Big Flame

1970-1984

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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3 Responses to “OPINIONS ABOUT BIG FLAME no 1: MAX FARRAR”

  1. archivearchie said

    Max,

    I find this a fascinating article, though clearly one reflecting the period in which it was written – when many on the left had moved into the Labour Party. I was particularly intrigued by the description of the journey of many libertarians through sexual politics into a non-activist consumptionist life style. Predictably, I want to focus here on the things in the article I disagree with or am unsure about.

    I am not sure that article justifies the claims made at the very beginning that libertarianism contained “ideas fatal to our cause” or were “almost completely subversive of the movement” (p58 according to the Edinburgh Review numbering). From what follows we find that Leeds Libertarians discussed a lot of things without reaching any conclusions, avoided getting too much into some topics that were a threat, and that after a few years reverted to more conventional domestic arrangements. None of this seems to justify the earlier claims.

    The failure of both libertarianism and Beyond the Fragments are both attributed to a lack of “goodwill, solidarity and political coherence” (p60). This may be the case, but the text doesn’t provide sufficient evidence.

    It also said that “failure to deal with personal politics” was a reason for the move into “the soulless corridors of Labour Party bureaucracies” (p60). There were many reasons why people made this change in strategy. I am not convinced that the one cited was a particularly significant one.

    You lament in the 1980s no organisational force played the role of Big Flame and others in 1970s of providing the basis for the “process of encouraging coalition” (p66). I would be interested to hear your views on the 1990s and 2000s.

    My catholic taste in music encompasses Leon Rosselson and Frankie Armstrong. Is going to their gigs (as I’ve done in the last couple of years never mind the 1990s), really a sign of political failure (p67)?

    You suggest that a “strand of our ideology” the emphasis on the local laid “the basis for a sympathetic attitude towards left-labourism” and being “soft on reformism” (p68). I have always been sceptical of a simplistic split between reformist and revolutionary demands. I always thought that fighting for things, which may appear limited, helped build confidence and through ways of struggling could be prefigurative of what we are trying to achieve. Limiting yourself to full scale revolutionary demands can only be demoralising and lead to isolation.

    You emphasise the influence of the book In and Against the State and speculate whether its ”optimistic tone” would be echoed today (pp68-69). I admit that the book had an impact on me, and after BF I went down the route of the local state as both an employee and a politician. However, the contents of the book can be distorted. It gave considerable attention to the ways in which capitalist social relations can be embodied in the local state, while at the same time believing that they can be struggled against from within. My own experience leads me to believe that this can be a very, very hard process (and no doubt more difficult today than in the 1980s). On the other hand, I find it hard to envisage any transition towards socialism, in a country like Britain, which grows up outside state institutions and seizes power, without any preliminary struggles within those institutions.

    The lessening influence within Big Flame of the notion of working class autonomy is attributed to a fear of being linked to the Red Brigades (p70). There are plenty of reasons why autonomy were debated in BF, with lots of different positions taken. I don’t believe the Red Brigades had anything to do with it. The article is even more unfair to Red Notes, suggesting it distanced itself from Toni Negri when he was arrested (p70). A whole Red Notes pamphlet Italy 1980-81: After Marx, Jail! The Attempted Destruction of a Communist Movement (1981) was devoted to the state attack on Negri and others. John Merrington of Red Notes was the contact name for the Italy ’79 Committee which campaigned against repression in Italy.

  2. archivearchie said

    I want to add another question for Max, which relates to the links between the forms of political activism he describes and Big Flame.

    The Leeds Libertarians weren’t the only people to follow a route to Big Flame through a focus on sexual politics and the adoption of alternative lifestyles. One London “commune”, which I assume is the one you a referring to on page 62 and is mentioned by Lynne Segal in her book Making Trouble (pp60-61) and by Stuart Christie in his book Granny made me an Anarchist (pp336-37), included a couple of residents who later joined Big Flame.

    However, many others, even some who would have called themselves libertarians, came to BF via a very different route. What proportion do you think followed the former route?

  3. archivearchie said

    For some further views by Max on Big Flame and likability, loony leftism, libertarianism, liberalism and “identity politics”, see the discussion at: http://meanwhileatthebar.org/blog/?p=521.

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