Big Flame

1970-1984

Who We Were

Posted by happyhenry on April 3, 2009

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 on the version of “Who We Were” which  was moved from being a post to its own page. Access this from the menu at the top of the homepage].
 
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.

 

Angus Jardine, April 2009

 
 
 
 
 
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17 Responses to “Who We Were”

  1. Hi, this is a comment.To make a comment you first of all need to log in to WordPress on the right hand side of page (creating a WordPress account if you haven’t done this before). When you can add a comment in the box at the end of a post, and post it to the site.

  2. Davy MacZ said

    Thanks for setting up website , Henry…..one wee point – BF was not a United Kingdom based organisation – it was English based ( possibly unique among “british” left ? ) , in favour of self-determination for Scotland & Wales and had established links with socialist republicans in those 2 countries.
    Davy

  3. Davy MacZ said

    Sorry to be a bit of a pain 😉
    ….to be more accurate , that last comment should read –

    “BF was organisation based in England”

    “(possibly unique among socialist organisations in England ? )”

  4. archivearchie said

    I would like to add my thanks to happyhenry for launching this site. I see that he has used the Wikipedia entry on Big Flame as the basis for his first post. Whilst the current Wikipedia article is a substantial improvement over the previous one (see the comments about the previous version in the article history), the Wikipedia editor who revised it admits that Big Flame was “well before my time”.

    This is relevant to Davy MacZ’s comment. The reference to the “UK” no doubt comes from one of the sources the Wikipedia editor used – an article to be found on a site dedicated to the US group Sojourner Truth Organization. At the top of the article it says “by Paul Thompson of Big Flame, U.K [Sojourner Truth Organization] Workplace Papers 1970”. On the other hand the preface to the Workplace Papers collection instead refers to “English organization Big Flame” (and also suggests that the date of the article is probably later than 1970, as the Sojurner Truth document to which Paul Thompson was responding only received wider publication in 1972).

    The problem the Wikipedia editor faced is the there isn’t much on the web about Big Flame (at least the political group, there is more on the tv play and the rock group). He/she gives four references, two of this are fairly peripheral. The two more useful ones are:

    Review of “Reflections on Organizing” by Paul Thompson (mentioned above) (http://www.sojournertruth.net/thompson.html)

    The Revolution Unfinished?: A Critique of Trotskyism by Paul Thompson & Guy Lewis (http://www.trotskyism.org/critiques/bigflame/index.htm and http://marxists.anu.edu.au/history/etol/critiques/bigflame/)

    I’ve found two other useful documents on the web. These are:

    Big Flame: Resituating Socialist Strategy and Organisation by John Howell, which is an article from the 1981 Socialist Register (http://socialistregister.com/socialistregister.com/files/SR_1981_Howell.pdf)

    Riot and Revolution: The Politics of an Inner City by Paul Holt, from Revolutionary Socialism no 8 Winter 1981-82 (http://www.maxfarrar.org.uk/docs/april2008/Riot&RevRevSoc1981-2.pdf)

    This is still not very much, and doesn’t reflect the richness of Big Flame history and publications. That is why over the coming weeks I intend to post a series of documents to illustrate key events and issues during Big Flame’s lifetime, drawn from both public and internal publications.

    Archive Archie

  5. Mike S. said

    Hey all,

    I wasn’t technically responsible for the error Archie notes in the Sojourner Truth Organization archive (I don’t maintain the archive, although I’m close to the folks who do), but I have probably made the same mistake on my blog. It makes total sense to me that BF would identify itself as having been an organization specific to England; but, like the wikipedia editor, this stuff was all before my time, so occasionally I make mistakes like that. In the US context I have enough former STO members to keep me on my toes, but I don’t have any contacts in the UK to bounce such things off of. (Also, for what it’s worth, I agree with the proposed re-dating of Paul Thompson’s reply to “A Call to Organize,” and I will suggest to the archive folks that they should change the reference on their site. Technically, the “Call” was written in 1970, but as you point out it wasn’t widely distributed in the US, much less overseas, until 1972 or so. As it happens, STO didn’t learn of the existence of Thompson’s critique until much later, sometime in the late 70s.)

    Also, STO late in its existence also adopted the phrasing cited above “is not that party, nor
    is it the embryo of that party.” And yes, it had the same confusing effect in the US as it apparently did in England.

    Anyway, I’m glad you all have initiated this project. I expect to spend a fair bit of time reading what you post.

    Solidarity,
    Mike

  6. Nate said

    hey all, I echo the thanks. This is a great resource and I’m excited to read it. I’d also be very interested to hear different people’s thouhgts on the contemporary relevance of Big Flame’s ideas and the organizational experience.
    warmly,
    Nate

  7. archivearchie said

    Mike and Nate,

    Glad to hear that you are finding this site useful. I agree with Nate that it would benefit from more analytic posts which provide an assessment of Big Flame and discuss its contemporary relevance. For the moment, I’m very busy simply documenting what Big Flame was (there are plenty more posts in the History series planned). It would be great if other former members would write posts on this topic. Perhaps another series – Opinions about Big Flame?

  8. todd said

    Glad to see this as well. Reflections on Organizing (the reply to STO’s paper) changed the way I had conceived of consciousness in struggle. I’ve been intrigued with Big Flame ever since and am reading over your posts. Thanks!

  9. archivearchie said

    This is a response to comments #2 and #3 from Davy. I’ve checked through my achive for a Big Flame position on Scotland and Wales.

    I’ve found this motion from the 1976 conference (I think it was passed as given below, but I’m not 100% sure):
    “INTRODUCTION
    BF should recognise the importance of the national question in Scotland and Wales because of its implications for the class struggle in Britain as a whole and England, and because of the right of nations to self determination.
    1. The nationalist upsurge in Scotland and Wales is partly an expression of the working class response to the crisis and disillusionment with the Labour Party. It is also an expression of popular feeling and popular culture which is anti establishment.
    2. It represents a threat to the integrity of the British state and the plans of the ruling class for political and economic centralisation.
    3. It has large implications for the future stability of the government structure. The Labour party could be condemned to be a permanent minority within Britain as a whole. This could mean the end of the old 2 party system.
    PROPOSALS
    1. That BF supports the plans for devolved government in Scotland and Wales, and opposes any attempt to stop them being implemented. We assert the right of Scotland and Wales to self-determination.
    2. Our support for Scottish and Welsh national rights does not mean that we support the SNP or Plaid Cymru which are petit bourgois parties. However, we see the formation of the Scottish Labour Party as an important step in opening up the working class side of the debate within Scottish nationalism, and gives the possibility that self government will be a step towards a socialist solution which would have immediate consequences for England.
    3. We cannot set up BF groups in Scotland and Wales, since that would be an organisation modelled on the present pattern of domination of Scotland and Wales.
    We should co-operate with socialist organisations operating independently in those countries and take seriously a dialogue and exchange of material.”

    The motion was written in August 1976, before subsequent developments in the SLP. It seems to me now to be a bit on the vague side. What exactly is menat by “self determination” and “national rights”.

    Can anyone add to and amend this account of Big Flame’s position on Scotland and Wales?

    • Davy MacZ said

      AA wrote -*What exactly is meant by “self determination” and “national rights” ?

      I think it was Derek Walcott who said – “The only nation is in the imagi-nation”. All “nations” are imagined to some extent – see also Benedict Anderson’s , Imagined Communities.

      The people of Scotland & Wales have a sense of “national” identity that can be harnessed progressively in order to break up UK state.

      See also Joyce McMillan , writing in Scotsman , quoted on Bella Caledonia blog –
      “On the morning of Thatcher’s election 30 years ago this week, the UK chose a leader whose ideology would never wash with a small northern nation to which a strong element of social solidarity and enabling government seems like simple common sense.”

      McMillan concludes: “Something broke that day, that can perhaps never be mended; and now that the confused and half-hearted New Labour effort to heal those wounds has ended in failure, then it’s the SNP – the least likely of all Margaret Thatcher’s children – who will probably be shaping our unwritten future, for the next generation at least.”
      http://bellacaledonia.wordpress.com/2009/05/09/re-joyce/

    • archivearchie said

      I’ve trawled through a lot of old Big Flame documents since May, and I’m pretty confident that this 1976 motion is the only time that BF took a position on the “national question” in relation to Scotland and Wales.

      However, my reserach brought up a related issue – BF’s position on membership of the organisation by those resident in Scotland and Wales.

      Early in 1977 a group of socialists (of English origin) living in Edinburgh made contact with BF. The National Secretary informed them that BF (which at the time had launched the Project for a New Revolutionary Organisation and was trying to develop contacts with others sympathetic to this initiative) did not necessarily believe in one revolutionary organisation across Britain. She added if they decided they wanted to become BF members, issues about self determination for Scotland and Wales would require discussion within the organisation.

      Contacts with these individuals seem to have continued throughout 1977 and then faded away. However, I have seen later references to BF members living outside England: a member in Swansea in late 1977/early 1978, a longstanding member resident in Cardiff in 1981 and in the mid 1980s a member in Glasgow.

      Was there a perod of further discussion or (as I suspect) were the earlier reservations forgotten? Particularly, if the individuals concerned had moved to Wales or Scotland from England, and wanted to keep up their membership.

  10. Nate said

    hi Archie,
    I hope I didn’t come off like I was criticizing the site, I know this is a ton of work and I really appreciate it. I had another thought – is there anything written about the context that Big Flame comes out of, the time period in the UK in general and the left in particular? I’ve not read it but I’m told that Max Elbaum’s book Revolution in the Air is useful for helping getting a bit of the background on the STO for those of us who didn’t live through it (Mike may disagree, I think Elbaum mentions STO in passing and gets some details wrong).
    cheers,
    Nate

  11. archivearchie said

    Re: comment no.10 from Nate,

    All comments gratefully received, including criticisms. In this case I agree with Nate’s suggestion (comment no.6). Articles which provide that kind of overall assessment of BF and its conteporary relevance would be a good balance to the documentary history series. Ideally, another series with different authors offering different perspectives. I am working towards achieving this. Hopefully in the not too distant future.

    Unfortunately, I am unaware of a book which gives an overall picture of the left in Brtiain at the time. Big Flame did publish an article in its journal Revolutionary Socialism called “Crisis of the Revolutionary Left in Europe” (no.5 Summer 1980), which makes some interesting points and is about England as well as continental Europe. Perhaps, I’ll be able to find a way of including it in a post in the Big Flame series.

  12. Mike S. said

    In my fading memory, the first long chapter in “England’s Dreaming” by Jon Savage contains a fairly involved description of social/cultural and economic aspects of England in the late sixties and early seventies. This is obviously quite different from the treatment of the US left during the same period that Elbaum offers, but I think it might be useful in contextualizing the emergence of Big Flame. But again, I read “England’s Dreaming” about 15 years ago, and it is a book about punk rock, so maybe I’m losing it to recommend it here.

  13. archivearchie said

    Nate and Mike,

    I’ve had second thoughts and written a new post listing books and articles I know about which relate to the context BF came out of (https://bigflameuk.wordpress.com/2009/06/04/left-libertarianism/). None of them give the full context, just a strand of it.

    I haven’t included Jon Savage’s England’s Dreaming. The early chapters of the book do discuss (via Malcolm McLaren) some of the background to Punk – teddy boys, arts schools, situationism. However, none of these were (as far as I am aware) major influences on BF.

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