Big Flame

1970-1984

Who We Were

Big Flame newspaper - after the Brixton riotsBig Flame were a Revolutionary Socialist Feminist organisation with a working class orientation in England. Founded in Liverpool in 1970, the group initially grew rapidly in the then prevailing climate on the left with branches appearing in a number of cities. One of the key sentences in the platform published in each issue of the newspaper was the statement that a revolutionary party was necessary but that “Big Flame is not that party, nor

is it the embryo of that party”. This had the advantage of distinguishing them from some small groups who saw themselves as much more important than they were, but posed the problem of the ‘party’s’ real reason for existence.

They published a magazine, also entitled Big Flame, and a journal, Revolutionary Socialism. Members were active at the Ford plants at Halewood and Dagenham. They also devoted a great deal of time to self-analysis and considering their relationship with the larger Trotskyist groups. In time, they came to describe their politics as “libertarian Marxist“. In 1978 they joined the Socialist Unity electoral coalition, with the International Marxist Group.

In 1980, the anarchists of the Libertarian Communist Group joined Big Flame. The Revolutionary Marxist Current also joined at about this time. [Please see corrections in relation to the LGC and RMC in comments below]
 
However Big Flame was wound up in about 1984. Ex members of the group were involved in the launch of the mass market newspaper the News on Sunday in 1987, which folded the same year.
The name ‘Big Flame’ came from a television play, The Big Flame (1969), written by Jim Allen and directed by Ken Loach for the BBCs Wednesday Play season. It dealt with a fictional strike in the Liverpool Docks.

Please add your memories of Big Flame by adding a comment below.

This web site has been created after a reunion held 25 years after Big Flame dissolved. In a pub on the Grays Inn Road, 15 ex-member came together, reminisced and discussed the very positive role the organisaiton played in the politics of the 70s and 80s.

It was decided to set up a Facebook page and a web site to carry information, memories and discussions about Big Flame.

April 2009

Notes:  (1) This page originated as a post. See Who We Were, where you’ll find the same text, but an entirely different set of comments.

(2)  This page was put together quickly to launch this website. It largely draws on the Wikipedia article on Big Flame (as far as I am aware not written by someone who was ever a member). Some of the comments below take issue with the contents. Rather than revise the page, readers are referred to the much more comprehensive account in the Episodes in Big Flame History.

20 Responses to “Who We Were”

  1. Den Charman aka Den Connolly said

    Well done for setting this up and I hope to make some contributions to it. One thing which has always seemed apparant to me is that of those who went through Big Flame a very large proportion carried on being engaged in the struggle and in plitics in many different ways. It has often seemed to me to be a much higher proportion than other left political groups in this country achieved.

    I wonder how many people were ever in Big Flame altogether throughout its history? Quite a lot I think and many were influenced by it.

    One spin off in West London was Bush News – a local socialist newspaper which played an active role in the Alternative Press Network which seemed to flower in the post BF years

  2. archivearchie said

    Den,

    I agree with you. Big Flame members went off in different directions after the group. However, just about all the former members I am aware of are still on the left, and retain a lot or at least something of Big Flame politics. Many are still political active in one way or another.

    I am less sure about “quite a lot” being in Big Flame throughout its history. This would have been a long journey, from 1970 to 1984. How many survived it from the very early days on Merseyside in 1970-71 or from the first five local groups in 1974-75? Not that many I would suggest. Perhaps someone else can give their estimate of the figures.

  3. Davy MacZ said

    I presume Den ( good to hear from you ) is referring to cumulative numbers who might have ‘passed through’ BF throughout its history. I guestimate there was not many more than a couple of hundred at any one time though. It would be much more difficult to estimate total cumulative number.
    Davy Marzella

  4. archivearchie said

    Oops. You are right Davy. I misunderstood Den. Unlike a lot of groups Big Flame didn’t keep centralised records, and membership figures weren’t often quoted. The highest figure I have seen is 160.

    As for the total between 1970 and 1984. My guess would be a thousand at the most. Any alternative bids?

  5. c0mmunard said

    It’s good see this site, lots of interesting material already. I would be particularly interested if anyone would be able to give some idea of the difference between the politics of Big Flame and those of Solidarity, and the practical relationship – if any – that the two groups had. Apparently both groups published pamphlets on the other; I don’t know if anyone has access to a copy.

    http://thecommune.wordpress.com

  6. archivearchie said

    Re: Solidarity and Big Flame (Comment no.5)

    There was a debate between Big Flame and Solidarity in 1971-72 over the occupation of the Fisher Bendix factory in Kirkby. Solidarity wrote a pamphlet. Big Flame sent them a short letter (less than 2 pages) commenting on it. This resulted in a new pamphlet “Solidarity and the Neo-Narodniks” (BF are the latter) published in February 1972 (The Big Flame letter is included as part of the text). The pamphlet is reprinted in the Maurice Brinton (Chris Pallis) collection For Workers’ Power, published by AK Press in 2004.

    I am unaware of any other public position taken by Big Flame on Solidarity. I have come across a few references in internal documents. There, while Solidarity is acknowledged as part of the libertarian movement out of which some BF members came, it is generally included as amongst the ultra-left – along with such contemporary British groups as Power of Women, Race Today, Workers’ Voice, World Revolution, etc. All these are criticised for their revolutionary pessimism and hostility to organisation and intervention (the issue of what was Big Flame’s relationship to Leninism is an interesting topic which I will cover in a future posts in the “Episodes in Big Flame History” series).

    In further references Solidarity is seen as publishing house with no real practice, and its mentor Paul Carden (Cornelius Castoriadis) is criticised for his move away from Marxism.

    All this is before my time. Maybe, there is someone who was in or around Big Flame in its very early days who could say more.

  7. archivearchie said

    Thanks for the link.

    One additional point in relation to Solidarity.

    A Critical Look at Big Flame Theory, discussed in Episode 6 of the BF History series, claims that the early BF included at least one ex-member of Solidarity.

  8. Ah, the differences between Big Flame and Solidarity … that brings back the memories! I was in Solidarity (and lots of my friends were in Big Flame)in the late 1970s and early 1980s, so I didn’t experience the rift between the two micro-organisations in the early 1970s. But in 1978-82 what we argued about in the pub were: (a) national liberation movements, which the Solids were generally very sceptical about and Big Flamers thought were a very good thing; (b)whether was better to form broad alliances with Labour leftists, Trots, left-leaning trade unionists and the “new social movements” (BF) or to bang on about how dreadful the “trad left” and the NSMs were (Solidarity); and (c) how to relate to the politics of the personal, with Solidarity generally much less tolerant than Big Flame of separatist feminism, radical therapy and so forth.

    In my own experience, in Oxford and London, the two groups rubbed along pretty well together, but – considering how small they both were – there was an amazing variety of opinions and political styles within each, and in some places where both were active there was mutual loathing.

    On a different point, though related, it’s worth noting that both groups disintegrated as organisations in 1982-83, and that in both cases it was at least to some extent because the small core groups of hyper-prolific writer-activists that gave them political coherence and a public face (leaders, in other words, though the term was anathema) either decided that there were better ways of doing politics or retired from the fray altogether.

  9. archivearchie said

    Paul,

    Thanks for an interesting comment. I didn’t have contact myself with Solidarity members in the late 70s/early 80s, but I’m sure you rightly identify three significant points of difference. Of course, BFers would express their perspective differently e.g. believing in women’s autonomy being different from separatist feminism.

    I was particularly interested in your last point about both groups coming to an end in the 1980s. My BF history series is progressing in roughly chronological order (with detours backwards and forwards according to the topic), so I wont reach the last days of BF for some time. It does seem to me, however, that there is a sort of dynamic with most left groups having a life of say 10-20 years. The real exceptions in Britain were the SPGB (was this really continuity though or different generations adopting the same name?) and the CPGB (kept going by Soviet Union support?). Most of the others I can think of which lasted longer than my suggested time limit had a single autocratic charismatic leader.

    In most groups after a decade or two differences between “influential” members (who exist in even the most democratic of group), which were once a source of creative development, can become stale and repetitive. Some of those people do start to think that their ideas might have more impact in a new environment. Others start to feel worn out, or begin to give more priority to things outside politics. When these things happen, groups tend to shrink and then fall apart.

  10. Dave Spooner said

    Great to see the site.

    BF was my political education (particularly the summer schools!) and continues to represent an essential set of eclectic and contradictory principles in my work and life. I find it incredible how I continue to meet many people who were involved, or who were influenced by BF’s politics, and how much respect it still holds for everyone who came into contact with it.

    I joined the Brighton Branch as a student in 1976 (one of the founding members, I think?) as the result of reading ‘The critique of trotskyism’ and the pamphlet on education, then the Manchester Branch from 1979 onwards. Despite being one of those who eventually left to join the Labour Party, BF perspectives have stayed with me throughout, and I feel proud and privileged to have remained politically active in international trade union, radical socialist and feminist movements as a consequence.

    Apart from News on Sunday (the less said the better!), BF’s legacy can also claim to be influential in the creation of International Labour Reports (1984-92) and numerous related projects thereafter.

    Send me an invite when you next organise an evening on Gray’s Inn Road. In the meantime, check out http://www.global-labour.org and http://www.wiego.org.

    Dave Spooner aka (laughably) Richard Marks

  11. t sheen said

    Re this:
    Who We Were: Big Flame were a Revolutionary Socialist Feminist organisation with a working class orientation in England… …In 1980, the anarchists of the Libertarian Communist Group joined Big Flame.

    Anarchists?

    apologies if the point seems obscure, not very important, and ancient history- but no I don’t think we [LCGers- that is] did see ourselves as ‘anarchists’. Certainly we would have qualified that term. One could almost say we had turned our back on ‘anarchism’. We had clearly rejected the priority of ‘anarchists-prioritise-working-with-other anarchists’ and we chose ‘libertarian communist’ as an alternative to ‘anarchist’.

    For our pains, we have been denounced as abandoning anarchism – committing the sins of joining a marxist organization and working in Socialist Unity – abandoning anarchists’ hostility to electoralism, in the history of the development of anarchist/libertarian organisation published in “Organise” the paper of the Anarchist Federation.

    • Nick said

      I always saw myself as an anarchist and was in the LCG. Rewriting of history, T. Sheen?

      • archivearchie said

        This post with a few small changes was lifted from the then Wikipedia entry as a quick way of getting this website up and running, and the description of the LGC is down to the that author of that article (whose identity is unknown to me) rather than a considered judgement by myself or anyone else.

        What does seem to me to be the case is that:
        – the LCG developed out of the Organisation of Revolutionary Anarchists / Anarchist Workers Association, and thus everyone in it had a background in anarchist politics.
        – they saw themselves as having a distinct position within anarchist politics, and this was signified by the name change which stressed “libertarian communist” and the decision to link up with Big Flame (which included one or two ex-anarchists, but was clearly from a different tradition).
        – there were always a variety of different positions within the AWA / LCG. Shown by the history of splits in the days before BF. Though the numbers who finally joined BF numbered only single figures, it seems that significant differences remained. Some didn’t stay long and some/all of these have returned to the anarchist movement in the Anarchist Federation. The majority stayed (but found BF falling apart around them in the 1980s). I’m not in touch with sufficient ex-members to know where they are politically today.

        I have tried to provide more information (from an external perspective but using the documents to which I had access) in a post on this website: http://bigflameuk.wordpress.com/2009/12/03/libertarian-communist-group/.

  12. archivearchie said

    The point made by T.Sheen is totally valid. It would have been much better to have said that the Libertarian Communist Group (LCG) developed out of the anarchist tradition, or more precisely a particular current within that tradition. In a similar way the Revoltionary Marxist Current (RMC), also mentioned in this post, developed away from and rejected its Trotskyist roots. On the subject of corrections, it is very loose to say that the RMC joined BF “about this time”. It actually joined in 1977 – three years earlier than the LCG.

    I hope very much that we will be able to add posts which expand on the background of both groups sometime in the future.

  13. Henrick Hauptmann said

    Hallo boys, where are the girls? I’d like to help if I can. There are piles of BF stuff at the Working Class Movement Library, the place that Hazel Blears has her office. Also Dave at Rochdale Alternative Press may have kept copies of the newspaper for his own archive.Finally Longsight Library might have kept socialist unity stuff- Jeff West unemployed welder. PS I remember tearing up Spooners Labour Party card and using it for roach material.

    This is my second attempt at sending this I’m not sure how this works.

  14. mark anthony france said

    hi folks!

    I was only around big flame for a brief period in ’76 till ’78 but if Den above was from west london and used to look a bit like elvis costello then I think i met him at a United Troops Out Movement Conference in early 78
    Who We Were…. mmmmm well that’s an interesting concept immediately I think of barbara streisand
    “Mmm. Mmm.
    Memories, light the corners of my mind
    Misty watercolor memories of the way we were.
    Scattered pictures of the smiles we left behind
    smiles we give to one another
    for the way we were.
    Can it be that it was all so simple then
    or has time rewritten every line?
    If we had the chance to do it all again
    tell me would we? Could we?
    Memories, may be beautiful and yet
    what’s too painful to remember
    we simply choose to forget
    So it’s the laughter we will remember
    whenever we remember
    the way we were.”

    big flame was alright ….. years later when I tried to explain my involvement to people who were ignorant of the lotta continua or the MIR or who had never ‘squatted’ anywhere… I just refered to our group as ‘little flicker’….. the irony lost on everyone including me.

    I have not really spoke to anyone in big flame since those days but ….. but I can say clearly I was burnt much more seriously and still have the scars to prove it by my subsequent involvement in the much more ‘petit bourgeois’ IMG…………..
    anyway all the best
    and as CLR James was so fond of saying …….. see you all at the rendevous of victory!
    love and solidarity
    hasta la victoria siempre
    el pueplo unido jamas sere vencido!

  15. archivearchie said

    I mentioned above (#6) the Solidarity pamphlet by Maurice Brinton (Chris Pallis) Solidarity and the Neo-Narodniks, then available in a book from AK Press. It is now also available on the internet: http://forworkerspower.wordpress.com/2010/08/24/solidarity-and-the-neo-narodniks/

  16. Hello,

    I was recently reading through a copy of Steef Davidson’s book, The Penguin Book of Politcal Comics (originally published in 1976). In it, there’s a strip entitled Big Boss the Law Man, which is credited to Kick Back Comics (1974, Big Flame). I’ve searched high and low, yet cannot find mention of this anywhere else.

    Did Big Flame publish a comic book with that title in 1974?

    Best wishes,
    Victor

    • archivearchie said

      I’ve taken a look at the strip and the style is definitely that of Big Flame’s cartoonist (responsible for Brother Goose, Good King Callaghan, and a host of one-off cartoons and drawings). The only book BF published is a set of Brother Goose reprints. This cartoon is in support of the Shrewsbury 24, and comes either from a copy of the BF newspaper from 1974 or (more likely) a poster or leaflet issued in support of the campaign.

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