Big Flame



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 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


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.


10 Responses to “EPISODES IN BIG FLAME HISTORY: No 6. Italy”

  1. Davy MacZ said

    Interesting info Archie. Does anybody think it is accurate to describe BF politics as “autonomist” – eg. “autonomist libertarian marxist ” ? Autonomist in both (related ? ) senses -ie. working class autonomy and also autonomy of “social movements”

  2. max farrar said

    Davy raises a question that needs an answer. Reading Article 4 (above) from the Discussion Bulletin reminded me (not least of my DB pseudonym!) how critical some of us had become of BF’s early rhetoric. I was arguing that we should keep to a modified language of autonomy – and I would like to think it remained a central idea for most of us. But those who were most critical of all that ‘Italian’ theory in 1981 were in some respects still settling old scores with the Ford basegroup in East London BF: they wanted to dumpt that theory altogether. ELBF’s Ford group (which included the Red Notes publisher), plus the Fords groups in West London and Liverpool BF, and the Lotta Continua member who helped establish BF in Liverpool and who left the UK around 1977, were seen (to use the crude terminology of the day) as ‘ultra left’ by some of the most forceful voices in BF. I suppose we should consider whether BF was committed to ‘autonomy’ in light of those who work with this term today. I’m rather out of touch with this, but my sense is that today’s autonomists are closer to anarchism than we were in BF, closer to Negri/Hardt today than we were to Negri then, and more interested in labour process theory on its own, rather than reading that theory and engaging in mass practice as we attempted to do. But just by mentioning all those concepts/people I think you can see that we weren’t too far away from today’s autonomia. I still like to think of us as Libertarian Marxists – but plenty of others in BF disliked our libertarian leanings too! And my Marxism was always at the interesection of Groucho Marx and the theory of alienation. The best thing about BF was that you could always think pretty freely and only get lashed by a typewriter.

    • Davy MacZ said

      I think the question of “autonomy” is not just historical but is also relevant to concepts of “self-organisation” today.In particular definitions of “multiculturalism”.

      Did the ideas of autonomy and self-organisation of social movements as a means to an end of building broad progressive alliances – get co-opted by some as self-interest for particular , more separatist groups as an end in itself ?

      • max farrar said

        Davy – I’m not ignoring that question (and had a shot at answering it in an email recently) but I’m in the process of writing something a bit more considered about your question which I’ll share with you soon! max

  3. archivearchie said

    For once I would like to step aside from the stance of neutrality on BF debates which I am deliberately trying to adopt for the posts in the “Episodes in Big Flame History” series. My views of these issues bear a remarkable similarity to those of the author of Article (3), despite the 20 odd years which have passed!

    On the positive side
    (1) Autonomy. The emphasis on this was a useful corrective to the more common approach which dismissed most working class struggles as just economic or irrelevant.
    2) Mass Politics. This was much better than approaches which targeted all efforts within bureaucratic structures. The activities of BF members often displayed real flexibility, an interest in open democracy and a genuine interest in workers’ real experience.

    Negative Side
    (1) The politics the early BF followed were very much of a time and place, and not adequately adopted to the prevailing conditions. By the time of BF they were less relevant in Italy, never mind in England.
    (2) There is a tendency (in at least some strands) the Operaismo theory as adopted by some in BF to be over-optimistic, simplistic, teleological and so on.
    (3) There was an over-reliance on Fordism as the model for industry. There is an assumption that everybody is on the way to being a mass worker. Changes even in mass production have developed in a more complex ways.
    (4) The base group approach proved to be very vulnerable to the external militants moving on.

    All things change rather than last for ever. Just because, to take an example, BF’s intervention at Ford Halewood came to en end, doesn’t mean that good things weren’t achieved in the years it was operating.

  4. conatz said

    Fascinating stuff. Definitely appreciate this online cataloging of a group I never knew even existed!

  5. Nate said

    Thanks so much for this, really fascinating. I wish operaismo got more attention (and translation) than it does, from what I’ve read I think there’s some important stuff in there, pity my Italian’s not better.

    This is a bit off topic, but just to respond to Max – “today’s autonomists are closer to anarchism than we were,” I think “anarchist” is a pretty broad term. I think the recent autonomist stuff (for what it’s worth, I prefer the term “post-operaismo” for recentish work by folk like Negri and Virno and so on) has affinity with some versions anarchism, and with some aspects of council communism – namely being spontaneist and anti-organizational, at least anti- attempts to do build permanent political organizations that also engage in mass work. Not all anarchists make those mistakes, though. (I’ve got a bit of an axe to grind here, being one of this latter sort of anarchist.)

    • max farrar said

      Thanks Nate – maybe you could say a bit more about ‘the latter sort of anarchist’ today. Back in the early 1970s, lots of anarchists (such as myself) were influenced by the pamphlet called The Tyranny of Structurelessness. One bunch of them (in York and then Leeds) formed themselves into the Libertarian Communist Group, using that pamphlet as a foundational document. Bizarrely (for us in BF) instead of merging with us, they dissolved first into the Workers Revolutionary Party, then formed an electoral platform against the Labour Party (but not joining us in Socialist Unity), then at least one of them ended up as a Labour Party councillor. That trajectory doesn’t refute their orginal move, from what I think of as individualistic, formless anarchism to ‘organised libertarianism’ – it just reminds us that the tension between anarchism’s contempt for hierarchy and authority and the need for democratic process and united effort is as old as the history of modern politics, and remains unresolved.

      Re Archie’s points on the problems with autonomy and mass practice inthe 1970s, I think he’s right. I’d add that the base group idea (not dissimilar to Jamesian model) had the potential to degenerate into Leninism-lite, with the ‘educated militant’ dominating the ‘worker militants’. The reason for hanging on to the concepts of autonomy na dmass practice is however overwhelming: it reinforces the idea that the oppressed and exploited must direct their own struggles, and that those who think they have all the ‘correct’ ideas must always curb their enthusiasm.

      • Nate said

        hi Max,

        I’m a bit of a neophyte when it comes to contemporary anarchist groups. Partly in response to knowing little, some comrades and I put together a reading list (we skimmed a lot or looked at titles and opening paragraphs and anything that we thought “ooh looks good” went on) and held a public discussion group on it. That material’s here –

        Re: leninism lite and directing struggles, my personal opinion is that radicals should get as good as possible at doing mass work but that the priority in doing mass work should be (as much as makes sense in each context) developing the abilities of the people involved in the struggles to run their own affairs successfully, and making them want to run their own affairs more.


  6. max farrar said

    Nate, I am so inpressed with that reading list – and I’m already exhausted by just reading the list! I spent quite a lot of 1972 and 1973 (on a government grant supposedly for my PhD thesis) reading about the history of anarchism, and in particular the machinations (led by Marx) to oust the anarchists from the First International. It split me: I thought Marx’s theory (about alientation and the way that capitalism works) was far superior to anything the anarchists had come up with (though check Kropotkin on ecology, which of course Marx ignored completely). But I realised that Marx, like his followers, was authoritarian and manipulative, and therefore practised the opposite of the kind of democracy I was searching for. But then it turned out most of the anarchists were tricky authoritarians too! So I got sick of all the in-fighting in all the factions, marxist and anarchist. Moral of the story (or rather the moral I drew): don’t get SO interested in all the different positions that you think you have to adopt one of them and then fight all the others over the ‘correct’ line. As you say, the key thing is for masses of people to gain sufficient confidence that they can fight the system for themselves. Nuances of party or non-party line are rarely that significant. But there does seem to be some kind of human drive for differentiation – operating at all levels of the personality and society – which pushes so many people into their own sectarian comfort zones. We have to undo that drive, too.

    An advert for a rare event which examines the interface between anarchism and marxism arrived in my email the other day – here’s an extract in case you want to follow up the contacts . . .

    September 7th and 8th, 2009
    An academic conference (University of Nottingham, UK) organised and supported by the Political Studies Association, Anarchist Studies Network, the PSA Marxism Specialist Group, Anarchist Studies, Capital & Class, Historical Materialism, Critique – Journal of Socialist Theory.

    Christian Garland The (Anti-) Politics of Autonomy: Between Marxism
    and Anarchism; Christopher Wellbrook ABOLISH CAPITAL!: Beyond the
    Marxist/ Anarchist divide; Paul McLaughlin Theory, Ideology, and
    Tradition: Reconciling Anarchism and Marxism

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