Big Flame

1970-1984

Archive for June, 2009

EPISODES IN BIG FLAME HISTORY: No 11. 1976-78 Debate – The Project and Socialist Unity

Posted by archivearchie on June 30, 2009

78ConfMot-p1Episode 5 of this series covered a Big Flame internal debate in 1975. This post covers one aspect of the debate between 1976 and 1978 – how to create a larger organisation with others who had similar politics.

The history of Big Flame can be seen as an ongoing debate with members pulling in two directions – those striving to uphold Big Flame’s traditional political positions and those who felt these needed some form of revision. This is inevitably a simplification – sometimes there were more than two positions, the issues being debated often changed, and people moved in and out of the two camps – but it does help provide one key to understanding of the organisation’s development. There were no permanent names for the two groupings. In 1976 the labels Plans X and Y were used. Unlike 1975, the split was not a geographic one. For example, the three movers of the Plan X position came from West London, Liverpool and Leeds, whilst the three movers of Plan Y came from Liverpool, South London and Manchester.

The Project

The Plan X motion at the October 1976 Big Flame conference proposed what became known as the Project for a New Revolutionary Organisation. The starting point was that Big Flame’s politics had a lot to offer the working class, but were having little impact. This was because BF has a “small organisation mentality” and those who shared its politics were fragmented and isolated. There were many, perhaps without realising it, who shared the same ideas as BF (referred to as the working class autonomy tendency). To make a qualitative leap forward a new organisation was required which would be different from Big Flame simply growing. BF should be willing to dissolve itself within a year to help the new organisation come into being. The first step to bring potential members together would be to write a Manifesto/strategic programme.

Plan Y’s alternative approach was for political centralisation of leadership, ideas and resources. This together with systematic mass work inside key united fronts would enable Big Flame to grow steadily. The proposal for the Project was criticised. Plan Y supporters didn’t believe there was a semi-constituted political tendency similar to BF. They doubted whether several of the names mentioned in the Plan X document as people who could be approached had common politics with BF. The argued that trying to create a new organisation in a period of political defeat before and to stimulate a higher level of class struggle was a denial of materialism. Finally, they queried the suggestion that women’s and black groups should be approached to be part of the organisation was a misunderstanding of autonomy.

When the vote was taken, it was Plan X which won the day. Click here to view the two positions Towards a New Communist Movement [first part] (Plan X) and Put Politics in Command [first part] (Plan Y) [the second half of both document are omitted as they name a lot of individuals whom the Plan X document suggested could be approached to form part of the proposed new organisation].

DraftMan-p1In line with the motion passed at the 1976 Conference, in March 1977 Big Flame published a Draft Manifesto for the proposed new organisation Towards a New Revolutionary Socialist Organisation. It provides the best extended discussion of BF’s general politics ever published. The pamphlet contains an analysis of modern capitalism, the changing composition of the working class, the nature of reformism, an explanation of the terms mass politics and working class autonomy, and an understanding of the dynamic between party and class.

Click here to view the pamphlet – split into three parts:

Towards a New Revolutionary Socialist Organisation: front-pviii

Towards a New Revolutionary Socialist Organisation: p1-p10

Towards a New Revolutionary Socialist Organisation: p11-back

The Project fizzled out with out much in the way of an explanation or balance sheet of the experience. There were some successes, as in West London where the local BF group’s contacts were brought together to create a large Socialist Network. But this was the exception. There was some growth in Big Flame – the Revolutionary Marxist Current (RMC) (see post about the RMC) and some individuals who responded to Project decided to join BF. However, this was very different from the original aim. Opponents of the Project repeated their criticisms: “The mistake of the project was to believe that BF could be the major centre and organisational focus for creating such a qualitatively different organisation. We simply do not have the political clarity, size and roots in the struggle to play such a role” (Internal Bulletin October 1977).

At the next Big Flame conference in May 1978, two motions were passed on left unity – one from former Plan X supporters and one from former Plan Y supporters. However, because of an amendment to the latter which inserted text from the former, the key sections of both motions were identical. The common text rejected regroupment, merger or reallignment as the solution and reflecting on the past few years stated “It has been a failing of BF to believe it could achieve such a project in isolation from the rest of the left, and in a relatively short space of time”. This replaced some text which was against regroupment as the fusion of existing organisations but added “we should be willing to unite with any force on the revolutionary left on given conditions”.

SULogoSocialist Unity

At a conference to assess developments with the Project in July 1977 Tariq Ali of the International Marxist Group (IMG) had invited Big Flame to participate in the IMG’s newspaper Socialist Challenge. Big Flame had already taken a decision in favour of standing independent working class candidates at elections, and in September 1977 supported an IMG candidate at a Parliamentary by-election in Birmingham. This led on to the IMG’s next proposal – for candidates to stand at Parliamentary and local elections under the name Socialist Unity (SU). A motion passed at the 1978 Big Flame conference confirmed BF’s position: “We should continue to support SU as a priority area of our work and continue with our perspective that it is more than an electoral alliance”. BF had argued with Socialist Unity for a continuing presence in an area after elections were over.

The Internal Bulletin included a series of articles on Socialist Unity. Nearly all of them described problems encountered working with the IMG. Several argued that Socialist Unity should not aim to be anything more than an electoral alliance. There is caution about Socialist Unity being seen as another “miracle solution” like the Project. Click here to view some of the articles from the debate.

Big Flame and Socialist Unity (Internal Bulletin October 1977)

The Debate on Socialist Unity (Internal Bulletin October 1977)

Socialist Unity (Internal Bulletin December 1977)

Socialist Unity: A Critical Assessment (newspaper June 1979)

Only the last article draws attention to one matter. However well it is felt things went locally in terms of independents being drawn into joint work, the overall voting figures were invariably disappointing. No better than those achieved by previous far left candidates at elections.

Big Flame decided not to participate in Socialist Challenge, keeping its own paper. When the IMG suggested unity talks between the two organisations and the ISA (International Socialists Alliance, a group of former International Socialists members – see post about the ISA), very few people in Big Flame had any sympathy with the idea, and the proposal was rejected. Soon after the overtures from the IMG came to an end, as it directed its attention to a “turn to industry” and then the Labour Party.

Those who had been most supportive of participation in SU believed it was “highly successful political initiative” improving BF’s profile on the left (Discussion Bulletin October 1978).The 1978 conference vote on supporting Socialist Unity had been overwhelming, with little in the way of opposition voices. In retrospect, some others in Big Flame came to see this phase in BF history as another step in the path away from its traditional positions. The mass work which had previously characterised BF had been “unconsciously undermined” by a series of debates about “joining with the IMG, joining Socialist Challenge, getting involved with Socialist Unity” (Discussion Bulletin October 1981), These debates were also seen as leading on to a later one about Labour Party membership. However, further discussion of this must wait until a later episode in this series (see Episode 27).

Archive Archie

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MOVIMIENTO DE IZQUIERDA REVOLUCIONARIA [MIR] (Related Political Organisations no 3)

Posted by archivearchie on June 26, 2009

Episode 10 in the Big Flame History series mentioned a left group in Chile – the Movimiento de Izquierda Revolucionaria (Revolutionary Left Movement) [MIR]. This post gives some more information about the group. An argument can be made that in terms of left groups outside Britain, the MIR’s influence on the early Big Flame was second only to that of Lotta Continua.    

MIR1Beginnings 

The MIR was founded in August 1965 as an attempt to bring together a variety of revolutionary left anti-electoral forces. It included people who came from the Socialist party, Communist Party, trotskyist and anarchist backgrounds. At a congress in 1967, the General Secretary elected in 1965, Enrique Sepulveda (a veteran Trotskyist), was replaced by Miguel Enriquez (then aged just 23). A group of Enriguez’s friends from university days such as Bautista Van Schouwen and Luciano Cruz (who died in an accident in August 1971) also assumed prominent positions. The personnel changes were accompanied by a clearer political definition of MIR’s positions, with a greater emphasis on armed struggle. Some forces such as the anarchists left.  

A Declaration of Principles gave MIR’s objective as being “the Marxist-Leninist vanguard of the working class and the oppressed and exploited masses of Chile”. It called for “an audacious revolutionary policy capable of opposing this cynical violence with a virile and proud response from the armed masses”. Many commentators have seen a clear connection between MIR and the ideas of the Cuban revolution. However, in a recent interview Andres Pascal Allende, General Secretary from 1974 to 1985, played this connection down.   

In the late 1960s the MIR conducted a series of “expropriations” – bank robberies, bombings, the kidnapping and public humiliation of a right wing journalist – which resulted in its leaders needing to go underground.    

MIR2Under Popular Unity 

In the run up to the September 1970 election, the Popular Unity candidate Salvador Allende met Miguel Enriguez. As a result MIR suspended its armed actions. After the election victory Allende pardoned or waived legal actions against Miristas. MIR remained outside Popular Unity and did not participate in the election.  

During the Popular Unity period the MIR sought every opportunity to push for popular power, encouraging land and factory occupations. It had a wider conception of the revolutionary movement than other groups, sending militants to work amongst the peasants, and with the unemployed and other marginalised sectors in the cities. MIR believed that an armed confrontation with the right was inevitable and the key task was to prepare for this.   

Under the Military Junta   

When the coup occurred in September 1973, the MIR for the most part did not confront the military directly but went underground. It had built up a network of safe houses and arms dumps, and adopting the slogan “The MIR does not exile itself” said it would take way MIR membership from anyone who left the country.    

Miguel Enriguez

Miguel Enriguez

 The secret police DINA (Direccion Nacional de Inteligencia – National Intelligence Directorate) targetted its activities on MIR in the early years after the coup. Through the torture of those captured and a series of so-called “armed confrontations” DINA decimated the organisation.   

–      In December 1973 Bautista Van Schouwen was arrested and “disappeared” (desaparecido).   

–       In October 1974 the General Secretary Miguel Enriquez was shot dead.   

–       In October 1975 some of the remaining MIR leaders were attacked in the village of Molloco, and either killed or, like the new General Secretary Andres Pascal Allende, forced into exile after seeking refuge in a foreign embassy.   

–       In April 1976 Edguardo Enriquez (Miguel’s brother) who went abroad to gather international support was arrested by the Argentinian police and disappeared.After the end of the junta, the Rettig report found that 384 Miristas died or disappeared. That is 16.9% of the membership (a percentage not too different to that for the Communist Party or the Socialist Party). One surviving leading MIR member has estimated that 80% of the leadership cadres were casualties, and 10% of the membership.   

Starting in 1977 Miristas who had fled abroad and received military training started to return to Chile (Oparacion Retorno). A series of small scale attacks took place in both the countryside and the cities. However serious losses of life in 1981-83 (including the deaths of Arturo Villabella and Hugo Ratier) had a severe impact on MIR’s capacity. The last MIR armed action was around January 1988.   

In 1987 differences within the MIR came to the fore, and it split into three factions. These were exacerbated by Pinochet’s defeat in a plebiscite in October 1988 over another 8 years as President, and the formation of a centre-right opposition alliance which won the election in December 1989. Two of the factions MIR-Historico (led by Andres Pascal Allende) and MIR-Militar (led by Hernan Aguilo) retained a belief in armed struggle and a suspicion of electoral activity. The third MIR-Politico (led by Nelson Gutierrez) renounced the armed struggle and campaigned for a “No” vote in the plebiscite and joined the Communist Party and others in an electoral alliance (Izquierda Unida – United Left).   

MIR leaders sought to dissolve the organisation in the early 1990s and only the third variant survives today as a small organisation participating in another electoral alliance formed in 2003 with the Communist Party and others – Junto Podemos Mas por Chile (Together We Can Do More for Chile, Podemos is also an acronym for Poder Democratico Social – Social Democratic Power).   

Archive Archie   

Note:   

I thought it might be helpful to list some of the sources I found on the internet whilst researching this article. They are all in Spanish unless otherwise stated.   

There are many documents both original ones from MIR and contemporary commentaries at Centro de Estudios Miguel Enriquez and Centro de Estudios Públicos (some of the same documents are on both sites). They include a couple of articles in English by Cristián Pérez: A History of the MIR and The Years of Shootings and Torture (1973-1975): The Last Days of Miguel Enriquez.   

As mentioned above the only surviving MIR offshoot comes out of MIR-Politico (founded by Nelson Gutierrez) This has a site: http:/chile-mir.org. The site is currently unavailable, but promises to return. Documents on the site include:   

‘Declaración de Principios’ (Declaration of Principles) from 1974.   

‘La matriz cultural mirista etc…’ (MIR’s cultural matrix…) gives a description of the different splits since 1986 as well as other groups who claim to have been influenced by them.   

‘Porque seguimos siendo MIR’ (why we are still MIR’) explains why the group still uses the name MIR and their current platform.   

‘Entrevista realizado por CEDEMA’ (long interview carried out by CEDEMA (Armed Movements Documentation Centre) also gives a good overview of the history and what they are up to today.   

There is another site about the same group: http://mir-chile.cl/. Unfortunately most of the links are not working.   

There is a 2003 interview with Andrés Pascal Allende, and a 2000 article by Andrés Pascal Allende.   

Also a 2007 interview with Hernán Aguilo.   

Finally In English some memories of the young Miguel Enriquez by Marcelo Ferrada Nodi.   

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EPISODES IN BIG FLAME HISTORY: No 10. Chile and Portugal

Posted by archivearchie on June 21, 2009

In addition to Italy, the two countries from which the early Big Flame developed the greatest political lessons were Chile and Portugal. Two of its earliest pamphlets were devoted to these countries. The issues which Big Flame emphasised in them were different from those highlighted by the rest of the revolutionary left in Britain – “what was needed was a revolutionary party with the right programme”. Instead Big Fame focussed on the positive things which happened for a brief time in both countries. Developments that can be best viewed through the phrase “Popular Power”. Chile 1970-73 and Portugal 1975 were seen as key moments in the struggles of the working class alongside such other as Russia 1917, Italy 1921 and Spain and France 1936.

Si-p1Chile

The pamphlet Chile Si! was published in 1974. The bulk of it is devoted to the period between the election of the Unidad Popular (Popular Unity) Government in September 1970 to the military coup in September 1973. There are short sections on the period since the coup and on the group Movimiento de Izquierda Revolucionaria (Revolutionary Left Movement) [MIR], which I will discuss in a separate post (see Movimento de Izquierda Revolucionara [MIR]). An article from Lotta Continua “The Chilean Lesson” from February 1974 was reprinted.

During 1970-73 the actions of Popular Unity set in motion a mass struggle in which various forms of direct democracy were created as people gained the confidence to do things for themselves. There were occupations of industry and land, and after taking control of production, this was followed by distribution and transport. The mechanisms were the Cordones Industriales (Industrial Assemblies) and the Comando Comunal (Area Assemblies).

Click here to view the pamphlet – split into four parts:

Chile Si!: front-p10

Chile Si!: p11-p25

Chile Si!: p26-p37

Chile Si!: p38-back

 

Blaze-p1Portugal

The pamphlet Portugal A Blaze of Freedom was published in 1975. It looks at developments since the military coup which overthrew fascism in April 1974. As in Chile, there was a pattern of occupations, strikes, Factory Commissions, Agricultural Co-ops, Neighbourhood Committees, etc.

Attention is given to the role of the Movimento das Forces Armadas (Armed Forces Movement) [MFA]. While divisions within the MFA were recognised, it was described as in many ways “the party of the working class”. This was because the Portuguese Communist Party was one of the “most Stalinist” and a “break on the development of working class power” and all the revolutionary parties had no roots in the country prior to 1974. Big Flame members were later to acknowledge that they had been too optimistic about the MFA.

After the pamphlet was published, the developments Big Flame championed came to an abrupt end. In September 1975 moderates gained control of the MFA. In November the same year they seized control of the country (the “cold coup”), on the basis that they were responding to a Communist Party attempted coup. Militants from groups like the Partido Revolucionário do Proletariado (Revolutionary Party of the Proletariat) [PRP] were arrested, and the mechanisms of popular power disbanded.

Otelo Saravaria de Carvalho, one of the leaders of the radical elements in the MFA stood as the left candidate in the Presidential election in 1976 and came second with 16.2% of the vote (four years later he got only 1.5%). In 1985 he was arrested a charged with being the leader of a terrorist organisation. He received a 15 year sentence, before being granted an amnesty.

Click here to view the pamphlet – split into four parts:

Portugal A Blaze of Freedom: front-p12

Portugal A Blaze of Freedom: p13-Supp piv

Portugal A Blaze of Freedom: Supp pv-p22

Portugal A Blaze of Freedom: p23-back

Archive Archie

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EPISODES IN BIG FLAME HISTORY: No 9. Ireland

Posted by archivearchie on June 17, 2009

When Big Flame became a national organisation in 1975, the minimum political agreement for the group stated: “We oppose British involvement in Northern Ireland, and support the republican and revolutionary demands for troops out now, for self determination for Irish people as a whole, and for a united socialist Ireland”. In the years that followed motions on Ireland at Big Flame Conferences repeatedly contained the slogans of the Troops Out Movement: “Troops Out Now” and “Self Determination for the Irish People as a Whole”. Sometimes with an additional one along the lines of “Solidarity with all forces fighting British Imperialism in Ireland”.

Rising-p1Big Flame’s Analysis

Big Flame’s only extended discussion of Ireland was in a 1975 pamphlet Ireland: Rising in the North. The analysis in the pamphlet was largely similar to that of many other left groups: The origin of the situation in the north of Ireland was traced back to British imperialism and the partition of the country. The introduction of British troops was seen not as move not to keep the peace, but to contain Catholic rebellion. However, there were also two themes not so commonly found in other discussions:

(a) An emphasis on the “creative and revolutionary power” of the working class in Ireland. Shown for example in the “massive community mobilisation” in 1972 which led to the abolition of Stormont – the street demonstrations, rioting, strikes, and the withholding of rent, rates and utilities payments.

(b) The differences between the Catholic and Loyalist communities were based in real divisions in the working class, material interests which could not be wished away. Big Flame saw this as a lesson for Britain, where divisions in the working class (e.g. on the basis of race) also needed to be acknowledged.

Another aspect of the pamphlet was the fear that the Government might impose a Loyalist takeover, relying on the war weariness of the Catholic population to achieve this end. This didn’t happen in the form anticipated in the 1970s, although some might argue in the light of recent developments that this perspective was somewhat prescient.

Click here to view the pamphlet – split into three parts [warning: downloading may take some time]:

Ireland: Rising in the North: front-p12

Ireland: Rising in the North: p13-p22

Ireland: Rising in the North: p23-back

Obviously this pamphlet wasn’t the only place where Ireland was discussed. There was a regular series of a bulletin Irish Struggle Notes and extensive coverage in the newspaper (including a history of the last ten years in Ireland published in 1978-79).

TOM2

Troops Out Movement

The Troops Out Movement (TOM) was founded in October 1973 by six people, two of whom were Big Flame militants. Over the next few years, when most left groups abandoned Irish solidarity work, Big Flame had a record of consistent activity. Then when some left groups sought to take over TOM, Big Flame’s so-called “community orientated” approach to solidarity work was dismissed. The BF perspective was the subject to caricature. It was not against work in Parliament, the trade union movement and the Labour Party. It was against these being the sole work for TOM.

This report to the October 1976 Big Flame Conference has a lot of detail about exactly what was happening in that year. It also has an interesting discussion of debates within TOM between those solely interested in work in the labour movement, and those who also advocate “mass work” in local areas, with Irish people, school children, students, etc. Click here to view Irish Commission Report.

Big Flame saw the question of Ireland as something all members should raise, not just those with Irish solidarity as a specific work area. This document written in the lead up to the November 1979 Big Flame Conference was a guide for how this could be done. Click here to view But How Can I Raise the Question of Ireland from Day to Day? [warning: because this document was printed on a coloured background, it is difficult to read in places].

Unconditional Support

At its November 1981 conference Big Flame passed a motion on Irish and other international solidarity work. This sought to remedy an apparent contradiction, which occurred at the 1980 conference when the position set out below was adopted for international solidarity work in general, but for Ireland it was agreed that “any criticism we may have would only be made within the anti-imperialist and solidarity movements”. The position agreed in 1981 was:

“We are in solidarity with all national liberation struggles which are anti-imperialist. We do not make our support for these struggles conditional on them being struggles for socialism. In our solidarity work we give support specifically to those forces carrying forward the socialist and/or feminist and/or anti-racist and/or gay struggles.

…We retain the right to criticise any national liberation struggle because we are concerned with developing an opposition to imperialism the world over – not just in one country. And because we recognise that in itself ‘anti-imperialism’ may not be progressive in the sense of advocacy of the workers, women, peasant and gay movements. Any criticisms we make of a national liberation movement must be made within the general context of solidarity and on the basis of a thorough understanding of the history of the movement and the conditions and needs of its struggle.”

An article in the Discussion Bulletin of March 1983 explains the issues which lay behind the motion: the difficulties campaigners for Irish self determination face in making any criticisms of groups in Ireland in a climate of anti-Irish hysteria. The article was in response to the approach of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). Click here to view SWP and Ireland.

TOM1

Bombings in England

Big Flame was careful in exercising its right to criticise. Such criticisms as were made publicly were oblique and highly qualified. An article in the newspaper no5 Nov-Dec 1972 said that oppressed people in Ireland had the right to use violence, but it did not “necessarily agree with every single act”. In no 23 Dec 1974 the Birmingham bombings were condemned, but attributed to the British presence in Ireland. A further article in no 77 Aug 1979 said of the Provisionals “they may have used tactics we in Big Flame disagree with”.

The November 1979 Big Flame Conference documents included a debate on responding to Irish military activity in England. The first article argues that “moral grounds” can enter into judgements of actions as well as their political objectives, and that a sustained military campaign in Britain could be counter productive to the objective of the withdrawal of British troops. The second article starts from the position that Big Flame has the right to criticise publicly if that is its view. It then goes on to argue that bombings do not aid an anti-war movement. The author’s position is distinguished from one based on “abstract moral rules”. Click here to view Discussion on Ireland and Contribution to the debate on Ireland .

Archive Archie

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LOTTA CONTINUA Part 2 (Related Political Organisations no 2)

Posted by archivearchie on June 14, 2009

What Do We Want? Everything!

What Do We Want? Everything!

This post follows on from the previous one on Lotta Continua. I promised in a comment there to provide some additional publications written by or about Lotta Continua from the Big Flame Internal Bulletin, and here they are.

Discussion with Lotta Continua members no1

This discussion in 1975 ranged across three areas:

–   The current situation in Italy including the relationship of the Italian Communist Party [PCI] to the Christian Democracy/Socialist Party Government; the “auto-reduction movement”; the LC attitude towards workers’ councils in factories; Lotta Continua itself (LC is “not the party of the revolution. We are a revolutionary party but not THE party”).

–   International issues including Portugal and the LC approach to internationalism (LC is “against ‘twin’ organisations” but does have fraternal/sororal links with groups).

–   Lotta Continua’s support for the Communist Party in the Spring 1975 regional elections (on the basis this vote was a defeat for the right wing and Christian Democracy, “voting for the CP is not identifying with the revisionist line, the bureaucracy of the CP”.

Click here on view Report from discussions with comrades of Lotta Continua (Internal Bulletin Oct/Nov 1975)

Discussion with a Lotta Continua member no2

This discussion occurred a year later. It consists of answers to a series of questions, which included these issues:

–   The change from the strategy of supporting the Italian Communist Party [PCI] to becoming part of Democrazia Prolerari [Democratic Proletariat] (over the last year “the political project of the PCI has been clarified”. Participation in PD is part of a strategy of “building unity at the base”).

–   LC’s attitude towards factory councils (there is “no one line” for all workplaces).

Click here on view Interview with Lotta Continua (Internal Bulletin June 1976)

LC4Extract from a Adriano Sofri article

This is quite a short extract from an article by Adriano Sofri in the Lotta Continua newspaper in March 1973 called “On the question of delegates and of organisation”. The introduction to the extract covers the different stages in LC’s development and quotes from the position agreed at the 1975 congress on the necessity of a party. Sofri discusses the meaning of the slogans “mass organisation” and “communist vanguard”. He acknowledges mistakes in the previous position on factory councils.

Click here on view Vanguard, Mass Political Work and Mass Organisation (Internal Bulletin March 1976)

French Trotskyist Critique of Lotta Continua

This is a translation of an article by Daniel Bensaid in the journal of the French section of the USFI (United Secretariat of the Fourth International). Bensaid focuses on the theses agreed at LC’s 1975 congress, and his article is in four parts: (a) Violence and the Army, (b) The International Strategic Line (including the various internationals and China), (c) The Notion of the Prolonged Crisis (including the CP and the unions), (d) Building the Party (LC constitution and internal organisation). The version of the translation I have from the BF IB ends mid sentence in part (c), so this is all I am able to reproduce here.

Click here on view French Trotskyist on Lotta Continua (Internal Bulletin March 1976)

There is one more Big Flame publication with Lotta Continua documents which I know about but have not been able to track down. This was published by West London Big Flame in 1976: Documents from the 1975 Lotta Continua Congress. If anyone out there has a copy, please tell me.

Archive Archie

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EPISODES IN BIG FLAME HISTORY: No 8. Party and Class

Posted by archivearchie on June 10, 2009

LeninFrom its earliest days Big Flame was called “Leninist” (by Libertarians) and “libertarian” (by Leninists). It even rang both bells when described as “schizophrenic libertarians/Leninists” in Anarchist Worker (published by Anarchist Workers Association, some of whose members would a few years later join BF via the Libertarian Communist Group) [see post on LCG].

My impression (and I have no statistics to back this up) is that at the beginning, and also later on, more of those who joined Big Flame were libertarians seeing the need for a greater emphasis on organisation, rather than ex-members of Leninist groups moving in the opposite direction. The libertarians in the early Merseyside Big Flame had to break with such ideas as anti-interventionism, only organising around your own situation, a disdain for the industrial sector, fears of any form of leadership, and seeing recruitment as a form of manipulation. Traditional libertarianism eliminated the role of organisation in the revolutionary process. Traditional Leninism saw the relationship between the party and the Class as a static one. Communists form the Party, develop their strategies and programmes, and take these out to the working class.

When left groups fall under the influenced of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, it usually impacts on two things – their understanding of the relationship between Party and Class, and their mode of internal organisation. This post examines Big Flame’s approach to the former. A later Episode in this series will look at BF’s internal organisation (see Episode 12).

Big Flame’s Position

The pamphlet Towards a New Revolutionary Socialist Organisation written in 1977  (see a future Episode in this series for more information – see Episode 11) is the Big Flame document with the clearest statement of the group’s position on Party and Class.

“A vanguard organisation that collectively intervenes to direct and develop class struggle is necessary. That necessity arises out of consciousness, experience and struggle in the working class. It needs to be a vanguard because the function of a revolutionary organisation is to earn the right to lead by being rooted in the working class and its struggles. This enables it to systematically express the needs of the class through demands, programmes and action.

… At a further stage, when the struggle and the vanguard have reached a certain level of maturity, the party will also be necessary. …The existence of autonomous working class organs of popular power (Soviets, People’s Councils etc) is the most important aspect of the revolutionary process; but they do not guarantee victory. They do not dissolve differences of interest and ideology overnight, solving all tactical and strategic problems. …This is not to underestimate the complexity of the problems, nor to reduce everything to the existence of the party” (p15).

This position distinguished Big Flame from, on the one side, those who were anti-organisation; and, on the other, those who see vanguards and parties as things arising outside the working class.

This was not a new position. Back in 1974 Merseyside Big Flame argued in a document From Organising to Organisation argued that the Party is a long term necessity to enable the working class to successfully confront the bourgeois state, but that no party existed or can be built outside of the political development of working class struggle. The 1975 Conference which established Big Flame as a national organisation accepted a Minimum Political Agreement which stated: “At this stage BF is neither the revolutionary party or its embryo” and “recognises that it must be a product of a new level of class struggle and real working class needs”. The ELBF group which decided not to be part of the organisation said in its conference document: “In the long run we’re in favour of some idea of the party” (see Episode 5 in this series).

Another Big Flame document from 1977 Towards a New Revolutionary Organisation put to the Open Conference of the Project (the Project is also something which will be discussed in a future Episode – see Episode 11) developed the point: “No group in Britain has earned the right to call itself the party, or even the sole embryo of the party. The party cannot be built in a linear way, gradually accumulating members to one organisational focus. As the struggle develops we will be forced to re-define our politics and re-organise our forces. Of necessity this means a combination of traditions and experiences, not one historical model. Yet even this recognition does not go far enough, we must go beyond re-groupments” (p12).

This position on the party is not one all Big Flame members were happy with. At the 1980 conference, there was an unsuccessful attempt to delete from the BF constitution the phrase “The achievement of socialism requires the formation of a revolutionary party”.

Beyond the Fragments

Beyond the Fragments: Feminism and the Making of Socialism was a book by Sheila Rowbotham, Lynne Segal and Hilary Wainwright. The first version was published early in 1979 by Islington Community Press. An expanded version was published later the same year by Merlin Press. All three authors had extensive experience in the women’s movement, plus spells, with varying degrees of unhappiness, in (mixed) left organisations. Their concern was to address “the problems that hold back the creation of a socialist organisation from the fragmented movements and struggles in which so many socialists are involved”. Whilst the three of them shared common criticisms of existing left organisation, and agreed about the questions to be asked “we still argue about the answers”.

Big Flame responded enthusiastically to the debate open up by Beyond the Fragments. It published a series of articles in the newspaper (from no 76 July 1979 onwards), and devoted two issues of its Discussion Bulletins to the topic. The November 1979 Big Flame conference passed a notion which began: “Big Flame welcomes the discussions throughout the revolutionary left about “Beyond the Fragments, but regrets the way that many organisations have rushed to put their ‘line’ rather than debate and consider many of the issues raised by it”. The motion went on to say Big Flame should debate the issues raised “in an open way in our own organisation” and to give “any support necessary” to the authors of BtF in their plans for organising a debate around the book.

DB-p1

These three articles below are taken from Discussion Bulletin no33 December 1980:

(1) Rethinking Party & Class [note: this article seems to end mid sentence. This is not a problem with its reproduction here, but was also the case in the original Bulletin]

(2) Tickling the Clam

(3) A Reassessment of ‘Revolutionary Unity’ and the ‘New Revolutionary Organisation’

Article (1) was a restatement of Big Flame’s position. It examines the limits of the Leninist theory and practice of organisation, and aims to set out a new theory of Party and Class.

Article (2), written by one of Beyond the Fragments authors, defends the three articles in the book from their critics. It takes issue with the perspective, sometimes found in Big Flame as well as other groups, which feels impatience with the slow and muddled way political consciousness develops, and has a tokenistic relationship with autonomous movements.

Article (3) argues that Beyond the Fragments constitutes a re-affirmation of Big Flame positions. It develops a number of themes the author sees in the book, such as pre-figurative forms of organisation; linking the local to the regional, national and international (without the local being sunk without trace); combating ‘Party first, Movement second’, etc.

The Beyond the Fragments book lead to a conference, and some people hoped that a non-party tendency might come into being amongst those responding to the book. This wasn’t to be and BtF as a movement was relatively short lived, though we are left with the book to read and learn from.

Some Comments

Those of you reading this post from a more autonomist or anarchist background, are no doubt recoiling in horror at the revelation that Big Flame believed in the ideas of a party.

Yes it did. At some stage in the future in a revolutionary situation. Not anything like any of the contemporary British left groups who called themselves a party. Nor something that was simply Big Flame grown larger.

It also believed, in the days before this party, in vanguards and organisation. As the future Episodes in Big Flame History on Internal Organisation will discuss, some members were suspicious of some of the forms of organisation BF adopted. On the other hand, there were many complaints that the way the organisation worked wasn’t efficient or effective enough for it to be able deliver its aims.

Archive Archie

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OPINIONS ABOUT BIG FLAME no 1: MAX FARRAR

Posted by archivearchie on June 7, 2009

This post is a behalf of Max Farrar. It is the first in what will be a series of “Opinions about Big Flame”, which will set out a variety of different assessments of the organisation by ex-members.

Max Farrar, born 1949, was by 1969 (at Leeds University) calling himself an anarchist, and by 1979 he was deeply committed to Big Flame.  By 1989, when this article was published, he was starting a part-time job at Leeds Polytechnic.  Over the next 20 years he taught community studies, sociology and cultural studies at what became Leeds Metropolitan University.  He remained involved in local political organising, was a co-editor of the independent journal Emergency, and is a founder of the Taking Soundings, the political-cultural discussion group in Leeds.  In 2008 he was made Professor for Community Engagement and in 2009 he thinks he’s going to be asked to retire.

 

Max comments:

This article was commissioned by the editor of Edinburgh Review on the recommendation of one of his friends, who was BF’s National Secretary in the early 1980s.  The personal context in which it was written was the bruised emotions of someone whose hyper-political youth seemed somewhat irrelevant.  The wider context was the belief that the political ideals of left libertarianism in general, and Big Flame in particular, remained valuable, even if there seemed to be no political formations at the time in which they might come to life. 

The article itself attempts to trace the strengths of those ideals – the commitment to personal politics; to the feminist, gay and anti-racists movements; to the theory and practice of autonomy – and explain how their weaknesses – inadequate understanding of personal psychology; excessive confidence in the local state; overemphasis on organisational autonomy and lack of understanding of political autonomy – contributed to the political malaise of the left in the late 1980s.

 

The Libertarian Movements of the 1970s

WHAT CAN WE LEARN

Max Farrar 

ITS UNCOMFORTABLE TURNING over your own past. For about ten years, from 1972, I immersed myself in the left political milieu which styled itself libertarian with the enthusiasm of a missionary. Today I am defrocked. I find it hard to believe that I was so impressed by the tall, red-haired man in a pink beret who came to the Leeds University Union Angry Brigade Defence Committee meeting from a commune in Oxford which had a banner on the wall facing the street saying ‘Hey, hey, straight or gay, try it once the other way’. I was never reassured by the ‘once’. He told me that he would never have children of his own because he believed in collective childcare and the abolition of biological parenting. His commune established itself in Leeds and within months they had chivvied our motley crew of anarchists, women’s and gay movement members and community activists into forming the Leeds Libertarian Group. They slaved over typewriters and duplicators; in a selfless effort to recruit for the group and destroy the nuclear family, they took their politics into as many bedrooms as they could.

It’s easy to slide like this from description into mockery but it’s a mistake to do so. I want to argue here that many of the ideas which were briefly established in the libertarian movements during the 1970s are to be revered and refined, but that we held other ideas that were fatal to our cause. A major problem for left libertarianism is that one of its most important insights — about the politics of sexuality under capitalism — became almost completely subversive of the movement. Its other theoretical contributions to modem sodalist and revolutionary politics — the theory of autonomy and the linking of community and workplace struggles — were equally badly applied, leading to the debacle of radical reform in the GLC and other big city councils

What were the libertarian movements of the 1970s? In the late l980s a clear distinction has to be made between libertarians of the left and the right. Today, the expression has been hijacked by people around Margaret Thatcher, and has been thrust into the headlines by young conservatives who champion a form of complete ‘freedom of the market’ which would include the legalisation of heroin. In the seventies, these of us on the far left used the term to distinguish ourselves from Leninists and Trotskyists. It ran alongside the word ‘Liberation’ in the Women’s Liberation Movement and the Gay Liberation Front; it identified us with the historical critique of authoritarianism in the conventional marxist parties but it consciously distinguished us from the antiquated and male-dominated practices of English anarchism.

We had groupings in most of the major cities in Britain, and came together between 1973 and 1975 at ‘National Libertarian Newsletter Conferences’. In common with the rest of the far left, we engaged in struggles around workplace and international issues (particularly supporting republicanism in the north of Ireland), but our distinctiveness lay in our effort to extend the horizons of politics into what were called community issues — Free Schools, playgroups/nurseries, housing, Claimants Unions, local newspapers and so on.

Leeds Libertarians

Within the Leeds Libertarians, the Oxford commune gave such priority to another Libertarian theme — sexual or personal politics — that we gained a certain notoriety even among our most adventurous peers. Their women members formed one of Leeds’ first Women’s Groups and their men established the first Men’s Group. One of them produced a pamphlet on New York’s Revolutionary Effeminists; they circulated information about Berlin’s Kommune 1; they organised a national conference on sexual politics and the family (in Leeds, May 1973) — in short, they pushed us into recognising that, under capitalism, our sexual and personal relationships were oppressive and in just as great a need of transformation as the boss-worker relationships in industry. But it wasn’t just rhetoric. They embodied the new way of living that they proposed in their communal household and collective child care arrangements, immortalised by Nell Dunn in Chapter Four of Living As We Do (Futura. 1977).

Reading the minutes of the Leeds Libertarian meetings fifteen years later, I’m shocked to recall that, as a Group, we were right about so many things, yet we split within two years into separate tendencies and made exactly the same organisational mistake that Beyond the Fragments made in 1980. We thought that people with similar, though not identical, politics would want to meet together to discuss their various points of view and engage in common action. If only political life was so simple. Just like BtF we failed to realise that, if you reject the Leninist fetish of party discipline, you rely upon goodwill, solidarity and political coherence in proportions rarely found in mere mortals – and even less often found among middle class radical intellectuals.

Of course, the humanistic psychology of people’s personal dispositions and methods of relating to each other in groups was not on the agenda. The Leeds Libertarians split on strictly ‘political’ grounds. We discussed in detail the 1973 Miners’ strike and the economic crisis – a discussion led by the people from the Organisation of Revolutionary Anarchists, who soon despaired of the Group’s refusal to organise; we discussed Women’s Liberation, the Gay Liberation Front and Men against Sexism – and the initiators of these discussions soon despaired of the Group’s wavering commitment to these issues; we discussed the position of children in capitalist society – and the most dedicated withdrew into the Free School arid communal childcare movements. Issues that were not so dose to home, like the north of Ireland arid Allende’s socialist victory in Chile, could be discussed and acted upon with less threat to the Group’s dynamic, but, as the numbers who were attracted to our meetings grew, the inclination to spilt grew proportionately.

It was the issue of personal politics which I found hardest to deal with. I turn up pages, handwritten on beaches in Corsica and Sardinia in the summer of 1974, in which I agonise over the problem of relating the massive evidence of Leninist activity in Italy to the failure of marxism to deal with social relationships; these remain crucial issues. The Italian marxists’ failure to deal with personal politics was one reason for the degeneration of that massive popular revolt into the adventures of the Red Brigades, and the parallel, if less dramatic, failure in Britain is part of the explanation of the collapse of movement politics into the soulless corridors of Labour Party bureaucracies.

Instead of indulging in ‘1968’ nostalgia we should examine the political rise and fall of the generation formed by the insurrections of the late sixties. We need to explain why so many have left their collectives, their consciousness-raising groups, their squats, the Black Power organisations, their community action groups, their rank and file workers’ groups. . . and why many of these activists have now buried themselves in labourism.

By July 1975 Leeds Libertarian Group had fallen apart, and another twenty of us were meeting to try to pick up the pieces. The open intention of these meetings was to clarify our theory and organise. The documents we circulated stressed the political limitations of our community-based politics in the Adventure Playground. the Nursery, the Advice Centre and the community newspaper. This new grouping was strongly influenced by the recently formed ‘revolutionary socialist’ organization Big Flame. Big Flame was started in Liverpool in 1971 around local industrial struggles. In 1972, inspired by the Italian marxist organisation Lotta Continua they formed additional ‘base groups’ on some of Liverpool’s housing estates to contribute to the emerging community struggles. BF’s contributions to the Libertarian Newsletter brought a sense of theory and organisation to an otherwise inchoate bundle of duplicated texts, and by late 1974 there were branches of the organisation in East and West London, Manchester and Birmingham.

Some of us former members of Leeds Libertarians joined Big Flame in 1975 because that organisation seemed to provide a theory which linked community, industrial and public sector activity, and which integrated the pro-feminist, anti-racist and internationalist concerns that we had developed. Above all, Big Flame could provide a national and international network with a clear public face, without falling prey to Leninist hierarchies and authoritarianism. The organisational and conceptual breakthrough was the concept of autonomy, which was borrowed from the new Italian marxists and bent into a shape which fitted the development in Britain of the women’s, the gay and the black movements.

Click here to read the full text of The Libertarian Movements of the 1970s.

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1960s AND 70s BRITISH LEFT LIBERTARIANISM: A READING LIST

Posted by archivearchie on June 4, 2009

This post arises out of a comment by Nate on “Who We Were” (the post rather than the page version). He asked: “is there anything written about the context that Big Flame comes out of, the time period in the UK in general and the left in particular.” My initial was there isn’t any book that covers this. On further reflection, I realise there are very many books that could be mentioned. Just that each touches on a single aspect of the context

 
Housing Struggles at Villa Road, Lambeth

Housing Struggles at Villa Road, Lambeth

The Libertarian Left

Today the term “libertarianism” has been appropriated by the right or, if not them, the Frank Furedi current (LM / Spiked). There are contemporary successors of the movement I want to talk to talk about – libertarianism of the 1960s and 1970s – in the green and peace movements and elsewhere. However, these don’t seem to adopt the term “libertarianism”.

The milieu of 1960s and 70s libertarianism is a complex one. It bears the imprint of the events of 1968, particularly in France. I want to distinguish between libertarian Marxism and anarchism. This is just one of a number of blurred boundaries of libertarianism. Another similar boundary merges into the Underground. Yet another situationism. A few of those involved in the milieu were members of organised political groups – Solidarity and some small Council Communist groups. The vast majority were not. Libertarians were involved in the following areas of activity:

(a)   community struggles,

(b)   squatting,

(c)   claimants unions,

(d)   local community newspapers,

(e)   arts groups,

(f)     lifestyle politics

 Housing Struggles at Villa Road, Lambeth

I am not saying that all these movements were entirely composed of libertarian Marxists. There were clearly others involved – anarchists, members of Trotskyist groups, the Communist Party, etc. But I don’t believe that in the 1960s and 1970s at the core of many of these struggles/initiatives you would have found libertarians.

From out of the strands, some of the members of Big Flame emerged (not all – some were previously members of Trotskyist, Maoist and anarchist groups). As did, but going in an entirely different direction, those who formed the Angry Brigade.

Books

Below is an initial list of some relevant reading. It reflects things I’ve bought and read, and the fact that I‘m much less in touch with what has been published in the last 20 years. I certainly wouldn’t claim that it covers all the significant movements of the period. The absence of references on/from the women’s and black movements are only the most obvious examples. Where I know a member/s of Big Flame were involved in the struggles/initiatives I will mention this.

On Britain in general

CSE State Group Struggles over the State: Cuts and Restructuring in Contemporary Britain (CSE Books, 1979).

–   Takes a broader approach that most of the other left literature on the crisis from the 1970s e.g. chapters on education, housing, health, etc. The conclusions are somewhat vague reflecting political differences within the editorial group.

There is a voluminous literature on the political and social history of the 1960s, with a slower flow, mostly journalistic, on the 1970s. In the last few months, there have been two additions – Andy Beckett When the Lights Went Out: Britain in the Seventies and Alwyn W. Turner Crisis What Crisis? Britain in the 1970s. I have read either, so I can’t make a recommendation.

On the British left

David Widgery The Left in Britain 1956-68 (Penguin, 1976).

–   Despite a major over-representation of material from Widgery’s own group International Socialists (who became the Socialist Workers Party), the chapters on Student Politics and 1968 reveal the chaotic diversity of the left at the time. The book is also very funny.

Peter Shipley Revolutionaries in Modern Britain (Bodley head, 1976).

–   Written by someone unsympathetic to the left and in many ways flawed. Still the only book I know which seeks to cover the full diversity of the left. There are better books if you focus on specific tendencies e.g. John Callaghan British Trotskyism: Theory and Practice (Basil Blackwell, 1984). 

Squatters from Huntley Street, Bloomsbury Squatters from Huntley Street, Bloomsbury

  

On community struggles

Lynne Segal “A Local Experience” in Sheila Rowbotham, Lynne Segal and Hilary Wainwright Beyond the Fragments (Merlin, 1979).

–   Discusses rather briefly initiatives in Islington, north London including a Women’s Centre and a local newspaper. Some of those involved were later members of North London BF. Some of the same ground is covered in the section “Life as Politics” in her book Making Trouble (Serpent’s Tail, 2007). See also Chris Whitbread (below).

Cynthia Cockburn The Local State: Management of Cities and People (Pluto, 1977).

Despite the then fashionable Althusserian theoretical framework, contains interesting information on struggles in Lambeth, south London. Members of South London BF were involved.

Jan O’Malley The Politics of Community Action (Spokesman Books, 1977).

–   An account of struggles in Notting Hill, west London, mostly around housing. Someone who was later in West London BF is thanked in the Introduction as involved in the activities described.

Nick Wates The Battle for Tolmers Square (Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1976).

–   A very detailed account of struggles against property speculators in Somers Town, north London.

Helene Curtis & Mimi Sanderson The Unsung Sixties : Memories of Social intervention (Whiting and Birch, 2004)

–   Interview accounts of a large number of projects which as Sheila Rowbotham says in her Introduction opened up a precious political space. As well as those mentioned below the sections include ones on Release, a Law Centre, Women’s Aid and a Disability Income Group. Squatting2

On squatting

 
Nick Wates and Christian Wolmar Squatting: The Real Story (Bay Leaf Books, 1980)

 

–   A wonderfully illustrated and detailed account of the whole movement.

Jim Radford “The point of a battle is to win it” in Helene Curtis & Mimi Sanderson The Unsung Sixties : Memories of Social intervention.

–    On the Family Squatting campaign. 

On Claimants Unions

 Bill Jordan “Collective Action and Everyday Resistance” in Rile van Berkel et al (ed) Beyond Marginality: Movements of Social Security Claimants in the European Union (Ashgate, 1998)

–   Draws a lot on the authors involvement in the Newton Abbott Claimants Union in the early 1970s.

Joe Kenyon “I was in the natural way of trying to put something right that was wrong, see” in Helene Curtis & Mimi Sanderson The Unsung Sixties : Memories of Social intervention.

–    On the Union in Barnsley and beyond.

On local community newspapers

Chris Whitbread “Islington” Revolutionary Socialism no4 Winter 1979-80

–   The main focus of the article is Islington Gutter Press, but Community Press, a print workshop, and Islington Socialist Centre are also mentioned.

I am not aware of anything written about local community newspapers. Therefore these books on the national Underground press must suffice. Nigel Fountain Underground: The London Alternative Press 1966-74 (Pluto, 1988) provides accounts of all the main national Underground publications. Jonathon Green’s two book (one a set of interviews, the other his own discussion) Days in the Life: Voices from the English Underground (2nd ed Pimlico, 1998) and All Dressed Up: the Sixties and Counter Culture (Pimlico, 1999) covers publications like Friends and Ink.

Many BF (future or then current) members worked on local community papers. As well as Islington Gutter Press, they include Manchester 11Ned Gate/Nell Gate and Bush News. The first series Big Flame newspaper in Liverpool can be regarded as a local community paper.

The Underground and Alternative Press in Britain from Harvester Press (already mention in Episode 1 of the Big Flame History series as a place to find the newspaper of that name) has a lot of the source material on microfilm or microfiche. Not just Friends, Ink and IT but local publications like Manchester Free Press, Mole Express, Leeds Other Paper, Hackney People’s Press and Nottingham Voice.

On arts groups

It is no doubt perverse to mention articles from an obscure and probably impossible to find source. However, the left cultural magazine Wedge included some extremely interesting articles in its short life of only three issues. The editorial collective was mostly independents, but included 2 members of IMG and 2 from BF (although members at different times). A few of the articles were:

Anon “Grant Aid and Political Theatre 1968-77 Part 1 Wedge no1 Summer 1977 and Part 2 Wedge no 2 Spring 1978.

–   About a lot more than just Grant Aid. Includes the author’s views on the differences between reformist and revolutionary theatre.

Newsreel Collective “Newsreel Collective: Five years On” Wedge no3 Winter 1978.

–   Written by the Agit prop documentary film group. Early version of the collective included 2 members of BF. Within a few years, one left BF and the other Newsreel.

Jane Clarke & Rosie Elliot “The Other Cinema: Screen Memory” Wedge no 2 Spring 1978.

–   Written after the collapse of the film distribution and exhibition collective, the article aims to learn from the experience.

On lifestyle politics

“Revolutionary Household Rotas” in Lynne Segal Making Trouble (Serpent’s Tail, 2007).

–   Discusses collective living arrangements.

Andrew Rigby Alternative Realities: A Study of Communes and their Members (Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1974)

–   A sociological study which brings out the political and religious diversity of communes (e.g. one consisting of Young Liberals). Another book by the same author Communes in Britain consists of more detailed case studies.

In addition there is a enormous literature from the women’s (and men’s) movement on relationships.

The above list is bound to leave out a lot of important books. Please tell what I should have included.

Some questions

If anyone were to sit down and read through this (or a similar) list, what would be the benefit? Well they might be better equipped to start to try to answer the following questions, which I think would improve our understanding of the impact of left libertarianism in 1960s and 1970s Britain:

(i)            Do the various strands I have mentioned have sufficient in common to bear description as a milieu, or going even further a movement? Or should I have adopted a narrower interpretation of the libertarian left?

(ii)          If there is something in common, what were the core ideas which many of the people involved?

(iii)         Am I right in thinking that the influence of libertarianism declined as the 1970s moved into the 1980s?

(iv)        If it did, what were the reasons – the impact of the national Thatcher government? the revival of the traditional left?

Archive Archie

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EPISODES IN BIG FLAME HISTORY: No 7. China

Posted by archivearchie on June 2, 2009

A scene from the BF National Conference?
A scene from the BF National Conference?

Many on the left tend to apply labels to political groups as a way of dismissing them without the need for further discussion e.g. centrist, Stalinist. The term most commonly applied to Big Flame was “Soft Maoist” (see the footnote for other things Big Flame was called). Disputing its use on the group’s Wikipedia entry (the current version [2.6.09] does not use the phrase) one ex-member said: “To call Big Flame “quasi-Maoist” or “soft Maoist” would be a bit wide of the mark. The Wikipedia entry appears to have been written by someone who has no real knowledge of that organisation. It’s true it was associated on an international level with groups that originally came out of the Maoist tradition (France, Spain, Denmark and above all Lotta Continua in Italy) but I read their paper and magazine and was a member for about a year. I never saw any icon of Mao, Little Red Book or anything like that in the pages of their publications or at any meeting or conference of BF”.

The same writer does also suggest that “may well have been uncritical of Maoist China”. This post aims to set out exactly what was Big Flame’s (changing) position on China.

The early Big Flame emphasised local struggles plus a few key international solidarity issues. It was not a high priority to have a position on China. Whilst individuals had positions, the group as a whole did not adopt one until 1976. It also says something for the general level of prioritisation of the issue that most of the articles in the Discussion Bulletin over the period China was debated (1976-79) were written by the same two individuals – something not typical of other Big Flame discussions.

Big Flame members differed from the Trotskyist (or anarchist) tradition which saw China as just another example of what can go wrong, simply another place where new bosses had come to power on the backs of the workers. Those in BF more favourable to China took a positive message from the Cultural Revolution, seeing it as demonstrating that degeneration was not inevitable, that bureaucracy can be fought.

First Position

The October 1976 Big Flame conference passed a motion which took the position that the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe countries “are not socialist or even in transition to socialism because social relations of production have not been transformed and are still constructed on class lines”. On the other hand “we regard China as building socialism. …However we recognise that in any society in a socialist transition can also degenerate into a new class system”. Click here to view Resolution on the Nature of Russia, China and Post-Revolutionary Societies.

Mao Zedong had died on the 9th September 1976, after which developments in China moved very quickly. The so-called “Gang of Four” (Jiang Qing and others) were arrested on the 11th October 1976, and within a year Deng Xiaoping had been rehabilitated and returned to position of key influence in the Chinese Communist Party.

China paper

A totally uncritical obituary of Mao in the Big Flame newspaper (no43 October 1976) provoked letters in the next issue (no44 November 1976) from people inside and outside BF calling it “naïve” and “gushing”. There was also an article restating the conference position, that there was a dynamic class struggle underway the results of which would determine whether China achieved socialism or not.

In 1976-77 there were several articles in the Big Flame Internal Bulletin about China. There was complete agreement between all participants that “Chinese foreign policy stinks”. Also the on the lack political democracy at the regional and national level compared to the commune level, with the masses not involved in “palace feuds”. Some added additional criticisms such as the lack of self determination for national minorities, the lack of equality for women and sexual repression. Underlying the debate was the distinction between “socialism” and “building socialism”. The difference between the two was not clear to the critics of the adopted group line. None of the participants in the debate gave significant support to the “Gang of Four”, who were criticised for their method of operation, which had resulted in little popular support, and the way they came to power in Shanghai by destroying the left.

China2

In April 1977 Big Flame published a pamphlet The Revolution Unfinished (see a future Episode in this series for more information – Episode 24). The focus of the pamphlet was a critique of Trotskyism, but there were some paragraphs on China. These support the building socialism position, saying “China is neither perfect in itself, nor a model for our type of society, but we have dealt with it because it illustrates not only the problems of a transition to socialism, but a challenge to the mechanical and fatalistic concepts that Trotskyism has been part of” (p42).

Further Debate

The May 1978 Big Flame conference passed a motion: “Conference notes that recent developments in China necessitate a re-evaluation of an understanding of Chinese society”. It called for a period of debate.

Click here to view two articles from the discussions which followed: The Chinese Tragedy (Discussion Bulletin Jan 1979) and Those things we wanted to Know about China and those we did not (Discussion Bulletin May 1979). [These documents come from the days of stencil duplicators/mimeograph machines and therefore aren’t the easiest to read]

The first article is written by someone always more sympathetic to China. He begins by looking back on the positive things which happened following the Chinese revolution. He concludes that the recent counter revolutionary measures are succeeding because the voice and power of the masses were largely absent from the Chinese Communist Party and the state apparatus, except at a local level. He concludes that Big Flame underestimated the fragility of the gains of the cultural revolution, and should have used the term “transitional society” rather than “building socialism”. He resists the conclusion that China is already “state collectivist”.

The second article is written by someone always more critical of China. He adds to the debate a number of issues he feels BF neglected in the past: sexual puritanism, how codes of justice are applied, and the issue of the young educated (the students and intellectuals sent to the countryside). He argues against an over-concentration on the question of whether the Chinese mode of production is “socialist” or “state collectivist”, saying “in the communism we want to build there cannot be a separation between democracy and the mode of production – the presence of absence of democracy fundamentally affects relations of production”.

In 1979 Big Fame also published another pamphlet called A Century of the Unexpected (see a future Episode in this series for more information – Episode 25). As the introduction made clear: “The views in it are the views of the authors rather than the official views of Big Flame” (p2). It proposed an analysis of “Soviet Type Societies” through the notion of state collectivism. It took issue with the view, attributed to Charles Bettelheim that China was a transitional society building socialism.

The December 1980 Big Flame conference passed a motion adopting the State Collectivism position. The motion did not distinguish between China, the Soviet Union and Eastern European Countries.

Some Comments

From the perspective of the 21st century it is easy to dismiss those who had hopes for China in the 1970s, but China was a different society then. Clearly in 1976 Big Flame adopted what one of those who proposed it would later call a “mildly pro China” position. The issue, here, is this whether this is enough for the group to be labelled “Maoist”. Only in a country where the orthodoxy of the left saw no merit at all in Chinese developments after the revolution, would anyone taking the positions BF took be labelled “Maoist”. Many political organisations saw positive things in, for example, the Nicaraguan revolution, but escaped being described as “Sandinista-ist” (or whatever the terminology should be).

As events developed in China, Big Flame changed its position. This did not mean having to deny that over the years since the Chinese revolution there had been elements in China society who had sought to develop socialism.

Archive Archie

Footnote: Things Big Flame has been called

“Soft Maoist” (or “Quasi Maoist”) was not the only epithet applied to Big Flame. Some of the others were: would be “British franchise of Lotta Continua” (see Episode 6 ); “Leninist” and “libertarian” (usually not by the same person. See the next Episode for Big Flame and this dichotomy – Episode 8); “Guevarist” (I must have missed the calls to launch the guerrilla struggle in the English countryside) and “Neo Narodnik” (this one from Solidarity is certainly the most original and interesting).

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