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?
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.
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