Big Flame

1970-1984

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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2 Responses to “EARLY DISCUSSIONS OF ORGANISATION (Miscellaneous Big Flame Documents no 9)”

  1. archivearchie said

    My aim in this series of “Miscellaneous Documents” posts is to let the docs stand by themselves, apart from perhaps a bit of historical context. Certainly not to attempt any assessment of their merits or otherwise. However, this time I’d like to make a few comments.

    (1) Reading these early documents I was surprised by how few differences there are between what was being said in 1971 and 1974 and the others documents from 1977-1980 discussed in the “Party and Class” post. During this period there were significant changes in the BF perspective on internal organisation, particularly the relationship between local groups and a national body (at least in theory, in practice things changed very little). However, I think the perspective on the working class, vanguards and a possible party were relatively consistent. If there was a key shift, this seems to have occurred in 1970-71.

    (2) It is only fair to point out that not everybody in BF was happy about the mentions of the role of a future party. This applies not only to East London BF which left in 1975, but others throughout the life of the organisation. However, this only seems to come to the surface very rarely e.g. in 1980 when an amendment was proposed to the constitution to remove a reference to the end for a party in the future. The outcome was a compromise wording which highlighted the deficiencies of traditional notions of the party without being clear on what was being proposed instead. Perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising as a constitution seems a pretty odd place to explore these issues.

    (3) In abstract 30 to 40 years later I can see a lot of merit in the BF perspectives on organisation. They certainly seem better than approaches which think the working class doesn’t require any form of organisation or take the traditional Leninist approach to the party. However, any such perspectives need to be judged in terms of their historical context. There is little doubt that BF overestimated the militancy of the working class based on the events of 1970-74. The big question is how to see the best route for advance towards socialism at a time when working class militancy (not withstanding occasional surges) is overall much lower than it was then.

  2. archivearchie said

    Something I should have emphasied a bit more is the extent to which the perspectives BF advocated within the Libertarian Newsletter Network in 1973-74 were a challenge to many other libertarians.

    The opening paragraph of “From Organising to Organisation” said that the emergence of BF outside Merseyside had caused “varying degrees of paranoia, suspicion, relief and excitement”. The reaction of some Network members is clearly illustrated by a member of the Nottinghsm group writing in the Newsletter (ironically someone who would later join BF at the time of the Project for a New Revolutionary Organisation and remain to BF’s demise, or very close to it).

    He declares his “unease” at developments in the Network and particularly the emergence of “so many” BF groups. He denies the view he attributess to some others that BF is “the most advanced group” and describes the proposal for a conference on organisation as “particularly inappropriate”. Connections between struggles are not to be made by groups like BF but “directly by working class people”. He does not see how a profileration of BF groups will “encourage self organisation”.

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