EPISODES IN BIG FLAME HISTORY: No 7. China
Posted by archivearchie on June 2, 2009
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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).