Big Flame

1970-1984

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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7 Responses to “EPISODES IN BIG FLAME HISTORY: No 5. 1975 Debate – National Organisation and Autonomy”

  1. max farrar said

    I helped form a Big Flame group in Leeds just after the conference described in this posting. I was very sorry that ELBF had decided to withdraw. It was partly through spending some time with them, including the member who has now become a world-famous novellist (I will never forget her shiny red boots), that I decided to leave Leeds Libertarians and form a BF group. But I had also spent time with Merseyside BF, and will never forget the stuffed vine leaves I ate in the men’s flat on the Speke estate. MBF were equally impressive. Archie’s account of the dispute seems entirely fair to me. He’s right about the variety of positions within a city’s group, let alone between cities. It should never be thought that any BF group was ever fully unified on any point of theory or practice. For me, one of the great pleasures, and strengths, of BF was that very few of us ever really sought complete unity on anything. Many of us really enjoyed seeing the hundred flowers bloom. (Though the SWP’s Chris Harman’s characterisation of us as ‘soft Maoists’ was never accurate, many of us did admire the epithets of The Great Helmsman (Mao).) Another thing that strikes me, revisiting this material after more than 30 years, is that the ideological difference between ELBF and MBF was not huge, and that the split was probably as much to do with personalities (hard/soft; noisy/quiet; macho/femmo; tolerant/intolerant etc, to hazard at guesses in improperly binary terms) as to do with ideologies. It might also be worth noting that one or two of the original ELBF members stayed within the post 1975 organisation and one of them was quite prominent in the National Committee. Finally, it is worth mentioning that the ex-BF member who produced Red Notes did an extremely important service to the movement in (on his own!) translating, typing, printing and publishing original documents from the autonomist sections in Italy, which remain influential among the theorists of ‘de-materialised labour’ today.

    • archivearchie said

      I have no real knowledge about the internal workings of Red Notes. However, I thought that apart from the key figure behind the publications, the late John Merrington (and perhaps others) contributed with translations.

  2. Mike S. said

    I had no idea that the guy who did Red Notes was ex-BF! Fascinating. On a different scale (no world-famous novelists — hmm, I’m wondering who that would be…), the variety of folks on the left in the US (especially in Chicago) who had backrgound experiences with or within STO is sometimes surprising. But I still love the line attributed to Castoriadis that if everyone who subsequently claimed to have been a member of Socialisme ou Barbarie had *actually* been a member, the group would have taken power in France sometime in the early 1960’s.

    • max farrar said

      I’m looking at this again as we try to write the book about Big Flame. BF had the same posthumous appeal as SoB – for years I met people who told me they were members, at a time when I knew everyone who was, and he/she wasn’t! (We were tiny – always less that 200, usually less than 100 members. But tons of sympathisers. Who seem to have converted themselves into members some time later!). The driving force in Red Notes was Ed Emery and the world-famous novelist is Marina Lewycka. Both have come out in recent years as active in East London BF, until 1974. BF was friendly with STO and apparently some of the original members (Liverpool, 1970) had been influenced by Solidarity, the UK counterpart to SoB. I too was influenced by Solidarity while I was an undergraduate (1968-71) but later saw them as part of the problem of anarchism in that period – utterly male-dominated and unwilling/unable to see the point that the Women’s Movement was making. And Castoriadis was a co-author, with CLR James and Grace Lee, of ‘Facing Reality’ (using a pseudonym) – many of us in BF were impressed with CLR James and his work. The question we have to grapple with now is: how relevant (if at all) is all this stuff for contemporary political struggle?

  3. humanoid2 said

    The fact is, BF had a penumbra of fellow travellers who didn’t actively take part. But it is amazing how many people claim that they were in BF…

    • max farrar said

      just revisiting this because of the latest post – the ‘penumbra’ question is even more interesting now that we are writing a book about BF. I’d love to hear your answers to Archie’s questions – I too keep meeting people who say they were in BF, even at the time when I knew everybody, and know for certain they weren’t!

  4. archivearchie said

    Humanoid2,

    A few questions for you re: “fellow travellers”. Are you talking about the early years in Liverpool or BF’s entire life? Do you think BF’s penumbra was larger (% wise) than that of other left groups? What do you put this down to? A reluctance on BF members part to recruit? An unwillingness of behalf of “our tendency” (i.e. those sympathetic to BF’s ideas) to join anything?

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