Big Flame

1970-1984

Archive for May, 2009

LOTTA CONTINUA Part 1 (Related Political Organisations no 2)

Posted by archivearchie on May 30, 2009

 LC1Episode 6 in the Big Flame History series mentioned two Italian political organisations – Lotta Continua [the Struggle Continues) [LC] and Potere Operai  (Workers Power) [Potop]. This post gives more information on the former.

The Beginning

In the mid 1960s a number of activist groups influenced by the Operaismo writers were established in different cities. In 1968 they moved apart following a disagreements over organisation and the importance given to struggles over wages. The Venato and Emilia-Romagna group, which adopted a more Leninist perspective and included Toni Negri, became the basis of the new national Potop. The Pisa branch of the Tuscany group, mainly ex-Italian Communist Party and including future LC General Secretary Adriano Sofri, moved to Turin attracted by the struggles at FIAT. There it linked up with students from Milan, Trento and Turin to become Lotta Continua.

The links from Lotta Continua back to Operaismo are apparent in this quote from Adriano Sofri: “The class struggle is the mainspring of development of every social system. The interest of the ruling class is to make this spring work for the extension and reinforcement of its own power. And so workers’ autonomy occurs when the class struggle stops working as the motor of capitalist development” (quoted in Radical America March-April 1973 issue p5).

LC grew out of interventions at the FIAT Turin plant in April/May 1969. Students and activists got to know workers, started helping them write leaflets, which led on to joint assemblies. The leafleting was a large scale enterprise, with 15,000 to 20,000 handed out per shift.

The phrase “La Lotta Continua” started to appear on the leaflets (taken from “la lutte continue” from the events in France the previous year). In time it became the umbrella name for a loose network of activists. Groups in other cities started adopting the same phrase in their leaflets, and within 3 years LC was a national organisation. The newspaper “Lotta Continua” was launched in Nov 1969. By 1972 it was a daily.

LC2

The End

Lotta Continua crumbled away after its second congress in Oct/Nov 1976. A key event in the runup was when male members of LC used violence to force their way into an all-women abortion demonstration in Rome in December 1975. The congress was characterised by hostility between male workers and women, and between both and the leadership. LC later published the congress speeches as Il 2o Congresso di Lotta Continua, and a selection of these can be found in Red Notes Italy 1977-9: Living with an Earthquake pp81-96 (also available as libcom.org or Class against Class). Within months most of the organisation had dissolved into a looser movement – the area of autonomy.

China 

Some commentators have labelled Lotta Continua “Soft Maoist”. Certainly like much of the “new left” groups in Europe, formed after 1968, the Chinese cultural revolution was an influence. However, despite adopting some Maoist phrases, the influence was not as strong as that of Operaismo.

Examples of overlapping terminology include references to Red Bases – taking areas of control away from the enemy (Organising for Revolution pp10-11, Fighting in the Streets p12). LC also talked of a cultural revolution occurring in the factories in Italy (see Bobbio p48). The frequent references to the masses have parallels with the ideas of the “mass line” and “serving the people”.

Take Over the City

Lotta Continua had taken up housing struggles from the early days. However in 1971 it launched “Take over the City” as its political programme. It argued “the city is merely the network of those instruments of exploitation and domination invented by the bosses for keeping the workers under their thumb and for dividing them at every moment of their existence. …There is beginning to be, today [Nov 1970], something in the social sphere, something comparable to the explosion which rocked Italian factories two years ago” (Fighting in the Streets pp2,5).

Struggles around the programme covered housing (rent strikes, occupation of empty flats), food (pickets of supermarkets, establishing “red markets”), transport (refusing to pay fares, stopping buses running), schools and nurseries.

Within a few years LC abandoned “Take over the City” as a programme (without dropping the ideas behind it), as it found that involvement in community struggles did not lead to the development of political power bases from which it could generalise out of the struggle.

Elections

The early Lotta Continua had little truck with elections, taking up the slogan “Don’t vote – occupy!” during the June 1971 regional elections (Take over the City p22). From 1973 onwards LC began to shift its stance.

In 1975 PdUP (Proletarian Unity Party) and Avanguardia Operaio (Workers Vanguard) established a joint platform – Democrazia Prolerari (Democratic Proletariat) for the regional elections. LC did not support them, advocating a vote for the Italian Communist Party (apparently on the basis that putting them in power would create a better basis for struggles). By the June 1976 national election it had joined DP (although keeping its own separate programme). The result –  550,000 votes or 1.5% of the total, 6 deputies, 1 of them from LC) was a major disappointment. Despite this being the first success at a national level for revolutionary left candidates, LC had hoped for much more.

The Composition of LC

Red Notes claim that Lotta Continua has up to 50,000 militants (Italy 1977-9: Living with an Earthquake p110). Others have challenged this figure. The early LC found it difficult to determine its numbers because of difficulties defining what was a militant. The first census in Lotta Continua’s history, around the time of the 1975 congress produced a figure of 8,000 militants, less than expected (Bobbio p148). This is the only number I have found. What is undoubtedly true is that LC had an influence beyond its size.

Information on the delegates at the two LC conferences provides a breakdown of the leading members of the organisation. At the Jan 1975 congress, delegates were 32% labourers, 7% other proletarians, 11% employees and technicians, 17% teachers, 21% students, and 11% full time militants. 20% were aged 20 or younger, 60% aged 21 to 29, and 205 30 and over. 10% of the delegates were women. These figures can be compared with a sample survey of the general membership which revealed 26% women, 27% labourers and 31% students (all data from Bobbio pp148-49).

By the last congress in Oct/Nov 1976 the percentage of women delegates had risen to 27.5%. 31% were workers, 32.3% were at university or school, and 9.6% employees of various kinds (Il 2o Congresso di Lotta Continua p306).

LC3

Criticisms of Lotta Continua

LC has been criticised for amongst other things:

–  its narrow focus on a certain type of worker

–  a lack of democracy in its internal organisation

–  its response to feminism

–  its attitude to violence

–  Its neglect of theory

A lot of LC’s problems can be part explained (which isn’t the same as justified) by its relatively large size and speed of recruitment. It is significantly easier to deal with some of these issues if your group is small and homogenous, although practice shows this is certainly no guarantee! I will say something about each of the issues listed.

Narrow Focus

Lotta Continua went through many shifts in its campaigns, the social sphere, the unemployed, prisoners, etc. However, it was forever marked by its initial inspiration – workers at Northern factories like FIAT. Places where unions were weak and workers struggles strong. It struggled to generalise this experience- to deal with the lack of an imminent revolutionary upheaval, the continuing role of the Italian Communist party, etc. It did make some changes, participating in Councils of factory delegates from 1972, but never enough.

Internal Organisation

Pre LC Adriano Sofri wrote: “For us, the correctness of revolutionary leadership, strategy, and organization derives neither from past revolutionary experience nor from the consciousness that the party is necessary. Their correctness derives, in the final analysis, from their relationship to the masses, and their capacity to be the conscious and general expression of the revolutionary needs of the oppressed masses. …The problem for revolutionaries is not to “‘place yourself” at the head of the masses, but to be the head of the masses” (Sofri Organising for Workers Power). This position is often repeated e.g. “We choose to be inside the struggles which the masses are waging. …We have tied to organise our forces, rather than to discuss organisation” (Organising for Revolution pp6-7).

Lotta Continua’s organisation prior to 1973 was rudimentary. Apart from decision making at national conventions, it was run by a group of old friends (Sofri in his 1976 congress speech confessed to a “private patrimony”). Then things changed: “The theoretical and political formation of cadres, the election of leaders, the individual responsibilities of the militant in the framework of collective discipline, the division of tasks and specialisation …It is nothing else than the discovery of democratic centralism and the third-internationalist concept of the party” (Bobbio p130, translation Della Porta p88). As a result from 1973 onwards “the possibility of comrades contributing to the formation of the political line was reduced; the responsibility for the major decisions was ever more concentrated at the top of the pyramid” (Bobbio p130, translation Ginsborg p360).

In part this was response to more difficult times, but it is also a product of the way LC began. A need to find a more coherent line from the different positions of those who found themselves in the organisation. From this distance it is hard for me to condemn all the organisational changes introduced. Some must have produced a needed efficiency. However, there was clearly problem with the amount of democracy.

Response to Feminism

LC leaders admitted that they very slowly came to see the struggle against sexism as an important part of the class struggle (e.g. Guido Viale in his introduction to the 2nd congress book). Verbal violence against office workers during factory protests often had a strong sexual content. In fact Lotta Continua probably responded faster than many groups on the Italian left, which led to higher expectations, and the eventual breakup. The divisions between the workers and the women in LC were exascerated by the lack of women workers (which itself stemmed from the nature of the workforce).

Attitude to Violence

The newspaper “Lotta Continua” was known for the violent tone of its language. The death of the Police Commissioner Calabresi in 1972 (see below) was described as “a deed in which the exploited recognise their own yearnings for justice”. This stemmed from a feeling that a civil war was underway, but served to provoke further the police and fascists. The Red Brigades, and similar groups, were criticised by Lotta Continua for the opportunities they gave to the right wing and carrying out the sort of actions which could not be taken up by the masses. After 1974 LC tried to reign in the violent acts of some members e.g. by closing down the Prisons Commission. This simply escalated the departure of some members, many from the “servizio d’ordine” (defence squads initially established for protection at demonstrations) to the armed groups. NAP (Nucleus of the Armed Proletariat) was a split from Naples LC. Prima Linea (Front Line) was formed out of ex-LC members from Milan and elsewhere, plus former Potop members.

Neglect of Theory

It is certainly true that LC was practice orientated, and gave little time to explicit discussions of theory. There was still a theory underlying its actions. Whether more theoretical discussion would have made much difference to the rapid swings in approach, is difficult to judge. Certainly there are plenty of theory heavy groups who have also swung alarmingly in their positions.

After Lotta Continua

LC members went on join a variety of different groups – The Italian Socialist Party, the Radical Party and the current left coalition Rifondazione Communisti (Communist Refoundation). Several went on to work for newspapers and television.

The paper “Lotta Continua” carried on to June 1982. In 1977 it opened up its letters page and debate blossomed – mainly from the former women members and sympathetic men (the former leaders and workers were present to a much lesser extent). Personal politics came to the fore, with many confessing they were desperate and lonely. A selection of letters was published as Care Compagne, Cari Compagni. In 1980 a smaller selction was published in Britain as Dear Comrades. A Big Flame member wrote the introduction and part translated the book.

Within a decade the view of much of the Italian left was to see the former LC leaders as out of date and ridiculous (as reported in Lumley States of Emergency p278) In 1988 the former LC General Secretary Adriano Sofri was arrested on the testimony of a “pentito” (repentant) former LC member and charged with ordering the murder of a Police Commissioner Calabresi in 1972. The legal process dragged on to 2000. Then despite doubts about the testimony of the “pentito” and the lack of any other evidence, Sofri received a 22 year jail sentence. Two other former LC members were convicted at the same time. One has been released on medical grounds, another fled whilst out of jail for an appeal. Sofri is still in prison.

Archive Archie

 

Sources on Lotta Continua

Very little from Lotta Continua is available in English. In the early 1970s two pamphlets were published in a series Documents from the Italian Revolutionary Movement. No 1 was Organising for Revolution a reprint of a speech by Gianni Safri and Franco Caprotti of LC at a Telos conference in 1971. No2 was called Fighting in the Streets. The latter consisted of Lotta Continua documents about its “Take Over the City” programme.

This is complemented by a descriptive account of Take over the City which was published as a pamphlet in England by Rising Free and in the USA in a Radical America article. It is currently available in three places on the internet:

Radical America March-April 1973 issue (pp pp78-112 of the magazine, pp80-114 of the document)

Class Against Class

Libcom.org

The same issue of Radical America also contains an article ”Organizing for Workers  Power” by Adriano Sofri, written in 1968 pre Lotta Continua (pp pp33-45 of the magazine, pp35-47 of the document) and an interview with another LC leader Guido Viale (pp pp113-119 of the magazine, pp115-121 of the document). The former has been republished by Monkraft.

The 1979 Red Notes/CSE Books pamphlet Working Class Autonomy and the Crisis includes two articles by Lotta Continua members “25 Years at FIAT” and “The Worker-Student Assemblies in Turin: 1969”.

Discussions of LC in English, particularly those from left groups, demonstrate little understanding of it. Exceptions are Paul Ginsborg A History of Contemporary Italy: Society and Politics 1943-1988 (Penguin, 1990); Donatella Della Porta Social Movements, Political Violence and the State (CambridgeUniversity Press, 1995) and Sidney Tarrow Democracy and Disorder: Protest and Politics in Italy 1965-75 (Clarendon Press, 1989). All three draw heavily on Bobbio (see below), as indeed do I.

For those who can read Italian there is a considerable literature about LC e.g. Luigi Bobbio Lotta continua: storia di una organizzazione rivoluzionaria (Roma : Savelli, 1979) and Aldo Cazzullo I ragazzi che volevano fare la rivoluzione. 1968-1978: storia di Lotta continua (Milano: Mondadori, 1998).

A fairly complete run of the newspaper Lotta Continua (apart from the early years) can be found in the “Red Notes Italian Archive” at the London School of Economics.

In the early 70s there was a LC branch in London. Around 1971 it issued a leaflet come pamphlet in Italian, English and Spanish in support of a campaign for a guaranteed minimum wage of £35 a week. It was called That’s Enough! Now we want Everything.

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EPISODES IN BIG FLAME HISTORY: No 6. Italy

Posted by archivearchie on May 26, 2009

In the pamphlet Towards a New Revolutionary Socialist Organisation written in 1977, Big Flame said: “We emerged as a rank and file grouping in Liverpool in 1971, owing no allegiance to any particular current or historical tradition”. I have a problem with this statement. Big Flame never saw itself as part of a linear tradition, promoting the texts or programme of one or more great thinkers. However, it is not possible to have a proper understanding of the group without acknowledging the impact on its development of certain currents in Italian Marxism.

Hot Autumn

Italian Background

The Italian Marxist theoretical approach called Operaismo originated with two journals in the 1960s: Quaderni Rossi (Red Notebooks) and Classe Operaia (Working Class). There was never a single viewpoint, but a variety of different perspectives from such writers as Mario Tronti, Sergio Bologna, and Toni Negri. I will use the Italian phrase Operaismo as the literal translation – Workerism – has a different meaning. In recent years the phrase Autonomism has gained a lot of currency. However, it is more closely associated with the developments of the “autonomia” movement in Italy from the mid 1970s on and the later writings of Negri (which are a significant development from his earlier works), than the earlier phase I am interested in here.

In May 1969 there were strikes in FIAT. By later in the year (the Hot Autumn), these had spread, for example, to Chemical factories and Pirelli. Many new political groups came out of the events of 1969. Two of them were particularly influenced by Operaismo – Lotta Continua (The Struggle Continues), which I will discuss in more detail in my next post (see Lotta Continua, and also Lotta Continua Part 2), and Potere Operaio (Workers’ Power). These are only two groups out of a complex pattern of developments. For a fuller picture see the Red Notes pamphlets Working Class Autonomy and the Crisis and Italy 1977-9: Living with an Earthquake (now available at libcom.org as a pdf  and Class against Class as text).

I don’t have the space here to do more than take the briefest glimpse of some of the ideas of Operaismo (which anyway are often complex and difficult to understand), nor the differences between the writers. Similarly I will only briefly discuss the practice of groups like Lotta Continua. I will focus of two ideas which had an impact on Big Flame: the phrases – “autonomy” and “mass politics”. These have a history which goes back well before Operaismo. Autonomy was frequently discussed in moral and political philosophy. Sociologists have talked of mass politics as a political order in the era of mass political parties. There are also earlier uses on the Italian left. Gramsci in The Modern Prince talked of mass politics as “real political action of the subaltern classes” as distinct from “merely an adventure by groups claiming to represent the masses”.

However, in the 1960s and 70s these phrases were given a new twist and prominence. The starting point for Operaismo was that the working class determines the nature of capital and the state, through its struggles it exerts its autonomy. Spontaneous struggles manifest a political content which foreshadows a powerful organisation. The working class exerting its autonomy forces capital to restructure the way it rules. Since the Second World War this has involved a massification of production with new machinery, the destruction of hierarchies, deskilling and (in the case of Italy in particular) the recruitment of a new workforce of young, inexperienced migrant workers. The new mass workers particularly characterise industries like automobiles, steel, rubber and radios. After an initial quiescence, these workers demonstrate a stubborn denial of all but the most minimal collaboration with the labour process (sometimes referred to as a refusal of work). Also over the post war period exploitation in the factory links up with social life beyond its walls. Workers live in a social factory where no moment of their life escapes capitalist domination.

The working class’s political refusal to resolve the contradictions of capitalism takes the form of mass struggles. The highest level of such struggles, and the model for Italy, was seen as taking place in the USA in the 1930s and 1940s. Operaismo reinterpreted Leninism. To realise the revolutionary destiny of the masses a form of mass practice is required. If a political organisation is to construct the unification of the working class, it can not do so from a position external to the masses, but only from the internal standpoint of the masses. The role of a party is to transform mass struggles into the mass political re-appropriation of power.

Italy paper

Big Flame and Italy

Sometimes the influence of Italy on Big Flame is implicit rather than spelt out. Two headlines in the newspaper come to mind. Both are talking about Britain. In August 1972 the paper predicted a Long Hot Autumn. In October 1977 it claimed sections of the Army were pursuing a Strategy of Tension.

Two of Big Flame’s earliest publications contained material on Italy: the pamphlet Italy 1969-70, published in 1971, and “The Struggle in Italy” in Fact Folder no2 published in 1972.

Italy 1969-70 details how the Hot Autumn developed in 1969, including articles about the struggles in FIAT, the different tactics in the factories, the attempt to introduce line delegates (similar to shop stewards), a demonstration in Turin which developed into a battle with the police, and a discussion with migrant workers from the south). “The Struggle in Italy” consists of a discussion with two people with recent experience of events in Italy, and of notes written by a member of Potere Operaio.

The bulk of Italy 1969-70 was republished in the US magazine Radical America. Click here to view Radical America September-October 1971 issue at the magazine’s archive on the web. (The article can be found at pp10-38 of the magazine, pp12-40 of the document). Two of the six sections of the pamphlet are omitted, along with the Preface, the Appendix, and some other supplementary material.

Big Flame was an organisation which emphasised practice rather theory. After the two documents mentioned above discussion of Italy in Big Flame publications was mostly confined to news articles in the paper. Even in internal documents, it is very rare to see explicit references to Operaismo writers. The influence of Italy is probably best seen in Big Flame’s practice. Here the influence of Lotta Continua is most apparent. From early 1969, through the Hot Autumn, and for many years thereafter Lotta Continua members regularly went down to the factory gates. Initial help with leaflets led to student worker assemblies. It was this which Big Flame was attempting to copy, on a much smaller scale, in its base group model. Lotta Continua didn’t support the introduction of line delegates into the factories, seeing this as leading to union control over struggles. This influenced Big Flame’s early positions on shop stewards.

Big Flame’s links with Lotta Continua are mentioned in the pamphlet Big Flame: Our Perspectives and Work discussed in Episode 2  of this series. There was continuous contact between the two groups in the early to mid 1970s with mutual visits. In 1975 Lotta Continua organised a “cadre school” for Big Flame members. Big Flame also had less regular links with another Italian group Avanguardia Operaio (Workers Vanguard) during the same period.

Too much can be made of the Big Flame’s Italian connection. Not everyone in Big Flame was influenced by Italian Marxism. The few early internal documents which mention Operaismo writers were extremely critical of both Tronti and Negri. Not everyone took Lotta Continua as a model. Big Flame never tried to set itself up as the English franchise of Lotta Continua as some have suggested. Before the latter’s implosion, some Big Flame members raised criticisms (e.g. its response to feminism, lack of internal democracy) in internal documents (as mentioned above there was barely a reference, favourable or unfavourable, in its open publications). Most Big Flame members had even stronger criticisms of Potere Operaio. As time went on newer members joining Big Flame were much less likely to see the Hot Autumn as the source of their inspiration, or even be aware of the currents in Italian Marxism discussed here.

1981-82 Debate

The 1974-75 debate in Big Flame about the meaning of autonomy was mentioned in Episode 5 of this series. In 1981-82, there was another debate covering both autonomy and mass politics. Starting in the run up to the 1981 Conference, which lead on a Day School on Autonomy in July 1982.

Here are some of the articles from the debate. They are listed in order of my assessment of the extent to which they departed from Big Flame’s traditional positions. The defenders come first, and the critics later.

(1) Mass Work and Big Flame (Discussion Bulletin Sept 1981)

(2) Does the Struggle Continue? (Information Bulletin June 1982 – Day School document)

(3) A Critical Look at Big Flame Theory (Discussion Bulletin April 1981)

(4) Autonomy and Mass Practice (Discussion Bulletin Nov 1981)

(5) Autonomy: A Case of Too Many Meanings (Information Bulletin June 1982 – Day School document)

(6) The Struggle for Mass Politics  (Discussion Bulletin Sept 1981)

[These documents come from the days of stencil duplicators/mimeograph machines and therefore aren’t the easiest to read]

Article (1) sees the problem as Big Flame’s abandonment of ideas like mass politics. It particularly supports the base group model, and wants to see this readopted. Article (2) sets out to defend the idea of Working Class Autonomy from its critics. Its sees as its strength seeing the working class as an active force (the only tendency to “put the horse before the cart”), It concludes the acknowledging that the approach was developed 10 years before, and needs to be updated for the 1980s.

Article (3) is mostly devoted to a lengthy exegesis of Big Flame’s traditional theory. It sees these as a significant improvement on other ideas current amongst the left at the time. It ends with some critical comments e.g. questioning the notion that communism is inherent in the working class, and believing that Big Flame does not take reformism seriously enough. Article (4) wants to retain but modify the terms autonomy and mass politics. With autonomy, the author wants to retain the idea of independence of the working class, but questions the assumption that there is inherently a progressive tendency to focus on class objectives. With mass politics, he recognises the need to work directly with the mass of the work class and oppressed, but finds the idea of mass politics vague, often with little more meaning than mass leafleting.

Article (5) argues that from the beginning the idea of autonomy made no sense in the Britain of the 1970s. The writer suggests that it is impossible to set up permanent working class institutions without some labour movement support. Article (6) wants to reinterpret the notion of mass politics. It criticises the base group model for operating independently of the institutions of the labour movement. To create socialist politics in a conservative culture new alliances are required.

The authors of both articles (3) and (6) raise the question of working within the Labour Party. By the end of 1981 at the conclusion of a debate about the Labour Party (on which see a future Episode in this series – see Episode 27), they had both left Big Flame. The organisation never resolved the differences between the positions of those who remained in the rest of its life up to 1984.

Archive Archie

 

Sources on Operaismo

Back in the 1970s and 80s, it was hard to get hold of translations into English of relevant documents. Publications released in England consisted of a few Red Notes pamphlets (such as Italy 1977-8: Living with an Earthquake and Italy 1980-81: After Marx,Jail!); a CSE pamphlet on The Labour Process and Class Strategies; plus a joint publication between the two: Working Class Autonomy and the Crisis which came out in 1979. If you were lucky enough to live near an alternative bookshop like Compendium in Camden Town, you could also get hold of US journals like Radical America, Telos and semiotext(e).

Everything has changed with the internet. The following sites are worth checking out:

Class against Class

Translations @ generation-online

Aut-op-sy

A useful overall introduction is also provided by Steve Wright Storming Heaven (Pluto, 2002).

For those who can read Italian, I would draw attention to Classe Operaia: Reprint Completo 1964-67 (Milano: Machina Libri, no date). This republishes with the original design the complete run of Classe Operaia, as well as related publications from the same period Gatto Salvaggio, Cronache Operaie, Classe e Partito and Il Potere Operaio.

Posted in Big Flame History | Tagged: , , , , , , | 10 Comments »

BIG FLAME: THE TELEVISION PLAY

Posted by archivearchie on May 23, 2009

From time to time some Big Flame members argued for a change in the name. The reason it never happened is that they never came up with a credible alternative. Whatever doubts there were about the name, most people were happy that the organisation didn’t have a run of the mill left group name like the Revolutionary Socialist International Workers Communist Group League Party (or RSIWCGLP for short).
 

The source for the name was not the Manchester pop group (they were of 1983-86 vintage), but a television play. Part of the long running Wednesday Play series on BBC, it was first broadcast on the 19th February 1969. Unlike some other of the Wednesday Plays, it was not be wiped. So it may even appear from time to time at arts cinemas like the National Film Theatre.

“The Big Flame” had a screenplay by Jim Allen, was directed by Ken Loach and produced by Tony Garnett. The actors included Norman Rossington and Godfrey Quigley. The play also launched the acting career of the late Peter Kerrigan. A Communist Party member and former docker, who had been involved in a real dock strike in Liverpool. Kerrigan later played a terminally ill former Liverpool docker, in Alan Bleasdale’s “Boys from the Blackstuff”. 

 
Jim Allen
Jim Allen

Ken Loach
Ken Loach
 
 Jim Allen 
 
Jim Allen was a former miner and building worker. He began his career as a writer on “Coronation Street” (ITV). Then Allen worked on several television plays with Loach including “Days of Hope” (1975). They later collaborated on three feature films: “Hidden Agenda”  (1988), “Raining Stones” (1993) and “Land and Freedom” (1995).. Allen died in 1999.

 

Allen was a member of the Revolutionary Communist Party (which briefly united the different currents of British Trotskyism in the late 1940s and early 1950s). He went with the Gerry Healy current of the RCP on to the Socialist Labour League. He was expelled from Labour Party in 1962 for his membership of this “prescribed organisation”. Allen left the SLL soon after (before it became the WRP) for reasons he refused to discuss. He continued to share much of its politics.

 Ken Loach

Ken Loach was originally an actor who moved into direction with “Z Cars” (BBC). He directed six Wedneday Plays including “Up the Junction” (1965) and “Cathy Come Home” (1966). He then moved into feature films. Apart from the Allen collaborations mentioned above, his films have included “Kes” (1969), “Bread and Roses” (2000), “The Wind that Shakes the Barley” (2006) and, most recently, “Looking for Eric” (2009). 

He was a member of the Labour Party from 1964 to the mid 1990s. In the 1960s and 70s Loach was one of a group of producers, writers and directors – such as Roy Battersby, Trevor Griffiths, Kenith Trodd, Roland Joffe and Tony Garnett – who were in the orbit of the Socialist Labour League (with varying degree of closeness). Since the 1960s Loach has been a friend of Alan Thornett (then of the SLL/WRP, later of the WSL and ISG), picking Thornett as his “hero” in a 2007 exercise conducted by The Independent newspaper. In recent years Loach has alligned himself with Respect and Socialist Resistance.

Tony Garnett

Tony Garnett

Tony Garnett

 Tony Garnett began his working life as an actor, became a script editor and then a producer. He produced twelve Wednesday Plays, G.F. Newman’s tv series “Law and Order”, and the film “Kes”. After a spell in Hollywood in the 1980s, he formed an independent production company. This has achieved success on television with “Between the Lines”, “This Life” and “Ballykissangel”.

Garnett was part of the same circle around the Socialist Labour League as Loach. In a 1993 interview with The Independent, he denied earlier newspaper stories about his membership of various political organisations: “None of them true; I’ve never joined a political party in my life.”

 

Documentary Dramas

Documentary drama television plays adopted the style of documentaries. They were shot on location with hand held cameras and often with unknown or amateur actors.

In the 1960s and 70s there was a press campaign again these plays on television for their perceived left wing bias. They were also criticized for blurring the line between reality and fiction, and thereby confusing the viewer. “Cathy Come Home” and “Days of Hope” were particularly subject to attack. On the one hand it was argued that the facts they were based on were distorted and untrue. On the other they were wrong to pretend they could report reality. Viewers might be lulled into accepting their viewpoint, rather than taking them as pure entertainment.

In a 2002 interview Ken Loach gave a good response: “The idea was not to ask ‘Is the play true?’ but “What truth is there in the play? …The whole argument about objectivity is an impossible concept. The point is: what are they defending in the guise of objectivity?” (in Anthony Hayward Whose Side are You On? p71).

The Play

WPThe Big Flame” was one of three plays on political subjects with Jim Allen as the scriptwriter which helped spark this controversy. The first was “The Lump”, another Wednesday Play from 1967 about the Building trade, with Garnett and Jack Gold as the director. The last was “Rank and File”, a Play for Today from 1971 about the Pilkington Glass strike, with Loach and Graeme McDonald as producer. “The Big Flame” was about an occupation of the Liverpool docks. It was made after the Devlin report recommended decasualisation of the docks and before the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders sit-in. It was filmed entirely on location in Liverpool in 20 days (19 Feb to 16 March 1968).

“The Big Flame” was set in the “near future”. A strike in the Liverpool docks is lead by an unofficial strike committee including Danny Fowler (Norman Rossington) and Peter Connor (Peter Kerrigan). They go out on strike in defiance of their union, mainly as a response to the threatened casualisation of the workforce. Strikers are seen discussing the progress of the strike, while voice-over narrators provide analysis. After six weeks the strikers are persuaded by a blacklisted union organiser Jack Regan (Godfrey Quigley), a former Communist turned Trotskyist,  to move the strike from the “the industrial to the political” by occupying the docks and running them. Regan argues: “There’ll be no revolution, but you’ll have lit a bonfire” (hence the Big Flame). After 5 days the occupation ends when the police and the army move in during the middle of the night .  Fowler, Connor and Regan get three year prison sentences. Outside the court young workers start organising again. The message of the film is clear when on the last night of the occupation an American sailor sings “The Ballad of  Joe Hill”. He may have been killed, but he didn’t die.

Recently Ken Loach talked about “The Big Flame”: “In 1968, I made the film The Big Flame in Liverpool, a fictional story set in the Liverpool docks written by the late Jim Allen, who was from Manchester. I was just stunned by the political maturity of the people I met. They were sophisticated, militant and organised. …That whole experience had a big effect on me – much bigger than making a film like Cathy Come Home. …People talk a lot about the humour of Liverpool people, but they absolutely miss the politics. That’s what I found very impressive – and it’s still impressive.” (Liverpool Echo 7th March 2008) 

Reception

The play was ready for transmission by May 1968. The BBC postponed showing it twice, and there were doubts that it would ever be broadcast before  its February 1969 appearance. There was a predictable storm of protest. The Daily Mail labeled the play a “Marxist play presented as sermon”. Mary Whitehouse, Secretary of  the National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association, complained that the play was “a blueprint for the communist takeover of the docks” and wrote to the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition urging a review of the BBC’s charter. Tom Jackson, General Secretary of the Union of Post Office Workers, also wrote a letter of protest to Lord Hill, Chairman of the Governors of the BBC.

After “The Big Flame” a new regime at the BBC insisted that in future all plays should have no more than ten minutes of outside filming. This led Tony Garnett to quit the BBC. In time the BBC stopped showing plays in the documentary drama style.

The Allen/Loach/Garnett plays were also criticised by some on the left. Some found their politics too simplistic and didactic. Other criticised their realistic style. For example, those associated with the theoretical film journal Screen claimed that it was impossible for the “classic realist text” to offer any perspective for struggle due to their inability to investigate contradiction. To be truely subversive a film needed to be radical in form as well as content.

I must confess that I have never seen “The Big Flame”. Therefore, it is hard for me to defend the film from these critics. However, sticking to the general issues and not defending all the films in the drama documentary style, I am strongly critical of the perspectives of Screen and its ilk.

Archive Archie

 

Read more

The following articles have helped me write this post:

BFI Screenonline on “The Big Flame”

Wednesday Play site on “The Big Flame”

Essay on “The Rank and File” (another Jim Allen/Ken Loach collaboration) by John Williams on the University of Hull site (which also discusses “The Big Flame”)

Also helpful were some books which mention “The Big Flame”: Jacob Leigh The Cinema of Ken Loach (Wallflower Press, 2002); Anthony Hayward Whose Side are You On?: Ken Loach and his Films (Bloomsbury, 2004) and a chapter on Jim Allen by Paul Madden in George W. Brandt (ed) British Television Drama (Cambridge University Press, 1981).

There is a Jim Allen archive at the Working Class Movement Library in Salford (from whose website I borrowed the photo of Jim Allen)

Jim Allen Archive

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EPISODES IN BIG FLAME HISTORY: No 5. 1975 Debate – National Organisation and Autonomy

Posted by archivearchie on May 19, 2009

WhatisMBF-p1

In Big Flame, like a lot of political groups with some form of internal democracy, members spent a lot of time disagreeing with each other. This series will include coverage of the major debates in the course of Big Flame’s life, starting with one in 1975.

By 1974-75 in five locations groups had decided to call themselves Big Flame – the original Merseyside group and newer groups in Manchester, Birmingham, East and West London. Big Flame was effectively a federation, with a loose delegate National Co-ordinating Committee. There were apparently between 40 and 70 members.

Differences came to a head at a National Conference in March 1975. The debate came to be seen as one between the Merseyside (MBF) and East London (ELBF) groups. However, there were differences within both these groups, and shades of opinion across the other three. Sometimes those involved in the debate slipped into the language of describing the debate as one between “libertarians” and Leninists”. At others they recognised these terms as unhelpful, and simply provoking antagonism. The result of the conference was the East London group deciding not to be part of a newly launched national organisation. All the other four groups did. One writer has claimed that ELBF were thrown out of Big Flame for “being too interested in personal politics and sexual issues”. This is simply not true. The choice was entirely their own.

 What the Debate was about: views from the participants

I want to begin by looking at the way the different positions were described and criticised by their opponents, before moving on to look at the actual conference documents themselves.

Responses to ELBF from members of other local groups tended to describe its positions as “ultra-left”. Sometimes they linked ELBF arguments to the writings of others, such as Power of Women (the Selma James group) or Race Today in Britain, or Potero Operaio in Italy.

A Manchester BF member in a document before the conference challenged ELBF’s notion of autonomy, suggesting that a belief that the working class is autonomous in its struggle against capitalism does not mean that there is no need for working class organisation, and that an optimistic assessment of the state of class struggle is used to provide backing for ideas rather than identify what is happening. Three BF members from London writing around the same time said ELBF saw the tiniest pressure as the worst bureaucratisation, and instead argued that centralisation would bring greater efficiency and reduce wasted effort.

An article “Chips with Everything” by two members of MBF in Internal Bulletin no1 (June 1975) soon after the conference, criticised ELBF as proponents of a vulgar economism who failed to appreciate the role of consciousness and lacked a multi-dimensional view of power. Instead of appreciating the uneven and contradictory nature of struggle, they believed there can be no general class interest or organisation until the magical moment when the bottom of the hierarchy has won equal power. Another criticism is that ELBF side step the issue of proletarianising Big Flame by calling themselves proletarians. A member of Birmingham BF in the same Bulletin made similar points. In addition, he queried ELBF’s notion of the sectional autonomy of women, black and gay people. Whilst he agreed it was necessary to organise separately, he felt the question of eventual unification had to be posed.

On the other side of the debate, a member of ELBF responded to “Chip with Everything” in Bulletin no2 July 1975, calling it “sectarian”. He argued that there was no contradiction between ELBF’s position on the mass worker and the hierarchy of labour. He argues that the group never claimed to have any panaceas for unification, and challenges the dubious exercise of stringing together a series of quotes from quite different groups around the world.

Another former member of ELBF, writing over a decade later, identified the critical factors in the break as the ”concept of political organization” (the other groups wanting “to adopt a to adopt a more conventional democratic centralist form of organization, which would see itself developing around an agreed line articulated in a reorganized national newspaper”) and feminism (the rest of Big Flame “believing that it was barely acceptable to discuss men’s sexual politics seriously, let alone therapy”). The two issues were linked, the organisational direction being  “deeply at odds with the form of organization we had learnt about in East London and with what we had learned from feminist theory and practice” (see Victor J. Seidler Rediscovering Masculinity: Reason, Language and Sexuality: Routledge, 1989 pp84,94-95,210-11).

Another document, written soon after the conference, also argues that both men and women in ELBF felt their needs were not being met by the way Big Flame was developing nationally. However, criticisms made in the book mentioned above were also made of the ELBF group itself. The politics of Italian male industrial workers are said to set the terms of political discussion in ELBF, with the men’s group seen as peripheral, something that people did in their private time. There was an informal hierarchy of practice: Fords – Lesneys (a toy model factory in Hackney) – the Food Co-op, with “S road” (a house where many of the Ford base group lived) valued over “Mile End” (where the men in the men’s group and some of the women in the group lived).

What the Debate was about: The documents

Do the documents produced for the conference throw a clearer light on the division? Each group produced its own version of “What is a Big Flame group?” This post will consider two of them.

Click here to view Merseyside Big Flame: What is a Big Flame Group? (warning: this may take over a minute to appear) [This and the other document in this post come from the days of stencil duplicators/mimeograph machines and therefore the documents aren’t the easiest to read]

This document:

  • starts with a reference to the writings of Lenin, but not an acceptance of the practice of Leninist groups. It believes that political organisation is necessary to bring together militants from all sectors and generate revolutionary perspectives. To help the working class express its autonomy, and not to impose on it abstract programmes.
  • states that working class struggle has reached an impasse, and that Britain is unlikely to experience the kind of spontaneous explosions of working class autonomy which occurred in France in 1968 and Italy in 1969. This slow and uneven expression of autonomy has implications for how Big Flame should organise.
  • recognises the need for sections of the class who suffer particular oppressions to organise independently (although this doesn’t really feature at the centre of MBF’s analysis).
  • argues that an organisation which remains locked in small and unrelated units will be passed by, and that the working out of central strategic projects will assist the development of local mass work.
  • supports a National Committee with delegated from the local groups appointed for fixed periods, and able to make binding decisions between conference on issues the organisation thinks appropriate, and claims that a national newspaper is both possible and necessary.

Click here to view East London Big Flame: What is a Big Flame Group? (warning: this may take over a minute to appear)

This document:

  • argues for the need to regain a sense of the strength of working class autonomy in Britain. To this end it gives a long list of recent struggles.
  • questions the old definitions of the working class which places (ex-student) Big Flame members as external to the process of proletarianisation.
  • emphasises a third aspect of autonomy, in addition to autonomy from capitalist development and capitalist institutions. This is about power relations within the working class. Women, black people and gay people need to develop autonomously from the most powerful sectors of the working class.
  • believes that the question of political autonomy inevitably raises the question of organisational autonomy. “We do not feel that it is politically correct or useful, therefore, for women to be answerable to a male-dominated central committee, until the politics of the whole organisation are genuinely feminist politics.”
  • says that they are not ”principled federalists” and that “in the long run” we are in favour of “some idea” of the party. They are “for organisation, but against centralisation”. The political weaknesses of Big Flame mean that the latter would encourage passivity and reinforce the lack of influence of women. They conclude that “for the foreseeable future” it should be “an organisation of semi-autonomous groups” and that each local group should “ultimately determine their own priorities”.
  • wants a National Co-ordinating Committee which confines itself to co-ordination and promoting education, and rules out a national newspaper as Big Flame lacks the time and resources.

Looking back with hindsight the level of centralisation in the changes which followed from the conference was modest – a delegate National Committee which took positions on some issues between conferences, and a national newspaper with local pages. However, perhaps opponents would counter that this was just the start of a slippery slope to further changes. Certainly not too dissimilar debates occurred again at later stages in Big Flame’s history. These will be explored in future Episodes in this series (see in particular Episode 11 and Episode 12).

What Happened to East London Big Flame?

ELBF had within itself different perspectives. After uniting together for the conference, these became more apparent. Soon after the conference, the women in ELBF withdrew from it to develop their politics independently. After that all the members of ELBF went their own way in a variety of different directions. Amongst these were being part of Red Therapy (a leaderless therapy group for people involved in political struggles), Achilles’ Heal (a men’s politics magazine), Red Notes (which published documentary accounts of struggles, particularly in Italy), to become a senior support officer in as trade union (and later independent consultant), a film director, a successful novelist.

 Archive Archie

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ARCHIVING BIG FLAME

Posted by archivearchie on May 17, 2009

archive1

The internet has transformed the way in which information is available, but traditional archives can also be a valuable resource. Many former members of left groups will arrive at a time when they start to ask themselves: shall I carry on keeping that dusty box of my former group’s publications in my attic or storage cupboard. One alternative to throwing the lot in a bin is to give them to an archive.

 In the case of Big Flame, a number of former members have recently chosen this path. Unfortunately these donations are still to be fully catalogued, and if you go to the websites of the institutions which received them, the Big Flame material is not mentioned.

For anyone who might like to look through these archives, I provide relevant details below. I also give the website addresses of the institutions. Even if there is no listing of the Big Flame documents, there will be other vital information, such matters as location, opening hours, and whether an advance appointment is required.

 University of Leeds

Special Collections
Leeds University Library
Woodhouse Lane
Leeds
West Yorkshire
LS2 9JT

Website: http://www.leeds.ac.uk/library/spcoll/

Email: specialcollections@library.leeds.ac.uk

A deposit by Max Farrar contains a variety of political documents from the 1970s, 80s and 90s, as well as Big Flame material. The Big Flame documents cover the period 1975-81, and include most magazines and pamphlets; some papers; Internal/Discussion Bulletins; minutes of the Anti Racist/Anti Fascist and Education Commissions and some National Committee minutes. 

Special Collections also houses the Feminist Archive North (see   http://www.feministarchivenorth.org.uk/index.htm). This has a considerable amount of Big Flame documents: issues of the newspaper (Manchester edition, 1975–77, 79), the magazines Big Flame Journal (1974-76), Revolutionary Socialism (1980-81), the Internal Bulletin (1976-77), the Women’s Commission 1976 conference report, and two runs of Women’s Struggle Notes.

archive2

Working Class Movement Library, Manchester

Working Class Movement Library
51, The Crescent
Salford M5 4WX

Website: http://www.wcml.org.uk/

Email: enquiries@wcml.org.uk

This deposit is called the ‘Big Flame collection’. It combines donations from three different former Big Flame members and includes: copies of the second series of the newspaper from no.2 Aug 1972 to no.114 Jul/Aug 1983 (the last issue) with some gaps, plus the special unnumbered Jan 1974 issue and three issues from the 1985-86 reprise; all issues of Big Flame Journal (1-2) and Revolutionary Socialism (1-10); many pamphlets; Internal and Discussion bulletins; conference documents; Industrial Commission papers; documents on Big Flame activities on Merseyside including a folder of material from the Socialist Unity campaign in the 1979 Edgehill, Liverpool by-election.

Modern Records Centre, University of Warwick, Coventry

Modern Records Centre
University Library
University of Warwick
Coventry
CV4 7AL

Website: http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/services/library/mrc//

Email: archives@warwick.ac.uk

This collection has been given the accession number 672 and will be listed as ‘Big Flame’. The dates covered are 1970-81. The earliest item are copies of the Big flame Bulletin from 1970-71. There are also copies of the newspaper from no.1 June 1972 to no.112 Feb-Mar 1983, though there are gaps in the sequence.

A search of the MRC archives reveals a few other Big Flame related documents: a folder in the International Marxist Group collection (MSS 128/257), the pamphlet Introducton to Big Flame – Our Politics, History, Structures and Publications and a few other items in the Andrew Whitehead collection (MSS 21/1538/212), the same pamarchive3phlet and A close Look at Racism and Fascism in the S.E.Taylor Collection (MSS 21/1571/22), and The Revolution Unfinished? A critique of Trotskyism in the Harry Wicks papers (MSS 102/5/3/25).

 These are not the only documents in archives in Britain or abroad. However, most simply consist of one or two pamphlets or copies of the newspaper. A couple are worth mentioning.

Liverpool Record Office 

Liverpool Record Office,
Central Library,
William Brown Street,
Liverpool L3 8EW

Website:  http://www.liverpool.gov.uk/Leisure_and_culture/Libraries/Archives/index.asp

Email: recoffice.central.library@liverpool.gov.uk

This institution holds three copies of the first series of the newspaper: no.1 February 1970, no.6 May 1970 and no.7 July 1970. The reference number is M329 COM 36/9.

 Women’s Library, London Metropolitan University

The Women’s Library
London Metropolitan University
Old Castle Street
London E1 7NT

Website: http://www.londonmet.ac.uk/thewomenslibrary/

Email: enquirydesk@thewomenslibrary.ac.uk

The relevant collection is the ‘Papers of Sheila Rowbotham’ (7SHR). This contains her correspondence and drafts for books, resource material, including Women’s Liberation Movement papers, socialist periodicals and campaigning papers, all from the period 1969-88. The Big Flame material includes discussion papers on women from the West London BF group; on men’s politics from the East London BF group; the pamphlets Walking a Tightrope and We Won’t Pay, and three issues of Women’s Struggle Notes.

There is another deposit at the women’s library which would have been of interest. Unfortunately because it is not catalogued, it can not be viewed. This is the ‘Papers of Nina Hutchison (nee Helweg)’ (7NHH). The archive consists of her personal working and political papers including correspondence and resource material from the period 1969-94. Nina was a member of Big Flame and the archive apparently contains documents relating to this. She died in 1994 and these items were deposited on her behalf in 1998 by her literary executor.

 Final Comments

 If anyone knows of any other significant deposits of Big Flame documents in archives, please tell me.

 If you are a former Big Flame member (or someone who accumulated their documents) and want to dispose of them. Please do consider giving them to a archive near you.

 Archive Archie

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EPISODES IN BIG FLAME HISTORY: No 4. Women and Feminism Part 1

Posted by archivearchie on May 12, 2009

Big Flame probably made a more serious and sustained effort to incorporate feminism into the organisation than any other British left group of the 1970s and 1980s (If you think I’m wrong, please nominate your contender). This doesn’t mean that things were easy. There were failings, fierce arguments and confrontations along the way. A useful short overview about women in the group is available in an article in the Discussion Bulletin of February 1981. It covers, for example, the interventions by Big Flame women at Women’s Liberation Movement conferences in the 1970s, and the successes and failures of raising feminism within Big Flame. Click here to view the article  History of women’s movement within BF (warning: this may take over a minute to appear).

 Tower Hill

Tower March

From the summer of 1972 women in Merseyside Big Flame started meeting together. By the end of the year, they had formed an autonomous women’s group. Many women withdrew from other base groups, such as the Ford’s one, to focus on the women’s group. The group’s first major intervention was on a Council estate called Tower Hill, outside Liverpool in Kirkby – an estate with 2,500 homes.

The National Government had introduced the Housing Finance Act 1972. This promoted so-called “fair rents”, whereby local Councils would be forced in stages to increase rents according to the value of the house as if it were for sale on an open housing market. The Act came into force on the 2nd October 1972. Rent strikes by tenants followed. One of the most militant was in Tower Hill. 3,000 tenants started a total rent strike on the 9th October 1972. The protest lasted until 24th December 1973. The Big Flame women didn’t live on the estate, and were therefore external militants. They worked with women living in Tower Hill to form a women’s group on the estate.

Tower-p1

Women in Big Flame wrote an account of the struggle in Tower Hill. It does not claim to be a full account of the rent strike, focusing on the role of the Women’s Group and Big Flame. It was first published in Big Flame Journal no1 Winter 1974/75. Then it was reissued as a separate pamphlet in 1975. Click here to view We Won’t Pay (warning: this may take over a minute to appear).

  

  

 

 

 

 

Walking a Tightrope

Tightrope-p1

In 1980 women in Big Flame produced another pamphlet. Its title is explained by this quote: “We are always walking a fine line – between seeing the need for autonomous movements, and seeing the need for a mixed national organisation such a Big Flame. We want our organisation to be a place where we can work out ideas together, make links between the different struggles, understand the relationship between sex and class, and generalise our politics. We are producing this pamphlet despite the difficulties, because we feel it’s vital to walk that line, vital to develop an approach which many people share with us, and we feel confident enough that those links can be made. We do not have all the answers, but we would like to think that we have a specific contribution to make in pointing out ways of fighting as feminists and socialists under this Tory government”.

The pamphlet has sections on male violence, community, work, imperialism and other topics. Click here to view the pamphlet – split into three parts (warning: these may take over a minute to appear):

Walking a Tightrope: front-p11 

Walking a Tightrope: p12-p25

Walking a Tightrope: p26-back

Women’s Struggle Notes

In addition to the two pamphlets, there was a periodical called Women’s Struggle Notes. It first appeared in a duplicated format for around eight issues in 1975-76. It reappeared in a printed version for around another five issues in 1977. The first series was attributed to “Big Flame Women’s Group” and the second “an open editorial group of women”, some members of Big Fame and some not. The publication was made up of short articles. Many of them about workplace struggles, but also on topics like housework, health, rape and sexuality.

Some Internal Debates

Inside BF a variety of debates can be found in the Internal Bulletin and other internal documents. This post will focus on that about Wages for Housework and an independent state income for women.

The first phase of the debate was about Wages for Housework. This was a demand first made around 1972. The writings of Mariarosa Dalla Costa, of the Italian group Lotta Feminista, and a British group the Power of Women Collective, played important roles in developing a campaign around the slogan. Here are four contributions to a debate in BF which followed:

Introduction to Meeting of Liverpool Big Flame Women’s Group on Wages for Housework (internal document 1976)

Why Wages for Housework is not Enough (Internal Bulletin April 1976)

A Reply to CD’s Document on Wages for Housework (Internal Bulletin May 1976)

Wages for Housework is not Enough but is Necessary (Internal Bulletin May 1976)

The author of the first article argued in favour of supporting the demand on the grounds that the position of women will not change without them being economically independent and housework being recognized as work. In the second article another women in BF responded not disagreeing with the ideas behind the demand, but felt it lacked the ability to help organize working class power contained in other demands such as A Woman’s Right to Chose (for example in her own situation in a hospital). Also the sectarian behaviour of Power of Women would mean that BF would have to spend endless hours justifying how BF’s demand was different from their’s.

The third article takes a stronger position against Wages for Housework. She argues that feminists must find ways of destroying capitalism’s ability to define women in ways that suit it. They need to struggle against capital’s organisation of work and not work itself. Housework should be socialized on our terms. The original writer returns to the debate in the fourth article. She accepts that Wages for Housework in not enough, but thinks it is right. She sees no alternative to the demand in a society where women are tied to housework. Wages for Housework and the socialisation of housework go together, rather than being alternatives.

Whatever the views of some individuals, Big Flame as a group never endorsed the demand of Wages for Housework. It did come out in support of an independent state income for women. The demand for guarantied independent income was seen as a way of developing the Women’s Liberation Conference’s support for legal and financial independence. Apparently, its origins lay in discussion with housewives from the Tower Hill estate, near Liverpool. At the October 1976 Big Flame Conference the demand was adopted in the following form: “guaranteed, adequate, independent income for all women, including housewives”. It was accompanied by three other demands for “the socialisation of housework, paid for by the state, controlled by the working class”; for “housework to be paid for by the state, whoever does it and wherever it is done”; and “no division of labour between men and women, both inside and outside the home”. The case for this position is argued in this document: Women’s Commission Report to Big Flame Conference 1976 (conference document 1976).

The supporters of the position maintained that it was not the same as Wages for Housework. It did not assume that housework is done by women. Nevertheless, a lot of women in the organisation were unhappy with the approach, and debate continued up to the May 1978 Conference. A new set of demands emerged which aimed to make even clearer that housework was not women’s work, by amending the most ambiguous of the demands. The proposed new position was:

  • A rewording of one demand to read “an independent income for all” i.e. omitting the references to both women and housewives.
  • Dropping the position on housework being paid for by the state and replacing it by one of the state providing money and facilities to make housework easier.
  • Retaining “the socialisation of housework”, but replacing the reference to working class control to community control.
  • Keeping the same wording in relation to “no division of Labour”.
  • Adding a new demand for no cuts and an increase in the social wage.

The supporters of the previous position originally opposed the change, then well in line with the proposals. The Conference adopted the new five demands. No subsequent BF Conference made further changes to this position. However, the 1980 pamphlet Walking a Tightrope does not mention the demand for independent state income.

After the conference another writer sought to take the debate about domestic labour in a different direction: Housework: Its Role in Capitalist Relations of Production and in Revolutionary Strategy (Internal Bulletin June 1977). She argued that BF had theorised about the role of housework without much link to practice. In the struggle against housework, unlike other sectors of struggle, too much emphasis had been placed on money and not enough on structure. Those fighting for a revolution needed to ensure that the manner of the servicing and reproduction of the workforce is not neglected in the new society. Books by Ann Oakley and Delia Davin are examined for the beginnings of a new perspective.

Archive Archie

Notes:

(1) This is the first part of a three part series covering gender issues and Big Flame. See Episode 17  and Episode 29.

(2) This post was amended on October 29, 2009. The second half from the sub heading “Women’s Struggle Notes” downwards was added

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SOJOURNER TRUTH ORGANIZATION (Related Political Organisations no 1)

Posted by archivearchie on May 9, 2009

This post is something of a departure. It’s not strictly about Big Flame. So why is it on this website? Before I come to that issue, I want to introduce the Sojourner Truth Organization.

 The Group

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The  Sojourner Truth Organization was a political group in the USA. It was named after a 19th century African-American campaigner for the abolition of slavery and women’s rights Sojourner Truth. The group started out in Chicago, expanded to some other parts of country. It then shrank back to Chicago before disappearing. Here are a few points about the group:

 –  Its lifespan was almost identical to that of Big Flame. It existed between 1969 and 1985.

–   It started out focused almost exclusively in industrial workplace struggles (at a time when this wasn’t so common in the USA). Their approach was for members to get jobs in targeted factories. Later STO became involved in anti-imperialist struggles and social movements.

–   In part its political ideas were influenced by currents on the Italian left (ideas like autonomy and mass direct action), although there were other influences such as the Facing Reality Group (which was in turn influenced by C.L.R James).

–   It emphasized anti-racism, playing a significant role in spreading amongst the US left the view that white people benefit materially and psychologically from the oppression of black people.

 The Web Sites

There are two websites – run by different individuals – which relate to the STO.

STOfront

The first is called Sojourner Truth Organization 1969-1985 Digital Archive and aims to make available copies of STO’s newspapers (Insurgent Worker), pamphlets, shop leaflets, theoretical journal (Urgent Tasks), collaborative works (Collective Works, Tendency Newsletter), and other publications. The website isn’t set up to allow discussion of  items published.

The second is called The Sojourner Truth Organization: Notes Towards a History. This site has been put together by someone who wasn’t an STO member and comes from an anarchist background. He is working towards writing a book about STO. His site is a blog and allows comments on posts. Posts often focus on themes such as industrial concentration, white skin privilege, extra-union organising, STO’s culture, anti-imperialism and so on. A few posts stray off topic and they have become less frequent over the years (for personal reasons as the author explains).

Why this Post

 That there are some similarities between Big Flame and STO should be clear from what I have said above in introducing the group. However my main reason for attention to the two websites is that they have a parallel purpose to this site. Each represents in relation to STO, an objective I have for this site and Big Flame. Firstly, to inform people about what Big Flame was. Secondly, to try to initiate a discussion about the ideas it represented (although so far we have been less successful in the latter. Hopefully future posts will provoke more of a discussion).

 Here are a few more connections between STO and Big Flame in case you are still not convinced.

 –  A Big Flame member responded to a STO document called ”Reflections on Organizing” after its publication by Radical America in 1972. STO published this in its collection Workplace Papers in 1980. Therefore, it can be found on the STO digital archive as Review of “Reflections on Organizing”.

–  The STO: Notes Towards a History website includes positive references to Big Flame in posts on Feminism and Theory (see second comment at the bottom of the post).

–  A member of BF travelled to Chicago around 1974 and wrote a brief report on STO. The writer is repeatedly critical of the group (I am somewhat surprised that the writer didn’t express greater sympathy in finding group in the USA with at least some similarity in politics). For example STO is criticised for the extent of its focus on production, a neglect of women’s struggles, being unclear on the relationship between spontaneity and organisation, the organisation’s internal life, and passivity in the relationship between members and leaders.

–  Later in 1980 two members of STO traveled to London to hold talks with Big Flame about how much they were part of the same political tendency.

Can anyone add more on the extent of contacts between Big Flame and STO? 

Sites about Other Groups

I would love to hear about any sites on the internet which go back in time to examine any political organisation with related politics to Big Flame. They need not be of exactly the same era. Do you know any sites you would recommend?

 Archive Archie

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EPISODES IN BIG FLAME HISTORY: No 3. Industry and Workplace

Posted by archivearchie on May 6, 2009

Big Flame gave an extremely high importance to struggles at the point of production, especially in its early days.

 Base Groups

 The early Big Flame adopted the base group model derived from sections of the Italian left like Lotta Continua. The aim of these interventions was to target activity at the mass of workers (often the deskilled line worker) rather than to work through union structures. Instead of a political group deciding that its members would get jobs in a factory (as has been the practice with some groups), the intervention was initiated by external militants who developed regular contact with those working at the factory. The basic activity was regular factory gate leafleting. Through this workers were invited to open meetings, where they had the final way over the content of the next leaflet. This is because it is the workers who have the understanding of what was going on in the plant. The aim was that the workers would develop confidence and power, and eventually take over the group. No pressure was put on them to be recruited to the organisation (this is true of Big Flame at least, during this period). 

In October 1971 Merseyside Big Flame established three base groups. One was at the Ford Halewood plant in Liverpool. The other two groups – at Standard Triumph (another car plant) and Plessey (telecommunications) – only lasted a short period. Other Big Flame interventions in the motor industry followed Ford Halewood. Ford Dagenham (near East London) in January 1973 (by people who later formed East London Big Flame), British Leyland Longbridge (Birmingham) in January 1975) and Ford Langley (near West London) in February 1975.

As of 1975 the situation at Ford Halewood was: 2 external militants who had this work as their main area of political activity, 1 Ford worker member, 3 other Ford workers consistently attending base group educational meetings, another 30 Ford workers consistently attending open meetings and around 120 copies of Big Flame newspaper sold at the plant.

This document, a report to the October 1976 Big Flame Conference, gives a vivid picture of base group activity on a day to day basis.Click here to view Ford Halewood Report (warning: this may take over a minute to appear).

By 1979 Big Flame’s Ford Halewood intervention had suffered a serious decline, with the base group gone. The problem with the base group approach was its dependence on the external militants. If they moved away from the area, got a job or were burnt out by continuous activity, the intervention suffered a serious blow. Later Big Flame workplace interventions were almost always through members working in the sector.

 Shop Stewards

The original (1970) Big Flame newspaper involved left stewards who wrote for the paper. However, in 1971 Big Flame reassessed its position on stewards. A strike at Ford Halewood over the sacking of a militant steward met with a lack of enthusiasm from the other stewards.

StewardsCS-p1 In 1973 Big Flame published two pamphlets Shop Stewards and the Class Struggle and Five Months of Struggle at Halewood. The former set out a critical perspective on shop stewards (as opposed to others at the time like the International Socialists who were promoting them as a key element of the struggle). Stewards were increasingly being integrated into the union hierarchy and management. They were encouraging passive delegation and holding back working class autonomy. The second pamphlet developed a similar argument in the specific context of Ford Halewood. Click here to view Shop Stewards and Class Struggle (warning: this may take over a minute to appear).

 Two of the six sections of Five Months of Struggle at Halewood were republished as “Shop Stewards at Ford” in the US magazine Radical America. Click here to view Radical America September-October 1974 issue  at the magazine’s archive on the web. (The article can be found at pp119-139 of the magazine, pp121-141 of the document). 

Big Flame later clarified its position on stewards, recognising that not all workplaces were like the motor industry. The approach to shop stewards, indeed whether or not to become a steward, depended on where you worked. Click here to view Reply to a Letter to Big Flame, reprinted from the May 1977 Internal Bulletin (warning: this may take over a minute to appear). A similar perspective was set out in a 1977 pamphlet The Working Class, the Unions and Mass Practice.

Workplace Organising

  organising-p1 Car plants were not the only place Big Flame organised. Hospitals were another early priority. By that late 1970s there were Big Flame members involved in struggle at a wide variety of workplaces including rail, the mines, engineering and the public sector such as local government.

 In 1979 Big Flame published a pamphlet Organising to Win which brought together the experience of workplace activists. It aimed to be a manual on how to win struggles in a difficult period.

Click here to view the pamphlet – split into three parts (warning: they may take over a minute to appear)

Organising to Win: Intro and Ch 1-2

Organising to Win: Ch 3-5

Organising to Win: Ch 6-9 

 

 Archive Archie

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EPISODES IN BIG FLAME HISTORY: No 2. Big Flame Politics

Posted by archivearchie on May 2, 2009

From time to time, Big Flame published a short introduction to its politics. This post highlights three of these.

 1975

 intro75-p1

This was the year Big Flame changed from a federation of autonomous groups into a national organisation. It had groups in Merseyside, Manchester, Birmingham and West London (an East London group had left – more about that in a later post [see Episode 5]).

A pamphlet was published to set out the politics of the organisation. Click here to view – Big Flame: Our Perspectives and Work (warning: this may take over a minute to appear).

1978

intro78-p1

In the years since 1975 Big Flame had launched the Project “Towards a New Revolutionary Socialist Organisation”, participated in Socialist Unity and turned down a call by the International Marxist Group and the International Socialist Alliance for a unifed organisation. By the date of its 1978 Conference, Big Flame had 160 members (probably close to its peak). There were now Big Flames groups in Sheffield, Leeds, Nottingham, South London, North London and elsewhere.

 

A new pamphlet was published. Click here to view – An Introduction to Big Flame (warning: this may take over a minute to appear). 

 

This one added sections on Big Flame’s History and Structures.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1980 

 intro80-p1

 In 1979 the first edition of Beyond the Fragments was published, which struck a chord with Big Flame. By the 1980 Conference Big Flame membership was down to 125, although there were probably members in more places than ever before.

That year Big Flame produced another publication. This one was aimed at new members and sympathisers rather than on general sale. Click here to view – Introductory Guide to Big Flame Perspectives (warning: this may take over a minute to appear).

 

It was fuller document than those mentioned above, with references to the documents or decisions from which the text derived. It dropped the History and Structures sections but added a Reading list under each topic.

 

 

 

 

 

It may seem unnecessary to reproduce here all three pamphlets when there is a lot of repetition between them. However, while there is much consistency, there are also differences or at the very least shifts of emphasis.

 

Consistencies include:

·               The idea of mass politics – targeting activity at the working class as a whole, rather than layers of activists or leaders.

·               A similar view of party and class – at a stage when the conditions are right the working class will need a party, but is the working class organs of popular power than will be of greater importance than the party. Big Flame does not claim to be the party, or even the embryo of the party.

 

Differences include:

·               The phrase autonomy is used throughout. In the first pamphlet the emphasis is on the autonomy of the working class. Later, it is on the autonomous movements of oppressed sectors.

·               The first pamphlet gives greater attention to the refusal of work (through absenteeism, sickness, etc) and divisions in the working class The latter one is more concerned with prefigurative politics (not separating what happens before and after the revolution), and struggles in the community and social spheres.

 

I will return to some of these themes in later posts, in particular the changing influence of some Italian left groups on Big Flame [see Episode 6].

 

Archive Archie

 

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