articles written by or about Lotta Continua from the Big Flame Internal Bulletin. I now want to conclude this series (unless something more BF/LC related which I don’t know about turns up) with two items I have obtained since the last post. Another internal document and a pamphlet published by West London Big Flame.

Discussion with Lotta Continua members no3

I previously published two sets of notes of conversations between BF and LC members from the BF Internal Bulletin. This discussion predates them. The discussions took place in January 1974 before Big Flame had an Internal Bulletin: Italy 1973.

Sections of the notes set out LC’s views on contemporary developments in Italian politics (the fall of one coalition Government and its replacement by another) and the Oil Crisis. Of more interest today are the Lotta Continua members’ responses to three questions from BF:

-   Changes in its attitude towards factory delegates (equivalent to shop stewards in Britain). With the failure of autonomous assemblies LC members were standing for delegate positions, but not feeling obliged to follow the decisions of delegate committees.

-   Its attitude towards the Italian Communist Party (PCI). The LC members took from developments in Chile the importance of the space created by the Allende Government in supporting the formation of bodies like the cordones obreros. Their strategy was for working class pressure to force the PCI into some form of Popular Unity Government (this was despite the PCI having shifted its position in favour of the “historic compromise” of an alliance with forces to its right).

-   Its attitude towards women’s struggles. This was answered by a women LC comrade who was angry with LC’s lack of a perspective on women. She said it was up to women in LC to change this situation. Her remarks are interesting in the light of developments in Lotta Continua in the years which followed.

Documents from the 1975 Lotta Continua Congress

Libcom has posted a pamphlet produced by West London Big Flame: Fighting for Feminism: The ‘Women Question’ in an Italian Revolutionary Group. The local group also produced another Lotta Continua related pamphlet.

Lotta Continua only ever had two National Congresses. It fell apart after the second in 1976. What happened there is recorded in detail in Il 2. Congresso di Lotta Continua, Rimini, 31 ottobre- 4 novembre (Rome: Edizion Co-op Giornalisti LC, 1976). Extracts in English can be found in the Red Notes pamphlet Italy 1977-9: Living with an Earthquake pp 81-96. The West London BF pamphlet covers the earlier Congress which was held in 1975: Documents from Lotta Continua.

Despite Lotta Continua being formed in 1969, it did not hold its first national meeting to constitute itself as a party until January 1975. Three Big Flame members attended as observers. The pamphlet is in three parts:

-   A brief summary of the Congress by BF.

-   Translations of some of the key Congress documents – on Materialism, on Tactics, on Internationalism and on the LC Newspaper.

-   Notes by a BF member on the Workshop on Women. This shows the diversity of opinions held by LC women members, some fairly critical of the organisation.

Archive Archie

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THE YOUTH DEBATE (Miscellaneous Big Flame Documents no 13)

Posted by archivearchie on April 24, 2011

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.

The author:

- 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.

Archive Archie

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SEXUALITY AND FASCISM (Miscellaneous Big Flame Documents no 12)

Posted by archivearchie on March 31, 2011

This post is the twelveth 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. 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.

This series aims to add to these documents by making available others I find interesting which didn’t fit with any of the post themes, were overlooked when the posts were written, or a copy was not available to me at the time of the post.

On this site, or elsewhere on the internet, are all the significant pamphlets written by Big Flame members (tell me if you think I have missed something). Up to now there one short pamphlet which has been overlooked.

Sexuality and Fascism, first published in 1979, contains the write ups of three talks given at a Big Flame Dayschool in December 1978. One focuses on the 1930s, another on the 1970s and the third shifts between the two. Two of them examine Fascism and Women, the third Fascism and Men. A wider ranging discussion of Fascism can be found in a pamphlet which came after this one: See the post in the BF History series on Racism and Fascism.

“Women and Nazi Germany” discusses how the Nazi Party’s perspectives were based on the aims of increasing the birth rate and promoting the “ideal peasant wife”. Marriage and the family were supported and abortion and birth control attacked. It reveals some contradictions in the position. A shift in the position on unmarried mothers took place as the priority of the birth rate won out over traditional morality. There was no parallel shift in relation to women’s employment, despite the economic requirements of rearmament and the need to win the war.

“Women and the NF” found similar statement in contemporary National Front literature – the emphasis women as wives and mothers and the need to build the white race, the opposition to abortion and contraception. It raises a couple of interesting issues without really exploring them. How was the NF able to explain how its position on motherhood apparently didn’t apply to black women? What was the appeal of the NF to the quarter of its membership who were women?

“Men and Fascism” discusses the relationship between the Nazis and masculinist currents in inter-war Germany (which promoted male comradeship and were extremely anti-women). It also argues that the NF’s appeal had something to do with the politics of everyday life and a desire to recover masculine self respect. Men’s power and privilege had been increasingly lost, both at work and in the home. The NF promised to return women to their traditional place and its street fighting offered an opportunity to prove manliness.

Archive Archie

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FISHER BENDIX (Miscellaneous Big Flame Documents no 11)

Posted by archivearchie on February 28, 2011

This post is the eleventh 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. 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.

This series aims to add to these documents by making available others I find interesting which didn’t fit with any of the post themes, were overlooked when the posts were written, or a copy was not available to me at the time of the post.

The Fisher Bendix factory in Kirkby, Merseyside produced washing machines, radiators, gas fires and other items. It was taken over by Thorn Electrical in May 1971, who followed a policy of redundancies and transferring production elsewhere. There was a nine week strike in June 1971. This was followed in January 1972 by a five week occupation. This led to government intervention and a promise by the company to retain the workforce and keep the factory open to the end of 1973. Things came to a head again in July 1974 with the factory going into receivership and another two week occupation. This in turn led to the factory being handed over to a co-operative – KME (Kirkby Manufacturing and Engineering). This survived on government subsidies until they were withdrawn. KME was sold off to the private sector in 1980. Immediately the factory was closed and the machinery sold.

In 1972 Big Flame was just coming together as a political organisation, formed out of a previous Merseyside alternative newspaper. Its politics were still developing. Fisher Bendix is notable for one of Big Flame’s rare public debates with another political organisation. The impetus was a pamphlet published by Solidarity (London) and written by Joe Jacobs following a visit to the January/February 1972 occupation: Under New Management? The Fisher-Bendix Occupation.

This prompted a response from Big Flame: Letter to Solidarity. This is very short (a page and a half), and makes the point that Solidarity only spoke to the Occupation Committee, and confused the workers with the shop stewards. For BF the occupation had maintained a distinction between an active minority and a passive majority, and suggested that several workers had been very critical of the Committee.

This prompted a much longer response by Maurce Brinton (Chris Pallis) in a new pamphlet Solidarity and the Neo-Narodniks. As far as I am aware BF never responded to the pamphlet. Certainly the label applied to BF “neo-Narodnik” is the most interesting one the organisation BF received (a refreshing change from the more usual “soft Maoist”). I don’t really want here to defend, or otherwise, the Big Flame of 1972. Rather to set out a bit more its perspectives on the Fisher Bendix occupation.

The main place to find this is in a two sided A3 broadsheet issued during the 1972 occupation: Bendix: How the workers took over. It contains quotes from interviews with some workers about the day the occupation started (also emphasising how it was a much better weapon than a strike as more people were involved) and a statement from the Occupation Committee. There is some commentary from Big Flame which makes these main points:

-     The occupation snowballed from what began as a march of just 18 workers.

-     Some young workers displayed a new attitude – no longer willing to leave things to shop stewards.

-     The lesson to others was to occupy their workplaces to fight redundancies.

Archive Archie

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POSITION ON INTERNATIONAL SOLIDARITY PART 2: SOUTHERN AFRICA (Miscellaneous Big Flame Documents no 10)

Posted by archivearchie on January 31, 2011

This post is the tenth 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 Publications page , this time sorted by type – pamphlets, journals, newspaper, internal documents.

This series aims to add to these documents by making available others I find interesting which didn’t fit with any of the post themes, were overlooked when the posts were written, or a copy was not available to me at the time of the post.

Earlier in this series I published some documents reflecting Big Flame’s approach to International Solidarity.

Over on the Commune website there is a discussion following a report in issue 18 of its paper on a forum about BF. One of the contributors responded to someone saying that BF’s position on anti-imperialism being superior to that of “libertarians” with: “I think that BF’s relatively uncritical attitude to certain concrete national liberation movements looks very problematic in hindsight”. Of course the position set out in the previous post is inevitably very abstract. It can only be judged properly by seeing how it was applied. Was Big Flame able to raise substantive criticisms of liberation movements from within a position of overall solidarity? I’ve gone back and looked at some of the newspaper articles which reflected a key priority area for BF international solidarity in the 1980s – Southern Africa. These contain criticisms of national liberation movements, within a context of support for independence.

An article How shall we fight the oppressor? The British Left and the Anti-Apartheid Movement from the April 1982 newspaper takes issue which the RCG (Revolutionary Communist Group)’s position of unquestioning support. It gives as an example trade union solidarity. The ANC was insisting that its component part SACTU (South African Congress of Trade Unions) could be the only vehicle for solidarity. This would mean cutting yourself off from the independent trade union movement FOSATU (Federation of South African Trade Unions) which was more active in struggles within the country.

Another article “Workers Power” in a Southern Africa Special Supplement to the February 1986 paper (produced by the handful of people who carried on as BF after the organisation’s effective demise in 1985) discusses how the ANC in ignoring independent trade unions was effectively leaving the question of workers’ rights until after the revolution. Documents like the “Freedom Charter” are said to provide little information about forms of workers’ control in the new South Africa. Raising questions about whether the ANC would confront capital or whether there would be the rise of a new bourgeoisie aligned with internal capital.

Turning to Zimbabwe, an article Women in Zimbabwe from the October 1982 paper describes how most women were being denied a right to land under the resettlement programme, striking teachers and health workers were being labelled “criminals” and the co-ops which had been established were being assessed in terms of profits rather than politics.

A few months later in Zimbabwe: ZANU Turns Sour in the April-May 1983 paper discusses how a wave of strikes had been put down by the army (with a representative of the Zimbabwean Congress of Trade Unions expressing opposition to the right to strike), in Matabeleland how the army was not only fighting dissidents from its armed wing but terrorising their potential supporters in the local population. ZANU is seen as having made massive compromises with international capital. The writer argues that this is not surprising as it was by no means certain that national liberation would immediately provoke a struggle for socialism.

These articles show that Big Flame did express criticisms of national liberation movements at a time when much of the left was silent. Apart from groups like the RCP (Revolutionary Communist Party) which were judging them against an impossiblist pure standard. No doubt other examples could be cited were BF was slow in making criticisms (and perhaps even others where it went too far). However, what I think this shows is that it was possible to reflect in practice the position on international solidarity set out in the previous post.

Archive Archie

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EARLY DISCUSSIONS OF ORGANISATION (Miscellaneous Big Flame Documents no 9)

Posted by archivearchie on December 21, 2010

This post is the ninth 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 Publications page), this time sorted by type – pamphlets, journals, newspaper, internal documents.

A post in Episodes in BF history series on Party and Class discussed Big Flame’s position on the need for a vanguard organisation (albeit a different notion to that the various Leninist groups around at the same time). It focused on a 1977 pamphlet Towards a New Revolutionary Socialist Organisation and the later discussions stimulated by the book Beyond the Fragments. Several of the original members of BF came from the libertarian movement where there was a deep suspicion of claims by an organisation to provide leadership for the working class. How did the perspectives of BF evolve to reach the positions set out in the documents written in the mid to late 1970s?

1971

The path of Big Flame can be traced in two documents. The first was written in November 1971 when BF was a purely Merseyside organisation. A few months after it had arisen out of ashes of broad revolutionary left alternative newspaper (see another post in the BF History series on The Beginning ). Three base groups had been established to work around particular factories – Ford in Halewood, Standard-Triumph in Speke and Plessey on Edge Lane, Liverpool.

Six members of the newly formed group wrote a document for a meeting of the organisation: Discussion Paper on Organisation. It reviewed BF’s history. How a desire to provide information to and link up sectors of the working class had led to a project to produce a newspaper. How the experience of the Pilkington strike (in St Helens in summer 1970) and other disputes convinced people that something more than a newspaper was required.

The document sets out a concept of a vanguard which is different from a Leninist one. One based on activity in struggle. Revolutionary theory is militants’ generalised understanding through struggle. This needs to be systematised and generalised, not brought to the masses from outside. The task of non-worker members of BF was to assist in the task of linking different vanguards. BF’s base group model was an extension of this approach. They were each autonomous and subject to the decisions of the militant workers contacted at the particular factories.

Finally the “Discussion Paper on Organisation” sets out proposals for the future. The suggest ways of bringing base groups together, establishing project groups (on things like fund raising and producing a bulletin) and study groups (on topics like Italy, Shop Stewards and Ireland), and the election of rotating functionaries. The idea of moving towards a national organisation is floated, with the first step the circulation of materials produced on Merseyside.

1974

The second document I want to look at was written in September 1974. By then Merseyside Big Flame (as it now called itself) was part of the Libertarian Newsletter Network, which brought together groups who identified with libertarian politics from around England. It also included East London Big Flame, which was totally autonomous but had been inspired by the example of the Merseyside group, and adopted the name. There were some other groups around the country (who do not seem to have been active in the Network) with whom these two groups had formed a loose federation.

At the suggestion of Merseyside BF one of the regular Network conferences took the theme “Organisation”. The document Merseyside BF members wrote for the event was called From Organising to Organisation.

It starts from a position shared by others in the network, the importance of organising locally to sink rooks in local communities. It then challenges some of the assumptions of many libertarians of the period. Namely:

-          Interventions should take place out people’s own specific areas of experience;

-          Interventions presuppose a leadership and a political line. Those who ignore the issue of leadership often only create informal elites.

-          Political organisation means more than bringing people together to share experiences.

This is not seen as meaning passive delegation to leaders, which is counter to the whole idea of developing the autonomy of the masses in struggle. However “our experience has shown us that a general political group is the only successful form for combining the planning, development and learning from different struggles” The aim of Big Flame is to act as a “general communist vanguard” – pushing the struggle and systematising the developments of consciousness. Organisational perspectives need to be flexible as any organisation needs to be the product of new situations, new struggles. The idea of a party is a long term perspective, something only to be considered when there is a growth of mass working class mobilisation. At that time the party will be a political reference point for the masses, not a substitute for them. For the moment the task was to build and unify the mass vanguard out of which the party would develop. The task for BF was to establish a national presence and a unified political line to assist this process. Not to claim to be the national leadership.

A few months after “From Organising to Organisation” was written a national conference in Easter 1975 launched Big Flame as a national organisation, albeit at the cost of East London BF members deciding they didn’t want to be part of this process (see another post in the BF History series on the 1975 Debate – National Organisation and Autonomy). By then Big Flame had withdrawn from the Libertarian Newsletter Network. Around the same time the Network collapsed (the “Organisation” Newsletter is the last once I’ve been able to trace). I must confess that I’m uncertain about the exact order of these two events, or the degree to which the two were connected

Archive Archie

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POSITION ON BLACK AUTONOMY (Miscellaneous Big Flame Documents no 8)

Posted by archivearchie on November 28, 2010

This post is the eighth 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. 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.

A post in Episodes in BF history series on Racism and Fascism  touched on the issue of the autonomy of black people. I would now like to focus specifically on this topic.

At the May 1978 Conference a motion passed on the Struggle against Racism and Fascism which included this point: “BF sees the strengthening of autonomous and socialist movements amongst all sections of the Black communities as of great importance. BF recognises that autonomous revolutionary socialist organisations of blacks have the most important role to play in this process and pledges political, and if necessary practical, support for the strengthening of such organisations.”

Nevertheless, there remained differences between members of Big Flame in their understanding of autonomy.

A document produced for the conference, which took the form of a draft article for the Big Flame journal Revolutionary Socialism, developed the position: Black Autonomy: Why Big Flame Offers Unconditional Support. It aimed to counter the argument that support for black autonomy encouraged divisions in the working class. There are already real division in the working class based on divisions in power. Black people require their own organisations to reflect their needs. There are no short cuts to unity, which can only be genuine when both white and black revolutionaries have developed their strength. The white left needs to avoid parachuting into black struggles and crude attempts to recruit black people. It priority (as written in 1978) should be to counter fascism.

A version of this document appeared in Revolutionary Socialism no 2 Spring 1978: Black Autonomy in Class Struggle. By them it had been heavily edited by some one else. It still talked about material divisions in the working class, and looked forward to a time of collaboration and co-ordination between equal partners. However, much of the document had been rewrittten and the Jamesian (after the writer C.L.R. James) discussion of material divisions watered down. It was now much less clear what a commitment to the autonomy of black people meant in practice.

In a previous post on “Racism and Fascism” I drew attention to something the author of the original document wrote several years later:  Black Autonomy and the White Left (Discussion Bulletin January 1984). Apologies again for including something which is difficult to read (it has faint typing on a coloured background). It discusses from his perspective the differences between the two articles, and restates his position on material differences. He recognises changes in the years since the mid 1970s – both among black people in general and their political organisations, as well as on the white left.

Archive Archie

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PROPOSAL FOR A SUNDAY SOCIALIST PAPER (Miscellaneous Big Flame Documents no 7)

Posted by archivearchie on October 25, 2010

The first issue of News on Sunday

This post is the seventh 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.

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.

This is a follow up to the post on The News on Sunday Project.

According to Peter Chippendale and Chris Horrie in their book Disaster! The Rise and Fall in the News on Sunday (Penguin, 1988) there was “a legend” that the origins of the News on Sunday could be traced on a “great idea” one individual had during an aeroplane flight sometime in 1978.

I can’t vouch for what happening on this flight, but I can reveal a June 1978 Big Flame Discussion Bulletin article which floated an idea which resembled the project in many ways.

This was:

  • Six years before GLC commissioned first feasibility study.
  • Eight years before News on Sunday Publishing plc was established.
  • Nine years before the brief spell during which the paper actually appeared.

The context was Big Flame deciding not to become involved with the International Marxist Group (IMG)’s paper Socialist Challenge, but to explore that option of a “independent weekly revolutionary paper”.

The article argues for a Sunday newspaper because of the higher paper readership on that day and the lack of rival left publications.

Also that it had to be seen as independent rather than linked to any party to attract financial resources and journalists.

It talks about a minimum sale of 100,00 copies (far less that the later News on Sunday projections) which could require moving beyond street sales into mainstream distribution.

Click here to read: A New Independent Socialist Weekly Paper – On a Sunday.

 Archive Archie

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COMMUNE FORUM ON BIG FLAME

Posted by archivearchie on September 25, 2010

In August the political organisation the Commune (which describes its politics as “for workers’ self-management and communism from below”) held three meetings in London looking back at previous groups. The first two looked at Kamunist Kranti (India) and Potere Operaio (Italy). The final forum on the 30th August discussed Big Flame.

The person who introduced the discussion was never a member of BF (instead he was in the International Socialists until 1974). He gave an outsiders view of the organisation for the perspective of a line worker at Ford Halewood on Merseyside for seven years in the 1970s. It was at this plant that BF had its longest running base group. These previous posts discuss this intervention: Industry and Workplace and Ford Halewood Leaflets and Bulletin.

The speaker gave a vivid account of life in the Halewood plant, a massive place with 14,000 workers in the 1970s. He mentioned Beverly Silver’s book Forces of Labor: Workers’ Movements and Globalization since 1870 (Cambridge University Press.2003) to suggest that the nature of the automobile production process led to worker militancy. The book argues that wherever production was relocated (first to Detroit, then to northwestern and southern Europe, then to ex-colonial countries), there followed a relocation of workers’ struggles. The speaker discussed several struggles at Halewood, including one where workers fixing window glass to Capri doors were denied overalls to avoid their ripped jeans. As a result the number of shattered glass panes increased massively, with Fords calling in experts to investigate problems with the glass.

The Big Flame intervention was initiated by people from outside the plant (none of whom the speaker thought came originally from Liverpool). The leaflets they handed out at the gates were a vital source of information about what was happening across the plant. The plant was so large, that people only heard vague rumours of disputes in other sections. Later, he thought, up to five workers joined the BF (at least for a spell). The important role of BF in a long running dispute to end Friday night working (which it called “Friday Night is Music Night”) was described. In the end the Big Flame intervention at Halewood burnt out (with members moving on to other struggles). Getting up to leaflet the plant gates early most morning was “bloody hard work”.

He was highly critical of the role of the senior stewards (called the “Huyton Mafia” because they were also active in Huyton Labour Party), who thought nothing to trying to get those more militant than themselves sacked (the deputy convenor once reported the speaker to management when he let a representative of the Tower Hill rent strike into the plant to see the senior stewards to ask for support). They blamed Big Flame as the “scapegoat” when things happened with which threatened them.

The discussion ranged broadly across a variety of issues. The audience included four ex-Big Flame members (three of them involved with the planned book about Big Flame). None were involved with BF on Merseyside or were members in the early days when the Ford Halewood intervention was at its peak. However, they did there best to answer other questions about BF.

Issues raised by those present included:

  • How did the Base Groups strike a balance between providing outside support and not substituting themselves for workers or imposing lines on those in struggles?
  • What was BF’s position on its members becoming shop stewards?
  • How did BF see the relationship between workplace and community struggles?
  • What did BF understand by autonomy – of the working class and oppressed groups?
  • Why was BF much more successful in Liverpool than elsewhere in the country?
  • Why did BF grow after the downturn in class struggle after 1974?
  • Why did some former BF members join the Labour Party in the early 1980s when its politics was so different from those of BF?
  • Why did BF collapse in the 1980s?
  • Where did other BF people go after BF?
  • What are the lessons for today from the BF experience?
  • In the 1970s it was easier to identify the working class (Fords, Dockers, etc), but who are the working class today?
  • Where do ex-BF members see as potential areas of struggle today where we can win?

I am not sure how successfully the ex-BF members present answered these questions on the night. They are all certainly things to address in the book.

Some of those present said complimentary things about Big Flame – that ex-members must pass on their experiences to those involved in today’s struggles; that left politics today is weaker for the lack of an organisation with its politics leading some of them to join organisations with much more orthodox politics. Hopefully this website and the book will contribute to these tasks.

Archive Archie

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